Scripture Reading • Psalm 122 (NIV)
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.
The past couple of Sundays we have been looking at Psalms of Ascents … these Psalms were probably sung by ancient Israelites as they made their three-time-a-year pilgrimage trips to Jerusalem to celebrate religious festivals. I have been picturing these Psalms of Ascents as something like a soundtrack for the life of faith. These are ancient songs that teach us what it looks like to live and grow as God’s people as we make our way through life. These Psalms offer us a helpful vision of discipleship … they show us what life can look like when we allow Jesus to be the one who shapes and influences our lives.
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord.’”
In the Message, Eugene Peterson’s translation of the bible, he says, “When they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of God,’ my heart leaped for joy.”
I love that perspective on worship.
This psalmist is excited to worship with the community of faithful people at the temple in Jerusalem … even as they make the long journey to Jerusalem, the psalmist doesn’t talk about worship like it is an obligation … or something he just has to get through and be done with … worship doesn’t sound like a burden or inconvenience … to this poet the prospect of gathering with the faithful community to worship God stirs joy.
As I have studied and prayed through this Psalm, I have thought of you all and how much I enjoy worshipping God in this place with this community.
When we are together, I can sense joy and enthusiasm … the vibe you all give that gathering as God’s people to worship is good and worthwhile … something we can look forward to and, even, enjoy. That is life-giving for me as a pastor … it is beautiful and precious to be able to serve with people who value being together to worship God and who genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
This isn’t how I have always felt about worship though. When I was in elementary school I remember thinking worship wasn’t really that great of a use of time. Watching football. Playing catch with my brother. Building stuff with Legos. All that stuff seemed like a better use of a Sunday morning than sitting for an hour in church.
I looked forward to some future time when I would be old enough to tell my mom I wasn’t going to church any more.
But that time … that magical age never really came.
It didn’t really need to … something happened in my life in Junior High … and church … worship started to make sense and even become valuable to me.
I enjoy studying Psalms, because as poetry, Psalms push me to think with the artistic part of my brain … the world of the Psalms can be kind of strange and disorienting … it is written by poets living in a distant time and different culture who were inspired and moved by God. To make sense of these ancients prayer-songs, it can be really helpful to look for patterns, metaphors, imagery, and symbols – the tools we often use to make sense of poetry.
Jerusalem is one of the central symbols in this psalm. In his commentary on Psalm 122, Clinton McCann points out that “it is crucial to realize that Jerusalem represents in the Psalms not just a place but a symbol of God’s presence in space and time” (NIB, 655). In this psalm Jerusalem symbolizes living in God’s presence. Jerusalem, draws the tribes of Israel, a diverse group of people together in worship.
The third verse, “Jerusalem is built like a city that is closely compacted together,” also caught my attention when I was first looking through the Psalm. I wasn’t sure what it meant. Was it something about architecture? Was it a comment on the size of Jerusalem? Maybe something about cramped and tight spaces?
Clinton McCann writes,
“The word translated [compacted] is never used elsewhere [in the Old Testament] of buildings. Rather, it is used of human compacts or alliances … thus it is possible that it is not so much Jerusalem’s architecture that is being praised, but Jerusalem’s ability to bring people together” (NIB, 654).
I think this especially makes sense because in the verse just after this, we hear about all the tribes of Israel going up to Jerusalem to praise God. This is a picture of God’s presence drawing people together.
In his reflections on the Psalms of Ascents in, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson points out something similar,
The King James Version translates this sentence “Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together.” Earlier [Miles] Coverdale (One of the first translators of the English bible) had translated the latter phrase as “that is at unity with itself.” The city itself was a kind of architectural metaphor for what worship is: All the pieces of masonry fit compactly, all the building stones fit harmoniously. There were no loose stones, no leftover pieces, no awkward gaps in the walls or towers. It was well-built, compactly built, skillfully built, “at unity with itself.”
What is true architecturally is also true socially, for the sentence continues, “to which the tribes ascend, all GOD’s tribes.” In worship all the different tribes functioned as a single people in harmonious relationship. In worship, though we have come from different places and out of various conditions, we are demonstrably after the same things, saying the same things, doing the same things. With all our differing levels of intelligence and wealth, background and language, rivalries and resentments, still in worship we are gathered into a single whole. Outer quarrels and misunderstandings and differences pale into insignificance as the inner unity of what God builds in the act of worship is demonstrated (Peterson, 52).
I love that. I love how worship draws us together … how when we worship there is space for all of us. Regardless of our unique and different backgrounds, there is space in God’s presence to sing and pray and grow together as Christ’s disciples.
That is one of my core convictions about the church and about our worship … there is space for all of us … God’s presence draws us together … This is a community where we can fit in … and grow together … experiencing and celebrating the goodness and presence of God in our lives.
This is what changed my understanding of worship when I was in Junior High … this is what led me to find value, connection, and joy in worship. School was hard. I didn’t feel like I fit in. But in youth group I experienced God’s love and I found a place. In that community worship began to make sense. Church stopped feeling like a waste of time. Gathering with the church to worship became something I looked forward too … something that helped me get through the week … something that brought me joy.
I want the church … I want our time when we are gathered for worship to be like that for you.
I want this to be a place where you are excited to be … I want our worship to be a place where you fit … where you can offer your unique experiences … your quirks … your talents and gifts to celebrate God’s presence and offer gratitude for ways we have experienced God’s goodness in Jesus Christ. I hope and pray that in our worship you can have joy and that we can share the common mind and heart that seeks to honor and celebrate the God who makes all the difference in our lives.
“I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord.’”