When it comes to holidays, most of the dates are immovably etched on calendars and engrained in our minds. Memorial Day is always observed on the last Monday in May; Labor Day the first Monday in September; on October 31st Protestant Christians commemorate the Reformation while the unbelieving world celebrates Halloween, Christmas always falls on December 25th and Valentine’s Day on February 14th. But what about Easter? When do we celebrate Easter? The date for Easter changes each year. How? Why? Does God send angels to every church to tell them when they ought to celebrate Easter? No. Nothing so dramatic. The date for Easter is actually established by the moon. Since our Lord was crucified the day before Passover and he rose again the day after, we fix Easter to correspond with the date God set for the Passover celebration – that is, the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Of course, we do this in Christian freedom, the Bible does not command us when to celebrate the Resurrection. In the end, while human calculations may have fixed April 16th as Easter this year, our Psalm makes it clear that this is the Day the Lord Has Made. For on this day the Lord has made Christ our salvation, our strength, and our song.
Psalm 118 places us right in the middle of a great victory celebration. God gave his OT people many great victories throughout history: God used the waters of the Red Sea to wash Pharaoh and his army into oblivion, he used the fortress walls of Jericho against its own people, he used a shepherd boy to defeat a Philistine giant. But this victory is greater than any of those. This victory is Christ’s victory over the previously undefeated enemies of sin, death, and the devil! You may have noticed that our Psalm doesn’t come right out and say that. It doesn’t echo the angel’s Easter message: He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. (Matthew 28:6) There is no tomb, no angels, no women. But our Psalm tells the Easter story just the same: the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
If you’ve ever built with stone, maybe a walkway or a chimney, you know that you need just the right one – right size and color – and if the one in your hand isn’t just right, you throw it away. Throughout his life, that’s exactly what many people did with Jesus. Jesus came to his own people, the Jews, but they rejected him because he did not fit their ideas of what the Messiah, the Savior, ought to be and do. The Gentiles rejected him because his plan to save mankind by suffering and dying did not sound glorious to their ears and was unacceptable to their reason. They all treated Jesus like a stone that didn’t fit the blueprint and so they rejected him, mocked him, beat him, whipped him, and finally nailed him to a tree to die. And for three days it seemed like Jesus’ enemies were right. If he stayed dead, he was just an imposter, a fool, a fake. But on the third day God went out to the grave where his Son was buried and made him the capstone, the cornerstone – the most important stone to be laid in human history.
God did that by raising his Son from the dead. The Apostle Peter explains: the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone means that salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12) By raising him from the dead, God declared Jesus to be the one and only Savior – because only he did what needed to be done to save sinners. God demands perfect obedience from his creatures – from us – and anything less must be punished with death in hell. The Law tells us that we have not obeyed God perfectly and that we deserve to suffer forever for it.
But God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) Christ took our humanity and he took our place under God’s law. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he never sinned. And then, although he had lived the only life that didn’t deserve punishment, he took our sins on his shoulders and paid for them by suffering the scorn of men, the wrath of God, the depths of hell and the horror of a miserable death on a cross. By his flawless life and his sacrificial death, Jesus did everything necessary to save sinners like us. There was only one question left after his lifeless body was taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb: would God accept his payment, was it sufficient to satisfy his righteous anger? Easter gives us the answer. The builders – both Jew and Gentile – had rejected Christ, but God accepted him – and declared him to be the capstone, the Lord of Life and the Savior of sinners.
And today – God pleads with us to build our faith and our lives on this precious cornerstone. He shows us our need for this Savior by holding the mirror of his Law up to our far-from-perfect lives. He tells that he demands nothing less than perfect love and obedience from us. And he reveals to us the Law’s diagnosis – a diagnosis that holds true for every person ever born: there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) So he pleads with us to build on Christ. Salvation can be found in no one else – but salvation for all can be found in Christ.
Does God really need to plead with us to do this? People love free stuff. Who would reject this Savior and his offer of free, no-strings-attached salvation? You’d be surprised – or maybe you wouldn’t. Some people reject Christ because they don’t think they need a Savior, they don’t think their lives are all that bad (they are living in a fantasy world). Others reject him because they don’t think that a dead Jew can provide the key to salvation, so they try to get to heaven their own way; by following their own made-up rules. There are others who think of Jesus as a glorified life-coach whose only role is to teach them how to be better spouses, better parents, better people – or they think of him as a genie who can fill their bank accounts and heal their bodies and make them happy – but they deny his resurrection and reject him as Savior. There are millions of people who are so wrapped up in the trivial things of this world that they have no time for a Savior from sin – and there are the people who don’t mind Jesus but stick up their noses at organized religion and still others who think they have earned God’s (or at least mom’s) favor if they darken the doorstep of church once or twice a year. (They may think they are right with God, but Judgment Day will provide a terrible wakeup call for them.) Because so many people still reject the only real Jesus God pleads with you today. Stop building on the flimsy foundation of your own goodness; stop thinking of Jesus as nothing more than a dead Jew or a life coach or a wish granting genie – he’s so much more than that. Because this is the day the Lord has made Christ our salvation. He has taken the stone that so many reject and made him the capstone – the only Savior. Build on him for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)
Christ is our salvation – and he is our strength. Listen again to our Psalm: shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things! The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!” If you’ve ever seen a boxing or wrestling match, you know that after the last whistle has blown, the referee lifts the hand of one of the competitors to show that he is the winner. In that garden with the empty tomb, God raised Jesus’ hand in victory. He went toe to toe with sin and death and Satan and he won. He destroyed sin by paying its dreadful price with his blood. He descended into hell to put a collar on Satan and led him in a victory parade as his beaten enemy. He ripped the guts out of death by stepping out of the grave alive.
But this victory doesn’t only belong to Jesus. The very human author of our psalm writes: I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done. Christ is our strength – because his victory is our victory. Paul’s words echo this certain victory over death: Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-56) Christ didn’t just defeat death for his own sake; he robbed death of its power over the world. He has paid for every sin and obeyed the Law for everyone. So that, just as Jesus died but did not stay dead, whoever believes in him may die but will not stay dead. In him, death is not final – it is the gateway to eternal life. This is the day the Lord has made Christ our strength to face death…and, until then, Christ is our strength to face life.
Did you notice that even though our psalm speaks of victory over death, it doesn’t ignore the harsh realities of life? The LORD has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death. Even though God has promised us certain victory over death, he does allow pain, hardship and suffering to come into our lives now. Which begs the question: where do you look for strength when you face trials and troubles in daily life? When sickness or loneliness plague you, when your body breaks down or your family breaks up, when you lose your job or think you are losing your mind – where do you turn for help? Your wealth, your career, your family, your friends, your government, your own physical strength or intellect or determination? Many place their trust in those things. But then money runs out; the pink slip comes; the best your family and friends can say is “I wish there was something I could do”; the government – let’s not even go there; the day will come when you will face a problem that your strength, intellect and determination cannot solve. Stop looking to those things for strength – because sooner or later they will all fail. Instead, look to Jesus – the one who during his lifetime healed sick bodies and sick minds, who provided food for thousands and calmed the fiercest storms, who went face to face with sin, death, and the devil, and won – he is the only one who will never fail. He’s the only one who can (and has) promised do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10) Today, because he rose from the dead, you can look to Christ for the strength to face death – and, until then, to face life.
And because of that today Christ is our song. The day was so victorious that the author couldn’t keep it to himself: open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. You know when you have a song or radio jingle stuck in your head? A tune you hum or sing without even realizing it? Or maybe you have a particular song you turn on when you’re feeling down or really happy. That’s what Christ is like for believers. He’s in our heads, our hearts, and on our lips. Today, on Easter, our voices are raised in praise – we know that our Redeemer lives and we aren’t afraid to let the world to hear about it. But just like a tune will fade from your mind after time – this saving faith in Christ will fade from your heart if you don’t hear it regularly. That’s why God gave us the Church; yes, believe it or not, the much maligned institution many despise as “organized religion” is actually God’s creation and his gift to us! Every Sunday Christ comes here to serve us with his Word and Sacrament. He comes here to forgive our sins and calm our fears and guide us through a dark, troubled world. He leads us – young and old – beside quiet waters and restores our souls, he guides us in paths of righteousness (Psalm 23) – so that when we leave here, to walk through the valley of shadow of death, though we may be harassed and abused by the devil and the world the song of his forgiveness and love will guide and strengthen and sustain us. This is the day the Lord has made Christ your strength and salvation. Tomorrow and every day, make Christ the theme-song of your life.
This year, Easter falls on April 16th, and while we admit that human calculations determined the date for this celebration, we know that this is really the day the Lord has made: he has made Christ our salvation – by raising from the dead the stone the builders rejected; he has made Christ our strength – so that with his power and promise we can face the challenges of life and death without fear; he has made Christ our song – the theme of our lips and our lives. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen.