My dearest Rachel:
The sun is setting and I'm seated on a rock outcrop overlooking the city of Jerusalem. This week has been so exhausting. The excitement is now over. What I have to share with you is so sad, so strange, so perplexing. I'm still trying to make sense of it all. Just a few days ago, I was happier than I have ever been, but now I am shaken and numb.
I know that you never understood why I was so fascinated with Jesus, and why James and I left our father Zebedee's boat and our family's fishing business and you and the children to follow this itinerant rabbi through the hillsides of Galilee and most recently to Jerusalem. We had a good life - a boat, two fine young sons, and a family business. We paid our taxes, worked hard and had time to see friends and visit the marketplace or to take a walk on the sabbath.
But something was missing. I felt incomplete. I sensed that there was more to life, and when Jesus came through our village preaching, his words struck me. He told strange stories and shared a message that I felt like I had been waiting to hear all my whole life. He taught me things that I wanted to put into action. So, James and I decided that we had to follow him.
I know that Sarah and you felt a lot of resentment when we left our father and our fishing nets to follow Jesus. His message was so radical, and I know that you didn't understand what we saw in his completely different outlook on life. But he was more than magnetic and charismatic. When we were with him, we felt like we could hear God speak and see the world as God sees it, a world marked by love, touched by acts of mercy and filled with abundance.
Wherever he went and whatever he did, crowds always gathered. They had never heard a man speak or act like this, nor had we. There were qualities about him that are difficult to convey - his honesty, love, kindness, patience, and generosity. This young rabbi spoke with an unheard of authority, and I saw him perform miracles with my own eyes.
Over time, he entrusted us with all sorts of responsibility. He sent us out in pairs to share his message, casting out demons, and healing those who were sick or troubled. We felt like we were doing something truly vital. After returning, each of us told the others what had taken place, and together, we thought we could conquer the world with Jesus leading us.
Last week, as we traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem and approached a village near the Mount of Olives, Jesus asked James and me to find an unbroken donkey - one that no one had ever ridden. He told James and me that when a king prepares for war, he rides upon a warhorse, but when a king comes in peace, he always rides a donkey.
After our experience of preaching, healing and casting out demons, when he sent us out in pairs, we had far greater plans in mind for how we could change the world and certainly not on some silly donkey detail. Just hours before, James and I had demanded that we get to sit at his right and left hand when Jesus established his kingdom. Looking back on it, I'm ashamed for seeking power, but all of the disciples were angling for access to Jesus and arguing about who was the greatest. None of us realized that he would soon die, but he knew. I realize that now.
Perhaps our seeking our own glory is why Jesus assigned us this task of mucking about a stable, looking suspiciously like horse thieves trying to find an unbroken donkey. We finally dragged that stubborn beast through the olive groves to Jesus. While James and the other disciples and I dreamed of doing great things to help this rabbi, most of the time we were asked to do humble tasks, like fetching donkeys, preparing the boat for him to travel in, providing food for the crowds who came to hear him preach, or securing a room for him to host a Last Supper. Looking back, these little things seem much more important than we realized at first.
Had it not been for James and me on the donkey detail, Jesus could not have ridden into Jerusalem on the backside of a colt. Whatever great tasks that we had imagined for ourselves when Jesus said, "Follow me," he made us focus on the details of everyday life, like selecting a donkey that signaled humility, and allowing everyone to know that he came in peace.
His entrance to Jerusalem was spectacular. It was the biggest parade that I have ever seen. Crowds poured out to greet us. Before we knew it, people were lining the road. Thousands were cheering. Folks scattered palms beneath Jesus' feet and shouted, "Hosanna!" They lined the road to Jerusalem, sometimes four or five persons deep. We were beside ourselves.
But little did we know that he was a marked man. Even as we walked beside Jesus and the crowds embraced him, people with hatred plotted to arrest and destroy him. Had Jesus been prudent, he would have entered the city secretly at night. But he entered in broad daylight defying all of the authorities. Someone said that he was fulfilling Zechariah's prophecy:
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)
There he was, just as the prophet said, riding the donkey that James and I found. The crowd was convinced that this rabbi from Galilee was the long-awaited Messiah. They said that this king would gather up an army, vanquish the Roman soldiers, and restore David's kingdom. There was so much tension and excitement in the air. We were shouting, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!" I cried out until my voice gave out.
To the sophisticated citizens of Jerusalem, we Galileans from the northern country must have looked like hillbillies or country bumpkins. Some of us were fishermen. At least one belonged to a revolutionary group called the Zealots, who were dedicated to the violent overthrow of Roman rule. Another named Matthew was a tax collector who collaborated with the Romans. How could any leader unite such diverse group of people? But Jesus managed to do it.
He had healed countless folks, gathered the lost, and cared for the broken. He spoke about a kingdom of love where everyone was invited and no one was turned away. And for a moment, we began to glimpse what that kingdom of love, peace, and justice looked like. People in the crowd were searching for meaning, security, peace, and joy, and Jesus seemed so responsive and ready to meet their needs.
As we descended from the Mount of Olives into the Kidron Valley and made our way up to the capital, we must have looked like a star-crazed mob, but we came in peace. None of us carried weapons. As he rode upon the donkey that we found, Jesus reminded everyone that he came in peace for peace. But little did we know that this parade was actually a funeral procession in disguise. We should have known, because on three occasions, Jesus had told us that he would die in Jerusalem. He knew what he was facing, and he chose to die.
It seems the crowds wanted a king on their terms - a king who would run the Romans out, kill their enemies and place them in power like a real Messiah was supposed to do. But Jesus was not that kind of king. He said something about giving his life as a ransom for our sins. It was so confusing, and I'm still trying to understand it all.
When we finally entered the city, he went to the temple, and we followed him. Jesus looked around and then left. That was it. But I'm told that his enemies hatched a plot to do away with him as soon as the parade had ended. Four days later, he was betrayed and arrested as a rebel. The next day, they tried and convicted and executed him by crucifixion. It was awful. Some, who had shouted "Hosanna" on Sunday were in the crowd on Friday screaming, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" They turned on the best man who ever lived, and I regret to say that James and I and his closest followers deserted him as well.
I don't think that this story is over yet. A life as powerful and as true as the one that I have witnessed cannot be stopped by crucifixion. There's more to come. But for now, I'm coming home. Except, I'm a changed man. This experience of being with Jesus has changed me in ways that I cannot express.
There are a lot of people in our village that I need to take care of. Your mother is getting older, as is my father. They need us. Our marriage needs more time. I've been so focused on my work and you have been so dedicated to our children. But watching a king die has changed me. I have learned that God assigns us little tasks in life that make a crucial difference, like fetching donkeys. We are all bit players in God's big parade of redemptive work as we help to deliver mercy, grace, and truth. In God's economy, there's no role too small to play. Trust me as someone who was assigned to the donkey detail.
Rachel, I'm coming home… a changed man.
Let us pray.
O gracious God, we thank you for reminding us that there is no task too small, no chore too little for us to assist with when it comes to assisting the great arc of your redemptive work. Thank you granting each one of us a place in the parade of justice, healing, and mercy. Amen.