Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2016
Psalm 84:1-7 Commentary
For the Jews who composed and sang Psalm 84 (the Sons of Korah according to the superscription), the Temple was the first place you would go to find God. For many modern folks, including some Christians, a church building is the last place you would expect an encounter with God.
Psalm 84 is filled with passion for that place of worship. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord…. Blessed are those who dwell in your house….” Given the fact that so many people can’t even voice a passionate desire to know God himself (“my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God”), a Psalm about passion for a building might seem un-preachable. But let me suggest a way to preach Psalm 84 for both Christian and non-Christian audiences, using an old sermon of mine, entitled “How to Find God, Even in Church.”
The great Jewish scholar, Martin Buber, told this story. Rabbi Baruch’s grandson Yehiel was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. When he had waited for a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. Now Yehiel realized that his friend had not looked for him from the very beginning. This made him cry, and crying he ran to his grandfather and complained of his faithless friend. Then tears brimmed in Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, and he said, “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’”
Some of us might want to reply to God that we have looked for him, but we haven’t found him. He seems to have hidden too well. We’ve found religion, and doctrine, and the form of worship, and some kind of faith—all the stuff we find in church. But we haven’t found God. Psalm 84 gives voice to our spiritual hunger: “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” And even as it speaks for us, voicing the deep desire of our hearts, it also speaks to us, telling us how to find God, even in church. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord….”
That is what we want, isn’t it? Deep down inside, so deep that we sometimes aren’t even aware that it’s God we long for, we cry out for an experience of God himself. Indeed, at the center of all our spiritual and physical yearnings is the desire for God in all his personal fullness. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God—“ not for religion, not for ritual or doctrine or liturgy or preaching, but for God himself. Indeed, God is why we pursue, or put up with, religion and ritual and doctrine and preaching and all that other churchy stuff. We want to find God.
Psalm 84 suggests that we will find God in church. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul years, even faints for the courts of the Lord. Blessed are those who dwell in your house. Better is a day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” Why would the Psalmist long for God’s house so powerfully? Because that’s where the Jews had access to God. At the altar they could come before God. In the Temple God lived in a special, almost physical way, hovering in the form of a shining cloud over the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.
Of course, we don’t have such a building today. In these New Testament days, God is not attached to buildings. His presence isn’t localized; it is personalized. We find God in the person of Jesus pre-eminently, for “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19) He is the new temple of God; in him we experience the presence of God with us. We also find God in human persons in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells. “Don’t you know that you are the temple of the living God.” (I Cor. 3:16) Church buildings are not the house of God in the same way the Temple was.
But our church buildings are places dedicated to God, places where we gather in the name of Jesus to meet God. And Jesus himself said, “Wherever two or three of you meet in my name, there am I in the midst of you.” Jesus is the great temple of God and he promises to be where his followers gather in his name. That’s why our church buildings, however humble or grand, are the places, par excellence, we can find God.
One spiritual pilgrim put it this way. “I looked for God up on the mountain, and I found grandeur; but it was not God. I looked for God down by the shore, and I found relaxation; but it was not God. I looked for God on the golf course, and I found camaraderie; but it was not God. I looked for God in my family home, and I found love; but it was not God. I looked for God everywhere, and I found many wonderful things; but I could not find God. Then I went to church, and there I found God.”
The problem is that so many of us don’t find God in church. Sunday after Sunday, millions come and do their thing, and they don’t find the living God. In fact, for some people, this is the last place, the hardest place to find God. It’s easy to understand why. I mean, there are all those people who irritate, that worship style that turns us off, those issues that upset us so deeply, that preacher with all her mannerisms and attitude. How can we transform our experience of church into the kind of encounter with God that will make us say each Sunday, “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.”
The Psalmist doesn’t tell us; he shows us. He comes to church crying out for the living God. I know that’s obvious from the Psalm, but it isn’t our practice. The Psalm writer came through the door with just one thing in mind; “my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Ask yourself honestly, how often do I come to church in that frame of mind? Think about the various moods in which we come to church, the diverse motives that bring us here, the words we speak and the thoughts we think on a Sunday morning: angry, distracted, annoyed, curious, wanting to be entertained, hoping to sing some “good” songs, steaming from a fight with your spouse, resentful because your parents dragged you here, exhausted from a late Saturday night party, worried out of your mind about a problem at work, feeling sick from a bad cold, upset about something in church. It’s no wonder we don’t find God in church! If you want to find God here, you must come through the door seeking him, yearning for the living God, wanting to meet God more than anything else.
There is a key phrase in verse 5. “Blessed are those who strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” If we want to find God in church, we need to treat going to church as a pilgrimage, as part of our heart’s pilgrimage. Or better yet, we must remind ourselves that life is a pilgrimage, a long journey to the heavenly Jerusalem with its joy and peace and love. As in ancient Israel, the road to Jerusalem is long and steep and arduous. It winds through barren places and over steep mountains and sometimes even through the Valley Baca, which means the valley of weeping or the valley of dryness.
Coming to church, then, is like pulling off the road into a rest stop, like finding oasis of refreshment and renewal for the next stage of the journey. But to experience church that way, and thus find God here, we have to prepare our hearts. “Blessed are those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.” It is a heart pilgrimage. Whether you find God in church will usually be determined by the heart you bring through the door. If you come hungry, and thirsty, and weary, and needy, crying out from your heart for the living God, you will find him. Then, in the words of verse 7, “you will go from strength to strength, until each appears before God in Zion.” You will meet God, even in church.
Except it’s not that easy. Abraham Kuyper in his classic devotional book, Near Unto God, talks about how difficult it is to return to God when once you have drifted away. “Return is not so easy. When we’ve gotten ourselves lost, we don’t, on our own, find our way back. Our best efforts end in frustration, in near despair.” But Kuyper found deep comfort in these words from Psalm 119:176, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant, for I do not forget thy commandments.” And of course, that’s exactly what God does all the time; he comes seeking us like the shepherd who would not rest until his 100th sheep joined the other 99 in the fold.
I love the way the great German theologian Juergen Moltmann put it in an article in The Christian Century. He was not a believer before World War II; he became one in a prisoner of war camp for German soldiers in Scotland, when he read about the sufferings of Christ. He writes, “This early fellowship with Jesus, the brother is suffering, has never left me since. I never ‘decided for Jesus’ as is so often demanded of us, but I am sure that then and there, in the dark pit of my soul, he found me.” And he concludes, “I was still searching, but I sensed that God was drawing me, and that I would not be seeking him, if he had not already found me.”
I think back to that story about the little boy whose friend did not come looking for him, and what his grandfather said about God. “God said, ‘I hide, but no one comes seeking me.’” Well, I can imagine someone coming to Jesus at the end of it all, crying and asking, “Where were you when I needed you? Where have you been all my life, especially in those dark, dry times?” And I hear Jesus say, “I’ve been out looking for you, but you weren’t there, in church, crying out for the living God with all your heart.” I can imagine that, and it makes a point.
But the fact is that Jesus will not stop seeking until every last one of his sheep is safely home. What a comfort that is, and what a motivation to seek God. You will find him; you can’t miss, if you seek him. But you must seek; you won’t find until you do. So as we continue our journey, make this the prayer of your soul, the cry of your heart: “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” Then you’ll find him, even in church, especially in church.
The cry of the Psalmist in Psalm 84 is the cry of every human heart, but sadly most people aren’t aware of that, because their minds aren’t in touch with their hearts and souls. We’re like that wasp on which George Orwell play a cruel boyhood trick. In one of his many excellent essays, Orwell describes this trick and makes a devastating point. “The wasp was sucking jelly on my plate, and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. It is the same with modern man. The thing that has been cut away is his soul, and there was a period—twenty years perhaps—during which he did not notice.”
Orwell was talking there about a cultural shift in the western world, but what he says has a very personal application. Many people have lost their soul, their spiritual desire for the living God, and they don’t notice. Their minds have been cut off from their heart of hearts. Life goes on, and they think that everything is normal. Until they have to fly, until they face ultimate issues. Then they know that something dreadful has happened. They have been cut off from the spiritual side of themselves, and all they feel is a longing for home, for intimacy, warmth, community, not the longing for God.
In fact, there was an article in the Atlantic Monthly a while back about a new religion that has risen out of this loss of longing for God. It’s called apatheism. Jonathon Rauch writes, “Someone asked me about my religion. I was about to say, “Atheist,” but I stopped myself. ‘I used to be an atheist,’ I said, ‘and I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another. I’m an apatheist.’ Apatheism is not caring about one’s religion, and even less about other peoples. Rauch claims that even church goers often rank high on the apatheism scale. They go to church for a variety of reasons, but they just don’t care very much anymore. Their longing for God has gotten cut off, and they don’t even notice.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!