What a gloomy picture the Holy Spirit paints in our Gospel lesson. It’s almost like He is raining on our parade. Indeed, it was a parade. Our lesson falls at the end of the Palm Sunday parade. Jesus was riding victoriously into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, amid shouts of “Hosanna,” as people strewed palm branches before His way. What joy and celebration they saw that day.
And then we hear Jesus crying over Jerusalem. He tells about a Jerusalem besieged, conquered and torn down stone by stone—and all the people with it. The next thing you know, Jesus is in the temple raising Cain with the sellers and traders, kicking them out. We end up with the chief priests and the scribes conspiring to destroy our Lord. What a sad and depressing Scripture lesson we hear today.
The same might be said of the Old Testament reading. The year was 628 B.C. Jeremiah was the Lord’s prophet sent to a faithless people. Proud in their own accomplishments, they turned away from God and His Word to follow their own evil desires. Chief amongst them was a religious hypocrisy that brought them to the temple regularly to worship, but when they left it was to live like the heathen—and not very good heathens, at that. They worshiped the Baals, the false gods of the nations; they stole from each other; they lied to one another; they shacked up with their neighbor’s wife; they murdered—the list goes on. Then they’re back to the temple to offer their cheap sacrifices, pay lip service to God, and think they have given God His due. They thought: we have the temple and the priests (not that the priests were any better, preaching lies to the people and living just as abominably as them). They figured they had all their religious ducks in a row. “We’re saved,” they said. Now…back to the Baals, the cheating, lying, and fighting…back to their sin.
God would have been just and holy to wipe off from the face of the earth all those lying priests and faithless people. Instead, He sent Jeremiah. He was the young prophet whom God sent “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (v. 1:10) To a rebellious people who spurned His Word, God, in His mercy, sent a preacher to speak His word. Jeremiah condemned their sin and impenitence; he told them about their dismal future of destruction and exile if they didn’t change their hearts and ways. He also suffered their scorn, their attacks against him, and (according to tradition) death at their hands.
In spite of God’s word of repentance and trust, the people remained stubborn and impenitent. So God sent another instrument of His mercy: not a prophet, but a potentate. Nebuchadnezzar was the Babylonian tyrant whom God sent to drag the Jews, bound in chains, into exile. Nebuchadnezzar also tore down the temple and stole all its furnishings. God’s word proved true.
They remained in exile for nearly 70 years. In that time they learned humility and gained a renewed faith in God. They longed to be back in the land that God gave them, and to the temple where He once dwelt. Finally God answered their prayers for mercy, and brought them back. Those Jews that returned were much more zealous to stay loyal to God’s Law, to the teachings of the rabbis, and to keep themselves uncorrupted by and separated from the Samaritans and Gentiles in the land.
This was the Jerusalem that Jesus wept over. Jerusalem in 33 A.D. was a city full of religious turmoil and strife. For the Jews, this turmoil included falling again into a false trust in the temple and their own self-righteousness. St. Paul called it a “zeal for God,” but a zeal that stemmed from ignorance of God and His righteousness. Jesus spoke similarly when He lamented over Jerusalem, that City of Peace, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” The Jews once again rejected God’s word; but this time they exchanged it for something that appeared noble and decent. In Jeremiah’s day, the Jews had lapsed into a degenerate form of libertinism. In Jesus day, they had lapsed into a self-righteous perfectionism. They believed that if you followed the commandments as best as you could, sacrificed regularly in the temple, and obeyed the rabbis, you were righteous before God. You were saved. And, as before, the temple of God stood there as proof of their trust.
So, when in our Gospel Jesus foretold of the temple’s destruction, He was pointing to God’s righteous judgment on His faithless people. When Jesus cleansed the temple, He was pointing to God’s holy and righteous demands for His Church. And when the chief priests and scribes conspired to destroy Jesus, the Holy Spirit was pointing to God’s final judgment against sin and His perfect righteousness for His people.
What about the Church today? How do we respond to the Word of God? Certainly we see examples that run the gamut between the same moral libertinism and spiritual perfectionism heard in our lessons. Like the Church in Jeremiah’s day, you will find people today who claim to be Christian, come to church fairly regularly, but have no qualms in breaking God’s commandments most flagrantly. From an unrelenting and idolatrous pursuit of money and wealth, to trashing His Name and despising His Word, many seem to find it easy to justify their lack of fear, love and trust in God. And from gross disrespect for parents and authority, to hatred of life shown in the nodding approval of abortion and euthanasia, to the nearly demonic abandon in satisfying every sexual lust and adultery, on through the rest of the commandments, you can find it done either in the name of, or in disregard of, Christianity.
The other extreme is also found among Christians, that is, a spiritual perfectionism. Similar to the Jews in Jesus’ day, many Christians trust their strict obedience to the Law to save them. We’re not only talking about the Ten Commandments here, but also every human law that priests or politicians can come up with. This self-righteous and very serious piety says you will love God and your neighbor because Jesus said so. If you don’t, you will just go to hell, and that settles it. This modern Phariseeism often puts human laws, whether from church or state, on par or above God’s law. And, once again, the Christian voice for such impossible and impractical obedience is often the loudest.
The words of our Lord Jesus easily apply to the Church today, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” But if they are hidden from us, it is only because we want to live by sight and not by faith. We want to fix our eyes on the creation, rather than trust the Creator. And if God hides His mercy from our eyes, then it is for the express and loving purpose that we know Him by faith alone. So, with faith, let us ask God to reveal His mercy in His word.
That mercy is revealed most fully in today’s lessons in the temple of God. The temple was the place where God manifested Himself to His people. He wrapped Himself up in that building, with all its furnishings and ceremonies. And although He was the invisible God, He showed Himself to His people in the High Priest who sacrificed the Paschal lamb for the forgiveness of sins. In fact, He was in all the sacrifices where blood was spilled to establish peace with God. He was there in the Ark of the Covenant that kept the tablets of the commandments, the living almond branch of Aaron, and the miraculous bread from heaven. And even when the temple was destroyed, God was revealing His mercy. Not only because He removed the object of their idolatry, but more so because in God’s wisdom and love He showed how the true Temple of God must be destroyed to establish a full and everlasting peace between God and men.
Which brings us to the glad tidings in our Gospel lesson, for indeed, it is rich in joy and peace. It begins with the opening words, “When Jesus drew near.” What mercy and grace we find here, as God’s only Son approached a city full of fears and doubts and troubles. He did not abandon His children, even though they didn’t recognize Him, but scorned and rejected Him. And in that approach, He wept for our souls, knowing that His entrance into Jerusalem would end up at the cross, suffering the wrath of God for our sins.
The destruction of the temple, which He foretold, signified a New Testament with Gods people. The old temple was cleared away to make way for the new, the Temple of God in the person of Christ. This true Temple would also be destroyed, on the cross, but it would rise again three days later, victorious over death and hell’s destruction, never to be destroyed again.
And when Jesus drove out the traders and sellers, He signified the cleansing of His Church. He created a people who would cease robbing God of His place of reverence and honor, but be devoted to Him in prayer and worship.
So also Jesus taught daily in the temple, showing us the grace of the Holy Spirit who brings the word of Christ and His forgiveness into the lives of His people every day. They are words upon which we hang for strength and hope, even in the face of God’s enemies who are powerless to bring any harm to Christ and His Church. We are a spiritual Temple built upon that invincible Stone laid in Zion, in Whom, if anyone believes, he will never be ashamed.
In that faith, we stand firm against all the gloom and doom that fills our lives. God’s mercy and grace are here, hidden from the world, but precious to Christ’s redeemed people—we who walk by faith and not by sight.
We find God’s joy hidden in our sorrows, as He uses them to draw us closer to Him to find the comfort He alone can give. His love is hidden in His chastisement for our sins, as He lets the consequences of our sins wake us up to our disobedience and lack of faith. His providence is hidden in the history of the Church. There He shows both judgment and restoration as the Church fights against sin, heresy, and apostasy—to which many have succumbed—but from which the Lord restores, reforms, and keeps His Church true.
And to do that, God hides Himself in His Church promising to abide with her forever. He is hidden in the Gospel proclaimed; in the sin-cleansing waters of Holy Baptism; and in the voice of the pastor preaching Good News and forgiveness in Christ’s Name. He is hidden in the Holy Sacrament in which the Incarnate Son of God gives into our mouths the very Body and Blood that bore our sins into death, and which now is risen from the grave, ascended on high, and fills all things. He is hidden in our liturgy in which the whole history of our salvation in Christ is presented to us in Word and Sacrament, hymnody and prayer, allowing us to worship God in Spirit and truth, in beauty and harmony.
And finally, God is hidden in His people who do not see their liberty in Christ as a license to sin, but as freedom from Satan’s tyranny. They are a people whose works of love flow from hearts cleansed of all malice and filled with the Holy Spirit and His gifts.
Oh, what joy and gladness we find in the Word of God today. And what joy shall fill our hearts as we taste the Lord’s mercy in the feast of love He sets before us. Let us close with a verse from the wonderful communion hymn by Johann Frank, “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness.” Let it be not only our song, but our prayer, our hope, and our devotion.
Soul, adorn yourself with gladness,Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness;Come into the daylight's splendor,There with joy your praises renderBless the One whose grace unboundedThis amazing banquet founded.He, though heav’nly, high, and holy,Deigns to dwell with you most lowly.