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Becoming: Life as a Pilgrimage (Psalm 84)

Date: 14/11/2021/Speaker: Ps Gary Chan

Good morning church, my name is Gary and today we are continuing with the fifth our of six part sermon series on “Becoming”.

INTRO & RECAP

Today, we are going to continue building on what was shared over the past four weeks that began with us looking at the Parable of the Sower out of Matthew 13.

Pauline talked about how God sows the Word of the kin-dom of God extravagantly regardless of the condition of the soil. The Word of the kin-dom is who God is and who we are called to become which is love, life and light. So as God is love, life and light to us, we are called to be love, life and light to others.

This Word of the Kin-dom is sown into soil and this represents the hearts of all humanity, and each one of us needs to pay attention to what is the conditions of our hearts that receive the Word of the Kin-dom.

We then looked the experience of Becoming in our second week together. How we will encounter resistance when we become love, life and light to others because of the fear response in us and others. We should be aware of what motivates our responses in these situations and have wisdom of what we can control, focus on, and build our resilience anchored on certain hope.

Jorg then talked about another part of the experience of Becoming, and that is waiting. Waiting is a part of God’s plan in Becoming and God will care for us during that season. And when the waiting ends, God has a task for us – to bring love, life and light to a particular situation.

Miak shared with us last week that our extent of Becoming is our extent of revelation of God’s love and grace for each one of us. He talked about grace being the process of God loving us into Becoming more and more Christ-like. And as we are loved into Becoming, and have revelation of God’s grace over our lives, we are able to love others into Becoming. And a core part of that our ability of Becoming is to forgive.

If you missed any of the previous week’s sermons, I encourage you to catch it online – I promise you that binge watching and filling yourself with the Word will not be wasted time!

For those who did listen in, I would like to ask you to share with all of us what were the takeaways for you away from this sermon series so far.

If you are joining us live, you can submit your responses anonymously by going to menti.com and enter in the code “9011 8753”. This is a great way that we can all build today’s sermon together and have your voice heard.

Let’s have a look at your responses that you have shared.

INTRODUCTION

We have been learning about the journey and experience of Becoming, and this is critical because in the past few weeks we have also been reflecting the reality of where we are today as a church.

As part of preparing and shaping our plans for the coming year, it is important to understand where we today – for each of us who make up this church community.

We asked for your help to answer some questions in our annual Pulse Survey so we can hear how you are feeling about your own spiritual growth and about your engagement with others and ministries the church. Thank you for all those who responded to our survey this year.

We have been doing this survey over the past 5 years and it helps us to chart our collective journey of Becoming, and this also helps us to plan how we can support one another and create the right environment and conditions for us to grow in 2022.

SURVEY SUMMARY

Here are some of the highlights of the results between the responses this year vs. where we were 2 years ago before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The first chart here is about our faith individually and how many people agree with these statements, and how this has changed this year vs. 2 years ago before the pandemic. While these responses may not be completely representative, they really highlight that for many of us, the past 2 years have been tough on our spiritual growth, and our growth towards Becoming. You can see many areas have declined, especially in the areas of our worship and prayer life and how we are developing ourselves.

So it is no surprise here that we look at our church collectively in this next chart, we see a similar trend of the progress we have made in Becoming as a community. As a faith community, we have struggled to be the church with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. We see many areas of decline especially around community life, and being able to grow spiritually and serve in areas that matter to us.

And it feels like, as Jorg shared 2 weeks ago, that we have all gone through a collective period of waiting, as Elijah did when he was limited in his ability to do his ministry because it was dangerous time and had to be in isolation, like many of us are today.

But like Jorg shared, the waiting will end and God’s task for us remains the same – Becoming more Christ-like, so that we can be love, life and light to the world around us.

Today I would like to encourage us today out of Psalm 84 to reflect and recognize that we are all on a journey, and how this journey we are on is really an invitation to a pilgrimage for us to grow spiritually individually and collectively as a church as part of the journey of Becoming.

SCRIPTURE READING

Let’s read Psalm 84 together –

How lovely is your Tabernacle,

    O Lord of Hosts!

My soul yearns, even faints,

    for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh cry out

    for the living God.

Even the sparrow has found a home,

    and the swallow a nest for herself,

    where she may have her young—

a place near your altar,

    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house;

    they are ever praising you.

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,

    they make it a place of springs;

    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,

    till each appears before God in Zion.

This beautiful psalm is often known as a “psalm of pilgrimage”, writing about the experience of the pilgrimage that Jews would take to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles.

Every year, crowds would make this pilgrimage to remember God’s provision in the wilderness of waiting and look prophetically forward to what God is going to do in the future. They would journey from different parts of Israel, and make this pilgrimage to the Holy City to worship at the Temple, to encounter God, and be with one another.

Let’s take a moment to understand what is a pilgrimage and how do you think it is different from any other journey? Can I invite you to share what you think on Menti?

This whole idea of a pilgrimage is not just reserved for the ancient Jews.

One type of pilgrimage that we may be familiar with is the one that Muslims take – the Haj. It is an important part of their faith journey is to go on the Haj at least once in their lives – to take a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Let’s have a look at your responses.

[Menti responses]

A pilgrimage is different from any other journey because it is both an internal journey as well as an external journey. It is also both an individual journey and a journey that is taken together in community with others.

So in the case of the Haj as well as the ancient Jews, they undertake a pilgrimage both as a journey for the individual and as a community, and they are also taking the same journey with both their feet and also with their hearts.

If you look through the Bible, we see the call to pilgrimage embedded in all the Abrahamic faiths, including Christianity.

In Genesis 12, God calls Abraham to leave his house and journey to a land unknown. “Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house, and go on a journey to a foreign land.”

So Abram becomes a nomad. He leaves his land, pitches a tent each night, and the next morning, he packs up the tent and moves on. This “Abrahamic” spirit is fundamental to our shared tradition: we are pilgrim people, from the very start.

The story continues with the Exodus, which is essentially a forty-year pilgrimage. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt, abused by Pharaoh, and God raises up Moses to bring them out of Egypt. And Moses leads them on an epic journey across the desert, towards the Promised Land.  

Two weeks ago we looked at Elijah’s pilgrimage. He is called to speak truth to power and that leads him to have to go into the wilderness to await his next task before returning to defeat the prophets of Baal and restore the hearts of the people of Israel to God.

This idea of pilgrimage continues throughout the Gospels, as Jesus calls disciples to leave their homes and all that they have known, to follow Jesus on a journey into the unknown: 

He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.  And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:16-18)

“He called the rich young man and said, ‘Sell everything that you have and follow me.’” (Mt 19:21)

“He saw a tax collector called Levi and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up, left everything, and followed him.” (Lk 5:27-28)

In these 3 verses we see Jesus’ same command to leave everything to follow Him.  The first disciples were also invited in Acts to leave the upper room, to be invited on a pilgrimage – not just of their feet but also their hearts.

They were called to leave behind the familiar and the known, and journey into a place and a future that only God can envision.

For these pilgrims the journey starts with the willingness and act of leaving behind the world that is known – so that they can embark on journey of Becoming.

A pilgrimage of transformation requires first that we leave what is familiar behind, and set out on a journey together that will lead to a pilgrimage of Becoming within and of Becoming together.

Down through the centuries, people have gone on pilgrimage as a response to “walk away” from where they were so that they can “walk into” a new chapter of their life. But this first requires us to let go our old self and allow God to bring about growth and transformation through the process.

There are some pilgrimages that we take that are shorter and more obvious – like when some of us went to Israel as a church, or to Taiwan for Amplify back when we could travel. But there are some pilgrimages that are less obvious, like the one that you are on when you first decided to follow Christ or the one that we are on as FCC that began with God bringing us together as community 18 years ago.

Sometimes it is hard to remember this especially when we look like we are going nowhere the past 2 years in the middle of the pandemic, and as we approach 2022 we need to start looking prophetically to where God is calling us to next in our process of Becoming, both individually and collectively.

So this is not just a journey we are on as a church, it is actually a pilgrimage we each are also undertaking individually and together.

When we recognize this, we don’t need to wait to get to a destination like Mecca or Israel to have an encounter with God. And instead, we will encounter God in the right here and right now, and that’s what makes it special and sacred.

Pilgrimages are not easy because it calls us to leave what is comfortable and what is familiar behind. Like those that have gone before us, we are going to lose control. We are going though uncomfortable and uncertain times where we have to face our own brokenness and the brokenness with one another and with God, amidst the brokenness that we are seeing all around us in the world. We fear that we will end up wandering around and getting lost. Are we still heading in the right direction even though we feel like things are at a standstill? How do we know we are even on the right path?

It is here that I want to encourage us around Ps 84 and what it teaches us around the passion, path and purpose of the pilgrim, especially as FCC prepares for the coming year of our pilgrimage together.

So we are going to look at 4 areas today –

  1. The passion of the pilgrim
  2. The promise for the pilgrim
  3. The path of the pilgrim
  4. The purpose of the pilgrim

Let’s begin by first looking at the Passion of the Pilgrim

  1. THE PASSION OF THE PILGRIM

Ps 84:1-2

How lovely is your Tabernacle,

    O Lord of Hosts!

My soul yearns, even faints,

    for the courts of the Lord;

my heart and my flesh cry out

    for the living God.

The tabernacle is the place of gathering where the presence of God is. In the Old Testament, this refers to a tent that the Israelites travelled with. Each place they settled as a community, they would set up this tent where they would come and meet together to be with one another and to worship.

In the innermost place in the tent there was a place where there was this chest. Inside the chest the Israelites kept 3 things – the tablets with the 10 commandments, the pot where they had collected the manna that come from heaven that they fed on and the staff of Aaron that God used in many of the miracles on their journey that protected them from the enemy.

Above this – there were 2 cherubim (2 angels with wings) facing each other – and the Bible tells us that it was between these two angels that the presence of God would be there and where God would speak to Moses.

Today the representation of this Tabernacle is the house of God – the church, the ecclesia. This is the place where we gather like the Israelites gather to encounter God’s presence together. And scripture here tells us that the hearts and souls of the pilgrims are passionate to be in the presence of God.

Can we say the same thing about ourselves? How passionate are you for the presence of God in your life? Do you have a passion for this house – where we are called to gather and worship? Do you still have the passion to encounter the presence of God together?

One of the problems we faced over the past two years is the limitation for us to meet together physically. Now, even when we can come together, we can’t yet sing or fellowship together. We are grateful now for the ability and convenience of joining the online service, but we need to find ways both in our mindset and our spiritual practices to move from attending the service online, to reimagining being the church together despite the physical limitations.

During this period of waiting for this pandemic to end, will we be like the disciples on their pilgrimage when they left the upper room and continued to seek opportunities to come together, to worship and pray? Will we continue to have passion for how others can encounter the presence of God by being the church where we can and where we are?

You see, the pilgrims weren’t just concerned about going to church each Sunday, their heart was to be the church for others.

  • THE PROMISE FOR THE PILGRIM

Ps 84:3-4

Even the sparrow has found a home,

    and the swallow a nest for herself,

    where she may have her young—

a place near your altar,

    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.

Blessed are those who dwell in your house;

    they are ever praising you.

Why is there such passion for the house of God? The next verse shares this. Verse 3 says that “even the sparrow has found a home and the swallow a nest for herself.”

The Bible is not referring to actually setting up the a bird park here!

You see, sparrows are a very small bird – the Bible has many verses that speak of this seemingly insignificant bird –

Luk 12:6-7

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

The promise of this community is to be a space where people can belong and find a home, especially who think they are small, insignificant, in the minority or marginalized.

How about a swallow? Swallows are a picture of restlessness – always unable to find rest, unable to find safety, always looking out for danger.

And the promise here is that this community will be a space where people who are not able to find a place of rest, safety, peace, are able to find it.

It says that those who dwell in this house will encounter the presence of God and give thanks to God. That is the promise of the house of God – to create a place of belonging; to create a place of rest, safety and peace.

That’s why there’s such passion for the house of God. But not only that…

  • THE PATH OF THE PILGRIM

Ps 84:5-7

Blessed are those whose strength is in you,

    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.

As they pass through the Valley of Baka,

    they make it a place of springs;

    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

They go from strength to strength,

    till each appears before God in Zion.

God doesn’t just promise a place of belonging and rest, but one of growth and transformation. And that’s where our strength comes from.

The Hebrew word baca means “to weep.” Baca refers to a type of “weeping” tree, that is, one that drips resin or gum-like tears. Baca trees grow in harsh conditions.

The valley of Baca is a dry, arid region where these types of weeping trees tend to grow. So the psalmist uses the Valley of Baka symbolically to illustrate a difficult, challenging, sorrowful situations in life.

We are promised rest and belonging in this community but the path of the pilgrim is not always easy. It is a guarantee that we will experience heartaches, sorrow, persecution, challenges, and weeping.

What would you say is your Valley of Baka in your life right now?

I shared three weeks ago that my Valley of Baka has not just been this season of waiting for the pandemic to end like many of you, but languishing because of the breaking down of relationships during this season, the vision for communities across Asia to gather and work together towards a witness of equity, inclusivity and diversity that seems to be on standstill, and the people who are no longer there to encourage me and work with me towards it. This is my Valley of Baka.

Let’s see your responses. [Menti Responses]

Let’s return to Psalm 84 to see what the Psalmist shares the experience of these pilgrims. As the ancient Jews travelled to Jerusalem to worship, they would pass through this weary, “weeping” place, but in the end instead of their strength failing, verse 7 says:

They go from strength to strength,

    till each appears before God in Zion.

Do you see something very interesting here? The psalmist says in verse 6 (the verse before this), “As they pass through the Valley of Baka, THEY make it a place of springs.”

To me, this means that the people that were on the pilgrimage were involved in improving the situation. “As they pass through… they make it a place of springs” tells us that with the presence of the pilgrims walking through this valley of weeping and tears with determination and courage, they are able to make it a place of refreshment and hope.

But the second part of this verse goes on to say that this was not because of their own efforts, but because of the grace and favour they received. God sends the autumn rains that also cover the dry valley with pools.

Imagine a parched desert covered with pools of water… not just a few drops of water to satiate your thirst but pools of water!

There is a promise of provision and overflowing even in this desert of weeping.

If you feel like you’re walking through the desert of weeping and tears at this moment in your life, I want to encourage you to know that God will send the autumn rains and cover this desert of tears with pools of water.

And as you take every step on this pilgrimage with determination and courage through this Valley of Baka, you will make it a place of refreshment and hope for others. That is our path as pilgrims.

So we have looked at the passion of the pilgrim, the promise for the pilgrim, the path of the pilgrim and finally, we let’s close with –

  • THE PURPOSE OF THE PILGRIM

As pilgrims, we are not simply wanderers. This pilgrimage of ours is not just away from our old ways, nor is it solely for our own encounters with the presence of God.

Ps 84:7

They go from strength to strength;

Each one appears before God in Zion.

Our journey is actually toward something very specific. We are headed somewhere. We have a specific destination – The Israelites call it Zion, which is the Promised Land. We are seeking the city which is to come.

Our pilgrimage journey is toward God and shalom! Shalom is the culmination of Becoming – the wholeness and completeness that God is moving you and me, and all of creation toward.

The destination of Becoming is where all relationships are restored – between ourselves, us and God, us and one another, us and all creation.

The journey – whether it be the journey of Abraham or Moses, Jesus’ disciples or medieval pilgrims – has never been simply about traveling across physical space. Every journey of pilgrimage always has as its true goal an inner journey of transformation towards an outer destination of restoration. 

When we are sown the Word of the kin-dom of God – God’s love, life and light, and we have a revelation of it, we are being transformed inwardly. When we reflect God’s love, life and light to others, we are restoring shalom outwardly. And that is the journey of Becoming.

Today, Jesus invites us on a pilgrimage of Becoming. Today, Jesus calls us to embrace new life, and that means to let go, to leave behind what has become our reflex, our comfort zone, what we can control.

Today, God is inviting us individually and FCC as we prepare for 2022 to ask God “where are you leading me today? What are you asking me to leave behind? What is God asking you to change?”  

If God is speaking into your heart today through this sermon, would you share one area of your life that God is asking you to leave behind, to change?

For me, it is to leave behind my focus on doing, and focus on being, especially being with people. Let’s see what are some of yours.

[Menti responses]

As we close, there are four responses to how people respond to God’s invitation to this pilgrimage of Becoming –

1. The response of a first group of people is “to stay and not go”, both with our hearts and our feet. In other words to remain where you are, stay shut within what we know and can control, to ignore pilgrimage altogether. Some of us are not willing to leave this upper room because we are tired, afraid, unworthy, inadequate.

Let’s call this group “Prisoners”.

To this group God wants you to know that God is the breath of life – the same creative spirit of God that breathed life into the world wants to breathe new life into you. The Spirit wants to do a new work in you – for you to encounter God’s love, life and light and to fill you with the authority, ability and animation to go.

2. The response of a second group of people is “to undertake the pilgrimage of the heart while remaining in the same place”. This can describe a monastic order or in our case those of us who are open for inward transformation but are pursuing God apart from community.

Let’s call this group the “Ascetics”.

To this group God wants you to know that it the Holy Spirit is the fire of Pentecost that brings people together, regardless of our backgrounds, to bridge differences, to find unity, and to recognize we grow most when we journey with others around us and allow them to speak into our lives.

3. The response of a third group of people is “to undertake a pilgrimage with our feet, but not with our heart”, participating as a tourist to be led on the journey physically but with not be open to taking a pilgrimage spiritually.

Let’s call this group the “Tourists”.

To this group God wants you to know that the Spirit is your parakletos, your helper, the one who helps you in your weakness. Allow yourself to be open to the Spirit. The Spirit is Your counselor, the one who will teach you, remind you, convict you, and guide you into God’s truth.

4. The response of the fourth response of people are those who are willing to undertake pilgrimage both inwardly in theirs heart and outwardly with their feet. This group is allowing God to transform you and transform this community into what we are being called to become.

Let’s call this group the “Pilgrims”.

To this group God wants you to know that the Spirit of God is the Faithful One who fills you with power, and is your source of God’s truth, revelation and wisdom. The Spirit wants to heal you, refresh you and awakes and grows the gifts that are in you, even if it may be in seed form today.

Where do you find yourself today?

[Menti responses]

In two weeks time, we are going to have our Annual General Meeting or AGM. This is a meeting we hold each year at the end of November with the members of FCC not just to decide on the leaders who are stepping forward to serve on the Board or Council of FCC, but also to reflect on where we are in our journey of Becoming and where we are heading in the coming year. Whether you are a member of FCC or just visiting, you are welcome to join us, to make yourself a part of the voice of this community, so that we can build this church together.

We are also coming to the advent season in two weeks and Pauline has been coming up to share about the Advent series of “Letting your life speak”. One way we can become community to one another is to share and give thanks for the areas where God has provided you with provision even in this difficult season, but to also share our struggles and allow ourselves to encourage one another. Whether you find yourself a Prisoner, an Ascetic, a Tourist, or a Pilgrim, would you share your story and allow yourself and us in the process to become the community that God is calling us to be?

As we close, let me leave you with this quote from Brother Curtis Almquist, who shared from his book “Life as a Pilgrimage” as an encouragement for each one of us. He says  –

“Jesus is the inspiration at the beginning, the companion along the way, and the fulfillment at the journey’s end, gone ahead to prepare a dwelling place for us forever. Jesus, the alpha, and the omega, and the way. For us followers of Jesus, life on earth is not incidental; life is sacramental: outward experiences of inward graces… every step of the way… our quest is to learn to pray our lives, to practice the presence of God, which is the way of the pilgrim. We are pilgrims in life.”

Brother Curtis Almquist, Life As A Pilgrimage

CLOSING PRAYER

God we thank you for your presence in our lives. We thank you for the heart that You have for this house – FCC who You have called forth, walked with and led the past 18 years.

Today, You are calling us to remember that Your heart for this house is that it will be a place that will draw others to you so that they can find a place of refuge and safety.

As we plan for the year ahead and as we look to the unknown future, God please guide our paths. Help us remember how you have led us the past 18 years and that you will led us still, just as you led the Israelites as the pillar of cloud that shielded them by day from the heat and provide them with food to eat, and the pillar of fire by night that kept them warm.

God even in this season where so many of us are in languishing in the valley of weeping and tears, God help us know we can walk on with courage and determination knowing that you God will send the autumn rains and cover the parched desert with pools of water. And as we walk through the valley of tears dwelling in Your presence and strength, we will make this valley of weeping into a place of refreshment and hope. It might not be tomorrow or next week, but we know that the autumn rains will come and we will have the resources we need to tide us through. And in it and though it we are still Becoming the people You are calling us to be.

God I pray that we will be pilgrims who commit to the journey of Becoming – fulfilling Your purpose our transformation and towards Shalom in the world. Remind us that as we let go of fear and uncertainty, and lean into courage and vulnerability each day, that you will meet us and walk with us as we walk with one another. Whenever we stumble and fall, and God we know we will, help us to be reminded You are our strength, our sun and shield. And we are blessed because we can trust in Your faithfulness, Your abiding love and promise of life and light in our lives.

Amen.