Jesus and Jerusalem

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Some friends were driving along in their car when their little boy got out of his seat belt and stood up on the back seat. They told him to sit down and put his seat belt on. No response. So they told him to sit down and put his seat belt on or else he could get hurt. No response. So they told him to sit down and put his seat belt on or else they'd drive straight home and he wouldn't be going to the party after all. Instant response: he sat down and put on his seat belt. But after a few minutes a little voice piped up from the back, "I'm still standing up inside."

How do you change a little rebel? You can change behaviour by force - for example, you simply take away the toy with which little Johnny is bashing his little sister. But how do you change the heart, the inside?

You could say that the whole Bible is the story of how God changes rebels like you and me. And ultimately, only God, through Jesus, can change our hearts so that we want to love and serve him. And this morning's Bible reading is about how he does that. To use Biblical language, it's about how the 'kingdom of God' comes into human lives. Which is an important topic for those of us who are already Christians, because if we're spiritually healthy we're all too aware that we need to change more. The question is: how? And it's an important topic if you're not yet a Christian, because you may be looking in at what being a Christian involves and thinking, "I can't do it. I couldn't change."

So how does God change rebel hearts? The answer: which this morning's Bible reading give is: through the gentleness and forgiveness of Jesus.

So let's read through Matthew 21:1-11, so we have this incident clearly in our minds:

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."

4This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:
5"Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!"

10When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?"

11The crowds
[ie the people who'd come with Jesus] answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."

Whenever you read part of the Bible story it'll only make sense if you know the story so far. And by 'story' I don't mean 'fiction'; I mean the true story of the Bible. And it begins with creation. That's 'box 1' in the picture below. The crown represents God, the circle represents the world and the stick-man represents mankind. And 'box 1' is the way things were made to be, and it's the situation the Bible calls 'the kingdom of God' - the situation where people are living willingly with God as their King. But, 'box 2' - that situation was lost when the first human beings, Adam and Eve, decided to cross God out of their thinking and run their lives without him. And that's the picture of what we're all like by nature. Then, to cut a long story very short, the rest of the Old Testament (OT) is about God's promise to step in and restore the kingdom of God, that is, to rescue us back from 'box 2' to 'box 1'. And the OT promised he'd do that by sending into the world a person called the 'Christ', which you could paraphrase as 'God's deputy King.' And I've represented that promise by the arrow in the picture. That's the story so far in the whole Bible. Here's the picture:

The kingdom of God… Created… Lost… Promised

But then, what's the story so far in Matthew's Gospel? Very simply, this: Jesus has stepped into human history; he's claimed that he is the Christ; and he says he's come to restore the kingdom of God by dying on a cross:

17Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 18"We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death 19and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" (Matthew 20.17-19)

So we come to Matthew 21.1: 'As they approached Jerusalem …' Jesus is on his last trip to Jerusalem and he's going there to die. Verse 1: 'They approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives.' At that point you've only got a mile or so to go to Jerusalem. Jesus could easily have walked the rest of the way, having done the 15 miles from Jericho. But he doesn't. At this point, Jesus very deliberately 'stage-manages' his entry into Jerusalem to say something very powerful about who he is and why he's come. So,

First, WHAT DOES JESUS SAY ABOUT HIMSELF IN THIS INCIDENT?

The way you make an entrance says a lot about you. I was at a wedding yesterday. And a woman in an eye-catching white dress turned up in a Rolls Royce and processed in to the strains of 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba'. And we all know what she was saying about herself. She was saying, 'I am the bride and I've come to get married.'

So what was Jesus saying about himself in the way he made his entrance to Jerusalem? Verse 1:

1As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away." (vv1-3)

Now skip to v6:

6The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Hosanna in the highest!"

10When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?" (vv6-10)

Ie, the people of Jerusalem don't have a clue who Jesus is.

11The crowds [ie, the people who'd come with Jesus] answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee."

Ie, they think he's just another prophet, so they don't have a clue who Jesus really is, either. No-one at this point has a clue. No-one at the time of this incident really understood what Jesus was saying about himself.

You see, when a woman in a white dress rocks up in a Rolls Royce outside a church, we know what she's saying. We can 'crack the code', if you like. But only after Jesus' death and resurrection did Matthew (and the others) 'crack the code' of this incident and realise what Jesus was saying. And he 'cracks it' for us in verse 4:

4This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:

5"Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.'"
(vv4-5)

Just look back to the picture above. The story of the OT is of the kingdom of God - created, lost and then promised by the prophets. And Matthew is quoting one of the prophets here - Zechariah - because he's realised that this was the prophecy Jesus was deliberately fulfilling that day. Here is what Zechariah said, some 550 years before Jesus:

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9.9-10)

It's a prophecy about the coming of the Christ. And like a game of football, it's a prophecy of two halves. The first half is a picture of a King coming in gentleness, to make peace:

9 Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
(Zechariah 9.9)

In Bible times, if you were a king and you were coming to make war (eg, against subjects who were rebelling against you), then you came in a chariot or on a war horse - the equivalent, in those days, of a tank. But if you didn't want to use force, if you wanted to make peace, then you came on a donkey - the equivalent of an open-top Landrover. That's the first half of the picture.

But the second half is a picture of a King coming in force to overthrow the opposition:

10 I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the war-horses from Jerusalem,
and the battle bow will be broken.
He will proclaim peace to the nations.
His rule will extend from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
(Zechariah 9.10)

That's a picture of rebels being removed by force, of rebellion being 'broken' by force, and of God fully and finally exerting his rule over everything and everyone - whether they like it or not, whether they're ready or not.

So now, add verses 9 and 10 together, and what have you got? You've got a picture of the two comings of Christ: a first coming in gentleness, to make peace, but ultimately a second coming in force to overthrow all remaining opposition. Because when you think about it, there are two ways to end a rebellion. One is simply to overthrow the rebels. That's the way of force. That's what Jesus will ultimately do at his second coming. But the other way is to change the rebels, to bring about a change of heart which means they no longer want to go on rebelling and they want to change sides and they want to love and serve you. That's what Jesus came the first time to do. Which is why, in chapter 21, Matthew quotes the first half of the Zechariah prophecy:

4This took place to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet:

5"Say to the Daughter of Zion, 'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey…'"
[ie gentle, and in peace; gentle and with forgiveness] (vv4-5)



Which is why I summed it up at the start by saying that how God changes us is through the gentleness and forgiveness of Jesus. So let's think about those two characteristics of Jesus in turn.

On the one hand, THE GENTLENESS OF JESUS

Have a look at v5 again:

'See, your king comes to you, gentle… (v5)

Other translations have 'humble', 'meek' or 'lowly' instead of 'gentle'. It's not easy to translate it so that you catch the meaning properly. It's the word they used of servants, of people who did things for you, who looked out for your interests. And amazingly, Jesus says that's what he's like. Just look back to Matthew 20.25:

25Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

That's the world's idea of power, isn't it? Power means having others serve you. So that in secular structures we ask the question, "How many people do you have under you? How many people do you have working for you?" - as if they're simply there to serve you. Whereas Jesus says, 20.26:

26Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - 28just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20.26-28)

And that is amazing. Jesus is the one Person in the universe who has the absolute right to be served by us. Yet he didn't come to make people serve him. Because you can't make people serve you - not willingly, not from the heart. Force can't change the heart. But love can. And so he came to serve us by dying on the cross - so he could offer us forgiveness and call us - not force us - back into relationship with him. Earlier on in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says this:

28 "Come to me… for I am gentle and humble in heart..." (Matthew 11.28)

And that is mind-blowing, when you stop to think Who is saying what, there. The King of kings is saying, 'I am gentle and humble in heart.'

That's his gentleness. So how does that change rebel hearts? Well, it's hard, if not impossible, to serve someone who doesn't care for you - when you feel they're just using you but don't care much, if at all, for your welfare. That's the 'nightmare boss' scenario, isn't it? Well, Jesus isn't like that. He's a King who died on the cross for us - which says loud and clear that he does care for our welfare (far more than we do in fact) and that he does have our very best interests at heart.

And we need to remember that when what he calls on us to do or to go through is hard. For each one of us here, there are areas of obedience that are hard. Sometimes they're long-standing struggles of obedience - with habits and character traits we know he wants to change. Sometimes they're 'crunch moments' of obedience - like telling the truth about a situation at work when it'll risk your job; or like telling friends or family you've become a Christian - which in some circumstances will risk those relationships; or like falling for someone who's not a Christian and yet following God's will that you should only marry a Christian.

I don't know what it is for you, but there are hard areas for all of us. And in the hardness it's easy to start thinking that it's the Lord Jesus who's being hard, who doesn't care. And at times like that we need to say to ourselves, "He died for me. So it makes no sense to believe that he would care for me that much and then be careless with me in these areas of life I'm finding hard."

An army friend of mine was talking about an outstanding officer he knows. He said, "His men would do anything for him because they know he'd do anything for them - put his life on the line, anything." That is, even though he's an officer in the Armed Forces, he doesn't motivate by force. And nor does Jesus - even though he's King of kings.

So can I call on us to trust his care for us and to measure his care for us by remembering that it took him to the cross for us? Because that is heart-changing.

That's the gentleness of Jesus.

The other heart-changing thing is, THE FORGIVENESS OF JESUS

Have a look at v5 one last time:

'See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey…'

that is, coming in peace and not to make war. And with Jesus that means coming with forgiveness and not holding our sins against us.

Well again, how does that change rebel hearts? Well, just as it's hard, if not impossible, to serve someone who doesn't care for you, it's hard, if not impossible, to serve someone who won't forgive you. Unforgiving people are some of the hardest people to love - because they won't free you from the past, they won't give you a fresh start, and quite frankly, you fear them.

Well, Jesus is not like that, either. He comes with forgiveness.

It may be that what's holding you back from serving Jesus, even from coming to him for the first time, is the past. One particular sin on our conscience. Or one habitual sin that we battle with and fail with. Or a long period of spiritual drift or compromise. And you're not convinced that whatever it is, it can be forgiven. Well, know that Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die so that it can be. In fact, know that, if you're trusting him, it has been. There is nothing we have done or will do in our lives that he did not pay for on the cross. So when the past is holding us back, we need to confess it in prayer and trust that it was taken away and held against Jesus on the cross. So that he now doesn't hold it against us, but says, "Forgiven." And if you're struggling to confess something to the Lord and trust his forgiveness and leave whatever it is at the cross, then can I say: talk to a Christian you trust. We often need one another's assurance about this because we get so paralysed in our own sense of failure.

But it may be that what's holding you back is the future. A friend of mine was on the brink of coming to Jesus and I asked what was stopping him. He said, "I'll only fail." And for him, since in his understanding, failure wasn't an option, he wouldn't begin. (He did later.) Maybe that's you. Or maybe you're a Christian very aware of having failed badly and the thought of failing yet more stops you getting up and carrying on. Well, whoever we are, the truth is that we will fail. And the good news is that God knows that; God has anticipated that and covered our entire need for forgiveness, past and future, when Jesus died for us on the cross.

I remember when I was little, before I'd really mastered money, my mother would occasionally send me up to the village shop with a list of things to get and with some money. And I'd hand over the list and the money and Mrs Bennett did the rest. And I remember the lurking fear that the money wouldn't cover it. But it always did. Mum always anticipated it right. She never left me in the lurch.

And it's like that with God and forgiveness. Before we were even born he anticipated exactly how much we'd need forgiving for. And Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die for the lot. He will never leave us in the lurch. He's paid.

So can I call on us to trust his forgiveness for us, to let what he did on the cross set us free from guilt for past failures and from fear of future failures? Because that, too, is heart-changing.

How does God change rebel hearts? Through the gentleness and forgiveness of Jesus. So let's remember that's what he's like - especially when we're finding it hard to serve him.

'See, your king comes to you, gentle and [with forgiveness]…'

Is that how you see the Lord Jesus? Because that's what he's really like. So preach that to yourself every day, if you're a believer. Because he's not a hard Master. He comes gentle and with forgiveness.

And if you've not already come to Jesus, can I say he would treat you with gentleness and forgiveness if you did? But can I also say you haven't got all the time in the world. Because he will come a second time to wrap up our lives and at that point it will be in force and in judgement. At that point, the freedom to change sides will be over.

So, believe he's gentle; believe he's forgiving; but never forget he's ultimately King.

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