The people of God would have sung Psalm 118 ritually, every year at the passover, but the meaning of the Psalm would have changed through the ups and downs of their history. By the time Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the passover, greeted by the words of this psalm, it would have been a confession and a plea for salvation. From it, we can learn, ourselves to confess and rejoice in our low estate, and plead with the Lord day by day to forgive and save us. Concept credit: Brynn Herrington, Highrock North Shore, Beverly, MA.
Psalm 118: Which Parade?
Good morning, church. Grace, hope, and peace to each of you in Jesus Christ our Lord. Please go with me to Psalm 118. Psalm 118, and we’re going to read starting in v.14.
Friends, it’s good to have you with us. So often this kind of work, pastoring a small church in an urban core, can feel lonely and bit frightening, like being a child lost in the woods, only our trees are made of stone, so they’re unyielding. But then there are days like this, when the room is filled with longtime friends—people who care, people who want to help all of us who are lost in this city find our way home. These days remind me that God never leaves us alone, and he will not.
The passage for today is one I’ve preached on before, but I couldn’t help myself. I was drawn to it this week as I prepared in this midst of all the parades starting, and the crowds. It’s part of a set of psalms celebrating God’s rescue of his people from oppression in Egypt, which you can either read about in the book of Exodus, or if you got through high school English using Sparknotes, you could watch the Charlton Heston movie.
But I was drawn to this Psalm in particular because it’s a song meant for a crowd and for celebration. They would sing it every year in Jerusalem at the Passover feast, praising God for rescuing his people out of oppression and slavery. Particularly, this psalm, most people think, praises God for the building of Solomon’s temple, and for the presence of God coming to rest on the temple as he dwelt among his people. Basically, it remembers and praises God for the most joyful, best moments of their history. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!”
This is their Susa march, their NOLA brass band playing “Iko Iko” or “I Feel Like Bustin’ Loose.” Their Halleluiah Chorus, the song that comes to your lips when life takes a fortunate turn. Yesterday we sat in this room and sang songs of praise. I’m sure there are songs you all sing every year as you gather here, at our church, to praise the Lord. Your own celebration of God’s goodness in the midst of a city-wide festival.
Now, think for a moment how the meaning of the song changed, year after year, for the people of God. Imagine the emotion behind this song when the kingdom of Israel split and the northern kingdom fell, like last year in New Orleans when the streets were suddenly empty, devoid of music and life. It was eerie. This is a photo I took on Lundigras.
Imagine singing this psalm on the day of passover in your first year in exile in Babylon, when the temple it celebrates was desecrated and destroyed. I imagine the emphasis shifting. No longer are they singing the first few verses loudest, praising God for everything he’s done, but the emphasis shifts to v.25, “Save us, we pray, O Lord.” You’ll know the Hebrew word, there, it’s Hosanna. That’s what they began to repeat from this psalm every year at the Passover. The psalm became a remembrance and a prayer, like looking at a photo of a family member who passed away—save us, o Lord, dwell among us again, o Lord. How long will we be under foreign rule, o Lord? How long will we face death and poverty and pain, o Lord?
Then, almost two-thousand years ago, when all of Judea was gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover feast and festival, a lot like this weekend in NOLA, a ripple goes through the city, whispers. Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher, the healer, had actually raised a man from the dead. His childhood friend, Lazarus, had been in the tomb for three days, the tomb was sealed; he was dead. There’s no doubt. I went to his funeral. And now Lazarus is here, in the city, preparing for the feast with his family. No one had been able to turn back death since Elijah and Elisha, since the days of peace.
Suddenly, the psalms of God’s deliverance of his people begin to sound a little less like history. Suddenly the old song takes a new form. What if your loved one in the photo were brought back from life somehow, impossibly?
So the whole of the nation, “The whole world,” John writes, runs out to see Jesus come into the city, and they’re singing this psalm. Let’s read it together—for a second time, if you took part in the readings this morning—Psalm 118, starting in v.14. [Psalm 118:14-29] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
It’s not hard for us to imagine right now people thronging the streets of a city, calling out as the procession rolls by. People broke off palm branches to line his arrival, and laid their own clothes on the path in the mud and mire of an ancient city street, which is not something I would recommend during Mardi Gras.
But you should know, too, just like Mardi Gras, there was more than one parade going on that day. Jesus’s arrival wasn’t the only anticipated arrival that weekend. Pilate, too, would have been arriving, right at about the same time. You see, even though Jerusalem was the capitol city of the nation of Israel, the Roman rulers of the region didn’t live there. They thought Jerusalem was dirty and failed, and they didn’t want anything to do with it. They lived in a city Rome built by the sea to the West, Caesarea, with broad streets and gates, castles and battlements. It had a gymnasium and a circus, a harbor to receive guests of state. It was a civilized place, in the Roman mind.
There was a king in Jerusalem, Herod, but he was really just kind of there for show. The Romans knew, if they left some local rulers in visible seats of power, the masses wouldn’t chafe so much at the foreign rule. So they would station armies in conquered regions to maintain order, but leave kings in place. If the puppet king displeased Rome in any way, if he spoke a word against the emperor, Pilate would simply have him killed and replace him.
Passover, like Mardi Gras, was the largest festival of the year, so Pilate would come to Jerusalem, since the people were conveniently gathered already, to remind the people of the dominion of Rome. He would arrive, he and his entourage—women, slaves, soldiers, servants—dressed as a conqueror in full armor, sitting on a horse, which at that time were not used for travel, but were instruments of war, symbols of the strength of those who were wealthy enough to own such animals.
The Roman soldiers who held Jerusalem by force—soldiers who were allowed to force residents of the city into labor on a whim, who could kill them with impunity—would line the streets at attention, from the gate of the city to Pilate’s fort in Jerusalem, which was built on the same hill as the temple, and everyone of any kind of importance would make an appearance at his arrival. With the world watching, Pilate would ride into Jerusalem, declaring himself the source and seat of power in Israel.
I like to imagine, although I don’t know, that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday at the same exact time as Pilate. I like to think about the contrast of the two men, Pilate riding in on his horse to the east, Jesus riding down from the hill country to the west, because he had been staying with his friends celebrating life and resurrection.
Pilate on his horse, flanked by soldiers. Jesus riding on a donkey, dressed in the same cloak his mom probably made for him ten years ago. Herod, the king, would have been on the other side, welcoming Pilate, along with all of the leaders of the synagogue, the rabbis, and teachers, the ruling classes. Those who came out to see Jesus would have been the ones whose faces and names would not have been known or missed at the other parade. They’re shouting, in desperation to Jesus, “save us now.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” singing the psalm they’ve sung every year of their oppression, but now, their hope for salvation is close. He’s within sight. God’s salvation is not just a song anymore, his salvation has become real, has become human.
Listen, we each have a choice this morning of which parade we’re going to attend. Even when we all go home, when Lent begins and the city calms, we’ll have a choice to make each day of which way to go, which way to look for help to come, from the east or the west? From the sea or the mountains? From the world or from Christ? And before you decide on your answer, I think we need to be honest with ourselves. “The gospel is always tragedy before it can be good news.”
And the tragedy of this choice, is how often we do look to the sea and to Rome for our help. How often we take up power, not to lay it down, like Christ, but to use it to achieve our own goals. How often we choose political posturing over kingdom humility, standing tall at the top of the hill over admitting we need God to save us. Too often, we are the pharisees who thank God they are not like other men, rather than the tax collectors pleading to God for salvation and forgiveness. Hosanna! The tragedy is, even we Christians are more like Pilate than we are like Jesus, often enough. Too often, we miss the movement of the Lord into our communities, because we’ve chosen the other parade. Hosanna! Lord please save us today. Lord, have mercy.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook once, thinking he was showing Christianity to be absurd, he wrote, “The difference between me and your God is that if I saw a person being abused, and I were able to stop it, I would.” It’s the problem of evil, my friend imagining what he would do if he were in the place of God, with omnipotence. He says he would help the world, those being abused. I think his thought is wildly naive. When I think of myself, for example, holding absolute power, I think of my own sinfulness, my weakness. Even with the piddling amounts of power I have now, I manage to cause pain and division. With omnipotence, I imagine a tyrant. Even with good intentions, sin in me would find a way to kill and oppress with impunity, call it policy, call it politics, call it religion. Do we not know, by now, what we men do with power?
We are more like Pilate than we are like Jesus. That’s the tragedy. Hosanna! Lord, please save us today. Christ have mercy.
I really want you to see the qualities of these two men. Think of the next moment when Jesus and Pilate interact. Jesus is brought before Pilate, and the soldiers do what they consider to be a joke. Before they bring him to Pilate, they put a crown of thorns on his head and dress him in purple. We always imagine the crown of thorns being brown and stripped of leaves, but if you imagine it that way, you miss the joke the soldiers were making. Pilate would have worn a crown of laurels, a leafy vine twisted on his head, and he would have worn a purple robe, symbolizing wealth and rule. The joke is, here’s this man who thought he was a king, like Pilate. Pilate brings him out to the crowd and makes the same joke. “Behold,” he says, look at this guy! “King of the Jews!”
And the irony of the joke is manyfold. I brought up Ceaserea, Pilate’s city-by-the-sea earlier, because everything Pilate valued came from across that sea. He wanted to live and think and act and be as close to Rome as he possibly could. When Pilate talks of his authority, in his mind it’s coming from Rome. When he talks of truth, it’s the truth he learned from the best tutors money could buy growing up, the philosophical tradition of the Greeks, of Aristotle who taught Alexander the Great and implanted into Greek and Roman culture the idea that philosophers should be kings because of their superior thought and grasp of the way the world works. Pilate doesn’t want to be in Jerusalem, he doesn’t want to learn from people there, he doesn’t want to live with them, and he certainly doesn’t think he might need anything from them—not love, not grace, not family, not forgiveness.
And we are Pilate. That’s our tragedy today. We approach Jesus week every week in church assuming we’ve already learned whatever it is he might wish to teach us that day. We assume we know the truth, and have little use for any teaching which might challenge us. We assume we’ve had the best teachers, and deserve a high position. When we interact with God, we offer sacrifice, not mercy—we seek to benefit God or his kingdom in some way, without ever considering we may be undeserving of love, in need of grace, in need of family and forgiveness. Hosanna. Lord, have mercy.
When Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” he asks the question assuming he knows vastly more than this construction worker turned religious extremist who knew so little about the structures of government he had managed to offend all the wrong people and wound up here, in this room, on trial. Pilate, of course, not realizing he is speaking to truth, himself. That this man is truly king over him, but unlike him, he doesn’t consider “equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Pilate laughs at the irony of the clothes, but he misses the deeper irony entirely.
I hope we do behold them both today, side by side, Jesus and Pilate, and in doing so that we would imagine ourselves next to Jesus, in Pilate’s place. I pray God would give us eyes to see what Pilate did not see. I hope we see Christ about to die in our place out of love for us—not because we are lovely, but because we are beloved. I hope we see ourselves as unworthy to even be his servant, much less be called friend, child, and brother.
I hope we see our partiality for wealth, power, and talent next to Christ’s love of all people. I hope we see our sin next to his innocence. I hope we see our pride next to his humility.
When we look at Jesus next to Pilate, I hope we see all the ways we try to wash our hands while letting others suffer in our place so we don’t have to be bothered, and I hope we see Christ who pierced and bloodied his hands to forgive and save those he knew were guilty, enemies, rebels.
We need to quit seeing lives and communities which are obviously broken and telling ourselves that we really can’t do much of anything about it. Church, engage with the brokenness. Dirty hands have more merit than clean ones. Preach the gospel in word and deed. We need to stop courting power and influence, and instead join the crowds of people who won’t get mentioned in any histories, but will get to find the way of Christ and lay their clothes and lives down at his feet.
And we need to stop making cruel jokes at the expense of those we think to be ignorant of truth, those who are across political and racial divides and we need to see the deeper irony, that those divides, like the crown of thorns and robe, make us look just like the divided world we live in.
Church, listen: we are Pilate. We are just like him. We make his same mistakes. We have the capacity to look truth, himself, in the face and ask what is truth? We reject him in small ways, this truth of God, his suffering, his body broken for us, his blood shed for us.
Behold the man! Pilate keeps saying, and in an ironic sense, he’s right: one of the two of them is ridiculous, a pretender, a usurper, ignorant, and helpless. And we are him; that’s our tragedy. Hosanna! Christ, have mercy.
But the good news is this: if we are Pilate, and Jesus died in Pilate’s place, then Jesus died in our place.
For Pilate, condemning Jesus to death was not a memorable event. It doesn’t come up again in almost any Roman records, there’s really just one mention of Jesus in the Roman logs, it’s a single sentence, and they actually misspell Jesus’ name. Pilate moved on largely unchanged from his encounter with Christ.
Do not do the same this morning. Our sins, the mistakes we make, this brokenness about ourselves and the world, sometimes seem so small it’s hard to imagine they matter or could have any consequence, so we don’t think a whole lot about our need for forgiveness. Most of the people I talk to as a pastor, I ask them first what they are praying about, and they usually answer, “nothing much.”
I’ll bring up church or Jesus, and usually they haven’t thought much about it. Many of us who go to church, too, come on Sunday, and then we leave and mostly leave church behind us, we move on, like Pilate, to our jobs and lives elsewhere. But I would argue, whether or not Pilate realized it, his part in Jesus’ death is one of the defining moments in his life. And whether or not we realize it, whether or not we’ve ever even given it a thought or been concerned, our part in Jesus’ death is one of the most defining moments in our lives.
Jesus did not have to die that day. He was innocent. Every person involved in this story played some kind of role in nailing him to that cross, and so have we. Christ didn’t have to die; He died for you, in your place, to save you. If we could live according to the will of God for our lives, the world would be healed and restored, justice would flow down like a river, and peace would reign. But the world is not that way, the world is broken, because we broke it.
I wonder if Pilate had any sense that washing his hands that day didn’t quite get the blood off his hands, didn’t quite accomplish the forgiveness he wanted. I imagine him washing them again later that day and remembering Christ whom he sent to a cross. There’s nothing we can do to accomplish forgiveness for ourselves. No amount of washing, no penance, no amount of good deeds will make us clean unless Christ washes us. If Pilate had knelt down on his knees and reached out to take Jesus’ robe, he would have gotten his clothes dirty, he would have gotten blood on his hands, but he would have been healed and clean.
So reach out today, friends, to Christ before you. Jesus died in our place, so that we might have life. I would invite you today to choose, this day, which way you will go. Which parade do you choose? I would invite you this morning to be the tax collector pleading for mercy rather than the pharisee thanking God he’s not like other men. I would invite you to be one who understands God’s mercy and not our sacrifice. I would invite you to be the folk who run out that eastern gate toward the sunrise and toward Christ, shouting Hosanna! Lord save us, now! Because they knew they needed saving. Our God abounds in steadfast mercy. If you confess your sins to each other he is faithful and just to forgive you of your sins and cleans you of all unrighteousness. He will wash your hands clean, even if you cannot. Reach out. You can come pray with me, or pray with the person next to you, use the kneelers, but pray with me now.