“Little donkey, little donkey, on a dusty road. Got to keep on plodding onwards, Bethlehem’s in sight.”
No, you aren’t caught in a time warp, it isn’t Christmas, it is Easter time, but I would like us to think about donkeys this morning. A few months ago I was lent a book by Joan Ackerley, that she was for Christmas in 1945 by her Auntie May. It is called “Donkey’s Glory”, and it tells the story of Jesus from the perspective of a family of donkeys, the first of whom was the donkey who carried Mary all the way to Bethlehem, all the way through to her grandson, who carried Jesus into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday thirty-odd years later. It’s a clever way of framing the story for youngsters, and whilst there’s no Biblical evidence that the donkeys in these two stories were actually related, and actually, the Biblical nativity stories don’t actually mention a donkey, I’m not surprised that one often makes an appearance in nativity plays up and down the land.
So, this morning, we’re going to follow in the donkey’s footsteps through Scripture and see what we might learn about who God is, and what that means for us today. Also as we go through, I’m going to display some different images of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, that might spark an insight for you.
Let’s start in our reading from Matthew’s eyewitness account of the good news of Jesus’ life and ministry. Jesus and his friends and followers are on their way to Jerusalem. Jesus knows what is going to happen to him there, and he has warned the others about it, not that they’ve really understood. He sends a couple of them off to fetch this donkey and its foal. Whether he’s arranged this in advance, or whether he just knew that the owners would release them when the disciples told them who they were for, we aren’t told. However it was organised, the disciples return with the donkeys.
Matthew links this to an Old Testament prophecy, from the book of the prophet Zechariah, which says this,
“Rejoice greatly, daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Matthew’s quotation isn’t particularly careful – he’s missed some bits out from the verse in Zechariah, but his Jewish readers would have known the bits that were missing, and filled them in for themselves, and would also have known the context that Zechariah was originally speaking into. If we look at chapter 1 of Zechariah we discover that he was a prophet, a messenger from God to God’s people, during the reign of King Darius. We know from the book of Daniel that Darius was a Mede who was a king in Babylon. So, Zechariah was originally speaking to the people of Judah, during the time of the exile to Babylon, whilst Jerusalem was in ruins, and the temple was deserted. It was a really dark time for God’s people, and Zechariah speaks of the hope of restoration, and of the one who is going to bring it.
He commands Jerusalem to shout and to rejoice – they were definitely doing that on Palm Sunday. He talks of a king coming, one who brings righteousness and salvation in gentleness, riding on a donkey. As we read on in Zechariah we discover that this king is one who is going to bring peace to the nations and whose reign is going to extend from sea to sea.
Whilst we know that people of God did return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the temple, they had never really had a King who had fulfilled this prophecy, they were still waiting for the one who would bring salvation and righteousness, peace in an unending kingdom. (As a little side note, is there another Christmas echo here, “the prince of peace” of Isaiah’s prophecy?)
A little later in the story we hear the crowd shouting, “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is an extract from Psalm 118, which Liz read part of for us. And here, again, we find these ideas of righteousness and salvation. These are really important in the King and the Kingdom. The King is the one who embodies and brings a right relationship with God, a right way of living, and a rescue from the consequences of being alienated from God, and of living disobediently. The Kingdom is the reality in which we live in that right relationship, once we have been rescued.
But, we’ve got a little off the donkey’s tracks. Let’s follow them a little further back in scripture.
I’d like to take us to 2 Samuel 16-19. A little bit of background first. King David has firmly established his kingdom. The days of the shepherd boy fighting Goliath with a sling and five stones is long behind him. The back and forth with Saul is over – Saul is dead, and David is undisputed king. He has a collection of wives and many sons. He’s settled down. But. One of his sons, Absalom, plots a palace coup and David flees with many of his court. It is in this flight that we find the donkeys. A man called Ziba, servant of Saul’s son Mephibosheth, comes to him with a string of donkeys and says, “The donkeys are for the king’s household to ride on”. David accepts the gift and goes off into exile. There are some battles, Absalom is killed, and David returns to Jerusalem.
As he approaches the city he meets Mephibosheth, and asks him why he didn’t come with the rest of the court into exile, and he says, “My lord the king, since I your servant am lame, I said, “I will have my donkey saddled and will ride on it, so that I can go with the king.” but my servant, Ziba, betrayed me.”
Now, if you want to find out all about the dispute between Ziba and Mephibosheth and how that all works out, you’ll need to read 2 Samuel 16-19 yourselves, but for our purposes this morning, what’s important to note is that donkeys are a perfectly appropriate thing for a King and his retinue to ride, and especially a Davidic king who is returning to Jerusalem to reclaim his throne.
But, the donkey has gone on, we have a little further to follow it, all the way back to the first book of the Bible, to Genesis. Again, a bit of background. You may know the story of Joseph and his Technicolour dreamcoat. Joseph, the spoiled favourite son of Jacob, whose brothers took against him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. How God gave him the gift of interpreting dreams, a gift which came to the attention of Pharaoh, who raised him to be second in the kingdom. How his brothers came looking for grain in time of famine, the family were reunited, and how Joseph moved them all to Egypt. Now it has come to the time for Jacob to die, and he gathers his sons to bless them, and we read this in Genesis 49:9-12,
“You are a lion’s cub, Judah;
you return from the prey, my son.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness – who dares to rouse him?
The sceptre will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
and the obedience of the nations shall be his.
He will tether his donkey to a vine,
his colt to the choicest branch;
he will wash his garments in wine,
his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes will be darker than wine,
his teeth whiter than milk.”
Do you hear the echoes of Christmas again, “Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, out of you will come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” Both David, and therefore, Jesus, were of the tribe of Judah. Jesus is the ultimate fufilment of this blessing of Jacob over his son that the sceptre will not depart from his descendants.
And what do we find here? We find him tethering his donkey to a vine, a poetic foreshadowing perhaps of Jesus tying up the donkey at the end of this day, and going on to shed his blood, which we remember in the wine of the communion table.
So, we have followed this donkey back, from Palm Sunday, to the dusty road to Bethlehem, to the prophecies of Zechariah, to the return of David to his throne, and on to journey’s end in the first book of the Bible, as Jacob prophesies over Judah. As we have, we’ve seen that that this is the way that God’s king, bringing salvation, righteousness, peace, and hope in humility and gentleness was always intended to enter Jerusalem as he brought in his kingdom.
And yet, despite this, the crowd still do not recognise him for who he is. They shout praises, and even quote the Psalm that should tell them, but when they are asked who he is, they still say, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee”. They do not see what Peter saw, when he was asked the same question and said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus was going to have to go through the hell of Good Friday and the glory of Easter Sunday before that would really sink in.
So, what about us, as we read about the purposes of God, worked out over hundreds of years, to bring us the opportunity to know salvation and right living? In times of turmoil, confusion, and difficulty, will we trust the one who promises to work all things for good for those who love him, as we witness the promises kept? Will we worship and follow the king who rode a donkey, even when the path leads to Calvary, because we trust that when we do, that resurrection is our final destination?