Journey to the Cross: “Boom! What Was That?”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, March 28, 2021
Reading: Luke 19:29-48
Dateline, November the 19th, 1989, Prague, what was then Czechoslovakia. Fifty-thousand people gathered in Wenceslas Square to demonstrate against communist rule. According to The Guardian newspaper, on that day there were hundreds of people who were arrested. Some who were hurt and ended up in hospital. Dogs were unleashed by the police onto the crowd. It was a devastating but defiant moment that began change in Czechoslovakia. In talking about this with Tomas Halik, the great Czech theologian, when I met him in Prague, he said there was 40 years of pent-up frustration that arose on Wenceslas Square.
On December the 5th of that year, the New York Times reported that there were crowds in Wenceslas Square but also in the old Town Square, the famous one near the river. You see, there was a government trying to put in place five people who would placate the renewal movement and the people would have none of it. “We’re not having five stones thrown at us,” they said. They wanted real change. They wanted their freedom.
When you look at the 20th Century, or even the 21st, there have been similar movements. Whether it was the Jarrow marches in 1936 in England that were opposed to the closing of shipyards, or Tiananmen Square in 1989 when those students gathered to express their concern and their condemnation of the rule in China. Or the Maidan gathering in Kyiv in 2004, the Orange Revolution as it was called. There have been so many of these moments, and you probably will have one that you remember particularly for its importance, but they’re always about people wanting change in the status quo, they want justice, and a change in leadership. These movements, these expressions are powerful.
Well over 2,000 years ago, as our magnificent passage from Luke’s gospel mentions, we have Jesus entering Jerusalem. As he does, there are great expectations among many of the people, particularly his followers, that Jesus would come in as the King. That there would be a new hope, a revolution of sorts. That God’s justice and righteousness would reign in the city of Zion and that the leaders, the oppressors, and those who were subjugating the people would be removed.
Over the last few weeks, we have prepared ourselves for the moment when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. We have looked at Nazareth and whether anything good can come from those humble roots of Jesus the Messiah. We have looked in the Gentile world in Gerasenes and the victory over evil. We have seen him talk about Lazarus’ resurrection from the dead in Bethany. We have looked at the Psalms and we have seen how Jesus is the embodiment of God’s righteousness and judgement, but also mercy and love. Now we’re in Jerusalem. He’s finally on his way and boom! There’s a confrontation between Jesus and the city that he loved so much. There were those that were trying to keep him quiet. Threatening him.
Luke, in his gospel, brilliantly puts together three pericopes, three moments for us to look at. They fall in a beautiful order that signifies the way Jesus of Nazareth came into Jerusalem had this great impact. The first scene is Jesus on the Mount of Olives, which is opposite from Jerusalem. There are two hills, the Mount of Olives and the Holy City of Zion. In between is the Kedron Valley. Jesus had already been on the Mount of Olives when he celebrated with his disciples and he prayed with them in Gethsemane. This was an important moment in his life, an important place. But now he is getting ready to come into Jerusalem. This is the great entrance, and everything is very carefully and deliberately crafted. It’s not accidental. Jesus instructs his disciples to go and get a donkey. So, they go and get a donkey. When challenged they said, “Our Master, our Lord needs this donkey.” So, Jesus gets on a donkey and they take their cloaks and they put them on as a sign of respect. Now a donkey, contrary to a lot of public opinion since, is a noble beast. They represented peace, humility. They were noble. On the other hand, had Jesus entered Jerusalem on a horse, it would have been a sign of war. It would have been a military presence. Jesus chose the donkey, fulfilling that great passage in Zechariah 9:9.
The people there recognized that something profoundly different was taking place, even from their own expectations. “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” they said. “He represents the peace of heaven. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” They recognized who he was. They understood that in his peaceful and humble way, Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to do something radically different than what had been expected initially of a Messiah, who would be conquering, militaristic, and would appear powerful.
What is the reaction? The reaction is boom! They try to silence the disciples. They try and silence the followers. The powers that be want them to be quiet and not to announce that Jesus of Nazareth is coming into the city, and certainly not to put down their cloaks as they were doing. They tried to silence the crowd for recognizing him as being someone special and unique. In fact, they appealed to Jesus to silence those who were proclaiming him as blessed in the name of the Lord. Jesus says, “Even the stones will cry out. Even the cosmos will cry out. You cannot silence God.”
Hundreds of years before – and this is something that struck me in reading this passage; the similarity in many ways to the story of Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s prayer over Jerusalem. Then I came to this passage in Jeremiah 13 verse eight. This is what the Lord says: “In the same way, I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. These wicked people who refuse to listen to my words, who follow the stubbornness of their hearts and go after other gods to serve and worship them, will be like this belt; completely useless. For a belt is bound around the waist, so I bound all the people of Israel and all the people of Judah to me to be my people for my renown and praise and honour.”
“But they have not listened.” said Jeremiah.
Jesus is coming into Jerusalem in the same prophetic tradition as Jeremiah and the people did not want to listen. They were stubborn. But Jesus came nonetheless, this time as the embodiment of the God of Jerusalem. Boom!
There is a second scene, and this one really touches you. He has left the hill. He’s on his way down and probably hasn’t quite reached the walls of Jerusalem. Somewhere on his way down the slope of the Kedron Valley he stops and what does he do? He weeps over Jerusalem. We’ve seen a lot of weeping from Jesus over this time. We saw him weeping over the death of Lazarus. Now we see him weeping over another kind of a death, the death of Jerusalem. He knows what is going to happen. He knows how Jerusalem is going to turn on him. He awaits his own crucifixion and death.
He said, if only you would have just listened. If only you’d prepared yourself for the visitation of God, but you didn’t. Then he predicts the ruination of Jerusalem. It’s not as if Jesus enjoyed this. It happened years later, as we know, and Luke writing would have been aware of that. But the fact of the matter is, Jesus knew that if they turned on their God and they turned on their God’s Messiah, Jerusalem would suffer. So, out of compassion he weeps and pours out his heart. Boom! If only they would prepare themselves for what is about to happen. But they weren’t ready for it and they did not want to listen. This becomes clear in what transpires over the next few days.
Preparing ourselves for God’s activity in our lives is something we should learn from what happened to Jerusalem. We should be caught up in that sentiment and belief. The great preacher, Martin Lloyd-Jones once wrote this, (I made a note of it a long time ago and I've thought how right Martin Lloyd-Jones is.) He said, “It is a fundamental principal in the life and walk of faith that we must always be prepared for the unexpected when we’re dealing with God.” The unexpected. Maybe that was the problem with Jerusalem. They expected one thing but were not open to God presenting God’s self in the way that he did, in the form of a Son humbly weeping, pleading, coming to Jerusalem wanting peace. The people clearly wanted something different.
I read a fascinating piece a while ago about Jesse Jackson. You all are probably familiar with the American preacher, politician, and social activist. Well, Jesse Jackson had something to say about pretty much everything, an amazing and charismatic character. He talks about when he was in sixth grade and had a teacher names Miss Shelton. The first day that he and his class went to school, this new teacher wrote on the blackboard – yes, blackboards back then – all these long words. The students looked and shrugged. They’d never seen anything like it before and clearly, she wanted them to understand what these words were. So, the students started to grumble amongst themselves and they thought maybe Miss Shelton had taught Grade Nine before and forgotten that she’s teaching Grade Six, and big words like this were perhaps not part of sixth grade vocabulary. They elected Jesse to go to the teacher and ask her if these words were really what they need to learn.
So, Jesse goes to her and her response stayed with him the rest of his life. This is what Miss Shelton said: “By the time this year is over, you will know what these words mean. You see, if you become a governor or if you become a president, or if you become a senator or a lawyer or a doctor or a preacher, you will have to know these words. That is why I am putting them up there now, so that by the end of the year you will have grasped them, and they will have changed you.”
Jesse Jackson was bemused by that, because when he was in Grade Six there were no black senators, no people running of colour for the presidency of the United States. Even the school board had no black representatives, even though it was a racially diverse community. He wondered honestly, deep within his heart, whether Miss Shelton was preparing him for something that would never occur.
Years later in 1988, when he ran for the presidency – and this is all of course before Barak Obama – he realized that what Miss Shelton had said was important. The words are important. You have to prepare yourself for things that are coming in this life. Jesse Jackson said, “I will never forget how Miss Shelton raised us up with her words and prepared us for the things that are to come.”
The whole of Jesus’ ministry was to prepare the people for what was to come. He was the embodiment of the Word of God and now he’s entering, of all places, Jerusalem where they didn’t want to hear it. Boom! He wept.
The third scene, and this scene now takes us into the inner part of Jerusalem and the great temple. As was the custom, before Passover people would have gathered in that temple to give homage to God. People would come from all over the world for Passover. (By the way, today is Passover for our Jewish friends here in Toronto. Happy Passover to you.) There they were gathered in this incredible temple. Great scholars like N. T. Wright and Craig Evans have said that the moment that Jesus entered that temple on that first Palm Sunday, a week ahead of Passover, Jesus was establishing his reign. He was establishing the nature of his Kingdom. This would be the lightning strike that would cause the city to turn on him. He goes into the temple and we’re told that he overturned the tables and drove out the moneychangers. The moneychangers were people who would take currency from people who’d come from Egypt, Greece, or other parts of the world with other currencies and transfer those into shekels, and then the shekels would be given as a donation to the temple. But in that exchange, the moneylenders would be greedy and take a cut for themselves. One scholar recently said that it would be the equivalent of about $20,000 a year in our own income right now that they made as moneychangers in the temples in those days. They exploited people, particularly those who came from a distance, foreigners, and refugees.
Jesus would have none of it. He’d also have none of the animals being sold. The same problem arose. People had to come in and if they didn’t come from the country where they had animals to sacrifice, they would purchase them. This was a tradition that had dated back to the time of the Book of Leviticus. Jesus knew that people were exploited again and had to pay exorbitant rates. It is believed that even Annas, the High Priest, had a booth set up to sell animals at a high cost. The High Priest was making money on this. Jesus comes into the midst of this saying, “This is supposed to be a house of prayer, and you have turned it into a den of thieves.” He objected to both the exploitation of the poor, the injustice that was a part of all of this, but also the desecration of a holy place. It had turned a place of prayer into a place of commerce. It was terrible. Jesus knew that this was symbolic of what was wrong in Jerusalem. The temple of all places, the holy of holies should be a safe place for the Word of God and the people of God and the pilgrims. Jesus stood for justice and righteousness and holiness. This was a moment of the great prophetic tradition from which he came. This was Jesus saying no. Boom!
What was the reaction? They plotted to kill him. Luke tells us that even though the people who were in power wanted to him killed, the people themselves, people like those in Wenceslas Square in Prague gathered and spoke up, because they were in awe of Jesus. They were in awe of him. They were amazed by him. He was different. This was the Messiah after all. I think for the people who were in Jerusalem at that time, they wanted some things. They wanted a change of empire, a change of leadership, a greater focus on true worship and real holy worship, justice and righteousness and equity. They wanted peace. Jesus brought all those things into Jerusalem, every one of them. He brought the peace. He came on a donkey. He came in the name of the Lord to give them their God. He came in justice against the oppression and exploitation of others. He came in love and compassion, because he wept over them. Jesus entered into Jerusalem with everything that God had planned and then boom! It’s Good Friday and that we celebrate this week. The cross seemed like the end of a journey, but it wasn’t. Amen.