When I was young, my family would take a yearly trip to Colorado to visit my grandparents at Thanksgiving. For me, it was full of excitement. We’d spend significant time with family, we’d take time off from school, and we’d spend a few days skiing. But my goodness, it was a long, boring trip in our 1990 wood paneled Dodge Caravan. There isn’t much going on through western Nebraska on I-80 (sorry, Nebraska resident reading this). Now that I have young children and have traveled long distances with them, I know the angst of my parents as they did their best to keep me and my brothers entertained on that eleven-hour drive.
Around the time we’d pass the Colorado boarder, our boredom would be transformed into excitement by the view of the mountains on the horizon. We were making our ascent into the Mile-High City. The monotony of the waiting for miles to pass would turn to longing to reach our destination.
Denver is one of the places in the States where we say we have to “go up to” because it’s a mile above sea level. Elevation was insignificant for the pilgrim traveling “up to” the holy city. It was elevated instead by a meaning of the place where Heaven and Earth met. Their journey was thoroughly religious; the path to the holy city would shape the meaning of their very lives.
Along the path to the holy city, these pilgrims would sing songs. It’d have a different dimension than a parent trying to occupy a child by singing songs in the car. These Psalms of joy anticipated the goodness they would experience within the walls of the holy city. They would be near to the presence of God. When they could worship God at the place believed to be where heaven and earth met, all would be well and rightly ordered.
The Psalmist recognizes the Shalom of God within Jerusalem and prays for its continuation. Where the Shalom of God is, so too is the presence of God. The deep longing for the pilgrim is experience what is rightly ordered where the Shalom of God reigns. The relief in verse two is palpable: “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” There is a sense of security. The praise of the city that continues in verse 3 gives comment to its orderliness – the ideal of the city is that it’s commerce and economics are just and right. We can get a sense of overwhelming joy at the grandeur of arriving within the gates of the holy city.
It’s fitting this Psalm of longing and ascent be read on the First Sunday of Advent, where the church finds in the rhythm of longing. We recognize the deep longing within us to look to a person—not a place—as the locus of the Shalom of God. Instead of an ascent to make our own way to God, we sing “o holy child of Bethlehem, descend on us, we pray.” What an opportunity we have to marvel at the fact that the Shalom of God has been embodied in the person of Jesus Christ and has drawn near to us.
It’s also fitting we remember the true Israelite Jesus Christ offered a poetic lament as he his own ascent into the holy city would mean his descent to his own death:
34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:34-35, NRSV).
Later, after the triumphal entry:
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes (Luke 19:41-42).
The peace the Psalmist prayed for was not realized in the ordinary life of Jerusalem. They killed prophets; they practiced economic injustice. And it would be within its walls where the worst thing humanity could do—sentence God’s son to die—came to pass.
Out of the worst possible scenario the real ascent began. The ancient breath of God breathed into the tomb where Christ lay and vindicated the one who descended to the depths. The son of God has been raised from the dead! His ascent from the depths extended to the right hand of God, where Jesus Christ is Lord over all things through the ascension. Now, as he is lord over all things, wherever people gather in his name, his presence and his peace reign. The shalom of God is not limited but has been made available to the ends of the earth by Christ’s pilgrimage of incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension.
We now live in the already but not yet; the in-between of the first advent and Christ’s appearing. The preacher has the opportunity to help the congregation gain of sense of the longing for the peace the psalmist wished for Jerusalem wherever they church is located. The same is at stake for the peace of Jerusalem is the same as the peace at stake in Des Moines, IA, Denver, CO, Baghdad, Aleppo, Kabul, and every city on earth. We can call out death, violence and injustice as adversaries to Christ’s rule. We can recognize our local brokenness and sin patterns. We can lead the congregation to respond for the justice of God to break though in anticipation of the world puts to rights.
Praying for the peace of Jerusalem becomes fully eschatological as we anticipate and long for the inaugurated kingdom becoming fully realized on earth as it is in heaven. The hope for the future is the descent of the heavenly city coming down, where heaven and earth will be joined as one. This is the vision of St. John of Patmos:
10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. (Revelation 21:10; 22)
Come, Lord Jesus.