March 26th, 2018

When God Weeps

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem because God visited and nothing changed.

Luke 19:41-44


The mysterious mind of God

Regardless of what you think of him politically, Donald Trump is certainly one of the most fascinating and complex individuals ever to sit in the Oval Office. He has surprised almost everyone at one point or another during his fourteen months in office. Power creates intrigue, partly because the person with the power lies behind a protected veil. We make assumptions based shaped by our own stories and biases.

If that’s true of a human being, how much more is it true of God?

 In Romans 9-11, the Apostle Paul discusses one of the most complex issues in the New Testament – how the Jewish people and nation relate to the New Covenant. At the end of that section, he quotes Isaiah and humbly admits the mystery –


Oh, the depths of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

            How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”

It’s a rhetorical question. With God even more so than politicians, we make assumptions that are shaped by our own stories and biases.

One of the reasons God became flesh was so that we might know more of his mind through the words and actions of Jesus. When Jesus acted in power, we see God’s power. When Jesus spoke, we hear God’s words. When Jesus wept, we see God cry.

The king ascends

Luke 19:41-44 is not a typical Palm Sunday Scripture reading. On the Sunday before Easter, we generally focus our attention in one of two directions – the triumphal entry or the week ahead that culminates in Jesus’ death. This passage is our focus today precisely because it is not as familiar. We are drawing to the end of a series of sermons titled “Uniquely Luke,” the parts of Luke’s gospel not told in Matthew, Mark, or John. 

It’s certainly important for context to remind ourselves what else happened on this day. When we left the story last week, Jesus was in Jericho. A stay at the home of Zacchaeus the chief tax collector brought rebuke from the crowd, but Jesus answered, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

While he had everyone’s attention in Jericho, he told them a parable “because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (19:11). The parable is about a nobleman who goes away to a distant country to have himself appointed king. That sounds odd to us, but it wasn’t strange at all to Jesus’ hearers. The Roman empire appointed many regional kings. The would-be king then tests some of his people, so he knows who can be trusted with oversight when he returns. Some pass his test with flying colors and are given much responsibility. At the end of that parable the king says, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me” (19:27).

Now Jesus goes up to Jerusalem (28). (Jerusalem is always “up” for a Jew.) Here’s where the story begins to sound familiar. He approaches the city on the eastern side, up the last ridge before Jerusalem. Jesus has two of his disciples conscript a donkey for the descent over the peak of the Mount of Olives and into Jerusalem.

Crowds gather, meaning crowds of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover, most likely crowds of Galileans and Pereans with whom he had gained celebrity status with his teaching and healing. With their messianic expectation unwavering, these crowds lay down a “red carpet” of coats and begin praising God in loud chants:  “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke makes no mention of the palm branches.)

I wonder what is going through Jesus’ mind at that moment? He doesn’t initiate this parade, but neither does he discourage it. When the Pharisees direct him to rebuke the crowd, he says, “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out!” (40). Is Jesus happy? Triumphant? Stoic? Is he waving like a parade grand marshal? What is the look on his face? We don’t know, but the story of what happens next is uniquely Luke.

The inspection

Verse 41.  As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it…

As Jesus crested the Mount of Olives, the city came into view. It’s more than likely the same view that is still the best photo op of the city. Linda and I have been there twice, and even two thousand years later with a Muslim mosque and their Dome of the Rock having long ago replaced Herod’s temple, it’s still spectacular. The whole city lies before you, and the 35-acre temple platform dominates. In Jesus’ day it seemed even larger because of the porticoes built around the edge and the 100-foot temple in the middle, surrounded by courtyards. Josephus, the first-century historian who served as a Jewish general before serving with the Roman army, wrote, “The exterior of the temple was covered with massive plates of gold which brilliantly reflected the sun. From a distance it appeared like a snow-covered mountain, since whatever was not plated with gold was of purest white.”

Jesus sees this magnificent view and stuns the crowd around with loud wailing. The word “wept” means audible, inconsolable grief. His lament alters everything.

Verse 42.  …and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but it is hidden from your eyes.”

For the next three verses, Jesus addresses the city as “you.” Greek has a singular “you” and a plural “you.” These are all singular. It refers to Jerusalem as a city, but he’s not addressing massive limestone rocks or a gold-plated temple. The city represents the people in the city. The city had about 70,000 regular inhabitants, but swelled by hundreds of thousands if not more for the Jewish pilgrim festivals – Tabernacles, Passover, and Pentecost. Pilgrims camped in and around the city in villages and on nearby hillsides.

Jesus sees this mass of people and bursts into sobs because they have no clue what will bring them peace. The Greek is eirene, which comes from a verb meaning to tie together into a whole. When all the parts are joined and functioning properly, that’s eirene. The Hebrew word is better known – shalom. It’s not just the absence of conflict, it’s security, safety, wholeness, wellness – not just for an individual, for the whole community. It’s what they (and we) all long for, but they don’t know how to get it. There wasn’t peace in the City of Peace. It was hidden from them.

Verse 43-44a.  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…

These verses offer such an accurate picture of what would take place about 35 years after the time of Jesus that some scholars have insisted Luke put these words into the mouth of Jesus decades later. He couldn’t have said it that plainly. On the other hand, what Jesus describes is fairly typical of ancient siege warfare. It was a brutal era for losers.

Still, at the time of Jesus nobody knew how soon Herod’s efforts at rebuilding Judaea and especially Jerusalem and the temple, would be leveled. People lived with the same kind of security that you and I live with, assuming that the relative calm of today would last for centuries to come. Jesus knew otherwise, and I take at face value what Luke says, that these words were spoken by Jesus during his lifetime.

Let me tell you briefly what Jesus was referring to, what happened three decades later. For more than a century since the Roman army invaded, there had been an uneasy peace in Palestine among the Jews, the occupying Romans, and the Greeks who for several centuries had settled in cities on the east side of the Jordan and even in a few large cities within Samaria and Galilee. Caesarea on the coast was also dominated by Greeks and Romans.

According to Josephus, in AD 66 a minor dispute in Caesarea between Greeks and Jews sparked the four-year “Jewish War.” A local synagogue wanted to purchase adjacent land from a Greek neighbor, who insulted them by building his workshops on the desired property. This irritant led to Jewish unrest, and the Greeks began killing Jews while Roman soldiers did nothing to stop them. Fighting spread throughout the land, even among Jewish factions, moderate versus radical. As urban Greeks became more aggressive, Jews from the Decapolis and other cosmopolitan cities flocked toward Jerusalem. There, zealots massacred the Roman garrison and also turned against fellow Jews to whom they owed money. The bloody war dominated the whole land.

Rome sent a legion of soldiers to quell the unrest, and it didn’t take long for them to establish control almost everywhere. When they marched on Jerusalem, Jews organized and resisted the legion, routing the Romans. Visions of restoring Jewish independence, as they had done two centuries earlier under the Maccabees, proliferated. Rome responded with 60,000 soldiers in four legions, led by one of their most experienced generals, Vespasian. When Emperor Nero committed suicide in 69, Vespasian was named emperor and sent his son Titus to finish the work in Palestine.

From April to September of 70, Titus surrounded Jerusalem, cutting off all escape routes and any entry of food and supplies into the city. The Jews united and fought, resisting to the end even as the city starved. By the time the Roman soldiers stormed through the fortress Antonio, their fury was out of control. They burned the temple and massacred men, women, and children. Although some say he inflated the figure, Josephus says 1.1 million died in Jerusalem due to famine and final conquest. 97,000 survivors were sold as slaves as the city was emptied. As gold melted from the hot fires into the cracks and crevices of the rocks, the temple itself and porticoes were systematically disassembled, the rocks thrown over the side of the platform, where you can still see them today.

Jesus “saw” it all three decades earlier, and wept. It’s as if you were staring at New York City’s twin towers in the 1990s, but knew what 9-11 would bring, only this was even more horrible. Jesus knew it was coming, and even though as he stood on the Mount of Olives the temple was intact and city was teeming with people, he wept.

Verse 44b.  …because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.

The phrase “God’s coming to you” is literally “your visitation.” (The word “God” is not in the text.) The word is episkopes, the feminine form of bishop or overseer. When the overseer shows up, it’s for oversight, for inspection. The result can be good or bad, depending on what the overseer finds. Jesus weeps over the city because God visited, and nothing changed. He would enter the city later that day and overturn the status quo of apathy and greed and idolatry.

The word is used throughout the Old and New Testament to indicate God visiting his people. Almost surely Jesus is referring to its frequent use in Jeremiah. Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” because of his lamentations over the city of Jerusalem when it was invaded, destroyed, and burned the first time – by the Babylonians in 586BC. Jeremiah repeatedly prophesied “the time of visitation” on Jerusalem (Jeremiah 8:12; 10:15; 11:23; 23:12; 46:21; 48:44; 50:27; 51:18).

  The commentaries wrestle with whether Jesus is explicitly saying that Jerusalem was destroyed because they rejected Jesus as the Messiah and crucified him. Yes and no. Jerusalem will be destroyed, Jesus says, because God showed up and they paid him no mind. Certainly, the most direct way God showed up was in Jesus, but God visited in multiple ways throughout the generations – in miracles, in prophets, in provisions, in judgments, and ultimately in his Son. They never got it. All those visitations culminate here on “Palm Sunday,” and Jesus weeps because they do not recognize it.

When God weeps

If, then, Jesus shows us the heart and mind of God, what makes God weep? We need to ask that question, because this passage is not just about Jerusalem. It’s about our world, our country, our community, our church, our homes, your life and mine. I don’t want to make God cry.

We don’t have to guess. It’s right in this passage. We know what made Jesus weep, because he said so. Therefore, we know what makes God weep.

Blind brokenness. What would bring you peace is hidden from your eyes.

When there’s no peace – defined as wholeness, contentment, goodness – God weeps. Certainly, that means where there is war or conflict of faction of any kind, God weeps, but there’s more. When there is poverty and hunger and death and disease and injustice, God weeps. When there is racism and hatred and abuse of power, God weeps. When there is resentment and bitterness, God weeps. He weeps not only because of the lack of shalom, but because people don’t even know what brings peace. We think peace comes in another fix or another drink or another moment of pleasure or a new house or a new car or a new leader. We think peace comes if we grab more for ourselves and leave others in the cold. God weeps when we are blind to the causes of our brokenness. Are you looking for peace in all the wrong places?

Death and Destruction. They will not leave one stone on another.

When what God has created, what he has blessed us with, is destroyed, God weeps. Some people say the great sin is what we do to the environment, and others say the great sin is what we do to the family. I say the destruction of any of his good gifts makes God weep. Jesus saw a beautiful city, a place, being leveled, but he also saw a people who lived in the city of peace being destroyed. Just a few weeks earlier, Jesus wept at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus (John 11:35), but also at the unbelief he saw in Bethany. When there is abuse or pollution or addiction, God weeps. You can be sure when there is a school shooting or a 9-11 or an earthquake or even the death of someone you love, God weeps for you and with you. Whether the death and destruction is personal or widespread, when it happens, God weeps.

Willful ignorance. You did not recognize the time of your visitation.

Can you imagine God showing up, and you don’t respond? The Overseer is on the scene, and it changes nothing? This is not just about ignorance, it’s willful ignorance. How does God show up in your world? He shows up in both blessing and trial. He shows up when your shalom increases – when things are humming along well and there’s a new job or relationship or direction or hope. He shows up when your world falls apart, and there’s conflict and need and disruption. We often forget that when good things happen or bad, God is visiting us. He wants a response from us. He wants us to know that we need him more than anything else. And when he shows up in one of these ways and we are unchanged, he weeps.

There is good news, you know. This would be a low point for Jerusalem, the rejection of Jesus. But forty years later would be the lowest point from the standpoint of the Jews – the destruction of the city and the temple, which have never been the same since. 

The good news is that judgment is not the end of the story for Jerusalem, and no other low point needs to be the end of any story. What we Christians recognize as the worst day in all of human history, the crucifixion of Jesus, is also what we call “Good Friday.” The worst of our lives is never the worst of the story. If Jesus can turn his own crucifixion into the gift of salvation offered to the whole world, he can turn the darkest night into the brightest dawn. Amen.

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