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Psalm 133: Unity

Good morning, everyone. Please go with me to the book of Psalms. We’re going to read Psalm 133 this morning. If you want to use one of our Bibles, you can raise your hand and we’ll get one to you. Psalm 133.

And this little psalm is so packed with meaning, we’re going to skip any intro and get straight to it just for the sake of time this morning. Psalm 133, if you will stand, I’m going to read it again for us. [Psalm 133] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

Psalm 133 is a psalm of ascents, which means it’s one of the psalms people would have sung together at festivals to celebrate. These were the songs everyone knew. In our time and place, we have Piano Man and Poker Face, the Davidic kingdom had the songs of ascent, and I’m sure our American cultural contributions to society will also last thousands of years and inspire millions of people throughout multiple ages.

Psalm 133 is a psalm glorying in unity. The word unity means togetherness, but it’s more than that. Unity is not just a physical togetherness. Unity involves sympathy, a unity of emotion. Think of a dating relationship—if you’re together, but you’re fighting, you’re not really together. That’s what we say when we break up a relationship, we say “we’re not together anymore,” and we don’t mean we physically left the place we were in, we mean our emotions aren’t together. We can’t come to agreement, and we’ve decided to stop trying. We’re giving up on getting on the same page.

Unity involves emotion and unity involves motion. Unity means two or more people moving in the same direction. The Bible at one point uses an analogy of animals yoked together side by side pulling a plow. That’s unity. You’re getting something done, you’re doing the work, and you’re not pulling against each other, you’re pulling in one direction.

Unity is not uniformity; in fact, I would say uniformity is the death of unity, because unity is togetherness and uniformity is consumption. They are opposites. Unity wants a conversation; uniformity demands complete agreement. Unity wants to reach out, uniformity is willing to cut people who don’t fit the mold in order to preserve the purity of the core.

The opening verse of this psalm makes a value judgement on unity, and also a confession. The value judgement is that unity is good, and not just good, but pleasant. That word, pleasant, is usually a word describing food. It means tasty. “How good and tasty is is when brothers dwell together in unity!” I love that.

I love food, both cooking it and eating it. I was accused of being a food snob this week by one Joshua Evans. I would say, I’m not not a snob, I’m a connoisseur, meaning I’ll eat bad food—if it’s what we have, or especially if you are sharing your bad food with me, like if you brought me taco bell at work, I would love that, I would be so grateful. I just also know the difference between good and bad food. One of the main differences is whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. Good food tends to be healthier. Another major difference is whether or not the flavor is complex. Bad food tends to have a single, dominant flavor. Like, if we go get po’boys, just know that I’m about the drench the whole thing in hot sauce. Just pass the Crystal; I’m not looking to taste the notes of the mayonnaise, but if I make you turtle soup and you ask me to pass the salt, I’m going to hesitate.

Good food has balance. One flavor doesn’t overwhelm the rest to where it’s all you can taste, the flavors work together, even bring each other out. Like how you wouldn’t eat a lime on its own, but when you mix it with cilantro, fresh tomatoes, sweet onions, and jalapeños, it works. It’s good and pleasant together. This psalm is a subtle invitation to the table of the Lord. He’s saying, taste and see that unity is good. When all the people of God live and work together, it’s a good thing. Tasty, pleasant, nourishing; we make each other better.

Unity in the church is something I’ve thought a lot about working for a denominational group for the past nine years. There are about 130 churches in our association, so maybe about 200 pastors, since a plurality of leadership is now the norm in free-church, meaning any church that doesn’t participate in a hierarchical denominational structure—Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, non-denom. When you have 200 pastors in a room, meaning they all share a profession, a religion, a city, state, nation—they all consider the same book sacred and use it to forge their other beliefs. That’s so much similarity. You would think unity would be easy, right? But it’s not. There’s often demands for uniformity and all kinds of discord.

But no matter how hard unity is, there are always going to be reasons to pursue it, reasons our psalm for this morning illustrates beautifully. One, Christians pursue unity because we’re a family. Vs. 1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” As people would go singing this psalm through the streets of Jerusalem, they would call each other brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, family. When someone is in your family, you have a relationship with that person whether you want one or not. Like parents with their children, even if there is no relationship, that’s the relationship. You’re estranged; it’s impossible to make someone who has been in your family irrelevant to your life, so pursuing unity with family is one of the strongest and most desperate desires of every person I’ve ever known, even if for that person unity was impossible—the desire is still there.

We pursue unity because we’re a family. To this psalm’s original hearers, this idea of brothers dwelling together in unity would have taken on a couple of dimensions. One, festivals were a time where nuclear families would get together. Maybe one brother lives in the country, the other brother is in the city, these festivals would have been a time of coming together, like Thanksgiving is in our culture. So one way to understand this psalm would be to understand it as a desperate prayer for family arguments not to ruin thanksgiving, and to that many of us cringe with uncomfortable memories and say a hearty amen.

But there would have been other dimensions to the original hearers, too. They would have travelled to the city and sung this along the way with fellow worshippers. And with some of the larger festivals, like Pentecost or Passover, worshippers would have come from all over the world. Singing this song would have been a way of acknowledging, in one sense, even though we aren’t part of the same nation, we don’t speak the same language, because of our shared worship, you are my brother, too.

Jesus and Paul took this idea even further in the New Testament. Jesus constantly refers to God as his father, and ours. As he’s ascending to heaven, he said he was going to prepare a place for Christians to live in the house of his father, which is something you would do for new family members coming to live together in unity. Paul develops a whole theology of adoption, saying anyone who is in Christ is an adopted child of God the Father. Ever since I adopted a child this language has been hugely meaningful for me. Whenever people talk about Jesus being the only son of God, I bristle a little bit—John said it well; Jesus is the only natural, the only begotten son of God. Just because I’m adopted, that doesn’t make me a lesser son of God. Adopted children are members of the family in every way. Christians are co-heirs with Christ of the kingdom of God.

Just like the original hearers, the family language of this Psalm should hold a few dimensions for Christians in the world today. It should help us recognize how good and pleasant it is when our family is able to dwell together in unity. Our nuclear families, and our churches, too. There are some differences between a church and a nuclear family, but there should be a lot that’s the same. We should spend time together, care for each other. We should celebrate together and mourn with each other. We should seek unity here, and praise God if and when we can forge it.

Then more broadly, too, all of those who are in Christ are part of the family. Unless you’re willing to say a person is unregenerate; no matter how strongly you disagree, unless they don’t know Christ at all, he’s your brother, she’s your sister. Denomination is a good first step, a practical road into understanding the Church universal as a single family in Christ, a single body even. We need to step further, into an understanding and participation in the life of the Church universal. When we try to separate, the hurt is real. The pain is real. The division, though, isn’t real. In truth, all Christians are one family with God as our father.

Christians pursue unity because we’re family, and we pursue unity because it’s anointed. In v.2, the psalmist writes unity is like precious oil on the head, running down the beard, and on the collar of the robes of the priest. It’s a bit of a strange image for us, maybe, but not for ancient Israel—anointing is a concept that pops up over and over again in Scripture. It’s been a little confused in the modern day, just with some charismatic traditions incorporating either language of anointing in worship services and healing ministries, sometimes actually using oil.

Part of why we struggle to understand it in our faith tradition is that the closest proximate in our day to anointing is probably holy water, and we don’t really use holy water here, except for y’all remember that one time Jonathan tried to give his life to christ, he’s walking down the aisle, and Luscious stands up and starts anointing him with holy water before he got to the front? That was my first day here. But, yeah, usually we don’t pour oil on people.

Anointing had two real uses in the Bible, and it has everything to do with gathering for a festival singing the psalms of ascent, so even though it may seem strange to sing about oil flowing down your beard, it makes a kind of sense. The two uses of anointing were, one, hygiene, and two, marking a bridge between heaven and earth, cite Tim Mackey, if you want to understand more about that, I would recommend the Bible Project video on anointing.

With the first use, hygiene, you have to understand that without indoor plumbing, bathing was pretty rare in ancient times. Washing of feet and hands was common, but fully undressing and bathing was much more rare, since you had to do it outside. But you would bathe before big events, and after you would bathe, just like today we might use conditioner, put on deodorant and lotion, ancient people would mix olive oil with spices, use that to moisturize their hair and skin, add some good scents. If you were anointed, you were looking and smelling good in the ancient world. So, naturally, anointing became associated with important occasions, just like dressing up is today. It shows you put in some extra effort.

Also naturally, wanting to show how much they consider the Lord and his festivals to be important, worshippers began incorporating anointing into worship. Just like the ritual handwashing mentioned a few times in the New Testament, or like baptism today, this kind of bathing, hygienic act took on a deep spiritual meaning. It meant you were preparing yourself to go before the Lord. It was a means of consecration.

Anointing as an act of worship starts in the Bible with Jacob. He falls asleep, and has a dream of a stairway to heaven, with holy messengers of God moving up and down on the ladder—that was a common conception of the divine in his day, god’s living on high mountains called ziggurats with steps carved on them. Only in Jacob’s dream, God comes down the stairwell and stands beside Jacob. Jacob, not being a particularly churchy person asks the natural question: who are you? Which God are you? And God answers I’m the god who is with you, the god who won’t stay in heaven, but instead will come down to you. They wrestle, and this is not my passage for today so I’m going to try very hard not to preach on this, but the point is, God makes a way from heaven to earth, and as he’s leaving, Jacob builds an ebeneezer, like a monument, and he pours this scented oil on it to show honor and to mark a kind of cleansing, a fresh start like bathing often does in our lives. That’s where the concept of anointing as an act of worship starts among the people of God.

Over time, anointing became part of most festivals, and especially by the time of Samuel, it became common for kings and priests, religious leaders, to either anoint themselves at major gatherings or have a priest anoint them, to assure the people God was with them. And then you get to Jesus, whose only real anointing was on his feet at the last real meal he would eat before dying, yet everyone who has ever spoken of him since that time has probably called him Christ, which means anointed by God, not because he was one of the kings of earth, but because he was a king in truth, Immanuel, God with us. He was then, is now, and always will be the fullness of the promise of anointing since Jacob: heaven and earth bridged. We always thought we would have to climb up, but heaven came down.

Christians pursue unity because it’s anointed. On earth, the reality is that the Church is splintered into so many pieces unity is considered idealistic, unrealistic, and in many corners, unfaithful. But since the very beginnings of the Church, Christians have believed: in truth, meaning in heaven, in God’s reality, the Church is one. It’s in the apostle’s creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” This doctrine, that the church is one and we should come together as one, was placed by our spiritual fathers in the same sentence as belief in the Holy Spirit, in forgiveness, and in resurrection.

This is not tangential; it’s foundational. That word, catholic, before it became a symbol of division in the reformation, with one group claiming descendency from the true church tradition and marking the other group as outcasts, that word catholic meant unity, the Church universal, wherever worshippers of Jesus were to be found.

Ever more, the unity of the church is a matter of faith instead of sight. I know more than most about church history, but I’ve lost track of all the denominations pf Christianity and how they define themselves. But faith in the Church universal is a faith I still hold. There’s only one father, only one city of God, only one table laid in Zion. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

I remember once when I was a kid, my brothers tied me to the swing set in the back yard, and no matter how scared or uncomfortable I got, they told me over and over again, I was a robber, and they were cowboys, and I needed to do my time, so they left me there and went back inside. You can imagine my mom’s response when she realized what they had done.

When you’re a child in a home, you don’t have the right of putting people out of that home, even if your reasons are good. Even if I were a thief, or a murderer, an addict, a sinner, a prostitute, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, a liberal—whoever the least of these are in your mind—if we are both children of God, then we are in the same family, no matter the shame of it for you. Have you ever considered what God has willingly done to his name and reputation by letting all of us into the family? And he sought us out! While we were enemies, he died for us. Unity is not a goal we’re working toward as a faith community, it’s a spiritual reality, and wherever you find brothers living together in unity, you find a piece of the kingdom of heaven come. That’s why our psalm says unity is like an anointing; Because it mirrors the spiritual reality, unity is a bridge between life in heaven and life here on earth.

We should pursue unity, then, as Christians in the same way we pursue personal holiness, not because we think it’s within our power, not even because we think we will get there in this life, but because it’s holy and right. And because at the end of this age, when Christ returns like the dawn, the unity of the Church will be true and full.

Christians pursue unity because we’re family, because unity is anointed, and because unity is fruitful. We pursue unity because it’s fruitful. The psalmist talks about the dew of Hermon falling on the mountains of Zion. We talked a little bit about this a few weeks ago, but part of why Israel is green, Mediterranean climate when so much of the middle east is desert—it’s partially the way the moisture gathers over the waters as they cool at night, causing showers mid-day just like it rains every day here in the summer. But part of it is mount Hermon. Mount Hermon is the tallest mountain in the entire Middle East, snow-capped year-round, causing rain and streams of fresh water to flow through the Golan heights in Israel year-round.

Our psalmist says the unity the Holy Spirit brings to his people is like that, like a mountain that causes water to flow through the land, making it green, making the land fertile to grow crops and nourish the nation. Unity is fruitful. In our families, in our churches, in our communities. We spend so much time and energy on conflict, on division, that we forget these institutions were created by the Lord to be fruitful.

Families were created to raise up the next generation and care for the aging generation, churches for worship and mission, communities so we can share life with each other, and all of them for relationship. In all the talk and disagreement about what we ought to be doing, we forget we ought really to be about doing it. We can sit around debating finer points of theology, but the simplest point of theology is communion with and obedience to our father. We were created to join in the community and love of God overflowing to the people around us. Unity is fruitful. It’s like the dew and the rains flowing down from the mountain watering our land.

My invitation to you this morning is into fruitfulness, into family, and into life now that is anointed, that is in Christ, meaning heaven and earth are bridged in your life. Too many people live life divided—separated from God, from church family, from loved ones. We’re meant to be together. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity.” Ain’t that the truth.

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