At age 21, I graduated from college, packed up my dorm room, and after storing most of my belongings in the garages of very generous friends, I flew to Boston to begin a service year, living alongside a monastic community. A big part of the internship was just keeping the same schedule that the brothers kept: from 6am morning prayer to 8:30pm compline. And so for all four of the daily offices each day, we’d file into the choir, and partake in that ancient tradition of singing the psalms. One side of the choir would take one verse, and then the other side would respond with the next, and so we’d sing—back and forth, until the rhythm of song and silence became as natural as breathing. And to this day, there are some psalms that I can hear in my memory… including this morning’s psalm 24.
“Lift up your heads, O gates!”, sings one side of the choir, and the other answers: “Who is the king of glory?”—and in this repetition, you can almost hear the voices of singers thousands of years ago, as people flooded into the temple: “Lift up your heads, O gates!”, “Who is the king of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory”.
And so today, I invite you all into the world and worldview of the psalm. Psalm 24 is a psalm of praise, but it is more than just a few poetic lines of worship. In order to discover what riches are there, we need to think a bit about the structure of the psalm itself.
The first two verses begin by contextualizing, well, everything. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it”. We start off with an acknowledgment that God is the creator of all things. It’s a short few verses, but they frame everything else in the psalm—in order to understand the rest, we need to begin with this understanding that God is creator of all the world and all of us.
The next four verses begin with a question: “who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”. Given that God is the creator of everything… who can approach God? Who receives a blessing from God? We might expect that the answer would look something like a list—a list of dos and don’ts, something like the Ten Commandments. But the answer that Psalm 24 gives us looks very different: those who have clean hands and pure hearts. The verse goes on to describe that having clean hands and a pure heart consists up not lifting up “souls to what is false” and not swearing “deceitfully”. It’s not a legal code—rather, it’s an invitation into “the company of those who seek the face of the God of Jacob”. It doesn’t tell us what we have to DO, but it tells us the kind of people we need to be.
In order to enter into God’s space, we must accept this invitation to a new way of being, a new way of seeing the world.
The final four verses—where we have that repetition—shifts into something new. Instead of us entering into God’s space, we have the opposite: God enters into human space. “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the king of glory may come in.” The writer of the psalm is using a literary device here—giving instructions to gates and ancient doors that are actually meant for us to follow. “Lift up your heads, and be lifted up”. Faithfulness looks like looking up, and honoring our creator who is in our midst. Rolf Jacobsen puts it well, that “this reverent and faithful attitude, metaphorically commanded of the Temple gates, is the proper stance of all life toward the Lord”
To recap, Psalm 24 has three sections: an acknowledgement of God as creator, an invitation into a way of BEING in the presence of this creator, and what should happen when God enters our world.
As Christians, we might choose to read this psalm with a different lens than our Jewish siblings. For us, the idea of God coming into our world is a deeply familiar one—one which we spend whole seasons of our church year grappling with: the incarnation of Jesus Christ. For centuries, Christian writers have read this psalm through the lens of the incarnation. Take Augustine, in the 4th century, who writes “Who is this King of glory?… The answer is given, The strong and mighty Lord, whom you thought to be weak and vanquished… Handle his scars and you will find them healed, see his human weakness restored to immortal strength. This glorification of the Lord was owed to the earth, where he did battle with death, and it has been paid in full” For Augustine, Jesus—crucified and risen—is this King of glory.
“Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the king of glory may come in” It is a noble sentiment, this verse, and describes an entrance by God which should be magnificent. But Jesus’ entrance to this world was not full of splendor and processions. Few acknowledged the Son of God, this King of glory. We see that in today’s gospel reading, as Mark tells us who people thought Jesus was—John the baptist, Elijah, a prophet. The unnamed “they” thought he was many things, but could not see him as he truly was. Even Herod could not imagine a world where he was not ultimately in control.
Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon write in their 1989 book Resident Aliens that “we can only act within the world which we see. So, the primary ethical question is not, What ought I now to do? But rather, How does the world really look?”
If we can only act within the world which we see, then it matters, a lot, what and who we see. Herod will never accept Jesus because he sees him as John the Baptist.
If we understand Jesus to be just a prophet or a good teacher, or some 2000 year old guy, rather than the Son of God who saves, redeems, and restores us, then that will shape our ethical worldview, and we will act accordingly.
If we believe that inequality and injustice is caused by God’s blessing rather than human sin, then that will change how we treat our neighbors, particularly those who look or act differently from us.
If we think that the church is just a great place to make friends and live out values that align with one or another political parties, rather than a place of communal encounter and transformation by the living God, then that will shape what we do with our time, talent, and treasure.
How does the world really look? Psalm 24 asks us to hit reset, and remember that we are called to see the word as it truly is. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it”
How does the world really look? Ultimately, that is the question that our psalm puts to us, today. Who is this King of glory?… or, how does the world really look? Do we know ourselves to be created and loved by God, to be living in a world that is created and loved by God?
Who is this king of glory? Jesus, the king of glory has entered. May this song, seared in my memory, and perhaps now yours, invite us into renewed ways of seeing, loving, and being God’s people, in a world that, more than ever, needs to see itself as it truly is.