Psalm 48: Hobbits, Hikers & the Shining City

The Call - Dusky Track, NZ

Dusky Track, Fiordland, NZ

The Call: Are You Thirsty?

I first read The Hobbit in primary school, and the Lord of the Rings at 13 or 14.

For anyone who lives in a hobbit hole,
Hobbits are little people – 3-4 foot tall – from the Shire.
A homely folk: six meals a day, a comfy hole, and no nasty adventures please.

But in these books, out of the blue comes a call.
A hobbit is swept up into a quest far beyond his cosy borders.

Maybe it was like that for Abraham near the start of the Bible.

The Lord said to Abraham:
Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.
By faith Abraham said yes, obeyed and went, even though he had no idea where he was going.
(Genesis 12; Hebrews 11:8)

Centuries later, through Moses, God called his people Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
Called them to journey to the Promised Land.

Once they were there, three times a year,
every man went up to Jerusalem, to worship God in his temple.
Today we will read a Psalm, which celebrates the pilgrim’s arrival

Our God is a God who calls his people out to pilgrimage.

Many of us here today will have – in some way at some time – heard a call from God:

Leave your cosy Shire.
Adventure with me”

We are all different, and God calls us in many ways
But here are two big sorts of calling.

Maybe a crisis floors us.
Our world collapses,
we are left floundering and helpless.
Or one day we see we are spiritual slaves,
wretched and miserable and poor and blind.

We fall to our knees,
It’s a painful, wake-up call of brokenness.
Sometimes that’s what it takes to kick-start our spiritual journey
Can you relate to this?

Here’s another sort of call
CS Lewis, who wrote the Narnia Chronicles, talks about

that something which you were born desiring, and which … night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you were looking for, watching for, listening for … all the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul had been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.

A memory of the memory of Eden still haunts us.
Like waking from a vivid dream, and the feeling is still there,
but you can’t quite recall what happened.
Like the cry of a distant kea reverberating off the cliffs.

the scent of a flower we have not found,
the echo of a tune we have not heard,
news from a country we have never yet visited…              (CS Lewis)

“The world was fair, the mountains tall
In Elder Days before the fall”

Inklings of the world we were made for.
Postcards from our long forgotten home.
A piercing, sweet call of beauty.
Does this sort of call resonate with you?

In 2002, I taught English in South Korea.
The language school was an hour out of Seoul, at the head of a valley
surrounded by woods, fields and farms below.

Sometimes, early in the morning, on the horizon,
you could faintly see rows of apartment blocks,
rising from the mist, rosy in the dawn.
Like the towers and battlements of a fairy-tale castle,
or the icy peaks of a mountain range.
Or even – could it be – the Celestial City?
Soon after, the smog rose, and the vision was gone.

Called through brokenness, called through beauty.
When we hear God’s call, we may find, like the old seeker Augustine,

“All my empty dreams suddenly lost their charm,
And my heart began to throb with a bewildering passion.”

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
(Psalm 42:1, Psalm 63:1)

What makes you long for God like that?
Are you thirsty?

The Road - Mt Cook, NZ

Tasman Glacier, Mt Cook, NZ

The Road: Are You on the Way?

As well as reading, I like tramping.
I’ve met some fascinating people in huts.
Physical and spiritual travellers.
Last year I met a young guy,
who never wanted to live more than two years in the same city.
As he put it, “the road is my home.”

Rolling stones.
Free spirits.
Footloose nomads.
Part of me envies them.
And I think these types show us something of what God calls Christians to be.

The book of Hebrews writes about the heros of the faith:

They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things are looking for a country they can call their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they could have gone back.  But no: they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.
Hebrews 11:9, 13-15

The early Christians were called “those who belong to The Way” (Acts 9:2)

“Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become”
Robert Farrar Capon

Wayfarers, not settlers.
The Greek word for the church is ecclesia, which literally means called out.
Called like hobbits out of the cosy Shire,
called like Abraham from his home,
called like Israel out of Egypt to be free.

We are called to be a Pilgrim People, Jesus Gypsies.
on the road to the Promised Land, longing for a better country,

Blessed are those who have set their minds on pilgrimage
(or) in whose hearts are the highways to Zion
(Psalm 84:5)

Are you a Pilgrim?
Are you on the way?

This picture of the Christian life as a journey has inspired a lot of writing.

The most famous is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, 17th century.
The main character Christian is overwhelmed by his burden of sin – that first call of brokenness,
so he flees the City of Destruction to seek the Celestial City.

More recently: Hind’s Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard
little Much Afraid journeys from the Valley of Humiliation to the High Places

I like CS Lewis’ more intellectual-arty version, The Pilgrim’s Regress.
or Godzone by Kiwi Mike Riddell

But anyway, back to ancient Israel

Imagine a group of pilgrims heading to Jerusalem.
Walking or riding for days or weeks.
The dust of the desert grinds them down.
Wolves howl at night.
Behind that boulder, in the shadows, is it bandits lurking?
What if they lose the way to the next oasis?

I reckon the nearest we come in New Zealand might be tramping.
a long, wet, rock-hopping treeroot-scrambling blistered-feet aching-shoulders, sweaty-parka day…
and you’re still going… and it’s getting dark…

Then you round another boulder, break out of the bush, and yes, the hut!
The joy, the relief – who knows that feeling?

Maybe a taste of what our Jewish Pilgrims felt as they crested the last hill,
and saw the city of Jerusalem, golden in the setting sun.

1 Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,
in the city of our God, his holy mountain.
2 Beautiful in its loftiness,
the joy of the whole earth,
like the heights of Zaphon is Mount Zion,
the city of the Great King.
3 God is in her citadels;
he has shown himself to be her fortress.

4 When the kings joined forces,
when they advanced together,
5 they saw her and were astounded;
they fled in terror.
6 Trembling seized them there,
pain like that of a woman in labor.
7 You destroyed them like ships of Tarshish
shattered by an east wind.
8 As we have heard,
so we have seen
in the city of the Lord Almighty,
in the city of our God:
God makes her secure

9 Within your temple, O God,
we meditate on your unfailing love.
10 Like your name, O God,
your praise reaches to the ends of the earth;
your right hand is filled with righteousness.
11 Mount Zion rejoices,
the villages of Judah are glad
because of your judgments.

12 Walk about Zion, go around her,
count her towers,
13 consider well her ramparts,
view her citadels,
that you may tell of them
to the next generation.
14 For this God is our God for ever and ever;
he will be our guide even to the end.

Psalm 48

The City - Hump Ridge Track, NZ

Hump Ridge Track, Southland, NZ

The City: Can You Imagine?

Psalm 48 likely shows some Jews from the outlying provinces
on their first pilgrimage to Jerusalem
That’s why they say,

“we had heard of the city’s glory, now we have seen it ourselves “ (8, cf Job 42:5)

When I read their description, two themes stand out for me about the city.

“God makes salvation its walls and ramparts”

It cannot be shaken, no enemy can storm its citadels, this city will never fall.
A towering mountain-fortress.
The kings attack, but they are scattered (4-8)
After the dangerous road through the desert, now the pilgrims are safe.

The city of God is “beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” (2).
It’s the city set on a hill of which Jesus spoke. (Matt 5:14)
The light of the world, high and radiant and magnificent.

There is a city like this in The Lord of the Rings.
Let’s join the hobbit Pippin
as he enters the City of the Kings, Minas Tirith (The Return of the King, 20)

…suddenly the sun climbed over the eastern shadow and sent forth a shaft that smote the face of the city.  Then Pippin cried aloud, for the tower, standing high within the topmost wall, shone out against the sky, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver, tall and fair and shapely, and its pinnacle glittered as if it were wrought of crystals; and white banners broke and fluttered from the battlements in the morning breeze, and high and far he heard a clear ringing as of silver trumpets….
there stood up from the rear of the wide court behind the Gate a towering bastion of stone, its edge sharp as a ship-keel facing east…. A strong citadel it was indeed, and not to be taken by a host of enemies …
Pippin gazed in growing wonder at the great stone city, vaster and more splendid than anything that he had dreamed of…

What a city! (cf Neuschwanstein in Bavaria)

Remember those two types of call?
Here is the strength and security and salvation
that we cry out for in times of brokenness.

Amid our journeyings here, we suffer bruises;
our last home shall be the home of joy alone.

And this city is the source of every longing for beauty – the second sort of call.
It is the end of all desire,
the quenching of every thirst, “the well at the world’s end”

But the cynics among us may notice a problem.
Verse 2: “the utmost heights.”
The Prophet Isaiah even calls Mount Zion “the highest of all mountains” (Isaiah 2:2)
But it’s not: there are bigger hills around.

“God makes her secure forever”? (8)
Yeah right!
Jerusalem has fallen.
Maybe not long after the Psalm was written,
the Babylonians trashed the city, broke down its walls, burnt down its temple.
70 A.D., the Romans did much the same

“The wolf will live with the lamb… They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”

What’s more, Jerusalem literally means
the city of Shalom – deep peace and harmony
but until today,
it’s been more a city of bloody violence.

A bit of poetic license here.
Time for a reality check

The physical Jerusalem cannot be our final destination.
That’s why all those heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 kept on
longing for a better country – a heavenly one.
Looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
(Hebrews 11:10, 16)

The city with foundations,
built not on the shifting sands of time, but
in the words of a hymn:

on the rock of ages founded
with salvation’s walls surrounded

I think for the Psalmist, the physical Jerusalem was like a prophetic image.
A hint, a foretaste of the glory God would one day give to Zion.

In a similar vein, CS Lewis called this world the Shadowlands.
All the things we see are like insubstantial flat grey shadows,
of the solid, bright, multi-dimensional reality which God plans it to be.

In Romans 8, Paul tells us that the whole creation is groaning, hungering,
longing for the day when God will set it free from decay,
to become truly itself (Romans 8:19-23)

Part of our calling is to transform our world
so it begins to reflect the new creation that is coming.
Start painting some divine colour into the earthly shadows.
Some solid depth into flat empty lives.
So Auckland city right here begins to glow with the splendour of Zion.

Maybe Ronald Reagan saw this.
In his 1989 farewell speech, he captured some of the Psalm 48 vision:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life… in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.

What a picture!
Imagine if this could apply to Auckland!

Sometimes the New Jerusalem, or the New Auckland, already shines through the old.
It can be in unexpected places:
After church, take a walk from here down K-Road towards the red light district.
You’ll find these words painted on a wall:

O storm battered city, troubled and desolate.
I will rebuild you on a foundation of sapphires
and all your walls of precious jewels.
I will make your towers of rubies and gates of sparkling souls.
I will teach your citizens, and great will be your children’s peace.

Straight from Isaiah 54:11-13
It’s a lament – a cry of brokenness:
“O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted”
And it’s a promise – a longing for beauty:
“Foundations of sapphires, pinnacles of rubies.”

But there’s a small difference.
Most Bible versions have something like: “gates of sparkling stones”,
the KRV – K Road Version read “gates of sparkling souls.”

Maybe the painter was thinking of this verse in first Peter:
“God is building us like living stones into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5)
So we are not only citizens of the city, but its very building materials!

And the KRV even suggests we are the gates:
Of course, the primary gate to the city is Christ, but in a secondary sense,
Psalm 48:13 instructs us to tell others about the city’s glory,
So it shines through us like open gates, and we invite them to enter.
Reagan was right: Revelation says the gates will always be open.  (21:25).

All this imagery of precious stones reminds me again of The Lord of the Rings.
I love the interplay between the dwarf Gimli and the elf Legolas.

Dwarves love “glades of flowering stone”, caverns of stalactites – the cathedrals of the earth.
They mine for precious metals and stones,
And skilfully craft exquisite artefacts.

They would be at home in the New Jerusalem.
Just like that K-Road Isaiah prophecy,
Revelation says the Holy City

shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like a precious jewel…
The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, like transparent glass…
The foundations of the walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone.
The first was jasper, then sapphire, agate, emerald, … amethyst.
The twelve gates were twelve pearls.
Revelation 21:11, 18-21

Sounds like good dwarf stone-work there!

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God”
Psalm 46:4

By contrast, Tolkien’s Elves love the beauty of woods and streams,
trees and flowers and growing things under the stars.
Like walking through a cool beech forest,
dappled sun shadow on the soft carpet of gold and red and brown fallen leaves,
a creek whispering through mossy green stones.

And in Revelation, we find this too.
The Holy City is a garden city, embracing the beauty of Eden:

through the middle of the city street flows the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal
On each side of the river stood the tree of life, yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

This would also delight the heart of an elf!

The folk of the mountain and the folk of the wood.
Very different tastes, but both would find deep fulfilment there.
And so, with all our differences, will each of us.

Everything good and beautiful and true will be there.
Everything that brings us love and joy and peace,
Whatever “romances your heart”, stirs your soul. (John Eldredge)
It will all be there, resurrected and restored and renewed.

Can you imagine?
This is where we are going!
When the way is weary and the road gets rough, we need scriptures like this.
They give us greater hope for our goal, and therefore stronger faith for the journey.
As a friend said,

Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future;
Faith is the decision to dance it in the present.

The King - Arthurs Pass, NZ

Hallelujah Flat, Arthur’s Pass, NZ

The King: Do You Love Him?

“Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion city of our God”

We’ve talked a lot about the city’s strength and beauty.
So what is the secret of its security?
the source of its majesty?
It is the city of the great King. (2-3)
God is in her citadels;
he himself is her fortress, her defender.

The deepest longing of the human heart is for a place and for a person.
For the heavenly city and for the presence of God.

As Augustine prayed,

“You have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless until we find ourselves in you”

“God himself is the reward of those who seek him.”

Look at the city, walk around it (12-14).
Count its towers; contemplate its strength, consider its beauty.
This is what our God is like.
Truly, great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.

But not everyone sees this:
Last week, Ian challenged us to choose between the two ways in Psalm 1:
The way of the righteous, who honour God,
and the wicked, who disregard him.

Here in Psalm 48, the same two groups of people come to Zion.
First the pilgrims,
When they see the city, they rejoice:
“They will enter Zion with singing, and everlasting joy will crown their heads.”  (Isaiah 51:11)

Then the enemy kings and their armies marching to war.
When they see the city and its impregnable majesty.
They are shocked and stunned, terrified and trembling ,
Shattered and scattered like ships in a storm, chaff by the wind.

Joy or Fear
Which will it be for you when you see the city?

It’s like the scene at the end of the Narnia Chronicles, in The Last Battle.
Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, has come.
The old Narnia is no more.
One by one, all its creatures meet Aslan face to face. (Rev 22:4)

Some are filled with fear and hatred.
They have fought and fled Aslan all their lives,
now they disappear into his huge black shadow.

But others look in the face of Aslan
and realise he is what they have loved and lived and longed for all their days.
They enter Aslan’s country.
In the words of the unicorn:

“I have come home at last!  This is my real country!  I belong here.
This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this… Come further up, come further in!”

Immortal delight or eternal terror
Which will you feel when you meet the king?

To find the answer, ask yourself this:
Do you love him?


Once upon a time there lived a sea lion who had lost the sea. (John Eldredge)

That is us.

CS Lewis wrote

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…  we are far too easily pleased.

We began today with the call that sparks a longing for this infinite joy,
the”unnameable something” of our deepest desire.

We’ve seen a few glimmerings of our heavenly city.
as Mike Riddell puts it,

“A sneak preview of life, a glimpse behind the curtain, a taste from the pot before the meal begins.”
“The snatch of a sax solo carried on the night.”

Postcards from Zion.
Maybe these have aroused,

“the hunger for God in your heart and the itch of the road in your feet.” (Mike Riddell)

If that’s you.
If you’ve answered the call and hit the highway,
the next question is this:

“Our citizenship is in heaven”

How do we actually find our true country?
How do we become citizens of the city?

If we try to build it ourselves, we build on sand, and it will fall.
If we seek alone, we will never find.

The call, the road, and the city, are all a free gift from the King

“By grace a pilgrim below, and by grace a citizen above”.  Augustine.

As Psalm 48 concludes, God is our guide (14).
He shows us the way.

And Jesus is the pioneer of our path (Hebrews 12:2).
He himself is the way (John 14:6)
Through his life, death and resurrection
he has blazed the trail through the wilderness and left markers, signposts and cairns.
All the way through death.

Christ free-climbed the rock wall of heaven.
He hammered bolts into its sheer face so we can safely follow.

Now he is preparing a place for us (John 14:2).
When we wet and weary trampers arrive at the hut, we’ll find him waiting.
He’s got a warm fire crackling, and the billy boiled ready for a good hot brew.

Can you imagine?
Are you thirsty?
Come, follow his call.

Take the free gift of the water of life (Revelation 22:17)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will satisfy the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth …

I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem …

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Now God’s home is with his people!
He will live with them and be their God.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away…
see, I make all things new “
(Revelation 21:31-5)

After the last battle, towards Minas Tirith:

There came a great Eagle flying, and he bore tidings beyond hope … crying
“Sing now, all ye people…
for the Dark Tower is thrown down…
and the Black Gate is broken,
and your King hath passed through,
and he is victorious.
Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
for your King shall come again,
and he shall dwell among you
all the days of your life.
And the Tree that was withered shall be renewed,
and he shall plant it in the high places,
and the City shall be blessed.
Sing all ye people!”