Sermon for Pentecost 2A July 3, 2011 Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Several years ago I assisted with a large scale church production which could have rivaled that of Hollywood but was modestly called Vacation Bible School. In this VBS, it was my job to help portray several bible stories with little skits and dramas. Each evening kids would come through and our little troupe of extremely amateur actors with few props and lots of imagination would bring to life stories like Rahab helping the Israelites cross the Jordan River, the fall of the walls of Jericho, Jesus healing of a leper and even the morning of Jesus’ resurrection.
Some of the children who came to this VBS were fascinated by the feel of the mist from the Jordan River, by pretending to be the walls of Jericho that fell to the ground and pretending to be victims of leprosy; infected by an icky smell that was actually onions which we rubbed on the backs of their hands.
However, there were a few kids who were, well, unconvinced by our performances. “There’s someone behind that curtain with spray bottles!” “You’re not a REAL sergeant in the Israelite army!” “You didn’t really give us leprosy—it’s just onions!” There was one child; he was about 7 or 8 years old, who, each night, declared his disbelief in our makeshift dramatizations. One night he declared, “this isn’t real! I’m not playing!” He folded his arms and walked to the side. We were not going to make a sucker out of him!
During one of the group discussion periods, I went over and sat on the floor beside him. “You know,” I said, “you’re right, we are pretending. I’m not really a bible times person.” He looked at me and rolled his eyes as if to say “Duh!” “But,” I said, “the stories are not pretend. They are true.” He looked at me for the first time without that you’re-some-lame-adult expression and said, “Really?” “Yup, all these stories are in the bible and they tell us about our God. Our God who is real. Jesus who was and IS real.” He frowned, looking puzzled, and then said, “Really?” “Really really.” I said.
It is sometimes difficult for all of us, not just children, to believe something is actually real, particularly when it isn’t in the packaging we expect or when it seems unlikely. We don’t want to have the wool pulled over our eyes. We don’t want to have someone say to us, “Well, why did you believe THAT?”
Our first reading today is from the prophet Zechariah and it’s pretty funny if you really think about it. I doubt, however, that it was meant to be funny. I wonder if the people who heard the prophet also wanted to fold their arms, stalk off and say, “This isn’t real! I’m not playing!”
So here we are with Zechariah the prophet. He is calling out to the people of Israel to Rejoice! Celebrate! Shout for Joy! The King is a coming! Not just any king, mind you, not just a king but The King! THE KING! Their King that they have been waiting for is coming.
Here he comes! Zechariah shouts. Coming around the bend! I see him there! There! Here he is! And he’s …..
He’s…..riding a donkey.
I can imagine all the people there saying: A What? He’s riding a what?
Yes yes! A Donkey! Zechariah says.
No wait! It’s …. It’s … a colt. That’s what it is. The king is riding a colt.
A colt? The king is on a colt?
Um actually, it’s the foal of a donkey.
Don’t know about you, but I’m not likely to envision a great king, much less the leader I’ve been waiting for to come and save me, my family and everyone I love, to be riding on the back of such an un-regal thing as a young donkey. Come on! Who is going to believe in a king like that? Who is going to fear a king like that? What enemy is going to cower before a king on a donkey? A little foal of a donkey at that!
This isn’t real! I’m not playing!
Well, regardless of the means, the King is coming and Zechariah says that the man on this donkey/ colt/ foal whatever, is mighty enough to route war chariots and more than enough to defeat powerful war horses. The prisoners may have hope for they shall be restored by the Messiah!
Of course, in a manner of speaking, that is pretty impressive when you think about it. He’s the Messiah, the great and Mighty King, whom God has promised will come to save them, to set them free and end oppression and war and he will do all of this without grand chariots and intimidating war horses, without grandeur, bravado and pomp but with humility and shalom.
Yes, that’s right. Humility and peace. The Israelites’ greatest kings were people like David: a mighty and passionate warrior. Faithful? Yes. Humble and bringing peace, or as the text says, commanding peace to the nations? No. There was also Solomon: wise and wealthy. Riding on a humble foal of a donkey? No way! This king, this messiah sent by God to save them, was unlike any other king they had ever seen.
If there’s something that sounds familiar about this, you’re right! We celebrate Jesus riding the foal of a donkey every year on Palm Sunday. The writer of Matthew quotes this very prophecy from Zechariah as Jesus, the king and Messiah, rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s foal to save the people of God. To save us. With humility and shalom.
Today’s gospel text, from an earlier place in Matthew, gives us something else that could motivate folded arms and disbelief. Jesus tells his disciples, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Now, a yoke is the thing that goes around the neck and shoulders of working animals when they pull carts or plows or other burdens. It’s usually metal, wood, rope or a combination of these things. Visualize oxen pulling a cart loaded down with items and people, or a huge plow, digging into the hard earth. That doesn’t sound so easy. ‘Yoke’ was also a symbolic word that Rabbis like Jesus used to talk about their teachings. The interpretation of the Law and the specific teaching about God that they gave was their ‘yoke’ and their students, or disciples, took this symbolic ‘yoke’ upon themselves when they were following them. When pastors are ordained, we receive a physical reminder of this ‘yoke’ in our stole. It’s the sign of the office of the pastor, so when you see the stole or ‘yoke’ of Jesus around the neck of the pastor, you know that we all bear this when we follow Jesus.
When Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he’s making a comparison between what he teaches about the Law and what the Pharisees teach. The Pharisees worry about how many steps it is lawful to take on the Sabbath. They accuse Jesus of breaking the Law when he heals someone or when he allows his hungry disciples to pick grain, both on the Sabbath. But Jesus is more concerned with the suffering person and their healing. The yokes of the Pharisees are heavy and burdensome because they are full of every detail of the Law, every minute jot and tittle of to-the-letter obedience but does not have mercy. Jesus’ yoke has the Law of God, too, but it is easy and light because it has mercy—God’s grace. Like the psalmist says: God is merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love.
Jesus’ yoke has something else as well that the Pharisees’ don’t. It has Jesus himself. When animals are in their yokes and pulling their carts or plows, they are not in their by themselves. They are in their yoke with another animal. A partner. Jesus’ yoke is also easy and light because it is He—the Messiah, the Son of God—who is in the yoke beside us. What we cannot do….what we are incapable of fulfilling in the Law…Jesus is. Whatever burden we pull in life, Jesus is beside us bearing the lion’s share of the burden. And, even more than this, all that needs to be done for the salvation of our very souls is done by him as well.
What kind of King comes in humility, riding on a donkey’s foal? What kind of teacher of the Law actually wants to seem ‘easy’ and as one who gives only a light burden? What kind of Messiah, Savior and defeater of evil and death itself, could be gentle and humble, willing to plod beside us, in the same yoke with us, pulling the burdens of our life?
Rejoice and shout for joy for Jesus is that King, that Teacher, that Messiah, that Savior!