Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
Let us pray. Eternal God, your Spirit inspired those who wrote the Bible and enlightens us to hear your Word fresh each day. Help us to rely always on your promises in Scripture. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
There are times when following Jesus means that we will stand up for the truth of God’s good news in the face of opposition. The conflict between Jesus and Jerusalem’s religious officials is coming to a head. That is the focus of Holy Week and my purpose this morning is to help us think through the tensions that are part of this day as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem. There’s the first hint as to what is going on. Luke decides to tell us the story we know so well, but he throws us a curve. If you have your Bible with you, you may want to look at the text or find it in one of the pew Bibles, page 83 in the New Testament and page 1643 in the large print edition.
According to Luke, Jesus rides on the donkey as he approaches the city. Look at the text. Jesus is at the Mount of Olives and he sends two of the disciples into the village of Bethany to pick up the donkey’s colt that has never been ridden. I don’t know about you but I can remember as a child thinking that this was an instance of Jesus’ divine foreknowledge, that he knew this donkey would be there when he needed it. I now am 100% sure Luke wants simply to underline that Jesus had planned this little parade, that at some point arrangements had been made for a donkey’s colt to be ready for him. He wouldn’t show up himself to pick it up; the password, if you will, was “The Lord needs it.”
Look ahead to verse 37. This little assembly forms near the summit of the Mount of Olives and they make their way down the path. They are going toward Jerusalem but they are not in the city. It is outside the city that Jesus hears the words, which give praise to God; and it is the disciples, not some unknown crowd of people that call out Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
This is the first indication of opposition: there is no doubt about the importance of Jerusalem. In chapter 9 verse 51 we are told that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. In other words it was in this city that his mission for God would find its fulfilment. But he is not hailed as Messiah within the city in Luke’s telling of the story. He is an outsider. Jerusalem is the place where both temporal and sacred power is concentrated. Jesus is not part of either of those circles. Luke wants us to know that.
Then there is the choice of the animal. It is impossible to know what the disciples thought when they picked up the donkey in Bethany. They knew they were on some sort of sacred mission because an animal that had never been ridden or which had not been harnessed to a cart was used for such purposes. But they also knew that if a king had a military purpose in mind, he would use a horse, not a donkey. On the other hand they would also know that when the prophet Zechariah had talked about the arrival of God’s chosen king, he would come in peace riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9, 10).
I can easily imagine the disciples not being sure what to do, certainly not what to think. Perhaps you remember what happened when James and John asked Jesus to do them a favour (Mark 10:35–45). They wanted to be promised places at the right and left of Jesus when he came into his kingdom. We can be almost certain that when the disciples heard Jesus speak of the kingdom of God, they thought he was talking about a kingdom that would demonstrate its power by throwing the Romans out of Palestine while Jesus was set up as king in Jerusalem.
A warrior would ride toward the city on a horse, not a donkey. Yes the Zechariah prophecy had predicted that God’s ruler would come in peace, but surely these disciples thought that peace would only come as the result of victory in battle. I believe there was opposition even among those few who walked toward the city with their donkey-riding king.
There was opposition also among the Pharisees. We expect that don’t we? Many of you have heard all sorts of sermons, some of them likely preached by me, that suggested the Pharisees were all bitter enemies of Jesus. But as in so much of life, the truth is likely a little more complicated than that. For example one of the texts, which we examined earlier in this series, began with Jesus being invited to dinner at the home of one of the Pharisees. There can be no doubt that the debate during dinner became as hot as whatever middle-eastern entree was served that day, but there is no indication that the invitation to enjoy table fellowship was anything but sincere.
Another example is found at Luke 13:31. We are told that some Pharisees came to Jesus to warn him that Herod, the ruler in Galilee, wanted to have Jesus killed. We usually skip by that, I think. There must have been some among the Pharisees who saw something in Jesus that was glorifying to God. If someone is only an enemy there is no reason to warn him that his life is in danger. There is opposition in our text, but perhaps even this opposition is not as simple as it might seem.
One of the things we take for granted in 21st century Canada is that we get the opportunity to elect our leaders. We might not always be happy about the choice, some dismissing it as deciding which is the least of the four evils, but it is still a choice. Mr. Harper certainly wants to continue as Prime Minister after this year’s federal election, but he would not accuse Mr. Mulcair or Mr. Trudeau or Ms. May of treason because they plan to challenge him for the job. Not so with the emperors of Rome. To even speak of another king is to invite at least the scrutiny of the Roman troops under Pilate’s command.
In our text then perhaps we need to look with care at what is said by the Pharisees. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” What is it they want stopped? Jesus’ disciples are proclaiming that he is a king. It might be, of course, that these Pharisees are objecting to Jesus being given a title they think belongs only to God. It is also possible that some of these leaders are asking Jesus to have more respect for the delicate balance they have maintained with their Roman overlords. Perhaps some of them are genuinely concerned that if Jesus allows his disciples to continue down this path of treason that Jesus will become another victim in the long line of those who threatened the sovereignty of Caesar. Sometimes opposition to Jesus isn’t as simple as we think it is.
Look again at the last three verses of our text. “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Jesus is still not in the city. He weeps as he approaches the city, as he recognizes the opposition that is lined up against him, and what this is going to mean to a place that our Lord clearly loves. These words are a profound expression of grief and regret. In the time we have left I want to concentrate our attention on the first sentence of Jesus—if only you had recognized the things that make for peace!
You see, the Pharisees and the other Temple officials who made up the religious elite of Jerusalem had bought into a definition of peace that was characterized by an agreement with Caesar’s appointees in Palestine that the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes and lawyers could keep their privileged place in exchange for doing whatever they could to discourage and squelch any opposition to Rome. In their minds these were the things that made for peace.
Highway 7, east of Markham, is just high enough that from that vantage point on a cloudless summer’s night various of Toronto’s buildings are visible, most clearly, of course, the CN Tower. On this Palm Sunday, almost two thousand years removed from the first one, I wonder if Jesus would weep again over this city.
It is important for us to remember that Luke is not merely reporting on an incident in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, but rather he is asking the church of which he was a part to think about what it meant that Jesus wept over the city because it did not recognize those things that make for peace. It is impossible to know exactly when this gospel was written but it is at least likely that it was written after 70 A.D.
I think Luke is reminding the church that Jesus offered to his world those things that made for peace, that the opposition rejected the ethics and example of Jesus, instead taking up arms against Rome. “Outbreaks of violence occurred intermittently until the open war which brought about the fall of the city and the destruction of the temple” (Craddock, Interpretation: Luke, p.228).
Jesus looked at that city and saw that the opposition to him would lead to death and despair and he wept at that prospect. Friends, it strikes me that we must remember that just as the church of Luke’s day was an audience for his telling of the gospel story so also are we. Which means that no matter who else might stand in opposition to Jesus we must carefully examine whether we are standing with Jesus in the face of that opposition or whether, in subtle ways we are the ones opposing our Lord while claiming to be his followers.
You see, there are some things that need to be said, some things that need to be done. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to keep his disciples quiet. And in our hearts many of us agree. It’s impolite, if nothing else, in our pluralistic world, to be shouting about Jesus being the king who comes in the name of the Lord. If we stop telling his story, if we question that it is still his way that makes for peace, then we are part the opposition that stands in his way, that makes Jesus weep.
At a conference in January in the United States, Tom Wright said that Christians had colluded with secularism by letting God be pushed upstairs and out of sight, with Christians holding the view that their purpose lay in being heaven-bound. “That’s not it,” he said. “God rescues us to become rescuers.” “We are put right (justified) so we can help right things on earth.”
Luke tells the Palm Sunday story in a particular way. Jesus looks at the city from the outside; he weeps over the city from a distance. Less than a week from that day he would again be taken outside the city to be crucified on a hill called Golgotha. If the ways of Jesus are going to be brought into the city, it will be the followers of Jesus who will make that happen.