“The Small One”
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Stephen Poos-Benson
December 5, 2010
About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant.
They traveled from Nazareth up to Bethlehem and everybody knows what they traveled on, don’t they? What did they ride? A donkey. Have you every ridden a donkey?
I, personally, would not want to ride a donkey. The cowboy in me is just a little bit offended by the notion of riding a donkey. A cowboy rides a quarter horse or a thoroughbred—we’re going to ride something big and beautiful, not a donkey. A donkey is a little bit on the ugly side with long ears—not very comfortable to ride, surefooted but very stubborn. Real cowboys are not going to be caught dead riding a donkey but yet Mary and Joseph rode a donkey. I wonder why. What’s the significance of riding a donkey?
One of the things that we are doing throughout this Advent time is looking at the bit- parts of the Christmas story. We always focus on the major characters: Mary, Joseph and the Wise Men and shepherds and angels. Rarely do we look at the bit-part characters of the Christmas story. It took a lot of people to actually help and bring together the birth of the baby Jesus.
Last Sunday, Carol looked at the innkeeper. Today, I am going to look at the donkey that Mary and Joseph rode into Bethlehem. Next Sunday, at the 8:00 a.m. service in the Fireside Chapel, I am going to speak on the role that Mary’s father played in the Christmas story. The fourth Sunday of Advent, I am going to be looking at the shepherds, but today I am looking at the donkey that Mary and Joseph rode.
Have you ever heard the Disney cartoon called The Small One? It’s a beautiful cartoon that Disney produced back in the 1970’s. It kind of captures this mystic place that the donkey plays in the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The story is that there is a little boy who had an old, shaggy donkey but he had to sell his donkey so he took it into the town of Nazareth. He was looking for someone to buy his old donkey for one silver coin but he couldn’t find anyone who would buy the Small One. He called the donkey the Small One. The only one interested in buying the donkey was the tanner. The tanner wanted to buy the donkey for one silver coin and then slaughter the donkey for his hide. The little boy was terrified. There was no way he was going to sell the Small One to the tanner so he kept looking everywhere for someone who would buy his donkey. By the end of the day, he was sitting dejected in an alleyway with his back up against a wall when a kind man came to him and asked if his donkey was for sale. The boy said yes. Is your donkey kind and gentle? The boy said yes. The man said what is your donkey’s name? The boy said the Small One. The man said this is perfect because I need a small, gentle donkey that will carry my bride on a very long journey. The final scene of the cartoon is Mary riding the Small One and a big star over their head. It closes with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in a stable. It’s a heart-warming story.
There’s just one problem. Mary and Joseph didn’t ride a donkey. What? They didn’t ride a donkey. It’s nowhere in the Bible. Matthew doesn’t say it. Luke doesn’t say it. It’s nowhere that Mary and Joseph had a donkey or that Mary rode a donkey. It’s part of the myth and the legend that we have about Christmas. We all know Mary rode a donkey, so where did it come from? Why is it so much a part of our Christmas story, of our Christmas legend? We have a Christmas hymn about the donkey. How come the donkey plays such a significant role in the Christmas story? I think it’s this. I think it’s because of the place the donkey has in the Biblical story and in the life of the average Hebrew story.
There are a few stories in the Bible where there’s a donkey. Jesus, on Palm Sunday, rode a donkey into Jerusalem to show he was a servant. There is the donkey from the Hebrew Scriptures in the story of Balaam. Balaam was going on a journey that God disagreed with and he was riding a donkey on this journey and there was an angel of God who got in front of Balaam to stop him. Balaam didn’t see the angel—the donkey did. The donkey just sat down in the middle of the road and Balaam got off the donkey and started beating him and the donkey talked. He said what are you doing, why are you beating me, what have I ever done to you? I’m here to save you. It was then that Balaam saw the Angel of Death in front of him. The donkey actually saved his life. King Saul had a herd of donkeys that got out of the fence. In the Commandments, we are told that even your donkey is to rest on the Sabbath Day and we are told not to covet your neighbor’s donkey. It’s assuming that the donkey is everywhere. The donkey was a part of the everyday Hebrew family’s household. As part of the family stable, you had a donkey. The donkey was your beast of burden. The donkey carried your packs from your house to the market. The donkey carried your wood from the forest to your house for the cook stove. The donkey carried you on a journey. The donkey was this ordinary beast of burden—the lowest of the low. The donkey was less than the ox, less than the bull, less than the lamb, less than the sheep, less than the dove—all those other animals you could take to the temple and sacrifice. You couldn’t take the donkey for a sacrifice. If you or your donkey sinned, you couldn’t take your donkey to the temple to sacrifice. It’s just this ordinary beast of burden.
The reason I think it is a part of our Christmas story is because the donkey began to symbolize what the Messiah was going to become. The donkey that carried the yet-to-be-born Messiah became the symbol of what that Messiah was going to become. The donkey symbolizes the beast of burden. The Messiah becomes the one who bears our burden. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus has used the image of the one who bears our burden. 1 Peter talks about how Christ bears our burden in His body. We talk about the Christ who knows our every pain and knows our every sorrow. We talk about the Christ who knows our brokenness. We talk about the Christ who knows our sin and he comes underneath us and he bears our burden. The donkey symbolizes what the Messiah was going to become but more than that, the donkey symbolizes what we are to become. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to Galatians, says bear one another’s burdens. An image that Paul calls up is the local donkey—in the same way that the donkey is called to bear burdens, we are called to bear one another’s burdens. As Christ bears our burdens, we are called to bear one another’s burdens.
It is one of the hallmarks of what it means to be a Christian—a follower of the Christ—is that we are willing to be one another’s pains and sorrows. As Christians, we are the ones who are willing to set aside our agendas and when we see somebody who is in pain, we are with them. As followers of Jesus, when we see somebody who is weeping, we are with them to wipe their tears. As followers of Jesus, when we see somebody who is filled with grief, we walk with them through the process of grieving. As followers of Christ, when we see somebody who has crashed into the dirt on the ground, we go down into the dirt with them and we sit with them and bear them along until they are able to stand on their own two feet and walk again. We are called to bear one another’s burdens as Christ bore our burdens, as the donkey carried the Messiah.
So this coming Advent, we have a lot to do. I want to call upon you to bear one another’s burdens. This Christmas season is a lot of fun and it is also one of the most painful times of the year. If you have lost a loved one this past year, then the Christmas season is a reminder of the grief and loss of this person’s absence. If the economy has flattened you this past year, then the Christmas season is a reminder of what you have lost. If you are lonely or alone this Christmas season while everyone else is getting together, the season is a reminder of how lonely you are. That is why I am calling on you, as followers of Christ, to bear one another’s burdens.
What would happen for the next few weeks, up until Christmas, if you chose one person to bear their burden? Pick somebody. Not somebody in your family. Somebody at your work, somebody in your neighborhood, somebody you know—and write that name down. What would happen if every single day you prayed for that person? You joined with that person soul-to-soul. You got underneath them with your spirituality and lifted them. What would happen if you reached out to that person and asked them what is going on in their lives? Take them out to coffee. Send them a card. Make a significant impact in their life. I believe if we did that, we might do the most profound work of preparing for the birth of Jesus.
Maybe we need to see this little donkey, the Small One, as the symbol of what we need to do to get ready for the birth of Jesus.