English service - August 21, 2022
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Finding God’s Faithfulness Through Serving Him
Finding God’s Faithfulness Through Serving Him
Hello again, everyone joining us online and in person. One of our great blessings at Open Door is having quite a few people who teach or preach from the Bible regularly. I’d like to start today by showing you more directly than I have before a Website which can help you learn God’s word, whether it is in preparing a message, teaching a class, growing in your personal faith, or whatever. The site biblestudytools.com is mainly in English, but many of you have more than enough language skills to use it.
If you type in a part of the Bible you want to read, you can find it in any one of 59 versions, for example the New International Readers Version, which I normally use at Open Door. (The translations include Chinese, Arabic, and several European languages but, sadly, not Japanese yet.) Someone mentioned recently not knowing how to pronounce a particular name in the original Bible language. Here is a convenient way to check. For instance, going to today’s story, you find in verse 1 the name of a town, Bethphage. If you click on that word, you can get various types of information about it, including pronunciation in the original language by a native speaker. You can see that it means, literally, “house of unripe figs.” If you want to see exactly how it is used in the three times it appears in the New Testament, you can click on the links in blue and check that out. There is a tool that can help you in learning God’s word—at no cost.
Today’s story is one we normally hear on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter. It appears in all four of the gospels, with slightly different details. That tells us there is something God really wants us to understand here. He often repeats things in the Bible for emphasis. For instance, Jesus will say, “Truly, truly” (“Verily, verily” in the King James Version, KJV) before giving some great teaching. In John 5:24 (KJV) He says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.” In the original, it’s “Amen, amen,” then “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life” (New Readers International Version). Sometimes God says things three times. For example, in Isaiah 6:3, the winged creatures in Isaiah’s vision say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord who rules over all.” God gives us four times the story of Jesus’ entering the city of Jerusalem. So we can take that as a sign that He really, really wants us to catch the message He has here and not miss it. It’s that important to Him.
With that in mind, let’s understand a few things about the background of Matthew 21, then focus on what Jesus teaches His disciples through the events recorded there. That’s pretty different from the message we usually hear taught in the Easter season. It often focuses on the teaching that Christ is King. In coming into Jerusalem as He does, He announces Himself as the King, Who rules over all things, including sin and death through His death and resurrection.
That is important in the message I hear God giving us today, too. But, remember, we are looking at a series of Bible stories in which God fulfills prophecies through people who often don’t even realize that is happening. We’re calling it “God’s Unwitting Witnesses.” In today’s reading, Matthew points out that God keeps a promise He gave hundreds of years before in the Old Testament book of Zechariah. And He shows His faithfulness this way through the very ordinary-sounding actions of two disciples who borrow some donkeys for Jesus.
The map on the screen will help us look closer. You may recall from the message Sasaki-san gave us last week that Jesus has brought His friend Lazarus back to life in the town of Bethany, east of Jerusalem. But after that, the nation’s religious leaders hear about it and decide Jesus is a threat and has to be killed. At that point, Jesus and His disciples go to a village called Ephraim, near the desert, where it is quieter and safer. Then when the time for the big Passover holiday approaches, they begin to move toward Jerusalem.
On the way, they pass through Jericho. They meet at least three people there who receive great help from Jesus and begin following him. One is a short man who collected taxes, named _______. (Can you remember?) Another man and someone with him (whose name we never learn) have been unable to see but receive their sight from Jesus. (We heard about one of them here last month, and Mikuma-san reminded us of him a couple of weeks ago.) His name was B_______.
From Jericho, Jesus’ group travels to the town of Bethany. John tells us (12:1) that Christ has been there for six days (preparing for the Passover holiday). That is where Lazarus lives, along with his sisters Mary and Martha.
These stories give us a little idea about the crowd that is around Jesus when He enters Jerusalem in Matthew 21. Luke describes how Zacchaeus becomes a sincere believer in Christ, and Matthew tells us that Bartimaeus and his companion begin to follow Jesus. We don’t know how much of that “following” is spiritual (“following in faith”) and how much is physically walking along with Him. But they are part of His group of followers now. So when Jesus enters Jerusalem, they may be part of the crowd welcoming and celebrating Him there. Mary and Martha could be with them, too. It’s even possible Lazarus is there, though John tells us (12:9-11) that the country’s religious leaders are planning to kill him, so he may be avoiding Jerusalem if he knows this.
As for the others in the crowd, we know that the city of Jerusalem at this point has a population of roughly 500,000 normally. But at Passover, when many people from the countryside come for the festival, it can grow to as many as five times that—in other words 2,500,000 (more than today’s Sapporo). People often note how the crowd welcomes and celebrates Jesus this day, yet five days later a crowd calls for His death when He is on trial before the Governor, Pilate. Strictly speaking, we don’t really know which people are in which crowd. So we can’t push too hard the point of how changeable and unreliable as a guide public opinion is, though that seems true enough.
Now that we have some idea about the crowd, how about the disciples? Matthew tells us (21:2-3) that Jesus sends two of them into Bethphage to get a mother donkey and its colt. In Luke 22 when He sends two of His apprentices out to prepare a Passover meal, it’s Peter and John. It could be that they get the donkeys, too, but we really don’t know.
“Donkeys”? Mark, Luke, and John only mention one donkey—a young one, not the mother. But Matthew carefully points out that both donkeys are there. And he stops the narration to make it clear to us that this is for a clear reason. It is so that the Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 will be fulfilled in detail, faithfully and completely. Christians understand this as God’s promise to one day send the Messiah, or Christ.
City of Zion, be full of joy! People of Jerusalem, shout! See, your king comes to you. He always does what is right. He has the power to save. He is gentle and riding on a donkey. He is sitting on a donkey's colt.
Mark makes the point that the colt is one no one has ever ridden before. We might think that would make it impossible to ride. It has to be trained to get it to carry people. Otherwise, it will normally put up a fight and try to throw off the rider. (Our family’s turtle has known me for 16 years, and she still fights me every time I pick her up to clean her shell.) But Jesus knows what He is doing. We may not understand it, but that in the end is beside the point. He is worthy of our trust. He has earned it again and again. That seems to be the point the gospel writers repeatedly emphasize.
Let’s try to get inside the minds of Jesus’ disciples as much as we can. This is not the first time He has sent people out to do things that seem hard to understand. Remember the wedding celebration in Cana, when they run out of wine? He tells the servants to fill with water not wine bottles but 20 large jars normally used for purification. What? But John 2:8b tells us, “They did what he said.” And everyone has enough to drink. It turns out to be Jesus’ first public miracle.
Beginning in Luke 5:1 Jesus tells Peter to let down his nets and catch some fish. Peter protests that they have worked hard all night and caught nothing. He is probably also thinking, “Jesus, I’m the fisherman here. Besides this rabbi work, if you’re trained for anything, it’s carpentry. Why don’t you leave the fishing decisions to the ones of us who know what we’re doing. It’s the middle of the day. Everybody knows fish bite more at night and early morning.” But he’s willing to give Jesus’ idea a try—or at least take the opportunity to show Jesus who’s right. And the result is so many fish that Peter’s nets are almost broken.
On another day, there are many people with Jesus who are getting hungry and not nearly enough food to go around. Yet He tells His followers (Luke 9:13), “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples are probably thinking, “Huh? Jesus, you can’t be serious.” They remind Him they only have enough for about one person. But when they start to do what He tells them and divide people into groups, He somehow makes the little they have enough to feed everyone and even have leftovers.
Those stories come earlier in the gospels. Now the disciples have been with Jesus probably around three years. It likely means something significant that we don’t read about them questioning or resisting Him when He tells them to bring the donkeys. Go into a village, find some donkeys, take them away, and if anyone asks you, just say that the Lord needs them. It’ll be fine. Maybe someone starts to say, “Really? But what if. . . ?”
Then before he can finish the question, another disciple cuts him off and says, “Just do it! Do what He says. I know it sounds crazy, but it’ll work out a lot better in the end. Let’s just trust Him with this. He knows what He’s doing.”
We don’t read of a conversation like that, but the disciples at this point are willing to put their faith into action and do what they hear Jesus leading them to do. They are beginning to see that the main point is not for them to understand it and feel comfortable with it. That is not at the top of God’s list of important things. But as they make the choice to “give feet to their faith,” they become part of a great work of God with significance far beyond what they can see at this time.
They go into Bethphage and get the donkeys. Mark and Luke tell us that the owners do ask what they (the disciples) are doing. The men make the reply Jesus has told them to make. Mark says they add that Jesus will send the donkey back shortly. The owners are OK with it. How does this happen? The writers never try to explain. Jesus is the Son of God, and He knows everything, so this is not a real problem for Him.
I suppose He could have set things up ahead of time and just not told the disciples. He probably comes to this area about three times a year anyway for the major festivals in Jerusalem. Maybe He met some people from that village, got to know them, noticed the donkeys, and asked if He could borrow them sometime.
Maybe they said, “Sure. We’d be honored. Just stop by and let us know whenever you’re ready.”
How could it be a good idea to walk up to strangers and take their donkeys? I imagine Jesus saying, “Jim, I want you and ____-san to go across the street to that parking lot. There’s a car with the keys in it. Bring it to me. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just answer, ‘The Lord needs it.’” As a human being, I would feel strange taking someone’s private property. Would that be OK? But Jesus’ teachings seem to show us that probably that’s the wrong question to ask. If we needed to know and could understand, God would tell us. He didn’t. So we can rest at peace placing that question, along with many, many other “unknowns” in His hands.
How does it feel for these men who are slowly, slowly learning to live in obedience to Christ to stand there looking into the eyes of the donkeys’ owners as they are beginning to lead their private property away from them? Even with their growing faith, I’m guessing the disciples feel a little strange. I imaging their feeling might be like the one the blind man in John 9 has as he is walking through the streets of Jerusalem with mud on his eyes. He has met Jesus, who spit in the dirt, put mud in his eyes, and told him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. This is a wonderful story of deliverance, liberty, health, and well-being. But it’s not all pretty, convenient, and comfortable. There’s something about following Christ that puts us out of our comfort zone. It may look and feel strange at times. Life has a way of reminding us—God has a way of reminding us—that we are not in control of many, many things. To follow Christ in faith is to learn to accept this and live at peace with the reality that we are not on the throne.
But God is. He is King. That’s the Good News which Jesus came into this world to announce, demonstrate, and invite the world’s people to learn through our own experience with Him. We who are Christians have started that journey. The disciples in the Bible are far from finished with it, and we have a long way to go, too. But we have begun, and we know where the road leads.
What would you be willing to do to live out the faith that God has put in your heart? Would you be willing to give your clothes to help make a saddle for Jesus to sit on as He rides a donkey? Or maybe you would say, “Oh, not this coat. It’s my best one. I’ll give mine next time.” To honor Jesus as King, would you go and cut branches off a tree—some nice, flat ones from a palm tree, for example, so they would make a smooth path without too much dust for Jesus to ride over into the city? Or would you say, “Do you know how hot it is today? That’s just too much sweaty work for a day with temperatures like these”?
Well, you see the point that this story is making to us, don’t you? As we join in with Christ in His work of bringing salvation to the people of this world, we find our lives’ greatest meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. As we take steps in our daily lives to live in obedience to His teachings, we discover Him working through us. He gives us each a role to play in His great story of bringing peace, justice, and mercy into this world—the saving work of God’s love.
Our Father in Heaven has a job you can do. He knows that whatever you do is only possible because He’s enabled you to do it. And He will never tell you to do something that He does not also enable you to do. When I think about it in that way, what do I care whether He sends me to do something easy or difficult? If He will equip, prepare, and empower me, any task is really fine in the end.
The particular role He gives us is what we call our vocation. It’s far more than a job. It requires a calling from Him.
There is a story about the great English architect Sir Christopher Wren. He took on the task of re-building the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Great London Fire of 1666. One day, Wren walked anonymously among his workers. He asked three men building a wall what they were doing. The first answered: “I am cutting a stone.” The second said, “I am earning three shillings a day.” The third man stood up tall and proud. He answered, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build a great cathedral to the glory of God.” Can you see the difference?
If we ask the Lord, He will lead us into not only individual acts of service in His name but also our continuing, routine work in our various vocations. To show us the way, He will make it clear in His time and with His methods how we can walk in it. For some it may be work that requires more skills, knowledge, qualifications, or whatever, but that doesn’t really matter to Him. He’s not impressed with how much or little we can do. Untying donkeys and leading them to Christ is work with more than enough meaning if it is what God leads you to do. Raising children, cooking, and taking care of a home has great, great value in God’s eyes if He leads you to do it. Doing the work that no one else in your office seems willing to do is very important work to our Lord if He leads you to it. Whatever your situation, He will find a way to make your service meaningful and valuable if you will do it for Him, as He leads, as a form of worship to God.
When our girls were small, one of our favorite things to do was cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner together (basically the same menu in the U.S.). Chieko and I had learned how to do it by ourselves, and we could do it a lot faster and easier if we just told our kids to wait until it was ready. But we would ask them, “Do you want to help us make turkey dinner today?” And their faces would light up. They were excited about having their part to play in making the big meal together.
Serving God is like that, I think. The disciples are sent with the message about the donkeys to use if necessary: The Lord needs them. Jesus needs the donkeys? Yes, in the way Chieko and I needed our small daughters to help us cook the holiday dinner. Paul tells the philosophers in Athens about the Judeo-Christian God (Acts 17:25): “He is not served by human hands. He doesn't need anything. He himself gives life and breath to all people. He also gives them everything else they have.” Yet that God chose to limit Himself and send His Son to live in this world within the limits of space and time, as a human being. Jesus chose to live needing the support and cooperation of people around Him, as we do, even though He was the Son of Almighty God. He wants us to join in the celebration that life with Him is. He gives us each a role to play in His salvation story that is a perfect fit for us. It may not be what we expect or set up for ourselves in our life plans. But it is far greater—the master plan made by the all-knowing and all-loving God who rules over all heaven and earth.
When Jesus’ disciples walk into Bethphage looking for donkeys, they probably have no thought in their minds of helping fulfill Old Testament prophecy. But that is exactly what happens under the leadership of God. Partly through them, He continues accomplishing His great plans for bringing salvation to the world’s people. As we come to the end of today’s time in God’s word, let’s ask Him to use us, too, for His Kingdom’s work in all the ways He has in His best dreams for us and His world.
Wise and loving Father, we confess that you are faithful to keep your promises and powerful to carry out your good plans. Help us to learn to follow you step by step in daily acts of faith more and more each day. We have read, “The disciples went and did what Jesus told them to do.” God, help it to be true of us, “Open Door’s members went and did what Jesus told them to do.” The people in Jerusalem gave their coats and cut branches to honor Christ as King. Help us to ask and find your answers to the question, What do I have that I can give so that Christ will receive the honor He deserves from me? These are our prayers. Answer them according to your will, we pray, dear Lord, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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Retrieved August 20, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= HOQ11iv1IfU
Heitzig, S. (April 11, 2022). On the Road to Jerusalem. Calvary Church with Skip Heitzig. Retrieved August 20, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=W_DYfwMCDpY
Smith, W. (December 8, 2020). MinistryWatch. Ministry Update. Mail List. firstname.lastname@example.org
Yale University. (n.d.). New Testament Maps. 107a. Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee and Journey to Jerusalem. Retrieved August 14, 2022 from https://yalebible study.org/resources/new-testament-maps/