Text: Luke 19:41-47
As we’ve often discussed, the Church Year can be broken down into two generally equal halves. The first half of the Church year, Advent through Whitsunday or Pentecost, walks us through the events of Our Lord’s earthly life as we go from looking forward to his birth through his Ascension and the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The second half of the Church year, the long Trinitytide season, focuses on growing as Christians. It focuses on living the Christian life now that we have been changed by Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. You may recall that the first Sunday in Advent counterintuitively begins with an account of the Triumphal Entry and cleansing of the Temple. Our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem sets the stage for our Advent themes of the coming Judgement and Christ’s return.
Today, on the 10th Sunday After Trinity, we get another account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the cleansing of the Temple. We get another foreshadowing of the final judgement. Even though Advent was 9 months ago (or, if you prefer, 3 months from now), the Advent theme of the Last Things should never be too far from our minds as Christians. Indeed, both the Apostles’ Creed in the Daily Offices and the Nicene Creed in Holy Communion remind us that “He shall come in Glory to Judge both the Quick and the Dead” every time we gather together to worship our God.
Despite this focus on the coming Judgement, it’s also important to see our Lord’s intense compassion in the passage. Luke 19:41, found on page 204 in the Prayer Book:
And when he was come near, he beheld the city, and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes.
Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel, the historic seat of both the Temple and the Davidic monarchy, was of immense importance to our Lord Jesus. Indeed, when we read the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, we see that Jerusalem is indeed central to all of the Bible’s Story. It’s not for nothing that ancient and medieval maps, both Jewish and Christian, typically put Jerusalem at the maps’ center. In fact, Jerusalem was often called the navel or belly button of the world. But the significance of Jerusalem isn’t the geography itself; rather Jerusalem is significant because it symbolizes and represents God’s people.
Yet, just like in Jeremiah’s day, as commemorated in the mournful poetry of the Book of Lamentations, Jerusalem was to be judged. And knowing of this coming judgement, Jesus weeps. He weeps because his people are missing the very event they’d been looking forward to for so many generations. And they’re missing the very Person who would bring them peace and true fulfillment. They’re missing the coming of the Messiah, when he’s right there, weeping over them. Indeed, they’re blind to everything that was supposed to bring them hope.
J.C. Ryle, the famous 19th century author and first bishop of Liverpool, notes that Jesus pitied and wept over Jerusalem and its people despite knowing that they would turn him over to be executed in just a few days. He knew their hard hearts, their greed masquerading as worship, their self-righteousness, and their willful blindness to the truth. Yet, he still wept over them. He still had compassion over them.
Bp. Ryle also notes that these verses show our Lord’s pity for all sinners, not just his unbelieving countrymen in Jerusalem. He writes:
We make a big mistake if we think Christ only cares for those who believe in him. He cares for everyone. His heart is wide enough to take an interest in all mankind; his compassion extends to every man, woman, and child on earth. Hardened sinners are fond of making excuses for their behavior; but they will never be able to say that Christ was not merciful and was not ready to save.
We know too little of true Christianity if we do not feel a deep concern about the souls of unconverted people… Christ felt tenderly about wicked people, and his disciples should feel the same way.
This is a good reminder: do we, like Jerusalem in our Gospel make excuses and turn a willfully blind eye to our sins? Or do we mourn them and run to God’s throne for mercy? And when we encounter a lost and wicked world, do we weep and pray, or do we shake our fists and mutter “good riddance” when we think of the Lord’s judgement? May we become like the Psalmist who could sing, “Mine eyes gush out with water, because men keep not thy law” (119:136). May be become like St. Paul who had “unceasing anguish” over his unbelieving countrymen and could even wish himself accursed if that would bring their salvation (Romans 9:2-3). May we have the compassion of our Lord when he wept over Jerusalem.
In verse 43 of our Gospel, we see the form the judgement over Jerusalem would take:
For the days shall come upon thee, that thine enemies shall cast a trench about thee on every side, and shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee; and they shall not leave in thee one stone upon another; because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.
Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av, is the most mournful day in Jewish tradition. In one of the great coincidences of history, both the original Temple and the 2nd Temple were destroyed on the same day, along with three other major calamities of Jewish history. In 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the First Temple. If you’re following the 1662’s daily office lectionary, Jeremiah’s account of that event was read last week. Then in 70 AD, the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple, the event that our Lord’s words predict. Scripture is clear that the destruction of the First Temple was God’s judgement for the Israelites’ persistent idolatry, injustice, and reliance on foreign kings rather than God. Jewish tradition posits that the destruction of the Second Temple was God’s judgement on the disunity of the Jews in the 2nd Temple period, a disunity we see on display in the New Testament’s depiction of the hatred between the Sadducees and Pharisees.
Yet, Jesus gives a different reason for the judgement in 70 AD. Our Lord says that the judgement was “because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation.” The hardness of the peoples’ hearts, and the willful blindness of the people’s leaders led to them missing God’s visitation. In the person of the promised Messiah, God himself had taken on flesh and come to rescue them. Yet they missed it. Indeed, the people of Jerusalem were the very ones who turned him over to the Romans for execution on false charges. And when he rose again and sent his disciples to spread the good news, these same leaders had those disciples beaten, imprisoned, and executed.
But if, as Jesus said, they “knewest not,” can they be held culpable? Is their ignorance a legitimate excuse for missing the Lord’s coming? Our text tells us that it is not a legitimate excuse, and they are indeed culpable. When we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus did give them many signs. In fact, in John 5, our Lord lists three witnesses to who he is, riffing off of the Torah’s requirement that testimony be verified by two or three witnesses. Jesus says that John the Baptist bore witness to who he is. He says that the miracles, signs, and good works bear witness to his Messianic character. Finally, he says that the Scriptures themselves bear witness through prophecy. Bp. Ryle writes:
We learn, second, from these verses that there is a religious ignorance which is sinful and blameworthy…. [Jerusalem’s] rulers were ignorant; they would not calmly examine the evidence. Her people would not see the signs of the times. Therefore judgement soon overtook Jerusalem. Her deliberate ignorance left her without any excuse.
This is a very important principle. It is different from the world’s commonly held view. It teaches clearly that not all ignorance is excusable and that when people should know the truth and refuse to know it, their guilt is very great in God’s sight. Deliberate ignorance will never be allowed as a plea in man’s favor; on the contrary, it will rather increase his guilt.
Again, we are reminded to keep our eyes open, especially to what the Lord teaches us in his Word. We have in Holy Scripture everything necessary for salvation; pay attention to what the Bible says. When it tells you of your sin, don’t try to self-justify. When it tells you of God’s mercy, don’t downplay it. When the Scripture constantly points us to Jesus, don’t go elsewhere for satisfaction, purpose, and comfort.
And this warning extends to our society and nation as a whole. As we are reminded in the Independence Day propers, we Americans have at least some heritage of Christianity and Christian thinking at the core of our founding, imperfect as that heritage may be. That does give us, as citizens, a responsibility to uphold the ethics, justice, and morality of a people who are self-consciously under the authority and providence of Almighty God. And God does not turn a blind eye to abandoning his laws. If God judged Jerusalem and the Israelites, the seat of his Temple and the City of David, how can any other nation, including ours, expect to escape God’s judgement?
This gives the Church a responsibility to preach the Gospel, catechize our people, work for biblical truth, goodness, and beauty in society. After all, if we love our neighbors, shouldn’t we want them to know the time of their visitation? Don’t we want them to know Christ Jesus?
In the final verses of our Gospel, we see the beginnings of judgement on Jerusalem. Indeed, we see that it begins in the Temple, in God’s house. Verse 45:
And he went into the temple and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought; saying unto them, It is written, My house is the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves. And he taught daily in the temple.
In the Temple, there were certain parts that were restricted to certain people. The innermost section was reserved for the High Priest’s use only on the Day of Atonement. Outside of that was the court of the priests, then the court of the men, then the court of the women, and finally the court of the gentiles. This outermost section of the Temple, the only place where non-Jews could worship, is where the Temple authorities had set up the money-changers and the vendors’ stalls for sacrificial animals. And these merchants were making a tidy profit off of the pilgrims.
Seeing Israel’s worship being perverted into a money-making scheme at the expense of both the pilgrims and god-fearing Gentiles, Jesus is quite angry. The Temple was supposed to be the place where God’s presence dwelt. It was supposed to be the place where God’s people met him. But it had become instead a “den of thieves.” Now Jesus is not weeping. Instead, he’s driving out merchants and overturning tables. When we account for all four Gospels, it’s often understood that this was probably the second time he did this. St. John’s account shows Jesus doing this at the beginning of his ministry; the Synoptics (i.e. the other three) show him doing it at the end. Similarly, we have an account of this event twice in our Lectionary!
Our old Trinitytide friend, the Rev’d Prebendary Melville Scott, has this to say about the incident, as well as an application for the Church today. Dr. Scott writes:
There were no tears here, for there was no excuse of ignorance. The temple was the very witness of the national stewardship. Here was the House of God, and the seat of the covenant. Here were offered the sacrifices in which the nation drew nigh to God and received absolution. The Church is ever the witness of stewardship, and when the Church is sunk into selfishness and love of greed Christ will not weep. He will be too angry to weep, but will use the scourge, and drive out the sin. His judgement will begin at the House of God.
The Church is indeed God’s house. In the Church we have been entrusted with the Word and the Sacraments. We have been in trusted with the means of grace. Indeed, even more than the Temple of old, we have with us the very presence of Christ, both in his corporate Body and in his Sacramental Body. Yet how easy it is to take our eyes off of him. How easy it is to get so caught up in running the church that we forget the mission of the church. How easy it is to let the fashionable ideas of the wider society creep in and raise the same kind of doubts as when the serpent whispered to Eve, “Did God really say?” How easy it is to forget the lost, the poor, and the “least of these.” How easy it is to become selfish. And when that happens, we do indeed see God’s presence leave. How often, like Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Timothy, have churches “made shipwreck of their faith” and thus been “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”
My this never be so at All Saints. May we remain walking with Jesus, embracing his freely-offered grace, as presented in Word and Sacrament. May we learn from Jerusalem’s judgement, and be a church whose eyes are open, a church whose people know the things which belong to our peace, a church who rejoices in the visitation of our Lord, a church for whom God’s judgement is an occasion of joy and vindication rather than an occasion of terror and regret.
The good news is that repentance is offered to us every time we come to Christ’s Table. We have a greater sacrifice, a greater absolution, and a greater fellowship with our God than was ever available in Jerusalem’s Temple. So, come, beloved of the Lord, to his altar, and receive the lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world, the one who wept over Jerusalem, and know that he has the same compassion for you.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.