Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 27, 2016
Psalm 122 Commentary
When I began to study Psalm 122, I thought it was one of those homiletically barren texts from which any smart preacher should run as fast as she can. It seemed utterly unfit for this first Sunday of Advent. However, having plowed it now for some time, I’m not so sure my first impressions were right. In fact, this might more fertile ground than I thought at first. So stick with me for a moment or two.
A quick glance at the other Lectionary readings will show you why my first instinct was to cut and run from Psalm 122. I mean, they seem much richer and more appropriate for an Advent sermon. Isaiah 2 speaks up front about the last days, and its invitation to go up to the house of the Lord is followed by a beautiful promise of peace, not only in Jerusalem, but also in the whole world. Its classic words about “beating swords into plowshares” and “nor will they train for war anymore” speak directly to our war torn world. Matthew 24 sets the tone for Advent with its warning that we do not know when the Son of Man will come and its attendant call to keep watch. What better entre could there be to this season of expectation than the last verse of the reading from Matthew 24; “because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” And the reading from Romans 13 tantalizes us with the announcement that our “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed….” It shakes us awake, “because the night is nearly over and the day is almost here.”
With such meaty and juicy texts to preach on, why would anyone labor over the dry bones of Psalm 122? Well, chew with me for a while, and maybe you’ll decide to preach on this non-Advent Psalm. The first obvious piece of homiletical meat is found in the superscription, “A Psalm of Ascents.” This is the third of such Psalms, which many scholars believe were sung as the tribes of Israel made their annual pilgrimage up to (cf. verse 4) Jerusalem for one of the major feasts in Israel’s cultic and national life (Deut. 16:16). These Psalms of Ascent begin with Psalm 120, in which the pilgrims leave the place where they are troubled. In Psalm 121 they are in transit. Now in Psalm 122, they have arrived at Jerusalem. They are filled with joy because their “feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” The connection between the pilgrimage of Israel to Jerusalem and the pilgrimage of Christians to Bethlehem is obvious, though not without difficulty.
One of the several Songs of Zion scattered throughout the Psalter (cf. 46, 48, 76, 84, 87), Psalm 122 is a celebration of the wonders of Jerusalem. One can easily understand why a Dispensational Pre-millenial Christian would find Psalm 122 exciting and eminently preachable. With their Israel-centered eschatology, in which Christ will return to the physical site of Jerusalem on the Last Day, the continued existence of Jerusalem is terribly important for the future of the church and the world. Such Christians would find rich sermonic fodder in the call to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” I’ve seen famous televangelists preach whole series of eschatological sermons standing before a huge banner with those words emblazoned on it.
How can we preach on Psalm 122 if we’re convinced that the Church has replaced Israel as the focus of God’s saving activity in this world? Well, look at what Psalm 122 says about Jerusalem. Why is Jerusalem so praiseworthy? I could find four reasons. First, it is a place of refuge for God’s people, suggested by its description as “built like a city that is closely compacted together (verse 3).” The fervent wish/prayer that there may be “peace within your walls/ramparts and security within your citadels/palaces” furthers the idea that the construction of Jerusalem makes it a place of refuge in time of trouble and insecurity.
Second, Jerusalem is a place of praise, particularly of united praise. “That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord to praise the name of the Lord…. (verse 4)” As Israel finally took possession of the Promised Land and dispersed to their God ordained locations, God commanded them to gather together regularly as a people to praise his name. This was the covenant “statute” mentioned in verse 4b. This united praise of God in Jerusalem would bring them back together to remind them that they were one people, not just disparate tribes, and that they were the possession of the Lord, not a self-made people. Jerusalem was the site for this united praise.
Third, Jerusalem was a place of justice. Of course, there could be justice in their separate towns and villages, where the elders sat in the gates. But the Supreme Court of the land was in Jerusalem for those cases that couldn’t be settled in lesser courts. ”There the thrones for judgment stand, the thrones of the house of David.” With that last phrase, we are reminded of God’s great promise to David that he would always have a son on the throne (cf. the repetition of that promise in another Psalm of Ascent, namely, 132).
Fourth, and most important, Jerusalem was the place where Israel could meet their God, because that is where God had chosen to dwell in his “house.” Psalm 122 opens and closes with the joy of coming to “the house of the Lord.” Though the whole earth belongs to Yahweh, so that he is everywhere, he dwells in a special way in that house up there on Mt. Zion. No wonder the Psalm says, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” That was an invitation to journey into the very Presence of the Lord.
If we think of Psalm 122 in those terms, as an invitation to go on pilgrimage in search of peaceful refuge and sure justice, in the spirit of united praise, in the hope of coming into the presence of God, we can find some Advent connections. What Israel sought in their journey to Jerusalem, we shall seek and find in our journey to Bethlehem. In an age of terror, we shall find refuge in the Babe of Bethlehem. In a time of injustice and oppression, we shall find justice in the One whose first sermon in Nazareth was based on Isaiah 61. Our Advent journey can be a time of united praise to the One who is God with us, the very Presence of God in human form.
But is all that a reach? Where do we find any reference to Jesus Christ in this most Jewish Psalm? What does a Psalm that celebrates a city have to do with a season that celebrates a Child? Well, we could make a connection by simply stating that Jerusalem and, particularly, the Temple has been replaced by the Christ and his Church, as Patrick Reardon does in his book, Christ in the Psalms. He says explicitly that Psalm 122 is not talking about the physical city in Israel, but about the Jerusalem above, the heavenly Jerusalem referred to in Gal. 4:26, Heb. 12:22, and Rev. 3:12. Psalm 122, then, is a celebration of the Church, particularly, the church in heaven which will come down to earth when the Christ returns, as in Rev. 21. That is an easy and, in my opinion, a proper, though mighty, interpretive leap.
A more organic connection between Psalm 122 and Jesus Christ can be made by recalling that time when The Pilgrim approached Jerusalem, not with joy, but with tears. Luke 19:41-44 remembers that as Jesus approached Jerusalem on his Triumphal Entry, he “saw the city, [and] he wept over it….” Why did his pilgrimage end in tears? Because “you did not know what would bring you peace….” And “because you did not recognize the time of God coming to you.” After all those years of pilgrimage into the Presence of God and prayers for the peace of Jerusalem, the people of God did not recognize that God had come to them in the person of Jesus. And in missing him, they missed their long awaited peace.
Rather than preaching on Israel’s failure, however, we can address God’s people today about the pilgrimage of Advent. How many of us are on spiritual pilgrimage, looking for the Presence of the Lord in the house of God, praying for the peace and prosperity of whatever city we inhabit, trying to find security and seek justice in this world? Some of us may actually be on such a quest, but Jesus weeps over us, because we “do not know what will bring us peace” and “we have not recognized the time of God coming to us.” You can spend a whole sermon investigating those two clauses. Let’s make sure that our spiritual quests lead us finally to Christ, and not some earthly substitute, however sacred and venerable it may be.
With this sort of turn to Christ, we can legitimately preach an Advent sermon on Psalm 122. “Let us go to the house of the Lord” is a call to come closer to the Lord Jesus, in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The other texts for this First Sunday of Advent alert us to the dangers of doing nothing to get closer, choosing instead to sleepwalk through life like everyone else (Matthew 24). Romans 13 encourages us to wake up, because the time is getting nearer. Wake up and get dressed, taking off the filthy clothes that come from pursuing the desires of the sinful nature and putting on the clean clothing of Christ himself. As the time is getting closer, “let us go” to One whose Presence is with us always.
One of the delights and disappointments of the holidays is the annual pilgrimage home. My son in Kentucky sets out for Grand Rapids, Michigan, twice in the space of a month to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it isn’t Grand Rapids that is the goal of the trip. It’s our house and, more specifically, us, his parents. So, for Israel, it wasn’t just the city, magnificent as it may have been. It was the Presence who lived there, and all the blessing that came from being near to the heart of God. And for us, the holidays aren’t just about the houses and parties and gifts, or even family. They are about the Presence of God in that Baby. What if we went to as much trouble and effort and expense to get close to him as we do to meet with our families and friends?! Sometimes we’re disappointed by what we experience in our family festivities. We’ll never be disappointed by a genuine encounter with Christ. So, let us go to the Christ in this season of Advent.
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