The Jewish calendar includes three great feasts laid down in the law of Moses, feasts that in English we call Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. The last feast that brought Jesus to Jerusalem was the Passover in Spring 30 CE. With his disciples, he joined the pilgrim crowds that were going up to Jerusalem for the feast. As they approached Bethany there was great excitement, for the people there knew of a miracle that Jesus had recently performed in that town, calling his friend Lazarus back to life from the dead.
As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the pilgrims recognised that he was enacting the words of the prophet Zechariah.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you; righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. ” Zech 9:9
Jesus was presenting himself to the people of Jerusalem as their Messiah, if only they would choose the way of peace rather than the way of war. But neither the pilgrims nor the people of Jerusalem understood Jesus’ kingship. If at last the prophet of Nazareth was offering himself as their leader, then their leader he should be; and the ancient cry of ‘Hosanna!’ took on new significance. Surely now Jerusalem’s redemption was at hand! They could imagine only one way that freedom could be obtained, overthrow of the Romans by force.
We shouldn’t condemn too quickly the praises of the people cheering Jesus as he rode towards and into the city of Jerusalem. Perhaps they praised him for the wrong reasons. Perhaps they were later to cry, “Crucify him!” But at the time, their praises were surely sincere. As it says in the thanksgiving that we use at every communion service, “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” Whenever we celebrate communion we join with the crowds of Jerusalem to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” The people yelled and shouted. I can’t imagine them whispering their praises. A loud noise of rejoicing was entirely in order in the presence of the King. Similarly, when we use these words in our liturgy, we should speak out strongly. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
I invite you particularly to look verses 41 to 44 of Luke chapter 19. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 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. 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.’ ”
This short section appears only in Luke’s Gospel. Coming immediately after the triumphal procession, perhaps it shows that Jesus knew what the crowd’s enthusiasm was truly worth. His lament forms a striking contrast to the joy of the crowd. The word ‘wept’ might be rendered ‘wailed’. Jesus burst into sobbing. He lamented lost opportunity. The people of Jerusalem did not know what would bring them peace.
Especially important in the Hebrew understanding of peace (which carries over into the New Testament) is its emphasis on peace with God, right relationship between creature and Creator. It was this that the people of Jerusalem had failed to understand. And now it was too late. The way of peace was hidden from their eyes.
The destruction of the city was to be inevitable. When Jesus spoke of the ’embankment’ the enemies would cast up and of the city being completely surrounded, he spoke of a typical siege. The word ’embankment’ here refers to a palisade encircling the city as a protection for the besieging troops and a place from which they could launch their attacks.
Jesus said that the enemy would dash the city to the ground, it and its children, that is, the people of the city. The city would be completely destroyed. The repetition of ‘you’ numerous times in these verses makes them personal and intimate. These were Jesus’ own people.
The passage finishes with the reason for the fate of the city, “you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you.” The people did not see that in Jesus, God’s Messiah was being made known to them. The people had failed to see that God’s new kingdom, the kingdom Jesus had been preaching, was being shown to them. Ignorance can be innocent, but it can also be culpable and worthy of judgement.
Jerusalem had God’s self-revelation in the scriptures. It had the continuing evidence of God’s actions in the life and ministry of Jesus, and the witness of John the Baptist who had preceded him. It could see in Jesus that God had not forgotten his people. There was every reason for the people of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus.
But some refused to accept him except on their own terms, as a potential leader of rebellion against Rome. Others, especially the ruling classes, rejected him completely. The people of Jerusalem rejected God’s Messiah and would suffer the consequences of their rejection. It was this that brought Jesus to tears, for these were his people. Jesus cried not just for the city, but for the people who were to share in its destruction.
What especially grieved him was that they had had their chance for true peace but closed their eyes and ears to it, that “peace of God, which passes all understanding” as Paul was to describe it in Philippians, the peace which, through Jesus, “keeps our hearts and minds”. The very name Jerusalem, means “city of peace” or “foundation of peace”, or possibly “city of holiness”. Yet to this day Jerusalem does not enjoy peace.
Less than 40 years after Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, his words were dramatically fulfilled. Titus besieged Jerusalem, bringing famine, sorrow, and ultimately, death to its inhabitants. Matthew tells us that the stones Jesus had spoken of were especially those of the temple. Their overthrow was unimaginable, for they were massive, some more than 10 metres by 6 metres, and each weighing tonnes.
History tells us that Titus had battering rams assault the western wall of the inner temple (where the Jews were protecting God’s house) for six days without effect. The Romans tried to climb the wall with ladders but many died in the attempt. Finally they set fire to the great wooden doors. Once the doors were burned, the Romans tried to extinguish the flames, but the entire temple burned. Gold and silver that had covered the surfaces melted down into cracks and crevices. The Romans pulled every one of those massive stones off one another to get to the precious metals. As Jesus had said, not one stone was left on another.
For centuries, the hopes and aspirations of the people of Judah for their nation had focused on Jerusalem, where the Lord their God dwelt in Zion. Thus in the Psalms, for example:
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.” Ps 137 5-6
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers. “Ps 122:6-7
The people of ancient Israel, and Judah after it, understood God’s kingdom in their midst to be a natural kingdom, a kingdom centred in the beautiful city of Jerusalem. Even today, some Jewish people, especially the Zionists, look to earthly Jerusalem for the fulfillment of ancient prophecy and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.
But we, as children of Abraham by faith, are citizens of a spiritual kingdom and a spiritual city.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. Heb 11:8-10
If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. Rev 3:12
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them …. Rev 21:2-3
Could the fall of Jerusalem have been avoided if the people had accepted Jesus as the Messiah and Saviour? To say the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans was punishment by God for its refusal to accept Jesus seems harsh. Yet, there is judgement in verse 44, “They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” As Gabriel had said in Daniel 9:26 “… the Anointed One (the Messiah) will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary.” Somehow, Jesus saw that if Jerusalem had accepted him, the outcome would have been different. The rejection of him by Jerusalem led to its downfall. Or at least there was a failure to recognise him for who he was. We may not be comfortable with it, but actions and failures to act do have consequences.
In his love, Jesus felt pain, even though destruction was now unavoidable. He wept because, even though the crowds praised him, they didn’t understand whom it was they were praising. They didn’t understand the meaning of his coming to them.
Have we appreciated the reality of Jesus’ coming to us? He is our Messiah, the one who brings salvation to us and who is our Lord. He has come to us to show us the ways of God, ways of peace, ways of forgiveness and a way that requires all to repent and turn to God.
We are not like the city of Jerusalem. For us it is not too late.
The time of repentance, restoration and salvation is always now. We may have wasted years. We may have had years taken from us by hardship, illness or trouble. But restoration and newness of life begin today. Even if our life is, as the city of Jerusalem was to become, a total wreck, Jesus will forgive, heal and restore. We have only to ask in faith.
Many of us have known Jesus well as Lord, Saviour and friend. Many of us truly worship him with thanks and praise. But have we understood his ‘visitation’ to us personally? Have we soft-pedaled God’s call? Have we stirred up the gift that is within us, as Paul exhorted Timothy to do?
One way of understanding this is to look at the other end of Holy Week. We live lives of rejoicing, But there was another procession in which Jesus also took the central part, the way to the cross. We must take up the cross. This doesn’t itself mean suffering, though we may well experience suffering. Rather, it means understanding and exercising our part in bringing to the world the gospel of salvation, healing and restoration that Jesus obtained through the cross. And as we do this we will walk in the power of His resurrection.
It is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus visits us today. “We are the body of Christ” we say, “His Spirit is with us.” “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” Jesus comes to bring healing, new life, forgiveness and, above all, peace with God and with each other. And he comes, this Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday, to challenge us to follow Him with renewed vision and strength.
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation …”
How have we responded to his coming?