December 9, 2019

The Return of the King

One of my favorite books is The Return of the King, book three of The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien.  The book tells the story of Aragorn, son of Arathorn, heir of Isildur, who was Elendil’s son.  Elendil was the mighty king of a great kingdom called Gondor, but fell in battle against the Dark Lord, Sauron, at the end of the Second Age of Middle-earth.  With Isildur’s death, the line of Elendil began to falter, and eventually disappeared from all knowledge, leaving Gondor under the rule of the stewards for centuries.

At the time of the events chronicled in The Return of the King, Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, has arisen out of the shadows to challenge the Dark Lord and claim his rightful place as the king.  It’s a classic storyline masterfully told by the greatest fantasy author of all time (in my opinion).  And, it’s quite moving. The people have awaited the return of their king for centuries, and he finally comes–just in the knick of time to turn the tide of war and bring a final end to the Dark Lord.  With Aragorn’s victory, he reunites the fractured Kingdom of Gondor and establishes peace throughout the land that endures for many generations to come.

Like many good tales, the themes woven into The Return of the King find their roots in real historical events.  About 2,000 years ago, the Kingdom of Israel was a fractured mess, with Jews scattered throughout the known world.  Israel had at one time been ruled by a mighty king named David, who had passed the crown on to his son, Solomon.  After Solomon’s death, the line of David began to fail, and eventually fell into obscurity as Israel was conquered and dispersed.  For centuries, Israel languished.  But, the remnant of Jews still living in Israel under the iron fist of the Roman Empire remembered a prophecy given by the prophet Zechariah 500 years earlier.

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

They knew that one day their king would return and set all things right.  They believed he would break the power of Rome, raise an army in Israel, and conquer the world, reclaiming his rightful place on the throne as the Son of David.  In some ways, they were right.  That’s why the events recorded in the Gospel of Matthew 21:1-11 are so important in the history of the human race.

On the Sunday before he was crucified, Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey.  In so doing, he was making the bold and audacious claim that he, Jesus of Nazareth, was the lawful heir to the throne of Israel, the Son of David, and the fulfillment of Zechariah’s 500-year old prophecy!  Throughout his ministry, Jesus had already begun to set things right.  He taught people about the Kingdom of God, and how life in the Kingdom should be lived.  He demonstrated his own authority and power over sickness, over evil spirits, over Nature, and even over death, as he healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed the storms, walked on water, and brought the dead back to life.  Jesus was truly a man of great power… a king if ever there was one!

That’s why, when the Jews saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, they clogged the streets in a great crowd.  They shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9)!  They spread their cloaks out on the road in front of Jesus, providing a “red carpet” of sorts for him to enter the city.  They cut palm branches from nearby trees, waving them in praise and laying them along the path of Jesus.  Finally, after centuries, their king had returned!  Indeed, Jesus was (and is) the fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy.  He rode into Jerusalem that day, 2,000 years ago, with righteousness and salvation.  But, not as the Jews expected.

Jesus didn’t raise an army and lead a military campaign against Rome.  Instead, he offered himself as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for our sin–the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as John the Baptizer said.  Instead of casting down his enemies, Jesus was arrested, tortured, and murdered in a gruesome public spectacle.  Now, if that was all we knew of the story, we might assume that Jesus wasn’t who he claimed to be when he rode in on the donkey’s colt.  We might think he was just another rebel leader executed by the Roman government.  But we’d be wrong.

Jesus was crucified and buried, but in a borrowed tomb.  On Easter Sunday, one week after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was resurrected.  He had dealt a death blow to Death, Hell, sin, and the grave! He had taken our sins upon himself, and paid for them with his own blood.  He stepped into the ring with Satan, and walked out victorious.  He defeated darkness and evil and made a public spectacle of them on the cross.  He had reunited us with the Father, making it possible for our broken relationship with God to be fully restored.  Jesus freed us from the power and the penalty of sin, giving us righteousness and salvation–just like Zechariah foretold!

And then, he left.  He ascended into Heaven, sending the Holy Spirit back to dwell with and in those of us who belong to his Kingdom, who acknowledge that Jesus is our King and our God.  And now we, like the Jews 2,000 years ago, await the return of our King.  When Jesus comes again, he won’t be a humble Jewish construction worker riding on a donkey.  According to Revelation 19:11-21, when Jesus returns he will be riding on a white war horse, with a crown on his head and eyes blazing like fire.  He will be wearing a robe dipped in blood and leading the armies of Heaven.  He will bring justice and the final defeat of our great enemy, once and for all freeing us from the presence of sin.  He will establish an eternal Kingdom, and all those who have believed in him and received him as their Lord and Savior will live with him forever (we will never die) in a place that goes beyond our wildest dreams.

This Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Jews celebrating the return of their king, we also look forward to Jesus’s awesome second coming, and await the return of our King!  Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

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