Past events in history have far reaching consequences. Nearly 2,500 years ago Alexander led his army from Greece to India covering a total of 11,000 miles. That’s a long march and his army was unstoppable. Alexander’s achievements were far-reaching. His empire was vast and Greek culture, language, art and architecture became the standard of the ancient world. He was only 33 years old when he died. No wonder he was known as the Great! Legend has it that when he reached Jerusalem, he acknowledged the Jewish God and allowed the Jews to live according to their customs. Temple worship and sacrifice still being the order of the day.
About 300 years after Alexander another remarkable 33 year old embarked on a march. It was also unstoppable. Not even Satan could bring it to a standstill. Although it was even more influential than anything that had happened before, or anything that has happened since, it was not appreciated then and remains unappreciated today. That’s why on this fifth Sunday of Lent, we continue to follow Jesus Christ on the road to Jerusalem. The so called "city of peace" – which doesn’t kill Gentile army commanders, but crucifies its own Messiah. Jesus took His disciples aside and said to them: "We are going up to Jerusalem, where everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled." (Lk.18:30-32).
Cities have good or bad reputations. At the end of last year, in the Lonely Planet Guide, Wolverhampton was named the fifth worst city in the world and an article even appeared in a national newspaper. Council bosses led a fight back against the travel guides stating: "Wolverhampton is a lovely place to live…in some parts!" Well, as they say out of darkness cometh light! I wonder what a travel guide would have said about 1st century Jerusalem? The nearest we can get to one is The Talmud – the Hebrew book of the Law – which says: "Whoever has not seen Jerusalem in its splendour has never seen a fine city."
Think first of what Jerusalem meant to the people of Israel in OT times. This was David’s Royal City. Solomon’s Temple had symbolized the presence of God and although the original building had been destroyed, a Second Temple gave the city a powerful religious appeal. "Zion", as they called it, seemed to them the most beautiful place in the world. To Alexander, and other marauding armies, it was a convenient pit stop – but to an Israelite, as the psalm recalls, "it was a fair place" and "it was good to be going there" – to celebrate the Passover, to give thanks to the Lord in His Holy City. However, Jerusalem didn’t live up to its reputation. Not by a long chalk! It isn’t, as suggested in the song: "A city restored in beautiful order and harmony" (v.3).
Tradition tells us that the prophet Isaiah was killed in Jerusalem by being sawed in two. It’s been fought over for millennia. Currently there’s increased tension over settlement building and just last week the rededication of a synagogue in Eastern Jerusalem led to what Palestinian leaders termed "a day of rage" – perhaps that’s why the same psalm later urges us to "pray for Jerusalem’s peace and prosperity?" Jesus certainly prayed over it. And here He is on the Jerusalem road – teeming with an army of pilgrims. Devout Jews making their annual pilgrimage. Jesus loved the city and its people, but He could see how distorted worship in the Temple had become. It was polluted. Sacrifices were not being offered with pure hearts. S39 There were money changers racketeering in its courtyards. There were various traders of doves, necessary for the sacrificial rituals, but trading in its sacred precincts. Back in the days of Solomon the Shekinah Glory of the Lord had once filled this place. But not now. It made Jesus angry. And He symbolically compares His body to a temple that will be torn down and raised up again in three days. Out of darkness cometh light! The motto of the city of Wolverhampton was certainly needed in Jerusalem back then!
Yet the psalm also instructs us to "stand inside it’s gates" (v.2). What does this mean? Going on the tourist trail, seeing the temple mount? No. The Jerusalem of the Middle East isn’t the city we have in our minds. When we say, "Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem" – or sing "and was Jerusalem builded here among these dark satanic mills" – we are supposed to be thinking about another Jerusalem for this psalm has a future aspect to it. It’s a Jerusalem which you will not find on Google Earth or in any atlas, but which you can read about in the NT – which describes a Second Coming wherein Jesus establishes a new city whose foundations are eternal and where the almighty and everlasting God rules and reigns in righteousness.
Mount Everest is only 5 miles high, but the Bible accurately tells us, and I see no reason to doubt it, that this is a city which is 1,500 miles long, wide, and high! The buildings are made of pure transparent gold. The corner stones are all huge gemstones. The gates are pearls hollowed out in the middle. There is no sun or moon in the city because the whole thing is lit up by the face of the King, a face, by the way, that we can also look at and live! This New Jerusalem is where Christ ascended to prepare a place for us. We can’t see it with earth bound eyes. However, God in His goodness, through the Word and Sacraments, can bring us – the Church – to its threshold.
Reading the Bible allows us to stand at the gates. It allows us to peer through and receive a foretaste of what’s inside: [C]"We have come to Mount Zion – the city of the Living God…the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven." (Hebrews 12:22). Holy Communion, the bread and vine of heaven, is immortal food! But the feast is a gift, not an entitlement. The infrequency of the service raises the sacrament’s profile. That’s why we believe, in our Reformed tradition, that it’s rightly celebrated as a monthly central event. We don’t need to observe it necessarily on special days for then it clearly becomes superstitious.
The Lenten period and then Holy Week is about taking the journey to the cross, preparing for the Lord’s crucifixion. To take Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday is to re-enact the Last Supper and is very significant as it’s proclaiming the Lord’s death. But our pilgrimage goes on past this. Not to die like Jesus did on Good Friday in Jerusalem, but to receive new life on Easter Sunday, not because we deserve it, but because God has promised it in the New Jerusalem: "Our feet shall stand within its gates." Easter Day, therefore, should fill us with thoughts of Christ’s resurrection, as the new temple is His heavenly body and the new city is "the city of the living God!" It’s a day for proclaiming victory over death! To my mind there needs to be more of the Word and less of the sacrament.
For most Israelites, the journey to Jerusalem was the longest one they would ever make. It was the last journey Jesus made. His march from Galilee to Jerusalem, a little over 100 miles, might not seem as impressive as Alexander’s, but it was far more important. What better place for the Lamb of God to sacrifice His life for the sins of the world?
Big or small, nations rise and fall because they’re ordained by God. Because the Jews rejected Him, Jesus pronounced judgment on them. In 70 AD their beloved city was utterly destroyed by the Romans. Now, it’s just another city which is described in the Lonely Planet Guide, "as a dazzling amalgam of past and present, and a contested hotbed for the world’s monotheistic faiths."
But this is not our Jerusalem where the children of God will be gathered like a hen looks after her brood. Furthermore, in Revelation 21 it is said that this New Jerusalem has 12 gates; 3 on the north; three on the east; 3 on the south; 3 on the west. What do these gates mean? Well a gate that is shut symbolizes exclusion. But these gates are always open day and night – for "there is peace inside its walls" – and they are a symbol of the welcome that always awaits pilgrims who come to the city of God.
There was only one road to Jerusalem when Alexander arrived. There was only one path of ascent to the Temple when Jesus went to worship God. But now people can come to the New Jerusalem from whichever direction. The Gospel is for the world, whatever the colour of people’s skin; whatever their language. But to get through the gates is to go through Jesus. who died for the world and whose atoning sacrifice only becomes effective for those who choose to confess they love Him.
This is no place for agnostics – however good they are. This is no place for those who follow false prophets. This is no place for those who put idols before God. This is not a place for those who think they can get to heaven on their own terms. This is not a place for those who mock Jesus. This is a place only for those who worship God in spirit and truth. As the psalm says: "I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’"
So, on our pilgrimage, may the Lord plant a spirit of glad heart in our lives. May He seek us out as chicks and offer us the protection and safety of His strong wings.
We thank you God – in the name of Jesus. AMEN.