Sermon for June 24th, 2018
1How 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 forevermore.
Psalm 133 - Beard Oil
If you've ever seen a picture of John Calvin, one of the founding fathers of Presbyterianism, you know that he was a man with a beard. And what a beard it was! Not a big, bushy, sloppy beard like you see on Duck Dynasty or ZZ Top, but a long, crisp, well tailored beard that began wide at the top and narrowed down to a sharp point somewhere in the middle of his chest. The same is true of John Knox, another founder of Presbyterianism. In fact, there's a famous wall in Geneva, Switzerland called the "Reformation Wall." Along this wall are featured giant statues of the four great reformers: John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza, and William Farel...and their great, reformed beards are featured as well.
By contrast, Martin Luther (founder of Lutheranism) and John Wesley (founder of the Methodists) were rather bald in the chin.
The great 19th century reformed theologian Charles Spurgeon had this to say about the matter: "Growing a beard is a habit most natural, scriptural, manly, and beneficial." But to settle the issue completely, Jesus had a beard. And so does Chuck Norris.
In my mid-30s, when I first decided to sport facial hair, I wasn't sure how it would look. But then it grew on me. Unfortunately, this is about as much of a beard as I am able to grow, without looking like a scraggly, patchy mess.
I have always admired those who, like Calvin, Spurgeon, and my own father (I obviously didn't inherit the beard gene from him) who are capable of growing big, full, thick beards. I imagine they--and no one else--could actually experience today's scripture passage, Psalm 133 in all of its fullness, where the joy of community is described as being like "precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes."
Aaron, of course, is the brother of Moses, and the chief priest among the Israelites at the time of the Exodus. Pouring costly oils or perfumes on someone's head is a practice actually found in many ancient religions everywhere from Egypt to Africa and the Middle East. In the Bible it usually symbolizes that someone is God's chosen one for a particular office--prophet, king, or in this case, high priest. It means that person is set apart, holy, special. The more oil, the more holy, so if it's pouring all the way down your face into your beard and down your robes...you must be pretty special. And we like to be special.
But to be honest, the oil on my head and in my beard and on my clothes part doesn't really sound that appealing. It sounds like a greasy mess. The closest I think I can come to understanding the joy that the psalmist is remembering my youngest son, Jonah, when he was about two years old, diving into a stack of pancakes loaded with syrup and butter: It would get all over the place--all over his face and in his hair and on his hands and clothes. It was a sticky mess...and yet...he would have the time of his life. Pure joy and wild abandon.
Or maybe it's like the head coach of the winning Superbowl team, when at the end of the game the players surprise him and pour a giant barrel of ice-cold Gatorade over his head. Any other time and that would be annoying or downright offensive. But in the exuberant high of winning the game of a lifetime, this has become a tradition...and I bet the coach loves every second of it.
And then in verse three, there's another analogy. Instead of oil running down someone's head, this time "it is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountain of Zion." Hermon is the name of a mountain in the far North of Israel. It's the tallest mountain in Israel, is covered with snow most of the year (there's even a ski resort) and is in the part of Israel that receives the most rainfall. Mount Zion, on the other hand, is in Southern Israel. It's the mountain on which Jerusalem is located, and it's in the hot, dry, desert part of the country that receives very little rainfall. So in our own geography it would be like saying "It's like the dew of Vail or Aspen, which falls on El Paso." In other words...we wish! Or, at least there would be great rejoicing if that were true.
Verse three goes on to conclude the Psalm by saying "For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore." I'll come back to that conclusion later, but first I want to jump back to the beginning to look at what exactly the Psalmist is so excited about--what is so great it's like oil running down your head or like fresh water from the mountains?
Verse one: "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!" I really want to take this verse apart:
Kindred here is אַחִ֣ים (ahim), literally "brothers" but not just family, it's also friends, companions, fellow people.
Live together is שֶׁ֖בֶת (shebet), literally "sit," rest or remain together.
Unity is יָֽחַד (yahad); not unity in the sense of conformity, but more harmony or community.
Also, the "How very good" at the beginning of the verse? That's the Hebrew phrase הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טֹּ֭וב (hine ma-tov). Tov is "good" and hine shows up as Lo! or Behold! in older translations. It's what people in the Old Testament say when they are suddenly overwhelmed with joy, fear, amazement or surprise (like when an Angel shows up unexpectedly). Thomas Cahill, author of the book "How the Irish Saved Civilization" says that a better contemporary translation of Hine that comes from internet culture is the acronym WTF. If you don't know what WTF stands for, ask someone under 30 (because I can't say it in church).
So I would translate verse one something like this: How WTF amazing and awesome it is when the people spend time together in community!
This Psalm is what's called a "song of ascent." That means it's one of the songs that the people of Israel would sing when they were all converging upon the city of Jerusalem, climbing (ascending) the mountain road up to the city and temple for their annual festival. They are going to church, to camp-meeting, to family reunion, to Thanksgiving dinner--whatever you want to call it--and they are excited!
How amazing and awesome it is when the people spend time together in community! It's like pancake syrup or watermelon juice dripping down your face, or an ice-cold Gatorade victory shower after winning the game! It's like an abundant supply of fresh mountain water that gives and sustains life for everyone!
Note the direction things are moving, too: As the people go up--up the stairs, up the road, up the mountain to the temple--the goodness flows down--down your head, your beard, your clothes; the dew and the water flows down from Hermon to Zion.
When we gather together in community with others, we go higher and higher, drawing closer to God. What we bring to God is ourselves, our worship, our fellowship, our songs, and our excitement to be with each other in a sacred place. And God reaches down to pour out life and blessing upon us, to let us know that we are special, to let us know that we are loved.
The last half of verse three says "For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore." The "there" seems to refer to Mount Zion in the first half of the verse. But I think it might also be referring all the way back to verse one: Where does the Lord ordain his blessing, life forevermore? In community. How amazing and awesome it is when the people spend time together in community, in fellowship with each other!
Is there oil in your beard? Are you dripping with God's goodness and love?
Are you overflowing with life as new and fresh as the dew on the mountains?
If the answer is no, then come! Come be part of God's family, God's community, God's people.
If the answer is yes, then keep coming! We'll keep on climbing together; We'll keep on singing together; We'll keep on laughing together.
God is still pouring out life and love, and there is plenty for everyone!