It sure is a bizarre event. The crowds claim him to be king, yet he rides on a lowly donkey. He's too humble to be a real king. And in just a few short days he'll be murdered and buried, like so many other flash in the pan revolutionaries entombed in the history books. But Jesus is no flash in the pan revolutionary. He truly is a king. But he's not the king anyone would expect or ask for.
Jesus is not an earthly king, who enters with pomp and circumstance and rules with physical force. Jesus is a spiritual king and he rules a spiritual kingdom. He fights not against Romans, but he wages spiritual warfare. And he is indeed marching off to war. He goes to fight your battle, a battle you would surely lose.
Jesus' march into Jerusalem seems peculiar to all who witness it, yet this very event has been prophesied for ages. Zechariah wrote:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
Righteous and having salvation is he,
Humble and mounted on a donkey,
On a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
Scripture does not promise a mighty Caesar or an Alexander the Great. Rather Scripture promises a poor man riding a borrowed animal. Scripture promises a man led to slaughter like a lamb and like a sheep silent before its shearers. And yet, this lowly prophesied king brings righteousness and salvation. If you expect an earthly king or earthly power, you won't find it here. But if you want the Savior, prophesied by seers of old, behold your King!
"Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." (Philippians 2:6-8)
Jesus truly is God from all eternity. St. Paul writes, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible." (Colossians 1:15-16a) and St. John writes of him, "All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made." (John 1:3) Jesus is fully God and he has the right to take that form, to be worshipped by angels and feared by the children of men. He did not need to grasp at equality with God, he owned it. Yet he empties himself of all that. He doesn't cease to be God! No. He could never stop being God. Jesus is and was and always will be God. Even nailed to the blood stained cross, breathing his last breaths he remains God. Even cold and still as clay, laid in the tomb, he remains God. But he hides it. He hides his divine majesty, for a time, he humbles himself.
Jesus took on the form of a slave, born in the likeness of men and being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Jesus' becoming a human being is not his humiliation. If it were, Jesus would forever be humiliated. But our Lord currently risen and seated on his throne of glory is a man. Yet, he is not humbled. And he will not come in humility to judge the living and the dead, but he will most certainly come as a man.
Yet, as a man, Jesus humbles himself below all men. No one was despised as Jesus was. In fact, the Lord spoke through the Prophet David in Psalm 22, "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people." (vs. 6)
And so here in just a few short words, St. Paul shows us the extremity of God's love, and the great lengths he went to save us sinners. There is no higher position than God himself. No one could be exalted as highly as God. And no one could humble himself so lowly as our king, who rode on to his own slaughter. And even if we could join his wormhood, it would not be such a great leap as it was for him; no, simply a step into our true form, if we were judged rightly for our sins.
And yet how difficult it is to humble ourselves in our own eyes, to step down from our own contrived eminence. Each of us is a god in our own eyes! Look out for number one! How difficult is it for us to look at our peers as our equals, or even our superiors as anything other than the accidents of inequality. How difficult it is for us to look to the needs of others, as St. Paul wrote immediately before our Epistle lesson, "But in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:4)
Indeed our Lord desires us to follow his example as surely as he said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:39) And Christ does empower you through the Gospel to love others, even against your natural pride. But this is not the purpose of Jesus' humiling march to the cross. Jesus emptied himself of the form of God and became obedient to death for your sake. Jesus was looking after your interests long before you could have ever asked him to do so or even knew what your best interests were.
Even today, people want to trade in Jesus for some more attractive king. A powerhouse. A king loved by the world. A king, who isn't so divisive or controversial. A king, who boosts our self esteem and pride. A king, who makes us rich. If you want such a king, you sure can find him. But don't look to Jesus.
In Jesus you will not find what you think you need, but what you really need. And there's a big difference. Take whatever is stressing you out right now, be it your health, money, relationships, job, children, whatever. Take the headlines in the news, the threats of war from North Korea, the uncertainty of health care reform or the success of the economy. None of these things is most important. Even if God grants all you want concerning these things and you live to be a hundred years old, never suffering pain or anxiety or want, you will still die and be met with your sins and your judge.
But upon that donkey we see a man, who enjoyed the worship of angels, humbly and obediently advancing to his own punishment. He bears the sins of the world. He carries your sins, even before you yourself felt their weight. And he suffers the price to remove them from the sight of your God. Jesus frees you from eternal humiliation and pain. He releases you from judgment. He exalts you higher than any position you could ever contrive for yourself, even in your imagination.
It is in Jesus' passion on the cross for sinners that we understand the odd festivities of his entrance into Jerusalem. We see him fulfill God's will, not for his own sake, but for us. We see upon that foal of a donkey our salvation and our king. Indeed this is how we understand this Holy Week into which we now embark.
And so we meet our king in humility as he taught us. We don't prop ourselves up to some lofty position. Rather, we bring our sins and our sorrows and lay them on Jesus. In humility we meet our king in his humility, so that we might be exalted in his exaltation. Everyone who humbles himself in such faith will surely be exalted. May God bless you as you ponder the passion of your King this Holy Week. And may you rise with him next Sunday and forever free from sin and death. Amen.