The Miracle of Unity
Depending on vaccination rates, we are potentially only weeks away from all public health orders being lifted in this province. For the first time in almost a year and a half, we will be free to gather as one body back in our church building. For the first time since November, we’ll be free to go out in public place without masks on.
And it would be tempting to look forward to that and say, “Yes, that’s the day when things are home free and we can stop thinking about this silly virus.”
But I think we all know that would be premature. For one, COVID-19 will probably continue to impact us in some measure into the future.
But what I think will impact us more dramatically in the short term is that not everybody is going to be ready for everything to go back to normal. Not everybody is going to feel comfortable with “normal,” at least at the very beginning. It’s going to take some people a while to adjust.
And so there’s going to be some speed bumps in the process. I know that here in our church community there will be those who take their mask off as soon as you are allowed. And I know that there will be those who will not feel comfortable without a mask for at least a few more weeks.
I know there are those of you who will want to be shaking hands and hugging and sitting close together as soon as you’re allowed. And I know there will be those of you who will not feel safe doing that right away.
I know there are those of you who think that every Christian has a duty to be vaccinated as a way to love your neighbour. And I know that there are others of you who have various reasons for why you are hesitant to be vaccinated.
These are just a few examples of some of the ways in which the whole COVID-19 situation is not going away with the snap of a finger. Ways in which our unity is going to continue to be tested, just like it has been in various ways all throughout this process.
And that’s probably why, as I selected a Psalm to preach on today, I was drawn again to the topic of unity in Psalm 133.
We are back in the Psalm again for seven weeks this summer. We spent several weeks in the Psalms two years ago, but you’ll remember that there are 150 of them, so we can expect every few years or so we’ll dip our toes back into these waters.
Over the next several weeks Tim and Josh and Brad Lytle and Jordan Dudgeon from our congregation and Dr. John Loge from the Bible college will be preaching on a number of different Psalms and I’ll be finishing us up in August before we spend four weeks in Jonah together.
But today we’re in the Psalms and we kick things off with Psalm 133, a Psalm all about unity.
“A Song of Ascents”
As we consider this Psalm and what it has to say to us we need to start at the beginning with that phrase “A Song of Ascents.” The songs or Psalms of Ascents are a group of 15 Psalms, from Psalm 120 to 134. These were Psalms written for the journey up to Jerusalem.
Three times a year the men of Israel were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate a sacred feast together (Exodus 23:14-17). We see that reflected in the New Testament which makes frequent reference to these journeys to Jerusalem for the feasts.
These feasts were an important way for God’s people to come together as one assembly, to remember His saving works, and to keep Him as the centre of their life as a nation.
Now the reason these pilgrimage songs were calls songs of ascents is that for most people, the journey to Jerusalem was a journey up. Jerusalem is 754 m above sea level and it’s only 65 km or so from the Mediterranean Sea. So it was quite a climb. And it was especially a climb if you came from the East. Jericho is only 35 km away by road, but sits at 275 m below sea level. That means that from Jericho to Jerusalem, which is about from here to Garrick, there was a climb of a whole kilometre.
This is why Psalm 122:3-4 says, “Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together, to which the tribes go up.”
The Psalms of Ascents often reflect the fact that this journey could be really hard. For example, Psalm 121 begins with “I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The road to Jerusalem could be steep and dangerous and that Psalm expresses trust in God as that journey is made.
There were other challenges as well. Such as, the twelve tribes coming all together in one place. Think of how well the 12 sons of Jacob got along, and that gives us a little picture into how well the tribes that came from them could get along.
Some of you know what that’s like when you go home for Christmas. You get along great with your family as long as there’s some distance between you. But back under the same roof for a few days, and sparks start to fly again.
So I don’t think it should surprise us here at the tail end of these pilgrim songs that there’s a song about unity. It was really important for Israel to be at peace with each other, for there to be no fighting or strife, for them to dwell in unity, and especially during these times of feasting in Jerusalem. And this is a song that celebrates that unity and how good it was when they did experience it.
Good and Pleasant
And what we want to notice here is how Psalm 133 talks about unity. Think of all of the ways it could talk about unity. It could give a command: “Israel, when you go up to the feasts together, don’t fight. Work hard to get along.”
It could give a warning: “If you are not unified you will dishonour God’s name and you will be weak as a nation.”
It could give a promise: “If you are unified, if you get along in peace, things will go really, really well for you.”
Those are all ways that this passage could encourage God’s people to get along. And none of those ways would be bad. The Bible does talk to us in those different ways at different times. But what makes Psalm 133 so unique is how it simply celebrates how good unity is. Look at verse 1: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
Behold! Look! Look at how good and pleasant, lovely, delightful it is when God’s people live at in peaceful community together. Isn’t that so good when that happens?
And that’s basically all the Psalm says. “Isn’t that wonderful when that happens? Ain’t it good? Look at how good it is.”
What we see in verses 2 and 3 are two word-pictures that show us just how good it is when God’s people are united with each other.
Here’s what verse 2 tells us. When God’s people live in unity with each other, “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (Psalm 133:2).
Okay, we’ve got to figure this one out. One minute it’s talking about unity, and the next minute it’s talking about oil in your beard. When I think about something that is good and pleasant, oil running on my head down my beard onto the collar of my robes probably isn’t the first thing that would come to mind.
If I were writing this Psalm, and I was thinking of something good and pleasant, I might say, “It is like the sound and smell of a well-aged steak sizzling on the BBQ.” That is one of the most good and pleasant things I can think of. Or, “It is like a warm June afternoon out at Torch Trail with your church family all around.” Wasn’t that so great last week?
So what’s going on here?
First, in the Middle East where this was written, it was often really dry. And the people often used oil to moisturize their skin. So this picture of oil running through your hair wouldn’t have sounded icky or sticky to them. It would have sounded refreshing.
Second, notice this phrase “precious oil.” Notice that it starts at the head, and then runs down the beard of Aaron, and then on to the collar of his robes. This is talking about Aaron being anointed as the priest.
God gave instructions for a precious oil they would use for anointing the priests, which they couldn’t use for anything else. And when a hight priest was anointed, especially the first high priest, that was about as good and pleasant a thing as you could imagine.
This hight priest would represent you to God. He would serve daily at the temple offering sacrifices. He would go into the Most Holy Place once a year to bring the blood of the sacrifice right into God’s presence. A good high priest meant that things could be okay between God and His people.
And so a high priest being anointed was one of the most good and pleasant things they could think of.
But there’s probably more going on here. Aaron and the following high priests were set apart for their mission by this special anointing oil. Israel itself had been commissioned to be a nation of priests in Exodus 19:6, right before they got the Ten Commandments.
And so the Psalmist is likely making the point here that, just like the precious oil set Aaron apart for his mission as high priest, so unity is what sets God’s people apart for their mission as a nation of priests.
Think of it this way: how can God’s people represent Him to the world and make Him look good if they are fighting and devouring one another all the time?
They can’t. So unity—God’s people living together in peace—is like oil running down Aaron’s head, through his beard, on to his clothes.
It’s so good. It’s a wonderful experience in and of itself. And also it’s the very thing that marks out God’s people and sets them apart for their mission of representing God to the world.
Verse three gives us a second word picture about unity. “It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3).
So a few things here we need to understand. Mount Hermon was the highest mountain in Israel, and one of the highest mountains in the whole region. It’s 2,814 m above sea level, so high it actually has snow on it—today there’s a ski resort up there. Beyond snow, the hight means that it’s common to have dew on the mountain which help make it green, watering the crops that grow there.
But Mount Hermon is far to the north. Today it’s actually a part of Syria, beyond the northern borders of Israel. And far to the south you have Mount Zion, which is really more of a hill. Are than 2,000 m lower than Mount Hermon. No snow on it. Very little dew, as well. Two of the feasts that Israel celebrated would have been during the summer season when Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside would have been bone dry.
And so it’s actually really noteworthy that God chose Mount Zion to be the place for His name to dwell. You would have thought Mount Hermon would be a more natural choice. It’s higher and more majestic. There’s evidence that it was a sacred mountain to the pagans.
But God often does things that we don’t expect. Like choosing Jacob instead of Esau. Like having Rahab and Ruth be in the family line of David. And choosing Mount Zion, Jerusalem, instead of Mount Hermon. Like the last half of verse 3 says. “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
And when God’s people dwell together in unity, it’s like the dew of Hermon falling on Jerusalem. The dew of the great high mountain coming down and keeping Jerusalem moist and lush.
And an ancient Israelite would probably think, “Oh, that would be so wonderful.” And we might think, “Ya, and impossible. That could never happen without a miracle.”
And that’s exactly the point. Because that’s what unity is like. When God’s people dwell together in unity, at perfect peace with each other, it’s like the best thing ever. It’s wonderful beyond imagination. The strong support the weak, Hermon sends its dew to Zion, nobody is being selfish or stubborn, everybody is happy to do what God has decided. It’s refreshing and it’s so good.
And, it’s impossible on a human level. It’s impossible without a miracle. People are too different from each other, too far apart from each other, that being unified is as impossible as Hermon’s dew falling on Zion—unless God does this.
It’s interesting to note that in this language of dew in verse 3, just like with the language of oil in verse 2, the blessing comes “down.” The dew of Hermon falls on the mountains of Zion. Just like the oil on Aaron’s head ran down the beard.
This just reinforces that the blessing of unity comes down from above. It’s not something we can create in and of ourselves. It has to come from God.
The Joy of Unity
And that is Psalm 133. What we’ll do now is review the three main truths we’ve seen in this Psalm and reflect on what they might have to say to us this morning.
The first truth we’ve seen is the joy of unity. That unity is so good. “Good and pleasant” in the language of verse 1.
And I want to suggest that this is actually a really important point for us to reflect on as we think about unity morning. We can put it in the form of a question: do we feel the same way about unity as David did? Do we think that unity is one of the best experiences in the world?
I wonder if this is what’s missing in the way we sometimes think about unity. I mean, we all know that we’re supposed to be unified. The New Testament tells us that repeatedly. 1 Peter 3:8 is one example: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
That’s a command. But maybe it’s a command that’s easy to ignore if unity isn’t something we really enjoy like Psalm 133 describes.
Perhaps its like exercise. For years I found that getting regular exercise was really, really hard until I found something that I actually enjoyed doing. For me, that was getting a bike. And then, putting in the work came easy. I was eager to get out and ride. When you love something, it doesn’t feel like work.
Could it be that unity among God’s people is kind of the same? We can be honest and admit that unity takes work. It’s hard. Having unity of mind with those who think differently than us is tough. Having sympathy and brotherly love for people who get on our nerves is not easy.
Having a tender heard and a humble mind does not come naturally to most of us.
And, on the flip side, sometimes other things feel better than unity. Repaying evil for evil can feel satisfying for a moment. Judging people or listening to gossip can feel good. Thinking that you’re right and everybody else is wrong can feel intoxicating.
And so for God’s people to be unified, we need a heart like David’s in Psalm 133, where we love unity, and being unified is one of the experiences we can imagine. We need the pleasures of unity to feel greater than the pleasures of criticism or judgement or being right.
And how do we get there? Or how do we grow there? Well, that’s what Psalm 133 is for. We ask God for the faith to believe what is written here—to accept, by faith, that this perspective is true. We pray that He would help us to see and feel things this way, and to grow in that. If you don’t love unity, as God to help you love it. And if you do love unity, then ask God to help you love it even more and more.
The Mission of Unity
The second truth we’ve seen is the mission of unity. Unity is like the anointing oil that sets apart the people of God for it’s mission. That was true when Psalm 133 was written, and the same is true for us today.
In other words, being unified, standing together, is not something we can take or leave. It’s central to our mission as God’s people.
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35) said Jesus.
Or think of Philippians 1:27: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.” When Paul talks about living worthy of the gospel, what’s the first thing that he talks about? Being unified. Same thing with Ephesians 4 which we began the service with today.
Unity is ground zero for living like a Christian and for representing God to this world.
And again, this just drives me to prayer. This makes me want to say, “God, help me to see this in this way. Help me to remember how important this is. Help me to celebrate it when I see it. Help me to pursue it when it feels hard.”
The Miracle of Unity
The third truth we’ve seen is the miracle of unity. Like oil and dew, unity comes down from God above. Like the oil on Aaron, it’s God’s idea, God’s initiative. And like the dew from Hermon falling on Mount Zion, it’s a miracle that God Himself must do.
Any bit of real unity or real fellowship you’ve enjoyed in your life has been a gift. A supernatural gift from God. And this should make us so, so thankful.
And if we want to be reminded this morning of just how miraculous unity is, all we need to do is think about the church and what Jesus has done to build His church.
Just think about what the church is. Look around this room for a snapshot of this church and think about how different we are, on a human level. We’re different ages, different backgrounds, different life experiences, different life stages. And here we are, all together. Why? Because of Jesus who died and rose again for His people and who said, “I will build my church.”
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And that’s the real miracle of unity: being united in Christ.
I remember my mom telling me about an experience she had, shortly after coming to the Lord as a young woman, and she was part of a small group of ladies who met together and were really enjoying their fellowship. And yet one day it hit my mom how different they all were, humanly. Here she was, a chain-smoking, recovering stoner, single mom hippie, while many of these other ladies were straight-laced conservative Mennonite women who she would have had nothing to do with a few months before then. But here they were, loving each other and enjoying each other. Not because they were the same on a human level, but because they had Jesus in common. They had the Holy Spirit in common. And that meant more to them than all of their human differences.
And I’ve learned that what my mom experienced in that small group was not a one-off. That’s the church. So different from each other in so many ways, but made one as we gather around the cross and the empty grave of Jesus.
And so as we think about unity this morning, and we think about the blessing of unity, it’s so appropriate that we end here by thinking about the gospel. Because the good news for us this morning is that Jesus has already done all of the heavy lifting when it comes to unity.
Just think of what Galatians 3:28 just said. “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Unity isn’t something we need to manufacture. It’s something we already have if we are in Christ. All we need to do is recognize that and then act on it in the power of the Spirit.
If you’re a Christian, think about another Christian that you might struggle to get along with on a human level. Hopefully you need to really think hard about this one. Now think about this: you don’t need to become unified with this person. Jesus already did that when He died and rose again for you both and sent you His Spirit. You are one in Jesus. You have the same saviour, the same Lord, and the same Spirit living inside of you. You have way more in common than any human differences you might have.
And all you really need to do is remember that this is true and then act like this is true in the power of that Spirit.
So if we think back to where we started, and we think about the differences that seem to threaten the unity of God’s people in this season, we shouldn’t get worried. Yes, there are some big differences between us. But God can bridge the gaps between us just as easily as he can make the dew from Hermon fall on Mount Zion.
God did a miracle on the cross when Christ died for our sins. God did a miracle at the resurrection when Christ rose from the dead. God did a miracle at Pentecost when the Spirit was sent into His people. And God carries that miracle forward into the present day as He helps His children be unified by the power of that Spirit.
And one of the best ways to do that—one of the best ways to put unity into practice—is by setting our focus on the gospel. If we focus on each other and our differences there’s a good chance we’ll find unity to be a struggle. But if we fix our eyes on Christ crucified and risen for us—and for them!—we’ll more easily find ourselves standing together at peace, without strife, enjoying the blessing of unity together.
So that’s why we’re going to end this morning not by singing a song about unity but by singing a song about Jesus. “All I Have is Christ.” If Jesus is your life, and Jesus is someone else's life, then you share the same life! Therefore, the more we enjoy Jesus together the more we’ll enjoy each other like Psalm 133 describes.