Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sermon - The Cry of the Stones

Luke 19:40 is an odd verse. If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.
     Oh, on one hand, you can read it as a simple slap on the wrist to the Pharisees, a reprimand to those who don’t know any better, a lesson in the nature of things. Jesus is telling the bad guys off, explaining that their attempts to squelch His praise will not pay dividends.
On another hand, if you don’t use much holy imagination, you can get very literal and read this verse as a promise that the pebbles of the ground will take up the song if the people are silenced.  Somehow, I don’t think that is what Jesus means.
I am afraid that this sermon will not please everyone. I am not sure it suits me.  It is different.  I have not filled this sermon with a lot of argument, or doctrine, or persuasion.  My preparation this week has been different. This sermon is symbol, sensation, introspection. I will quote old and new hymns and spiritual songs, draw upon imagery, speak of feelings. If that is not your cup of tea, that’s ok.  I will be back to my regular self before long.  But there is something about this season, something about the coming passion, something about the contradictions of this day on the church calendar – Palm Sunday, this day when Jesus rides in triumph, hailed as king, showered with Hosannas as He heads to His death. Today, God’s voice and our worship response speak on a different level. The music we sing is different. The way we conduct services is different.  This sermon is different.
Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, followed later by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and other events we know from the scripture of this last week before the crucifixion. This is the only Sunday worship service we have to address both Palm Sunday and Good Friday. It is in some ways an odd day to come to worship, for our emotions are mixed between the glorious praise of the week’s beginning and the darkness of the week’s end. How do we do justice to them both?  
Hosanna, originally and literally meaning “deliver us,” had evolved into a cry of joy and exultation, much as we would use the word “Hallelujah.” The crowd either knows Psalm 118 itself or has learned its words through tradition and Hebrew school and what their families have brought home from Temple; however they know the words, they welcome Jesus with “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Have you wondered who it was in the crowd, praising Jesus, waiving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna?”  Were they the same people who would form another crowd, four days later, outside Pilate’s court, calling for crucifixion? Was it one crowd, or two? In a city the size of Jerusalem, it is of course easily conceivable that there were a number of crowds around.  The descriptions of the two seem different; Luke calls the Palm Sunday crowd “disciples,” while the Thursday night group are still following the lead of the chief priests and other religious leaders.  The motives of the crowds seem very different.
And yet, we know of at least two – Judas and Peter – who were in both, and it does not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that there were others with a foot in each crowd.  Maybe some were there on Sunday because they thought Jesus was finally riding into town to overthrow the Romans and when that did not happen, they grew disillusioned by Thursday night.  Maybe they came out to see a military messiah and were unhappy with what they found. Maybe some who had waved palms were honestly confused by the demagoguery of the Sanhedrin and found themselves swayed by the mob mentality. Perhaps they were caught up in the contradiction of the praise of Sunday and the terror of Friday. It would not be the first or last time that some called disciples on a Sunday find themselves short days later with mixed motives in the wrong crowd.
In any event, on Sunday, Jesus rides in on a donkey before a crowd of people who were, in my mind at least, singing “All Glory, Laud and Honor to Thee, Redeemer King.” Jesus has been preaching, healing, and calling followers, but He has not yet publicly accepted a royal, divine title.  The full message of His identity has not yet been declared.  He has asked those He healed to tell no one.  Transfigured into His full glory, He begs the apostles present to keep it secret for the time being.  When given opportunities to display His full wonder and power, He demurs, explaining that His hour has not yet come.
Now, Palm Sunday, Jesus’s hour has come. Hitime has arrived. As I mentioned last week, on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus does not tell Bartimaeus to hush when he calls Jesus the Son of David. A man who walks everywhere, Jesus now rides on a donkey, the animal of royalty prophesied by Zechariah as the messiah’s steed.  As the Hosannas ring down, Jesus tells nobody to keep quiet today. The week will continue with the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus’s only miracle done solely to show off His power in order to inspire faith; the cleansing of the temple, something that only one with authority would dare; and the anointing by Mary, an act Jesus accepts because He is worthy of it and because she is properly preparing His body for a royal burial.  Jesus is not keeping anything under wraps anymore.  His hour has come.
And so, as the week begins, the Pharisees tell Jesus to keep His admirers quiet, and Jesus looks them in the eye and says, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Surely a little jubilant, a little festive inthe moment as He accepts the mantle of king, Jesus seems to be telling the Pharisees that the praise of His people is appropriate, and He will accept it, and they best shut up about it.
But there is more to it than that. When Jesus tells the Pharisees that if the praise is silent, the very rocks will cry out, Jesus is saying two crucial words that speak to us today. These two ideas, symbolic and mystical though they may be, mirror what I mean about mixed emotions of Palm Sunday and the coming Passion Week.

First, Jesus is speaking about worship and praise. 
The metaphor that Jesus uses is not overly complicated.  He is telling the Pharisees that this is the day, that His praise is going to happen, that they cannot shut it down.  Jesus knows that after three years, He has true followers who have been waiting for this moment to celebrate His regal arrival in Jerusalem. Jesus is willingly, if not entirely happily, encouragingthe party.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus says that even if we cease our praise, the worship will continue.  You may not like the rock opera “Jesus Christ, Superstar, but this is one place where lyricist Tim Rice gets it right, when he pictures Jesus saying, “Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.  If every tongue were stilled, the noise would still continue.  The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing, ‘Hosanna!’”
But there is more to this verse of scripture than a simple “Ha Ha!” in the face of the Pharisees. Jesus’sword choice is important, instructive to us on a deep level. If the people keep quiet, the stones themselves will cry out. In identifying this cry of the stones, Jesus recognizes nature’s praise. Jesus is speaking of how creation cries out to its maker, witnesses for us all the greatness of God. When I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed, then sings my soul, my savior God to Thee, “How great Thou art!”
This is a difficult concept for us left-brained people. It is not linear or analytical.It is certainly not literal. The idea of the stones crying out to God is poetic, emotional, dramatic.
Jesus knows His scripture, and He here echoes the Psalmist, who has written of how the heavens declare the glory of God.  He joins with Isaiah, who has told of how the trees of the field will clap their hands. Last week we read the writer of Job describing the morning stars singing together.
Do you hear the praise of God in nature?  This week, the trees in my neighborhood have begun – seemingly overnight – to bud. I saw my first cardinals of the year yesterday. The eternal message of spring, of resurrection, that life follows death as day follows night, as surely as the cold gives way to warm breezes,never fails to catch me a little by surprise.  Do you see God in a bee pollinating a flower, or in the mystery of the quark, or in a baby’s cry, or in the order of the swirling planets?
When Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s qualities have been clearly seen and understood from what He has made since the beginning of time, does your mind take you to some outdoor experience somewhere in your life’s history when you have looked and listened and smelled and felt and just known, I mean just known, God? Perhaps for you, it is not an outdoor experience but rather over a microscope in a laboratory, or in a planetarium, or reading the words of the poet.Perhaps a memory from a mission trip or revival from days of your youth. Since he is leading worship for us today, I will pick on Trey, who can speak to you eloquently of worshiping on a mountaintop in Spain, where Trey told me he was “surrounded by more of God’s glory than I have ever seen before.”  My mother’s “A ha” moment also came in Europe, as the clouds parted to display the crest of the Matterhorn in all its glory.
Jesus says that the stones will cry out. 
I know that what I have said these last few minutes is too far out, too touchy-feely, too esoteric – perhaps even bizarre - for some of you. You need logic, you need words, you want me to move on to the important stuff. I know that because I am one of you.  Too often I fail to look around, to appreciate the magnificence of God’s creation, of what God’s handiwork teaches us about God. I need to hear these words from Psalm 148: 
Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all you shining stars. Praise Him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at His command they were created, and He established them forever and ever—He issued a decree that will never pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do His bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars….

My grandfather, whom I called Papa, would never have voiced his worship in terms of rocks and stones, lightning and hail, mountains and hills. That would have seemed almost disrespectful to him. But, he had a surprising poetic side, and there was nothing he loved quite so much as returning to Lake Louise, or to the mountains of Montana, or down the road to Cole Creek. And for many – for some of you in these pews – the concept of the stones crying out speaks precisely how you view the praise of God. Jesus understands this cry of creation.  Centuries later, Saint Francis would write, “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia!”  Jesus is making the same point.
But, inherent in the message of creation’s praise is a warning, a lesson to Jesus’s disciples like you and meIf we keep our voices silent, there will be nothing left to praise Him but the rocks.
It is one of our most sacred duties, that of praise, oproclamation, of worship, of declaration. Many large churches today celebrated Palm Sunday with children in costume, spreading throughout sanctuaries waving palm branches. Choirs have sung and orchestras have played.  Congregations, supported by organs or guitars, trumpets or trap sets, have raised songs of worship. Wesley knew what he was talking about when he wrote “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise.”
What happens if we don’t? The world is not in the worship business. The spirit of the Pharisees lives. Those who seek God may have some honest questions to ask, but they are nowhere near praise; and those who don’t bother with seeking just want to shut us down, to keep us quiet. Even if they are not antagonistic to our worship per se, they have no interest in worship. They want us to stay in our place, to let all so-called religious expressions receive equal time, not to bother anyone. They want us to keep silent. I don’t blame them, for lost people will act like lost people. There is no reason for them to understand our worship. They don’t understand why we do what we do. But we understand.  We know why worship is absolutely necessary.
If we keep our voices silent, there will be nothingleft but the stones.
Before we slip too far into Passion Week… before your focus goes to foot washing and communion and Gethsemane … before your attention is completely captured by surveying that wondrous cross, take a moment, or even a whole afternoon, to wave your own palm branches, to shout your own Hosannas, to match the song of creation that peels forth.
You may not know these original English words of the hymn I quoted earlier, that great hymn we now know as “How Great Thou Art.”  When Professor Gustav Johnson first put his pen to the original German, this beautiful expression of nature’s praise was the result: “When I behold the heavens in their vastness, where golden ships in azure issue forth, where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness of changing seasons and of time on earth, with rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud, o Mighty God! O Mighty God!” My late friend Grant Cunningham, writing for Point of Grace, said it this way: “Like the wind on my back and the sun on my face, you are life, you’re grace, you’re blue skies.”
Let nature … let the very stones … cry out to you.

Jesus has a second word for us today in this statement on this Palm Sunday, and it is one that many missJust as we are torn between the praise of Hosanna and the looming darkness that the week promises, so too is there an ominous portent to Jesus’s words, for He is foreshadowing the coming Friday.   Jesus’s second word is this: There is a cross coming, and His own closest followers cannot and will not stop it. When they keep silent, the stones will cry out. 
We may not know how many of those in the palm-branch-waving cheering section were also in the “crucify Him” crowd, but we do know that those supporters, those followers and disciples who had so far stood by Him, were quiet when the chips were down, when it mattered. Even if they did not join the throngs calling for His blood, they did not stand up and fight for His release.  
They were silent, and Jesus ended up on a cross.
And Matthew tells us, “the earth shook, and the rocks split.” [Matthew 27:52] Chilling, isn’t it?  Do you see it?  If the disciples voices are silent, if no one rises to Jesus’s defense, then crucifixion happens, and the stones cry out.  Not in joy, as the Psalmist and the prophet had written, but instead in anguish and in pain.
And… perhaps … dare I say it … in victory.
The momentousness of the crucifixion must not be undersold. Creation itself shuddered, the stones cried out, when the Son of God died that day. All the sins of every person who ever lived were borne by the only innocent who ever lived, and the world could not bear it in silence. Evil laughed menacingly in apparent conquest, and the earth shook, and graves opened in protest. 
It is something we cannot recreate. Oh, we have our passion plays and our Easter pageants. We can stage the kangaroo court as Jesus is shuttled between Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate. We can dress extras in costume to call for the release of Barabbas, and the emotions build as the cries of “Crucify Him!” echo from the wings. We can make movies where an actor portraying Jesus, whipped and bloody, is nailed to the crossbeams reserved for the basest of criminals.
But when that moment comes, when Jesus dies and the curtain of the temple is rent from top to bottom, when the earth shakes and the rocks cry out, our art fails us. We can only imagine.
Have you ever been in an earthquake? I was once, while I was in San Diego.  It was not severe – just enough to wake me up and knock a few books off their shelves. But if you picture something that exceeds the Richter scale, and then match it with thunder like you have never heard before and darkness like pitch and despair beyond your worst nightmare, then I think you may be nipping around the edges of the crucifixion… of what happened when the palm branches were gone and the disciples were silent and the devil’s marionettes were calling the shots.
There was no silence leading up to the crucifixion. No. It was noisy, obnoxiously so. The chief priests were whipping the mob into a frenzy. The Roman soldiers were telling jokes. Herod’s entourage was keeping the beat going at the Roman entertainment complex where the figurehead king had set up shop. The demons were cackling in hysterical glee. No, nothing was quiet except for any voice raised on behalf of the carpenter.  Peter was busy denying. Judas had committed suicide. And the other disciples, all but John, were cowering in the upper room, and John stooddocilely at a distance with Jesus’s mother. Jesus died between two thieves, and the earth shook. If we keep our voices silent… then will the stones cry out.
What happened on that cross changed human history forever. As I said, I think the rocks cried out in victory as well as in pain, for creation knows its maker, and it trusts His plan. How deep the Father’s love for us.  What wondrous love is this, o my soul!
The cross, cruel in design, stood starkly against the horizon after Jesus’s body was taken down.  I believe that as the silent few headed away, walking back down the Via Dolorosa, surely some of them looked behind them to survey the cross, to see its silhouette against the fading dusk. I wonder if they understood its meaning.
Groom, Texas is a little town in the Texas panhandle on I-40.  It is a dusty place, with wheat fields and gas stations and a few churches.  If you have seen the movie “Leap of Faith,” with Steve Martin and Debra Winger, then you have seen the landscape of Groom, Texas, for the movie was filmed there, with Groom standing in for a western Kansas crossroads.  It is not a place you would expect to find the nation’slargest cross, but there it is. Built in 1995 along the interstate by an earnest businessman and surrounded by representations of the fourteen stations, The Groom Cross, officially named The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, rises up 19 stories above a landscape as flat as a piece of unleavened bread.
I led a mission trip to Groom twenty years or so ago. My close friend Bryan Richardson was pastor there, and while my group was in town, he asked meone evening to drive him to the airport in Amarillo, 42 miles away. It had been a long day, and while I was glad to take him, I was weary as I began the drive back. Not being familiar with the area and somewhat disoriented by my tiredness, after a while I wondered if I had taken a wrong turn or missed an exit. Then, in the distance, I saw it. The Groom Cross.  It was still 20 miles away, but I knew enough to know that there was only one landmark like that on the Texas plains. I knew that it pointed the way to where I was going. 
As I breathed a sigh of relief and knew that I would soon be back in Groom with my friends, I could not help but think of the hymn, “The Way of the Cross Leads Home.” I must needs go home by the way of the cross. There’s no other way but this. I shall ne’er get sight of the Gate of Light if the way of the cross I miss.
We waste so much.  Whether we look for the wrong messiah or try to save ourselves, whether we mimic the loudest closest crowd or demand that Jesus follow our agenda instead of leading us in His, whether we build crosses and drive nails or simply cower in a dark room where we can do no good, we find ourselves farther and farther from where we want to be, sinking down, sinking down, weary and unsure of where we are, aware that we have no idea how to get back.  Sin separates us from God, and like the prodigal son, we choose to leave our father to find and spend our fortune.  Like that same son, we end up in a pigsty, longing for just the table scraps of what was once ours.  We have to find a way home.
That is the cross. What Jesus did there cost Him everything, made the very earth shake in protest, but means the world for you and me. It is sweet to know as I onward go. We have a way home.
The stones cried out in anguish and sadness but also in assurance that God’s plan was in place, that there was forevermore a way home. The Way of the Cross was set.
When we ask if there was one crowd or two that week, if the palm wavers became the vengeance-seekers, that is an interesting historical query but ultimately not so important.  The truly haunting question is where we would have found ourselves.  The gospels describe the crowd at Jesus’s trial as disgruntled, angry, self-righteous, irrational, and bloodthirsty. We can engage in our twenty-first century public and loud worship, complete with palms, organ, and snare drums; but when we find ourselves confronted with the true spiritual nature of the Christ who is not what we expected, whose road leads not to a palace but instead to Calvary, we can be confused.  When self-appointed religious leaders begin to point out how Jesus is not what they think we need, or worse, telling us that they really understand Jesus and we must accept their characterization of what He is really like, we can become disgruntled.  When our chains are not immediately thrown off, we can be angry. When we really never took the time in the first place to understand what our messiah really is, we can, like Peter, deny that we know Him at all. We may not be guilty of having our “Hosanna” turn into “crucify” in four short days, but when the crowd around us is singing a different tune, where is our voice? When the chips are down, are we silent? We call ourselves disciples, but when the mob around us is characterized by catcalls that would rather release thBarabbases of the world than enthrone Jesus, how do we behave? Just because we are in church now, singing hymns and remembering children with palms, what will the Thursday nights of our life find us doing, when we are surrounded by enemies and feeling the winds blowing the way of the popular press and government and public persuasion?  Will we keep our voices silent? Will the stones cry out?
This Palm Sunday, I urge you to ignore, no, to overcome the spirit of the Pharisees that tells you to keep quiet, to be unobtrusive with your worship, not to bother anybody.  Jesus’s hour is here, and He is announcing His divinity and His kingship. Days like this do not come very often, and they call us to proclaim, to wave palm branches, to sing “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Friday is on its way, and there will be time for solitude and quiet and deep disturbance. 
But today, let us not leave it to the rocks. 
Today, let us be thankful for the incredible gift of the One who spared nothing but walked all the way to the top of the hill, carrying His own cross, for you and for me.