Lent: The Grand Entry

Lent: The Grand Entry
A Message on Matthew 21:1-11
For Jacksonville First United Methodist Church
April 5, 2020
By Doug Wintermute

Matthew 21:1-11 (NRSV)

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3 If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” 4 This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

5 “Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7 they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” 11 The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

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How many of you have been to a small-town rodeo? Raise your hand.

I have, and I sure am glad.

Now you’ll know if you’ve been to a small town rodeo that one of the first things that happens is an event called the “Grand Entry.” And if you haven’t been to a small town rodeo and seen a Grand Entry, you are missing out.

Back when I was growing up in Cooper and Delta County we had great rodeos that I was blessed to attend. The Grand Entries were really grand at those rodeos. Usually the Delta Roping club members would ride into the arena on their horses and space out evenly to serve as “posts” for the Grand Entry. The American and Texas flags were the first to enter, on horseback, of course, and they would go to the center of the arena where they would post up.

Then a long line of competitors and just local folks would ride in on their horses, making a serpentine pattern through the arena, before riding out. I liked this part the best because I could see my friends and schoolmates riding their horses, along with other people in the community that I knew.

Most people would get all dressed up in western gear and their horses would be nice and clean, and some would even braid their horses’ manes (the long hair on the top of the horses neck). It was quite the spectacle, and we even rode our horses in it a time or two. Many of them had great, majestic horses that were so beautiful. And a few of them had taught them special canters and it was very impressive to watch.

I remember one time when I was about 10 or 11 years old my dad got the idea for us to go to the rodeo in Ladonia, Texas and take our horses and ride in the Grand Entry. If you don’t know where Ladonia is it is a bustling metropolis over in Fannin County northwest of Cooper. (It’s actually a very small town. I think the population is around 600 people now.) My dad was a country doctor and he had an office in Ladonia and so we knew folks there, so we loaded up the horses and went.

My horse was a Shetland pony named Dixie. I don’t remember who dad bought her from, but when we got her she came with the name. And it wasn’t long before I realized they had misnamed that horse. Her name should have been Jezebel. Even though she was small, she was mean. I’m talking extremely mean.

I would ride her when we were working cattle and she had the innate ability to know where the closest locust tree was. (Locust trees, for those who may not know, have long, sharp thorns on them.) She would head to that tree, in spite of me turning her head sideways with the reins, and try to rub by the tree and scrape me off of her. That’s just how mean she was.

Well we loaded up Dixie along with my dad’s horse, Daisy, which was a full grown quarterhorse who wasn’t mean but she was crazy (we never had any “normal” horses), and we went to Ladonia. We joined the line of horses outside the arena getting ready for the Grand Entry and then rode our horses into the arena. Now my dad’s horse always liked to gallop, to run. Always. And my mean ol’ Shetland pony was just the opposite. She liked to walk real slow and hated to gallop.

As we entered the arena and the pace picked up I couldn’t get Dixie to speed up for anything. I didn’t have spurs but I was using the heels of my boots to spur her to try to get her to speed up. Nothing doing. I took the ends of the reins and whipped her on her flanks, still nothing. My dad and his horse were long gone, and the horses behind us just started going around me and my lazy, slow, Jezebel Shetland pony.

Eventually the entire line of riders passed me and exited the arena. It was just me and my stubborn pony left in the arena with me trying to get it to hurry up and get out of there.

The rodeo announcer, of course, who are true artists in their own right, started talking about me and my horse over the PA system. He was goodheartedly making fun of me and my horse, and I turned even a darker shade of red as I tried my hardest to get that horse to speed up and heard the laughter from the audience.

I finally made it out to thunderous applause, with me looking for a rock to hide under. My dad laughed and said not to worry about it, that it had been very entertaining to the crowd.

Grand Entries are great, aren’t they, even when it may be something other than a rodeo. Back when we had circuses there were grand entries with the performers and animals parading in front of everybody.

Even musicians have grand entrances. In my opinion the musician that had the best grand entrance was Elvis. His band and orchestra would start playing the theme from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with the brass playing the magical 1-3-5 triad, “Dah, dah, dah! Da Dahhh!” and then the tympani going “bom bom bom bom, bom bom bom bom.” And then they would open the curtain and Elvis in his glittery white jumpsuit would come out and the band would go straight into “CC Rider.” If you young folks haven’t seen that you need to go to YouTube and see it. It’s awesome. (“Thank ya. Thank ya vury much.”)

There was also a grand entry several thousands of years ago. We read about it today in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem.

Now this is an important part of the Holy Week narrative. Jesus and the disciples are travelling to Jerusalem and when they get to Bethphage Jesus stops. They were just traveling right along, and then at Bethphage, which is about two miles from Jerusalem, Jesus says, “Whoa!” and they stop.

He tells two of the disciples (it doesn’t mention who they were) to go into the village ahead of them (the name of the village isn’t mentioned but we know it wasn’t Jerusalem, because that was a big city) and that they will find a female donkey and her colt. He instructs them to untie the donkey and bring them both to him.

Now a lot has been made about the fact that it is a donkey and a colt that they bring to Jesus. One professor at Perkins School of Theology became famous for demonstrating how Jesus could ride both a donkey and a colt at the same time. He jumped up on top of two desks, with a foot on each one, yelling something like, “This is how!”

Uh, no. Being a farm boy I don’t believe that. While there are trick riders who can do that with two horses, those horses are the same size. A colt would be much smaller than its mother, and their backs are much smaller. Now Jesus, being the miracle worker, could have performed a miracle, but I don’t think so.

Here’s what I think. For the Jewish people of the time there was great theological meaning in beasts of burden that had not been worked, that had never had a yoke on them. We find it in Numbers 19 which states that in order to make the water of purification a red heifer who has never been yoked is to be sacrificed and burned and the ashes used to make the water of purification.

We find it in Deuteronomy 21 which gives instructions for what to do if a dead body is found between towns. (They are to measure which town it is closest to, by the way, and those people will be responsible for performing the rites.)

But I also think the colt serves as symbolism for a new beginning. We don’t know how young the colt is, but the colt represents a new generation, a new birth, and may reference the being “born again” that Jesus tells Nicodemus about. Plus being a colt it had never been ridden or carried a load so there is purity implied as well.

There is great symbolism in the fact that it is a donkey that Jesus asks for. Now first let’s get our equine terms correct. A donkey is also known as a burro. They are small members of the equine family that are used primarily as beasts of burden, for carrying things.

Now donkeys aren’t to be confused with mules. A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse. They are larger than donkeys but have longer ears than a horse. If you remember the character Festus from the TV show Gunsmoke, he rode a mule. Here’s a trivia question for you: What was Festus’ mule’s name? It was Ruth, and ironically it was a male mule. Go figure.

Now while attending rodeos I have seen mules ridden in the Grand Entry, but not donkeys. And yet for his Grand Entry Jesus chooses to ride a donkey. Why?

I mean wouldn’t it have made more sense to ride in on a horse, a huge white stallion war horse, displaying the power and might of God?

I think that was what most of the people at the time thought the messiah would ride. The Jewish people at the time were living under the authoritarian rule of the Roman government, who had seized control of the area through its military might. Surely the messiah would overthrow the Romans, right, and the only way to do that was with a larger military might. So the messiah riding around on a massive, muscled up horse made sense, right?

And yet Jesus chooses the humble donkey, a small beast that lived its life serving others. Not a war horse, but a work donkey.

There is a breed of donkeys that are called Jerusalem donkeys, and the reason they are called that is that is because on their backs their fur is colored in the shape of a cross. Here, I’ll show you one. The legend has it that after they carried Jesus in the Jerusalem, where he would go to the cross, the donkeys had crosses on their backs in remembrance of Palm Sunday.

But Jesus didn’t choose a donkey just for symbolism reasons. He also did it to fulfill Old Testament prophecies.

In Zechariah 9:9 we read,

“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.” — Zechariah 9:9

So Jesus rode a donkey in the Grand Entry to Jerusalem, not a powerful war horse.

One thing we find out from Matthew’s gospel about Jesus’ Grand Entry into Jerusalem is that people started laying things in the road in Jesus’ path, including their cloaks and tree branches.

These things were a sign of royalty and prestige, kind of like a red carpet is for us today.

But this was also from the Old Testament. In the ninth chapter of 2 Kings we find the prophet Elisha (not to be confused with Elijah) sending a group of prophets to Ramoth-gilead with a flask of oil to anoint Jehu as king. After they do so, they leave, and the men serving with Jehu find out what took place. Then this happens:

“Then hurriedly they all took their cloaks and spread them for him on the bare steps; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’” — 2 Kings 9:13

And we need to remember the significance of spreading cloaks in that day. One of the most important and valuable possessions people had at that time was their cloak. It provided protection from the elements and served as a blanket at night to keep people warm. It was so valuable that the scriptures tell us that if one was to hold a cloak as collateral for a loan then it was required to return the cloak before dark so as not to deprive someone of the protection of their cloak at night.

So they are taking these valuable cloaks and laying them on the road for the donkeys to walk on. This is a really big deal!

Now, about the palm branches. Although the scripture we read today doesn’t specifically say palm branches it does say tree branches. And in Jerusalem there are palm trees, so we can make that connection.

But there is also an Old Testament connection to using palm and other tree branches in celebration. In the 23rd chapter of Leviticus we find instructions for celebrating the “Festival of Booths” which recreates the living conditions of the Hebrew people in the desert after fleeing Egypt. Here’s what it says:

“On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days.” — Leviticus 23:40

So waving palm and tree branches is a way of rejoicing before the Lord, and was way before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday reminds us of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. To me there is something holy about seeing the children of this church marching into the sanctuary and up and down the isles waving palm branches and singing, “Hosanna, loud hosanna the little children sang…” And I have to admit I have the best seat in the house as I get to see a clear view of their faces as they do it.

And then, after Palm Sunday service, we always have a lunch in Waller Hall before having an Easter Egg hunt out on the lawn behind Waller Hall. It’s always such a great and joyous day.

Even though we don’t get to do any of those things now, or even connect with God and each other through the Lord’s Supper, we have to remember it’s still a great and joyous day.

While our normal Palm Sunday routines won’t happen this year because of the CoronaVirus, we can lift up our heads and still celebrate because Jesus still is Lord. Jesus rode into Jerusalem and some of the same voices that yelled “Hosanna” were just a few days later yelling “Crucify him!” The grand entry led to the cross on Calvary and a terrible and painful death.

But it is through that death and resurrection of Jesus that we are promised the grandest entry of all, the entry into heaven. There is still work for us to do here on earth, that is sure, but no matter how bad things may be, no matter how bad they may get, we are promised something much, much better is coming.

So my challenge to you this week is to celebrate Palm Sunday and Jesus entry into Jerusalem. Take some leaves from a tree, or even have your kids draw some on paper and cut them out, and put them on your front door. Show the world that as Christians we are still celebrating Palm Sunday, that we are a people of hope because we are a resurrection people.

So sing out, ““Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

And if anyone wants to sell you a Shetland pony named Dixie, I wouldn’t recommend riding her in any rodeo grand entries. Just sayin’…

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

(Photo by Lou Ann Murray)

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