“Olivet” – A Reflection on Psalm 118

In Sermons by Natalie Webb

Scripture Reading: Psalm 118

Leader: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say,

ALL: “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Leader: Let the house of Aaron say,

ALL: “His steadfast love endures forever.”

Leader: Let those who fear the Lord say,

ALL: “His steadfast love endures forever.”

One: Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.

All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like a fire of thorns; in the name of the Lord I cut them off! I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me.

The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. There are glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly; the right hand of the Lord is exalted; the right hand of the Lord does valiantly.”

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. Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.

Leader: This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.

One: I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.

ALL: The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord.

Leader: The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.

One: You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you.

ALL: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

 

“Olivet” A Sermon for Covenant on Palm Sunday 2018, by Rev. Natalie Webb

I’ve heard the psalm you all recited many thousands of times. It’s one of my favorites. I still remember the first time I heard it. And for many many years, I’ve watched over pilgrims and priests, children and kings as they journeyed up Temple Mount, climbed the great southern staircase, or entered into the eastern gate (both of which I happen to have the most beautiful view) with this song on their lips: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever.”

Many of these travelers first journeyed along my winding pathways, beneath my precipices and through my valleys, resting alongside the cool streams at my feet, stopping to pluck a wild fig or find shade under one of my olive trees. As they made their way to the Holy City, I listened to their prayers, their hopes, their fears. My limestone and flint body has soaked in the stories and songs and lives and deaths of many travelers, who I’ll admit were mostly unaware that I was listening and watching. In Hebrew, I am called Har ha-Zeitim. My Greek name is Oros Elaion. You know me as the Mount of Olives, but you may call me Olivet.

I sit just to the east of Jerusalem, and I rise even higher than Temple Mount, so I’ve seen and heard it all. Before Yahweh’s Temple was built, a young rebel, David, found sanctuary from his enemies in my forests. I watched as this poor shepherd boy who hid in fear among my trees and caverns later took his place as Israel’s king over all Israel. I wondered if he ever looked across at my slopes, remembering his former distress and rejection? Some say he is the one who wrote today’s psalm.

The first I heard it was some years after David’s death, at the victorious return of Judah’s army after battle. There were so many kings and leaders and so many battles in those days, that I can’t remember who was the first to sing it. (After a few millennia, one tends to forget some names.) But I remember it being a joyful and spontaneous and, to be honest, unexpected return.

The priests and people ran out to meet the victors, calling on all people to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.” The crowds called back with conviction, “his steadfast love endures forever!” The young and ruddy leader (I remember thinking he was surprisingly scrawny) sang of God’s salvation in what should have almost certainly been defeat, “They surrounded me like a hive of bees, they blazed like fire, but the Lord helped me…. I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord,” he said. After regaling the crowds with this terribly exciting tale, this young leader led the people up to the Temple gates to make a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

The whole thing turned into a city-wide procession, giving thanks to God, not just for victory, but for taking what looked hopeless, worthless, all but left for dead, and doing something marvelous: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” they sang as they celebrated, in awe of the God who lifts up the lowly.

The forces that surrounded Israel on every side (from local Canaanite cities to world superpowers like Egypt and Assyria) were indeed like a hive of bees constantly swarming (their heralds and delegations travelled in and around my foothills, too), so there were many narrow escapes and unlikely victories when this song was repeated, and eventually, it became a regular part of worship.

How many times did I look across the valley that separated us and watch the ritual performance? The priests and people chanting back and forth to one another, the king reciting the old leader’s story of near death and defeat and the people’s salvation by God. How many more times did I hear pilgrims chanting this song in their caravans, giving thanks to God while crossing over my paths on their way to a festival?

Perhaps most often, I heard this psalm muttered underneath an individual’s breath – sometimes the whole psalm and sometimes just a piece. Old women recited the warrior’s words as their own as they prayed for deliverance from the swarming bees of illness, pain, loneliness. Young women chanted “You are my God, and I will give thanks to you… you did not give me over to death…” on their way to make sacrifices not after battle, but after childbirth. (Which it seems may be a kind of battle of its own…) Many young men, rebels and reformers, gave themselves shots of courage, repeating the words, “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me.” Children sang the refrain to themselves, “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever,” carving this confession and hope in their minds and hearts. People of all ages, when they caught a glimpse of the Temple in the distance after many days of travel, echoed the Psalm’s words: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I knew the psalm by heart long before it was sung of him. It was time for the festival they call the Passover, and my roads and byways were buzzing with activity. I watched people and animals flood into Jerusalem from every corner of the earth, as they did each year. I was so focused on the hubbub of the Holy City to my west that I almost didn’t notice the commotion in the Bethany at my eastern foothills. Crowds of people were flocking out of the Jerusalem as well as into it, creating a bit of a traffic jam in some of my narrower roadways. These eastward travelers going away from the city had a sense of urgency and excitement and wonder. They whispered about a rabbi who could call dead men out of their tombs. They stopped travelers going toward the city to ask if they had any news of a dead man named Lazarus. Rumor had it that the rabbi would soon be on his way to the festival. Grand stories were traded and grew as they were repeated throughout my hills, fields, and valleys. But not all who came from Jerusalem were well-meaning. Whispers of rebellion and heresy and plots of betrayal spread, as well.

Then all at once, there was a stillness, as if every person, every animal, every tree, and the wind herself stopped and held their breath as the rabbi, the dead man, and the crowd from Bethany looked up at me and set out with grave intention on my path to Jerusalem. When they came to the highest point in the road, at the village of Bethpage, with Jerusalem on the horizon, the rabbi climbed onto a donkey, and I heard someone start singing my favorite psalm: “O Give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever… Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The crowd burst into shouts of “hosanna!” and I offered the branches of my palm trees, bending them low to the ground, and commanding my trees to release them easily to the joyous procession. They covered my dusty roadway in a carpet of green fit for a king, and they continued to sing, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind up the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar” and “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Under his breath, I heard the rabbi, Jesus, recite, “The Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation… I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.” His heart was much heavier than that of the first young warrior I heard singing this psalm. Instead of a victorious king returning home from battle, this young Jesus looked as if he were walking into a fight, despite the joyous crowds dancing and waving branches around him.

But the crowds were different, too. No priests or temple scribes came out to meet him and lead the chanting of the psalm. As the procession descended into my foothills, and crossed through the valley to the Temple Mount gathering more and more people as it went, it was just as big a crowd as that first returning army. But this army carried no weapons, and they brought back no spoils of war. This was a victory march of fools.

I found myself wishing the procession would stop. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I knew there would be no grand welcome for him when Jesus arrived at the Temple gates. I wished he would stop and make a home with me. He could teach and heal the crowds on my slopes, pray and meditate in my gardens, meet with the presence of God at my high places. Wasn’t that enough? I felt his friends wishing the same things, but on he went, with equal parts intention and trepidation, as if he knew he was riding to the end, but had some hope that it would be a new beginning, as well. Little did I know. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Over the course of the week following his grand and dangerous entry, I kept watch over Jerusalem. And I became a kind of refuge for him in his final days – a place of silence and solitude where he could get away at night from the threats and expectations of the Holy City.  I provided a soft place for him to lay his head, I listened to his prayers as he cried out to his Father. My gardens soaked up his tears and sweat and blood, as he moved closer and closer to the end. Always moving forward with intention, not content to save his own life, but working with purpose to save the lives of others. I watched him fellowship and laugh with friends in the midst of betrayal, love in the face of despair, walk a path of suffering and anxiety, always holding on, if only by a thread, to the promise of new life and God’s steadfast love.

As you keep watch this week once more, as we remember the pain and the glory of this Holy Week, may you join the pilgrims and priests, children and kings who sang and continue to sing, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” With triumph or with trepidation, may you join in the procession. Amen.