“Highways in the Heart” (Psalm 84:5)
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Psalm 84:5, from the Gradual for All Saints’ Day)
Jack Kerouac wrote a famous book titled On the Road in the 1950’s. The two main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, are constantly traveling across the country, back and forth, along with a stop in Mexico. They go from city to city, from relationship to relationship, and engage in all sorts of decadent and destructive behaviors. It’s a story about two friends looking for meaning in life and never quite finding it. Unlike Dean who can’t seem to settle down, Sal comes to realize that there’s more to life than being on the go all the time.
There is a certain glamour to the open road. Getting behind the wheel and driving wherever your heart leads you … with a good friend, maybe all by yourself. Freedom. A release from all responsibility. Finding yourself away from the rat race, the hubbub of the city, your humdrum life in suburbia.
But the open road isn’t always as open as you might think. There are traffic jams. Detours. Fallen rocks. Potholes.
And there can be loneliness on the highway. It’s the unsettled nature of traveling from place to place. You have no roots. People aren’t as friendly as you expected. You are a stranger entering their community, and they look at you with suspicion. You soon come to realize that the place where you started is where you belong. Home is where you belong.
In Psalm 84, the author’s heart is set on the highway. But his highway does not lead him back home. He longs for another home. He longs for Zion, the hill upon which the city of Jerusalem was built. He longs for Jerusalem, the place where the temple stood. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts,” he says at the beginning of the psalm. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD!” (Ps. 84:1-2). He envies the priests and Levites who dwell in or near the temple courts year round (Ps. 84:4). He is jealous even of the birds that nest and find a home in the temple courts (v. 3). There he would be near God’s gracious presence in the Holy of Holies. There he would be in the midst of God’s people as they gather together to offer sacrifices, to offer praise and thanksgiving, to hear the Word of the Lord, and to receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and mercy. There, in Jerusalem, he would also be reminded of the heavenly Zion – our Zion – that all the patriarchs and prophets had eagerly awaited and were now enjoying. Hebrews 11 reminds us, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth … If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:13-16).
It seems as if the psalmist is not able to join other pilgrims who are on their way to one of the great festivals in Jerusalem. Perhaps warfare was keeping him away. Perhaps it was sickness, or banishment, or some other misfortune. And even if he was able to join in the journey, the road of the pilgrim would be dusty, dirty, and fraught with danger. Verse 6 of the psalm mentions the “Valley of Baca” through which pilgrims must pass. This place hasn’t been identified, but since “baca” can mean “weeping” it probably is symbolic for the sorrow the travelers may encounter during their difficult and dangerous trip.
And so, the writer declares, “Blessed are those whose strength is in [the LORD], in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” In our pilgrim journey through this life, it is necessary to rely on the strength of the Lord. On our own we are weak and helpless. There are obstacles in the road. There is the weakness of our own sinful flesh and its desires that are opposed to God’s will. There is Satan and his temptations which take us off the pilgrim way. We pass through our own valleys of “Baca.” We face times of spiritual dryness. We face times of sadness. We face the sorrow of the valley of the shadow of death. That shadow always looms large over us. Sometimes it envelops us. All of this describes this present great tribulation that we endure. And so we long to stop traveling. We long to get off the pilgrim road, to get back home … back to our heavenly home, the place where we belong.
On our own, we are weak and helpless. But there is One who is strong for you. There is One who became flesh and walked the pilgrim way for you, who endured all the obstacles of this great tribulation for you, who stood up under Satan’s temptations for you, who bore your sins at the cross, and who earned forgiveness and eternal life for you. Rely on the strength of the One who rose again for you and who promises to raise you from the dead on the Last Day.
That word “Blessed” is the same one we heard in the Gospel lesson today, the Beatitudes. This is the Gospel reading assigned for All Saints’ Day because it describes the blessedness of all baptized believers in Christ both now and in eternity. The saints on earth are described as poor in spirit, meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, persecuted. But Jesus also promises that all the saints will be blessed in eternity. They will have a place in God’s kingdom. They will be comforted, satisfied, receive mercy, and see God. They will be called sons of God because their Brother, the divine Son of God, was the greatest peacemaker of all time, satisfying God’s wrath over sin at the cross and “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). John sees the saints in heaven in his vision and describes them this way: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). This is the faithful example the saints in heaven set for us and which we follow.
Verse 7 says that the pilgrims who approach Zion “go from strength to strength.” Think of a long hike you may have been on. Toward the end, you get tired and weary. Your muscles ache. It’s hard to catch your breath. You feel like giving up. But then, over the crest of the hill, you see your destination. It’s closer than you realized. This pumps you up a bit to keep going. You are still tired, but your goal is just around the next bend. You get your second wind. You get a burst of energy to keep going. Like a pilgrim approaching the holy city, you “go from strength to strength” because your destination is nearer than you thought. And like a saint still enduring this present great tribulation, you hear the song of the saints in heaven from St. John and you “go from strength to strength.”
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. (LSB 677.5)
So what is in your heart? What are you looking forward to the most? Is your heart set on the highways to the things of this life? Or to the heavenly Zion? To the place of God’s presence? To Jesus? Jesus is the true highway to Zion. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is the true Holy of Holies. God’s presence dwells in all its fullness in him (Col 1:19; Col 2:9). Although you pass through the Valley of Baca, parched and sad, you have been watered with the joy of Christ’s death and resurrection in Holy Baptism. You are fed and nourished on your pilgrim way with Christ’s body and blood. And you can proclaim the joy and love of Christ along the way, watering the parched ground of those around you.
Blessed are you as you receive God’s gifts here in this place of his presence in word, water, bread and wine. Blessed are you as you set your heart on Zion, on your true home, on Jesus who will one day bring you home and give you a place among that countless multitude around the throne of God. You will never be restless again. You will know that this is where you belong. No longer will you feel the need to get away. Your pilgrim wanderings will be over. There the Lamb will be your everlasting shepherd. There you will drink from springs of living water that will never run dry. There all your tears will be wiped away by God himself.
Not unto us but to Your name be glory, Lord,
For grace so rich, so wide, so high, so free.
Abide with us till trav’ling days are over and done,
And pilgrim feet lead us home, Lord, to you. (LSB 558.4)