Zechariah 9:9, 10 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
There’s a way to a person’s heart that Santa Claus knows about. He’s got that bright red coat to get everybody’s attention. He’s got those cheery cheeks, that graying beard, the perched glasses, and the comfortable belly that just screams, “I’m a regular joe, nice guy.” It’s this image that draws. Malls instinctively understand this. That’s why every December they haul Santa in on the weekends. They know he will draw kids and their parents in droves. It’s an incredible phenomenon if you think about it. Santa Claus oozes niceness, acceptance, and approachability. It’s his secret sauce. And it keeps kids coming back to him year after year after year.
I also have an inkling that that’s why adults keep passing him on. It’s a chance for us to imagine and even hope for a god – small g – like him. Here’s what I mean. As approachable as the man, the legend, Santa is, he wouldn’t feel as nearly as approachable if he actually checked his list twice to see who was naughty or nice. He just wouldn’t. Because no matter how nice and cheery he may look, I will know that he doesn’t feel that way about me if he skips me on Christmas Eve. It’s an incredibly important part of his draw that he never skips me. It’s what makes him an approachable figure. It’s not just his looks. It’s also how he acts toward me. He’s the quasi divine, sort of supernatural being who consistently and cheerfully says, “ho, ho, ho,” to us from his sleigh despite what he knows we’ve done this year.
He’s a bit of welcome relief from a life we sense doesn’t work that way. Relief that Zechariah’s Jewish brothers and sisters needed. They craved relief from the idolatry that plagued their inner lives. They longed to be free from the consequences of their greed and lust and injustice and hatred and - well - you get the picture. The trouble is that the relief didn’t seem to be coming. God seemed to be refusing to just, “ho, ho, ho,” his way past their sin. He had allowed the Temple to get trashed, the people to get run out of dodge, and the country to be overrun by pagans. It was discouraging in the worst sort of way for Zechariah’s first audience. They felt stuck. They were tired of being exiled away from home. And they were exhausted from their never-ending Temple building project. They were looking for their knight in shining armor to come riding in.
That’s the discouragement, which Zechariah was treating, with the perfect medicine: spiritual excitement. If you watch March Madness, it’s like watching the starting line-ups where the announcer gets everybody hyped about the game that’s about to be played. Zechariah’s building anticipation for God’s starting lineup. He says, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!” (v. 9) Can you sense his excitement? This was for him, spiritual caffeine. Or, if you want a more striking and probably better metaphor, the announcement of God’s starting line-up was the spiritual equivalent of sticking a fork into an electrical socket. That’s the kind of electricity that this starting line-up was going to give to God’s people. And he was asking – no commanding! – everybody to join him in his rejoicing and his shouting. And I’ll bet it started to work.
Until the people actually heard the prophecy. That’s when not everybody was sure this was as exciting as Zechariah was making it out to be. “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (v. 9) There was no knight – at least not the one they had dreamed up in their heads. There was no shining armor – at least not the kind they could see. They got a king, yes, and apparently one that would be righteous and having salvation, but not of the variety that they had expected. He was humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
It must’ve been all a bit tough to swallow. You can just see the heads of Zechariah’s audience spinning thinking, “Zechariah, you seem to be prophesying a king who has a massive image problem. I mean. Come on! A humble king isn’t going to inspire the way he needs to inspire. And let’s get serious here. He’s riding a donkey. That speaks all for itself.” And we can get that. Maybe here in Aiken we can especially get that. Maybe even especially during the month of March in Aiken, we can get that. Because while a donkey is a part of the equine family tree, he’s so - well - normal and utilitarian and boring.
You don’t go to the Aiken Trials and watch donkeys race. You don’t go the polo match this afternoon with your donkey in tow. And you definitely don’t show up wanting to make an impression at Steeplechase by having your trusted steed walk slowly around the obstacles while gorgeous, magnificent horses jump over them. What makes this scene even more appalling is that Zechariah’s king doesn’t even ride a stronger, older, more conditioned donkey. He rides a juvenile, unconditioned, “I-don’t-know-how-to-walk-with-someone-on-board” kind of donkey that to make matters worse was borrowed from somebody else. If you want to put this in perspective, imagine the President of the United State pulling up in a rusted out Chevy and you might begin to understand this transportation choice and what it might be communicating.
This is the king that Zechariah thinks should make us feel like we’re sticking a fork into an electrical socket. This is the king who is supposedly going to make us shout at the top of our lungs. This is the king who is allegedly going to make us ecstatic and turn our hearts to rejoicing. You know what the truth is? Nobody’s going to get excited about a king like this unless they believe they need a king like this.
That sure proved to be true in history. When this king shows up, only some of the people were excited. Some were just plain put off. Others were mad. That’s how this important event goes down in history. And this is an important event in history. Did you know that all four Gospels get this event down? All four. That is rare. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell us about how Jesus rides in on this donkey. And, yes, it was the right kind of donkey. Matthew makes sure we know that. In fact, God wants us to know so surely and so certainly that it is Jesus who fulfills this prophecy that not only does God see to the disciples bringing the colt to Jesus to ride, God also sees to the disciples bringing the colt’s mother right along with it. If that’s not screaming to the world, “This man is riding Zechariah’s foal of a donkey (There’s the colt’s mommy, right there!),” I don’t know what does. And like I said before, some people were over the moon about this. Others – suffice to say for now – weren’t.
You know what the difference was between the two groups? The two groups had different ideas about how approachable the king needed to be. The people who weren’t so excited about Jesus turned out to be were the folks who thought the king should be a whole lot less approachable. They thought, “The king should ride in on a white stallion with all his military gear to boot. He should be powerful. He should be militaristic. He should make a statement so all of the rascals around me will start behaving better.” They thought this way because, as their thinking went, the real problems are all out there. They thought that a less approachable Jesus would be a Jesus who they could still approach, but would still be intimidating and powerful enough to change the political orders, to set the world straight, to deal with unjust policies, and to enforce the rules.
There are others, however, who think the primary problem isn’t just out there. My daughter crawled onto my lap a few nights ago and asked me to read a book to her. It was entitled Learn to Share. For what it’s worth, it’s a book in one of my favorite kid’s book series, The Berenstain Bears. The book started like this, “I’m Sister Bear. I’m here to say that what I like to do is play. I run. I skip. I jump. I climb. I have myself a great old time! Who’s the one I play with best, play with better than the rest? Just turn the page and you will see my favorite playmate - little me.” That turns out to be perfectly true. A bunch of other bears show up to play Sister Bear. Sister Bear shoves one of them and all the other bears go home. Do you see who is biggest sinner in her own story? Sister Bear was. If we’re honest with ourselves (Most of the time, I’d rather not be!), I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to sin. Just me, myself, and I. Or as my mom likes to say, “Wherever I go, there I am.”
People who understand that – like Zechariah – know that the crumbling temples in our lives are landmarks to our hearts that have sometimes run from God. People who get that know that the metaphorical foreign lands in which we sometimes find ourselves are testaments to hearts that have been foreign to God. That’s explains Zechariah’s fork in a light socket reaction to a king who comes riding in on a donkey. He knows he needs a king like that. A king who is coming – humble and riding on a donkey – to deal with him and everybody else like him like this: “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” (v. 10)
Zechariah’s king isn’t a king off in his ivory tower setting perfect policy. Zechariah’s king isn’t a king sitting high on his heavenly throne handing down just judgments to people who deserve it. Zechariah’s king isn’t a militaristic hero who rides in to set the rebels straight. He’s not even a king who says, “Let’s go fight this battle together. Fall in behind me!” Zechariah’s king is a king who rides to you and for you. Zechariah’s king is a king who rides in and says, “I’ve got this. It’s your job to rejoice!” He’s a king who doesn’t hand down the judgments I deserve. He’s a king who suffers under those judgments for me. That’s why Zechariah’s king rides in on a Chevy, rust bucket level donkey. He rides in on the perfect steed for work that involves cleansing my Chevy, rust bucket level life.
That explains why Zechariah told us – no, commanded us – to rejoice greatly! It’s why he told us to shout at the top of our lungs. Because a king came who wasn’t going to deal with us and anybody else with instruments of war. Gone are the chariots from Ephraim. Bye, bye go the war-horses from Jerusalem. Broken are the battle bows. He comes as a king proclaiming peace to the nations. He doesn’t do it by riding in on a chariot setting everybody straight with his power and might. He does it by riding in on a donkey drawing the whole world to himself with his humility. He does it not from the back of a white, gleaming stallion of a warhorse, but by hanging from nails on a cross. He does it not with a battle bow at the ready, but with his body accepting all the punishment and loss for sin. That’s how he secured the peace between God and us. That’s our Jesus. That’s our king.
It strikes me today that the hosannas that those first people shouted were a bit different in emphasis than ours are today. You know hosanna actually means, “Save me, please!” It’s a desperate prayer with hints of praise for the king who could answer it. Or, perhaps, I should say the King who did answer it. Just days… just hours later. Two thousand years later, I’m still shouting hosanna, “Save me, please.” I have just as desperate a need for help. You know what the difference is though? I’ve had all four writers of the Gospels show me that the help already came. And so for me, it’s less a desperate prayer and more just pure praise for my King.
A king better than I could’ve ever imagined. As heartwarming as Santa Claus may be on Christmas and as hopeful as we may be that he will overlook anything naughty when he checks his list, we have a king who’s better. With Jesus, we don’t have to wonder if he’ll ever check his list. He did. And it didn’t make him skip you with presents. It made him give you the greatest present ever: himself. That’s what Holy Week’s about. We’re just days away from celebrating history’s most significant events. With joy that we can barely conceal, our hearts will pound, “He rides for me.” Amen.