Jesus’ long, winding road to the cross was filled with obstacles. Last week, he ran head-on into the prince of darkness in the wilderness. This week, he runs into three more obstacles, all of which would prevent him from carrying out his mission of salvation. We’ll handle the first two together. Religion and politics are always a nasty combination. In the book of Revelation, one part religion and one part politics and a dash of demonic influence is the perfect recipe for the antichrist. (Revelation 13) Whether it’s the emperor cult of 1st century Rome, the medieval papacy, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Islamic caliphate, or any other unholy alliance of religious and political authority, whenever the two get together there is sure to be trouble, persecution and bloodshed.
The Pharisees came to Jesus, pretending to be on his side. “Get away from here – Herod has put a bounty on your head. You don’t want to get yourself killed, do you? Get out while you still can.” Of course, the great irony is that the Pharisees had been scheming to do the exact same thing for over a year. (Mark 3:6) They just couldn’t agree on when and how to do it. And Jesus…well he seems blissfully unconcerned. Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ It certainly seems like Jesus has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. That he’s got some inside information. Of course, he did. Jesus knew exactly what was in store for him in Jerusalem. He’d planned it with his Father before creation (1 Peter 1:20) and he’d already predicted several times that in Jerusalem he would suffer, die, and rise again – on the third day. He’s the Lord. No one takes his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord. (John 10:18) He’s already gone head to head with the prince of darkness in the wilderness on an empty stomach and won, he’s got nothing to fear from some two-bit puppet king. No amount of political pressure will keep Jesus from winning salvation for all.
Next he takes a jab at religion, represented by the Pharisees. He knows what they’re really thinking, that they’re plotting his death too…that all of their supposed concern for his safety is just smoke and mirrors. In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – and then the real zinger – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Now there’s a shot: if a prophet of God is going to die, it has to be in Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish religion. Jerusalem had earned a reputation when it came to God’s prophets. We already heard how Jerusalem responded to Jeremiah’s message – they called for his death. (Jeremiah 26) According to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in half in Jerusalem and Zechariah was stoned to death right in front of the temple. (2 Chronicles 24:21) God’s NT spokesmen didn’t fare much better in Israel’s capital. Stephen was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:54-60) and James was beheaded there. (Acts 12:2)
Politics and religion hated Jesus. Politics nailed him for treason, for claiming that he was a king. Politicians like Jesus when they can twist his words and rip them out of context to support their own agenda, but they have no use for the Jesus of Scripture. What good is a king whose kingdom is not of this world; who rules not by law or sword but through the Gospel; who promises health and wealth and security – not in this world, but in the next? It’s no wonder that those who thirst for power and glory here have nothing but hatred for the one who hides his power and glory in humility. But Jesus has turned the tables on political power. King Herod has fallen on the forgotten scrap heap of history – and Pilate would have too, if the authors of the Creed hadn’t credited him with presiding over Jesus’ crucifixion. But Jesus died and rose and not only made history in Jerusalem but redeemed Jerusalem from her history. Jerusalem had put her trust in politics but politics could not save Jerusalem or her people, only Jesus could. Only Jesus did.
Religion charged Jesus with blasphemy, for daring to say that he was the Son of God. Religion had no use for Jesus either – as strange as that might sound – because Jesus had come to destroy the legalistic, self-righteous religion that the Pharisees embodied and that comes naturally to all of us. He ignored the hedge of man-made laws they had erected that obscured the holy will of God. He interpreted and explained the Law without any need for their puffed up rabbinical opinions. He unleashed the law in a way even the most pious Pharisees couldn’t handle: be perfect (Matthew 5:48); keep the unchanging Law of God down to the smallest letter, the least stroke of a pen (Matthew 5:18) – in thought, word and deed (Matthew 22:37); don’t try to bargain with God; do the commandments and you will live. (Luke 10:28) Trying hard is not good enough. Self-improvement won’t cut it. The Pharisees knew, deep down in their hearts, that Jesus was right and that God demands more of people than anyone can give. And you might think that it was this sharpening of the law that caused the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to want him dead.
But it was the Gospel that made them thirst for Jesus’ blood. They were offended that this authoritative and popular rabbi from Nazareth would dare to offer God’s unconditional love and mercy to the religious losers, to society’s outcasts, to prostitutes and tax collectors. They couldn’t stand that he ate with sinners, that he said the last would be first and the first would be last. (Matthew 20:16), that he boldly taught that repentant sinners, not self-righteous Pharisees would be found “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. (Luke 18:9-14) They hated him because he preached that the way to avoid God’s judgment and find his salvation is not to try hard and do better but to die to yourself, to see your good deeds as nothing but trash (Philippians 3:8), and place your faith completely in his perfect life and atoning death for salvation. But all their resentment wouldn’t stop Jesus from dying for them.
And while Jesus’ determination drove him forward to Jerusalem, his compassion drove him to tears: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. He mourns over his city. He weeps over what politics and religion had done to her. Mostly, he weeps over the people, the unwillingness of their hearts to come to him for forgiveness and protection and salvation. And he wept over their rejection of the prophets he had sent, their rejection of God’s Word, their rejection of him – the Lamb of God who had come to die for them.
Jesus reveals something important here: while the people of Jerusalem thought they were just rejecting and murdering men – they were really rejecting Jesus. How often have I longed to gather your children together he says. The hen from heaven had been clucking away for centuries through prophets and priests, through spoken words and bloody sacrifices, calling to his children, but they were not willing. They would not repent. They would not believe. They would not receive the One who had come to save them. It breaks Jesus’ heart. This is his city, his temple, his throne. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:11) And so the house that was once filled with God’s glory would be left empty and desolate. Begun by the Romans in 70 AD, continued every since in war after war – the Promised Land is now little more than a glorified target range for the world’s superpowers and the hill on which God’s temple once stood now holds a mosque.
And all of it is a Lenten warning to each of us. Do not take God’s grace for granted. Do not say to yourself that you will take repentance and Jesus’ invitation to believe seriously later. Now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) Jesus still weeps when those who should know better reject his invitation in favor of something else. He weeps when his Church becomes distracted from her mission of proclaiming Law and Gospel and spends her time and energy on endeavors that have nothing to do with the salvation of souls. Jesus weeps when those he has made his own through Baptism and taught the deep truths of God in Sunday school and confirmation enter high school or college and imagine that they’ve outgrown their need for their Savior. He weeps when he causes the history of his redemptive work to be heard in special Lenten services and people who presume to call him Lord have more important things to do than hear what it cost him to save them from their sins. He weeps when Christian parents place athletics and academics and convenience and unique needs over and above their children’s spiritual welfare. He weeps when people who probably couldn’t recite the books of the Bible think that they don’t need to study the Bible here or at home. Now you can get angry or roll your eyes and blow me off – but it’s not me you’re blowing off, it’s Jesus. How often have I longed to gather you…but you were not willing! Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he: the willingness or unwillingness of our hearts? We’re great at hiding the desires of our hearts under a blanket of excuses ranging from work schedules to children’s bedtimes to weather to darkness – but really, it all comes down to your will. If you really want to do something, you will find a way do it. And Jesus hits us right between the eyes with the uncomfortable truth: often we simply don’t want to be in his house, studying his Word, receiving his forgiveness, taking shelter under his wing – because our minds are on earthly things and we’d rather serve our bellies than our Savior. (Philippians 3:19)
Jesus’ invitation isn’t irresistible. He uses simple men and simple means like word, water, bread and wine to call, gather, and protect his people – they are very easy to reject – but the reality is that if we reject them, we are really rejecting Jesus. If we reject them, we’re only hurting ourselves – and, even worse, we are bringing Jesus to tears, we are laying a whip across his back, pounding nails into his hands all over again. If we are not willing to receive Jesus in the humble means he has chosen to come to us and we find ourselves on the wrong side of his judgment on the Last Day it won’t be because Jesus didn’t want us, it will be because [we] were not willing.
The good news is that our day of reckoning has not yet arrived. There is still time to repent and believe. Whatever your habits, your priorities, your excuses have been in the past – they can all change today. By suffering and dying, Jesus has both forgiven and freed you from slavery to sinful habits, priorities, and excuses – those sins are gone and buried. Jesus still longs to gather you – no matter how many times you’ve rejected his invitation in the past. He is still stretching out the protective wing of his Word and absolution, his body and blood. Don’t make the same mistake the people of Jerusalem did. They got angry when God’s prophets called them to repent and change their ways. They rejected and killed them for proclaiming God’s Word. They trusted political power to keep them safe and a religion of good works to make them right in God’s eyes. And God paid them back for their unbelief. See the violent, war torn mess that Jerusalem is today, see how the descendants of his chosen nation are hated and hunted around the world, and you are seeing just a sample of the destruction Jesus promises to all who reject his invitation.
Politics and religion couldn’t save Jerusalem and they can’t save us, either. Political power cannot protect us from the destruction God will bring on this world – only Jesus can. Religious devotion to rules – even God’s rules – cannot justify us in his courtroom – only Jesus can. Jerusalem wasn’t saved because she rejected her Savior. But Jesus continues to gather the New Jerusalem – the Church – under his protective wing. Jesus desires nothing more than to forgive you, protect you, and carry you through judgment to eternal life; are you willing to let him? You don’t have to do anything to be saved; Jesus has done it all. Now the question is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do after church today: study God’s Word or study a menu? Where do you want to be this Wednesday, next Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – watching basketball or hearing what Jesus endured to save your soul from hell? In the end, only those who shelter in his forgiveness now will rejoice when he appears in judgment and say and sing: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. May our Savior’s desire to save us overcome every obstacle in his path – even and especially our own unwilling hearts. Amen.