The Church, God’s People on the Way

By Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson   Wycliff Sept12 Portraits (103 of 137) rs

“My soul longs, indeed, it faints for the courts of the Lord”

Psalm 84 is a psalm of longing or lament, and it is also a psalm of pilgrimage. Three times a year the people were commanded to make a pilgrimage to the temple to appear before the Lord (Exodus 23:14–17).

It is not difficult to imagine a group of people or pilgrims making their way slowly and carefully as they traverse difficult terrain. Instagram is full of images of people’s hikes, my own photos included. There are wonderful trails to hike including the Bruce Trail, which runs from Niagara to Tobermory. But for those who take up hiking the goal is the experience or the exercise rather than the destination. A pilgrimage, in contrast, is about the destination and the pilgrims’ hearts and minds are firmly fixed on where it is that they hope to arrive. The painful images of Syrian refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean or emigrants from South America trying to cross the U.S. border come to mind. Along the journey pilgrims may find themselves tired, hungry, and thirsty. They know the grinding exhaustion of putting one foot in front of the other, the sun beating down on them as they trudge along (with many dangers, toils, and snares along the way). The hope of arriving at their destination is, at times, the only thing that keeps them going as they put one foot in front of another. 


Psalm 84: a song for our era?

Is Psalm 84, with its longing and lament, a song for our era? According to the United Nations there are more than 100 million displaced people worldwide; 89.3 million displaced people worldwide at the end of 2021 and that includes those who are internally displaced as well as refugees. There is so much hurt, fear, sorrow and suffering in our world today.  There are many around the world for whom lament is a daily physical reality especially when they have nowhere to go. Refugees from Myanmar or Syria, those in Haiti or Sudan who are without food and shelter, those who live under the chaos of war in Ukraine or Tigray. Those who find it hard to see beyond their immediate circumstances.

After two plus years of COVID as we struggle to find our feet again this psalm of pilgrimage may resonate with our own experience both individually and as the Church together (while the first strophe or section in Psalm 84 speaks in the first person, the second one speaks of the community on pilgrimage together). We all experience a sense of being overwhelmed, whether by our circumstances or the situation of so many around the world; despair, longing, and lament are a part of our lives. We too may wonder where we are headed.

Like most psalms of lament—and there are a lot of them—this is also a psalm of great hope. “Happy are those who live in your house.” This isn’t just a wistful or covetous longing—“I am glad some people get to be there.”  It is the confident hope, the conviction in our hearts, that the reality of entering into the presence of God is our true home. Indeed, while vs 1–4 express the longing and vs 5–9 speak of the journey, in vs 10–12 we see the pilgrims arriving in the temple, in the presence of the Lord. Our hope is in the Lord the maker of heaven and earth.

There is a shift in verse 8 where the psalmist turns to prayer. Some have suggested that this is the intercession of a leader—praying not just for themselves but for their people.  O Lord hear my prayer, O Lord hear our prayer. In any case there is a corporate element to this psalm/prayer. It is as the people journey together towards the presence of the Lord that they go from strength to strength. 


God’s presence with us

Perhaps, of even greater significance is the sense (or promise) that God is with those on pilgrimage even in the midst of the challenges and dangers they face on their journey. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion (vs 5). Indeed, it is God’s presence that not only sustains them but brings transformation to their surroundings:

As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools (vs 6).

This resonates with passages like Psalm 107:33 although there the focus is on God who directly brings about this transformation of the desert: He turns rivers into desert, springs of water into thirsty ground, or verse 35: He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water.

Isaiah takes this image to the next level when it speaks of God leading the people on their pilgrimage. Verse 4, Say to those who are of a fearful heart, be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. Where God appears the wilderness is transformed, springs arise in the desert and pools appear in a thirsty land.  Verse 7, the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water.

It is God’s presence with them that lets them go on with joy. Isaiah 35:10, And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

In Psalm 84: 6–8 we see that the pilgrims are able to see their surroundings transformed precisely because the pathways to Zion are in their hearts. It is, perhaps, a reminder of God’s call and intention that his people should be a blessing to all the nations: As they go through the valley of Baca, the dry and desolate valley, the valley of tears, they make it a place of springs, the early rain covers it with pools. 

It is a wonderful image, something like time lapse photography where we see a desert suddenly spring into full flower. The pilgrims bring transformation to their surroundings precisely because they know their destination, they are on their way to Jerusalem, to the presence of God. Because “in their hearts are the highways to Zion.”  In their hearts, embedded in the core of who they are and evident in the way they live day to day, is their confidence in the living God.

We might note that the image of springs is resonant with the person of the Holy Spirit. In his theological oration Gregory of Nazianzus suggests that this is a reflection of the Trinity and an anticipation of the work of the Spirit. Those on pilgrimage carry with them the presence of the Spirit even in the midst of the wasteland, in the midst of drought and despair. 


Jesus is the Way

What is more, as we read this psalm, we read it in light of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel—"I am the way the truth and the life,” or, I am the pathway to Zion. Or the book of Acts where Luke speaks of Christians as people of the Way. The highway to Zion in our hearts is nothing less than Jesus himself. That is what defines us as people of the way. 

What makes this longing and lament more poignant for us is that the Church, the very group of people who should be water to a thirsty land often appear themselves to be lost and confused. Particularly in these difficult days. We know that we have tasted the hope of what it means to be in the presence of God and yet we are still pilgrims on the way. 

Surely, Psalm 84 is a psalm for the Church and its calling in the world. It is a reminder to us as we struggle to respond to the crises both in the world and in the church itself. We are to be people who on their pilgrimage bring transformation amid situations of sorrow, lament, and longing, precisely because in our hearts are the highways to Zion. We don’t bypass difficult situations but, by the grace of God we are to bring hope in the midst of them. For a world in lament, confused about where to turn, or where to find hope, the Church bears witness to the promises of God even in its own weakness. In the face of decline and confusion in the Church, we can find ourselves wondering what we can do to turn things around. It is precisely at this point that we might remind ourselves who we are; we are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion.

And so, we come back to the image of pilgrimage from Psalm 84 to understand that in Jesus Christ God has journeyed to us so that we might in turn not only follow him on the way but allow the way to be embedded in our hearts. Our gift to the world is who we are in Jesus Christ.