Monday, April 16, 2018

Our Discards, God's Treasure

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Psalm 118:22

I don't remember the point I was attempting to make, but, before I went to seminary, I was invited to preach a sermon, and this was part of the lesson for that day. What I lacked in knowledge and experience I made up for in unbridled self-confidence. This Sunday, in the reading from Acts 4, we hear Peter, "filled with the Holy Spirit," use this quotation from Psalm 118 to demonstrate to his interrogators and, more directly, to us, the readers, how the authorities' rejection of Jesus has become the foundation of our faith. The use of the quotation itself isn't as remarkable as the theology behind it and how this central Jewish thought is carried over into Christian theology.

For starters, notice that Peter rather loosely quotes from Psalm 118: "the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone." There is no second-person address in the original Hebrew psalm. In the original context, Psalm 118 is not an accusation, which Peter has made it in Acts 4. Instead, it is a celebration of how God's victory is manifest to God's people. Read the surrounding verses, and that theme becomes clear:
21 I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
22 The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
23 This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
This isn't an imprecatory psalm, in which the poet asks God to reverse the fortunes of his enemies. Instead, it is a statement of gratitude from the place of salvation. God has already saved the one who was lost. God has redeemed the one who was forsaken. God has chosen the one who was cast off. That's how God works. It's how God has been working since God called Abram.

This morning, as I read Acts 4, I noticed a tiny variation between the Greek text and the English translation that helped me focus on this difference. In the footnote to my electronic Bible, it is noted that the Greek doesn't restate the name "Jesus" when it introduces the cornerstone quotation. Instead, it reads, "This is the stone that was rejected by you..." Of course, the text means Jesus. That's what the text is discussing at that point. But even the simple omission of the specific name and the use of the overarching pronoun invited me to think of this in more general terms. This isn't simply a condemnation of Jesus' opponents. It's a statement of how God's pattern of salvation is manifest in the story of Jesus.

The whole act of rejecting Jesus, condemning him, and nailing him to the cross has been redeemed by God. It isn't just the physical body of Jesus that has been turned around (though it has). It's the entire story of Jesus' rejection. That which was cast off isn't merely the person Jesus. It was also the movement he represented, the teaching he offered, the company he kept, and the religion he practiced. Of course it was rejected! If it is truly the means for our salvation, the only way it could be found was if it were refused by the powers of this world. That's how God works. That's why Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, turns to Psalm 118.

This Sunday, as I hear the familiar line of the stone being rejected, I'm drawn not only to the reversal that the empty tomb represents for God's Son but also how that reversal transforms all of the things in this life that have been discarded by those in positions of power. God's great victory in Easter means true victory for those who have been forgotten, cast off, rejected. That's how God works. That's where salvation is to be found.

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