by Chris Ritter
We have been following Jesus on his journey toward Jerusalem. Last week he announced the City of David would not see him until they said, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” In Chapter 19, that time has finally arrived. All four Gospels tell the story, but Luke does it differently.
Due to COVID, Hollywood has been fairly limited in producing new movies. To fill the void, there have been several “special cuts” of existing movies. The latest is the “Snyder Cut” of The Justice League. A friend recommended I watch it… all four hours of it! Luke’s cut might be shocking to Palm Sunday purists: No palms, no Hosannas, no children. But what he tells us about the Sunday before Jesus’ death is so weighted with meaning. Let’s listen.
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 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. 43 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. 44 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.”
45 When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. 46 “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”
47 Every day he was teaching at the temple. But the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the leaders among the people were trying to kill him. 48 Yet they could not find any way to do it, because all the people hung on his words.Luke 19:28-48 (New International Version)
When compared to the rest of Jesus’ ministry, there is something different about Palm Sunday. Jesus most often chose to remain low-key. He healed people of terrible diseases and made them promise not to tell anyone. He more than once sent crowds of people away. He alluded those who wanted to make him king by force. Some of his hard teachings seemed almost designed to chase away the casual clingers.
It is clear that Jesus’ earthly ministry was not about drawing big crowds or building a huge following. The Gospel will certainly go viral in the Book of Acts. The Risen Jesus will send his disciples out to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. But the flow of Luke’s Gospel gets narrower and narrower on the way to the Cross.
Jesus’ primary mission was to witness to God’s reign and prepare a group of apostles for leadership. The cross was centerpiece of his mission as he offered his life for you and me. But it was also Jesus’ purpose to call a chosen nation back to God. This was a time of divine visitation for Jerusalem… a final opportunity to repent. The City of David had an opportunity to join the spiritual renewal that began with the rural ministry of John the Baptist. They have one last opportunity to recognize their Messiah and follow him. Jesus’ final week of ministry will be a public call to all of Jerusalem to turn and believe.
The Swollen City
It was the time of the Passover. Jesus and his disciples were just a few of a great multitude of pilgrims that swelled the population of Jerusalem for the week. On a normal day, perhaps 100,000 people lived in Jerusalem. During Passover, some say that number exceeded two million. In Jesus’ day, Passover had been celebrated for well over 1100 years. It recalled God bringing the Children of Israel out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.
The first thing that Jesus is going to do is send two of his disciples to steal a donkey: “Go into Bethphage and you will find a colt tied there that no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If they ask you why you are untying the colt, tell them ‘The Lord needs it.’” I shouldn’t say “steal.” It was more “borrowing without advance permission.” At any rate, everything went exactly as Jesus said it would. The owners of the young donkey agreed.
Riding a donkey that had never been ridden before is a miracle in and of itself. Just as the donkey’s owners agree to cooperate, so does the donkey. There may be a statement here about Israel. Even a donkey recognizes the Messiah, why can’t the Holy City? Remember Balaam’s donkey who saw the truth even when the Prophet did not? There may be a little echo of that here.
Why did the Lord need a colt? If you want to make a grand, royal entrance this is hardly the ride you want. Someone said it is kind of like riding into Sturgis on a Moped instead of a Harley. But there was a reason. About five hundred years earlier the Prophet Zechariah proclaimed:
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
It was a Messianic sign that the Messiah King would enter the city in a very humble way. People began taking off their coats and laying them in the road for Jesus and the donkey to walk over. This was the First Century equivalent of a Red Carpet.
Sometimes we preachers say that the same crowd that shouted “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday turned to shout “Crucify him!” on Friday. But this is not necessarily the case. Luke tells us that the core of the Palm Sunday parade were Jesus’ followers. They praised God for the miracles he performed.
Just think of all the miracles we have seen in the Gospel of Luke.
The crowd may have included Peter’s mother-in-law who had been healed of a fever. It might have included folks from Capernaum who had been healed and delivered. The disciples had witnessed the miraculous catch of fish. Others had seen him take a little boy’s lunch and feed a multitude. There was a paralytic who took up his mat and walked. There were lepers who were cleansed by his touch. There was a man whose withered hand was restored. There was the widow’s son who was raised back to life. Jairus may have been there with his daughter. A formerly blind man could now behold his King. The woman previously bent over for eighteen years was standing tall and waving her arms in welcome.
They are singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and shouting, “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.” When I read this passage over again this week, I noticed something strangely familiar about those words. In Luke 2, the angels came to the shepherd’s and sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among men.” It is almost as if the crowd is echoing back that angelic song by saying, “Peace in heaven and glory to God in the highest.”
The Pharisees speak to Jesus and encourage him to shut the disciples up. Jerusalem, then and now, could be a hotbed of trouble. The religious elites wanted to tamp down what seemed like an unscheduled parade. Jesus’ response is only found in Luke: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” That would have been, as they say, the world’s first rock concert. Silence here is not an option. The long-promised Messiah King is parading into Jerusalem. God is visiting his people. There must be praise. There must be joy.
…Except for Jesus
While everyone is shouting joyfully, Jesus is weeping. I visited the Mount of Olives a few years ago and we stopped at a little Franciscan Chapel on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem. The construction was inspired by Luke’s account. It is called, Dominus Flevit… The Lord Wept. Above the altar is an open space where a stained glass window might traditionally be. Through the window you can see the city laid out before you. It was over this city that Jesus wept.
Jesus speaks to prophetically to city and says, “If you, even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.” Jesus could see forward to a time when Jerusalem would be surrounded and destroyed.
In 66 AD the Jewish people revolted against Emperor Nero and against Roman taxation. In response, the Roman governor sent soldiers onto holy ground and raided the temple coffers. This violation of the sacred set off a larger rebellion in which six thousand Roman soldiers were killed. Rome assembled a larger army to make an example of the Jews. They first attacked from the north and refugees from Galilee flooded into Jerusalem. By 70 AD they surrounded Jerusalem for a chaotic seven-month siege. Zealots within the walls destroyed the food in an attempt to force the people out of a defensive posture to march out and fight. Ultimately, the Romans breached the walls, killed hundreds of thousands, and burned and razed the city. The temple was leveled so that (as Jesus predicted) not one stone was left on another. The city was not re-founded until the second century and then as a pagan city called Aelia Capitolina.
Jerusalem’s Messiah would come and they did not recognize the hour of their visitation. It was on Palm Sunday that Jesus made a powerful, prophetic witness against the City he loved so much.
A Den of Robbers
Jesus went directly to the temple and drove out those who bought and sold there: “It is written, my house will be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers.” How was the temple a den of robbers?
How much would you expect to pay for a bottle of water? Tap water is cheap. In fact, you could buy all the tap water a person needs to drink for a year for less than a dollar. But we know bottled water costs more. You are paying for the bottle, the shipping, and the marketing. (Evian spelled backwards is Naïve). If you go to Costco, you can get a cold bottle of water from a vending machine for 25 cents. But this is just to make you feel better after spending $800 at the cash register. Cold water at check-out usually costs a dollar or two. Imagine you are at Six Flags in July. A cold bottle of water there might cost you seven or eight dollars. It is all about location, location, location.
Pilgrims to Jerusalem paid their temple tax while they were there. This had to be paid in temple money, not Roman money. The exchange rate during Passover was extreme. People came to offer a lamb without blemish in sacrifice. You could bring one from home, but the priests had to recognize it as without flaw. You were gambling to bring your own. And who wanted to take a long trip with a lamb in tow? They sold pre-certified lambs in the temple courts… for a high price. The people who came to connect with God were being gouged. This made Jesus angry. He drove the merchandizers out. This was a practical way of calling an entire religious system to repentance.
The Time of OUR Visitation
One day we will all stand before God. I believe we will hear one of two things. The first option is “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What an amazing thing to hear! We received God’s grace and responded with a faithful, obedient, and loving life.
The other possibility is to hear the very words spoken by Jesus to Jerusalem: “You did not recognize the time of your visitation.”
God loves absolutely everyone. Jesus died for all. The Holy Spirit is pursuing each one of us with what John Wesley called, “Prevenient Grace.” This is God’s seeking, convicting love. But we each have our own choices to make. Each day provides an opportunity for us each to respond with faith and obedience… or not.
God is speaking. If you don’t experience God speaking to you, just open up His Word. The Holy Spirit witnesses to our Spirit about the revelation of God we find there. We hear sermons, songs, and testimonies that reminds us that God loves us and is seeking relationship with us. Psalm 95 implores us, “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness.” God is always speaking, but sometimes we are too stubborn to listen.
God is sending his servant to us. God puts people in our lives at critical junctures to show us how to follow him. Perhaps you can testify to these providential relationships. God never forces himself into our lives, but there is always a witness to his truth. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? Well, I believe God judges us by what we know, not by what we don’t know. But none of us reading this can truly claim ignorance. God’s truth is all around us… through the Word and through others. Hebrews 13 tells us to remember those who spoke the Word of God to us and consider the outcome of their lives. We are instructed to imitate their faith.
God seeks to lead us. We bump and bumble through life. Every once in a while there is a moment of clarity. “This isn’t working. I need to reconnect to God.” If you just get busy with some idle distraction, that feeling usually goes away. If we listen, our lives are transformed for the good. God uses situations in life to get our attention.
I believe Holy Week 2021 is a time of Visitation. It is an opportunity for each of us to recognize the Savior the God has sent to us. It is an invitation to lay aside our ways to and follow his ways. Will we listen?