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Falling in Love with the Church

Series: How Pilgrims Praise: Psalms of Ascent

Sermon by Derek Thomas on Sep 8, 1999

Psalm 122:1-9

Now turn with me, if you would, to Psalm 122. We’ve been looking together at the so-called “Ascent Psalms”; that is, Psalms 120-134, all of them bearing this title “Song of Ascent”, or, if you’re familiar with your King James Version, “Song of Degrees.” And we think it means a collection of Psalms sung (and perhaps recited) by pilgrims making their way to one of the great festivals in Jerusalem at Passover or Pentecost, or a festival like that. And you’ll remember that in Psalm 120 the psalmist is a long, long, way away from Jerusalem; and he tells us that he’s in Meshech and in the tents of Kedar, and wherever they are, they’re a long way away from Jerusalem!

And then, Psalm 121 – a favorite Psalm for many of you, I know – the psalmist is within sight of Jerusalem, seeing the hills that surround Mount Zion; and the hills are filled with bandits and marauders and thieves, and so he sends up that prayer, you remember:

            “I lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence comes my help?”

And the great answer comes,

            “My safety cometh from the Lord, who heaven and earth have made.”

And now we come to Psalm 122, and as we come to Psalm 122 it will become obvious to you immediately that the psalmist has arrived in Jerusalem. He’s there. Hear with me, then, the word of God:

            “I was glad when they said unto me,

‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’

Our feet shall stand

Within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together,

Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord—

Unto the testimony of Israel—

To give thanks unto the name of the Lord.

For there are set thrones of judgment,

The thrones of the house of David.

            “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

‘They shall prosper that love thee.

Peace be within thy walls,

And prosperity within thy palaces.’

For my brethren and companions sakes,

I will now say, ‘Peace be within thee.’

Because of the house of the Lord our God

I will seek thy good.”

Thus far, God’s holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray together.

Our Father in heaven, again we ask that by the help and ministry of Your Spirit, You would come and grant a spirit of illumination, that that which we read here might be made clear to our minds, might sink deep into our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

I want you to try and imagine with me tonight that the only place where you can hear the word of God being preached and proclaimed and elucidated is in Washington. I want you to imagine with me tonight that the only place where you can get assurance that your sins are truly forgiven is in Washington. I want you to imagine with me tonight that the only place where you can gather with the Lord’s people and experience worship on the grand scale, as it is meant to be experienced, is Washington. And you say, “That’s really strange! That’s bizarre!” But that’s how it was for the saint of God in the Old Testament.

The only place at this period in time where the word of God was proclaimed and elucidated was in Jerusalem. The only place where you could go and be assured to a sacrificial system that your sins were forgiven was in Jerusalem. The only place where you would experience worship on a grand scale amongst all of the brothers and sisters in the Lord was in Jerusalem. You see the sense of excitement, and thrill and anticipation, that would have been a part of this old covenant believer.

This is one of a group of three of the Ascent Psalms that is attributed to David, along with Psalms 124 and 131, but I think we’re meant to take it in the generic. It belongs to this group of Ascent Psalms, and the pilgrim making his way to Jerusalem has arrived:

            “Our feet [and it can be translated in the present]...

            our feet are standing within thy gates, O Jerusalem.”

I. The first thing that we see in this wonderful Psalm is the joy at being present in Jerusalem... the joy at being present in Jerusalem.

Imagine a redneck from the boonies in the big city for the first time. I remember going to London for the first time when I was...oh, 14 or 15...as a teenager. [I’d never let my teenage children do anything of the sort!] But I went by myself – at least, with a friend of mine who was the same age – and we found ourselves in the “big city” with all the bright lights, all the allurements, all the places that you’d seen on television and in the papers, and that you’d read in history books. I remember the fascination and somewhat of a disappointment at seeing Big Ben, because I’d seen it so many times as a picture, but as a piece of architecture it was actually quite small and somewhat insignificant.

And here is the psalmist finding himself now in Jerusalem – this magnificent city with all of its history, with all of its significance – and he pauses at the entrance to the city. Perhaps it’s one of the gates, one of the several gates around the city walls of Jerusalem, and he pauses to take in, as it were, the fact that he is standing in this great city: this city which has, for the old covenant worshiper, the significance that God is to be found in this city. It’s the only city in the world where God was to be found. This is where the temple was, this is where the sacrifices were offered, this is where the 20,000 or so Levitical priests did their work; and on a time of celebration like Passover, the population of the city would quadruple—bustling with people.

‘I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go to Jerusalem! Let’s go to the house of the Lord. Let’s go to the temple. Let’s go to one of these great festivals!’ There’s a sense of great pleasure, there’s a sense of great joy, there’s a sense of great delight at being present in Jerusalem. It’s the sense of joy that the old covenant worshiper felt at being in the house of God.

Now, Jerusalem for us, of course, is far more glorious than that city in the Middle East. Jerusalem for us as new covenant worshipers is that church, that body of Christ, made up of those for whom Christ has died...angels and archangels, and those who have died and gone before us...and are you glad? Is there joy when you gather together in a corporate sense as the covenant community of God’s people?

You see, the Psalm is saying something to us about something that ought to be ours every time we gather together – on a Wednesday evening, on a Sunday morning at 8:30, 11:00, 6:00 on Sunday. There’s a sense of joy and celebration! We’re in God’s house! We’re part of God’s covenant people! And I wonder when we come to church on Sunday and when we come to the prayer meeting...we gather together with the Lord’s people, which constitute the church and the body of Christ, and when we think of that body of Christ in relationship to the wider community of God’s people, both alive and those who have gone to the other side...I wonder, is there a spring in our step, and a sense of anticipation? Are you already longing for the Lord’s Day? We’re half way through the week. There’s another three, four, days to go before we gather together again to worship God. “I was glad,” the psalmist said. There was a sense of joy.

We can approach our worship services, can’t we, with so much of a spirit of detachment and professionalism, and hum-drum ‘We’ve been here before, it’s something we do every week.’ It’s almost automatic. It’s like a car, isn’t it? I love these American cars with this button...you just press it on the highway and it just goes! And there’s a button inside us somewhere, isn’t there? And sometimes we press it and we’re on automatic, and we’ve lost our sense of joy, and we’ve lost that sense of gladness, and we’ve lost that sense of anticipation that some of you will remember. Remember when you were younger, perhaps, and you’d just been converted? And there was a thrill about reading the Scriptures, and about coming together with God’s people to pray and exalt Him?

“I was glad...” the psalmist says. And he finds himself in this big city, with all of its history and all of its significance, and it spoke to him of the presence of God, in terms of old covenant worship. And I wonder what it says to us tonight about the privileges that we have to gather together.

I’ve been reminding some of my students, in another class that I’m teaching at the minute on worship, of an article by David Clarkson. Now, David Clarkson was an assistant to John Owen toward the latter period of John Owens’ ministry in London, and David Clarkson was the minister who would preach at John Owens’ funeral service. And David Clarkson wrote an article of profound significance, and a title that’s very daring. And the title is that Public Worship is to be Preferred Before Private. Now, there’s a daring title, isn’t it? Public Worship is to be Preferred Before Private Worship.

You see, you and I live in a day and age where we are the center of the universe, and when we get our minds back into the mold of the Scriptures, we discover a corporate identity to the people of God, and there is something deeply, deeply, significant about the gathering together of the Lord’s people as the body of Christ, constituting the Jerusalem of God. ‘I was glad,’ the psalmist said, ‘I was glad when they said to me, let’s go to Jerusalem. Let’s go to the house of God.’

The joy, then, of being present in Jerusalem.

II. The second thing then that I want us to see in this Psalm is the appreciation of the excellencies of Jerusalem.

And you see that in verses 3-5, and the psalmist mentions a number of things. He mentions first of all, in verse 3, that the city was builded in a way that was compact. There was something solid about it; there was something permanent about the structure of Jerusalem.

Well, I imagine that cities always look like that to country boys like myself going to the big city, coming from tents and hamlets to this great stone city - its massive fortress-like structures, especially that of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. Can you see the psalmist beginning now to walk around the city? And he sees all the buildings and the houses, and the administrative buildings, and it’s all so very magnificent. There’s something great about it, something solid about it, something significant about it.

You see, the church isn’t some weak, trivial, peripheral thing. That’s what the world thinks of the church, isn’t it? That’s the agenda that 60 Minutes would give to the church—they wouldn’t give 60 minutes to the church—because ‘it’s insignificant; it’s not important.’ But for the psalmist, it was the most magnificent thing that he’d ever seen.

The church may seem at times a shabby little thing in comparison to the world. If you’ve ever been in a small, struggling, country church that struggles to find a ministry on the Lord’s Day, struggles to pay the bills for the air conditioning, you can imagine that perspective of someone coming to a big church like First Presbyterian Church, and being reminded again, ‘You know, the church isn’t some weak and shabby thing.’ There’s something magnificent about a church. There’s something about the church of God, because it’s built upon a Rock, and it’s built upon Jesus Christ, and it’s built upon mighty, solid, foundations, and solid walls. The majesty of the church....

You see, the church is marginalized, isn’t it, by the world. Are you a StarTrek fan, as—I’m sorry!—I am? But you know, the thing that irks me about StarTrek all the time is there’s never any mention of the church in it. You won’t see a single episode in which the church is mentioned. You won’t see a single episode in which Jesus Christ is mentioned. According to Gene Roddenberry, in 40-whatever, the world will have forgotten all about the Church. Well, I’ve got news for Gene Roddenberry: the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ.

There’s that wonderful story told about John Knox, when, just before his death in 1562, a friar had accused the Church of Scotland as being a “new” thing. It was eight years old at the time. And he mocked the Church of Scotland as being an altogether “new” thing, and John Knox turned to him and said, “The Church of Scotland is the church of our fathers, and the church of the apostles, and the church of the prophets, and the church of Moses, and the church of Abraham.” You could have heard a pin drop when John Knox said that. The solidity, and the significance, and the majesty of the church...

But then, something else here: the diversity and unity of the worshipers. It speaks of the tribes of the Lord, in verse 4. Imagine this worshiper. You have to put yourself back now, into the Old Testament; maybe you’re coming from the boonies, and all you’ve ever known is one single tribe. The only dialect you’ve ever heard, the only accent you’ve ever heard is your own.

Now, you all have strange accents here tonight! You ought to be able to understand what the psalmist is saying here! Because when he comes to Jerusalem, he’s impressed by the fact that the tribes are there—all the people of God, the twelve tribes: the coastal dwellers of Zebulon, the highlanders of Dan, the farmers of Ephraim, the desert packers of Rueben—they’re all there, all of the tribes. And they’re not all the same, you see. They all have their distinctive qualities and attributes, and that’s the glory of the church. That’s the thrilling thing about the church, is that we’re not all the same, and we don’t all speak the same, and God’s made each one of us different.

You know, it’s the cults that want sameness, and we glory in our diversity, just as the psalmist does here...the diversity and the unity of the worshipers of God. And when we see our overseas brethren—and if I can possibly extract myself from that, just for a minute, so that I can give this illustration—but when we see our overseas brethren here, as I can see some of them in these rooms before me, representing some of the continents of this world, and you suddenly appreciate the vastness of the work of Jesus Christ, that He intends to call from every tribe and every nation, and every tongue, and every people, into the church of Jesus Christ.

And then, there’s something else that he notices, too, because in Jerusalem he gets direction from the king, and he mentions that in verse 5: “There are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.” What is he talking about?

Well, if you lived out in the country, justice was hard to find. If you were in dispute about some land treaty, you’d have to go into the city to find justice. You’d have to go to the gates of the city, and to the elders who would be sitting there. And the Supreme Court of justice was in Jerusalem, and as the psalmist enters into Jerusalem and he now begins to walk around, he suddenly appreciates and comes to realize that it is here in this city that things are put right; that wrongs are righted.

And, you know, it’s a great thing to belong to the church of Jesus Christ. I guess many of you here have been wronged, and you may go through this world and through this life bearing the injustice of that wrong. But we worship a God who is altogether just, who, on the Day of Judgment, will put every wrong right when sin will indeed be punished according to its demerits. And the psalmist is so greatly impressed by that. And so, then, in the second place there is this sense of appreciation about the excellencies of Jerusalem.

III. But in the third place, if he sees and perceives a sense of joy at being present in Jerusalem, and if he appreciates some of the excellencies of Jerusalem...in the third place, he prays for the peace of Jerusalem.

In the very heart of this man there springs up a love for this city, a yearning for its prosperity, a concern for its wellbeing. Jerusalem—“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. They shall prosper that love thee.” [Verse 6.]

Jerusalem means king of Salem, or king of peace, and it sounds like city of peace. And what does he pray for? Notice the repetition of the word within, in verse 7 and again in verse 8...and actually, in the original it’s there three times. He wants peace within Jerusalem, that there might be no division, no civil war, no disunity, no strife, no traitors within the walls to spread dissention. Pray for Jerusalem. When you hear of division, pray for the church of Jesus Christ – that’s what this Psalm is saying. Pray, for the sake of my brothers. Pray, for the sake of all who live within this city, for whom the walls of this city form a citadel. But higher still, pray for the sake (the psalmist says)...pray for the sake of the Lord our God. Pray for the glory of God in this city. Pray that within this city God in all His glory and in all His majesty might be extolled.

And it doesn’t end there, does it? It doesn’t end with a prayer. It ends with a resolution: “Because of     the house of the Lord our God, I will seek thy good.”

And do you see what the psalmist is saying? After experiencing the joy at being found in Jerusalem, and after noting some of the excellencies of the city of Jerusalem, he now makes this resolution that he will give himself entirely for the kingdom of God that is represented here, in this old covenant language, by this city of Jerusalem.

And if we can extrapolate from that what that might mean for us here this evening, it’s saying ‘Because you are a member of the church of Jesus Christ, because by faith God has brought you into union and communion with Christ, and therefore into union and communion with each other as brothers and sisters, I’ll give whatever it takes to advance the glory of God in the church of Jesus Christ.’ He seeks, do you see, the answer to his prayer within himself.

Now, there’s a lesson. How many times have we prayed a prayer, as the psalmist prays a prayer here, without realizing that the answer to our prayer lies within ourselves? And the psalmist is saying ‘I’m praying for the peace of Jerusalem, and in order that that peace might be brought about, I’ll give myself to that end. I’ll be whatever God wants me to be. I’ll give my time, and I’ll give my gifts, and I’ll give my talents, and I’ll give everything that I have for the sake of the house of God, for the sake of God and His glory.’

Now, is there anything more wonderful in all of the world than to pray for the prosperity of Jerusalem, the house of God? Is there a prayer more excellent and more exalted that you can pray, than that God would be honored and glorified and set apart within His body and within His church, and within His people, for the sake of Christ, for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Calvary, for the sake of the death of His own Son? ‘I’ll live and die for this kingdom,’ the psalmist is saying.

There’s a beautiful prayer, written in the sixth century by St. Columbo. Now, St. Columbo was an Irishman from County Donegal, who became a missionary to the west of Scotland. And his prayer went like this:

“Let me keep a door in paradise, the darkest, stiffest, least used door, if so be that I may see Thy glory, even from afar, and hear Thy voice and know that I am with Thee, O God.”

And that’s what this psalmist is saying. His whole being is taken up with what God is doing in the city of Jerusalem, in His church. And may that be our prayer, and may that be our longing, and may that be our consecration tonight.

Let’s pray together.

Our God and our Father, we do thank You for these beautiful Psalms, written so many centuries ago and yet so powerful and so meaningful to our very lives tonight. Help us, O Lord, to feel a sense of joy and gladness whenever You call us together as Your covenant people. Help us, O Lord, to take refuge and to grow in grace and strength under the means of grace which You have provided for us. And enable us, O Lord, as we see something of the excellencies of what You are doing in Your kingdom, to give ourselves wholly to that end. Glorify Yourself, O Lord, even in our midst. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Now would you please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.

Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one of you, now and forevermore. Amen.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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