Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 8, 2018
Psalm 133 Commentary
As is so often the case with the RCL, Psalm 133 seems an odd choice for this second Sunday of the Easter season– until we read it in conjunction with the other readings for today. Read in the context of Acts 4:32-35 in particular, it is very clear why we should focus on Psalm 133. The resurrection of Jesus created a new community of brothers and sisters who dwelled in perfect unity, even sharing their goods so freely that people saw their private property as belonging to the community. Further, the reading from John 20 shows the earliest Easter community, gathered in the upper room for mutual support as they awaited the dreaded knock of the Jewish authorities, only to encounter the risen Christ who has passed right through the locked door. 1 John 1 calls the Johannine community to fellowship with each other and with God in Christ. So, the theme of unity runs through all of the readings, making Psalm 133 the perfect choice for today.
Not only does Psalm 133 resonate with the other readings, but it is also deeply relevant to our fragmented world, our divided country, and our splintered church. It didn’t take long for the pristine unity of the early church to break apart, as we see from letters like 1 Corinthians. That tendency to divide has characterized the Body of Christ throughout its long history, right up to this day when there are literally thousands of denominations in the world. Even tiny local churches wage internecine wars that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys run for cover.
So Psalm 133 provides us a perfect opportunity to call the church back to the unity that it had for a brief time and that Jesus intends for all eternity. It seems to be such a simple little Psalm, but there is a complexity here that should make for an interesting sermon with a surprise Gospel ending.
The structure is simple. The opening line and the last line are directly connected, the last line elaborating the first. In between we have these two metaphors that illustrate how “good and pleasant” it is when brothers live together in unity. It’s like precious oil running down the beard of Aaron and it’s like dew falling on Mount Hermon. Those similes made abundant sense to the first readers, but we will need to explain a bit to help folks appreciate them. And we’ll have to spend considerable time explaining the surprise, Gospel ending. Not only is it good and pleasant when brothers dwell in unity, as illustrated by the metaphors, but it is also the case that Yahweh commands his blessings wherever such unity is found. That blessing is a most unusual Old Testament blessing, namely, “life forevermore.” Can that be right? Unity brings the divine blessing of eternal life? Let’s dig a bit.
The first issue we must deal with is the identity of these brothers. Is the Psalm talking about a biological family here? Given the way brothers fight in nuclear families (my brother and I were exhibit number one in our early years), this Psalm would be a plausible basis for a sermon directed at blood siblings. But given the fact that Psalm 133 is a Psalm of Ascent, presumably sung as the people of God were on pilgrimage up to Jerusalem, there is good reason to think that it is talking about the larger family, the family of God on pilgrimage or in worship. James Luther Mays says, “The Psalm is an exclamation of delight at the goodness the pilgrims’ experience in assembling as one family in Zion.”
This reading gains credibility when we analyze the metaphors describing just how good and pleasant such unity is. The custom of anointing with oil was not only widespread in the ancient Near East, it was also central to ordination rites in Israel. When a king or, particularly, a priest was consecrated to sacred service, he was anointed with fragrant oil. As the first priest, Aaron is the point of this metaphor. The oil used at his ordination was so abundant that it not only made his head wet, but also his beard and even the collar of his robe. The man was totally consecrated to God’s service and, thus, perfectly suited to be the intermediary between the holy God and his sinful people. To say that was a “good and pleasant” thing was an understatement. It was a part of Israel’s redemption.
Patrick Henry Reardon, Antiochian Orthodox priest, takes this line of interpretation a step further. He recalls that around the priest’s neck was “a pectoral of stones on which were engraved the names of Israel’s twelve tribes… Aaron thus bears all Israel upon his breast, directly in the path of the descending ointment of sacerdotal consecration. The whole people of God is rendered holy in his priesthood. The oneness celebrated in this Psalm is the unity of God’s people gathered in worship with their priest.” The connections to Christ as he is presented in Hebrews should be obvious.
The second metaphor is not first of all redemptive; it is a creation simile. Mount Hermon was the gigantic snow covered mountain looming to the north of Israel. Its height made it a magnet for moisture of all kinds, from rain to snow to “dew.” It provided water to the surrounding region for miles around; indeed, from it flow the headwaters of the Jordan. Mount Zion was located in a much more arid area. Water was always an issue there, where God’s temple was located.
What a wonderful thing it would be if the water of Mount Hermon would fall upon Mount Zion! How blessed and fruitful life would be! That’s how life is when brothers live in unity. It’s as though all creation becomes more fruitful. Not only does the church flourish, but so does nature. If that seems a bit of a reach, think of how the sin of Adam and Eve affected not only their relationships with God and each other, but also the world of nature. And think of how Paul pictures the effects of our redemption on nature in Romans 8:18-25.
But here’s an even greater reach. The unity praised in verses 1-3a even brings God’s blessing upon brothers (and obviously sisters) in verse 3b. That blessing is not only a flourishing church and a fruitful creation, but also “life forevermore.” Verse 3b presents us with a couple of knotty points.
First, it says that God commands his blessings “there,” which is the Hebrew word sham. Does that refer to any place where brothers dwell in unity, as verse 1 seems to indicate? Or does it refer to Zion, which has just been mentioned in verse 3a? In other words, does God bestow his blessing indiscriminately on all unified people or is this a blessing for God’s special people as they are gathered for worship in that God-appointed place, namely, the temple on Mount Zion?
Given the rest of Scripture, it seems unlikely that God gives eternal life wherever people dwell in unity. Do we read elsewhere in Scripture that unity the requisite condition for salvation? It is more likely that the Psalm is referring to a localized blessing, on Mount Zion where the priest/high priest Aaron mediates between God and his people. Or, as Hebrews 12:22-24 says, God’s blessing comes upon God’s people at the Mount Zion above through the mediatorial work of our great High Priest, Jesus Christ.
But that raises the second knotty point. What does Psalm 133 mean by “life forevermore?” One scholar is sure that this is not a reference to individual eternal life, as such a thing seems foreign to Jewish hopes. Rather, Psalm 133 is promising that unity will bring the “ever continuing vitality of the community.” Unity brings the blessing of communal longevity to the people of Israel. That makes sense, and we can make a nice application to the church without too much of a stretch.
But let’s not give up too quickly on the other, individual interpretation of “life forevermore.” If it means eternal life, how can it be that unity brings that blessing? What about John 3:16 and so many other passages that link everlasting life to faith in Jesus? When we think of God’s plan of salvation, we don’t usually think of unity as being central to that plan. In church circles, we talk about God blessing churches that have great biblical preaching; I recently read an online piece about America’s mega-churches; all of them are led by a scintillating preacher. God commands his blessing where folks hear the Word preached in the power of Spirit. Or we focus on fervency of prayer, or a passion for outreach, or a commitment to social justice. Rarely do we talk about the importance of unity in the church.
But what about the prayer of Jesus in John 17:23? “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Unity is central to God’s plan, because his plan, according to Ephesians 1:10 is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” Unity brings God’s blessing because it anticipates and participates in God’s great plan to re-unite a creation fragmented by sin. The church is the beginning of what God is doing in the world; it is the first fruit of Easter. Unity does not save us; only Jesus and faith in him can do that. But unity is a crucial part of God’s saving plan. So of course he commands his blessing on a unified church where brother and sisters walk and worship and work together. Such a church brings the blessing of life forevermore to the world.
Psalm 133 doesn’t tell us how such unity can be achieved. That’s where the other readings for this second Sunday of Easter are helpful. John 20 shows us that it is an encounter with the risen Christ that brings fearful, doubting disciples together. Acts 4 displays the importance of meeting together for worship and fellowship, but not just happy worship and comfortable fellowship. The worship must be focused on the preaching of the Risen Christ (verse 33) and the fellowship must be characterized by sacrificial involvement in other people’s lives (verses 32 and 34-35). I John 1 and 2 continue the emphasis on the Gospel of the Incarnation and Atonement in an atmosphere of honesty about our flaws. We can’t be in unity if we’re always covering up, the way Adam and Eve did. Confession of sin and absolution through Christ are central to unity. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (I John 1:7).”
If Psalm 133 sings the blessings of familial, ecclesiastical, and national unity, the current divisions in the leadership of the United States show the curse of disunity. I’m writing this as the whole U.S. government has shut down because brothers and sisters can’t/won’t live together. This great country is under more danger from disunity than it is from North Korea and Russia and China put together. They might bluster and plot, but if we don’t come together, we’ll destroy ourselves. As Lincoln so trenchantly put it, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” He was, of course, quoting Jesus in Mark 3:25. How can God bless American or your church when we don’t live in unity?
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