Sunday, March 9, 2014

The First Sunday of Lent: The Arrival of the King

This post is part of a Lenten reading plan created to compliment the Lenten sermon series at Southland Baptist Church in San Angelo. You can follow that reading plan here.

Today’s reading: Psalm 118

Key Verse: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone - Psalm 118:22.

Psalm 118 is a part of what’s called the Egyptian Hallel, a collection of Psalms that were read during the Passover Feast commemorating God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt. The adults would know these Psalms by heart and would be teaching them to their children in the days and weeks leading up to the Passover.

Hosanna, which comes from the Hebrew for “save us” had become the traditional way of greeting pilgrims entering Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it meant far more than ‘hello’ and its common usage as a greeting did not detract from its messianic overtones. This was especially true when connected with the title, Son of David, a title reserved for the Messiah (which Matthew reports the crowd shouting out). Furthermore, for most Jews, Psalm 118 had come to serve as a passage that not only reported of a victorious king of long ago, but also anticipated a coming king who would likewise restore the fortunes of Israel.

It is easy to see where such ideas would come from. The psalm tells the story of an individual, possibly a king, who found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides and in great distress. Due to the graciousness of the Lord, the speaker has been given a great, though unexpected military victory. Following his reversal of fortunes, he proceeds to the temple gates and requests entrance in order to give thanks to the Lord. At the temple, the gates are opened and the people retell the story, saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” They then respond to God’s act in the life of this individual with a communal request for blessing, “O Lord, save us (that is Hosanna); O Lord, grant us success.” Then, as the king makes his way up to the altar to make his offering of thanksgiving, the people lay their palm branches at his feet and declare, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That is how a victory is meant to be celebrated. The Jews of Jesus’ day, as they recited such a sweeping testimony of God’s provision in the past, anticipated the day when God would act again. They longed again for another great reversal of fortunes – day when God would send someone to upend their enemies, save them from the Romans, and give them success. That person, their messiah, the one who came in the name of the Lord, would indeed be blessed. But the questioned remained – “Who is this Messiah?”

Certainly, some were asking that question about Jesus. Could he be the messiah? Luke makes clear that the declaration of kingship were started and encouraged by Jesus’ disciples. They had followed Jesus for three long years now with the hope that he was the one. Their troubled hearts must have been at least slightly stirred at the events of this day. For the first time, Jesus hadn’t rebuffed those who sought to praise him as the Messiah. His ride on the donkey was certainly not a military steed, but still, there were instances in the scriptures were such a move served as a claim to kingship. Perhaps this was the time when he would usher in his kingdom. “Hosanna!” they cried. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Peter, James, John, and maybe even Judas spoke with reserved, yet hopeful jubilee. Perhaps, Jesus would finally assert himself as the coming King of Psalm 118.

The excitement quickly dissolved into confusion, even disappointment when, as Matthew’s gospel points out, Jesus would just a short while later quote from Psalm 118 himself. Only, he didn’t shout Hosanna, or identify himself as the coming, victorious king. No, he would be the stone the builders would reject. But as the scriptures report, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matt 21:42). Reversal of fortunes, yes, but unlike anything the disciples or the Jews were prepared for. Jesus spoke not of an oppressed people being set free, but of a messenger of God being killed by the very people who were supposed to receive him with honor. In this case, the king came to testify of the goodness of the Lord, but instead of joining in, as they do in Psalm 118, the people assassinated him.

The disciples should have known; Jesus was always leery of fame and flattery. He had several times avoided crowds that wanted to force a crown upon his head, and he often quieted those who declared him God’s anointed. Jesus knew the fleeting nature of fame.

It is the same today. Winston Churchill was once asked, “‘Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech, the hall is packed to overflowing?’

‘It’s quite flattering,’ replied Sir Winston. ‘But whenever I feel that way, I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.’”

And so too it would be with Christ, when a few short days later, this crowd shouting “Hosanna” would be replaced by one shouting “Crucify him.”

The crowds would quickly give up on this gentle messiah who rode in on the colt. In the end, he didn’t quite fit their hopes and dreams. There cries of “Save us; give us success” faded away when they realized, they didn’t really want the type of salvation he came to bring. And in a strange, certainly unexpected way, they fulfilled the prophesy hidden in Psalm 118. As they laid down their palms before Jesus, they did indeed prepare the way for the king’s procession to the temple for the sacrifice. What they failed to realize, was that the coming king, the one who comes in the name of the Lord, would not bring a sacrificial goat or lamb or bull. He, himself, was to be the sacrifice for the entire world.

The words take on new meaning now, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The word marvelous can also mean – to marvel in disbelief. Celebration does not equal faith. Just like on the original Palm Sunday, many people are quick to celebrate Jesus. Some celebrate because they honestly love him. Others lift up praise because it seems like the right thing to do (at least as long as others in the crowd are doing the same thing). Still others join the parade because they want to use him – they really don’t care for him above their own aspirations for wealth or victory or health. “Save us! Give us success!” they cry – but they do not know what they ask. Sometimes, what we most need saving from are our own definitions of salvation. 

Jesus will not be used. He offers salvation freely but on his own terms. His refusal to be manipulated by the crowd’s praises lead ultimately to his rejection. He would not be a zealot, a military messiah. He would not be a religious puppet, a supporter of the status quo. He would be and was the messiah, God’s anointed, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. And though it didn’t look like what the crowd expected, he did come bringing about a reversal of fortunes. This Palm Sunday would lead to a reversal of fortune during the week that would cause every single person who followed him to run away in fear when the palm leaves turned to cross beams. But there was another Sunday coming, and Christ was not through with his reversal of fortunes. The stone that was rejected was still to become the cornerstone. Yes, there was another Sunday coming – and it would prove to be the greatest reversal of all.

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