“We’re Marching to Zion”

bThis week I am conducting the memorial service for a church who was originally scheduled together with his wife to be part of the group I am leading that will be making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that leaves Dallas on Saturday. As I prepared myself for his service the connections were powerful, and I wanted to share them with you.  DBS+
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Psalm 121 (New Living Translation) A song for pilgrims ascending to Jerusalem

1 I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth!

3 He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
4 Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

5 The LORD himself watches over you!
The LORD stands beside you as your protective shade.
6 The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

7 The LORD keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
8 The LORD keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever.

We leave for Israel on Saturday; a group of 16 of us from the church, and originally Fred and Beverly were part of it. They were supposed to be buying an adapter for their electronic gear, reading their Bibles and the tour guide that I prepared for the trip, and getting their suitcases down from the attic and dusted off right about now. Instead we find ourselves here this morning, doing this.

Almost the first thing that Beverly told me at the hospital right after Fred had his stroke was “I guess this means that we won’t be going to Israel with you,” and that was clear. Walking the shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus called Peter, John and James to follow Him, standing in the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus stood, kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed on the night He was betrayed and climbing the hill of Zion to trace the path through the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus took to the cross, the tomb and the resurrection were out of the question for Fred. He was going to be fighting for his life instead. Doing everything in his power to be able to sit again, and stand again, and walk again, and talk again. Fred was beginning a different journey.

One of the resources to which I’ve pointed the people I’m taking to Israel are the Psalms of Ascent, a collection of 15 Psalms beginning at 120 and running through 134. Eugene Peterson called the Psalms of Ascent “Israel’s dogeared songbook.” Years ago at camp we had these little chapbooks of songs that we would sing before the morning keynotes and at the nighttime campfires. They were the size of your hand and could slip easily into your pocket; the perfect size for going with you and for getting out when it was time to sing. And that’s how the Psalms of Ascent seemed to function too.

The Psalms of Ascent were Pilgrimage songs. They were the soundtrack of the journey that the faithful made to Jerusalem three times each year to be with God at the Temple. They were the script for the soul’s encounter with God that unfolded in the rituals and offerings that took place only in Jerusalem. These 15 Psalms were sung on the road as the pilgrims made their way to Zion, and when they finally got there, on the 15 steps that led up and into the Temple courtyard, the were sung again, one on each step. This is why these 15 Psalms are also known as the Gradual Psalms. They narrate a gradual journey – step by step – into the presence of God.

That Psalm that I read as I began, Psalm 121, is the second in this collection of Psalms, and it is, to my way of thinking, the perfect pilgrimage Psalm. You see, you can’t get to Zion without climbing some hills. The mountains that lead up to Jerusalem are steep and treacherous. Climbing them could wear you out, and if you lost your footing, well, climbing them could literally wipe you out. And so the Psalmist prayed as he approached them: “You mountains may look formidable, but my God is so much bigger than you, and so you don’t scare me in the least! When it’s time to start climbing you, my help will come from the Lord. He won’t let me slip and fall. He won’t let me faint or falter. My God has a good hold on me. He’s been looking out for me from the moment I left home – my “going out” – and He will see me through to my destination – my “coming in.” Can you see why this would be such a powerful prayer for someone who was going up to Jerusalem?

The church loves these Psalms as well, and has made them her own. Because in Scripture itself (Revelation 21:9-22:5) the destination of the journey of faith gets shifted from the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city with “eternal foundations, designed and built by God” (Hebrews 11:10), the Psalms of Ascent have been “spiritualized” by the church so that they aren’t taken only as a guide for a pilgrim on a literal journey to the physical city of Jerusalem in Israel, but also as a guide for a pilgrim on the spiritual journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is how we typically think, talk and even sing about “Zion” as Christians.

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, Join in a song with sweet accord
And thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.

Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground,
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground,
To fairer worlds on high, To fairer worlds on high.

We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God.

Fred won’t be going with me to Jerusalem next week because Fred took another trip “to fairer worlds on high,” a better trip to the New Jerusalem, the true Jerusalem, “the beautiful city of God.”

In the tour guide that I put together for the people who are going to Israel with me on Saturday, one of the things that I suggested is that they find a stone from their gardens at home to take with them to Israel to leave at a sacred place, on some holy ground, as a witness to the fact that they had been there. This was a practice that medieval pilgrims developed to mark their journeys of faith. They all traveled with pouches of little pebbles gathered from home to leave at the places they visited, to mark where their personal encounters with God had occurred. It’s like the altars that were erected by the Patriarchs when and where God made Himself known to them – personally, powerfully, permanently.

On Wednesday last week I asked Beverly and Alex to find a stone from their backyard. This is it. On Saturday it’s going to Israel with me, and next week, in some corner of the earthly Jerusalem I am going to leave it as a witness to the trip that Fred wound up taking instead of that one, his trip home to the heavenly Jerusalem.

In Israel, on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing the city of Jerusalem there is this enormous Jewish cemetery. There are thousands and thousands of graves in it, and on the headstones of most of them are these little piles of stones. It is customary in Judaism not to leave flowers at a grave but a stone. Lots of explanations have been offered for this practice ranging from the superstitious to the sentimental. And I’m not sure that anybody’s got the origins of the practice exactly right. But the explanation that I personally find most convincing is the one that says that the reason why people leave rocks rather than roses at a grave is because flowers wither and fade away, but a rock will always be there.

Leaving a rock at a grave, according to this explanation of the practice, is a way of bearing witness to the fact that the person who is buried there, while absent from our sight, is still just as real as that rock. He lives on in the heart and the values of the person who left it there, but it’s more than that. He also lives on in the nearer presence of God, in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:6). And this rock from Fred’s yard will be left in the earthly Jerusalem sometime next week as an act of faith that his pilgrimage ended in Jerusalem too, only the real Jerusalem, the better Jerusalem, the New Jerusalem, the home not made with human hands but eternal in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).

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