Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 26, 2018
Psalm 84 Commentary
Did Joseph, Mary, and Jesus sing this psalm on their way to Jerusalem that year when Jesus turned 12? Psalm 84 is a Song of Ascent, a pilgrimage song. Like most such psalms it was meant to bolster the determination and the energy and the enthusiasm for Jerusalem-bound travelers heading to the Holy City for one of its liturgical festivals and feasts like Passover. As all travelers know even yet today—including most especially those who have young children in the car—the trip toward the destination always passes a bit more quickly than the homeward trek because a great way to pass the time is to swap hopes and dreams of what the end point of the trip will be like.
“When we get to the ocean in Maine, we will see . . . whales and seals! When we get to the Universal theme park in Florida, we will experience . . . that great Jurassic Park ride and the Harry Potter wizarding world! When we get to Colorado, we will . . . climb mountain paths and see elk and moose!”
For the Israelites, however, the much-anticipated sights and sounds were of a decidedly holy and pious nature. It was the Temple, the dwelling place of the Most High God in Zion that set their pulses to racing. Their ardent belief that the God of Israel really had established his earthly headquarters in Jerusalem made Mount Zion and its Temple the singularly most amazing destination in the world. What could compare to it? Not the vast pyramids of Egypt—those were just mausoleums, tombs to dead kings who were only wannabe gods. Not the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—what is a bunch of shrubbery compared to the home of the One who made the heavens and the earth and every kind of growing thing you could name?
Of course, scholars point out the irony that “Mount” Zion is really little more than a semi-impressive hill. There were many more outwardly impressive places in the world, even way back then. Only the eyes of faith and the heart of devotion could transform that place into the earth-shattering reality the Israelites hailed it as being.
Still, their devotion and enthusiasm could not be contained. Every step they took toward Jerusalem gave them more energy, not less, for the journey. “From strength to strength” they walked. And with every phrase they uttered to state their anticipation, the rhetoric and hyperbolic flights of imagination went up and up. “Just think of the birds who build their nests in the corners of the Temple!” they would exclaim. “Those are lucky birds! Blessed birds! Oh to be such a winged creature! They get to see God’s beauty every day from their pretty little perches!”
“I know, I know” another would chime in, “and I’ll tell you what: I would rather spend 1 hour in the outermost courtyard of the Temple than a whole week in the prettiest vacation spot you could name! No, no, wait, it’s better than that: I would rather spend 1 day in the Temple than, than, than, ONE THOUSAND days anywhere else. In fact, I would rather be the lowliest servant in the whole place than spend ten seconds living it up with wicked people! I would rather watch the paint dry on a Temple wall than join the so-called ‘fun’ parties of worldly people!” That is just how it would go en route to the sacred city.
And so I wonder if Jesus’ family recited this psalm that time when Joseph and Mary for a time actually lost sight of God’s own Son, accidentally leaving him behind in Jerusalem when they returned home (who KNOWS how these things happen!?). It is difficult to know what all the incarnate Son of God knew at any given moment during his earthly and human maturation. But before that story in Luke’s gospel is finished, we know he had a firm sense that this Temple everyone was so eager to see was his “Father’s house.” This was home for Jesus in a way he maybe could not fully identify but that went well beyond whatever “home” he had in Nazareth with Mary and Joseph. And if the pilgrims on that particular holy sojourn were quoting Psalm 84 and its enthusiastic statements about wanting to dwell in the House of the Lord forever, then young Jesus shared that sentiment and then some. Oddly enough, he had this sense that he essentially already HAD been living in that house forever until fairly recently when he undertook a different pilgrimage, a different journey in the opposite direction.
Small wonder that once Jesus got to the Temple with everyone else, he decided to linger there, talk shop with some of the Elders. Maybe young Jesus sensed that well before he launched any kind of formal ministry effort on earth, he first had a lot to learn, a lot to investigate to see where the official thoughts and teachings about the God of Israel were at just then. Before he could teach the right and true things about his Father’s business and execute the will of the One who had sent him, he had to find out what the wrong and false ideas were. And if in this case when he was 12 doing that meant spending an extra few days in that House of God that Psalm 84 had celebrated so lyrically the whole journey long, then so much the better. A real bonus!
Of course, today no one church building is exactly identical to that singular Temple in Jerusalem and what it stood for. Now that we have each become a living, breathing, walking Temple of the Holy Spirit as people of Pentecost, the unique shine of Mount Zion as the sole place of God’s dwelling has become a bit diffuse (though it ought to be no less stunning!). Today we Christians mostly don’t have a sense of pilgrimage to any given place and certainly we do not venerate one certain location as being particularly spectacular from a spiritual point of view.
Still, might we do well to recover some sense of the high and holy enthusiasm of the people of old when we consider our own living connection to this Holy God now today? Should the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts cause also our own pulses to race now and then? Should it inspire in us the kind of awe, wonder, and gratitude that is so evident when you read Psalm 84? Probably the answers to all those questions is a resounding “Yes!”
“Happy are those . . . whose hearts are the highways to Zion” Psalm 84:5 claims. Well, the highway to salvation that our God built now runs straight into every believer’s heart. Given this blessed fact, being “happy” should be the bare minimum of what we ought to feel and celebrate every day!
A few years ago during a one-week intensive preaching course in late May, we noticed on the first day of class that a large Great-Horned Owl had made a nest in the huge window high up and behind the pulpit area in the Seminary Chapel. It was in the uppermost pane just in the upper left quadrant of the big white cross that is the center of this clear-glass window. The owl was clearly raising some chicks up there. In any event, it was not at all unusual for us when listening to a student sermon to see this owl swivel that big head and those big eyes around to peer down at the student as he or she proclaimed God’s Word.
In addition to jokes that this was like the Seminary gone to Hogwarts (given the ubiquity of owls in the Harry Potter world), not a few of us reflected on Psalm 84 and its noting all of those birds who apparently built nests in the eaves of the Temple. I don’t know that any of us envied that owl’s ability to peer into a house of the Lord all the time but it surely provided a living reminder of some of the sentiments of that particular Hebrew poem!
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