The Humble Conqueror Palm Sunday
Philippians 2:5-11 Matthew 21:1-11
Mike and Barbara Weber were practically newlyweds when the Nazi army overran their village. Mike was given two choices: 1. Join their army, or 2. Be killed. He joined them, and fought half-heartedly beside them until the war was over. On VE Day, Mike was far from home, and he was in territory that the Russians controlled. Everyone knew of the horrors that awaited them if they surrendered to the Russians, so Mike began a perilous journey to the closest area held by the Americans—in order to surrender to them. When he finally reached them, the Americans treated him kindly. He was given food and a place to sleep. He was so utterly exhausted that he slept like a dead man. Unbeknownst to Mike, the Allied forces had divided up the conquered territory. And as he slept, the American tanks rumbled away and the Russian tanks took their places. All his efforts to flee to the friendly enemy were in vain, and he spent the next several years in a Russian prison.
Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy is the title of the book Barbara wrote about these turbulent years and their subsequent immigration to an apple-growing community in central Washington. It’s an amazing story of faith, adventure, tribulation, and victory, a story that celebrates God’s real victory on behalf of God’s children.
For years, I have been intrigued with the title of this book—Fleeing to the Friendly Enemy—because it puts two words into a startling juxtaposition. “Enemy” and “Friendly” are not usually used in tandem—and it causes my brain to do a “double-take” to consider them together. Friendly enemy.
Well, our Scripture readings for today point us toward another similar juxtaposition—that of The Humble Conqueror. In Matthew, we see Jesus riding into Jerusalem, hailed as the Son of David—and yet fulfilling the ancient prophecy of Zecharia in which the King would come as one who was gentle, humble, riding on a donkey (instead of the typical white horse of a conqueror).
In Philippians, we see another surprise: Christ as divine and yet humble as he assumed a human life—thus becoming ONE to whom every knee should bend and every tongue confess that he, Jesus Christ, is Lord!
Let’s take a look at how this Humble Conqueror gives us life and makes a difference in the way we live our lives.
An Enacted Parable
Let me begin by talking about how Jesus was getting people to understand the Kingdom of God. We’re all familiar with the parables he told—stories that illustrated some aspect of the Kingdom. Occasionally, he enacted parables in order to illustrate physically what he was trying to get across. Much of what Jesus had to do was to clear up misconceptions the people had regarding the Messiah. The people of Israel were expecting someone who would come in, kick out the Romans, and restore Israel to the “glory days” they once enjoyed! (Jesus had to set them straight, just as he has to set me straight when I have misguided expectations of God.)
Through most of his ministry, Jesus usually kept his full identity hushed up. He knew that people were ready to act prematurely on their wrong expectations of the Messiah. The time to reveal himself had to be just right, and he needed to show everyone Who He Was in a way that would make it clear that he was fulfilling the Biblical role of Messiah. The Prophet, Zechariah, had long foretold, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
When Jesus came into Jerusalem on a donkey, he was physically illustrating that he was NOT a warrior king, ready to drive out the Romans, but the humble king predicted by Zechariah. He was not going to force anyone to do anything. He was coming as a Conqueror, yes, but one who was humble and gentle.
And the people (gathered in Jerusalem) participated in this enacted parable—welcoming him with cries of “Hosanna to the son of David!” and with clothes and palm branches strewn on his path. It’s obvious that they did not immediately understand the full message, but we know that it takes time to process, to receive God’s message. Even Jesus in his prayer begs, “Lord, let this cup pass from me.” But he forges on with, “Not my will, but THY will be done.”
Our text from Philippians tells us that Christ Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself—humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. I heard a great story about obedience. I call it “The Ant and the Contact Lens.” A group of college students were doing some rock climbing and one young woman lost a contact lens while she was ascending. She finished the climb, and the group rappelled back to the ground, and she started looking for it. She was about to give up, when she saw a flash of light that seemed to be moving. When she got closer, she saw that it was her contact being carried by an ant! The movement made it possible for her to locate it! That night, she told her father about this amazing thing, and it got her father to thinking. He drew a cartoon of an ant carrying a contact, talking to God: “God, why should I be carrying this thing? My family can’t eat it—it is of no value to us. But, since you tell me to, I will obey you and carry it.”
This illustrates the idea that God desires what is best for us, and our obedience is the way to receive God’s best. I love what James says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”
Many of you know the name of Booker T. Washington, the man tasked with developing the Tuskegee Institute. He was a man who was gifted beyond our imagination, but he was NOT puffed up with pride. He was always willing to do the hard labor required, and he instilled in the students at Tuskegee a LOVE of industry and productivity. Here’s a story about his humility:
One day, as he walked down the street, a white woman saw him and instructed him to split a pile of firewood for her. Without hesitation, he split the wood and stacked it nicely. When the woman found out that he was the President of the new Tuskegee Institute, she came to his office and apologized. He told her it was his pleasure to do it for her, and he won an ardent supporter for his school. (When she passed, her entire estate was left to Tuskegee!)
You see, in humility, you and I have a deep awareness of God’s gifts to us AND a willingness to submit those gifts to God’s purposes!
God Has A Dream for You
The good news, friends, is that God has a dream for you! No matter your gifts, no matter your limitations.
Helen Keller was both blind and deaf, but the power of language was unlocked for her by her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Helen became a woman of great faith. The Bible was a source of inspiration and instruction. One day, she questioned The Reverend Phillips Brooks:
“Why does the dear Father in heaven think it best for us to have very great sorrow sometimes?” She was not complaining, but humbly submitting to God. Helen Keller gave all of herself into God’s dream for her, and millions have been inspired to live fully because of her life!
So, how do you and I live into God’s dream for each of us? During this Covid-19 pandemic, we sense that our lives have been pinched down, limited, somehow diminished. How do we live fully? How do we discern God’s dream for us within all these limitations?
We can begin by acknowledging the Sovereignty of God—trusting that God is the Lord of the Universe, and that God is in control. Then we can trust all of our lives, our experiences, our mistakes, our gifts into God’s loving hands as we pray, “Not my will, but THY will be done.” Friends, you and I can count every difficulty as an opportunity to OBEY and to grow.
I’ll finish by taking us back to Mike Weber and how he fled to the “friendly enemy.” Friends, I believe we are being called to turn to the “humble conqueror” who entered Jerusalem on a donkey two thousand years ago. We will be wise to surrender to the One who has reconciled us to God. As Paul says in Colossians, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death in order to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation—as you continue in your faith.”
Prayer: God, we welcome your Sovereignty in our lives, and pray that every knee shall bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.