St Bride's: Sermon Series

O Jerusalem

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'Ten parts of beauty gave God to mankind; nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder. Ten parts of sorrow gave God to mankind; nine to Jerusalem and one to the remainder.'
So says an old Jewish proverb. The beauty and the sorrow are profoundly intermingled. That is the story of Jerusalem.

The words of the proverb may be a slight exaggeration - but not much. I know that a number of you have recently returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land. I had the privilege to live in Jerusalem for five years and I have visited it on many occasions since. In spite of its familiarity, and in spite of the over-building that has blighted the landscape, each time I first catch sight of the old city my spirit somehow soars and I have a shock of surprise. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. I don't know if any of you had the same feeling when you were visiting the city last week.

Perhaps the most dramatic approach to Jerusalem is to travel up from Jericho cresting the Mount of Olives and then suddenly catch sight of the city spread out before you. This was the approach that Jesus himself took as he entered the city at the beginning of the last week of his human life. It is the story that we commemorate today - Palm Sunday. It is the story that we have just heard read as our Gospel, taken from Luke. Of course intriguingly, although we call today Palm Sunday, Luke - unlike the other three gospels - does not have any palms in his story. The cloaks are spread before Jesus, and the joyful shouts of praise of the disciples echo down the centuries, but there are no palms in Luke. Perhaps the palms spoke to this gospel writer too much of a simplistic triumphalism that he wanted to play down. But Luke does use a word in his account that none of the other gospel writers employs. It is a word that is central to the theme 'Blessed are the Peacemakers' that you have been exploring this Lent.

It is the word 'Peace'.

The disciples cried out 'Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.' It is Luke alone who incorporates the word 'Peace' into the acclamation of Jesus by the multitude. And then the same word comes again only a couple of verses later as Jesus agonises over the fate of the beloved city. 'If only you had recognised on this day the things that make for peace.'

Peace, its meaning, and the tragic lack of it, is at the heart of Luke's reflection on the city of Jerusalem, and on Jesus' final approach to it. I am sure that Luke, like us, was aware of the resonance and apparent association between the name of this city, Jerusalem, and the Hebrew word for Peace 'Shalom.' Centuries earlier the psalmists had played and punned on the link. 'Pray for the peace of Jerusalem' . 'Shiru shalom al-yerushaliyim'. For Jesus, for Luke and for us, it was a wry and tragic irony that this city called and named to be a vision of peace has so often become a theatre of war. Yet in this retelling of Jesus' approach and entry to the city , as told through the eyes of Luke, we are given both a profound insight into the nature of peace and of passion and the role of Jerusalem itself.

'Peace in heaven, and glory in highest heaven'. The words of praise shouted out by the disciples are a surprising echo of another chorus which was sung much earlier in Luke's story. For on the night of Jesus' nativity the heavenly choir also sang of peace - 'Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours.' Notice the similarity of phrase, but also the difference. For while the angels had sung of peace on earth, the disciples now sing of peace in heaven. The difference may appear so slight that at first glance we hardly notice it, yet of course in reality there is a vast chasm, as vast as the gap between heaven and earth. Lulled by the beauty of the words we can forget to realise just how misguided the disciples' choice of phrase is - for in reality peace in heaven is none of our business, but peace on earth certainly is.

Oftentimes in the history of the church the followers of Jesus have tended to focus on 'peace in heaven' and perhaps our divided world is the result. We should rather be on the side of the angels and pledge ourselves to sing and strive for peace on earth. To do otherwise is to risk being sucked into the vortex of human anger and hostility of which Jerusalem, throughout its history, has so often seemed to be the sign.

Is this why Jesus' response to the song of his followers and the comment of the religious leaders is, according to Luke, simply to weep? I expect like me those of you who were in Jerusalem recently may have been fascinated and moved by the little church halfway up the Mount of Olives, the church known as the Dominus Flevit, the Lord wept, commemorating this particular moment of sorrow in Jesus' life.

When I lived in Jerusalem it was one of the special places where I loved to be. Shaped like a tear drop, it was already in process of construction when someone had the inspiration, daring for the 1950s, to situate it facing westwards, and then to leave the window behind the altar to be filled with plain glass and the outline of a chalice wrought in metal. It is a supremely appropriate place to stand and weep with Jesus over Jerusalem, and, as we approach Holy Week, the chalice also reminds us of the cost to God of the pain and alienation which Jerusalem symbolises and focuses , which means that Jesus' vocation will be to drink the cup of suffering to the dregs.

Listen again to those unforgettable three verses in which Jesus' sorrows over the tragedy of Jerusalem.

'As he came near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, 'If you, even you, had only recognised 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 recognise the time of your visitation.'

To understand what is being said here one needs to be aware just how well Luke knew his Old Testament, for the words in Jesus' mouth allude to one of the psalms, Psalm 137. In Psalm 137 the psalmist also weeps: for Jerusalem, but not in Jerusalem, because he is in exile in Babylon, six centuries before the birth of Christ.

'By the waters of Babylon I sat down and wept, when I remembered you, O Zion.'

The psalmist swears his fidelity to and love for the city... and he ends with a terrifying curse against the children of his oppressors - may they be crushed to pieces on the rocks. His impassioned love for the city had led him down the bitter and dangerous road of hatred. And Jesus wept because of all the Psalm 137s that have been prayed over Jerusalem throughout history, whether by Muslim or Christian or Jew. And that appalling curse - that Babylon's children may be 'crushed' to the ground - is actually echoed in Jesus' words in - only now of course it is Jerusalem's own children that will suffer the fate.

Unlike the author of Psalm 137 Jesus did not utter the words as a savage curse but rather as a sad recognition and a salutary warning that the kind of love that leads to the degree of hate expressed in Psalm 137 is destructive and dangerous - but ultimately most destructive to the party who is doing the hating. The curses of Psalm 137, Luke seems to be suggesting, fall back on those who are doing the cursing. What does this mean for this city, holy to three world faiths, which has so often been loved so hatefully?

One of the ways that Christians sometimes reflect on the Cross is to see it as the point in time and place where the cost to God of our human rejection of his generous and profligate love is made visible at a moment in history. As one of our Anglican prayers of confession puts it, 'We have wounded your love and marred your image in us.' We human beings continually wound God's love, but somehow the Cross enables - forces - us to look on the consequences of this in a way we usually seek to conceal from ourselves. Normally human beings cannot endure so much reality. The Cross is the moment when both the vulnerability and the transforming power of this, God's love, is revealed.

Yet one of the most exquisitely painful - and dangerous - ways in which we can reject love is by claiming to demonstrate its substitute - that sense of fierce possession of which Jerusalem itself has so often been the recipient, and of which Jerusalem's people have often been guilty. Jerusalem is indeed the place where God is crucified by the desires and aspirations and passionately held beliefs of men and women. Few things can be as dangerous as religion, or at least religion which has somehow got perverted.

But the attraction of Jerusalem also compels human beings, to surrender themselves to a vulnerable intimacy before God in which we can no longer avoid the examination of ourselves and our motives, no longer evade the searing of the Cross and its healing.

Jerusalem, I believe, is a sacrament of what it means to be human. By that I mean that Jerusalem shows up visibly and physically the best and the worst of the human condition. On the one hand it is a visible symbol of our longing, our highest and best desires, our love of beauty and our desire to worship God. But it is also a powerful reminder of how this best can go so tragically wrong - precisely because we find it so difficult to love without also seeking to possess. We want God on our own terms, housed in our own building, from which we will exclude all those who do not see things quite as we do.

Jerusalem is the place where this conundrum is squeezed into a sort of prism, so that it can be viewed in sharp focus. Yet there is a mysterious way in which Jerusalem does not simply unveil these realities about the human condition but also, I believe, challenges us at the same time to address them - to truly become the human beings God created us to be, in God's image and likeness, as God's partners in the creation and repairing of our world. And then perhaps one day Jerusalem will have earned its name - vision of peace.

Lord, teach us to weep
As Jesus wept
So that we can sow peace with tears
And reap with songs of joy.
Send us out weeping, Lord,
Carrying seeds to sow
And let us return with the fruits of peace.
So teach us to weep, Lord,
As Jesus wept.

Richard Becher
O Lord soften the stone hearts
of those who preach and practise
intolerance and bigotry;
as the sun's setting glow
softens the stone walls
of your Holy City, Jerusalem.
Lord, the rocky hills, the valleys,
the deserts and the sea shores
are filled with the echoes of centuries of pain.
Lord, bring peace to house and village.
Comfort the mothers who fret
and those who mourn.
Lord, keep strong the twisted old root
of the olive tree,
and protect the young vine.

Lord of water and stone,
of bread and wine,
Lord of the resurrection,
feed hope, and bring peace
to the wracked but beautiful holy land.

Gerald Butt
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