Summary: A Palm Sunday message about the importance of dealing with our sorrows in order to more fully experience the peace and joy of Christ.
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. For three years he has been calling disciples, teaching crowds, healing the lame, welcoming outcasts, and dining with sinners. He has been teaching about God’s new covenant and the reality of God’s kingdom, even as he embodied it. Now, it is time for Christ’s ministry to reach its fulfillment. It just so happens that this time coincides with the Festival of the Passover, one of the “high, holy days” of the Jewish calendar, not unlike Christmas and Easter on the Christian calendar. An important part of the Passover celebration was a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Holy City. So each year at the appropriate time, thousands of Jews would begin their journey to Jerusalem, which is exactly what Jesus is doing where we pick up in Luke’s gospel this morning. We call today Palm Sunday, but for Jesus, it was the beginning of the Passover Feast, and it’s time to go to Jerusalem.
Jesus and his disciples began their pilgrimage in Jericho, the lowest point on the face of the earth (that’s not underwater). They would have journeyed mile after uphill mile, winding through the sandy hills from Jericho. They would have traversed through the Judean desert, climbing all the way. About halfway up the climb, they would have reached sea level, having already come a long way from the Jordan valley. But still, they had a fair-sized mountain to ascend on their journey. It would’ve been hot; since it seldom if ever rains, and that makes it quite dusty as well. It would be a tiring journey for any pilgrim. So as Jesus and his disciples approach Bethphage and Bethany, Luke tells us that Jesus instructed his disciples to go ahead into the village. There, Jesus says, they will find a colt that has never been ridden. Jesus tells the disciples to bring the colt to him, and that if anyone asks why they are taking the colt, to respond that, “Its Master needs it.” So the disciples do as they are told, and when they return with the colt, they throw their cloaks over it’s back, Jesus mounts it, and the journey continues.
But the tone of the journey has changed. Whereas before we can imagine that they might have felt burdened and tired, now the mood is light and celebratory. As the crowd of pilgrims continue on, with Jesus among them on the colt, they continually throw their cloaks down before him. And eventually they reach the top of the Mount of Olives. After such a climb, the sense of relief and excitement would have been intense. At last, the barren, dusty desert gives way to lush green growth, and at the crest of the summit there is a clear view of their destination, the Holy City, Jerusalem itself. For the Jews, Jerusalem is the place where heaven and earth meet, and now they see it before them, glistening in the sun on its own slightly smaller hill just across a narrow valley. And there, Luke reports, the whole crowd of disciples began to celebrate and praise God at the tops of their voices for all the powerful deeds they had seen. “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens,” they sang!
You know, when we imagine Palm Sunday, the picture that emerges in our mind is one of Jesus, clothed in white, riding through the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey. All around him people are singing praises and waving palms. But Luke’s story is a little different. There are no palm branches. And as a matter of fact, Jesus and the crowds of pilgrims haven’t made it into Jerusalem yet as the people throw their cloaks before the colt that Jesus is riding, and begin lifting words of celebration and praise. It is because of what happens next that these little details matter.
As they stand there at the summit of the Mount of Olives, looking out across the Kidron Valley to shining Jerusalem, the city of peace, Jesus begins to weep. This is not something that happens very much. The only other time the gospels record that Jesus wept was at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. But now, this vision of Jerusalem prompts a similar reaction. Why? When Jesus is surrounded by crowds of celebrating pilgrims, why would he stand in their midst, the Holy City laid out gloriously before him, and weep? Why?
I imagine the crowds around him must have gradually fallen silent as they realized that the One they were celebrating was crying. I imagine they must have all turned to look at him in wonder and curiosity. Then, as the tears fell from his eyes, Jesus spoke, “If only you knew on this of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Jerusalem, the city whose very name means peace, is laid out before them; and yet Jesus weeps saying that the way to peace is hidden from our eyes.