Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Psalm 118 is what scholars sometimes call a processional psalm. It may also have been a royal psalm, where the king was led in procession to the Temple. It was certainly one of the psalms which pilgrims chanted or sang as they approached the Temple Mount at festival time. It's also one of the most often quoted passages in the Bible.
The psalm begins with a note of celebration. The pilgrims are nearing the end of their journey and they're in the mood for rejoicing as they get ready to enter the Temple precincts. The cantor chants, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good." And the people reply, "His steadfast love endures forever!"
We're surrounded by so much fear and uncertainty because of global warming, the financial crisis, the world's rising population and scarce resources. No one knows what the future holds, but it often looks pretty bleak. Popular films like Cloverfield and I Am Legend show us vivid glimpses of what disaster might be like, and how we might cope if it happened. But the psalm says, 'Give thanks to the Lord!' Why? Because 'he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!'
That's not to say, of course, that the trouble will all go away if we choose to sing God's praises. We still need to stop the temperature rising, and kickstart the economy, and start a green revolution to try to save our planet. But the psalm reminds us that God is on our side. He is willing us to succeed, to make a difference, to change the future. He is good! And his steadfast love endures - even in times of trouble and danger. He's not a fair-weather friend. He's the God who is with us in storms and earthquakes. His love is steadfast. It endures. So much so that it is forever. Nothing can snuff it out. Not even death.
As the pilgrims chanted their praises the procession would have wound its way through the narrow streets until it reached the gates of the Temple itself - the gates of righteousness, the gates to the place where people can meet God and be as close to him as anyone can ever come on earth. Except that the psalm says only the righteous may enter. No one else can go in.
Now if you had been a pilgrim who had trekked halfway across the known world to visit the Jerusalem Temple you might already be feeling pretty righteous, cleansed somehow from all the sordid and selfish associations of ordinary life by the privations and sacrifices that would have been entailed in making your journey. You might have marched in through the gates of righteousness full of confidence without a second thought. But the cantor doesn't feel like that. He knows that, by his own efforts, he could never deserve to enter the Temple and join in the worship of the righteous. And yet all is not lost; he need not be left behind; for the Lord has answered his need and become his salvation so that he too can enter the gates. More than that, the stone that the builders rejected - the unrighteousness person who should have been locked out of the Temple worship - has become the chief cornerstone, and this is so marvellous and unexpected that it is clearly the Lord's doing.
Who is the person, then, who is singing the psalm at this point? Is it the whole pilgrim people who, together, are saved and made righteous by God to become a cornerstone of this great act of celebration? Is it, in other words, a 'corporate' person chanting these words - a body of people acting as one? Do the pilgrims recognise, when they finally reach their destination, that there is still something missing - not matter how far they might have come - and that they still need God's saving power? Or is this a lone voice, the voice of the priest or the king, who must be made righteous by God in order to play a special role as the chief cornerstone of Temple or national life?
Although he was the one truly righteous person in human history, when Jesus hung on the cross he allowed himself to suffer the fate of the unrighteous, to be condemned and put to death, to be wounded and brought low, to be made vulnerable, to be cast out of the holy city and left to die in torment, and thus to become the bearer of the world's unrighteousness in order to show us how we might be made righteous. And that is why Jesus probably saw himself as the final and enduring embodiment of the person who sings this verse in the psalm. He is the last and greatest stone which the builders rejected, the stone nonetheless which went on to become the enduring cornerstone, the marvellous means by which the whole human race could be put right with God simply through believing in him and in his way of living and dying.
When the gates of the Temple opened to greet them, the pilgrims would have entered into their final act of praise, reminding themselves that 'this is the day that the Lord has made' and we should 'rejoice and be glad in it'. The psalm is talking here, I think, not just about our attitude to special holy days, like the day of the festival when this psalm was traditionally sung, but about every day, for every day is consecrated to God. Perhaps there is also a reference here to the idea that the day when we are put right with God is a special day, a red letter day in the calendar, a day particularly on which to rejoice and be glad. And for Christians that day is, of course, Good Friday - the day made special for all time by the death of Jesus.
There might - I think - be one false note in the psalm, where salvation is equated with success, but that really depends on what we mean by success. If you've been listening to the news this week you can't have failed to miss the stories about the G20 Summit of world leaders in London. It began with a whir of helicopters and a zoom of jets bringing the leaders from the corners of the globe, and it ended with a celebrity dinner at which presidents and their consorts clamoured to get J K Rowling's autograph and the First Lady hugged the Queen. If success means having enough power or celebrity to get yourself onto the guest list at Number 10, then I think the psalm is wrong. Salvation and that kind of success are not the same thing. The gates of righteousness do not open for successful entrepreneurs, performers and politicians, because true success has to be measured against the template of the crucified messiah, the stone whom the builders rejected. But if the plea in the psalm, for God to save us and grant us success, is a prayer for God to help the world's people come together to solve our problems with wisdom and compassion, then - of course - it does not contradict the way of Jesus at all. In a more thoughtful moment during the summit, Gordon Brown said that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism all in their different ways reflect a sense that we must share the pain of others, that we believe in something bigger than ourselves and that we cannot be truly content while others face despair. If that's how we really define success at the G20 Summit then success is not incompatible with salvation after all.
The pilgrim procession seems to have ended with the people entering the Temple ahead of the priest, or the king, who stayed on the outside until they had all gone in through the gates. Then the people would turn and welcome the leader with words that the crowd would borrow to welcome Jesus on Palm Sunday, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord'.And, of course, the Psalm also calls on the pilgrims to 'bind the festal procession with branches', like the palm waving crowd which welcomed Jesus, although I'm not sure quite how you actually go about binding a procession with branches and other translations say quite different things, such as 'bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar' or 'with branches in your hands start the festival and march round the altar.' I think the second version is a more appealing idea of what the psalmist might have meant.
Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is supposed to be the triumphal entry of a king, just like the procession of the pilgrims who entered the Temple ahead of the King of Judah, chanting their welcome to him and carrying the branches of trees. Jesus' followers also went ahead of him, consciously echoing the same procession. Except that Jesus' choice of a donkey to ride on also evokes the words of another Bible passage, from the Prophet Zechariah, who foretells the coming of a new kind of king, a king who believes in disarmament - who will get rid of war chariots, horses and weapons and, in the words of John Lennon, 'give peace a chance'. The Gospel writer says that it was only after Good Friday that his followers realised how Jesus would fulfil this prophecy and give glory to God.
This week the leaders of the world arrived in style at the G20 Summit. No donkeys, or underground trains, or bus rides for them. But who were the true heroes of the hour? Someone wrote in an opinion piece in the newspapers that the unsung heroes were the ordinary people who came to protest about the two greatest challenges which we face - the climate crunch and the credit crunch. The writer reflected that one day the people who stirred themselves enough to go to London and join the protest will be remembered, either with gratitude or chagrin, while those of us who stayed at home will be seen to have missed the opportunity to try to bring about vital change.
Well today we remember the people who stood up and were counted among the followers of Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem for the final showdown of his ministry. Even though they may not have understood exactly what was going on, until after the events were over, at least they were there to welcome him.