This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.
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Psalm 122, “Let us go up to the house of the Lord.” Today, Christians around the country might be cautiously singing their praises to God for the first time in over a year. To mark that occasion, I thought that we might imagine what it is to praise God as we approach a time when government restrictions are relaxed to allow people to do what they think is responsible. Of course, we need to continue to be very much aware that COVID-19 is still with us, but let’s use this first Sunday when we have these restrictions lifted to look at what celebrating God looks [like] through this Psalm.
Psalm 122 is a Psalm of ascent. It’s a hymn that perhaps groups of pilgrims may have used to sing or shout or say as they make their way to the holy city of Jerusalem. The city is not only holy because of the temple and the understanding that God dwelt there. God’s promise was always that he would be with his people and that the people would be with him. The problem being, of course, that the people so often disobeyed God and kept going away from him.
The name Jerusalem means city of peace and the Psalm itself reminds the singer of the importance of peace. We’ve recently looked at some of the books, the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and recall that they both felt the call of God to return from exile to Israel, to rebuild Jerusalem, its walls, and its temple. For the faithful Israelites, it was a very visual way of knowing that God hadn’t left them. God was with them and God remained with them through His presence in the temple. Although it wasn’t necessarily that God lived only in the temple in the way that perhaps we live in our homes. Rather the temple was a focal point of faith that would ensure the community drew together, particularly for such feast times as Passover and Pentecost. This Psalm, Psalm 122, is primarily a song of joy to visit the place where the faithful would gather together with one purpose to praise God gladly and to pray for the well-being of the great and holy city.
Maybe you can imagine for a few moments when you were part of a larger crowd. Do you remember those days where everyone gathered for the same reason, whether it’s for a football match, for church, a festival, a concert? The sense of excitement that you all share in the bustle which this creates, perhaps it’s palpable. You get the excitement of other people. That’s the sense I think that the psalm here is creating. We’re all in this together. The whole family of faith going to be as near as we can be to where God resides. Maybe it’s going to be your first time going to Jerusalem and you have an overwhelming sense of anticipation at seeing the temple for that first time, or perhaps you’ve been on pilgrimage before and you’ve got a favourite spot over which to look at the city on the way, or you’re looking forward to meeting up with friends from other clans, the hustle and bustle and general excitement of gathering builds, topped only by the joy of communal worship.
That’s the sense that we get in Nehemiah when Ezra reads from the Hebrew scriptures and the people are reminded of their agreements, their covenant with God. Again, here in this Psalm of ascent, as people swarm towards the city of peace, Jerusalem, their passion for God and the holy city is captured in song as they approach the magnificence of the buildings and the busy-ness and of course the temple at the centre. What else can they do except overflow in their worship and praise of God at such beauty and community. Maybe there’s a sense that as we sing our songs today, but not too loudly, in this place for worship since March 2020.
I was reminded that Jesus went to Jerusalem when he was a very young adult following the Passover celebration that the clans were on their way home. On this return journey, Jesus’ parents assume that he’s with another family, somewhere in the group. After a day of searching, they decided to turn back to see if they’d accidentally left him in Jerusalem. Sure enough, after three days of looking they find him in the temple listening and asking questions of the temple leaders and being admired for such intelligence for one so young. After being scolded by his mother for worrying them so much, you can imagine can’t you, Jesus replies to his mother so innocently, “Well, didn’t you know that I had to be among my father’s business.”
Later on in Luke, in what we now know is holy week. After the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the people cry out, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” Jesus then weeps over this same city. He predicts its destruction, which would occur in AD 70 by the Romans. He weeps, as he knows how awful it will be for himself because he knows that such judgement could have been avoided if only the people had listened and turned and acknowledged him, the way of peace, the way that God wanted them to go.
Instead, the Jewish leaders and the Romans who were occupying Jerusalem would in time condemn him to death. Jesus’ sorrow leads him to say of Jerusalem in Luke 19, “If you, even you had known on this day what would bring you peace.” Jesus weeps over the city, knowing all this could have been avoided had the people followed his ways. Now Jesus knew that there was no other way, except the way of the cross, which would finally bring reconciliation between God and creation. As Isaiah 53 puts it, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him.”
Psalm 122 focuses on the community journey to the holy city. As it says, let us go up to the house of the Lord. Let us go up. The importance of the temple in community life, as well as prayer for peace of the city that bears the name of peace itself because Uru-shalom, Jerusalem is where God and his people meet together. The Psalmist promises to seek the city’s peace. Michael and I had a conversation about this just the other day. He wasn’t too sure if he was going to be here today. It’s good to see you, Mike. He read through my sermon and he said, “It doesn’t really fit where it says, pray for the prosperity of Jerusalem.” We toyed around with that a little bit.
I think in the end we decided that instead of prosperity, the notion of welfare was probably a better fit. Pray for the welfare of Jerusalem rather than perhaps its richness. As a community here today perhaps things have changed for us a little on our journey through COVID. Being allowed to sing praises, allowed once more, gives us some encouragement that there is a sense of normality, whatever that might look like. For some, it’s a wonderful release whilst for others, it remains a step too far, but for now, we can rejoice with those who are going up to the house of the Lord.
We can gather in praise and worship together and online, online and on-site. We can do this as safely as we feel we are allowed whilst considering others around us. While Psalm 122 focuses on the joy of worshipping together, it also focuses upon prayer and particularly prayer for peace. As the Psalm instructs us, we can pray for the peace of the city of Jerusalem, which today remains a divided city. We can also pray for our home town of Frodsham and other places that you have a heart for. Psalm 122:6–9 says this, “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 my friends, I will say, Peace within you. For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your prosperity,” your welfare.”
I understand that there’s some beautiful wordplay between the words pray, and peace, and Jerusalem, and be secure in the original Hebrew, if only I knew Hebrew, which we don’t get in the English translation, but we get the idea that these words were all really, really important within the Jewish faith at least. For me, the centre point of the Psalm is this bit, praying for peace, not just for the holy city but for one another. Peace means wholeness, not just the absence of war, but including everything for life and for godliness, and living right, and good character, and good community spirit. At the centre of all of this is God whose character is absolutely wholeness in all its forms and whose highest form is love. You might want to praise God for something in particular, and at the same time be hankering after peace.
As you pray, you might experience an element of peace that passes understanding or pray and experience no peace either. The important thing is that we pray. I think that Jesus experienced all these experiences and feelings and emotions and more as he wept over Jerusalem that day. In all likelihood, he knew what was going to happen to him. He knew that he was going to be brutally executed, and yet he forthrightly still went to meet his fate. Praying for the peace of Jerusalem is not so much an instruction, I think, rather an invitation to pray. Whatever mood you are in, the invitation is to draw near to God.
There is a wonderful promise in scripture that says, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Again, I don’t think it’s an instruction. I don’t think there’s a manual on how to draw near, rather we do what is in our ability to do so. We have open access to God, and so we have the ability to come to God. Coming near might be a feeling, or it might be an action. Those singing Psalm 122, “See the holy city of Jerusalem up ahead,” or as they turn that corner through the gates into the temple itself. We don’t have that in the same way, but what we do have in abundance is the promise of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
Even if we don’t feel like we’re drawing near to God to pray, the sense is that as we pray, God can draw near to us. It’s then down to him as to whether we feel it. If I’m honest, I don’t feel God’s sense of presence a lot when I pray, but it doesn’t mean that I should give up on it until God is near and I feel it. That’s so often the temptation, isn’t it? When we pray or we sing praise. I like that old Christian adage that when someone says to their friend, “Well, I didn’t get much out of worship today.” Then, the picture changes over to God and he says to himself, “Well, it wasn’t about you anyway.”
The way we worship is always to glorify God, to pray specifically, as it says here, for the wholeness of the city. There will be times when we want to offer prayer and praise generally because God is worth worshipping, he’s worth praising. As one commentator remarks, “Peace, is ultimately enjoying the peace of God.” Something quite similar, the beginnings of The Westminster Catechism which says that our purpose is to enjoy and to glorify God. As we plan to meet weekly here in the church on Sunday, and still on Zoom, to worship and to sing even if it is, perhaps, behind masks or quietly.
This is an act of worship though it remains something that we want to do together as a community of faith. Our act of worship is to pray, to pray for the peace, the prosperity, the welfare or Frodsham wherever it is that you live, for its wholeness, for all of its facets, for its prosperity. Even if we have to row back on restrictions because COVID numbers increase, we’ve come to experience, to know, that we can praise God even from home. This may well be part of this new normal, I’m afraid. As we close, we cite and state with the psalmist, “Peace within these walls. Security within the citadels. For the sake of my family and friends, I will say peace within you.” It’s one of those things that Anglicans do quite often, isn’t it? In Anglican churches, they say, “Peace be with you.” As we close, in your situations and your circumstances, may peace be with you.
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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.