July 5, 2009
Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
The time for the festival was approaching, and God’s people were on the move again. For centuries, since the time that God had led the Hebrews out of Egypt and into this new land, Jerusalem had been thought of as a very special place.
Though the tablets with the ten commandments were once carried in a special box as God’s people travelled through the wilderness, it had now been a long time since Solomon had built the great temple in Jerusalem. There was a home for God, a place for the people to worship, a place where they could meet with God and know with certainty that God was there.
And so the people came. God’s people lived all over by now — in Jerusalem, in the nearby towns and villages, and even further afield. Most Jews wouldn’t go up to worship in the temple every day or even every week. Instead, they would gather in local synagogues to read from the Law and the Prophets, to interpret the scriptures, to worship God, and to encourage one another.
But Jerusalem was still a very special place — a holy place where God’s presence was sure. Jerusalem was a place where heaven and earth seemed to meet — like on the mountain where God had first spoken to Moses and called him to lead God’s people out of Egypt.
And so, wherever God’s people lived, they would go up to Jerusalem. They would go up for the great festivals — the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. They would celebrate God’s faithfulness and steadfast love towards them. They would come and worship and make their offerings. And as they came, they would sing: “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God.”
From some distance off, they would look up at the city on the hill and exclaim: “God’s holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth. Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.”
As they approached the city, they would think of others who had once travelled the same roadways. Of course, other pilgrims had passed that way many times, but so had kings and armies that were coming to attack the city of Jerusalem.
The pilgrims probably thought about the destruction of the city and its temple in 587 BCE, when the Babylonian Empire conquered them and sent many of their leaders and nobles into exile. But they hoped that would never happen again. They imagined kings and armies joining forces to try to take Jerusalem — but this time, without success. God was on their side, so they could not be beaten! They expressed such confidence and hope. They sang of their attackers looking up to the great city and trembling. When they saw its greatness, they would be astounded and begin to panic. They would know that they had no chance of winning.
And after a long journey, the pilgrims would arrive at Jerusalem, and go up to the temple. The streets would be teeming with people, and the outer courts of the temple would be jam-packed. But even in the midst of the chaotic festival days, they would have a deep sense of God’s holy presence in that place. Their song would continue: “We ponder your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. Your name, O God, like your praise, reaches to the ends of the earth.”
And it wasn’t only in the temple that they would experience God’s presence. It seemed to be all around them in the city itself. In the song, they seem to encourage one another to make the most of this trip to Jerusalem: “Walk about Zion,” they sing, “go all around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.”
It’s not just a sight-seeing trip to a historic city. Somehow, the city itself, and its architecture, have come to represent and to convey the guiding presence of God in their lives forever.
There’s something interesting in the Hebrew here that doesn’t show up in the NRSV translation. The instruction is to “count” the towers of Zion, and then to “tell” the next generation that this is God. But those two words in Hebrew are from the same root word. It’s more like “count” the towers of Zion, and then “recount” to the next generation that this is God.
Come to this holy place where God’s presence is overwhelmingly obvious. Observe all the details. Count the towers. Take in all that you can about this faithful and loving God. And then recount what you have learned to the next generation. Pass on your experience. Invite your children and grandchildren to experience God’s presence throughout their lives as well.
These were the verses that intrigued me this week and drew me towards preaching on the psalm this morning. I was thinking about the responsibility that we have to pass on our faith to the coming generations and how challenging that can be.
How do we find the words to explain to our little children the gift of living in relationship with the God who made us and who loves us? Or even more challenging perhaps… How do we explain to our adult children, who may have left the church and God long ago, that this is our God who is ready, willing, and able to be our guide forever?
How do we recount our faith to the next generation? The psalm suggests that we must first begin by counting so that we can be equipped for the recounting. Think of the apostles. They began as disciples… walking with Jesus, listening to Jesus, and learning from Jesus, before they were sent out to preach and to heal in his name.
I often wish that we had pilgrimage festivals that were comparable to the Jewish religious festivals. Of course, we have Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, which are fine. But Pentecost is just a tiny celebration on a regular Sunday morning at church, really. Most Christians probably don’t even keep track of the fact that it’s coming up, and when it arrives there’s often no more celebration than the minister pulling out a red stole to wear for the day. And Christmas and Easter are wonderful Christian festivals, but they’ve been so co-opted by secular and commercial traditions that their significance as religious celebrations pales in comparison. For so many families, going to church to sing some carols is just a nice little extra in the middle of a very full schedule of family visits, gifts exchanges, and lavish meals.
Though Christians may choose to immerse themselves in worship and reflection on God during the Christian festivals, I believe that we also need to find other opportunities to “go up to Jerusalem” — to spend time in the presence of God in order to “walk about Zion, to go all around it, to count its towers, and consider well its ramparts”.
Presbyterians are not typically people who go on a lot of pilgrimages and retreats. Our retreats tend to look more like conferences — full of activity and learning opportunities with less focus on worship, reflection, and simply resting in the presence of God. And we may not have even considered a pilgrimage. Our logical minds remind us that God’s presence is everywhere, so how could one place be more holy than another?
But I, and many other Presbyterian Christians, have experienced the power of intentional retreats and pilgrimages. It’s not that God is more present in one place than another, or that quiet reflection is more meaningful that sermons, lectures, and group-building activities. But there is something powerful and wonderful about making the choice to come apart for a time and to be in the presence of God in a place of spiritual significance.
For many Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the city of Jerusalem represents that holy place. And when human conflict subsides, allowing relative safety for pilgrims, Jerusalem becomes a place where many go to “count the towers” — to experience the faithfulness and steadfast love of God.
For many young Christians this summer, their pilgrimage will be to the Taize community in France. Thousands will come to study the scriptures, to live and work together in community, and to worship God in song and prayer. They will meet others from around the world who speak many languages and come from varied experiences. And many of them will meet God in that place. They will come looking for God, and God will be there, and they will grow in faith and love and commitment to the way of Jesus.
Others will go to a place called Iona in Scotland. It’s a place they say that heaven and earth come close together… where the rocks and the sea and the wind and the ancient Celtic abbey all witness to God’s faithful presence from the beginning of time and forever. And as they sing, and pray, study, work, and eat together, they too will have a powerful experience of God. They will have stories to tell and experiences to share with their children and grandchildren.
Though I’ve spent a few days in Taize, and I hope one day to visit Iona, I realize that there are many other holy places much closer to home. I think the point is that the pilgrim must go to the place hoping for and expecting and looking for an experience of God. The pilgrim makes an intentional choice to set aside their time and attention to be in God’s presence, to learn from God… to “count the towers” in the city of God. And God is sure to meet them there… wherever their spiritual destination may be.
I spent the last few days up at Camp Christopher, helping out with some of the staff training for the summer, and then enjoying the open house and staff commissioning there yesterday. And twice during the week, individuals spoke of coming up to camp as a kind of pilgrimage or spiritual retreat. One told me about the feeling of peace and rest that she begins to feel when she drives across the bridge coming out of Prince Albert. Still a half hour away from the camp, that’s when she starts to relax, like she’s almost home. She is anticipating the feeling of peace that she will experience in God’s outdoor house.
Another camper talked openly about the Spirit’s palpable presence at Camp Christopher. She came to volunteer at camp for the first time last summer, and yesterday she could feel it even more strongly. Was it the loving community? Was it the beauty of creation? I don’t know. But perhaps it was her own expectation of experiencing God’s presence… her own decision to start paying attention to the God who was obviously just as present in Saskatoon as God was beside the lake at Camp Christopher.
As another summer begins, many of us will be thinking about journeys that we will enjoy. Others may be wishing that they had the funds or the time or the opportunity to take a trip to a beloved destination. My prayer for us all, wherever we are, is that we will commit ourselves to make a pilgrimage (even if we don’t go anywhere). But let’s pay attention to God. Let’s spend time in God’s Word, rest in God’s presence, give thanks and worship God wherever we are. Let’s “count the towers” in the city of God, so that we will so easily and naturally be able to “recount” what we have seen and experienced to the next generation… that this is God, our God forever and ever. God will be our guide forever. Amen.