Saturday, April 14, 2012

Living in God's Overflow - Psalm 133

This week, we begin a season called “Eastertide.”  It is the season between Easter and Pentecost, and traditionally the church focuses our attention during this season on what it means to be a church.  This Eastertide, we are focusing on that most fundamental part of our existence as people of God - prayer.  Today is the first day of a seven week series on the Psalms.  We will not only preach them.  We will pray them.  We will celebrate them.  We will meditate them.  We will live them.  

To set the frame for this journey through the Psalms, today, we need to spend a little time talking about the book of Psalms as a whole.  I’m guessing that you have some questions about the Psalms - even if you haven’t exactly put them into words.
What are the Psalms?  A psalm is basically a prayer, actually a prayer song.  Some were written by individuals - like David - in response to specific situations.  Others were written for specific worship situations - like crowning a new king or pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  They are like Israel’s hymnbook, full of poetic imagery.  They were collected over hundreds of years.  They cover all kinds of topics and situations and attitudes.  They soar with amazing poetry and roll in the dirt with gritty honesty.    But the key thing to remember about the Psalms is that they are the prayer songs of the people of Israel.   
Why do Christians pray the Psalms?  Well, actually, some Christians stopped - for a while.  In Nazi Germany, the Psalms and the whole Old Testament, were considered Jewish and outdated and almost barbaric.  Thankfully, the Church at large (and minority of German Christians) rejected that view and continued in the ancient tradition of praying the psalms.
But why?  Why do we still pray these prayers that are 2-3,000 years old?  There are three basic reasons we stick with these prayers.
  1. The Psalms put us in the stream of God’s interaction with people.  We return to the Psalms for the same reason we return to the old hymns (and our favorite new songs).  They connect us with the deep flow of God’s grace among God’s people.  These prayers have been recorded and preserved because generation after generation has found them helpful for connecting with God.
  2. The Psalms give voice to the prayers of our hearts.  Sometimes, we just don’t know what to pray.  Other times, we have all of these feelings inside us, but we can’t quite put words to what we want to say.  Sometimes, we are actually afraid to say what we feel.  But the Psalms help us to pray our feelings.  They are raw and honest.  They go into the depths of the human experience and bring out our pains and joys and put them into words in our prayers to God.
  3. The Psalms reshape the prayers of our hearts.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those resisting German Christians in the Nazi era who stayed committed to the Psalms.  In his little book, Psalms - The Prayer Book of the Bible, he explains: “If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. ... If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. ... The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”  In other words, if we just pray what we feel, most of the time we’ll keep asking for “our daily bread” or all the stuff we need or want.  The Psalms stretch us beyond our selfish limited view of the world and help us see the world from the perspective of others and even from God’s perspective.
One last question: If Psalms are the people’s prayers, then how are they “the Word of God”? 
That’s a good question - I’m glad you asked.  Paul makes a sweeping claim in his second letter to Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired by God” or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).  But if the people are praying, how are the words from God?    Well, we get a hint of help from Paul again in his letter to the church in Rome: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words” (Romans 8:26).  That’s not exactly what we’re talking about with the Psalms, but it’s close.  Jesus said that when David wrote Psalm 110, he was “speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 22:43).  When we pray, when we really pray deeply, God’s Spirit is helping us pray.  It is as if God’s Spirit works in us to pray in the way that God really wants us to pray.
This is a deep mystery, and none of us fully understands how this works.  But the Psalms are prayers in which the people of God have recognized the Spirit of God helping us to pray true prayers.  They are prayers filled with God’s Spirit, prayers that are human words and yet God’s Word at the same time.
OK, that’s enough background on the Psalms as a collection.  Let’s get started on today’s selection - Psalm 133.  Sometimes, it’s best to read the text first, but I think we will understand this Psalm better if we spend some time preparing for it.  We need to know some basic background information to really get the images in this prayer.
First, this is a special category of psalms called “Songs of Ascent.”  The people of Israel were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for religious festivals - the Passover and two festivals related to harvests.  People would travel from the lowlands uphill to Jerusalem with their families and their neighbors.  For days and sometimes weeks, they would be on the road together, eating together, sleeping together.  You can imagine that it would be a very bonding experience - very bonding and maybe very nerve-wracking.  (Why is it that our families can drive us crazy more than anyone else?)   While they were traveling - without the aid of car stereos, Ipods, or smart phones - they would sing group prayer songs together.  Psalm 133 is one of these songs.
Second, you should also know that Israel had a bad history of national division.  It started with conflict between brothers - Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the other brothers.  And it continued with the tribes that these brothers fathered.  For generations, they were a separated along North-South lines, much like North and South Korea.  Even after the nation was reunited, they still carried lots of inner hostility and prejudices against people from other tribes and regions.  Unity was always a problem for them.  But when they journeyed to Jerusalem to worship God together, at least for a while, those conflicts began to fade.
Third, you need to understand the history of anointing oil.  God gave Israel a special recipe for anointing oil in Exodus 30 - when God was giving instructions for the first house of worship and the first official priests:
Take the finest spices: twelve pounds of liquid myrrh, half that amount (that is, six pounds) of sweet-smelling cinnamon, six pounds of sweet-smelling cane, and twelve pounds of cassia ...  Also take four quarts of olive oil, and mix all these things like a perfume to make a holy olive oil. This special oil must be put on people and things to make them ready for service to God... You will prepare all these things for service to God, and they will be very holy.  ... Put the oil on Aaron and his sons to give them for service to me, that they may serve me as priests. (Exodus 30:23-30)
So this was a powerful perfume that functioned as a sign of God’s Holy Spirit making something holy.  When Moses anointed Aaron, the smell of this spiced oil would have filled the whole room.  For days, maybe weeks, Aaron and his clothes would have smelled like the holy, “spicy” oil of God’s Spirit - reminding him and everyone else that he was marked for a holy purpose.
Fourth, we need to understand some of Israel’s geography.  If you look at a satellite image of Israel, you will see a few stark differences in colors.  In the north  and west, especially near Mount Hermon, the dominant color is green.  They get plenty of water.  Mount Hermon gets such heavy dews that in the morning the dew covers the grass as if it had rained all night.  On the other hand, Jerusalem (also called Mount Zion) is a dry climate - especially on the south and eastern sides.  There the dominant colors are brown and gray.  Especially in the summer time, water is scarce.  
Here’s the last bit of background information you need.  For Jews, one of the key concepts of their religion is life or “chaim.”  God is the source of all life, and the point of our existence is “life” - or deep living, true living.  This is why Jesus said, “My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life” or in the old wording “abundant life” (John 10:10).  Jesus was saying, “My purpose is to give you what you’ve always been longing for - real, deep, true LIFE - chaim.”  In fact, still today, Jews almost always use the toast “l’chaim!” - “To life!”.  They know that life is all about living true life through God.
OK.  Now, we’re actually read to read Psalm 133.  Throughout our series on the Psalms, we’re actually going to read the Psalms together - out loud.  These are prayers intended to be prayed by the people in worship, so that’s what we’re going to do.  As we read together, let the historical background shape your understanding and your prayer.  
If you are reading Psalm 133 in the Bible, the first thing you will see is a heading.  Some psalms have this, and others don’t.  These headings may give information about the author, the tune, the historical background, or the type of worship in which this psalm was used.  Our heading gives us the worship setting and the author:  “A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem. A psalm of David.”  Now, let’s read the Psalm together.
How wonderful and pleasant it is
    when brothers live together in harmony!
For harmony is as precious as the anointing oil
    that was poured over Aaron’s head,
    that ran down his beard
    and onto the border of his robe.
Harmony is as refreshing as the dew from Mount Hermon
    that falls on the mountains of Zion.
And there the Lord has pronounced his blessing,
    even life everlasting.
The focus of this prayer-song is Deep Holy Community.  Remember Israel sang this while on religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem with their family and neighbors and eventually with people from other tribes and areas.  There is a depth of worshiping community that is different from other kinds of community.  There is something about going deep, deep with others into worship of God that unites our hearts and minds as we unite with God together.  Psalm 133 gives three basic descriptions of Deep Holy Community.  
  1. Deep Holy Community is LAVISH.  It is abundant.  There is more than enough.  There is so much that it’s messy.  It overflows.  It spills over.  It’s like the holy, spicy oil that was poured over Aaron’s head and ran down his beard and onto the collar of his robe.  It fills the room with its aroma.  Deep Holy Community is like the dew of Mount Hermon that gets everything soaking wet.   Deep Holy Community is like a thanksgiving or Chusok meal, where there is enough food for seven meals not one.   Deep holy community is like when you fill someone’s cup with cola, and it fizzes and foams over the top.  When we experience Deep Holy Community, our hearts are filled to overflowing.  Many of us felt like this in our Easter celebration last week.  
  2. Deep Holy Community is SANCTIFYING.  That’s a big religious word, but to sanctify simply means “to make holy.”  Deep Holy Community makes us holy.  Remember the purpose of that anointing oil.  It was to mark Aaron and the worship tools as holy - marked for a special purpose for God.  Deep Holy Community is transformative.  It changes us.    A few months ago, in one of our Advisory Council meetings, we took some time for each of us to tell the story of how we learned to follow Christ.  For most of us, participating in a small group Bible study was a big part of becoming a Christian or in learning how to live as a Christian.  Psalm 133 says that God gives us blessing in that place where brothers and sisters live together in harmony - in Deep Holy Community.  Deep Holy Community gives us the strength and passion and love to actually follow Christ.
  3. Deep Holy Community is LIFE-GIVING.  Remember the green slopes around Mount Hermon and the dry hills around Jerusalem’s Mount Zion.  Imagine how Jerusalem would change if the dews of Hermon fell there!  Life would spring up out of the dust.  Grass would grow.  Flowers would bloom.  Trees would bear fruit.  The whole landscape would change.  Deep Holy Community community does that for us.  Deep Holy Community is the life-everlasting invading our life on earth.  Deep Holy Community is “God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”  Deep Holy Community is God’s eternal life in our temporary world.  Deep Holy Community is like getting a shot of heavenly antibiotics to boost our immune system or Spiritual B-12 to improve our energy.  Deep Holy Community gives us God’s life in our life.
OK.  So maybe you agree, or at least you’re interested.  But there’s still one problem.  Psalm 133 is a prayer that doesn’t feel very much like a prayer.  It doesn’t directly ask God for anything.  In fact, it doesn’t address God directly at all.  It’s just kind of talking.  So how does this prayer work?  And how can we pray it?
Psalm 133 functions in three ways:
  1. It is a Celebration of Community.  In Psalm 133, the people are on a road trip to Jerusalem, in the midst of one of those memory making experiences.  And the people burst out singing, celebrating the great blessing that they are experiencing right at that moment.  “Ahh, what a blessing to live together in community!”  We can live this prayer by celebrating our community together in prayer and in spoken word.  Don’t be shy about celebrating and thanking God for what others mean to you.
  2. It is a Request for Community.  Even as we celebrate this lavish, sanctifying, life-giving community, we know that we don’t always measure up to this Deep Holy Community.  Our community is too often hurried, sparse, struggling, and draining.  So as we read and pray, we are asking God to give us more of this peace-filled, beautiful community of his Spirit that will change us and make us more loving.
  3. It is a Call to Community.  I expect that quite a few times a mom started singing this song when her two sons were fighting again, “OK.  Let’s sing: How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!”  When we pray Psalm 133, that is God’s way of reminding us of our deep calling as people of God.  Deep Holy Community is both a great blessing and a great calling.  When we pray this together we are calling each other to get beyond the little things that divide us and to join together in worship of our one Father who loves us without limit.
Psalm 133 is an important Psalm for our church.  Our mission is to be a loving community that changes our world.  Our mission is to live the deep community that Psalm 133 talks about.  We know that if we live this way, God’s lavish grace will overflow to those around us.  We know that if we live in deep loving community, God will sanctify us and change us to be more like God’s love.  We know that if we live in deep loving community, God will give us his true life and share his life with others through us.  If we truly live in loving community, God will change the world through us.  So let’s pray Psalm 133, and let’s live Psalm 133. 
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