“O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!.....It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to put confidence in mortals. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’S doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1,8, 21-29 NRSV)
Did you know that it is considered (depending on what Bible scholars interpret and versions of the Bible, the language, oh you get the point) that Psalm 118 is the center book of the Bible and that verse 8 is the center of that Psalm (see the first verse of the text above)? Psalm 118 is preceded by the shortest chapter in the Bible 117 and proceeded by the longest chapter, 119, in the Bible. Psalm 118 is preceded by 594 chapters and followed by 594 chapters and if you add those numbers together you get 1188 chapters; coincidently the middle of the bible 118:8. These are just fun and debatable facts, but it does get you thinking about the construction of the document that drives our understanding and the basis/foundation of our traditions.
I do believe that it is paramount that we take refuge in the Lord and not mortals. The Lord is omnipotent and infallible while we mortals are quite the opposite. Psalm 118 is a festival psalm for both Jewish and Christian communities. It is read during Passover, as the Jewish people recall God’s deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt into freedom. The early Christians turned to this Psalm as their worship point (there was no New Testament to turn to). The joyful thanksgiving of this psalm was the liturgy of the faithful as they processed to the temple. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD,” became the liturgy in all four Gospels for a noisy crowd in Jerusalem welcoming Jesus, who had come to save them. It is still used on Palm Sunday as we join throngs of worshipers through the centuries as we, too, “bind the festal procession with branches,” singing and waving palm fronds. We will continue that tradition of some 2,000 years with our Cantata!
Psalm 118 begins and ends with a core affirmation of faith: “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” This affirmation brackets all that comes in between. In distress, under threat, outnumbered, pushed to the limit—in every circumstance, we are buttressed on all sides by God, who is good and whose steadfast love endures forever. This thanksgiving for God’s steadfast love erupts in a cry of confident gratitude at the center of the psalm, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” Psalm 118 was Martin Luther’s favorite psalm. He wrote verse 17 on the wall of his study in Coburg castle, where he stayed during an anxious time. During the tumultuous Reformation, Luther’s experiences taught him not to place confidence in human beings, in princes or nations. The psalmist knew that our only sure refuge, our confidence, is in God alone.
This model prayer is characterized by thanksgiving wholly focused upon the power and goodness of God. When the psalmist says, “Open to me the gates of righteousness,” the petition is based not on confidence in the psalmist’s own righteousness, but on confidence in God’s righteousness. The petitioner asks to enter the temple not out of personal worthiness, but to thank God, who has come to save and set free. In fact, the psalmist says that God has “become my salvation.” Indeed!
A story is told by Rev. Kimberly Clayton, that many years ago in a theology class at Columbia Theological Seminary, Professor Shirley Guthrie was teaching the doctrine of salvation. One student became adamant that not all would be saved; that some were unrighteous and deserved God’s eternal condemnation. This student was confident that unrighteous people would receive the punishment they had coming to them. As he continued in this vein, the rest of the class hoped he would not start naming names! After a pause, Dr. Guthrie said in his kind, yet confident manner: “Look, God is for us … not against us!” That affirmation is the framework within which we live and move and have our being. Our entrance into the temple, into eternal life, is not based on our own righteousness! Our confidence is in God, who has become our salvation. “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”
I wonder if it is hard for many of us to live in thanksgiving for God’s goodness and love? We mean to live, make decisions, and relate to others in the joyful freedom and salvation God brings. Yet we still act (or react) out of fear instead of faith. Threatened or afraid, we feel that we are on our own to “make it” in this world. We depend on our own power or resources rather than God. Individuals, groups, whole nations turn to economic strength, intellectual prowess, physical or military might to overcome opposing powers. Fearful, insecure, we measure ourselves against others; their judgment becomes our tool of self-assessment, or we judge others as unworthy.
Psalm 118 turns our attention to God, who apparently sees things differently from the way we often see them. God chooses to use for good what we often reject. Psalm 118 makes it clear that the world’s judgments are often wrong, at odds with the judgments and purposes of God: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” The cornerstone of a building is chosen with care, for the weight of the building presses on it from different sides. What looks weak and unworthy to us may be just what God has in mind! The cornerstone is the most important element in the construction of a building and serves as the measuring point for the entire structure. Israel was rejected by the imperial powers (Egypt, Babylon, the Ptolemies) who oppressed it, but now God has vindicated Israel. God has vindicated humankind through Jesus Christ the Son. “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”
On Palm Sunday, we join the crowds in Jerusalem, naming Jesus as the one who has come to save us. However, because we have lived beyond that first Palm Sunday, we know how the week ahead plays out. We eat the meal on Maundy Thursday, we mourn the death on Good Friday, we know that the “builders” who reject Jesus as king and cornerstone are not only the chief priests and other authorities, but the crowds also … even his own disciples. But we know that the great words will be spoken on Sunday, “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”
Though we try to live in faith rather than fear, we are still amongst those who fall away, fall asleep, betray, deny, and doubt him. We still reject what God chooses. Nevertheless, our actions do not determine what God creates! Jesus Christ has become the chief cornerstone, the risen Lord! This is God’s doing, not ours. It is marvelous in our eyes. “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”
Finally, we end where we began: in joyful thanksgiving to God who comes to save us and set us free. Because God has chosen to save us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we know that, like him, we do not escape or bypass sadness, danger, threat, and death. Knowing that God is for us and not against us, we may live with confidence in God. Our fears are no match for the salvation God brings. Our loudest laments are lost in the words of thanksgiving: “O give thanks to God!” “God’s steadfast love endures forever!” We can and will shout, “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”
I pray that as you read this you are as excited as I am and happy that we are gathering at full strength! It is wonderful to hear your voices, see your faces, and feel your energy as we worship, learn, and fellowship together. Christian Ed. is up and running, Hospitality is as good as I remember, Mission Outreach is thriving, the Property is looking great, our Youth Programs are back, and Worship is, well, as joy-filled as ever! Our committee reports will show all of this, as has our annual report.
We, the Session, the Staff, and I, hope that you will be able to journey with us especially during Holy Week. We begin with a wonderful Cantata on Palm Sunday, then celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, with Good Friday service, and on Easter morning Sunrise Service 7:30am. (with breakfast being served at 8am) and then our regular Easter Service with the flower cross. Please join with me one more time, “He has risen…He has risen indeed!”