A sermon preached by Alice Lawhead on 13 December 2020.
Today’s Psalm is called a ‘Psalm of Ascent.’ It’s one of the songs that would have been sung by ancient Hebrews while they were walking to Jerusalem which, because it was the geographical high point in Palestine, made every trip there an uphill journey, an ascent. If they were devout and observant, they made the trip three times a year, so the journey became a familiar one, and so did the songs they sang.
This is a joyful psalm, because it recalls how happy everyone was when the best and brightest of their lot, who had been taken into captivity, were unexpectedly returned home. As the worshippers trudge along toward Jerusalem, pulling themselves up the long inclines, they recall the joy of that moment in history – and ask God to continue to bless them — as they make their way to the temple to worship God.
I relate personally to this psalm of ascent, which reminds me of the times I have walked the pilgrim path across Northern Spain, the one that leads to Santiago de Compostella. Believe me, there are ascents! And a good deal of discussion along the way about the path, the accommodations, and our destination. And a frequently asked question is: Why are you walking the Camino?
I can’t forget a French woman, Charmagne, who was really ‘old school’ as pilgrims go. She had attempted the Camino a few years before and had to go home early because she’d injured herself along the way. Now she was trying again, because she was absolutely convinced that there was something for her in Santiago. Something that she needed desperately: a blessing, a revelation, a transformation. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but the conviction had been with her for years and whatever awaited her in that city, she knew that it was vital. She could get it no other place, so with great effort she was once again embarking on the journey.
A pilgrimage – to Santiago, or Jerusalem, or any sacred destination — is a compressed, concentrated experience in which the pilgrim enacts on a small scale the larger journey that is our life of faith. Similarly, Advent is a compressed, concentrated experience during which each one of us enacts our need of salvation, the desire for God in our lives, the necessary work we must to do before he gets here, and then finally the great arrival: Jesus Christ. The Messiah. Salvation!
Now, it’s often said that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Really? I don’t think so. Travel is NOT hopeful if there is no reachable destination. That’s just wandering, and wandering for more than an afternoon is no fun. No one wanders on the Camino de Santiago: the road is straight and sure and it leads to one destination only. Those who were ascending to Jerusalem to worship were not wandering all over the place, at least not on purpose; they had their destination in sight and each step brought them that much closer.
This is the third Sunday of Advent. The ‘ascent’ of Advent is nothing without arriving at Christmas. Can you imagine? It would just be endless preparation and endless effort and meaningless activity without the event that compels us: the arrival of the Messiah. That is what gives our observance its meaning.
This Advent journey can present us with difficulties and challenges, because we are ascending. As we work our way through the seasonal liturgy, as we contemplate once again our sin, our need for salvation, as we remember what the Lord has done for us in the past …. We should always keep in mind that this journey ends with the birth of the Christchild, and He is our one true destination. Consequently, we can travel hopefully through the season.
We are ascending. We are on the pilgrim way. This is Advent – this is adventure! There is something there for us, when we see the Christchild. It may be a blessing, a revelation, a transformation. Salvation. And I guarantee you, those of us who are travelling hopefully on this journey … are going to arrive.