Tell ye the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh to thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt, the foal of an ass.--MATTHEW xxi. 5.
You all know that this Sunday is called the First Sunday in Advent. You all know, I hope, that Advent means coming, and that these four Sundays before Christmas, as I have often told you, are called Advent Sundays, because upon them we are called to consider the coming of our King and Saviour Jesus Christ. If you will look at the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels for these next four Sundays, you will see at once that they all bear upon our Lord's coming. The Gospels tell us of the prophecies about Christ which He fulfilled when He came. The Epistles tell us what sort of men we ought to be, both clergy and people, because He has come and will come again. The Collects pray that the Spirit of God would make us fit to live and die in a world into which Christ has come, and in which He is ruling now, and to which He will come again. The text which I have taken this morning, you just heard in this Sunday's Gospel. St. Matthew tells you that Jesus Christ fulfilled it by riding into Jerusalem in state upon an ass's colt; and St. Matthew surely speaks truth. Let us consider what the prophecy is, and how Jesus Christ fulfilled it. Then we shall see and believe from the Epistle what effect the knowledge of it ought to have upon our own souls, and hearts, and daily conduct.
Now this prophecy, "Behold, thy king cometh unto thee," etc., you will find in your Bibles, in the ninth verse of the ninth chapter of the book of Zechariah. But I do not think that Zechariah wrote it. St. Matthew does not say he wrote it; he merely calls it that which was spoken by the prophet, without mentioning his name. Provided it is an inspired word from God, which it is, it perhaps does not matter to us so much who wrote it: but I think it was written by the prophet Jeremiah, perhaps in the beginning of the reign of the good king Josiah; for the chapter in which this text is, and the two or three chapters which follow, are not at all like the rest of Zechariah's writings, but exactly like Jeremiah's. They certainly seem to speak of things which did not happen in Zechariah's time, but in the time of Jeremiah, nearly ninety years before. And, above all, St. Matthew himself seems plainly to have thought that some part, at least, of those chapters was Jeremiah's writing; for in the twenty- seventh chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel, and in the ninth verse, you will find a prophecy about the potter's field, which St. Matthew says was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet. Now, those words are not in the book of Jeremiah as it stands in our Bibles: but they are in the book of Zechariah, in the eleventh chapter, twelfth and thirteenth verses, coming shortly after my text, and making a part of the same prophecy. This has puzzled Christians very much, because it seemed as if St. Matthew has made a mistake, and miscalled Zechariah Jeremiah. But I believe firmly that, as we are bound to expect, St. Matthew made no mistake whatsoever, and that Jeremiah did write that prophecy as St. Matthew said, and the two chapters before it, and perhaps the two after it, and that they were probably kept and preserved by Zechariah during the troublous times of the Babylonish captivity, and at last copied by Nehemiah into Zechariah's book of prophecy, where they stand now; and I think it is a comfort to know this, and to find that the evangelist St. Matthew has not made a mistake, but knew the Scriptures better than we do.
But I think Jeremiah having written this prophecy in my text, which I believe he did, is also very important, because it will show us what the prophet meant when he spoke it, and how it was fulfilled in his time; and the better we understand that, the better we shall understand how our blessed Lord fulfilled it afterwards.
Now, when Jeremiah was a young man, the Jews and their king Amon were in a state of most abominable wickedness. They were worshipping every sort of idol and false god. And the Bible, the book of God's law, was utterly unknown amongst them; so that Josiah the king, who succeeded Amon, had never seen or heard the book of the law of Moses, which makes part of our Old Testament, till he had reigned eighteen years, as you will find if you refer to 2 Kings xxii. 3. But this Josiah was a gentle and just prince, and finding the book of the law of God, and seeing the abominable forgetfulness and idolatry into which his people had fallen, utterly breaking the covenant which God had made with their forefathers when he brought them up out of Egypt-- when he found the book of the law, I say, and all that he and his people should have done and had not done, and the awful curses which God threatened in that book against those who broke His law, "he humbled himself before God, because his heart was tender, and turned to the Lord, as no king before him had ever turned," says the scripture, "with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might; so that there was no such king before him, or either after him." The history of the great reformation which this great and good king worked, you may read at length in 2 Kings xxii. xxiii. and 2 Chron. xxxiv. xxxv. which I advise you all to read.
And it appears to me that this prophecy in the text first applies to the gentle and holy king Josiah, the first true and good king the Jews had had for years, and the best they were ever to have till Christ came Himself; and that it speaks of Josiah coming to Jerusalem to restore the worship of God, not with pomp and show, like the wicked kings both before and after him, but in meekness and humbleness of heart, for all the sins of his people, as the prophetess said of him in 2 Kings xxii. 19, "that his heart was tender and humble before the Lord;" neither coming with chariots and guards, like a king and conqueror, but riding upon an ass's colt; for that was, in those countries, the ancient sign of a man's being a man of peace, and not of war; a magistrate and lawgiver, and not a soldier and a conqueror. Various places of holy scripture show us that this was the meaning of riding upon an ass in Judaea, just as it is in Eastern countries now.
But some may say, How then is this a prophecy? It merely tells us what good king Josiah was, and what every king ought to be. Well, my friends, that is just what makes it a prophecy. If it tells you what ought to be, it tells you what will be. Yes, never forget that; whatever ought to be, surely will be; as surely as this is God's earth and Christ's kingdom, and not the devil's.
Now, it does not matter in the least whether the prophet, when he spoke these words, knew that they would apply to the Lord Jesus Christ. We have no need whatsoever to suppose that he did: for scripture gives us no hint or warrant that he did; and if we have any real or honest reverence for scripture, we shall be careful to let it tell its own story, and believe that it contains all things necessary for salvation, without our patching our own notions into it over and above. Wise men are generally agreed that those old prophets did not, for the most part, comprehend the full meaning of their own words. Not that they were mere puppets and mouthpieces, speaking what to them was nonsense--God forbid!--But that just because they did thoroughly understand what was going on round them, and see things as God saw them, just because they had God's Eternal Spirit with them, therefore they spoke great and eternal words, which will be true for ever, and will go on for ever fulfilling themselves for more and more. For in proportion as any man's words are true, and wide, and deep, they are truer, and wider, and deeper than that man thinks, and will apply to a thousand matters of which he never dreamt. And so in all true and righteous speech, as in the speeches of the prophets of old, the glory is not man's who speaks them, but God's who reveals them, and who fulfils them again and again.
It is true, then, that this text describes what every king should be-- gentle and humble, a merciful and righteous lawgiver, not a self- willed and capricious tyrant. But Josiah could not fulfil that. He was a good king: but he could not be a perfect one; for he was but a poor, sinful, weak, and inconsistent man, as we are. But those words being inspired by the Holy Spirit, must be fulfilled. There ought to be a perfect king, perfectly gentle and humble, having a perfect salvation, a perfect lawgiver; and therefore there must be such a king; and therefore St. Matthew tells us there came at last a perfect king--one who fulfilled perfectly the prophet's words--one who was not made king of Jerusalem, but was her King from the beginning; for that is the full meaning of "Thy King cometh to thee." To Jerusalem He came, riding on the ass's colt, like the peaceful and fatherly judges of old time, for a sign to the poor souls round Him, who had no lawgivers but the proud and fierce Scribes and Pharisees, no king but the cruel and godless Caesar, and his oppressive and extortionate officers and troops. Meek and lowly He came; and for once the people saw that He was the true Son of David--a man and king, like him, after God's own heart. For once they felt that He had come in the name of the Lord the old Deliverer who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and made them into a nation, and loved and pitied them still, in spite of all their sins, and remembered His covenant, which they had forgotten. And before that humble man, the Son of the village maiden, they cried: "Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest."
And do you think He came, the true and perfect King, only to go away again and leave this world as it was before, without a law, a ruler, a heavenly kingdom? God forbid! Jesus is the same yesterday, to- day, and for ever. What He was then, when He rode in triumph into Jerusalem, that is He now to us this day--a king, meek and lowly, and having salvation; the head and founder of a kingdom which can never be moved, a city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. To that kingdom this land of England now belongs. Into it we, as Englishmen, have been christened. And the unchristened, though they know not of it, belong to it as well. What God's will, what Christ's mercies may be to them, we know not. That He has mercy for them, if their ignorance is not their own fault, we doubt not; perhaps, even if their ignorance be their own fault, we need not doubt that He has mercy for them, considering the mercy which He has shown to us, who deserved no more than they. But His will to us we do know; and His will is this--our holiness. For He came not only to assert His own power, to redeem his own world, but to set His people, the children of men, an example, that they should follow in His steps. Herein, too, He is the perfect king. He leads His subjects, He sets a perfect example to His subjects, and more, He inspires them with the power of following that example, as, if you will think, a perfect ruler ought to be able to do. Josiah set the Jews an example, but he could not make them follow it. They turned to God at the bidding of their good king, with their lips, in their outward conduct; but their hearts were still far from Him. Jeremiah complains bitterly of this in the beginning of his prophecies. He complains that Josiah's reformation was after all empty, hollow, hypocritical, a change on the surface only, while the wicked root was left. They had healed, he said, the hurt of the daughter of his people slightly, crying, "Peace, peace, when there was no peace." But Jesus, the perfect King, is King of men's spirits as well as of their bodies. He can turn the heart, He can renew the soul. None so ignorant, none so sinful, none so crushed down with evil habits, but the Lord will and can forgive him, raise him up, enlighten him, strengthen him, if he will but claim his share in his King's mercy, his citizenship in the heavenly kingdom, and so put himself in tune again with himself, and with heaven, and earth, and all therein.
Keeping in mind these things, that Jesus, because He is our perfect King, is both the example and the inspirer of our souls and characters, we may look without fear at the epistle for the day, where it calls on us to be very different persons from what we are, and declares to us our duty as subjects of Him who is meek and lowly, just and having salvation. It is no superstitious, slavish message, saying: "You have lost Christ's mercy and Christ's kingdom; you must buy it back again by sacrifices, and tears, and hard penances, or great alms-deeds and works of mercy." No. It simply says: "You belong to Christ already, give up your hearts to Him and follow His example. If He is perfect, His is the example to follow; if he is perfect, His commandments must be perfect, fit for all places, all times, all employments; if He is the King of heaven and earth, His commandments must be in tune with heaven and earth, with the laws of nature, the true laws of society and trade, with the constitution, and business, and duty, and happiness of all mankind, and for ever obey Him."
Owe no man anything save love, for He owed no man anything. He gave up all, even His own rights, for a time, for His subjects. Will you pretend to follow Him while you hold back from your brothers and fellow-servants their just due? One debt you must always owe; one debt will grow the more you pay it, and become more delightful to owe, the greater and heavier you feel it to be, and that is love; love to all around you, for all around you are your brothers and sisters; all around you are the beloved subjects of your King and Saviour. Love them as you love yourself, and then you cannot harm them, you cannot tyrannise over them, you cannot wish to rise by scrambling up on their shoulders, taking the bread out of their mouths, making your profit out of their weakness and their need. This, St. Paul says, was the duty of men in his time, because the night of heathendom was far spent, the day of Christianity and the Church was at hand. Much more is it our duty now--our duty, who have been born in the full sunshine of Christianity, christened into His church as children, we and our fathers before us, for generations, of the kingdom of God. Ay, my friends, these words, that kingdom, that King, witness this day against this land of England. Not merely against popery, the mote which we are trying to take out of the foreigner's eye, but against Mammon, the beam which we are overlooking in our own. Owe no man anything save love. "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." That is the law of your King, who loved not Himself or His own profit, His own glory, but gave Himself even to death for those who had forgotten Him and rebelled against Him. That law witnesses against selfishness and idleness in rich and poor. It witnesses against the employer who grinds down his workmen; who, as the world tells him he has a right to do, takes advantage of their numbers, their ignorance, their low and reckless habits, to rise upon their fall, and grow rich out of their poverty. It witnesses against the tradesman who tries to draw away his neighbour's custom. It witnesses against the working man who spends in the alehouse the wages which might support and raise his children, and then falls back recklessly and dishonestly on the parish rates and the alms of the charitable. Against them all this law witnesses. These things are unfit for the kingdom of Christ, contrary to the laws and constitution thereof, hateful to the King thereof; and if a nation will not amend these abominations, the King will arise out of His place, and with sore judgments and terrible He will visit His land and purify His temple, saying: "My Father's house should be a house of prayer, and ye have made it a den of thieves." Ay, woe to any soul, or to any nation, which, instead of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, copying His example, obeying His laws, and living worthy of His kingdom, not only in the church, but in the market, the shop, the senate, or the palace, give themselves up to covetousness, which is idolatry; and care only to make provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. Woe to them; for, let them be what they will, their King cannot change. He is still meek and lowly; He is still just and having salvation; and He will purge out of His kingdom all that is not like Himself, the unchaste and the idle, the unjust and the unmerciful, and the covetous man, who is an idolater, says the scripture, though he may call himself seven times a Protestant, and rail at the Pope in public meetings, while he justifies greediness and tyranny by glib words about the necessities of business and the laws of trade, and by philosophy falsely so called, which cometh not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish. Such a man loves and makes a lie, and the Lord of truth will surely send him to his own place.