Ascent: Psalm 134

tongues_of_flame

Psalm 134

Behold now, praise the Lord,
all ye servants of the Lord,
ye that by night stand in the house of the Lord,
even in the sanctuary of our God.

Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
and praise the Lord.
The Lord that made heaven and earth:
give thee blessing out of Sion.

~

Friends, it is the octave of Pentecost. Sunday is Trinity and marks the beginning of Ordinary Time. But for now, we are still celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Did you know that in the ten days from Ascension to Pentecost the disciples were “continually in the Temple blessing God” (Luke 24:53)? I like to think this psalm of praise was on their lips. They had just seen their dead Lord rise from the grave and their risen Lord ascend into Heaven. Oswald Chambers writes of the Ascension:

…by His Ascension Our Lord enters heaven and keeps the door open for humanity….There is now freedom of access for anyone straight to the very throne of God by the Ascension of the Son of Man. As Son of Man Jesus Christ deliberately limited omnipotence, omnipresence and omniscience in Himself. Now they are His in absolute full power. As Son of Man Jesus Christ has all power at the throne of God. He is King of kings and Lord of lords from the day of Ascension until now.

No wonder the disciples gathered to pray and praise and bless the Lord! No wonder they stood in God’s sanctuary by night and day to lift up their hands. No wonder.

Then again, it is all wonder. It is wonder-full. The whole cosmos is shot through with the glory of the risen and ascended Lord. When I can get my gaze off my self long enough to look and see what God has done and is doing, I too want to shout for joy and bless the Lord who has so richly blessed us with so great a Saviour.

And then when I stop and ponder Pentecost, how these continually-blessing-God Jesus-freaks were gathered together, how they were awaiting the promised Comforter, how the wind rushed into that room and tongues of flame alighted on their heads like fire, how Babel was reversed and they could speak in the tongues of men and angels, how power from on High poured over them, poured into them, filled them to the measure with all the fullness of God so their cups ran over and spilled into the streets of the city for all to taste and see that the Lord is good, well, no wonder Pentecost is such a high holy day in the church, no wonder we all come to the sanctuary with bright faces and red shirts, no wonder we lift up our hands and praise the Lord. No wonder.

Then again, it is all wonder. It is wonder-full. It is so wonder-full that the Apostle John at the end of his gospel could only shrug and say of these wonders, “Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

But we still try to write the wonders, don’t we? We still try to contain the uncontainable, to comprehend the incomprehensible. And that is good and right and necessary. But it is also good and right and necessary to stop trying to pin the wonders on a board, to let them fly free and alight where they will, to let them be what they are and let our only response be the lifting of our hands in wonder at the wonder, in praise of the Maker of Heaven and earth, receptive night and day to whatever wild and crazy blessing He would pour forth into our empty hands to fill them.

 
 
Photo by Jo Naylor, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Ascent: Psalm 133

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Psalm 133

Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is,
for brethren to dwell together in unity!

It is like the precious oil upon the head,
that ran down unto the beard,
even unto Aaron’s beard,
and went down to the skirts of his clothing.

Like as the dew of Hermon,
which fell upon the hill of Sion.
For there the LORD promised his blessing,
and life for evermore.

~

Seven years ago, when my blog was brand-new, I wrote posts about the Sunday lectionary passages. Today’s psalm was the lectionary psalm for the second Sunday of Easter that year, and I wrote a little anecdote about my kids, which captured for me the spirit and essence of this psalm.

All week as I’ve read and prayed through this psalm, I kept thinking of that story I told seven years ago, and I decided to simply re-post it here, as it still strikes me as being a “good and joyful” moment of unity.

I include the whole post, which references John 20 and Acts 4 as well as Psalm 133.

~

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And they do: the “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), the living embodiment of unity.

According to Acts, none of the believers owned anything; they held all possessions in common. No one was poor or hungry or in need because all the believers shared everything they had. The apostles gave their testimony “with great power,” and “great grace was on them all.”

But it didn’t take long before the unity of the Holy Spirit was broken: the next chapter is the oh-so delightful story of Ananias and Sapphira, who held onto their possessions and then lied about it. Just as the idyllic days of Eden are gone forever, the idyllic days of the early church are, too.

But every so often, I have glimpses of the unity and beauty and blessing that is supposed to characterize the body of the risen Christ.

Today, I took my kids to the toy store—my 5-year-old son wanted to buy a space shuttle with the allowance money he’s saved. He hadn’t had the toy five minutes when his little sister asked to play with it.

To my surprise, he let her.

To my further surprise, after she’d played with it for a couple minutes, Jane said, “Here you, go, Jack,” and gave it back to him.

It was one of those graced moments when brethren dwell together in unity, when the precious oil of anointing falls on your life, and you know you are blessed.

It was such a small thing I feel a little silly mentioning it, like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But then I think of the mustard seed and am heartened: great things come from small and humble starts; faith as a mustard seed can move mountains. So I’ll keep looking for the kingdom of God in my own small life, in the nooks and crannies (or toy stores), anticipating glimpses of Resurrection, the new life of unity in the Holy Spirit.
 
 

Ascent: Psalm 132

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

—translated by Benedicta Ward, SLG,
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Psalm 132

Lord, remember David
and all his trouble;
how he sware unto the Lord
and vowed a vow unto the Almighty God of Jacob:

“I will not suffer mine eyes to sleep,
nor my eyelids to slumber,
neither the temples of my head to take any rest,
until I find out a place for the temple of the Lord,
an habitation for the mighty God of Jacob.”

Lo, we heard of the same at Ephrata
and found it in the wood.
We will go to his tabernacle
and fall low on our knees before his footstool.

Arise, O Lord, into thy resting-place,
thou, and the ark of thy strength.
Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness
and let thy saints sing with joyfulness.

For thy servant David’s sake
turn not away the presence of thine Anointed.
The Lord hath made a faithful oath unto David,
and he shall not shrink from it:

“Of the fruit of thy body shall I set upon thy seat.
If thy children will keep my covenant
and my testimonies that I shall learn them,
their children also shall sit upon thy throne forevermore.”

For the Lord hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for himself;
he hath longed for her.
“This shall be my rest for ever;
here will I dwell, for I have a delight therein.

“I will bless her victuals with increase
and will satisfy her poor with bread.
I will deck her priests with health
and her saints shall rejoice and sing.

“There shall I make the horn of David to flourish;
I have ordained a lantern for mine Anointed.
As for his enemies, I shall clothe them with shame,
but upon himself shall his crown flourish.”

~

This is by far the longest of the Psalms of Ascent. It is also the only one to recite the history of Israel at such length. As the pilgrims walked toward Jerusalem, they remembered David, who made the city his capital and had the ark brought there from its exile among the Gentiles; David, who longed to build a temple for the Lord, a place worthy of His Name and of the ark of His Presence; David, to whom God said no, it is not you who shall build me a house.

Even so, God did bless Jerusalem, David’s city, in a special way. God blessed the city with His Presence.

If we were to read the psalm allegorically (which of course we’re going to do), we would quickly make the leap from the historical-literal city of Jerusalem to the allegorical cities of the Church and of the human heart, where God also deigns to dwell and which God also longs to bless with His Presence.

As I reflected on the words of this psalm, the phrase that kept shimmering for me was from the penultimate verse: “I have ordained a lantern for mine Anointed.” For the psalmist “mine Anointed” was the king, but from this side of history, the Anointed (Messiah) is Jesus who was and is the Light of the World: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

But Jesus who brightens and enlightens the world says that those who follow Him are also lights: “You are the light of the world.” Friends, we are the lanterns God has ordained for His Anointed!

We are the lanterns through which Christ shines in the darkness, and we are also Zion, the city set on the hill, ablaze with all that light. God, the psalm tells us, “hath longed” for Zion. He longs for us. We are the place where God dwells and in which He takes delight.

But it’s not a given that He will dwell with us. There’s a big fat “if” in this psalm:

If thy children will keep my covenant
and my testimonies that I shall learn them…

God’s presence is always a gift, and it’s a gift He does not have to give. He delights to give it, He longs to give Himself to us, to dwell with us, but He will never force Himself on us. He will withdraw Himself rather than force us to receive a gift we don’t want. He will leave Jerusalem to its own devices if that’s what its people insist upon. This terrifies me. I almost wish He wouldn’t. I look around and I see proof of His incredible restraint, His unstinting insistence on human freedom. We don’t deserve it. But then God’s never been about giving us what we deserve, has He? Instead, He wants to give us what is best—He wants to give us Himself, ultimate Reality, the burning Love at the heart of the cosmos.

This is what God longs for: Zion, the city on a hill, ablaze with free people who receive His free gift of Presence, all of us ordained lanterns of God’s Anointed, our Lord Jesus.

That is what God longs for. What do we long for?

Do we long to receive God’s gift? Do we say, day after day, “come, Lord Jesus”? Do we receive Him when He comes? Do we believe He is right here, right now? Not just head-level-assent believe, but heart-level-abandon believe. For that’s how we receive Him: by abandoning ourselves to Him. Thy will be done. Into Thy hands.

In that most famous of all Bible verses (“…whosoever believeth in him…”), believe in would be more accurately translated trust into or even entrust into. There’s movement in the Greek preposition; it’s not static, it’s active. Belief isn’t passive. Like waiting, it’s something we do. It’s an active act of surrender, an active act of turning Godward with open arms, ready to receive whatever God would give. We have to co-operate with Him; He won’t force Himself on us, and He won’t do it for us. We must receive. We must trust. We must turn and re-turn. We must open our hearts, the way we would open a window to catch the breeze or let the sunlight in. The breeze is already there, the light is already there—”Behold, I stand at the door and knock”—all we do is open to it. And the waiting Wind, the kindly Light will come.

God would make His home in us, friends. Will we let Him?

He would light a fire in the hearth of our hearts; He would breathe those cold ashes into flame. Will we let Him? He would trim our wicks and pour the holy oil of gladness into our lamps. Will we let Him?

He would bless our victuals with increase and satisfy our poor with bread. He would deck our priests with righteousness and our saints with joy. He would make us saints. Will we let Him?

He would crown us with Himself. Will we bow our knees and bend our necks to receive that crown? Will we open our hearts to His light and His love? Will we let Him burn within us, burn away the fear, the pettiness, the ingratitude, the self-pity, the uncharitable thoughts, the duplicity, all the million and one ways we turn our eyes and lives away from Him? Will we trust ourselves to the burning holy fire of His love? Will we entrust ourselves into Him?

Will we become all flame?
 
 

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