Palm Sunday, March 28th 2021.
Psalm 118, also John 12:12-16.
God of every blessing. we invite you now to shape our souls with your words in the psalms and inspire our lives with your works. Teach us to walk with you in your ways and teach us more fully and deeper, how to pray. Amen.
Psalm 118 was the favourite psalm of Reformer Martin Luther. He said: ‘’ This is my psalm which I love – for truly it has deserved well of me many a time and has delivered me from many a sore affliction when neither emperor nor kings nor the wise nor the cunning nor the saints were able or willing to help me.’’
It is a Psalm connected to Palm Sunday, for as John’s Gospel (and all the other gospels share) verses from it are shouted / sung by the crowds around Jesus. In this sermon we will focus on the psalm – our final sermon on the psalms in this Lenten series – and how it connects us to Holy Week…
The psalm is a thanksgiving celebrating the King’s deliverance from death and victory in battle. We will journey through this prayer and praise. It is psalm embedded with joyful positive faith, like concrete reinforced with steel rods.
There are different voices. It shows a procession up to the gates of the temple – v1-19. And then it ends before the altar in the temple court – v20-29.
The Psalm, as we read it, reminds the community to give thanks for Yahweh’s goodness and his unfailing covenantal love. It begins with the shout: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever. Then a cantor says Let Israel say:
All respond. His love endures forever.
Let the house of Aaran say : His love endures forever.
Let those who fear the Lord – everyone else! Foreigners, visitors, a universal vision.
His love endures forever.
And it ends with the same exhortation: Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever.
Give thanks for he is good.
Right at the start there is an injunction to give thanks and praise to God. Why do we praise God? Three themes in the psalms – we praise him for his character, we praise him for his action in creation, we praise him for his action in salvation. Character, Creator, Saviour. Here is praise for his character. God’s character we know. He revealed his character to Moses: Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness , maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickness, rebellion and sin.’’ We praise not just for what he has done – salvation – or what he has made – creation – but for who he is – his character which never changes. As sure as the run rises, his character remains. And further we praise him for how he has revealed himself in Jesus – Jesus ‘’the exact representation of his being’’ as Hebrews says, or Col 1: ‘the image of the invisible God.’’ Jesus reveals to us who God is… and we give thanks for God is good.
His love endures forever. The words were on the lips of the crowds around the King in his day. And we too can say them, shout them. For in this Holy Week remember how God’s love will be shown not in words but in action also. As we journey through this week, this is God’s love in action for you and me – his love endures forever. As you read scripture this week and consider the suffering, the mockery, to contempt for Jesus, remember, he did this out of love for you – his love – for you – endures forever.
The King gives credit all credit to the powerful help of the Lord. ‘’The LORD is with me, he is my helper.’’ ‘’I was pushed back and about to fall but the LORD helped me.’’ As we read this psalm, we see phrases similar to that shared in the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, when Israel is delivered from its enemies. It suggests that the faithfulness of Yahweh to save the King, comes from the covenant relationship with Israel that God had established. He is committed to his people. And again, this draws us into Holy Week.
God is firstly committed to this world. ‘’The Son of Man must be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’’ Paul states: Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, but for a good man, someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates us own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’’ And again in Ephesians 2: ‘’Like the rest we were objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.’’ He enters the city on the donkey for he is committed to this world.
Secondly, this week reminds us of how committed he is to us: When we doubt, do you love me God? Are you committed to me? I have doubts due to my experiences, my unanswered prayers, my sins, my immaturity. Are you committed to me? This week, we see how committed he is to us…
‘’If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not, also, along with him, graciously give us all things.’’
Whom do you rely upon? Really?
The King in the psalm. Powerful, influential, wealthy, with an army, with servants… in two sets of verses, he says he will rely on God–on Yahweh – v6-7 and 8-9. He relies on God who was on his side – The Lord is with me I will not be afraid… It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.
Perhaps is easier to say this when you do not have the resources to lean on, but here is a king who does have every resource, yet ‘better to take refuge in the Lord’.
This is a psalm for us for whom life goes well – we have prospered – we do not have needs, deep down. Or we face challenges and we have the resources, the wisdom, the experience to handle it.
Yet the King says to his subjects – better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes (meaning himself).
I find this passage challenging. We do tend to lean on others for resources. So rather than seeking God’s voice, I make seek the wisdom of others, and go with their ideas thank actually having got into God’s presence and worked it through with him. Or we seek to bring people to faith and so we rely on Alpha to do it – when in fact it is the Lord we look to open eyes and hearts. Alpha is a tool he uses. God uses people to give us wisdom, but they cannot become the ones we rely upon instead of seeking the Lord.
I find it striking to consider, in this most demanind of weeks, how Jesus models this psalm. ‘To take refuge in the Lord’. His ministry he said was driven by ‘I only do what I see the Father doing.’ And in this week of weeks, Jesus is regularly praying in the Mount of Olives – that is why Judas knows where to find him. And on Maundy Thursday, again he draws close to the Father, in the wrestling over what he wants and what his Father, he knows, wants. But he is drawing resource from the Father.
There were threats to the King – great threats – all nations; it was a fierce attack – ‘’surrounded me’’, around me like bees, I was pushed back and about to fall. Yet he has been delivered. Through’s God’s action and power. The King shows a faith described, that is not undermined or weakened by adversity. Its resilience becomes all the more apparent in the times of great trouble and stress.
The Rest of the Psalm.
That is the King’s story and testimony.
It is quite special that a king shares all this. That his subjects heard it. That it is recorded. As if he is saying – he is pointing away from himself – that great victory that occurred – it is all God…
The King says: ‘’ I will not die but live and proclaim what the Lord has done.’’
And now he approaches the gates of the temple. He seeks to enter to give thanks. The priestly gatekeepers invite the righteous to enter.
The King addresses God and thanks him for answering his prayer. It seems that there is a chorus of praise from those by him. This marvelous deed of Yahweh, leads to a call to celebrate the day of deliverance with glad rejoicing.
But God’s goodness is not limited to that one day, that one act.
The remembrance of his past faithfulness, gives confidence to the worshippers to cry out for ongoing deliverance and prosperity. ‘O LORD save us, O LORD grant us success.’’
The priests bless the people and the worshippers respond in faith :
Yahweh is God, and he has made his light shine upon us.’’ Zechariah says in the Benedictus – ‘the tender mercy of our God by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death.’’ With so much electric light, we rarely ever enter a place of darkness. In the Czech Republic I remembering walking from the MTS and away from all light. In the dark. To see the sky. Perhaps a power cut we can imagine for darkness. I remember those from time to time in N.Ireland and the searching for the candles, and then the light comes. The words point us, to Jesus own words: I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but have the light of life.’’
The worship continues of the Lord. One last time the king’s voice is heard. He commits himself, he declares. ‘’You are my God and I give you thanks. You are my God and I will exalt you.’’ A declarartion of loyalty, trust and a vow to praise. And the psalm ends with an exhortation to the whole people gathered: glorify God for his goodness, and unfailing covenant love. ‘’Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures for ever.’’
Jesus and Psalm 118 and Palm Sunday…
The Mishnah – a book of oral Jewish law – in the second temple period – the days of Jesus, psalm 118, which with Psalms 111-117 make up, what is called the Hallel, was recited at the Feasts of Tabernacles and Passover. Both these festivals not only looked back to the past, of how Israel was saved, but also it gave hope and a future direction, for their future deliverance.
The crowds shout these verses. It must have a been a great noise. How many were there? Josephus describes a Passover thirty years later, which he said had 2.7 m people. Even if he is a bit out, those are huge numbers gatherinf for a Passover for a city normally with 125000. 10 times it grows in size… The crowds shouts sings and waves palm branches.
Now palms are not mentioned as part of the Passover Celebration, only for Tabernacles. But 200 years before Jesus entered Jerusalem, another person – Simon the Maccabee – he drove the Syrian invaders out of Jerusalem. After he did so, there was singing and palms waved. Years later, during the two Jewish wars against the Romans, when coins were minted by the Jews, a palm was on it. And the symbol was so established, as a symbol for Judah that when the Romans were victorious, they made their own coins, to celebrate their victory. For some as they waved it, they believed the Messianic Liberator had come. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. This was intended as a blessed on the pilgrims as they came to the city. Yet Jewish writings – in a Midrash on Psalm 118 – it became – the One who comes in the name of the Lord is the Messiah.
So the crowd do not pronounce blessings in the name of the Lord on those who come to the city; they pronounce blessings on the One who comes in the name of the Lord. They then declare: Blessed is the King of Israel. They take these well known words of the festival, and apply them to Jesus…
He then gets the young donkey – as promised in Zechariah – he will not enter on a war horse like Judas Maccabeaus or like Solomon. He seeks to de-militarise their vision – his rule will be gentle, peaceful and universal. He comes, like the king of old to declare God’s deliverance.
But unlike the King who came to declare what had been done; Jesus the King of Kings enters to enact, to do and be God’s deliverance from the enemies of sin, the world and the devil. He comes not to destroy or condemn people, but to set free.
Later in his debate with the authorities, Jesus points to Psalm 118 once again : the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone.’’ He would be the stone they were sadly to reject. And in the days ahead, we will see how people will edge him out of their lives, out of their city and out of their world.
It is possible that later, Jesus would take these words of Psalm 118 on his lips once again.
Mark and Matthew speak of a hymn sung by Jesus and his disciples after the supper – Matt 26 and Mark 14 – before they go to the Mount of Olives and Gethesemane. There was a tradition from the rabbis that Psalm 118 was sung at the Passover meal . So the words of the King as we have heard, were Jesus own affirmation of trust as he faces his impending trial and suffering.
Think of Jesus singing these words:
‘’The Lord is with me, I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?’’ v6
‘’I will not die but live and will proclaim what the Lord has done.’’ V17
Psalm 22 – was not the only psalm he would have known. The psalter was the prayer book of Jesus as well as every faithful Jew.
So begins Holy Week.
Give thanks to the Lord
For he is good.
His love endures forever.
Lord, as we enter Holy Week, Lord bless me and watch over me. Lord, make your face shine upon me, shine your light upon me, and be gracious to me. Lord, look kindly upon me and give me your peace. Father bless me, Lord Jesus bless me, Holy Spirit bless me. And make me a blessing to others this Holy Week.