Posted by: mikebackup | March 23, 2013

Are you a bystander or are you serious?

Luke 19.28-40
The Triumphal Entry

28After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30“Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ”
32Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They replied, “The Lord needs it.” 35They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road.
37When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:

38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

We have to be careful on days like today, the familiarity of these verses can make it easy to bounce of them and not dig deep into what they have to say, a bit like it is at Christmas. So I’m going to begin this by spending some time looking at the Psalm that’s quoted in the reading and relating it to it. Remember deep Bible study is a key discipline for anyone of faith.

Psalm 118.1-2,19-29

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.

2 Let Israel say:
‘His love endures for ever.’

Add parallel

Psalm 118:19-29

19 Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
20 This is the gate of the Lord
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.

22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.
24 The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.

25 Lord, save us!
Lord, grant us success!

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.[a]
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up[b] to the horns of the altar.

28 You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.

29 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures for ever.

At the time of Jesus, Jewish people understood Psalm 118 to be referring to the victory of the coming Messiah. So it was natural that the crowds should draw on it to acclaim Jesus as he approached Jerusalem (v. 26; Luke 19.38 Luke substitutes ‘king’ for ‘he’ in the psalm, making the identity of Jesus unambiguous for his readers.)
The Psalm is a processional one, in which different figures speak out different sections. The opening and closing verses (vv. 1-4, 26-27, 29) are calls to worship by the priest(s) (note the priestly instruction in v. 27, somewhat obscure but obviously indicating that the procession has reached the altar). A central figure – perhaps originally the king – praises God for his deliverance in verses 5-18, as the procession approaches the Temple. Then comes the dramatic summons of verse 19.

‘Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.’ The procession has reached the Temple courts, and in verse 20, Temple officials respond to the king’s summons. ‘This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.’ The arrival in the Temple precincts is the ultimate, joyful sign that God has delivered his servants in their troubles, and verse 21 is another thanksgiving by the king, while verses 22-25 are words of celebration by the people, concluding with a petition for ongoing salvation (v. 25).

When the crowds use Psalm 118.26 to hail Jesus, they are saying ‘In the name of the Lord our God you are blessed as you come’. This is what they would have said to the king in the old processions, and what they expected to say to the Messiah whenever he came. (Matthew, Mark and John include an additional echo of the Psalm in their report of this incident, the word ‘Hosanna’, referring to Psalm 118.25, ‘save us’).

As we read the Gospel story through the lens of the Psalm and vice versa – and as, possibly, we re-enact the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem with our own Palm Sunday processions – profound depths of meaning open up.

First, the context for the whole event – as for the arrival of the king and his entourage in the psalm – is the praise of the Lord, Israel’s God. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, this is a fulfilment (the ultimate fulfilment, as we now recognise) of the ‘steadfast love’ of the Lord (Psalm 118.1-4). This is recognised by the praises of Jesus’ contemporaries (Luke 19.37).

Second, the crowds around Jesus specifically link him to the central figure of the psalm, the one they had come to interpret as the Messiah-King they longed for. They not only praise God (v. 37), they bless Jesus in God’s name (v. 38; cf. Psalm 118.26). The scandalous nature of this blessing is clearly seen in the reaction of the group of Pharisees (v. 39), but Jesus affirms the crowd’s instincts (v. 40).

Third, the Psalm helps us to enter a little way into Jesus’ own thinking as he embarks on this fateful week. He will shortly enter the Temple (Luke 19.45) and we can imagine the summons of Psalm 118.19 in his heart, if not on his lips. He wants to go into the Temple and use it for its proper purpose, to ‘give thanks to the LORD’. These are the ‘gates of righteousness’ – the place, as it were, where the righteous should be at home – but that is not what he will find there (Luke 19.45,46).

Nevertheless, we can imagine him echoing the thanksgiving of Psalm 118.21 for God’s rescue of him thus far. He will continue in faith, despite the sense of foreboding he has both for himself and for the nation (Luke 19.41-44).

Fourth, the events of Holy Week turned out to give a terrible twist to the traditional celebratory meaning of the psalm, used to rejoice in the Lord’s reversal of the nation’s fortunes. In the psalm they rejoiced that the nations, their enemies were ‘cut off’ (vv. 10 and11), while ‘the stone [Israel/David] that the builders [the nations] rejected has become the chief cornerstone’ (vv. 22). But Jesus will use this very verse to point to the disaster coming on Israel (Luke 20.17). Now it is Israel’s leaders who are the builders; Jesus himself is the stone they reject; and so the ‘vineyard’ Israel will be overrun by ‘others’, i.e. the nations (Luke 20.15 and16). It was a prophecy sadly fulfilled when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

This psalm would be sung by Jesus and his disciples – as by all other Jews – at the end of their Passover meal in a few days’ time (Mark 14.26). It is left to us to imagine the extraordinary mixture of faith and foreboding it would have expressed, and the hopes and fears it evoked, for both him and them.

As you can see this overly familiar apparently simple story has amazing depths beneath the surface and goes to show just what an amazing set of verses we have here in Luke. This asks something of your faith. Are you just a bystander in the crowd with casual interest or are you a disciple with real understanding? If you think you’re the former but would like to be the latter, please come to either our Thursday morning Journeys group or the soon to be starting evening group. All Christians need time to spend time deepening their faith and one of the key ways is through engaging study with others.

We’re coming to the end of Lent and this time next week people will be back on chocolate and the like. Lent like Jesus found in the Desert can actually be used to focus our minds on the journey ahead. If you don’t spend any time in study (and I don’t mean reading the Bible or daily devotional, that’s different) I ask you to consider making a Lenten promise to take it up after Easter. If you can’t make ours there are plenty of other groups out there.

Don’t let Jesus pass you by, be with him at the front.

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