JOY and TEARS – The Approach to Easter

What a wonderful time Easter is! Spring lambs, longer days, first buds, and here in the South West masses of incredibly colourful daffodils. But, of course, the real glory is undoubtedly in the Easter story: a panorama of the most momentous events in the life of Jesus. It’s a prime time for meditation and reflection. So I thought for this blog I would reflect on the beginning of that Easter story. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, bringing us the first act of that great Easter drama and a particular relevance to the main theme of this web-site. As Luke records, it has two distinct phases or pictures; the first involves much rejoicing, the second involves profound tears. Generally we tend to speak of the first (and why not!) but neglect the second. It is important, however, to look at both.

Jesus began the Palm Sunday proceedings in what was a truly dramatic manner. He took the colt of a donkey, sat on it and proceeded to ride into Jerusalem. In so doing he was making a clear and open prophetic statement; he was Israel’s king and Messiah, and he was fulfilling the word of Zechariah, “See your king comes to you … lowly and riding on a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). He was surrounded by a crowd of disciples. What followed during that ride was an intolerable affront to the religious establishment, but a matter of great joy to his disciples. Both parties, it would appear were much aware of the implications of what Jesus was doing.

The crowd of disciples added something important to the fulfilment of the word of Zechariah, for that word included the call to “Rejoice greatly”. The crowd was a very large crowd, so Matthew tells us, and it was immensely exuberant and did indeed rejoice greatly! They people threw their coats on the road before the donkey, they spread palm branches on the road and they were shouting out aloud with great affirmations of their king Messiah, “Hosanna to the Son of David”. Like King David of old, they may well have danced and leapt!  It was enough to cause a great stir in the city, with people wanting to know who this person on the donkey was. On reflection this huge, unprecedented burst of praise seems clearly to have been something more than a purely human response; the jubilation has all the hallmarks of the presence of the Spirit of God on it. God was there in that great crowd adding his witness to his Son.

Luke tells us what was at the heart of their rejoicing, “They began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen” (Lk 19:37). Most of them were probably from Galilee where Jesus had done most of his miracles. They were “disciples” who had come to believe on Jesus and follow him (they were not the crowd which bellowed later in the week for Jesus’ death!). They had felt the healing touch of Jesus in many different ways, and had found new life, joy and forgiveness in following him. The Messiah they had longed for had come, and they had found him to be a man of the people, a man of righteousness, and a man of compassion, tenderness and love. Doubtless they would be sharing and strengthening each other with their experiences of Jesus, what they had seen him do and what he had done for them individually. What a wonderful pointer this occasion was to the nature of the church that Jesus would later establish; it was an embryonic glimpse of the joy, grace and peace Jesus would bring to those who would follow him in the generations to follow. It would have been a wonderful experience to have been part of it.

At that point we tend to stop the story, but Luke does not. He goes on to record that in the midst of all this acclamation and rejoicing Jesus began to weep as he approached the city. The tears were not tears of joy, but of profound sadness. Perhaps we stop at that point because the tears seem to get in the way of the upbeat rejoicing. We want to stay with the rejoicing, to go on with our acclamations of His glorious grace and kingship. Maybe Jesus felt the same! Why should he bring a sad note into such happy positive occasion? Why spoil the party with anything sombre, especially the sort of sombre warning that was to accompany the tears? Why not go straight on with the unsullied witness of that great praise march?

Well, we have to ask why the tears. Jesus was to die on a cross within days, but he was not crying on that account. The tears started to flow as he rode down from the Mount of Olives and saw Jerusalem spread out before him. The tears were for the city and what he knew was going to happen to it. The Messiah King, most likely stopping the donkey at this point, suddenly spoke prophetically over the city, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” Lk. 19:42-44. This was a devastating, unrelenting prophecy of judgement, seemingly at a most inappropriate moment, in the middle of a praise meeting,! I wonder what those nearby who heard it made of it? It was not something they would want to hear (no one likes to hear of judgement!), and the message seemed no doubt utterly bizarre, even outrageous; the destruction of Jerusalem? Impossible! Even if it were true, who would want to hear it at that point of triumphal witness to the city? Without question, however, it was a moment of revelation and prompting of the Holy Spirit. In the natural Jesus knew that already the religious leaders were planning his death, and he knew they would succeed. The city would reject his witness. In the Spirit he knew that a judgement was decreed. His tears were for what that would mean for the people of Jerusalem. He was crying for them in their blindness, crying for what they were to bring on themselves.

So we have a devastating word of judgement accompanied by tears from the Messiah who is the Prince of peace and the King of love! What a seemingly impossible combination and contradiction. The tears were, of course, genuine. The pain and heart break were deeply felt; the sadness was evident. The love he has for the people, even the people who were to reject him, was revealed very clearly in those tears even whilst he prophesied. His heart longed for their peace, and he wanted desperately to give it to them. There is not the slightest hint of any cheap vengeance here for what the people of the city would do to him. He is not eager to give them their “just deserts”. He is not thirsting for vengeance, In fact the last thing he wanted was to see judgement come. There is no hardness in his eyes, no brutality in his heart to those who will ill treat him. He weeps in distress for them, for the choice they have made and for what it will inevitably bring upon them.

Jesus reflects perfectly here the heart of his Father. God is a God of love, desperately concerned in his love to bring peace to people, even to the point of giving over Jesus to die for them in order to bring them into fellowship with him. God weeps over those who reject him, for in their rejection of him they put themselves outside of his protection and grace. Indeed the proclamation of judgement is itself designed to challenge them to repentance and to adopt the way to peace; it is not a condemnation without hope! It is with that in mind that Jesus later in the week more than once faced the Scribes and Pharisees with parables of judgement simply to show them the way of blessing.

The rejection of God in general and his purpose in Jesus in particular constitutes the greatest damage humanity can inflict on itself: it is the way to lose everything that makes life worth living. The acceptance of the living God and Jesus constitutes and releases the greatest blessing humanity we can have, a blessing that extends beyond this life. God longs to save, but people must choose. When a nation increasingly rejects God there can be only one outcome, and ours, amongst others, is moving fast in that direction.

At a personal level, I really have no desire to “spoil the party”. I have known and been blessed by the Spirit of praise and rejoicing for nearly sixty years. It’s a wonderful place to be in. I dwell in it and constantly seek to encourage others into it. But the Spirit has other promptings I’m afraid, and they must be spoken, and listened to, especially, perhaps when they are warnings.