TEACHING A STONE TO SHOUT
So, how do we make Palm Sunday fresh this year and every year? How am I supposed to take this ancient story and mold it into something new? Well, here’s what I do most of the time in preparation; I simply read, and re-read the lectionary text and go through it with a fine-toothed comb, hoping that some word or phrase will “pop out” at me in a way it never has before. This year, the phrase I “combed out,” was the one about the Lord needing a donkey. “If anyone questions you when you until it, tell them the Lord needs it, Jesus said.” And I think we all assume he was talking about himself. Right? I did a quick search through the gospels to see if there are other places where Jesus mentions needing anything for himself; and there is that moment in John 4 where Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to give him a drink of water (which he never gets), and one other moment in John 19 when; (in order to fulfill scripture) he says, “I thirst”. But on the whole Jesus does not appear to be a” needy” person.
I am reminded of Paul’s words in Acts 17:24-25, when he said; “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything”. So too – Jesus, the Son of God, in the same way, wasn’t often served by human hands was he? And he didn’t seem to need much of anything. Did he? So, when someone (you might know), who never asks for anything – says that they need something – we listen don’t we? It must be pretty important to them. The fact that he needed something is, in and of itself, remarkable, however, what he needs, when he finally gets around to mentioning it, is a little surprising – a donkey?
Oddly enough Jesus says; “The Lord needs a donkey.” And, then; wouldn’t you know – go figure; someone does ask those two disciples why they are untying the donkey. To which they dutifully reply; “the Lord needs it.” Mission accomplished. But, the question still lingers; why? Why did the Lord need a donkey? It would be a little more obvious if we were reading this story from the Gospel of Matthew 21; because at least Matthew explains; that Jesus sent his disciples to fetch a donkey in order to fulfill what had been spoken through the Old Testament prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9).
According to German New Testament Scholar and professor, W.G. Kummel; “in the early church the rabbis often used this verse in reference to the coming Messiah.” So, it is possible that religious leaders of the temple were conditioning people to believe that one of these days the Messiah himself would come riding into the city of Jerusalem, ‘humble and mounted on a donkey.’ Therefore, it’s also possible that, Jesus knew this and today made a conscious decision to associate himself with this prophetic word so that all people who witnessed it would realize who he was; the Son of God.
It’s possible, and yet, when I give it a little thought; at the same time; that just doesn’t sound like Jesus does it? I mean all along – all we have been learning, all that I have been teaching from the gospels – tells us that Jesus has been shushing anyone who calls him the “Son of God” or the “Messiah” saying “don’t tell anyone.” Doesn’t it seem a little odd that now, he would parade into the city practically wearing a sash with the word “Messiah” on it? In fact, it seems a little odd to me, that he would tell his disciples; if anyone asks why they are untying the donkey; to say that “the Lord” needs it (instead of the Rabbi needs it or Jesus needs it.) Because when I did another quick search last week and discovered that – of the 79 times the word Lord is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke Jesus never uses it to refer to himself.
Luke refers to him as “the Lord;” and the disciples refer to him as; “the Lord,” and other characters in the story refer to him as “the Lord;” but when Jesus uses the word “Lord” – himself; he uses it to refer to God. So, is it also possible then that when he says “the Lord needs this donkey,” he isn’t talking about himself at all, but he is referring to God the father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth? And if that’s the case, then – I have to ask again – why would God need a donkey? Well, perhaps the rabbis of that day were quoting Zechariah 9:9; telling people that someday their king would come to them, “humble and riding on a donkey.” And just suppose that it wasn’t Jesus, but God, who wanted everyone to know that this “boy of his” was their King. I mean, I think I know Jesus pretty well, and I think he may have preferred to slip into the city unnoticed, (don’t you think so?) but not if God asked him to do otherwise. Suppose God whispered into Jesus’ ear during the night, giving him instructions about how to make his entry. Those of us who have been to a Good Friday service know that this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time that Jesus did something simply because his father asked him to do it; replying; “Not my will, but thine be done.”
So, what if this parade into the city was not even Jesus’ idea but again – only one more act of obedience in the service to God, his Father? That changes thing now, doesn’t it? When he said, “The Lord needs it,” he would really mean; “God needs me to do this thing. God needs me to reveal myself to all those who will be present this day – as his Messiah – before my mission is complete.” If that’s true, it means that God wanted to give the people of Jerusalem a chance to receive the gift he had given, and others had received. “Look,” he said, pointing, “Here is the one I have chosen to rescue you, to deliver you, to save your souls. What do you think about that?” Sounds about right doesn’t it? Sounds like something a loving God would do. And maybe what God needed, really, was to save his people specifically those in Jerusalem. That they might know and acknowledge that they might know that he was with them. Maybe what he wanted was for someone in that crowd to say “thank you”. And that’s just what starts happening.
As the gospel of Luke shares with us: “Then they brought the colt to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road in front of him; (doing the best they could to roll out the red carpet) as he rode into the city. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, 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, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Now, whether or not it did anything for Jesus, I think it did God’s heart good, don’t you? To finally hear those people rejoicing over his Son, whom he sent, just for them? “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” And maybe that’s why, when (the other phrase that jumped out at me this week; in verse 39 where Luke says); “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop (rejoicing). Jesus answers; I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones would shout out.” Because Jesus knows, that God wanted all of this to take place this way – this day. God wants these people to know that he sent his Son Jesus, to be with them, he wants them to know him – and praise him. So don’t get in the way. Let it be. “If you even try to silence them the stones will shout!” The Lord, (God) needed a donkey to reveal himself as the prophets foretold; and unleash the praise of those people, who were able to finally see, that at long last their king had come to them as prophesied in the scriptures. But maybe what the Lord really needed was to hear the people rejoice – acknowledging the gift God gave.
When Jesus was born there wasn’t much response from the people. That baby was slipped into the world so quietly that hardly anyone knew he had arrived. It was the angels, on that night, who sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” But on Palm Sunday the people finally saw Jesus for the gift from God that he was, and it was their shouts that filled the streets with praise, it was they who said, (like the angels did at his birth); “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” And, in the highest heaven I believe God was at peace, because he finally got what he needed—a loud, happy, heartfelt “thank you” for the gift of his only Son. Yes, this was Jesus’ day.
Every year as I prepare for this Sunday I have a choice of lectionary readings. I can read for Palm Sunday or the story of the passion. But because not everyone will make it to a Maundy Thursday Communion service (like ours in Lead this week), nor a Good Friday worship service, many pastors choose to focus on the passion today. I get it, it might feel a little odd to go from the celebration of Palm Sunday today to the celebration of Easter next week – I mean there can be no resurrection without his death. But I can’t imagine leaving out this story on Palm story. I can’t imagine not giving Jesus his day. It was good that he was King – for a day. So, it is fitting that we too rejoice today.
Because, not only did God need to hear his people rejoice – I think God knew that his only Son needed to hear the people rejoice because of him that day. I think the praise of those people was music to Jesus’ ears. After all he had been through, and done for them; and before all he was soon going to do for them; (we have a lot of drama that occurs this week before the last supper), it must have been bittersweet for him to hear – I wouldn’t be surprised if those shouts and songs of praise were exactly what sustained Jesus in the days to come, and made him more determined through this week of drama – that even while some were shouting “Crucify him, crucify him!” he could close his eyes and hear the crowds crying out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in highest heaven.” He knew – they got it for a moment.
So, maybe not only God needed it but our Lord who never needed anything – needed it, too. But wait! There’s more! There’s no way to prove it, but I believe those people needed it, too. I believe they needed a chance to let loose with long, loud happy shouts of praise. Someone once said that what separates us from the animals is our capacity to worship and praise God. “Hosanna!” Can you whisper it? Come on let me here you. This is for God! “Hosanna!” Now say it again. “Hosanna!” And a little louder? “Hosanna!” And a little louder! “Hosanna! Now everybody shout! “Hosanna!” Doesn’t that feel good? (I know the kids liked it.) There is something in all of us—some love for God—that needed to find its way out. And shout and rejoice! So, today is the day!
Let’s “pull out all the stops” and pick up our palm branches when we sing the next hymn. Let’s parade down the aisle singing; “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the top of our lungs like fools because that is what happens when even one who was lost is found – people rejoice! That is what happens when we recognize God for who he is and all he has given us – people rejoice! The Lord needs it! We need it! We need to praise God, and God needs our praise.
May God’s people never become so silent and complacent – like Jesus warned us about – may we never see the day – where we hear the stones shout.
Let us pray: How quickly we change. How fickle we are, how we pledge our devotion one moment and turn our backs the next. We go from shouting “Hosanna! Save Us!” to “Crucify Him.” It is relatively easy for us to roster someone to go and gather palm leaves to spread in the church today. And we can easily find music and a few good words to help us to remember and re-enact Palm Sunday. But what if You arrived inviting us to really lay down something important to us to acknowledge Your arrival? What if we knew the imminence of the danger that accompanies You, or sensed that the authorities were watching us as we worship? How then, Jesus, would we meet You today. And what would we spread before You? And how would we regard humility from the One we hope will save the world? Palm Sunday Jesus, help us to see how and where You enter our world today, and what You ask us to lay at your feet, and how we may welcome You in. Amen.
Invocation: The story of Palm Sunday tells of how people removed their cloaks and spread them out in front of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. The cloak we wear every day to face the world is both the persona we wish to present, and our defense against the elements. As we come to worship may we be willing to lay down our defenses and disguises, at the feet of the One who sees us we really are. And then, set free for worship, may we offer our praises with open hearts and lives.
Benediction: Whether we walk with all faith or none we look towards the cross, knowing it is both the most human and most divine of all journeys travel the road with courage, with love. May this be the Holiest of all weeks for you and yours.