26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
27 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
28 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
29 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
(Psalms 118:26-29 ESV)
My father and I were sitting in a hotel room in Roswell, New Mexico, during our visit for his mother’s funeral. He was a religious man, a faithful man once, my father, but no longer. Not since college, when he first began to doubt the goodness of God.
Not since Vietnam, when he met the horror human beings could inflict upon each other face to face.
“I don’t understand why Jesus had to die so that we could be saved,” he confessed, almost in a sigh.
It’s an old question — one always willed into existence when we talk of God’s need for a sacrifice to mitigate sin. For many Christians, the death of Christ is a matter of god taking out God’s anger upon God’s incarnate self so that somehow, the books can be balanced and the world can be forgiven.
I looked at my dad.
“That’s the wrong way to think about it,” I said. “Consider the possibility that Christ came forgiving sins and we couldn’t stand it. So much so, we killed him for it. And God gave in to us, to our fear and our violence, the worst we can do, to show us that the death we deal has no power, and that it is not the final answer. Love is bigger than death.”
My dad was silent for a moment. A serious, thoughtful silence.
“I’m going to have to think about that.”
I don’t know if my father has or not. As long as I have known him, he has never been a believer, and I’m not out to “save his soul.” He is baptized, and bears the Cross of Christ already on his body. I am confident of his salvation, whatever he believes.
I look at today’s psalm fragment and I see words we will hear again on Palm Sunday when Jesus and his disciples enter Jerusalem in heady triumph — “Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Welcome to the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it!
Martin Luther considered the psalms to be the prayers of Jesus. And what a prayer this is! A prayer of overcoming, a prayer of triumph over enemies that surround. A prayer of thanksgiving! The victory of our God over our enemies, our occupiers, those who regularly humiliate and destroy us, is at hand!
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords; up to the horns of the altar!
What if Jesus is a sacrifice? But instead of being God’s sacrifice for sin, somehow, he is ours? A misguided sacrifice given with our own hands, out of fear that he will actually deliver us? That in proclaiming good news, he already has redeemed and delivered us, and we don’t want a redemption that looks like Jesus. That looks like his kingdom. In the Gospel of John, Caiaphas the high priest tells his colleagues as they discuss the mighty works of Jesus and their fear the people will make him king and start a war with Rome that Israel cannot win:
Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish. (John 11:50 ESV)
We always forget, when we speak of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, whose hands do the sacrificing — ours. We have bound him out of fear, fear that he will change everything, fear that he puts the careful order of the world at risk. We offer him up, in hopes that his death will silence the hope for salvation, will end the possibility of redemption, will prove all his talk of rising from the dead a hollow and fraudulent boast.
And here is Jesus, praying for this. Bind the sacrifice, nail him to the cross!
For this, he gives thanks to the Lord.
So do I. On this road to Jerusalem with Jesus, as we walk, doing miracles and casting out demons, preaching good news as we slowly work our way to that day when he shall show us what God’s glory really looks like, I will give thanks to the Lord.