During the first week of our series, “The Christ to Come” I spoke on why Jesus came. Namely, he came to fulfill the law. The second week, Messianic Jewish Rabbi David Levine spoke on where Jesus came from. He came from the Jewish people, in fulfillment of the prophesies for the Jewish Messiah. A promise, he was quick to remind us, for the whole world. Last week Iain spoke about who Jesus came for. We learned that Jesus came as a light for those walking in darkness. Today I would like to speak on how Jesus comes, why it is significant, and what application we can render from it for our lives.
How did Jesus Come?
One of the most important tenets of ancient Roman law was that the republic was to be protected by military coup. The way the senate protected the republic was by forbidding the military to cross the river Rubicon in force. Crossing the Rubicon on foot, by yourself, was of course entirely legal and would spark little interest. However, crossing the Rubicon with an army signaled intentions of rebellion and was of course highly illegal. In January of 49 B.C., Rome was facing a civil war between two military commanders, Pompey and Caesar. Trying to avert a civil war, the senate declared Caesar a public enemy and ordered him to lay down his command or face criminal charges. Rather than lay down his command, Caesar led his 13 legions to the Rubicon, and he and his army waited patiently on the banks. Turning to his army, Caesar spoke: “Even yet we may draw back; but once across that little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.” Seeing no opposition from his army, Caesar is said to have muttered under his breath, “alea iacta est,” or “Let the die be cast.” With these words, he crossed the Rubicon, thus signaling open war with the Roman republic.
Jerusalem had its own Rubicon, and there was a particular way to cross it. Jerusalem’s Rubicon was the Mount of Olives, and it was significant for several reasons. The first reason is that after Israel’s greatest King, King David, returned from a forced exile he returned over the Mount of Olives (2 Sam 19.20). It was a long held tradition that when Israel’s coming King, the Messiah came, he would come over the Mount of Olives. Secondly, in Ezekiel’s prophesy, he sees a vision of the Holy Spirit departing the temple because of the people’s sin (Eze 11.23). When the Spirit returns to bring God’s righteous rule to the people of Israel once more, he does so by passing over the Mount of Olives (Eze 45.1-5). So the Mount of Olives is significant in Jewish history, because it is the place by which both the Messiah and God’s Spirit will one day return to Israel. It is Jerusalem’s Rubicon. Just as crossing the Rubicon by yourself would spark little interest, so crossing the Mount of Olives on foot, by yourself would spark little interest. It is not only crossing the Mount, but how you cross the Mount that is important. Zech 9.9 reads:
Crossing the Mount on a donkey was therefore, the fulfillment of a prophesy and a signal, much like crossing the Rubicon, that something big was about to happen. In this case, it was a signal that God’s Messiah, Israel’s righteous King, was indeed returning to Jerusalem.
One of the most astounding things about the life of Jesus is his fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. For example, the Old Testament prophesies where the Messiah is to be born (Micah 5.2). The Old Testament prophesies how the Messiah will die, namely by crucifixion (Psalm 22.16) and the Old Testament even prophesies where the Messiah will be buried, that is, in a rich man’s tomb (Isa 53.9). What is important to notice about these prophesies is that they are entirely out of Jesus’ control. You cannot chose where you will be born. Nor can a condemned man choose how he will die, much less where he will be buried. But of course, God brought about these things in such a way as to show that Jesus is the Messiah.
But what of the event that we read about in the Gospel today? Rather than something that is apparently outside of the control of Jesus, the fulfillment of the prophesy above is something that Jesus decides to fulfill.
Note Jesus’ intentionality. He wakes up early and makes arrangements with a local farmer to borrow his donkey. He charts a course for himself and his disciples to cross over the Mount of Olives. He sends his disciples to go collect the donkey from the man he had prearranged to conduct this affair with. And he rides on the donkey, over the Mount of Olives, in order to intentionally and of his own volition fulfill a prophesy of the Old Testament. Jesus is crossing the Rubicon. He is announcing to the world that something significant is taking place. He is casting the die. He is doing all of this to get your attention. In fact he went to great lengths that on this day, all eyes might be on him. He arranged it! So how did Jesus come? He came in such a way that he drew attention to himself.
You and I are predisposed to dismiss anyone who so intentionally draws attention to themselves as selfish, arrogant, or self-important. And for the most part, these generalizations hold true. After all, we live in a celebrity culture, which thrives off of drawing attention to its self. We have learned by observing such people, that they rarely do this in order to advance the public good but only to line their pockets or increase their fame. However, this does not always have to be the case. Drawing attention to yourself can also be done for noble purposes. Like in the case of Henry Dunant. In 1859, a horrific battle broke out just on the edges of the northern Italian town of Solferino. By the time of the battles end, 40,000 men lay dead or dying on the battlefield with no one attending to them. Their cries for help moved Henry Dunant, who lived in Solferino, to organize the citizens to care for the wounded. In 1864, at the first “Geneva Convention”, Durant lobbied to establish what came to be known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Geneva Convention specified that the “red cross” would be worn by all it’s members as a protective emblem for medical personnel. In 1901, Dunant received the first Noble Peace Prize for his work. Now Dunant invented a sign that would get people’s attention. That sign was the red cross. On a battlefield, a man wearing the red cross could at times be the center attention, but this was done for noble purposes, that is the work of healing.
So too, Jesus draws attention to himself for noble purposes. Namely, he draws attention to himself because he carries with him the things that we need.
What is significant about the way Jesus came?
Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross, wore the cross in order to draw attention to himself. There are a few things significant about this.
- It is unlikely that a healthy soldier would have his attention rapt by a red-cross medic. It is the sick man who looks for the red-cross.
- The sick man looks for the red-cross because the red cross medic has the tools to save his life.
The full text of the prophesy quoted by Matthew goes like this:
The words that I would like to draw your attention to from this prophesy are “righteous and having salvation.” Just as the red-cross was a sign that the man wearing it was a medic with tools to restore health, so is the man who rides the donkey over the Mount of Olives a sign that the man who does so brings with him the tools of righteousness and salvation. My first application to this, is just as a healthy man is unlikely to look for the red-cross on the battlefield, so too is a man who is convinced of his own righteousness and salvation unlikely to look for the sign of the Messiah.
Charles Spurgeon tells the story of miners in the north country of England. They occasionally came across some hard rock in the mine that needed to be blasted so the mine would have to be evacuated in order to ensure the safety of the workers. But the mine was so deep, that to evacuate it would lose a whole day of work. So the miners constructed earthworks. Just little mounds of dirt that went to eye level, that they could easily climb over if needed, but protected them from the blast. These little earthworks allowed them to go about their business while the dynamite blasted away on the other side. Spurgeon says that you and I also construct little earthworks that allow us to go about our business as if Jesus never crossed the Mount of Olives. While the Gospel and the Holy Spirit blast away on one side, you and I remain unaffected on the other because we’ve built up such great defenses against the work of God in our lives. Here are a few spiritual earthworks that you and I can erect in our lives that keep us from God’s saving power:
- I’m a good person. As I said, a healthy person would not be looking for the red-cross man on the battlefield because he didn’t need to be healed. So too, a person who trusts in their own goodness is not looking for a Messiah who brings with him righteousness and salvation.
- I’m too bad of a person. A mortally wounded soldier would not even bother to look for the red-cross man. Why would the point be? So too, can people who believe their souls to be mortally wounded, avoid looking to the savior. They are too far gone for his grace. Here the words of an old African American spiritual are helpful:
There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole ;
There’s power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul.
How lost was my condition
Till Jesus made me whole!
There is but one Physician
Can cure a sin–sick soul.
How can Jesus cure the sin sick soul? Romans 5.20 reads “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Where the sickness of sin increases, the balm of Gilead, the grace of Jesus Christ, increases all the more, bringing both forgiveness (righteousness) and healing (salvation).
Finally, what is the application?
The application is a lifestyle of extravagant gratitude.
In the final verses of our reading, we see the response from the crowd.
Our mission statement, “to inspire all people, through the power of the Gospel, to become living members of the Body of Christ,” proclaims that we have confidence that there is power in the Gospel to accomplish something. We have articulated it in this way: We believe the power of the Gospel inspires people to live, grow, serve, and give. In today’s reading, we see how the Gospel inspires people to live, namely they are to live lives of extravagant gratitude towards God. What does this look like in practice?
The Maori is a tribe in New Zealand. They are renowned for the way they demonstrate extravagant gratitude in returning of thanks for a gift given. One such story stands out above all others. The story is of a woman named Heni, who was on an expedition with others into the bush in search of wild honey. While they were trekking through the bush, the party was forced to cross a river. Heni watched all her companions swim or wade the river. Since she could not swim, she attempted to wade, but the current overwhelmed her and she was carried downstream. By the time the party realized this, it was almost too late. A man named Te Apaapa leapt into the river pulling her out and was able to revive the unconscious woman. A few days after they had returned to camp, Heni and her brother gathered all of their property of value (bracelets, food, weapons, furniture, fine clothes) and presented them before Te Apaapa to thank him for rescuing her. He gallantly refused the reward. But Heni would not give up. Falling at his feet, she said “You saved me from death and you have refused to accept the gifts we offer in token of our gratitude. I have nothing else to offer you—only myself. I give myself to you now, as your slave. I am here at your feet.”
This is extravagant gratitude and the proper response to the Gospel. The laying at the feet of cloak, of branch, of everything available at the feet of Jesus while praising him and giving him thanks. There is something significant about the laying down of cloaks. Some of the cloaks that were cast down were the cloaks of doctors, some of lawyers, some of soldiers, some of farmers, some of janitors. This speaks to every area of life and every vocational calling within that life. Mother’s, how can you lay your mothering at the feet of Jesus? To be used by him as he sees fit? Father’s, how can you lay your fathering at the feet of Jesus? To be used by him as he commands? Elders, how can you lay your old age and wisdom at the feet of Jesus, to be used by him? There is no area of life that can be reserved as ungrateful when the whole of our life has been saved. It is in this offering of extravagant gratitude that we properly respond to Jesus coming with salvation and righteousness.