Psalm 118:1-2; 19-29
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
2 Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
19 Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.
21 I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
26 Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God, and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.
29 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
The other morning I stepped off the bathroom scale with a bit of a disgusted look on my face, so my wife asked me how my diet was going. I told her it was not going well. I can’t control my appetite and I eat an absolutely terrible amount of junk food. So she asked me what I had for breakfast, thinking maybe she could give me a few tips and some encouragement.
“Eggs,” I told her. “I had eggs for breakfast.”
She replied, “Don’t feel bad about that. Doctors are saying now that eggs are good for you, high in protein and low in bad fats. What kind of eggs did you have? Scrambled? Over easy? Poached?”
I told her, “Cadbury.”
Eggs have been rebranded, reformulated, and made infinitely better. Can I get an amen?! As much as I love Easter, I always lament that Easter Sunday also marks the loss of the Cadbury egg for another year.
Today we are going to be looking at old things becoming new again. This seems so consistent with the Christian message. God makes all things new, even the old, broken-down, and deteriorated things, God makes new. In the end of the book of Revelation, God proclaims, “Behold, I make a few things new!” No, all things new. But that isn’t exactly where we are going today. We are looking at how God takes old concepts and ideas, things familiar to us, and uses them to bring us into a new understanding of his mission here on earth. God even transforms a traditional militaristic celebration into the inauguration of the Prince of Peace.
Our scripture for this morning comes from the 118th Psalm. You may have noticed over the last nine years that I rarely preach on the Psalms. The reason for this is pretty straight forward: it is hard to preach on the Psalms. There is a lot of repetition with little to build upon because the Psalms are poetry and songs. I’ll take a story from Jesus’ ministry over a Psalm any day!
But this Psalm is a little bit different. There is a story behind it. And though that story isn’t entirely clear, we can get a bit of a feeling for what is going on based on the words of the Psalm and how we know it was used. Verses 1 and 2 are included in our text because they set the stage for what is going on. They read, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’” Did I mention that the Psalms are repetitive?
This is not a lament. Obviously there is something worthy of celebration going on here. Give thanks to God because his love endures forever. Our text skips over the reason for celebrating which we can find pretty easily if we just read those verses: the Psalmist has been victorious. Some believe that this was written by either David or a military leader like David who has just returned from battle and has been victorious. So this Psalm was used to celebrate victory in a battle. The Psalmist then speaks of marching through the gates of righteousness. One commentator says that this is a reference to the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem.
So let’s just walk through that again. The battle has been won and the leader marches through Jerusalem and keeps marching right to the Temple. Does any of this sound familiar yet? If not, it will in just a minute.
Verses 25-26a read, “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.” It isn’t entirely clear in verse 25 who is yelling “Save us, O Lord!” But the pronouns used here are definitely plural. There is a corporate voice calling out for God to save them. And in the original Hebrew, the people would have been yelling a form of the phrase, “Hosanna!”
Compare this to Mark 11:9-11a, “Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.”
All of the Synoptic Gospels tell this story in a similar way. This is Jesus’ triumphal entry where Jesus rides into Jerusalem as the people yell “Hosanna. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” And in each of these three Gospels, the first thing that Jesus does is he goes to the temple (John tells it a little bit differently).
The Gospels take this Psalm that is about a military victory and give it new meaning and a new purpose.
In our house we have a couple of items that simply seem like regular things. They really don’t look that impressive, and to be honest, they are not as clean and new as other things in our home. We have a bench that is rough to the touch, gray in color, and a little splintered. It is very functional and gets a lot of use, particularly because it is usually sitting along the side of the cabinet where we keep our snacks and the children have figured out that if they crawl up on the bench they can also get onto the kitchen counter and reach the snacks.
The other unimpressive thing that I am thinking of looks a lot like the bench, even though it is shaped altogether differently. It is a picture frame that holds a photograph of Sonya’s home from her growing-up years. It is an aerial view of the house, a few sheds, and the pasture. This picture frame is kind of surprising when you see it. It is hanging in our dining room, and on other walls we have nice picture frames. This one is gray and worn. There is a wormhole in it.
The reason that we have these two items in our house has little to do with their beauty, though they are nice pieces in their own way. These are in our house because they have a history. Both the bench and the picture frame are made from the old barn siding that was removed when they tore down the barn that was on the property where Sonya grew up, which is why the frame is holding the picture of the farm.
The barn siding was old, no doubt about that. It had been used for decades, and it served a great purpose: it kept the wind and rain out of the barn. But just because it is old that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still have something to offer. And no, it doesn’t look just like what you might expect when you think of a bench or a picture frame. And it sure doesn’t look like what you expect when you think of barn siding! But even in its repurposed state, the barn siding is useful and effective.
I think that there are a number of reasons why we find the story of the Triumphal Entry in our Bibles in the way we have it. I think that first of all, the Jews in Jerusalem on that day when Jesus rode into the city saw Jesus as the leader who would bring them to victory. They welcomed him just like David or the other military leaders were welcomed back from battle. And Jesus even plays into this reception by doing exactly what was written in Psalm 118. He rides into Jerusalem and goes directly to the temple.
Furthermore, when the people wave palm branches, they are reenacting a scene from the Apocrypha that tells the story of the Maccabees when they defeated the Greeks and regained control of the Temple a few hundred years earlier. This even is celebrated every year by the Jews today when they observe Hanukah. The Maccabees were welcomed into town after their victory with the waving of palm branches.
But Jesus takes this ritual, this practice, and repurposes it. We know that Jesus never picked up a sword or even a shield. And we also know that he rode into town in a less-than glorious manner. Jesus rode in on a donkey. Some of the Gospel accounts even stress that it was a baby donkey. We have a family at church who own a donkey and that donkey just gave birth about a month ago. You don’t know how tempted I was to try to get that baby donkey in to the church to show you how humble it would look to ride in on a donkey!
I think that the donkey is the key. Even today, our mode of transportation delivers unspoken messages. You may be familiar with the car that has been used by the last couple of popes, affectionately referred to as “the popemobile.” The popemobile is used for the pope’s protection, yet it also says, “I’m separate from you.” Not only is the pope separated by bulletproof glass, but also by socioeconomic location. The popemobile is often a Mercedes or other high-end vehicle. Do you know what the current pope prefers to drive? A Ford Focus. The pope will occasionally ride in the old-style popemobile in crowds, but he usually chooses to ride in a modest, compact car. That sends a message. He wants to reduce spending and wants to connect with the people at a different level.
The President of the United States often rides in a limousine as a part of a motorcade. Again, there are security reasons for this, but what if the President arrived at a meeting sometime riding on a vespa scooter? It would send a message.
Jesus’ method of transportation is so important that the donkey was prophesied in Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Zechariah prophesied that the coming king would take this practice of riding into Jerusalem victoriously and entering into the Temple and give it new meaning. And that meaning could be found in a lowly, meek, gentle donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. Because Jesus took that victorious ride into Jerusalem and transformed it. Jesus has won the battle, for sure. But he won it through weakness. Jesus has won the battle, but he won it through humility. Jesus has won the battle, but he has defeated death and sin and evil by becoming one of us and overcoming, overcoming even death itself.
The story of the Triumphal Entry is significant for many reasons. But we cannot overlook the fact that Jesus took a story that was common and well known, and he repurposed it. He gave it new life. He showed us how the victory is to be won.