Entering the Gates of Righteousness — Sermon for Palm Sunday (Psalm 118)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 

That pilgrim train we joined last Sunday has reached the gates of Zion. It’s Palm Sunday, and Jesus is in the lead. We wave palm branches as we sing “All glory, laud, and honor, to you, Redeemer, King, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!” Yes, “You are a child of Israel, Great David’s greater son; you ride in lowly triumph, Messiah, blessed one!”  Some of us lay our palm branches along the way of this festal procession. We welcome Jesus as he moves toward the gates of righteousness. We join him as he goes into the Temple to share offerings of praise and thanksgiving to God, whose steadfast love endures forever.

So, if we take the 118th Psalm as our guide, we can interpret the parade of palms that welcomes Jesus to Zion, as a call to give thanks to God, whose steadfast love endures forever. The Psalm doesn’t mention Jesus specifically, but it gives us a lens through which we can view this crowd gathering around Jesus as he makes his into the city.

According the Gospel of Luke, Jesus rode into the city mounted on a donkey. In Luke’s version the crowd doesn’t lay palms on the road, they lay their cloaks instead. But, whatever they use to guide his way into the city, many in the crowd are proclaiming him the promised messiah. There is hope in the crowd that Jesus will lead the nation into a glorious future. According to Luke’s account, the people sing and shout: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Lk 19:38).  Indeed, “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” but what kind of messiah will he be?  That is the question that Holy Week seeks to answer.

Now that we’ve reached the gates of the Temple, we can return to the Psalm.  We hear the worship leader call out:  “Open the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord” (vs. 19).  Once the gates are open, we can enter the Temple, where we can declare: “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation” (vs. 21).  We come into the Temple to give thanks to God who brings healing and wholeness and joy to our lives.  In our joy we declare: “This is the day the Lord has made!  Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Vs. 24).

Are you feeling the joy? Is this “the day the Lord has made?”

As we ponder these questions, we are invited to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Vs. 1). This declaration sums up our core confession of faith. God’s steadfast love, God’s loving-kindness, endures forever. It is the word that sustains us through life. Therefore, everything hangs on this declaration!  Let us, then, take hold of this promise and join together in giving thanks to God our savior who is revealed to us in the one who is marching into Zion.

In the spirit of the moment, it appears that a parade has begun. The crowd has gathered, because  everyone enjoys a parade, don’t they? I’ve been in a few parades, and I’ve watched many others, including the granddaddy of them all, the Rose Parade. They’re fun. You get caught up in the excitement. So it was on that first Palm Sunday, when Jesus led the parade through the gates of righteousness.

The psalmist declares that once the gate is open, “the righteous will enter through it.” The good news here is that the righteousness necessary to enter belongs to God. It is through God’s righteousness revealed to us through Jesus that makes our entrance possible. This is the good news. We have entered the gates and we can offer up praise and thanksgiving. But, before we get ahead of ourselves we need to return to this parade. While it might be exciting, we shouldn’t forget that this parade, as one commentator suggests, “leads to sorrow, betrayal, and death,” [Eric Wall, Connections, 2, Kindle loc. 3599].

Palm Sunday is a day of celebration, and yet another shoe is about to drop. We can wave our palm branches in praise and thanksgiving, but let’s not forget that before we get to that moment when Jesus will be crowned with many crowns, we will watch as another crown is first placed on his head. In the words of Bernard of Clairvaux:

“O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down; now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown, how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and Scorn! How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!” [Chalice Hymnal 202].

Yes, before Jesus is crowned with many crowns on Easter morning, he will be given a crown of thorns and nailed to a cross. This is the path forward.  It is the path of the crucified messiah.

The Psalmist does give us a hint of what is to come, declaring: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” The early Christian community applied this declaration to Jesus. Although he was rejected, God made him the chief cornerstone of God’s Temple.  Not only is Jesus the chief cornerstone, we are living stones with which God builds this Temple called the realm of God. This is the vision cast by the author of 1 Peter:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:4-5).

When it comes to the living stones, whom God considers precious, we are correct to number ourselves. But, considering the words we hear from the Psalmist and 1 Peter, we also should be mindful of those whom the world considers weak and dispensable? If I hear Jesus correctly in the Gospels, the ones who find themselves last in line in our society, get to be at the front of Jesus’ line. As Paul reveals in his first letter to the Corinthian church, those whom the world—and apparently some in the congregation—deems weak and insignificant, are of great importance to God. In fact, they are to be treated with highest honors, for they are of the greatest importance in the realm of God (1 Cor. 12:22-23).

So, who is with Jesus as he calls out to the gate keepers, “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” Could these ones, whom Jesus puts at the head of the line, be children, the aged, those with disabilities, those who experience trauma, or who are marginalized because of their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic situation?

  As I pondered this question, I hoped that the Psalmist included me among those standing at the gates of righteousness. I presume all of us would have the same hope and dream, but who else is there standing with Jesus at the Gates of Righteousness? Who else might be counted among the living stones rejected by the builders? Might these rejected stones include the asylum seekers standing at the ports of entry to our nation?

The people gathered at the gates, many of whom are women with children, have taken a long and arduous journey, not to visit Disneyland, but to find safety and security. They are like those who fled slavery in Egypt hoping to enter the Promised Land of freedom. In this modern exodus, untold numbers of families have fled violence and poverty in Central America. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers have made it difficult to find asylum. They hear that the land of promise is already full. There is no room in the inn for these weary travelers. Nevertheless, like the Hebrews standing at the Jordan, they can see the possibilities on the other side. The call out and ask the gatekeepers to open the gates of righteousness so they might enter in. Yes, I wonder if these are the ones Jesus gathers with him at the gates.

As we ponder these questions that Holy Week stirs up, we can prepare for the week ahead by singing songs of praise and thanksgiving, celebrating all that God is doing in our midst. Together we sing:  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!” For “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” We sing, trusting that no matter where the road leads, God’s “steadfast love endures forever.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
April 14, 2019