Read Psalm 133
This week I was reading a book by a couple of Australians about churches making disciples. Book is called The Trellis and the Vine. Very good.
But I had to laugh at one section toward the end. The authors were trying to get us to think in a fresh way about things. So, they said this. Before I read it, I should say it was published in 2009.
The possibilities for training and growth in most congregations are endless, and endlessly exciting. And you will need to think through for yourself the possibly radical changes that need to happen. To help you do so, and as a useful way to conclude, let’s try a little mental experiment.
Imagine this…As we write, the first worrying signs of a swine-flu pandemic are making headlines around the world. Imagine that the pandemic swept through your part of the world, and that all public assemblies of more than three people were banned by the government for reasons of public health and safety. And let’s that due to some catastrophic combination of local circumstances, this ban had to remain in place for 18 months.
How would your congregation…continue to function—with no regular church gatherings of any kind, and no home groups (except for groups of three)?
If you were the pastor, what would you do?
What was a thought experiment a decade ago is what we’re living through right now. We won’t hit 18 months, but we’ll be really close. It has profoundly affected all areas of church life.
This morning we’ll think about how this unexpected global phenomenon has impacted something at the core of the Bible’s message: Christian unity. The last 13 months have thrown a barrage of temptations at us that strike right at the heart of our unity together. Psalm 133 will help us think through this.
Today’s Psalm is 133, found in a set of Psalms called the “Psalms of Ascent.” Pss 120–134. These 15 Psalms are grouped together in our Psalter.
We’re not 100% certain why they’re called the “Psalms of Ascent,” but a good case can be made that they were sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals—Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Booths. As the Jews scattered around Israel were approaching Jerusalem, their minds and hearts would have been filled with anticipation.
They would finally be with God’s people gathered for worship and being the people they were made to be.
As we look ahead to June 6th it’s fitting that we look at a couple of these Psalms of Ascent. We’ve been scattered in the wilderness. We’ve adjusted our worship in ways that feel awkward still, even after months of doing it. And since March 12, 2020, we have yet to have a meeting where the whole church is together in the flesh.
We can understand something of what these ancient Jewish pilgrims were feeling.
This sermon is part of a series we’re doing from the book of Psalms. The series is called A Heart for God. What we learn from Psalm 133 is that a heart for God means you also have a heart for God’s people.
Just to see how true this is, I’ll read a single verse from 1 John.
1 John 4:20:
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)
In this sermon we’ll look first at the Psalm itself in point one: the gift of unity. Then in point two we’ll look at the tests of unity we’ve experienced over the last 13 months. And then in point three we’ll think the work of unity we’re called to do. So that’s (1) the gift of unity, (2) the tests of unity, and (3) the work of unity.
I. The Gift of Unity
Psalm “of David.” King David knew relational strife:
- His own brothers thought he should stay home and mind the sheep instead of acting all big and bad taking on Goliath.
- King Saul tried to kill him on multiple occasions
- His son Absolom tried to steal the throne from him
- His son Adonijah tried to take the throne from his son Solomon after he’d promised to give the throne to Solomon.
- His household was not a place of peace.
He knew about strife and so he knew that it was truly “good and pleasant…when brothers dwell in unity” (Ps 133:1).
- When it happens it is a gift from God.
- Unity is always a gift from God.
- Even though we have to work at it, it’s a gift God gives.
Like all God’s gifts, it is “good and pleasant.”
- Two words that combine to describe something truly desirable.
- “Pleasant” is less common. It means beautiful, desirable, pleasing.
“Good” is important because we know God is called “Good.”
For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. (Ps 100:5)
You are good and do good; teach me your statutes. (Ps 119:68)
- That means something “good” is something truly good.
- A “good and pleasant” gift is one that reflects God himself.
To help us feel this goodness, David compares unity with two things that might strike us as odd. First, it’s like oil on Aaron’s beard—"It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (Ps 133:2).
- Remember, Aaron is the brother of Moses and the first high priest in Israel.
- He was anointed to become the high priest in Leviticus 8.
- To anoint Aaron as high priest a very special anointing oil was used—“precious oil” David calls it.
- Back in Exodus 30:22–33 God tells Moses exactly what kind of oil to use.
- It was a “precious oil” used only to anoint Aaron and his sons and other elements in the tabernacle.
- This “good oil” starts with “the finest spices” (v. 23).
- These are added to “olive oil” by someone called “the perfumer.”
- It’s called “a sacred anointing oil.”
- It wasn’t to be used for any other purpose—and anyone who makes an oil similar to this “shall be cut off from his people.”
- A sign of God’s blessings on his people Israel.
- He’s brought them out of Egypt, they’ve built the tabernacle, and now Aaron the high priest is being anointed.
- The glory of Israel’s tabernacle worship is just about to begin.
- Anointing Aaron is the last step.
What David is saying here is unity is a blessing from God. A sign of his abundant goodness and faithfulness.
- Because David points to this particular moment in Israel’s history, he’s reminding us that true unity is spiritual unity.
- It happens when the worshippers of God are united in their understanding of God and the worship of God.
- It happens when we gather in Christ’s name with a right understanding of Christ and his gospel and what he asks of us.
- Doesn’t mean we agree about every single thing the Bible teaches. But there is substantial agreement.
- That kind of unity is “good and pleasant” and like the abundant goodness when Aaron the first high priest was anointed.
- There’s one more aspect here. Discussing this passage with OT scholar Brad Hodges, he wanted me to bring up one more point: Don’t diss the beard. Having stuff in your beard isn’t gross, it’s a sign of God’s blessings.
The second image comes from Mount Hermon—"It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Ps 133:3).
- Another obscure image for us.
- Hermon in the time of David would have been in the northern-most region of Israel. It’s mentioned in Deuteronomy and Joshua as a landmark when describing Israel and also diving up the nation according to the tribes.
- Today it’s in Lebanon, just north of Israel. Right on the Lebanon-Syria border.
- It’s a high mountain, rising to just above 9k-feet.
- The “mountains of Zion,” if Zion means Jerusalem, would be lower. More like 2500 ft.
- Hermon was apparently known for its thick dew, which makes sense for such a high mountain covered with snow much of the year.
- What’s interesting is that the streams which flow south from Mount Hermon feed the Jordan River.
- The Jordan flows south into the Sea of Galilee where Jesus did so much of his ministry.
- From the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River continues south to the Dead Sea.
- At its closest point, the Jordan flows just 20 miles east of Jerusalem.
- You can see why the geography fits the idea of Mount Hermon watering the whole land with its dew.
- Vivid pictures of a world in harmony with its Maker.
- But going from Mount Hermon down to Zion, now we’re in the heart of Israel’s religious life.
- It was David who conquered Jerusalem and claimed it as the capital city, the place where the temple would be built.
- Here he says it is “from there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Ps 133:3).
- Truly “FROM THERE the LORD has commanded the blessing.”
- It was Jerusalem where Jesus the Son of God gave his life so that we might live and not die.
- So that we might receive eternal life.
- It’s Jerusalem where God poured out the Holy Spirit on his people.
- And then his people anointed with the Holy Spirit and the Gospel of Eternal Life in Jesus Christ—went throughout the world.
II. The Tests of Unity
Unity is a GIFT FROM GOD. It’s a blessing that God gives to his people.
But there’s a reason unity is described in this way in a Psalm of Ascents. It’s because unity is not an easy or automatic thing.
- Unity is something that gets tested in life—a lot, in fact.
- Point Two: The Tests of Unity.
Now we want to think about The Tests of Unity we’ve experienced over the last 13 months with COVID.
- Psalm 133 is a Psalm of Ascents, a song of pilgrims separated most of the time.
- But now coming back together in Jerusalem.
- That separation most of the time is CIRCUMSTANTIAL. Not because of sin or the devil.
- They can’t all live in the same house or city, there’s too many.
- Physical separation makes unity more difficult.
- COVID has brought that in many ways.
- We’re not RELATIONALLY divided, just physically divided.
- But being physically divided impacts our relationships.
- When we changed to building in social distance in our Sunday gatherings, that impacts unity.
- Lots of activities over the last year and for our children have been cancelled. That makes relationship harder.
- When your meeting changes to a virtual meeting, that impacts your unity. It makes unity much more difficult.
- Another aspect of COVID has been the way we’ve each developed different CONVICTIONS about it.
- Always-Mask or no-mask or sometimes-mask—in a pandemic like this one, that difference impacts your fellowship.
- For some, your position on masks has been elevated to a conscience issue.
- When you elevate something to a conscience issue, separations occur.
- Because this is a new issue, it’s brought new separations.
- King David experienced in a whole variety of ways how SIN can wreck unity—jealous King Saul, selfishly-ambitious Absalom, proud Adonijah.
- Sin hasn’t stopped doing that!
- This season of COVID has shown that—COVID has been a field day for the sin in our hearts.
- Sins like pride, selfishness, and impatience seem to pop up constantly with COVID issues.
- Some crazy computer game where you’re shooting enemies that pop up faster than you can kill them.
- Temptation: Make sinful judgments of others (“Too cautious, they don’t trust God”; “Too reckless, they don’t care about others”).
- Temptation: Bad attitudes toward church leaders: “How could they do that? I can’t follow elders who do that.”
- Temptation: Pride. Assuming we know everything a person is thinking: “If they do that, clearly they have fully embraced [some secular worldview you reject].”
- This one is really part of sin but it’s more conventional sin. It’s plain old selfishness.
- Not that you’re offended by someone’s response to COVID.
- It’s just the effort it takes to fellowship with others, be with others, live life with others.
- COVID brought a massive slow down to our lives. Lighter schedule. Fewer nights out.
- As things ramp up, our selfishness can get pricked.
- He’s always lurking, always looking for gaps in the wall, always looking for times when our guard is down.
- He cannot kill our souls or take away our salvation. But he can make us unfruitful in this life—individually or as a church.
We could go on. But these tests of unity have been significant in the last 13 months.
III. The Work of Unity
Unity is a gift. Unity gets tested. But unity is also a command. There’s WORK we’re required to do to build unity in the church.
Point Three: The Work of Unity.
It’s work we’re required to do – Ephesians 4:1–3:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Eph 4:1–3)
It’s work we continue to do even when tested – 1 Corinthians 13:7:
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:7)
- We’ve all been tested. We’ve all had places where we need to “bear all things…endure all things.”
- If you’re COVID-cautious, the spring of 2021 is a new test for you.
- But rememeber where we were a year ago. We weren’t meeting at all as a church. We went all of April and all of May without our Sunday meeting.
- For those COVID-less-cautious or COVID-carefree that was a really hard time. Those months weren’t easy ones. It felt like the world was running you over.
- The point is, no one has lived through these last 13 months without being really challenged.
- One way or another church life hasn’t been what we prefer.
- But God calls us to “bear all things…endure all things.”
The work of unity requires that we overlooks sins – 1 Peter 4:8 & Proverbs 19:11:
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Pet 4:8)
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. (Prov 19:11)
The work of unity requires that we reconcile if we need to.
- When you can’t overlook someone’s sin or actions, get past it, certain divisions require work on our part.
- This is what you do in a mature relationship.
- Reconciliation is often a process.
- To do this well, we often need help.
The work of unity requires that we walk in humility.
- The Ephesians 4 text I read said to “walk…with all humility.”
- Opportunities abound with COVID to be humble.
- The issues have come at us like some massive surprise air-attack.
- Different approaches to lockdowns, CDC guidance, local and state laws, our workplaces, our churches.
- The temptation in all this is to hold our opinions too strongly.
- To regard our opinion too highly.
- In our pride we’re looking for a date, maybe sometime in August where everyone you know gets together and they all tell you, “You were right! We were wrong!”
- Our Great Day of Vindication. We’ll call it Daniel Baker day. It’ll be an annual holiday. Every year we’ll come together and remember again how right I was.
Well, friends, we will have a Great Day of Vindication.
- But it won’t be about the world knowing we were right and they were wrong.
- It’ll be when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ and he declares us RIGHTEOUS because of Jesus.
- That’s the Great Day of Vindication we should care about.
- And if we’re good for that Great Day of Vindication, then the fact we never get one this side of heaven should really be okay.
- But it won’t be okay if we don’t “walk…with all humility.”
The work of unity requires that we walk with wisdom.
- This is what the apostle James calls “the wisdom from above.”
- “The wisdom from above” is reasonable.
- Unity requires that we walk with wisdom.
- One aspect of wisdom is this, don’t make COVID convictions the litmus test for orthodoxy.
- Recently I was reading an author on the end times.
- He basically came out and said if you’re not Premillennial you don’t really believe the Bible.
- Now, just to give him a little slack, in his day coming up in Baptist seminaries, this was basically true.
- But as a general way to evaluate Christians, this is just silly.
- Don’t do that with COVID. Don’t make a specific response to COVID a test for orthodoxy. This is just silly.
Unity is a GIFT! Life is filled with tests of unity. Continue in the hard work of building unity.
Three applications as we anticipate our re-gathering in June.
- First, a practical: for most of us, get vaccinated. Think through what it’ll be like and prepare yourself.
- Second, a personal: A specific relationship you have where you need to take some steps to work through things.
- Third, a prayerful: But you don’t need to look for sins that aren’t there. If you’ve loved your brothers and sisters in the church well and been able to give grace for the different decisions they’ve made, praise God. If that’s you, pray!
- Pray for a joyful celebration. Pray for revival. Pray for the next chapter of our church journey together.
But this morning there’s one more response to this issue of unity.
- We want to remember the awesome price paid for it.
- We’ll do that by taking the Lord’s Supper together.
- Lord’s Supper reminds us our unity was no cheap trinket. It was COSTLY!
- The Son of God came to earth to purchase our RECONCILIATION.
- Jesus shed his BLOOD TO PAY the price for our reconciliation with God.
- Only because of his sacrifice do we have PEACE WITH GOD.
- If we’ve experienced that RECONCILIATION then we’ve also been UNITED WITH CHRIST.
- We’ve become part of the BODY OF CHRIST—All Christians are part of the BODY OF CHRIST.
- That is an UNBREAKABLE UNITY—an ETERNAL UNITY.
- It’s a UNITY we entered into the moment we were converted and it’s a UNITY we’ll never be taken away from.
Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:12–16)
17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:17–22)
Prayer and Closing Song
 Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine (2009), 165.
 Cf. Calvin’s commentary on the Psalms on Ps 133:2.