This is the message rarely heard about Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on what has become known as Palm Sunday. It is a message that, if properly understood, liberates you and your church to effectively reach people for Jesus. If it is ignored, it cripples the mission of the Christian faith.
On Palm Sunday, millions of faithful believers will hear about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The road is lined with the growing crowds responding with hope for deliverance. Each year, it’s a big day for Christ-followers around the globe. Palm Sunday launches what has become known as Holy Week. It ends in the sacrificial death of Jesus and the triumphant resurrection we call Easter.
Embedded in this week of holiness is a profound message for every church: the undeniable benefits from the vehicles God uses to reach people, and the liabilities of those vehicles when they no longer work.
Jesus on a Donkey
Jesus could have just walked into Jerusalem. As a king—the King of the Universe—you’d think He would arrange a chariot, or at least a white stallion.
I heard the story of a young pastor preaching his first Palm Sunday sermon. The church was packed with worshippers, a crowd the size of which the preacher hadn’t seen since Christmas Eve. As he began his message, the preacher said, “Palm Sunday! Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on his ass!”
When you think about it, it wasn’t a huge blunder. I mean, Jesus was sitting on his—well, you know. Actually, Jesus was fulfilling a prophecy from Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, oh daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, daughters of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5).
Some modern translations try to clean up the language. They translate: “Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Well, the story isn’t about the animal anyway. The concept is that Jesus is triumphant, but humble. He is not your normal superstar hero. He is “just” the greatest, most important hero in eternity. He doesn’t come to politically rule. His value is so much more than that!
Yeah, you’ll likely hear all about the triumph, cheering, the palm branches, and the worship of this King of Kings. And, so you should. It’s a big part of faith: who Jesus really is, how genuine, how down to earth—and down from heaven. It’s amazing!
The ass, the donkey, the colt—whatever you call it—doesn’t get much attention in most churches. Yet, according to the prophet Zechariah and Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the donkey, or colt, or ass, is a key element not to be overlooked whenever and wherever this story is told. And, did you know that every donkey throughout history has been born with a cross on its back? Imagine that!
The Donkey is a Vehicle
It’s great that on Palm Sunday we celebrate the cheers and praises of the crowd. It’s a form of worship before most of those people had a clue of what would come by the following Friday. And, they certainly could never fathom Easter at that point.
I propose we add a day to the church calendar. We need to dedicate a celebration day for the donkey, the ass, the colt. Why? Because that animal teaches us a lesson that excels at demonstrating the Great Commission—or cripples it.
For Jesus, the donkey is a vehicle. This ass sends a message. This colt defines the effectiveness—or the demise—of the mission of every Christian, every church, every denomination, and every parachurch organization.
We all use vehicles—just like Jesus. They are the mechanisms that plant, nurture, and grow people like you and me to be movers and shakers in Jesus’ Kingdom. That animal, that vehicle, is a metaphor that moved Jesus—not just into Jerusalem, but into your neighborhood—into your world.
Vehicles matter! They are tools. They move the mission. They are not the message. They carry the message. Yet, they are not external. They are transitory. They are not the master. They are the servants. Yet, the right vehicles make or break the mission. They clarify or corrupt the message.
Vehicles change. If Jesus was entering your town today, would He ride a donkey, or come by car, or on television, or DVD, or podcast, or blog post? If Jesus came to your house “riding on an ass,” your reaction would likely be, “That’s weird.”
Your Church Has Vehicles
Look, donkeys aren’t sacred. That donkey on that first Palm Sunday wasn’t holy. The colt was a vehicle. We don’t worship donkeys. Yet, we easily slip into worshipping—or at least make important—our delivery vehicles. We perpetuate vehicles that don’t transport the Savior well. In fact, many of them roadblock Jesus’ path. Yet they feel warm and fuzzy to many believers who ride them.
Why are so many churches in North America built to look like miniature European cathedrals? It is because early Christian immigrants had a mindset: “That’s the way we always did it!” Still today these facilities send a message: “God is old, foreign, and out-of-date—and likely European.”
Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and then they shape us.” If your building is dated, it dates Jesus. The message? Irrelevant, old, and out-of-date. You might as well ride a donkey to church, wave to your astonished unbelieving neighbors, and marginalize the mission of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Why do so many churches have bell towers? Can you find bell towers in the Bible? Actually, several hundred years ago, the church was THE centerpiece of every village, town, or city in Europe. News traveled by people. It was transmitted through the local church. The townspeople were notified by the ringing of the bell: There’s news to be heard! Translate that to today, and you would build a giant smartphone. And, in this century, it would be as nonsensical as a bell tower. Vehicles change. Old vehicles send a message: “Irrelevant!”
Consider churches that have pews. When have you been in a restaurant or theater with pews? What about the words “thee” and “thou”? Is Jesus a Shakespearean actor? What about dress codes of some pastors leading worship? What about music styles? Is this stuff sacred? Does this represent Jesus as relevant to every person alive on planet Earth today?
The Medium and the Message
When Jesus rode the ass/donkey/colt into Jerusalem, what was the signal? What did it communicate? First, it was to fulfill the prophecy that faithful Jews recognized as a big deal. Secondly, it communicated humility to those in that city, at that time in history. It signaled that Jesus, true God, is also true man, real, among us, believable and touchable.
Several decades ago, Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore set out to write a book focused on the impact of good communication. They wanted to highlight the value of the medium and how it impacts the message. As the story goes, they chose the title The Medium is the Message. When the publisher sent the proofread copy to the authors to sign off, they realized that the title was accidentally changed. It read The Medium is the Massage. The authors decided to leave that as the title. Why? Because the medium massages the message. It slowly and subtly remolds the message.
This is why most Christ-followers don’t have to learn Hebrew and Greek as I did in college and seminary. Even in modern Israel or Greece, those languages have changed over the centuries. It is why the Bible, even in English, has been retranslated and updated over the centuries. The objective is not to worship old words, but to communicate God’s love in Jesus in the “heart language” of people today.
If you are married and love your spouse, try this at home when you go to bed. When the lights are out, lean over, hug your spouse, and say, “I love thee.” How does that work out for you? The medium does send a message.
One of the greatest challenges facing every Christian, every church, in every decade is to effectively reach others who desperately need the love and forgiveness of Jesus. In Jesus’ day, on the first Palm Sunday, the donkey worked. If Jesus appeared today in New York City, He would likely be in a cab or an Uber. Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” You can believe that!
However, never confuse Jesus with the vehicles that feel “warm and fuzzy” because “you’ve always done it that way.” Jesus—with all His power—will not ride well into the hearts of your kids and grandkids on a donkey. The Bible story about Palm Sunday is not wrong. The way you deliver it makes all the difference. Perpetuate past vehicles and you lose. You lose your kids, your grandkids, your town, your city, your state, your country. You will lose your church. What do you worship on Palm Sunday: Jesus who is always the same, or the vehicles that carried the Good News “back when,” but change with every generation?