Palm Sunday sermon, based on Mal 3:1-5; Luke 19:35-45, by the director of the CSBV, Helen Paynter.
I’ve got a problem. Or, rather, I’ve had a problem trying to prepare this sermon. I thought I knew what I wanted to say. It was going to go something like this:
Here comes Jesus riding on a donkey, meek and lowly. Not like a king galloping in on a charger. Not like an attacker in an armoured vehicle. Not like a conquering general – an Alexander the Great, a Julius Caesar. How different Jesus is!
And look how he approaches the city! Not with legions of soldiers, or with military divisions, but with an unruly crowd of worshippers. What are they waving? Are those AK74 assault rifles? Ah, no, they’re palm leaves. No missiles being launched – though there is a real danger that the stones might start singing. No carpet bombing to prepare the way for the ground attack. Just a layer of clothes on the road for the donkey to ride over.
Look, halfway down the Mount of Olives Jesus stops and weeps. Overcome with grief for the city before him. Weeping for the suffering and destruction that he knows it must soon endure. Weeping for their pain, rather than his own. And as he weeps, he speaks of peace, grieves the city’s lack of peace. Indeed, his followers are shouting about peace. Love, and tenderness, and peace. What a picture, as holy week begins! How different Jesus is from the Vladimir Putins of this world!
Nice sermon, end of story, let’s all go home.
But, as usual, Jesus refuses to be squeezed into my nice scheme – with the emphasis on ‘nice’.
As soon as I thought I had something pinned down, it wriggled out of my grasp. As I assembled my tidy argument, piling my sentences neatly on top of one another, the construction grew ever more wobbly. Until I knew it could not bear its own weight and would come crashing down around the ears of the hapless sermon-writer.
The problem is this. Jesus won’t allow me to declare myself wholly aligned with him. He is on the side of the angels, but as it turns out, I’m not.
In a few short decades, Jerusalem will be overrun by the Roman army. Looting, raping, burning. Everything the people have cherished about their way of life will be no more. Those who can flee the city will – a stream of refugees hoping for the kindness of strangers. Many will be trapped by the advancing army. Thousands will die.
It’s easy to find parallels with the contemporary situation. And as Jesus weeps for Jerusalem, I could invite you to weep: for Kharkiv, for Mariupol, and for Kyiv. Weep over the loss and destruction that they have already suffered, and the loss and destruction that still lies ahead.
Rome bad, Russia bad.
But it’s not as straightforward as that. Listen to Jesus’ words.
“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.”
Oh, Jesus. Couldn’t you have said something easy, just for once? Because this sounds disturbingly like victim-blaming. “If only you had recognised the things that make for peace! You did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.”
This is an unfashionable message. The victim narrative is very powerful in our society today, and it’s commonly regarded as unacceptable to suggest that victims might be anything other than completely innocent.
Now, when we see the victim of a sexual assault, we should all agree that they weren’t ‘asking for it’. No, the abuse survivor didn’t contribute to their own trauma. But while we rightly refute Donald Trump’s assertion after the race riots at Charlotteville that there were ‘good people on both sides’, we are often perfectly comfortable affirming that there was goodness – perfection, even – and that it can all be assigned to one side.
But with his words, Jesus disrupts our tidy categories of good and bad, of innocence and culpability. If only you had recognised the things that make for peace! You did not recognise the time of your visitation from God… Because you’re about to be besieged and destroyed, and – the implication is – you might have avoided it.
Jerusalem will soon be overrun by the Roman army.
Now, as much of the rest of the New Testament makes clear, Rome is an abusive colonial power. Its violence, its aggression, and its obscenely lavish lifestyle is the subject of fierce condemnation by the book of Revelation.
But that doesn’t mean that we can collapse the relationship between Jerusalem and Rome into simple Manichaean categories. Jerusalem good, Rome bad. Jerusalem innocent, Rome guilty. An honest look at these words of Jesus refuses to allow me to do this. Instead, he forces me to look at the seeds of violence which lie everywhere, including in my own heart. Rome is within us all.
If only you had recognised the things that make for peace, Jerusalem. If only we could recognise the things that make for peace in the twenty-first century.
So in what way does Jerusalem fail? What is it not recognising?
The fundamental problem, evidently, is Jerusalem’s failure to recognise Jesus. Their failure to notice when God showed up – in the manner promised, though not in the manner that they expected or wanted. This was a rejection of the one whose birth was heralded with the words ‘peace to all on whom God’s favour rests’; the one who had taught and lived the way of love and peacemaking; the one whom the Old Testament prophet had acclaimed the Prince of Peace.
And despite the appearance of welcome on that Sunday, they would soon take violent steps to snuff him out.
This is not, of course, a return to some cheap theology of tit-for-tat divine judgment. Jesus has vigorously refuted such a notion – think about his answer to the question about the man born blind. Who sinned, he or his parents? Neither. The men who were to fall under the blade of a Roman sword, the women who were to fall into the power of a Roman rapist, they were not especially culpable. It doesn’t work like that.
But Jerusalem as a whole had failed to recognise the time of their visitation from God. They had failed to recognise the things that make for peace. They had embraced the ways of violence, and violence had come upon them.
This is, primarily, a failure of leadership. It is upon the spiritual and civic leaders – the Sanhedrin – that the responsibility lies most heavily. These men are able to set the spiritual tone of the community. They have the power to suppress some voices and privilege others. They are the ones who have the ear of the Roman governor.
And this week will prove to be the culmination of all the choices they have made so destructively in past years.
They will spend the week harrying Jesus, following him, trying to trap him or trick him. And at the end of it, they will choose the way of death and will murder the Lord of Life. They will duck and dive to protect their vested interests. They will collude with the occupying powers to suppress the voice of the prophet. They will do a deal with the devil. And the city as a whole will pay for it.
And theirs is a structural, systemic, failure. Once more – this is not a cheap theology of tit-for-tat divine judgment. There is something rotten at the core of the city, of the nation. Malachi foresaw it.
Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? … I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
This rottenness has eaten its way into the very walls of their society. Rome is within. It affects their treatment of the poor and the weak. We call this structural violence.
And it affects their worship – of course it affects their worship. The temple has become a place of petty dishonesty rather than a place where the holiness of God is manifest. It has become a place of personal enrichment rather than a place of corporate devotion. It has become a place of noise and clutter rather than a place where people from all nations could come to worship.
Of course, this is the other great spoke that Jesus puts into the wheel of my nice tidy sermon plan. Because the Jesus who tenderly weeps over the coming affliction of Jerusalem is also the Jesus who rages at the corruption of the temple. The one who – to paraphrase Malachi – burns like the fire of a blast furnace.
Behold your king, lowly and meek and riding on a donkey… and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?… Zeal for God’s house has consumed him.
Oh Jerusalem, if only you knew the things that made for peace!
But there is good news. There is always good news.
For the one who rages in the temple is also the one who weeps over the city. The one who disrupts our complacency is the one who provides its remedy. The one who lays bare the complexity of innocence and guilt is also the innocent one who will die for the guilty. The one in whom there is nothing of Rome is also the one who will die for Rome as well as for Jerusalem.
Hosanna – Lord, save us!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
Behold your righteous king and your salvation.