Luke 23:27-31 “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, “Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” Then they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills “Cover us!” For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?’”
Although Jesus spoke seven times on the cross this account before us was his last preaching of the word. It was a strange time to preach. He was walking along at the front of a procession of men who were escorting him to his death. It was not an appropriate place for preaching, and it was a properly brief message. The target audience was limited to the weeping women who were present – although men were listening in. If people ask me what justification do I have for singling out the children each Sunday morning and directing my words to them while they are surrounded by adults and while I don’t do that to any other group in the congregation then I say that Jesus could speak from the Scriptures just to the women of Jerusalem on his way to the cross, though everyone could listen in and profit from the word. A short word can be yet a very heavy word and a challenging word and so a powerful word. I was at one time in my ministry directing my words month after month to a man dying of cancer at home, yet the man and woman who were there caring for him, listening to all I said to him, were converted, and one of them was a Muslim. So one part of teaching Christianity is to be aware of those listening in to you as you speak to others, who are in the audience as overhearers, or reluctant attenders, who are maybe sure they don’t belong there. Yet God has brought them there, and they get gripped by the message which all the time was really focused on them. You have to be clear and faithful to whoever God has brought along. Now we are going to listen in to what Jesus said to a group of women
WHOM THESE WOMEN WERE WHO WAILED FOR JESUS.
We are told that a huge crowd of people joined in the procession that followed the condemned Jesus through the city to Golgotha. There were many amongst them who were like the crowds in England who once attended public hangings and executions, who were motivated to look at this macabre and ugly spectacle. There were others in Jerusalem who were quite different, disciples who were shocked and overwhelmed with grief at the death penalty being passed on their beloved Jesus of Nazareth. Then there were this unique group referred to as the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem.’ These were not the daughters of Galilee who loved and followed Jesus. They supported him and arranged for money to be given to him and his disciples for food and creature comforts. They were also somewhere there at the back of the procession, scattered through the multitude, silently weeping, ashen-faced in grief, overwhelmed with the darkness and pain of it all. But the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem’ were the professional mourners whose responsibility was to accompany every mother’s condemned son on his way to his cross and lament his grievous end. We have met women like them earlier in the home of Jairus the ruler of a local synagogue when his daughter aged 12 had died (Lk. 8:52). The wailers had come from the surrounding community and had pressed into the room where she lay on her bed in death. They were mercenary insincere mourners. What a mindless racket they made, and when Jesus arrived he turned them out. He told them that the girl was not dead but sleeping and immediately their wailing stopped and they made fun of Jesus. Their emotions were so superficial and quicksilver, one moment lamentation and the next laughter. Jesus threw them out. He purged the Temple; he would also come into a family and purge that home.
In our culture at Anglican weddings choir boys sing and get paid. In Jesus’ culture at funerals there would be a people who would wail and would be paid for it. Their effectiveness was registered in decibels. If you were very poor you knew you still had to gather together your shekels and pay a single person to make public lamentation and one person to play the flute. It was the traditional unchallenged practice of the time, but Jesus himself simply wept quietly with Lazarus’ sisters in the graveyard where his friend’s body had been buried.
Now these women were the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem.’ They were not country bumpkins from Galilee. They were the leading group in the land. The leading ‘Daughter’ would make sure that the wailers were all there, dressed properly, singing in key, ululating together, gathered in the right place, walking at the right pace and lamenting loudly. “Come sisters, we are the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem.’ One, two, three, let the weeping commence!” They showed the whole world present at this Passover that they knew what it was to weep at the death of someone, that here was not just any mother’s son going to his death. Here was a great prophet. There might never be anyone in their lifetime as important as this man for whom to raise their voices in lamentation and so they followed him. Some of them had probably heard Jesus in the flesh. Others had not. Some were actually being prepared for the new life of Pentecost. Others were not, but Jesus as he ministers to them addresses all of them as daughters of the holy city. He calls the city by its name.
2. THAT THE LORD JESUS ADDRESSED THESE WAILING WOMEN.
The Saviour faithfully speaks God’s word to them all. He raises them high above the sad limitations of the events of this particular day and he sets it down in the light of another day, the great Day of days. He is asking them, “How will your grief be in the light of the future, and the day that is coming to all the world, when we will all be giving an account of ourselves before the Lord?” That is the perspective the Lord takes and which we must bring into our meetings. We have to look beyond the sicknesses and unemployment and unrequited love of today. Jesus is pointing out the connection between his fruitful grief unto death and their own fruitless loud lamentations. He is telling them that he is not the one who has a fearful future. They are the ones who have no future. They are the last generation, the lost children of a barren city that’s going nowhere. “Don’t weep for me because you’ve got plenty to weep for yourselves.” He addresses them all. He gives them what he’s got. He presents God’s word to all the ‘Daughters of Jerusalem.’
For hours he’s been silent. Before the Sanhedrin, and most of the time before Pilate, and all the time before Herod he’d held his peace. But now all that is changed. He preaches to these women conscious of all the others listening. Then he speaks seven times on the cross. There he cries with a loud voice and gives up the ghost. When he is raised from the dead he is constantly speaking. His is not a ghostly figure, floating about in semi-darkness and saying nothing. The risen Christ speaks; he encourages them to touch him; he kills a fish and cooks it. He speaks, expounding Scripture, and eats with the two on the road to Emmaus. In our text he is speaking to these wailing women and he refers to them and to their children. That is biblical language; it is covenantal language. From the time of Abraham the phrase, “yourselves and your children” has been on the lips of God’s prophets.
When he says that the time will soon come when people will say to the mountains fall on them and to the hills to cover them then many of them would know that that was a biblical quotation. It is Hosea ten and verse 8, “The high places of wickedness will be destroyed – it is the sin of Israel . . . Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Cover us!’ and to the hills, ‘Fall on us!’” Jesus was telling them that the hills of Jerusalem have become the actual high places of wickedness that Hosea the prophet had spoken of, for them to know what next was going to happen. They would be the ones crying “Cover us . . . fall on us!” Those who had ears to hear heard it.
If ever there’d been a preacher who would have been tempted just to think of this one moment, and the trials he was passing through, and the injustice that he was enduring then it was Jesus. If ever a minister was justified to go and take to the pulpit the contemporary social and political events that he’d witnessed and experienced – the power that corrupted officials – to blast them for their sins, then it was this Preacher Jesus. Who would have dared criticize Jesus for breaking free from the Scriptures and using the opportunity to talk about his own frustrations? But Christ did not do that; he did not deviate from speaking on the ongoing work of God. The pain of his scourged back, the crown of thorns, the abuse he had suffered, the turmoil of emotions he was experiencing could all be suggesting to him, “Isn’t it kind of these women to be weeping and wailing over you? Surely you feel like having a good old cry over yourself.” But no, his spirit as a prophet conquers his flesh, and there in the street, on his way to his place of execution, as he walks so slowly he preaches the prophet Hosea to these women. He puts his own space and his own moment into the divine structure of the times and seasons of God. We must do it also and always with the testings of today such as bills to pay and no money, the sickness of the baby, and unrequited love. We have to take all of our ‘todays’ and set them in our place in God’s plan and God’s working of everything that happens in our lives, to remind ourselves that God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain. This is the day that the Lord has made; I will be glad and rejoice in it. Jesus lived his entire life under that assertion, as we all do. He was going to be nailed to a cross in half an hour, his tongue was cleaving to the roof of his mouth because of his intolerable thirst, nevertheless he lifted up his voice in the street and he preached the Scriptures once again to all who will hear him.
Of course, this was the right place to preach this message; not before the Sanhedrin and before the Roman governor Pilate and King Herod, and not to the mocking brutal soldiers. Then his words would have all been stifled and buried by the bureaucrats and uncomprehending Italian soldiers. He keeps his preaching to this time, to the via dolorosa, where the common people still would hear him gladly and measure his words. This was the time and place to warn the people of another visit to Jerusalem. This was not the last time that the holy city was going to see him. He would come again, but it would not be then in weakness, bearing a cross and wearing a crown of thorns, but he would come with his holy angels to judge all men and women.
Jesus’ sermon was long enough for a man to preach who’d lost so much blood and who had to move and speak at the same time. It was also brief enough for someone to preach to whom the eternal world was so close and comprehensive. Jesus would never preach to a mixed group of disciples and sinners again. Peter and Paul and Stephen and millions of Christians will certainly do so in his name and by his Spirit for two thousand years. Not so Jesus. Never again. He didn’t preach to the crowd from the platform of his cross. His seven words from Golgotha were all directed at specific individuals. The preaching of Jesus the son of David to all who would hear him was now coming to an end. Doesn’t that make you tremble? Here is the final word of God to the world.
It was spoken by a broken man, and a tempted man, because Satan is in fact tempting him through the tears of these women. He would make Jesus feel sorry for himself and for God’s providence in giving him this cup to drink. Weeping is infectious. How hard for anyone to be unaffected by another’s tears. Satan is subtle; what influences he will use to trap us and lead us astray. He now brings on these women tailgating Jesus, feminine women, weeping women, some genuinely overwhelmed with grief that he was going to die. But Jesus drove them away. Let everyone weep for himself. Christ remained resolute and he seized the opportunity to speak to these women. What did he say to them?
3. THAT THE LORD JESUS FORBADE THEM TO WEEP FOR HIM.
His first words were, “Do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s his exhortation. He is thrusting them away from his own death bed. They are sucking him into the fate of sinners, “Oh what a groaning world this is, and the wages of sin is death and death passes upon all men for all have sinned, so let us weep.” But Christ had not sinned. They were not witnessing the death of yet another son of man, two having gone to Golgotha already and now he, the third, destined to join them in death. What a world! Let us lament! No! This one is not a son of men; here is the death of the Son of Man. You cannot compare him to other men. He is not one green tree among a forest of green trees. He is not a dying tree in drought in the midst a tinder-dry forest. He stands apart. Never man spake like this man. Surely this was the Son of God. He was the one green flourishing tree amidst a forest of dry trees. This is his answer to Satan. He is the one who not only drove away religious Pharisees, he drove away Simon Peter when he sought to discourage him from the cross – “Get thee behind me Satan.” If crying women want to destroy his work by trying to immerse him in self-pity then he will silence them too. They can dub him a chauvinist, but the last Adam will not be deflected by women from his redeeming work on Golgotha. If only the first Adam had resisted his wife’s words in Eden as Christ resisted these women. If only Abraham had resisted his wife’s offer of her servant maid as Christ resisted these wailing women. If only Samson had resisted Delilah or David resisted Bathsheba as Jesus rebutted these women then what blessings those men would have received.
Our Lord knew what was in the hearts of these women. We dare not be bought by sentimentalism. They were only weeping for ‘Jesus.’ They were not weeping for the ‘Christ.’ It was like the torrents of grief released for Princess Diana. Scarcely one of the mourners who laid their flowers outside the Palace or strewed them across the road before her hearse had known her; they had no eyes for her; they’d never met her. They were weeping for their portrait of a betrayed wife. They only had an image of her. And this ‘Jesus’ does not wish for tears that are shed for an image of ‘Jesus’, an image that had been separated from the ‘Christ.’ He will not – because of pity for himself – tear himself apart. Jesus has no self-pity. Self-pity is a sin. Self-pity is a challenge to the sovereign providence of God who works all things after the counsel of his own will. Jesus’ person is one person and that is an undivided person. His will is one. The pity of men cannot divide Christ. He keeps trusting in his Father even on this black Friday. “Weep not for me,” he cries, because he will not sin by feeling sorry for himself. Our brave young Saviour will go to the cross.
There is a place for tears, as Jesus showed at the tomb of Lazarus, weeping for one he loved and for the deceased man’s two sisters in their grief. His mother also had true tears for her son as he hung on the cross, and it was not to her that he said, “Don’t you cry for me.” Of course he didn’t say that; he dried her tears by loving words, “Behold your son” pointing her to the disciple he loved while telling that man that Mary was now his mother. There is synthesis where the Spirit of Christ is, in other words, a joining together. Old fetters he tears apart. From henceforth the Lord Jesus is the life-giving Spirit. He puts the solitary in families. He baptizes by one Spirit into one body all his people. He tells Peter that some of his disciples will lose everything and find themselves orphans for his sake but they will all gain mothers and fathers and houses and lands in this world and a new heavens and a new earth in the world to come. He comforts us in our need.
So Jesus exhorts them not to weep for him because he wasn’t a person to be pitied. He’d do what he had to do, what was planned before the foundation of the earth. He would drink the cup to the dregs relying on the Holy Spirit without needing anyone’s tears. I have often visited and spoken to a man who has a video of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. That Hollywood film lingers over the physical sufferings of our Lord. This man has watched it five times and he thinks it is ‘great’ but he has no desire to go to church and hear the gospel. He has no personal faith in Christ. He simply enjoys those feelings of pity for Jesus. That man needs to weep for his own hard heart and his own indifference to the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Many people think they need to walk past the fourteen stations of the cross and feel pity for Jesus at each scene the stations portray – one picture is of his words to the weeping women. They feel that they ought to be weeping at each one, that that is high religion, weeping at the sufferings of Jesus. Many Christians feel that on Good Friday they should be feeling grief because Jesus died and then on Easter Sunday they should be feeling joy because Jesus is alive. Jesus is not here asking us to sympathize with him. He did not need it on the morning of the last day of his life, and he certainly does not need our sympathies now, because his sufferings are over and he has long entered the joy set before him. If we weep over the cross then remember that our tears are for our sins. The tears we shed are tears of gladness that love so amazing and divine has forgiven us. “Weep not for me,” says our Lord Jesus. “Weep for yourselves and your children” says the Lord (v.28). Why does he tell the Daughters of Jerusalem that? We shall discover that in the next thing he said.
4. THAT THE LORD JESUS WARNED THEM OF THE WRATH TO COME.
They were to weep for themselves because in their future they faced unavoidable judgment. He explains, “For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills ‘Cover us!’” (vv. 29&30). Wrath is certainly coming and so seek mercy. It is a kind and truthful warning of what lay ahead of them. This was in fact the seventh warning that Jesus had given in Luke’s gospel concerning the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. And every single one of them came true in the enormous calamity of the year 70 when the city was sacked by an angry Roman army. During the unimaginable months of the siege mothers with young daughters envied women who had no children. Many of them wished they were dead rather than face the torture, rape, slow deaths and lives of slavery that many of them would have to endure. Better that the hills of Jerusalem would collapse and roll down on them and kill them delivering them from those horrors. What a terrifying upside-down beatitude mothers would cry to women who had no children, “You are blessed, oh barren women,” the very opposite of the old covenant promises of the blessed state being motherhood.
So Jesus didn’t want their pity; he urged them to pity themselves. This was his last warning to them of what would happen to the city and its inhabitants. He’d often told them that when they heard of war and the armies coming and Roman ensigns and eagles leading the troops that they should flee and not take refuge in the city. It was a very effective warning. In the late sixties, as these Christians living in Jerusalem saw the ill-judged Jewish revolution against Rome, and heard of the Roman army preparing to invade the land the Christians grabbed the seven-fold warnings of Jesus, including these very words he had spoken to the Daughters of Jerusalem. They abandoned their homes and packed their belongings and took off, as far from Jerusalem as they could go. So let them weep for themselves and their daughters who would be mothers of teenage girls by the time the Romans under Titus entered the city forty years later. Weep for that day. Weep for your children. Show commensurate pity towards them. Weep in repentance that Jerusalem had largely hated the coming of Jesus and justified the crucifixion of the Messiah and defended the Chief Priests’ involvement with his death. God gave them forty years to repent, and to turn from their rejection of their crucified Messiah, and believe upon him and follow him. Otherwise the folly of men would bring unspeakable retribution on themselves. Weep for your transgressions! Weep for what you did to the Messiah.
This is a picture of the end of the world. The microcosm of Jerusalem’s judgment would one day be magnified in the macrocosm of the judgment of the world. Isn’t that what the Bible predicts, the calamities at the end of the world, the earth shaking, the sun going black, the stars falling from the sky, the mountains falling into the sea? I am thinking of the book of Revelation and the sixth chapter; “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’” (Rev. 6:15&17). George Whitefield met Hywel Harris in Cardiff for the first time. Harris, though the same age as Whitefield, was at that time a veteran field preacher. Whitefield was a novice when he got up nervously to address the crowd. A clown stood in front of Whitefield and aped his gestures to the laughter of the people and the discomfort of George Whitefield, so that he ended quickly and went to the back of the platform. Hywel Harris came to the front and announced his text. It was this text from Revelation, “For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” The clown shouted out, “I am able!” “What!” said Harris with quite extraordinary power, “thou poor contemptible worm.” The words were an arrow in the clown’s heart and he fell to the ground and remained prostrate all the time Harris was preaching one of his awakening sermons. It is appointed unto men once to die and after death the judgment. The mountains may fall on you but they will not hide you from the face of the God we shall all soon meet. This is a moral universe and what you sow that you will also reap. The rocks will not cover you from the God whom we all have to deal with. Weep now in God’s presence for your sins. Rend your hearts and not your garments. Then Jesus added one more word . . .
5. THAT THE LORD JESUS COMPARED THEM TO A DRY TREE.
The final words of Jesus to these women were these; “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (v.31). The green tree and the dry – let me give a word in explanation. The green tree is Christ; the dry tree – in the first judgment – is the Jewish nation; and the dry tree in the last judgment is the rebellious world. By a green tree Christ doesn’t mean a young and tender tree but rather one full grown and flourishing. By the dry he means a tree withered, fruitless, worthless, and dead. With respect to the first judgment he may mean this: if the Romans so treated the holy Jesus, how will they treat the guilty Jerusalem? Think how wood burns and crackles when it’s dry, but how poorly it burns when it’s green. Jesus wasn’t a rebel leader; he wasn’t ‘dry wood’, timber ready for burning. On the contrary, he was ‘green wood’: immersed in the Holy Spirit. His mission was about turning away from retaliation and loving your neighbour as yourself. If a Roman soldier commanded you to bear his burden for a mile, then Jesus exhorted his disciples to go the second mile in his name and maybe you can bear witness to him of what Christ has done in your life.
Here Jesus is saying that if men are doing even this to the blameless Son of God, what will they do to criminals, to rebels? What will be the fate of Jerusalem when it is filled with young hotheads, firebrands eager to do anything they can to create violence and mayhem? If the Romans crucify the Prince of Peace, what will they do to genuine warlords and terrorists? Or he may mean, “If the Jews so punish me, then how will God punish them?” With respect to the second judgment, he surely means, “If God so bruise his holy Child for the transgressions of others, how will he punish the guilty for their own iniquities?” Let me try to open up to you this text. We have here two trees: one green and the other dry. I will show you,
i] The glory and destruction of the green tree; you see the picture, there is an old coal tip, some former industrial area, a brown-field site, overrun with scrawny weeds but in the midst of that barren landscape a tree has grown, young and tall, blowing in the wind, lovely to look at, flourishing, its shadow falls on the weeds all around. Now turn to the reality. Christ is that tree of God. In his birth he grew out of barren soil. As a man, he grew in stature, and wisdom, and favour, and glory, until there was none upon the face of the earth like him. He stood alone as the great tree of life surrounded by the perishing weeds of fallen humanity. He stretched forth his branches to the utmost ends of the world. Look at that green tree. Never stop looking at it. How beautiful it is. It has no blight, no disease, no withered leaves: every leaf is as fresh as when first unfolded from the bud. Its flowers are fragrant and its fruit utterly delicious. From the lowest root to the highest leaf, it is without fault. This is Jesus. His birth was as pure as the creation of an angel. His childhood was as spotless as sunshine. His thoughts were as clear as the river of God. His heart was a well of love. His soul was a great deep of light. His life was unstained by the shadow of evil. He was the admiration of angels. He was the joy of God. Look back again to the green tree. Mark all that it promised of world-wide good and everlasting influence. See it in its magnificence. Won’t it reach up to heaven, and spread till it overshadows the world? Whoever needs shelter will find it here. What diseases won’t it cure? What hunger won’t it satisfy? It will become a universal blessing. This green tree is a faint shadow of Jesus. When we think of it in its glory we say, “Wonderful, wonderful Jesus!” It is that tree that men stripped and hacked and cut and pierced. What a tale of destruction of such a tree? The hammer, the nails, the spear marred and removed all its glory so that there was no beauty or comeliness that any would desire what was once a green tree.
ii] The fate of the dry tree. Christ asks, “What shall be done in the dry?” Now sinner, look at the shame of that dry tree. It is springtime: thousands of plants around are putting forth green leaves; but not a leaf appears on that tree. It is summer: the gardens are white, and many-coloured with their blossoms; but the dry tree stands as bare as it stood in spring. It is autumn: the orchards are golden and red with fruit; but the dry tree remains black and dead. Sinner, you are that dry tree. All around you are fruitful trees in the garden of God; they bring forth ripe faith, and tender love, and sweet hope, and mellow peace, and the fruits of joy and humility. God gathers their fruit in its season, and rewards them a hundredfold. But you are utterly barren, without faith, without love, without hope, without peace, without joy, without humility; you stand unmindful of God’s commands and God’s warnings; and of God’s forbearance, a withered cumberer of the ground. But the evil is still worse. You are taking up the room, which others might occupy with generosity to the world, if you were removed. The owner says, “Let’s cut it down! It’s useless.” Look again, oh unconverted man or woman, at that dry tree. The showers that would feed its roots and refresh its leaves only serve to rot it the more. The sunshine that opens many flowers and sweetens many fruits into maturity only increases that tree’s dryness. Sinner, you are that dry tree. The gospel, which has softened many hard hearts has made yours more callous. God’s mercy to you is making you worse. Like the cross of Christ, the chief of all God’s gifts to you, has become the savour of death unto death.
Here is the question Jesus insists that you consider concerning your future if it continues like the past, “What shall be done in the dry?” What will God do with you, dry tree? How will you answer? Here in this chapter we see the destruction of the green, so prick up your ears when Jesus warns us of the destruction of the dry. Will you acknowledge that you are the dry? If so, then there is hope for you. They did those things to Jesus the green tree, in order that you the dry shouldn’t perish but have everlasting life? If Jesus died, why shouldn’t you live? What if he died to give to you life and fruitfulness and fragrance? Ask him that he give you life and revive you.
9th December 2012 GEOFF THOMAS