Welcome to Palm Sunday. We celebrate the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem. It is going to get pretty dark and gloomy by weekday’s end this week, but today we celebrate God gracious goodness and support.
Lord, we’ve been in the wilderness -- but now we’re ready to enter the city and celebrate the spiritual victory you are bringing to our lives. Be with us and guide us to discover what that means for our lives today. Amen.
Bible Reading Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus tells a parable, asks an application question to his opponents, who, in answering honestly, pronounce judgement on themselves; and Jesus predicts its fulfillment.
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around
it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and
moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to
collect his [share].
“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he
sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.
Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
“But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him
and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard
to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a
people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;
anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” (NIV)
Message Psalm 118, John 12:12ff, Matthew 7:24-27, 21:33-46
“Preparing to Process”
Note: Direct quotes from scripture are taken from the NIV and in italics.
Parenthetical comments may be are inserted to aid understanding and give participation cues.
L: = Leader P: = People
The next day (that is, Palm Sunday) the great crowd that had come for the (Passover)
festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem… Now the crowd that was with him
when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread
the word (John 12:12,17).
The raising of Lazarus was stirring a lot of excitement at this year’s festival. Many people were beginning to believe in Jesus on account on it (John 12:11), and the alternate plot line surrounding Palm Sunday is the chief priests’ panicked plots to preserve their Temple and nation by killing both Lazarus and Jesus (John 11:45ff; 12:11,42).
Psalm 118 is a dramatic liturgy that is used for several festivals. People gather outside the temple. A leader comes out to them calls to the crowd: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Then he addresses the various types of people who have gathered – I’ll let you play all of the parts.
(L:) Let Israel (God’s covenant people) say: (P:) “His love endures forever.”
(L:) Let the house of Aaron (the priests and religious leaders) say: (P:) “His love endures forever.”
(L:) Let those who fear the Lord (non-Jews, (who from now on I will affectionately call “outsiders”
who are now coming to join the faith -- let them)) say: (P:) “His love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1-4)
Then the king begins a monologue by recounting the conclusion of a fierce battle: When hard pressed, I cried to the Lord and he brought me into a spacious place. (Psalm 118:5) That is, God delivered him to place where there was ample room to roam free, safe from dangerous threats. The king looks back of the victorious battle, but humbly and gratefully realizes that human strength would have been futile. He gives a plethora of phrases that continues to put the credit for his success squarely on the shoulders of God, to whom he owes everything. Phrases like: Because the Lord is with me, I don’t need to be afraid of anything mere humans can do to me. He is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies – he doesn’t say “I triumphed” but he watches the triumph happen… He relies on God’s safety and does not trust human rulers. (See Psalm 118:6-9).
Having made perfectly clear how the battle was won, he now goes on to describe it. The nations have completely surrounded me, swarming like bees, pushed me back till I was about to fall (to my destruction); but the Lord helped, and in his name, I cut them down, consuming them as quickly as burning thorns; and the king concludes by proclaiming a line that elicits the excited response from the entire crowd
(L:) The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation! Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: (P:) “…The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” (Psalm 118:14-16)
And then the king recapitulates the severity of the battle.
“I will not die, (as I should have based on the powers of the enemies that swarmed about me) but live, and proclaim what the Lord has done. [The Lord let me go through severe punishment in this battle], but he has not given me over to death. (See Psalm 118:17-18)
Only by his power, the king claims, do I continue to live, and win the victory over the enemy that would destroy me. This victory makes it possible for those outside the faith to enter the faith, and so those new to the faith to burst out
(L:) Open for me the gates of the righteous; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord. (To which the gatekeepers emphasize that this gate is restricted to God’s holy people). (P:) This is the gate of the
Lord through which the righteous may enter. (Psalm 118:19-20 emphasis added)
And in a dramatization of God’s reaching love, the gates are opened and these thrilled “outsiders” are welcomed in with all the rest of God’s people and they claim God’s grace as their own
(L:) I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. (Psalm 118:21) (emphasis added)
The long established faithful marvel at God’s work on behalf of the king, and for the benefit of those God seekers, these “outsiders” who have joined them. What a miracle it is any time a person comes to faith! So, they faithful quote the now famous proverb.
(P:) The stone the builders rejected has become the corner-stone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. (Psalm 118:22-24)
Just to be clear – what exactly is it that God has done? He has snatched the king, rejected and surrounded by swarming enemies, from a battle leading to certain death and brought him to safety, and in saving the king, the king has saved – not only the nation, often rejected by the world; but even those outside the faith, who were often rejected by the long-term faithful.
One commentator noted that the massive cornerstone on the southwest corner of the Temple had to bear the pressure of great weight coming from multiple directions. If it failed, the whole building would slide down into the Valley of Hinnom (later translated “Gehenna”) – which was a perpetually burning rubbish dump – a powerful visual for the eternal fires of hell and destruction.
The cornerstone was critical for holding up the salvation of all people, the long faithful and outsiders alike. The faithful are amazed to see what miraculous work God did through his king; opening the way for even “outsiders" to be welcomed in! As they now stand together inside the gates of the righteous, the old faithful are inspired to consider the battles that still lay ahead in their future. They shout with joy and ask for future victories. The first phrase is literally a plea. In Hebrew it forms one word – Hosanna -- a phrase and word born of such confidence in their God that it was not often used as a plea and much more [commonly used as a word of praise – Hosanna].
P: Lord, Save us! Lord, grant us success! (Psalm 118:25)
Now everyone moves from inside the gate deeper into the sanctuary, surrounding the altar. The Temple leader greets them,
(L:) Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. (and they reply…) (P:) From the house of the Lord we bless you. (Then he replies,) (L:) The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. (That is, God is present here among us and with us! He invites the people to the festival dance around the altar) (L:) With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118:26-27).
This action symbolically imparted holiness to the participants -- the horns in each corner of the altar demonstrated the strength of God’s love, and in non-festival settings, fugitives would cling to them and beg for the saving mercy of God! The festival’s altar procession was powerful expression of God’s gracious acceptance which again leads the outsiders to declare ownership of their new faith:
(L:) You are my God, and I will praise you; you are my God, and I will exalt you. To which everyone responds and concludes the liturgy how they started by saying (P:) Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. (Psalm 118:28-29 emphasis added)
The palms, then, that you hold (or at least are near you), have been a part of festival liturgies for a long time.
When Syrians captured Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Temple, it prompted the Jewish Maccabean revolt. Eventually they won and carried in palms as they repossessed Jerusalem. They also processed with palms when they cleansed and rededicated the Temple. Palm images were put on coins and became a symbol of Maccabean nationalism and political power over Israel.
In other words, when Jesus sparked a particularly hyper-charged festival by calling Lazarus some 150 years later, the symbolic meaning of the palms had moved away from Psalm 118’s spiritual symbol of a Universal God who welcomed all believers to his altar. John’s choice of words and the way he orders the details of the story emphasizes the nationalistic political overtones of the palm wavers. They went out to meet him (an action that is done to welcome political leaders to a city), They called “Hosanna” (a phrase that addressed kings) and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, transferring the meaning of the line from the pilgrim entering God’s presence in the Temple to the Messiah entering to liberate the Jewish nation, John nails it home by adding the phrase the one who comes “as the King of Israel”. (See John 12:12 ff) They were welcoming him as a national deliverer in the line of Maccabean liberators.
Jesus responds to the clamor by sitting on a donkey. John quotes soundbites from the prophets Zephaniah and Zechariah emphasizing that God is in their midst as king, but as a king and city to whom all the peoples of the world are welcomed to come to seek refuge. This king/God, say the prophets, will command peace to the Gentiles and reign from sea to sea, save the people from enemies, and especially save the lame and gather the outcast. In short, the people interpreted Lazarus’ rising as a sign of the coming new life of nationalistic glory for Israel, while John declares this gift of life is for all the people of the earth.
He reinforces this universal hope by reintroducing the alternate plot line -- the line and plot that would destroy Jesus because no matter what they did, the whole world was going after Jesus. And in case the readers haven’t got it yet, John now inserts a story where worshipping Greeks ask Philip to introduced to Jesus. (See John 12:19 ff) We are back to the beginning of the Psalm where all the people, including outsiders coming to the faith all say in amazement
L: Let (all) those who fear the Lord say: (P:) “His love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:4 emphasis added)
And right on cue, just as the king of the Psalm begins to recount the fierce battle in which he miraculously survived, Jesus begins to pre-count the fierce deadly battle that is now just days ahead, and how he would die – but God would intervene, and he would be glorified and lifted up, thus drawing all the world to himself. (John 12:23 ff)
The crowd understood being lifted up to mean killed, but not being lifted from the grave or ascending to heaven -- they didn’t get that yet. So, they asked how the eternal Messiah can be lifted up to die and who is he? Jesus turns an intellectual physical question into a spiritual moral answer. As the Psalm talked about God’s light (presence) shining on them, Jesus says they must trust and walk in the light while they can for the light will not be with them much longer, And then, to make the point even more clear Jesus left and hid himself from them. The next time he emerges into the public eye he will be in the middle of the fierce cosmic battle, rejected, tried, beaten. The remainder of the chapter continues the other plot line, about those who continued to actively not believe in Jesus or believe in him secretly because they feared men rather than God, and a monologue (seemingly out of chronological order) that sums up the consequences of rejecting Jesus. (See John 12:34-ff)
Matthew (18:33-44) picks up on this theme -- somewhere in this chronology after Jesus entrance and prior to his hiding away – during a lengthy dialog with leaders who were trying to trap him. Jesus tells a parable to illustrate the proverb quoted in Psalm 118. You heard it prior to the sermon. God graciously provides everything we need to be successful stewards of life. A call to bear fruit, a hedge set around to protect from enemies and animals, a watchtower to look over it all, a press to process the fruit into something worthwhile.
But instead of being good stewards of what we have been given, we hoard to ourselves and kill anyone who gets in our way, including the owner’s own son. The religious leaders, even though they knew Jesus was talking about them, if they were to be honest, would have no choice but to deliver condemnation of the people in the parable who, instead of recognizing the marvel of God’s grace, selfishly rejected the owner and his son; rejecting the king and refusing to share God’s marvelous offer of salvation with the world. Making the confession of condemnation, Jesus predicts their loss of their place in the kingdom of God, to be replaced by other tenants, other people who would give God his due by bearing fruit rather than hoarding it to themselves.
Bottom line today’s choice. God has won an amazing hard-fought victory and spiritual provision for us, providing us with a cornerstone upon which everything is built, and everything is held together. Will we break our lives against the unmovable cornerstone because we reject our need for God? Or will we be fruitful by building our lives on the foundation of the cornerstone of Christ – and watch his marvelous victory work in our lives? As we contemplate, ask God to lead you to discover what victory he wants to win for you in your life, and how he might want you to build on that victory…
Prayers and Meditation
Let’s pray. Lord, when we contemplate the deathly battle you fought and ultimately won for us, but not only for us, for all; and when we consider what gifts and provisions you have given for us that we may be fruitful in this life; we are awed by your love and what you have done for us in Christ.
We confess that too easily we have sought your blessings to be blessed, but not to be fruitful. We hoard your love and protection to ourselves and forget that Jesus came in your name not just for us, but to open heaven to all who will believe.
We recognize that sometimes we still flounder in the wilderness, defeated by bad habits, or lacking the discipline to build good habits. We ask that you point out our challenges, not to beat us up, but to offer yourself to us so that we can build anew, or more, on the foundation of your truth.
In an early summary of your sermons, you advised us that putting your words into practice is like a wise person who builds his house on a rock -- no storm will undo us. You have won the battle for us, now teach how to build our lives on that victory that we may be faithful and fruitful, living as you taught us to pray... Lord’s Prayer
Lord, like the king of the Psalm, we recognize we cannot win the battle if you do not intervene. We run to you for refuge. We cling to the horns of your altar. We cling to your goodness and grace. We claim your faithful love. You’ve laid it all out for us in your word. You strengthen us and hold us up and cause us to stand -- you will not let us slide down to destruction as long as we are leaning on you. Now in this next moment of silence, with just the piano playing, we consider the requests in our bulletin, those that we named earlier in the service, and in our hearts, and we contemplate what victory you want to bring to our lives, and teach us what it is you want to build in our lives -- on you -- and into our daily living.
We’ll jot what we hear on the paper and when the first verse ends, we will sing and place our paper in the living waters, stirred and dissolved into a cloud or prayers to you.
Hymn # 529 (vv 1,2,5) How Firm a Foundation
Jesus has won the battle, so don’t build on sand of lesser things, built on the cornerstone so that you will be made holy; prepared to be God’s faithful and fruitful people at all times. Amen.