I wonder if there are places in your lives that you especially equate with the presence of God. They come readily to mind as you sit here…
The Celtic Christians called them thin places, they were places where the heavenly realm seemed so much closer to the physical world we live in. You could call them sacred space... It could be the wild grandeur of a west coast beach. I would often spend evenings out at Piha (seee image above) or Karekare both enjoying the water and waves but also in prayer and reflection... Or it may simply that sunny spot where you sit each day for bible study and quite prayer.
It could be a church building. I worked as a youth pastor and parish assistant at St John’s in Rotorua for six years. You probably saw it on the news a couple of weeks ago when it was tragically burned to the ground. It felt like the loss of a friend. Through facebook a lot of my ex youth groupies, shared what that place had meant for them. They talked of it being the place where they had encountered God, where they had found faith, or they had owned their parent’s faith. Many are not Christians but they talked of the fact that in those formative years, who they are as people, was greatly shaped by being community together in that space.
For the Jews the people of Israel that sacred space was Jerusalem. It was the centre of their worship at the Temple, they were expected to go there for one of the great three festivals each year. It was the seat of Judah’s political power and the Davidic king.
Psalm 122 which we had read out to us today is a psalm of ascent, that series of psalms that form the dogeared song book of pilgrims coming to those festivals in Jerusalem. They are psalms that accompany us on a journey of faith through life as well. That started in Psalm 120 that pilgrimage and spiritual growth start with a holy dissatisfaction with living amongst the tents of those who find their security in what they have and their ability to hold onto that rather than seeking peace ‘wholeness’. We saw in psalm 121 that it meant a willingness to move, to journey often through difficult terrain trusting that God would lead and guide us. Psalm 122 talks of coming to the place where we know God’s presence.
In a Psalm in 2 parts the first five verse act as an expression of Joy at being at Jerusalem. They voice the pilgrims hope for the city. They view it as a fortress a secure and safe place, it is the place where the people gather to praise the Lord, and it is the seat of both God’s reign through the Davidic kings and a seat for his justice, that in the Old testament scriptures was to be an example for all the other nations.
Then in verse 6 the Pilgrim turns to his fellow travellers and commands them to pray for the peace of the city. The pilgrim declares that for the sake of the house of the Lord that he will seek the prosperity of the city. He has an idealised vision of the city, but he is also wanting to pray and work to seeing that be a reality. Peace for the Jews meant wholeness, right relationships, not just the absence of conflict. Relationship with God, with God’s people, with those beyond that, with the spiritual realm, with creation, and with our possessions and wealth. Prosperity did not mean a high living standard for some at the expense of others but that there would be abundance for all to share in. You catch a glimpse of that in the early church in Jerusalem where it was said that no one had a need because they would sold what they had and give the money to those in need.
Now some have focused on this psalm as a commandment for us all to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. That it holds a special place in the heart and purposes of God, and I have no problem with that except that it often means an uncritical acceptance of modern Israel’s political agenda. We don’t catch the idealised image of psalms like this one and we miss the call for justice and right relationships in that prayer for peace.
But it invites us also to think of what is sacred space for us and how we are to enter it and treat it.
In our new testament reading as Jesus enters the city, his greeting is so different, he mourns for the city. He knows that its people are missing the very peace that they are praying for, because they do not recognise who Jesus, the prince of peace is. Tragically that symbol of God’s presence the temple will be destroyed and taken apart stone from stone, which is what happened in 70 Ad when the Romans lay siege to the city. But God’s presence with us is not so much about a specific place but in the presence of a specific person, Jesus Christ.
Sacred space can be a prison cell, a city street, the bedside in a hospital room, an office cubicle, a sports field, a café, anywhere because by God’s Holy Spirit Christ is present with us.
The Celts talked of thin places and in Jesus Christ we have the thinnest of all places, where God stepped into our world and pitched his tent at our place. He died on the cross and was raised to life again All space is now sacred because of Christ’s abiding presence.
It calls us to be a people that would pray for the peace of God to be in those sacred places, to manifest itself. During the exile the people Jews in Babylon were told to pray for the peace of the place where they lived and to seek the prosperity of that city. We to are celled to seek the prosperity of the places where we dwell…
You know I think being a spiritual pilgrim is not necessarily about going to special places or spaces, although they can be helpful for us. It is becoming aware that where we are is sacred space, because Jesus Christ is here with us and then living in a way which seeks both the peace and prospering of where we are with Christ.