I’m not a great tramper, hours of hiking through the bush with a pack on my back to get to some location or other is not really my thing. But one tramp sticks in my mind from when I was younger.
I was in the South Island with some friends of mine and we visited the Okarito lagoon on the west coast, that is the place where Kotuku (white herons) nest in New Zealand.
We decided we would go up to the Okarito trig. It was about an hours walk, but of course being the trig it was a solid hour walking up hill. It was the middle of summer and while the temperatures were not the records we are getting this year it was hot. My friends who were all fitter than me, could have run the track, but I had to slowly plod up the hill, my head down breathing hard. It wasn’t a really long tramp, but it was a hard uphill journey.
When I got to the top the trig was in a clearing in the lush South Island forest, with a panoramic view. You looked left and north and the you could see the pale blue of the Tasman sea disappearing off to the horizon, the west coast stretching in a straight line marking the change from sea blue to forest green. The deeper blue of the Okarito lagoon was right there below you. But your eyes were drawn to the amazing vista of the southern Alpes snow capped even in the heat of summer that lined the horizon straight ahead, from the heat haze in the north to beyond your eye sight in the south, solid, towering and majestic, then as you turned right the rich green of the forest again stretching from those mountains down to the sea. Like a sapphire nestled in it was the oval three-mile lagoon. Then your eyes were drawn out again over the Tasman sea to the south, till it joined the sky. I was filled with wonder and awe, it was a special place in God’s creation. Well worth the up hill trek… When I left I was invigorated and refreshed.
Psalm 134 is like that, this brief psalm is the conclusion, to the psalms of ascent… the end of the pilgrims’ journey to festivals at the temple and the high point of the journey of faith. It invites and commands the pilgrim to come and to worship God at the temple… to ‘Bless the Lord’ as God’s people gathered together to encounter and know God’s presence.
The journey that started way back in Psalm 120 with a sense of discontent now concludes by finding ones contentment in encountering knowing and worshipping God. The Psalms of ascent had prepared us for this as we had seen our communal reliance on God for salvation and guidance and protection as we’d looked and seen that every gift came from his hand. Our eyes had become filled and focused on the goodness and the greatness of God, his abiding presence, his covenant faithfulness to his people even in the midst of hardship and suffering, and us individually as we had identified our journey with theirs. We look back and see the saving grace of Jesus Christ and his life death and resurrection, the presence of his Holy Spirit, the vitality of creation. Eugene Peterson sums this up by saying that ‘the way of discipleship that started with repentance concludes in a life of praise.’ The shorter Westminster catechism sums it up in the answer to its first question what is the chief end of humanity?’ by replying ‘to Glorify God and enjoy God always.’
The first two verses of this psalm form a call to worship and it says some practical things about praising God. In the temple priests were rostered on to worship God 24/7. This call to worship probably originated as an encouragement for the priests who had the night watch. You could imagine them flagging and trying to remain awake or focused on the task. While it may seem like an invitation to worship, it is also a command for us to do so as well. We may not feel like worshipping or giving thanks to God. Pilgrims may still have been sweaty and tired from the journey, like me at the trig, more interested in a sip from the water bottle than the wonder before me, or still focused on where they had come from and its sorrows and problems . But worship is not about emotion it is an invite to look and to see and know the goodness of God. It’s as we do that its as we start to recount what God has done and who God is, that our heart and our minds are lifted and filled with awe and wonder. The sorrows and the difficulties and the pain and suffering are still there but they can be put into perspective, when we see the faithfulness of God, when we see how the God who is high and almighty and seated on high has stoops down to see as it said in psalm 113. Who emptied himself and took on human form and the form of a servant, obedient even unto death, death on a cross’ to pay the price for what we have done wrong and bring us back to know God as our loving father. Who is working in human history to bring al things to himself. The Psalm commands us to worship not as an emotional response but as an action, a conscious posture… to raise our hands.
The third verse of this psalm is a benediction a blessing on the pilgrims as they leave. It is that the God who they have blessed with worship, who they have praised, whose power and grace they have acknowledged would go with them and bless them as they go. Leslie Allen calls it a circle of blessing, we draw near to God and God draws near to us, or perhaps more so we become aware of God’s continued presence with us. God’s continued provision and protection God’s continued forgiveness and his guidance and help. We come to worship to give thanks to God out of gratitude for what he has done and we leave strengthened by the reality of those things in our lives. We come to worship, and we go back changed, and as agents of change, with fresh vision and purpose, strengthened for the ongoing pilgrims journey.