Picture the scene. It’s a cold, wet Friday night in midwinter. Rather than staying in the warmth, I’ve gone to Ravenhill, the home of Ulster rugby. Ulster aren’t doing very well. The handful of travelling supporters are having the time of their life. But then things start to change. One lone voice begins to sing ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen.’ The song spreads, and soon it’s ringing round the whole stadium. Ulster manage to get the try they needed, and the crowd end up hoarse from singing.
Or if rugby isn’t your scene, think of the magic formula for the music industry these days - especially the X Factor type song. The song starts off quietly, slowly, before gaining in volume; the solo singer is joined by a choir or backing singers; there’s the inevitable key change, finishing loudly with some fireworks or bright lights.
In both cases, the song is started by a single voice, but it’s catchy, it invites others to join in, so that the end result is so much larger and more impressive. In a sense, that’s what we have here in Psalm 118. Throughout Lent we’ve been looking at some cries of the heart - desperate cries to the Lord, asking him to help and save. Psalm 118 is slightly different, in that it is a victory song; it’s a cry of victory, thanking God for his salvation. It starts with a solo voice, but is soon expanded by the backing singers.
The choir master is looking for more people to join the chorus - as we hear the song, I wonder if you’ll want to sing along?
The Psalm kicks off with an invitation to worship. The soloist sings out: ‘O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!’ (1) Immediately, the chorus are invited to echo that praise: ‘Let Israel say... Let the house of Aaron say... Let those who fear the Lord say...’ (4)Can you join in? Let the people of Aghavea say: ‘His steadfast love endures forever’. Are you sure of God’s steadfast, never changing, faithful love?
Perhaps you’re not sure of it tonight. Maybe you’ve been knocked and rocked by something that’s happened to you this week. Maybe you’re been shaken by some news. You wonder if God really does love you; if his love is more than just for a week or two. Does it abide forever? Let’s listen in as the soloist takes the mic again.
The singer shares his testimony. ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord.’ (5) If you look at verses 10-13, you get an insight into his predicament. ‘all nations surrounded me... they surrounded me on every side... the surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns...’ The image is of being completely surrounded, hemmed in, pressing in - not in the comforting God surrounds me of last week (Ps 139), but in a much more hostile way. There’s danger here, the threat is real; the enemies are hostile - like a swarm of bees (you sometimes see on TV people who allow bees to cover them...), or a fire.
As these enemies press in, ‘Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place.’ (5) It’s the difference between being in the scrum at Ravenhill, surrounded, to being air lifted and set down on a spacious tropical island. From danger to delight. There’s space, freedom, no enemies to worry about.
But before we reckon that the singer is like an Action Man figure; the song shows us clearly that his rescue has been the Lord’s doing. He testifies that the Lord is on his side; that he has taken refuge in the Lord; that it is in the name of the Lord that he cut them off. Verse 14 sets us straight: ‘The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.’ Remember the story of David and Goliath? Goliath stands 9 feet tall; David is just a youth. But the Lord is on David’s side, and with a stone and a sling, the Lord gives David the victory.
The rest of the Israelites had cowered away in fear for forty days as Goliath issued his challenge. But once David had won the victory, they too celebrated and shared in the victory. So we see here: ‘There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous.’ (15) The chorus joins in as they celebrate what God has done for this solo singer.
The setting then shifts from the tents of the righteous (the temporary dwellings used in the battlefields) to the city of Jerusalem, to the gates of righteousness. We used to take boys to BB camp every summer and there was a certain joy at getting back home to houses with proper beds. But this is like a victory parade; a triumphant procession as the winning army returns home to be welcomed and celebrated.
‘I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord. The Lord has punished me severely, but he did not give me over to death.’ Now the original singer may have escaped death, but as we hear the psalm as Christians, we realise that the singer is our Saviour - who was not abandoned to death, but through death has risen to new life, and will never die again. As he approaches the gates of the city he cries out to the gatekeepers: ‘Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.’
The answer comes back that ‘This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.’ The singer shows his righteousness by declaring his thanks: ‘I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.’
As the singer enters in triumph; as the Saviour enters the city; so the chorus and crowd swells as it joins in. These psalms (113-118) were originally sung during Passover week - so they’re the very words that were fresh in the minds of the crowd as Jesus entered on Palm Sunday: v22-27.
Just as God has saved the singer, so the chorus joins in, asking God to ‘Save us’ - you might just recognise the original word: ‘hosanna’. Jesus was welcomed with Hosanna; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord...
Yet the verse that is used throughout the New Testament is verse 22. ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.’ The Lord Jesus was opposed, rejected, thrown out; he was crucified by his own people and by the nations of the world. They had no use for him. They couldn’t see his worth.
Yet that seemingly unusual, mis-shapen, useless stone has, in fact, turned out to be the cornerstone. It’s the key to the whole building project. It’s the one that makes the whole thing fit together. As the chorus continues, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.’
As we see the Lord Jesus enter the city of Jerusalem on a humble donkey; as he is betrayed, denied, and rejected; as he is flogged, beaten, crucified; laid in a tomb - it appears that Jesus has been defeated, that God was not with him. But this was the Lord’s doing - and therefore it is marvellous in our eyes. The grave could not hold him. He was not given over permanently to death. Jesus lives, having defeated his enemies (our enemies), so that his song becomes our song; we share in the chorus as we share in his victory. Will you join in and celebrate his victory for you and for me?
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Church on Wednesday 20th March 2013.