As we started tonight, you helped reenact one of the biggest moments in the life of Jesus, which was when he enters Jerusalem, which was the center of his culture, the center of his religion, the center of his economy—really the center of his world—as its new King. It was like a big inaugural day parade. Now, every four years when we have our Inauguration Day parades, we like to have our president ride in a black Escalade with a flag flapping on each front corner of the hood. In Jesus’ day, before the internal combustion engine, their equivalent of the Escalade was the donkey. I had never noticed until I started studying our text, Mark 11, that the way Mark tells the story, the donkey takes up half the story. How Jesus gets the donkey is apparently very important. And the only words that we get from Jesus about this momentous moment in his life are not “How did you feel about the crowd surrounding you with praise and calling you the promised King, Messiah, and the Deliverer.” What we hear is, “Here is how you’re going to get the donkey.” So it’s a strange detail, but it’s not one we can run past.
So I want to answer two questions tonight. One is why does Jesus need this donkey, and two, why does he get it in such an unusual way. Because I think by going kind of behind the scenes for those two questions, it shows us something that we might otherwise miss about Jesus. It also challenges you and me in how we respond to Jesus.
Why does Jesus need the donkey? This day, God’s people have been praying about earnestly for almost a hundred years. They have been under the boot of Rome. They have no king because the enemy Roman army who is occupying their country will not let them have a king. So that king of Israel had too much power so the Romans abolished that position and they put in place a Roman governor. So the Jews are a puppet state, and they resent that. So they have been begging God, "God, your ancient prophet said a new king would come and free his people ." It says, for example, in Zechariah 14:4 that the deliverer would stand on the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem and that’s where he would appear from. And then it says, in Zechariah 9:9, that he would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey, “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
So when Jesus, this prophet from up north, starts this two-mile inauguration day parade down into the heart of Jerusalem, he comes riding down from where? The Mount of Olives. He comes riding on the back of a donkey, exactly the same beast that Solomon rode when Solomon became king. So nobody misses that this is the moment. Nobody is unclear about the message. Everyone knows that God has finally sent this new king, which sends people to actually take off their jackets, lay them on the road so that the hooves of the donkey carrying the new king don’t even have to touch the dirt. That’s how excited they are about it.
Well, of course, the Romans clearly get the idea that Jesus is king, and five days later they kill him and put the charge on a piece of plywood above his head that says King of the Jews. It’s an interesting moment because for most of Jesus’ life he has walked. He walks everywhere. He is much too poor to own a donkey. But for this moment, to honor the ancient prophecies, to fulfill them to the letter, to declare to the world that he really is God’s King, sent to deliver God’s people, he needs a donkey. That’s why he needs it.
Now, how does he get it? If you look at Mark 11, it says that as Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent out two of his disciples. He pulls them aside, says, “Hey, let me give you the instructions,” telling them, “Go to the village ahead of you and just as you enter it you will find a colt tied up there which no one has ever ridden.” Now, he hasn’t been to that village yet—how does he know that? Then he says to them, if that’s not strange enough, “untie it and bring it here.” Now, if I were one of those two disciples I would be like, "They are going to beat me up, or they’re going to call and get me arrested for stealing." Donkeys to people then were as valuable as cars are to us now. It’s like, "Where are you going with my car?" And never ridden means like what it would mean to use to have a brand new car. You’re like, I just got it home from the dealer; nobody is taking this car.
Verse 3: "If anyone asks you, 'Why are you doing this?’ say, 'The Lord needs it.'” That is the key that will open the lock. That is the password that slides the door open—“The Lord needs it.” Well, what Jesus has strangely told them will happen is exactly what does happen. They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied it to a doorway. As they untied it, just as you would expect, some people standing there demanded, “What are you doing there, untying that colt?” “The Lord needs it.” And the people let them go.
Now, how do you explain that what Jesus has told them will happen is exactly what happens? If you study the Bible commentaries, your liberal commentators will say he privately went ahead the week before and arranged the details. The evangelical commentators say he somehow had a divine knowledge, a supernatural knowledge, of the situation. Well, I therefore wanted to try to make up my own mind on this thing. I think both interpretations are possible, so you are welcome to the one you prefer, but I tell you why I think that it doesn’t read like Jesus went ahead a week before and got the arrangements all together. One is if the owners were expecting somebody to come and pick up the donkey, why did they demand, “What are you doing untying the donkey?” They would have been like, “Oh, you must be from Jesus, okay, yeah, alright.” And there is this sense of surprise the way the story reads. First of all, there is way more detail than you would expect about a donkey. And in Luke’s version, he even goes so far as to include the line, “So they went and found the colt just as Jesus had said.” As though they were like, "Whoa, I did not expect that. How did he know?" So I think what’s going on here is that Jesus is showing us, “I am the Lord,” as he says in verse 3, “The Lord needs it.” "I have ways of knowing things that the usual means of learning didn’t get for me. I as King and Lord have the right to commandeer property that I need."
Now, people back then were very used to commandeering. Roman troops are enemy occupying forces and just like enemy occupying forces always do, they’re in charge and they commandeer. So they might commandeer your time and your labor. They see you and they go, “Hey, I’ve got a battle pack. It’s heavy. I don’t want to carry it. It’s 75 pounds. Guess what you’re doing right now; you’re carrying that for a mile.” And you go, “Yeah, then I’ve got to walk a mile with that heavy pack and then walk a mile back.” “Yeah, I’m commandeering because I can.” Kings were used to doing that. Back in the Old Testament, there is a story of King Ahab. He sees this vineyard that he thinks is really amazing. He wants to buy the real estate; the owner won’t sell. So his wife has the owner murdered and he gets the vineyard. When you’re in power, you take what you want. But Jesus is this new kind of King. He says, “The Lord needs it and will send it back” here shortly. “I have the right to commandeer but I return.”
Now, let’s take this phrase, “The Lord needs it,” because when we hear that it should stop us because it’s what the English teachers call an oxymoron. An oxymoron is where you have two words that shouldn’t go next to each other because they contradict each other. It’s like jumbo shrimp. That’s an oxymoron. Fresh frozen, which is it—is it fresh or is it frozen? So confusing. Well, “the Lord needs it” is an oxymoron. How is it that the Lord who needs nothing needs? In Psalm 50:10 and 12, the Lord says this: “For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. … If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.” He has need of nothing. He is the Lord. And yet he needs it. He is the grand marshal of the parade and he doesn’t even own a car that they can use for him to ride in. Jesus has so humbled himself as the Lord, he so emptied himself out, that he doesn’t own the donkey he needs—he actually is in need.
So now, how does all this apply to us, friends? Imagine that we are the people who happen to own this young donkey that is brand new, we are excited about it, and it turns out that we get the request: The Lord needs it. I know how I would be if somebody said, “I saw you just brought home that car. It looks fantastic. It’s so shiny. Can I take it into Chicago? We’re only going to just go pubbing a little bit. We’ll be back around 1.” I’d be like, “No, you cannot have my car.” Right? And Jesus, who is Lord of all and ultimately in need of nothing, has so emptied himself that now he comes to us and he says, “I’m riding into Jerusalem to die for you and I need this.” What is it that Jesus Christ has been nudging you to make available to him? Is it your time? Is it your money? Maybe he has asked you for something that you think, “Well, that would involve my savings.” And he says, “The Lord needs it.” Is it something where you would use your reputation and influence for him, but it’s impossible that in so doing you would have your reputation or influence in some way dismissed by others? Is it your worship? He is saying, “Open your heart to me. The Lord needs it.” Is it your obedience?
Now, imagine what would happen if when the Lord Jesus comes to us and says, “The Lord needs it,” you and I release whatever that is to him. The good news is this: He will return it. You give him your worship and he returns it to you with joy. You give him your obedience, he returns it with righteous peace in the Holy Spirit. You give him anything, he says, “I’ll give you a hundred times as much in this life and in the life to come, eternal life.”
Karen and I got a taste of this one time. About a dozen years ago, we were in a friend’s house in their kitchen, sitting at the little Formica table at their home in West Chicago. They were sharing with us over dinner that they had this dream—they hadn’t talked to a lot of people yet about it—that they wanted to go plant a church in Minnesota. So we listened, and as we listened to them I just had this sense inside like, "This is like an opportunity to buy Coke stock really early, like these people are blue chip in the Lord." So I said, “Well, I don’t know if anybody else believes in your dream yet. I don’t know if anybody else is bankrolling it, but I want to do something.” And we didn’t have a lot of money, but I pulled out my checkbook and Karen and I wrote a check for $75, tore it out of the checkbook, and handed it to them. And they said that’s the first investment.
Well, when that church reached its 10-year anniversary, they invited us up there. So I got to preach and Karen got to do a workshop with people after the service, and when the pastor stood up to introduce us, he told the congregation something I had just about forgotten. He said, “You may not know it, but we are here because Kevin and Karen were the first people to invest in this work, and when I got that check I was so excited. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to frame this, I’m not even going to cash it.’ Then I was like, ‘No way, I’m going to photocopy it and then I’m going to cash it.’” He said, “But I still have the photocopy in a frame in my pastor’s study on the wall, because it was a tangible sign that God was on the move and was investing in this dream.” Now, after the service we stood there and person after person came up and said, “Thank you for believing in this church. Do you know this is the best church I’ve ever been in? Do you know this is the first church my husband and I have ever found where we both liked it?” Stuff like that. It just kept going: “This is the first church where I ever felt like I could use my gifts and that I mattered and I had something to contribute.” I mean, it was embarrassing. I’m like, “Guys, it was only $75.” But when you give to God, he just returns it and returns it and returns it. That’s the overflow that you give it to him when he says, “I need it” and he returns it.
I think about these people who owned that donkey. I have a feeling that after that day they said, “You see that donkey over there—I’ll never sell her. Because it was on the back of that donkey that the Messiah, the King, rode into Jerusalem, and I’m so glad that when the time came and I heard the words, ‘The Lord needs it,’ I let her go.” Is there something in your life where Jesus has been nudging you to make it available for him? Whatever it is, release it at once. Because he is the Lord, and he needs it.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,