Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 21, 2019
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary
Call it the little Psalm that could. Call it the Psalm of stealth and surprise. Call it the Psalm that fits the Gospel bill.
Why? Because out of all the 150 psalms in the Hebrew Psalter, many people have their favorites but those favorites—most anybody’s “Top 10 Greatest Hits of the Psalter” list—would likely not include Psalm 118. Psalm 1 perhaps. Psalm 23. Psalm 27. Psalm 46. Psalm 100. Psalm 150. Other psalms may or may not count as anyone’s particular favorite but they contain well-known lines like Psalm 47’s “Clap your hands, all you nations” or Psalm 84’s “Better is one day in your courts” or Psalm 42’s “As a deer pants for streams of water.” And the list could go on.
But would Psalm 118 ever make the grade? Likely not. And yet as it turns out, no single Old Testament passage—psalm or otherwise—gets quoted more often in the New Testament than does Psalm 118 and in particular its 22nd verse about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone after all. What’s up with that? What drew all four Gospel writers and the Apostle Peter to quote Psalm 118 a total of eleven times in the New Testament?
Well, there was something about that image of the cast-off and rejected stone becoming the most important stone of them all that just reminded them of the central dynamic of the Gospel. Wasn’t Jesus, after all, the ultimate example of the most precious person in history who was even so cast aside, rejected, spurned, killed? Doesn’t that spurned stone that becomes highly important after all remind you of Someone? Isn’t this what the victory of Easter is all about in the first place? Apparently so.
And while we are at it, we can notice the further irony that Psalm 118 as a poem appears itself to be an exemplar of this very idea. After all, here is a little, largely unknown Hebrew poem that looks to shrink back in importance compared to better-known and more widely quoted psalms like Psalm 23 or Psalm 100 and yet . . . this little psalm also does the surprising thing of becoming the most important Hebrew poem for the New Testament. Who would’ve thunk it, as they say.
But probably the four evangelists and Peter knew that there were still other reasons to quote Psalm 118, and most of those reasons go along very well with a celebration of Easter. The overall psalm is a prayer of praise to God for deliverance from the psalmist’s enemies. As is often the case with the Lectionary, we are directed to skip over the shank of this poem where the poet writes about swatting back his enemies like so many bees. But that is the context for the psalmist’s overall joy in praising the Lord for his help. God delivers us from the throes of death, and since that is a theme that could not fit Easter much better than it already does, it’s not clear why the RCL folks want us to avert our eyes from verses 5-13 but . . . so be it.
But that deliverance is the root of this psalmist’s thankfulness and joy. Indeed, as the psalm begins, this poet wants everyone to join his choir of praise. “Let Israel say . . . Let the house of Aaron say . . . Aw, what the heck, let EVERYONE and ANYONE who fears the Lord say, ‘His love endures forever!’” It reminds me of roller-skating parties at a rink where there would be times when they announced an “All Skate.” Except here it is “All Sing!”
But, of course, the word translated “love” here is not just any word for love broadly defined. This is in Hebrew chesed, that almost untranslatable word meaning “lovingkindness” or “grace” or “covenant faithfulness”—this is that characteristic of Israel’s God Yahweh for which the psalms and all of Scripture praise God the most. This is the #1 defining trait of God, and I have in the past made the case that chesed in the Hebrew Scripture is what charis is in the New Testament and especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul: it is God’s grace, the love of God that saves us even while we are yet sinners. This is the love that endures forever, this is what makes Yahweh “good.”
And it is in the context of praising God for this trait that the psalmist throws in the verse about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner. It looks like the psalmist is saying that he himself felt like that stone but that after God rescued him from his foes, he felt like a very important and very honored piece of masonry after all. As is so often true in the Bible, the writers who were being guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said and wrote more than they knew. No doubt this psalmist—were he able to see what became of his words in the New Testament and in connection to Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah—would be shocked. He had no idea that someone would read that “rejected stone” stuff and turn it into a prophetic image that would fit the actual Christ of God like a glove. But there it is.
As an Easter meditation, Psalm 118 gives us the opportunity to celebrate not only Jesus but each one of us. Any one of us may or may not appear to be very significant in the grand scheme of things. Indeed, not a few of us feel downright unimportant. And yet the Savior who was himself a rejected and seemingly useless stone is very good at lifting up also each one of us.
In the sermon commentary on John 20, we noted that the way John presented Easter fits our real world. Easter creeps up on us from behind. Easter finds us precisely in our moments of dark and deep sorrow. Easter appears in all those places—the cancer ward, the unemployment line, the funeral home—where we most need to know that life and not death has the final word.
But Easter can and does find each one of us because though we too may feel like worthless, tossed-aside, and rejected stones, God in Christ can make us one with Jesus in becoming the head of the corner of a whole new edifice of salvation. Why does this happen? Because our God in Christ is good and his lovingkindness, his grace, endure forever.
Let everyone say it, “God’s lovingkindness and grace endure forever!” Hallelujah!
They called themselves “Hobbits.” But to many outside their home in The Shire, they were somewhat derisively referred to as “Halflings.” Get it: half of a real person on account of their short stature. Even the short and stout Dwarves were taller than the average Hobbit, not to mention how the world of Men and of Elves towered over these diminutive Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam, Merri, Pippin. Why, a regular-sized person could pick up the Hobbits like a toddler. “They would appear in your eyes like only a child” someone in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy once said of the Hobbits.
But, of course, it was the race of Hobbits that delivered Middle Earth from the peril of the evil Lord Sauron. And that fact, in turn, leads to the lyric scene near the end of Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films when, at the coronation of the new King Aragorn, the Hobbits come before the newly crowned sovereign only to begin to bow. “My friends,” the King tells them, “You bow to no one.” And then the assembled throng bows down to the four Hobbits, making them appear to stand taller for just a moment than any Man, Dwarf, or Elf in sight.
Something about that surprising turn of events reminds me of that rejected stone in Psalm 118.
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