(Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2011 || Palm Sunday Year A || Psalm 118; Matthew 21:1-11)
You may or may not have noticed that we skipped sixteen verses of today’s psalm. We read verses one and two, and then we leapt to verse nineteen and read to the end. Now, I don’t know about you, but the lectionary prompting me to skip things just makes me more and more curious about what I’m being told not to read. Perhaps this is the rebellious streak that never manifested in my adolescence finally coming out in bouts of unruly biblical interpretation. If so, I invite you to join me in my insubordination for a few moments.
The opening verse of the psalm, which we did read, says, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures for ever.” Other translations render “mercy” as “loving kindness” and “faithful love,” as in “his faithful love lasts forever.” The psalmist then moves from this declaration of love to the verses we skipped, which tell of a difficult military campaign. The middle section reads: “All the nations surrounded me, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. Yes, they surrounded me on every single side, but I cut them down in the Lord’s name. They surrounded me like bees, but they were extinguished like burning thorns. I cut them down in the Lord’s name!” The psalmist continues with a victory shout: “The Lord’s strong hand is victorious! The Lord’s strong hand is ready to strike! The Lord’s strong hand is victorious!”
With the bloody, militant verses through, the lectionary picks back up on safer terrain for the final ten verses of the psalm. Isolated as they are in this morning’s reading, these ten verses depict an innocuous procession to the temple for some sort of sacrifice of thanksgiving. But the militant verses show this psalm in a different light than we might have otherwise expected. This is no ordinary procession to the temple; this is a victory march. This is the triumphant rally following a hard-fought war. The victors parade into the city with verse 19 on their lips: “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter them; I will offer thanks to the Lord.”
A few verses later, we hear the chants of the crowd lining the streets as the troops pass: “Hosannah, Lord, hosannah! Lord, send us now success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Wait just a second. We heard these same words again this morning, again from a crowd, again during a parade. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, the crowds chant, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” Could we have just heard the same story twice in a row? We sure did, but you’ll notice some glaring differences, which show that the story in the Gospel will soon come to quite a different ending, which we will hear at the end of this service.
In the psalm, the ones who come in the name of the Lord are the ones who cut down their foes also in the name of the Lord. In the Gospel, the one who comes in the name of the Lord is the prince of peace.
In the psalm, the speaker shouts that the Lord’s strong hand is victorious and ready to strike. In the Gospel, Jesus offers no retaliation upon his arrest and reprimands the disciple who lashes out with the sword. Jesus shows his power not in victory, but in sacrifice.
In the psalm, the speaker declares: “I won’t die—no, I will live and declare what the Lord has done.” In the Gospel, Jesus gives up his life in order to declare what the Lord is doing.
In the psalm, the people call out for success. In the Gospel, Jesus knows that sacrifice, rather than success, is his calling.
In the psalm, the parade “form(s) a procession with branches up to the horns of the altar,” where the blood of the animal of the ritual sin offering will be smeared. In the Gospel, Jesus takes on the role of sin offering and sacrifices his own life for the sins of the whole world.
Whereas the psalm tells this story of a parade as the end of a triumphant military campaign, the Gospel tells this same story as the beginning of a defeat so great that the subject of the parade is put to death and his followers betray him, deny him, and desert him.
And yet, we are left to wonder: which one is the true victory? Which parade truly tells the story that the first and last verses of the psalm proclaim: “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love lasts forever.”
God’s faithful love lasts forever. The triumphant military campaign in Psalm 118 is fleeting. Those same victorious soldiers marching through the gates of the city will, sadly, march out into battle again. But the death of the one whose only crime was truth-telling, the defiance of the one who stands against the forces of darkness and domination, the sacrifice of the one who drew all the world to himself while being raised up on a cross – these things last.
Jesus says to his disciples, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus modeled this commandment in his own magnificent defeat. But we know that this isn’t the end of the story.
Because God’s faithful love lasts forever.