Preached March 24, 2013 – Palm Sunday
Text: Luke 19 & 22
The Story, Ch. 26
A Reflection on Luke 19:28-40
This Palm & Passion Sunday is so full – full of stories (more Scripture assigned for today than any other week of the year – more than three full chapters, if we read it all!) Those stories are full of characters (the crowds, the priests, the disciples, Judas, Peter, Pilate, Herod, the thief, the slave girl, the centurion – I could go on, but you get the idea). And with all those characters, the stories are full to overflowing with conflict and emotion.
Reading Luke’s account this year, though, I was struck most of all at how full of words these stories are. So many people say so many things this week! And not only words, but words full of innuendo, double-meanings, and hidden significance.
Take, for example, the simple question from the bewildered owner of a donkey colt: “Why are you untying the colt?” A reasonable – and even restrained – question from someone who just discovered two men running off with their donkey. But in its simplicity, the question does several things. First, it draws attention to the act of “untying,” which echoes back to Genesis 49, when Jacob describes a “tethered donkey” that belongs to a royal ruler from the tribe of Judah. The reference to untying the colt, then, directs the reader to think of Jesus in royal terms as a Davidic Messiah – the promised king of Israel.
The question also establishes Jesus’ authority as prophet. Jesus told his disciples that the owner would ask this question – and so they did, word for word, just as Jesus said they would. It is Luke’s not-so-subtle way of telling his readers that Jesus was not only king, but also “prophet” – and prophets, in the Biblical tradition, speak for God. So, in other words, “hey, readers, when this guy speaks, you should listen!”
The disciples, at least on one level, get the hint. Their answer – “The Lord needs it” – is a seemingly simple answer that in fact overflows with reverence. In addressing Jesus as “Lord” the disciples are recognizing an authority other than the ruling officials. The claim of Jesus’ lordship supersedes the rights of ownership, and also challenges the lordship of Roman rulers. It is a statement of personal allegiance by the disciples, and also laden with political overtones.
All of that, wrapped up in a simple question and answer: “Why are you untying the colt?” “The Lord needs it.” Words full of suggestion and significance.
Then, there are the words of the crowd when Jesus rides into Jerusalem:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
They begin by quoting Psalm 118, which is a psalm of royal entry, a song rejoicing in the coming of a victorious king into the city. Verses 25-27 read: “O Lord, save us! (“Hosanna”) Grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the…altar.”
Against the backdrop of the Psalms, their words and the accompanying palm branches and festive procession all proclaim Jesus as victorious ruler.
But the quote also points readers back to Jesus’ words earlier in Luke, when Jesus sets his sites on Jerusalem and laments the violence he finds there. In Luke 13, Jesus foreshadows the violence that will destroy him even as the people proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Jesus knows that the shouts are hollow; he recognizes that the people are more loyal to their own visions of “king” than to the kind of reign he brings.
Then there is the familiar line that follows: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” This echoes the familiar chorus of the angels in the nativity story: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth…” There is one key difference, though. In Luke 2, the angels proclaim to any who would listen that the birth of Jesus brought God’s peace and salvation to the earth. Here in Luke 19, the people call out, “peace in heaven,” as if to admit that Jesus – who brings God’s peace – is not fully welcome on earth after all.
Whatever their deepest meaning, the words that the crowds call out draw attention from the religious leaders. Perhaps they are angered by the attention given to Jesus. Perhaps they are frightened that too much celebration will attract unwanted attention from the Roman authorities. Whatever the case, they demand: “Jesus, tell your disciples to stop!”
Jesus responds with poignant and powerful words: “If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”
Jesus’ words remind us again of the significance of these stories. All of creation is caught up in this salvation story, groaning for liberation from decay and destruction (to borrow from Romans 8). The story that is about to unfold is much more than a story of a political battle. It is more than an interesting piece of human history. The events to come in this Holy Week have cosmic significance!
And so today, on Palm Sunday, we begin the annual rehearsal of these events – rehearsing in a way that goes beyond just recalling them, to actually entering into their reality ourselves. We remember where we belong in this story, and where God is, and how our life stories are caught up in this grander story of God’s work in human history.
A Reflection on Luke 22:31-34, 47-71
As Passion Sunday, we also begin down the road of Jesus’ suffering and death. Today, we walk that road with Peter.
It is fitting, in a passage so full of significant words, to focus on Peter. Peter is one who is seldom speechless. He has an answer for everything! Remember the time when Jesus walked across stormy waters to calm his frightened disciples? It was Peter who yelled out, “Lord, if it is you, tell me to get out of this boat and come to you on the water!” It was Peter who demands, “Explain these parables to us!” and Peter who asks, “How many times must I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”
It is Peter, you may remember from last week, who has the courage to answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” with the words: “You are the anointed one of God!” And then at the transfiguration, when Jesus is suddenly glowing before them, Peter cries out, “Lord, let me build a shelter here for you, to remember this moment!”
Words are one thing that Peter is rarely without.
It is no surprise, then, that Peter cannot keep his mouth shut when Jesus around for a final farewell meal. On that night, Jesus kneels to wash the disciples’ feet, and Peter blurts out: “You will not wash me!” And then, when Jesus warns Peter of the trials that are to come, Peter insists, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”
They say that most of us listen to others for the purpose of forming a reply rather than for the purpose of understanding. Surely that is true of Peter here. He seems to have missed Jesus’ prayer entirely – or noted it only in order to resist its implications. But the prayer is significant – we should not skip over it as quickly as Peter does.
Jesus prays for the disciples (plural) who will be sifted as wheat. He knows they will be shaken by the events to come – he knows how much of their faith, their trust, their hope will be sloughed away as the days unfold. And he prays specifically for Peter, “that [he] may not fail”…and that when he does, he will turn back to strengthen others. Simon Peter, this rock upon whom God will build his church, will crumble into dust under pressure. But Jesus prays that he will turn back, and even be strong enough to lead the others.
It is Jesus prayer here that carries us through the somber story that follows. We cannot trust Peter’s strength, certainly. But we do not have to, for Jesus’ faithfulness in prayer will uphold Peter when he fails, and call him to repent – turn back – so that all is not lost.
But Peter nearly misses the reminder of God’s faithfulness. He hears only enough to form his reply: “I am ready to go with you…!”
Jesus answers: “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”
“I am ready…!” Peter said. Ah, famous last words. Peter, who is never at a loss for words, cannot bring himself to speak the truth when the time of testing comes.
Jesus is arrested; the crowds who cheered for him as he entered Jerusalem are now jeering at him; and when a no-name slave girl asks Peter, “Weren’t you with him?” Peter can only hiss through tight lips, “Woman, I don’t know him.” He has turned his back on his Lord.
And then – as if that is not enough – the next question comes: “Aren’t you one of them – one of his disciples?” Peter answers with a growl: “I am not.” His fear, his sin, has now separated him not only from Jesus but also from his fellow disciples. Sin always separates – separates us from God, but also from one another.
And then, of course, the third question comes: “You had to be with him. Aren’t you a Galilean?” And Peter yells in anger: “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Galilee was where Peter first met Jesus, when he dropped his fishing nets and set off on this whole journey of discipleship in the first place. And here he is denying even his own identity – sin has separated him from Jesus and the other disciples, and now even from his own sense of self.
Then that rooster crows, and Jesus locks eyes with Peter from across the courtyard. And the only words Peter can think of are the ones pounding in his ears: “Before the rooster crows today…”
“If they keep silent, the stones will cry out.”
A rooster is not quite the same as a stone. But it has the same effect: it points to Peter’s failure to lift up the name of the Lord. Peter has kept silent, but God’s creatures will not. The cock’s crow reminds us again that if God’s people will not speak the truth, all of creation will. Either way, God’s truth will be heard.
The story moves on, as Peter slumps outside weeping, and Jesus is asked: “Are you the Son of God?” Some days ago, it was Peter answering this question. Now Jesus answers it for himself: “You are right in saying that I am.” It is from Jesus’ own lips that the truth comes.
We enter Holy Week well aware, like Peter, of the times that words failed us – that our sin got in the way of our relationship with God – our relationship with other people – even our own health and wholeness.
We also enter Holy Week knowing, as Peter did, that God does not fail. That if we will not speak, God can raise up stones to cry out. That if we fail to stand up for the truth, yet Jesus will be steadfast.
We enter Holy Week with a lot of hollow words ringing in our ears – but with God’s grace before us, calling us back to faithfulness.