The Text: Matthew 21
When ‘Ivan the terrible’ came into town he needed no introduction. That’s because ‘Ivan the Terrible’ (who was the Tsar of Russia) was exactly what his nickname said he was – terrible! He was terrible and he was terrifying. He would torture animals just for fun. He beat up his pregnant daughter-in-law because he didn’t like what she was wearing, resulting in her having a miscarriage. When his son confronted him over it, Ivan fatally stabbed him with the sharpened end of his walking cane, which he always kept sharp so he could jab people with it. He mercilessly murdered people and tortured them. He was a maniac. He was a terrible king but at least people knew who he was.
History is littered with kings and great political leaders who are instantly recognisable, not so much for being famous but for being infamous. If I put a picture of Hitler on the screen you would know who he is, and the people of his time would have known him too. The great Caesars of Rome, the kings and queens of Europe, the pharaohs of Egypt – whether they were good or bad – all of them could be identified by their people. And still today, when dignitaries move through the streets, they do so with a great entourage, body guards, fanfare and impressive vehicles. Whether they are infamous or simply famous, kings and rulers are recognised by their people.
But when Jesus, the king of kings, arrives in Jerusalem, what do his people say? Oh great, here’s the king? Oh wonderful, our saviour has arrived? No, the people of Jerusalem see Jesus on a donkey, with the crowds cheering around him and his band of followers by his side and they ask: “Who is this?!!?”
Well, I guess that Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem sends out some confusing messages. On the one hand you have this big crowd shouting out ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ Now, ‘Son of David’ is code for ‘the king’. They think they’ve found the Messiah. And yet, the people of Jerusalem look at Jesus in disbelief, that this unimpressive man riding on a donkey could possibly be a king.
That’s because we all know that kings back then rode on horses, and today they drive in big fancy cars. They don’t get about on donkeys. You don’t win wars with donkeys, you win them with horses and chariots, with tanks and planes and ships.
And yet Jesus was going to war. Jesus had already made it clear to his disciples what type of war he was going to be fighting in Jerusalem. In the previous chapter, as they headed for the great city, Jesus said: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
Jesus rides into Jerusalem ready for a war of a different kind. It’s the war for your soul. Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey as the king prepared to die for his people, the very people who didn’t even recognize him and the very people who would put him to death. What a king! Jesus came to Jerusalem to tangle with Satan, to defeat him and sin and death in one very foul and bloody swoop.
And how was Jesus going to win this war? Through submission. Now that’s not what kings are meant to do – submit! We are meant to submit to them! But Jesus rides into Jerusalem with the specific aim of handing himself over to die, where he will become the atoning sacrifice for all human sinfulness. What a king!
It should be no surprise to us that no sooner had Jesus told his disciples about his purpose for coming to Jerusalem, that two of them ask if they can sit at his right and his left side in his glory. ‘Glory!’ they said. ‘Jesus give us some glory!’ That’s the sort of king they wanted.
But Jesus was not a king who came for glory—Jesus was a king who came to serve and through his service to you and me and to the world he would give his life. By his work and service and sacrifice we are reconciled with God. The war has been won.
That’s the king that Jesus still is for you. Jesus is our great defender and protector and he is continually working to keep us safe from evil, from the power of the devil and from falling into unbelief. Jesus continues to serve us by forgiving our sins, washing us clean, hearing our prayers, answering our prayers and giving us his blessing. Jesus is a king who serves and as people of his kingdom we are also called to live a life of service.
Why wouldn’t we serve a king like that? Many kings, like Ivan the Terrible, could scare us into serving them. But Jesus doesn’t do that. Our king comes to us gentle and riding on a donkey—an animal of peace. There is no frightening sound of galloping hooves, no cracking whips, no shouting. There are no tanks rolling or guns blazing. Jesus comes to us with gentleness to save and protect us. He is the King of Kings—and with him there is nothing to fear. Amen.