Historically this Sunday for Lutherans is called Palm Sunday, not Sunday of the Passion. Lutherans alone kept the Gospel account of the Palm Sunday entrance as the Gospel Reading for this day. But today is also about a donkey. In Germany palms and donkeys came together in the Palmesel, which means Palm Donkey. It was a wooden donkey on wheels bearing a figure of Christ and pulled into the sanctuary in the Palm Sunday procession. So, let's celebrate Palmesel Sunday.
We celebrate Palmesel Sunday by remembering another donkey in Jesus' life. At least everyone thinks a donkey was there. We really don't know but it seems likely. I'm talking about the flight to Egypt from the murderous King Herod when Jesus was 2 years old. Google this. Virtually every depiction has Mary and Jesus atop a donkey and Joseph leading it.
As they were going, the donkey began to slow down. Joseph would prod it on. Finally, he became so exasperated that he began to lash the donkey and said, "You stupid donkey; don't you know Herod is out to kill the Christ. You must hurry so we can escape." Just then the Lord gave the donkey the gift of speech, and he answered, "Imagine that; the whole future of the Church rests on the back of a jackass like me."
This much is true. The future of the Church does rest on the back of the Palmesel. The hopes and dreams of all the years are on the back of this donkey. Here comes the Promised Seed, the Lamb of God, the Prince of Peace. Here comes the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Here comes God's only Son. Remember He had said that no man takes His life from Him. So, He had the choice to turn around. He could stop the donkey; get off and walk back to the home of Mary and Martha.
It's not just the future of the Church that is on the back of the Palm Donkey. So is your future. What Jesus does in the next 7 days is far more important to your life than anything you could possibly do. No matter how great a decision you might have to make this week it pales in comparison to the decisions before Jesus this week. Your entire future rides on the Palmesel. He could turn back and never go to dark Gethsemane, the kangaroo courts, or the desolate cross.
Let's celebrate Palmesel Sunday by remembering not just this donkey but another in the jungle. Unless you've actually heard a donkey braying, you need to Google this too. I first heard one when the rancher behind the parsonage of my first parish got a donkey unbeknownst to me. That unearthly, unnatural sound startled me from sleep.
Luther told the story of a donkey in the jungle which is found in the classics to illustrate the Devil's tactics. A donkey in the jungle lets loose with loud, abrasive, fearsome braying. All the animals flee from the monstrous sounding beast. They end up together at the edge of the jungle trembling over what kind of a powerful beast makes such a frightening sound. Finally, the lion gets brave enough to creep back into the jungle to get to the bottom of this. Slowly he peeks into the clearing and sees that it's a donkey making the sounds. Seeing this, the lion steps into the clearing and says, "If I had known you were a jackass, I wouldn't have been afraid."
The donkey brays loudly this week because Satan enters the picture directly. Luke 22 says, "And Satan entered into Judas who was an apostle. And he went away and discussed with the chief priests and officers how he might betray Jesus to them." Then in the upper room Jesus says whoever takes this piece of bread will betray Me. John 13 records, "And after Judas took the morsel, Satan entered into him." Then, after the agony in Gethsemane, the mob arrives to arrest Jesus. And Jesus says that this hour belongs to the power of darkness.
At Calvary Satan makes his last appearance. In Luke 4 after the Great Temptation, Luke writes, "When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time." The opportune time comes when Jesus is nailed to cross bearing the weight of the world's sins, God's judgment, and the guilts that belong to you. Read Matthew; there you'll hear Satan's braying: "If you are the Son of God, come down from there." "Save yourself and us." "If He does what we tell Him to do, then we'll believe in Him."
The donkey Satan brays in your life. It might not be with loud, jarring noises but with the whispers of a 1,000 tongues telling a 1,000 tales with every one of them saying your guilty. Satan brays in sickness and sadness, and in claiming that you're at his mercy now. He brays that he can do what he wants when he wants, and you scatter into the woods and hide because it really seems like he can.
Well, never did a donkey bray so loud or so long as this week. He succeeded in sending the disciples running from Gethsemane, Judas running toward his own death, Peter running from His Lord, and all the disciples but John running to lock themselves behind closed doors for fear of the Jews. As these things happened, did they think back to today and the crowds wildly cheering "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!" and wonder how on earth did we get here? How come the donkey's braying sounds louder in our ears than Jesus' own words in the upper room: "Let not your hearts be troubled"? How on earth is the Devil's braying able to send us scurrying away even after we realize he's a donkey?
Palmesel Sunday's the answer and the remedy. Let's remember not only the donkey in the jungle and the donkey on the flight to Egypt. Let's particularly remember the donkey Jesus is riding on. We know this donkey was here. John gives details to this event that the other Gospels don't. John is the only one who tells you that the crowds used palms. John is the only one who uses the word for "little donkey." The others use "young colt", but John is the only one to use the diminutive form which indicates extremely or unusually small.
What is funnier than a full-grown man astride a small horse? God the Son astride a tiny donkey. How humbling! But Scripture will show you still more humiliating things than this. Follow to the upper room, after telling them His body will be given and His blood will be poured out for them, after giving them the Meal that is this body and blood, a squabble breaks out among them about which of them is greatest. Then go to Gethsemane and see the Man who is God struggle with the need to drink the cup of God's wrath against a world's sins. Then if you can stand it stay to see an angel of God sent to strengthen Jesus so He can drink that foul, disgusting cup. And then turn to see Jesus' 3 closest disciples sleeping leaving Him to watch, pray and struggle alone with the powers of darkness.
The week ahead will show you still more humbling things than a grown Man on a small donkey. The Palmesel is carrying its rider into the open maw of hell, death, judgment, and abandonment. Paul describes it this way, "He humbled Himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross!" That's right; Jesus will get off this miniature donkey and climb up on a cross to go all the way down to death itself.
And right there is how Christ Jesus redeemed, saved the future of not just the church, not just the world but you. Humbling Himself to death on a cross is how Christ Jesus redeemed humanity who owed the debt. The sins of the world were laid on Jesus from the get-go. Having not one of His own to bear because He was perfect in thought, word, and deed, He could bear the sins of the world in its place. Not one person, not one sin was missed.
And by giving Himself up to the wrath of God in the hands of sinners and demons, He not only redeemed your future but your present. Yes, the Bible says the Devil prowls like a roaring lion today looking for someone to devour. But that passage also says you can resist him standing firm in the Faith. And what would that Faith be? That because of Jesus the Devil is nothing but a loud sounding, scary sounding jackass that you need not run in fear from.
The Devil has 2 distinct roars: that of the Law and that of Death. The first roar exposes your sins and that leaves you acutely tuned to the louder roar of Death since it's written in our hearts that all sinful men owe God a death. Jesus having from the womb on kept every Law of God means when the Devil roars about the laws of God you've broken you're to hear God the Son roaring louder still: what law? Show me one law that has not been kept forever by Me? And what about the fearful roar of Death? Jesus already died the death of a dammed sinner in place of all sinners. O the Devil still roars but he's like one of those broken down, toothless, roadside lions that you feel sorry for. Actually, he's more like a broken-down old burro. Sure, he can still bray loud and long but he remains a jackass.
This Sunday is not about palms or donkeys or even the Palmesel, the Palm Donkey. It's about the One on the Palmesel. And though palms, donkeys, and Palmesels can remind us of Jesus, they can't give us Jesus. And Jesus must be given to us since we can't reach Him. But He comes through things so humbling a large part of the church wants no part of them. It is humbling to seek your Savior in the Waters of Baptism where He promises to clothe you with Himself. It is humbling to go to the voice of a man on earth to get the forgiveness of God in heaven. And it is humbling to bow and kneel before Bread and Wine confessing this is the Body and Blood of my God and Savior here to feed, refresh, restore me.
But these 3 means befit the One who rode into Jerusalem as King and God and Sacrifice on a small donkey. Despite His humble means of arrival, the crowds recognized Him; that's the reason for the palms, the praises, and the prayer "Hosanna" which means "save us now." Only Faith can say this to a Man on a miniature donkey, or to a God who wraps Himself in Water, Words, Bread and Wine. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Palm Sunday (20170409); John 12: 12-19