by Robert Brow April
16, 2000 (www.brow.on.ca)
On the first Palm Sunday Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem coming up from the Jericho road. They had probably stayed the night at an inn on the eastern side of the city. Two disciples were sent to bring a young donkey from the village of Bethany. It was tied up outside the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. Jesus would have known it since it was born, and it had never been ridden by anyone. Normally an unbroken colt would buck and kick till it was trained, but this donkey quietly allowed Jesus to ride on its back through the cheering crowd all the way round the Mount of Olives and into the city of Jerusalem.
That evening Jesus went into the temple area, "looked round at everything" (Mark 11:11), and went back to spend the night at the home of his friends in Bethany. On the Monday morning he cleared the temple area of the vendors who had made it into a noisy bazaar.
In baseball there are three strikes and then you are out. This was the second strike for Jerusalem. The first strike had been right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. John's Gospel records that he "found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of temple. Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" (John 2:14-16). Nobody denied that the temple needed to be a house of prayer, and the religious leaders were warned that God was not pleased. But the warning was soon ignored and things reverted back to business as usual.
The third strike would be in AD 70, forty years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. He had warned that during the lifetime of his hearers the temple would be destroyed, and the city razed to the ground. As with the warnings of the Old Testament prophets there was still an opportunity for the temple in Jerusalem to be a house of prayer for all nations. But in fact the religious leaders stubbornly continued on their disaster course. Those who survived the terrible siege were scattered in all directions (Mark 8:38, 12:9, 13:1-2, Matthew 21:40-41, 43, 22:36, 30, 24:34, Luke 17:22-30, 20:16, 21:32). And the Jewish people were thrown out of their home land for nineteen hundred years until the State of Israel was established. Only in 1948 were they able to come back and pray at the wailing wall.
Why did the Jewish church fail with such disastrous consequences? Before we consider that question we should remind ourselves that God is even handed, and Christian churches have also failed and been rejected. The apostle John wrote to the seven great churches of Asia Minor in what is now the famous tourist center in the south west of Turkey (Revelation 1:4, 2:1-3:22). These churches were toppled, their cities are in ruins, and there are no surviving local Christians.
In the first five centuries of the Christian church Christians in the Roman empire around the Mediterranean were terribly persecuted. But in the east all the way to India there were thousands of flourishing churches with hundreds of local bishops. After the time Muhammad (c.570-692 AD) these were all swallowed by the advance of Islam, and their church buildings became mosques.
In France the Roman Catholic church was part of the French Monarchy under Louis XIV and Louis XV. Huge sums were spent on building Versailles and the luxury of the nobility while ordinary people were oppressed and starving. The French Revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and by 1794 Louis XIV and most of the nobility were guillotined. The French church was decimated, and to this day it has the loyalty of only a fraction of the population.
The Russian Orthodox Church was an affluent department of the Czars of Russia. In the revolution of 1918 the power of the church was broken, and church buildings were closed down for the next seventy years of Communist rule. We wonder if that church has learned it lesson.
Why did these Christian churches come under the judgment of God in the same way as the third strike against the Jewish church in AD 70? Common factors were that they cared more about revenues than faith, rituals rather than simplicity, restrictions rather than welcoming ordinary people, and prayer was forgotten.
Revenues rather than Faith - The temple of Herod had been under construction for 46 years (John 2:20), and there was a constant need of money. An easy source of revenue was by licensing stalls for tourists. Richer people wanted cattle and sheep for sacrifice, and poor people could bring turtle doves as their offering, so these animals and birds were sold at a large profit in the temple area. Instead of being allowed to use the regular currency for their donations the money had to be changed, again at a huge mark up, into the official temple coinage. The net result was that, instead of being a house of prayer, Jesus complained the temple had become "a den of thieves" (Mark 11:17). Priests were meant to teach about God and His purposes (Malachi 2:7) but they were too busy collecting money. No wonder "the crowd was spellbound by Jesus' teaching" (Mark 11:18)
Similarly whenever Christian churches have forgotten to teach the good news of the Gospel and been obsessed with collecting money, they have been under the judgment of God. This was Martin Luther's complaint against indulgences
Rituals rather than Simplicity - The original practice of animal sacrifice was very simple. When an animal was to be killed for a family meal it was a public act of worship. "This animal is dying so we can eat." There was thanksgiving for God's provision and forgiveness, and prayer for his continued presence and blessing. Eating together was used as a way of making peace between warring tribes. Killing the fatted calf could also be a celebration to welcome the prodigal son back from the far country. But by the time of Jesus temple worship had become so elaborate that ordinary people could neither come near or understand what was going on.
Jesus entered the city riding very simply on a donkey. He had given us a very simple method of baptism by pouring or sprinkling water to welcome a new disciple into his church. By the second century a long period of forty days of probation was introduced to make baptism rigorously complicated. Jesus had given ordinary bread and wine as a means for his disciples to gather and eat together in his name. But religious leaders love to reject his simplicity by dressing in expensive robes and conducting ceremonies to make themselves instead of their Lord as the center of attention. Churches that reject Jesus' way of simplicity are inevitably on a disaster course.
Restrictions rather than Welcoming - The temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mark 11:17). But Jews soon got the idea that non-Jews were not welcome. They had an outer court to keep gentiles from coming anywhere near the temple area. To be accepted required not only a very painful and dangerous circumcision for adult men, but the proselyte was expected to learn and keep 613 rules, including 39 things that were not permitted on the sabbath day. And women were totally excluded from even reading the law of Moses. When Jesus began to welcome ordinary people and especially women to his circle of disciples the Pharisees and religious leaders were furious and decided this revolutionary must be crucified as soon as possible.
I am glad that in the years I have served as a minister of the Anglican Church of Canada we have taken some good steps in the direction of dropping restrictions and welcoming all and sundry to our services. We used to require Anglican confirmation before anyone could take communion with us. Now we welcome people of all denominations to share in the bread and wine of Jesus' table. Then we began to welcome little children to eat at table with us. I remember arguing "When you adopt a child into your family you don't send him or her out to eat in the dog house till they have learned all the family rules. The first thing after adoption is to eat at the family table." Twenty years ago we followed Jesus' and the early church practice, not only of baptizing women, but of welcoming them to exercise all the membership gifts , including ordination to ministry in the body of Christ.
We are meant to be "a house of prayer for all nations" (Mark 11:17), and that includes welcoming people of all races. In South Africa under the worst of apartheid the Anglican churches insisted on welcoming black people to communion and all their church functions. When they were threatened with being closed down they defiantly elected Bishop Desmond Tutu to be their Archbishop. And history will record that this was one of the peace making turning points in what could have been a blood bath in that area of Africa.
I suggest that churches that continue to insist on excluding other Christians and other races and children from communion, and women from exercising their gifts in the community are in very grave danger of having their lampstand removed as happened in the churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2:5, see 2:16, 22-23, 3:3, 16).
So on this Palm Sunday, as we prepare to celebrate the death and resurrection
of our Lord King Messiah, we focus on faith rather than revenues,
rather than elaborate rituals, and we
welcome all kind of people
to full membership in our family life. That may seem to be easy enough,
but for Jesus it was very costly and it resulted in his crucifixion. As
we commit ourselves again to going the way of cross with him, we count
the cost but we know we will also enjoy the glory of his Easter resurrection..