Palm Sunday: Psalm 119:19-29: “Open to Me the gates of righteousness”

Long before the beginnings of print, before television infiltrated our lives, people gathered in their communities and told stories.  These entertained and educated, and passed down a culture’s history and tradition.  The power of the story shaped the way people thought and helped mold and maintain a cohesive community. 

Picture the Israelites.  Though scholars wrote and transcribed, most people did not read and write.  The everyday person lived in an oral culture.  With the eyes, someone learned from his experiences; with the ears, from others, including God. 

In the ancient days of Israel, the people gather at the Tabernacle, the predecessor of the Temple, where God became present to His people.  The Priests lead them in singing.  The crowds rejoice as they remember the stories of Israel’s triumph. 

“Open to me the gates of righteousness.  Allow me to enter through them; let me acclaim the Lord.  Here is the Lord’s entrance, through which the righteous enter.”  So, Jerusalem’s gates unbolt to receive David’s returning army.  The ruling King of an unconquered Israel returns home the victor!  The Psalm tells of their King, who spoke his story of distress, but also of answered prayer before God’s Tabernacle. 

The Old Testament is full of such accounts.  The Almighty opened the Red Sea to release His people from slavery in Egypt.  Did He not also deliver David from Goliath, and other ancient enemies, such as the Arameans, Moabites, and Ammonites? 

The king makes his way into the Tabernacle’s courtyard.  Now, David offers thanks to his Lord because He answered him and is his salvation.

Later another king, Jesus, sits atop a donkey, proceeding toward the Holy City.  The multitude waves its palm branches and throws its garments on the entryway.  “Open the gate for the Son of David!”  Foretold Messiah, we are oppressed!  The Romans rule over us!  How weak and helpless we are, but are You not the One predicted of old?  Come and enter.  Save and make us mighty again!

The story continues, a mighty God, but humble is still present for His people today.  Save us, Hosanna, we pray!  Blessed is he who comes in God the Father’s name!  From Your own House, we praise You. 

Like those of long ago, we too are pressed down.  The sins of thought and deed affect our every moment.  Now, we want our way, though sometimes somebody else must lose.  Between me and another, I’ll make sure I survive. 

Not only sinful in what I do but in my body, as well.  My health weakens, my vitality withers away, and the onslaught of a corrupted flesh gains ground while I suffer.  Come and deliver us!  Only You can do this, Jesus—who rides forth as the incarnate Son, as God, to give what sin’s evil takes away. 

In David’s time, Israel responds with joy, for God reversed the downturn he faced.  Though the world’s powers derided Israel’s king, he still rose to prominence and position in God’s providence over the world.  “The stone, which the builders rejected, became the cornerstone.  The Lord does this-something marvelous in our eyes.”

The people recall the Exodus, using the language of their liberation from Egypt.  Like their status as subjugated slaves, changed in ages past by God’s miraculous working, so also did David’s (Exodus 14-15).  The deliverance of David they celebrate is like their rescue from bondage through Moses.  Still, this is not the end of the story. 

For sin is never stagnant and always requires repentance.  For our fallen nature never rests, always wanting to rule our life, thinking he understands better than God does.  So, too, must Israel admit their stubbornness and rebellion. 

Yes, they are living in the sunshine of King David’s rule, but over and again, they rebel against their Lord.  Do those people, singing in joy, not recognize they are also crooning about their descendants, who will reject a better Stone?

Well, if not, those celebrating in David’s day still realize their well-being is because of God.  So, they call out for Him to rescue them: “O Lord, save us!  Give us success!” How unusual in a song of thanksgiving to stop their praise and pray for their salvation. 

By admitting they need God, they also thank Him.  Why cry out for rescue if the One to whom you plead does not deliver?  Not, God, He is faithful.  “Lord, be merciful,” is the prayer from our lips.  Like them, so too for us, for our pleas of mercy also recognize we understand our God is kind and compassionate, making them into words of rejoicing. 

“The Lord is God, and He shines on us.”  The crowd articulates a confession of faith: Only He is the highest God!  Many centuries pass, and thousands of people will stream into Jerusalem to celebrate this!  The Passover arrives, once more—the chief celebration of the year!  This year is different, more festive than before because Jesus of Nazareth is coming into His kingdom!

Such a week awaits all in Jerusalem.  The Donkey-Rider becomes the Table-Turner, restoring the section of the Temple dedicated to the Gentiles.  Deceptive opponents will mute their tongues.  The Savior will supply His Church with the Sacrament of His body and blood.  An eventful week, which takes up almost a third of the four Gospels. 

So, what is the sadness in this story?  The rejected Stone mentioned in the Psalm turns out to be Jesus, who stepped forth to be the Cornerstone, the most important stone in the building.  Though the people honor Him entering their city, they want the wrong king.  The palm branches they wave reveal their inner intentions and motives. 

About 200 years earlier, those branches turned into a symbol of rejoicing—but also Israelite independence.  In 164 BC, God’s people threw off the yoke of foreign domination and became an independent nation.  A massive celebration erupted.  The book of 1st Maccabees tells us:

On the 23rd day of the second month, in the 171st year, the Jews entered Jerusalem.  With shouts of praise, they waved leafy palms, played harps, cymbals, and stringed instruments, and sang hymns and canticles.  The intimidating enemy is crushed and cast out of Israel. [1 Maccabees 13:51] 

For a century, the Israelites lived as a liberated nation.  The tradition of palms became ingrained in their culture as they minted coins, emblazoned with palm trees and branches.  These became symbols of celebration and nationalism.  In 63 BC, all this crashed down, as the Pharisees asked the Romans to come in the deal with the Sadducees they hated.  Once more, they are a subjugated people. 

So, Jesus rides toward Jerusalem from Olivet, a mountain east of the city.  Can they not realize what this means?  For they swim in the Old-Testament Scriptures as their lifeblood and understanding of life.  The prophet Zechariah foretells:

The Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights a battle.  On the Mount of Olives, his feet shall stand, which lies before Jerusalem on the east.  In two, from east to west, will the mountain split, forming a vast valley.  Half will move north, the other, south….  My God will come, and all the saints with him.  [Zechariah 14:3-5]

Well, this sounds like a king, who will come to vanquish an earth-born power.  So, listen to more from this mouthpiece of God. 

Your king comes to you.  Triumphant and victorious, he is humble and mounted on a donkey, a young colt, the foal of a female.  From Israel, he will banish the armored chariot; from Jerusalem, the warhorse.  The bow of battle will break, and he will proclaim peace to all the peoples.  [Zechariah 9:9-10]

Under Roman domination, the people’s desire for independence warps the religion God gave them.  The One they seek is no longer the Peace-Bringer between God and people of every nation, but a leader to inspire them to pursue an earth-bound kingdom. 

Now enslaved, palms become their collective yearning to become a free people again.  Will Jesus be this Savior?  No, for the Scriptures tell them otherwise.  No matter, they use the sacred texts as they like to find the answer they want. 

So, the people celebrate the hope of a wondrous nation, not in heaven, but on earth.  In futility, they attempt to fill the God-sized hole in their hearts with an earthly ruler, not the God of salvation.  So, they reject Him, for He’s not the Messiah they want.  The day of elation comes with a dark underbelly, leading to the cross of death. 

Holy Week is here, and we’ll darken these doors in church again on Thursday and Friday.  More will enter this sacred place next Sunday, on Easter.  Do not be like those in Jesus’ day, seeking the Jesus you want. 

No, come for the real Jesus, who rode on a humble donkey, not on an impressive steed of war, who died His death to give you life.  Be eager to delight in your freedom from sin, not only from some problem here.  Rejoice in eternal life, not like your experiences here matter most. 

Your happiness and sadness, joy and heartbreak, wrap around our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem.  Yes, God works through evil for our eternal benefit.  Though our Redeemer’s death is a result of humanity refusing to repent, what takes place is still His doing.  In front of our eyes, something marvelous happens. 

The death of the One, killed for the wrong reasons—collusion, power, and selfish gain—is how God will free us from every eternal evil and oppression.  Now, the story of David and of Jesus also becomes our story. 

So, spend more time delighting in stories.  No, not yours or mine.  Let’s live in Christ’s story for us.  For when we are in Him, all will be well.  Amen.