This is a Palm Sunday sermon I delivered (in digitally pre-recorded slideshow video) for Fellowship Christian Reformed Church, Etobicoke, ON on April 5, 2020 during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Video is above, text is below.
Texts: Matt. 21:1-11; Zechariah 9:9-10; John 14:27
This Sunday is Palm Sunday. And we have often read our Matthew 21 passage during Palm Sunday to remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem that marks, what we call, Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday and Easter.
Now, have you ever thought to yourself, “Why the donkey?” Why not a horse? When you think of a donkey, the first attributes that might come to mind are stubborn, or dumb, or even silly looking. You are probably not thinking of words like, beautiful or majestic. Those are adjectives more likely linked to horses rather than donkeys.
Therefore, it may surprise you – well, it surprised me at least – that a donkey in ancient times and in the Bible was a symbol of kingship and peace. A donkey was a staple of ancient Near Eastern royal ceremonies. For example, if you read in the Bible’s Old Testament 1 Kings 1:33-44, you will find there that Solomon rode on his father David’s mule to Gihon to be anointed king. There’s a connection there between kingship and the donkey or mule. Other non-Israelite or non-biblical ancient texts of the time also spoke of kings riding on donkeys for ceremonial entries or parades into cities. Donkeys, in the ancient eastern world, were symbols of royalty.
Donkeys were also symbols of peace because you never ride donkeys into battle and war. You are at a distinct disadvantage if you were to ride a donkey into battle. No, soldiers would ride horses, particularly specially trained war horses, into battle to fight. They are taller, stronger, and faster than any donkey. Therefore, donkeys are not associated with war or battles. Rather, you tend to ride donkeys when you do not expect violence or war. You ride donkeys when you don’t need speed to escape or run away. You can just go on a gentle slow ride, so to speak. Donkeys, therefore, were peace time modes of transportation. Donkeys were associated with peace, not war.
Israel’s King of Peace: Zechariah’s Prophecy
Both of these themes – kingship or royalty and peace – are picked up in Zechariah’s prophecy, which we read. This prophecy in Zechariah 9 is often identified by scholars as a messianic prophecy. It speaks of a promised future king who will come and bring peace to Israel. The context speaks of Israel triumphing over its enemies. However, notice though that this king of peace will not only judge the enemies, but also judge Israel – he will cut off Ephraim’s chariot, he will cut off Jerusalem’s war horse – Israel’s own military weapons will be destroyed, not just those of Israel’s enemies.
This future king of peace brings peace that is comprehensive – not just peace by overcoming enemies, but peace by getting rid of all weapons of war, even Israel’s own weapons. Peace begins at home.
This is the backdrop to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Clearly the gospel writer Matthew wants to paint the picture that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy by Zechariah, that Jesus is that King of Peace, riding on the donkey into Jerusalem.
The Peace of Rome: The World’s Peace on War Horses
But what Matthew leaves out, but is probably common knowledge among the Jews, and especially among the residents of Jerusalem, is that there is another procession either happening on the same day, or a few days in proximity, or even possibly happening at the same time. You see, there is very likely a Roman army coming through the front door of Jerusalem, so to speak, even as Jesus was entering through the back door.
The reason for this annual parade of marching Roman soldiers is because this is the time of Passover. Passover is not only a highly religious time for the Jews; it is also a time of high nationalistic zeal. Because Jewish passions for liberation from Rome run high during Passover. Why? Because the Passover feast, if you recall, is a remembrance of God’s liberation and deliverance of Israel from slavery to Egypt. So, when they celebrate the Passover meal, the Jews are reminded of how God has delivered them from the oppression of the Egyptian empire. Therefore, it is easy to see how that remembrance can stoke up hopes and passions for deliverance from the oppression of the Roman empire. That’s why Jewish nationalistic passion are high during Passover, and that is why extra military troops are often called in to Jerusalem to keep the peace.
So, this is how Rome keeps the peace – the so called pax romana (the peace of Rome). The ancient Roman empire used military force and might to subdue, threaten and drive fear into people’s hearts. That is how Rome brings peace. Peace by subduing others, or if necessary, remove and destroy your enemies.
When you think about it, this is not just the way of ancient Rome is it? How does our world today tend to keep the peace? We try to control or suppress others. We try to make the problem or the irritant “go away”. We try to find peace often by trying to get rid of our external annoyance. Individually, we try to find peace by getting to some secluded place, we remove ourselves from what distresses us if we can’t remove the distress itself.
But ultimately, either collectively, or individually, the world’s way of peace is the peace on war horses. It’s a peace that comes out of violence or control, getting rid of problems, or getting ourselves away from problems. It is focused on controlling things external to us.
The Prince of Peace: Jesus’ Peace on a Donkey
Now, contrast this parade of Roman soldiers with Jesus’ parade of people singing, with joyful shouting, palm branch waving, and robe laying celebration of a royal entry! Jesus is sitting on a donkey, on a symbol of kingship and of peace.
Jesus did not ride on a war horse into Jerusalem, because he did not intend to wage war with Rome. But he did wage war with Rome’s way of peace! Jesus’ way of peace was in opposition to Rome’s way of peace. Jesus truly was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy – not only did he ride a donkey, but he was bringing peace.
But like in Zechariah, he brought peace by beginning at home. Now if we have continued reading in the gospel of Matthew, we would discover that the first thing Jesus did after this triumphal entry is to cleanse the temple. The first thing was not to condemn the Romans, or to curse Israel’s enemies but to cleanse Israel’s temple – the heart of Jewish worship and identity – to pronounce judgment on Israel’s hypocrisy and its own failings – to cleanse it. The temple was his Father’s house – he started to bring peace by starting at home. Peace begins at home. It does not begin by overpowering our enemies outside.
Following Jesus’ Way of Peace vs The World’s Peace
So, to summarize, we find there is a contrast between Jesus’ way of peace and the world’s way of peace. Jesus’ way of peace is really peace-making, and not just peace-keeping. The world’s way of keeping peace is really a temporary ceasefire. Keeping the peace is to make sure violence does not erupt, or that people don’t kill each other, so to speak. It’s not really a genuine lasting peace. To make peace, however, requires reconciliation, it requires both parties to change.
Therefore, Jesus’ way of peace requires transformation, not just the suppression of violence, or the suppression of enemies, or the suppression of whatever external factor that is disrupting your peace. Jesus’ peace, therefore, begins at home. If we are talking about conflict between groups, or tribes, or peoples, then, peace begins with repentance and cleansing and judgment on our own people, our own tribes, what have we done wrong?
For individuals, peace begins with our own hearts. Inner peace comes from inner transformation that requires self-cleansing and repentance from our own sins and wrongdoings.
All of this requires humility. Humility to examine ourselves, to cleanse ourselves, to transform ourselves in order to bring reconciliation for true peace. And this is far from the world’s way of posturing oneself to be right or to be righteous. Our world’s way of keeping the peace is about suppressing our own emotions, suppressing or avoiding whatever disruptions there are, and pretending, sometimes even, pretending or posturing that we are okay, and we are perfect or we are never wrong but the other side is wrong.
Jesus shows us a better way to peace. Jesus gives us peace, not in the way the world gives peace, but in a way that bring genuine peace from inside out. It begins with humbly confronting and naming our fears and troubles, recognizing perhaps our sins, or our idolatries that may cause, or at least increase, our troubles. For Jesus to give us peace, he might have to transform our hearts – from hearts of fear and troubling into hearts of peace and love – but transformation might require cleansing and judgment of our sins. And this inner transformation flows outwards to engage and even change outward conflict.
Peace for Us
During this time with the global pandemic crisis, many of us may not be feeling much peace at all. We may be quiet staying at in our homes, but maybe we are not peaceful in our hearts. We may be afraid. We may be anxious and stressed. The world’s way of peace – the peace on a war-horse – fails us in this crisis. Because the only way that peace can come is to get rid of the virus or to suppress the virus. But that may not happen until a long time. Many more deaths may come. More hardships and suffering may be on the way.
But remember Jesus’ way of peace. Yes, ironically, peace begins at home. We can still find God’s peace even in the midst of a health crisis. This might be a good opportunity for us to examine our own hearts, to see what are our priorities in life. Perhaps, this pandemic has exposed our reliance or dependence on material things, on human beings, on our physical health, our trust and dependence on things and creatures that are not God. Maybe this pandemic is an opportunity for us to grow spiritually, to draw closer to God. It may force us to realize that we cannot have true peace in ourselves unless we find our peace in Christ.
But let us be encouraged, God always prepare a way for us. Remember the donkey? The donkey was already there waiting for Jesus. Somehow, God has prepared the donkey for Jesus to ride on before Jesus even got there.
God has already prepared the way to peace for us. As we prepare ourselves for Good Friday and Easter, we are reminded that ultimately, God has prepared a way of spiritual reconciliation through the death of Jesus on the cross and the rising of Jesus from the tomb. The cross makes peace between God and us. And through that, we can make peace between human beings, and between us and creation.
Finally, remember that the donkey is not only a symbol of peace but a symbol of kingship. Jesus is king; he is in control. We may have lost a lot of control these days, due to the pandemic restrictions. A lot of our best laid plans are undone. But do not be afraid. Jesus is king. He is in control. And he promises to be with us, and to give us peace.
Let us pray. Dear heavenly Father, Lord Jesus, and Holy Spirit. Thank you Lord for making a way of peace for us. Thank you for coming to die on the cross and to rise from the tomb, to bring peace, reconciling us to you, and to reconcile us to each other. Thank you, therefore, that you are in control. And we therefore can find peace in you. We know it is well with our souls, no matter what happens to us, no matter what happens in the world, because you love us, you have died for us, and we belong to you, body and soul, in life and in death. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.