Sunday’s sermon: Set in Stones

stones will cry out

Texts used – Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40

  • Friends, it is that dramatic, mystical time of year when anything can happen … when dreams come true … when anticipating hangs in the air as thick as those snowflakes that were coming down on Friday afternoon. I am talking about none other than … March Madness!
    • College basketball championship games – single-elimination tournament that started Thursday with 64 teams and will be whittled down to just 1 champion on Apr. 4
      • 5 weeks = magical → turn even completely unknowledgeable amateurs (like myself) into devout fans
        • Admittedly only time of year when I care at all about any college sports
    • Now, if you’re completely unfamiliar with this yearly ritual, there are two essential things you need to know about March Madness.
      • 1st = brackets: way people attempt to predict outcomes of every game played from Day 1
        • Multiple platforms host brackets (ESPN, etc.)
        • Go in with various groups (mine: Young Clergy Women’s Project)
        • Some include buy-in pools → pay $X to participate and bracket with most successful/correct predictions wins the pot
        • Add a bit of a personal connection, especially if you have no association with any of the colleges in the tournament
      • 2nd = Cinderella stories: those long-shot teams that suddenly, magically find themselves beating teams with better rankings, bigger budgets, stronger players → This is, quite simply, that ancient pull to route for the underdog.
        • Usually one or two upset games like this in the tournament
    • But this year has been an entirely different story. Within the first few days of the tournament, there has been upset after upset after upset. All of these little schools that no one’s ever heard of beating big schools that always find themselves deeper in the tournament than just that first round! It’s been Cinderella story after Cinderella story.
      • After the 2nd day, only 10% of brackets hosted by ESPN were still perfect … And no, my brackets are not part of that 10%. J
      • Cinderella stories like this turn tournament on its head → take conventional expectations and make topsy turvy
  • So today is Palm Sunday – a day when we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the crowds. We wave our palms. We shout our “Hosannas.” We want to focus on the joyful, the redemption, the end of the story – an empty tomb and neatly folded graveclothes and a risen Savior. But between the celebration of today and the elation of Easter Sunday, we must walk through the rest of Jesus’ story this week – the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and arrest, the beating, the crucifixion, the death.
    • What we know that those crowds didn’t know – how topsy turvy Jesus’ story truly would be
      • Triumph … in trial
      • Profit … in pain
      • Deliverance … in death
    • This is not exactly the mighty, conquering, Roman-regime-toppling Messiah that the Jewish crowds wanted Jesus to be. That was their expectation of what the Messiah would come to do – free them physically from those who oppressed them. But in just a few short days, Jesus would turn their entire idea of Messiah completely on its head.
      • Story so odd
      • Story so unpredictable
      • Story so out of the blue
      • Story cannot be told in usual voices of ancient storytellers but instead in the stones
    • Certainly tells a bit of the story: The one who enters in the Lord’s name is blessed; we bless all of you from the Lord’s house. … So lead the festival offering with ropes all the way to the horns of the altar.[1] → sounds like Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, right?
      • This is certainly where some of the crowd’s cries came from: “We bless all of you from the Lord’s house” = crowd’s “Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
    • Begins with joy and with praise: Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever. Let Israel say it: “God’s faithful love lasts forever!”[2]
      • Heb. “faithful” = powerful word → This word encompasses exceptional devotion and loyalty.
        • Sense of binding obligation to the community (family, friends, etc.)
        • Sense of grace … And beyond even that, evidence of that grace – something palpable, something quantifiable and measurable, something that will remain as a concrete reminder of that grace. Our psalm calls Israel to bear witness that this is the kind of love that God has for us – that it is this kind of love that will surely last forever.
    • Key verse: The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone![3] – rest of our reading today builds on that foundation stone
      • Text: This has happened because of the Lord; it is astounding in our sight! This is the day the Lord acted; we will rejoice and celebrate in it!
        • Often read as celebrating in the elevation of the stone – from refuse and rubble to cornerstone
          • Purpose of a cornerstone: first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation – important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone → So this one stone ends up determining the position of the entire
        • That’s something to celebrate, right? In the face of the rejection that he will face this week, we hold onto this prediction that Jesus will be elevated to that position of greatest importance. But what if that’s not it? But what if we’re actually being directed to rejoice and celebrate in the rejection? To be astounded not by the lifting up but the tossing out? “This has happened because of the Lord … This is the day the Lord acted.”
          • Topsy turvy story → takes our typical response to rejection and turns it on its head
    • Ends with same declaration of joy and praise that open the psalm: Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.[4] → even in the face of that topsy turvy rejection … God’s everlasting, faithful love
    • Most of today’s passage = familiar story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem
      • Includes adoring crowds waving palms branches and tossing their coats on the road, an ancient sign of praise and reverence that was used for mighty kings in Israel’s history
      • Includes familiar cries: “Hosanna! Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!” → cries that sound happy and joyful and innocent … but are far from it
        • “Hosanna” = Greek mash-up of 2 Hebrew words, hoshiah and na, which mean “Save now” → words actually come from the psalm we read today, too
          • Ps: Lord, please save us! Lord, please let us succeed![5] → “Lord, please save us!” is exactly that phrase: Yahweh, hoshiah na. So these are not simply cries of adoration but cries for salvation and deliverance. These are cries that betray just how the crowd feels about the Romans … which was a dangerous thing to do.
    • Precipitates the Pharisees’ reply → Now, I know that the Pharisees get a bad rap throughout Scripture, and much of that is well-deserved. But in this case, the Pharisees aren’t trying to be combative or obstinate or obstructionist. They’re trying to keep the peace. They’re trying to keep the crowds safe.
      • Roman soldiers certainly nearby hearing these cries of “Save us!” and “Here comes the king!” (not directed at the Roman emperor, who was the only politically acceptable recipient of such a phrase) → dangerous and subversive cries
        • Could have gotten them all in trouble
        • Could have started a riot
        • Could have ended in retaliatory actions – harsher restrictions on the Jews to “keep them in line”
        • So the Pharisees’ response – “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” – is one that comes not from a place of opposition or antagonism but a place of fear.
    • Jesus’ quirky, topsy turvy response: “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”[6]
      • One of the coolest verses in the Bible because of the Greek behind it → One tiny, little, seemingly-insignificant word in this phrase can make all the difference. It’s a word that can be translated as both “if” and “when,” and if you alter the translation with that subtle nuance, it makes quite a difference: “I tell you, when they are silent, the stones will shout.”
        • Jesus foreshadowing what is to come – the abandonment, the crowds turning on him, the same voices soon shifting from cries of “Save us!” to cries of “Crucify him!”
      • And yet, even in the face of that rejection, the stones will tell the story. The stones will shout “Hosanna!” The stones will testify to God’s salvation. “I tell you, when they are silent, the stones will shout.”
    • Even more interesting twist – what stones were often used for in those times = instruments of death in judgment
      • Carried out by numerous cultures throughout history
      • Still practiced in some parts of Middle East, Africa, and Asia today
      • Know it was practiced in Jesus’ time – scene from gospel of John: The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” … He stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.”[7]
      • And yet, it is these instruments of death that will declare the name of the one who brings everlasting life! Again, the conventional expectation is turned on its head.
  • One final stone that we cannot neglect to mention as we look to the week ahead: stone that will be rolled in front of Jesus’ tomb
    • Another stone that is supposed to signify the permanence and unbreakable bonds of death
      • Stone that was meant more to keep others out than to keep the dead in – Pharisees’ request of Pilate from Matthew: “Order the grave to be sealed until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people, ‘He’s been raised from the dead.’ This last deception will be worse than the first.” Pilate replied, “You have soldiers for guard duty. Go and make it as secure as you know how.” Then they went and secured the tomb by sealing the stone and posting the guard.[8]
      • Power of this stone = demonstrated during our Good Friday service with the strepitus, loud noise at the end of the service to signify the sealing of the tomb
    • And yet even this immense stone will not have the final say. Jesus takes the darkness of death – the death in the stones, his own impending death, and even the death that awaits us all – and shatters it.
      • Words of our psalm this morning: He has shined a light on us! … Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.[9]
  • And so with the crowds, we shout, “Hosanna! Save us!” And we prepare to walk through Holy Week with Jesus, knowing that even when all are silent – the disciples, the crowds, even ourselves – when all are silent, the world will still hear the stones cry out: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.

[1] Ps 118:26, 27b.

[2] Ps 118:1-2.

[3] Ps 118:22.

[4] Ps 118:1 and 29.

[5] Ps 118:25.

[6] Lk 19:40.

[7] Jn 8:3-5, 7.

[8] Mt 27:64-66.

[9] Ps 118:27a, 29.

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