The past, present and future God of reversals. This is who we worship on Easter. And this is whom Psalm 118 identifies as the transforming power who delivers what our world craves. Thank the good Lord! God’s love never runs out! Let this be the broken-record’s refrain: God’s love endures forever!
The essence of God’s character is brightly visible on Easter, the day on which the Lord has acted, the day we shout out-loud that God’s steadfast love endures forever, the day we sing in victory that God is still acting, is still for us. God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt in the great Exodus; God delivered the nation scattered by the Babylonians from exile; God delivered Jesus from death to resurrection and God is delivering us from the threats that seek to swallow us in death’s tight grip. God has saved in the past and God will save again.
Marvel and be moved. That is the invitation of this Psalm; an open-ended prayer of praise and petition applicable in all generations. Renewably contextual to every generation who recognizes God has delivered in the past, God delivers now, God will deliver again. All the saints have sung this song and will sing it well into the future. This is a prayer to be prayed physically while on the move, embodying the search for and encounter of the God whose transformative power is not just visible but accessible to all of us, forever and ever. Our only appropriate response is thanksgiving. When was the last time your church offered physical and embodied thanks on Easter? Have you moved too quickly from empty tomb to egg hunt?
On Easter a prayer like the one framed in Psalm 118 gives individuals and communities the space to explore the drastic, unexpected nature of God’s reversals throughout history. As The Message paraphrases the ancient prayer, “The hand of God has turned the tide!” We join the prayers of generations, to give thanks for personal deliverance and universal salvation. To enthusiastically exalt the unending nature of God’s love. To advocate for admittance with the righteous through the gate of the Lord. To cry out, yet again, “Save us, O Lord!” To embody the kind of trust that knows God’s light will flood the future. To recall that just like Jesus, we shall not die, but live to recount what the Lord has done. To praise God for answering our cries for deliverance, for becoming our salvation. To, as the first and last phrases of the Psalm holler with joy, “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”
The Psalmist asks for admittance into the Lord’s presence, through the “gates of righteousness.” We petition the same on Easter: “open the gates!” We want in where the godly are gathered, where the presence of the Lord is, so we can go in and thank God for granting us victory! Easter after all, is the celebration of access. God’s deliverance of Jesus from death grants us this access: directly and immediately. Open gates; open tomb.
Psalm 118 was sung as the final word of the Passover festival. Jesus may have prayed it with the faithful throngs just hours before his betrayal to death. It is a Psalm that encourages our full bodied prayers today. We can engage this prayer with our minds, hearts, souls and bodies. It is the righteous who shall enter the gates and give thanks. But the righteous are not the holier-than-thou most-worthy among us, the righteous are made up of anyone whom Yahweh has delivered. Those who humbly acknowledge that they owe their lives and futures to God are welcome through God’s gates. Amidst any current threat, God can be trusted. No wonder the Psalmist cries out for salvation, because salvation means access — it means the opposite of death.
Psalm 118 thanks and praises the God of reversals. In its original setting, the Hebrew people may have identified the speaker behind the “I” statements as their king. A king requesting deliverance on behalf of a nation in crisis, longing for victory. Scholars are not conclusive on the kingly voice interpretation, but it likely originated in the post-exilic chapter of Israel’s history. It was a season when desperate people were continually dominated by other nations and uncertainty was the main refrain. In first century Judaism, verses 22 and 23 were understood to refer to the coming Messiah. The one who would reverse forever the oppression and instability of the Jewish nation. Its no wonder then, that the early Christian community came to interpret the speaker of verses 5-18 and 28 as Jesus. Or that the gospel writers used the language of Psalm 118 to articulate the significance of Jesus as King. His kingship was signaled at the beginning of his last Passover on earth, upon his “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem, and the gospels quote Psalm 118 not-so-subtly alluding to God’s reversal of powers. Jesus’ resurrection was for the earliest Christians an extension of God’s saving acts throughout history captured in the Psalm, and confirmation of the future resurrection of all believers. Jesus’ resurrection was the strongest, most shocking and tangible reversal witnessed by people of the first century. It still is today — history’s most striking reversal, the definitive act by which we know God’s love endures forever. The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The runt of the litter has become the pride of the pack. The piece of scrap metal has become the eternal engine firing on all cylinders. The discarded chip has become the portal to the world wide web. The insignificant bolt has become the linchpin of history. The unwanted penny has tipped the scales of justice toward redemption.
The homeless itinerant rabbi from no-where-special has become the Messiah.
The old paradigms no longer apply. God’s right hand, shorthand for God’s power in Hebrew scriptures, has acted overturning the sting of death. Victory is ours! We will not die! We will be delivered! How marvelous to behold on Easter — let’s get giddy and truly be glad. Let’s storm the gates of righteousness with humble assurance that God has reversed all the powers of oppression, injustice and death. “The hand of God has turned the tide!”
For those in the Wesleyan tradition, salvation “is a present thing… it might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory.” Easter is a celebration of this salvation: begun (justification), continued (sanctification) and finished (consummation). A full-orbed salvation from a God who delivered in the past, a God who delivers today and a God who will deliver again. Thank God for answered prayer! We marvel and are moved to rejoice in the day God has acted. Open gates; open tomb.
Let this be Easter’s broken-record refrain of the past, present and future God of reversals: God’s love endures forever!
Maddox, Randy. Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994, p 143.
Image: Gyre, 2009, Copyright © Chris Jordan
Song: "Even the Wind and Waves Obey Him" Salt of the Sound, Meditations Vol. 1; 2014