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Person. Place. Thing.

September 18, 2022

Person. Place. Thing.

Preacher:
Passage: Psalm 48
Service Type:

On Friday, I picked up my grandson Sam in Charlotte. As always, we soon engaged in our favorite game, Person, place, or Thing! Friday, he was thinking of a place where we had once eaten, and I failed; then I was thinking of a person, whom he had never heard of, and he failed.

This game gives me, your preacher, a useful way to read and interpret this psalm.

It is a psalm about a Person, about a place, and about a thing.

First, It is a psalm about the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Second, it is a song about Jerusalem, where the people though their God resided. It is a hymn about that one place where the people of Israel encountered their God in worship. Third, it is about a thing—the experience of the mystery we call God.

This is a song inviting us to encounter the living God here in our sanctuary and also in all the places where God meets us, sometimes in surprising places, under startling circumstances. “O God,” we sing in the words of verse 9 of this hymn, “we meditate on your unfailing love as we worship in your sanctuary.”

I.

We begin with “person.”

I use the word “person” to refer to God, but we all know there are problems with that. Any word we use for God is a metaphor. It is incomplete and only partially true when applied to God. All our words and images fail to describe God properly and adequately and truly.

Jesus used metaphors to talk about himself. “I am the light of the world,” he said once. “I am the good shepherd,” he said another time. These are ways of saying something about Jesus. The same is true for God. God is not a creature, a created thing or person. God does not dwell in time and space. God does not have a body that we can touch. God certainly does not have a long white beard!

We are truer and more helpful when we say things like, God is a presence, or God is a person, or God is a power that pervades the universe.

This is why there is a prohibition of making an image of God. God cannot be rendered with paint and brush, or with carved stones, or even with gold and silver. The commandment reads, “You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or o earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods…but I will lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.”

There is nothing on earth that can resemble God.

We say, “God hears,” but God does not have ears like you and I do. It is a metaphorical way of talking. How God knows what is in our hearts is like hearing what we say.  We say, “God sees” but God does not have eyes like you do, with eyeballs, retinas, and nerve endings. But we believe God is aware of things, God knows things.

When I was a kid, we sang the song, “Be careful little eyes what you see, for your father up above is looking down in love, so be careful little eyes what you see.”  God sees but does not have eyes; God hears but does not have ears; and God speaks but does not have a mouth, or tongue, or larynx, or any of the physical apparatus you and I have that enable us to speak.

God is the origin of all things, but God is not a father like I am the father of Allan. It is a metaphor we use to say something true and important about God. When we pray “Our father, may your name be holy” we are affirming that God loves like a father, God creates like a father, God protects like a father. But God is not frail like I am. God is not sinful like I am. God is not growing weak and old like I am. God will not die like I will someday, sooner rather than later.

God is, and loves, and wills us to live and dance and laugh. God calls us to sing for joy and live with hope. God call us to love God and love our neighbor. These are the sure signs that we have encountered the true and living God.

In this psalm, and in much of what we sing, the “person” we have in mind is God.

II.

But what of the place?

Psalm 48 is a much-loved psalm, one I learned in college while serving as a director of youth ministry at a local church. A chorus derived from the first two verses reverberates in my memory.

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God, the mountain of his holiness.
Beautiful in situation, the joy of all the earth
is Mt. Zion on the side of the North, the city of the great king.

It meant all the more to me when I moved to Jerusalem in the summer of 1973.  Jerusalem is the “place” of this psalm. This psalm is a celebration of that great city.

Listen to these lyrics again.

It is high and magnificent; the whole earth rejoices to see it.
Mount Zion, the holy mountain, is the city of the great king.

Go inspect the city of Jerusalem. Walk around and count the many towers.
Take note of the fortified walls
and tour all the citadels that you may describe them.”

Mt. Zion was the ridge upon which the city was first built. It was the watershed that ran along the mountains that was like the backbone of Palestinian geography. To the east, the water flowed into the Kidron valley and wound their way through the desert wilderness down to the Dead Sea. To the west, the water flowed down the hill country, across the trade routes and into the Mediterranean Sea.

David captured the small city from the Jebusites, fortified it, and made it his capital. Solomon enlarged it and built the temple and the palace. The Babylonians destroyed it and carried into captivity many of its people. The Bible describes how Ezra and Nehemiah led the people to return and rebuild the walls and the city. Later, under Roman rule, Herod greatly expanded the city and built the walls and constructed the temple that Jesus saw in his day.

You can walk around the walls and gates and towers of the old city today. They are those built by Suliman the Great after Muslims captured the city and transformed Temple Mount into the Al Aksa Mosque.

How many of you have been to Jerusalem?

Perhaps we can go together in near future. We can walk around the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and shop in its bazaars, and listen to the call to prayer from the Muslim minaret and the call to worship from the Christian bell tower. We can pray at the Wailing Wall, visit the Israeli Museum where they keep the Dead Sea Scrolls, and venture out to Bethlehem and Jericho. We can sit on the Mount of Olives and read the words of Jesus, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone the messengers God sends. How often I have wanted to gather you as a hen protect her chicks beneath her wings, but you would not have it.”

This is the place where God lived and moved.

Or so those Hebrew, Israelite, and Jewish people thought. They did what all people do: experience the presence of God, then build a structure to house that God or commemorate that experience.  Hebrew people did it in ancient days. They piled up stones and gave it a name: Ebenezer, meaning “stone of help.”

Christian people have done it as well. In Rome, with St. Peters Basilica, the largest church sanctuary in the world. In London, with Westminster Abbey, where the funeral will be held tomorrow. In New York with the Riverside Church for protestants, St. Patrick’s cathedral for Catholics, Times Square Tabernacle for Pentecostals, and Abyssinian Baptist Church for folks like us.

It is easy to confuse the place with the thing. Sometimes, God inhabits the beautiful structures we build or the simple altars we construct. Isaiah the prophet was in the temple when he saw the Lord high and lifted up and heard that great question, “Who will I send and who will go for us?”  Isaiah answered in words echoed by all true believers, “Here am I—send me!”

Several weeks ago, my sister described her first and recent visit to St. Peters in Rome. “I walked in not knowing what to expect,” she said to me. “I was stricken with awe and overcome with emotion. I looked up at the expanse of that great sanctuary. All around was beauty and reverence. It was a hallowed space, and I felt the presence of God.”

That testimony is from a Christian who lives a long way from Roman Catholicism. But it was a spontaneous testimony to the power of such sacred spaces to stir the soul and lift the spirit and draw us close to the mystery that resides at the center of all things.

She knew the name of God. She entered a place of God. She experienced the “thing” we all seek. She had an encounter deep in her soul with that mysterious and beautiful presence that pervades all of creation.

Her soul was overwhelmed; her senses drawn upward; her mind was transfixed; her memory indelibly marked. That is what happens when we meet the living God at a certain place and time. It can be a sanctuary; it can be in a wilderness. Any place can become holy ground, as Jacob discovered when he stacked those stones and said, “Surely, God is here, and I did not know it.”  He named the site, Beth-el, meaning “house of God.”

III.

What is the thing?

The person is the one and true living God, maker of heaven and earth, father of the lord Jesus Christ, friend of sinners and redeemer of the whole human race. That is the “person,” although we know God is not really a person but a presence, a mystery, an awakening.

The place is the temple of God and that is anywhere God speaks to us, touches us, listens to us, confronts us, calls us to be the person God has created us to be. That place can be here or there and anywhere. In a majestic sanctuary, yes, standing and praising God with outstretched arms or sitting quietly with hands open to the gifts God gives. It can also be along a flowing river, beside a bed kneeling in prayer, or riding in a car on a Sunday afternoon.

That happened to me in April of 2021, taking Sam home and hearing for the first time the Gibson Brothers singing their moving song. Their words described my need and my desire.

I found a church today. You led me to its door.
There was love about, it made my spirits soar.

We had worship there. Jesus’ name was praised.
And I sang along. I found a church today.

All the souls inside welcomed from their pews.
You were in their eyes and in their voices, too.

My heart was full, when it was time to pray.
I came back to you, I found a church today.

I’ll come back next week and bring a friend along.
He needs to hear your word and sing your song.

Keep a fire in me. Don’t let me get away.
It feels like home. I found a church today.

And Your love shone in through the windows wide.
and it brightened the room ‘till I had nothing left to hide.

Though I can’t recall what kept me away,
Yet You knew my need. I found a church today.

We worship God anywhere, everywhere, anytime, even in a car with the radio on!

Moses was on the back side of the dessert when he encountered God in the burning of a bush. “Take off your shoes,” God said to Moses in the most unlikely of all places, “for this is holy ground.” Hannah was kneeling in the temple pouring out her soul to God with such emotion that Eli the minister thought she was drunk or crazy or misguided. But God heard her prayer and gave her a son and she named him Samuel and he became the great prophet of Israel.

The apostles were on a mountain now call Mount Tabor when they saw the countenance of Jesus change from one degree of glory to another. “His face shone like the son,” the text says in Matthew. They heard the voice of God saying, “This is my much beloved son. Listen to him.” The disciples fell to the ground in terror. Sometimes the “thing,” the encounter, the experience of God surprises, and startles, and frightens, and perhaps strikes us to the ground. God is a mystery, and the ways of God are mysterious and powerful.

The “thing” is what we want, what we need, what we seek.

We want to know God and the power of the resurrection. We want to hear God and know our purpose on this earth. We want to seek God, like Isaiah, high and lifted up, calling us to repent, to renew our spiritual life, to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as our self.

That is the thing.

We can meet God here, if we humble ourselves, turn from our self-absorbed way, and seek God. The God of all the universe will meet you here, in this small, out of the way, sanctuary, or in the woods where you hike, or the living room where you kneel, or the car where you sit and cry out to God with your hands gripping the steering wheel.

Today, if you hear the voice of God feel the touch of God, sense the call of God, harden not your heart. Say yes to the Lord.

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