The Pilgrim Psalms - Psalm 118
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The Pilgrim Psalms
Do you have to go to church to be a good Christian? How many times? What’s the minimum amount of times I can go to church and still be called a Christian? Like, if I went as a kid – is that enough? What’s the limit for a good excuse for skipping church? Like, if I’m sleepy – is that a good enough reason, or do I need to be gushing blood with missing limbs to make it okay? What is this thing we do in this place, every single week? I think for a long time the church has pushed people towards a set of rules – do this, don’t do that, say this, don’t say that. And this set of rules has failed to capture the hearts of the people of God. And so today we’re going to look at the church and ask why? Why do we go to church? Why do we read our bibles? Why do we give money or volunteer? Why do we do this thing that we do in this place?
You know this struggle of authenticity and church attendance reminds me of a story I read this past week about a Pastor. The pastor was an avid sports fan all his life, but one day he posted and he said, “I’ve had it! I’m going to quit this sports business once and for all. You won’t get me near one of those places again. Do you want to know why? Well, I’ll tell you.. every time I went to the sports arena, they asked me for money. The people that I had to sit with didn’t seem very friendly. The seats were too hard and not at all comfortable. I went to so many games, but the coach never came to call on me. The referee made a decision with which I could not agree. I even suspected that I was sitting with some hypocrites. There were people in that crowd that were only their to see friends and what others were wearing, rather than to see the game. Some of the games went into overtime, and I was late getting home. The band played some numbers that I had never heard before - and the games were always scheduled when I want to do other things. I was taken to too many games by my parents when I was growing up. I don’t want to take my children to any games, because I want them to choose for themselves what sport they like best. [smirk].
Today we are continuing our study in the Chronological Bible. Now, as we go I always like to sprinkle in some reminders. First, to read the Bible in a year is a very fast pace - we are covering a lot of ground. So in the sermon on Sunday, right here today, we’re going to pull out big themes, skim along the surface - but these are deep waters we are swimming in. If you’re just joining us for the very first time - you don’t need to play catch up, you can dive in right where we are, but you always get more out of it the longer you study. And IF you’d like to dive deeper, we do have Chronological studies that meet throughout the week, don’t hesitate to ask and we’ll hook you up with a group asap.
This past week, our readings were almost entirely in the book of Psalms. And for those who don’t know - Psalms is this massive collection of poetry a lot of it written by kings just pouring their hearts out to God in celebration or struggle. And so what I’d like to do today is drill down into Psalm 118, if you want to follow along in your bible.
Now I love the passage I read for y’all earlier, but I want to go back to verse 1. [read v.1-4]. [pause]. You know how sometimes people complain that sometimes contemporary Christian music is repetitive? Huh. Do you ever wonder why there are parts of the Bible that are so stinking repetitive? Let’s keep reading, [read v.5-9]. In my distress I call to God. See, here’s the thing - there are certain things that get repeated over and over in the Bible. Like that line, “his faithful love endures forever” - and the reason it gets repeated is that humans have forgetful hearts. Our hearts have the memory of a goldfish - we are so forgetful. And honestly that’s the source of most of our insecurity. I mean you read Israel’s history - how many times did they see God’s awesome power, and yet like thirty seconds later they’re sitting there, like, “yeah, but does he REALLY love us?” And I want to be clear - you and I are not any smarter than Israel. How many times have the people around us SHOWED us that they love us? How many times have people proven themselves to us, and then like thirty seconds later we sit there and go, “yeah… but are we REALLY loved by God?” The human heart is so forgetful, and so we need reminders. Think about it this way - how many times do you have to say “I love you” to your spouse or your children? Can you just say it once on the wedding day and that will tide you over for the rest of the relationship? We remind one another of love constantly! And even if you’re not one of those mushy people who says “I love you” like 20 times a day (sidenote: I’m one of those mushy people, I use the phrase “I love you” like a comma), but even if you don’t say it a bunch, you’ve got to show it - you demonstrate it with acts of service. You’ve got to say love and show love over and over to keep a relationship alive. Now let’s go back to that question about how often we go to church. Do you see it?
Let me give you another example - I do this with premarital couples who I’m counseling. They’re getting ready to get married, and I ask them. If I take a flower that’s growing in a pot. And I water it one time, and then stick it in the closet - what will happen to it? It will shrivel up and die. The same is true for marriage. If you water your husband one time and stick him in the closet - he’ll shrivel up and die. And I suppose it also goes for love too. And my point with married couples is that you have to continue to date one another into your marriage - the wedding is not a finish line, you need to pour into a relationship to keep it alive. Now let’s go back to that question about how often we go to church. We see it, right? We need the church because our hearts are so forgetful. We need to gather in this place as often as we can to be reminded that we are loved by God and we need to express that we love God.
It keeps going, [read v.10-14]. Now I want you to pick up on this. First, you see the repetition - yes? “I destroyed them all with the authority of the Lord.” Scripture repeats itself because our hearts are forgetful. I think that we forget that God will fight for us. God destroys the evils that surround us and oppress us and overwhelm us. But the second thing I want you to grab is that idea of “enemy.” A lot of the Psalms are written by King David - and David was a military leader, so the imagery he uses is very military. Enemies at the gate, hostile nations, surrounding me with weapons. But this is poetry. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never once in my entire life been worried about hostile nations surrounding me when I’m driving up Tittabawassee on my way to Aldi. I live in Freeland, and there’s this local store called Pat’s. It’s right by my house, and anytime I gotta run out and grab something, I just run over to Pats. It’s a great store. Now, I’ve never thought to myself - I gotta run over to Pats, but I’ve got to watch out because I might get surrounded by my enemies. We don’t deal with the same types of threats that the ancient poets like David did. But that’s the beautiful thing about poetry. They use imagery and different visuals to give you an impression. Maybe I don’t fight off military enemies. But we in the modern world have completely different enemies that surround us.
You know, during the pandemic there were a lot of psychological studies that went around. As a culture we went through this whole big social change thing - we got locked into our homes and we’re STILL dealing with the ripples and the effects of that. But there were a number of studies that found something fascinating that I want you to know about. The pandemic was back in 2020, and the difference in suicide, drug use, alcohol and anxiety sky-rocketed during that season. It was hard. In 2021 anxiety rates of those poled went up from 6.1% to 35.9%. Drug overdose and suicide are not what leading causes of death for people ages 15-44. In 2021, 37% of high school students reported poor mental health, and 44% reported that they felt persistently sad and hopeless in the past year. I could keep going through the data, but I think you get the idea. Now here’s the important part - they also measured stats for those who had regular involvement in a faith community. We all went through the same pandemic, but those who had regular involvement in a faith community, those who were a part of a church family - made it out far better than those who were not. The study cites that regular involvement in a faith community results in lower levels of worrying, fear and sadness. And it was directly related. The greater your private religious activities, religious attendance and spiritual growth - the lower your level of worry, fear and sadness. Our culture is so stressed, afraid, hopeless and even suicidal. But studies have shown again and again that religious involvement lowers fear, lowers worrying, and even lowers sadness. It’s a fairly simple picture - your walk with God is TOO important and the world is TOO broken and crazy to have a back burner mentality. We need the church because God will fight for us.
And one more quick note on that. Some people pull back from the church when they are not presentable. There’s this old idea that church is for people who have it all together. I actually had a friend, a parent who said, “my kids are so loud and noisy right now, we’ll be back to church in a few years when they calm down.” And it sort of broke my heart, for two reasons. Number 1 - No you won’t. You’re not going to be back in a couple of years. And number 2 - who told you that you were not welcome when you were loud and messy? Who told you that? Who told you that you need to fix your life BEFORE Jesus would love you? Who told you that you needed to get it all together BEFORE you walk into this church? Who lied to you? To use that old line - THIS [point to the room] THIS is not a museum for perfect people. This is a hospital for the broken. We come to this place when we are bleeding and messy and loud and we find healing in this place. We need the church because our hearts are forgetful. We need the church because God will fight for us. You are here, not BECAUSE you have it figured out. You are here TO FIGURE it out. Come messy, and you will find a God who can clean you up.
And that leads us right to the next section. I love this chapter, I love the way it rounds out in the last part. Verse 19, [read v.19-21]. We come to church because these gates lead us into God’s presence. But it doesn’t stop there, [read v.22-23]. You catch that, right? Acts chapter 4 verse 11 tells us [read it]. 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 6-7 [read it]. Jesus is the cornerstone. I don’t know if you need me to connect the dots, but I’m going to do it anyways. We call these Psalms the Pilgrim Psalms, and we call them that because they talk a lot about going up to Jerusalem - taking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And Jerusalem is understood as the place where God is. That’s where the temple was. That’s where God’s presence dwells. And for us in the modern world, that’s what the church is for us. The church is the dwelling place of God. But I want to be very careful with how you hear that. We don’t have God stashed somewhere in the back. There’s not like a secret button we push, and the cross swings out and there’s a little cubby back there for Jesus. There’s nothing magic about this building. Our psalm talks about a cornerstone being rejected, and then we find out later that the cornerstone IS Jesus. It’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about the person of Jesus. And the same is true for us. The church is not a building. The church is not just a worship experience, the church is the people. Aldersgate Church burns down tomorrow, this church will live on. This building doesn’t matter - NONE of the buildings matter. The church is the people. Always has been. If somebody comes out and says, “well I don’t need to go to church” well then they don’t understand what church is. It’s not a place, it’s a people. We need the church because our hearts are forgetful. We need the church because God fights for us. And we need the church, because it is the cornerstone of an abundant life.
The good news today is that God has given us the church. To be a Christian is not just a set of beliefs, and it’s not just a set of behaviors. It’s both of those things together. The beliefs up in your head AND the way you live that out - and to do that you need other believers to work out your faith together with fear and trembling (like it says in Philippians 2). It doesn't matter how many Sundays you are here or not here - because it’s not about a building - it’s about YOU and the people around you. Look, at the end of all things, God is not going to ask you, “what was your attendance ratio for church?” But I think he might just ask you, “did you love each other? Did you live out your faith with the community of believers I put you in?” And that’s really hard to do if you’re not here. Christianity is a team sport. You cannot love alone and the church is the gift God has given us to put our belief into action. So if you are physically capable - yeah, you need to be in church every Sunday - because every Sunday is an opportunity to grow and to love.
The bible talks about a woman who is getting married. She was going to be a bride. She has been promised to a good man, but she runs away. She tears her dress, she does terrible things, she looks for love in all the wrong places. She makes a lot of mistakes. And when she is exhausted and broken and filthy - her dress is practically destroyed, basically rags on her shoulders. Her husband comes for her. She doesn’t deserve forgiveness for what she did, but he wipes away her tears, lifts her out of the dirt, cleans her off, gives her a new dress and gets her ready for her wedding day. The woman the Bible talks about is the church, and the good man is Jesus. In each of our lives, we have made a lot of mistakes. We have torn our dress, done terrible things chasing other gods. Money, power, you name it. We come to Jesus just as we are - a broken mess, and he washes us clean. Jesus wipes away our tears, lifts us out of the darkness, forgives our sins and lets us have a second chance. The church is not an institution. The church is not a building, or even a collection of buildings. The church is the people. The broken people who have run away from God, come home and been forgiven by Jesus. The church is a picture of God’s grace.
The Pilgrim Psalms highlight the value of the church, the need for church and Christian community in our faith walk. And so I have two challenges for you this week. Number 1 - go to church. Make church a priority in your life. I once had someone tell me, “well I don’t need to go to church - I already have the beliefs, I already know the stuff they’re going to teach me.” But Christianity is a team sport, and our hearts are forgetful. We need other people to exercise our faith. We need reminders because we are so quick to forget God's love. I say some variation of “God loves you” almost every single week in my ministry, and I used to worry that people would get sick of me saying the same old thing every week, time and again - but I’m 9 years in, and nobody is sick of hearing it yet. Which makes sense - I tell my children I love them a hundred times a day, and my wife even more than that. Seriously, you’d think she’d be sick of me. And maybe she is a little bit. I once had a conversation with a lady who said, “you know, I went to church twice a week for 35 years - the whole first half of my life. I think I stocked up enough credits.” Just like my buddy who said, “well I got the beliefs right, why do I need the actions?” This lady had the opposite problem, “well I got the actions right, that’s all it takes, right?” You don't clean your house once and expect it to stay clean. You don’t feed your children once and expect them to stay full. You don’t show up for someone one time and expect them to feel your love for a lifetime. A relationship with God takes regular meet ups. To be a Christian means you need a place to live out your faith in community with other believers. And to help us with that, God has given us the church. So go to church, and bring the family.
My second challenge for you today, and the last thing I’ve got for you - first, go to church, but second - BE the church. Be the church. Be together as broken people loving each other, encouraging and motivating each other to love God more. Live in the tension with one another, challenge each other, be challenged. Grow and learn and live together as the family of God – the bride of Christ. Hebrews chapter ten gives us this beautiful picture, verse 23 [read v.23-25]. Let us… think of ways… to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. I had a buddy in my first church, a hunter. He LOVED being out in the woods. If he didn’t have work, or family stuff, he was out in the those woods. Particularly deer hunting season. Well, I mean - that was sort of the culture up there. My UP church cut itself in half on November 15th. And there’s nothing wrong with hunting, being out in nature, spending time in God’s beautiful creation. And he told me, “I feel so close to God out there.” And I responded, “that’s amazing. I’m so happy for you. I want you to have those experiences. To be closer to God in that way is incredible. But you can’t love your neighbor out there. You can’t motivate or encourage anybody or even love - without another person. Christianity is a team sport. Go to church and then BE the church.
So let’s go all the way back to the beginning - do you have to go to church to be a good Christian? No - it’s so much more than that. We need the church, because our hearts are forgetful and we need reminders. We need the church, because God fights FOR us, whatever troubles lay heavy on our heart. We need the church because Jesus is the cornerstone of an abundant life. You don’t just go to church, you are the church. Let’s pray.