Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Treasure in the Psalms
March 30, 2012, 5:35 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday Evening, March 18th 2012

Yesterday I attended the annual Charter Day service in the Cathedral for Bristol Grammar School, my old school. This year the Dean of Bristol was the preacher, and with the help of some of the pupils he constructed a time-line to illustrate the close relationship for more than four centuries between the City and the School. The final refrain of our School Song proclaims our pride that “sumus Bristolienses”, we are Bristolians. After the service, I told that the Dean that you can never go wrong in Bristol by telling us what a great City we belong to.

The Psalms frequently tell of an even greater City, the City of God. In our series on “Treasure in the Psalms”, I should like to follow this theme through. If I may follow the Dean in constructing a time-line, I would have to say that the history of Jerusalem as City of God really begins with its capture by David, around a thousand years before our Lord. David made it the capital of his kingdom, on the boundary between his own tribal land of Judah, and the lands of the other tribes, of which the most influential was the tribe of Ephraim, son of the patriarch Joseph. To remove all doubt among other tribes, the Psalmist reminds them: “He (God) refused the tabernacle of Joseph: and chose not the tribe of Ephraim. But chose the tribe of Judah: even the hill of Sion which he loved.” (Ps 78) “The Lord hath chosen Sion to be an habitation for himself: he hath longed for her.” (Ps 132)

The City of God, then, was also the city of David. The mystique of the city was bound up with the mystique of the Davidic monarchy and its destiny. Thanks to Solomon, David’s son, Jerusalem was the location of the Temple, regarded by the Israelites as supremely the House of God on earth, the shelter of the ancient Ark of the Covenant which in the desert years had been seen as the very throne of the invisible God, who sat between the Cherubim, the winged angelic figures that decorated it.

All through the time of the monarchy- four centuries and more- pilgrims came from all over Israel to visit the Temple, and to marvel at the city which contained it: “Like as we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the Lord of hosts, in the city of our God: God upholdeth the same for ever… let the mount Sion rejoice… walk about Sion, and go round about her: and tell the towers thereof. Mark well her bulwarks, set up her houses: that ye may tell them that come after.” (Ps 48) Yes indeed! There would be lots to tell those who had remained at home!

“O how amiable are thy dwellings: thou Lord of hosts! My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord.” (Ps 84) “Her foundations are upon the holy hills: the Lord loveth the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Very excellent things are spoken of thee: thou city of God.” (Ps 87) “O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me: and bring me unto thy holy hill.” (Ps 43) With songs like these the pilgrims celebrated the city that was the centre of their devotion. As the centre of political power, it also guaranteed their security against foreign enemies. Built on the hill-tops, it seemed impregnable. “They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as mount Sion: which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever. The hills stand round about Jerusalem: even so standeth the Lord round about his people.” (Ps 125)

In all this there was danger of complacency: “The rivers of the flood thereof shall make glad the city of God: the holy place of the tabernacle of the most Highest. God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed.” (Ps 46) “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand in thy gates: O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is built as a city: that is at unity in itself… O pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces. For my brethren and companions’ sakes: I will wish thee prosperity. Yea, because of the house of our God: I will seek to do thee good.” (Ps 122)

Of course, the actual earthly Jerusalem was not a place of peace and justice, and the prophets warned again and again that without morality, God’s protecting hand could not be guaranteed. Eventually, the blow fell, catastrophically and traumatically: “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance: thy holy temple have they defiled, and made Jerusalem an heap of ruins… Their blood have they shed like water on every side in Jerusalem: and there was no man to bury them.” (Ps 79) “It is burnt with fire and cut down.” (Ps 80)

For seventy years the Temple lay in ruins. “O God, wherefore art thou absent from us so long? … Think thou upon the tribe of thine inheritance: and mount Sion, wherein thou hast dwelt… now they break down all the carved work thereof: with axes and with hammers. They have set fire upon thy holy places: and have defiled the dwelling-place of thy name, even unto the ground. O God, how long shall the adversary do this dishonour?” (Ps 74) Jerusalem was a heap of stones, its people were exiles in a strange land, but still pining for their home: “How shall I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem: let my right hand wither.” (Ps 137)

Slowly purified by exile, the people recovered their hope for restoration: “Thou shalt arise, and have mercy on Sion: for it is time that thou have mercy on her, yea, the time is come. And why? Thy servants think upon her stones: and it pitieth them to see her in the dust…. When the Lord shall build up Sion: and when his glory shall appear….. this shall be written for those that come after… that they may declare the name of the Lord in Sion: and his worship in Jerusalem.” (Ps 102)

“They went astray in the wilderness out of the way: and found no city to dwell in… He led them forth by the right way: that they might go to the city where they dwelt.” (Ps 107) When the time finally came, it seemed almost to good to be true: “When the Lord turned again the captivity of Sion: then were we like unto them that dream.” (Ps 126)

Little by little the City was rebuilt; but this time there was no complacency: “Except the Lord build the house: their labour is but lost that build it. Except the Lord keep the city: the watchman waketh but in vain.” (Ps 127) “Lord, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle: or who shall rest upon thy holy hill? Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life.” (Ps 15) “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord: or who shall rise up in his holy place? Even he that hath clean hands and a pure heart.” (Ps 24) “God will save Sion, and build the cities of Judah.” (Ps 69) God, not men.

In the Psalms, we can trace the idea of Jerusalem, evolving from a celebration of an earthly, not to say earthy, city: into an ideal City that is only foreshadowed on earth. We have to wait for the New Testament, for the Letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation, to make this explicit. We have to wait for the Fathers and the great mystics to apply it to each and every Christian soul: we, individually, are Temples of God. We, collectively, as Church, are the City of God. We find treasure in the Psalms if we apply their words to our own situation. We are Sion. We are the Lord’s house. He dwells in us. The idea of the City of God, our true home, runs through the Psalms. Whenever we come across it, it is a reminder that here we are strangers and pilgrims, seeking the city that is to come.

These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,
And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;
Yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
And still they were seeking the city of God.

“Thou, O God, art praised in Sion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem.” (Ps 65) “I will pay my vows unto the Lord, in the sight of all his people: in the courts of the Lord’s house, even in the midst of thee, O Jerusalem.” (Ps 116) “The Lord from out of Sion shall so bless thee: that thou shalt see Jerusalem in prosperity all thy life long.” (Ps 128)


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