In about five hundred days churches around the world will commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the young Augustinian monk Ma…
Psalm 133 The Blessedness of Unity
A Song of Ascents.
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133 That’s a very good and pleasant thought. I understand it. It sounds like something from a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell picture.
But then it says it is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard of Aaron, the priest brother of Moses. Oil was and is a precious commodity (the current price of crude notwithstanding). In the ancient middle East, scented olive oil was used as perfume, as a cosmetic, and as way of honoring people of importance. Kings and priests were annointed with oil. In Egypt the aristocracy wore cones of solid oil straped on their heads that melted in the heat and flowed down their hair unto their clothes. How does this process of oil running down Aaron’s beard and robe illustrate unity?
Unity is like “the dew of Hermon” which falls on the mountains of Zion. Mount Hermon is an almost 3000 meter mountain cluster on the borders between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, snow covered most of the year. Because of its height it gets a lot of precipitation in comparison to the arid surroundings. Hermon was an important site of non-Israelite worship in ancient times. Zion is one of several hills, on which Jerusalem is built. The name is often used for the whole city, including the temple mount where the Israelites worshiped. But how can dew from Mt Hermon fall on Jerusalem, since they are hundreds of kilometers apart?
This psalm is called “a song of ascents”, one of fifteen in the Bible which were sung or chanted as pilgrims ascended the temple mount to worship. It was part of a liturgy, a service of worship. And obviously it is poetry, using words and images creatively. But what is the theme here? Unity? Aaron? Worship? Blessing? All of them together? Oil and dew go together, because both were extremely precious. Hermon and Zion go together, because both were high places of worship. Aaron and blessing go together because God had commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites (Numbers 6:22-27): “The Lord bless you and keep you…” But the blessing does not originate from Hermon. Only from Zion. “For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.”
Maybe we have to imagine pilgrims from the northern part of Israel, who lived within sight of mighty Mt. Hermon, the site of pagan fertility cults, as they came to the comparatively puny hills of Jerusalem. They knew about the sanctuaries on Mt. Hermon. But they did not go there, because God had chosen a small hill, not a great mountain. How does this relate to unity? Unity means equality, everyone matters, nobody sticks out in importance. Everybody is honored, everyone equally blessed. It is the opposite of self important individualism. Unity seems a very unspectacular thing, like the hills of Jerusalem. Maybe Mount Hermon stands for individualism, and Mt. Zion for community?
How does the desire to “stick out” hinder unity in our families, in the church, in the wider community? How does unity look, feel, or smell? What would be a poetic image we could use to describe unity? What is more pleasing to us: being above or being one with others?
Last week the Panama papers offered revelations about the covering up of wealth by many of the world’s richest people and biggest companies in off-shore bank accounts, or “shell companies”. These companies exist only on paper, they have no actual location or substance. Their bank accounts hold the money a real company or individual wants to hide from the taxman. These shell-companies are apparently not against the law, but hiding income and evading taxes is. Go figure…
Last week the provincial government of Alberta released a budget that forecasts a substantial deficit. Billions will have to be borrowed to pay for schools, hospitals, affordable housing, roads and bridges, etc.. Everybody is blaming the low price of oil for lost revenue. But what about the revenue that is lost because of tax evasion?
Today in church we read from the book of Revelation 7:9-17. A multitude of people in white robes is worshiping around the throne of God and the Lamb.
Robes are also called vestments. To be robed as a priest means to be “invested”. It started a train of thought for me about why these martyrs in the book of Revelation are always vested in white and what that means. If invest means to robe or cover, then divest means to disrobe or uncover. Before they were vested in white, the Christian martyrs had to divest themselves of something else: the Roman empire of the first century, the economic excess, the violence of slavery, the idolatry of wealth and power, the social and moral decay of first century Rome as described by the seer John in the visions of the four riders, the two seven headed beasts, the dragon, and the woman named “the whore of Babylon”. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.” Not to Rome, neither to emperor Nero, nor to Domitian, but to God and to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died and rose again.
So what would followers of “the Lamb” and “the Good Shepherd” have to give up in order to take up the white robe? What would it mean to witness to the one who said “Give to Cesar what is Cesar’s and to God what is God’s”? Should we not be thinking about divesting ourselves of funds that are parked illegally, i.e. tax free, or that are invested in businesses that deal in arms to countries such as Saudi Arabia, or harm the environment, or enslave people? Should we not care more where our benefits and pensions come from? Christians say they worship the creator God, the Good Shepherd, who provides whatever we need (Psalm 23), and the savior who announces good news to the poor (Luke 4). But sometimes I wonder how much we mean it. Better check our investments!
Maybe a long forgotten note or pressed flower fell out from between the pages as you heaved the big old book off the shelf. Or you opened it at the book of Esther, like I did this morning, and read how “the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they did what they pleased to those who hated them.” (Esther 9:5)
What’s that doing in my Bible? Or in anybody’s? More than 75,000 people getting slaughtered in one day, and then an annual celebration called Purim to mark the occasion? Okay, so the Jews were under threat of extermination at the hands of the Persians through machinations of the vain and power-hungry Haman. The courage of a Jewish girl named Esther, queen of king Xerxes (Ahasuerus), and her uncle Mordecai, foil this evil plan. In the end, the Jews are granted reprieve and given a chance to “avenge” themselves.
Like a Hollywood movie, the story of Esther is full of overblown stock characters, beautiful women and macho men, suspenseful plot lines, and of course violence. Also like most Hollywood movies, God isn’t even mentioned and religion comes off as being mostly a pretext for prejudices. (There are later, Greek editions of the book of Esther, which include references to God and prayers by Mordecai and Esther, and which give a definite theological framework to the novel. Catholic Bibles include these additions, but in my protestant copies they are either missing altogether or included under “apocrypha”.)
So what is Esther doing between Nehemiah and Job? And why Esther during Easter? Didn’t Jesus, whose resurrection we celebrate, submit to the violence of his enemies, and didn’t he tell his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them? (Matthew 5:44) Is Esther an example of “sacred violence,” if only imagined? Or is it an expression of longing for ultimate justice? Is it just a moral tale about courage and using the opportunity one has been given for stopping evil?
Maybe all of these things. Stories shape us. They don’t just entertain. Even a movie like “The Avengers” shapes our view of the world, our sense of right and wrong. Stories disturb old thought patterns, impart hope, stir up personal courage, and they explicitly or implicitly point to some greater presence in the world.
It’s easy to become cynical, even depressed, watching the stories of ongoing war in Syria, famine in Ethiopia, floods in Pakistan (all were part of the Persian empire), missing and murdered Indigenous Canadian women, modern slavery in the sex, mining and garment industries, and the very rich and well-connected of the world seeming to get away with deceit, robbery and murder, while tax-paying, law abiding citizens wonder how those people sleep at night. I suddenly feel like the book of Esther is very contemporary. Evil plots abound. Secret machinations that despoil the unsuspecting of what is theirs abound. The Panama Papers are just the tip of the iceberg. Ill-gotten financial wealth and bullish behavior are trumped up as the solution to all problems. But evil will not triumph forever. Every now and then somebody blows the whistle, like Esther. We should thank God for courageous journalists!
Easter, like Esther, is the blow of the whistle that calls “foul play” on the powers of death and evil. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the exposure of these powers. It is the ultimate condemnation of and deliverance from sin in its many forms: from pride, arrogance, hate, deception, sexism, racism, vengeance and murder. Easter is the ultimate reversal, but without the note of retribution found in Esther. Esther can be a model of courage to us, to announce this reversal and put the powers of the world on notice.