Psalm 118 is a culminating psalm rather appropriate for this time of the liturgical season, but also for the celebratory moment many of our congregations may feel after spending so much time separated from one another, quarantined because of the pandemic. Regardless of whether your church has returned to in-person worship, or is using Palm Sunday as a kick-off for return, this moment allows for a climax of celebration (individually and corporately) as churches celebrate the work and walk of our Savior through Jerusalem. This psalm, full of beloved verses, was used by the gospel writers to support and legitimate Jesus’s identity, his divinity. Yet, it also is a part of tradition where it’s recitation and exhortation supported the faith formation and identity of a community. Psalm 118 in its entirety, and the selected verses for the lectionary, support the further exploration of a congregation to consider their invitation to participate with God, not just as spectators, but as active recipients of God’s grace and mercy, and as collaborators with this same God, who asks us to share and act in the celebration because of what we have received.
Psalm 118 is a part of the Egyptian Hallel. A group of psalms (Psalm 113-118) used in the temple and now synagogues in connection with the Passover Seder, and part of the liturgical expression for all major festivals and holidays. Some sources note, the Hallel was used by the Levites as they slaughtered the paschal lambs on Passover eve. The word “Hallel” meaning “Praise Yahweh,” is made clear by the exclamations offered in these psalms, and in particular, Psalm 118. In its opening verses, the individual is invited to participate in a call and response of praise. It is worth noting that though excluded from the lectionary, verses 3-4 continue emphasizing the praise of this God, as Israel (the whole congregation) house of Aaron (the clergy/Levites), and those who fear the Lord (supposedly anyone and everyone else, but truly the whole congregation/Israel) all in concert to praise God for God’s goodness and steadfast love, that endures forever. Truly, the first two verses can be the basis of a deep and profound sermon on the nature of praise. Considering the image of a major festival that requires this kind of celebration, the kind of celebration where all are together and unified in one particular action for at least one moment. The power of witnessing collaboration in the planning for such a celebration, but even more, the desire of the group to connect and express praise because of triumph over major obstacles, over crisis, over death. What a powerful thought, what a powerful idea for a sermon.
Nevertheless, the praise does not end with these opening verses. With verses 3-18 excluded, we move to the writer’s desire to enter the temple. The temple is not just the place for tradition, or monotonous ritual, where the worshippers are fully informed and accountable to the magnitude of being present in this sacred space. The sacred space designed by God, and now inhabited by God’s people, inhabited with praise. The poetic nature of the psalms invites us to engage with the temple, to understand that you cannot enter this sacred space, in any manner, it calls for an understanding for righteousness, it calls for holiness. Central to Wesleyan theology is a call to holiness, a call to perfection. While this was the justification for many to offer restrictive measures for dress, appropriate actions, the kinds of instruments allowed in service (and the rule that would not allow me to chew gum much to my chagrin) the call to holiness is as much about a commitment to the ideals of God, the commandments of God, the posture of how we approach God to engage with this God, and each other. In the words of many church mothers, “Holiness is still right!”
The call to righteousness is also the call to recognize that we operate in unrighteous ways. In his translation of this psalm, John Goldingay translates the first word not as “O give thanks,” but as “Confess.” This Hebrew verb “yada” is conjugated as an imperative and can mean both praise and confess, in the grammatical form it is offered in the psalm. We often view confession as a negative action, a vulgar regurgitation of our sin, of the things we would rather forget. Yet, we forget how cathartic a practice confession is truly. Confession is simply a telling or revealing of facts. We add the connotative meaning with the word, with the practice. So if we reimagine this psalm, with the opening line and closing line as “Confess the Lord, because he is good...” it offers a complex purpose for praise, for confession.
The remaining verses of the psalm are significant as a group in considering the perspective of the worshipper. While many have stated that this psalm is offered from the perspective of a king or leader, I believe that it may be if greater interest to see this is a very public exhortation for the community that can be utilized even for the individual. During Lent, a major festival of the church, we spend a lot of time focused on Jesus, and rightfully so. Still as we have discussed there must be emphasis on personal and communal accountability to praise and worship of God, a personal and communal commitment to righteousness. As many of our congregations were scattered in their homes during the pandemic, practices changed, liturgy changed. Do we simply go back to what we did? How do we reimagine engagement and liturgical practice anew? While these verses are typically those used to make the bridge to Christ, there is a call to centering ourselves in the focus of these verses.
As stated before, verse 22, 25 and 26 are quoted by the Matthean, Markan and Lukan gospels, they are also verse for personal and corporate reflection. Yes, Jesus was rejected by many, so to we have participated in the rejection of persons for various reasons. Perhaps we are those who are rejected, even rejected by persons in the church. Verse 22 then takes on a confessing aspect as we consider how we reunite in festal celebration of a God who put on flesh and was rejected on our behalf! In verse 25, we hear the echoes and allusions of the cries of the crowd in Jerusalem as Jesus entered into the public space. Yet, what are the implications of the individual and corporate calls of “Hosanna,” save us? What does success look like? What remedies can God offer us?
The remedy is found in verses 26-29. The psalm confesses that all are blessed who come in the name of the Lord. This should be the reason we reunite in the church. The psalm offers a personal confession “You are my God…,” the individual remembers their connection to God, remembers their connection to a God who saves, a God who liberates, a God who delivers and answers prayers. The final verse of the psalm concludes with a furtive declaration of praise. Just as we began this psalm, we end this psalm, with praise, with the confession of facts. The congregation is once again resolved in praise of a God whose steadfast love endures forever. While we may come in varied ways to celebrate this Palm Sunday, we still gather for a purpose; being persistent and committed to confessing the works of God. Even more, we are committed to collaborating with this God to not only celebrate God’s actions, but offering testimonies that help others recognize the presence of God in their midst. Enjoy your Palm Sunday, rejoice in your gathering, and celebrate God’s actions among you.