Song of Victory

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21:1-11, April 12, 2014

Every year on Palm Sunday, we take a look at Psalm 118.  There’s good reason for this, the crowds that have Jerusalem in turmoil, according to Matthew’s gospel, are singing parts of this psalm as Jesus is riding the donkey up to the temple.  This is the start of what is for Christians Holy Week.  It’s the one time all year we say the word “hosanna!”  Psalm 118 is fairly long, so we are not using all of it this morning.  The part that we’re skipping is a song about someone who sings God’s praises because God has helped him win in a battle against long odds.  The writer was surrounded by enemies, he says, “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.//The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.”  Later on, it reads, “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.  The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.”  You can see why Christians picked up on this psalm.  For us it foreshadows the events of the week ahead.  But I want to spend a little time looking in a little more depth at those who first sang this song. 

 I’ve been using the words “psalm” and “song” interchangeably this morning.  And that’s intentional.  I think of the psalms as the Old Testament’s hymnal.  There are 150 of them and together they cover every human emotion I can think of.  There’s despair, fear, persecution and joy and celebration.  Whenever people say they really want to start reading and understanding the Bible, I do not tell them to start reading in Genesis, I steer them to the psalms and hope that they can connect with the psalms emotionally.  I’ve talked about Psalm 118 as a song, but it’s really more of a medley.  There are at least four different celebrations that are alluded to in Psalm 118. 

 The first occasion that part of this psalm was used to mark and celebrate was the return of a victorious army from battle.  We see this at the very start of the psalm where someone leads the crowd in saying “The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.”  Probably there was a call and response, and people along a parade route would shout “The steadfast love of the lord endures forever.”  That’s the thing about parades, they are interactive.  I’ve marched in more parades than I can count having spent years in marching bands.  There is always, always give and take between those moving in the parade and those standing on the side watching.  Going to parade is different from going to a concert or a stage play—the wall separating observer and participant is very, very porous. 

Imagine Jesus riding up to the temple on a donkey, and a crowd of people gathering around him spontaneously singing this song that was sung to celebrate winning a war.  Imagine the feeling of being in a parade or a demonstration at such a joyous, national moment.

I visited the church’s oldest member, Wilma Bauer, this week because she had a memory of something like this.  Wilma turned 98 on her last birthday.  She remembers going to a gathering in downtown Oshkosh in November of 1918 when “The War to End All Wars” ended.  She was three years old.  She sat on her father’s shoulders and he told her, “Remember this day.”  And she did.  She remembers that she was told that this would be the last war, we had won “the war to end all wars.” 

My mother remembers being awakened one morning in August of 1945, by shouts of newsboys yelling “Extra!  Extra!”  The Peoria Journal-Star had published an extra edition either because the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, or because Japan had finally surrendered and the war was over.  Church bells rang.  Her father was coming home.  What made the greatest impression on my 8 year old mother was that her mother went to church.

In my lifetime I cannot think of a moment of national triumph that.  But there are ticker tape parades down Broadway in New York City regularly.  On the sidewalk there are stones with dates and occasions written on them.  Times like when the Apollo astronauts returned from walking on the moon.  I went to a ticker tape parade when I lived in New York, the Mets had won the World Series in 1986.  It was really something.  I was glad I was able to watch it from a friend’s office, a few floors above street level.  Then someone pointed out that the building might tip over, because everyone was on the same side of the building, looking down at the scene below.  One of the occasions for singing Psalm 118 is at a celebratory parade.  Perhaps some of those in the crowd regarded Jesus as a military leader about to lead revelation against Roman occupation.

The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

Another occasion for singing Psalm 118 is remembering the Exodus.  Remembering that God heard the cries and suffering of the Hebrews when they were slaves and acted with a strong hand and outstretched arm to deliver them  slavery.  Remember Jesus was riding up to the temple a few days before Passover.  The connection between God’s liberating the Hebrews and Jesus’ coming to liberate the Jews would have been on everyone’s mind.  Tradition had it that the governor would release a prisoner on Passover.  It was a way to keep the peace in a moment of great tension.  Parts of this psalm were sung at Passover celebrations in Jewish homes.

This psalm was also connected with the return from exile.  As I was researching this week I was amazed at the length of time we are talking about here.  The Exodus was some time around 1,300 BCE.  It’s hard to get a precise date.  It really is the defining moment for Judaism.  Every year the story is retold and re-enacted around the seder table.  The foods are symbolically important.  We’ve had seder meals here in years past.  All intended to keep people from every forgetting that the Lord is a god of liberation.

Centuries later Israel and Judah were overrun, conquered militarily and their leaders who survived were taken to Babylon.  The temple was destroyed.  The people were crushed and broken.  They did their best to stay together in Babylon.  They wrote Psalm 137 there, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept, when we remembered Zion.”  They were in Babylon for about three generations before they could return.  Imagine longing to return to your beloved home, a place that you’d never been to, a place that you’d only heard descriptions of from your grandparents.  A place where the god you have tried to be faithful to in a foreign land resided.  Finally, you’re able to return and rebuild.  This is where the reading we did earlier picks up “Open to me the gate of the lord: the righteous shall enter through it…I thank you that you have become my salvation...this is the Lord’s doing it is marvelous in our sight.”  This is a song of celebration, vindication and triumph.  A song that celebrates God’s goodness, God’s refusal to forget the people, God’s refusal to abandon them.  This all came about 800 years after the Exodus. 

The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever.

But wait, there’s more.  There’s another occasion on which part of Psalm 118 is sung.  And it’s important to us on this day.   Did you notice the part that went “Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar”?  First of all, let me say that Presbyterians do not have altars in our church buildings.  We have communion tables.  Altars are where sacrifices are offered, and we do not offer a sacrifice to God when we celebrate communion, we remember what Christ did around the seder table with his disciples on the night we refer to as the Last Supper.  OK, so let’s get over the word “altar.”  There was an altar in the temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices were offered there, and on one festival each year there was a festive procession into the temple and branches were fastened to the altar.  Anyone know the holiday I’m talking about?  Sukkoth.  It’s a harvest festival that takes place in autumn.  The word “sukkoth” means “booths” and it takes its name from the booths that families supposedly slept in during the 40 years of wandering after the Exodus.  Sort of like camping.  When I lived in Brooklyn I noticed that every apartment building in the Hassidic neighborhood had at least one porch that extended from the second floor.  For a week each fall things that looked like ice fishing shanties appeared on these porches.  Observant families would eat their meals in them and attach branches to them.  Even though Passover is celebrated in the spring, Succoth is another annual holiday when Jews remember God’s love and care for them in leading them to freedom.

OK, so you’ve got a lot of context—Jesus comes riding up to the temple from Bethphage, riding a donkey, just as the prophet Zechariah said the king would come…the people cut branches from the trees, just as they would do in the autumn at harvest time at Succoth…there’s a call and response: “Let Israel say, ‘God’s steadfast love endures forever!”  Which is also what they say when the army returns from battle having won.  It’s Passover, the Holy Day of liberation…they are singing the psalm of celebration at the vindication of returning from exile..there’s a very large crowd…the whole city is in turmoil….

We know lots of this psalm by heart, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  And “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest.”  But both of those verses can be translated slightly differently, with a little more edge, a little more menace, a little more of what would make the Romans fearful enough to kill this upstart revolutionary from Galilee.  What if instead of “This is the day the Lord has made,” the people sang, “This is the day on which the Lord acted”?  If you’re oppressed and humiliated by Romans ruling your nation, this wouldn’t just be a word of hope, but a hope of revolution! 

And that other part, that we sing at communion, what if instead of “the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” What if we sang, “blessed is the one who walks into the crisis as God’s representative?”  The psalm wasn’t just sung on joyous, emotional, hope-filled occasions, it was also sung by those coming up to the temple, the holiest place on earth.  All of these themes are colliding and washing over the people.  All of the emotion and confusion, the hope and betrayal, the disappointment and despair that we will experience in the coming week as we relive the events of Jesus’ last week are all in this psalm, this seemingly simple psalm, sung on many, many different occasions, always reminding the singers that the steadfast love of the lord endures forever.  Amen.