For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost 2012
For Josephus’ account of the destruction of Jerusalem, click here.
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 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. 44 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.”
45 Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.
— St. Luke 19.41-48
This is the third time in the liturgical year we hear the account of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem. If something is repeated three times in the readings in the course of a year, you know it’s important – especially because there are only 52 Sundays in a year. Each time the focus is different. On the First Sunday of Advent, the focus is on His incarnation – Jesus coming as both God and man. On Palm Sunday, the focus is on His dramatic entrance into Jerusalem just days before He dies. Then we have our Gospel for today, where Luke, alone among the four evangelists, records Jesus’ tears as He rides into Jerusalem. This is really strange behavior from Jesus. It’s Palm Sunday, the crowds are cheering and hailing Him as a king — but He isn’t basking in their admiration. He doesn’t accept their shouts and cheers with a wise nod and smile – “Yes, you’re right, I am the Son of David, the One coming in the name of the Lord.” He’s not even happy. Instead, He’s weeping, sobbing, crying loudly and unrestrainedly – He is filled with grief. His heart is breaking, even though thousands are cheering His name.
Why is Jesus so sad? Listen to what He says to Jerusalem: “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.” It sounds like Jerusalem is going to be besieged and destroyed, they’re going to go under in a war – and that’s exactly what happened in 70 AD, about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army under Titus was one of the worst atrocities in an ancient world that was full of them. First the Romans laid siege to the city, so no one could go in or out. Then famine set in when the food ran out. People got desperate. They started to eat whatever they could. Some ate manure. Some ate the leather of their saddle cinches or off their shields. Some people ate hay. A few women even cooked their own children and ate them, the famine was so severe. That’s before the Romans even attacked. When they did finally break through the walls, over a million Jews were slaughtered. They had to climb over the heaps of dead bodies to get at the rest of the Jews who were fleeing and running away, the historian Josephus tells us. The Romans killed everything that moved and set fire to the city. They even broke into the temple of God, where no foreigner was supposed to go. When the fire spread to the temple, which was covered in gold, the heat was so intense the gold melted and ran down into the foundations. The greedy Romans literally did not leave one stone on top of another. They tore the stones apart to get at the gold that had cooled in the gaps between the stones. Jesus’ words are not just a figure of speech. They are a literal prophecy of what was going to happen to God’s beloved city of Jerusalem.
Why would God allow Jerusalem to be smashed to the ground so mercilessly? It say in the Psalms that “the Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the tents of Jacob,” and we could add lots of other passages that say the same thing. That was the one place on earth God had chosen as His footstool, the place where His name would dwell among His people – and He let it be leveled by the Romans. Why? Jesus Himself tells us why: “You did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
God had drawn near to the Jews. He had stooped down by condescending to live among them. He took on human flesh, was born of a Virgin Mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, and here He is, riding on a colt the foal of a donkey into Jerusalem to sacrifice Himself as the perfect payment for the sins of the world. That ragged Preacher on the donkey was more than just a poor rabbi. He Himself was their peace: peace of soul, peace with God, the guarantee of peace forever in heaven – and they refused to accept Him.
Jesus weeps and the tears run down His face and drip down on the donkey’s back because it is said of Him in Psalm 119, “Streams of water flow from My eyes, for Your law is not obeyed.” Jesus says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” Those people had ignored God’s Word for too long. They didn’t think God’s Word was important, didn’t value it, didn’t pay attention to and believe what it said, and as a consequence they rejected the One the Scriptures spoke of, Jesus Christ. It’s like Jesus is saying, “You’re cheering now, but if you realized your rebellion in pushing away My Word, and what’s going to happen to you afterward, you’d be crying too.” So the Jews cheered on Palm Sunday and cried when Jerusalem fell, and they still cry for Jerusalem now, because they do not recognize the time of God’s coming to them.
It’s worth noting that Jesus isn’t talking about people who were total strangers to God. Sometimes we talk about hypothetical people in the bush of Africa, remote and cut off from all civilization, and we wonder: how would people like that know God? All people have the natural knowledge of God, so they can know Him partially from nature and partially from their consciences, but those aren’t the kind of people Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about people who knew God, who were familiar with God and His Word, who would have been expected to know and greet Him with open arms – but they didn’t.
Jesus wept not only for Jerusalem, but for all who ignore or despise His Word, or simply leave it alone while they go do something they think is more important. His lament still applies to us today, because He doesn’t ride a donkey through the streets of Morgan, but we do have His Word. We have the same Word that the Jews rejected. I wonder what Jesus sees when He looks down at our beloved parish – our little corner of the Christian church. Does He see people who are frequently, gladly, and devoutly hearing and learning God’s Word? Or does He see Bibles tucked away on shelves, gathering dust, because we need to work more to buy more things, or we’re busy taking an extra vacation? Does He see people gathering gladly to worship Him and hear His Word, or does He see a half-empty church when His Word is preached? Does He see catechism students drilling their memory work and paying attention in class – or just doing enough to get by? Does He see parents who check to see that their children understand the Catechism – or does He see parents who think, “That’s the pastor’s job, not mine” and let the children get away with just sliding by? If Jesus were to look on us, would He weep?
Brothers and sisters, the time of God’s visitation is now. The time to repent for your past unfaithfulness with God’s Word is now. The day to find His grace and hear His Word is today, because He has not withdrawn it yet. He still allows us to hear and believe His Word. He still allows us to profit by it, to learn and grow, and to be saved. Look what Jesus does after He rides into Jerusalem weeping. He doesn’t turn away from them in sorrow and leave them to themselves. He doesn’t shrug and say, “Well, I tried, it didn’t work, I guess that’s it.” He doesn’t give up on them.Instead, He enters the temple and starts cleaning out the shysters and the money men. He takes back God’s house for God’s people and God’s purposes – prayer and praise – even though God’s city, Jerusalem, is doomed now. He doesn’t give up or concede the fight; He keeps fighting, keeps using God’s Word and working in the service of God’s Word. He still taught every day in the temple, even though He knew how it would ultimately be received. He still went into the temple that would one day be a knee-high field of smoking rubble, and He taught the Word that they were determined to reject. God left His Word among them, even though the Jews as a group had doomed themselves by their unbelief, because a handful would believe that Word and be saved.
God has not given up on you, either. He has still allowed you to have His Word, and He’s left you time to learn it and ponder it and believe what it says. That’s the clearest and surest indication of God’s grace – that He has held off on lowering the hammer of His judgment on you. He has not yet punished you for what you have done or haven’t done with His Word, and that means you still have time. His patience leads you to repentance and means life for you.
Jesus still brings you God’s Word today. He puts it into the mouth of the preacher. He puts it in your ears, in your heart, on your lips, here today. He sends it home with your child’s Sunday School lessons and catechism memory work. He meets with you in the pages of your own Bible at home when you do your own devotions, and in books and magazines and other publications that bring Him to you faithfully, like Meditations and Luther’s sermons. Know what brings you peace: God’s Word – and not only know it, but believe it too. That was the Jews’ problem: they thought that knowing the facts of Scripture was enough for them. They didn’t have any real, living faith. Their faith was all head knowledge and no trust of the heart in God’s Son, and that’s what God desires above all.
We need to guard against that same problem in our day. The predominant Christian culture around us, which is Reformed, makes the same mistake many times. They equate faith with knowing the facts of the faith. It’s more than that. Don’t think that just because you were confirmed once, you now know everything you need to know for the rest of your life. The Christian faith is not like trying out for Jeopardy! Catechism instruction, Sunday School, Bible class, and regular attendance in worship are important not because they teach the facts of the Christian faith, but because it’s in those places that you encounter God’s Word, and that’s the only thing that will build your faith. Growing in your trust and confidence in the promises of God, always learning more to take Him at His word and to disregard the evidence of what you see, what you feel, and what you think, is the main thing – not just learning facts.
When I think about faith and knowledge, I think about a man I knew named Isaac. He was our Israeli tour guide when I went on a study tour of the Holy Land. He could rattle off Bible names, dates, facts, figures with the best of them. He knew the content of the Scriptures backwards and forwards. That was his job – he’d take people to sites in Bible history and then talk about it. He was the equal of a lot of pastors or seminary professors – and we had some of both along on the trip. But I highly doubt he believed any of it. Based on comments he made, it seemed like he viewed the Bible as Americans view stories about Abraham Lincoln or George Washington – they might be true, they might not be true; either way, it doesn’t really matter, because the value of those stories doesn’t come from their historical accuracy or what they can do. Those stories are a shared heritage we all draw on, a common cultural fund of images and ideas, and that’s the only way they matter. That’s a common mistake with Scripture. Don’t think about it that way. Scripture is the living voice of God speaking to you – whether you listen or fail to listen. How you respond to that voice has a huge bearing on your eternity, and even on your present. We shouldn’t think that punishment for ignoring God’s Word will come some time off in the future, if at all – the destruction of Jerusalem shows us that slighting God’s Word can have immediate, physical, and painful consequences.
Recognize the time of God’s coming to you. Jesus still holds mercy out to you through His Word. How will you respond? Will you hear and listen gladly, or will you fall under the same judgment as Jerusalem? God grant that each of us honor His holy Word, which leads us to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who is forever praised above all. Amen.