Psalm 84 is a celebration of the temple as the dwelling place of God. The Psalm speaks of traveling to the temple in Jerusalem and of the awesome experience of entering into that holy place. There is nothing that quite compares with the temple as the place God has chosen to be present to us in power and might. This psalm was obviously spoken and sung by pilgrims who sought God, who desired the presence of the Lord.
The temple was a place to come home to. One travel writer speaking about Jerusalem, says "Everyone comes home to Jerusalem." Even the sparrow builds a nest, finds a home, in the temple. In the temple, verse 3 reminds us, I meet "my King and my God," a double title which refers both to the ultimate power of the universe and the center of our personal lives. An experience in the temple could be both overwhelming and intensely personal. This Psalm was a reminder that God would meet Israel in a particular place.
God continues to meet us in particular places. I read a few years ago of an amazing church, St. Edward's Cathedral in Philadelphia. It was built a century ago by Irish immigrants to America. They were grateful to be here, to escape the famine, to live in modest homes while erecting a magnificent structure that would give glory to God. Over the next decades, they made it in the new country, moved away to live in larger homes, and the neighborhood around the church began to fall into disrepair. Finally the cathedral was closed.
In the last few years, however, something happened: People from El Salvador began to move to the new world, and finding no adequate housing, they would live in this condemned building, this cathedral, this temple. For them each new morning with its sunlight was a new beginning. For them it was a place of safety, and for all it was a place of worship.
God always meets us in his dwelling place, even when we forget to make that journey, even when the temple is abandoned. Reading the 84th Psalm reminds us of our need for the temple, for a home, for God. We all need holy places; we all need to go home. I remember standing beside the temple in Jerusalem on a Friday evening. There was a roar of sound. Some people were in fervent prayer; others were crying tears of gladness, others tears of sorrow. Some had written prayers and stuck them into the crevices of the wall at Jerusalem. Some were reading the psalms in Hebrew. It is an amazing thing to be in the temple. It is an amazing thing to come home.
A few years ago I was in the midst of preparing to officiate in my first wedding at Providence United Methodist Church, where I am blessed to serve. Beforehand I was meeting with the wedding director, a member of the church, who serves beautifully in that role. I had officiated at hundreds of weddings, but this was my first one at Providence. She had been a member of the congregation for a number of years, as have her parents and her children. You could sense the awe and love she felt for the sanctuary as we stood there, earlier in the afternoon before the rehearsal would begin. And at one point she smiled and said, "This is home."
It is an amazing thing to be in the temple. It is an amazing thing to come home.
At this point I could turn in either of two directions with this message, the scripture, the imagery is so rich and meaningful. I'll place them both before us, and you can then choose to go in either direction. First, there is our need to come home, to the temple, to God. And second, there is the transformation of the meaning of the temple in the New Testament.
There is a powerful urge within us to go home. The late Bartlett Giammatti was the commissioner of baseball, and before that, the president of Yale University. He was once asked about the popularity of baseball. "Why is it so enduring?" "Baseball is about coming home," he responded, "and we all want to get home." For me there is a powerful urge to go home, home to South Georgia where you can find "Scrambled Dogs" on the menu and they don't even ask you if you want your tea sweetened--how else would anyone drink it? And for many I have served, home has been somewhere else, in Birmingham or Atlanta or even Toronto or Mexico City or South Africa. We are a mobile society. It is becoming a small planet.
And so maybe we have to find home, make a home, wherever we are. That was the response of God's people in exile. That is what the church tries to communicate in the culture. We are a people with open hearts, open minds, open doors. Creating a place to come to. I received a letter a few years ago from a person who had moved to our city, worshipped with us for about a year, and then moved away again. It had been a rough adjustment for her and her family. The position to which they had come for work had not quite been as promised.
The psalmist writes, as they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs. In other words, they have suffered in the journey, and their tears display the emotional and spiritual difficulty. The saving grace for this woman had been the church and the people. She mentioned shepherding. A shepherd keeps everyone safe, within the circle, at home. When I was growing up the church, it was just such a place for me, in high school, in college. A place to believe, a place to belong, a place to become. Safety. Home.
We need to come home to safety, home to grace, home to God. The 84th Psalm teaches us this truth. I love the translation of Eugene Peterson in the message:
One day spent in your house, this beautiful place of worship, beats thousands spent out on Greek island beaches.
Of course, to come home has a present and future dimension. There is the temple, the sanctuary of our present experience. We look around and we see its beauty and maybe we remember something from the past, a wedding or a baptism or a stirring anthem or a word spoken to us by a preacher that seemed to be just what God might want to be saying to us. I have had weeks that were difficult--more negative than positive, more going out than coming in. I suppose I am no different from you there. And I have sat down in a sanctuary, and it is as if I could almost hear the choir of the church of my childhood: the piano slightly out of tune, the organ sort of playing along with it in time, sort of, and the people singing, in a rambling way, "come home, come home, you who are weary, come home." There is our need for a sanctuary in the present.
And yet there is also the home of our future. Yes,
"God is our help in ages past and our hope for years to come,
a shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home." If you live long enough, you begin to reflect on an eternal home; you begin to claim the promise of Jesus, which we know so well from the King James, that in our Father's house are "many mansions."
Psalm 84 has a second meaning for us. God chooses to dwell among us, to "pitch his tent" among us, as Clarence Jordan translated it in the "Cotton Patch" version of John 1:14. There is a progression of meaning in the idea of Temple in scripture.
* First the temple is a physical place; you can go to it, touch it, worship there.
* And then, in the Gospels, Jesus teaches us that his body is the temple, and that if it is destroyed God will raise it in three days (John 2). In Jesus the fullness of God's presence dwells. And that is the temple.
* And then later, in the letters of Paul, we discover that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 3: Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's spirit dwells in you?)
God dwells in us, among us. We are the temple of God.
I heard the story of a pastor/friend who serves a center city congregation that began a worship service for the homeless people who gathered near the facility. Some folks thought this was great; others were not so sure. Working with the poor is an essential part of what it means to be the church, but it is not as romantic as it sometimes seems from a distance, and problems arise. Finally, one of those problems became the straw that broke the camel's back, as they say; and one of the good members came to the pastor and asked, "Do we really have to have this service? Why are we doing this?" He replied, in his direct but quiet manner, "So the people won't go to hell."
Now Methodists don't say much about hell these days; and the member replied, "We need to have this service so those people won't go to hell?" And he responded, "No, we need to have this service so we won't go to hell!"
God's temple is in the hearts and lives of a transformed people. When someone comes to worship in a church, they may discover a beautiful sanctuary. And then they meet someone, and there is an acceptance, and a love is shared. And then they/we begin to see the people, and we realize that it is the people who are also the temples, that God is interested in holy places but God is just as interested in holy people.
And that is the business we are in, the business of building a temple, of offering shelter in the storm, shelter to the spiritually homeless. "Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise."
God's people are in the construction business. We are building something. To me it is the most important thing in the world, because it affects every other dimension of our lives. Worshipping in a holy place, being in the temple, being reminded that God not only lives in our temples, but that God lives in each of us. That is our mission. To be the temple, to be the dwelling place of God. It is, to say, with our words and with our actions, "This is a house of prayer for all people." To say, with our words and with our actions to one another,
"You are a temple of the Holy Spirit and God dwells in you." To say, with our words and actions, "Come home, come home, you who are weary, come home."
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
Would you join me in prayer?
God of holy places and holy people, dwell in us and among us. God of joyous homecomings, welcome us into your presence, in this life and the life to come. Amen.