A reflection preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on Palm Sunday [04/10/0222: Luke 19:28-40]
For the first time, I noticed it. Something in the reading of the gospel for the Liturgy of the Palms jumped out at me. Whereas before it was just a metaphorical detail, this time it truly grabbed my attention. It was the line Jesus spoke, when the parade crowds were greeting him with a messianic fervor: the line Jesus used to respond to the puritanical Pharisees, when they demanded that he stop his supporters from their outrageous proclamations. Jesus, his face beaming I would think, responded: I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out!” [Luke 19:40]
This year, for some reason, something about this line jumped out at me. I felt it. I was drawn to it. These words, spoken as retort, reverberated in my gut; and I knew a truth was present. Yet, I couldn’t put my finger on what Jesus was actually saying. What I have come to understand – in part -- is that the picture these words create provides an insight into the climactic meaning of the coming week in Jesus’ life.
If [the crowd] kept quiet, the stones would [do the shouting] for them, shouting praise. [The Message: Luke 19:40]
Of all that might be said about “the stones”, I have two brief observations to offer that I think begin to unlock this proclamation’s meaning in the form of two pictures.
The first picture stems from the biblical witness itself, where the impact of creation marks the universe with God’s imprint. Like a great painting or symphony or the unabashed giggle of a child’s delight, all of creation points to the Creator’s work. Even the most common and ordinary aspects of creation contain God’s mark upon them. Hidden within their molecular structure lies a grain of sorts, a pattern, a configuration that constitutes their distinct identity and place.
One can easily imagine Jesus riding on the colt, up the last inclines of the road into Jerusalem, hearing the praise of the crowd and the criticisms of the Pharisees, and pointing to the ground and to the piles of ordinary stone and disposed rock along the dusty road. If the people’s praise were to cease, the Lord says, these broken remnants of mountains would shout in their place: such is the pregnancy of this God moment.
The Bible is full of such references, where creation itself gives voice to the creative presence and will of God. For instance, Psalm 148 positively sings with joy over God’s creative work:
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise him in the heights.
Praise him, all you angels of his;
praise him, all his hosts.
Praise [God], sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars…
…Let them praise the Name of the Lord;
for he commanded, and they were created.
The prophet Isaiah has heard this sound and seen this vision (55:12):
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees shall clap their hands.
As the One through whom all things were made, even the stones strewn along the roadside recognize what God is doing in Jesus; and in their presence they too say: “Ride on!”
But there is another aspect to this declaration about the stones rising up to praise the Holy One in our midst; and at this point in the Holy Week narrative, the irony of this second picture is something at this point only the stones can know.
As Jesus enters Jerusalem by the east gate and as the crowds shout for joy at his appearing, looking back, over his shoulder (as it were) is the Mt. of Olives. As the Pharisees demand that he settle his supporters down and Jesus speaks about the stones erupting in praise, the this scene’s visual reflects a telling reference.
It is as if Jesus, astride the colt, heading toward the city’s gate, responds to the Pharisees’ attempt to control the parade by pointing over his shoulder, back to the place from which he had just come. I am told that among its other significances, the Mt. of Olives contained a large cemetery. Was Jesus referring to those tombstones that lay across the valley as the “stones”-- stones that would be erupting in liberated joy at his resurrection’s victory over the grave? Were the cemetery gravestones (which were visible over his shoulder) the “stones” that Jesus knew would be shouting over him when he rose?
Blessed is the king
who comes in the Name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest.
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark all the tribes hosannas cry;
thy humble beast pursues his road
with palms and scattered garments strowed.
Let the stones cry out. Something is about to happen. Thanks be to God. Amen.