March 27, 2016
The Rev. Dr. Lissa Wray Beal
Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12
He was, I suppose, like any other young Jewish boy, learning lessons of faith at his mother’s knee. Like other young people, he attended synagogue services, learning the stories; the history; the life of Israel with God. Like others, he would have memorized scripture. We might imagine this boy learning Psalm 118 – the psalm we read today - with his mother helping him. We might wonder whether this particular boy had a good memory for such tasks, or did he struggle with “what came next?” And we might even wonder. . . as he heard the words. . . did they seem oddly familiar. . . as if somehow he had already said them; already knew them??
This boy heard the story of Psalm 118: an individual, likely a king (perhaps the great and godly King Hezekiah) had been threatened (perhaps by an invading army). This psalm stood as the king’s testimony to a great deliverance that had been achieved – not through human effort – but through God’s work alone and out of God’s great, steadfast love. The king had feared death. God had delivered him into life.
With the whole community, this boy. . . and the man he became. . . would sing Psalm 118 during Passover; perhaps there was a catchy tune that wormed its way into his mind. Passover, of course, was the festival commemorating God delivering Israel out of Egypt. Psalm 118 was the last and greatest psalm of what was called the “Egyptian Hallel” – Psalms 113-118 - songs of praise celebrating God’s love demonstrated in that deliverance. As the people entered the temple during the festival, they sang Psalm 118, asking the gates of righteousness to open before them. As they sang, they rejoiced in God’s day of salvation, the “day God had made.”
Psalm 118 was not quite an original song, however. While it might not be the first true cover, its words echo the words Miriam sang long ago (Exodus 15), when Israel had come through the sea and – with joy – realized they were free. The escape real. The enemy defeated. Psalm 118 is supposed to make us think of Miriam’s song that rejoiced in the day of salvation from Egypt.
“Riffing” on Miriam’s exodus song, Psalm 118 speaks of salvation several times (v. 14, 21, 25). In the same way, Israel experienced salvation out of Egypt (Exod 14:30).
Psalm 118 speaks of miraculous deliverance by “God’s right hand”: “the right hand of the LORD does valiantly; the right hand of the LORD is exalted.” Miriam’s song told how God delivered Israel out of the clutches of wicked Pharaoh. Deliverance was not through Israel’s own cunning, nor through a slave uprising. It was not through any human effort, but only by God’s powerful hand (Exod 15:6, 12).
Psalm 118 offers “thanks to the LORD” for an astounding, unexpected deliverance out of death into life, accomplished because “the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (v. 1). This is the same covenant love—chesed—that moved God to rescue his people from Egypt (Exod 15:13).
As this boy learned this psalm, perhaps he thrilled to the adventure of the stories it evoked: stories of a king miraculously delivered from death to life; stories of Israel’s Passover and their miraculous and gracious deliverance from death to life. As this boy grew to manhood, he would have responded to Psalm 118 as it called people to “rejoice in this day of salvation,” a “day the LORD has made.”
And one day, that boy-became-man entered Jerusalem. On a donkey. And the crowds strewed their garments on the road. They cut down branches of palms, laid them before him as was customary to greet a king. Looking on him as their deliverer from Roman power, it is no surprise that they sang out before him the words of this psalm meant to greet a king. They are the words that we heard last Sunday, as we remembered this man – Jesus – entering Jerusalam as Israel’s king. Luke tells us they sang, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the LORD.”
But at that Passover festival in 1st-century Palestine, while an oppressed people expected this king to toss out the Romans, he came to bring a different kind of deliverance. This king would not take a throne of power. . . but would be enthroned on a cross. This king would not use armies to fight (though he had legions of angels at his command). He would instead fight using the powerful right hand of God.
For this king – this boy-become-man – was also God-become-flesh. And as God, he would fight with power. But it was a power unlike any power ever before considered. It was the power of love. Love that gave itself over to death so as to conquer sin and death. And in so giving itself, winning life for God’s people.
He came, we might say, to effect a new exodus; a new expression of deliverance out of bondage for an enslaved people—not simply Israel enslaved by Pharaoh, but all people, for all stand under the bondage of sin. Christ came to do what God had always done: save his people.
Knowing how this psalm speaks of deliverance out of bondage and death, the Church has heard in it not just the experience of an ancient king delivered from life to death; not just the experience of Israel delivered out of Egypt; but the experience of Jesus’ own astounding movement out of death and into life. And the Church has also heard in Psalm 118 its own experience of being saved from death to life: “The right hand of the LORD does valiantly. . . I shall not die, but I shall live. . . the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
From a dark tomb on the long-ago Sunday, Christ’s body was resurrected. Sin and its powerful ally death: these were broken. A King of Life had come and shown that there was One more powerful than these dark realities that so separate us from God.
This salvation was accomplished not by human effort. As it had in the past, it was now accomplished by the power of God. God’s steadfast love acted to deliver his people. Just as he delivered Israel out of the bondage of Egypt. Just as he delivered a king under siege. Just as he delivered the God-Man Jesus Christ. So through Jesus Christ God delivers his people from the power of sin, and death.
As the psalmist says, “This is marvelous in our eyes.”
Yes. Marvellous. And we need such a marvel for we live in a world where often, it is death that seems to be in control. Death that seems to be the marvel that holds us in fear: We see death, even in this week in Brussels. We see it working through ISIS, in rocketing teen suicide rates in northern reserves in Canada. In violence, broken families, and poverty.
These things are terrible. They exist. But they are not the last word, and one day will be no more, as Isaiah foretold in this morning’s readings. It is, instead, the power of the Living Christ that is the last word. Telling us that God is real. That his love endures forever. That God alone delivers us from sin and death. That through his death and resurrection he invites us to enter that new Life, and live as if Life – not Death – was the really real thing.
On the first day of the week, women came to the tomb. They did not find the body of Jesus. Angels told them that “He is not here; he is risen.” They ran to tell the disciples, who thought they were bringing “an idle tale.” For really, no one rises from the dead, do they!? But Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself. And he went home pondering, amazed at what had happened.
And that is, I think, the invitation of this day: to come to the tomb. Realize it is empty. And – amazed, astounded – consider that God has done in Christ the utterly unexpected: overturned death. Opened Life. Invited us in to receive a freely given gift offered by a God of steadfast love and live as God’s people of life in the midst of a world of death.
Something happened to change reality that long-ago Sunday. One day really can change the world. One day really has.
The psalmist proclaims, “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!