Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2024

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 Commentary

By the end of Psalm 118 it is easy to see why the Lectionary would connect these words with Palm Sunday.  The imagery of a festal throng of people going up to the Temple waving tree branches exuberantly in the air makes this fit the traditional ways we picture the events of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem at the head of what we now call Holy Week.  There are even cries of “Hosanna” here in the original Hebrew in Psalm 118:25.

The larger Psalm is mostly a cry for deliverance and then songs of thanksgiving for the deliverance God provided.  “Lord, Save Us!” or the cry of “Hosanna” is in many ways an apt summary of the entire poem and in this sense an apt fit for Palm or Passion Sunday also in the sense that Jesus’s slow trek toward his own cross is God’s ultimate answer to every plea for salvation that humanity has ever uttered.

Of course, imagine that on the actual day of Jesus’s entrance into the Holy City, you had done some “person on the street” kind of interviews with the folks crying “Hosanna” and so asked the question, “You are asking the Lord to save you.  From what exactly do you need rescuing?”  The odds are extremely good that the answers you would have heard most often had you button-holed folks to ask that question would have been “From Rome!  From Caesar’s oppression!  From the occupation of our land by Roman thugs!”  The people were seeking very much a political salvation, a restoration of the nation of Israel.

And Jesus was their man!  That he had other plans and so had no intention of leading a political rebellion to oust the Romans is what explains the five-day turnaround of the crowds from shouting “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”  They didn’t think they needed what Jesus was offering.  Even the disciples had political visions of grandeur for their Master and thus for themselves.  They had spent a long time jockeying with one another for the highest posts in what they were sure would be the upcoming Jesus Administration.  Peter wanted to be Jesus top-tier advisor, his Chief-of-Staff.  James and John even got their mother to ask for seats of power to Jesus’s left and to his right.  Even forty days after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and so on the day Jesus ascended into heaven (as recorded in Acts 1), the disciples were still asking the question, “Are you at this time now finally going to restore Israel?”  Old ideas die hard.

So the people on what we call Palm Sunday may have had the words and the imagery of Psalm 118 in mind as Jesus rode his lowly colt into Jerusalem but they were applying those words incorrectly.  And the reason for their bad exegesis is on plain display in this same psalm had only they understood how God was going to accomplish salvation.  The clue to the correct understanding of who Jesus was and what he was aiming to accomplish (and how he aimed to accomplish it) is what you read in Psalm 118:22 about how a rejected stone was the one that would become the cornerstone of a whole new edifice.  As we have noted in other sermon commentaries here on CEP over the years, Psalm 118:22 has the distinction of being the most oft-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament.  It beats out Psalm 23 or Psalm 100 or any number of better known verses.  This verse is like the little engine that could: you would not have guessed it would become the most popular Old Testament sentence in the New Testament but it pulled off this feat after all!

In the Gospels and in the letters of the New Testament, people keep coming back to that simple little verse.  Because something about the very notion of a once-tossed-aside stone becoming the most important stone of all times fit how the apostles eventually came to understand how salvation really works.  It reminded them of so many of Jesus’s own parables about yeast hidden in dough, mustard seeds, treasures discovered buried in unlikely places.  The kingdom does not come about the way you might think.  It comes not by might and raw power or force but grows quietly off in places where most people never bother to look.  The kingdom comes through sacrifice and humility, not triumph and bravado as the world defines those things.

Psalm 118 is bookended with the lines, “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his love endures forever” (vss. 1 & 29).  We are indeed called to give God our thanks for the salvation and deliverance he ultimately wrought through Jesus of Nazareth, the suffering and rejected One.  But we also need to give thanks for God’s wisdom in knowing how that salvation had to be achieved even if God’s wisdom seems like folly to the wider world (pace 1 Corinthians 1).  The wonder of Holy Week is the mystery of the revelation of God’s secret plan and how in the end life comes only through the death of God’s beloved only Son.


Illustration Idea

In both the book and the film version, one of the more famous scenes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the Council of Elrond and its deliberations on how to deal with and destroy that evil Ring of Power forged by the dark lord Sauron.  In this scene the man from Gondor, Boromir, reveals that he knows of only one way of getting things done: through power and force.  When it is suggested one of the beings in attendance would have to destroy the Ring in the evil land of Mordor, Boromir cannot help but be incredulous.  “Not with 10,000 men could you do this.  It is folly.”  Later Boromir will try seize the Ring by force, convinced that he would need the Ring’s power to take on Sauron, the creator of the Ring.  Only power against power could prevail.

Yet in the end the least powerful person of them all, Frodo Baggins of the Shire, steps forward to take on this impossible task.  This pint-sized Hobbit would get this task done.  No one expected a Halfling of the Shire would be the source of their deliverance from evil but so it was to be.

The CEP website also has a commentary on Psalm 31:9-16:


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