You wouldn’t know it to look at it. Yet it’s true: a portion of Psalm 118—specifically verses 22-23—is the single most-oft quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament. Not Psalm 23. Not Psalm 100. Not some well-known story like Abraham sacrificing Isaac or David and Goliath. Nope. It’s little old Psalm 118.
That has always been curious to me. Even most ardent Christians would be hard-pressed to tell you (without looking it up) what is in Psalm 118. In a Psalms & Wisdom Literature class that I co-teach, my colleague Amanda Benckhuysen begins the first class by having each student in turn relate their favorite Psalm or a Psalm that has long been particularly meaningful to them. Not once has anyone mentioned Psalm 118. I have never heard anyone cite this poem as their favorite out of the Psalter’s 150 selections.
The verses about the stray stone becoming the head of the corner seem like themselves stray verses. It’s not even real obvious how this construction imagery pops up in Psalm 118, which is not otherwise a poem about buildings and such. Yet somehow Matthew, Mark, Luke (twice), and the Apostle Peter all latched onto these little verses and their cornerstone image as somehow capturing the essence of Jesus’ ministry.
Maybe there is something apt here. Jesus himself, after all, was also not much to look at. After he had been doing ministry for a while, even John the Baptist started to have his doubts and so dispatched a cadre of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you really the One or should we expect someone else?” You know, someone BETTER, someone more outwardly impressive.
It went that way most of the time for Jesus. Just a baby whose parents were too poor to afford anything better than a goat’s feeding trough for his first crib. Just a carpenter’s son working in Dad’s shop for most of his life. And then an odd itinerant rabbi with a penchant for telling stories few people could puzzle out. When he stood in front of Pontius Pilate, even Pilate could not for the life of him figure out what all the fuss was about. “You’re worried about this fellow?” Pilate all but asked the Jewish authorities out to get Jesus.
And then finally, there he was: literally crossed out by the Romans. There he was, hanging on a cross looking—as Neal Plantinga has said—far more like a street accident than a Savior. Talk about your rejected stones . . . Jesus was indeed tossed aside, spurned, rejected, killed.
Yet he was the One after all. On this Easter Sunday we see him raised by the power of the Father and made the head of the corner of a whole new edifice that just was the New Humanity, the New Israel, the New People of God. “The LORD has done this,” the psalmist rhapsodized, “and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Who knows exactly to what or to whom the author of Psalm 118 was originally referring. Like most biblical writers, he wrote more than he knew under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Surely this poet could have never guessed that centuries later the evangelists and apostles would apply this verse to the Messiah of God.
But that’s what happened. A stray verse about a stray stone became the perfect emblem for how God achieved salvation in Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and rejected one. The relative obscurity of the verse fits the relative obscurity of the Savior who later appeared out of nowhere to be baptized by John.
This is Good News because in the larger context of Psalm 118 this is all about our being rescued from death. This is all about God’s finding an end run on death to do something new, something previously unheard of and, just so, something marvelous indeed. Most preachers don’t choose the Psalm text for their Easter sermon but this year, if you have chosen this text to preach on or to weave into your Easter liturgy in some other way, then this fits well for this troubling Easter in 2020 when COVID-19 is forcing most—if not all—Christians around the world to do the decidedly counter-intuitive thing of not coming together to celebrate the resurrection.
Maybe we all feel a little rejected this year. Well, dejected. Disconnected. Tossed far away from the people we ost want to see and embrace. Can any good come of any of this, we are asking. Does God see us in our social isolation? Can we manage to celebrate Easter via Livestream or on Zoom?
Well, the message of Psalm 118 would seem to be: Yes. Not easily, mind you. There are no neat and tidy answers to any of our harder questions just now. But we serve a God who pulled off the salvation of the cosmos by taking note of and then restoring to glory and honor a decidedly rejected stone. And that means that this Savior, this cornerstone, the One seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty is really adept at seeing us in our isolation just now. And he is really good at promising us Life. Life, not death, has the last word.
It is not easy to sing joyful songs this year. It is not easy to try to sing to a computer screen while seated at your dining room table even if your church musicians are doing their best to stream forth some hymns. But with the rejected One now the Cornerstone of God’s grand salvation edifice, we can still rejoice.
The Lord has done this. And it is marvelous in our eyes.
Since I don’t have easy access to my library at Seminary right now, I cannot replicate this in full. But I have always loved Frederick Buechner’s character sketch of Abraham in his delightful book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Buechner begins by saying that if (in Yiddish) a schlemiel is someone who is always spilling soup onto his tie and a schlemozzle is someone who always get soup spilled onto his tie by others, than Abraham was something of a schlemozzle. He sort of bumped along in life, often having others get the best of him and just doing his level best to figure stuff out across the long journey God commanded him to take (a new journey he had to undertake at the very moment in his long life when rest and retirement, not becoming a wandering nomad, should have been the order of the day). But he lived on the promise: he would have heirs as numerous as stars in the sky, sand on the seashore.
At the end of his character sketch, Buechner imagines a very old Abraham at a family reunion picnic. “They weren’t a great nation yet by a long shot, but you’d never know it from the way Abraham sits enthroned there in his velvet yarmulke with several great-grandchildren on his lap and soup on his tie. Even through his thick lenses, you can read the look of faith in his eye… and more than all the kosher meals, the great achievements, and Einsteins and Kissingers, it was THAT look that God loved him for -and had chosen him for in the first place.”
And then this: Who knows, Abraham thought to himself, one day they will be talking about my great-great-great . . . grandson, the Savior of the world.
Somehow the simplicity of this portrait of this ordinary man pressed into doing the extraordinary thing of founding a new nation for God fits with Psalm 118. Rejected stones becoming the heads of corners. That’s the Gospel all right.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 12, 2020
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 Commentary