I’m trying to be honest about the reality of the church. I can’t speak for the worldwide church. Here in America, the church is declining and that is depressing. However, the church is growing worldwide. It’s growing in China, in Afghanistan and in Africa. We can be both depressed and encouraged at the same time.
I know in my own church I don’t always see unity, justice or peace. I see fighting and bickering. I see control grabs. I see apathy. I see uniformity instead of unity. I see injustices all the time, little ones like smears of character or not believing the best about others. I see withdrawal. I see a strong desire to be with my friends. And I see all of that in my own heart.
Let’s be honest: Not everyone likes our church. For some that’s obvious right away in their first visit so they don’t come back. Others realize it over time, after getting involved and really making an honest go of it. They don’t like the people. Or the pastor. Or the flavor of Presbyterian. Or the preaching. This brings out conflict, either aggressive or passive aggressive. This doesn’t feel like peace at all. Church can get nasty sometimes.
However, I am encouraged. Instead of only Older Brothers and Pharisees, I also see people taking risks to be friends with others. I see much more openness to the gospel news that Jesus loves sinners, of whom I am the worst. I see a real engagement in issues and in other peoples’ lives, of truly believing that we’re better together when we don’t all look and live the same. I see a grappling with theology, with anthropology, with sexuality, with friendship, marriage, kids, singleness, vocation. I see people joining up and joining in together to live life in CityGroups, to walk together in hard times, to introduce themselves, to serve with babysitting and meals and dates. This is good news! Be encouraged!
Then be depressed again.
Think about the city of Jerusalem itself. It’s named for peace. Salem is a derivative of “shalom.”
And yet—has there been a city less peaceful? Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times. Jerusalem isn’t a safe place. It may be historic, important and beautiful, but it’s not quite like Psalm 122 describes. He may be praying for unity, justice, safety and goodness, but it’s not yet been realized.
It makes me think of Gregory Alan Isakov’s song “The Universe” when he sings,
the Universe, she’s wounded she’s got bruises on her feet
I sat down like I always did, and tried to calm her down
I sent her my warmth and my silence and all she sends me back is rain . . . rain
In some ways, I’m not being fair to Psalm 122. It doesn’t have any of this melancholy tone. It doesn’t go there. However, as a cynical reader and pastor, I have to. I also have to think the psalmist knows this side of things. He’s not talking about it, but it’s there.
When we hear super duper patriotic America songs on the 4th of July, we don’t bat an eye. We should! We love this country, and we should. But we also do read the papers and watch the news and know that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. We can want to shake Neil Diamond and say, Hey man! People are coming to America with their dreams, and it’s not all a fairy tale. It can be a nightmare.
On the other hand. We can focus on the paper and news and nightmare and forget that people are still coming with their dreams. It’s still a great place, however much improvement we need to make.
America is broken and beautiful. So is Jerusalem. So is the church, and your church. And you. And me.
Psalm 122 gives us hope I think because it’s not just about nostalgia. We’re not only looking back to when Jerusalem was awesome back in the day, back in 1000 BC. We’re not pining away to get back 3000 years ago. It wasn’t that great.
There’s something forward looking here. Something in our hearts. We do long for a perfect place and a perfect people. We long for perfect unity, justice and peace. We hope for this. It’s in there. We want to be known and loved, to be seen and accepted. We want to be appreciated for our uniqueness, but then fit into a greater purpose.
hang me in the tulsa county stars hang me in the tulsa county stars
meet me where i land if i slip and fall too far
hang me in the tulsa county stars
i don’t want to come back down to earth no, i don’t want to come back down to earth
my heart is growing heavy from the ever endless hurt
so i don’t want to come back down to earth
Psalm 122 points us to two realities that will come together.
The first is the we can have unity, justice and peace now, but it has to be in God through Jesus. He’s the way. He gives us rest. We worship him. It’s not about the place of worship, not the city or church or even the method. It’s about the person of worship. He’s the temple. He’s the city. He’s the throne. He’s the lamb. He’s the prophet, priest and king.
Your longing for a people and place is found in him, and that is in the here and now. It’s present. Not just past and future. It’s not a myth or fantasy or tall tale or legend. He really existed and came and did the things you can read about in the Bible. He fulfilled all of these symbols, songs and stories in the Old Testament. He’s the Better King David, the Better Jerusalem, the Better High Priest, the Better City on a Hill, the Better Temple, the Better Everything.
We’re called to faith in him. That means giving him our lives. It means going on his pilgrimage, wherever he takes us. It means joining his church, shown particularly in joining a church. It means walking on these walks enough to reset our hearts to be glad when someone asks us to go to the house of the Lord. That can be a prayer or a goal, but it’s in there. We might long to worship together.
But it also means that you’re right when you realize or understand or feel like this isn’t all there is. You may be dwelling on that too much, so you may need to give it a rest in your focus on it. But there is more to come.
There is a heavenly city, a New Jerusalem where perfect unity, justice and peace reign forever in Jesus. That’s where we’re headed. It’s a future hope that’s incredibly important. All will be set right. All will be made whole. All will be in harmony and flourishing. All will be handled and dealt with. All of it.
the Universe, she’s dancing now they got her lit up, lit up on the moon
they got stars doing cartwheels, all the nebulas on the tune
and the Universe, she’s whispering so softly I can hear all
the croaking insects, all the taxicabs, all the bum’s spent change
all the boys playing ball in the alleyways
they’re just folds in her dress
Here’s how the apostle John puts in Revelation: 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Rev 21:11–14)
22 And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21:22–27)
So—is this your hope? Is this your song?
Are you touching that hope and song each and every week as we gather to worship God in our unity and diversity? As we come from different places with different experiences, different life circumstances, different thoughts and hurts and opinions and expectations?
We’re not all the same. We’re just not. How amazing is it that we can all serve the same God in Jesus? How amazing it is that we don’t have to walk up to Zion, but that he has come down? How rich a history we have! How bright a future we have!
Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed You are the Faithful one
And from the garden to the grave Bind us together, bring shalom.
We will feast in the house of Zion We will sing with our hearts restored
He has done great things, we will say together We will feast and weep no more