A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Sermon (March 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Different Robes of Jesus: Spreading Robes"

     In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Christian author Philip Yancey, describes Palm Sunday this way:  

“The triumphal entry has about it an aura of ambivalence, and as I read all the accounts together, what stands out to me now is the slapstick nature of the affair. I imagine a Roman officer galloping up to check on the disturbance.  He has attended processions in Rome, where they do it right. The conquering general sits in a chariot of gold, with stallions straining at the reins and wheel spikes flashing in the sunlight.  Behind him officers in polished armor display banners captured from vanquished armies.  At the rear comes a ragtag procession of slaves and prisoners in chains, living proof of what happens to those who defy Rome.”

     Yancey goes on to write, “In contrast, in Jesus’ triumphal entry, the adoring crowd makes up the ragtag procession: the lame, the blind, the children, the peasants from Galilee and Bethany.  When the officer looks for the object of their attention he spies a forlorn figure, weeping, riding on no stallion or chariot but on the back of a baby donkey, a borrowed coat draped across its backbone serving as his saddle.”

     The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a familiar one for many of us. We hear this story year after year. But the great thing about God’s Word is that even the most familiar story can become fresh if we listen carefully, and sometimes even in familiar accounts you see things in a new way.

     We will be celebrating Palm Sunday in a couple of weeks, the Sunday before Easter Sunday. There are a lot of great lessons in the story of when Jesus rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.  Today I want to focus on two parts of this story that perhaps we have never really given too much thought.  I want to draw your attention to a so-called, insignificant, unnamed person in this story:  the man who owned the donkey.  And I want to focus a little attention on the admirers of Jesus who spread their cloaks on the road.

    Now, a good question to start with in regard to the donkey owner is, why the owners loaned out their donkeys in the first place? There are a few possible reasons:

     First of all, loaning out a donkey was an important part of Eastern hospitality.  Especially at Passover, the locals knew that they needed to lend what they could to their visiting countrymen.  So, the loaning of the donkey may have been a common courtesy.

     The second thing to keep in mind is that in that time period, it was an honor to have a rabbi ride on a donkey you owned.  In other words, they allowed the disciples of Jesus to take the donkey as a matter of pride.

    It’s also true that Jesus had arranged for the use of the donkey much earlier, and he set up the password of the phrase, "the master needs him.”  In other words they gave him the donkey as part of a business deal.

     Now these are all valid explanations about Jesus borrowing the donkey, but I’d like to suggest another possibility.  I think this man was willing to loan his donkey to Jesus because the disciples had referred to Jesus as their master. Once it was stated that "The Master needs it", the discussion was over.

     I think if he gave the donkey to the disciples for one of the other reasons alone, there would have been a more in depth conversation. The owner would have had the disciples sign some kind of rental agreement. He would have asked for their driver’s license and proof of insurance. Just kidding, but you know what I mean. There was none of that. When the owner heard that their Master was in need of the donkey, that was all he needed to hear.

     I think the owner of the donkey had faith.  I also think he had come to three conclusions that apply to how God reacts to those who seek to follow after Jesus.

     First, the true follower is willing to give what He has to the Lord.  I don’t know how many donkeys this man had. Whether he had one or a hundred it doesn’t really matter. Donkeys were valuable.

     They were a burden-bearing animal, which meant they could transport things.  They were doing what trucks do today.  They were able to help care for the land. They were doing what tractors do today. They were a means of transportation. They filled the need that cars fill today.

     This matters because I want you to see that this is no small gift and this is what the Master needed, so this is what the Master was given. God doesn’t ask us to give what we don’t have. God invites us to give what we do have. We may not feel we have anything significant to give, but God sometimes takes what we already have and uses them in great ways.

    Moses was asked to give his walking stick. Rahab gave a corner of her roof to hide the spies. David gave his sling shot. The widow at Zarephath gave the last of her oil and flour to make a meal for Elijah.  

     The Shummanite woman gave a room of her home to Elisha.  The widow that Jesus praised gave her only two coins. The young boy gave his five loaves and two fish. The early church shared their possessions with those who had a need. The Bible is full of people who gave what they had, to be used by the Lord.

     Following in the donkey owner’s example, the one who seeks to be a follower of Jesus knows that everything we have belongs to the Lord. Everything we have has been given to us as a gift from God. Everything: our time, our talents, our resources, they have been entrusted to us so that we might use them for God. Stewardship is not just about giving money; it is about managing what God has given us well.

     I wonder what God thinks when we waste the gifts that have been given to us. Listen to these words from Christian author, Max Lucado:

     He writes, “Sometimes I get the impression that God wants me to give him something and sometimes I don’t give it because I don’t know for sure, and then I feel bad because I’ve missed my chance.  

     Other times I know he wants something but I don’t give it because I’m too selfish.  And other times, too few times, I hear him and I obey him and feel honored that a gift of mine would be used to carry Jesus to another place.  And still other times I wonder if my little deeds today will make a difference in the long haul.”

     Maybe you have those questions, too.  Each of us has a donkey. You and I each have something in our lives, which, if given back to God, could, like the donkey, move Jesus and his story farther down the road.  Maybe you can greet or hug or set-up a computer or serve a meal or write a check. Whatever you have, that’s your donkey. And whatever it is, your donkey belongs to the master.

     Sometimes I feel like my gifts are too small to really matter much to the Lord.  Then, I get a word from someone that reminds me that no gift when offered in sincerity to God is ever too small in God’s hands. 

     A friend of mine shared with me that a woman from one of his former churches sent him birthday wishes through Facebook and she said, “WE MISS YOU SO MUCH, YOU WILL ALWAYS BE A VERY SPECIAL PERSON TO FRED AND I.  YOU GUIDED US AS WE BEGAN OUR JOURNEY TO FAITH AND WE WILL ALWAYS APPRECIATE THAT SO MUCH. WE LOVE YOU. HAVE A WONDERFUL DAY!!!

     The message was in all capital letters to emphasize how much she appreciated my friend’s pastoral ministry along their faith journey. In such a simple way, she offered her gift of encouragement as a way to bless my friend.

     No gift is too small or insignificant when offered sincerely to God and for God’s purposes. And all our gifts really do belong to God. We are invited to offer our gifts to the Master.

     The original wording of the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples really emphasizes this truth: Jesus told them, "If anyone asks you why you are taking the donkeys, you are to say, ’Its Lord is in need.’" You see?  It’s not about donkeys; it’s about our attitude.

     The robes that the crowds of people laid on the path in front of Jesus may not have been significant in many people’s eyes.  They probably didn’t seem very significant in the eyes of the Roman officer watching the procession. 

     Remember, he has seen similar processions in Rome.  But the victor rides in a golden chariot, pulled by a stallion, not on a donkey. And there are banners waving, not palm branches. 

     But Jesus’ followers offered what they had. They took off their outer garments, and laid them at Jesus’ feet.

     God has given us many things: our talents, our resources, our time, our children, our jobs, our interests.  They belong to God. God has given them to us as a gift. They are ours to use, but God can ask for them back at any time.  At any time God can request that what He has given be returned in some fashion. He can do this because He is the true owner; and we are the stewards.

     And finally, a follower of Jesus knows that the value of what we have will be multiplied when it is placed in the Lord’s hands. The man gave his donkey, even though it was valuable to him. But look at how much more valuable it became when placed in the hands of Jesus.  

     His donkey had a part in fulfilling a prophecy. His donkey transported the Lord of all creation. His donkey and the owner, have been remembered for two thousand years because of the owner’s simple act of generosity.  

     None of this would have been possible if the man had refused to give what He had. If we talked to the man, he might very well have downplayed his kind gesture, but what this man did will not be forgotten. What we place in the Lord’s hands will be used in  remarkable ways.

     The person who gives their time to read to or visit with people in a nursing home may feel like they are doing little, but it certainly means a lot to them. The Sunday School teacher who prepares a bible lesson is helping people to grow deeper in their faith.

     The person who gets alone with God and fervently prays for the needs of our church, our community, and our world, may feel like their prayers are going unheeded, but they may not see how God is changing hearts and circumstances in response to those prayers. The person who faithfully puts their check in the offering plate week after week may feel that their contribution is insignificant but they don’t see that God is using their faithfulness to make it possible for the ministries of the church to flourish.

    The person who takes the time to jot a note, to make a call, to stop by and visit may feel that they don’t have much to offer, but by giving what they have, God is using their efforts to encourage someone who is weary, to comfort someone who thought they were alone, or to reach someone who was drifting away.

     What we have is never more valuable than when we place them in the capable and loving hands of Jesus.  So, here’s the question?  What is God asking of you?  How can you "invest" what God has given you?  What does God want you to give?  A talent, some time, some money, a willingness to obey? It may be simple, it may be great . . . but what we do know is that followers of Jesus offer what they have in love.

     Ron Dillon, who sings in our choir sent me a news story that aired on the CBS evening news this past year. It’s about a little boy in Toledo, Ohio who gave what he had. It wasn’t a donkey for Jesus to ride and it wasn’t a robe to spread on the road. But it was a gift that one man will never ever forget. Let’s watch.

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