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Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives

When tears started trickling down the face of a statue of Jesus Christ at a Catholic church in Mumbai last year, locals were quick to declare it a miracle. The Church of Our Lady of Velankanni became a site of pilgrimage and visitors began collecting the tears in bottles believing it to be holy water. Unfortunately it turned out that this miraculous phenomena was not so much a case of holy water as holey plumbing. The ‘tears’ trickling down the face of Christ were not because Jesus wept but because of clogged drainage pipes situated behind the statue?! Sanal Edamaruku, the poor chap who discovered the real cause of the ‘miracle’ was accused of blasphemy, charged with offences that carry a three-year prison sentence and eventually, after receiving death threats, had to seek exile in Finland.

Personally, I have little time for such mumbo jumbo as weeping statues and the like. A faith based simply on superstition, rather than reality, is ultimately of little or no value. The Bible, on the other hand, records various occasions when, during his incarnation, Jesus did weep. The most well know occasion, of course, is that especially associated with the actual phrase ‘Jesus wept’ (John 13:5) – a phrase famous for being the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible (although not the shortest in the original languages) – Jesus’ response to the sad news of the death of his friend Lazarus! It is not this incident when Jesus shed real tears, however, that I want to draw our attention to, but to another occasion more appropriate for the Holy Week narrative.

Holy Week begins with what is known as the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Luke tells us a few days before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey – the sign of a King entering a conquered city in peace – to be met with a rapturous welcome by the inhabitants of the city (Luke 19:28-40). Understandably our Palm Sunday sermons and homilies concentrate on the meaning and significance of this triumphal entry. But, as a result, all too often we miss – what to me is a very significant occurrence – something Luke records as taking place as Jesus comes over the brow of the Mount of Olives and sees the city of Jerusalem spread out before him for the first time on that first Palm Sunday. Luke tells us that ‘As [Jesus] approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it!’ (Luke 19:41).

On a number of occasions I have stood on the Mount of Olives and looked out over the city of Jerusalem. It is one of the most wonderful sights to be seen. Every time I see it, it takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes – so much history, so much pain even today! The last time I was there, just a few months ago, I found myself simply standing there, looking over the city, prayerfully pondering the past, the present, and the future for this city. Time simply slipped by for me. But what I felt, was as nothing compared to what Jesus felt as he too looked over Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday … and wept! The word ‘wept’ here is a very strong word in Greek (the language of the New Testament). Literally it means ‘the heaving of the breast’ or ‘the sob and cry of someone in agony of soul’. Jesus was clearly deeply, deeply moved by the sight of the city. Why was this so? What was it about Jerusalem and its people that moved Jesus to tears in this way?

Fortunately Jesus explains himself in the next few verses: ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come on you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 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 recognise the time of God’s coming to you’ (Luke 19:42-44). Jesus burst into sobbing at the sight of Jerusalem because in that moment he foresaw both the immediate response of the people of Jerusalem to his arrival – their rejection of him as God’s Messiah – and the eventual destruction of the city by Rome in AD 70. Jesus lamented both the horrendous lost opportunity for the city, and the inevitable tragedy that would ultimately befall them as a result.

Jesus’ tears on this occasion were not angry tears but tears of compassion. As he looked down on that city – as on another occasion – ‘he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ (Matthew 9:36). Jesus did not weep with anger knowing full well that the cries of ‘Hosanna!’ which would greet his entry into Jerusalem would quickly turn to cries of ‘Crucify!’ within just a matter of days. There was an inevitability about this because as the Apostle John tells us, reflecting some 60 years or so later on the coming of Christ – the true Light of God that came into the world in the person of Jesus in order to give light to everyone – ‘he was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not recognise him’ (John 1:10,11).

Jesus wept with compassion for a city, for a people – to whom God’s Messiah, the Saviour of the world, was revealing himself in a unique way – because he saw that they would completely miss this God-given opportunity. They would fail to recognise Jesus for who he truly was!? As Jesus looks over the city his emotions cannot be contained and he speaks out loud that which he feels deep within: ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace?’ (Luke 19:41). The word ‘peace’ here in Greek signifies a special kind of peace. It means ‘the peace that comes from knowing that our lives are held secure in the hand of God himself’. It is a special peace because it is the kind of peace that we only find in and through Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself promised his disciples on another occasion: ‘My peace I give you. I do not give you the kind of peace the world offers you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid’ (John 14:27). The peace that Jesus brings is ‘peace with God’ (Romans 5:1). It is ‘peace which passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). It is a unique kind of peace found only in and through Jesus Christ. It is a peace that the people of Jerusalem rejected through ignorance!?

There is a sad irony here because the name ‘Jerusalem’ has ‘peace’ as part of its meaning. But those in the city of peace did not know what made for peace! Especially important in the Hebrew understanding of ‘peace’ is its emphasis on peace with God – right relationship between the creature and the Creator as a vital ingredient in true peace. It was this that the people of Jerusalem failed to realise. And their failure to get to grips with the message of God had a sense of finality about it. The destruction of the city is inevitable as a consequence of the people’s rejection of Christ (Luke 19:43,44). Not because God judges them in anger but because they bring destruction down upon themselves as a direct result of rejecting God’s way in favour of their own way. The Jews of Jesus’ day saw ‘peace’ in terms of victory over their Roman oppressors and the re-establishing of the nation of Israel as ‘top dog’ in the region?! God saw ‘peace’ in terms of an inner peace that enables us to cope with any and every situation however difficult that situation may be – a peace that is available to all in and through Jesus Christ. The people of Jerusalem rejected that way as being too ‘milksop’, too ‘lily-livered’. The repetition of the word ‘you’ here – ten times in two verses – underlines the fact that it was the stubbornness of the people of Jerusalem that ultimately brought destruction upon themselves. In rejecting God’s way of peace, and picking an unwinnable fight with Rome instead, meant that the destruction of the city was inevitable. Jesus sadly concludes that all this was to happen ‘because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you’ (Luke 19:44)!

Jesus wept with compassion at this time because at that moment Jerusalem represented the crystallised centre of all humanity in its negative attitude towards him, right down through the centuries to the present day. Jesus wept not with anger but with compassion. Jesus wept because he was the ‘man of sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:3) who came into the world, as God Incarnate, in order to both make God known to us and provide a way of salvation for sinful people like us. As Peter tells us: ‘Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God!’ (1 Peter 3:18). The destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 resulted in such devastation that it is said a plough was drawn across the city. The tragedy was that if only the Jews had abandoned their dreams of political power and had taken the way of Christ it need never have happened. The tears of Jesus we see here are the tears of God when he sees the needless pain and suffering in which we involve ourselves through our foolish rejection of his ways, particularly our rejection of his Son, Jesus. Perhaps this Easter we need to ask ourselves the question first posed by Pilate just a few days later: ‘What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?’ (Matthew 27:22).

‘Man of Sorrows, what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Guilty, vile, and helpless, we,
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
Full redemption—can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

Lifted up was He to die,
‘It is finished!’ was His cry;
Now in heaven exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

When He comes, our glorious King,
To His kingdom us to bring,
Then anew this song we’ll sing
Hallelujah! what a Saviour!

~ Philip Bliss (1838-76)
Jim Binney

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