By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 122
We are living in unprecedented times as a nation and as the Church. Many congregations have suspended in-person worship due to COVID. Many of us miss “church.” We miss gathering in our beautiful, historic sanctuary. We miss singing hymns together, hugging one another, chatting over a cup of coffee in the GREAT Room. I wonder what you miss most. This has drug on for a long time now, nearly a year. I, and perhaps some of you, may be wondering: what will church be like at the end of all this? We’ve been warned numerous times that, in many ways, life won’t go back to normal. We’ll need to adjust to a new normal. So, what about church? Will we, also, have to adjust to a new normal?
In a certain sense, we’re not the first of God’s people to ask that question. This morning I continue preaching on The Psalms of Ascent. Psalms 120-134 were psalms for sojourners, for pilgrims on the journey toward Jerusalem and the Temple, the place of God’s presence. With today’s psalm, Psalm 122, the pilgrim has arrived in Jerusalem.
. Hear his joyous song:
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” 2 Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem. 3 Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together. 4 To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David. 6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. 7 Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” 8 For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” 9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.
One thing we need to notice within this psalm is that the city and the Temple are viewed as belonging together. The “house of the Lord” is defined not strictly as the Temple but incorporates the city. Keep in mind that ancient Israel was a theocracy and that the king was viewed as God’s representative on earth, identified as the Son of God. So, from the psalmist’s perspective to speak of the city of David or the house of God was pretty much the same thing.
For this morning’s purposes, we’re going to look in particular at one verse in this psalm, verse 2, which describes Jerusalem as a city “bound firmly together.” The Hebrew word translated as “bound firmly together” is generally used to describe alliances or agreements between people, although a related word is also used in relation to construction of walls and buildings. I could say more about that, but you didn’t “tune in” for a lesson in Hebrew. But what I find so significant is this idea that we can speak of people or structures as being bound together and that, in their binding together, peace and security are achieved. Let me say that again and let’s let it really sink in: this Hebrew word reveals that we can speak of people or structures as being bound together and that, in their binding together, peace and security are achieved.
But it comes with a caveat because the structures of Jerusalem’s walls and temple, despite being well-built, were not as inviolable as the ancient Jews believed. When prophets warned of the nation’s demise, people rejected their message because they were so firmly convinced that God wouldn’t allow his city or his house to fall. They did not believe that anything or anyone could destroy its divinely maintained peace and security. But they were wrong. In 586 BCE, the city did fall. The Babylonians broke through its walls and even destroyed the Temple. Then, they hauled Jerusalem’s brightest and best citizens away into exile. It felt like the end for them. It was over, they thought… except it wasn’t over. In time, they acclimated to life in Babylon and even used their time there to largely organize much of what we today call The Old Testament. Bits and pieces of laws and commandments, historical stories orally circulated became organized, edited and redacted. That experience they thought would destroy them actually strengthened them.
In time, Persia would defeat the Babylonians and cut the Jews loose to go back home if they wanted to. They sent them off with government stimulus funds to reconstruct the city and Temple. And, over the subsequent centuries, Jews began to think, once again, that it was all about the Temple and Jerusalem. While Jews in towns out in the Galilee would gather together on the Sabbath, often in a sort of community all-purpose building or even simply outdoors, to read and study scripture and pray – what we call synagogue – it was still that Temple in Jerusalem that carried the real authority, the real weight of the faith. But history has a way of repeating itself and in 70 AD, the unimaginable happened again. This time it was the Romans who destroyed the Temple. And this time it wasn’t rebuilt and Judaism became decentralized and synagogues became more prevalent and more prominent. One no longer needed to journey to Jerusalem to be in God’s presence. One could find the peace and security of God right where one lived because, in the end, it wasn’t the building that was the source of peace and security; it was God. It’s not nearly as important for God to hold a building together as it is for God to hold a people together.
That is why we read in 1 Peter, chapter 2:
4Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and 5like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus, in several places in the New Testament, is likened to the Church’s cornerstone and we are living stones. The house that is the Church is not comprised of bricks and mortar bound tightly together. The house that is the Church is about us and Jesus being bound tightly together and in that connection experiencing the peace and security that only God can give. No wall, no fortress, can provide a sure and certain peace and security. That can only come from God.
Friends: our church building is beautiful and we all want to get back into it together. But in reality, that gorgeous historic building at the corner of North and Sixth Streets is not the house of the Lord; we are; you and me as, through Christ, we are bound tightly together.
I want to invite you to think this week about how this pandemic has actually changed Church for the better. What is something new and different that has enriched your experience of Church and of God’s presence during this time and how can we, together, continue to build on that? That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. I want to hear from you. How have you continued to experience God’s presence? And what new thing has enriched your experience of Church?
Friends: let us, like those ancient Jews, use this pandemic time well, our own COVID exile. This can be a time to strengthen and refine the Church, to focus more deeply on God’s Word and spiritual formation. Authentic peace and security don’t come from any building or any place. Peace and security don’t come from a place. They come from a presence as we and God, through Christ our cornerstone, are bound tightly together into a spiritual house, the living house of God. That, my friends, is the old normal and a reliably inviolable truth.
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