November 30, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When the earth was yet without form and empty of life, our Lord planned a creature that could be considered least in the kingdom of the animals. Floppy ears. Toothy grin. Loud, harsh bray. Equus africanus asinus. He’s not beautiful; he’s not majestic. He’s a donkey. The animal kingdom’s beast of burden. Horses carry kings and warriors. The donkey carries what people can’t or don’t want to carry.
On the sixth day of creation, God spoke and the earth produced a donkey. To look at him now, you might think that he was an accident of creation, God’s first attempt at a horse, perhaps. But everything in the beginning was good and very good—precisely how God intended it to be. For what reason could the Almighty have created such a goofy animal?
The donkey is not an accident of creation, but was created for a very specific purpose. Before the foundation of the world, God had foreordained that His Son would become man, and that His mount as He came into His kingdom would be a donkey. Let kings and warriors have the horses. The Son of God would ride a donkey. Genesis doesn’t say, but I’d like to think that the donkey was created last among the cattle and beasts foreshadowing its sanctified place in the history of creation.
The donkey is God’s chosen servant to come into His kingdom. Centuries before He would send His disciples to find a donkey outside of Jerusalem, the Lord prophesied through Zechariah, “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and upon a colt, the foal of a donkey’” (v 5, citing Zech 9:9). And so in the fullness of time, Jesus says to His disciples, “Go into the village before you and immediately you will find a donkey that has been tied and a colt with her. After you have untied them, lead them to Me. And if anyone says anything to you, you will say that the Lord has need of them, and he will send them immediately” (vv 2-3).
As this scene runs through our imaginations, we may try to sanctify it and whitewash it like a Renaissance painting with the donkey bowing his head in humble obedience, Jesus perched comfortably on his back, a soft glow surrounding them. Perhaps you might even place a halo above the donkey’s head to show this particular donkey’s sanctification because of his willing obedience to the Lord who created him.
But sanctification only happens like that in religious artwork. In real life it’s a little messier. Donkeys have a very peculiar termperament. The donkey is not normally depicted in sanctified and humble obedience, but usually with its master tugging at its bit, the donkey dug in and refusing to go. And the presence of Jesus doesn’t change this.
In the book of Numbers, Gentile prophet Balaam is traveling on a donkey when the Angel of the Lord appears in his path with a drawn sword in His hand, although the Angel only reveals Himself to the donkey and not to Balaam. When the donkey sees this sight, he turns off to the side, and Balaam beats him for his obstinacy. Again the scene repeats itself, this time the donkey pressing Balaam up against a wall. The third time the Angel appears to the donkey, he just lays down and refuses to go any further. After getting beat a third time, the Lord opens the mouth of the donkey to say, “Why are you beating me?”
Many interpret this Angel of the Lord to be no mere angel, but the pre-incarnate Christ Himself, at whose sight the donkey refuses to go further. Now, centuries later, the disciples bring a donkey at their Lord’s request. Imagine that donkey pulling against the bridle, resisting the disciples. Finally in the presence of Jesus the donkey tries to turn off course, perhaps sensing that this triumphal entry into His kingdom will end with the Lord being enthroned upon a cross. The evangelists don’t record it, but I am sure that our Lord spoke a Word to that donkey, just as He spoke to Balaam’s donkey, to urge it forward, to set his course, to aim him toward the cross.
This donkey is sanctified. Among all the donkeys that have ever populated the world, this donkey from outside Jerusalem is a holy donkey. But he’s not holy because of some quality he possesses. This sanctified donkey is holy not because of who he is but because of who he bears. This donkey bears a burden, but it is nothing compared to the burden borne by His rider. Christ rides into His city bearing the guilt of all mankind. The donkey must bear Jesus into the city so that Jesus can bear the sins of the world to the cross.
In the beginning God also created man with a very specific purpose—it was His will from the foundation of the world to come into the world by uniting Himself with human flesh and blood. Of all the creatures created on the sixth day, God set apart mankind for this honor. But this kindled the devil’s jealousy, who then proceeded to convince the man and his wife that it was better for them to become like God than for God to become Man. And so they sinned. And with their sin all of creation came falling down with them. The donkey became stubborn, but not nearly as stubborn as mankind.
The Psalms depict man’s sinful nature as that of an obstinate animal. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you (Ps. 32:9 ESV). The Proverbs likewise: A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools (Prov 26:3 ESV).
Yet your Lord still calls you to accompany Him into His kingdom. Like a donkey, you are a spiritually stubborn person, always turning aside from the path of righteousness that He has set before you, pushing against the walls and refusing to go no further. But your Lord makes good use of stubborn creatures. Like that donkey outside of Jerusalem, your Lord has asked for you. He knew long beforehand how you would resist Him, but He still chose you. Because He chose you, He calls you to accompany Him into His kingdom.
Yet it’s not a kingdom of glory that your Lord calls you to. The road to His kingdom is the road to the cross. And so He calls you to bear your cross along with Him, that is, to endure suffering, shame, and weakness for the duration of this journey. And so, despite His call, your donkeyish nature reasserts itself and turns away from Christ, pushes against Him, and just plain refuses to go any further on this way of the cross.
As our Lutheran Confessions put it: The old Adam, like an unruly, stubborn [donkey], is still a part of [us]. It must be forced to obey Christ. It not only requires the teaching, admonition, force, and threatening of the Law, but it also often needs the club of punishments and troubles. This goes on until the body of sin is entirely put off and a person is perfectly renewed in the resurrection. Then he will need neither the preaching of the Law nor its threats and punishments, just as he will no longer need the Gospel. These belong to this imperfect life. Just as people will see God face-to-face, so they will—through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit—do the will of God with unmingled joy, voluntarily, unconstrained, without any hindrance, and with entire purity and perfection. They will rejoice in it eternally (SD VI.24-25).
You are sanctified—made holy—not by who you are but by who you bear. When you were baptized, Christ put His name on you, and where His name is, there is He. You bear Christ, who restrains your rebellious, obstinate nature with His Law, so that He might lead you to the Gospel of the cross. He gives you a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light, because He has borne the burden for you. When you are presented before Him, He speaks a Word to you that urges you on to the goal—forgiven.
He calls you to enter with Him into His kingdom. And this means He brings you along with Him to the cross. More than just restraining your donkeyish nature, Christ leads you to the place where He will transform and renew your old nature. Daily, your old nature is put to death when you confess your sins, your rebellion. And daily He raises up a new you to march toward that day when a new body will be raised.
Behold, your King comes to you, humble and borne by a donkey. A sanctified donkey. Behold, your King comes to you, to be borne by you. A sanctified you. Your Lord and King calls you to come into His kingdom with Him, to travel to the cross, to put to death the body of sin, to be renewed daily until that day when you will be fully renewed.
Jesus Sanctifies You by His Choosing You to Accompany Him into His Kingdom
In Jesus’ name. Amen.