Monday, April 10, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem"

Luke 19:29-44

29 As Jesus came to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives, he gave two disciples a task. 30 He said, “Go into the village over there. When you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If someone asks, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say, ‘Its master needs it.’” 32 Those who had been sent found it exactly as he had said. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “Its master needs it.”

35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. 36 As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road. 37 As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. 38 They said, “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” 39 Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

41 As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. 42 He said, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 The time will come when your enemies will build fortifications around you, encircle you, and attack you from all sides. 44 They will crush you completely, you and the people within you. They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you, because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” (Common English Bible)

Palm Sunday 2017

I tried to follow my archaeology professor as he strode through the crowds of people on either side of our group as he searched for several minutes before finding what he was looking for, mere meters from the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa Mosque in the old city of Jerusalem: a falafel restaurant.

No ordinary falafel restaurant was this, if for no other reason than the hallowed ground upon which it stood, but regardless of its surroundings, both the meal and the company of my professor and seminary classmates was unforgettable.

And having just been standing at the Western Wall minutes prior, surrounded by hundreds of praying souls, I came to the first of several moments of realization that day that Jerusalem is a great many things to a great many people, but what it was before it was anything else—all of the other great signifiers and laurels that we have attached to it over the past three thousand years of western religious tradition—was, quite simply, a place to be, to live, to pray with friends and then break bread with them.

But centuries passed, and the city of David and of Solomon became a city of corruptible monarchs and eventually puppet kings. The good ones like Josiah stood out in part because there were so few of them. By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was at least a seasonal home not just to a corruptible puppet king (or family of puppet kings, in the case of the sons of Herod the Great), but also to a corruptible class of religious teachers that reinforced their own status at the direct expense of the populace and the viceroy of Caesar himself, the Roman governor assigned to oversee this unruly outpost of a territory, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate, like Jesus, would have ridden into Jerusalem at the start of Holy Week, though not to offer himself up as a ransom to liberate us from sin as Christ did, but to ensure that that everything went smoothly from Rome’s perspective as an uncooperative and rebellion-prone territory celebrated a holiday that commemorated the overthrowing of the shackles of bondage to another empire—the ancient Egyptians in the Passover story of Exodus.

Because of the subject matter of the Passover, and especially the fact that celebrating it entailed a massive influx of people into Jerusalem, it was customary for the Roman governor to journey from his usual headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem to oversee the festivities. His ostentatious entry into the city of David was, then, a painful and humiliating reminder for patriotic Israelites of their subservient status to the Roman empire, and as someone who continually challenged the imperial cult of Caesar, Jesus took the opportunity on Palm Sunday to essentially mock that triumphant entry while at the same time upholding a Hebrew Bible prophecy from Zechariah 9 that the Savior would come being borne on the back of a donkey or a colt.

So Jesus is really killing two birds with one proverbial stone in the Palm Sunday story—not only is He fulfilling a Scriptural prophecy, but He is also poking Israel’s Roman overlords with a stick in doing so. He is sending a message that neither He nor the Word that He intends to proclaim in Jerusalem will be ignored, dismissed, or silenced by the powers that be.

Of course, those powers that be will, in a few days’ time, try to do precisely that—shut up Jesus for a rebel and a fool, but not before the redemption of humanity is set in motion. Jesus, then, acts as a perfect foil for the leaders not only in life but in death—even dead, Jesus does more to redeem the people than they do.

So, yes, the religious leaders in Jerusalem are worthy of Jesus’s criticisms, and of ours. But they were also only the latest incarnation of this trend away from the ideal that gets presented—however mythologized it has become—of the Jerusalem of Solomon and the unified kingdom. A thousand years of corrupted kings and amoral collaborationists with foreign overlords will have that effect.

What Jesus is mourning at the end of this passage in Luke, then, isn’t simply Jerusalem as it currently exists for Him, but the Jerusalem that once was and that honestly ceased to be decades, if not centuries ago (with the possible exception of Jersualem under the Hasmoneans—the Maccabees of the Hanukkah story).

Even the roots of the city’s name itself have fallen by the wayside, not only in Jesus’s time but in ours—as New Testament scholar Sharon H. Ringe notes in her commentary on Luke, “The city whose name means “Seeing of Peace” does not know its own name and does not recognize its ‘visitation from God.’” The city whose name means “Seeing of Peace” does not know its own name.

That has to be a commentary as true today as it was then, and today we have no Jesus, no God-made-flesh, to mourn over the city and the violent, broken, sinful world that it represents.

Imagine, then, Jesus today not just mourning Jerusalem, but mourning Khan Shaykun, where this week’s chemical weapons attack upon Syrian civilians, including children, took place, killing over seventy and leaving the world with an array of horrifically disturbing images seared in our minds. Imagine Him now mourning the fact that we as a country are apparently moved by such barbarism just enough to launch missiles into a country, but not moved enough to accept any of its refugees.

If only we knew, as Jesus said, the things that lead to peace.

The truth is, though, we do. Violence is a sin and like any sin, it is a temptation. Give up being tempted by violence to instead walk the path of peace, and who knows what the kingdom could look like tomorrow.

But this is something that is incumbent not just upon individuals but upon nations. It was not a lone wolf attack that killed these Syrians with chemical weapons, it was a government that did so at the behest of Bashar al-Assad. And it was not one individual Customs and Border Patrol agent that banned Syrians fleeing being attacked with chemical weapons by their own government from the United States, it was the United States government itself at the behest of our president.

That cannot be world of the true Jerusalem that, in the spirit of its name, enables the seeing of peace. That cannot be what Jesus demands of us and calls us to as He triumphantly enters into that city on Palm Sunday.

That Jerusalem which sees peace is still out there. I know, because I saw it and experienced it in the breaking of bread with friends and classmates surrounded by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike who were able to worship freely at the holy sites of their traditions in the Old City.

But that breaking of bread in seminary nearly seven years ago was a fleeting moment. And it is not the Jerusalem that is made open to each of us, or to each of its own inhabitants, or to the people who surround it in countries that still fight over land that has been bled for and fought over since the days of Abraham.

Which is precisely why Jesus mourns Jerusalem—He sees in it the violent sins of old, recommitted and repeated in the newest ways. And so must we mourn it as well, repeating His fervent wish that we would indeed “recognize the time of (our) gracious visit from God.”

These were the words of Jesus Christ the day He triumphantly entered into the Old City on a donkey as throngs of people called out hosannas to His name and laid their cloaks out before him in the road. And as the Syrian poet Khalil Gibran said, those words are graven as though with chisels.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
April 9, 2017

Image of Jerusalem skyline courtesy of Wikimedia

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