Note: I preached this sermon on March 20, 2016 (Palm Sunday) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois
“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.””
A few weeks ago Soren and I were at the 7:30 service. During the communion liturgy, we got to the part where the presider says: “And so, with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name and join their unending hymn.” Then we all sing the Holy Holy Holy.
And Soren asked me a great question: If it’s an unending hymn, why do we only sing it on Sunday?
I told him that the hymn is going on all the time. It’s the hymn of the saints and angels in the presence of God. And we join that hymn on Sunday when we gather at the Lord’s table.
But that question got me thinking about worship. I used to think that human beings were the only creatures—aside from the angels—that worshiped. That we lived in this vast silent dead universe, and only our tiny songs of praise were the only worship that filled it up.
I think I was wrong about that. Now I suspect that we’re the only creatures that don’t worship. That cease from worship. Maybe the whole creation is filled with praise, from the tiny orbit of electrons to the great whirl of galaxies. You can’t get very far in the Scriptures without encountering this idea. Rivers rejoice, hills clap their hands, wind and rain bless the LORD, shining stars and sun and moon and creeping things and flying birds, all praising God not in words but with the pulsing joy of their very being. Now with the discovery of gravitational waves, I’ve read that we can actually translate the universe into sound. We are the only things that choose to be silent amid the great hymn of glory that is God’s world.
If that’s right, look again at what Jesus tells the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. Here’s another instance where it seems that the Pharisees are antagonizing Jesus. But they’re really not. They’re part of the great crowd processing into Jerusalem with Jesus, participating in the great triumphant entry into David’s city. But they know that this is a dangerous situation. A big parade into the place where Herod is the king, and where Pontius Pilate heads the Roman garrison, could look threatening. To have this crowd chanting that Jesus is the king, coming in the name of the God of Israel, risks serious punishment for everyone.
So the Pharisees argue for some common sense. Teacher, tell them to stop. Let’s not all get ourselves killed before we even reach the city.
Jesus answers them, if the disciples were silent, the stones would shout out. He is accepting the risk that they take, because the hymn of praise must continue, one way or another.
There are places in the world where this is very much a live issue. Thankfully, for most of us Christians in North America, it isn’t. We are not at risk of being punished for our songs of praise. But it says something important about what worship means for all of us. There are always compelling reasons to stay silent. We may be fearful, or doubting, or distracted. We may have urgent tasks that take us away from the great triumphant procession. We may feel unworthy or unwelcome.
But the stones will cry out anyway. And the sea and all its creatures, and the heavens and all their stars, will cry out. And the blessed dead who persevered through doubt and trial cry out. By the grace and love of God, the altar is lit and the prayers arise and the universe vibrates with praise.
We may feel the need to keep silent for an hour or a season. But the triumphant procession will continue, through Jerusalem, to the Temple, to Pilate’s headquarters, and finally to the cross. And there Jesus himself will fall silent, his song of praise will end. But all of this is for us, too. So that our hearts will be unshackled, our souls will be stirred, our lips will be opened. And we, like the stones, will cry out in endless praise. Amen.