The Joy of Worship in the TemplePSALMS 84 (NRSV)
To the leader: according to The Gittith. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house,
ever singing your praise. Selah
Happy are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah
Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you.
Who would have ever imagined that the Sunday after we re-opened our sanctuary, a storm would come through and force us to close the doors again? Well, you may think that is bad news, but I’m looking at it as a way to celebrate our church’s hybrid model. Because now that we can worship both in-person and virtually, we can be flexible and safe when our plans change, when things don’t go as we expect them to and when the storms of life come upon us.
The interesting part is that our scripture reading for today comes from Psalm 84, and it is what is referred to by some as a “psalm of pilgrimage.” So it is about a people who are longing to be somewhere different than they are. And the journey that they are on has them in an in-between and unsettled place. I wonder, have you ever felt like that?
Today’s psalm tells of a person longing to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. You see most people that lived back in the sixth century BCE would travel to the temple in Jerusalem three or four times a year for the holy days. The road was long and difficult for many, but they looked forward to worshipping in the temple because that was the place where they felt the presence of God and where they could sing and pray with other believers. During those trips, their souls were fed and nourished and they were inspired to go back out into the world to live lives of faith as they encouraged and supported others in doing the same. Sound familiar to anyone?
Now, the book of psalms is a collection of poems and songs, and some scholars believe that Psalm 84 was one of the songs that people sang as they journeyed to the temple. After all, it begins: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”
I wonder, have you ever been really excited to go somewhere? Maybe you went on vacation somewhere beautiful, or you went to see someone you hadn’t seen in a while. Maybe you went to a wedding, or a big celebration of some kind, or maybe you were just excited to head back to church when you hadn’t been to church or worship in person for a long time. Do you ever feel that excited to go to church or to worship? Now I know, some of you might wonder why you would be excited to go to church or to worship. But for many people that choose to attend church or worship, they attend because the time that they spend in worship gives them a glimpse of what the world could be like. Some say it can even be like a glimpse of heaven, because hopefully, during worship you experience unconditional love. You’re filled with joy and passion and gratitude. And that time in worship not only helps us to dream of how life could be, but it also encourages us to live our lives a little differently in order to bring the peaceable kingdom to earth.
Now maybe you’ve been to church before and it didn’t feel very joyful, or you didn’t feel very welcomed or loved. Maybe you felt judged, or you saw arguing and fighting among the people there. Maybe it wasn’t a place of peace and safety and love for you. Unfortunately, when we experience church or worship like that, it does not speak of God. That speaks of human beings and the shortcomings and weaknesses that we all have at one time or another. Because the goal of worship, and the goal of the church, is to give a glimpse of God’s goodness.
My favorite line in Psalm 84, the line that talks about the fact that even the sparrows and the swallows build their nests in the temple. It says, “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of Hosts.” It’s a place where all are welcome–even the birds and, in Oldtown, the bats!–where all ages and all stages come to sing and to praise and to pray together. I don’t know about you, but I find that pretty exciting.
Now maybe it’s been a while since you’ve been in a church sanctuary, and maybe it’s been a while since you’ve had a place to call your church home. And I get it because life is busy and sometimes our experiences aren’t what we expect them to be. But sometimes we also need to give church a chance. Sometimes we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves and, even more importantly, part of the experience that others receive. It’s not always easy, and it takes hard work sometimes. But to find a place where for an hour on Sunday, you can leave the troubles of the world behind and get a glimpse of the grace of God? To me, that makes it all worth it. To be reassured and encouraged for the week ahead to allow yourself a moment to breathe, and to share, and to reflect, and to thank? That’s what it’s all about.
To me, the church sanctuary is a place to build your nest, to find your home, and to gather with others who are also giving it a try. Remember church is not about perfection, and worship is not about always having the right words and answers. But instead, it’s about allowing yourself to simply be in the presence of God, surrounded by others who are looking to do the same.
Friends, over the past year and a half, we have experienced what it was like to be away from our beloved church sanctuary, but we were also reminded that we all have a sanctuary within ourselves. The writer of today’s Psalm longed to spend time in the Temple because that was the only place that he or she could get a glimpse of God and experience the presence of the divine. But as Christians, we know that, though we may enjoy gathering together in a beautiful sanctuary, singing and praying, and praising God together, we can also experience God in our everyday lives. You see, because of the teachings of Jesus, and because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we can experience God wherever we are! We can sing and pray and praise God at home and out in our gardens, at a playground, in our cars, and even at the grocery store if we want. Of course, there will be days when we, like the psalmist, long for the courts of our Lord, or the more formal surroundings of a sanctuary. But until we gather there again, we can rest in the blessed assurance that we are held safe and secure in the arms of a God–a God who loves us unconditionally just the way we are, and who encourages us to build a nest and find a place to call home!