Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 84 How lovely is your dwelling place

Where is your favourite place on earth? Perhaps it’s the beach where you holidayed this summer, the memories lasting longer than the suntan. Maybe for you it’s the top of a mountain - a sense of achievement at making it to the top, the view of all below. Maybe your favourite place isn’t as exotic, but just as special to you, the townland you were born and reared in; the field at the back of the farm; your comfy armchair beside the fire. Did anyone say church?

We’re singing with the Sons of Korah this summer and we’ve jumped from the 40s to the 80s. In Psalm 84, the writer sings of his favourite place on earth. It’s the temple in Jerusalem. ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts.’ It’s a home sweet home, because it is God’s home, God’s dwelling place. It’s so special, because it is where he draws near to God.

But as he thinks of it, there is pain and longing. He’s not there. He’s far away. That’s why verse 2: ‘My soul longs, yes, faints, for the courts of the LORD.’ The first time I was going away from home was to York on a school trip. For weeks I was worried about being homesick. In fact, I probably had mum worried sick. But for those few days I was having such a great time, I hardly thought of home. Didn’t even ring. Oops. But here, the writer is homesick. He’s one of the sons of Korah, one of those who lead the praise, but he’s far away from the temple. Far away from God. Have you ever felt like that? You feel a million miles away from God; you’re fainting and longing for him.

He’s even envious of the sparrows and swallows. They’re nesting in the roof of the temple. They’re close to the altars, at the heart of the temple. But he’s far away. They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder. He’s feeling that as he recognises the blessing there is for those who dwell in God’s house, ever singing his praise. They’re near God. And there is a blessing in that.

After verse 4 comes that little word you might have seen before. Selah. It’s sometimes in Psalms and might be a musical term; might be an reminder to pause and reflect on what’s been said. It might even show a change in direction. I think that’s what’s going on here. Blessed are those who dwell in your house, but that is not the only blessing. Not everyone can dwell in the temple all the time. You often find yourself far from God. But there’s still a blessing.
‘Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.’ There is also a blessing for those who know the way to Zion, to God’s temple, to come near to God. Even though the way is difficult - through the valley of Baca (dryness, where nothing much grows), there springs are made, and water given. They’re not journeying in their own strength, they find strength from God. ‘They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.’ Have you ever looked back at something you’ve come through and wondered how you did it? Or perhaps you’re passing through Baca valley; you’re feeling dry right now. Find strength, not in yourself, but in the one who is your strength. There’s a blessing for the journey. As we begin to draw near to God, he gives us the strength to come to him. Both Peter and James use the same verse in their letters: ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.’

In verses 5-7, he speaks of those and they. Now, as he sets out, this is his prayer: ‘O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob.’ No matter how far away we feel we are from God, God will still hear us. He hears not just our shouts and our songs; he also hears our whispers and cries; even the silent shouts of our heart. It’s time for another Selah, another pause.
Just look how far we’ve already come. Longing and fainting, far from God, now we’re on the journey. We’re on the way, finding God’s blessing of strength to go and keep going. Drawing near to God, until we find ourselves at journey’s end. We’ve arrived in Zion, God’s home sweet home.

There, in Zion, is God’s home, but it’s also the King’s home. That prompts the prayer of verse 9: ‘Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.’ Here, with the king and all the people of Israel, the writer rejoices. He’s home with God. And as he thinks about it, he realises just how precious it is to be at home with God, to be near to God. ‘For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.’ Just one day here is better than a thousand anywhere else. Is this how we feel about God?

Or what about the second comparison: ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wickedness.’ Some Saturdays when we’re coming back, we drive through Lurgan. At some of the pubs, in rain, hail or shine, are the men in black. The bouncers (or the door security). They’re on the doorstep, watching out for trouble. They can just about hear the music; they can only peep inside.

For the writer, it would be better to be uncomfortable, at the door, right on the edge of the crowd, at God’s house than to be in comfort in the tents of the wicked. Why? Well here’s the reason. ‘For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.’

The king might have been described as our shield, but God is a sun and shield: he shines brightly, he gives protection; he bestows favour and honour. Why would you not want to be near him? And just as we saw in the first two sections there is a blessing in the 3rd section - not just for those who dwell in God’s house; nor those who go up to Zion; ‘O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you.’

To be close to God, to trust in God, is to find blessing. But how do we sing this psalm as a New Testament believer? Where do we go to meet with God? Where do we find the courts of the Lord and the highways to Zion? The temple no longer stands. The Dome of the Rock mosque has taken its place. Just the wailing wall remains. Do we need to fly to Israel to find God?

The amazing message of the Bible is that in Jesus, God drew near to us. God stepped into our world, lived among us. He did all that was necessary for us to draw near to God. The altar of sacrifice was the cross, where he died to make a way for us. The curtain that said ‘keep out’ from the holiest place was torn in two; they way is open for us to come.

There is no temple for us to journey to. Apart from the references to the old Jerusalem temple, every time the New Testament talks about the temple, it is speaking about us - individual Christians and the church together. In bowls, the aim of the game is to get your bowl as close to the Jack (the wee yellow ball) as possible. The old temple system was like that - get as close as you can. But now, we are the temple. God dwells in us by his Spirit. We are God’s dwelling place. The longing of the psalm for the temple is our longing to be with God’s people, to discover that God lives in and among us.

The blessing in the psalm isn’t on or for a building. This building in which we meet is special, handed down over generations, which we need to care for and pass on to the next generation. But it’s a warm rain shelter. It’s a place (as the Presbyterians call theirs) which is our meeting house. The blessing is for people, those who come and meet with God.

As we move towards the new term and things pick up again in September, here’s the question to consider. Is our passion for God the passion for his people? Is our priority meeting with God’s people? How are we getting involved and serving God’s people? How are we helping other people to meet with the living God?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 17th August 2014.

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