Chore or Pilgrimage?

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Last Sunday’s sermon at both churches was based on Psalm 122.

It is what is known as a hymn of Zion. Zion of course, is the actual hill that Jerusalem was built on and in the day of David it would have been a fortress city, surrounded by walls And with a holy place (not yet the temple – Solomon would build that later) inside. We are told it is a Psalm of David, that he wrote it and that it is a pilgrimage psalm.

Here is the scripture:

Psalm 122
A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem.
A psalm of David.

1 I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
2 And now here we are, standing inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
3 Jerusalem is a well-built city; its seamless walls cannot be breached.
4 All the tribes of Israel—the Lord’s people— make their pilgrimage here.
They come to give thanks to the name of the Lord, as the law requires of Israel.
5 Here stand the thrones where judgment is given,
the thrones of the dynasty of David.

6 Pray for peace in Jerusalem. May all who love this city prosper.
7 O Jerusalem, may there be peace within your walls
and prosperity in your palaces.
8 For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “May you have peace.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek what is best for you, O Jerusalem.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and we normally talk about Christmas things in Advent, like John the Baptist, and prophecies, and angels – all that Christmas stuff. So why in the world did the lectionary pick this scripture for us on the first Sunday in Advent?

I asked myself the same question as I prepared this sermon. So I began, as of often do, by making sure I had an understanding of the scripture and its context.

pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler,  literally one who has come from afar,  who is on a journey to a holy place. Typically, this is a physical journey (often on foot) to some place of special significance. So the pilgrimage David is writing about is coming to Jerusalem, most likely from the outlying parts of his kingdom.

But the word pilgrim has come to also mean someone on a spiritual journey, as we try to move our spirits from one place to another place, closer to God.

And Advent is designed to be a spiritual journey.

Advent is a season observed in many denominations as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Created by the early church around the fourth century AD, it was designed to prepare the people of the church for the celebration of Christ’s birth. The term itself is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”, adventus.

You see, the ancient church fathers knew that if we want to have a high spiritual moment, we need to prepare ourselves for it.

Hitting it cold won’t do it. We are too distracted to get it cold and expect any spiritual stirring on the day of Christmas. They knew that people are busy with the rest of life to focus properly on Christ without some preparation.  It was true then and it is true today.

The traditional church used candles to mark the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent, we lit the first candle, the candle of hope, reminding us that Christ was the hope of the Jews, and reminding us today that his life, death, and ressurection remains our hope.

In the early church, the focus of these candles  was often on history, and Christ’s early ancestors going back to…. David, our Psalmist, writer today’s reading.

So with that history, let’s take a look of the scripture.

Verse 1: I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”

Imagine the pilgrims. They would have been traveling in a hostile land, in a time when they were still surrounded by enemies. Often through mountain passes that would have still had bandits lurking in the hidden places. Travel was dangerous, not taken lightly or on a whim.

But they are happy to be traveling to Jerusalem. Why?

First, it is a place of refuge for God’s people (vs 2-3)

From Verses 2-3 – And now here we are, standing inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a well-built city; its seamless walls cannot be breached.
Jerusalem is a  place of refuge, a place of safety in an unsafe word with strong walls and strong gates. It is a place of peace. So they were glad to be in that place of refuge.

And for us, Christ, and the church, is where we too, often come to find that safety. Safety from a dangerous world, From a place of anger, a place of uncertainty, a place where love is not the norm….. We come here.  We come to Christ in prayer, study, and opening ourselves to him.

This place we call church is not called a sanctuary for nothing. In the early church, anyone who came to a church, no matter who wanted him, even kings, was safe.

Christ himself was a safe place. He made all those who came to him in honest searching feel safe. Sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, Romans, Greeks, lepers – all people who were dismissed by the Jewish world he lived in, and by the religious establishment. And yet he welcomed them. He loved them. He made them feel safe enough that they invited him for dinner. They sought him out. They came and asked him questions. And he treated them with graciousness.

How long has it been since you have felt totally safe? How long since you knew you were loved and valued, flaws and all?

That is what Christ offers us. And that is part of why we celebrate his coming.

Second, Jerusalem is a place of praise, particularly of united praise.

From Verse 4 – “That is where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord to praise the name of the Lord…”

Before the taking of Jerusalem by David, the Jews had been scattered. Their worship had been scattered. But 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.

He wanted them to feel strong in their safety. And strength comes in togetherness. Worshiping together makes us stronger.

A week or so ago we had a funeral at Rupert Methodist. The church was packed. Every chair was full and we had to borrow chairs to make sure there were places for all who came.

When we began the first hymn, it was clear that a lot of people had not been to a church in a long time. The singing was faint and halting. But as a few people sang out, others began to remember, and slowly, verse after verse, the singing grew stronger, so that by the end of the song, the rafters rang with singing.

It is the same way in our faith. Worshiping together makes us stronger. It was true in David’s time. It is true in our time.

Third, and most important, Jerusalem was the place where Israel could meet their God.

This is because Jerusalem is where God had chosen to dwell in his “house.”  The Jews believed he lived in the Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, which was kept in Jerusalem.  Though the whole earth belongs to Yahweh, so that he is everywhere, he dwelt 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.’” It was an invitation to journey into the very presence of God.

And isn’t that what we want for ourselves at Christmas? Not just to remember a story. Not just to lay out presents. Not just to stuff ourselves with food (though I dearly love the food.), or stuff the stockings. No, we want something else, something more.

We want to meet God, To thank him, as we do in church with music, praise and song. As we did Thursday on Thanksgiving.  We want to feel his presence in our lives, his strength, his wisdom his comfort. We want to feel safe again. We want to feel loved, cared about,

And we get there by letting God in, by opening our hearts to Jesus, by opening ourselves to the moving of the Holy Spirit.

And that path, that clear path shown in the bible. Began at Christmas. Which is why we come to Avent, taking time to prepare ourselves, to make our spirits ready to meet God, which can only be done when we push aside the busyness of the Christmas season, and prepare ourselves.

As the next few weeks rush up on us. I urge you to take time to be holy. Read the story of Christ’s coming. All the versions. Listen, really listen to the music and the lyrics of this blessed season. Read too, of easter, and the aftermath. Read about Christ’s love. Prepare your heart.

Make getting ready for Christmas, not a chore….. but a pilgrimage.


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