“...and they will not leave within you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:44
In telling the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, each of the evangelists recounts the same basic events, but in a way that reflects his own unique perspective. St. Luke’s narrative focuses in a special way on God’s covenant faithfulness in sending the Messiah, in lamentable contrast to the unfaithfulness of the covenant people. Luke’s covenantal perspective is seen most clearly in recording Jesus’ words about the time of Jerusalem’s “visitation.” Visiting is one of the most dynamic expressions of the way of the Lord with his covenant people. It points to moments or seasons in which the Lord draws near to his people in special ways. As a consequence, these are extraordinary or critical times, in the life of God’s people. These moments are always announced or promised in advance; the Lord’s people, then, are to watch and prepare accordingly. Even as the Jewish people, represented by their capital city Jerusalem, were to be prepared for their visitation by the Lord, we also live at a critical moment, waiting for the promised appearing of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I will return to the theme of visitation shortly. First, however, let me draw your attention to a couple of other unique emphases of Luke that are consistent with the broader theme of covenant fulfillment in the triumphal entry.
Like all the evangelists, Luke records that the crowd that accompanied Jesus sang—perhaps antiphonally—from Psalm 118. The words cited in all the Gospels are from verses 25-26: “Hosanna...Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” At that point, Matthew and Mark add “Hosanna in the highest!” Luke adds a similar note of repeated praise, but with an ever so slightly different turn of phrase: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest (places)!” Now, if we ask, “Where have we heard this kind of praise before in Luke?” the answer comes quickly to mind. The angelic choir announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, singing, “Glory to God in the highest (places) and peace on earth...” (Luke 2:14) Now the two passages are not identical and one choir is heavenly and the other earthly; nevertheless “glory in the highest” and “peace” in the triumphal entry unmistakably evokes the praise called forth at the birth of the savior. Luke’s point is clear: God is acting in these events to fulfill his promises.
Whether the angels understood all that God had in mind better than the earthly choir, we cannot say. Clearly, the latter had Jesus’ identity right, but their understanding of his mission was seriously wide of the mark. We are inclined to think better of the angels than the earthly choir. No doubt they waited in eager awe and wonder to see and understand the fullness of God’s plan; the earthly crowd of disciples, in disappointment and fear, would abandon the one they praised.
Another difference between Luke and the other evangelists is also worth noting. In all of the Gospels, the joyful crowd in some way identifies “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” and in all the Gospels they agree. In Matthew and Mark, the identification precedes “the one who comes” since the “Hosannas” are directed to the Son of David. In John, the identification follows: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel.” Luke’s rendering identifies the “coming one” with the most economic use of words by inserting it into the Psalm itself: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Now, all the evangelists manifestly make it clear that the crowd of disciples identified Jesus as the Messiah. This phrase from Ps. 118:26, “the coming one,” was well established by Jesus’ time as a designation for the Messiah. In Matthew 11:3, a discouraged John the Baptist sent word to Jesus from prison asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In John 11:27, on the occasion of the death of Lazarus, Martha confessed, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Given this established understanding that Psalm 118:26 was a prophetic reference to the Messiah, it may well be that all the expressions recorded in the Gospels reflect the actual words on the lips of the crowd—the “Hosanna to the Son of David,” the “King of Israel,” and even “the king who comes.” After all, they did not sing this song once, but repeatedly. Nevertheless, Luke’s move is a bold one. He takes the title of “king” for Jesus and puts it into the text of Scripture itself, pointing to the absolute certainty that the one who comes in the name of the Lord is no ordinary worshiper, but the king of Israel, and that the triumph of the Lord’s anointed king celebrated in Psalm 118 has its fulfillment in Christ.
Let’s return now to “visitation.” Jesus’ words concerning Jerusalem’s time of visitation are found only here in the Gospels, at the end of Luke’s triumphal entry narrative. There is another time that Jesus laments over Jerusalem, introduced by the words, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that kills the prophets...” This is found in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34. In Matthew, it appears just before Jesus’ Mount of Olives discourse concerning the destruction of the temple and the end of the age. In Luke, it appears as Jesus’ response to a warning that he should go into hiding, rather than continue toward Jerusalem. However, we are not told that he wept as he uttered that lament. We also know that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus. The word John uses in ch. 11:35 refers to the eyes filling with tears; the word for his weeping over Jerusalem in Luke 19 is a more common term for weeping and wailing, often over calamity and disaster.
A similar scripture episode of a prophet weeping over foreseen calamity occurs in 2 Kings 8:7-13. Here the prophet Elisha is in conversation with Hazael, the adjutant of Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria. Elisha is shown that Hazael will dispatch Ben-Hadad and become king of Syria. He is also shown the terrible carnage that Hazael will inflict on Israel and begins to weep, to the point that Hazael is uncomfortable and embarrassed in his presence.
Seeing the vengeance that the Romans will take against Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jesus weeps over Jerusalem as he comes down the Mount of Olives. He sees this as the result of the people not recognizing their day of visitation. Their day of visitation was obviously a critical moment of opportunity, but one that has passed them by. In his reference to “visitation” there is another connection with the birth narratives with which Luke begins the gospel. The contrast, though, is as stark as the contrast between the rejoicing crowds and the weeping king!
Luke’s gospel opens with remarkable births, John the Baptist’s being the first. When his father Zechariah’s tongue is finally loosed to give glory to God, his words focus on the God who visits his people. “Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and accomplished redemption for his people.” (1:67-68) “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will visit us, to give light to those who sit in darkness...” Zechariah understood that with the birth of his son John, the Lord was bringing his saving plan for Israel to its fulfillment. However, he likely did not anticipate the dark events through which his son John and the Messiah would pass before God’s salvation would be revealed.
“Visitation” is a term of God’s personal involvement in the lives of his covenant people. It indicates that he is not a God at a distance, a God who remains far off in heaven. Instead, he is a God who “drops in,” a God who “shows up,” always at the right time. In Genesis 21, the Lord visited Sarah, and she and Abraham were able to have a son. The same was true of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. In 1 Samuel 1, the Lord visited her, and she was able to have a son. The Lord had promised them both that they would have sons. When the time was right to fulfill the promise, the Lord visited them. The same was true of the Children of Israel in Egypt. At the burning bush in Exodus 3:16, the Lord told Moses to go and tell the Israelites in Egypt that He had “visited them” concerning what was done to them in Egypt. In other words, the Lord was not somewhere far away. He had already come near to take see their situation “first hand” and was in the process of putting things right. He was doing this, just as He had promised their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
So, visitation is often a very hopeful event. The Lord shows up and brings salvation. However, what the Lord brings when he visits is related to what he finds, particularly in the hearts of his people. When their hearts are burdened and oppressed, he appears as a deliverer. When their hearts are hard and disobedient, forgetful and disregarding of his ways, he appears as a judge.
In the Old Testament prophets, God’s visitation is usually a fearful judgment. Like deliverances, these visitations are always promised ahead of time, giving the people opportunity to repent and experience a different future. But they were characteristically stubborn, and experienced the visitations as calamities. Isaiah 10:3 is representative of these painful visitations threatened by the prophets and reminds us of Jesus’ words of weeping:
What will you do on the day of punishment (lit. visitation)
in the calamity that will come from far away?
To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth...?
Jesus understood that his appearing, his ministry, was the Lord’s visitation of his people. It was a critical moment of opportunity for them. It was an opportunity for salvation and deliverance, but it would become at the same time a judgment from which there was no return. John the Baptist had summoned the nation to prepare for it by repenting. But Jesus came unto his own, and his own received him not. He lamented, as he rode toward the city where he would be crucified, that they did not recognize the “things that make for peace” which were now “hidden from their sight.” Jesus had spoken of the “things that make for peace” earlier in Luke 14:32, in a parable about a king about to fight a battle he cannot win. In the parable, the king facing such a sure defeat, in wisdom asks his adversary for “terms of peace.” This is the same expression as in Luke 19:42. Jesus came and showed them the way to peace with God—God’s terms of peace, but they could not recognize them. So, Jesus weeps over the nation’s missed opportunity and the terrible consequences that would overtake the people because of it.
Here, then, is the stark contrast. The people rejoicing, Jesus weeping. Zechariah’s joyful prophecy of divine visitation overtaken by Jesus’ weeping over the devastating turn the visit would take. For our part, our first reaction is probably, “Well, why doesn’t Jesus do something to avert this?” He sees what will happen and just weeps. But he is the Son of God, the coming King of glory. This is so certain that if people stopped singing his praises, the stones of the earth would cry out! Why, instead of weeping, doesn’t he avert this calamity?
Clearly, no answer to that question is given. Luke is telling a story of even deeper mystery. The Coming King will in a week’s time be put to death. He will pray in the garden of Gethsemane that the cup of death may pass by, but it will not. He, who could come down from the cross, will not come down. All the hopes of visitation voiced by Zechariah and embraced by the disciple multitude would seem to be confounded. Defeat by the powers of this world would appear to win one more time. God in his weakness and foolishness, though, would bring life and salvation and everlasting hope out of the death of his Son.
Luke wants us to contemplate the contrast of jubilant crowds and a weeping Savior. In the weeping of the savior, we see his heart. He came to seek and save the lost. (Luke 19:10) His contemplation of the fate of those who perish brings him only grief. Therefore, we may be confident that he is merciful to all who seek him. We may be sure that the “time of visitation” is permeated and given its decisive character by the patience of God who is slow to anger. But we also are shown with sobering clarity that his judgment is to leave those who have no use for him to their own inevitable fate.
The deep ways of God are often hid from our sight. The paths of his sovereign, good pleasure are not ours to fully trace. Moreover, the attempt to do so can lead us into dangerous blind alleys. The questions posed by a weeping Jesus outside the gates of Jerusalem are not the ones that bring us safely home. The greater question is the one of our own time of visitation. We live at the end of the ages. The judge is at the door. God no longer overlooks what he once overlooked, but has set a day in which he will judge the world by a man he has appointed.
The day of the resurrection marks the beginning of the day of final visitation. The dawning of that day is about to fully break forth. Let us recognize the things that make for peace and be sure that we do not miss our critical day of opportunity. God has not forgotten his world. He will show up. Amen.