Sunday, August 22, 2021 – Pastor Beckie Sweet
How do you feel about attending church? While one might think that the response to the first question of this message is obvious, my guess is that your responses have changed over the last two years. So, how DO you feel about attending church? Do you love it? Do you look forward to coming to church or viewing the worship service? Are you a little hesitant to engage in in-person worship and programs? Do you LONG for fellowship with those in this community of faith?
Do you get a thrill out of attending worship? Is the highlight of your week worship or serving through the church? Do you miss it when you can’t attend? Is this the space and are these the people with whom you experience God’s presence in such a way that you want to sing for joy?
Well, I hope and pray that the church (the family of faith), provides you with a space in which to exalt God, learn about God, experience grace and salvation, and feel God moving in and through us. Friends, that should make everyone want to sing for JOY! But that “should” is tied to the expectations of our hearts as we approach worship, study, and service. If one comes expecting worship to be boring, it will probably be boring. But if one comes with excitement, expecting to hear from God, to touch the very realm of Christ, and to feel the rush of the Spirit’s wind, well maybe that’s what we will experience, and more!
Psalm 84 is a psalm of longing for what God has in store for the believer. The Psalm does not exactly talk about church as we know it, because the church did not exist yet. This Psalm talks about the Temple, where the Jews believed God resided and where the community of faith gathered. So, longing to be in the Temple was a longing to be in the presence of God and God’s people.
This is also a Psalm of Pilgrimage because every year the Jewish people were required to travel to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple. As they journeyed from wherever they were living to their holy place, they would sing songs. Music always makes a journey shorter, at least it did when I was a child and our family would sing, “Daisy, Daisy” “Henery the 8th” “I’ve Got a Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, Down in My Heart” or any other camp song we could think of. Today, we listen to CD’s, Apple i-Tunes, or Spotify. Back then they would sing Psalms as they traveled.
And, do you remember the depth of yearning as you journeyed to your holy place? Each landmark on the journey gives a heightened sense of excitement as you realize that you are getting closer, and you will soon reach that special destination.
The Psalmist reminds us that the genuine worshiper LONGS to spend time in the courts of the Lord. Since that pilgrim worshiper only gets to spend time in the Temple a couple of times a year, the pilgrim is excited to the point of yearning, thirsting, longing, even fainting to worship God in that holy place again. Worship, says the Psalmist, is an intimate and emotional time when we are in communion with a living God who loves us and wants what is best for us.
Where is your holy place(s)? That space within the sacred assembly where you feel closest to God? where you sense God’s creativity around you? where you are accepted and loved? where you are nurtured and challenged? where you grow and learn?
Perhaps we could summarize our feelings in this way as we prepare for worship. We could be thinking, “Wow! What a great opportunity to be in the presence of other Christians singing praise to God, praying together, hearing the Word of God, and receiving a message of nurture. Wow! I can hardly wait to see where God will show up today!”
Theologian Eli Fisher shares, “Psalm 84 holds a special place in my spiritual journey. When I was drawing to the end of my graduate studies, I was spending six to seven hours a day poring over notes and books in preparation for that final, Archimedean hurdle, a two-week series of comprehensive exams and research papers. My studies of the Old Testament delved into the history, anthropology, literature, language, religion, and theology of the ancient world. And I savored every minute. But at the same time, something was missing, and although I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it was, there was a definite longing that my academic studies of scripture didn’t fill.
Soon after my exams, Fisher continues, I signed on at my church for a Disciple Bible Study, which (as some of you know) required daily Bible readings and culminated in a two-hour group meeting each week. Toward the end of every group meeting was a segment entitled, “Encountering the Word,” during which participants were exposed to a number of creative ways to read and experience the biblical text. I’ll never forget the first session, when we were asked to read Psalm 84, not once, but three different times: first, to familiarize ourselves with the text; second, to identify sensory experiences – sights, sounds, smells, feelings, emotions; and finally, to imagine ourselves as a character (any character but God) actively participating in the scene verbally painted by the psalm. Each of these readings was followed by a short time of reflection and discussion in a small group.
The effect was electrifying! With each successive reading, I became more aware of the beauty and the power of the imagery in a way that I had never appreciated before: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord! My soul faints for your courts! Suddenly these became my images, my thoughts: I had joined the throng walking through a countryside washed fresh by the autumn rains, laughing and singing as we made our way to Jerusalem for the New Year’s festival. I could imagine coming over the peak of the Mount of Olives and catching that first glimpse of the Temple, set high on the adjacent hill, and the excitement generated by reaching those hallowed precincts. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
The “Encounter the Word” exercises quickly became my favorite part of the entire Disciple experience. Each week was a new adventure, with new passages and a variety of ways to approach them (since not every approach was appropriate for every passage).
I’ve since discovered that what I was learning during these exercises is described wonderfully by M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., in this book Shaped by the Word. Up until this time, I had viewed the Bible as I had been taught to view all written material, as a text containing information that needed to be learned, and thus “mastered.” What I was not discovering (and what, I must admit, I sometimes struggle to relearn) is that the Bible is so much more than that. The true strength of the Bible comes when one approaches it desiring, and expecting, to be shaped by it; when one uses it to listen for God’s voice; when one allows it to become one’s prayer.
Musically, the Psalms are not as familiar to us as they were to the pilgrims on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. But I cannot help but wonder if, this week, we will be found humming a song of JOY in the presence of Almighty God.