Palm Sunday • John 12:12–19 • April 17, 2011
By Glenn A. Nielsen
A Victory Parade—on a Donkey?
Goal: That the hearers more firmly believe that Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemies. (The following is one approach that focuses Jesus’s victory over his/our enemies by way of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.)
Perhaps you’ve seen the old movie clips about the welcome home those in the military received at the end of World War II. Flags lined the parade route. Guests of honor rode in the best cars in town. People turned out from all around. Applause and shouts of thanksgiving could be heard as the line of cars drove by. Paper and streamers swirled in the wind. One look at the celebration and you knew immediately it was a victory parade.
Things haven’t changed much. Go back to biblical days. When a king conquered another nation or a general captured a city, he returned to a celebration. Since paper wasn’t available, many waved palm branches, a symbol of victory. People would come out of the city to welcome home the victors. Shouts and cheers would go up around the city. The king would ride triumphant on a mighty steed, a horse that stood tall and pranced around in pride. One look at this ancient celebration and you knew immediately it was a victory parade.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem to begin the last week of his life. People are following him into the city. Jerusalem is packed with people who have come to celebrate the religious festival called the Passover. Many of those in the city come out to join the crowds that are already showering Jesus with praise. Palm branches are being waved in victory. People are chanting “hosanna.” They are shouting out that Jesus is the king of Israel. One look at this celebration and you know immediately it’s a victory parade.
Except Jesus is on a donkey. He’s not in a fancy chariot. He’s not on a horse that stands tall and mighty. He’s on little donkey. The donkey is young and hasn’t been ridden before. It’s not been in a war. It’s not impressive. It’s a donkey.
And yet, the donkey is the key to what Jesus’s victory was all about. Verse 16 says the disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered. It seems the disciples weren’t paying attention to the donkey during this victory parade. If they had, they might have understood just what kind of victory Jesus would bring. The same is true for us. We know about the palms, the people shouting, but our eyes need to focus on the donkey. Because the donkey points out the enemies Jesus came to defeat.
Who were Jesus’s enemies? Well, the people back then thought it was the Romans who had conquered Israel and had soldiers all over the place. They were hoping that Jesus would bring Israel back to its glory days of King David. They were hoping they would be free and secure, protected from anybody ever oppressing them again. And it was true that the Romans could be considered Jesus’s enemy since they nailed him to the cross.
But the list of enemies only begins with the Romans. A greater enemy turns out to be his own people, the religious leaders, the Pharisees and chief priests. Just a few days before this victory parade, Jesus did an incredible miracle. His friend Lazarus had died. He had been in a tomb four days. Jesus comes and with a simple command, “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus brought his friend back to life again. No wonder so many people were following Jesus into Jerusalem and coming out to meet him.
But behind the scenes, the religious leaders were not happy. They gathered together as a council. The heart of the discussion went like this, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” During the victory parade, they accused each other, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”
The next step by these enemies was to get Judas to betray Jesus. Then they would arrest him, falsely accuse him, and condemn him to death. They would get the crowd to yell, “crucify him,” instead of “hosanna.” They would get the Romans to execute him. Jesus’s enemies are some of his own people.
But we still haven’t gone far enough. Jesus’s enemies are not just his own people. An even greater enemy is what’s driving the Pharisees and priests to do what they’re doing. Jealousy—the people are following Jesus instead of them. Fear—they may lose their privileged position that gives them power. Hatred—Jesus is telling them they need to change their lives and follow him. Greed—Jesus attacks their money making schemes in the temple. Anger—they are upset that Jesus is letting the people worship him instead of God alone.
Now that brings all this closer to home, doesn’t it? Greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, fear come from deep within all of us. We call it sin, and we know it as the dark places in our hearts and minds. We see it in the world around us, and we can’t stop from being infected ourselves. A whole demonic world, led by Satan, tempts everyone to give in to these ugly enemies of Jesus.
But we still haven’t gone far enough. One more enemy to name; it is our last and greatest enemy. Last year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a cartoon (Wiley Miller, Non Sequitur, Oct. 29, 2010) playing off GPS technology. That is the helpful device used when you are driving, that gives you directions to a location by telling you when to turn, using a map on a small screen. In the cartoon, a box reads “The Inevitable Navigation System.” The picture is of a cemetery, with a number of headstones and one grave, freshly dug. A car has driven into that open grave. The voice coming from the car is the GPS saying, “You have arrived at your destination.” The comic strip uses humor to open our eyes to reality. The last great enemy we face is death itself, the punishment for greed, jealousy, anger, hatred, fear, and everything else that put Jesus on the donkey.
Do you see who the real enemies are? Not just some Roman soldiers or a few religious leaders back then. Jesus is going up against the very enemies that haunt us. He is going to battle against the dark places in our hearts and minds. He is taking on our worst enemies: sin, the wickedness that infests this world we live in, and Satan himself. His war is ultimately against our greatest enemy—death and the grave.
And how does Jesus go into battle against all these enemies? On a donkey. Sounds strange, especially since the donkey was an animal of peace, not war. It was an animal that conveyed humility and gentleness, not violence and bloodshed.
But a war was going on, and Jesus would ride right into the worst of what his enemies, our enemies, would do to him. He would not resort to violence, but the Romans beat him up. He was manhandled and whipped to within an inch of his life. And blood was shed. Not the blood of the Romans, the Pharisees, the priests or the people who yelled out “crucify him,” but Jesus’s blood. He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, humble and gentle, seeking to bring peace. Indeed, he was the prince of peace. And his enemies, our enemies, attacked him.
Last Christmas season, I received a catalog from Bronners in the mail. Bronners is a huge Christmas decoration and ornament store in Frankenmuth, Michigan. One of the ornaments caught my attention. It’s a donkey–shaped decoration. It has a legend associated with it. I’ll read what the catalog says:
“Legend tells us that the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday followed Him to Calvary. Appalled by the sight of Jesus on the cross, the donkey turned away but would not leave. It is said that the shadow of the cross fell upon the shoulders and back of the donkey. A cross marking found on many donkeys today remains a testimony of the love and devotion of a humble, little donkey.” (Bronner’s Christmas Favorites, 2010 Catalog, 9. It can also be found online at http://www.bronners. com/product/donkey-legend-ornament/1106520.)
Actually, I would say that the cross marking on the donkey reminds us of the love and devotion of Jesus. He rode into Jerusalem for one purpose, and that was to make the victory parade come true. He was riding into Jerusalem to become our Prince of Peace. He was riding on a donkey to show just how he would defeat all our enemies.
So how did Jesus gain the victory? He let those enemies do their worst to him. He did not stop the violence done to him. He willingly went to the cross. All our greed, fear, hatred, jealousy, anger, sin, evil, and death surrounded him. And when darkness covered the earth, it looked like those enemies had won. It looked like Jesus had been defeated. He was beaten, battered, bloodied and buried. Satan and all the powers of evil had to be cheering. They thought they had won.
But we know better. We know what happened next. We know of a morning that shattered the darkest places of sin and evil. We know of a stone that was rolled away and of the hatred, jealousy, fear, anger and greed that had been overcome by the prince of peace. We know of a savior who rises from the dead to defeat death once and for all.
And then the disciples understood. Jesus’s victory was bigger than pushing back a few soldiers or greedy, threatened religious leaders. His victory was over everything sin and death could do to us. And it came by riding into town on a donkey. It came by way of a cross. It came because of his victorious resurrection from the dead.
And the victory parade has been going on ever since. Every hymn of praise we sing is added to the sounds of the parade. Every prayer we say raises the volume of that celebration. Every day we follow Jesus in faith and obedience, we’re joining the crowds who followed Jesus that first Palm Sunday. Every act of devotion and love for Jesus is like the palms being waved once again. Today, in this service, and everyday, in our lives of love and devotion, we join in a victory parade that takes us to an eternity with Jesus.
You see, the cartoon has it wrong. The inevitable navigation system will lead us to that enemy called death, but it is not our destination. The final destination is an eternal parade, celebrating with all the saints the victory that Jesus won for us when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. So perhaps the better name for this victory parade is not Palm Sunday, but Donkey Sunday. Amen.