Going From Strength to Strength
AUGUST 23, 2009
The 84th Psalm is one of my favorites. When I discovered that it was an option as a reading in the lectionary for today, I leapt (not literally, of course, as I would be crippled doing that) at the chance to preach on it. You may want to look at the Psalm, which was our Call to Worship and Scripture reading at the beginning of this Worship Service, and follow along as I do an expository sermon.
How lovely is Thy dwelling place, 0 Lord of hosts! The psalmist wrote about the temple and how wonderful it was to go there and to be there worshiping God, Whose dwelling place it was believed to be. Biblical scholars think this Psalm was used on the occasion of making a pilgrimage for the Feast of Tabernacles in the fall, when the rain ended the summer drought and grapes were harvested and booths were made for the celebration and wine was consumed in great joy. It was not like Greek bacchanalia or Roman orgies; rather, moderate drinking with a spiritual emphasis was the norm in this Jewish fall harvest festival.
In the first of the three parts of the psalm, each of which is centered around a beatitude, the psalmist speaks of how blessed it is to come or dwell in the house of the Lord. You can sense his happiness in these words: My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Indeed, his whole being--his soul, heart, and flesh--longs and even faints to be in the courts of the Lord However, it is not the structures of the Temple than make it so appealing, but it is the living God.
Even sparrows and barn swallows that build nests, and hatch, and feed their young have a home in the house of the Lord. I once saw a small bird build a nest and sit on an outside windowsill of a church, hatch young, not unlike a sparrow or swallow finding a home for herself and her young in the temple that was so central in Jewish life in ancient Israel. The psalmist and we can consider this to be symbolic of how God shelters us under Divine eves.
Not all animals are to be welcome in churches or synagogues. I am indebted to our daughter Susannah for the following story. There were five religious congregations in a community in Texas: a Presbyterian Church, a Baptist Church, a Methodist Church, a Catholic Church, and a Jewish Synagogue. Each church and the synagogue was overrun with pesky squirrels.
One day, the Presbyterian Church called a meeting to decide what to do about the squirrels. After much prayer and consideration, they determined that the squirrels were predestined to be there and they shouldn't interfere with God's divine will.
In the Baptist Church, the squirrels had taken up habitation in the baptistery. The deacons met and decided to put a cover on the baptistery and drown the squirrels in it. The squirrels escaped somehow, and there were twice as many there the next week.
The Methodist Church got together and decided they were not in a position to harm any of God's creation. So they humanely trapped the squirrels and set them free a few miles outside of town. Three days later, the squirrels were back.
The Catholic church came up with a pretty effective solution. They baptized the squirrels and registered them as members of the church. Now they only see them on Christmas and Easter.
Not much was heard about the Jewish Synagogue, but they took one squirrel and had a short ceremony with him called circumcision, and they haven't seen a squirrel on the property since.
I couldn't resist telling that joke.
They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. In the Bible there are numerous passages which state or suggest that one whose strength is in the Lord God will grow stronger and stronger from day to day. For, as the psalmist suggests, in making a pilgrimage to Zion or Jerusalem or in coming to synagogue or to church, he or she is not tired but strengthened. We are reminded of the words of the prophet in Isaiah 40:31: but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
Indeed, by waiting for the Lord we shall find strength and by waiting upon the Lord we will be refreshed. God was present in the temple and God is present in a church but, of course, God is Spirit and cannot be contained in a building per se. Yet, this church is truly an awesome place, a place in which we can be encountered by the living God and where the God of gods will be seen.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Behold our shield, O God; look upon the face of Thine anointed! Here the psalmist, perhaps as the leader of pilgrims on the way to the Holy City and its temple, inserts a prayer (verses 8 and 9) first to ask the Lord God to hear him and then to ask God to look with favor upon an anointed one, probably the king or maybe the high priest, with whom the life of Israel was intimately bound. There is another possibility and that is that the psalmist is David, though there is no indication in the Psalm or in the tradition about it that he had anything to do with writing Psalm 84.
In any event, the author goes on to a third section: For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness. The psalmist returns to a central theme: his love for the temple or God's house. The word rendered "doorkeeper" may refer to some kind of servant, or to a beggar who stands at the entrance to the sanctuary to beg, which was an acceptable way for some people, including the handicapped, to make a living, or to some other humble person. But whatever the exact meaning may be, the psalmist prefers it to a life among those who cut themselves off from God by wickedness. He considers it a wonderful thing to be in the temple courts to worship and serve God and proclaims that one day there is better than a thousand elsewhere.
The church is where we can worship and serve God as Christians. Not unlike old Zechariah, the husband of Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who took his turn in the temple before the birth of their son John, we can take a turn in doing what is needed in this sanctuary. To be a doorkeeper or servant here can help keep one from descending into wickedness. You may open the doors as a Trustee, or prepare for worship as a Deacon, or welcome guests as a Greeter or an Evangelism Board member, or receive the offering to God as an Usher, or in my case be a celebrant in leading worship. Yes, a day with God and with one's brothers and sisters here in this church is better than a thousand elsewhere. Like the psalmist who enjoyed the temple and the spirituality of that place, we can enjoy the church as a spiritual place or home away from home. For to us as a congregation, this is a holy place.
Because we believe in the priesthood of all believers and because we remember that Jesus taught in the temple, our church is also a place where teachers tell of God and the Divine love made known through Christ Himself. Because this is a temple of God, we must make sure that what we do here is acceptable to God. How we deal with money matters to our Lord and Savior, for example. He watched the giving in the temple So, we need to take the matter seriously. Most importantly, we must know that ultimately the Church capital "C" as an institution and a church small "c" as a building do not belong to us, but rather to God. Therefore, we must conduct ourselves with dignity before God and with respect for one another. While the building is important, the body of Christ is more important; yet, both are to be cared for lovingly as a gift from God and as a gift to God.
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. In other words, the ethical and the ceremonial are woven together. As a sun and shield, God gives blessing and protection to those who walk uprightly or with integrity. When we consider how God cares for us and has compassion toward us, we are amazed by such concern on the part of our Creator. And when we ponder the wonder of God coming to us in human form through Jesus Christ, we are humbled by God's redemption. But, each day we also ought to appreciate that God sustains us through the Holy Spirit. God is not a disinterested, remote Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. God is not apathetic about Creation and creatures. No, God watches over us and sees what we do, as children know.
A group of children were lined up in the cafeteria of a Catholic elementary school for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. The nun made a note and put it on the apple tray: “Take only ONE. God is watching.” Moving further along the lunch line, at the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. A child had written a note, "Take all you want. God is watching the apples." Well, the Lord watches us and God bestows favor and honor [and] No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
The point that the psalmist makes in the last verse is that every [one] who trusts in God is blessed. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in Thee! As believers, let us always trust in God. As we do we will be blessed. Of this the psalmist is sure, and that has been my experience and maybe yours, too. I hope so or hope that it will be so for you.
As we trust more in God we will go from strength to strength. Other than our spouses and perhaps one or two close friends it is rare and perhaps impossible to find a person in whom we can place our trust. But no matter what happens in this life and whether or not we have friends on this earth, we have One in heaven Who knows us and loves us and we can trust in God always. And acknowledging that we trust in God both in worship and in service will increase our strength.
Of course, our attitude about coming to church matters, as does our motivation for doing good deeds. If we come because we expect to be rewarded instead of to worship the Lord, then we participate for the wrong reason. If good deeds are done to chalk up points for heaven, we are wasting time and effort for God decides Who gets in. Worship and service ought to glorify God and God alone and not for the purpose of bring attention to ourselves.
Finally, God is trustworthy and fulfills promises, as we know in Jesus Christ. May God bless and keep us now and forever. AMEN!
A sermon preached by the Rev. Gary Hauze at
First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Whitman, Massachusetts