Palm SundayC, March 20, 2016

March 22, 2016

What the Stones Would Say

Luke 19:28-40


28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.'” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”


Palm Sunday is one of the most complex celebrations of the Christian year. On one hand it’s the Sunday we remember and commemorate the huge outpouring of love and support that Jesus received when he entered Jerusalem for the annual Passover feast. That was the holiest and most well attended of all the Jewish feasts, and Jesus was truly welcomed in to town as their king who came in the name of the Lord. It was a glorious welcome with people laying their garments on the ground for his donkey to walk on.


But the royal welcome didn’t last very long. The crowd that welcomed Jesus in to Jerusalem turned out to be very fickle. Within a few days, some of the same people who were filled with passionate support for Jesus turned in to infuriated accusers – others just went away silently. Things got ugly quickly, and that’s what makes the memory of this day so complex. The glorious welcome that Jesus received turns out to have been pretty hollow. The procession in to Jerusalem was great, but true faith was lacking. The grand entry serves as more of an indictment of the people than a testament to their love for Jesus.


But Jesus didn’t let the lack of understanding on the part of the people who were welcoming him in to town dampen his willingness to be so well received. While the Pharisees were largely unnerved by the show of support for him, Jesus had no desire to try to quieten the crowd. He was clearly conscious of how such a procession was going to be viewed by the Roman Governor, but he wasn’t guided by the concerns of the governor or the expectations of the people. Jesus had come to Jerusalem to carry out the work of God, and as Jesus told the Pharisees, if the people were silent, the stones would shout out.


I would never describe anyone as being, dumb as a rock, but I’ve known of others to utilize that ungenerous phrase to describe someone. Jesus might well have been familiar with such a phrase, and he might well have foreseen the behavior of the people to be so dull-minded, but he indicated the people were being as sharp as the stones by welcoming him in to Jerusalem in the way he did. Even though they didn’t really know what they were doing they were following divine protocol. God didn’t have to raise up the stones to cry out in response to his entry – the people came through for a moment. The occasion called for an enthusiastic welcome and the people provided it!


Crowds are funny things. Sometimes they serve to express the truth in profound ways. It’s moving to see a mass of people show up for a righteous cause. A mass of people can make a profound statement in a way that an individual voice simply can’t convey. Sometimes people do show up in powerful numbers for the right reasons. There are those occasions where the stones would know to cry out if the people didn’t, and it’s a beautiful thing when the people come through.


But sometimes crowds can become ugly things. Crowds can serve to hide the cowardice of individuals, and they can empower people to do things that individuals would never do on their own. As surely as there’s nothing more inspiring than a crowd that’s moved to do the right thing, there’s nothing more frightening than a crowd on an evil mission, and there was an element of both of these realities during the final week of Jesus’ life. One crowd stood up for Jesus in a bold way, and the other crowd was totally willing to give him up for what seemed like a better deal.


I can’t help but to take note of the crowd mentalities we are witnessing these days, and I think we are seeing both the best and the worst of mass movements. The current presidential primaries have generated more interest than anything I’ve witnessed in my forty-years of voting, and the heightened political passions of the day have moved people to do both good and bad things. Some people have gotten interested in political discourse for the first time in their lives, and other people have been moved to behave really badly. There is a lot of interest in the fate of our nation, and as I said last week, I believe we have this in common with the people of Israel during the time that Jesus entered Jerusalem.


Jesus didn’t ride in to Jerusalem wearing a hat that said, Making Israel Great Again, but you can bet that this is what many of the people who were cheering him on were expecting him to do. I heard a political commentator raise an interesting rhetorical question the other day. He wondered what will happen if Donald Trump gets elected and the nation doesn’t grow weary of winning – which is what he has suggested might happen if he becomes the president.


Because we people do like to win, and it doesn’t matter who your candidate is. We all want our chosen candidate to win because we think they have the best ideas for how we can succeed as a nation. We voters want a leader who is going to make us secure and prosperous. There are a lot of different strategies about how that will happen, but I’m thinking we are all pretty similar in what we want – we want to win.


I was reminded of how much I like to win as I was watching that game between UALR and Purdue the other day. I’m not an avid UALR fan, but I spent 13 years on that campus, and I was so happy they made it in to the NCAA tournament. I was amazed when they were able to catch up and send the game in to over-time, and by the end of the second overtime I was screaming at the television. It’s easy to get excited about winning.


It was easy for the people of Israel to think that Jesus was going to win this struggle with the Romans. The things Jesus had been doing on his journey to Jerusalem had become widely known, and people were ready to start winning again. There was a lot of enthusiasm for Jesus, but there wasn’t so much understanding of him.


I’ll never forget something that happened at an anti-nuclear power rally I attended in Fayetteville in the late 1970s. Now that we see what fossil fuels are doing to our environment my opposition to nuclear power has softened, but in the wake of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant scare I jumped on the bandwagon of opposition to nuclear power.


So there was a somewhat enthusiastic crowd assembled one day to question the wisdom of using nuclear power to generate electricity, and one of the speakers at that gathering was a popular physics professor named Dr. Art Hobson. He was a critic of nuclear power plants, and he gave a well-reasoned and well-received speech on what was wrong with the technology. I was enjoying the feeling of standing among what felt like the most enlightened and forward thinking people of the day until someone from the crowd shouted Why don’t we just use electric power instead of nuclear power!!?


Sometimes people’s enthusiasm extends beyond their understanding. And this certainly seems to have been the case when Jesus entered Jerusalem.


Jesus knew what was going on but he went along with it anyway. He knew that many of the people who were whooping it up and laying their clothes on the ground before him had no idea what he was up to. The hoopla that surrounded his entry into Jerusalem may very well have been very humiliating to Jesus because he knew how fickle enthusiasm can be — but he didn’t spoil the party. He didn’t even try to make sure everyone had the perfect understanding of what was going on. He played along – knowing that the widespread support he was receiving was about as deep as the layer of clothing that his donkey was walking upon.


He wasn’t dealing with people who held deep spiritual understanding of what he was about. He was dealing with people who had deep animosity toward the Romans, deep needs for economic opportunity, deep desire for Jewish autonomy, and deep needs for personal healing and transformation. Many of them had deep passion for Jesus, but it wasn’t very clear to any of them how he intended to redeem the world and save our souls.


They had deep desire for Jesus to address their deep needs, but they didn’t like the way he chose to go. It’s hard for any of us to believe that we can experience victory without the use of conventional and overwhelming power. We’re inclined to think the only way to win is to destroy our enemies and establish ourselves in positions of power, but Jesus knew otherwise.


And according to Jesus the stones knew what he was doing. Stones have never been known to actually rise up and speak the truth, but I think Jesus was pointing to the stones as the representatives of deep truth. Stones aren’t fickle. They aren’t hard and unmovable one day and powdery soft the next. Stones are stable and dependable. As are the ways of God and the words of truth.


The kingdom of God is far more substantial than any nation that has ever existed or will ever exist, but it isn’t as easily identified or accessed. The people of Israel thought they could establish a nation that would fully represent God’s presence on earth and they expected Jesus to be the king of that nation, but Jesus knew that could never be done. Jesus was a king, and he showed us the path to life in God’s kingdom, but it’s not a path that’s easy to follow. It doesn’t look like the path to victory, but what he showed us is that the way to win life in the kingdom of God is to allow love to be our only guide.


Palm Sunday is a day full of contradiction. I wonder whether we should use this day to mourn or to celebrate, but I know what Jesus would have us do. Jesus has brought us a beautiful gift, and we need to acknowledge it. Jesus came that we might live, and that’s about all we need to know. We need to embrace the wisdom of the stones and get happy about the substantial gift that we have been given. Jesus came that we might live, and by the grace of God we’ll learn to put the proper amount of trust in the voices of fickle politicians, and our whole trust in the life of the one who knew the path to true life.


We are invited to join with the stones, and to praise God for the great gift that came to us in the life of Jesus Christ. The one who perfectly showed us how to win true life.


Thanks be to God.



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