Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid
41 As Jesus came near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept over it, 42saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!
“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,
I have been to Jerusalem many times. I have been twice this year and am planning to go four times next year. I must have been 30 or 40 times over the past 20 years.
I have been to the Holy City during intifadas and I have been during the optimism of peace processes. I have been when taxis would not drive from the West to the East and when there has been riots and gunfire and cars overturned and tear gas thrown in the streets, and I have been when all is calm and people are just getting on with their business. I have jostled and pushed my way through the narrow streets of the souk when they have been crowed with tourists and visitors from all over the world, and I have wandered aimlessly through the streets when there has been no one there. It is a compelling and confusing city.
From a religious point of view it is the centre of the world for Jews and Christians alike. It is the old city of David and the ancient capital of Judea, and it is the place where Jesus was crucified and rose again and where the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost – the very beginnings of our Christian faith. For muslims it is one of the three most holy cities – the place of the prophet Mohammed’s night vision. The three Abrahamic faiths – the blood children of Isaac and of Ishmael and then us – the baptised children of Abraham through Jesus – we all lay claim to the Holy City as our inheritance.
Politically it was the centre of the known world for centuries. The crossroads between the three known continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. The King’s Highway which led spices and silks from the east, ebony and ivory from the south and traders from the west. The Assyrians, and Babylonians and Persians from what we now call Iraq fought for control of it. The Egyptians from the south fought for control of it. The Greeks and Romans from the West fought for control of it. For hundreds of years the Turkish empire fought to control it, and for several decade at the beginning of the last century the British fought to control it.
Today the city of Jerusalem looks westward towards Europe and towards the United States and it looks equally eastward towards Jordan and beyond to the Arab world. It’s people are a great mix. There are indigenous Palestinian Arabs and Jews whose families have never lived anywhere else. And then there millions of new arrivals – European Jews – Sephardi Jews from Spain, Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe, Russia and Falasha Jews from Ethiopia.
As psalm 48 writes : The hill of Sion is a fair place, and the joy of the whole earth;
But Bible texts are slippery things. The Hebrew for the whole earth is ‘kol aretz’ which could also be translated ‘all the land’…. so does the Bible mean that Jerusalem is the joy of the whole earth – that is to say your joy and my joy, the joy of Muslims, Jews and Christians alike – or does it mean that Jerusalem is the joy of just the Land of Israel…… and so the rot begins.
I have many friends in the Holy Land – in Bethlehem, in East Jerusalem and in West Jerusalem. I have sat with my friends who have lived there all their lives and I have asked them to try to explain to me what is going on in this most holy of cities? Why is there no peace? What is the politics?
Each and every one of my friends have looked at me with wise and knowing eyes. Their eyes have said to me ‘but why do you want to know’ ‘haven’t the British, or the Europeans, or the Westerners done enough damage thinking that they can understand our land’ Their eyes have said to me ‘can’t you see that you will never understand 3000 years of history and of what it means to be where we are today’ ‘you will never understand why these very stones are more than just a city – they are our heart, our joy, our centre – our very identity’. Their eyes have said to me ‘and why do you ask me what I think is going on in this most holy of cities? Do you think I can understand this place? Do you think anyone truly understands this place? Can you not see? The history of these stones is just too great to be comprehended by anyone… we live here, and we do not understand or know either. It is too great a thing.’
Unless you are Donald Trump, of course, – who apparently understands everything.
Now I know that was a cheap and easy laugh at Donald Trump’s expense – because actually we all have our opinions about Jerusalem. Each of us is trying to understand it, to make sense of it. For me as a Christian, Jerusalem will always be my home too – it is my capital city, and it always will be. My Christian heart lives at the foot of the cross on Calvary and in the Garden which is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I feel it to be as much my spiritual and religious home as a British Christian who lives in Leytonstone, as it is – for example – for a British Jew who lives in Golders Green. This is not to belittle in anyway the great sense of identity that Jerusalem and the Land of Israel has for a British Jew who lives in Golders Green. I have heard them tell me how important Jerusalem is for them. But it is to say how important Jerusalem is for me also. I too have grown up knowing the Land. I have known the Garden of Gethsemane, the Kidron Valley, Mount Zion, the Temple, Calvary, and the great landmarks of the Holy Land more closely and more intimately from my earliest childhood than I ever knew Beeston or Morley or Harehills or any other district of the city of Leeds where I grew up. Jerusalem is my history and my heritage too – and I love it, and I belong there. It is the joy of the whole world.
But is Jerusalem the capital of Israel? Well – West Jerusalem probably is – de facto – the capital of the state of Israel. But I don’t think that pious statements about King David, or about the promises of God the Old Testament – or even my own sentimental Christian attachment to Calvary should be allowed to carry any political weight in the United Nations. We can all call on verses from our various scriptures and histories, but in a world with so many religions and histories, if we start to lose international law then I believe we are lost.
And so – as someone said, who once heckled me from the back of a church during a sermon – ‘what about the Gospel of Jesus Christ?’
What is the Christian message of hope and Good News for this Second Sunday in Advent – the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God?
What is the Good News of this wild Jewish prophet – John the Baptist – dressed in camel’s skin and eating locusts in the scorching heat of the Judean desert? What does the Gospel have to say to us – and to Donald Trump and to Biniamin Netanyahu, and to Fatah, and Hamas, and to my lovely, kind and gentle friends in occupied East Jerusalem and in the West Bank and in West Jerusalem?
Today’s Gospel sums it up in four words : prepare: repent : Jesus : Spirit.
Prepare and repent. Repent: Look backwards at your history if you must – but for God’s sake do not stay there. Repent – metanoite – change the way you think and begin to see new possibilities in a new light and prepare not for your children’s past, but for their the future. For if you do not repent and prepare – then you will remain in your sin and suffering and warfare and confusion, and you will have brought it upon yourself.
And then – Jesus and Spirit. Look to Jesus – don’t be swayed by false messiahs, politicians, charismatic entertainers or even your priest preaching in church – let Jesus be your teacher and guide. Make Jesus your study and your law, your Way, your Truth and your Life. Read his words: study his life: copy his example. Measure your every action and thought and word and deed in his light. And then – just when you’re feeling a bit inadequate and not quite up to being compared to Jesus – who is after all the Son of God.. then rejoice and give thanks, for Jesus does not leave us comfortless – he has baptised us with the Holy Spirit.
The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington