A sermon by Margaret Hall
My grandmother was seventy-two when she died and I was eight, but she left a mark on my life quite out of proportion to the length of time we shared in this world. I still remember the sense of order and stability she created in her home, and how much she enjoyed the company of friends. Little things still remind me of her – the taste of caraway seeds, a key ingredient in her favourite cake recipe; the scent of the deep red roses she grew in her garden. I still remember where I was a few years after her death, when I had an overwhelming sense of what I’d lost when she died.
What says as much as anything about her influence on me, is my memory that one of her favourite hymns was Jerusalem the golden, and her favourite psalm was Psalm 84 – a song most likely sung by pilgrims as they made their way to the Temple in Jerusalem, to celebrate how God had made himself known.
Psalm 84 is filled with longing to be in the Temple in Jerusalem:
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord.
The temple courts were open to the sky, so perhaps the songwriter recalled seeing birds nesting in some high corner:
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
The songwriter knew himself to be very blessed because God was his ‘sun and shield’.
Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they’re forever praising you.
I like to think of my grandmother forever praising God, with the same fine alto voice she used to sing her beloved hymns about heaven. It’s not surprising she longed for a better world than the one she found herself was in. That was a world in turmoil, torn apart by pride and hatred and greed. She’d lost her husband to the effects of the first World War, and her only son to the second World War. She enjoyed her life here – her remaining family, her friends, her garden – but she lived most of that life twelve thousand miles from the rest of her family, whom she never saw again, once she’d immigrated.
It’s not surprising that, like those ancient singers of Psalm 84, she sought strength in God. Like them, she knew the blessing of finding it, as she trusted him through every sorrow. Again from Psalm 84:
Blessed are those whose strength is in you.
On their way to Jerusalem, those pilgrims passed through the valley of Baca, a name that means ‘weeping’. Yet they were buoyed up by their hope of what lay ahead – a week of singing and dancing and feasting. The beauty and order of the Temple would invoke in them a sense of God’s holiness. They’d be stirred to thankfulness as they heard the Scriptures and sang the songs that recalled his mercy, in rescuing his people out of trouble. They’d feel God’s love in their togetherness with fellow forgiven sinners. They’d express their trust in God through prayers for king and country.
At such festival times, the Temple was the centre of the kind of community life we all relish – people duly recognizing what they owed to God, and relating happily to each other.
Those who were in Sydney for the 2000 Olympic Games may recall that kind of camaraderie, as we came together for the purpose of showing the world who we are. Those pilgrim singers of Psalm 84 knew who they were – the blessed descendants of Abraham, through whom God had promised to bless the world.
Whether we long for God as the writer of Psalm 84 did depends on what we know of him. There are three ways of thinking about knowing God. Some say he can be known because he’s within us, and within everything we see around us – that God is everything and everywhere. The problem with that is that a lot of what we see around us isn’t good. We can do our best to ignore the bad things or even pretend they’re not bad, but still they rob us of the peace and harmony we long for. It doesn’t help to look within ourselves, because if we’re really honest, we can’t claim everything in us is good.
Another view of God is that he created the world and then left it to run by itself – that he’s there, watching from a distance, but seemingly un-inclined to intervene in what’s happening in his creation. When life’s running smoothly, that’s OK. But when we’re downright miserable it doesn’t help to think God doesn’t care. Despair easily turns a remote, distant God into no God at all.
What Judaism, Christianity and Islam rely on is that a Creator will connect with his creation – that he’ll interact with people. Abraham keeps meeting him. He speaks to Moses from a burning bush, sending him to confront the forces of evil. After they’re overcome, he appears to Moses on Mount Sinai. He tells him what people shouldn’t do, if we’re to live in harmony with each other and with him. He also tells him to construct a Tent of Meeting, a place where people come together, where their failures can be faced and dealt with. That Tent of Meeting became in due time the Temple in Jerusalem, to which pilgrims like the singers of Psalm 84 made their way.
All that history confirms the conviction that God remains in a close, dynamic relationship with the world he made, a relationship acknowledged every time anyone prays the Lord’s Prayer. Christians affirm that the God we address as ‘our Father’ involved himself with us to the extent of taking on human form. He then took on human suffering, in order to bring it, ultimately, to an end. His resurrection was the sign that end will come.
Because of his death and resurrection, Jesus is three things. He’s the great High Priest who offered the sacrifice by which wrongdoing can be forgiven. In fact he offered himself, so as well as being our High Priest, he’s the sacrifice the old Temple sacrifices foreshadowed – the once-for-all sacrifice that takes away the sin of the world. And as the point of contact between us and God, he is our Temple.
After his death and resurrection, his disciples remembered what he’d said to the authorities about the Temple:
Destroy this Temple, and I’ll raise it again in three days.
Then they understood he’d been talking about his own body. The Temple Psalm 84 is about was a signpost to point to him.
Psalm 84 is a song about longing to be in what God called his ‘dwelling place’ – the Temple in Jerusalem. On the day King Solomon dedicated it, a cloud filled it as the sign of God’s presence. When that Temple was destroyed, the worst thing for the nation was knowing the sign of God’s presence was gone.
Some centuries later, the apostle John wrote this about Jesus:
He became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
There we have it again – Jesus is our Temple – the one in whom God’s glory is seen. He’s the one who connects us to God, through whom forgiveness is sought and found, in whom earth and heaven meet. Each thing Jesus did, every word he spoke, shines with the glory of God.
His every act of compassion for the lost and suffering, his every act of reaching out to the marginalized, is unearthly – ablaze with God’s eternal mercy.
We hear unearthly and eternal wisdom in Jesus’ words; for example, his many words about the loves that blight our lives – the love of money, love of position and power and praise, all driven by rampaging self-love. He spoke in totally compelling ways about God’s love for us, calling on to open our lives to that love, to accept the forgiveness he offers and keep his commandment to love each other.
Jesus’ every confrontation with evil shines with unearthly, eternal authority – authority that astounded those who witnessed it, causing his critics to fall silent and hypocrites to slink away. The armed guards who came to arrest him fell back, when he simply identified himself. God’s glory was evident even when he was publicly executed, hung on a cross to die a shameful death – so much so that the soldier who watched him die exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
My grandmother knew the assurance she had about God and heaven came through Jesus. In times of darkness and weakness, Jesus was her ‘sun and shield’, as God’s described in Psalm 84.
She believed Jesus’ promise that he’d gone to prepare a place for her. For her, as for countless others, the longing expressed in the beautiful poetry of Psalm 84 has been forever met, through the One and Only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth, in whom God’s glory is seen.
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! ……
My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God …..
Blessed are those who trust is in you.
They go from strength to strength,
Till each appears before God in Zion.
The Temple in Jerusalem, which pilgrims once longed for, is missing in the picture of the holy city we find at the end of the Bible. Don Carson explained why, in the final poem in his book of poems:
I saw no Temple in the city: there
The Lord Almighty and the Lamb, his Son,
Together constitute the Temple. Sun
And moon had disappeared in deep despair,
Forever obsolete beside the glare
Of God’s unshaded glory.
That’s the glory my grandmother looked forward to as she sang her hymns about heaven, and read her favourite psalm:
How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
Lord Jesus, full of grace and truth, thank you for dwelling among us, to reveal God’s glory, and bring us back to him. Thank you for bearing our shame, in order to meet our deepest longings – for forgiveness and peace and joy, for connection with each other, and with our Maker. Amen.