Reading the Bible from Below (4): Palm Sunday the Tearful Entry into Jerusalem.

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2015-03-29 by Jeremy Clarke

Preacher: Geoff Thorington-Hassell
29th March 2015
Readings: Lamentations 1:1-5, Luke 19:28-44, Philippians 2:6

Lamentations 1:1-5 (NIV)

1 How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.
2 Bitterly she weeps at night,
tears are on her cheeks.
Among all her lovers
there is no one to comfort her.
All her friends have betrayed her;
they have become her enemies.
3 After affliction and harsh labour,
Judah has gone into exile.
She dwells among the nations;
she finds no resting place.
All who pursue her have overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to her appointed festivals.
All her gateways are desolate,
her priests groan,
her young women grieve,
and she is in bitter anguish.
5 Her foes have become her masters;
her enemies are at ease.
The Lord has brought her grief
because of her many sins.
Her children have gone into exile,
captive before the foe.

Luke 19:28-44  (NIV)

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 recognise the time of God’s coming to you.”

NB Luke 19:38 refers to Psalm 118:26.

I was at a slight disadvantage in preparing the talk for today by not having access to the lectionary but felt I might be on safe ground given this is on Palm Sunday to talk to the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem.” Normally such services are all age with a jolly, participatory feel to them (although tinged with irony as to the fickle nature of crowds), perhaps with marching round the church with palms (or in our case this morning placards with kingdom slogans on them). I thought, however, this afternoon there would be likely less children and in our series of Reading the Bible from Below you could, perhaps, re‑label the “triumphal entry” as to the “tearful entry” into Jerusalem and to think about this afternoon for few minutes the anonymous victims of history.

The Old Testament reading was from Lamentations 1:1-7, usually attributed to Jeremiah – the weeping prophet. An eye witness to the events of 586 BC and the sacking and destruction of Jerusalem and its aftermath.

His poetry of lament opens with a mixture of shock and despair. “How deserted lies the city once so full of people.” As he sits alone pondering its fate and destruction the city too lies alone, wrecked, burnt and abandoned. The wheels of history have rode on and through. Only the dead are left. Elsewhere he writes in mundane prose, sparse, matter of fact, as Jeremiah writes in chapter 52 of the events that led up to the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign ( the last king of Judah). Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. They camped outside the city and built siege works all around it. The siege lasted two years. The famine in the city became so severe there was no food for the people to eat. It is Lamentations who gives us the visceral, true horror of the siege “children and infants faint in the streets of the city.” ( Lam 1:11) “They say to their mothers, “where is bread and wine?” as they faint like wounded men in the streets of the city as their lives ebb away in their mothers’ arms.”

Then the city wall was broken through and the whole army fled. They left the city at night through the gate between the two walls near the king’s garden. They fled towards Arabah but the Babylonian army pursued king Zedekiah and overtook him at the plains of Jericho. He was captured, his sons executed, his eyes put out and he died in prison.

It is the commander of the imperial Guard Nebuzaradan who supervises the destruction setting fire to the temple, the royal palaces and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burnt down. The whole army was used to break down the walls. It is he who supervises the exile of some of the poorest people and those who remained in the city, along with the rest of the craftsman, and those who had switched sides and gone over the the king of Babylon. But he left behind too the rest of the poorest of the land to work the vineyards and the fields and keep the economy going. Jeremiah is also scrupulously fair to record the later enlightened actions and changed attitudes of his enemies, as well as the continued stupidities and poor decisions of the survivors, their obstinacy and betrayals and the pain of avoidable further tragedies as they become swallowed up in the refugee camps of Egypt.

It seems to me that Jesus is in this prophetic tradition in the midst of the crowds joyful celebrations as he ( v48) approaches Jerusalem and saw the city , he wept over it and said, ”If you, even you had only known this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes . 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. 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.”

There too is a prose account of these terrible events written by Josephus. A politician, soldier, orator, and historian. A survivor, who became a Roman citizen and an imperial pensioner. He wrote an unreliable history as an eyewitness to these events. Designed to flatter his patron, Titus, who orchestrated the campaign against the Jewish homeland and the taking of Jerusalem. A former Jewish commander he switched sides and became the voice of history and who catalogued what happened as the walls were breached. “While the sanctuary was burning, looting went on right and left and all who were caught were put to the sword. There was not pity for age, no regard for rank, little children and old men, layman and priests alike were butchered, every class was held in the iron embrace of war, whether they defended themselves or cried for mercy.”

The book of Lamentations is customarily read aloud in its entirety on the ninth day of Av to remember not just the destruction of the city by the Babylonians in 586 BC but also by the Romans in AD 70. It has been besieged and fought over many times since.

Simon Sebag Montefiore (whose family has a long association with the city in modern times) writes in his biography of Jerusalem, “Jerusalem is the holy city, yet it has always been a den of superstition, charlatanism, bigotry, the desire and prize of empires, yet of no strategic value, the cosmopolitan home of many sects, each of which believes the city belongs to them alone. A city of many names – yet each tradition is so sectarian it excludes any other… She is the only city to exist twice – in Heaven and on Earth.

She has indeed been fought over any times since. In the summer of 1099 she was again besieged. It was just one among many but particularly terrible and sickening in its barbarity. The Crusaders catapulted cannon balls and missiles at her walls from which the defenders had suspended sacks of cotton and hay to soften the blows until the ramparts resembled giant washing lines.” (P 251).

Three siege engines were brought forward, flat packed like Ikea, and assembled. Following a co-ordinated attack using flashing mirrors the Franks broke in and went berserk and killed anyone in the streets and alleyways. Murdering and slaughtering in the most savage and barbarous means anyone they found. Jews, Muslims and anyone else. Reading the eye witness accounts translated from the Latin makes difficult reading. In September 1187 Saladin took it back on far more humane terns and with much less bloodshed but Jerusalemites had to pay ten dinars per man, five per woman and one per child. Thousands (P 304) could not afford their ransom were led away into slavery and the harem.

What marks out the “triumphal entry of Jesus” into Jerusalem is the lack of violence and the presence centre stage of ordinary people. Even though their understanding of what the nature and form of the Son of David’s kingdom coming was really all about was misguided. The singing of the people. Moments in history where ordinary people with names and stories come into view and Jesus comes without the machinery of war but the domesticity of peace and humility.

Other incidents of such an entry are a pale reflection of this. In the winter of 1917 General Allenby on the eve of taking Jerusalem took the advice telegraphed by the Foreign Office to “strongly suggest dismounting” from his horse and to walk through the Jaffa Gate (P 502) accompanied by American, French and Italian legates. Yet it was still with the guns booming creating harassing fire on the retreating Ottomans. While the Mayor of Jerusalem surrendered the city and wept for joy the general was careful not to mention the word crusade as the city’s keys we handed over before remounting his horse Hindenburg and riding off. But as this ceremony was happening it was to the accompaniment of machine gun fire and circling aircraft as the Ottomans were by now counter attacking. Lawrence of Arabia, present at the time, noted that (P 504) “Jerusalem had not been taken for so long, nor has it ever fallen so tamely before.” And he felt “shame faced with triumph.”

So on this Palm Sunday it is not so much the triumph to note but in this brief moment of recognition , joy and spontaneous celebration how quickly this was apparently lost.

Mary too sang in joy and exuberance:

Luke 1:52

52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
But has lifted up the humble
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
But has sent the rich away empty
54 He has helped his servant Israel
Remembering to be merciful
55 To Abraham and his descendants forever
Even as he said to our fathers.

Where people sat too in riveted attention at the synagogue in Nazareth to hear begun be read out by Jesus from the passage of Isaiah:

Isaiah 61:1

1 The Spirit of the Lord is on me
Because he has anointed me
To preach good news to the poor
2 He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recover of sight to the blind
To release the oppressed
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

But when faced by what it really meant were furious and (Luke 4:29) got up, drove him out of town and took him to brow of the hill on which the town was built on order to throw him down the cliff. For Mary, she was warned by Simeon when Jesus was presented on the eighth day, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your won soul too.” In John 19:25 we read that by the cross stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene. From the cross Jesus commits his mother into his friend and disciple John’s care and he takes her home.

The disciples wee pre-warned what was going to happen and simply would not or could not understand it. They did not know what he was talking about. “We are going up to Jerusalem”, said Jesus, “and everything that is written by the prophets about the son of man will be fulfilled. He will be turned over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. On the third day he will raise again. “(Luke 18:31-34)

So in looking at the bible from the underside, from below there are all those nameless victims of other people’s greed. Victims of slaughter, brutality and violence — however it is justified by the winners and the losers. People who were powerless to avoid the horrors breaking over their heads. It is likely that by the time of what happened in AD70 occurred that they that were in the crowd, who entered Jerusalem that day, had by that time were dead of old age but their children lived( and died) through the events described by Josephus. Jesus, God’s Son — who in John 1 we are told that “no one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the fathers side, has made him known” — Is also the one of who John writes of in 1 :9 “is the true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world” is the same person who weeps over Jerusalem, weeps over the visible and invisible victims, the remembered and the forgotten massacres of history. Jesus was and knows what is it is like in his incarnation and identification with humanity what it is like to be a victim. Abused, maltreated, tortured, murdered. This experience has been taken back into the Godhead. Not in theory or from history books, but from personal experience. To be rejected. To be on the losing side. A pawn in other people’s politics, powerless in the face of legalised injustice. Whose story is written by others “This is the king of the Jews” — in Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

Why mention this in the tearful, triumphant entry into Jerusalem? It is to remind ourselves that in the midst of the gospels that although cosmic in their claims are intensely domestic in their scope. The attention to such small details such as the arrangements for the colt and the colts mother in attendance (see Matthew 21: 7) that asks for permission and agreement and ensures they will be returned — they are simply on loan. The people singing and recording what the crowd sang. All people matter to God, as indeed does his creation. He reminds Job his work and attention and care is not limited to cities and humanity. (Job 39). “Who let the wild donkey go free, who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion in the towns; he does not hear the drivers shout. He ranges the hills for his pasture and searched for any green thing.”

This care and attention includes being extended to the anonymous victims. The recording of the words of the thief on the cross. His mother witnessing his death. Both the winners and losers of history. Recently there was an under reported 70th anniversary in Japan of the bombing of Tokyo from about the same time as the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was largely forgotten (even within Japan) as it involved conventional weapons, largely incendiaries, even though 100,000 people died, way in excess of the combined total of the casualties inflicted on both the cities combined where nuclear weapons were used. Three hundred B29s dropped 500,000 cylinders of napalm designed to terrorise the Japanese into surrender. The US General Curtis le May noted that had he been on the losing side he would be charged with war crimes. The Japanese themselves committed many atrocities including the “rape of Nanking” in China in December 1937, where 200,000 or more people were murdered by Japanese troops. Events which continue to sour Japan’s relations with its neighbours. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of victims lost to history but known to God that were committed by both the winning and losing sides.

Yet this entry into Jerusalem was truly an accurate moment of joy and celebration because it spoke of a different order of things built on a changed authority. God dealt with sin on the cross and demonstrated that victory in resurrection. We are no longer imprisoned by either victimhood or death but rather set free into forgiveness, restoration, liberation and hope. It is setting a new value, store and importance to those who have been victims and even extending to the victimisers as Jesus prays, “forgive them Father for they know not what they do.” It is also about the importance of telling and making known the stories of the living and the dead. To account and hold accountable. The work done by organisations – like the Shoah Institute and by forensic teams in places of conflict such as the Bosnian War, Rwanda, Cambodia the modern horrors of our day — is important. Equally so are not only the small, persisted acts of kindness and accompaniment to those who suffer but also those bigger steps of justice and atonement for both the winners and losers in history and in our day. Sorrow and suffering are inescapable in this world, but Jesus reminds his disciples (John 16:33) “in this world you have trouble. But take heart. I have overcome the world.” We do this by (Romans 12:21) not by being overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This isn’t triumphalism but a triumph of God’s grace. Whose attitude to us and ours to them is to be the same as Christ Jesus:

Philippians 2:6

6 Who by being the very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped
7 But made himself nothing
Taking the very nature of a servant
Being made in human likeness
8 And being found in appearance as a man
He humbled himself
And became obedience to death — even death on a cross

A peaceable kingdom that wins over even its enemies by grace but refuses to anonymise their victims.

A kingdom that lasts.

As the crowds sang on the city approach:

“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord

Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.“ (Luke 19:38)

NB Luke 19:38 refers to Psalm 118:26.

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