Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey (Matt 21:5). A donkey—it just doesn’t seem a fitting chariot for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And not only was he sitting on a lowly beast of burden, it wasn’t even His own lowly beast of burden, but a borrowed animal. This would be sort of like the Queen pulling up to Buckingham Palace in a beater she’d borrowed from a homeless guy in the slums of London. Such a “chariot” is not fit for royalty. What sort of a King is this Jesus?
To say He’s unlike any other King this world has ever known would be a massive understatement. As He says, My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The crowds wanted a worldly Messiah, one who would show up and fix all of their worldly troubles with a wave of His hand. Do we not do the same thing? Which of us would not prefer a magic lamp with 3 wishes to Jesus?
Sure, the crowds said the right thing as Jesus rode in to Jerusalem: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! (Matthew 21:9). But in the very next verse, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” (Matt 21:10). To which the crowds responded, This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee (Matt 21:10). To call Jesus a mere prophet, and one from scummy Nazareth at that (cf. John 1:46), is a far cry from calling Him the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).
What sort of Jesus are you looking for? If He were to show up right here at Zion this morning, would we even recognize Him? And if so, would we welcome Him? Of course we’d like to think we would, but we sometimes have a hard time accepting people who are different from us, and Jesus has very little in common with us from a racial and socio-economic perspective.
Jesus was neither white nor in the same tax bracket as most of us. Contrary to what we see in most Christian art these days, Jesus was a Middle Eastern homeless man whom most people find offensive—even to this day. He didn’t hang out in the suburbs, He went into the inner city and hung out with the sort people we usually avoid.
Those who did come to Jesus didn’t usually come for the right reasons, either. They weren’t interested in the forgiveness of sins, they either wanted healing or food (cf. Matthew 4:24; John 6:26). Even when Jesus was doing things you’d think people would have appreciated, like when He cast out two violent demons in the region of the Gadarenes, did He get any thanks? The whole city came out to meet Jesus, but not to thank Him. They came out and begged Him to leave their region (Matthew 8:34).
People welcomed Jesus all right, but it wasn’t usually a warm welcome. Jesus was born to a poor young couple out of wedlock. In our culture we reward adultery, but back then, adultery was punishable by death (John 8:5). People would have called Mary all sorts of things I’m too ashamed to repeat from the pulpit on account of her apparent sexual impurity. Our Lord’s welcome into this world was anything but warm: there was no room for them at the inn, and His first crib was a feeding trough for animals (Luke 2:7).
Jesus slept in a filthy crib as a baby, and as an adult, He was homeless. Kings usually have palaces and crowns of gold, but this King had nowhere to lay His head and His crown was made out of thorns (Matthew 8:20; 27:29). Our Lord was never at home in this world. His preaching of the Gospel made people so upset they plotted to kill Him (Matthew 12:14). He rides in to the city of His execution on a borrowed animal. He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him (John 1:11).
If Jesus showed up here this morning, I wonder if we’d recognize Him. Not even Mary Magdalene recognized Him at first on Easter Sunday (John 20:15), and she knew what He looked like. What motivated you to come to church this morning? Why are you here today? Was it because you woke up with an urgent need to have your sin forgiven?
But not even our impure motives and stop Jesus from being gracious. Should you ever find yourself in distress, know that one of the greatest and most comforting gifts Jesus has given to His Church is individual confession and absolution, a gift Luther once described as “a cure without equal.” We all carry around guilt and burdens; there’s nothing like naming them and hearing from the pastor, as from God Himself, that whatever it is that has been tormenting you has been borne by Christ on the cross and that you are forgiven.
Jesus delights in forgiving sin. There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10). Repentance is what you need, and forgiveness is what Jesus offers. He says, If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me (Matthew 19:21). But what God demands, He Himself provides. Your Lord gave everything He had away, including His very life, as the payment for your sin. He donated the priceless treasure of His blood for you, the poorest of the poor, that you might live and reign with Him forever in His kingdom (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 3:21). And in the meantime, He comes to you here in the Divine Service to comfort and forgive.
Christians have historically incorporated their bodies into worship as a reminder of our Lord’s presence with us. This takes place most obviously during the Words of Institution, where the pastor genuflects, or kneels, before the body and blood of Jesus. The meaning behind this practice goes something like this: if people get down on one knee and bow before earthly royalty, how much more should we bow before the King of Kings? Such a gesture of humility and reverence is one way of confessing that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament. It’s a fitting act of adoration before He comes also to us in these humble means, even as He once came to the crowds riding on a donkey.
Another place Christians have involved their bodies in worship is during the Nicene Creed when we speak of the Incarnation, specifically, at the words and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man. Somebody once asked me, “Why do you bow to Mary when we mention her name in the creed?” It had never dawned on me before then that someone might interpret that act as being directed toward Mary. And indeed, Holy Scripture declares Mary to be blessed among women (Luke 1:42). We join together with all generations in calling her blessed (Luke 1:48) because she is the mother of God (SD VIII.24). But Mary isn’t the point here. In fact, Mary’s greatness is found in her lowliness, in her recognition that she was nothing, but Her Son was everything.
So we bow in humility at the creed’s mention of Jesus’ Incarnation, His taking on of human flesh, not in honor of Mary. Luther, in his usual colorful fashion, tells a story about this. He writes:
The following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words “And was made man” were being sung in church, he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence, but just stood there like a clod. All the others dropped to their knees when the Nicene Creed was prayed and chanted devoutly. Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said: “May hell consume you, you boorish ass! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: ‘God was made an angel,’ I would bend not only to my knees but my whole body to the ground! And you vile human creature, you stand there like a stick or a stone. You hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!”
Luther continues: Whether this story is true or not, it is nevertheless in accordance with the faith. With this instructive story the holy fathers wished to admonish the youth the revere the indescribably great miracle of the incarnation; they wanted us to open our eyes wide and ponder these words well.” (AE 22:105-106).
Now, whether you bow or make the sign of the cross or fold your hands when you pray isn’t really the point. The point is that you hear and discern the voice of your Lord in the preaching of the Gospel (Luke 10:16), that you recognize Him as He comes to you in the breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:35). Where outward acts remind you of His presence and keep you focused on Him, they please God and serve the Gospel.
Best of all, your Lord doesn’t wait for you to recognize Him to come to you. If He did, it would never happen. But He formed you with His own hands, knitting you together with great care in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). He claimed you as His own at the font. He does this both for infants who don’t understand what’s going on and for adults who think they do. He comes to you, assuring you of His never-failing love and goodness. He opens ears that are deaf and soften hearts that are hard, giving life to the dead and comfort to the weary.
Though we often act as if He’s a stranger, Jesus treats you as His dearest friend. He’s like the faithful husband in that movie “The Notebook,” who came and read to his wife in the nursing home daily despite her having Alzheimer’s and not recognizing him. Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. Nothing can separate you from His love, not even memory loss, and not even death (Romans 8:38—39).
There’s nothing more comforting than the Gospel. St. Peter describes this life as a time of exile (1 Peter 1:17). Thank God that’s all it is! Jesus knows that like Him, you are not at home in this world. He doesn’t leave you in exile forever. He has redeemed you from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for you (Galatians 3:13). The Lord is your righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6). In this Humble King put your trust; to Him alone lift up your soul. Indeed, none who wait for Him shall be put to shame (Psalm 25:1—3).
Soli Deo Gloria