Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | July 28, 2013

2013.07.28 “Psalm 48 – A Psalm of the City of God”

Central United Methodist Church
Psalm 48 – A Psalm of the City of God
Pastor David L. Haley
July 28th, 2013
Psalm 48

Psalm 48 (Grail Version)
Great is the LORD and highly to be praised in the city of our God.
His holy mountain rises in beauty, the joy of all the earth.
Mount Sion, in the heart of the North, the city of the Mighty King!
God, in the midst of its citadels, has shown himself its stronghold.
Behold! the kings assembled; together they advanced.
They saw; at once they marveled; dismayed, they fled in fear.
A trembling seized them there, anguish, like pangs in giving birth,
as when the east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish.
As we have heard, so we have seen in the city of our God,
in the city of the LORD of hosts, which God establishes forever.
Your merciful love, O God, we ponder in your temple.
Your praise, O God, like your name, reaches the ends of the earth.
Your right hand is filled with saving justice. Mount Sion rejoices.
The daughters of Judah rejoice at the sight of your judgments.
Walk through Sion, walk all around her; count the number of her towers.
Consider all her ramparts; examine her castles,
That you may tell the next generation that such is our God,
our God forever and always. He will guide us forever.

Thirty-eight years ago, when I was in seminary, one of my part-time jobs was as graduate assistant to the professor of preaching. One aspect of that was to videotape students delivering sermons. At that point in our preaching careers, some students were not so good, and some were good.

One that I particularly remember was a young man who preached on our Psalm for today, Psalm 48, who shared an unforgettable image, which is, in fact, the final image of Psalm 48:

“As we have heard, so we have seen
in the city of our God,
in the city of the LORD of hosts,
which God establishes forever. . .

Walk through Sion, walk all around her;
count the number of her towers.
Consider all her ramparts; examine her castles,
That you may tell the next generation
that such is our God, our God forever and always.
He will guide us forever.”

Did you get that? Can you imagine it? What this ancient Psalmist was asking his hearers to do, was to consider Jerusalem, the Holy City, as a metaphor for God. Walk through the city, explore it, examine it, consider it. The city was not God, but God was LIKE the Holy City: tangible, constant, and enduring, not only for our lifetime, but for the lifetimes of our children and their children after them.

Finally this week, forty years later, I had occasion to practice my fellow student’s – and Psalm 48’s – never forgotten advice.

What do I think? How do I feel about his advice now? More conflicted than ever. Here’s why:

Whatever we think about God, we all have a spiritual geography. Our spiritual geography has nothing to do with a geographically correct map of the world, but is instead a customized geography of our spiritual life. Earthly cities, sacred places, holy mountains, even childhood churches and homes become important places in our spiritual journey. This is so ancient, so universal, that even these famous words from Psalm 48 are copied almost verbatim from an earlier ancient near east poem written in Ugaritic.

I’m sure when every one of us thinks about our faith and how it was formed, we think of places. Perhaps it was the house we grew up in, where our mother or father led us in table graces or bedtime prayers. Perhaps it was a church, or a youth retreat at a special camp. It might even include a very special place, like a great cathedral, we once visited.

And – if we know anything at all about the Bible and Christianity – our sacred geography also includes the Holy Land and Jerusalem, whether we’ve ever actually been there or not. As my professor, Martin Marty once said, “I didn’t need to go to the Holy Land to see it, because I’ve seen it in my imagination every since my Sunday School days back in Nebraska.”

But there’s the rub, the place as it exists in our imagination, may be quite different than the place as it really is. Surely all of us have had the experience of returning to a place that exists in our memory or imagination, as a childhood home or church (if it still even exists), only to find that when we get there, that “It looks much smaller than I remember it,” or “So ordinary.” In other words, not at all like we remember or imagine it.

Now that I finally got a chance to see it, to walk it, to experience it, that’s how I feel about about Jerusalem. It some ways it looks like what I thought, in other, maybe even more important ways, not at all.

For example, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre,

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre

in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, is – according to archaelogical evidence and church tradition – almost certainly the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. And yet, as scholar Jerome Murphy O’Connor says of the place:

“One expects the central shrine of Christendom to stand out in majestic isolation, but anonymous buildings cling to it like barnacles. One looks for numinous light, but it is dark and cramped. One hopes for peace, but the ear is assailed by a cacophony of warring chants. One desires holiness, only to encounter a jealous possessiveness; the six groups of occupants — Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrians, Copts, Ethiopians – watch one another suspiciously for any infringement of rights. The fraility of humanity is nowhere more apparent than here; it epitomizes the human condition. The empty who come to be filled will leave desolate; those who permit the church to question them may begin to understand why hundreds of thousands thought it worthwhile to risk death or slavery in order to pray here.” (Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide, 2008, p. 49)

When we encounter this disparity between fantasy and reality, some can’t handle it. And so, for example, in addition to the Church of the Resurrection, most Protestant groups also visit a site much further outside the Old City known as the Garden Tomb

Garden Tomb aka Gordon's Tomb

Garden Tomb aka Gordon’s Tomb

originally known as “Gordon’s Tomb,” because it was first identified by General Charles Gordon in 1883. It’s near a rocky outcropping in which some think they can see a skull, with a rock tomb in a wall, in a lovely garden. Unfortunately, according to archaelology and tradition, there’s no chance it’s where Christ was crucified and buried. But it’s popular because it’s closer to what we IMAGINE Jesus’ garden tomb might have been, so Protestants – especially – choose it, over the chaos and clutter of Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which, after all, is run by all those Orthodox and Catholics whose idea of Christianity is different than we understand it, by a couple thousand years.

And here’s another thing that the writer of Psalm 48 couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, the spiritual geography of Jerusalem is important. Yes, those walls and stones are mystical, even though – if past history is any guide – they get rearranged every couple hundred years through destruction and construction. Yes, they speak passionately of God, but not to Jews only.
Jerusalem is a place passionately important not only to Jews, but to also Christians and Muslims. You only have to watch caftaned Jews or Israeli soldiers kissing the stones of the Western Wall, or the crowds of Muslim families surging through the streets in their best clothes for Friday prayers at the Haram al-Sharif, or Christians of all kinds walking the Via Dolorosa, to realize that Psalm 48 has come to mean more to more people of three faiths, than its author could ever have imagined.

But there is a downside to this: It is exactly this passionate attachment to our spiritual geography that makes it very difficult for us to see it objectively, because it has become bound up with our conception of ourselves and ultimate reality (God) that gives our lives meaning and purpose. At some point in their careers every pastor discovers this, when they – in their ignorance – say, decide to move that statue on the altar, only to learn the hard way that it was given by the leading family of the church, as a memorial, thirty years ago, and is, in fact, the holy of holies.

That’s the way Jerusalem is. Each group – Jews, Christians, Arabs, watches the other, to make sure no one infringes on what is holy to the other, erupting in unrestrained violence should that be the case. Because our spiritual geography is important to us.

Here’s some examples: You’ve perhaps heard how the six Christian groups who oversee the Church of the Holy Sepulchre sometimes get into fistfights with each other, over perceived infringement of rights. You’ve heard how Jews at the Western Wall get upset when women try to pray in the area where traditionally only men pray.

Another example, more extreme: when we went to the Temple Mount, to see the famous Dome of the Rock, the third holiest site in Islam

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock

I asked one of the guards if we could go in, because the interior is supposed to be amazing. We couldn’t, but it’s the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, so I asked if that was why. He explained that in 2000, the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, came to the Temple Mount with 2,000 soldiers, unannounced, in a provocative visit just to demonstrate that Jews have access to the Temple Mount. Not only did a riot break out, not only were people killed and injured, but it spread through all Jerusalem and the Palestinian territory, and was the beginning of the 2nd Intifada (uprising.) Josef, the shop owner whom we met, a Palestinian Arab, told us that it was so bad he had to close his shop for 3 years and work in a gas station. Now, I – a non-Muslim – cannot enter the Dome of the Rock because of what happened that day 13 years ago. I have been reading Karen Armstrong’s history of Jerusalem (which I left on the plane,) you would not believe how often such riots have occurred – by Jews, Muslims, and Christians – in Jerusalem’s long history. The long history of violence and bloodshed in Jerusalem, the world’s holiest city, boogles the mind and humbles the proud.

Indeed, I can’t help but wonder what the Psalmist might have thought if he had known what was to come. Surely, he saw Jerusalem in one of its most glorious times, if indeed, he wasn’t already working out of imagination. But what might he have thought if he lived in 586 BCE, when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Babylonians, and the people taken into exile? What might he have thought after it was rebuilt by Herod, even more gloriously than before, but then again destroyed – even more completely – by the Romans in 70 A.D., with Jews scattered in exile in what became known as the Jewish Diaspora. Might he have said, “I was wrong, I was deluded, what you see, means absolutely nothing.”

But no. Despite reality, despite what really happened, Psalm 48 was not retracted, not ripped from the pages of Scripture. Because, we all must finally learn what even the writer of Psalm 48 must have known, what Jews, Muslims, and Christians through the centuries have had to learn, that it is not finally a place, not a city or a church, not walls and towers, not stones and mortar, that is God, but rather it is the holy and mysterious and eternal God who is behind and beneath and present in all times and places and even people, who are fleeting and temporal. Because the symbol is not the thing. The map is not the territory. The holy place and the holy thing are not the Holy One. Earthly representations, even ideas of God, are not God. It would do us all well – whether Jews, Muslims, and Christians – to remember this, as we recall – and sometimes fight over – those places and things we consider holy to us.

We must remember what Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well:

“Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem . . . . But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4: 21 – 24)

After Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 by the Romans, and the Temple torn down, to make it even worse, Jews were exiled from the Temple Mount. They would gather instead across the Kidron Valley at the Mount of Olives, looking across at the ruins of the Temple, and pray, lamenting its destruction. Once a year, on the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, they were allowed to return to the Temple Mount to pray. Even then, they would walk around the Temple Mount, praying the words of Psalm 48:

“Consider all her ramparts; examine her castles,
That you may tell the next generation
that such is our God, our God forever and always.
He will guide us forever.”

May God grant us such a faith, that cannot be dismayed or destroyed. Amen.


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