About five or six years ago a young man by the name of Craig Randall made the news. Until then Craig Randall was anything but famous. He was a trash collector, driving his truck in Peabody, Massachusetts. At the time Wendy’s restaurant was having a promotional give-away. The cups their drinks came in had a sticker on them. When you pulled back the sticker you would find out if you won anything.
One day Randall was out on his route and he noticed a Wendy’s cup on a pile of trash. The previous week Randall had won a free chicken sandwich. He said later that he thought to himself with this cup he might win some french fries to go with his chicken sandwich. So he stopped his truck, picked up the cup, pulled back the sticker, and to his utter amazement he discovered that he had just won $200,000! Not a bad day out on the garbage route!
But that’s only half the story. The other half, I don’t know; it was never reported in the news. Perhaps no one knows the other half of the story. At most, one person may know it. And that half of the story concerns who had the cup to begin with. Who originally had this cup but didn’t bother to pull back the sticker before throwing it away? Who had within their hands – for a few minutes – $200,000 but didn’t recognize it as such and so threw it away? Talk about a lost opportunity!
Palm Sunday reminds us, among other things, of missed opportunities. Let’s read Luke’s account of some of what happened the day Jesus entered Jerusalem in what would be the beginning of His last week of earthly ministry. We pick up the story in Luke 19:28?40.
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them,30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.
31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.'”
32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them.
33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.”
35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.
36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
This is the story that probably comes to mind to most of us when we think of Palm Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem riding a lowly donkey as the gathering crowd enthusiastically welcomes Him to the Holy City. People spread their garments and palm branches on the road before Jesus, just as they would do for visiting royalty. They cheer the arrival of Jesus, joyfully praising God in loud voices, shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!"
Of course, Jesus knew that the enthusiastic welcome of the crowd did not mean much. Jesus knew what was in the heart of every person. So He was well aware that the praise of the crowd was shallow at best and would be short-lived.
And Jesus did not let the wild adulation go to His head or distract Him in any way. He was not like the beauty queen riding atop a float in the Rose Bowl Parade, gently waving at the crowds, first on one side of the street and then the other, oblivious to everything but the attention being directed her way. No, in this Palm Sunday parade, all the while the people were cheering and applauding, Jesus was focused not on the crowd, not on his momentary popularity, but on His mission and purpose. He was thinking about who He was, why He came, and how people responded to Him and His ministry. He was thinking about what lay ahead – for Him and for the city He was about to enter. And this brings us to the rest of the passage, the part of Palm Sunday we do not typically think of. Continuing the story at vs. 41, we read:
41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it
42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.
43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.
44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Jesus has been riding toward Jerusalem, and when he at last sees the city all kinds of things flood his mind and emotions. All that He has been thinking about in terms of His purpose now focuses on what He sees in His mind when he sees Jerusalem with His eyes. And as we read His response to seeing the city of Jerusalem, we find in these four short verses some of the most terrifying words in all of Scripture, some of the most tragic words in all of Scripture, and some of the most tender words in all of Scripture.
First, the terrifying words. This is a passage of judgement. Jesus prophesied that the time would come when enemies would come and destroy Jerusalem. The stone walls of the city would be smashed and the inhabitants, both adults and children, would be killed. And that is exactly what happened some forty years later at the hands of the Romans. In A.D. 70, General Titus led his forces against Jerusalem and destroyed the city, burned the temple, executed many residents and turned others into slaves.
The glory of Jerusalem, as Jesus well knew, lay in the past. God once had an important role for the city and its residents, but no longer. It wasn’t that God no longer cared for the people, but the nation of Israel, symbolized by their capital city of Jerusalem, would no longer be the focal point of God’s dealings with human beings. That time and purpose was now over, and in the course of one generation Jerusalem was sacked.
Was the destruction of the city actually caused by God? Could it be accounted for simply as an act of divine judgement? Perhaps. Or maybe, since God was now finished with Jerusalem in terms of His eternal purpose, He simply withdrew His protective hand. Thus the city was subject to the same violent assaults and power-grabbing schemes from its neighbors as any other city or country. I don’t know which it was, but regardless, on that first Palm Sunday Jesus knew that terrifying destruction was what awaited Jerusalem.
Why was that? Why did God set Jerusalem aside and move on to other things? The answer is related to our second observation from this passage, which is that these are tragic words spoken by Jesus. They are tragic not only because they centered on judgement and destruction for Jerusalem. What really makes them tragic is that all of that coming judgement and destruction could have been avoided. That is what makes it so tragic.
The reason destruction was on the horizon for Jerusalem was spelled out by Jesus in vs. 44. There, as He gazed over the city, He said that the reason this was Jerusalem’s fate was “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Or as other translations put it, they “did not recognize the time of (their) visitation.” God and visited them in a most profound way. God had come to them in Jesus Christ, but they did not recognize in this carpenter turned-prophet from Galilee the presence of God. They were oblivious to the fact that God was visiting them in a uniquely powerful way.
There are some kinds of ignorance that are innocent and excusable. If you drop by to visit me unannounced and I am not home when you come, it’s hardly my fault that we did not see each other. How could it be my fault? I didn’t know you were coming. I was ignorant of that fact because you never told me you were coming. But if you called me the day before and we agreed that you would come by at a certain time that day, and then I wasn’t there because I decided to go run some errands, then I would be at fault.
The people of Jerusalem at that time really had no excuse for not recognizing the time of their visitation. God had spoken to them through the Old Testament Scriptures which prophesied of the coming Messiah – prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. God told them that He was coming. Many of the common people recognized in both the words and works of Jesus the presence of God; they knew that God was visiting them and so they followed Jesus.
One day Jesus healed a paralyzed man. He was brought on a stretcher by his friends to see Jesus, and he walked away under his own power. It says in Mk. 2:12 that “This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!'” Whether or not they perceived Jesus to be the Messiah, the common people had no doubt that God was mightily present in Jesus, that God was visiting them in the person of Jesus.
But not so the religious leaders. They continually resisted Jesus. They rationalized away His miracles, suggesting that Jesus got His miraculous power from the devil. They stubbornly refused to accept His teaching. They tried every tactic they could to trip Him up, asking Him trick questions, accusing Him falsely. They set their hearts against Jesus, refusing to see in Him what some of the crowd saw and what the Old Testament predicted – the presence of God who had come to save His people.
The religious leaders had the Old Testament Scriptures predicting the coming of the Messiah. Some of them had witnessed the miracles Jesus accomplished. They had heard him teach and teach with authority. And so they were without excuse. They should have been able to see that in Jesus God had not forgotten His people. There was every reason for them to welcome Jesus, but they refused to accept the evidence and so they rejected Jesus, and in the process they rejected what God was doing through Jesus, accomplishing salvation for His people.
They were even rejecting Jesus as He approached Jerusalem, riding the donkey. As the crowd was cheering Jesus on, it says in Vs. 39, “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples!'” In other words, they were saying, “Jesus, who do you think you are? You’re not worthy of such praises.” Right up to the end they were rejecting Jesus. It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t recognize the time of their visitation from God but that they refused to recognize it as such and so God could no longer work through them. And so these words of Jesus are tragic words; the coming destruction of Jerusalem could have been avoided if only the hearts of the religious leaders were open to seeing God when He came to them. What a lost opportunity; God had come to them but they refused to recognize Him. And thus they would reap what they had sown. In rejecting God they would be rejected by God, and Jerusalem would be destroyed. From that time on God would work primarily through the universal church.
But while these are very terrifying and tragic words, they are also very tender words. Jesus was not on a personal crusade to track down and destroy all those who rejected Him. He wasn’t out to get those who did not recognize in Him the presence of God. He wasn’t out to get revenge. No, He came to show the love of God to all people.
What did Jesus do when he first saw the city of Jerusalem? It says in vs. 41 that “He wept over it.” Only twice in Scripture does it say that Jesus wept – once when His friend Lazarus died (Jn.11:35), and here as He saw the city.
Jesus loved Jerusalem. He loved all that it stood for, all that it represented. It was the “City of God” as far as the Jewish people were concerned, and that was true for Jesus as well. He loved its rich history. And He loved all the people who called Jerusalem “home” – even those who opposed Him. And because He loved them so, He wept for them. He wept because He knew what was coming for the people of Jerusalem, and He wept because He knew what they were missing out on.
What were they missing out on? Peace. Peace with God. As Jesus gazed at the city and wept He said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from you eyes.”
There were all kinds of people in Jerusalem and the surrounding area who thought they knew what would bring them peace. The Zealots thought they knew; peace would come through revolution. An armed revolt – that would bring them peace. Then they could get those cruel, blaspheming Romans off their backs and out of their hair. They could establish their own rule and live in peace.
The members of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, thought they knew what would bring peace to Jerusalem. History indicates that these were shady characters who were opportunity minded. Rebelling against the Roman authorities was not the answer; in fact, that was a lost cause. But compromise and cunning manipulation could soften Rome’s harsh dominance. That was the pathway to peace.
The priests in the temple thought they knew the route to peace. Peace could only come through offering sacrifices. Burnt offerings and altars covered with the blood of animals were needed to placate the wrath of God and bring peace.
And the scribes in the synagogues were not to be left out of this pursuit of peace. To them peace could be achieved only through dedicated obedience to the traditions of the law.
Everyone thought they knew what would bring peace, but they all missed it when the opportunity came. True peace could only come through the very One they were rejecting. Rom. 5:1 assures us that “We have peace with God though our Lord Jesus Christ,” for as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus is the “Prince of Peace (9:6).” Jesus came to bring us peace – peace with God as He paid the price on the cross for our sins.
These are tender words from Jesus. He loved Jerusalem so much He wept over it. He wanted the people to experience everlasting peace with God, to have a right relationship with God and to enjoy the fullness of life that comes only from God. He didn’t want to see destruction come to the city. On another occasion Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, saying: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” As a hen gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them, Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem to Himself for there they could find peace and protection and love and grace. Jesus longed for all its inhabitants to recognize that in Him God was visiting His people, and having recognized that to go on and experience true peace with God. But most of the people refused to see. And because they had set themselves in this ongoing pattern of steadfastly refusing to see the presence of God in Jesus, from that point on it would remain hidden from them.
That’s what took place on Palm Sunday almost 2,000 years ago. What about today? What does this passage have to say to us? Well, it assures us that Jesus loves us deeply. Even when we reject Jesus and choose our own way, He loves us. When we rebel against God, when we sin, Jesus weeps over that just as He wept over Jerusalem. Sometimes we think that in running from God we will find peace, or joy, or fulfillment, or whatever, but we won’t. We only make ourselves miserable in the long run. Peace, joy, fulfillment, and any good thing we could possibly want are only found in God. When we try all these other misleading alternatives and come up with nothing, Jesus weeps over that because He loves us. He laments over our lost opportunities to know Him fully and to experience the good things that only He can offer.
And secondly, I think this passage calls all of us to do a little self-examination. Could it be that we are missing out on times when God is coming to us? For the amazing truth is that God does want us to know Him deeply and personally. God graciously makes Himself available to us moment by moment so we can experience His love, His comfort, His strength, His direction, His purpose, His presence day by day. What a fantastic gift! But do we recognize the times of His visitation in our own lives?
God has given us His Word. He still speaks through what He spoke so long ago. He wants to visit us, to communicate with us, to make Himself known to us and to direct our lives through His Word. In our busy schedules could it be that we are we missing out on this visitation from God?
God has given us the gift of prayer. God wants to engage us personally. He wants to hear our concerns. He offers us the chance to be involved in His purposes by praying. And through the Holy Spirit He wants to speak to our hearts as we quiet ourselves in prayer before Him. Do we recognize the opportunity of God’s visitation in prayer?
There are opportunities here in the church, times when we gather to learn, to study, to pray, to worship, to bear one another’s burdens. As we gather in His name, even just two or three of us, Jesus promised He would be here with us. Are we making the most of this visitation from God?
God gives us the opportunity to meet Him in the faces of the needy. Jesus said that as much as we seek to meet the needs of the least of these, we do it unto Him (Mt. 25:40). Helping a needy person or visiting a lonely person or listening to a hurting person offers us the chance to experience the presence of God. Do we recognize Jesus there?
God calls us to specific acts of obedience or to a general direction for our lives. But maybe that’s not exactly what we had in mind. Like Jonah, do we then try to run from God and His purpose for us, trying to put all of that out of sight? If so, we will miss out on the presence of God in our lives. Or do we acknowledge that the only way to have fellowship with God is to walk with God? When we obey God, doing what He asks of us, we will experience powerfully His presence in our lives.
I’m amazed at all the beauty found in Bolivia. From the rugged beauty of the local terrain to the snow-capped peaks in the distance, the lush green jungle areas to the beautifully landscaped yards that many of us enjoy, we are surrounded by beauty. Do we take time to notice and thank God for coming to us through the beauty He surrounds us with?
Jesus said in Mt. 28:20, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” He is always with us. Do we make the conscious effort to live each day with the awareness of His presence and power in our lives?
Jesus visits us in so many ways. God has placed within our hands not a mere Wendy’s cup worth $200,000, but opportunities to experience the presence, power and peace of the living God. He invites us to live our lives in the fullness of His peace, His joy, and His love. We can be renewed by His Spirit, strengthened by His power, encouraged by His presence. What a wonderful gift! But we must take the time and make the effort to recognize Him as He comes to us.