The Stones of Jerusalem
Saint Luke 19:41–48
Have you ever heard the expression, “If these walls could talk?” It’s what a person might think while walking through a great hall built ages ago—a place in which generation upon generation of people lived and experienced all sorts of things, from the mundane, everyday things of life, to the truly monumental. Oh, the stories those walls could tell if they were able to speak. But what’s this got to do with today’s Holy Gospel? That’s a good question. Well, give me a moment and you’ll see.
The reading that we have before us this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke takes place on Palm Sunday, the day that our Lord Jesus enters into Jerusalem, accompanied by the waving of palm branches and the joyous shouts of “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” Two verses before our Gospel Reading begins, the evangelist mentions that some Pharisees, who are present to witness Christ’s coming into the holy city, complain to Jesus about all the noise and commotion the palm-waving, hosanna-shouting people are making. They say to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” To which Jesus replies, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
Now, I think it most unlikely that the stone walls of Jerusalem would literally start talking if Jesus hushed and quieted the noisy crowd. Of course, He could make them talk if He wanted. After all, in Old Testament days, He made a donkey belonging to a man named Balaam, able to speak. But here, our Lord’s comment is undoubtedly that figure of speech we were talking about—a variation of, “If these walls could talk.” I wonder, though, if those stones of Jerusalem were to cry out and speak, what would they say?
Perhaps we might hear of when Abraham met with Melchizedek, the king of that city when it still went by the name Salem. Melchizedek, being both king and priest of “God Most High,” as he is referred to in Genesis 14, is offered by the writer of the Book of Hebrews as a prophetic type of Christ. Luther says that, as Melchizedek offers physical refreshment to Abraham with the gift of bread and wine, so our Lord Jesus gives us spiritual refreshment in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, through which we receive His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
The stones of Jerusalem, if they could speak, would also likely tell us of King David dancing as he brought the ark of the Lord and the tabernacle to the city and of his son Solomon building the first temple. The stones would tell us of the glory of the Lord abiding there, in the most holy place, in the midst of Jerusalem, providing believers with a tangible, connecting link to the promised redemption and atonement of sins that comes through our Saviour Jesus.
We would also hear the stones of Jerusalem speak of all the true prophets of the Lord proclaiming the promised coming of the Messiah to His people to redeem them. Malachi, the last of the Old Testament Jerusalem prophets, foretold both the coming of our Lord Jesus and His forerunner John the Baptist. In fact, with the voice of this prophet, the Lord Jesus says, “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. … But who can endure the day of his coming,” the Lord asks, “and who can stand when he appears? … For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
The Lord speaks these words through the prophet to a Jerusalem that is corrupt, that profanes the covenant established by God with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Idolatry and unbelief is widespread back then in Jerusalem, as it is throughout the whole of the country. The priests serving in the temple despise the very name of the Lord and they offer up on His altar what the Lord calls “polluted food,” sacrificial animals, sick and diseased—unfit to be served in the homes of the people, yet offered to God. Despite this, however, the Lord offers them grace. “Return to me,” He tells them, “and I will return to you.”
On Palm Sunday, some 500 years after He gave this promise of grace, the Lord Jesus rides in on the back of a donkey and weeps over the city of Jerusalem. And through His tears He says to her, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.” He doesn’t need the stones of the city to tell Him that essentially nothing has changed. Oh, on the outside, things may appear to be different than back in the days of Malachi. There’s a whitewashing of false-righteousness that covers over the rot permeating the worship and life of the people. The altar offerings, for example, aren’t tainted with disease and sickness, as back then. Now it’s the corruption of greed and avarice that befouls what is offered. Jesus declares that same day that they have turned the temple, His house of prayer, into a den of thieves. And idolatry is still endemic among the people, although the idols now wear a different face. Instead of bowing down before the Baals and the Asheroth, they now engage in a worship of self. They have more fear, love, and trust toward themselves than they do toward God. Their unbelief hides from their eyes the things that make for peace. The one who comes to make reconciliation for them with God—to give them peace—is in their midst, but they cannot see it.
Because of their sinful unbelief and rejection of God’s grace in His Son Jesus, the tale told by the stones of Jerusalem would soon be one of bitter woe and destruction. The word of Christ gives prophetic witness to it. He declares to the city that, “the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Less than a generation later, this word of Christ is fulfilled when the future Roman emperor Titus leads his army against a rebellious Jerusalem, reducing it to a smoldering heap of ruin.
To be clear, though, knowledge of this ruin is not what brings tears to wet the face of Jesus. Rather, it is knowledge of the eternal ruin of the people, because of their unbelief, that so grieves His heart of love. If only, as Jesus said, they had known the things that make for peace. If only they would have faith to believe that Christ rides into Jerusalem to offer Himself on the altar of the cross as the perfect sacrifice for the atonement of all their sin and for the sin of the whole world. If only! What sadness those two little words hold—“If only”. Perhaps this is what the fallen stones of Jerusalem have to say even now.
Or perhaps those stones would choose rather to remark upon and rejoice in the grace and mercy of God shown to those who did believe, who called upon the name of the Lord and trusted in Jesus. Historians tell us that while over a million Jews perished and 100,000 were taken captive, not a single Christian died in the destruction of Jerusalem. The early Christian scholar Eusebius wrote that, “The whole body of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, left the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella.” And Epiphanius tells us: “For when the city was about to be taken and destroyed by the Romans, it was revealed in advance to all the disciples by an angel of God that they should remove from the city, as it was going to be completely destroyed.”
This historical evidence is well in keeping with what the Apostle Paul says in today’s Epistle Reading in which he tells us that for those who do not believe, but trust in their own works, Christ is a rock of offense—a stumbling stone over which they will fall, but that “whoever believes in him will never be put to shame.” This is most certainly true, dear friends. When the earthly walls that we look to for safety and security fail us, Christ remains ever present to help and save. It is as the Psalmist David proclaims: “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”
This morning, we come together as refugees fleeing from the ravages of war that so encompass us about in our daily lives. We flee not, however, as do some from physical warfare; we seek safety from a different sort of battle. Saint Paul writes in Ephesians, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The fight being waged against you is for your soul.
To help in this struggle, God the Holy Spirit gives you faith to discern “the things that make for peace;” He gives you the blessings that you have in Christ to calm your troubled heart and keep you safe. There is true sanctuary in this holy sanctuary of the Lord, real refuge for the weary, sure solace for the anxious, for through the Spirit, Christ brings to you the precious gift that He purchased and won for you on Calvary’s cross with His innocent suffering and death; He brings you the forgiveness of your sins, full and complete, by which you have life and salvation! How amazing this gift is; how wondrously wrought! We’re told that the very stones of Jerusalem shook and were split when Christ thus forged your salvation—when our Lord died for you to give you life. Of all that those stones could tell us, this is the greatest thing of all. You have salvation and life without end in Christ Jesus, our Lord, who died for you. Amen.