Pausing at the Gates

Message preached on March 25, 2018
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Psalm 118:19-29

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             Juniata College, one of our Church of the Brethren schools located in the middle of Pennsylvania, has a tradition dating back to the 1940’s called “storming the arch.” Every year, on the second Wednesday of the Fall semester, the incoming freshman class is given the opportunity to try to force their way through an arch located on the college’s oldest residence hall, the “Cloister.” The only thing preventing them from passing through is a mob of upperclassmen. More specifically, the first, daunting ring of defense is the school’s men’s and women’s rugby teams. To date, no freshman class has made it through the Arch successfully (as far as I know).

             It’s important that we pause at the gates today. By “gates,” though, I’m not thinking of this entryway which leads beyond high school to college or toward some other important direction that the younger ones among us will be storming through (or at least trying) in the years to come. That passage is a significant “gate” in life, one that can be in the back of our minds as we continue exploring the Word this morning. However, just now I’m thinking of the “gates” presented to us in the scriptures we’ve heard.

             On this day we are pausing at the gates of Jerusalem, the entryway our Lord passed through as he headed toward his earthly destination. We hold our palm branches which we have waved in remembrance of that day long ago when the crowds stood, not to block his entrance through the arch of the city, but rather to welcome him in. In the church year, this “Palm” Sunday marks the beginning of what some call “Holy Week,” a very eventful seven days in the foundational story of our faith. Nearly half of the gospel of John, by the way, takes place during this week. Matthew, Mark, and Luke remember things from a slightly different perspective, but these days in Jerusalem are at the heart of the good news that all four accounts proclaim.

             As I said, it is important that we pause at the gates. Of course we, unlike the crowds back then laying their cloaks before Jesus and the disciples who accompanied him; we know the rest of the story of “Holy week.” From our perspective it’s a mixed bag - excitement and fear combined. We know that the bright voices crying “hosanna” outside the gates would all-too-quickly be muzzled by those shouting “crucify him” on the other side. We know that beyond those gates our Lord would soon be angrily turning over tables in the Temple (at least according to how Matthew, Mark, and Luke remember it), as well as lovingly breaking bread around a table with his disciples in an upper room. We know that the next few days would be full of tenderness and terror. And then there’s the price tag. Do you remember how much our salvation cost?

             You could say that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a bit like “storming the arch” at Juniata College, only the stakes were much higher. After all, this wasn’t a fun tradition. It was for keeps. Arrayed before the gates into where our Lord was eventually headed was a force more fearsome than a college rugby team. Looking back, we say that he became the first One who made it. He broke through the “arch” (so to speak) of death, and thus opened the passage for those who would trust in and follow him. Indeed, we know the rest of the “Holy Week” story, unlike those who first lived it. Of course, what we don’t know is how the gospel story will play out in our own lives in the days and years ahead. So, as we pause at the gates in our remembrance of “Palm Sunday” and “Holy Week,” we look forward and not just backward. Where is Jesus leading us today?

             “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it(Psalm 118:24). Those well-worn words come from a Psalm which plays a key role in the New Testament, especially the portion of the Psalm that was read earlier. Several times Jesus is referred to in the Bible as the “chief cornerstone rejected by the builders(Mt. 21:42‑44/Mk. 12:10‑11/Lk. 20:17‑18, Acts 4:11‑12, Eph. 2:19‑22, 1 Peter 2:6‑10). This is a direct quote from Psalm 118 (v. 22-23). And, as we listen to the story of his entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of that fateful week long ago, this Psalm forms the backdrop of what we sometimes call “the passion” of Christ. As we pause at the gates of this week, both in our looking back and in our looking ahead, perhaps this Psalm can become for us the background scenery of the gospel drama we are living today.

             An important point should be made at the outset. This Psalm is not a lament. As Ecclesiastes says, “there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven ... a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (3:1, 4). Indeed, as this “Holy Week” draws to a close in our remembrance of it, there is an abundance of weeping and mourning as Jesus is “rejected by the builders” - arrested, put on trial, tortured, strung up, and killed in a slow and painful way. The Sabbath, beginning at sundown on that strangely named “Good Friday,” was not a day of rest and renewal for the followers of this crucified rabbi. It was a time for inconsolable grief, heart-wrenching sobs, and fear of reprisals.

             However, remember - the backdrop Psalm for this week is not a lament. It is not a mournful song. Rather, it is a Psalm of gratitude. “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let God’s people say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever’” (Psalm 118:1‑2).  That Biblical affirmation which begins the 118th Psalm lies at the heart of the gospel story that was lived out long ago when Jesus stepped through the gates of Jerusalem. It also lies at the center of how this gospel story is lived out in our lives today. God’s love is steadfast and true, and this love will endure no matter what. As the apostle Paul would later write:

               “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord(Romans 8:35‑39).  

            Thanksgiving lies at the heart of the gospel. Psalm 118 is a song of gratitude. The portion we heard earlier is a celebration. Those people waving their palm branches outside the gates were pilgrims on their way to the Temple during the most central celebration of Jewish faith - Passover. They were acting out these very words, remembering God’s faithfulness in delivering the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. When those Hebrew slaves cried out “Save us,” God heard and sent a deliverer, Moses (Exodus 2:23-3:10). Along the way of their deliverance, the blood of a sacrificed lamb painted on the doorposts made the angel of death pass-over every Israelite home but not spare the firstborn of Egypt, thus finally persuading Pharaoh to let God’s people go (Exodus 12:21-32). The Lord opened the gates that held his people captive in Egypt.

             In thanksgiving for the steadfast love of the Lord, those who surrounded Jesus on that first “Palm Sunday” long ago were themselves entering the gates of Jerusalem, processing toward the Temple of the Lord, bringing their branches to the altar in thanksgiving to their Redeemer. That some would lay their festal branches on the ground before this rabbi Jesus who was riding on a donkey outside the gates of the city is an interesting move. The altar is on the other side of the entrance into Jerusalem, way inside the Temple in the Holy of Holies. But here the celebration has already begun, outside the gates. “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

             Thanksgiving lies at the heart of the gospel. That’s something we should take with us as we live out the good news story in our lives today. As I said, we don’t know exactly where our path will travel as we follow Jesus. Think of those students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, whose terrifying experience last month led many to enter the gates of Washington DC and other cities yesterday. We don’t know what crosses, what difficulties, what problems, what trials we might face in the days and years ahead. Neither do we know what joys, what wonderful experiences, what great events we may encounter. We do know, however, that as we “storm the arch” (so to speak), as we head through the gates that lead us into the future (whatever that “tomorrow” might entail for us), Jesus has paved the way. This rabbi on a donkey has gone before us.

             Remember the backdrop of the story, however, as you pause at the gates. Whether we’re looking back at the passion of our Lord as the events of this week unfolded long ago, or looking ahead to where Jesus might be leading us today, behind it all is a song of gratitude, a song that is a prayer. It is only natural to end this message, pausing on the threshold of this new week, with a prayer. Guided by the Psalmist, would you pray with me?

              Swing wide those gates, the gates that open into a right relationship with you, God. We step out by faith in the One who leads us all the way. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! May every step we undertake be filled with gratefulness - for you, Lord Jesus, have become our salvation. Yes, you were rejected, a stone discarded as flawed by those who think they know better. May we not discard you, as well, for you are the true cornerstone upon which all is built. This is God’s work. We rub our eyes in awe and wonder. Today, as we pause at the gates, this is the day you have made. Help us, O Lord, to fully live this day (as well as every day), singing in our hearts, “Be Glad! Rejoice!”  
              “Hosanna!” You hear our cries when we are in need. You deliver us from evil every day, so often in ways we never see. May your salvation be our song: Jesus saves! We have heard the joyful sound! Blessed are you. Help us to not just speak your blessing here and then remain silent once we leave this place. No, guide us to openly share and live your blessing; not just today, but everywhere you lead us every day - days that may have their fill of weeping or laughing, mourning or dancing.  
              You are our God and we are your people. You shed light upon our way.  Help us to lift up this light so others might be able to find their way. Help us to lift up our joy, our praise, surrounding your altar with adoration, an altar found not in some building made of brick, but in the Temple of the human heart, where your voice is heard and your Word truly written.  
              You are my God, and I will give thanks to you every day that I live, everywhere you lead me. For you are good, O Lord, and your steadfast love endures forever. Amen.  

©2018, revised from 2003  Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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