This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 16th at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the third of the Psalms of Ascents, Psalm 122. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.
For links to the previous posts in this series, scroll to the end of this post.
I am not a morning person. Despite this, my alarm continues to sound every Sunday morning at 5:30. The combination of these two facts is a kind of perfect storm of unfortunate physiology and job requirements. It means that I’m not always at my best when I am in the church getting ready for the 8 a.m. service. The people there are very patient with me – one of them, Rosemary, has a gift for cheering me up and cheering me on. If you know me, you know just what a profound gift that is. Nevertheless, when the alarm does go off at 5:30, I rarely feel excited about the prospects ahead of me – my body and my mind won’t let that happen. For a while. Some days, not at all.
We’ve come to the third psalm in our journey through the Psalms of Ascents. The first was about repentance, changing the direction we’re travelling in; the second is about trusting God and looking for help; this third is about someone who’s excited to go to church. People like me – and, dare I say, you – need a psalm like this.
There’s a flow to this series of psalms, but we shouldn’t necessarily see them as directly chronological. Where Psalm 122 might sit is, for instance, not entirely clear: it could be when the writer has arrived in Jerusalem and is gazing around in awestruck wonder. It could be anticipating the excitement of arrival; it could be reminiscing about it. It doesn’t matter. What this is about is worship, and how worship changes the way we see things.
Verse one establishes the sense of joy at going to worship immediately – the writer has been invited to join God’s people going up to God’s house to worship God. Verse two is that putting your suitcases in the hall after a long, long way feeling: “Ahhh! We’re here. At last. It’s good to be here. The bad airline food and wearing the same clothes for 24 hours were worth it. Let’s have something to eat together”. The journey is over.
Verse 3 to 5 move further. If verse 2 was the sense of relief and joy at finally arriving, these are the words of someone looking around and taking it all in. To get to that, we need to get to grips with verse 3:
Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.
This is about more than the cramped hustle and bustle of an ancient middle-Eastern city … though it does contain that. This is about seeing that everything is at should be; at unity with itself, in the right place. Like my friend who just packed all he needed for six-week motorbike journey into the limited confines of what his bike can carry, in Jerusalem everything is carefully arranged, where it should be. There’s the place where the people of God come to worship God. There’s the line of thrones from where God’s judgements are decided. This is all in the line of the house of David – look! Look at what you see around you. Here is the story of our people!
This is the place where God’s people come to do the things which God has told them to do – and all around are the signs and symbols of the people’s stories. It’s all about things as they should be – judgement (verse 5) in the Bible isn’t just how we think of judgement (deciding what’s wrong and right) … though it does contain that. It’s putting into action those things which God’s law was established to achieve … mercy, the poor cared for, the vulnerable protected, right triumphing over wrong. Biblical judgement is life ordered the way God wants it.
And what are God’s people to do here? They are to worship Him. Worship. Another of those tricky religious words. We think of it, if we do at all, as about the songs and hymns we sing, the music we use, and maybe some of the set prayers (liturgy) we say in church buildings. Worship does contains that … but much more also. Worship is giving somebody the worth they are due – so when kind words are said about a person at birthday, funeral or wedding we might legitimately and appropriately be said to be engaging in an act of worship. Worshipping God is about giving Him the worth He is due – with songs, music, prayers, actions, deeds, thoughts, our jobs, our relationships, our words … our everything. Worship is giving God His worth … and a God who put hills in place is worth a lot.
That’s what God’s people have come to do in Jerusalem – come to God’s house (the temple) to give God the worth He is due (verse 4).
The result of this? The writer prays. He does. He prays (verses 6 -9). He prays that Jerusalem will be at peace. Not just the absence of conflict … though peace contains that. Peace is … life as it should be. The poor provided for. The vulnerable protected. Terrorism ended. Walls of division torn down.
Jerusalem needs peace, doesn’t it? Jerusalem has a special significance in Jewish and Christian history. It needs peace. Like all cities, populated by people like me, it needs to be at peace in the fullest sense of that word. Shalom.
But did you notice? Prayer in the Bible is not just about words uttered … though it contains that. It’s actions carried out. It’s intentionality. It’s activity. It’s work. And the psalm writer is praying that Jerusalem will experience … life as it should be. Isn’t that odd? Because that’s what the writer said he saw when he arrived in Jerusalem when he arrived (verses 3-5).
What’s going on is the writer is experiencing the strange way worship changes what we see and what we do. Fixing our eyes on God and singing, praying, living, acting as He calls us to changes us. It re-centers, re-shapes, re-works us.
Why? Because of all the things we do, worship is the one thing that will survive into the eternal new creation. See one prophetic picture of how this will be if you don’t believe me:
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.’
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) (Revelation 19:6-8)
Worship goes on and on. Lest we think that’s boring – the proverbial harps on clouds - consider that worship is about everything. So maybe, in saying worship survives, the Bible is telling us much that’s good will survive. Without the worm in the apple, the snake in the grass, the curse over work and relationships. Anything but dull. Life as it should be.
Worship reshapes us. Doing worship together, in one building, with people we know, has power. It is a good, God-ordered discipline. It is also the stuff of sacrificing everything, though:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2, The Message)
Worship changes everything, because it is everything; and in being so it gives us a glimpse of how life can be, is and one day will be - completely. Our job as God’s people is with every song, prayer, act of service and advocacy for and with the poor; every seeking of justice, every prayer for healing, every protest at corruption, every thing … with all of that to pull that final, eternal reality of life before God in the new creation as it should be a little more into the present reality of people who know God and who don’t, thereby inviting them to join in with a life of worship.
Worship changes everything.
I may still hobble, have arthritis, be prone to depression and be a little moody. But everything changes.
Shall we set our alarms?
This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 16th June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.
Also in this series: