Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
At the beginning of the service, we heard Luke’s account of the Palm Sunday parade. Only Luke doesn’t mention palms, and he doesn’t tell us that the crowds were crying out ‘Hosanna!’ either. Instead, Luke tells us that 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, saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
The crowds are shouting the same refrain the angels sang at Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). Just as the angels announced the birth of Jesus, now the disciples announce the coming of Messiah into his kingdom. But, even though they claim to know that Jesus is the Messiah, they still don’t quite understand what that really means.
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.”
Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard. – Luke 19:39-48
Last January, I walked with our tour group down the pathway from the Mount of Olives, following Palm Way in a pilgrims’ procession. We had started out early in the morning, and even though most of the trip had been cold and rainy, this day was filled with sunshine.
You can see the old city of Jerusalem behind us, and except for the Dome of the Rock, it looks a lot like it must have looked to Jesus as he came down from the Mount of Olives and headed toward the temple.
Before we began our hike, we were offered the opportunity to ride a camel or a donkey. We declined. I didn’t quite understand the significance of the camel, but the donkey made sense. We were getting ready to follow the same route that Jesus used to enter Jerusalem, riding on a donkey.
As we made our way down the hillside, we walked on a smoothly paved path, probably nothing like the dirt road Jesus would have followed. Sometimes the way was steep. We often found ourselves in a narrow passage between two walls.
At one point, we saw a cemetery on our left. You can just catch a glimpse of it here.
The tombs are all above ground in this cemetery. They are also recycled – after a body has laid in its tomb for a couple of years, only the bones are left. These are transferred to a small stone box called an ossuary, and the tomb is prepared for another family member.
Notice the rocks on the graves?
These are stones of remembrance, placed on the grave as a memorial. In Jewish tradition, flowers do not mark graves. Flowers are a reminder that life is fleeting, and that all die, just as flowers wither. But stones are sturdy things. Stones do not die. They remind us of eternity, and God’s steadfastness.
Rabbi David Wolpe explains, “In ancient times, shepherds needed a system to keep track of their flocks. On some days, they would go out to pasture with a flock of 30; on others, a flock of 10. Memory was an unreliable way of keeping tabs on the number of the flock. As a result, the shepherd would carry a sling over his shoulder, and in it he would keep the number of pebbles that corresponded to the number in his flock. That way he could at all times have an accurate daily count.
When we place stones on the grave …, we are asking God to keep the departed’s soul in His sling. Among all the souls whom God has to watch over, we wish to add the name — the “pebble” — of the soul of our departed” loved one. ”
Back in the Old Testament, stones were set up as a way to remember important events when God did mighty works among his people. Joshua set up twelve stones that had been taken from the River Jordan as the people of Israel crossed over into the Promised Land, and these stones were designated as a reminder for coming generations of the Lord’s care for his people (Joshua 4). Samuel set up a stone and called it Ebenezer, as a reminder that “so far, the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12) Throughout the Old Testament, stones of remembrance have given God’s people a tangible sign that God was present with them, and would remain faithful to his promises.
As we walked past that cemetery on the Mount of Olives, I wondered if a cemetery had been in that same place when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And if it was, could he have been referring to these memorial rocks piled on graves when he told the Pharisees “if these disciples were silent, even the stones would shout out”? Even the stones used to remember the dead would give testimony to the living presence of God breaking into our broken world in the person of Jesus Christ.
But in this passage from Luke, Jesus mentions stones that bear testimony in another way. Jesus goes on toward Jerusalem, even though he knows what lies ahead for him there. He knows this triumphal journey into the city will end in his own death. He weeps for Jerusalem, because the city of David will miss the point of his coming.
“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” – Luke 19:42-44
Hindsight is always 20/20, the saying goes. Looking back, we can wonder how on earth the people of Jerusalem could have missed recognizing Jesus as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. They got to actually hear him teach and see him heal and raise people from the dead. How could they have been so blind? It’s simple: They were looking for the wrong thing.
They thought Messiah would lead them in a military coup that would overthrow their Roman oppressors. But Jesus came to make peace, not war.
They thought Messiah would come from the City of David, and sit on David’s throne. But Jesus had a different throne in mind, seated next to God the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven. They thought they knew what to look for in a messiah, but Jesus told them they had not recognized the time of their visitation from God.
And I have to wonder, how often do we miss the whole point of Jesus’ sacrifice for us? How often do we look for the wrong thing, and fail to recognize the time of our own visitation from God? How often do we let fear drive our decisions? How often do we fail to see Jesus, because he doesn’t look like the neat and tidy Sunday School version we see in our mind’s eye, but instead he looks more like the dirty child crying loudly in the grocery store, or the teenager sneaking a cigarette behind the library? How often do we look for reasons to reject and refuse, to argue and undermine, when Jesus asks us to look for ways to make peace, to love others the way he loves us?
This Palm Sunday, as we head into Holy Week once again, and remember the story of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, his night of prayer in the garden, his betrayal, his trial, and crucifixion, will we open our hearts to receive him anew, or will we stubbornly refuse to recognize the one who came to save us from our sins?
The hope of all the ages has burst into flame that will not be quenched. The kingdom of God is at hand. The stones are waiting. If we do not proclaim Jesus as Lord, they will. Amen.