Stones: A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Stones from Herod's Temple in Jerusalem
Destroyed: 70 AD

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, and the "home stretch" to Easter Sunday morning.  It's also the day that in my faith tradition (Presbyterianism) we bust out the handbells, crank up "All Glory, Laud and Honor" on the organ and let the kids run around the sanctuary waving palm branches.

Which are a heckuva lot easier for us Floridians to obtain this time of year.

I thought a bit this week about what it must be like for someone who has never really been to church to walk into the aforementioned spectacle.  They might think it's awesome.  Or weird.  Or both.

Christians have funny traditions.

But some of these traditions---especially the ones that we celebrate every year---provide us with signs and symbols to remember who we are and why the stories we tell about our faith are so important.

Take this week, for example...  The passage of Scripture that I'll be preaching from is the story of how Jesus entered into the city of Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his life.  It was---the say the least---a party.

Luke 19:28-44

28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”[a]
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it 42 and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. 43 The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

The scene that is before us here in Luke 19 is fantastic.  It's Passover in Jerusalem, and the city has swelled from roughly 20,000 residents to 150,000 or more.  The streets are clogged with pilgrims streaming into the city from all over the known world.  As they would enter the city in their pilgrim caravans, they would often be met with songs and celebrations from the people within the city.  But Jesus' entry into the city is a bit different.

There were, in fact, two major processions taking place during this particular Passover festival.  First, there was the procession that Jesus and his disciples created as he entered the city from the East after a 17-mile hike from Jericho.  Then there was the procession that Pontius Pilate created when he entered the city with his troops from the West.

Pilate entered the city of Jerusalem draped in Imperial power.  His entry was a sign and symbol for the citizens of Jerusalem and all of its visitors that the Romans were not about to let anyone get out of line.  They had the area under control---squeezing every last dime out of the Middle Eastern population, and the trade routes from Egypt and the rest of Africa.  His flags were flying, his armor was shined and the soldiers were brandishing their weapons.

Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on a donkey with the tattered cloaks of the poor scattered on the road before him, and with children waving palms.  He was making a political statement, to be sure.  The ancient Hebrew people would have found this image a familiar one that was predicted in one of their ancient prophetic books: Zechariah.

The crowds chanted, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," a direct quote from Psalm 118:26, which also happened to be a song about the long expected Messiah, who was believed would rescue the Hebrew people from their bondage to Gentile overlords.

Then they chanted, "Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!"  If that sounds familiar, it's because it's similar to a phrase that was uttered by the angels who announced the birth of Jesus ["Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and good will to human kind"].  Interestingly, these same words were also used to describe decrees by Caesar to the Roman Empire.  His words were considered "Good News," and would be proclaimed with similar language declaring the Pax Romana the "peace" that Rome would bring.

As if.

Let's take a look at the characters in this little story for a second...

First there were the crowds of people---who were hungry for a better world than the one they were currently saddled with under the Romans.  They were so eager for things to be better that they projected the urgency of their need on to Jesus.  Only they saw him as the leader of a rebellion, rather than a reformation.

Then there were the Pharisees, who rebuked Jesus for allowing the people to shout passages of Scripture that likened him to the Messiah.  The Pharisees believed that if they could just get every Jew to keep the laws of Moses, that God would finally like Israel again and free them from bondage and high taxes. They saw Jesus as a threat, who was just going to bring the wrath of the Romans down on their heads and possibly get a bunch of people killed in the process.  They also weren't keen on wholesale change to the religious status quo if it meant that they would lose their place in line, so to speak.

At last, we have the disciples of Jesus.  They throw down cloaks, shout praises and generally get people stirred up as Jesus rides into the city.  But do they really get what he is about?  I don't think so.  I believe that they thought this was the moment when Jesus would get the crowds in Jerusalem behind him and lead a revolt against the Romans and their cronies in the Temple.  Later, they realize that the revolution they thought was going to happen was going to end with Jesus dying on a cross.  And they took off.

None of these people are left standing with Jesus in the end.  

There's a sermon somewhere in there.

What I want to focus on, though, is on Jesus' response to the Pharisees when they rebuke him.  As I said, they are trying to quiet everyone down because they are afraid of what happens next.  It's the equivalent of that guy at the party who is trying to get everyone to turn the music down because he's afraid of someone (his upstairs neighbor maybe) calling the cops.

Jesus responds by saying, "You want to try and stop this?  Be my guest.  The moment you do, the stones are going to cry out to keep this thing going."  What does Jesus response indicate?

It is connected to a couple of verses from the ancient Hebrew prophet Habakkuk, which reads as follows:

9 “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
    setting his nest on high
    to escape the clutches of ruin!
10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
    shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
11 The stones of the wall will cry out,
    and the beams of the woodwork will echo it. (2:9-11)

What Jesus says to the Pharisees is grounded in Scripture.  They would have known exactly what he was trying to tell them.  "The world isn't right.  Things are out of joint.  Injustice is rampant.  It's a house that has been built on the backs of others---a house where the very stones cry out, declaring the need for rescue."

We get this.  We know that the world cannot stay the way it is.

But what Jesus brings to the conversation changes the game.  He confronts us with the fact that religion alone is not the answer, and if you are sitting around waiting for things to change, you'd better get with the program because the kingdom of God has come, and the people of God are called to get moving.

The "stones" in question were not just random stones that were lying around on the ground, although that has been said more than once.  The stones in question were the stones used to build Herod's Temple.  The stones in question were enormous, freakishly huge as a matter fact.  I have seen some of them on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.  They are literally a hundred feet or more across in some cases.

But the Temple built by Herod, wonder of the world though it might have been, was built on the backs of the poor.  It was a testament to Herod's thievery, corruption and a monument to the slavery of the people who were forced to pay for it and build it.  It was in many ways a symbol of the godlessness of the Religion being practiced by the religious elites in Jesus day.

But isn't this the logical and selfish end of a religion without a relationship?  

In the end it comes down to this...  This story gives us the chance to respond to Jesus' arrival, using the examples of the characters present in that moment as our guide.

Our response to Jesus' arrival reveals what we believe not only about Him, but also about ourselves and the world around us.  

Here's a question:  When Jesus Arrives, How Will You Respond?

He demands a response.

Are you fine with the world the way it is?

Are you satisfied with your relationship with God?

Is Religion with no Relationship working for you, or do you know in your heart of hearts that the life you are building is probably not going to hold up in a storm?

What are you willing to do to change?  Is it even worth it to you to try?

Just outside of Jerusalem is a chapel called the Dominus Flevit, which is Latin for The God Who Weeps.  It is the traditional site where Jesus declared his sorrow over Jerusalem and wept over it.  Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD after a long and terrible siege.

The Jewish historian Josephus wrote horrible accounts of the tragedies that occurred during the siege.  In the end the Temple was destroyed and the Romans tore down every wall but one.  The piles of stones in the photo at the top of this blog are from the Temple, and dramatically indicate just how true Jesus words were at that time.  "not one stone" was left upon another.  

And all because they did not recognize that the kingdom of God had come.

In Psalm 118 there is a wonderful verse that reads something like this:

22 The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
    let us rejoice today and be glad.

The stone that the builders rejected-----is Jesus.  The cornerstone-----is Jesus.

Jesus (and all that he represented to the world) was absolutely missing from the original building that the crowds, the Pharisees and even the disciples had directly and indirectly helped to build.

And they never knew it.
And even when they were confronted by it, they didn't get it.

Tom Barnard writes, "The crowd was clueless. They never got it right. They shouted praises. He wept. They looked for a warrior-king riding a white stallion. They got a carpenter riding a donkey. They wanted hype. They got a healer. They wanted a prophet. They got One who fulfilled prophecy. They wanted a scepter. They got a Savior. They got nothing they asked for but everything they needed. Only they never got it. They were clueless. Jesus was the only One there who really knew what was happening on that first Palm Sunday."

So where are you in this story?

Are you in the Crowd?  Do you want relief from the pain, poverty, pressure and politics of this world, but when you are given the chance to leave everything and follow the One who can free you from bondage---you want something easier?

A Pharisee? Are you content to have a religious life that doesn't really demand all that much from you?  Do you prefer to focus on being a good person rather than a sold out, wild eyed, passionate Jesus follower.

Are you a Disciple?  Maybe you know that there is something special about Jesus, but you are buying into Him because you think believing in Him will save you from eternal retribution and give you some sort of elevated status when you leave this life and head into the next.

How will you respond?

Tom Barnard sums this up beautifully...

"It's so easy to become like those people in Jerusalem. We think we know what's going on, but we really don't have a clue. We have a bad week, and we blame God. Our kids act out, and we blame the school. We work two jobs and wonder why things aren't better at home. Jesus comes to our town, and He wants to help; but we don't recognize Him for who He is. We think He will be impressed with our boats and our businesses and our stuff. He is not. He wants our hearts. That's what Palm Sunday is all about."

Amen and Amen.
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