The Psalms of Advent: A Pilgrim People

1st Sunday in Advent

Psalm 122

“I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.’”  Man!  There are a lot of assumptions in that verse!  Most obvious, perhaps, is that going up to the house of the Lord is a thing of joy.  A second assumption is that going up to the house of the Lord is by invitation, not by command.

But third, and perhaps unnoticed at all, is that this verse is from a psalm.  So it is assumed that this is sung.  The joy and gladness is sung.  The invitation is a singing invitation.  And the house of the Lord is a place that is filled with song!  And why not? ‘Tis the season…fa la la la la!

The Bible tells us that when the Lord laid the foundation of the earth, the angels sang for joy.  When the Lord laid the foundation for the new heavens and the new earth at the birth of His Son in Bethlehem, the angels sang for joy.  And when all these things shall have reached their fulfillment on that glorious Last Day, the Bible tells us that myriads upon myriads, ten thousand times ten thousands of angels will sing for joy.

Singing the praises of God our Lord is not something we do to add a little change of pace to the church service.  It is not something that adds a little entertainment.  It is not mere decoration.  Singing the praises of God, with whatever voice, great or small, beautiful or creaky, which the Creator has given each of us, singing His praises is an expression of our faith; of our hopeful faith.  Unbelief, the Bible says, sits like a bump on a log.  Unbelief keeps its mouth shut.  Unbelief sits in silence.  But faith sings the praises of God for He has done marvelous things.

And now, with Advent, as this Psalm suggests, our songs begin to wend their way toward the fulfillment of those marvelous things of God.  Like a pilgrim people of old heading up to the temple in Jerusalem, singing this Psalm along the way, we begin singing today and on over the next four weeks toward Christmas, the day when God’s dwelling is with us…no longer in the stone of the temple, but in the flesh and blood of Jesus.  We begin today with the quieter hymns, and hymns filled with great expectations, fitting for a pilgrim people.

But little by little, our songs of Advent will take on more and more joy, as the day of fulfillment draws near, as hope begins to take form and flesh…leading us to Bethlehem’s manger.

Ah…but singing the praises of God for all the things He has done has taken it on the chin in recent years.  Singing the praises of God has become a symbol of a shift in direction for a pilgrim people as we Christians are.  Less and less is singing the songs of Zion a response of faith.  More and more has it become a product to consume.  Music in the life of the church has become a symptom of the shift from a culture of faith, to a consumer culture.

Faith will sing God’s praises, whether with a great voice or with a voice that struggles just to carry the tune.  Faith will sing God’s praises, whether to the melody of an old, old song or to the very newest of melodies.  Faith sings God’s praises whether it is to the tune of one’s favorites or the tune of someone else’s favorites.  Faith sings the praise of God because that’s what faith does.

But consumerism is not faith.  Consumerism is concerned with what sells, what gets the customers in the door.  Consumerism is about styles and what’s in and what’s out.  But consumers do not sing.  They only consume…and they argue about preferred styles.  Consumerism does not sing the songs of God’s pilgrim people because the consumer is concerned about what’s in it for me; what I like, what I want…or else I’ll take my business elsewhere.  Consumerism cannot sing the song of God’s praise.

But faith sings because of God and what He has done.  And this is what gives our Advent tunes their particular flavor.  This season of Advent is not a half-dose, mini-Lenten season.  Because Lent leads to Good Friday followed by Easter, the songs of Lent have that exquisite mix of agony and sorrow which wed word and tune together.  So deep is the sorrow of Good Friday, so great is the joy of Easter, that the songs of Lent are woven throughout with a polyphony of sound expressing that profound counterpoint.

But Advent…Advent prepares for Christmas.  It’s why Advent is blue and not Lenten purple.  And while Christmas does include a bit of the ominous—Jesus is born to die, the manger which holds the Baby is like the cross and tomb which will hold the Man.  But Christmas, while it sings of the reason that Jesus has come into this world, it sings a different joy than that of Easter.    It’s own joy.  Because the resurrection, the new birth, must have a first birth, a first Noel!  So faith sings in Advent, crescendo-ing to Christmas.

For ancient Israel, Psalm 122 sings of what it means to go up to the holy city, where the king has his throne established in peace and righteousness, where God sits enthroned in the splendor of the temple.  To go up to the temple in Jerusalem was to be in the most secure place within God’s cosmos.

That is… until the dwelling of God was in flesh…until the righteousness and peace of God was born and wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.  Suddenly to be human is to find ourselves in the most secure place of God’s cosmos…because God Himself became human in Jesus.  A startling pilgrimage!

Thus to be human is to be creative.  Yes, some are greater in creativity.  Some less so.  But being human is to be creative, for we are created in the image and likeness of God our Creator.  It’s sin and unbelief that silences our songs.  Sin and unbelief deadens our creativity.  Sin and unbelief mute the hymns of praise, mute them by claiming that something else is greater…namely Me, Me, Me, my preferences, my likes, my dislikes.  But the song of “Me” is the song of a people going nowhere!

So the whole focus of Advent to Christmas is that since our pilgrim God has come to share our human life and lot, these seasons summon our creativity—literary, poetic, artistic, musical.  The Creator’s presence among us, like us, is the spark that ignites such things.  And when we recognize that God is with us—this pilgrim God, by the Gospel proclaimed, by the Holy Supper served up, this pilgrim God who comes to us in Word and Sacrament as once He came in the flesh—when we recognize the works of His presence with us, then we—pilgrim beings created in the image and likeness of Him—we cannot but sing His praises!

Martin Luther, who minced no criticism of the other Reformers who chopped down a musically rich Divine Service to the point of very little singing—Luther wrote: “There is now in the New Testament a better service of God, of which the Psalm here says: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song…’  For God has cheered our hearts and minds through His dear Son, whom He gave for us to redeem us from sin, death and the devil.  He who believes this cannot be quiet about it.  But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak [singen und sagen as Luther put it auf Deutsch] sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it.  And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe it…”

So we begin again on this first Sunday in Advent; begin again to sing again as though for the first time.  And in the hymns and songs of this season, we sing and we hear the ancient invitation, “Come, let us go into the house of the Lord.”  Soon enough we will sing and hear the angels’ invitation, “Come to Bethlehem and see…”

And between these two days of the beginning and the end of our pilgrimage, these two days of our songs’ beginning and the glorious joy of our songs’ fulfillment…between the beginning and the end, we have a way to go…we have more songs to sing, songs of how God is building a temple, not of stone but of His own flesh and blood…for us…so that faith may know why we go up to Christmas…that faith may taste even now from the beginning of our Advent pilgrimage…and in each step along this pilgrim way…taste within our songs the joy that waits us there!