Most Holy One, Look upon us in mercy not in judgement; draw us from hatred to love; and make the frailty of our praise a dwelling place for your glory. Amen.
I love to travel. To explore new places. To imagine sites I’d like to visit and what I’ll do there. Like sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking coffee with Melissa and watching people go by. Or climbing a peak and taking in an amazing view. Or finding my way into a hushed and darkened cathedral with candles flickering as I silently pray and allow the silence to flood over me. I want those moments to be transcendent, to touch my soul and bring me peace. To encounter healing from the much too busy frantic pace of my normal life. Just the anticipation of the experience brings tremendous joy and excitement. And it grows exponentially as we get nearer and nearer to our destination.
A sermon based on Psalm 122.
The act of journeying becomes sacred. Becomes holy. It becomes transformative.
The Psalm we read this morning had been used by the followers of God for years as they made their way up to Jerusalem to worship. We don’t see the inscription, but in many bibles Psalm 122 is called a Psalm of Ascent. It would be sung on the journey to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. And it’s described as an ascent because Jerusalem physically sits on a hill. One always traveled up to Jerusalem. One always went up to the temple to worship at the house of God.
These pilgrims embodied exuberance: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” We can relate to the delight they felt with our own plans for a Christmas that we hope will be glorious. The thing they longed for was a renewed connection with God. To go up to the very house of the Lord in order to make restitution for wrongs done, to offer prayers of repentance and experience forgiveness. To be with those they loved in God’s presence, and then be filled with joy roving around that city of Jerusalem as they basked in God’s peace. As they encountered shalom.
Jerusalem literally means “city of peace,” and so it would be natural for the pilgrims heading there to pray for peace to be present inside the city’s literal walls. As the place where all followers of the Torah went to fully experience the presence of God, they needed physical peace to be present there too. They didn’t want for there to be armed conflict causing the temple to be inaccessible to them. The peace they prayed for would have been both for their own interior lives, and for the people living in that city, and especially for that house of God.
Because they needed that peace.
We begin our pilgrimage to Bethlehem on this the First Sunday of Advent, and the first day of the new church year. We hear these lessons on being prepared, on staying awake, on watching and waiting. And there’s a hint of judgment wafting around us too—including in our Psalm. In God’s House, we are told, there are the thrones of judgment. Places where justice would be meted out. And so I suspect some of us, as we begin to prepare for Christmas, want to do more than just making it to the manger in twenty-four days, but making it there in the right way. Of having everything perfect in order to receive Christ.
But let me say this clearly: we won’t arrive there as we imagine. We’ll get hung up on one thing or another this year like we often do. We may lose our patience with those we love. We’ll spend too much money. We’ll get so focused on the images from some Lifetime movie we’re trying to recreate that the important stuff will nearly pass us by.
Yet I use the word “nearly” intentionally. Because in the end that true meaning of the nativity will come upon us so quickly that we likely won’t see it coming at all. Some act of kindness, or the familiar words of a carol, or an unexpected joy will break in to our lives and set us right once more.
It’ll get us back on the path as pilgrims heading to Bethlehem in order to witness the in-breaking of God in our lives. Toward experiencing peace.
What would it look like for you to experience the peace of Christ this year? What do you need from God as you make your way once more to that manger?
Perhaps it’s just allowing yourself to be imperfect. To not have to get it all done the way it is in your head.
Or maybe it’s finding time to experience the silence of the outdoors on a walk in a nearby park. Of seeing the animals there—the squirrels or deer or birds—readying themselves for the colder months when they will hunker down.
Maybe it’s spending the time to visit a friend, or someone you know who lives alone and sharing a cup of tea and a plate of cookies.
Perhaps it’s deciding to practice digital minimalism this Advent, keeping your devices off more often than having them on. Allowing for a break from the excessively noisy online world as you journey.
Maybe it’s reading a devotional or some other book to ready you during Advent. To reflect for a few minutes each day on preparing and staying awake.
Or maybe choosing to give gifts of your presence—going to a concert, or giving a game and then playing it with a child in your life, or preparing a special meal for a loved one. These types of interactions tend to be far more meaningful than a sweater in the long run.
Perhaps you can choose to give away clothes to those in need. Or buy socks for someone who is homeless and donate them to an organization nearby.
At the end of the day you could quiet yourself and simply ask where you experienced the light of God breaking into your darkness today? Maybe you could visit a neighborhood where Christmas lights have been strung with care and be present to the beauty of that place.
Or you could memorize the words to the Advent hymn “People Look East” with its wonderful line extolling the reason we prepare for Christmas, because “Love, the guest, is on the way.”
All of those practices—and more—can help you on your way, on your pilgrimage, to the one who will bring us peace. As the fevered pitch of our consumeristic culture grows louder and louder the closer we get to December 25th, we’ll need to be more and more intentional to prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
And that judgment we fear? That judgment from God? In my years of ministry and in living my own life of faith, I’ve come to realize that my anticipation of God’s judgment—my anxiety of measuring up short when it comes to the things of God—are much worse than God’s actual response to me. That opening prayer I read captures it well. Holy One, Look upon us in mercy rather than judgment. Draw us from hatred toward love, especially from the loathing we cast on ourselves for our lack of perfection. May the frailty of our praise, the distracted nature of our worship, become a dwelling place for your glory.
Friends, the peace we long for in our lives, the healing we desire, the anticipation for those transcendent moments can indeed by found as we journey over the next twenty-four days. So may we be filled with expectation as we draw near to the coming of Jesus. And let us begin even now with just a moment or two of silence, thinking of what we most hope for this year as we begin this Advent.