(a sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday, based on Luke 19:28-40 and Philippians 2:5-11)
There are just some moments in life for which nothing else will do but loud, joyous, full-throated, totally spontaneous yet wholly intentional, and ultimately unbridled shouts of praise!
The Red Sox win the World Series; the Patriots win the Super Bowl… again (!); or you’re at a concert and you’ve just heard your favorite singer give the most amazing musical performance ever. Or it’s that moment you suddenly know, without any shadow of any doubt, that you’re in love and you “don’t care who knows it (!),” or it’s what happens when you get the news you’re going to be parents – or grandparents (!) – or maybe it’s that singular, once in a lifetime, experience of revelation when all at once and maybe just for an instant, everything in your life makes perfect sense! But whatever it is, understand that more than just a rousing cheer what I’m talking about here is this instinctive, primal, even primordial need and compulsion to cry out for joy! It’s the praise that emanates from head, heart and soul, and it’s quite literally wired into our DNA: Theodore J. Wardlaw of Austin Presbyterian Seminary in Texas writes that even babies know that kind of praise. “She doesn’t know her own name; she doesn’t know the name of God; she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but she knows even at that early age that – with the beginning of dawn – the only appropriate thing to do is to sing a baby song of praise.”
Actually, scripture is filled with examples of that kind of joyous praise: the Psalmist using every imaginable instrument – from “lute and harp” to “loud clanging cymbals” – in order to proclaim, “Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!” (150:3-6); Mary reacting to the news of the Christ Child growing in her womb, “’My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.’” (Luke 1:46-47); or even the awe struck reaction of good ol’ “Doubting” Thomas when he finally understood that the Risen Christ was standing right before him: “’My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Once again, it is in us to praise; but even more than this, as Wardlaw goes on to say, all this seems to suggest “that praise lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God… because nothing is more appropriate or more timely than praise.”
And that, beloved, is in good part what the “triumphal entry” of Palm Sunday is all about.
Now this account of the Palm Sunday parade along the streets of Jerusalem is one of a handful of stories that appear in all four of the gospels; which tells us, first of all, just how important of an event it was in the telling of the story of Jesus’ life and ministry and most especially in how it figures into everything else that is about to unfold. This is, at least in a storytelling sense, the true beginning of the Passion story; so it’s significant in that sense alone. It’s also kind of an unusual story where Jesus is concerned, as it does seem at first glance to be “the one departure from Jesus’ aversion to acclaim.” (Philip Yancey, “The Jesus I Never Knew.”) What with all the Hosanna shouting and the adoring crowds spreading clothes and tree branches across the road, it’s to say the least a unique moment; for “though Jesus usually recoiled from such displays of fanaticism, this time he let them yell.”
In fact, did you notice something about Luke’s version of this story we shared this morning? For one thing, there’s not a palm or even a “Hosanna” to be found! In this version, though there is reference made to people “spreading their cloaks on the road,” as well as on the back of the colt on which Jesus was riding (and we do get the account as to circumstances how that colt was acquired), as Luke tells the story you really don’t get any sense that there were palm branches being waved in the air, nor is there any reference to a “happy throng” of children dancing ahead of the approaching Messiah!
And yet, despite the conspicuous absence of, as the song goes, the “green palms and blossoms gay” that was part and parcel of “the festal preparation,” there is no absence of utter joy and unbridled praise, starting from the very moment that Jesus was “approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives” down into the city of Jerusalem and “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power they had seen, saying ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!’” It’s funny, you know; a phrase that we use a lot today would seem to apply in this circumstance: that whole thing appeared to happen organically; but the truth of it that Jesus’ disciples just “did what came naturally,” [Wardlaw] and so did everyone else! The closer this “triumphal entry” came to the city itself, the more people there were who were moved to join them; and the more people who gathered along the city streets or who followed on behind, or who ran on ahead to lay down their cloaks for a makeshift royal carpet and yes, to wave some palm branches in the air in royal tribute to us, the louder the shouting became! In that moment of grand celebration and of prophetic fulfillment, “They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing was more appropriate or timely” – or absolutely required at that moment (!) – than for them to burst forth shouts of praise!
And you know what happened next; it was so joyous, so spontaneous and uncontrollable, so filled with praise and thanksgiving unto God and the King who comes in his name, and perhaps most of all, so very, very loud that immediately the powers that be, that is the gathered Pharisees, had to put a stop to it. And so they went to Jesus – actually, in the true fashion of Pharisees in every place and time they probably sent a committee (!) – and in the name of all things ordered and correct, they told him, “Teacher, get your disciples under control!” [The Message] Order them to stop…. Now!
And to this, Jesus simply responds – and I have to imagine it’s with a sad smile and a shake of the head – “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
It’s an amazing response; one that affirms that what was happening that morning on those streets of Jerusalem was not only appropriate, it was necessary; this was praise that needed to be expressed, the clear vision of God’s glory being proclaimed with singular and overwhelming intensity! And that’s how we usually read that verse, isn’t it; that you can tell the “rabble to be quiet” all you want, but you can’t stop the praising. Tell this crowd to stop its praising, and the very rocks that line the walls of this sacred city of Jerusalem will do it for them! Don’t you see, you can’t stop it: no matter what you do, you Pharisees, the shouting will continue and all of creation will keep on singing and praising God’s holy name: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna in the highest!
And you know, really, that should have been the end of it right there; at this point, the Pharisees should have simply gone home grumbling, the celebration should have continued unabated and there should have been all rejoicing at the coming of God’s Messiah. Or at least that’s how it should have been. But of course, as we know, there was more to it than that.
It’s been pointed out by some biblical scholars that along with the idea that the crowd’s shouting could not possibly have been silenced, Jesus’ words about the stones crying also may well have been a reference to some words of judgment spoken by the prophet Habakkuk that says that going against God would make “the very stones… cry out from the wall… the plaster respond[ing] from the woodwork.” [2:11]. There’s also a passage from the Old Testament Book of Joshua that speaks of a stone serving as a witness to the faithlessness of God’s people [24:27] So now we have this incredible faith-filled proclamation of God’s providence and salvation, and what does Jesus say to the Pharisees who would shut it all down, and who would condemn Jesus, the very one who comes in the name of God, to death, “even death on a cross?”
He says, even in the silence the stones would shout out… but this time in judgment.
It’s interesting, you know; and as many times as I return to this story and begin my own walk of faith and discipleship on this so-named “holy” week I can scarcely wrap my mind and heart around it: how on Sunday there’s this huge crowd waving palms and shouting their hosannas unto Jesus, the one known to them, proclaimed by them as their Messiah, an yet come Friday morning, the same crowds are angrily calling for his crucifixion. As many times as we’ve heard the story I can’t even begin to fathom of how Jesus – the one who was and is our teacher, our healer and our friend, the one who has brought light and life into the world – would be betrayed and abandoned and denied by those closest to him; or how he was so angrily – and easily (!) – mocked, beaten and condemned to a horrible death on a cross, a tortuous death reserved for the worst of criminals. All this, and so much more than this, even as we all stand again at the foot of the cross, remembering his agony and suffering even as he spoke aloud to those who had condemned him, saying “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]
It’s the journey we all share – the inevitable movement from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday – but I don’t know about you, but as we draw ever nearer now to the cross there’s a question I cannot help but ask: Where’s the shouting and praise now? When did “hosanna in the highest” become “crucify him?” And was I, am I, there “when they crucified my Lord?” What happens when in my silence the stones shout out?
It’s a somber and difficult question, to be sure; but beloved, it’s an important one as today we consider who Jesus truly is and what even now he offers us. I hoping you really heard the song we sang during the offertory, about how there “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Shout for Me,” because not only is it a great old spiritual, but the words of the chorus say it all: “Rocks, keep silent! Jesus comes to set me free. Rocks, keep silent! I’m gonna shout in victory! Rocks, keep silent! Jesus reigns in majesty. Ain’t no rock gonna shout for me.” It’s a song that not only reminds us on this day of days who Jesus is and what he came to do, but it also tells us that if we fail to give him our praises, if we turn away from him in his hour of need, if we deny him not only with our words but by our lives then all that will be left is the sound of the stones shouting in our place; each and all bearing witness to our silence amidst sin and despair.
Beloved, on this day of all days, as disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ we cannot stay silent. We cannot let our praises go unsung! Because, if I might quote Theodore Wardlaw’s words one more time, this isn’t “pollyanna praise, it’s not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling past the graveyard praise, not something sweet place among us just to make the world more beautiful praise. It’s praise that instead gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly,” and it’s praise that reminds us that in the name of the one whose name we praise we are rescued, we are forgiven, we are redeemed and we are made alive, now and forever.
Ain’t no rock gonna shout that for me! How could it ever?
We are not meant to be silent, beloved… we are meant to sing and to shout and to proclaim the Lordship of Jesus our Christ! It’s as simple and as profound and, as we stand beneath the cross of Jesus, as agonizing as that.
So… let our praises be heard! And as Paul proclaimed in joy and praise, let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the eart, and every tongue” – every tongue (!) – “should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry