setting for this psalm was the temple. The way we did it as a call to worship
this morning probably was very similar to the way it was done in the temple.
Possibly sung, possibly recited; we don't know for sure. The context of the
psalm is one of celebrating the saving deeds of God.
begins with thanksgiving for God's steadfast love and then it recounts a time
of great distress when the nation was surrounded by its enemies and defeat
seemed imminent. But the people hung on to their faith and in the end were
surprisingly victorious. They then
attribute that victory to God.
appears in our lectionary reading not only this Sunday, but for next Sunday,
Easter, as well. The reason it is here for this Sunday is obvious from the
reference in verse 27 to the festal procession with branches, reminding us of
Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
also, though you may not catch this here in English, where it says 'Save us, we
beseech you, O Lord!' is another connection to Palm Sunday. Did you know that you know the Hebrew
for that verse? Yes, you do. Hosanna! 'Hosanna' means 'save us'. And when Jesus
entered into Jerusalem that was the cry of the people. Save us! And to which
then they also respond quoting from the psalm verse 26, 'Blessed is the one who
comes in the name of the Lord. '
It is not
surprising that they would use this psalm for the entry into Jerusalem because
the psalm was used at Passover.
This psalm sounds much like the victory song of Moses after the passage
through the Red Sea when their pursuing enemies were drowned. And so it is used for the celebration
of Passover that observes that event. Jesus enters Jerusalem as part of a large
group of pilgrims arriving for Passover.
Hang on to that thought because we are going to come back to it a little
The psalm is
also used for Easter. Why? Well, obviously verse 22, 'The stone that the
builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.' This verse is quoted in
Matthew, Mark and Luke, quoted by Paul in Ephesians, in 1 Peter 2, and most
significantly by Peter in one of the speeches he gives, recorded in Acts 4, all
to describe the meaning of Christ's rejection by the authorities and the
vindication by God: 'The stone the builders rejected has been made the chief
more note about the setting of the psalm. Though there are sections that speak
of a personal experience written in first person pronouns, scholars tend to
think that those pronouns reflect the perspective of the king speaking on
behalf of the nation. 'I was surrounded by the nations,' referring then to
Jerusalem. The psalm is not so much personal rather it is a highly liturgical
piece written to be used in worship by the community for communal celebrations
of God's saving deeds.
For all of
these reasons, the psalm provides a good backdrop for us to reflect on the
meaning of the events of this week as we move from Palm Sunday through Good
Friday and eventually on to Easter. And if we are going to discuss the meaning
of the Passion, that is of the suffering and the death of Christ, then I cannot
avoid Mel Gibson's film on the topic, 'The Passion of the Christ.'
Now, you may
have heard of the little controversy about it and of course I always hate to
talk about controversial topics, you realize. The film, when I last heard, was
reaching $300 million in box office sales which will put it up there with 'Lord
of the Rings' as one of the most successful movies of all time. Which is quite
phenomenal when you stop and think about it. In 1927 after Cecil B. deMille
made 'King of Kings,' his movie about the life of Jesus, he quipped that he
probably had introduced more people to Jesus than anyone or anything save the
Bible. Well, thanks to all of the controversy and all the critics, Gibson can
probably say the same thing about his movie when all is said and done.
Good Friday this year will take on a much greater meaning for many people,
perhaps millions, and not just those of us who saw the movie, but I think many
others who are impacted by all they've read and and by thinking about all of
these events in a new, powerful way. Therefore the joy of Easter will be all
the more powerful and that is a good thing.
I do thank
Gibson for that, but as is now well known and sometimes hotly debated, the
movie does has its flaws of which I only want to speak of one. That flaw
concerns me in that it presents only one interpretation of the meaning of the
death of Jesus as if that were the only interpretation on the meaning of the
death of Jesus.
quickly summarize that meaning and mention a couple others and focus on a
third. In the book that we used for the study we did in February and March on 'The Heart of
Christianity,' by Marcus Borg, Borg describes three macro stories
of salvation that are told in the Bible. These three stories present the
fundamental problem, the fundamental human predicament if you will, in three
different ways and, therefore, God's solution to that problem is also presented
in three different ways.
The first is
the Exodus story when the people were in slavery in Egypt. The primary problem
is one of bondage. People were being victimized by the powers of the world and the
solution to that problem is, of course, liberation. The way out of slavery led
by Moses that takes them through the wilderness and eventually to the promised
macro story is that of the Exile. Similar to the Exodus in that the people are
again living in a foreign land, but this time in Babylonia. The problem now is
not one of bondage, but rather that the people have been cut off from their
homeland, from their roots, from their spiritual center. And so the solution is
to return home to be reunited with one's place of belonging. Like the Exodus,
that takes one again through the wilderness back to the Promised Land. As the
prophet proclaims, 'Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Make His
path straight and smooth.' You see that is the proclamation of good news from
the perspective from the exile of returning home.
finally, is the temple story in which the primary problem, the primary
predicament of humanity is sin and impurity. Now this story is not based on
historical experience of the nation, but rather on the institution of the
temple and the priesthood. The
solution, of course, to that problem is to be cleansed and forgiven. The temple
exists specifically for that purpose, to make it possible for one to reunite
with God, to be forgiven.
these three stories are reflected throughout scripture and there are many, many
repeated references to these larger stories. Gibson's movie tells the Passion
story from the perspective of only one, the temple story. The ultimate meaning
of the Passion of Christ is to offer us a solution to our sin through the death
of Christ just as through the sacrifice of an animal in the temple--one is
cleansed and forgiven. In the opening scene of the movie there is the Satanic
figure that says to Jesus, 'No man can carry the burden of all sin. It is far
too heavy.' And then to prove him wrong Jesus endures the most sustained,
brutal flogging imaginable as if such beating could represent the burden of all
sin. Much has been written about that part of the movie. Never mind that the
gospels do not record anything like that which Gibson portrays, it still drives
home the point that this is the pain of our sin, of all sin, that is being
borne by Jesus.
with that portrayal, other than the sheer brutality of it, is not with any
question of historical accuracy, rather theological necessity: what does such a portrayal say about
God? That God would require Jesus or anyone else to suffer such in order that
we can be forgiven of our sin? As if this were the only solution, the only
possible way that we could be forgiven of our sin, for Jesus to suffer in such
a horrible way. Now if that were the only meaning of the Passion - that Jesus
had to suffer and die in such an agonizing, brutal way so that I can be
forgiven and loved by God - then I have to tell you that I would find it hard
to find any comfort in such love.
But as I
indicated earlier there are other meanings to the Passion as told in the New Testament
and these meanings are seen when you read the story from the perspective of
those other two macro stories. The New Testament clearly sees Jesus as a Moses
figure and hence equates the Passion of Jesus with that of the Exodus story.
Remember that Jesus announced at the beginning of his ministry 'I have come to
proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives.' That is an Exodus
theme. And as I indicated at the beginning, the gospel writers use Psalm 118 to
celebrate Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, a psalm associated with the victory of Moses.
The cry of the people, 'Hosanna!' 'Save us!' is the cry for liberation from the
oppression of Rome. The celebration of the triumphant entry is the celebration
of the ultimate victory of God over such oppression. From the perspective of
the Exodus story the meaning of the Passion is the death that brings liberation
and new life, thereby saving us from whatever bondage and oppression in which
we may be.
Testament also speaks of Jesus as 'The Way'. It speaks of the early Christian
community as followers of 'the Way'. Remember that proclamation of John the
Baptist, 'Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness.' You see, that is the
language of the Exile and return. The story of the prodigal son who goes off
into the foreign land, alienated and separated from his homeland, from his
father, comes back for a joyous return--that is an Exile story, a return story.
From the perspective of the Exile story the meaning of the Passion is the way
of dying to this world that we might join Christ on the journey that will take
us to God's home here on earth as in Heaven, that will bring us home to be with
Last we come
back to Psalm 118, this oft quoted verse to describe the meaning of the
Passion, 'The stone the builder's rejected has become the chief cornerstone.'
When we held
our dialogue at Northwest Christian College on the movie with several faith
leaders a few weeks ago, Tammam Adi from the Islamic Cultural Center described
to us what the Koran teaches about Jesus. It was fascinating to learn about that
because the Koran teaches that Jesus was not crucified, but in fact He lived to
be of ripe old age, died of natural causes and ascending into Heaven. Tammam
told us that the story of the crucifixion was created by the enemies of Jesus
to discredit him. Why? Because, he said, it is inconceivable that God would
allow the Messiah to suffer and die.
Yes, that is
right! And you see, that's precisely the power of the story. That is why Paul
said, 'We preach Christ crucified, folly to the gentiles and a stumbling block
to the Jews.' In Buddhist terms it is koan, a nonsensical reality, like the
sound of one hand clapping. It forces you to rethink things in a different way.
A crucified Messiah simply is nonsensical in the ways the world views it. No
other religious community follows a crucified or executed leader. This is the
unique contribution of Christianity to world religion. Christ crucified, you
see, is not the super hero, the super Messiah that withstands all the
punishment a brutal regime can dish out and then still has strength to carry
the cross up the hill. Rather Christ crucified is the dying Savior who bears
our suffering, our sorrow, our pain, who has been in our skin. Preaching Christ
crucified, 'the stone the builders rejected that has become the chief
cornerstone,' says that God is there in the midst of our suffering, in the
midst of humanity. God's humanity, if you will, is the foundation for the realm
of God here on earth as in Heaven.
Matthew Boulton from Andover Newton Theological School about the movie,
Jesus' flayed and bloodied body, so graphically destroyed on the
screen and finally so distinct from the relatively unscathed bodies of the two
thieves crucified alongside him, will for most of us stand out above all other
suffering bodies we have ever seen. The film effectively exalts Jesus as the
one sufferer above all others. But this exaltation, to my mind, is a reversal
of the true meaning of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
crucified' is not the Hero, not the strongest man. On the
contrary, he is the weakest man, the least of these. There is his strength. He
is not the greatest sufferer famed above all others. He is, finally, the anonymous sufferer, in radical
solidarity with every sufferer, everywhere. There is his proper fame. As the
Son of God, he suffers and dies with sinners, forgotten and alone, disappearing
into the thousands of Jews and others crucified under a brutal, violent,
imperial regime. So he continues, even today, wherever agonies are borne among
the human family. [i]
many meanings, many understandings. Not just one correct meaning, but perhaps
there is truth each of them. It is good and proper that there are many ways to
understand the central event of our faith, for it is in the variety of these
meanings that Christ speaks to each and every one the word that each of us
needs to hear. But if there be one word, one meaning heard above all others, I
would that it would be this - that in the Cross of Christ we will see the sign
of God's love, the one who suffers not just because of us or for us, but with
us, that all may rise above such, and like Christ, triumph over it.
Save us we beseech you O Lord.