DO WE GET WHAT WE PRAY FOR?
Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
March 24, 2013; Palm Sunday, Year C
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29; Luke 19:28-40
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’
He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’”
The entry into the city has been the focus of careful planning for months. Every detail has been worked out, every scenario anticipated.
The advance agents have been in the city for weeks. Their job: to start a whispering campaign. In darkened taverns, in the raucous marketplace, even in the exalted courts of the Temple itself, they have spread the rumor: the
Messiah has been seen, in Galilee! A young rabbi, the heir of David. He will be in Jerusalem for Passover.
Word has it, the agents have done their work well. The population of the city, swollen with pilgrims from every land, is abuzz with nervous energy.
The weapons — swords, shields, the wicked curved knives — have all been moved from their hiding-places in the hills. Divided into small caches, they’ve been smuggled through the gates in the backpacks of travelers, in false bottoms of wagons, in sacks of grain — then deposited in safe-houses strategically located throughout the city.
Over the brow of a low hill, several dozen horses are grazing. One for each of the Twelve, who will ride at the head of a squad of freedom-fighters — as well as for their deputies, in case the commanders should be struck down.
Twelve tribes of Israel, twelve columns of attack: it is only fitting.
Each squad has its pre-assigned destination, corresponding with one of the safe-houses. As soon as they reach those coordinates, the fighters inside will pour out into the streets, tripling and quadrupling their numbers. The hidden swords and knives will be revealed: plenty for the trained fighters, and more for the sympathizers who will join their ranks. No spears: they would only be a hindrance in the house-to-house fighting. Let the Romans try to put together a battle-square in Jerusalem’s winding streets!
Then Yeshua — Jesus — mounts a white horse. His own sword is hidden inside a bundle of palms, like those carried by the Twelve. The element of surprise must be preserved: the glint of sun off a polished blade could be all the warning the sentries need.
It is only fitting: the palm branch is the symbol of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. A century and a half before, they rose up and toppled the Greek overlords. Now it’s the Romans’ turn to feel the righteous wrath of Israel’s God — and Jesus will bring it to them.
One by one, the horses with their riders weave their way into the stream of Passover pilgrims. Half those pilgrims are fighters themselves, their own swords and knives concealed in palm branches.
At the critical moment, Simon Peter uncovers his sword, waving it over his head. “Hosanna!” he cries. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
With a great, answering roar, the other weapons appear, and the crowd shouts back: “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!”
Jesus’ spurs bite into the flanks of his warhorse. The others follow suit. With a mighty thunder of hooves, they surge forward through the city gate. The battle for Jerusalem has begun!
That, of course, is not the way it happened. There was no warhorse: only a donkey. The cries of soldiers became the cheering throngs of children. The palms concealed nothing, but were laid down in the street for all — even the Romans — to see. There wasn’t even a battle: just a raucous, spontaneous, high-spirited parade.
Only one element of the story I’ve told you is true: the sacred expectations of the people. For they have long been hoping – nay, more than hoping, praying with all the fervor that’s in them — for the sword of the Messiah to come crashing down upon the neck of Pilate, spilling his infidel blood upon the stones of the marketplace.
Did they get what they prayed for?
You know they didn’t.
Not long ago, I saw a movie. Zero Dark 30 was its name. Whether you’ve seen it or not, you probably know it’s a tense thriller about the special-forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The movie lays out the years of intelligence work that led the CIA to conclude that bin Laden was very likely living in that walled compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan Then, in the tense 30 minutes or so at the end of the film, that closely corresponds to the real time of the raid, it tells the story of the successful attack on the house that culminated in the deaths of bin Laden, three other men and a woman.
Zero Dark 30 is not an easy movie to watch. It portrays the waterboarding and other torture practiced on captured al-Qaeda members, with brutal realism. Most of the information extracted under torture proves to be of little value. The one truly significant clue — a bit of old-fashioned spy work, fingering a trusted courier who took messages to and from bin Laden — had been languishing in government files for years.
The action sequence at the end is thrilling and disturbing, all at the same time. Half of me wanted to cheer our country on. The other half was shocked at the dreadful human cost of this or any other act of war. Even as we in the audience were glad to see the professionalism of the Navy SEALs as they carry off the tricky assignment, with no casualties, the crying of children punctures any jubilation. These are the young children of bin Laden, his courier and the courier’s brother and his wife, all of them living together there in that compound.
These children know nothing of global politics. All they know is that heavily-armed foreigners dropped from the sky one night, broke into their home and killed some of the most important adults in their lives. Some of them watched it happen. And they will never, ever forget.
The film doesn’t take a position on this violence, one way or the other. It just portrays it journalistically, in all its gruesome detail.
Lots of people in the USA — looking for some closure after 9/11 — had been praying for the capture or death of Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark 30 shows how, on that dark and moonless night, we Americans got what we prayed for — or did we?
In that respect, I suppose, the film is true to life. You and I pray for many things throughout our lives. Sometimes we feel like our prayers have been answered. Other times, not so much. Yet, even on those joyous, sunny days when we do feel God has answered our prayers, the outcome is often far different than what we’ve expected and hoped for.
Sometimes we get what we pray for. Sometimes we don’t. Always, the outcome is according to God’s will, not our own.
Let me tell you about another prayer that was offered many times, by people of faith — a prayer that never was answered.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” So says Psalm 22, a prayer repeated countless times by ancient pilgrims. “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.”
It’s one of those psalms that celebrates Zion, the holy city, that glorifies it as the seat of God’s power and authority on earth. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
If you know anything about Jerusalem, you know it’s had precious little peace over the centuries. As a center for worship of three great world religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the ancient stones of that city have been fought over more than any other city on earth.
Yet, of all the wars and crusades that have been perpetrated on Mount Zion throughout its history, by far the most devastating took place just a generation or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The Roman General Titus was the perpetrator. The son of the newly appointed Emperor Vespasian, Titus had been sent to pacify the capital of the Jews once and for all. He knew that, if he did not succeed, his father’s authority over the Empire — not to mention his own chances of succeeding to the Imperial throne (which eventually did, by the way) — would very likely falter.
In the year 70, Titus encircled Jerusalem with his legions. It was Passover time, and he allowed the many thousands of pilgrims to pass into the city unmolested. But then, reasoning that they would put a strain on the supplies of food and water, he didn’t let them out again.
Jerusalem had been in a terrible state even before the Roman siege. Years of rebellion had left the Herodian dynasty weak. The city was ruled over by three competing warlords, who spent all their energies attacking one another’s fighters, and any civilians unlucky enough to get in their way. It was only when the Roman armies appeared on the horizon that the rival gangs forged a fragile peace with one another, to oppose the common enemy. By then, it was too late to marshal an effective resistance.
The siege wore on. Conditions in the capital grew more and more desperate. Jerusalemites were falling dead in the streets of starvation in such numbers that those who were left, in their weakened condition, could not even bury them.
Some Jews sought to escape the starvation, deserting to the Roman side. Titus ordered that they be crucified by the hundreds, within sight of the defenders on the walls.
When the Roman soldiers finally breached the walls and stormed in, they engaged in bitter street fighting. In their weakened condition, the Jewish defenders fell quickly. Systematically advancing block by block, the Romans entered each house, killing every man, woman and child they encountered. The streets literally ran red with blood.
Titus had given orders that the thousand-year-old Temple not be destroyed — he had plans to convert it to a temple to the Roman gods and to his father, the Emperor — but his soldiers, rampaging out of control, burned it anyway. Realizing any chance of preserving this wonder of the world had been lost, Titus gave the order that it be utterly destroyed.
The Jewish historian and Roman citizen Josephus, who accompanied Titus’ army as an interpreter, tells the tale. Of the western wall of the Temple, he writes:
“[This] wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison, as were the towers also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end to which Jerusalem came…. [Flavius Josephus. The Wars of the Jews, Book VII, Chapter 1.1.]
And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.” [Flavius Josephus. The Wars of the Jews, Book VI, Chapter 1.1.]
To this day, the surviving western wall of the Temple is known as the Wailing Wall — and with good reason. The wailing did not begin in the 20th Century, but rather in the First.
Josephus estimates the death toll among Jews to have been 1,100,000 people, and 97,000 captured and sold into slavery.
The Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 was total war, on a scale the world had never known. We think of the word “Holocaust” as belonging to the 20th Century, but — considering the smaller population — the Roman destruction of Jerusalem was every bit as genocidal, if not more so.
Years later, the followers of Jesus recorded some words spoken by their master soon after his triumphal entry. How could anyone have realized, at the time, that it was a prophecy that would come true within the lifetimes of some of those who heard it?
“When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.'” [Luke 21:5-6]
Jesus’ followers couldn’t imagine how this could possibly be. The stones of the Temple were massive: so large, how could anyone ever move them? But the Romans found a way. Partly, they used the slave labor of tens of thousands of Jews. They did their best to wipe the City of David completely off the map.
They say that “might makes right.” Do you believe it?
Do you yearn for a savior to come into the world and wipe out all evil, by force of arms?
The leader of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre, said recently that the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. The logic sounds very attractive, doesn’t it? But there’s only one problem with it. It’s a problem at the foundation of his entire argument, a fundamental flaw in his very premise.
None of us is good. We like to kid ourselves that we are, but we’re all sinners, every last one of us. Put sufficient power into our hands — in the form of a gun, an army, even the power that goes along with being a parent — and it’s guaranteed to go to our heads, sooner or later.
The paradox of Palm Sunday is that the one person who was guaranteed to be a good guy refused to take up the “gun” of his age. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as he was being tempted in the desert, the devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, but he didn’t take it. By the same token, there were people who would have taken up arms and followed him into the city, with rebellion on their minds, but he gives them no encouragement.
Instead of a warhorse, Jesus bounces and lurches into the holy city on that donkey of his, in what is, at best, a parody of kingship. It’s a gesture that astounds us to this day.
In Jesus, do you and I get the sort of savior we pray for? We most certainly do not.
And thank God for that!
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.