The road from Jericho to Jerusalem winds for about 15 miles up through the hot and dusty Judean desert. Today we travel it by bus or car, but in the first century the road was treacherous and an arduous journey by foot, given that it’s about a 4,000 foot elevation change over those 15 miles. But this was also the route that most Galilean Jews would have taken to come to the Holy City during the great festival of Passover and they had been doing it for generations—for so long that the Psalms reveal to us several “Songs of Ascent” that the pilgrims would sing on their way up the road.
Arriving in Bethany, the pilgrims would then crest the Mount of Olives and get their first view of the city laid out before them. After a long journey, the destination was finally in sight and it was impressive. The Temple, built by Herod the Great with white limestone quarried nearby, literally gleamed in the sun. Josephus, the Jewish historian, described the Temple “like a snowy mountain glistening in the sun.” It was one of the wonders of the first century world.
The Passover would bring thousands of people up this road to Jerusalem. Jesus and his disciples would have made this journey many times in their lives..but this time was different. Luke has been giving us clues all the way along—that this particular Passover would be unique. If you remember a few weeks ago when we looked at the transfiguration of Jesus, we said that Moses and Elijah joined him there on a mountain to discuss his “exodus” which he would accomplish in Jerusalem. Like the first exodus, this one would begin with a Passover to be remembered.
Many of the pilgrims who traveled to Jerusalem planned to offer sacrifices in the Temple—it was part of the Passover ritual. The lambs would be slaughtered there on Friday in preparation for the feast. But while the Temple that Herod built was impressive, no one was under the impression that God’s glory dwelled there any more. God had departed the Temple in the days of Ezekiel, before the Exile, and the hope of every pilgrim was that God would one day return. The Romans now held the city, and they were looking for a Messiah, a king who would come and prepare the way for God’s return. “No king but God!” was the slogan of the zealots who plotted revolution in the city’s back alleys—zealots like Barabbas, who on that Sunday did not realize what role he would play in the drama to come.
It is in this atmosphere that Jesus chooses a strange way to make an entrance into the city. He sends his disciples to find a donkey colt—a tiny beast of burden—in what what seems like a prearranged transaction. All they are to say to the owner is, “The Lord needs it.” The disciples then spread their cloaks on the colt and on the road as Jesus mounts the diminutive animal and begins riding it on the steep road down the Mount of Olives.
It’s kind of a ridiculous display, really, especially in comparison to the parade of Roman soldiers led by Pontius Pilate entering the city from the west, from Caesarea Maritima. Pilate would have ridden a war horse. Jesus rides an animal that would have left his feet touching the ground. But this is intentional and anyone who knew Israel’s Scriptures would not have misunderstood the symbolism. Jesus was acting out the words of the prophet Zechariah, who envisioned God’s return to Jerusalem and the Temple. We read a portion of Zechariah 9 in our Call to Worship—The king, the Lord, the divine warrior, returns to the city riding humble on a donkey. He will take up residence in the Temple, establish the rule of David’s offspring as God had promised; he will restore the exiles, release the prisoners, and deliver his people from their slavery.
Jesus was enacting what his people had hoped for—but not exactly in the way they expected. No one really understood it, not even his disciples who still thought Jesus to be a kind of political and military Messiah, even though he hadn’t done anything to give them that impression at this point. Maybe he would use the miraculous power they had seen. And so they praised God—using the words of Psalm 118:26 – “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” And then we hear them speak again the words the angels had proclaimed at Jesus’ birth: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.” It was a moment of joy and anticipation, but without knowing the rest of the story.
Seeing all this, the Pharisees begin to grouse at Jesus again. “Teacher, scold your disciples and tell them to stop!” On one level, they may not want talk of a king to get out because the Romans would certainly catch wind of it. But, more likely, their scolding is a way of saying, “You’re being ridiculous! Certainly, you are not the king we are looking for. Stop this display!” Jesus’ response is that his mission will go forward regardless of who gives praise. “I tell you, if they were silent,” he says, “the stones would shout!”
Nearly everything in Israel, then as now, is made of stone. I imagine that Jesus pointed to the stones in the Temple as he said this; those being the most prominent stones in the city. Some of those stones weighed upwards of 80 tons and were put in place by incredible feats of engineering. Jerusalem’s walls and gates were also made of stone—they were the foundation of the religious and political life of the city.
But as he prepares to enter the city, Jesus stops and weeps over it. “If only you knew on this day of all days the things that lead to peace. But now they are hidden from your eyes.” A day is coming when Israel’s enemies, namely the Romans, will lay siege to the city and crush it and its people. The walls and the temple they have relied on to be their protection and peace will be destroyed. “They won’t leave one stone on top of another within you,” says Jesus, “because you didn’t recognize the time of your gracious visit from God.” Jesus is embodying God’s return to Jerusalem, but they cannot see it. Instead of choosing the way of this king, they will try to set up their own kingdom. And it will be dismantled stone by stone.
To illustrate this further, Jesus goes into the Temple and turns over the tables of the moneychangers. In doing so, he stops the necessary work of the Temple (changing money from Roman to Jewish coin for people to purchase sacrifices). He is not merely throwing a tantrum about selling things in church—it is an acted parable of judgment on the temple—My father’s house is a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers (or lestai, which means “revolutionary”). In his Temple action, Jesus proclaims God’s judgment on this corrupt institution, and—as the other synoptic Gospels tell us—a new temple will rise in its place. It’s no wonder that the Temple authorities then want to kill him—he is attacking their central symbol and their livelihood. Surely, a man who acts like this cannot be God’s anointed!
They question Jesus’ authority to do all these things—acting like a king; indeed, acting like God himself! Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer because they will not hear it. Instead, he launches into yet another parable about a man who owned a vineyard and rented it to some tenant farmers. The owner then sent a servant to collect his share of the fruit from the tenants, but they beat the servant and sent him away empty-handed. A second servant and then a third were also beaten by the tenants and sent away with nothing. The owner then sent his beloved son. “Perhaps they will respect him.” But the tenants said to each other, “This is the heir! Let’s kill him so the inheritance will be ours.” And they did so. Now, says Jesus, “what will the owner of the vineyard do [to the tenants]? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
The people who heard Jesus were aghast. “May that never happen!” The symbolism was clear to them. Throughout Scripture, Israel was often portrayed as God’s vineyard. Jesus reminds them, however, that many servants, many prophets, were sent to Israel to bring God’s people to account. But the prophets were despised and rejected. Now God has sent his own Son, and those tending the vineyard will kill him.
That’s the meaning of the Scriptures, says Jesus. That’s precisely what’s happening this week in Jerusalem. “The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone” (another quote from Psalm 118). Those who fall on that stone or have it fall on them will be crushed. Right away, the chief priests and temple authorities knew that Jesus had told this parable against them—those who had tended the vineyard badly— and wanted to arrest him, but they feared the people and bided their time.
“The stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone.” All the stones that provided Israel with her security and religious identity were about to come down, Jesus proclaims through his words and actions. And a new “house” will be built in its place—a new temple, a new people built on the cornerstone of Jesus himself. John the Baptist foreshadowed this all the way back in chapter 3 when he warned the people coming out to him for baptism, “Don’t even think about saying, ‘Abraham is our father,’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.” The outsiders, the stones that were once silent, rejected, will be made into “living stones,” a spiritual house built on the foundation of Jesus the Messiah. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, those who hear Jesus’ words and put them into practice are building on bedrock that will withstand any storm, but those who do not will be flattened because they have no foundation. Their “house” will be completely destroyed.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem to embody God’s return, to announce a new Passover and new Exodus that will be launched in his death and resurrection, and to establish a new kingdom, a new “house” in which God will dwell with his people as God intended from the beginning. Those who become part of the Messiah’s mission of suffering love will find themselves part of this house. Those who insist on building on something else—on political power, military might, or wealth and prosperity—will find that their institutions eventually collapse. They will be silenced, but the stones will continue to cry out!
Living stones. That’s who Christ the king calls us to be—called for a purpose. The apostle Peter expounds upon this in his first letter to the churches dispersed across the Roman empire. Listen to how he puts it:
4 Now you are coming to him as to a living stone. Even though this stone was rejected by humans, from God’s perspective it is chosen, valuable. 5 You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple. You are being made into a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 Thus it is written in scripture, Look! I am laying a cornerstone in Zion, chosen, valuable. The person who believes in him will never be shamed. 7 So God honors you who believe. For those who refuse to believe, though, the stone the builders tossed aside has become the capstone. 8 This is a stone that makes people stumble and a rock that makes them fall. Because they refuse to believe in the word, they stumble. Indeed, this is the end to which they were appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. 10 Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (CEB)
A spiritual temple; a royal priesthood; a holy nation; God’s people—living stones that cry out praise to God in all that we do. This is the purpose which God gave humans from the very beginning—to be priests mediating his righteous rule over Creation and reflecting creation’s worship back to God.
Christ has come to Jerusalem to die—to take on the Sin that enslaves us and the Death that holds us in fear. He has come to call us out of the darkness and into his marvelous light, to build us into an unshakeable house, a new creation, in which we dwell with the God who has come to us in person.
“You yourselves are being built like living stones into a spiritual temple.” Every stone has its place—whether it is prominent or supporting, decorative or functional. It is in Christ that we find purpose and meaning to our lives. It is in him that we discover who we were meant to be. And it is in him that we are set free to live the life he has for us. Every stone has a purpose, so long as it is laid on the chief cornerstone of the crucified and risen king, Jesus Christ.
The sight of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is still impressive today, but you don’t see the Temple anymore. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, exactly in the way that Jesus had predicted. You can see some of the stones that were toppled from the Temple Mount as you walk around the archaeological park. It is the Muslim “Dome of the Rock” that now occupies the site, while Jews come to the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount to pray for the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and God’s return to Zion. Some Christians retain a similar hope, thinking that rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple is a sign of Christ’s return.
But the new Temple has already been built on the cornerstone of Christ. It is built with living stones, a new community, new tenants in the vineyard—all who follow him are part of his house, his kingdom. We need to live our lives with purpose, knowing that the king has come to make all things new.
And so we shout “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Because with that good news, even stones cannot be silent!