As we think about Jesus entering into Jerusalem 2000 years ago, we’re going to do so through the lens of idolatry. According to Tim Keller in his book, The Gods We Serve, idolatry is anything that becomes so central in our lives that our lives would lose meaning if we lost it.
Now anything can become an idol, but for today, the idol we want to focus on is the idol of power.
To be clear, power in and of itself is not a bad thing. When power is used to bring glory to God or to ennoble and dignify human beings and enhance their quality of life, it is a very good thing. However when power becomes an ultimate thing, and when I use it for the purpose of bringing order and safety and security only to my world, then power becomes a very destructive thing.
The Things That Represent Power
There are a lot of things in our world that can represent power. For example, a political leader or a party can represent power. It can represent that one and only one thing that can restore order and peace to my world. Think, for example, of the hysteria around the election of President Obama in 2008. Or think of the tragic allegiance given to Hitler during World War II. A system, a strategy or a way of thinking can become a power. A name brand, an ethnicity, or a title–all of these things–can become ultimate powers in our lives. That is, all of these things can easily become that thing that we look to as that ultimate thing that can bring healing, order, restoration, or, to use a biblical word, SHALOM to our world.
The Israelites and Power
For the people of Israel, living 2000 years ago, many people believed their power was in their commitment to God, defined by a certain religious system. Now this is where things get a little sensitive and we need a lot of discernment. You see 2000 years ago, when Rome ruled the world, the Israelites basically became prisoners in their own country. While they had “freedom of religion,” and while they could run their own businesses, and while they could trade with their own currency, Rome watched and governed their every move. Rome dictated the laws of the land. Rome dictated how many taxes the Israelites had to pay. Rome dictated who Israel’s king was. If Rome said move, you moved. And just to make sure no one stepped out of line, Rome had soldiers all over Israel, making sure the people of Israel knew who was in power.
And it wasn’t just that they walked around the streets, they would rough people up from time to time. For example, it wasn’t uncommon for a centurion to grab you and force you to carry his load–sometimes for miles. And it wasn’t uncommon that if you refused, he would knock you flat by striking you on the cheek with his fist. And if you ever thought about leading a rebellion against Rome, you would be arrested and crucified. As a matter of fact, the Romans invented crucifixion for this purpose. Crosses lined the streets with “criminals” nailed to them.
So the question in the minds of many of the Israelites was, “How do we gain power over the Romans? What power do will restore order and restoration and SHALOM in the land?” That was the question. Now of course, for many Israelites the obvious answer was God. And this is where things get a little sticky because, you see, within the Israelite nation there were basically four groups who thought their system of belief was the best way to gain power over Rome.
Four Religious Systems in Israel
For example, there were the chief priests. The chief priests were the guys in charge of the temple. They had a rather narrow line to walk. If you want a word to identify their strategy for dealing with Rome, it is the word collaborate. They had to stay close enough to Rome that Rome would continue to allow them to rule over the temple.
There was a big Roman fortress, the fortress Antonia, right over the temple. Rome was controlling all this stuff. So the chief priests had to stay close enough to Rome to be allowed to oversee the temple, but they couldn’t get too close to the Romans or else the crowds were not going to like them. So they had to walk a very narrow line. They were viewed as kind of collaborators. They were Israelites, but they were often not really popular with the crowds.
Then there’s another group of people you may have heard of in the Bible. They were called the Pharisees. The Pharisees were mostly teachers of the law. If you want a word to associate with them, it’s the word purity. They thought Israel’s problem was that it had neglected the Torah. If they could just get a group of people to be zealous for the Torah, to truly purify themselves before God, God would be honored by that. Then He would destroy Rome and liberate Israel.
Then there’s another group called the Zealots. (These can all overlap somewhat. They would often disagree with each other.) The Zealots’ strategy was to fight. They said, “Rome is evil! Rome is bad! We ought to be courageous. We ought to take up arms. If we do that, God will bless our people, and He will take down Rome.”
Then there’s another group called the Essenes. If you want a word for their strategy, it’s the word withdraw. Some of you may have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in a community–it’s called the Qumran community. And it is thought it was actually occupied by a group of folks like this. Their thinking was, it’s not just that the Romans are bad; the whole temple system had been so corrupted by Gentile involvement that we’re not going to have anything to do with it. We won’t go to temple. We won’t bring sacrifices. We will start our own little community, get people who finally get it right, and then God will wipe out everything–all the collaborators and the Romans.
Now here was the question: Which system, which way of thinking was the best? Which was the one that would give the Israelites power over the Romans? Which way was it? Well, it depended on who you asked. Because, you see, each one of these groups were convinced that their system, their way of thinking was the best. Theirs was the ultimate way to gain power over the Israelites.
And they were so convinced of this, that if you were to challenge their system of belief, life would lose meaning. You see, even a religious system can become a god. And it’s from this context that we turn to our passage.
Intro to the Passage
The Bible says in Luke 19:28, “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” Now the story that Luke is referring to here is the story of the talents. And without getting into the story, the upshot of the story is that in order for God’s kingdom to advance, that is, in order for restoration and healing and order to return to this world, we must use the power that God gives us, as God would use it.
So the question is: How does God use power? What kind of power are we talking about here? What is the power that will bring restoration to the world? What is the power that will lead to healing and order and SHALOM? Well, let’s read on.
Says the Scriptures, “As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘‘Why are you untying it?’’ tell him, ‘‘The Lord needs it.’” Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ They replied, ‘The Lord needs it.’ They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.”
ANGARIA (Picture of the guy and his donkey)
Now, what Jesus is doing here is something the ancient Rabbinic tradition called ANGARIA. And ANGARIA was when a major religious or political figure would request the use of livestock or other property for personal use, and since Jesus was a Rabbi, it would have been totally normal for him to make the request.
Now it’s not the ANGARIA that we need to focus on here but it is the nature of Jesus request because it gives us a clue to the power that will bring SHALOM to our world.
So, what is it again that Jesus asks for? Well, he asks for a young donkey, a colt, that no one has ever ridden on.
Why? Why does he ask for a colt? Well, it certainly was not because it was an animal of war. If he wanted that he would have ridden a horse. But he doesn’t. He rides a young donkey because it was an animal of peace.
How do we know? Well, there are a couple of snapshots in the Old Testament that show us how the colt of a donkey is an animal of peace.
For example, in 1 Kings 1:32-34, back in the time when David was king, we read, “Then King David ordered, ‘Call Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada.’ When they came into the king’s presence, the king said to them, ‘Take Solomon and my officials down to Gihon Spring. Solomon is to ride on my own mule. There Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet are to anoint him king over Israel. Blow the ram’s horn and shout, ‘‘Long live King Solomon!’” (1 Kings 1:32–34 NLT-SE)
Question: How many wars did Solomon fight? None. Solomon’s kingdom was a kingdom of peace. As a matter of fact in Hebrew, Solomon’s name means Peace. He is SHALOM MON
So that’s the first passage which shows how a donkey is an animal of peace. The second passage comes from the prophet Zechariah. In Zechariah 9:9 we read, “Rejoice, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—riding on a donkey’s colt.” (Zech 9:9 NLT-SE)
So when Jesus requests the colt of a donkey, he’s saying something about the kind of power he is going to bring. He will bring restoration, and healing to Israel. What he’s saying is that the power that will bring peace and shalom to Israel has something to do with humility.
Now, even though the disciples know the Scriptures and would have seen the picture that Jesus was directing them to, it isn’t clear that they got it. What we do know is that they hail Jesus as a king. Luke 19:36-38 says, “As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ‘Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’”
A Few Details to Notice
Now, let’s just stop here a moment because there are a few things that we need to notice about Luke’s gospel.
The first thing to notice is that there is no mention of palm branches in Luke’s gospel. There is a mention of coats, but no palm branches. Why? Because for the Jews, the palm branch was a symbol of political rebellion–a symbol that went back to a guy named Judas Macabee who led a military revolt against the Greeks and won. And the people waved palm branches as a symbol of victory. As a matter of fact the palm branch was even minted into their coins.
The second thing to notice is that in Luke’s gospel, there are no children shouting and cheering for Jesus. Instead, Luke says it is his disciples. Now, the Greek word for disciple is MATHAYTAYS which means student, a learner, a committed follower. So it is the committed followers–the students–who are shouting and cheering for Jesus.
The third thing to notice in Luke’s gospel is that there are no shouts of “Hossana”–which means “Lord Save Us”. Instead they shout, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the LORD!” from Psalm 118:26–which the disciples conclude by saying, “Peace in heaven, and glory in highest!” These words are almost identical to the words the angels sang when Jesus was born, the night he entered the world as a humble king. But here the words are sung again as Jesus enters Jerusalem as a humble king.
Why These Details?
So why is Luke so intentional about giving us these details? Well, Luke does not want us to lose sight of the power that is going to bring healing, and restoration and SHALOM to the world. He does not want us to miss the fact that the power that will restore the world and free it from evil is not first of all a religious system, or a set of rules or a strategy. It is not some politician, or a political agenda. The power that will bring healing to the world is not a title, or a special gifting. It is not a philosophy an ideology or military might. It is a person named Jesus who came humbly into this world, to give his life in love for us.
And if we want power that will bring order and healing to our world then we must follow him. We must learn from him! We must become his students! Paul says it like this in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
What is this Power?
Yes, what is this power that Paul talks about? Well, if we know our Bibles we will know that the power that raised Jesus from the dead was none other than the power of God’s love. You see, when we have learned to love as Jesus loves then we have learned the power that can conquer death and bring restoration to our world.
And so the crowds sing. But not all are singing. The Bible says in Luke 19:39-40, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!’ ‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’”
Now, that’s a bit of an odd thing to say, don’t you think? Why would Jesus pick the most unlikely, the most dead, the most inanimate object as the thing that would praise him? Why wouldn’t he pick a bird? They sing. Or why not even the donkey? There is at least a precedent in the Bible for talking donkeys. Why something as dead as a stone? Well, when Jesus spoke of singing stones to the Pharisees, it was supposed to be a clue to them that if the disciples do not speak of Jesus power, creation will! Like Psalm 19 says it in the opening verses, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” Or like Psalm 98:4 says it: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music!” And as verses 8 and 9 also say, “Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD!”
Dominion vs. Domination
You see, creation understands that there is a difference between ‘power as dominion’ and ‘power as domination.’ Power as domination is about avoiding pain, avoiding losing, avoiding suffering, avoiding vulnerability, avoiding weakness. Which doesn’t sound bad; who wants this stuff? No one, really. So we look to the god who promises us a safe, pain free life, where we look strong and secure, where we look like winners, where we have it all together, where we look successful, comfortable, and strong. And these gods can be a religious lifestyle, a position, a title, a name brand, a teaching, a TV personality, a political leader, a philosophy.
And yet somehow, even when we turn to these things, we still find ourselves feeling weak, used, defeated, afraid, insecure, needing more control, needing to be right, angry. And we wonder why. And the reason is that, whether we know it or not, a power where we can dominate our world, where we call the shots, where we’re right, where we have control, where we’re strong, is not what we’ve been created for. You see, when we seek ‘power as domination,’ our world does not sing; it groans.
Romans 8:22 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” The more we seek power as domination, the more our world groans, our relationships groan, our churches groan, our environment groans.
But ‘power as dominion’ is different because power as dominion is what we’ve been created for. Those who seek power as dominion make a relationship with Jesus the ultimate thing. And when Jesus takes that ultimate place in our lives, than the power we seek is no longer about seeking control and safety and security for ourselves but instead it’s about love and humility and servant-hood and grace and forgiveness and self control and freedom and joy. It’s about ensuring that God is recognized in all that we do and that dignity and honour are brought to others.
In other words, when we seek ‘power as dominion’, and when a relationship with Jesus becomes our ultimate desire, then creation sings, including the stones.
So the question this Palm Sunday is who is our King? Where do we turn for power? Do we seek ‘power as dominion’, or ‘power as domination?’ Is Jesus so precious to us that we would give up anything to pursue a relationship with him so that we can be filled with his love and grace? Or are we more committed to a church lifestyle, where we hear about Jesus on Sunday but during the rest of the week we pursue other things for power.
You see there is only one God who has the power to bring restoration into this world. There is only one God who can make creation sing again. And today he’s inviting you to give up everything and become part of the song.