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Perspectives on the Cross: Before the Cross

April 9, 2006

Luke 18:31-19:10; 28-48

The challenge for a preacher on Palm Sunday and Easter is pretty much the same as it is at Christmas. How do I tell the story that people know so well in a way that gives fresh insight? I have decided to back up a bit and look not only at the events of Palm Sunday but also at the events that surround the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. We know the events that occur on Palm Sunday. Jesus rides a donkey into the city as the people wave palm branches and shout, “Hosanna!” Then five days later, they crucify him. If we look closely at the events that surround this entry into the capital city, we begin to see a pattern unfolding that gives us a perspective of the cross. This message today continues our series Perspectives on the Cross. Today, our perspective is “Before the Cross” as we examine what happened immediately before Jesus went to the cross.

Early in the scriptural text for today, you notice that Jesus tells his disciples again, actually for the third time, that he will suffer and die. He is very specific, yet they do not understand. He tells them that the Son of Man will be taken captive, then mocked, spat upon, flogged, and killed. The disciples appear confused by all they hear and act befuddled about why Jesus should even go to Jerusalem at all. They know that a price is on his head and that some individuals there want to kill him. According to John’s gospel, the disciples beg him, even plead with him, not to go; but Jesus is intent on continuing this journey.

Seventeen miles away from Jerusalem, still about 2,300 feet in elevation below Jerusalem, Jesus travels toward Jericho, an ancient town located on the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee. The Romans called Jericho, known for its wealth, “one of the fattest morsels in all of Palestine.”

When I traveled to the Holy Land a few years ago, I marveled at the fact that Yasir Arafat, the clever leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, had built a gambling casino in Jericho. Every night, people flood out of Jerusalem and into Jericho to gamble. Arafat found a way to draw money away from the Jewish community and into the Palestinian community. Jericho was in a similar situation during the lifetime of Jesus. Though we know of no organized gambling then, we do know of the city’s wealth. Where there is wealth, there is corruption. We see evidence of that corruption in Jericho.

As Jesus walks toward the town, a blind beggar stops him. This man had been sitting by the roadside when he hears a group coming his way. When he discovers that Jesus is among those approaching, he cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Those at the front of the procession rebuke the beggar. They do not want Jesus to be bothered with this dirty, unkempt outcast. Hearing a plea for help, Jesus directs his followers to bring this man before him. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The beggar responds, “I want to be able to see.” Jesus restores the man’s sight, based on his faith. Overjoyed, the outcast joins the group of disciples following Jesus, becoming a part of the entourage.

Following that encounter with the outcast wearing rags and tags, Jesus continues into the city where he sees another beggar, this time wearing a velvet gown. You may be familiar with the nursery rhyme chanted during the sixteenth century reign of Queen Elizabeth: “Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark. The beggars are coming to town, some in rags and some in tags and some in velvet gowns.” That rhyme certainly applies here. This beggar, a chief tax collector named Zacchaeus, has to be one of the most hated men in all of Jericho. He has great wealth but no respect. He is a short man, short in stature and short on friends. He is no less a beggar than the blind man crouching by the roadside. Zacchaeus is poverty stricken in his spirit. Knowing that Jesus is approaching, he climbs a tree. There Jesus spots him and calls to him by name.

Dr. Frank Stagg, a professor of the New Testament at Southern Seminary and a member of my ordination council, asked me, “Kirk, what is the soteriology of the Zacchaeus account?” While I tried to remember the meaning of the word soteriology, Dr. Dale Moody, another council member present, engaged Dr. Stagg in conversation about his question. I played the tried-and-true game called “Let’s Let the Two of You Fight.” I let them duke it out for a few minutes while I figured out an answer. Soteriology is the study of salvation. Dr. Stagg was asking me what the Zacchaeus account tells us about Jesus’ method of bringing salvation to others. He wanted to know just how much initiative a person should take when trying to reach those who do not know Christ. Jesus not only calls Zacchaeus down out of tree, but he also invites himself to dinner, “Zacchaeus, come down from there! I am going to your house today.” Jesus takes a very high level of initiative in his encounter with this beggar who is spiritually deprived.

Jesus’ response to these two encounters in Jericho demonstrates his expectations of his disciples. “Do not ignore the man by the roadside. Do not ignore the outcast. Do not ignore the wealthy. Do not assume a person of wealth has no spiritual poverty. You reach out to both groups – the beggars in rags and tags and the beggars who wear a velvet gown.”

Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus changes him. He tells Jesus, “Lord, I am going to give away half of what I own to take care of people like the man by the roadside. I am going to give away one-half of everything I have to the poor. Out of the other half, I am going to make restitution four times over for anyone I have wronged or defrauded.” Zacchaeus demonstrates by his actions that he is a changed man. He, too, may have become a follower and joined that entourage headed up the steep ascent of 2,300 feet, from the Jordan Valley to Mount Zion, then Mount Moriah, and on to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus crests the Mount of Olives and gives his disciples, some of them at least, a task that must have astounded them. He tells them, “Go find a donkey.” I do not know which disciples he selected for this task. He might have sent the blind beggar, now healed, and Zacchaeus, now a changed man. He might have sent James and John together, the two vying for places of honor. That would certainly be ironic. If he sent two of the fishermen to fetch this donkey, I can imagine that they asked themselves, “Is this the reason we left our nets and our boats? Did we give up fishing to be donkey-fetchers?” The disciples must have asked themselves the question, “Why does the Lord need a donkey anyway? He has walked everywhere he has gone since the day we met him. He has even walked on the water. Why does he need a donkey now?”

Luke tells, in detail, how the disciples get the donkey. They go into the village, find the donkey, and begin untying it. When questioned about what they are doing, they supply the password, “The Lord has need of it.” Without further questioning, they receive permission to take the donkey, which Jesus will sit upon and ride down the Mount of Olives into the city of Jerusalem.

Why is Jesus, a man who has a price on his head, riding into the city on a donkey? If you read Zachariah 9:9, you will see that the Old Testament provides a prophecy that the Messiah would come on the back of a donkey. A king entering a city on a horse meant that he came as a conquering hero. A king entering the city on a donkey meant that he came as a peacemaker. Jesus comes in peace, with his legs dangling and almost touching the ground. Common folks seem to understand this concept. They recognize his kingship; of course, they make false assumptions about it. At least on this day, they wave the palm branches and spread their garments – rags, tags, and velvet gowns – on the pavement as Jesus rides the donkey into the city.

All of these proceedings disturb the Pharisees. The disciples of Jesus had tried to quiet the beggar in Jericho. Now, the Pharisees try to get the disciples to be quiet. When they order Jesus, “Tell them to hush,” Jesus responds, “I tell you, if they don’t cry out, even the stones will cry out.” Jesus is coming as a king, not as a conquering hero, not as a leader of a revolution. He comes as a different kind of king. He does look silly riding on a donkey, but you see a difference in his face. This king is weeping, crying as he looks over the entire city of Jerusalem. Luke 13 tells us that he had wept over the city of Jerusalem before. He had said, “I would have taken you under my wing as a mother hen protects her brood, but you would not allow that.” Now, he weeps over this city because the inhabitants do not “know the things that make for peace.” He is coming as a peaceful king for a city named for peace, Jeru Salem, which means “city of peace.” They do not have a clue about what makes for peace. Jesus weeps over cities like Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Berlin, Auschwitz, Belfast, and Baghdad. Jesus weeps over cities like Baghdad, Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Jesus weeps over Spartanburg. He weeps over cities that do not understand why he came. He came as a king, offering peace, a peace that is not of this world. Jerusalem would have none of it, and I am afraid that is true of almost all of the cities over which Jesus weeps.

When Jesus reaches the temple, it appears as if he were going to worship. Once he enters, however, you see a dramatic swing in his emotions. We witnessed his sadness as he entered the city. Now, we witness his rage when he sees people changing money and selling animals. Jesus sees unholy commercialism in the temple. The high priest is using the temple’s sacrificial system practice to line his pockets. People worshipped by offering an animal as a sacrifice. They could actually purchase animals in the outer court of the temple from stalls referred to as “booths of the high priest.” The moneychangers, however, had instructions to overcharge people for their purchase. Of course, worshippers had permission to bring a sacrificial animal from the outside, but the high priest’s inspectors hunted for spots and blemishes. They rejected animals brought from the outside so that the worshippers would have to purchase the over-priced animals available in the booths. In addition, these moneychangers did not offer a fair exchange rate on money. If a person wanted to pay their temple tax, they had to pay use money minted within the temple. Changing from one form of currency to temple currency cost a high fee. These practices, in a sense, robbed worshippers and prevented the poor from worshipping.

In response to these practices, Jesus overthrows the tables, drives out the animals, and gives the simple declaration from Isaiah 56:7: “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.” His actions enrage the moneychangers and merchants because, in effect, he is putting them out of business. We already know that collusion existed between the temple and the empire. We already know that they wanted to kill him. His actions now heightened their efforts to put him to death.

Several years ago during Holy Week, ministers from the community spoke to us, bringing us a devotion. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, three different preachers from three different denominations all chose to speak on the text of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple found in the gospel of Matthew. Do you think the Lord wanted us to hear something? “My house shall be a house of prayer for all people” (Matthew 21:13). The house of God is not a house of fancy programs. It is not a house of entertainment. It is not a place of social gathering. The house of God is a house of prayer. Jesus wants that as much now as he did then.

Why, before his cross, would Jesus take the time to stop by the roadside and minister to a blind beggar? Why, as he went through Jericho, would he call a wealthy man down out of a tree? Why would he even go to Jerusalem in the first place? Why would he send his disciples, called from fishing, down to be donkey-fetchers? Why would Jesus ride the donkey into the city? Why would he go to the temple and create such a commotion? Where do we fit into all of this? We are one of the beggars, though we may not be in rags and tags. Maybe we are one of the beggars, spiritually blind, who needs the Lord to heal us. We may be beggars in fine linens, woolens, ultra-suede, and silk. Maybe we are among the donkey-fetchers who must “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the gospel says.

Is preparing the way of the Lord glorious work? No, preparing the way of the Lord is the willingness to do menial tasks. My family had a pony named Cocoa when I was a child. He often got out of his pen, especially this time of the year when he had not been ridden very much, and always went straight to John Gaston’s house where he ate Clara’s flowers. We would have to go fetch Cocoa. Have you ever thought of yourself as a donkey-fetcher? I have sometimes described pastoral ministry as “herding cats.” I have found a new way to describe my task: fetching donkeys. Maybe we are the ones asked to do menial tasks to prepare the way of the Lord. Maybe we are among those who shout, “Hosanna!” then quickly turn, and shout, “Crucify him!” Maybe we are the proper religious people who wonder about the need for all of this commotion. If you look closely, you will find yourself here somewhere.

The question “Why, before the cross, would Jesus do these things?” remains. We find an answer in the text for today, Luke 19:10: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” That is why he cares about the beggar crouched by the roadside and a short tax collector who has considerable money but no friends. That is why he weeps over an entire city and cleanses the temple. He came to seek and to save the lost. He knows that ultimately that means the cross. He is not just going to wait for the cross. The very way he comes into the city, his actions, proclaim that purpose: “to seek and to save the lost.” Talk about a purpose-driven life! He wants to do that for you. He wants you to know him. He wants to take a high level of initiative toward you. He wants to come into your house, to be the unseen guest at your table, to be a part of your conversations. He wants to have a place in your home and in your heart. He came with tears in his eyes for you.

Have you acknowledged Christ as your King? Have you allowed Christ to come as the Prince of Peace? If not, this is the day of salvation. We invite you to make that decision. Accept Christ Jesus as your Savior. Some of you have other decisions to make. You have been a Christian for a long time; but you are, in effect, a homeless Christian. You know you need a church home where you can belong. Respond to whatever decision the Lord lays on your heart as we stand and sing a beautiful hymn about the cross, “At Calvary.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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