For several years I’ve had an interest in history, especially church history. I believe that every generation has its own mistakes to which it’s prone, so we can use the insight of people from bygone eras to look at our own with more objectivity.
One of the biggest differences I’ve seen between this generation and others before it is the sense of pilgrimage. In fact, that’s a word which isn’t used much now, but which was used a lot more frequently a hundred years ago. By this term I’m referring to a deeper understanding that this world is not our final home. And it’s that theme that is woven through today’s reading.
The author (or authors) starts out with a declaration of longing for God’s dwelling place. Of course, it’s not God's temple per se which he’s missing so much as it's God’s presence. No matter where the Lord was, this man wanted to be there. It’s a very poignant image he presents in vs. 3. There were stringent restrictions on who could enter certain parts of the tabernacle (or temple). There were sections only priests could enter. And in the center of it all, only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place within the inner sanctuary where the Ark was. But apparently there were no restrictions on animals like little birds. One of the humblest of creatures had a place next to God’s altar, and how envious this man was of those little birds! To have unrestricted access to the very presence of the Almighty! To be able to bask in his glory without fear, without shame, and without guilt!
But then the Psalmist talks about more blessings even during the travel to God’s house. He pronounces a blessing on those who've set their hearts on pilgrimage. Faithful Jews were expected to come to Jerusalem at least three times during the year. Remember, this was a time in which no one had access to automobiles, and most had no access to any type of transportation besides feet. To travel from one part of the nation to the City of David was not something to undertake lightly; in fact, they would pretty much would have to set their heart on it.
And there are two striking things about it. First, they are blessed, but they’re also a blessing to others. We’re not sure where “Baka” is, or if it’s a literal place. “Baka” means “weeping,” so it might be symbolic of any place that’s arid on the way to Jerusalem. As these pilgrims pass through, they turn desert wastes into places of springs.
Also there’s a wonderful promise to them. Trekking through dangerous wilderness on tiresome journey, they have the assurance that the Lord himself will supply them with what they need for each step. They go from “strength to strength”; in other words, when one source of strength is about to wear out, another one will come along. Please note that he doesn’t normally supply everything we need for the entire journey, just what we need for this very moment.
But it’s all worth it. Every expense, every heartache, every sacrifice they have to make is worth it in the end. The “wicked” might stand off to the side and call them fools, but the Psalmist would rather spend one day in the presence of his Lord than a thousand days elsewhere. In fact, he'd rather take the lowest of the lowest spot, just as long as he can be close to his Savior God. Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost famously boasted that he'd rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, and that’s the exact opposite spirit here.
So this is the spirit of pilgrimage: First, it starts out with a longing for God, which will take whatever we can get of his presence over the best that the world has to offer. It sees how much a blessing we can be to others as we pass through our “Valley of Baka.” It sees how he carries us each step of the way. And finally, it sees how much it’s worth it. It bears repeating, since it’s so true: There's never been a single person who gave up something to God who ended up regretting it in the end.
Lord Jesus, I thank you for carrying me this far. Truly one day in your court, even on the outskirts is better than anything this world has to offer.