Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2022
Psalm 84:1-7 Commentary
In the Calvin Seminary Chapel above and behind the pulpit area is a large clear-glass window with a cross in the center. A few years ago during a May Term preaching class in the chapel, we all noticed that a large Horned Owl had made a nest in the uppermost window pane near the top of the cross where it was raising a couple or so owlets. Not infrequently while students were preaching their sermons as part of that course, that mother owl would swivel her head around (as only owls can do!) and peer down upon us all. We made jokes that this was like getting a theological education at the Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories! (Owls are the key couriers of information and mail in the Harry Potter world, in case you didn’t know, and so they are everywhere at Hogwarts.)
What it maybe should have reminded us of instead was Psalm 84. Because in a well-known image, the psalmist finds himself envying the birds who built their nests in the eaves of God’s holy Temple in Jerusalem. “Lucky birds,” the poet as much as writes, “they get to live in God’s House all the time in ways I sorely wish were true of me!”
Psalm 84 is not technically one of the Songs of Ascent that you can find in Psalms 120-134 but this is all-but certainly a pilgrimage song. This is a song of intense longing to arrive at the Temple. Indeed, it is a song that almost laments the transient nature of this pilgrimage in that the psalmist can think of nothing better than the prospect of dwelling in God’s holy presence in his holy Temple all the time. The poetic language is intense: longs, faints, yearns. His soul “cries out” for God. If this were some romantic ballad, you would quickly conclude that this lover has got it bad! He is wholly besotted with his beloved one. The intensity of the language here could give the lovers in the Song of Songs a run for their money.
But perhaps it is just here that we can pause. Is the ardor expressed in Psalm 84 for God’s presence and for being in God’s special place of worship something to which most of us can relate? When was the last time we were on tippy-toes in eager anticipation of our next chance to go and worship God? Do we find it difficult to sleep on Saturday nights because we are so excited about church in the morning? Or does the alarm go off at 7:30am on Sundays and we as often as not groan before hitting the snooze button for another 15 minutes of zzzz’s?
Before we go much farther down this road of thought, let’s note a few obvious caveats we need to bear in mind if we are going to preach on Psalm 84. First, we no longer have a singular house of worship like the Temple in ancient Israel. The Temple was viewed as a unique place and it was not per se a portable enterprise. The holy presence of Yahweh was (on earth anyway) seen as contained within the Holy of Holies with Almighty God seated on the “throne” of the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant. So to the minds of most Israelites, you could literally be relatively closer or farther away from the living presence of God at any given moment depending on your physical location. The closer to Jerusalem = being closer to God; the farther from Jerusalem = the farther from God (such that you always prayed toward Jerusalem, albeit sometimes from long distances).
There is a sense in which Pentecost democratized the presence of God for us (something pointed to in this week’s Old Testament reading from Joel 2). The New Testament reveals that we are now, each one of us by virtue of having union with Christ, living temples of the Holy Spirit who dwells in each of our hearts. The living presence of Christ is, therefore, as near to us as flesh is to fingernails such that we have a hard time imagining ever being “away” from (or conversely any closer to) God no matter where we are on planet Earth.
This also means that any given church is no more or less holy—no more or less filled with the living presence of God—than any other church building. St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome may be a wonderful church and is the location where you can often find the head of the Roman Catholic Church but theologically speaking it is finally just another church. My cousin’s church in Texas and my home church in Michigan grant both of us equal access to God in ways that make it hard for us to relate to the idea that we must yearn to be present in only one particular church if we are to go and meet with God.
For these and similar other reasons we find the spiritual mindset behind Psalm 84 to be very nearly alien to our own spiritual sensibilities. But does that mean a poem like this is merely a historical curiosity but not a living song that has meaning for us? One should hope that is not the case.
Perhaps we do not need to spring out of bed on a Sunday morning eagerly to race over to church on a par with how this psalmist could not make his feet move fast enough to get to Jerusalem. But that hardly means there ought to be no spiritual thrill for us in the idea that we have union with Christ through his indwelling Spirit. This should be a source of abiding wonder for us. Yes, it is actually hard to have an abiding sense of eager wonder. It is hard to live every moment of life with tingles going up and down your spine. It is perhaps like being married: even in the best marriages where love is ardent and sincere and the marriage relationship is rock solid, the tingle of early romance and the palpable fluttery sense of romantic buzz you had those first dinners out together do not exactly characterize your average Tuesday evening supper of leftover spaghetti.
But if the marriage is sound, that core love is the wonderful bass note of all of life. And so long as that is so, then we may also expect certain seasons or moments when it does all flood back on us in ways that make us excited and also profoundly grateful. If that never happens, we might wonder if the flame has gone out after all. But where true love is, it will happen. Repeatedly albeit not necessarily constantly.
So also with God: we need not try to fabricate the eager ardor and yearning of the psalmist every time we go to church in order to have the kind of relationship with God that we all want and need. But the grace of God that saved us and made us one with Christ is properly the bass note undergirding the whole of our lives and so long as that is true, there will be moments in worship or in listening to a sermon or in partaking of the sacraments when our pulses will race anew and we will be flooded all over again with a profound gratitude and great ardor for our God. It may not happen every Sunday morning but the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit within us means it will happen. And what a many-splendored thing it is when it does!
If it is true—as noted in this sermon commentary—that even ardent Christian believers do not forever live in a pulse-racing moment of rapturous love for God—then it must surely count as true that those who do not believe in God at all find the prospect of fairly swooning over God to be preposterous. Yet, as Augustine famously said, whether unbelievers know it or not, they were created by God and for God and in God’s image. Without the living presence of God in their lives, there is a God-shaped hole somewhere inside them that may lead to a spiritual restlessness that will never be sated until they let God fill the gap.
Of course, people still try to find spiritual thrills. It’s just that often the things we tap seem to have little chance to achieve what we’re looking for (to riff on Bono and U2). A great example from the 1980s came in the work of Robert Bellah and associates in their insightful book Habits of the Heart. At once point they highlighted a woman named Sheila who, absent any living faith tradition in her life, decided to worship the sense of the divine she found within her own self. She called her religion “Sheliaism.”
I am not sure if it ever quickened her own pulse or created deep yearning within herself to go and fellowship with . . . well, with herself. I am fairly sure, however, that few others would long and yearn to go be with Sheila.
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