March 20, 2016
William G. Carter
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.”
If you stick around the hospital late enough at night, you may hear the ominous voice: “Visiting Hours Are Over.” It is meant as a gentle reminder that patients need their rest, and that nobody gets healed by conversation alone. The few times in recent years when I have been a hospital patient, the announcement has sometimes come as a helpful reprieve. Even those who love us might stay too long.
The voice intrudes to say the visit is over. There’s a time when all good things must come to an end. No need to linger, for it won’t improve the circumstances anyway. So it’s time to go. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
How curious that Jesus should talk like this as he views the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There lies the city in full splendor. It is gleaming with light. The throngs of Passover pilgrims surge with energy. There is a palpable buzz in the air – and Jesus speaks of the “visitation hour.” It has come to an end. The people have missed it.
Jesus is speaking like a prophet here. God has gone to the people and they pushed him away. It is a plot line repeated many times in the Bible. This time, it causes Jesus to weep over the city. Luke says he is just like the prophet Jeremiah, often called “the weeping prophet.” Jeremiah says:
- “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my people.” (9:1)
- “If you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride.” (13:17)
- “Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease, for (my people are) struck down with a crushing blow, with a very grievous wound.” (14:17)
This is how the prophet Jeremiah spoke about God coming to his own people and they reject him. And when Jesus sees the holy city, he has a clear view of how it is going to go for him and his people, too. Luke reports that Jesus erupts into tears. Then he announces, “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.”
Most of us might find this a harsh word for Palm Sunday. It’s not what we expect when there are sweet hosannas in the air, words of blessing from the book of Psalms, and children singing. As you would expect, even the stones are hollering out! This is supposed to be the day of exuberant affirmation, where everybody rejoices in a major key as Jesus rides on in majesty. And while all this excitement swirls in the air, the Gospel of Luke reminds us there is something else going on.
That is the nature of holy moments, after all. There is more going on than anybody can perceive. If God is present, some will get it, some will not. I recall a moment in another Gospel; God speaks, some thought it was an angel, some believed it was thunder, and others didn’t know what it was. Not everybody is given the eyes to see or the ears to hear.
Our Gospel story is full of such conflicted disagreements. A large crowd of pilgrims shout praises, and the religious leaders tell them to be quiet. The disciples sing of peace, and Jesus says, “You don’t know what makes for peace.” Jesus himself affirms the joyful noise of the moment, declaring “if these were silent, even the stones would cry out.” But then he goes around a bend in the road, sees the city, and breaks into sobs of heart-broken grief.
It’s this tension that is so instructive. It cannot be reduced. It cannot be smoothed out easily.
I remember an old preacher confessing that he wouldn’t let his congregation sing any happy songs on Palm Sunday. What?! We couldn’t believe it. No “Glory, Laud, and Honor”? No “sweet hosannas” ringing? “Not any more,” he said. “The people in my church don’t come to Holy Week services any more. They skip communion on Maundy Thursday and the Passion story on Good Friday. So the accumulated effect moved from rejoicing on Palm Sunday to rejoicing on Easter. They sang resurrection on Easter but never heard Somebody died. That’s part of the story too.”
As Jesus rides into the city, there’s more going on than joyful songs and singing stones. There is also the deep resistance that the human race has to the love of God. “You missed the time,” says Jesus. “The visitation from God is over.”
Maybe that’s a description of who we are. A few years ago, I went to learn from an expert on conflict resolution. At one point, he put his elbow on the podium and said, “Do you know why churches can be so full of conflict and damage? It’s because those same churches are all about the work of peace and forgiveness. We hear Christ speak of mercy; it sounds so good, until we are invited to cut a break for somebody else.”
It’s the religious people in Palm Sunday who praise God for Jesus. It’s more religious people who tell Jesus to make them quiet down. To diagnose this doxological schizophrenia, Jesus says, “You missed the time of your visitation.”
I believe he is not talking about those people back then; no, he describing the human condition. We resist the things that can make us well. We know better, but it’s so hard to live as if we know. I remember the radiologist who looked at other people’s lungs every day; he was a chain smoker. Or that sweet lady, so kind and benevolent, and she was the biggest gossip in town. Or the police officer who broke up bar fights; he went home and couldn’t restrain his temper. Or the man who ran for office so he could serve his community and, well, you can guess what happened to him.
We know better, but we don’t know. We know the things that make for peace, but we are incapable of making peace.
So here’s the thing: none of this is a surprise for Jesus. He knows how people can be. He knows what resistance God has faced time and time again. He knows what lies ahead of him in Jerusalem. Yet he rides into the city one more time, because this is the way God is. God does not allow our refusal and resistance to call all the shots. God goes up the hill one more time, to see if this time we will receive the surgery our souls so desperately need.
It is profoundly moving to see Jesus make his way into the city. He is not swayed by the happy songs. Nor does he turn aside from the threat of suffering and crucifixion. He goes with a clear eye of where he is going and what he is doing. It took tremendous courage and extraordinary clarity to see us for how we are . . . and to still go into that city.
A theologian named Alan Lewis puts it this way:
In Jesus, God has been enfleshed not as a sovereign but as a servant, emptied of grandeur and privilege, coming among us slavelike and self-abasing, solid in his fellowship with the outcast and defenseless, selfless in his capacity for suffering and pain. Yet it is precisely the innocent one, who comes as a lamb to the slaughter, not opening his mouth in self-defense let alone retaliation, who provokes our violence and contradiction, our intolerance and hatred, and our thirst for blood. The gentle embodiment of God’s own love proves intolerable to the human objects of that love… Thus by the cross of Jesus the truth about us is smoked out; we are unmasked.
It is then, on the cross, that Luke overhears Jesus to say, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” You know, our lives depend on the answer of that request.
Palm Sunday is about the passion of Christ and the perseverance of God. Our Lord goes right into the city that will reject him and put him on the cross. Do you know why he does it? Because he believes every last one of us is worthy of the grace and forgiveness of God. It is his courage that saves us.
So when he comes back – and I assure you, Jesus will be back – don’t miss the time of his visitation. Welcome him with open arms. Receive him with an open heart. Extend to him the same grace that he has given to you.