Advent is a time of new beginnings. A beginning to the church year, a beginning of the Holiday Season, a beginning of the end of the calendar year--what were my resolutions again? This year I wanted to honor my body more: eating better, exercising, reducing stress, and solidifying habits for a healthy future. One thing I learned about was music: I need music. If I'm going to walk every day, or spend time in the kitchen preparing healthy foods, or shifting my mind away from distractions and into the present, it requires a soundtrack. "Epic Movie Soundtracks" are my favorite stations for writing days--the work I'm doing takes on a whole new level of importance when the theme from Star Wars is playing in the background. When I'm exercising, 80's pop gets my heart rate going.
When we turn to the psalms, we reach for the spiritual volume knob, to hear the musical message of the saints before us. Though we don't know the tunes anymore, this poetry incites a rhythm within us that exceeds the need for notes on a page.
Psalm 122 is a pilgrimage song, probably sung by the caravans as they made their way into Jerusalem on foot, seeing that holy city on a hill, and getting so excited for the long journey to be over soon. If the life of discipleship is also comparable to a journey, then Psalm 122 articulates that moment when you can see the city lights of God's arrival ahead of you. You might still be in the suburbs, but home is coming soon. In the darkest season of the year, we begin advent to remind ourselves and the world that God's salvation comes in a tiny baby born into unspeakable poverty, that victory and "arrival" will have a hint of surprising bitterness to it.
Hear the irony of speaking about Jerusalem in this high, mighty, peaceful way, compared to its present state of conflict. Reading this psalm now either only speaks of a past from long ago or predicts a hopeful vision of the divorced mom and dad coming back together for a fairytale ending. The strangeness of these peacefully expective words cuts like a knife. In other words, it's the perfect first Sunday of Advent scripture. It reminds us that although our high holy day of Christmas is only 4 weeks away, the fullness of God's vision is a long way off. The birth of Christ is a reminder that God's new hope is consistently being birthed again and again, and that you will recognize God at work by the slightly-off ironic sense of humor behind its reverence.
Justice. Peace. Fortifications. For someone with a solid sense of right and wrong, black and white, Jerusalem is clearly the place where all that is good reigns, where God is one with the earth and Her people.
How does this psalm read differently when we picture today's Jerusalem, ravaged by conflict between warring nations and cultures, a place where layers of holy sites and competing rich histories are stacked one on top of the other...groups vie for control over who has the "true" sense of God's power and place here?
Let there be peace on your walls;
let there be rest on your fortifications.
Have you SEEN the walls of Jerusalem? Canvases for warring groups to share their disdain for the other, their sure sense of which solution is right and what is most definitely wrong.
At the same time, we hold the promise of Advent--the hopeful vision for God's peaceful mountaintop, where nation will not rise up against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. It seems that Christmas, the celebration of God's incarnation, God's becoming-one-of-us is perhaps something that should wait awhile, perhaps a long while...much longer than a few weeks.
The vision set forth in Psalm 122 is one of perfect piety and unity, but make no mistake: this peaceful place described is not the world God entered into through Jesus Christ to save. God arrives consistently to a people caught off guard, who are not ready, who haven't "felt the Christmas spirit," who are still stuck at Good Friday instead of singing "gloria" with the angels. God is arriving to an imperfect world.
We sold our house last spring, and it was our first time. The realtor we hired had a professional photographer come out after a home-stager had given us a list of things to take down and remove, accompanied by several bouquets of artificial flowers to place in "staged" areas. When the listing went up, we couldn't believe what we were seeing. We said to ourselves, "Look at this place! You can't even tell that two overwhelmed parents of small children live there! They are miracle workers!"
Something similar comes over me when I hear the vigorous hope and excitement of the psalmist's company entering the city of Jerusalem. Singing this psalm is like going on a trip planned entirely around pictures from the travel brochure. Perhaps this is their first time coming to the big city from a village far away. Perhaps this is their annual pilgrimage, and the day in and day out of the last year has allowed the splendor of the holy city to lose some of its grandeur; now on the ascent, they see it with fresh eyes with all its beauty and hope.
Might we try on these fresh, hope-filled eyes? The struggle is real in this cynical age to see things any shinier than they really are, any better than our dulled, scarred-too-many-times perception will allow us too. This is the work of preparing for God's arrival: removing the tarnish from once rose-colored glasses to see the tiny but mighty hope of the world being born, over and over again into a war-torn place. This is the work of advent: to rejoice, that we can say to one another, "Let us go into the house of the Lord" and be revived again, to hold out for the truth that God's not done yet making this peaceful vision a reality. The work of Advent is accomplished by the same Spirit that compels us to pray for Jerusalem, to pray for the holy mountaintops of strength that have girded us up before to be people of peace, who have no need for weapons or vitriol. This work isn't for sissies. Stepping out in hope, lunging forward towards a vision that seems so far from reality, so out of reach, is courageous; it cannot be done alone. Its bootstraps must be yanked up by the heavenly Force of the vision propelling each piece to fit together.
Psalm 122 invites us into a spirit of ascent this Advent season. In a weary time of our lives and season as God's people, the psalmist's words invigorate us for that last home stretch. The vision of God's arrival is so close. We can make it! But getting there is not a geographical destination, rather a vision unfolding that God has had since the beginning. A vision that doesn't quit--of all creation being brought together, without sin, for the glory of God. For all tribes and nations to be unified under God's law--the law of love.
The hope of Jesus Christ is a unifying hope: uniting neighbor with neighbor, uniting God and humankind, uniting prayer--the language of the heart--with action, the movement of our hands and feet. We hear this hope-filled invocation, "I was glad, when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord!'" and a spark ignites. This is not a psalm that merely relates to opening the doors of a Sanctuary on a Sunday morning, or even a nostalgic anthem for the coming of another Sabbath day. The beat of this tune puts a Holy Spirit skip in our steps all the way to Justice. These words wash over us like a refreshing rain, as if to say, "The summer is ended and God's harvest begins. Join us on the journey."
How do we live with this magnificent rhythm, especially when the day-to-day can feel like trudging through wet concrete? The psalmist invites us to pray, not just with our hearts and voices, but to pray with our feet, standing in God's glory, making their way, step by step to God's glorious home. We pray for: peace, for rest, for family and friends, for good. How is your daily living "praying" towards peace, rest, and goodness, for the sake of your family and friends, for the fullness of God's arrival now?
The soundtrack for this "body" prayer is this: I was glad, when they said to me, "Let us go into the house of the Lord." May our lives and rhythms of faith be moved by it.
Let us pray. Eternal God, whose fulfilled vision we await, fill us again with hope. As we make our way in discipleship, guide our feet, give us eyes to see and celebrate your splendor again. Unite us in peace. Bless our homegoing toward your transforming arrival in Jesus Christ. Amen.