Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Palm Sunday, a Lenten sermon from Luke
Preached March 28, 2021 for the 9:30am Worship
We are almost there. Way back at the beginning of Advent, we started with Luke 1. Now, we are entering Jerusalem with Jesus, entering Holy Week. We started Luke’s Palm Sunday reading from Luke 19 a bit earlier. Now let’s hear more of Luke’s version of the story.
Scripture Luke 19:36-48
36 As Jesus rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road 37 as 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, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the KING
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, “It is written,
‘My house shall be a house of prayer’;
but you have made it a den of robbers.”
47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.
Sermon Stone Sunday
Where are the palms? We call this Palm Sunday. We were given palms as we entered. We processed and placed our palms around the communion table. There are palms for decoration. But in Luke’s gospel, where are the palms?
In some of the tellings of this story, there is a crowd ready to greet Jesus. They shout Hosanna! They pull branches from trees and wave them like flags. The other gospels seem to imagine Jesus’ arriving at Jerusalem as an expected parade, the entry of a leader who won a great victory and is coming home to the grateful people to gear up for the next battle.
Luke doesn’t have a crowd singing Hosannas. Only the disciples are singing songs of praise. Luke doesn’t have a crowd waving palm branches. Palms were a national symbol to the people of Israel. To wave them said we recognize our country’s true leader. But to name a national leader placed a burden on their back, the expectation to win wars on our behalf, to protect us from our enemies, and to make everything easier and more profitable inside the walls. No, Luke doesn’t have organized expectant people waving Palms in some Jesus parade.
Instead, Luke has some people approach and lay their cloaks before Jesus. This was a different symbol. It was a sign of submission and obedience. The ones waving palms have expectations of their leader. Protect us. Save us. Win. The ones laying a cloak before Jesus are accepting Jesus’ expectations of them. Cloak-layers aren’t looking for Jesus to win on their behalf, but asking Jesus how we could deliver something for you and your Kingdom. “Ask not what your God can do for you… Ask what you can do for your God.”
In some of the other tellings, Palm Sunday sets up the inevitable disappointment the people will have when they learn Jesus is not bringing rebellion and war. He’s not a General but the Messiah. They shout Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna is a plea for this Jesus to save them, to free them from Rome. “The one who comes in the name of the Lord” is like saying, “Yay, the King’s General has arrived, and his army will free us!” When Jesus doesn’t meet those expectations, doesn’t assemble an army, launch an armed rebellion, invade the government buildings, conquer and expel Rome… when Jesus doesn’t deliver on their expectations, they choose to free the rebel Barrabas instead. At least he fights back. The palm waving crowd quickly turns on Jesus, and just a few days after waving those palms end up shouting “Crucify Him.”
In Luke’s version, there’s no cry of Hosanna, save us. He isn’t “the one who comes,” but “the King.” He isn’t here for war, but for peace. The disciples’ song is of peace. If only the city had recognized the things that make for peace. This isn’t some King’s general. This is the King, the heir, the prince of peace.
The religious folk get quite uncomfortable at this point and tell Jesus to “make them stop.” I wonder why they were so uncomfortable. Perhaps they were jealous of all the attention Jesus was getting, instead of them, and they felt like Jesus was taking their audience and their influence. Perhaps they were afraid for the people. They feared Rome might land on them all with this display around Jesus. Perhaps they were afraid for Jesus. He had just arrived and they didn’t want anything to happen to him, yet. Or perhaps, like any other leadership by committee, there was some of all that in them.
Whatever their motivation, they tell Jesus to “make them stop.” Jesus replies oddly. “Even if they were silent, the stones would cry out.” Yes, if we let Luke lead us into this special Sunday before Easter, we should probably not call it Palm Sunday. Perhaps, we should call it Stone Sunday.
If the people did not lay their cloaks, and if the disciples did not sing their songs, then the stones themselves would bow and sing. Jesus weeps over the city for not recognizing what makes for peace, and because of their inability to embrace and embody the words and actions of peace, not one stone in their city will be left of another. All their walls and buildings, including the temple, will be torn down. We stopped at the end of Luke 19, but had we turned the page to Luke 20, we would hear Jesus tell the religious leaders, “‘The very stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone and everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.” He was being rejected by them. They could have been the builders. But rejection of Jesus and the paths of peace would cost them everything. Yet on him, the new kingdom would take shape anyway, and no one committed to maintaining the old ways would enter the new intact.
Jesus enters the stone temple and flips over the tables of those selling things, calling it a den of thieves. In some of the other tellings of the story, it feels like he is condemning the temple, shaming it, obsoleting it, and claiming himself as the new temple. But in this one, he is cleansing it for his own use. He stays and teaches there and the people are spellbound. Its only those committed to the old ways that decide, “He’s changing everything, and has to be stopped.”
Let’s imagine for a moment Jesus was arriving here, now. He would have been doing some amazing things already, and the word on Facebook and Twitter would be split about him. Posts and comments would suggest perhaps, he’s a real miracle worker. Or, perhaps, he’s a self-promoting fraud.
Let’s imagine for a moment he was on his way to DC, and he happened to be coming through Chestertown, for whatever reason. What would we do? The Palm Branch back them was a patriotic national symbol. Would we wave Old Glory, the American flag? Would we call worship’s flower team and ask them to make some cool arrangements for the occasion?
We would know he is headed to DC, so would we put expectations on him, to assemble a gathering of people big enough, with enough voice and power to make good change finally happen? What would we do if he went and didn’t fight but cried, if he didn’t go to the Capitol or the White House but the churches and synagogues and mosques and cleaned them of their idols and began teaching. What would the pastors and rabbis and imams do with Jesus right there teaching the way toward peace? Would we listen and see and believe enough to start doing it, or would we begin plotting ways to shut him up so things could get back to how they used to be? Surely the cops would come, grab him, and lock him away. When they do, would we video it from a distance, then go on with our lives? That might happen on a modern Palm Sunday.
But let’s imagine Jesus passes through Chestertown on his way to DC on a Stone Sunday. On a Stone Sunday, we don’t gather around him waving flags, hoping he builds a protest army. Instead, we show up with walking shoes and work gloves. We submit ourselves to the path he is teaching and walking. We listen and learn from him, but more importantly, we follow him. We talk like he does, and act like he does. When he doesn’t go to the Capitol or White House first but to churches, synagogues, and mosques, we aren’t surprised but ask, “What do you need us to do?” and when he answers, we do it, not matter how hard, scary, of different it sounds. When he pauses us from working to teach us something else, we gather around again and listen, and let his odd stepping stones toward peace become more true in us than any other opinion or assumption, any logic or feeling we have inside. Inch by inch, all things are not torn down, but renovated to look more and more like God’s beloved promised community. And Jesus doesn’t have to weep over it, but gets to smile. That would be a great Stone Sunday.
I love the way this sanctuary is built from stones. It reminds us, should we, Jesus’ disciples, ever get too afraid to learn from him, sing about him, follow him, speak and act on his behalf, change and grow and sacrifice for him, then the stones of this church might just rise up and show us how.
To God be all glory and honor, now and forever. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown