Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sermon: “Sensing the Sacred: The Sound of Victory”, Luke 19:29-40 (April 5, 2020--Palm Sunday)

(This is the seventh sermon in our Lenten series, "Sensing the Sacred". 
The others can be found here, here, here, herehere, and here.)


Today is Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter, when we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This is one of the few stories from Jesus’ life that can be found in all four gospels (even the Christmas story is only found in Matthew and Luke). From a scriptural perspective, this is one of the best-documented events in the New Testament. Because of this, we might be tempted to think that we have a good handle on what actually happened that day long ago on the Mount of Olives. But just because we retell the story year after year with the same basic elements every time doesn’t mean that the accounts themselves are consistent. On the contrary, there are a LOT of discrepancies between the four gospels. Here are just a few questions that arise when comparing them:

Were the disciples charged with procuring a donkey, or a colt—or both?

Did Jesus promise to return it right away, or not?

Was this to fulfill a prophecy, or was Jesus acting for some unspecified reason?

Were the disciples confronted when they went to fetch the beast, or was the trip uneventful?

Did the people spread out their coats before Jesus, or branches, or some of each?

Are we sure the branches were even really palms?

Were the Pharisees there?

If they were, were they talking amongst themselves, or confronting Jesus?

It’s easy to miss all these details if your memory of the story is based on Sunday school retellings or Hollywood movies, but if you look closely, each of the gospels has a different version of the events leading up to Holy Week.

However, regardless of how the donkey heist goes down, or whether or not the pharisees were holding a counter-protest, there’s one detail that remains consistent in each of the gospel accounts: in all four versions of the story, Jesus is greeted on his journey by a throng of people loudly shouting and praising him. The sound of the crowd is the single most constant aspect of this narrative.

Can you imagine what that would have been like? Say you were a bystander in the crowd, encountering Jesus in person for the first time. What would you have thought about the commotion surrounding you, all for this seemingly ordinary man riding on a humble donkey (…or maybe a colt, depending on who you ask)? These words, surrounding you, filling your ears until they ring: “Hosanna!” “Save us!” “Blessings on the king!” “The one who comes in the name of the Lord!” No matter what you thought about this Jesus guy yourself, the sound of the crowd would certainly make you stop and think about his message and what he stood for. Surely, a man with this vocal a following, overflowing with praise for him, must onto something!

That’s exactly what the pharisees were worried about. I chose to read the Lukan version of events today because that’s the only gospel in which the pharisees become vocal themselves: “Scold your disciples, Jesus; tell them to stop!” They weren’t concerned about noise pollution or disrupting the flow of traffic or anything like that. They were afraid that the sound of Jesus’ followers would publicly elevate him to a point where he could no longer be ignored as just another annoying religious crackpot. It would draw more and more people to him until the pharisees could no longer control the situation. They knew the power that exists in the sound of many voices raised together, and they were terrified.

Have YOU ever tried to get a whole crowd of people to quiet down? It’s next to impossible. This is especially true if extraordinary news has just been announced. The sound from the crowd bubbles up like boiling water, gaining energy from its own excitement. No matter what you do to try and regain control, any protestations are drowned out by crowd’s enthusiasm. The sound can’t be contained. Even as individuals in the crowd begin to settle down, the noise continues in murmurs and whispers that refuse to be silenced. Imagine a school assembly where the principal just announced a school-wide pizza party. Or you all passing the peace in the sanctuary. The sound simply takes on a life of its own.

Although he was never a school principal or a pastor determined to move on in worship, Jesus understood this, too. At the end of Luke’s account, he confirms the pharisees’ worst fears: “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout!” No matter how hard they might try, the pharisees can’t silence the sound of God’s justice, God’s salvation, God’s victory. They may be able to silence one person, or one crowd; they may even be able to silence the messenger, but it won’t stop the holy noise. It CAN’T. The sound of God’s victory is invincible.

Now, this doesn’t mean, of course, that the noise will always be a deafening roar from a united mob. As we know and will remember in the coming days, the crowd all but abandoned Jesus, turning against him and his message. At one point, the only things that could be heard were the sounds of nails being hammered to a cross and the cries of a dying man. And yet, the sound of God’s victory persisted. It persisted in Jesus’ quiet defiance of every attempt to anger him. It persisted in the women who followed him all the way to the cross, weeping. It persisted in Joseph of Arimathea asking for permission to bury Jesus’ body. It even persisted in Peter, denying Jesus initially, but never giving up on his rabbi and friend. The sound became hushed, but it never died—even when Jesus did.

God’s victory can sound like many things. It can sound like a crowd triumphantly welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem. It can sound like twelve friends gathering for a meal with their teacher. It can sound like a man fervently praying for death to pass him by…but ultimately praying that God’s will be done. It can sound like nails being hammered into a cross. But no matter what it sounds like, you can always hear it as long as you’re listening. And as long as we hear it, it’s our responsibility to pass it on.

This doesn’t mean that we need to shout until we’re hoarse, but it does mean that we must refuse to be silenced. In this especially challenging time, the Good News is needed now more than it has been in a long time. First, we need to show each other love and support, audibly, loudly, unashamedly. That is, after all, the very heart of Jesus’ message. Remind one another that you are important, you are worthy, you are loved, and you are missed.

Secondly, we need to use the sound of our voices to demand justice and action for the vulnerable among us, holding those in power accountable for their choices. This is not optional. As bearers of imago dei, each of us needs speak out in order to hold humanity responsible for our own sins. Standing up and speaking prophetically—to protect the vulnerable, to advocate for the voiceless, to insist on societal action to keep each other safe—is our responsibility as followers of Christ. Not just during a global crisis, but at all times. It’s not enough just to want these things. We have to insist on them: boldly, unapologetically, and persistently. If enough of us speak out, we can strike fear in the hearts of today’s pharisees…and eventually, bring about holy change.

As we hear the shouts of the crowd outside of Jerusalem, we remember that today, WE are responsible for proclaiming the Good News so that everyone can hear. It may sound different in every time and place, but no matter what it sounds like, it must persist. It won’t be easy. Others will stand in our way and try to silence us: by obscuring the truth, as will Judas when he betrays Jesus. By shouting louder than us, as will the crowd that demands the release of Barabbas. By taunting us, as will the soldiers as they torture and crucify Jesus. But if we persist, if we refuse to let God’s message be silenced, then the Hosannas that we shout today will be transformed through Christ’s power into the Hallelujahs of Easter Sunday. And there’s no sound sweeter or more powerful than that. Amen.

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