A sermon delivered by, Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 28, 2010.
Opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed; and the truth will come out, it cannot long be silenced. That stones would shout is, of course, a figure of speech, but the expression does remind us that in biblical understanding, the creation is involved in events that we tend to think affect humans alone.
–Fred B. Craddock in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching – Luke
When I graduated from seminary, I went to a church in Memphis, Tennessee as associate pastor. There was a period there where we had quite an international custodial staff. The head custodian was a native of Poland and spoke English with a very thick accent. We had two custodians who were from Laos and their native language was from Southeast Asia. We also had a Vietnamese individual whose native language was Vietnamese. This made for some very frustrating, and at times, some rather humorous communication.
I don’t know if you have ever tried to speak to someone who does not speak the language you speak, but we do all manner of things. If we are trying to communicate something, we will often use our hands. Sometimes we speak much more loudly, and it is rather irritating to hear someone practically yelling at somebody who is not going to get it whether you speak softly or loudly. We do also tend to speak rather slowly and spread it out. Then I am sure it sounds like something altogether different.
I remember the Polish head custodian who was a great guy. He understood English fairly well except for certain things. He had trouble with expressions. I would say, See you, and he would go, See you. He thought it was the letters C-U and that it was some kind of American expression.
In seminary, there was a student from Romania. The doctoral students had to pass a German theological proficiency test to be in the doctoral program. This student spoke no other languages when he came to America. He passed the German theological proficiency test by learning English to understand what the professor was teaching about German. I have always admired him. I have never seen him again but I always thought what an incredible thing it was to learn a foreign language through a language you did not understand.
I have heard some pretty whacky language teaching stories in my time. In the 1940’s, there was a psychologist who was trying to teach a chimpanzee to talk. After three years, he had taught the chimpanzee to say, Mama, papa, and cup. After three more years, he had taught the chimpanzee to say, Mama, papa, and cup, and that was it.
Annie Dillard is a great American essayist and she has written a book called, Teaching A Stone to Talk. In the book, she provides the inspiration for the sermon today. She was living on an island in New England where a man had a stone that he had taken up from the seashore and he was trying to teach it to talk. She said, I don’t know what he wants it, or expects it one day, to say but he has spent a lifetime trying to teach this stone to talk.
I think he has it backwards. Maybe the stones should teach us what to say. That brings us to the passage from Luke 9:36-40. We know the story of Palm Sunday. It is familiar to us. The majority of the Gospels tell us that Jesus spent his early ministry in the northern region of Galilee. He had never come to Jerusalem. It is the day before the press, newspapers, internet, and the live on-the-spot reporter. Very few people had seen Jesus. A few may have gone out to listen to him teach and to witness the miracles, but very few people had ever seen him. Now, as he is entering Jerusalem, there is this incredible electricity in the air. There is an amazing sense of curiosity. What does Jesus look like? Which one is Jesus? How do I know which one is Jesus? The anticipation is absolutely amazing.
I try to think of analogies that might help us experience this, and the closest one I can come to is if you are a college football fan, almost every school before the home football game has the walk. The team makes its way from some point on campus and works its way through the crowd. The crowd is going nuts. They have the school colors. They are waving them. They team does not have their jerseys on with the numbers and somebody says, Wait, wait. That’s the quarterback. That’s the guy who made the interception last week. We are not sure who they are and somebody has to tell us. We can imagine in a day before shakers, colored banners, flags, etc., the palm branch was a symbol of Jewish nationalism. By the time of Jesus, it had been that way for about 200 years. Based on a revolt that had taken place, when people won the victory, they cut down palm branches and waved them. It was a sign of nationalism.
All these people are coming into Jerusalem for the Passover. Then here comes Jesus. Wait a minute! That’s him! And they are waving the palm branches and shouting, Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest! Luke is the only one who tells us this. Luke tells us that as Jesus is coming into the city, the Pharisees say, Tell your disciples to be quiet.
Jesus said, I tell you if they be quiet, the very stones will shout out.
I think there is something to this. All of creation, including the stones, has some imprint of the fingerprints of God. How many times have we seen something in creation that makes us think there really is a God? We see the miracle of the order of nature in the way things work. We see the miracle of birth in a new child ”how tiny all the features are and how perfectly they work. We are reminded that somewhere God’s handprints are on this. It would tell us about God if we would just listen.
Charles Darwin gets maligned quite a bit, but even Darwin said, Sometimes I get a sense of a personal God. Then he also adds, Then it goes away.
H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and was a member of the Royal Academy of Scientists. He said, At times in the silence of the night, I experience a communion with something great that is not myself.
Chances are you are familiar with the story of Helen Keller and how Annie Sullivan taught her to understand, to know, and to communicate. Finally, after they had gotten past water and all the tangible things, Annie Sullivan wanted to teach her about God. She began in whatever rudimentary way she could to try to break through to Helen Keller, and Helen stopped her and said, So that’s his name. It is there. In nature, there are hints of God if we would but listen. It is not just that God exists.
On this Palm Sunday as we enter the week in which we think about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that there are also hints in nature about death and resurrection. Many ancient cultures had stories to try to explain the season, stories that had some God in them. There were stories about a god descending into Hades and being able to come back. While they didn’t understand it correctly, they did have a hint of it. Somewhere there was a hint to them that there was a story behind what we see that includes something divine. Of course, those stories are only echoes of the full truth, but at least they were getting something.
The Psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing. Jesus says that the very stones would talk if we would be silent ourselves.
We have a mixed-breed dog named Rocky. I must say that Rocky has a tremendous vocabulary. I think we probably have the only dog in the City of Rome that understands the word Aflac. Our dog hates the duck. If he is in the other part of the house and the TV is on and the commercial comes on that says something about Aflac, he will come running into the room, get up on his hind legs and bark at the TV even before the duck is there. He understands Aflac. He is a brilliant dog. It is so interesting. There are times when you talk to your dog, and it is kind of like the stone. I don’t know what you expect it to say back. But when I talk to Rocky, he will turn his head and look at me like, I really want to understand what you are saying. Do you have a dog that does this? He looks real hard and intent, and moves his head back and forth. He wants to know what we are saying to him. I think that is the way we are about creation sometimes. We want to understand. We want to hear what the mountains would sing about and what the stones would shout about. Sometimes we just don’t quite get it.
Have you ever had someone teach you a foreign language and they said to you, There is really not a word in English to translate this. There are some things that just don’t come across from one language to another. The stones, the mountains, the rivers, the oceans, and the valleys all want to give us hints that God is there, but there is a word that does not exist in their language. There is a word that we only get from knowing the story of Jesus Christ, and that word is the cross. The stones, the mountains, the rivers, and the valleys can all attune our hearts so that like a dog who wants to understand, we can listen and we can try, but we don’t just quite get it. It takes the scriptures to remind us that in the heart of God there is the cross. It is not simply that nature is beautiful and God is ordered. It is not simply that God is behind all the creation and his thumbprint is on it somewhere. But it is also that in the heart of God, God’s heart is broken by our sin. Our sin has separated us from God and God cares so much that he wants us to be restored. God wants our relationship with him to be brought back together in order that we might know peace, forgiveness, and salvation. God cares about that so much that, in his heart, there is this cross. The cross is the indication of God’s willingness to do anything, to endure anything, to make peace so that we might be made whole.
We call this day Palm Sunday. In many parts of Christianity around the world, it is also called Passion Sunday because it leads us to the events at the end of the week which we describe as the passion, the love of Christ. Christ would not run away from being betrayed. He would not run away from being judged unfairly and he would not run away from what he called the cup that was coming to him ”the death, the scorn, the rejection, the crucifixion. These words are not in nature, and the stones would shout and say anything they could to get our attention, to let us know that there is God behind all of this. But it is only in the revelation of Christ, it is only in the words of scripture, it is only in the story that we come to church to hear that we are reminded that God loves us so much that his son would go to the cross in an effort to tell us about forgiveness and the promise of everlasting life. There is just no word in the language of stones, in the language of nature, to teach us these things. If there were, would Jesus have needed to come and die? Would God have needed to sacrifice his son on our behalf if it were that easy?
So listen, listen in nature for how God might try to get our attention. But if you want to know the full story, it is contained in the Bible. On a Friday afternoon, Jesus stretched out his arms and died on a cross. In the power of God, that death is enough to satisfy whatever it is that our sins have done to us. In faith in Christ’s death, we are allowed the forgiveness of our sins and peace is made with God. From there, we live in the earnest and great hope of Easter, a promise to us all.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.