Palm Sunday 2023: "A Story Of Stones"

Today is Palm Sunday---the beginning of Holy Week.

I'm not one to blindly follow tradition, but there are some things that you just don't do---and you can't ignore the story of Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

We need to hear the story of how cheers and palms were waving on Palm Sunday as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and we also need to know that many of the same people who were shouting praises to God and lauding Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem were screaming "Crucify him!" five days later.

And lest we get all superior from the sanctimony of our historical distance... we, too, are quick to turn from praise to jeers when God's plans don't coincide with our own.  Or when Jesus turns out to be the exact opposite of how we've constructed him.

That's a good sermon.  I've preached that sermon, and I may preach the same kind of sermon again.  But this year, I've focused on something different in the story. 

Today we’re going to explore a facet of this story that may not be all that familiar—it’s the story of stones and seismic shifts. 

When we speak of seismic shifts in terms of earthquakes and tremors, this is what we are talking about: 

The Earth is in a constant state of change. Earth’s crust, called the lithosphere, consists of 15 to 20 moving tectonic plates. 

The plates are like pieces of a cracked shell that rest on the hot, molten rock of Earth’s mantle and fit snugly against one another. The heat from radioactive processes within the planet’s interior causes the plates to move, sometimes toward and away from each other. 

This movement is called plate motion or a tectonic shift.

This is a normal part of the way the Earth works, but what we see is the destruction, and it can be devastating.  

Images of earthquake aftermath

But what is happening is what prompts the study of seismology, and it also has become synonymous with the idea of seismic shifts in philosophical and sociological terms.  

We've all experienced seismic shifts--when the stones beneath us move. 

Loss of a beloved. 

Loss of relationships. 

Loss of a job. 

Changes in our life---career, family, church... 

And for many of us, we've experienced seismic shifts when we've had our faith turned upside down.  Or when we've truly begun to understand the importance of Jesus in our lives. 


Let's set the scene in the Palm Sunday story for a moment... 

Well, to our 21st-century eyes, this may not seem like much... but this was meaningful to the first-century habitants of Jerusalem gathering in the city for Passover.  It was street theater.  Full of symbols and signs of what Jesus wanted people to know about him and who he really was. 

In short, Jesus planned and carried out a messianic entry into the city.  He threw down the gauntlet, daring people to accept him as the Promised One.  

There were roughly a quarter of a million people in Jerusalem for Passover.  For the Romans, when you had that many people, who hated Roman rule in one place, it was a recipe for disaster unless you were on top of it. 

Some scholars believe that around the same time that Jesus was entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Pontius Pilate, the provincial governor, rode into the city on a giant white horse, surrounded by his calvary, carrying huge banners with the Roman eagle emblazoned on them, and followed by marching soldiers, armed to the teeth.  

Jesus enters differently.  He comes into the city on a donkey, bringing to mind a prophecy from the prophet Zechariah about what the true king, the true Messiah, will look like. 

His entry also shows what true Lordship looks like in God's economy.  It's not the military-industrial complex of Rome, it's not the vulgar display of power---it's something altogether different...  servanthood, gentleness, humility, self-giving. 

So now we turn to the lectionary Psalm for today... Psalm 118. 

Why is it in the lectionary for this particular day?  It is a song of ascents- one of the songs that pilgrims would have sung when entering Jerusalem for Passover. 

We're going to read it responsively: 

118:1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!

118:2 Let Israel say, "His steadfast love endures forever."

118:19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD.

118:20 This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it.

118:21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

118:23 This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

118:24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

118:25 Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success!

118:26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD.

118:27 The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

118:28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

118:29 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

I want to zero in on verses 22-23 for a moment: 

118:22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

118:23 This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.

This Psalm focuses on the idea that Jesus is a new cornerstone for a new world.  In the wreckage of the old one, we find a stone that was rejected but now fits perfectly. 

And we're not done with the imagery of stones in this story... 

Luke's account of the Triumphal Entry has a moment when the Pharisees rebuke Jesus for allowing his followers to praise him as he enters the city: 

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.”

This reference by Jesus is directly connected to the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk, who wrote this: 
11 The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.
12 “Woe to him who builds a city with bloodshed
and establishes a town by injustice! Habakkuk 2:11-12

With all of this imagery and prophecy swirling around an imaginative and desperate crowd of people longing to be free of Roman oppression, there was undoubtedly a lot of speculation about who Jesus was, and what he was about to do. 

But the stone chosen to rebuild is not the stone they were expecting. 

The city is in turmoil---it says in the text from Matthew that the city "shuddered" using the Greek word seio, the same word used in Matthew's Gospel for the earthquake that occurs when Jesus dies on the Cross. 

The same word that we use for earthquakes. Seismic.  

Realizing the truth about who Jesus is to us and the world is an earth-shattering realization—it changes everything. 

When The Ground Beneath Us Shifts—What Do We Do?

When you’ve had a seismic shift—how you respond is crucial. 

We need to look beyond the rubble to see what remains. 

Our foundations may need to be rebuilt—with a new set of materials.  

How we see Jesus amid this is the key to a new life. 

The journey of following Jesus to the Cross and beyond is often shaped by seismic shifts, but Jesus is always there in the midst of the wreckage, shaping what comes next. 



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