DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
24 August 2014 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost
Click here to read the scripture first: Psalm 124 (NRS)
Some of us may not be aware that three times each year the people of ancient Israel would go to Jerusalem. They would pilgrimage to the holy city, right up to the Temple gate in order to celebrate their annual festivals to God. They went to rejoice over Passover (or the remembrance of God’s delivery from slavery in Egypt), Shavuot (or the Festival of Weeks which celebrates the giving of the Law after the Exodus), and Sukkot (or the Festival of Booths which commemorates the 40 years the Israelites lived guided by God in such booths in the wilderness) [en.m.wikipedia.org]. For some, it was a long journey: on foot, no cars or planes or bicycles. For one living in Galilee, say around Nazareth, the trek would be about a five days’ walk – somewhere around 100 miles if you didn’t go through the taboo land of Samaria. These pilgrimages were commanded in the Torah. All good Jews would make the effort to go; though some could not afford to attend all three every year. Much like our liturgical calendar that takes us on an annual journey from the waiting of Advent through the culmination of Christmas, to the death and resurrection of Christ, to the formation of the church at Pentecost through to the glorious celebration of Christ the King; the three pilgrimages of ancient Israel shaped the people. Thanksgiving to God undergirded it all.
Like the “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” song sung in so many cars on lengthy family vacations; the ancient Israelites had songs for their journeys as well. It’s just that pilgrims to Jerusalem had songs that made a bit more sense. They didn’t exist just to annoy the driver or keep the kids occupied. Israel’s pilgrim songs told of joy on the journey: “I was glad when the said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” chimes one (Psalm 122:1). As the pilgrims made their long, sweaty way over the rolling, rocky terrain; another song boasts: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2). Another song for the pilgrim journey to Jerusalem begins: “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD” (Psalm 134:1). And yet another: “If it had not been the LORD who was on our side – let Israel now say – if it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive” (Psalm 124:1-3a). These are the Songs of Ascent, known to us as Psalm 120 through Psalm 134. As far as we know, these were the melodies on the lips of grateful travelers as they made their way to Jerusalem three times each year in order to give great thanks unto God.
It seems an important detail regarding the Psalm before us today: Psalm 124, one of the pilgrim Songs of Ascent. The context is pilgrimage in order to celebrate freedom from slavery, the gift of the Law which would make them a covenant people, and the provisions of a present God all through the wilderness. The people are celebrating the gracious care of the LORD their God. They are recounting their history – one they believe to have been made possible by a God who would not let them go. Part of the point of pilgrimage was to praise, even as it was to keep the people in perpetual reminder that once they were nothing – worthless slaves in a land not their own. But God heard their cry. God led them out. God made them into something – not because of any great credential of their own. But because of God, the LORD who made heaven and earth. The One who chooses to dwell among us. If it had not been for that One being on their side, they never would have made it out of Egypt. Or they would have gone a few miles only to be swallowed up in the raging waters of the Sea.
Sides. I gotta admit, it’s kinda disturbing. It seems like too many today are quick to put God on their side over and against their bitter enemy. I know I feel that way. It’s late August. Pre-season’s almost over. The team’s nearly set. Ours pretty much has been for a while. Aaron Rogers again will be our dynamic starting quarterback. All our favorites like Clay Matthews and Sam Shields have had time to heal after last season’s debilitating injuries. And we haven’t had a need for a new head coach in years. It’s looking like it could be a great new season for us! I’m not talking about the Titans, you know, but the Green Bay Packers! The green and gold just might make it to the Super Bowl this year, or at least crush our conference rivals like the Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions and the dreaded Minnesota Vikings. So there you have it. My football bias. I’d like to believe that God is on our side – even if you Titans beat us at the pre-season opener when the rains were pouring down and most of our priced starters weren’t even suited up to play – though yours were.
Truth be told, I don’t really believe God is on my Green Bay Packer side any more than I believe God is on the side of the Titans or any other NFL Team. I’m pretty sure God’s got more important things to do than stack up a Fantasy Football Team and spend all weekend cheering for certain ones to win. . . . What is it in us that so often we put God firmly on our own side against our bitter enemy? It sounds a little bit like what the ancient Israelites did in their Song of Ascent. It’s a fine line between rejoicing over God’s ever-present care and claiming God’s with you against your enemies. . . . When it comes down to it; Jesus lets us know God’s only enemy. His conversation with his disciples, which we overhear in the gospel reading for today, makes clear prime suspect number one. The enemy of God and God’s people is death. So much so that even if he’s killed, as he explains to his disciples that day he’s asking them who they believe he is, God will raise him up again. Life shall be the final word! . . . The lectionary puts these texts together for today. Not to have one make sense of the other. The intent is more to compliment themes that might be present in the texts. It stands out even more when the Old Testament text from Exodus is thrown in the mix. There Egypt’s Pharaoh commands the killing of all the Hebrew boys. He’s paranoid that Israel was getting too strong so he tells the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah to kill the male babies as the mothers are giving birth. (Exodus 1:15-22). Shiphrah and Puah find a way to wiggle around the king’s edict. And when the Pharaoh orders the Hebrew mothers to throw their own baby boys into the Nile, one mother honors the request but makes a basket of reeds first to ensure the boy she turns lose into the Nile will not drown. . . . Death is the constant threat. God’s enemy that seeks to attack again and again and again.
It’s been a trying few weeks for us. One of our own, who was with us just last Sunday in the back row, tragically has died. A few other beloved among us are showing the fragility of aging bodies. Anxiety is rising in our nation over race relations in Ferguson, Missouri; Israel and Hamas really have been at it the past few days; and who knows what’s going to happen in the Middle East with the beheading of an American journalist. It all seems a little surreal – a bit of emotional overload. We need words that remind us: if it is not the LORD who is on our side. If it is not the living God who’s first enemy is death. Who despises that which steals the gift of life from us so that God came among us in our own flesh to deal the final blow against it. If it is not God who fights for us for the eternal gift of life and for the gift of abundant life each day . . . well, without such a gracious God on our side, we would come to naught. There would be nothing beyond our physical death. We’d be swallowed up alive in despair here and now, without hope, with little reason to carry on. The flood waters of death would drown us, sweeping us away forever if not for the waters of baptism that keep us throughout all eternity. If it had not been the LORD who, for our benefit, is on the side of Life. . . . Let this be our reminder. The song we sing on our journeys – our own pilgrimages throughout this life. The living God is on our side – has made a way for us to live here and now and forevermore. We’ve no need to fear God’s enemy death; for it already has been conquered. We join our voices in thanksgiving too! Blessing the One who will not give us over eternally as prey for death’s teeth. That snare gets broken and we are allowed to fly free! . . . Let us all say: our help is in the LORD! God forever is on the side of life!
For this we give great thanks to the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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