Because Jerusalem is surrounded on every side by hills higher than the city itself, it remains a hidden jewel to approaching Passover pilgrims. But very near their journey’s end, weary pilgrims are refreshed by gaining a breathtaking vista of their goal. Suddenly, before their eyes shines Jerusalem and the golden temple mount! For any devout Old Testament believer who longed to say, “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:2), what a delight as their feet drew near the city!
For those approaching Jerusalem from the east, via Jericho and Bethany, that refreshing moment would come as they crested the Mount of Olives. In the gospel for Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-11), Jesus is at or near that spot as he pauses to send his disciples to fetch the animal on which he would ride, Solomon-like, into town that day.
But it would seem to have been anything but a refreshing sight that would have struck the eyes of this unique Pilgrim as he crested the Mount of Olives on that first Palm Sunday. Even if the sight of Jerusalem took Jesus’ breath away, it would hardly have been from joyful amazement, but rather from stunning sadness over a centuries-long recurring story of stubborn rebellion over which he had and would weep.
And evidence of that story played out anew would soon abound! From the crest of the mount, he could have viewed the garden where in agony he would sweat blood in prayer to his Father while one of his own guided the leaders of his own people to arrest him! If his gaze shifted into the city he could have paused at the high priest’s palace where an initial death sentence would be spoken amidst spit and fists. If his gaze moved to the place of the pavement, there judgment would miscarry as his people claimed to have no king but Caesar! And if he had lifted his eyes beyond the west wall, there he would have seen a skull shaped hill with a new tomb nearby…both waiting for him!
Yet, Matthew only allows us to pause there briefly until a rented beast of burden arrives to carry the Passover Lamb into his city. And that is precisely the point! Matthew does not fix our gaze on the beauty – or ugliness – of the city. Instead he rivets our attention on the beauty of this Pilgrim-King approaching his city.
Say to the Daughter of Zion,
“See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Matthew is intent on impressing on his readers but one thing. Despite all that Jesus knew awaited him in Jerusalem, “In lowly pomp [he] ride[s] on to die” (CW 133:5). Nothing was going to stop this King from coming to those who needed him no matter how many barriers they had put in his way during all the past, present, or future millennia of human history or during the 33 years of his earthly life!
Yes, the day will come when this King will approach with blinding splendor to judge his enemies – and Jesus spends no small amount of time during Holy Week addressing that! But that was not this day. This day he rode in all humility and gentleness to those who needed him. Such was his eternal determination to carry out his Father’s eternal plan to save. Such was his loving zeal to win for himself a truly glorious Zion to be forever his perfected bride.
And there my friends, before you offer this Palm Sunday – and Holy Week – comfort to those you serve, pause with Jesus for a moment for the sake of your own soul at the crest of the Mount of Olives. As he prepares for his final descent into the city despite all that waited for him there, ponder anew the wonder of him who refuses to let any sinful human barrier keep him from coming to his people to save us…to save you!
Who of us has not given him every reason to turn away from a sight that, just like Jerusalem and those who dwelt there on that day, is to his all-seeing eyes far from a refreshing vista of splendor! That Jesus would long to draw to himself as his dear Zion that stubborn, rebellious city of Jerusalem is stunning. That he would long draw me to himself is equally stunning!
But that he does is equally clear! Before this King comes again in judgment he comes to you and me with all gentleness! He comes to win us to delight in being his dear Zion, handing to us wedding clothes bought at a price about to be paid drop by drop! That our King comes to us to save us rather than to subpoena us to answer for our sins is a testimony to that saving meekness of divine grace that we will never finish exploring this side of heaven!
So, my brothers, before serving once again as chief tour guide for Passover pilgrims to Jerusalem with planned stops at an upper room, a rocky hill, and an empty tomb, don’t forget to enjoy every vista first for yourselves. No, not the vistas of the city, but the glorious vista of your King. At each stop, marvel at the King who comes…to you!