This morning we are going to join a pilgrimage of the people of Israel. Three times a year all must present themselves before the lord. The three festivals or feasts were Tabernacles or Booths where they celebrated God’s provision in the desert, First-fruits the harvest festival and Passover the festival of unleavened bread reminding the people of the escape from Egypt.
All men and their families who were able were expected to travel to Jerusalem to celebrate these feasts. These were very important events for the individuals and carried significant costs of time, effort and danger.
We can imagine the people leaving their villages as individuals, family groups and friends travelling together for protection and fellowship.
It was a five day walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem, or, at least, that’s how long it took if the roads were dry and they weren’t too clogged up with travelers. To get there you took the small road out from the village, circling to the south of the Sea of Galilee, and then you joined up with the big road as it ran downhill alongside the Jordan river. All the way down the river valley, the road followed that narrow water, and as the water picked up momentum and width from its tributaries along the way, so too the road picked up pilgrims. Everyone was on the same journey. Everybody wanted to get to Jerusalem, everyone wanted to spend Passover in Jerusalem, and so the closer you got to the city, the more people were on the road, and the slower went the journey.
They left their villages as individuals and family groups they met up with other friends, relatives and strangers all with the same destination and following the same roads.
For an idea of what one of these pilgrimages was like look at the story in Luke 2:41 the 12 year old Jesus went with his parents on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and after all the celebrations and activities, the family left Jerusalem heading back to Galilee, leaving Jesus behind.
While they journeyed they sang together, well-known and ancient songs that had been with the believers for many generations. Known as the songs of Ascent. In our Bibles they are Psalms number 120 through 134. These would be well known and were an excellent way of bonding with the new friends. Singing the songs brought strangers into a new fellowship, fellow travellers with something in common a destination and a shared path.
Some of these songs talk about Help and Peace, the Church, Injustice, Danger the blessings of Family and escaping guilt and the past. We have just sung Psalm 132 When you think God’s plans might fail. But now we are getting close, we will be all right.
PICTURE of Jerusalem
This close to Jerusalem the roads are getting clogged up with pilgrims and we are starting to see some signs of civilization. We have spent quite a few days with our new traveling companions, we have met old friends and been reminded about their families and how life is going. We have sung together, eaten together and shared time together.
As we reach the end of the climb to Jerusalem four days into the trek we would be singing Psalm 133. Excited that we had survived so far, looking forward to the festivities,
When Brothers Dwell in Unity.
SLIDE OF PSALM 133
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
Only three verses but when we start unpacking there is so much more than we may expect.
The song is talking of Brothers living in Unity, not an actual family of brothers but the company of travellers, representing the whole of Israel. By implication we are within this band of brothers.
The writer uses words translated as good and pleasant with the meaning of beautiful and sweet or delightful. In our world we often see good and pleasant as meaning effective or successfully achieving goals, self satisfying winning. The Psalmist is saying simply it is great to hang out with such a fantastic bunch of people.
This song is not about how to achieve unity or even what that unity looks like. It is celebrating how great it is to be in that place right now with our fellow travelers.
Sometimes Unity can be used as a controlling thing. If you don’t agree with us you can’t be IN. Sometimes the effort to enforce unity can be at the expense of integrity.
The unity we are talking about here is the giving of self to a common purpose, there is an element of sacrifice where I don’t get exactly what I want and my vision seems to be overlooked but we personally subscribe to the reason for this journey which is to worship the Lord and be with and take pleasure in the sweetness of having a company of others on the same journey.
I have had the pleasure of working with some great teams of people over the years the common feature of all of them was that we had a good idea what we were trying to do and the resources available to deliver it. The difference between a fun project and a disaster was usually the attitude of the team. Although the deliverable was defined the way we went about delivering varied project to project. The disasters were where the team believed that either the client or the manager was correct and slavishly did exactly what they said. Where the team had the confidence and security to question and I was able to use their creativity then much fun was had by all. Everyone was valued and could contribute. All knew that their input was needed to succeed.
Leanard Bernstein the famous conductor was asked which was the most difficult role in the orchestra. He said the role of second fiddle it not only needed great skill but also an ability to support another for the good of the whole.
The initial blessing of the brothers is followed by a confusing and a slightly messy verse talking about being covered in oil, all over the place including clothes, beard and everything. This does not look like fun or even much of a blessing.
The clue though is where the Psalmist talks about Aaron, the Chief of the Clan of priests. Sinai traveller, maker of the gold calf and brother of Moses. The priestly clan was anointed with the same fragrant oil as the dwelling place of God. The tabernacle. Here Aaron represents all priests and our view in the Vineyard is that since we are all priests in the service of Jesus this anointing is available to all of us who love Jesus not just special people.
The writer is saying that living in unity with those around you is like the sacred anointing of the chief priest. You are marked out as being ordained by God since the unity is from God not uniformity imposed by man.
Building on this simile, the dew that falls on Mount Hermon a high peak over 3000 meters and visible to the pilgrims meant that the sides of the mountain were green and lush a vision of refreshment and comfort to the tired traveller trekking through a dried out and pretty hot landscape.
In this section the writer is painting a picture showing that by being in unity and responding to the pleasure of supporting and caring for the community we will feel the blessings of the anointing and the refreshment of the green and lush vision of the mountain.
Some commentators suggest that the repeated use of words such as running down the beard, running down the clothes and the falling of the dew suggests that the unity we enjoy must start on high with God and descends to us. Where we try to impose uniformity as a horizontal idea, by control and conformity this leads to upset and factions, where all are travelling in an atmosphere of grace we can experience that unity comes from being one with Christ. In John 17 Jesus prays that the Disciples will be one as the Father and the Son are one.
This focus on descending images reminds the weary pilgrims that as they are ascending towards Jerusalem the unity of common purpose and the blessings received descend from God and are not a product of the efforts of the pilgrims.
The final blessing.
“For there the Lord has commanded the blessing life forevermore” This verse finishes the song and refers back to the previous verses. As a consequence of the Brothers living in unity, and enjoying it God commands a further blessing of life in all its fullness.
The word translated as forevermore implies time beyond our understanding. Including our past present future and all eternity. The blessing of God given fullness is available to all now, today.
This unity in the Spirit is so precious, so pleasant that it is worth giving up our own rights, preferences, hobbyhorses, cultural hangups, reputation and mana to maintain. Paul urges us to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit; unity has its own value and is pleasurable. It has its origin in God himself.
How does this apply to us here in Forest Hill?
All we have to do to get this blessing is enjoy being together, sounds good in theory but what about when somebody ignores you at coffee, or your carefully thought out project gets no support at all. What about when there is a call for painters and box shifters and you have no energy or capacity.
Do we loose the blessing if we are not capable of contributing?
Many in our community have serious illnesses or work problems, limited capacity yet still find the grace to enjoy the journey knowing the blessing is from God and is not based on contribution. We all have a role in this travelling company. Some to fund, some to lead, others making coffee and baking very special ministries.
Some contribute by allowing the community to love and support them in their need, this is a special gifting that many of us find difficult. Graciously receiving what has not been earned yet knowing that receiving is a part of God’s will for his pilgrims.
Big brother syndrome,
I must confess I was the first born in our family and I remember being well upset that stuff I had to struggle for was just given to my sisters, they didn’t even have to wait a reasonable time. What I missed until I was a father myself was that we do our best for our children but often especially with the first child money and skills are limited. It gives us pleasure to be able to give our children what they need. What this psalm tells us is that if we take joy in what our siblings get as much as the goodies we get for ourselves then the life of the family is immeasurably better.
The Pilgrimage to Forest Hill
These last few weeks have been exciting, scary and often eye opening. We are on a journey; we have not reached our destination. Habits and assumptions grown over a quarter century are being revisited. New ideas are popping up everywhere.
Our North City fellowship of pilgrims travelled from Northcote and have just merged with the Night church posse on their way from Rawene. The Night church pilgrims only recently formed from the Albany and Harbor travelling communities. As each group comes together in the new building there are new stories, people and traditions.
Each group has a different culture and a very different history. Different expectations and unexpected differences.
Now we are all living together in one place these differences become apparent however we are all on the same road; we are in a company with a united vision to bring the Kingdom to this world. We have a job to do using the skills and capacities and gifts given to us.
The psalmist cuts to the essentials here. There is a God given pleasure in being together in His unity. It is good to travel together, our different paths to here bring richness and great stories.
The precious anointing oil reminds us that we are all called to the priesthood, in Vineyard speak we are All In, there is a role for everyone but it will be different for each of us.
In Ephesians 4:11 Paul writes. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith.
Also those we love and care for such as the children, the sick and all of those who need our support also contribute to our unity. The unity we long for is not about being the same or doing the same thing, it is the way that we support each other in our common purpose.
The Psalmists vision of the lush sides of the Mountain remind me that in unity is refreshment and encouragement. As we struggled through the repetitive desert landscape broken only by the excitement of setting up exam desks we see this vision of refreshment and goodness. We are all working together to make this happen.
And finally, the Lord has instructed a blessing on us of full and immeasurable life. As we enter Jerusalem the company begins to sing the final Song of Ascents.
Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to the holy place
and bless the Lord!
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
he who made heaven and earth!
The travelling community enters Jerusalem together and all move into the blessing, freely accepting the God given Grace Gift of Unity.
Can we Pray
Lord will you help us to feel the goodness and sweetness of walking in unity. Please forgive us for those times where our actions or words may have taken that pleasure from another. Please heal misunderstandings and help us to put aside our own pains and disappointments as we merge these communities of your children. Doing our bit to bring your Kingdom to this earth. May we all feel sweetness and joy on our pilgrimage towards your blessing of unity.