The Stones Cry Out
I don’t usually give a message on Palm/Passion Sunday. My preaching professor in seminary, the late Dr. Charles Rice, always said that the combined events of celebrating the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem with palms and Hosannas and of remembering the Passion of Jesus Christ by concluding with the telling of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion was enough. The text preaches itself, he said. We don’t need to add more words.
Over the years, I’ve found his words to ring true, and because of the vividness of the readings, and the juxtaposition of the crowds yelling, “Hosanna, God save us!” at the start of the worship service and then yelling, “Crucify, Crucify him!” by the end, I’ve found Palm/Passion Sunday to be one of the most meaningful worship services of the year. And so I’m not really giving a sermon today either, I promise! But these days are unique, and call for just a little contextualizing, I think. The events of Palm Sunday and of the Passion of Jesus are as compelling as ever - they still stand on their own. But I want to help focus our attention.
In the lectionary calendar, the three-year schedule of scripture readings for the church, this year would have us focusing on Matthew’s account of what we call the Triumphant Entry of Jesus to Jerusalem. All the gospel of accounts of this event are similar, but unique. Donna Peck pointed out at our online BIble Study, for example, that Luke’s account never uses the word “Hosanna,” which is certainly something we associate with Palm Sunday. “Hosanna” means “God, save us!” and we could certainly resonate with such a plea today. In fact, Luke doesn’t even mention people waving or laying down branches. Instead, he talks about folks spreading cloaks on the road. But I chose for us to read Luke’s account particularly because of the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees at the end of the text.
In Luke’s account, as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a colt, a young donkey, a crowd starts to gather. Jesus knows he’s heading toward his painful death on a cross, but the people don’t know that, and at this point, the crowds are excited to see him. It turns into an impromptu parade of sorts. They throw down their cloaks for him to ride over, treating Jesus as they’d treat royalty. And they start to praise God. Luke tells us they say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Again, the first part of their chant is something meant for a king, words from the Psalms meant for a festival day. The crowds are greeting Jesus like a king, but Jesus arrives on a donkey, not a war horse. (1) The second part of their greeting to Jesus echoes the words from Luke’s gospel that the angels sing when Jesus is born: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Luke reminded us when Jesus was born that Jesus is no earthly king, born in a palace surrounded by luxury. Jesus’ authority, his reign, is one of true peace.
The Pharisees are upset by this demonstration. They say to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” We don’t know exactly why they want to settle the crowds. We suspect they’re jealous of Jesus’ popularity, threatened by his clear authority that seems to overlook their wisdom and leadership. But I think they’re also afraid: Jesus being greeted as he enters Jerusalem like some sort of king, even if Jesus wasn’t asking to be so treated - well, that would draw a lot of unwanted attention on the people - both from the Jewish King Herod, seen as a puppet of Rome, and from the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jerusalem was occupied by the Roman Empire, and such an event like this was dangerous. No one wanted the Roman authorities to get more involved in the lives of the Jewish people than they already were.
But Jesus responds to Pharisees, “I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones would shout out!” Those words are words found in the writing of the prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk was writing during a time of great distress in Israel’s history. The Assyrians were destroying city after city, and the people lived in fear. Habakkuk cries out to God, “How long? How long will we cry for help, God, and you won’t listen?” Habakkuk waits for God’s answer.
God does answer, and God makes it clear that every injustice the people have suffered at the hands of enemies - God has seen. God promises that their deliverance is coming. They have to wait, but deliverance is coming, and God sees all that is happening. It is God who says to Habakkuk, “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” God says that even these inanimate objects are crying out at the injustice and pain and hardship that has been visited on God’s people. And God hears, and responds. (2)
So when Jesus uses these words from Habakkuk, he’s telling the Pharisees that in the face of injustice and oppression, like the Jews of Jesus days were experiencing from the Roman Empire, nothing can stop people from crying out from deliverance. And if the people’s voices were somehow stopped, then even the rocks would take up the cry instead. And when the people cry out, when the rocks cry out for deliverance, for help, when they’re crying out, “God save us!” whether it is with Hosannas and palm branches or with cloaks laid on the ground and stones crying out instead of human voices, God hears. God listens. And God promises deliverance will come.
Friends, in these days when we can’t gather together for worship like we so long to do, we feel deep sadness that we’re not together, waving our palm branches. I miss the children parading in the sanctuary. I miss hearing your voices singing with ours. I miss you. But in these days when we cry out, “How long, O Lord?” know that God hears. God listens. Nothing will stop God’s work of deliverance, of justice, of peace from unfolding. Nothing stops our cries from ringing in God’s ears. Even when our voices weary, the stones will cry out. And even if the church building is empty, God’s heart is full of God’s people. And Jesus, and his reign of true peace, will not be thwarted. Nothing can get in the way of God’s saving, life-changing, world-changing love.
In just a little bit, we’ll hear again the Passion story. We’ll hear of Jesus’ arrest, and trial, and crucifixion. And for a moment, it will seem like death has won. Like good loses in the end. Like Jesus has been silenced. But we know that’s not the end of the story. I tell you, even the stones are shouting out. And God is listening. Amen.
Haslam, Chris, “Comments,” Revised Common Lectionary Commentary, http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/archive/cpalmm.shtml.
Claassens, Juliana, “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:17-19,” The Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2238.