A song of ascents. Of David.
Text: Psalm 122
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
"We are taking a break today from our series on the Book of Judges. As we begin this new season of church life together again in person, I think we need to be a little more celebratory than the Book of Judges generally is, and begin this new season with a Psalm of joy and celebration. So turn with me to Psalm 122 today, and let’s read the words of this great psalm of Ascent, which is all about the joy of God’s people coming together in the house of the Lord to praise the Name of the Lord.
I rejoiced with those who said to me, 'Let us go to the house of the Lord.' Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together. That is where the tribes go up— the tribes of the Lord— to praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel. There stand the thrones for judgment, the thrones of the house of David. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: 'May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.' For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, 'Peace be within you.' For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.
'I rejoiced with those who said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord."' Is that how you felt this morning on your way over here? I did! It has been a long time since we have been able to 'go to the house of the Lord.' And I hope it feels as good for those of you who are here to return to this sanctuary as it does for me. With the psalmist we can join in saying, “Our feet are standing in your gates! O Forestdale. We are finally back!”
And you know, that feeling of finally being back in God’s house is exactly what the Psalmist is expressing here in Psalm 122. For the majority of Jews in the ancient world, going to the Tabernacle or to the Temple to worship was a big deal.
Unless you lived right in or around Jerusalem, you didn’t get to go to the House of the Lord very often, or at all. Certainly not on a weekly basis, or even a monthly or yearly basis.
Now if you were a Jew, and you lived in other parts of the land of Israel, you were supposed to go up to Jerusalem a couple times a year for the major feasts. But if you lived in other parts of the wider world you might only go up to Jerusalem once a year, or once a decade, or maybe even just once in your life if you were lucky.
You see, it could take days or weeks or months to travel by boat or by camel or donkey or by foot to get there. And so a pilgrim to Jerusalem would have to leave their home, their family, their job, their farms and flocks and herds to travel all that way. And then when the worship feast was all over, they would have to travel all the way back.
So it was a big deal for most Jews in the ancient world to ever even get to the House of the Lord for worship.
So can you imagine how if felt when they finally were able to go? Well, maybe you can today! It’s been 15 months since you have been able to come to the house of the Lord for worship. Maybe we can relate really well to the Psalmists delight in saying, 'I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord. And now, my feet are standing in Jerusalem and I am finally here!'
In fact, though I have never been to Jerusalem myself, everyone I know who has gone says that even before your feet are standing in Jerusalem, there is this moment in approaching the city, when you come up over the ridge of the Mount of Olives and suddenly see Jerusalem laid out before you, and just the sight of it is awesome.
Pilgrims to Jerusalem have felt this way for thousands of years. And they savor the walk down the Mount of Olives and through the Kidron Valley and up the slope through the gates of the City and to the Temple.
For Jews in the ancient world, and for Jews even today, it doesn’t get any better than that. I hope you feel a little of that kind of joy today as you come back to this place after 15 months of being away.
The sight of the Forestdale Community Church building at 235 Forest Street in Malden isn’t exactly that breathtaking, but for those of us who worship here regularly it is a place that feels like coming home. And we have missed it these past many months. Because this sanctuary is a sacred space for us. It is a place where we come to meet with God, and to meet with each other, and to worship together.
Jerusalem is a city that has always been somehow 'set apart' as a 'holy place,' and as a 'sacred space,' and so is this sanctuary.
Now we have all learned full well this past 15 months that the 'church' is not this building. We have still been the church the whole time we’ve been absent from this place, because the church of Jesus Christ is people. And the true House of the Lord is built from living stones like you and me: the people of God are the church, and wherever two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, He is there in our midst.
That is the church. But this sanctuary is a place where we 'the church' gather together, and the place where we 'the church' go to worship and meet with God.
That was what the Tabernacle and the Temple were for Jews in the ancient world. And this psalm expresses the feelings of those who were able to come there and be part of the corporate worship of God’s people.
The opening words express the joy and delight and expectation of those who were able to be in that sacred place together.
And the last 4 lines of the psalm are a prayer for the peace and prosperity and security of that city. 'May there be peace within your walls, O Jerusalem, and security within your citadels. For the sake of my brothers and friends, I will say, "Peace be with you." For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.'
Can you hear how they felt about their holy City? Can you hear how they felt about the opportunity to actually go to their sacred space for worship and for celebration?
And the rest of the psalm tells us why:
In verse 4 the psalmist says it was because Jerusalem was the place 'where the tribes of the Lord go up to praise the name of the Lord according to the statute given to Israel.'
You see, what made Jerusalem, and what makes a sanctuary like this one a 'sacred space,' is that it is simply the place we have set apart in our community to come together to meet with God. It is also a place of 'teaching' and learning about God, because we gather according to the statutes God gave to his people. So part of what we do here as we gather is learn those statutes, learn about this God we are worshipping, retell the stories of His faithfulness to His people, re-orient our lives around his grace and His truth, repent of ways we have fallen short of His will and His ways. And we do this together. It’s the tribes and clans and families of the Lord who gather together, and so there is fellowship along the way, and the sharing of testimonies, laughter, tears, stories, and life experiences of births and deaths, and successes and failures.
All of those experiences get in various ways tied to this gathering place. So whether it is the Temple at Jerusalem, or the sanctuary at 235 Forest Street in Malden, the place itself becomes a place of memories. The psalmist says that the thrones of David, and the citadels, and the compacted buildings, were all reminders of Israel’s long history together.
The very walls of Jerusalem reminded God’s people of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of those walls after the Exile. The Temple reminded them of the days of David and Solomon, but also of the misery of how that first Temple was destroyed and had to be rebuilt.
You see, the stories reminded them of both the pains of their shared history, and the resurrections of their shared history. But it all led them to be reminded of God’s faithfulness to them, even in the midst of their unfaithfulness to Him.
That’s what this sacred space is like for many of us. The pews themselves have stories behind them, reminders of people who always sat in certain spots who are no longer with us. Even the pew pads remind me of Doris Barnes who scoffed at the idea that we would put pads on the pews. But then she ended up loving them and being so thankful that we hadn’t listened to her.
And the cross above the altar, and the wood it is made from is a reminder not only of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but of a time a few years ago when we as a church made changes to this altar area to enhance our worship. In the process, some old things like fake organ pipes were let go of, and some new life was born in a cross.
You see, these spaces where we gather for worship over the course of years contain a mixture of memories of the past, and expectations for the future, and a hope of meeting God in the present.
This is all part of what made Jerusalem a sacred space for the people of God in the psalmist’s day. It’s also a part of what I feel in this place as we come back to worship here today.
'I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord!"'
But I must say, I am also glad for the opportunity we had this past 15 months to be the church apart from this building, and from this sacred space.
We learned that God is not confined to this sacred space. And neither are we. God is still God, and we are still His people whether we are able to meet together in this place or not.
And we learned that we can stay connected to God and to each other even if we are confined to our homes for 15 months.
I am amazed that many of you have told me you feel more connected to each other now than you ever did before. Somehow seeing everyone’s faces on Zoom each week, and hearing different people’s stories or testimonies each week, or each month in the online Newsletter, there’s a sense many of you feel more a part of the body of Christ here than you did before.
And technology has been a big part of that. Using technology was just not a big part of who we were before COVID. Using PowerPoint slides on Sunday’s was about as high-tech as we got. But now we have discovered that technology can actually be used creatively to reach and connect with people each week, and to reach and connect with people who are not able to actually be present with us on Sunday mornings.
It’s also encouraging to me that we have learned to be adaptable. Because we needed to be. And in fact, we haven’t stopped yet! We are now adapting to in-person worship in a hopefully post-COVID era, and making adaptations as we go.
So there are many ways in which I believe the Lord has used this difficult time we have all been living through. But for today, I am simply glad to be back in the house of the Lord with you.
And with the psalmist I pray that there may be peace within these walls, and security and safety in this sacred place.
And I pray that as we go forward in the weeks and months to come, that God will continue to sovereignly guide us to be who He’s called us to be, and to do what He’s called us to do.
And as God’s people, those gathered in this sacred space and those of you who are worshipping with us from home, let us share communion together, the Covenant meal by which we proclaim what God has done for us in Christ, and receive the gift of His grace and mercy.