A few years ago there was a radio series then a TV series called 'I've never seen Star Wars'. Well-known people were invited to do something they'd never done before. I remember when Ian Heslop, the editor of Private Eye, was on the programme. He usually wears a suit but had agreed to wear a pair of jeans. And although he found the jeans comfortable he said he much preferred wearing a suit. I wonder, what would be your 'I've never seen Star Wars' experience? For me, it would be going to a football match or cricket match! I've never been to either! How sad is that! But there's another example too – to be invited to preach on the Sunday after Christmas on an Easter theme! This is certainly a first for me! So this is a genuine, one-off, never to be repeated – 'I've never seen Star Wars'- sermon.
Today we end our sermon series on Luke with some verses that led up to the events of Passion Week. And the question you should be asking is simple: 'How can we relate this passage of scripture to the Sunday after Christmas?' The obvious link is the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.
In Luke 2 after the birth of Jesus, he was circumcised in Bethlehem and then taken the few miles down the road to the Temple in Jerusalem. He was presented and his mother was purified. Later in Luke 2 Jesus went to Jerusalem for his bar mitzvah (his coming of age ceremony) and was found by his parents in the Temple engaging with the religious leaders. And what do we have in Luke 19? Again we find Jesus in Jerusalem, in the Temple, engaging with the religious leaders. The boy Jesus and the adult Jesus in his Father's house in conversation with the religious establishment.
The Jewish rabbi Lord Sachs refers to the Jewish tradition as being 'an anthology of arguments'. Of one question being answered by another. Of debates conducted between one rabbi and another. And that questioning and arguing and debating comes across when Jesus encountered the religious leaders. But the mood was different – the boy Jesus sat among the teachers "listening to them and asking them questions" (Luke 2.46). While the adult Jesus was opposed by the Jewish authorities who "were trying to kill him" (Luke 19.47). While Jesus had the popular support of the people in the north; he was opposed by the religious establishment in the south. That north-south divide is significant in the gospel narrative.
Of course, there is another link too between Luke 2 and Luke 19 – that of the Incarnation – of the God who came among us as a man. I'll return to that later on.
1. The city (Luke 19.41-44)
When we read Matthew, Mark and Luke we are not much aware of the Jewish festivals; but when we read John's gospel they are all too clear. Jesus spent time in Jerusalem and was there at the main religious festivals.
In the city there had been three Temples – the first, built by Solomon; the second, a modest building erected after the exile; and a third, the magnificent Temple built by King Herod. The Temple and its huge courtyard took several years to complete. In John 2.20 we read that it had already taken 46 years to build. So throughout the ministry of Jesus, the Temple would have been a building site. The work was not finally completed until AD 64 and six years later it was totally destroyed by the Romans. The Jewish revolt had to be contained. The rebels had to be destroyed. To achieve this the Romans laid siege to the city. Within a radius of 15 miles around they cut down all of the trees – to build siege engines and to light their campfires.
Today you can see the huge stones that were put in place as the base of the large Temple platform. The stones were enormous – one is 45 feet long and 10 feet high – and weighed several tons. These huge stones were probably put in place by cranes worked by slaves turning a huge drum – a bit like hamsters in a cage. These huge stones are all that remain today of the base of the courtyard. Near to the famous Western Wall is the evidence of the destruction of the Temple. The large stones on top of the wall were prized off the lower courses and they plunged down onto the street below.
The fall of Jerusalem isn't mentioned as such in the New Testament, but the Jewish historian Josephus gives us a detailed picture of its destruction. For months the Romans laid siege to the city. Many lives were lost – the streets ran with blood; buildings were destroyed; hundreds of people were crucified; the inhabitants starved – and there is the terrible story of the desperate mother who killed her baby and then cooked it and ate it. Such was their desperation. For them there was to be no escape from death at the hands of the Romans.
So much for the archaeology and the account of the destruction of the city from Josephus and from Jesus we have a hint of what was to happen to Jerusalem in Luke 19.43-44. There Jesus gives a fairly clear indication of what was soon to happen to Jerusalem. Jerusalem – the city of peace – would not be a peaceful place for much longer. It represented the absence of peace – and became the place of death and destruction. This was a clear sign of judgment upon a people who had ignored God and God's ways. The Messiah had come to them: but they ignored him, rejected him and killed him.
I wonder, are you someone who has refused to hear the Lord, and are at heart indifferent to him? Prepared to go your own way and do your own thing … but still after many years refuge to acknowledge Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?
2. The Temple (Luke 19.45-48)
When Jesus came to the city he probably stayed at nearby Bethany with his friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary and then walked each day into the city and to the Temple. There he engaged in debate with the religious authorities. They tried to trip him up. To catch him out. To show how clever they were. As religious leaders, they had much to lose if what Jesus said was true. The ordinary people (we are told) hung on his every word. He taught with authority and not as the scribes and Pharisees. And what was their response to Jesus? It was obvious. To kill him so that he could do no more harm. But they were frustrated. They could not act because of the support of his followers.
Jesus taught in the Temple precincts and he also cleared some of the Temple traders. Again, the geography and the location will help us to understand the cleansing of the Temple. The courtyard was enormous – the area was something like 30 football pitches. Around the four sides was a collonaded area. In the large courtyard, Jews and Gentiles could meet together; but only Jews could approach the actual Temple after passing through a low barrier wall. In Ephesians 2.14 Paul refers to that dividing wall: that separated Jew and non-Jew and of them being reconciled by Christ.
Along one side of the courtyard were the tables of the money changers and money traders. There they conducted their business of buying and selling animals and birds for sacrifice. Part of their profit was paid to the Temple authorities. What then was the problem for Jesus? He quoted words from Jeremiah 7.11 – "'My house shall be called a house of prayer', but you have made it a den of robbers" (Luke 19.46). Each day there were set times of prayer. Each day there were endless sacrifices of animals. It was a busy, bustling place – work to be done, money to be made. And into the midst of these activities came Jesus and his disciples. He was incensed by what he saw. Angry at what was happening. Concerned that his Father's house – which should have been a place of prayer and worship – had become "a den of robbers". So he drove out the traders and the merchants and the money-makers and the money-takers. It's unlikely that his actions were noticed by any but a few traders and religious authorities. The Roman soldiers in the adjacent barracks do not seem to have noticed the disturbance and sent in to quell a riot. It was a symbolic action by Jesus. He made it clear that the Temple was for worship and sacrifice not trading and commerce. After his death there was no more need for further sacrifices. The Temple was a place of worship – regular times of prayer throughout the day, and a place of sacrifice on an industrial scale. Just a few miles away, the Bethlehem shepherds who "watched their flocks by night" where probably rearing the sheep for sacrifice in the Temple.
I've no problem with Holy places. Buildings set aside for the worship of God are useful and practical. They represent continuity of faith and a place set apart for the people of God a base for mission and service. But they are no longer special when they are abused and used for wrong purposes. While we are stewards of the past, we are not museum keepers for the future. There is a distinction between the sacred and the secular and of the interface between them. Buildings do matter – how we use them is often the difficulty.
3. The Incarnation (Luke 19.41)
I wonder is there a verse here – or rather part of a verse – which we have overlooked? Look at verse 41 – "Jesus wept". Three times in the New Testament we read that Jesus wept. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus; he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane and he wept over the city of Jerusalem.
Outside of the tomb of Lazarus Jesus quietly wept (John 11.35). He was deeply moved by the death of his friend, the brother of Martha and Mary. He wept over the misery of sin and death. Soon he too would die and be entombed before being raised from the dead.
In the garden Jesus "offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears" (Hebrews 5.7). On many occasions during his lifetime Jesus must have prayed fervently – alone and in the presence of his heavenly Father. But in Gethsemane the prospect of the cross brought tears of anguish and sorrow; the full realisation of what was to happen. Soon he would be taken to the quarry outside of the city where he would be crucified. As a man soon to die a slow, agonising death, he wept.
Outside of the city – probably from the Mount of Olives – Jesus wept over the city (Luke 19.41). This time it was not a silent, private cry, now it was a loud outburst of his inner distress. He wailed over the forthcoming destruction of the city. The city would be destroyed and the Temple demolished. His cry too was for the inhabitants of the city: for those who had followed him and believed in him; and for those religious leaders who had rejected him.
Jesus wept. The picture of the weeping Jesus may not appeal to you. We want a strong manly Jesus who bravely faced up to a terrible death at the hands of the Romans. We want a confident Jesus who stood up and opposed the corrupted teaching of the Jewish leaders. "You have heard it was said … but I tell you". We want a Jesus to soothe us, to pamper us and to pat us on the back. Not a Jesus who will make us feel uncomfortable, who will challenge us and teach us about divine judgment. Jesus looked at Peter and he wept. But as Jesus looks at us do we ever weep?
"Jesus wept" reminds us of the humanity of Jesus. "The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1.14). The wounded Jesus. The suffering Jesus. The weeping Jesus. God became a man and lived for a while among us and we have glimpsed his divine glory and also his vulnerable humanity. We are told that Jesus was like us in every way – yet was without sin.
Evangelical preachers rightly empathise the death and resurrection of Jesus – but we are weak in speaking about the significance and importance of the Incarnation. Visiting Israel is a powerful reminder to the Christian believer of the Incarnation. God became man and walked among us. In Galilee he lived among the people. He taught in their synagogues. He healed the sick. He sailed on the lake. He grew tired and needed his feet washed. Later he walked to Jerusalem, where he confronted the religious establishment, and he suffered and died.
This man – the man Christ Jesus – who died and rose again – was a man among men – but are we sufficiently aware of both his divinity and his humanity? The child in the animals' feeding trough is the man who wept over the doomed city and who faced the agony of the cross.
At the beginning of this New Year, Jesus challenges us and confronts us and invites us to re-commit our lives to him. So may we all – "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1.29).
P.S. On the destruction of Jerusalem and the capture of Masada (near the Dead Sea) see Josephus, The Jewish War (may be read online).