Good morning! Today is a special day celebrated by churches and Christians all around the world. It’s the beginning of Easter Week, when we re-live the events at the heart of the life of Jesus. During this special week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, debated with the religious authorities, taught his disciples, celebrated his Last Supper with his friends, prayed his agonised prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, faced his unfair trials, endured brutal mistreatment, died an agonizing death on the cross, and on Easter Sunday was raised from the dead.
Today is called Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus arriving in Jerusalem riding on a donkey, at the centre of a triumphal procession. This morning I want us to consider a surprising part of the story as Jesus approached Jerusalem. Luke records that Jesus burst into tears as he came close to the city. Why did he do that? Let’s reflect on Jesus’ tears after this song.
Last year an event happened that was eagerly observed by literally billions of people around the world. It was the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, in Westminster Abbey, London. We might have been sick of all the media hype, and speculation about Kate’s dress, but it was still a spectacle many of us watched. It was a royal occasion, carefully planned and staged so as to emphasise exactly the right points. There was deep emotion – with celebration, moving pageantry and tears of joy – but the emotion was carefully controlled and monitored. How would we have reacted if Prince William emerged from his wedding at the entrance of the Abbey, and burst into tears of distress because of the spiritual condition of the city of London? We’d have thought it odd, embarrassing, and inappropriate!
What do we make, then, of the tears of Jesus? Like the royal wedding of William and Kate, Jesus was the centre of a royal occasion, with celebration and joyous praising of God. Yet Luke records: ‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it’ (19:41). The word translated ‘wept’ in the original language is more intense than just shedding a few tears. It means to lament with sobs. Jesus suddenly burst into weeping and sobbing! Why did he react that way? What are we to make of his strong emotion and tears? What do we learn from his weeping?
To answer those questions, let’s recall the scene of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The similarities to a royal occasion like the wedding of William and Kate are striking. Jesus had carefully planned the exact way he was going to enter the city. He had previously chosen the animal he was to ride, and pre-arranged a ‘pass-word’ with the owners. The pass-word was ‘The Lord needs it.’ He had chosen a young foal, the colt of a donkey. This choice was a deliberate fulfilment of the prophecy given by the prophet Zechariah: ‘Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (9:9). Jesus wanted the crowds on the Mount of Olives to remember that prophecy, to ‘rejoice greatly’ and ‘shout’, to see Jesus as their ‘king’, their anointed Messiah. And the plans of Jesus did unfold. The crowds of Jesus’ disciples did remember the prophecy, and they expressed their joyful praise to God in loud voices: ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’ (Lk 19:38).
This deliberate plan of Jesus was an incredibly daring and courageous thing to do. At this stage of his life Jesus was a marked man. A price was on his head. The religious authorities had declared him an outlaw. So for Jesus to plan this very public way of entering the city, making himself the centre of attention, was risky. Jesus was certainly very courageous!
This morning we’re thinking about the first Palm Sunday, when Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem surrounded by a cheering crowd who praised God that the king had arrived. Jesus had carefully planned and staged the whole event. While he was deliberately claiming to be king, he was careful to emphasise the kind of king he was. When kings rode into cities in the days of Jesus, they usually rode majestically on mighty warhorses. Most kings wanted to be known as great conquerors and victors. If a king rode on a donkey, which they did do occasionally, it was to make the point that they came on a mission of peace. That’s the emphasis that Zechariah was making in his prophecy: ‘I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River [Euphrates] to the ends of the earth’ (9:10).
This king predicted by Zechariah will bring peace, not war. His rule will extend over the whole earth. So by riding a young donkey Jesus came as the king who comes to his people in love and peace, not as the conquering hero, in martial splendour, even though that’s what the mob expected and wanted.
And that helps us to understand why Jesus shed tears and sobbed. This large crowd of Jesus’ disciples thought this was their nationalistic Messiah – they were celebrating because they thought Jesus was about to take control of Jerusalem, destroy the Roman occupation, and cleanse Israel of all evildoers. Jesus was about to deliver his people, but he would do it by allowing himself to suffer and die a brutal death on a cross. Had the crowds known what Jesus planned to do, they would have been puzzled and distressed, as indeed they soon were.
But most of the people of Jerusalem were not celebrating or cheering that day. Luke says it was ‘the whole crowd of disciples’, but some Pharisees complained to Jesus (v.39), and most of the people of Jerusalem were indifferent or hostile. In the middle of the crowd Jesus suddenly breaks down, sobbing. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel we find other people in tears – the widow at Nain whose only son had died, Jairus’s family whose young daughter had died, and others in distress coming to Jesus for healing and new life. The women of Jerusalem will shortly be weeping for Jesus himself (23:27). In John’s Gospel, Jesus weeps at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (Jn 11:35). But here is Jesus weeping over the city, and there is no one who understands him or comforts him. As happened so often in Jesus’ ministry, people must have been surprised and startled at Jesus’ reaction.
Jesus’ tears bring us to the core of the Christian message. Let’s ponder that theme in a few minutes.
As Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he broke down in tears. Those tears of Jesus bring us to the core of the Christian message. This was not a moment of regrettable weakness, something a real Messiah ought to have avoided. We might think that about Prince William if he sobbed with distress after his wedding, but not of Jesus in this situation. Again and again during his long journey to Jerusalem Jesus had warned of God’s impending judgment on the city and Temple. The people of Jerusalem, like the towns of Galilee, had resisted his call for peace, for the gospel of God’s love and forgiveness which would reach out to all the nations. Now, in the midst of his sobs, Jesus makes his last offer of peace. He said: ‘if you had only known what would bring you peace’ (v.42). Here was the one last appeal Jesus was making to his people. It was love’s last invitation before the hatred of men engulfed him.
It’s an essential part of Jesus’ message of warning and judgement that it’s uttered, finally, through sobs and tears. Luke vividly portrays the scene, conveying the sense of Jesus sobbing out a few phrases: ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes’ (v.42). Finally, Jesus controls himself sufficiently to utter the solemn warning upon the city that has chosen to ignore the moment when God was coming in solemn visitation: ‘The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone upon another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you’ (vv.43-44).
So the tears of Jesus help us to see the heart of God when God pronounces his solemn warnings of judgment. Jesus is certainly not gloating over the city, with a sense of ‘I told you so’ or ‘It serves you right.’ Sometimes that is true of Christian preachers, and that’s a great tragedy. Instead, Jesus was shaking with sobs and weeping. The terrible judgment that has been pronounced, and will shortly be executed, proceeds not from a stern and cold justice but from a heart of love – a heart that wants the best for people, the best from people. So now he must oppose, with sorrow and tears, the rebellion that had set its own interests and agendas before those of God – the God who had established them there in Jerusalem in the first place.
The tears of Jesus help us to see the heart of God toward us if we remain indifferent to Jesus and reject his right to rule over our lives. God declares that we will remain under his just wrath and, when we die, be banished to the darkness of hell. But he makes that warning with deep sadness, inviting us to turn from sin, to place our faith in Jesus Christ, and receive God’s saving grace in Christ. It’s a tearful offer of peace.
Today on Palm Sunday let’s re-live the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as he came riding the small donkey. Let me encourage you to read your Bible during this coming week, and ponder the events of Easter Week. Start today with the account of Palm Sunday in Luke chapter 19, and read a chapter a day through to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Let God speak to you and warm your heart as you meditate on the central facts of the Christian message.
Let me pray for you: ‘Merciful God, today on Palm Sunday we join with the crowds who shouted their praise to you and acknowledged Jesus as king. We thank you that Jesus came into Jerusalem with humility, gentleness, and determination to fulfil his mission of dying in our place for our sins. The tears of Jesus speak to us of your wonderful love and compassion for sinners like us. As we re-live the events of Easter Week, deepen our appreciation of the peace you have made possible though the death and resurrection of your dear Son, the Lord Jesus. Amen.’