The world’s most famous horse is Bucephalus of Alexander the Great.
Historians are split on whether Alexander the Great or Jesus Christ was history’s most consequential figure. What is not in dispute is that by the age of thirty, Alexander defeated King Darius III of Persia and subsequently amassed one of the largest empires in the history of the world. We know a lot about Alexander, but we also know a lot about his horse. Alexander’s supposed ancestor, Achilles, said that his horses were “known to excel all others—for they are immortal. Poseidon gave them to my father Peleus, who in his turn gave them to me.” Alexander understood the potential for his horse to grow his myth and legend, and so grow his empire. Horses are powerful animals. A cavalry of soldiers on war horses projects all kinds of symbolism: Freedom, power, might, sexiness.
Which is why when insecure nations want to project power, they begin by constructing a statue of some guy on a war horse.
In Rome, Italy is a statue of Marcus Aurelius on a war horse. In Lisbon, Portugal is a statue of King John I on a war horse. In China is a statue of Yue Fei on a war horse. In Medellín, Colombia is a statue of Simón Bolivar on a war horse. In Zacatecas, Mexico is a statue of Poncho Villa on a war horse. In Bremen, Germany is a statue of Otto Von Bismarck on a war horse. There are thousands of statues of guys on a war horse. It’s a universal symbol.
And this symbol works in America too.
Just south of the Washington National Cathedral is a statue of George Washington on a war horse. Three miles from there is a statue of Andrew Jackson on a war horse. In Gettysburg, PA are statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and others—each on a war horse. And just like John Wayne, you’ll find General Lee on a war horse in towns small and large and towns north and south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Which is why I find it so damning that at the exact same time that Alexander the Great was out conquering the world on his war horse, we find the ancient Hebrew prophet Zechariah, who—like all ancient Hebrew prophets—was able to see past all the bullshit of war horses:
Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will take away the chariots from Ephraim
and the warhorses 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.
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope;
even now I announce that I will restore twice as much to you.
I will bend Judah as I bend my bow
and fill it with Ephraim.
I will rouse your sons, Zion,
against your sons, Greece,
and make you like a warrior’s sword.
War isn’t glorious. It doesn’t set the world right. It does not ever bring peace. War ruins people. And as I’ve said many times on this blog, Israel and Judah are war’s chief sufferers and chief judgers. While the rest of the world stood in awe at the mesmerizing power of spears and shields and swords and chariots and . . . yes . . . horses of the world’s empires, the Hebrew prophets saw them for what they really are.
They saw them as evil.
Zechariah then, like all of Israel’s and Judah’s prophets, was preparing God’s people to prepare the world for a time when the world would be rid of this. A time when, as Isaiah put it, “Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they study war anymore.” Zechariah saw through the lie of Alexander the Great and his great empire. He saw through the lie of his war horse.
And he declared that a day was coming when God would raise up a king who would not be like Alexander the Great and King Darius and Nebuchadnezzar. This king wouldn’t exercise the splendor of conquest. He would be a lowly king. He wouldn’t stomp all over the earth on a scary war horse. He would gently come to power on a little peace donkey.
Fast forward hundreds of years.
Persia and Greece were gone, and in their place was Rome.
In the story that the gospel writers told, Jesus—who had grown up as a boy reading Zechariah—was making the uphill journey from Jericho by the Dead Sea to the city of Yerushela’im. Jerusalem, which had seen more blood than anywhere else in the ancient world, ironically means “way of peace.” As Jesus was entering Jerusalem, it was one week before the Jewish festival of Passover. Normally, about 40,000 people lived in Jerusalem, but during Passover the city swelled to more than 200,000. You put that many occupied people in one place, and the occupiers will take notice. And that’s to say nothing about what they were there to celebrate. This massive amount of people flooded into the City of the Way of Peace to celebrate Yahweh freeing them from bondage under the Egyptians.
The Romans weren’t stupid. They understood just as clearly as anyone how they were the Egyptians in the story of the exodus. They understood perfectly that Jerusalem’s idea of peace was a world without Rome.
So the Romans prepared.
Literally on the same day that King Jesus entered Jerusalem from Jericho in the East, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem from Caesarea Maritima in the West. When the gospel writers wrote the story of Jesus, they assumed you know this and are able to make this connection. And when Pilate entered Jerusalem, he was accompanied by six hundred war horses and tens of thousands of foot soldiers. It was an unmistakable display of intimidation.
Like saying, Don’t even think about it.
If there is anything that we as Americans need to learn today, it is what Jesus did when he came to Jerusalem to announce that he would be king over all the world’s kings.
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying 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. If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
Jesus did not ride into Jerusalem on a donkey so that you can know how to go to Heaven when you die. Jesus rode on a donkey to free us from the seduction of violence. He died on the Roman cross to free us from our Hell-bent march into war. He freed us from the idea that to realize independence, we must kill bad people. Of course, no one in the City of the Way of Peace listened to him, and that led to this lament over the city.
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day the way of peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
On September 16, 2001, the United States declared war on terror. In that week or terror, I was among the majority of Americans whose heart was moved to go to war. I was inspired by Sean Hannity’s book, Deliver Us From Evil, a proclamation of a world free of terror because America would finally use its military muscle that politically correct liberals had for so long curtailed.
We’ve spent trillions on the war since then, and that raises all sorts of questions. Like . . .
Do you feel safe yet?
Have we . . . won?
And if we haven’t won yet, when will we win?
Do we expect to win soon?
If not, do we need an even bigger military?
Are we not killing enough people?
What will winning look like?
How will we know that we are safe?
I ask these questions because next year’s newest adults will be the first in America’s history who will have never lived to know a country of their own that wasn’t at war.
On Monday, we memorialize those who died while serving in our nation’s armed forces. As followers of Jesus, we condemn war. You don’t hear much of this in America’s churches, but America’s churches for the most part have little interest in being followers of Jesus. I have faith in the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who rode the peace donkey and preached the way of peace. I have faith like Peter, who met Cornelius the Roman centurion and preached to him and his household the gospel of peace. I have faith in exactly what the Bible says that Jesus came to teach: Peace. I have faith in the very first word that Jesus spoke after he was executed as an innocent man on the execution device of the empire: Peace.
Yet, as followers of Jesus, we don’t seek to dishonor those who have ever served in the military. Really, the way you can know that I honor our troops is that I don’t want to send them into war again! The Bible is against war, but the sin of war isn’t on those whom the nation sends to fight in it. I’m friends with many people who serve in the military. Many in my family serve and have served. Our soldiers are the victims of war, not its victors, not its profiteers. They go to foreign countries as eighteen-year-olds. They lose their lives. They lose their bodies. They lose their peace. They come home from war, and for the rest of their lives their minds cause them to relive it. They experience Hell in the truest biblical sense. The sin of war is not on them.
The sin of war is on the nation that sends them.
I’m worried about President Trump and his national security advisor, John Bolton, who has made no secret his desire to go to war with Iran and North Korea. Bolton, you should know, was one of America’s champions for the war in Iraq. I’m worried that, as a result of pulling out of the agreement with Iran and the summit with North Korea, we will seek to secure their cooperation through shock and awe. But we tried this in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. We know by now what will happen. We won’t get peace. We’ll kill lots of foreign people, destroy lots of foreign buildings, and our young people will come home with PTSD so that more young people can go and kill lots of foreign people and destroy lots of foreign buildings. This is the judgment of the Lord. This is the Hell that the Bible describes.
So instead of appropriating our nation’s treasury on new war horses, lets spend it on the tens of thousands of homeless veterans we walk by on our streets each day. How about that for honoring those who have fallen on foreign soil? Instead of appropriating our nation’s treasury on new war horses, let’s build more schools and hospitals. On this Memorial Day, let’s honor our nation’s dead servicemen and servicewomen by learning from their pain rather than sending a new generation of young people into the same hopeless and un-Christian cycle of death. Let’s instead pray for the life that comes from the eternal. On this Memorial Day, I hope you will join me as I pray this ancient prayer from Saint Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.