“Song of Peace”
November 28, 2010 - First Sunday in Advent
If our psalm had been written today it might have begun, “I was glad when they said to me (finally!), let us get on the plane.” But it wouldn’t haven’t been much of a song. Traveling isn’t as fun as it used to be. You just aren’t going to find many people singing for joy as they take off jackets, shoes and belts and either spread their arms in front of a scanner or get groped by uniformed security personnel.
You might get more feel for Psalm 122 by imagining an anticipated trip by car. Some of you drove up to Portland or over to Bend or out to the coast this past weekend to spend precious moments of Thanksgiving with people you love. If you were going to see a new baby grandchild or maybe a son or daughter or parent you haven’t been with in awhile, there would be gladness as you securely placed the sweet potato casserole in the back seat and slid yourself in to ride up the road to visit family and friends.
You might even break out in song at the beginning of your journey. Not so much recently, but I’ve been known to torture my own family as we back out of the driveway with a few lines of Willie Nelson’s infamous, “On the road again, just can’t wait to get on the road again.”
Verse 1 of our text is a starting-out on a journey songs. As a child, I learned it by heart as a description of coming to church, “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’” Like Sunday School children for generations, that gladness at coming to God’s house was reinforced with cookies and Kool-Aid and little prizes for memorizing Bible verses like, “I was glad when they said unto me…”
In ancient Israel you might have sung the first verse of Psalm 122 as your family prepared to walk the pilgrimage up Mount Zion to Jerusalem for one of several festivals that centered there during the year. When high feast days came, pilgrims streamed along the roads that led to the Holy City and lined up at its gates like shoppers on Black Friday lining up at Target.
This psalm is one of fifteen subtitled, “A song of ascents,” Psalms 120—134. Like several of those subtitles, we’re not completely sure what “a song of ascents” meant. It’s possible it had something to do with musical notes or with the poetic structure. There’s a kind of staircase build-up of lines in Psalm 121 and other places. But most Bible scholars agree these psalms of ascent are pilgrim songs, sung by people as they “go up” as Psalm 122 verse 4 says, to Jerusalem.
You’ve heard me talk too often about the our little cabin in Oak Creek canyon in Arizona. But the pilgrimage up the road to that quiet refuge is one I anticipate every time I start out on it. It too is not as fun as it used. Passing through the resort community of Sedona is a nightmare of traffic and congestion. They’ve built roundabouts to slow cars for pedestrians that constantly wander back and forth across the highway between boutique shops and gourmet restaurants and cozy little art galleries. Hardly anyone is paying attention to the gorgeous red rocks and blue sky and it’s tedious driving slowly through those roundabouts and dodging oblivious tourists.
Once out of town, though, my heart sings along up the road for five miles, marking off old familiar landmarks. There’s Midgley Bridge. There’s Grasshopper point. Just a quarter mile before our cabin, there’s the old general store at Indian Gardens. As I drive, even way earlier on the desert, desolate road up from Phoenix, I anticipate turning into the driveway, unhooking the screen door, dropping a suitcase on the bed and then walking out on the back deck to hear the creek gurgling down through the rocks as it has for my whole life.
Psalm 122 was written with that kind of anticipation. It begins with the joy of starting out, but the rest of it, beginning with verse 2, is about the joy of arrival. “Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem!” Like I do driving up Highway 89A, those pilgrims pictured their arrival and sang about it.
Verses 3 through 5 are a little hymn of praise to the Holy City. They capture what pilgrims see and feel as they come through the city gates and pause there looking around. Verse 3 gives us “Jerusalem, built as a city which is bound firmly together.” There’s a sense of strength and safety in this tightly built, compact mountain fortress. You feel secure when you enter its gates.
Verse 4 celebrates the role Jerusalem has in Israel’s religious life. This is the center of it. This is where all twelve tribes gather to praise and give thanks to God. Think of the traffic streaming down from Portland and up from Roseburg, over from Florence and down the hill from Bend and Redmond Friday afternoon—all to cheer the Ducks to another win in Autzen stadium. Deeper and richer is the psalm writer’s mental image of the tribes of Israel streaming up the roads to Jerusalem, to praise God.
Verse 5 praises the city of Zion in one more way, as the seat of justice. It is where the King sits. It is where anyone who has been robbed or cheated or injured can go and seek fair and just judgment from the King who sits on the throne of the house of David. We will talk more about this hope and promise of justice in next week’s sermon.
For right now, picture those pilgrims standing just inside one of Jerusalem’s gates. They look around at the tightly built walls and towers. They stare up the hill to see the pillars and court of the Temple of the Most High God. They shade their eyes and peer at the king’s palace, hoping to catch a glimpse of him coming or going. Here is security. Here is praise. Here is justice. It’s a good city. It’s a good place. So it’s worth praying for.
The next few verses are a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem. It’s a prayer in song. In Hebrew you can hear the music of verse 6, Sha’alu shalom Yerushalayim. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” Pilgrims to Jerusalem prayed for the peace of their capital, for their temple; for peace among all the people who lived there and all people who loved that city.
As you and I begin Advent today, we stand at the beginning of a journey. In part it’s a simple, symbolic journey of four weeks until Christmas. Along the way in our worship, we will see some familiar landmarks: a new candle lit every Sunday, another banner hung over our heads, the decorating of a Christmas tree and the setting out of bright red poinsettias. Along the way, we will be singing. As we listen to the psalms this Advent, I hope that, like pilgrims to Jerusalem, our songs will be prayers.
Like travelers to the ancient city, let us pray for the peace of Jerusalem. There’s good reason to do that literally. Even as I speak, Jerusalem is divided between its Jewish and Palestinian populations. The Israeli government and police are helping Jewish settlers force their way into east Jerusalem and displace Palestinians from their homes. It makes talks about peace almost impossible. Let us definitely pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Jesus Himself thought of this psalm as He went up to Jerusalem for the last time. On that day we call Palm Sunday, He walked up the same hill like all the pilgrims before Him and wept when He caught sight of the city, and said, “If you had only known on this day what would bring you peace…”
You and I are blessed to know that Jesus Christ brought peace to Jerusalem and to the world when He came there and died and rose again from the dead. He brought lasting peace, eternal peace with God. It’s that peace for which you and I are privileged to pray, with a broader scope and vision than the psalm writer had.
One of the prophets caught a glimpse of this larger peace in our text this morning from Isaiah 2 verse 3. He pictured a time when not just Jewish pilgrims would march up the holy mountain. He envisioned the time when the whole world would echo verse 1 of our psalm. “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.’”
Verse 6 asks to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the security of all those within. If we do with this whole psalm what I was taught to do with the first verse, then it becomes a prayer for our own place here in the Lord’s Church. The New Testament teaches us that all those who believe in Jesus Christ are the New Jerusalem, the citizens of a heavenly and holy city that God is raising up out people from all over the world. That’s why Isaiah pictured all the nations streaming up Mount Zion to Jerusalem. He was seeing how people from Europe and America and South America and Africa and Asia would all become travelers along the road to the City of God through Jesus.
So part of our prayer this Advent is to pray for the security and prosperity of those within the New Jerusalem of the Church. We pray for Iraqi Christians being driven from their homes. We pray for Sudanese Christians who are being starved to death in refugee camps. We pray for Afghan and other Christians who are arrested and imprisoned for simply daring to tell someone else about Jesus. We pray for their peace and security.
Verse 7 asks us to pray for peace within the walls of the city, to pray for peace within the Church of Jesus Christ. This morning as we worship we’re gathered here while the Friends Church is meeting across the street and Living Hope is assembling a little further down the road. At Willamette Christian Center further on they are raising their hands and speaking in tongues, while African-American brothers and sisters are swaying to gospel music a little farther along at Bethel Temple. Keep going and you could hear Emmaus Lutheran singing hymns and speaking liturgy. Downtown St. Mary’s Catholic is celebrating mass and a processional is beginning the service at St. Mary’s Episcopal. Yes, we’re all gathered in the name of Christ and we share a kind of unity, but we’re all in separate buildings, worshipping in different ways, and we’re not quite at peace with each other.
Yesterday morning there was a story in the paper about the Catholic Church suppressing a religious order in Nebraska that had gotten into financial trouble. Episcopal churches are fighting about ownership of property as congregations leave the denomination. Many of us, including myself, have left other denominations either long ago or more recently. God’s Church is not yet at peace. So in Advent, let us pray for the internal peace of the New Jerusalem.
We pray for the peace of the Church realizing it’s not just an abstract concept. It’s not just about people in places across the world or across town. In verse 8, the psalmist prays “For the sake of my brothers and sisters and friends.” His prayer was personal. He prayed for peace within Jerusalem because he loved his family, because he cared about his friends. To pray for the Church is personal. Church is where we bring our families to meet the Lord, bring our friends to find help and comfort when they are hurting. When we pray for the Church this Advent, we are praying for those we love.
The last verse of the psalm tells us we pray “for the sake of the house of the Lord.” The psalmist prayed for the prosperity of Jerusalem because God’s house, the Temple, was there. We pray for the same reason. The house of God is here. God’s people are His house. Jesus came to save us and make us together into a dwelling place for God’s Holy Spirit. Paul said, “you are God’s temple,” and “we are the temple of the living God.” Pray for the Church because God lives here in us. He lives in your Christian sister. He dwells in your brother in Christ. And He is in you. That’s why we pray for peace together, pray that we will do well together. God is here with us.
We pray for our own congregation to do well, to prosper, because God is here. Two or three times the past couple weeks I’ve heard someone say, “I felt God’s Spirit” here. One was a visitor who hadn’t been here in fifteen years. Another was one of our homeless guests, and one was a staff worker for Warming Center who loved the image that here in our sanctuary all those men and women slept warm and peacefully beneath the Cross.
That’s why people will come streaming to this place, will come lining up like they did on those cold nights to enter the Church of Jesus. God is here. We are caretakers of the house of the Lord, keepers of the presence of His Spirit. Innovative programs and spectacular music and incredible video are all fine, but what people really come looking for, what you and I came looking for here, is to meet and know the living God. We pray for the Church because here is the house of the Lord.
So I’d like to ask you set aside time this Advent for a song of peace, a prayer of peace for the Church of which you are a part. Make a little extra time of devotion, perhaps reading the Scripture passages offered in the bulletin. Perhaps lighting candles around your own Advent wreath at home. But pray for peace. Pray for peace in the world and in your family by all means, but pray for the peace and security and prosperity of your Church.
Our Gospel lesson this morning was a difficult text about the second Advent of Christ. It’s often interpreted as a warning not to be “left behind,” but to be ready to be taken up out of this world when Jesus returns. But go back and read it again and see that it begins with the story of Noah. Noah and his family entered the ark and remained safe and secure. It was everyone outside who was unprepared when “the flood came and took them all away.” Reverse your picture. When Jesus said, “Two men will be in the field; one will taken and the other left,” it’s the one who was left who was safe and secure. For those two women grinding wheat, it’s the one who is taken who is lost. The one left behind is secure.
The floods of the world rise all around us and we pray for the Church because the Church is the Ark that will ride upon all the torrents and keep safe and secure all those who come inside, just like we kept safe and warm those who came in out of the cold this past week. That’s why they call the place where people sit in a church the “nave,” from the same root as “navy.” God’s Church is the boat, the ship that carries us all in safety and peace.
This Advent, pray for the peace of your Church. Pray that there will be a peace felt by everyone who enters here. Pray for the peace of friends and family sitting around you. Pray for enough prosperity to meet our financial obligations and to keep welcoming people into an ark of peace and safety. Pray for God’s Spirit to be present and active among us. Pray for this church to keep finding ways to join with other churches to be the Ark of Peace that can carry the whole world.
Sometimes after a visit to our little cabin in Arizona, as I’m rushing around trying to pack and remember to shut off the water and close all the windows and pour antifreeze down all the drains, I will pause. I will stand and look around at our humble refuge and pray for God to watch over it while I’m away, to keep it standing in the floods and fires that pass through the canyon, to protect it from burglars and rodents, to keep it a place of peace for our family and friends.
Sometimes I pray that prayer in our cabin and sometimes I pray it here in our sanctuary. On a Saturday afternoon after I’ve gotten everything ready for worship or at the end of a Sunday morning after everyone has left, I stand here in the middle of our sanctuary, spread my hands and ask God’s blessing on this place. May He keep it safe, protect this house where He comes to meet us. Even more, may He bless all of you, because you are the Church, you are Jerusalem, you are the city of God which He is building in this world. Would you join me this Advent in prayer like that?
We came in this morning and sang, “O come, O come, Emmanuel… come and bid our sad divisions cease, come and be Thyself our King of peace.” May our Lord answer that prayer and all the prayers we sing and pray for peace in Advent this year. May He come soon to make that peace complete and as He said, may He find us ready, both at peace and praying for His peace to extend everywhere. May the Lord of peace be here with you today.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj