by Daniel Harrell
The Palm Sunday outside Jerusalem is steeper than I thought it would be. Coming down off the Mount of Olives is a downhill run into the Holy City. And this being Holy Week, Jesus was definitely headed downhill. For the last leg of his journey into Jerusalem, he had two disciples round up a donkey colt. He did it like you’d expect a Son of God to do it, all wrapped in mystery and prophetic foresight: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here.” The reason is found in Zechariah 9. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Jerusalem, for your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on the colt of a donkey.” Jesus staged his grand entry to make a Messiah statement.
Indeed there was great rejoicing when Jesus made his grand entrance here in Luke. And you’ll note that the people understood his statement. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” they sing. However you’ll also note that there wasn't a single palm. Instead, people took off their coats and laid them in Jesus path. This was how people paid homage to kings back then, a gesture akin to taking off your hat for the national anthem. So technically, we should call today Coats Off Sunday. But since this is Minnesota in March, we’ll stick with the palms. They remind us of Florida.
Now I should say that, technically, we didn’t walk down the actual Palm Sunday road in Israel. We definitely didn’t stop by the village where Jesus got his donkey colt either. Nobody is sure of the location of Bethany or Bethpage. They’ve long since been covered by succeeding civilizations. One of the things about walking in the footsteps of Jesus in Jerusalem is that you have to dig down deep to do it. But as with the colt, Jesus predicted this would happen too. Of Jerusalem he says, “not one stone within you will be left upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” This prophesy was violently fulfilled by a savage Roman assault. Had Israel received Jesus as king, things might have been different. This is why Jesus weeps.
There’s a church for just about everything Jesus did in the Holy Land. As you walk down the Palm Sunday road, just off to your right, is Dominus Flevit, The Church of Jesus Weeping. As you would expect, it dramatically overlooks Jerusalem. And as you might not expect, it’s shaped to resemble a teardrop (though it takes a little imagination to see it).
This is one of two times Jesus cries in the Bible, the other time over the death of his friend Lazarus. You might wonder why Jesus only cries twice, but then the Bible never has Jesus laughing even once. If it had I assure you there would have been a church built to commemorate it, probably shaped like a smile.
As for the tears Jesus shed over Lazarus, he wipes them away by raising Lazarus from the dead. But Jerusalem gets razed to the ground. Jesus’ lament echoes the one Danielle preached about a few chapters back. That lament had Jesus bemoaning Jerusalem’s history of killing its messengers, prophets sent to call God’s prodigal sons home. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings,” Jesus said, a desire commemorated on the altar of the Teardrop Church. “But you were unwilling,” a rejected Jesus despairs, leaving Jerusalem to its own devices, and then sternly declaring “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This line comes from Psalm 118, and is commonly sung to welcome pilgrims to Jerusalem.
But again, you note that Jesus’ welcome committee changes “blessed is he who comes” to “blessed is the king who comes,” which you’d think would count as Jerusalem recognizing “the time of your visitation from God.” Their mention of peace on heaven is weird, its almost as if they sense peace on earth is impossible. Luke is clear that it wasn’t any city delegation that welcomed Jesus, but instead “the whole multitude of disciples.” The official response, represented here by the Pharisees, is rebuke. Jesus is told to tell his disciples to knock off the messiah worship. Such praise is reserved for Israel’s legitimate king. Jesus replies that shutting them up won’t do any good for then the stones would take up their praise. Jesus wasn’t just King of the Jews. He was King of Creation.
Sadly, Jesus’ royal welcome rapidly deteriorated into a bloody coronation. His crown would be thorns and his throne a cross. It’s a tragedy we recount every Good Friday. If Jesus’ intent is to establish his kingdom and gather his people, why do it as a chicken? Why allow yourself to be plucked and slaughtered? Why not a stone-cold display of brute force? Bring down the armies of heaven! Zechariah foretold a king humbly riding on a donkey colt, but read the rest of that prophesy, and you’ll find a humble King of Creation convincingly triumphant by way of fire and hurricanes, thunder and lightening. It’s easy to be humble once you’ve pounded your enemies into the dirt. But here, Jesus’ enemies pound him onto a tree. That’s not humility. That’s humiliation and humiliation doesn’t gain you much. Loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you run over.
For modern Israelis, military might is vital to their security. A belligerent Lebanon and a violent Syria border their north. An increasingly Islamic Egypt churns to their South. A bellicose Iran threatens just over Jordan to the east, and resentful Palestinians smolder in both the West Bank and Gaza. What unites their enemies is the desire to wipe Israel off the map, a desire expressed by the fact Israel doesn’t even appear on Palestinian maps. Stoking Israel’s security concerns is the dark memories of Holocaust, a ghastly reminder of how the world hates Jews. Israeli law mandates that teenagers visit the Holocaust Museum three times so as to drive this reminder deep into their identities. The Museum somberly narrates the Nazi atrocity start to finish, from the vicious propaganda to the segregation and oppression, to the collectivizing and the ghettos, and ultimately to the extermination of six million people. Oddly, the Jewish teenagers there during our visit mostly seemed unaffected. They were too busy flirting and texting to worry about hatred.
Afterwards we made our way into Bethlehem, despite official US State Department warnings against traveling there that day. Bethlehem sits in the West Bank, where Palestinian protests flared. But as Christians wanting to see the manger, we ignored the warnings and went to Bethlehem anyway, which these days means crossing a heavily armed checkpoint into a city surrounded by a massive security wall, seen here from a distance. You must swap your Israeli guide for a Palestinian since each is not allowed in the others’ territory. Poverty and unemployment are rampant behind the walls, with strict limits on every movement blatant oppression, leading more than one of our traveling companions to take note of the irony: “Israel is doing to the Palestinians what Nazis did to the Jews.”
We visited a Palestinian Lutheran church whose pastor held out little hope for genuine peace. President Obama has come and gone, as have plenty of Presidents before him, and nothing really changes. The pastor was obliged to suggest everybody give Jesus a chance, but Christian quibbling over who runs the Church of the Nativity makes Jesus seem like a losing proposition too. And , it’s hard to see in Jesus anything but another losing proposition. And loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you crucified dead and buried.
I’m participating in a Bethel University theology and work initiative with a group of business and seminary professors. Given our own Innové project, I’m interested in the ways our faith as Christians can influence entrepreneurship and the marketplace proper. This is not as easy as it might sound. Too often influence runs the other way. So much of what matters to business runs contrary to the gospel, be it the primacy of shareholders over service, gluttonous profits, avaricious career ambition or the over-accumulation of capital. As I mentioned last Sunday with Jesus’ parable about an uncharitable rich man, to prosper financially is not a Biblical vice. But wealth does tempt us toward greed and injustice and extravagance, none of which bode well for our souls if the rich man’s eventual torment in hell is any indication.
Having just preached that parable as I sat in the theology and work conversation, I wondered out loud what Christian faith can noticeably contribute to the way we do business. The Bethel scholars offered up the Christian virtues of honesty and integrity and hard work, along with Christian concerns for service and fairness. And I agree. To believe in Jesus is to value all these things. But you can value these things without believing in Jesus. Is there anything else that is distinctive to Christianity? What about humiliation and loss? Although he was Almighty God, Jesus wore weakness as his human identity, riding in as king on a borrowed burro. Over and over again he stressed how the last shall be first and the humble exalted. He speaks of the importance of lost sheep and lost coins and lost sons and losing your possessions and even your life for the sake of the gospel. That is distinctive.
As far as I know there’s not a business plan on earth that puts loss in its mission statement. Loss is not a pathway to profit. Unless, of course, you buy the gospel. Our Innové judging commences this Saturday. What if we chose as our winners those social entrepreneurial projects deemed certain to lose? Granted, one of the mantras of the startup world is fail faster. Mistakes are an inevitable step on the path to true innovation—but you want to get through them quickly. Nobody makes mistakes their goal. That would be ridiculous. As ridiculous as changing the world through death on a cross.
Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now it’s too late.” Too late and too bad. Embedded in Jerusalem’s name is the Hebrew shalom, a kind of peace that goes beyond the mere absence of enmity to include justice and righteousness and tranquility. This city was supposed to be heaven on earth. God’s own house was located there, the Temple where the Lord himself resided, making Jerusalem the nexus of holiness and humanity. But now the Temple would be ruined by the Romans, as the Babylonians had ruined it centuries before. The prophet Jeremiah cried over Jerusalem then, and Jesus wept now, the only difference being that unlike after Jeremiah, God’s house would not be rebuilt this time.
In Jerusalem we walked where the Temple once stood, on the stones Jesus actually walked on himself. There are some religious groups who believe that if the Temple gets rebuilt then the Messiah will come and walk there again. Their fervor has led them to remake the Temple’s furnishings according to Biblical specs in preparation for that day. Standing in they way, however, is the fact that the Temple mount is under Islamic ownership. To try and build a Jewish Temple there and you ignite World War III. Not even Israel will allow that. The Roman Emperor Julian tried to rebuild it in 363 AD, but an earthquake halted construction. Apparently God wouldn’t allow it either. That’s because in Christ, the stone house of God gave way to a human body, The Lord in the flesh, which is another reason Jesus wept. “You did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” meant Jerusalem did not recognize Jesus as God himself coming to visit in person.
But again, this is understandable. What kind of God comes to visit dressed like a vagrant and riding a donkey? Even his disciples dump him once they see how deadly serious Jesus was about humiliation and loss. Loss is no pathway to victory. Weakness and failure only get you crucified dead and buried.
If you’re going to win, brute force and muscle are the ways to do it. It's how the forceful Romans eventually burned Jerusalem to the ground. It's how the mighty Persians rolled in later and destroyed the Romans, followed by the stronger Byzantines who pounded the Persians. A few decades later Islam powerfully emerged and Arab armies took over the city, who in turn were beaten down by the more powerful Turks, who massacred all of Jerusalem’s inhabitants during their reign. Christians, under Pope Urban II, took offense and the Crusades commenced, leading to the slaughter of 30,000 Muslims and Jews in one battle. More Crusaders followed making Jerusalem a Roman Catholic stronghold until the tougher Ottoman Turks invaded and reduced the city to ruins once more. The Ottomans ruled for 400 years, and then the Egyptians moved in, and then the Russians and the French and finally the brutish British who made Jerusalem part of a colony called Palestine, named for the Philistines, Israel’s ancient enemy and a subtle reminder that Israel will always have its enemies. Jerusalem became the capital of a fortified Jewish state after World War II and the Holocaust, but there is no shalom.
Of course there's no Roman Empire anymore either, or Persian or Byzantine Empires for that matter. Muslims violently divide as Shiite and Sunni. The Crusades proved a colossal failure, and the Ottomans have been reduced to living room furniture. The British still have their Queen, but she’s only a force as far as the tabloids are concerned. And even Israel, while strong, won't last forever. No human civilization ever does. Someday Jerusalem will be reduced to ruin again and another civilization will be added to the pile. All earthly displays of power and might fade away, but 2000 years later, we still do Easter. Next Sunday we’ll rejoice and shout and sing yet again about the victory of weakness and the power of humiliation and acknowledge once again that loss truly is the way to new life, giving thanks that resurrection defeats death every time. It’s no coincidence that at the end of time, Scripture envisions heaven as a brand new Jerusalem, finally situated at the top of the pile. There’s no Temple there or any need for light, for the glory of God and the Lamb of God is all the light that you need. On that day every knee will bow and every coat will come off there will be no more crying. All will finally recognize that God didn't just come to visit. He came to stay.