In J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Lord of the Rings, as a huge battle is about to begin at Helm’s Deep, Theoden looks at the battlefield and the approaching army and utters the classic line, “And so it begins…” I couldn’t get that line and that image out of my head as I focused on the events of Palm Sunday which begin our remembrance of Holy Week. I envision Jesus climbing up on that donkey on top of the Mount of Olives and looking across the Kidron Valley at the magnificent city of Jerusalem with the new Temple built by Herod standing front and center and thinking to himself, “And so it begins…” His life and ministry have led to this pivotal point. He has warned his disciples what would happen in this city – he understands it clearly even if they do not.
The ministry of Jesus up to this point is dominated by action words: teaching, preaching, healing, feeding, touching, walking, and so forth. Holy Week has plenty of action, but it seems to me that emotion now takes center stage. I think of emotion words that run the gamut from joy, excitement, hope, sorrow, anger, resentment, guilt, love, grief, despair, relief, and so forth.
I wonder what all the emotions were that coursed through Jesus as he sat on the donkey looking across at the Holy City. There had to be excitement, I think. The road was packed with pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover festival – envision Christmas Eve in Vatican City awaiting the Pope’s Christmas message, or Muslim pilgrims arriving in Mecca for Ramadan, or Americans clogging I-95 this week on the way to Disneyworld. This is the only time Luke tells us that Jesus visited Jerusalem, so he would have been astonished as he looked at it and reflected on its history. Psalms of ascent would be sung by the pilgrims as they approached the city, which would be a real spiritual high point.
A sense of clarity would have been present, I think. When we get to critical points in our lives, a rush of adrenaline seems to help us focus and meet the challenge with vigor. Ask any choir director if there is a difference between the rehearsal right before worship and the service itself if you want proof. For a long time Jesus had nibbled around the edges with his being the Messiah, often telling people not to tell others or saying his time had not yet come. But now the time has arrived, and he mounts the donkey as an enacted parable to show openly that he is the fulfillment of Old Testament messianic prophecies. There’s no turning back now, you have to be fully committed.
Perhaps there was a sense of dread, though, knowing the hardships that lay ahead. The Jesus who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking if it was possible that the cup of suffering be removed, that there be some other way to accomplish what must be done, was not immune to such human emotions. He was, after all, fully human as well as fully God. The conflict, the rejection, the condemnation, the thorns, the nails – those were real experiences for Jesus, not sham illusions where it just looked as though he was suffering and dying.
The disciples and company of followers of Jesus played their parts in the enacted parable, laying down their cloaks before Jesus to extend the red carpet treatment, and praising God joyfully in loud voices, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” This is not the crowd in general, and it is certainly not the residents of Jerusalem. Luke is clear to point out that it is his disciples, who have seen all his deeds of power, who make these claims. I can imagine a lot of people around wondering what in the world this was all about.
Among the crowd with Jesus were Pharisees, as there always seemed to be. In Luke it is pretty clear that all the Pharisees don’t hold the same opinions about Jesus. That is again true here, as some of the Pharisees in the crowd say to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” As Fred Craddock says, we don’t know what tone of voice they said that in. It’s not clear whether they were appalled at the Messianic claim and thought it was blasphemous, or whether they were concerned for his safety, or whether they just didn’t want anything done that would rile the Roman guards as the Passover celebration started. You may remember that some of the Pharisees warned him earlier that Herod was after him.
But whether stern or friendly, the instruction from the Pharisees to tell his disciples to be quiet sets the stage for one of Jesus’ most memorable sayings. He says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” This is not a little feel good moment for a backwater Messiah and his friends. This is the beginning of a God thing, an earthshaking event, a world changing moment in time. In the next section Jesus will use the word “kairos,” which means God’s time as opposed to “chronos,” which simply means chronological time. And so it begins…”
As they continue the journey across to Jerusalem, Jesus again looks out over it and weeps. He laments its sad history of turning away from God time and again, of rejecting the prophets sent to it, of having so much promise and never living up to it. He foresees a day when it will be destroyed because it did not recognize the time, “the kairos,” of its visitation from God. It could not see or accept that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. This may have been just the beginning, but Jesus knew how this story was going to end.
So Luke tells of Jesus and his disciples enacting a parable as they enter Jerusalem, not a great acclamation by the general crowds in Jerusalem. The symbols are carefully chosen. The colt to be used has never been ridden because in Judaism it was important for sacred occasions to use animals which had not already served some purpose. The donkey calls to mind Zechariah’s prophecy, “Behold, your king comes to you, humble and mounted on the colt of a donkey.” A warrior king would have ridden a horse, of course, of course. A king who came in peace rode a donkey. The garments are spread on the road in respect and honor. The shouts of the disciples quote Psalm 118 about the entry of the king. The meaning is clear to the Pharisees who are looking on, and at least some of them are offended, whether that was the ones who spoke or the ones who remained silent. The ones who spoke told him to order his followers to be quiet. Jesus’ refusal to do so sets the stage for this enacted “Triumphal Entry” to be a prelude to a week of conflict which ends in a very different type of victory.
“If these people were silent, the very stones would cry out.” In a few days the voices would indeed be silenced, and the stones would indeed begin to cry out. Indeed, all of nature cried out. When Jesus was crucified, the sun stopped shining for three hours and the world was in darkness. There was an earthquake, and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. The stones of the earth cried out and groaned in witness to the Son of God.
Then two days later there was a stone, a very large one, that had a special job. It was to keep the dead body of Jesus confined in the tomb, and to keep the followers of Jesus out who might steal his body and claim that he was alive. But the stone had a higher calling and a higher purpose, which was to stand aside and welcome the resurrected Son of God back to life. Even if voices are silenced, the stones will cry out.
Fred Craddock writes, “In other words, some things simply must be said; the disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true; God will provide a witness though every mouth be stopped; opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed; and the truth will come out, it cannot long be silenced. That stones would shout is, of course, a figure of speech, but the expression does remind us that in biblical understanding, the creation is involved in events that we tend to think affect humans alone. Genesis says that the sin of Adam and Eve caused the earth to produce thorns and thistles; Isaiah sings of a reign of peace on earth when cows and bears will graze together and the lion and the lamb will lie down side by side; Matthew says a special star appeared to announce Jesus’ birth, and that the earth shuddered, cracking rocks, when he died; and all the Synoptists agree that when Jesus was put on the cross, for three hours there was an eclipse of the sun. All this dramatic language reminds us of that which we sometimes forget: all life is from God, the whole universe shares together bane and blessing, life and death, and in the final reign of God ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:21) Of course, if we are silent, the stones will cry out.” (Interpretation, Luke, pp. 227-228)
And so it begins… And it will continue with Jesus turning over the tables of those selling things in the Temple and calling for it to be returned to a house of prayer; with direct and fiery confrontations between Jesus and scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees; with many people being drawn to Jesus and the religious authorities becoming more and more determined that he has to go; with Judas making the fateful decision to sell out and betray his leader; and with the Romans growing edgier by the day at the constant chaos and infighting a Passover celebration brought with it. I encourage you to follow the story in your daily Bible readings, then come to First Presbyterian Thursday night for our combined Maundy Thursday communion service and here Friday night for the Good Friday service of progressive darkness. By remembering and entering into the fullness of the story of Jesus during Holy Week we will be fully prepared to experience the incredible good news that Easter morning brings.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey April 9, 2017
Central Presbyterian, Anderson