RPM, Volume 19, Number 49, December 3 to December 9, 2017

Two Hill Songs

Psalms 118:1-29

By Roger Allen Nelson

Just east of Jerusalem there is a hill topped with olive trees. From that perch you have a comprehensive view of Jerusalem. When Jesus approached Jerusalem, looked out over the city, and wept—it was from that vantage point.

This hill of olive trees falls into a little valley and from there the walled city of Jerusalem rises up. Today there are still olives trees, a small tear shaped chapel to mark where Jesus wept, a road that winds down the slope and through the valley, and big gated entryways into Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday marks the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Tradition has it that he came over the hill and through the woods to his Father's house. But, he wouldn't have been traveling alone. Hundreds and thousands of Jews would have been making their way from the Galilean hills into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. They streamed into the city to commemorate their liberation from Egyptian captivity. They did so in a complicated context….

Once under an Egyptian sandal, now they were under a Roman boot.?Once slaves of an Egyptian Pharaoh, now they were subjects of the Roman Empire.?Once led out of captivity, now they were longing for liberation.?Once they were given a promised land, now that land was occupied by an oppressor.

Therefore, they went up to the temple in Jerusalem to remember, and give thanks, and pray, and hope. So, Jesus wasn't traveling alone, he was already part of a parade to proclaim, even in the face of Roman occupation, "Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever."

Of course it wasn't just Jews that were filling up Jerusalem; Pontius Pilate, the regional Roman governor was also there. Like the governors before him he didn't live in Jerusalem.

It was too insular, too ingrown, too busy, too depressing, too Jewish…

Pilate lived in the resort town, "Ceasarea on the Sea," some sixty miles away, and when he came to Jerusalem for the high holy days it was not a show of piety or political polish but a reminder of who was boss. It was probably better to be in the city in case of trouble. It was probably better to crush an uprising before it gathered momentum. Pilate was in Jerusalem as a show of force. Pilate was in Jerusalem for shock and awe.

Now, there is whole subset of psalms, "songs of ascent," that were sung as the people went up toward Jerusalem or as the priests climbed the steps up to the temple. And, while Psalm 118 is not officially listed as one of the "songs of ascent" it was a preparatory psalm and it has a similar feel. One can easily image people parading in call and response:

Let Israel say, His love endures forever!
Let the house of Aaron say, His love endures forever!
Let those who fear the Lord say, His love endures forever!

Don't know if they did it that way, but it is easy to imagine.

What is clear is that as Jesus made his way toward Jerusalem the imagery of Psalm 118 was imagery that the people recognized. This wasn't their first parade and it wouldn't be their last, so in company with this strange-powerful young teacher-healer they threw their heads back and sang a song in which their enemies were cast down, and the poor were picked up, and those who had been tossed aside like rubble?became the cornerstones on which a kingdom was built.

They saw Psalm 118 embodied by Jesus and when the gospel writers told the story of the palm parade Psalm 118 provided a framework. So, for example: He goes up to and through the gates of the temple. (Verse 20)?The crowd cries our Hosanna, which means "save" or "save us." (Verse 25)?They cry out "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." (Verse 26)?They carry branches in the procession. (Verse 27)?And, the line about the rejected stone becoming the chief cornerstone is picked up in three gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and one of Peter's letters as a way to interpret or identify Jesus. (Verse 22)

The song sung as Jesus descended the Mount of Olives and entered Jerusalem was a song of triumphant hope and celebration, rooted deep in the hearts and dreams of the Hebrews. They waved palm branches and sang out:

Surely it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.

The song of the first hill. Well, let me tell you the song of a second hill.

Maybe you were never aware of this but there has been a great debate about where Jesus was crucified. Have you ever thought about it? The images that artists and poets have handed down are of some rocky hill under a foreboding sky. I guess that was good enough for most of us. The texts are fairly clear. All the gospels read something like: "They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means "the place of the skull")."

Golgotha may be derived from the Hebrew word for skull, it may be Aramaic for "mount of execution," or it may be a reference to a passage in Jeremiah referring to the geography of Jerusalem. Suffice it to say that there is little clarity about exactly where or what Golgotha was.

Most people who go to Jerusalem today visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, laid claim as the location of the crucifixion and a few yards away the tomb of Jesus. Constantine built a church around the whole thing. An early Christian pilgrim in 333 writes about it this way:

On the left hand is the little hill of Golgotha where the Lord was crucified. About a stone's throw from thence is a vault wherein his body was laid, and rose again on the third day. There, at present, by the command of the Emperor Constantine, has been built a basilica; that is to say, a church of wondrous beauty.

But, there is a second Golgotha outside of the old city that is favored by evangelicals. From this garden complex you can see a rocky outcropping that has two sink holes that look like eyes—so the whole hill could pass for a skull. The garden also includes a few graves, offering not just an alternative site for the crucifixion but an alternative grave for the resurrection. And there is a lovely little gift shop on your way out.

So, dear friends, what are we to make of all this? On one side of the city a hill of hope. On the other side of the city a hill of crucifixion. On one hill a song of salvation. On the other hill a song of death.

Maybe both hills and both songs capture something of the human condition. For the same ones who cry "Hosanna" on Sunday will shout "Crucify him" on Friday. The same ones who sing for Jesus on Sunday demand Barabbas on Friday. The same ones who lay down their coats on Sunday turn their backs on Friday. Hailed as a king on Sunday; hung as a criminal on Friday. "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" on Sunday; "Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree" on Friday. Palm branches on Sunday; pitch forks on Friday…

You get the idea, in a few short days the frond flappers will be shaking their fists and demanding his death because their dreams were dashed and their hopes were disappointed. We're quick to join in a celebration when things seem to be going our way; we're just as quick to turn away when things don't work out the way we think they should. Two hills.

But, I guess what is remarkable and bewildering is that at the center of each hill stands Jesus. The same Jesus. No matter the praise or the condemnation—the same Jesus. Foolish and fickle humanity—the same Jesus.

We move around Jesus with our own issues and songs and responses. We believe and we doubt. We wave palms of victory and a harbor hurts and defeat. We hope and we're indifferent. We sing and we're silent.

And yet, without regard for our particular place at any particular time, no matter what hill we're on or what song we're singing, Jesus follows a trajectory. Jesus doesn't grasp power, but he gives up even the power of heaven and descends to be as one of us. He takes the very nature of humanity and empties himself even unto death on a cross. He starts in heaven and ends in hell. He starts with life and ends in death.

No matter on what hill we find ourselves the trajectory of Jesus, the way of God, is the same. It descends from power to powerlessness, from King to criminal, from life to death…

The story is told that Psalm 118 was a particular favorite of Martin Luther. He wrote a long commentary on it and while fearing for his life, hiding out in Coburg Castle in 1530, he affixed a paper to his wall that read, from Psalm 118: "I will not die, but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done."

May that be our testimony. The way of God is from life through death to life, and therefore though we die, yet shall we live. No matter on which hill we stand the great reversal is done in Christ. Let us proclaim what the Lord has done. Whether waving palms of victory or standing in the shadow of the cross, let us proclaim what the Lord has done. Whether believing or bored, whether confident or crushed,?whether hopeful or indifferent,?whether singing or stone silent…

On these two hills is found the human condition and the way of God. Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.?Amen.

Prayer of response

Father in heaven, thank you for your word. May you apply it to our lives by your Holy Spirit. We thank you for what Christ has accomplished on the cross. May our old self be crucified and may we be raised in glory! In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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