The Glory and Strength of Zion
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites.
Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north,
the city of the great King.
Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense.
Then the kings assembled,
they came on together.
As soon as they saw it, they were astounded;
they were in panic, they took to flight;
trembling took hold of them there,
pains as of a woman in labor,
as when an east wind shatters
the ships of Tarshish.
As we have heard, so have we seen
in the city of the Lord of hosts,
in the city of our God,
which God establishes forever. Selah
We ponder your steadfast love, O God,
in the midst of your temple.
Your name, O God, like your praise,
reaches to the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with victory.
Let Mount Zion be glad,
let the towns of Judah rejoice
because of your judgments.
Walk about Zion, go all around it,
count its towers,
consider well its ramparts;
go through its citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will be our guide forever.
~ Psalm 48
I have had a quote on my desk for the past few months that reads: “Don’t focus on what is urgent. Focus on what is important.” Because it is easy to get stuck in the world’s way of thinking, isn’t it? Television commercials tell us what to think and how to live our lives. We begin to desire things that we never even cared about, and we lose track of things that mean the world to us.
Many times, when we think about going on vacation, we think we need to go to an island or to a beach or to the mountains. You know, to get away from it all! Because we tend to get tired of the crowds and the congestion of communities. We look for a break from the busyness, and we long for a little more space to breathe, so we can rest and relax. I have to say, when I go on retreat, I always look to go somewhere to get away from the hustle and bustle of society, to commune with nature and to more easily reconnect with God and myself. That seems to be a part of the American dream, doesn’t it, to get away from the city?
But in today’s scripture reading, we heard all about the City of God. Today’s psalm is a psalm of praise for the city of Jerusalem, where it was believed that God dwelled among His people. Now the psalm may have sounded a little confusing in the beginning because we may not understand the context in which it was written, or in other words, the actual story of what was happening at the time. The psalmist is remembering an event in which foreign powers besieged Jerusalem, but by an act of God – a storm at sea actually – the foreign powers were defeated and the enemies departed empty-handed. At that moment, the people of Israel acknowledge that Jerusalem’s integrity and safety were dependent solely on God and not on their own righteousness or military strength. So, it was believed that God was right there in the city with them. In the Bible, we even hear heaven referred to as a city or as the “New Jerusalem.” So as one theologian once said, “If you want to spend eternity in heaven, you’d better get used to city living!”
Though we often long to vacation and even move away from the city, in the Bible, cities are the desirable place to live. To live away from the city was to be unprotected from bandits, invading enemies, and predatory wild animals. It was to battle the elements. It was to cut yourself off from commerce, social relationships, and community support. The biblical mindset was, “Why in the world would anyone want to move out of the city into the wilderness?”
As American Christians, we many times focus on our own personal faith and our own individual relationship with Jesus. And that’s okay, but we sometimes forget that it’s not all about us. Sure, as Christians we have our own individual faith. But more importantly, being Christian means that we are part of the body of Christ. We are part of God’s flock, as we say at baptism, fellow citizens with the saints, members of God’s household, or to put it another way, citizens of the City of God.
So, what does that mean to us? It means we can find God in the city. We do not have to go to the mountains or to the beach or to the country to be closer to God. Of course, we can, but it’s important to remember that, just as God is in green pastures and the still waters, God is also in the busy streets and under the overpasses that connect our communities. Yes, God is the shepherd, but he is also the taxi driver and the trash collector.
Friends, we like to think of God in a perfect, neat, clean box. But the truth is, God is as far from that as possible! God is bigger than our words and more amazing than our imaginations. As human beings, we can’t fathom the height and depth and breadth of God. So rather than remembering that we are made in God’s image, for thousands of years, we have been trying to make God in our image. That is why the psalmist today imagined God in the city of Jerusalem because that was the most amazing thing that he knew. For hundreds of generations, the city of Jerusalem has been a place of pilgrimage. Faithful followers both Christians and Jews have traveled there as a part of their faith journey.
Just this past week, the son of a friend of mine traveled to Jerusalem for a month-long stay. The trip that he is on is referred to as his “birthright” trip. Still today, Jewish young adults are given a free trip to Israel so that they might have the chance to explore Israel at least once in their lives, to hear and experience firsthand the stories of their faith. What an amazing experience!
In the second half of today’s psalm, the psalmist talks about taking a walk around the city and noticing the beauty that he sees. He says: “Walk about Zion, go all around it. Count its towers, consider well its rampart, go through its citadels, that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will be our guide forever.”
After speaking with others who have taken a birthright trip, I am told that it helps them to do just that – to not only see and experience the foundations of their faith first hand, but also to begin to see God in the world around them, remembering that they too are an important part of the story.
Now I know that we are not all blessed with the ability to visit the Holy Lands and to see firsthand the sacred spaces where so many of the stories of Jesus took place. But the city of God, like the body of Christ, cannot be held within city limits or within a geographic area. Just like God can’t be put into a perfect, neat clean box. God is everywhere my friends! And we are constantly called to look for God in the world around us and to praise Him. For as the psalm began, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised!”
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you go out into your busy week ahead, open the eyes of your heart. Look for God in the busyness of the city and in the stillness of a starry night. Know that God is everywhere, and in everything. And share that good news with your friends and your neighbors. For in all that we say and do, God will be our guide forever.
My friends, may it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen!