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The Prayers of Jesus: On Entering Jerusalem

April 5, 2009
Sermon:  April 5, 2009
Text:  Luke 19:28-44

 I heard about a church that decided to save money by eliminating paper towels in the restrooms.  Automatic hand dryers, the kind that never dries your hands, were installed.  Some wag put a little note above the button: “For a preview of the pastor’s sermon, press here.”  I am afraid that without my sermon notes you might have gotten just that.

We begin Holy Week together today as we continue our series The Prayers of Jesus.

John Lane, a friend who teaches English at Wofford College, says that there are really only two kinds of stories: those that involve a person taking a trip and those that involve a stranger coming to town.  Depending on your perspective, the account of Palm Sunday is really both types.  From the perspective of many, it is about a man who went on a trip.  Certainly from the perspective of the people in Jerusalem, it is about a stranger who came to town.

Jesus, we read earlier in the Gospel of Luke, had set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem.  This man was definitely on a journey, a trip, a pilgrimage.  This Messiah had a mission.  He was going to the capital, but not just for Passover.  That city was more than just the destination for Jesus.  It is the destiny for Jesus. 

Marcus Borg, a theologian, says two processions entered Jerusalem at the same time that year.  The Roman garrison came from the west, a procession that began in Caesarea Meritima, Caesarea by the Sea, where Roman soldiers were housed.  As Passover approached, reinforcements marched into Jerusalem because the crowds would swell to several hundred thousand and much chaos occurred in the streets.  The Romans wanted to be sure enough soldiers were on hand to control the large numbers.  A proud commander, riding on a magnificent white horse, led stately procession from the west.  The large entourage accompanying him was clothed in armor.  The soldiers displayed their swords and spears as they marched into Jerusalem.

The second procession entering the city from the east was such a contrast.  Unlike the military commander who entered the city with pride, Jesus came in humility.  His entourage featured a small cluster gathered around him as he rode on a donkey down the Mount of Olives.  Jesus must have looked a little silly, to be quite honest.  I imagine his feet did not miss the ground by much.  The donkey was not a very big animal.  Jesus had sent the disciples on the strange task of fetching that donkey.  What a task they had!  Discipleship is certainly about the willingness to do menial tasks.  The group accompanying him consisted of peasants from the small towns named House of Figs and House of Dates, Bethany and Bethphage, respectfully.  Borg says that Jesus certainly would have known about the procession from Caesarea and that he may actually have been mocking that Roman procession with his entrance. 

We come back to this story every year.  We know how it unfolds.  We know about Jesus’ making a trip and about a stranger who comes to town.  We know that Jesus rode a donkey down the hillside and into the city through that gate called Gate Beautiful.  We know about children waving palm branches and adults shouting “Hosanna, King of the Jews!”  We are aware that by the end of the week, those cries became the cries of “Crucify him!”  We also know of the incensed religious leaders’ order to rebuke the crowd and Jesus’ response, “If they don’t cry out, even the stones will cry out.”  We know that Jesus stayed in the city among the people a week, teaching in the temple.  Finally, he was tried in a kangaroo court and then put to death. 

We must ask ourselves, “Is there anything new for us to consider this year?”  Luke’s account reminds us of some interesting elements of this story about this man on a trip, this man on a mission.  To the religious and political leaders, this stranger in town seemed to be a trouble maker, a rabble rouser.  This man, whom religious leaders called a blasphemer and whom political leaders labeled a revolutionary or radical of some sort, created a very strange collusion, a very unlikely alliance.  The temple and the empire, both interested in doing away with Jesus, became strange bedfellows. The peasants in Jerusalem welcomed Jesus, but those leaders in charge did not.  Pilate was worried, and his wife was having bad dreams.  Herod wanted to see Jesus but really did not want to know anything about Jesus’ authority. 

I want you to look carefully at the story and at the text before you.  Notice that Luke’s version never uses the word Hosanna.  His version makes absolutely no mention of palm leaves.  We get those details from other Gospels.  We see that the story in Luke’s Gospel is the same, but many of the details are not included.  Think for a minute about why that is the case.  Luke, a physician probably from Troas, in all likelihood never went to Jerusalem.  He got the information included in his Gospel from the Apostle Paul.  It may be that Paul, then a very young Saul of Tarsus, was in Jerusalem at this time.  We know that he was at the stoning of Stephen not very long after this account.  Peter was in Jerusalem; and John Mark, who wrote the Gospel according to Simon Peter, lived there.  Matthew was certainly there, as was John the apostle.  They all give us some details.  Luke’s perspective is different.  Because he paints this story with a broad brush, we begin to see some elements that are so important.  The real meaning of what happens here is not caught up in the details, with which we are so familiar.  Luke wrote this because he really wants us to catch some points that are easy to miss. 

The person on the donkey is not just making a triumphal entry; he is completing a journey that he has been on for a long time.  When did this trip into town begin?  The journey actually began back at Bethlehem.  It certainly had its roots in Nazareth and in Galilee.  Jesus had been headed in this direction throughout his three-year ministry.  Now as he came to town, he was greeted in this strange way with singing and dancing, with people waving palms and spreading their cloaks on the ground. You remember that back in Nazareth, Jesus had gone to the synagogue, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, and read about his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he said, “because he has anointed me to set the captives free, to proclaim good news to the poor, to restore sight to the blind, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).  Jesus took that Scripture as his marching orders.  From that day forward, he was on a pilgrimage, heading straight for the capital city.  Perhaps he looked a little silly riding on that donkey with his feet almost touching the ground, but he knew very well the mission he was to accomplish.

Luke made another point that is important for us to understand.  Triumphal entries had a pattern, which we can read about in several places.  Anthony, as a conqueror, rode into Ephesus on a white horse.  People greeted him, singing and cheering.  He immediately went to the temple of Dionysus and offered a sacrifice.  The Jewish historian Josephus wrote about the entrance of Alexander the Great into Jerusalem.  Alexander came as a conquering hero, with people reacting in very much this same way.  They greeted him with shouting, spreading garments on the ground.  Alexander went to the temple where the high priest instructed him on how he should offer a sacrifice. 

You will notice a kind of rhythm in Mark’s Gospel.  Jesus went into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Then he returned to Bethany.  The next day, he came into the city and cleansed the temple.  Then he returned to Bethany.  He came into the city again on Wednesday and so forth throughout the week. 

A similar story had happened about two hundred years before this event.  Judas Macabees, a zealot, also rode into Jerusalem on a colt.  He had come to overthrow a dictator, a tyrant named Antiochus Ephiphanes.  He went straight to the temple and cleaned house, getting rid of Antiochus and restoring the eternal flame that had been extinguished.  The Jews still commemorate that event in the celebration called Hanukah.  Can you imagine that the people in Jerusalem might have had that association in their minds as Jesus came into the city? 

You might say, “Kirk, I thought this was one sermon in a series about the prayers of Jesus.  Where is the prayer here?”  Let me tell you.  The whole event is all about prayer.  Did he pray before he entered the city of Jerusalem?  Yes.  He prayed for a world that did not get it.  Jesus went to the temple and said, “It is written, ‘My house will be a house of prayer’…You have made it a den of thieves.”  The temple had become something God never intended it to be.  It had become everything except a house of prayer.

Have you ever prayed and cried at the same time?  Have you ever prayed with your eyes open and cried at the same time?  When your heart is broken, your prayers take the form of tears.  Psalm 6:8 says, “The Lord hears my weeping.”  Sometimes we do not need words for prayers.  Tears will do.  I have prayed a few prayers like that.  I have prayed while I was on a journey headed to a destination with a broken heart.  My eyes were open but filled with tears as I drove back and forth and back and forth to Nashville, Tennessee. 

Did you notice that amidst all the cheering and shouting of the crowd about a king, that Jesus wept?  He wept a prayer for a city that just did not get it:  Jeru-Shalom – the City of Peace.  The City of Peace did not understand the things that made for peace.  He had come to bring peace.  The angels sang that at his birth:  “Peace on earth, good will to humankind.”  This Prince of Peace had been on a mission, which the city of Jerusalem did not understand.  They did not know the mission of this stranger that came to town.  They did not recognize “the time of their visitation.”  He wept.

On this Palm Sunday, it is important for us to know that Jesus wept not only for the capital city of Jerusalem but he also weeps for Dachau and for Auschwitz.  He weeps for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He weeps for Saigon and the killing fields of Cambodia.  He weeps for places in Africa, places like Rwanda and Darfur, Sudan.  He weeps for Baghdad and Kabul and Tehran.  He weeps over New York City, especially after 9-11.  He weeps over Binghamton, New York, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  He weeps over Washington and Los Angeles and Spartanburg.  Jesus, the Prince of Peace, weeps because people do not know the things that make for peace. 

What makes for peace?  The very things he said when he started this trip make for peace:  to preach good news to the poor; to release those who are captive to addiction, to oppression, to discrimination, to whatever their bondage; to provide a place for the outcast; to give sight for the blind, especially those who are spiritually blind; to tell of the true holiness of justice and mercy and humility (Luke 4:18-19).  With eyes wide open yet filled with tears, Jesus went straight to the temple to offer a message of repentance. 

Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations and a fine Christian, says that the life of prayer must necessarily go through the world of action.  You see here Jesus’ life of prayer taking him straight to the world of action.  He had come to the place of worship.  He could come here to this church and say, “All of the programs on that busy calendar you publish every month might be well and good, but this is to be a house of prayer for all people.”  We must never forget that above all else, this is a place of worship. What does it mean when he says that this is “a house of prayer for all people”?  One, everybody can come here and participate in prayer.  Second, we are to pray for everybody, even for our enemies because Jesus told us to do that.  This is to be a house of prayer.

We begin Holy Week with this realization that a man on a journey has come as a stranger to town.  He has come as a king for his coronation, yet he has a crown of thorns and a blood-stained Roman robe.  His scepter is a broken reed and his throne an old rugged cross.  Why has he come?  He has come with tears in his eyes and a prayer in his heart, hoping that we will finally get it.  Amen.

Let us bow together for prayer.  Lord Christ, we come into your presence this Holy Week.  We want to know You.  We want to know what You are about.  We sincerely want to repent.  Help us to take this seriously.  Help this to make an impression in our hearts to change our lives so that as Your people, we can be agents of peace – not peace as the world knows – but Your peace.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© April 2009
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