Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I wonder who might have been in that crowd welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem. We’ve just heard from the kids that it included people who wanted Jesus to become a general and to fight the Romans. And the throwing down of cloaks in the streets as he rode by is the kind of thing people would do for royalty; some of them wanted Jesus to become their king. That kind of a Messiah – a powerful political/military leader – would be for many a hopeful sign that a colonized people were going to get their lives back from those who’d oppressed them. They were right at least about the Messiah part. Jesus was God’s anointed one. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” But entering the scene on a donkey signaled this was not the Messiah they’d expected.
What struck me most about that donkey ride this time through the story, though, was that it would have put Jesus closer to eye level with the people in the streets. Not overlooking the crowd from atop a majestic steed. Not separated from them by a giant chariot so no one could lay a hand on him. But instead, able to look individuals directly in the eyes, and close enough to touch.
For when we read that “the whole multitude of disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen,” (Luke 19:37) we’d do well to remember what those “deeds of power” had actually been. Back in chapter 4, the devil had tempted Jesus in multiple ways to abuse his advantage. But Jesus rejected those offers, making clear he wasn’t interested in selfish gain or misplaced allegiance or showy displays. Instead, he used his power to feed hungry bellies and heal broken bodies and relieve tortured spirits. He used it embrace those who’d been shunned, from tax collectors to lepers to Samaritans. He used it to treat with respect and dignity those who’d been exploited: women, for instance, and those who were poor. He used it to raise a widow’s son from the dead.
Does it change our understanding of the story at all to picture some of the individuals we’ve met in prior chapters of Luke’s gospel lining the streets that day as Jesus rode into Jerusalem? We don’t know exactly what geography and other logistics would have allowed, of course. But I found myself this time looking for familiar faces here and there in the crowd. Zacchaeus perhaps, a formerly greedy tax collector now actively looking for ways to be generous, or the woman whose flow of blood Jesus had healed, restoring her both to health and to her community. The 12-year-old girl Jesus had raised from her death bed or the Gerasene man he’d released from his demons. His dear friends Mary and Martha, or the man he’d cured of leprosy. Can you picture any of them trying to catch his eye, or reaching out to grasp his hand?
Each time we approach a biblical story, particularly one we read as often as once a year, we also bring with us the unique dynamics of the season in which we read it. So perhaps I can be forgiven for being unable to read a story about crowds gathering in the streets here in Luke without thinking about crowds gathering in streets across our own country this whole past year. There’s no indication of property damage or violence here in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, so admittedly we don’t have to deal with those kinds of complications in the text as we have here in Seattle. And while we hear them quoting this verse from Psalm 118 (“blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”) we don’t have any person on the street interviews, and we can’t call up Google images of placards or banners to help us confirm what was on the minds of everyone gathered that day. What sort of Messiah did they think this was? Why were they joyfully welcoming this unusual man on the donkey? We can only imagine. But perhaps it’s worth trying to imagine why they were there. What their life circumstances were. What they most longed for as they called out to Jesus.
It's also worth noting the only specific group that is identified in the text (apart from the “whole multitude of disciples” Luke 19:37) In verse 39 we read “some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’” Too often as Christians we make the mistake of seeing Pharisees in the gospels as one-dimensional villains when, in fact, they were deeply respected religious men, pillars of their community and leaders in their congregations. Once we remember this, maybe we can sympathize with them a bit more easily. We might even find ourselves understanding their concern here. “Tell them to be quiet, Jesus. These crowds marching in the streets. Shouting slogans? Singing songs? It’s dangerous. Think about what could go wrong…”
But how does Jesus reply? “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:40) I’ve preached on this text before and how it reminds me of Psalm 148 where all of creation sings praise to God. Maybe we can take liberties and see a little of that psalm-like poetic imagery here in the shouting rocks. I’ve also heard any number of preachers talk about Jesus being the Messiah and worthy of acclamation whether or not the people shouted that day. If they hadn’t, God could have put even the gravel to work to get the job done. True enough.
But I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never paid enough attention to the fact that Jesus is actually quoting the OT prophet Habakkuk here. In fact, this line comes from a message of severe judgment against the Babylonians for the injustices they’ve committed against the people of Israel. They’re condemned for their pride, their arrogance, their bloodshed and plunder. Habakkuk says “the very stones will cry out from the wall” against those who’ve oppressed others financially, politically, and in acts of great violence (Habakkuk 2:11). And it’s this surprisingly loaded line Jesus quotes here in Luke 19 when asked to quiet down the crowd. He may not have been the kind of political leader some of those gathered wanted him to be, but it now seems clear to me he was making a statement about injustice at the hands of oppressors, and the need for some noise to push back against that injustice. “I tell you, if these [people in the streets] were silent, the stones [themselves] would shout out.” (Luke 19:40)
I’ve mentioned to you before that I’ve been quite convicted by a wake-up call from the Rev. Tali Hairston about our life together as church insiders. When he preached for us late last year he reminded us that most of Jesus’ ministry actually took place outside the temple. That’s where he preached and taught. That’s where he healed wounded bodies and spirits. That’s where Jesus invited people to a new vision of the kingdom of God. Not inside the temple, but outside in the community.
What if that’s still true? What if, while we’re all busily at work trying to keep the church going for Jesus, Jesus is doing his thing outside the church, wondering why we haven’t followed him there? What if staying safe and comfy as a community of privileged insiders is actually preventing us from seeing what Jesus is up to in the world? At the very least, if we find ourselves wishing for fewer people marching, shouting, and for that matter living in the streets, let’s think carefully about where Jesus might be if he were here among us now.
Again, we don’t know exactly what was on the minds of those gathering in Jerusalem that day. We don’t know how many would have followed Jesus into a violent uprising against the Romans if he’d led them in that direction, and how many were just desperate for food for their families and hoped a new king would be a game changer. We don’t know how many longed for healing from Jesus and how many hoped Jesus would raise their loved ones from the dead. We don’t know how many felt erased or invisible and simply wanted to be seen by those compassionate eyes.
We also don’t know exactly what Jesus himself had in mind when he had his disciples borrow that donkey for his ride into town. What did he think would happen? What did he want to happen? Have we been doing Jesus a disservice in any way by focusing so much on the humility of his ride that we’ve missed the power of his loaded words here in Luke 19, words evoking prophetic outcries against injustice? As is the case with so many biblical texts, there are plenty of gaps in the 12 verses Jeff read for us today. We can only imagine how to fill those gaps. But perhaps it’s worth trying to imagine.
Particularly if we ever look with concern at the streets of our city, or are overwhelmed by the noise of protests against injustice, and find ourselves saying, with the Pharisees: “Can’t you just make them be quiet and go away, Jesus?”
Ah, but if these were quiet, the very stones would shout out.