A long, long time ago when I was a little boy in Sunday school and Sunday schools began with an assembly-you know, a gathering of all the children before we would divide into our separate classes-one of the things we would do every assembly was to sing Sunday school songs:
"Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world."
"Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he."
Songs like that. Almost every Sunday we would close the assembly time by singing the same song, something of a going-into-church song. The song was, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.' I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'"
Now what our Sunday school teachers told us was that this song meant how happy Christian people are when they get to go to church on Sunday. "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'" The problem with that was, even though I was only a wee, little lad and a wee, little lad was I, I knew that wasn't entirely true. Church to a child is, frankly, often long and dull, uncomfortable and boring, and when my parents would wake me up on Sunday morning and make me put on those stiff Sunday clothes and load me into the car to drive to church, to tell the truth, I was not always glad. I was often sad when they said unto me, "Let us go into the house of the Lord." And when I got to be a teenager and out of sorts with the world and sometimes out of sorts with my parents, I was even occasionally mad when they said unto me, "Let us go into the house of the Lord."
The only hope I had, really, that I would ever be glad when they said, "Let us go into the house of the Lord," was that one day I would finally grow up to be an adult, mature and responsible, and then I was sure that something magic would happen and I would at last be glad when they said unto me, "Let us go into the house of the Lord."
Of course, it came as a great disappointment to me when I actually became an adult to learn that many adults do not find it an overwhelming joy at all to come into the house of the Lord. Someone who wrote a book on children and worship put it this way, "It is true that children often find worship to be tedious, lifeless, and dull, but they don't invent that. They pick it up from the adults around them who feel the same way, but have learned how politely not to show it."
Now I don't want to overstate the case here. There are many, many joyful occasions of worship. There are times when the anthem soars, when the hymns touch our hearts, when the prayers sing, when the sermon reaches us?times when we walk out the door and say to ourselves, "I was glad I was here today in the house of the Lord." I don't want to overstate the case.
But I don't want to understate it either, because there are a lot of people for whom not just worship but the whole experience of the Christian faith is not joyful. You probably know that many people in our society have decided to stay away from church altogether, because what they experience there does not make them glad in their hearts. Now when the Psalmist says he's glad to go into the house of the Lord, he's not just talking about going to church, about going to the sanctuary and participating in worship. He's talking about the whole fabric of faith. The house of God is not just a building. It is wherever God and people meet. There is the house of God. That is what is intended to be an experience of joy, and many people today cannot truthfully say, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'"
There was an old Jewish story about two brothers who were in the flour milling business. One of the brothers was married and had children, the other was single. They were equal partners in the business, and they made an agreement that at the end of each day, they would take any extra flour that had been milled and divide it into equal shares, and each brother would take his share home and put it in his storehouse. But one day the single brother began to think, "Here I am, unmarried with only myself to care for and my brother has a wife to support and children to feed. It isn't fair to divide the flour evenly. My brother should have more of the flour. So that night, he took some of the flour out of his own storehouse and so as not to embarrass his brother, he went under the cover of darkness to his brother's storehouse and secretly left the flour.
It just so happened that at that very same time, the other brother began to think, "Here I am with the richness of a family. I have a wife. I have children, and my brother has no one to take care of him when he gets old. It's not fair to divide the flour evenly. My brother should get more, so he too took some of his flour and under the cover of darkness, slipped it into his brother's storehouse. Every night, unbeknownst to the other, each brother did this, always amazed the next day by the mystery that somehow the level of flour in their storehouses never seemed to diminish. Until one night, their arms laden with sacks of flour, they met each other in the darkness and realized what had been happening all along. With tears of loving joy, the two brothers embraced there in the darkness. According to the old tale, when God saw this, he touched that spot on the earth and said, "This is where I will build my house. For my house must always be a place of great joy."
The house of God?the place where God and people meet?is a place of joy. But there are many of us for whom the word joy is not the best description of our faith. We think of ourselves as faithful people. We're willing to defend our faith and maybe even argue for it. It gives us guidance for living but it seems more like a responsibility, an obligation, than a deep joy. Some people even feel condemned by religion-judged, shunned, shamed. So as for the intense, freeing, overflowing, exhilarating, life-changing sense of joy-well if the house of God is a house of joy, we cannot always say, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'" Why is this so?
A few years ago, some members of the church where we worship went on a mission trip to Central America, to Nicaragua. For three weeks they lived in the homes of Nicaraguan Christians. They worked with them, studied the Bible with them, ate with them, and worshipped with them. The American Christians were very impressed by many aspects of the faith of the Nicaraguan Christians, but most of all, by the great sense of joy these people had in their worship and in their lives. These Nicaraguan Christians were very poor. They had no color televisions, no SUVs, no computers. All they had was Jesus, and their worship was free, spirited, and full of joy. The American Christians came home wondering if we were missing something. Where, for us, is the joy, where is the great joy of our faith, the great joy of worship, the great joy of being in the house of God?
One day, the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus had a conversation with some people who were also having some problems with joy. These people were the Pharisees, and we have learned to think of them as the bad guys, the villains, but they weren't really. The Pharisees were loyal in worship and people of prayer. They were generous people, good people, who knew they had a responsibility to give their money to the poor and to feed the hungry. They honored the Scripture and studied it. They didn't make cheap compromises with the culture. They were people of strong faith. Someone has observed that our churches would probably be a lot stronger if we had some more Pharisees in them. But as the Gospel of Luke portrays it, they had a problem with joy, and especially did they have a problem with the kind of joy that Jesus generated, joyfully eating and drinking with sinners and making merry with prostitutes and tax collectors.
So Jesus told them some stories, some parables about joy. He told them about a shepherd who lost one of his little sheep and worried out of his mind, he went searching for it. And when at last he found it, he was overjoyed. God is like that shepherd, said Jesus. He told them about a poor woman who had only 10 coins and one of them got lost, so she swept the house high and low till she found that coin, and she was so joyful about finding that coin, she threw a party to celebrate. God is like that poor woman, said Jesus. He told them a story about a father whose younger son took half the family fortune, blew out of town, and foolishly threw always all the money on high living and then came crawling home begging to have his old room back. The father was so overjoyed to see his son he never even thought about scolding him, but filled the house with music and feasting and dancing and laughter. God is like that father, said Jesus.
Wherever God is, there is joy in the house.
The House of God is a place of joy, because it is there that people discover that what matters in life is not what they get but the grace they are given. It is there that people learn that what matters about them is not how high they climb, but how deeply they are loved by God. Isn't it strange that so many of us who are committed Christians stay outside the house of joy? Like the older brother in Jesus' third story. "What's that noise?" he said. "It's a party," replied the servant, "a joyful party. Your brother is home!" "A party for my brother? My brother who threw away my father's money? Foolish! A party for my brother who frittered away his life while I tried to make something of myself?"
But something different and strange happens in this story. The father comes outside the house, outside the party, outside the joy and merriment, out to the older brother, out to the Pharisee, out to all of us. "What's wrong?" he said. "I've served you all my life. I've never disobeyed you." And then comes the touching part. "You never gave a party for me. I've always wanted to be joyful, but you never gave a party for me."
And then comes the gracious and loving reply. "Son, you are always with me. Always. Everything I have is yours. Everything. There has always been a joyful party going on for you in my heart and you did not know it. Now, come, come into the house, the house of joy."
I think that part of what this is saying to us is that we will never really experience the joy of our faith until we realize that we are all outsiders who have been invited into the party of joy through no merit of our own. Some of us are like the younger brother, people who have wasted our lives, and some of us are like the older brother, people who have worked hard and who smolder with resentment because things are hard and responsibilities are heavy, and life is not fair. But the fact is, both are on the outside, both the younger son and the older son are on the outside, and it is God who invites us into the place of joy.
Many years ago I read an essay in which a woman was reminiscing about her father. She said that when she was young, she was very close to her father. The time she experienced this closeness the most was when they would have big family gatherings with all the aunts and uncles and cousins. At some point, someone would pull out the old record player and put on polka records, and the family would dance. Eventually, someone would put on the "Beer Barrel Polka;" and when the music of the "Beer Barrel Polka" played, her father would come up to her, tap her on the shoulder and say, "I believe this is our dance," and they would dance. One time, though, when she was a teenager and in one of those teenaged moods and the "Beer Barrel Polka" began to play and when her father tapped her on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance," she snapped at him, "Don't touch me! Leave me alone!" And her father turned away and never asked her to dance again.
"Our relationship was difficult all through my teen years," she wrote. "When I would come home late from a date, my father would be sitting there in his chair, half asleep, wearing an old bathrobe, and I would snarl at him, "What do you think you're doing?" He would look at me with sad eyes and say, "I was just waiting on you."
"When I went away to college," the woman wrote, "I was so glad to get out of his house and away from him and for years I never communicated with him, but as I grew older, I began to miss him.
One day I decided to go to the next family gathering, and when I was there, somebody put on the "Beer Barrel Polka." I drew a deep breath, walked over to my father, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "I believe this is our dance." He turned toward me and said, "I've been waiting on you."
Standing at the center of our life is the God who says to us, "Everything I have is yours. All that I am is for you, and I've been waiting on you."
"I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'"
Let us pray.
We give thanks, O God, that you are waiting for us in your house of love, waiting with the feast and the dance and the song and the great joy. Let us put away our shame and put aside our resentment and put on the festive garments of those who are glad when they are told, "Let us go into the house of the Lord." In Jesus' name. Amen.