Isaiah 55:12-13 and Luke 19:29-39
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (NRSV)
29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’”
32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”
34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As 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, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (NRSV)
The gospel according to Luke includes several elements unique to Luke’s own telling of the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. For instance, it’s both interesting and significant that Luke makes no mention of palm or any other “leafy” branches. So, as Jesus rides toward the gates of Jerusalem, on a conscripted colt which isn’t even green-broke, people spread their cloaks along the road in front of him. Only their cloaks. That difference may seem small, but the theological implications are intentional and profound.
In ancient Rome it was tradition on days of national celebration to wave leafy green branches and to cry out, “Hosanna!”—which means, “Lord, save us!” And for Romans, Caesar was Lord. That practice finds its contemporary counterpart in a crowd of US citizens at a Fourth of July parade waving flags and crying, “God bless America!” And very recent memory reminds us of how dangerous the ideological cocktail of religion and nationalism can be.It’s particularly significant, then, that the word Hosanna is also conspicuously absent in Luke.
Luke presents Palm Sunday as an entirely theological moment happening in the midst of a particular political, social, and economic context. Steering us away from nationalistic language and images, the storyteller helps us to imagine Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem as a revelatory moment. In Luke 19, Jesus identifies personally and intimately with creatures and the Creation.
When Jesus enters the City of David, he does so in the midst of God’s time and space, not Rome’s. Not even Israel’s. The events to follow on the heels of this deep and holy moment will humble all human kingdoms. It will expose them as dull, distorted, and temporary. During Holy Week we learn that no earthly nation can claim Jesus, because God, in Christ, once again lays claim to the entire Creation.
While the absence of palm branches and shouts of Hosanna is important, of all the marks that Luke puts on this story, the one that may proclaim the gospel in the most subtle and earthy way lies in the final two verses.
When the Pharisees say to Jesus: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop,” making noise and praising God, Jesus turns to them and says, Look, if the people don’t sing praises, then the stones will do it for them.
Come what may, says Jesus, God will provide a witness to Jesus. If it doesn’t come from the human beings who know him, then it will come from the Creation itself. The rocks, he says, will “shout out.” Or as Isaiah says: The mountains and hills will burst into song; and the trees will clap their hands.
Paul hints at similar wonders when he says, “The whole creation groans in labor pains” as the new creation wells up and springs forth.
To us and to all this glorious earth, God is revealing the kingdom. And through the redeeming work of Jesus, we are being readied to recognize and to inhabit that kingdom.
Have you ever heard the creation praising God? I believe that all of you are creative enough to imagine trees clapping their hands when breezes blow and cause the branches to clack one against another. And I, for one, choose to think that I’ve heard stones cry out.
There’s a beautiful little waterfall up near Little Switzerland, NC called Grassy Creek Falls. The falls are not as spectacular as some, but there’s no less splendor in their simplicity. Our family frequents that waterfall, and the experience is almost always the same for me. After hiking the mile in, I clamber down the steep bank to the base of the falls. Sitting near the cascade, the cool, feathery spray strokes my face and arms. I close my eyes, and listen to the slap of water on rock.
Do you know that sound? When the just right volume of water hits rock with just right force, it really does sound like human hands applauding something wonderful. Yes, this is entirely subjective, but at that little out-of-the-way waterfall, the rocks and the water together are clapping their hands, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re doing so in celebration of God’s incredibly good work—the good work of water and rock, of beautiful mountains, a rich and lively forest, life-giving relationships, and blessed solitude.
Even when I’m like Martha, too busy and too distracted to acknowledge the holiness of the wonder of the Creation, the rocks never are. Right now, even as I speak, they continue to slap out their praise, and to invite all with ears to hear to join their celebration.
Now, I know that our world is not all waterfalls and sunlight. The twin pandemics of racism and Covid continue to sicken, kill, and rearrange human lives. Never-ending wars continue their plodding death marches. Two mass shootings in the last two weeks claimed 18 lives. Over the last few days, violent storms damaged or destroyed people, homes, and peace of mind. And don’t most of us carry around other anxieties, as well? Things that keep us from celebrating the full joy available to us?
If today is such a day for you or for someone you love, if you struggle to experience the joy of the Christ riding unpretentiously into your life, take heart. Just as the Holy Spirit prays for us when we do not know how to pray ourselves, the rocks cry out praise for us. When our hands are still, the trees are not. When our feet are heavy, the mountains skip in joyful celebration for us. Shut your eyes and hear the creation shout, Blessed is the one who comes in God’s name! And O, dear God, let there be peace on earth!
Even if Luke’s gospel raises questions about whether or not the people waved palm branches as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, there are still palms to be waved and clapped—the palms of our own hands. Let your palms applaud along with the rocks and the trees, with everything wild and free, because from this celebration no one—and no thing—will be excluded.
Let’s also remember, by Friday the celebration we enjoy today will melt into darkness and tears. This happens because, to be honest, we don’t fully understand and appreciate the grace of God or the one who reveals it. For some reason, grace often causes human beings to doubt and resist. And those things fester into betrayal and denial.
We will begin to understand all this a little better next Sunday, but for now, on Palm Sunday, let’s join in the chorus of all creation, singing and clapping our gratitude and our hopeful praises to God.
And let us open the gates of our hearts to welcome the One whose own palms tell us a story of love our minds have barely begun to comprehend.