What every preacher needs on Easter Sunday is an angle. Everyone already knows the story, so it is hard to astonish people as the women astonished the disciples with the news of an empty tomb on that first Easter morning. To help people experience that primitive astonishment and the kind of joyful thanksgiving to which Psalm 118 calls us, we need an angle into the old, old story. That’s what I hope to give you in this Sermon Commentary by offering an angle into Psalm 118.
For a straightforward exploration of the various issues any preacher will encounter in Psalm 118, consult my piece on this Psalm from the March 21, 2016, Commentary Archives on this website. There I dealt with questions about the identity of the speaker in the Psalm, the possible liturgical usages of the Psalm, the historical background of the Psalm, and all the Messianic linkages that stud the Psalm. All of that can inform what you do with the angle I’m going to suggest, but I won’t repeat here what I wrote back there.
From the work I did before I’m going to assume that Psalm 118 is a perfect Easter hymn. Patrick Henry Reardon calls it “the canticle of the empty tomb.” The early church saw our text as the voice of Jesus speaking about the astonishing thing God did in and through Jesus. The Revised Common Lectionary agrees with the primitive church, using Psalm 118 for Easter in all three years of the liturgical cycle (as well as using it for Palm Sunday in all three years). Thus, I’m going to suggest that we preach it as the believer’s song of faith about the Risen Christ. Because of our faith connection to Christ’s resurrection, the “I” in the Psalm becomes each of us individually and all of us together.
What we sing about is the astonishing news that God has done something new in history. That’s my angle. We live in a world that most of our contemporaries see as a closed system of cause and effect. We see that most simply in the cycle of nature; the wheel of the seasons goes round and round. Science gives us ever deepening insights into the interconnectedness of things, such that everything is caused by something else, which in turn causes yet another thing. So, there can be nothing truly new. It’s all caused by what went before. It’s always the same old same old.
It doesn’t take a scientist to know that. The old preacher of Ecclesiastes gives my angle a sharp point when he says, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! There is something new?’ It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 and 10)
Thus, we are stuck in the mess with which we are stuck. We can try to change things, but ultimately we’re trapped in a closed system that doesn’t care one whit about us. No wonder the old preacher said, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl. 1:2) So say the honest, thorough-going secularists among us. Psalm 118 says something very different. God has broken through the chain of cause and effect, of life and death, and has done something brand new and life changing. That’s my angle on Psalm 118 and its ancient testimony about Easter.
The one who speaks in Psalm 118 is a true believer, like most of your listeners. Throughout the Psalm he/she says, in effect, “Here’s what I know by faith.” “The Lord’s love endures forever.” He uses that familiar word for God’s faithful covenant love, chesed, in verses 1-4 and 29, thus framing the rest of his words with that fundamental Jewish conviction. Further, he knows that because of God’s chesed, “the Lord is with me” in two ways. He is “my strength and my song,” the one who gives me strength for the struggle and a song for the victory. Interestingly, that phrase is a word-for-word quotation from Moses “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15. The Psalmist’s faith is a deep and ancient faith. No matter what happens in history and in my life, “you are my God.” This is the firm foundation on which we stand. We can count on the faithfulness of God even when trouble comes.
And trouble does come. The first hint that the Psalmist’s life has become difficult is that word “anguish” in verse 5. It’s a powerful word indicating that something terrible has happened. What was it? Verse 7 tells us that “enemies” have attacked. Indeed, “All the nations surrounded me… on every side. They swarmed around me like bees….” (verses 10-12) His enemies were so powerful that he “was pushed back and [almost] fell….” (verse 13) Perhaps worst of all, he sensed that the Lord himself was involved in this anguished situation; “the Lord has chastened me severely….” (verse 18) It’s bad enough when you have human enemies, but it becomes unbearable when it seems that your God has somehow conspired with them against you.
The experience of the Psalmist, of course, anticipates what happened to Jesus in his passion. As Acts 4:27-28 put it, “Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” Jesus’ most anguished cry from the cross was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” How many of your listeners know the terrible anguish of believing that your own God is involved in the trouble you are experiencing. It’s enough to rock the foundations of your faith.
But that didn’t happen to the Psalmist because he cried out for help, and God answered by doing something new. “I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me.” (There is yet another of those ubiquitous two word summaries of the Gospel—“but God.”) How did the Lord help? Look at the next verse (14). “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” Note the change in verbs there—from “is” to “become.” We hear the same word in verse 21, “you have become my salvation.” I want to suggest that the word “become” suggests movement in the history of salvation. It’s not the same old same old. The Rock of my salvation has moved; he has done something new.
What new thing has Yahweh done? The Psalmist calls it “mighty.” “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” What deed warrants that powerful poetic repetition? Well, here it is. “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” Because the Lord “has not given me over to death,” the Psalmist can utter a preposterous shout of victory. “I will not die, but live….”
That is ridiculous. Everyone dies. In addition to taxes, death is one of the certainties of life. But the Psalmist dares to say that it won’t happen to him. That would be new, and astonishing. A recent issue of Time magazine chronicled the world wide scientific search for not only longevity, but even immortality. “I will not die, but live.”
Of course, this Psalm may only be talking about a temporary reprieve from death that comes with surviving a terrible battle, except for the Messianic connections of this Psalm. We hear one of them in verse 22, where the resurrected Psalmist is given an exalted status. “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Those are the very words Jesus used in reply to his critics in Mark 12:10, 11. He was the rejected one who has become the capstone to God’s redemptive activity. Indeed, it was by his resurrection that he completed that mighty work of God. Thus, the words of verses 17 and 18 are not just the words of the Psalmist after a temporary victory over his enemies. They are the words of Jesus after his complete victory over sin and suffering and the last enemy, death. “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.”
That mighty act of God has brought a new day to planet earth. “This is the day the Lord has done it (a better translation than the NIV); let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (verse 24) “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.” (verse 27) During the dark old days, all human beings “all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Hebrews 2:15).” But now, because the Lord has done a new thing, we can all say, “I will not die, but live and proclaim what the Lord has done.”
That’s what your Easter sermon should be—the proclamation of the new day ushered in by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is something new under the sun. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that although people still die under the sun, the Risen Son has brought a new reality to those who struggle in anguish under the sun. From high above the sun, the Son of God has descended to be despised and rejected and killed, so that he could rise and become the capstone of God’s new creation. Under that Son, “death no longer is the stronger, hell itself is captive led. Christ has risen from death’s prison; O’er the tomb he light has shed.” (from “Praise the Savior,” a hymn from the 6th century)
Indeed, that old hymn echoes the response to which Psalm 118 calls those who have seen the new thing God has done. If we say with the congregation in Psalm 118, “the Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes,” then we should give our unceasing thanks to the Lord. That’s essentially what Psalm 118 is, a psalm of thanksgiving. It opens and closes with that call; “give thanks to the Lord!” Our Easter services and our Easter lives should be filled with “shouts of joy and victory.” Each day we should “rejoice and be glad.” And every Sunday we should “proclaim what the Lord has done.”
There is something new under the sun. Therefore, there is hope, real hope that things can change, even death. “Praise the Savior, now and ever; praise him all beneath the skies; prostrate lying, suffering, dying, on the cross a sacrifice. Victory gaining, life obtaining, now in glory he doth rise.”
Martin Luther called Psalm 118 “my beloved Psalm.” In fact, during one of the dark times in his life, when he spent almost half a year hiding during the Diet of Augsburg, he inscribed verse 17 on the wall of Colburg Castle in Bavaria. “I will not die, but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” No wonder he wrote: “And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”
On a day when some preachers might downplay the physical resurrection of Jesus and proclaim the general love of God, James Luther Mays reminds us of the utter centrality of that Resurrection. He is commenting on verses 22-24, which “teach the church that the Risen Christ is the crucified Jesus and warn us against separating Easter from its context in the passion of our Lord. It was not the free choice and approval of the human community that established the crucified one as the foundation and keystone of God’s coming kingdom, but God’s raising him from the dead.” (Acts 4:11) I know, that’s not exactly an illustration, but it is an important reminder of the centrality of this New Thing God has done. Without it, there is no real hope for our world, or for us. We will all just die.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 16, 2017
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary