JERUSALEM - A Microcosm... by Rev Robert (Bob) Smith

18 Mar 2019 by William Tibben in: Sermons


No city on earth arouses so much passion as Jerusalem. More than any other place Jerusalem symbolizes the hopes and the fears of the world. However, historians have long wondered why it should have become so significant. It’s not located on a great river, harbour or major trade route. It possesses none of the things that might explain why it should have ever become anything more than just another small, mountain town.

But in 1917, in the midst of the endless carnage of World War 1, Jerusalem became the symbol of hope. The war was not going well. The offensive of Passchendaele had turned into another bloodbath with negligible gains. The Russian Revolution had knocked one of the major allies out of the war. And even more alarming, the French army had mutinied and was in disarray.

The only bright spot was in Palestine, in the war against the Turks. And so Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, asked General Allenby to give the people of the empire a Christmas present – to give them Jerusalem. And he did. On December 4th, Allenby, on foot, as a mark of respect for the Holy City, entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate. And that event caused an outpouring of rejoicing that rivalled the Armistice one year later.

And yet there was no strategic value at all in the capture of Jerusalem. Damascus was the real objective. The importance of Jerusalem was in what it represented in people’s minds.

Jerusalem, you see, is a microcosm of the whole world; its hopes are the world’s hopes, and so are its conflicts. It’s the place where the church was born and is sacred to the world’s three great monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Its name means city of peace, and that in itself shows how much it is a symbol of the whole world’s hopes and tragedy.

Jerusalem is probably the most fought over city in history. It’s been attacked, destroyed and rebuilt over forty times, and violence constantly simmers below the surface. Conflicts, of course, abound in the Middle East, but beneath them all lies the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Leaving aside the many atrocities and counter-atrocities – and both sides have excelled in these – the key issue is still the matter of a homeland for the Palestinians. This problem grew out of the question of a homeland for the Jews following World War 2.

To Israelis the Holy Land is the Biblical Promised Land. To the Palestinians it’s the land they have occupied for 2000 years. To religious Jews and many Christians, what is happening there is the fulfilment of God’s plan. To secular Israelis it’s merely a fight for survival in a world where they have few friends.

For Palestinian Christians – and most Christians in the Holy Land are Palestinians – the situation is made worse because they believe that Christians in the west have forgotten about them and see their dispossession as a fulfilment of prophecy - even though the New Testament says that the Church is the New Israel. It’s an enormously complex situation – a true microcosm of the world.

Jerusalem is also home to some of the most sacred sites of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Dome of the Rock and the Wailing Wall are all located within a few hundred metres of each other. The site of the Jewish Temple, which Jesus called ‘a house of prayer for all nations’, is now occupied by the Dome of the Rock – Islam’s second most sacred spot. But Jews and Christians are not allowed to pray there.

And so it has become the scene of constant provocation by Jewish and Christian extremists, some of whom predict that it will be blown-up, and that this will lead to the rebuilding of the old temple, the great final conflict – the Battle of Armageddon. It’s a prospect that has the potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as more people come to believe it.

But there are people who still long for Jerusalem to live up to its name as the City of Peace. Rebecca Smith from CNN tells about watching an elderly Jewish man praying for an hour at the Wailing Wall. When she got to talk to him, he said he’d been doing it for sixty years. She asked him what he prayed for, and he said: ‘I pray for peace. I pray for all the wars and all the hatred to stop. I pray for all our children to grow up safely as responsible adults, and to love their fellow man.’Then she asked him how he felt after doing this for so long, and with typical Jewish humour he replied: ‘I feel like I’m talking to a wall.’

Jerusalem is also a microcosm of a divided church. Nowhere in the world are the divisions amongst Christians more obvious. Every major branch of the Christian Church has staked its claim in Jerusalem - the ancient churches like Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian and Roman Churches. The more modern western churches came later – Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Reformed and Presbyterians. Still more recently have come various Pentecostal groups.

I once attended a reception at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy on the Mount of Olives, where a priest said to me: ‘Jerusalem is a place where things count, and people don’t. The churches have each staked their claim and their aim is to preserve the holy sites in order to bring the pilgrims, who bring the money that supports the churches. But the local Christians are forgotten.’

Well, it was into this enigmatic place that Jesus came with a message of peace and reconciliation. Not the way of conquest, as in the days of Joshua, but the way of the Beatitudes: ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the gentle, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the peacemakers and blessed are those who are persecuted.’

It’s a message that is so in keeping with the meaning of its name - the City of Peace; But so different from its sad reality.

In the light of all this it’s no wonder that Jesus uttered the words we read this morning: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”’

Those words sum up the whole course of Israel’s history. The major theme of the Old Testament is that of God’s desire to bless the people of Israel and draw them to Himself, and their refusal to pay serious attention. I say serious attention because they never totally divorced themselves from God; they just constantly re-interpreted what God had revealed to them to fit in with their own ideas and preferences, and suffered the consequences.

Their ultimate failure was to recognize that in Jesus their long-awaited Messiah had come – Immanuel, God with us. John’s Gospel says: ‘He came to his own, but his own did not receive him.’Their history over the last 2000 years has shown the result.

But lest we become too smug, I think it needs to be said that what Jesus here said about the people of ancient Israel can also be said about the new Israel – the Church. We also often fail to recognize that still small voice that says to us: ‘This is the way, walk in it,’

Jesus talked about wanting to gather his people so that they would live in his shadow and walk in his way. But the people rejected him, because his way – the way of the servant king – was not what they wanted. They wanted power - political power, the right to enforce their views on the rest of the world. Sadly, that has often been the history of the Church.

The institutional church in Australia, and in most of the western world, is currently facing its greatest crisis of credibility ever – and much of it is self-imposed. When most Australians think about the church these days, there are two major issues that dominate their minds. One is the strident denunciation of homosexual practices by most – but not all – churches; and the other is their appalling record of sexual abuse of children.

This has led to a widespread feeling of disgust by many who ask how it is that churches can assume the moral high ground in relation to consenting adult sexual behaviour when they’ve been so culpable in the worst form of sexual behaviour.

Increasingly, it’s being said that the greatest issue facing organized Christianity today is the issue of power. It was interesting to hear two high profile Catholic lay persons – Senator Kristina Keneally and Francis Sullivan, head of the Catholic Truth, Justice and Healing Commission, speak about this on the ABC’s Q&A program. Kristina Keneally actually said that she’d lost confidence in the church because of the way it used its power. 

I’m not saying that the Church should not speak out on what it sees as important moral issues. What I am saying is that it needs to get its own house in order if it is to have any credibility.

Jesus calls us to follow him. His way is the way of the Beatitudes – servant leadership.  The people of Jerusalem didn’t want that. Neither do many Christians; which is why these words speak so powerfully to us – ‘how often I’ve longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate.’

But, getting back to Jerusalem as a microcosm of the whole world, the Bible ends with a vision of Jerusalem as it will one day be – the New Jerusalem. In his final vision John says: ‘And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, like a bride adorned for her husband.’

Here the curtain is pulled back for a moment and we see what is yet to be, expressed in a material image that the people of that day could understand, but teaching us that the final word belongs to the Lord and his Christ. Though we don’t see it at this present moment, his kingdom will come, and his will will be done.


Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash