Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 1, 2018
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary
Psalm 118 is the Lectionary’s default Psalm for Holy Week. It is used in all three years of the cycle for both Palm Sunday and Easter. It is easy to see why. Verses 26-27 are a virtual description of what would happen on Palm Sunday and verses 17-18 fairly shout, “Easter.” Making a connection to Christ is not an example of homiletical gymnastics, because the New Testament, applies Psalm 118:22-23 to Christ, beginning with Jesus himself in Mark 12:10 (and parallels) and continuing in Acts 4:11, I Peter 2:7, and Ephesians 2:20. Indeed, there is a long tradition of reading Psalm 118 as Jesus’ post-Resurrection cry of victory.
While that may ultimately be what you decide to do with Psalm 118 this Easter, be sure you don’t leap over the original meaning of the Psalm in your desire to get to Christ. That would rob your Easter sermon of the richness embedded in this classic Psalm. Originally, it was a call to national thanksgiving. Note the triple call to God’s covenant people in the first 4 verses: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let Israel say, ‘His love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the Lord say, ‘His love endures forever.’”
The focus on the enduring love of Yahweh (hesed in Hebrew) at the beginning and at the end and throughout the Psalm is crucial for understanding Easter. What happened at Easter is the work of the enduring love of the covenant God of Israel. As the final verse in our reading puts it, “This is the day Yahweh has made” or “Yahweh has done it this very day.” Easter is the culmination of all that Yahweh has done for his people. It is the day of days when God’s hesed finally triumphed over all Israel’s enemies, including the last enemy, death. No wonder “shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous (verse 15).” So, we need to pay attention to the opening verses, because they place the resurrection of Jesus in the context of covenant history. They emphasize that what happened on Easter Sunday was the result of Yahweh’s hesed acting decisively in history.
But Psalm 118 is more than a national call to Thanksgiving, used at one of Israel’s great festivals (experts tell us that it was part of the liturgy at the Feast of Tabernacles and at Passover). It also includes a very personal confession of faith, running from verse 5-21. Perhaps it is more correct to say that Israel is called to celebrate what God has done for one of his covenant people, so that the personal experience of one Israelite becomes the occasion for the whole nation to give thanks to Yahweh. Maybe this one was the King, or perhaps it was an ordinary person who is the Representative of the rest. At any rate, in a way that anticipates the work of Christ, what happened to the one affects the all in a miraculous way.
It is nearly impossible to tell exactly when and where this person experienced “anguish (verse 5).” Maybe that’s good, because the vagueness of it enables all of us to enter into the Psalm personally. And that is surely good, because verses 5-13 (before our reading) are rich in both trouble and grace. The Psalmist’s description of his personal trouble fairly jumps off the page with vividness. His enemies buzz around him like a swarm of bees, but their fierceness burned out as quickly as a fire fed by thorns. And the words used to describe the grace he received in that trouble are among the loveliest in Scripture. “The Lord is with me: I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The Lord is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies.” “I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me.” There is Gospel in those words.
All of that is background for our Easter Sunday reading. And most of that background is not new; we find similar things in other Psalms. In your Easter sermon, I suggest that you focus on the new thing that happened on that day. I hear that newness suggested by the shift in the verbs of verse 14. “Yahweh is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” For centuries and for all of my life, Yahweh has been the source of strength and joy in my life. Now something new has happened, and he has become my salvation. I wouldn’t want to push that verse too far, but it does give us an angle from which to approach this familiar Psalm.
Out of all the powerful things said in verses 14-24, I want to focus on two verses, verse 17 and verse 24. I would begin with verse 24 because it is the objective basis for the subjective faith in verse 17. After the Psalmist completes his personal testimony of deliverance by Yahweh and offers his personal thanksgiving for that salvation, the congregation accompanying him gives this profound interpretation of what has happened in the Psalmist’s rescue/resurrection (cf. verse 17-18). “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; Yahweh has done this, and it is marvelous (a “wonder” in Hebrew) in our eyes.” This wonder is the basis for verse 24. “The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
The fact that verse 22 is quoted so frequently and fruitfully in the New Testament alerts us to its importance. The enemies of Jesus, the people in charge of God’s house, the builders of the human house in which God would live among the nations, rejected Jesus as unfit. He literally did not fit their conceptions of the Messiah. He wasn’t right for the job. So, they threw him away, onto the slag heap, into the dump outside the city. Except we know it was worse than that. They didn’t just reject him. They killed him, and in a shameful way, a way designed to say he was accursed. And he was laid in a borrowed grave, because even in death, there was no place for the Son of Man to lay his head.
But that was not the end of the matter, because Yahweh in his enduring love had other plans, plans he had been working on forever. He raised the Rejected One and made him the capstone of his entire kingdom-building enterprise. God didn’t just defeat the human enemies who had rejected The Stone; he also defeated death itself by raising The Stone from the grave. And now he is exactly right, the precise fit for the work of building the Kingdom of God on earth. Paul puts it profoundly in Ephesians 2:19-21. “Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.”
Your sermon will become vivid if you can picture what a capstone or cornerstone did and still does. I quote from Robert Davidson in his magnificent commentary on the Psalms. “A capstone or cornerstone—head of the corner—was the block of stone which joined together at right (note the emphasis on right) angles the walls of a building. If it were flawed, the whole building would be unsafe. Builders, therefore, chose this cornerstone with great care. Anything that did not meet their specifications and quality control would be rejected. Surprise, surprise, that such a rejected stone became the cornerstone.”
That is exactly what happened when God raised Jesus from the dead. By focusing on verses 22-24, you can emphasize that it was precisely the God of Israel who raised the rejected one. This was the exact point of Peter’s sermon to the same rejecters in Acts 4. Yahweh, your God, our God, the God of enduring love has acted in a decisive way to save us. “Yahweh has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It is a “wonder,” a miracle that changes everything. So, let us rejoice in this day when the Lord has done this great thing.
Among the things that the resurrection of the Rejected One accomplished is confessed with great confidence in verse 17. “I will not die but live.” God has raised Jesus from the dead, and that changes forever the way we live our lives. Or at least it should. Verses 17 and 18 give us an opportunity to press home the life changing reality of Christ’s resurrection. Delivered from the threat of his enemies, the Psalmist shouts, “I will not die but live and proclaim what the Lord has done. The Lord has chastened me severely, but has not given me over to death.”
Preachers have often noted how those words could be put in Christ’s mouth as he emerged from the tomb, but that interpretation runs afoul of those words about being chastened. Jesus was not chastened, disciplined, corrected with a view to making him better. He was punished for the sins of the human race. The words of verses 17-18 fit better in the mouths of people who believe in the life changing power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Because he conquered death once and for all, we do not need to fear death (cf. Hebrews 2:14-16). Indeed, in a culture held captive by the fear of death, we can boldly say, “I will not die but live.” Jesus said it very clearly at the wake of Lazarus. “I am the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in me shall live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Living a thousand years before the Christ died and rose, the Psalmist spoke for everyone who does believe those words of Jesus. “I will not die but live.”
Can you imagine how a genuine faith in those words would change the way we live, how it would transform our hopes and dreams and fears, how it would affect health care and end of life issues and funerals? The affirmation of verse 17 runs counter to the uncertainties of life, where there is nothing certain except death and taxes. Well, taxes are a moving target these days and, since the resurrection of Jesus, death isn’t certain either. Not if you believe in him who is the Resurrection and the Life. This simply must be preached with power. “I will not die but live.” It will change the way we live.
So, on this Easter Sunday, let us come to worship with the words of verses 19 and 21. “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. I will give thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation.” Indeed, every Sunday as we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let us say with the universal church. “This is the day the Lord has made,” “this is the day the Lord has done it; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
When Maya Lin created the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, she ran into all kinds of opposition. Key among the critics was the U.S. military. They wanted to put a huge flag behind the Wall flanked by immense statues of soldiers in full battle dress, signifying victory. But she resisted, because she wanted the Wall to be a memorial to the dead. She said, “We have a hard time with defeat and death in the United States. We simply don’t want to face death head on. This wall does that.” We are a nation in bondage to the fear of death, as Hebrews 2 says. Indeed, the whole world is enslaved, except the believer who looks into Christ’s open tomb and cries, “I will not die but live.” That’s not a denial of death’s reality, but an affirmation of Christ’s victory, and ours in him.
As a way of connecting with middle school children on this Easter, you might pick up on that word in verse 23, “marvelous” or “wonder.” One of the most popular books for young readers these days, and now a fine movie, is titled Wonder. It’s about a little boy with a terrible facial deformity. After being home schooled for his entire elementary career, he goes off to middle school, where he receives the expected cruel treatment. He is rejected by one and all at first, but then he gains one friend and then another. He perseveres through all the hazing and torture, dying a thousand deaths. But by the end of the movie, and at this graduation, he is honored as the student who made the biggest contribution to his school. He is, indeed, a wonder. The grace of God isn’t mentioned anywhere, but clearly that is what moved him from homeroom reject to recipient of honor.
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