This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/10/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Luke 19:28-44. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
Today is Palm Sunday, the day in the church’s liturgical calendar when we remember Jesus’ entrance into the holy city, Jerusalem, riding on a colt. He enters the city as a savior. He enters as a messiah, the king of Israel. He enters as a man of the people, with supporters surrounding and praising him with shouts of praise.
Jesus comes to Jerusalem as the presence of God – humble, and full of love for his people. He enters the city of Jerusalem as a prophet, full of the Holy Spirit and fire, with a message of good news for those who turned towards God and changed their lives. Jesus also comes ready to pronounce God’s judgment on a city that has abandoned God and turned to its own way, its own wisdom.
Prophet. King. God’s emissary on earth. The bringer of good news to repentant sinners, but warning of God’s wrath to those who think they have God under control.
This is the Messiah that John the Baptist paved the way for, out in the wilderness beyond the Jordan. This is the man that John foretold: The one who will baptize Israel with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus walks in the path that John made straight. Jesus touches the lives of the same crowds that went out to John for repentance and healing. Jesus speaks the same word of rebuke to those who come out to spectate, wrapped in a garment of spiritual pride and social superiority. The scribes and the Pharisees. The religious leaders. The people who have their acts together, and who rely on their inherited status to justify them.
These middle class religious people believe that they are heirs to God’s promise. They claim the imputed righteousness of Abraham. Convinced that they are God’s children – both by right of birth and through their religious observance – John’s ministry was a curiosity to them. It also represented a threat, because John’s baptism portended a new movement of the Spirit. A new stage in God’s relationship with Israel.
In this new kingdom that is emerging, family names and bloodlines and even religious observance will be irrelevant. It is a new social reality that strips away the inherited advantage of the religious experts, and invites even the lowliest of the common people – especially the lowliest of the common people – to fully participate in the story.
This new stage moves the story from the center, to the periphery. Away from Jerusalem, to the wilderness. From the scholars to the poor. From the rulers, to the masses. From the wise to the foolish. From adults to children. Away from those who are righteous in the eyes of the world, to prostitutes, tax collectors, eunuchs, and gentiles, who have turned away from darkness and seek to walk in the light of God.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem on a colt, he is confronted by the same elites who contested John’s wilderness ministry. Seeing the commotion around Jesus’ entry – seeing that the crowds consider Jesus to be the promised messiah – the Pharisees challenge Jesus. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop!”
Jesus answers them: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
These words of Jesus echo John the Baptist’s rebuke to the Pharisees and religious leaders who came out to see the tent revival of repentance beyond the Jordan. John said to the gawkers:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The ax is lying at the root of the trees. That which seems established, in fact stands on the edge of the abyss. Yet that which is ignored – seemingly unimportant, but ubiquitous – can be used by God to fulfill his purposes. The stones of the wilderness. The common people of the countryside. The uncircumcised gentiles and unclean peasants. Women and slaves and misfits and children. These are the salt and leaven that season God’s world and sustain kingdoms on their backs.
God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
It’s these two things, held together in the ministry of both John the Baptist and Jesus, that come together in Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem: Here is the God who loves us and wants to gather us in his arms like a mother hen. Here also is the God who warns us from the ruin and destruction that is to come if we refuse to turn back from our evil, ego, and blindness.
This is the character of the God of Israel. We have come to know him through Israel’s journey in the Hebrew scriptures. And now, in Jesus, we have finally seen him fully revealed, enfleshed in a human person. In the words of Pontius Pilate: Ecce homo – Behold the man! See God with us.
Jesus is humble and yielding, ready to sacrifice his own life for the sake of his people. He embodies all the love and compassion of God, weeping over Jerusalem.
But why does he weep? Because the ax is lying at the root of the trees. Because God’s wrath is just as real as God’s compassion. In fact, they are one and the same. God’s love is a consuming fire, and a terror to those whose lives are built on illusion, violence, greed, and sociopathy. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it.
The light of the world stands on the Mount of Olives, shining on a darkened Jerusalem, but Jerusalem rejects the light. Jesus proclaims God’s judgment over the city – not with the satisfaction of Jonah, but with the tears of Jeremiah. Luke writes:
As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
This is God’s love for us. This is the God who weeps over our refusal to turn back from the road of destruction. Jesus is the God who visits us, who becomes one of us, who submits to mistreatment and death at our hands to offer us a path to redemption.
Yet God does not abandon his righteousness in order to bless us in our evil. Our God is not an enabler; he will not shield us from the consequences of our actions.
But there is good news, because God does love us, even in our sin. He provides us with a day of visitation. He comes in person – in flesh and bone and spirit – to provide us with a doorway to peace. Through this way, opened to us in Jesus, we can become righteous as God is righteous. We can endure the wrath that is to come, experiencing it as a purifying process, rather than destruction.
But make no mistake: The time of purification – or destruction – is coming soon. The ax is lying at the root of the trees.
Jesus weeps over us, over the ways that we in the church have so often abandoned him. He weeps over our country, that has fallen short again and again, a nation that has – far too often – pursued the violent path of Assyria rather than the life-giving way of the New Jerusalem.
The ax lies at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus knew that wrath and destruction was coming for the historical Jerusalem. It was coming as a result of choices: The refusal to acknowledge the day of visitation. The refusal to change, to be transformed by God’s light. That which will not bend will break.
But it is not too late for us. We can still, today, recognize the things that make for peace. God will give us eyes to see, if we will turn to him. If we will see Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives. If we will hear him calling us. If we will cry out with his disciples:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
This is our day of visitation. This is the appointed hour. Today, we have an opportunity to reach out and take hold of Christ, the substance, and to be remade in his image.
Now is the time to receive the purifying fire, to become righteous as Jesus is righteous. Every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around. But we don’t know when our moments will run out. Seize the day.
In the words of George Fox, “Ye have no time but this present time, therefore prize your time, for your soul’s sake.”