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Of Jerusalem, The City of God, The Church

 

Psalm 48

 

[1] “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither. If you, Jerusalem, are not more precious to me than my highest joy, let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.” Does anyone feel as strongly about the city of Mississauga as the psalmist felt about Jerusalem?

Actually, the psalmist doesn’t feel so very strongly about Jerusalem just because he happens to like this one city as other people tell us they love London or Paris or New York. The psalmist loves Jerusalem inasmuch as he believes it to be the city of God. “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God“, he exclaims in Psalm 48.

So — Jerusalem is the city of God for the psalmist, gathering together as it does the people of God. For two thousand years Christians have treasured the book of Psalms; for two thousand years Christians have interpreted references to Jerusalem or Zion as references to the church. Then here is a question we cannot avoid putting to ourselves today: do we feel as strongly about the church as the psalmist felt about Jerusalem, Zion? The unnamed author of the book of Hebrews cries, “Let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.” (Heb. 12:28) To be sure, the kingdom of God cannot be shaken. But what about the church? Can it be shaken? Has it been shaken? Is it so “all shook up” that we can say of it what is said of a boxer who is out on his feet, “He doesn’t have a leg underneath him”?

 [2] Before we answer the question too quickly we must be sure to understand something crucial. The word “Jerusalem” is the anglicized version of HYER SHALOM — city of peace, city of salvation. In English the word “peace” means little more than “the absence of conflict”; but in Hebrew “shalom” means the harmony and wholeness of the creation as it came forth from God’s hand, unmarred by wickedness, sin, evil. But right now the creation is dreadfully marred; grotesquely disfigured, in fact. Salvation, then, is the whole creation (including human beings) wholly healed. Shalom is therefore the kingdom of God. HYER SHALOM, Jerusalem, is the city where the salvation of God, the kingdom of God, is to appear, appear unmistakably, appear uniquely.

At the same time there is another side to Jerusalem. Jesus tells us that Jerusalem is the city which slays the prophets. And so it does. The city that is supposed to be the one spot on a ravaged earth where the salvation of God appears turns out to be the one spot where the messengers of God are most thoroughly abused. (Tell me: are God’s messengers ever abused in the church , even though the church is where God’s salvation is known, celebrated, and commended — supposedly?) More than merely abuse the prophets, Jerusalem is the city that crucifies Israel’s Messiah, crucifies the Son of God — and is glad to do so!

My question again: do you feel as positive about the church as the psalmist felt in Psalm 137 when he said, “If I forget Jerusalem I deserve to lose my right arm”? Do you feel as positive about the church as the psalmist felt in Psalm 48, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God”?

We must not think that the psalmist is naive. He is not looking at Jerusalem through rose-coloured glasses. No sooner does he exult in Jerusalem (verse 1) than he adds (verse 2) “Mount Zion, in the far north”. “Far north”, in Hebrew, means “in the future, in the eschaton; the Jerusalem that is to come, the new Jerusalem, let down from heaven” (as the book of Revelation speaks of it). The psalmist knows that the earthly Jerusalem is both a testimony to God’s salvation and a disgraceful stinkhole: both. There is enough truth in the earthly Jerusalem to make the new Jerusalem possible; there is enough falsehood in the earthly Jerusalem to make the new Jerusalem necessary.

 

 [3] You and I do not view the church through rose-coloured glasses. We know about the Renaissance popes: wealthy, promiscuous, corrupt, cunning to an extent that would have delighted Machiavelli. We know about the church in early 16th century Scotland: it owned half the nation’s property. We know about the New England zealots who hanged women as witches. We know about the 19th century American Methodist bishops who not only dismissed Methodist forefather John Wesley’s outrage at slavery but even became slaveowners themselves. We know about the churches that refused to welcome black people at worship — even barred them from worship — long after professional sports had integrated both players and the paying public.

 [4] We do not view the church through rose-coloured spectacles. Neither does the psalmist. The psalmist has only the most realistic appraisal of Jerusalem. There is enough truth to the earthly Jerusalem to make the new Jerusalem possible, and enough falsehood to the earthly Jerusalem to make the new Jerusalem necessary. But make no mistake: there is truth, salvation, shalom in the earthly Jerusalem! The word of God and the truth of God and the might of God are here! For this reason, the psalmist tells us, the kings of the nations flee Jerusalem in panic whenever they approach it. The kings of the nations begin by assuming that Jerusalem is nothing; a puff, mere froth, entirely dismissable. Once they have meddled with Jerusalem, however, they flee in panic.

I am always sobered when I ponder how the nations’ rulers react to the church. The church appears to be a pushover; yet when the rulers of the nations begin to push, they find it unyielding. More than unyielding, they find it a threat to them.

When Hitler came to power there were 18,000 Protestant pastors in Germany. The call was sounded to form the Confessing Church. The Confessing Church insisted that Hitler was not be heard or heeded. It declared, “Jesus Christ is the one word of God that we must obey in life and in death. We deny that the church can have a fuehrer apart from Jesus Christ…”. When the call was sounded 6,000 pastors joined up. What did the other 12,000 have for a backbone? Jello? Karl Barth, whom the Gestapo quickly removed from his university position in the course of a Saturday morning lecture; Barth had a different perspective on it. “Six thousand?”, said Barth, that’s far too many! One-third of the clergy can’t have perception enough to know what’s going on and courage enough to be of any help. There are plainly far too many whom we can’t count on. We’ve got to get the numbers down!” He didn’t have long to wait. After one month the 6,000 had shrunk to 4,000; another month, to 2,000 — and so on, until that critical core was reached, that earthly Jerusalem that would make the new Jerusalem believable.

Why was Hitler unrelenting in his persecution of so small a number? Because Hitler knew that testimony to Jesus Christ is like yeast. It appears insignificant itself, yet it spreads everywhere and affects everything, leaving nothing untouched. Its influence is so pervasive as to be uncontrollable and undeniable. The psalmist, grateful for Jerusalem and confident of the new Jerusalem; the psalmist declares, “As we have heard, so we have seen in the city…which God establishes for ever.” “As we have heard, so we have seen”; it’s the language of testimony! Testimony is like yeast: uncontrollable and undeniable. Hitler knew this much.

When John Wesley found himself afire with the gospel in the midst of a church where neither clergy nor people appeared “lit” he did not bemoan the spiritual inertia on all sides and conclude that the situation was hopeless. Instead he announced, “Give me a dozen people who fear no one but God and hate nothing but sin…; just give me a dozen.” What he didn’t know — but soon learned — was that the dozen (and more) already existed. (Of course. When Elijah thought that he stood alone, God reminded him that there were 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed their knee to Baal.) (I Kings 19:18)

 [5] My confidence in God’s promise-keeping faithfulness is undiminished. What he has promised he will do. There isn’t so much as a dust-speck of doubt in me. And when our Lord tells us that he will build his church on his people’s public acknowledgement of him as the Messiah of Israel and the Son of God (Matt. 16:18); when he tells us that not even the powers of death, not even attacks from the spiritual underworld, will crumble it; when our Lord promises this I believe him. As long as Jesus Christ himself is held up in the truth of his gospel his community will thrive; ultimately his community will triumph gloriously, however silly or sinful the antics of pseudo-disciples who claim to be avant-garde but in fact are dangerous and laughable in equal measure.

Wesley again. In the early days of Methodism Wesley’s people were accused of two things: fanaticism and immorality. “We aren’t fanatics”, Wesley replied, “for however exuberant we might appear, we do not elevate ourselves above scripture, the mark of fanaticism. In the second place”, he continued, “we are not immoral people, even though there are some ‘bad apples’ among us whose ill-repute has been ascribed to us.” In a development which was nothing less than heartbreaking, one of the worst of the ‘bad apple’ situations concerned Wesley’s sister and brother-in-law. The sister was Martha; the brother-in-law, an Anglican clergyman of apparent Methodist fervour, Westley Hall. Martha and her husband had ten children, nine of whom died in infancy. As child succeeded child Martha became worn out. She needed help in the home; a live-in housekeeper, Betty Greenaway, was hired to assist her. Meanwhile, Westley Hall had become a notorious philanderer. Needless to say, in no time he had impregnated the family’s housekeeper. By the time word of this reached John Wesley, Westley Hall had absented himself from wife Martha for an extended period. Wesley could hardly believe that his brother-in-law had behaved so scandalously and humiliated his sister so shamefully. Wesley went to visit his sister; once with her, he had no trouble believing any of it. It was all as bad as reported, and worse.

Subsequently Westley Hall deserted his wife Martha, leaving her in the village where she had buried nine children, leaving her with inadequate finances. All of this was public knowledge. The anti-Methodist newspapers gleefully publicized the deplorable details. One newspaper article intoned, “On Friday morning [The Reverend Westley Hall] set out for London, having first stripped his wife…of all her childbed linen (he even stole his wife’s sheets!), and whatever he could convert into money, leaving her in the deepest distress.” What did Martha do in her distress? She forgave her husband; when he sashayed home three months later she took him back. One day Martha slipped out of the house to meet brother John in a downtown rendezvous, John having travelled once more to visit her in order to support her in her anguish. While she was downtown her husband, incorrigible yet, locked her out of the house. Then he left her again, and once again she took him back. He left again. By now the housekeeper, Betty Greenaway, was ready to deliver. A physician was not called, since in class-stratified England a physician was not to be brought into such outrageous scandal. Instead a midwife was procured. By now Martha’s bank balance was only six pounds. She paid five pounds for the midwife, and then spent her remaining pound on a coach ticket for her villainous husband who had informed her he wanted to leave London and return to her. In no time he had deserted her again, this time with a woman whom he took to Barbados. For the rest of her life Martha had to be supported by her two brothers, John and Charles.

The point to the lengthy story is this. For decades Westley Hall was a disgrace to Methodism. For decades mockers and detractors snickered and pointed to him every time Wesley’s catholic evangelicalism was mentioned. Those who opposed the Methodist work had a field-day writing up pamphlets and tracts and newspaper articles which gloated over the disgrace of one of Methodism’s best-known figures, The Reverend Westley Hall, philanderer “extraordinaire”. Nevertheless; NEVERTHELESS — God honoured and owned and used and magnified and crowned the Methodist work in a way and to an extent that we can scarcely comprehend today!

Jesus Christ has promised that where he is lifted up in the truth of his gospel nothing will crumble his community; nothing — not the powers of death, not notorious scandal protracted for decades, not the theological treachery and the spiritual inertia of those who style themselves church leaders and spokespersons. We forget that the word “Methodist” was originally a term of contempt; the word became even more contemptible after Wesley himself was ignited and thousands with him. But what is human abasement compared to the exaltation of God? What is momentary humiliation compared to God’s eternal vindication? Every time I read of the brothers-in-law, John Wesley and Westley Hall, I take heart afresh, knowing that the gospel will always authenticate itself and vindicate the faithful, especially in the face of every kind of fakery, forgery and phoniness.

The psalmist writes, “Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God”. God is greatly to be praised in HYER SHALOM, the city of salvation. Jerusalem is the city of salvation, even as the phonies within it render it the city of destruction. Nevertheless, the psalmist knows that the ‘bad apples’, however bad, cannot overturn the promise of God! For this reason I am undiscouraged concerning the church. The promise of God concerning his people perdures; the promise of God concerning Christ’s community is operative now; and soon the promise of God is going to be verified publicly.

 [6] The psalmist is not at all naive about Jerusalem. Jerusalem is Jerusalem, the city of salvation and the city of destruction; both. Yet because God keeps the promises he makes these two truths are not weighted equally. The city of salvation always outweighs the city of destruction; always. For this reason the psalmist tells his readers, “Walk around Zion; circle it; count its towers; take note of its ramparts; go through its citadels.” In other words, before you despair over the corruption of Jerusalem stroll through the city and take note of just how glorious the city is with its splendid towers and ramparts and citadels; take note of its grandeur and its splendour.

This is exactly how I feel about the church: its assorted riches are glorious. I am everlastingly grateful for mediaeval monks in their candle-flickering cells who kept learning alive during the darkness of the dark ages. I should never want to be without Roman Catholics who will at least recognize the humanness of the almost-born in the face of the world’s heartless dismissal. Who would want to be without the Anglican Prayerbook in view of the fact that Thomas Cranmer’s genius is now the common property of every denomination’s liturgy? The Calvinists remind us that God is irreducibly GOD, uncompromisingly holy, unfadingly majestic. Whenever I think of the Lutherans my heart is flooded with the treasures of dear old Martin himself. One of his nuggets: “Do you want to know the cure for anxiety? Stop looking at yourself and living in yourself. Instead live out of yourself by living in someone else. Live in Christ by faith; live in your neighbour through love. Then you will never find yourself fretting over your fribbles.” The Eastern Orthodox Church is an anvil that has outworn every hammer pounding upon it for centuries. Stencilled on every eucharistic wafer that its people use in their communion service are the words, “Jesus Christ conquers”. (Ask Alexander Solzhenitsyn what a communion service means according to the Eastern Orthodox rite.) And then there are the Baptists. What distinguishes the Baptists is not their doctrine of baptism (as so many people incorrectly think). What distinguishes the Baptists is their understanding of the church (to which their view of baptism merely points). The Baptists insist on the separation of church and state. They know there can be no compromise between Christ and Caesar. They know that a state church, an established church, is a contradiction in terms. The church is not, must not think itself to be, should never be perceived to be the religious arm of the nation or the government or a political party; neither must the church ever be the religious booster of an ideology or an “ism” or a lobby — for the church’s Lord, so far from supporting the principalities and powers, has defeated them and exposed them for the wretched pretenders that they are.

What about the renewal groups within The United Church of Canada? Together we do not constitute a denomination. But certainly we constitute what our foreparents called an ecclesiola in ecclesia; we constitute a concentrated yeast tablet in a church which appears to be unleavened.

Even so, we cannot accurately say we are a yeast tablet in a church which is unleavened. After all, the renewal movements represent a majority within the denomination. In other words, The UCC is plainly far more leavened than we commonly think. Then perhaps the most accurate thing to say is that we are a concentrated yeast table whose vocation it is to leaven even more a denomination that is already leavened to a greater extent than denominational spokespersons and bureaucrats will admit!

We should walk around Jerusalem frequently. The architecture of the city of God is magnificent. It is endlessly varied, limitlessly grand, boundlessly inspiring.

It is Jerusalem, the city of God, the church, that God so loves that he will perfect it; by his grace he will render it “Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.” What is this but the picturesque anticipation of the apostle Paul’s picturesque conviction that God, by his grace, will render the church that bride of Christ that is “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”? (Eph. 5:27)

Believing this without reservation, I refuse to be discouraged. I cannot count the number of people who have sidled up to me and remarked patronizingly, “Why don’t you give up, Shepherd. You and your renewal ‘types’ might as well quit. You have no chance of changing anything.” My cheerful reply is always twofold. “Friend, in the first place I stand where I stand not in order to change the denomination, but in order to make sure that it doesn’t change me. In the second place when I see the Berlin wall crumbled and the once-mighty USSR fragmented, I know that before the inscrutable providence of God any self-confident monolith may be only hours from crumbling and fragmenting.” But of course God’s work of disassembly is only for the sake of bringing forth that bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing that she might be holy and without blemish.”

 [7] Isn’t this where the sermon should end? The psalmist began Psalm 48 by speaking of the city of the great King, the church. Throughout the psalm he said much about the church. Finally he urged us to contemplate the church’s catholicity and the church’s magnificence. Since the psalm appears to be concluded, the sermon should be concluded.

Except that the psalm isn’t concluded. For even as he exults in the splendours of the church the psalmist finds himself overwhelmed by the holy one of Israel himself, by the living God who cannot be reduced to or confused with anything, however glorious, not even that church which he has promised to bring to himself without spot or wrinkle or blemish. “Walk around Jerusalem; note her glories”, says the psalmist, “that you may tell the next generation that THIS IS GOD, our God for ever and ever.”

Just as John the Dipper pointed away from himself to him whose shoes he wasn’t worthy to untie, so the church ever points away from itself to him who is the church’s — and the world’s — unique Lord, Judge and Saviour. As you and I and all God’s people point to him, in company with brother John before us, we shall resoundingly tell the next generation that this is God, our God, and he will be their guide as he has been ours, for ever and ever.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do
far more abundantly than all that we ask or think,
to him be glory IN THE CHURCH AND IN CHRIST JESUS
to all generations, for ever and ever. (Eph.3:20)

Amen

                                                         Victor A. Shepherd         

May, 1994