Psalm 133 and the Spiritual Discipline of Community (Psalm 133, Hebrews 10:19-25)

Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascent.. It is a psalm that was used as pilgrims came to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, specifically for one of the big three festivals… Passover, Pentecost and tabernacles As such it is a journey psalm about travelling from afar and coming to worship.  A journey not just of distance but of preparing oneself to encounter God. A journey of spiritual growth and renewal.

 Psalm 133 is the second to last Psalm of ascent. It’s about arriving at the temple to worship. It’s a blessing on the pilgrims, who have come together as God’s People to worship.

Psalm 133 is a Psalm of relationship, community and unity. As the Pilgrims journeyed to the temple it is not just reconnecting to a place and growing in their relationship with God, it has been an identifying with God’s people. They belonging to one another, and in their unity God blesses them. 

I’ve been meditating on the psalms of ascent this year and using them as a basis for services I’ve taken at Edmund Hillary retirement village. There is a progression in each of them, where the pilgrim identifies his own experiences with that of all God’s people, it develops a sense of commonality: common discontent, common awareness of God’s help in times of trouble, God as the source of life and blessing, a common trust in and dependence on God. We can see spiritual disciplines and devotional life as solitary and individual, but the spiritual discipline of community is at the heart of the Christian faith…

 “The real meaning of life,” says Leonard Sweet, “is not a journey question or an arrival question. It’s a relationship question. Your journey and your destination are important, but neither is possible without an answer to this prior Question: who are you taking with you on the journey toward your destination?”

So come join me as we explore Psalm 133 and see what it has to say to us in our season of prayer.

The Psalm is a benediction on God’s people gathered for worship. It’s a proverb about family unity that has been turned into a blessing for all God’s people. The proverb is in verse 1 and the blessing is the last line in  verse 3 and in between are two examples that are used at metaphors to illustrate that blessing.

As well as being a Psalm of ascent it is acknowledged as being of David. In the time of King David the tribes of Israel were bought together, there is a sense of a national unity that enabled them to grow strong and become an empire. For Israel they looked back at that time as their golden age. But also from David’s reign when his own sons were divided we see the damage disunity and personal self-interest had on the whole kingdom.

Many modern translations translate the second line “When God’s people” which reflects the intent of the psalm, and is inclusive but hides its roots as a proverb about family life. The Hebrew is ‘when brothers’ live together in unity. In Israel’s agricultural background, sons would normally stay with their father and work the land they had together, even after they were married, land was distributed after the father had died.  So family dynamics were an important part of the prosperity of that family.  If it was good then they would be able to work together as a unit, if it was bad it could have disastrous consequences. In the book of Genesis we see this in the clash between Jacob and Esau. We see both the negative and positive it in the joseph narrative: Where jealousy and favouritism lead to Joseph being left in a dry well to die and as a compromise sold into slavery. Then with forgiveness and reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers God provides for the whole family in a time of dire famine.

That proverb for family life is then taken to apply to all God’s people together. It is not simply a family relationship but a covenant relationship. AS God’s people they belong to each other, and equally that unity and living together is the basis of blessing.

That is how we find ourselves as pilgrims standing in this Psalm. We are God’s people because through Jesus Christ we have been bought into a relationship with God.  We are Brothers and sisters in Christ. In our new Testament reading from Hebrews this morning, the author of Hebrews uses the image of coming to the temple to worship God to talk of through Christ, that we as brothers and sisters can gather into the very presence of God. Not simply stopping at the outer courts of the temple, or the holy place where only the priest could go, but having the confidence because of Christ’s priestly sacrifice, to come into the very presence of God, the holy of Holy’s beyond the veil, that was torn in two, as Christ died.

The pastor down at Mt wellington Community Church and I are often asked if we are brothers, we look alike… I think it has a lot to do with being men of a certain age with receding hairlines and gotees who wear glasees…  I’ve always find it hard to answer that question, and I’m so grateful for that most Kiwi of answers “yeah Nah!” or rather “Nah, Yeah!”  because nah we are not biologically connected but Yeah we are brothers in Christ, we have that covenant relationship in Christ. When we work together with other Christian leaders and our congregations work together, the community is blessed.

When we think of oil being poured out on clothes, we probably wonder how will we get the stain out right. But the picture here of Aaron being anointed for ministry, with a fragrant oil, frankincense. It was a symbol of being set aside for God service, to be the one who would mediate the people’s relationship with God. Lead them in worship, through sacrifices help them get their sins forgiven and proclaim them right with God.  It’s reformation Sunday today and its special today as it marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his ninety-five thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. The reformation reemphasised the fact that through grace and faith in Christ that we are put right with God. We are a priesthood of all believers. We are all called and set aside to serve God. The oil poured out is a foreshadowing God anointing us all with the Holy Spirit. We often emphasise the individual aspect of that relationship. But its a unity and community thing. The scriptures of the Old Testament is the story of God’s people and the scriptures of the New Testament are written to communities of faith, to communities working out what it meant for them to be followers of Jesus together.

The dew on Mt Hermon falling on Mt Zion, is a picture of God’s provision of plenty for his people. Zion was a mountain in a dry part of the country, barren and rocky, Hebron was well watered by dew and snow. God’s blessing here is shown in the land spring forth with life that comes from a reliable water source. You may remember the imagery of Psalm 65 we looked at last month, where God’s blessing on Jerusalem was seen in the whole land being fertile and abounding with life. There is an ethical element here. The sense that that abundant life and plenty is for all God’s people, for all the people God loves and cares for. When God’s people dwell in unity, there is no poverty or want. Those who do not have do not miss out because they are blessed by those who have more than enough who share with them. Part of the spiritual practises of community for the Jewish people was alms giving. Giving money and a percentage of their crop for the sake of those who do not have. Community storehouses were set up. In Acts 2 the fledgling church in Jerusalem had a vibrant prayer life and worship life and teaching life, but they also gave hospitality to each other and didn’t hold onto what they had as their own but were willing to sell and give to those in need.  So it was said there were no needs. They were willing to look together at injustice and inequality, when the Judean Widows were getting more that those from a Hellenistic background. Prayer devotion and action go hand in hand.  

In that unity God bestows his blessing on his people. It is as we are together that God ministers to us and through us to each other. The picture is of Abundant life but eternal life as well. This passage looks forward to God’s blessing being fulfilled in Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and the abundant and eternal life he brings. Life we share together here on earth and will share forever with Christ. In fact the whole of psalm 133 Jesus is the high priest who has offered the ultimate sacrifice in giving up his life for his people. Jesus is the source of the Holy Spirit poured out on all who believe. Jesus is the source of life giving water which changes the land from barren and lifeless to abundance that can be shared with all people. Jesus is the source of eternal life. 

I want to finish off this reflection in our season of prayer by tying it all down to some basic spiritual practises for our lives together.

Firstly, the psalm of ascent is in the context of coming together for public worship, it was used as pilgrims came to the temple for festivals and as people simply came to the temple for regular worship as well. Regular public worship is a spiritual disciple. It is part of the sacredness of time and using that time for worship and acknowledging God and Identifying with God’s people. We live in a world with real demands on time and it easy to put coming to church low on the priority list. Likewise we can see the festivals of Church calendar as times to get away rather than times to come together.  If we view attending worship as part a spiritual discipline it will mean some sacrifice. Like all disciplines it means setting priorities.

In his Book the Good and beautiful community James Bryan Smith talks of some simple steps to help make worship a  spiritual discipline. I was wondering if I should mention his first one as He says ‘come early’ like with any spiritual discipline it’s important to prepare yourself, like simply slowing your breathing before you pray or read scripture so you are relaxed. He says come expectant, that you will encounter God, “ Matthew 18:20 “when one or two are gathered in my name, Low I am with them” is usually used as a way of chasing away despondency when there is a poor turn out, but it is not it is the encouragement that when we gather together which includes for public worship Christ is present. In our reformed tradition, the flow of a worship service is that the focus is on the reading and preaching of the Word, what goes before it is designed to make us ready to hear the word and what we do after that is how we respond to the word of God. There is the expectation that we will meet God and he will speak to us through his word. Be expectant. Remember the focus on God… It’s easy to get distracted or to find ourselves struggling with style and form, but we need to remind ourselves the focus is on God. Lastly Come expecting to give… Now this is not in a prosperity we are after your money kind of thing OK… but rather as it says in our reading from Hebrews that we should encourage one another, we are to spur one another on towards love and good deeds. It’s easy to have a consumer mentality, we come for what’s in it for us… But God’s spirit dwells in each of you and you all have been called to witness to the hope you have in Christ and to minister to one another.

secondly, its about relationships, ‘the church says Larry Crabb is a community of people on a journey to God. we need to develop a balanced set of relationships as a spiritual discipline for the journey and to enable us to arrive at our ultimate designation. Leonard Sweet, who I quoted at the start of this message maintains that for our Christian lives to grow and develop we need to cultivate a range of relationships in our lives. While he specifically mentions eleven, in his book eleven (and then adds a twelfth which is the Holy Spirit)… it is easy to break it down into people who are able to build into our lives and people who we invest into, and those who walk alongside us as friends and it’s a bit of both. Sweet says we need to find a mentor and encourager, but also people who we are open to being our editors and butt kickers as well, trusted prophets who speak the truth in love. We need to find a timothy or a protégée someone we can encourage and build up in the faith, a Zacchaeus, that outside who needs our love and our care. A close friend   who is with us all the way. In New Zealand society, men find it hardest to form that kind of bond. We used to having a mate, someone we work or hang out with, but really when you see the depth of care and concern that the likes of David and Jonathan had in the scriptures we kind of don’t really cultivate that sort of closeness. It is a dangerous romantic myth that we can have all our relational needs meet in a marriage. Spiritual discipline cultivating this range of relationships because there is a balance of people who fill our tank,… fuel our lives… that give to us and encourage and inspire us and those who drain our tank, that we give to, and inspire and encourage or carry and hold.
A healthy system is where there is a balance of these two things. Very often these relationships can’t be built up in a large group and one of the ways that Churches help in developing these is through forming small groups or cells. It is one of the goals in our five-year strategic plan is to develops small groups here at St Peters. Ralph neighbours says that for a church to really soar in the spirit it needs to develop two wings,  a big gatherings wing, like public worship and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves and a small groups wing, where people can develop the depth of relationships they need for real spiritual growth.   

Developing that balance of healthy and heal giving relationships is a matter of developing other spiritual disciplines: hospitality, opening your homes and your lives. Listening, showing kindness, forgiveness, caring, making time. In the end they are a source of God’s blessing for you, they can minister to you and enable us as a church to be a blessing as we practise the spiritual discipline of community.

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