It was Palm Sunday, but because of a sore throat, 5-year-old Annie stayed home from church with her mother. When the rest of the family returned home, they were carrying palm fronds. Annie asked them what they were for. "People held them over Jesus' head as he rode by on a colt," her father explained. "Wouldn't you know it," Annie fussed, "the one Sunday I'm sick and Jesus shows up and offers pony rides!"
There's nothing quite like experiencing the Christian faith through the eyes of our children. Annie's comment reminds me of American theologian, Harvey Cox, who wrote, "only by assuming a playful attitude toward our religious tradition can we possibly make any sense of it (Essay, 1969, "The Feast of Fools"). Perhaps it is in coming to faith like a child that we best understand the mystery of it.
One moment in the life of the church in which children remind us of the mystery and wonder of our faith is Palm Sunday. Our children astonish us as they parade around with palms. They fill our sanctuaries with hope and our hearts with joy. While many of our traditional churches may prefer our services be done decently and in good order - and there is nothing very orderly about children waving palm branches and leaving messes wherever thy tread - we make exceptions because we know today is special.
It's special because, as Annie points out, Jesus showed up! And he showed up with a radical, compelling message which was the joy of the poor and the ire of the establishment. As he made his way from the east toward Jerusalem, this man on a humble colt received a hero's welcome. Soon, he would drive a theological stake into the heart of a kingdom pulsing with imperial power and military might. Jesus had spent the last three years saving the lost (Luke 19:10) and offering peace and healing to the weary, impoverished, and spiritually hungry. For the first time, the marginalized and downtrodden were being noticed and finding favor with God. Even on that road to Jerusalem, the opening notes of Jesus' suffering were beginning to sound. His kingly procession, ascending into Jerusalem would soon lead to another ascent to the cross.
This is the drama of Palm Sunday, and we, who dare to follow Jesus, participate in the drama of the story through our retelling, our wondering, and our sharing in the salvation and mission of Christ the King.
Each of our lives is an unfolding drama. In my life, now more than ever, it seems there is a vibrant and sometimes wild drama. You see, I have two young daughters. My five-year-old daughter, in particular, loves to playact and put on spontaneous shows. She pulls out every costume and prop she can find to set the stage. Those within an earshot are invited to dress up. If there's not much of a response, she prepares hand-written invitations and distributes them to family and friends. For her, there's nothing more exciting than having everyone participate in a story she's scripting in her own mind.
Luke invites us into the drama of Jesus' processional into Jerusalem. We are summoned into the story, invited to imagine what it would have been like to be seeing Jesus and participating in the parade. Just how many of Jesus' followers joined in that parade? Were there hundreds in the crowd? Were they wildly cheering? Or softly singing? Perhaps it is in coming to this story with a childlike imagination that we best understand the mystery of it.
Just as we are invited to imagine ourselves as one of the disciples, we might see ourselves in the Pharisees, too. Pharisees prided themselves on meticulously interpreting Torah and adhering to strict spiritual practices. The apostle Paul himself identified as a Pharisee prior to his conversion (Acts 23:6 & Phil. 3-5).
Some careful introspection suggests there's a little bit of Pharisee in all of us. If we've ever been self-righteous, judgmental, hypocritical, then we've participated in the pharisaic.
The Pharisees in this passage foreshadow the doubts, denials, and condemnations of the disciples and crowds following Jesus. We, who see ourselves in the crowd declaring "Jesus is Lord!" are also swept up into the drama of those who shout out "Crucify him!" This is the tension that we hold every day as sinner and saint.
In our story the Pharisees were perplexed and annoyed by the people's reaction to Jesus. They saw him as an extremist who is upsetting the spiritual and political order. They heard the crowd's cheers as threatening cacophony and order Jesus to call for silence. Looking toward the massive stones of the city walls, Jesus retorted that if the crowds were to be silent, those stone would shout out.
I've never heard a stone cry out, and I'm not sure I want to! Perhaps the closest we can get is when we dip our finger in water and rub it around the rim of our drinking glass. If we do it just right, we can make our glass sing. Glass is nothing more than a mixture of sand and stone. But, let's not kid ourselves, stones weren't made for singing, right? Yet, again, perhaps this is where we need a little childlike imagination. How are the stones - both in Jesus' time and in our own - shouting out praises?
Musical composer Lloyd Larson arranged a gospel-spiritual song based on this text. It's called "Aint' No Rock Gonna' Shout for Me." The refrain has always stuck with me:
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.
These simple lines offer deep theological insights regarding Jesus' kingship and glory, the freedom he offers humanity, and our response. With the refrain "Rocks, keep silent!" we are reminded that if we fail to rejoice in who Jesus is and what he came to do, the rocks will do it for us. If we shirk our responsibility of shouting from the rooftops, the rest of creation will take our place. The song declares that the disciple doesn't need a rock to take her place - "ain't no rock gonna' shout for me." And yet we know that if we do fail to shout out, the rest of creation will keep on singing.
The Hebrew Scriptures frequently set forth this truth. For example, a psalm summons, "...sing to the Lord, all the earth" (96:1). The prophet Isaiah imagined the mountains and hills singing, and the trees of the field clapping their hands (55:12). In Job, the "morning stars sang together" (38:7). The 16th century reformer John Calvin put it this way: "Creation is quite like a spacious and splendid house, provided and filled with the most exquisite and the most abundant furnishings. Everything in it tells us of God." All of creation - even the stones and the mountains - is inextricably linked to the Creator. How tragic it is that many of God's Human creatures have difficulty giving God glory while the rest of creation cannot and will not be silent!
In his book, Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell tells of a time he was invited to officiate a wedding for friends who had requested he not mention God or Jesus during the service. They trusted Pastor Rob to create a deeply moving and spiritually enriching experience for everyone involved. When asked why they chose a setting in nature for their ceremony, the groom replied, "Something holds all this together." Through pre-marital counseling, both the bride and groom came to the realization that the "something" that held creation together was also the "something" that brought them together as a couple. They eventually called this "God" and became more accepting of Gods existence, especially since they relished the tranquility of creation. Bell's conclusion has been indelibly sketched in my mind. He argued that they were "closer to Jesus than they could ever imagine."
As St. Augustine once quipped, God is "closer to us than our own breath." Yet we often fail to perceive God, and we certainly fail to praise him in all things. Both the songs and wonder of children and the shouts of creation remind us of the importance of using our imagination to enter into the drama of Jesus' story. When we are there, we feel ourselves among the stones and the disciples shouting out praise. But we also discover ourselves among the Pharisees questioning Jesus' reign.
This is the tension that we hold every day as sinner and saint - one moment praising God and the next minute denying him with our judgmental attitudes, selfish actions, and unjust lifestyles. Like the disciples, our devotion dissipates when things don't go our way. We question God's presence when we are suffering. The question to disciples today, then, is: Will we find a way to honor God even when it is hard? Will we continue to declare that Jesus is Lord when we experience trials, when naysayers test us like the Pharisees, or when we are confronted with our own pharisaical hypocrisy and self-righteousness? Will we praise God in all things? Or will we let the rocks shout out in our silence?
This is the drama of Palm Sunday leading into Jesus' Passion. It includes the drama of praise, the drama of hypocrisy, and the drama of our deepest need. We cry out to the One who saves, "Rescue us from the broken places that will tear us apart; and make us whole." Even in our darkest moments, when it appears that the broken will not be repaired or that the dead will not rise from the grave, "Yet, we will praise him" (Psalm 42:11). For when we are faithful in our praise, we discover the mystery of God's faithfulness, which extends into and beyond Christ's death on the cross.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, grant that the words we have heard this day may, through your grace, be so grafted within our hearts that they may bring forth in us the fruits of the Spirit - to the honor and praise of your name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.