John 12:12–16 (NRSV)
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
(Mt 21:1–11; Mk 11:1–11; Lk 19:28–40)
12 The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
16 His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him.
Today we celebrate the announcement of the king! Jesus during the festival came into the city of David while people cheered and waved palms celebrating a new era of history. The restored kingdom of God!
Every year we celebrate this day because it is one of the greatest days of the year within our faith. I wonder if the power of this day has lost some of its splendor through the commonality. At first we cannot forget the significance of the proclamation.
The crowds went out to meet the parading disciples in the streets of Jerusalem. The palms were there for a very important reason, the palms were used to provide a roof over the heads of the travelers as they made temporary shelters as they made their pilgrimages to the festival. The amount of travelers in the city would have ranged between a 100,000 to a million people depending on who you read, but the reality is that the city was packed full. People were setting up shelters wherever they could, along the roadways and in the desolate places outside of town. People returning to the city of David to celebrate the Passover from the far eastern regions of the Persian empire, the western expanse of the Roman Empire, and even people from the heart of Ethiopia. Dispersed children of Israel as well as curious gentiles that feared and respected the God of Israel all traveling and camping around the great city of God. Tabernacles were built to protect these weary travelers from the elements as they sought to draw closer to God.
The significance of the palms runs even deeper because they are a symbol of victory in the ancient world. When ancient warriors would return home from battle the populous would wave palms in the air in celebration. This was done throughout the ancient world, a tradition among the Hebrews as well as the gentile nations. So we have camps of people lining the streets, as they saw the disciples approaching with Jesus they began dismantling their tents, their dwellings offering all that they had available to them to honor this traveling teacher that inspired them to dream about the emerging kingdom of God all around them.
As the people began to cheer and chant, Jesus found a young donkey and rode it into the throng. While they cheered, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” Jesus did not turn from this pronouncement but accepted it, embraced it, Jesus is the King of Israel. The imagery is strong within these words. As ancient kings and tribal leaders paraded into the villages they would wear their greatest ceremonial gear, freshly cleaned and shined, and mounted upon their finest horse. The horses would be tall and proud, their heads were held high and their feet beat into the ground in time as everyone cheered. Jesus also rode into the crowds upon a beast of burden, but there is a striking difference. Jesus did not ride on a tall and powerful warhorse breed but a donkey. This speaks volumes of the identity of the emerging kingdom of God that the crowds were hoping for. War and victory are not something one would find donkey involved in. When I was younger, there was a traveling show that would visit the communities around the area that would recruit people to engage in a game of basketball while riding on a donkey. The reason they did this was because when it comes to competition donkeys are not the stead of choice. They are stubborn, they tend to have a mind of their own, and really only mind their owners. This makes for a hilarious show as you see amateur donkey jockeys trying their hardest to coax their beast to participate in a game, but goes to show that a cavalry of donkeys would be an army of clowns. I am not saying that Jesus’ parade was humorous, but only that his chosen means of transportation was not exactly what we might expect.
Donkeys are intelligent and loyal animals that are very willing to do assist in their master’s work, but require gentle persuasion. Donkeys are used for many tasks from pulling carts and plows or bearing a load upon their backs. They are small and surefooted, but have a very powerful instinct of self-preservation. They were and are common animals, common meaning strong yet fairly inexpensive. They were not the beast used to express great wealth or power, but were the gentle beast of burden owned by the common people. A young donkey as mentioned in this passage is a donkey that is untrained, not yet fit to do work. The king of Israel, the king of kings, and lord of lords was paraded into the city of David, the jewel of Israel, upon a common unfit and untrained beast. Not a conquering warhorse, not even a strong ox, but a common donkey. What does this say about the kingdom of God?
The crowd had been waiting centuries for a king that would lead them in the ways of God, that would again bring the blessing of the Lord to their lands. They thought they had found it again as they returned from exile but they were quickly conquered again by a foe that was even worse than Babylon. They rose up and pushed the dark forces back only to be tricked into selling their security to yet another tyrannical empire. It was a cycle that continued from the beginning of their history as a nation. I say this because this all began when the people originally cried for a king to fight their battles for them and to lead them into prosperity. A king was not in God’s plan but he allowed it because the people desired a king, but God told Samuel that by asking for a king they were rejecting God as being their lord and true sovereign king.
I am not saying that the kingdom of Israel and Judah were all bad. David was a king after God’s own heart and the scriptures are filled with song of praise written by this king of Israel, but slowly the people turned from God and began to put more and more trust into the hands of their leader. Within two generations the kingdom of Israel divided and fell further from God’s intended plan where they would be his people and he would be their God. God’s plan was to be the one and only lord of their lives, but years after year they placed their trust not in God alone but in their worldly kings, who fought their battles and consumed the work of their hands.
The people wanted the warhorse but the king paraded through the crowds on a donkey. They called for a king to lead them victoriously to freedom, but they received something different. The point of the palms and donkey is that true victory comes through the common, unfit, and unlikely. The kingdom of God is not the kingdom of man.
When Jesus began to preach he said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” This does not merely mean that it is near, but literally here all around us. It was found right where they were it was not something that had to be conquered with swords and spears but one that simply had to be seen and acknowledged. The kingdom was found in the child that was curious enough to ask the question why, it is found in the disciple seeking God under the fig tree, it was found in the synagogue and on the streets. The kingdom was found on the mats of the lame and in the hearts of the blind. The kingdom of God is at hand it is all around us, here today and unto the ages.
Why then do we not see the kingdom of God? Why does it seem that so often the kingdoms of darkness seem to overtake the kingdom of light? Why did Jesus right triumphantly through his victory parade on a donkey?
When you are able to answer that last question you will begin to see the kingdom of God. All too often skew our understandings of God to meet our desires and because of this our view of the kingdom is hampered in fog. The people wanted a king to trample their enemies so that is the king they tried to find. But in the fog around them they failed to see that the victory of their king was not in trampling the enemy but bringing them into fellowship through friendship. Our king rides a donkey.
The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of man. Jesus said that whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant of all; that the first will be last and the last will be first. He said to the wealthy rulers that to enter the kingdom they must sell all they have that gave them worldly power and give it to the poor. Everything about God’s kingdom is opposite and opposed to the kingdoms of the world. Jesus rode a donkey not a warhorse.
We often miss the kingdom because our eyes are not trained on the common but on hills far away. When Jesus said that the kingdom of God is at hand he did not say that it is in the seats of power, or in a future time after death only, but all around us. It is common. It is found right here in our communities. The reason that God was grieved at the idea of Israel having a king is that this redirected the people’s eyes off of their community and placed them out on the high hills. This can distract the attention away from what God is calling us to do where we are. Often these high hills are not wrong but they can distract us. To turn the governing bodies into God fearers is important, feeding the hungry of the world is important, providing for the medical needs of the billions of humans in the world is important, but often those big goals cloud our vision and distort our view of the kingdom. I have had several friends leave the church because of distortions just like these. Some leave because they see the church as powerless to meet the great needs so they look to the powers of the world to provide for the needs. Or they turn from God because they have invested so much time and energy into a project and see just growing needs that they cannot provide for. But Jesus rode in victoriously on a donkey.
The kingdom of God is here. We will not see it in Washington or New York, in India or Ireland unless we first are able to see it right here. This is why God himself had to come to live among mankind because through Jesus’ life and teaching He showed us how to begin to see the kingdom of God where we are. It comes through making it our custom to worship Him, withdrawing to isolated places to pray, and to serve our community. It comes when we become people focused on Loving God, embracing his Holy Spirit, and living the love of Jesus with others. The kingdom can be experienced here today and forevermore when we redirect our attention away from the war horses and start looking at the donkeys.
The kingdom of God is not in a nation, but is in the individual lives of people within each community. It is built on life at a time, one individual at a time, one family at a time. We do not need to force people to conform but encourage our friends and neighbors to live a life of loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. That is the kingdom of God. It is victorious in the commonality. It is a king riding a donkey victorious.
As we enter into this time of open worship and holy expectancy I would encourage each of us to consider the image of Jesus on that common beast of burden, consider where we are looking to see and experience the Kingdom of God, and where we are investing our time and energy. Are we able to see the kingdom of God in the lives of those around us or is our vision clouded by things beyond our control? Love your enemy, pray for those that persecute you, turn the other cheek, do not worry, and care for those that cannot care for themselves these are the things Jesus calls us to do right here because that is where the kingdom of God really is and our king rides a donkey.