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Jerusalem

Lent II, C, Luke 13:31-35

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

It takes a re-orientation to stop being a tourist and become a pilgrim.  A tourist and a pilgrim are not the same thing.  When we travel as tourists we pass through a place.  We see the sites, we take a some pictures, maybe buy a few souvenirs to bring home to family and friends, taste the local cuisine
and then we move on to the next place on the tour.  But, a pilgrim is different.  When we become pilgrims we allow the place to pass through us.  Oh, sure we might still take pictures and even buy something from a street hawker but our orientation is entirely different.  A tourist is not the same thing as a pilgrim.  I think that it is fair to say that Jesus was a kind of pilgrim.  Not simply passing through time and place but identifying with them, immersing himself in them, and even defining himself by them.  “Yet today, tomorrow, and on the third day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.”  When the gospel tells us that Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem the text transliterates an Aramaic expression that literally means that he re-oriented his entire inner self.

The Jews are a pilgrim people.  Their national historical narrative is contained in Exodus, the story of their pilgrimage out of Egypt to the Promised Land.  Historically speaking, Jews have been making their pilgrim way to Jerusalem since at least the time that they returned from their captivity in Babylon; since at least the 6th century before Christ.  But the Bible tells us that Jerusalem’s attraction began with the patriarch, Abraham himself, the father of the promise.  A wandering Aramaen named Abram, came up out of Mesopotamia to Canaan, making a similar journey centuries before the returning exiles.  And as he wandered about Canaan, Abraham went up to Jerusalem.  Because, it was here that Abraham found the mysterious Melchizedek, a priest without ancestry or a Levitical pedigree who worshipped God as One.  For Abraham, for the Jews, for Muslims and for Christians, Jerusalem in some sense remains the source, the spring from where flows the worship of One God.  The word “Jerusalem” itself quite possibly means source or spring.

St. Luke implies that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem early and often in his life.  In the second chapter of his gospel, Luke tells us that “every year [Jesus’ parents] went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover.  And when [Jesus] was twelve years, they went as usual for the festival.”  Jesus and his family were among the thousands of devout Jews who went up to Jerusalem each year to pray, to atone, to return to their sacred center.  They went as pilgrims with thousands of other pilgrims.  For them, Jerusalem was the resting place of God, the site of God’s mercy seat, where the dwelling of the Most High lay quite literally between cherubim kneeling atop the Ark of the Covenant within the center of all centers, the temple’s Holy of Holies.  The psalmist speaks the pilgrim’s joy in coming to Jerusalem, “How lovely is your dwelling place.  O Lord of hosts!  My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;…Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of host, my King and my God;” a dwelling place, a home, a resting place, and for devout Jews, the very the center of the universe.

Today, probably the best place to view this center of the universe is from Mount Scopus, the highest point in the city.  Mount Scopus, on the eastern edge of the city, is a place of demarcation; a place of cleavage between two competing climatic systems and their resulting topographies.  It also is a place where you can get a real sense of where Jesus had come from and where Jesus was going.  The view I am talking about isn’t very far from the site that Christians have for centuries venerated as the spot where Jesus gazed on and wept over the city:  Dominus flevit of the Mount of Olives.

When you are standing on Mount Scopus and you look to the west you see the city spread before you.  Closest is the Kidron valley.  Kidron means darkness in Aramaic and in Jesus’ time it was a dangerous place.  It’s still a dangerous place but no longer because of the presence of bandits but because of continuing encroachments by Israeli settlers on territory owned by Palestinian families.  Beyond this deep valley is a steep rise to the walled Old City and beyond that, the modern city.  Just beyond that steep rise is the spot where Jesus would have been able to see the new Herodian temple still under construction in his day.  Archeologists tell us that its glistening gold-leaf facing could be seen even from the distant countryside.  The temple itself stood on a thirty-six acre area that Jewish tradition has always called the Temple Mount and includes the sites of Mount Moriah and the sacrifice of Isaac, Arauna’s threshing-floor, as well as Solomon’s and then Herod’s temples.

Muslims call the area the Haram es-Sharif, “The Noble Sanctuary.”  The site is made holy by Mohammed’s night journey to heaven and the sacrifice of Abraham’s son which in the Muslim tradition is Ishmael, not Isaac.  Today there are two major Muslim holy buildings, the Dome of the Rock, a shrine, and El Aksa mosque along with many other smaller buildings.  For Muslims Mecca is the holy city and Medina second.  But Jerusalem is a close third.

Just below the Haram es-Sharif lie the only remains of the temple, the Western Wall; for Jews the single most sacred site in all of Jerusalem.  If you continue to gaze you can see the major Christian holy site, the Crusader-era Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a mere shadow of Constantine’s long lost Byzantine basilica Church of the Resurrection.

Another thing about the westerly view from Mount Scopus is the green forested hills in the distance beyond the city.  The landscape is remarkably lush because Jerusalem receives about forty inches of rainfall each year.

The easterly view is entirely different.  This area just a very few miles to the east of the city receives less than four inches of rain per year.  Here the land plunges to one of the lowest spots on the earth and you find yourself looking into the beautiful bleakness of the Judean desert.  A desert wilderness:  barren, dry, hungry, rough, hot during the day and cold at night, monotonous; but also a place of encounter and listening.  The place that Jesus chose to go before beginning his preaching-healing ministry and as last week’s gospel tells us the place of Jesus’ temptation.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the very center of the universe.  By Jesus’ time, most Jews had developed a love-hate relationship with Jerusalem.  It was still revered as the very dwelling place of God, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the city of David, remembered with nostalgic longing as the capital of Israel’s golden age United Monarchy.  In this context, Jerusalem was a focus of devotion and love.  But for many Jews, Jerusalem had become a place to be despised as the center of a spiritually bankrupt and politically corrupt priesthood.  The place where the leadership of the nation had sold itself out to a hated occupying power.  The place of compromise and collaboration with the brutal evil forces that history has glorified as the Roman Empire.  Is it any wonder that the disciples were confused and full of questions when Jesus tells them that he must go to the place “that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”

And in today’s gospel here is where Jesus stands, poised.  To the east, the wilderness place of conversion and preparation for his ministry and to the west Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and those sent to it.

And here we too stand, poised in our Lenten journey.  We can in this season follow Jesus in his movement toward Jerusalem.  It’s still very much the same journey.  What country has not killed those who have spoken out boldly for justice?  Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar al Sadat.  Countless black people working for justice when apartheid reigned in South Africa…anyone who dared speak out against the murderous regimes of Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin.

“See, your house is left to you.”  The consequences of rejecting God are written in blood throughout human history.  God is love, and although love can do the impossible, there is a point where love cannot stop human wickedness applied with determination.  How else could European settlers have corralled and driven native peoples from their lands in the name of divinely ordained destiny?  How else could one million Jewish children, six million Jews in all, be murdered in the Shoah while much of the religious establishment looked away in complicit silence?  How else could the horrors of ethnic cleansing have scared so much of the Balkans and Central Africa while our country, which our political leaders never seem to tire of reminding us, is the most powerful nation on earth, stood by and watched?  Or what of the two and a half million orphans of East Africa that my Brother Roy spoke of last Tuesday evening.

And so Jesus goes up to Jerusalem.  And I would say that we too need to go up with him.  Is not Jesus on the cross the best example we Christians have of suffering love in the face of determined human wickedness?  These are disturbing thoughts, but ones with which we need, indeed, must grapple.  Perhaps our Lenten pilgrimage can be a good time for that.  What does it mean for God to love?  Is God anything besides limitless, eternal love?

It takes humility to admit that we need God’s help, God’s love, nurture, protection, like the hen who gathers her brood under her wings.  Oh, it’s fine to admit our sins and weaknesses when we’ve decided what they are, and we might be right some of the time – but what about when someone else points out our sins and weaknesses?  Do we have the humility to trust God, to snuggle in close under God’s wings, while we consider the painful truth or the well-meaning falsehood of what someone else has pointed out to us about ourselves?

I think we can trust the one who said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  We can trust him to reveal his truth to us not in a bolt of lightening, but in the warp and woof of life.  Then we stop being tourists and become pilgrims.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

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2 Comments

  1. Nicki Bourne on November 18, 2017 at 09:52

    Thank you for this neat and concise history with reminders of what we’re all about. This is a treasure!

  2. Carol Rae (Dikmak) Bradford on November 18, 2017 at 06:14

    I only say that God is the only One who can judge. “Judge not……’

    This sermon was just great to read. Many thanks, Yes, I will be happy to donate during the Holiday Season.
    Carol Rae Bradford

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