Back to series
Good morning, church, and welcome to Vieux Carré Baptist online. As I get started, I want to invite you back here to our Facebook page to observe Good Friday with us in a special service that evening at 6:30, and Easter next Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and his turning back of death itself.
Due to blatant and unashamed copyright infringement, I, or others of our church members, are going to be emailing out some devotionals each day of holy week to help us think through Jesus’ last week. If you want to be part of that, just message me or the church to make sure I have your email. The Wednesday devotional will be a video again on this Facebook page.
Go with me to Psalm 118. That’s the book of Psalms, chapter 118. Through the lenten season, since Mardi Gras, we’ve been in a series through the book of Ecclesiastes considering how short life is, and how unknown our futures are, looking at the things which give our lives meaning and purpose: seeking after God and his kingdom, while enjoying the good things he gives us, because our lives are short, and only he and his works are eternal. But today, we begin to turn our thoughts toward the passion of Christ, his final week, death, burial, and resurrection.
People keep asking how we’re doing. Anne-Elise looked up at me suddenly this week and asked, “What day is it? Wait, what month is it?” But it’s true, time without our normal rhythms has sprouted grotesque limbs and sometimes runs from us and other times jumps out at us. If you know me, too, you know that I struggle against time in the best of times. It’s been extremely comforting for me to remember these liturgical days and seasons. It’s a reminder that time belongs to the Lord, that he created it, that he’s in control of it, and that he’s not bound by it.
Being free of time, he carries with him the days of this pandemic and every other dark time, and still his peace and joy overflow enough to share with all of humanity. I think it’s because he carries with him the last days as well, when he will set everything back to rights. Hope, for us, is remembering, celebrating, taking part in, the end here in the middle. And God is faithful to remind us. So we remind ourselves of the hope we have in Christ by celebrating these liturgical days in their time.
The passage for today is part of a set of psalms celebrating God’s rescue of his people from oppression in Egypt, which you can either read about in the book of Exodus, or if you got through high school English using Sparknotes, you could watch the Charlton Heston movie, The Ten Commandments—side note, when my wife was a small child, her favorite movie was The Ten Commandments, and with a deep Southern accent growing up in Memphis, she would ask, “Daddy, can I watch the Bible.”
But this is one of the Psalms that would have been sung every year at Passover, to praise God for rescuing his people out of oppression and slavery. Particularly, this psalm, most people think, praises God for the building of Solomon’s temple, and for the presence of God coming to rest on the temple as he dwelt among his people. It was a time of peace, God’s peace, of everything as it should be in Israel. So you can imagine how the meaning of the song changed, year after year, as the kingdom of Israel split and fell, as they went back into oppression and slavery, as the temple was desecrated and destroyed. Singing this psalm would have been like looking at pictures of a loved one who had died, the psalm became a remembrance and a prayer—God, come back to us and save us again, dwell among us again, Lord. How long will we be under foreign rule? How long will we face death and poverty and pain?
Then, almost two-thousand years ago, when all of Judea was gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover feast and festival—like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with hundreds of thousands coming from every corner of the nation—and a ripple goes through the city, whispers. Jesus of Nazareth had actually raised a man from the dead. His childhood friend, Lazarus, had been in the tomb for three days, the tomb was sealed; he was dead. And now Lazarus is here, in the city, preparing for the feast with his family. No one had been able to turn back death since Elijah and Elisha, since the days of the kings and peace.
Suddenly, the psalms of God’s deliverance of his people begin to sound a little less like history, and people dare to dream that God might save them from their present suffering. How would your emotions change if your loved one in the photo were brought back from life somehow, impossibly? Someone busts through the door and tells you, he’s here, he’s at the door!
So the whole of the nation, “The whole world,” John writes, runs out to see Jesus come into the city, and they’re singing this psalm. Let’s read it together—for a second time, if you took part in the readings this morning—Psalm 118, starting in v.14.
[Psalm 118:14-29] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father God, I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
The first thing I want you to see in our text today is this: The Lord is our strength, even when he’s not doing what we would do. The Lord is our strength, even when he’s not doing what we would do.
Every year on Palm Sunday we talk about the arrival of Jesus into the city, and the parade, people broke off palm branches to line his arrival, and laid their own clothes on the path, but that parade wasn’t the only parade, because Jesus’s arrival wasn’t the only anticipated arrival that weekend. You see, even though Jerusalem was the capitol city of the nation of Israel, the Roman rulers of the region didn’t live there. They thought Jerusalem was dirty and failed, and they didn’t want anything to do with it. They lived in a city Rome built by the sea to the West, Caesarea, with broad streets and gates, castles and battlements.
There was a king in Jerusalem, Herod, but he was really just kind of for show. The Romans knew, if they left some local rulers in visible seats of power, the masses wouldn’t chafe so much at the foreign rule. So they would station armies in conquered regions to maintain order, but leave kings in place. If the puppet king displeased Rome in any way, if he spoke a word against the emperor, Pilate would simply have him killed and replace him.
Every year, at Passover, the largest festival of the year, Pilate would come to Jerusalem, since the people were conveniently gathered already, to remind the people of the dominion of Rome. He would arrive, he and his entourage—women, slaves, soldiers, servants—dressed as a conqueror in full armor, sitting on a horse, which at that time were not used for travel, but were instruments of war, symbols of the strength of those who were wealthy enough to own such animals. The Roman soldiers who held Jerusalem by force—soldiers who were allowed to force residents of the city into labor on a whim, who could kill them with impunity—would line the streets at attention, from the gate of the city to Pilate’s fort in Jerusalem, which was built on the same hill as the temple, and everyone of any kind of importance would make an appearance at his arrival. With the world watching, Pilate would ride into Jerusalem, declaring himself the source and seat of strength in Israel.
But out goes all of Israel, out the opposite gate, singing at Jesus’s arrival, that God is their strength.
I like to imagine, although I don’t know, that Jesus arrived at the same time as Pilate. And here is our God, Lord of heaven and earth, who could end the dominion of Rome with a word, and he’s not coming from the west, from the sea, he’s riding down from the hill country, because he had been staying with his friends celebrating life and resurrection. He’s riding on a donkey, dressed in the same cloak his mom probably made for him ten years ago. Herod, the king, would have been on the other side, welcoming Pilate, along with all of the leaders of the synagogue, the rabbis, and teachers, the ruling classes. Those who came out to see Jesus would have been the ones whose faces and names would’ve been unknown to Pilate. No one would miss them at the other parade. They’re shouting, in desperation, “God, save us.” “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” singing the psalm they’ve sung every year of their oppression, but now, their hope for salvation is close. He’s within sight. He’s not just a song anymore.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook once, thinking he was showing Christianity to be absurd, he wrote, “The difference between me and your God is that if I saw a child being abused, and I were able to stop it, I would.” It’s the problem of evil in terms meant to cause pain. But he’s imagining what he would do if he were in the place of God, with omnipotence, and I think his thought is naive. To me, when I think of myself holding absolute power, I’m horrified at my own sinfulness. With good intentions, sin in me would find a way to kill and oppress with impunity, call it policy, call it politics, call it religion. Do we not know, by now, what we do with power? Are we really so arrogant to think the histories of the world show an upward trajectory with us, of course, at the pinnacle of humanity?
When broken people like me and you gain power, real power to do whatever we want, we save some people from pain and abuse, yes. Our people. Others, though, the ones we think of as “the problem,” who are other than us or beneath us, we don’t use our power for them. In fact, if it gives us more power to allow them to be abused, we allow it. We find acceptable ways of turning our glance the other way. If it helps our people to have the other people trampled down, we command it. We don’t seek the good of our communities and cities, rebuild the temples and re-cultivate the fields; we move out of the neighborhood, pull our kids of out the school, build new cities by the sea and leave the other cities to rot. When we have power, we’re all Pilate.
You say, I would never do that; I’m different. I’ll grant, you may be different by degrees, and there are leaders we can celebrate who have used their power well, but none of us use our power perfectly. There is one exception, though, to that rule. It’s what we’re celebrating today. “Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
When the people go out to Jesus on the road, as he’s riding into Jerusalem, they know that God has sent Jesus to redeem and restore Jerusalem and the world. They know exactly what’s happening. But they make the same mistake as my friend. They think they know rightly how to use power, and they can’t imagine that Christ would do anything besides what each of us would do if we actually had omnipotence. They think he will go to war for them, gather wealth for them. They think Jesus will use his power over death to conquer, to destroy Pilate’s castle and his city by the sea; to destroy Pilate’s people until their land is waste. Maybe they haven’t thought it out yet, what it would take to throw off the rule of Rome, how many lives it would cost, but they would pay whatever they needed to pay and do whatever they needed to do. And we can’t blame them, because it’s what all of us would do.
They can’t conceive, because it’s inconceivable, that a king would leave his throne and allow himself to be killed by his enemies in order to bring his enemies mercy instead of justice. They can’t imagine someone who would give away the inheritance of his people to the nations around them, even to the enemies who had conquered them. But friends, the Lord is our strength, even when he doesn’t do the things we would do with strength. And praise God that he doesn’t do the things we would do, that he chooses gentleness rather than oppression, life rather than death, or all would have been lost long ago.
The choice of which parade to attend is a perpetual choice. Will you go to the west to shake hands with power, or will you look east to see Christ come? If you look to Pilate, you’ll get your way. The things you’re trying to do, that you want to get done, will get done. You’ll have security knowing no one will be able to come against you without facing consequence. You’ll have powerful people on your side, and everyone will know all of the important work you’re doing. You’ll find yourself in positions of influence, speaking to crowds gathered, people following you talking about you, trying to figure out how to get where you are.
If you look to Christ and his kingdom, you’ll be asked to give your power away, even to the others, to the enemies, and to those who have done you wrong. If you go out to see Christ come, everyone with you will be someone who wasn’t missed at the other parade. Quickly you’ll realize that this king isn’t who you thought he was, and he’ll frustrate you by not doing the things you think he should do. He won’t heal the people you want him to heal. He won’t give you the job you thought he should give you, or the husband, or the house. But he will give you himself, and his whole inheritance. And if you go out to see Christ, you’ll do it singing songs and psalms of joy, and then watch as the joy in your song takes form and flesh in the person of Christ.
Look east, church. Orient yourself to wait for his coming again, because music is worth more than ownership, people more than power. Christ more than all. If our series through Ecclesiastes has taught us anything, it’s that meaning and purpose and everything worth having is found in Christ alone.
The second thing I want you to see in our text today is this: God builds his temple with rejected stones and he dwells with us. God builds his temple with rejected stones and he dwells with us.
Depending upon how familiar you are with the New Testament, you might recognize v.22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The New Testament authors claimed this verse points to Jesus. The cornerstone of the building is the first laid, and it bears the weight of the structure. A skilled mason would reject any material with any kind of imperfection for the cornerstone, and certainly it wouldn’t make sense to bring a stone that was previously rejected and use it as the cornerstone, so what’s he saying? That God is a poor craftsman? No.
He’s saying that we, God’s people, are his holy dwelling, and God is able to build his kingdom and his temple with us in spite of our imperfections. This Psalm, as I said, was part of the liturgy every year for Passover, and we think it would have been a hymn of procession, one the priests and people would sing as they ascended the hill into the temple to worship God, like our call to worship songs we sing each Sunday morning. Open the gates, that I may enter through them, they sing in v.19, as they walk into the building which reminded them of the presence of the Lord among his people. Then, in v. 26, we bless you from the house of the Lord. So naturally, there is an image in the passage of a building, the temple, being built, stone by stone, and they wondered at it in its beauty and splendor, but the temple was meant to remind them that God dwelt with them, with his children, with his people. V.27, “he has made his light to shine on us.”
In the world, when you’re choosing a people to live among, when you’re building your house, you do what a skilled builder would do, you examen each person for flaws, and it’s not until you find the exact right person that you let them in, you let them take part. Like Pilate, who built his city by the sea. He came and saw Jerusalem and he decided it was a backwater—and to Rome Israel was a backwater. The emperor would only send people to Judea when he wanted to punish them and saddle them with a troubled, rundown district. So Pilate sees the people of Jerusalem and rejects them, he builds a Roman-style city elsewhere, and he saw his city as a gift to the pitiable people, that they should finally have a Roman city in their district. You’re welcome, have some class and culture.
But when Christ came into the city he came to build a home and dwell there, to seek the welfare of the city and the people in it. All of those rejected stones living in that backwater province, he would build into a spiritual house, a church. He chose them for his family, he chose those rejected people to build his house, and as he comes into the city to die for their sake, they sing “the stone the builder has rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Christ, himself, would be rejected just a few days later, placed in front of Pilate to be examined, to see if he had any faults, like a stone in the hands of a builder. Pilate found no fault, but still he rejected the son of God and threw him away. Praise God, that he’s not like Pilate. Because if he used his power like Pilate, he would never have left his throne to come dwell with us. There would be no second parade riding on a donkey, only a horse and conquering and ruling at any cost. And praise God, because he doesn’t reject us, even with our flaws.
He picks us up and examines us, and though he sees our flaws and our cracks even more fully than we ever will, he says, yes. This is a person I will use. I will let him into my family. I will make her a part of my temple, and I will dwell with you. He sees our broken city, one that so many Pilates in the world have looked at and said, what a backwater—worthless, sinful, broken, barren—and they find a nicer place to dwell and build up. But Christ sees this city and he says, yes, I’ll build my house here and live with them. We are like stones the builder should have rejected, but even though it cost him, he has used us to build. As Tim Keller often says, you are more sinful and broken than you could imagine, but you are more loved than you dare to dream. We are all wretched and beloved, both.
And Christ, whom we rejected, even though he was flawless, God has chosen as the cornerstone of his spiritual home. Christ, the head of the church. Christ, the lamb on the throne. Christ, dwelling with us. And if Christ really dwells with us in our church, if the Spirit of God dwells with us, we don’t need anything else.
So, friends, there is a choice to be made here. Will you go to the east or to the west? Pilate’s parade, his city in the West, they’re nice. Smooth roads—I’ve never experienced smooth roads personally, but I’m told they can be built—impressive masonry in Pilate’s city—if the stones in his city have flaws, they’re well hidden. When you come into the city, people will notice, and the right people will come out to meet you. You’ll get that job you wanted, with the salary, and the friends you don’t really like, the spouse who impresses everyone but you, the 2.5 kids. You’ll be right, and win the arguments, and everyone else will seem like an idiot. The food, the body, the clothes. The west is nice.
But, to the east, Christ is coming. The roads he’s coming down are terrible. The stones in the houses of his city are all chipped and broken, the temple’s been torn down and rebuilt. The people in his church are marred and broken. Sometimes they’re offensive and ignorant and insensitive. But God is with us. Christ is here, and that’s everything.
Jesus has power, too. He saw the abuse and pain in our world, and he entered into it to save the sinful people, the evil ones; we sinners. I know: it wasn’t what you thought he should do. You were hoping for revolution, for overthrow—it’s coming, but he’s patiently waiting for anyone who will to leave Pilate’s parade and join his. Christ has power over life and death, to break the bonds of captives and release you from the sin entangling you and choking your relationships, robbing you of your humanity. He can open blind eyes and heal sickness. But you won’t control him, and he won’t do what you would have done. He will never be what you expect, because he’s not like anything you’ve known. The God of the universe, came to earth as an infant, lived through all of the indignities of humanity because he wanted to be here with you in this city, this broken place we live. Which way will you go?