Sanctuary, City, Savior
Providence is the name of our congregation, but it also describes how God impacts our lives. Providence means, in theology, God sees ahead; but in popular conversation, Providence means, God provided, or God intervened, or God make this happen. We say sometimes, “That rejection letter was providential, because it kept me from getting into a mess.” Or, “This assigned text was providential, because it spoke to the very concerns of my heart today."
Which is the way I felt the first time I read this lectionary text last Monday. I said to myself, “Could there possible be a more providential text than Psalm 84?” It addresses our longing for familiar place of worship—surely what we all are longing for. It speaks to a desire to visit Jerusalem—surely what is on my mind just a few months after I announced a study tour of Israel next year. And this psalm expresses a need to reaffirm our trust in God, surely the need for all of us in pandemic America and everyone in Haiti, Afghanistan, and other places of grave danger.
Hear me and listen for the Spirit of God as I speak to you today on the topic, Sanctuary, City, and Savior.
First, the sanctuary. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O lord, of hosts! My soul longs, indeed, it faints for the courts of the Lord.” Or as we might say today: “My soul longs for the familiar sanctuary of the Lord.”
Many of us associate important events in our lives with specific places. It is as if God said to us what God said to Moses: “Take off your shoes. The place where you stand is holy ground.” Time and again, the Hebrew people took stones and marked a place where God intervened with some great power to protect or rescue the Covenant People. They named such places Ebenezer, a word which means “stone of help.”
We all get connected to special places. We remember special events. Friday my brother and I traveled from Hendersonville to Boone: up I 26 to I40, then east. When we came to the Ridgecrest exit, he said, “Do you want to get off and drive through Ridgecrest?” He knew it was a special place to both of us. We came here with our parents and later with our youth group. It was a place of faith and friendship, of religion and romance. We remember summers at Ridgecrest. It was there I first responded to God’s call upon my life. We drove through the grounds and remembered: the dining hall, the auditorium, the prayer garden, the Nibble Nook.
We miss our sanctuary. This crazy pandemic had driven us from our sanctuary. Like the psalmist of old, we want to get back in there and see familiar things, hear familiar things, feel familiar things—all of them things of God.
I have many places like that in my memory, don’t you? Where you were converted; where you were baptized; where you were ordained or married or first found peace with God or first heard your calling. I preached two weeks ago in the wonderful sanctuary of Third Baptist Church of Owensboro. For six years, between 1991 and 1997 it was my regular preaching post. But it was a Sunday afternoon experience in that place that I will never forget. It was the first Sunday of December, and the local oratorio chorus and symphony were performing Handle’s Messiah, as they had done since December 7, 1941. I was the host and thus moving about helping an overflow crowd find seats. Finally, finished, a eased my way into the sanctuary from the balcony hallway just far enough to hear. I leaned against the door jam and listened as the words washed my soul, “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd.” I remember it as one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of those six years, of any six years. I remember where I was, in a familiar sanctuary. It was holy ground, then and now. Which helps explain how I connect with this psalm. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord, your sanctuary, your place where you revealed yourself to me and touched my soul. I want to go back.”
Maybe you feel like this today: missing your place, even your pew, with the sights and sounds that have ministered so often, so powerfully to you. What you feel is of divine origin; what you desire is pure and honest. It is of God. Give thanks. Be patient. But also be alert to the possibility of a new place, a new tug of the heart, a new voice speaking to you a new word. The action of God in your life is not limited to the places of yesterday. God is waiting and ready to create for you new holy ground, to help you build new ebenezers, to find new sanctuaries where God speaks to you and shapes you into the person God wants you to be.
Can the place where you are right this very minute become holy ground for you? Can it become a sanctuary where you encounter the Lord in a fresh and significant way?
Second, the city. Jerusalem. There are many sanctuaries but only one city: Jerusalem. There are many cities but only one Jerusalem, only one Zion.
Jerusalem sits at the center of Hebrew history and Christian history. There is no place like Jerusalem. Golfers might say the same thing about Augusta. Young baseball players might say the same things about Williamsport. Musicians might say the same thing about Carnegie Hall…or wherever The Voice is hosted!! But readers of the Bible and followers of Jesus put Jerusalem at the center of the universe. Not Rome. Not Whittenburg. Not Ridgecrest. Jerusalem, or Zion as it is often called.
I remember vividly my first trip to Jerusalem. I was 23 years old, after a long flight from New York, landing in Tel Aviv on a Saturday afternoon, boarding an Egged bus, riding up to Jerusalem in the failing light, driving through the narrow streets of Mea Shearim, stepping off that public bus at Jaffa Gate. I have been back many times, but no subsequent arrival matches that first one in spellbinding impact.
Verse five of this psalm expresses my sentiments precisely, “Happy are those who strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion, the roads to Jerusalem.”
Have you been to Jerusalem? Millions of people have as hundreds of ministers have gathered up groups large and small and traveled with them to the Holy Land. I have led many groups myself: to the plain of Benjamin and the valley of Jordan, from the springs at Dan to the dessert of Beer Sheva, from the pass at Megiddo to the shores of the lake of Tiberias. I’ve seen it all, much of it before it was wired off or walled in, much of it before it became an installation for Israeli security forces.
I have planned to go next year and have invited you to go with me. We leave May 22, 2022. Sixteen days with three days in Egypt. I hope the pandemic does not interrupt that as thoroughly as it disrupted the gatherings in our sanctuary. There is great value in going to Jerusalem. It will inspire and instruct and instill in you a deeper desire to study the Bible, to worship the Lord, and “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Millions of people over centuries of time have some version of this testimony: “My pilgrimage to Jerusalem was one of the most powerful spiritual events of my life.” It can be that way for you.
But we must always recall what Jesus said to the woman of Samaria. She said, first, “We worship here on this mountain,” pointing to Samaria, “but you Jews say we must worship in Jerusalem.” Jesus responded, “the hour is coming when we will worship God neither on this mountain, nor on Mt. Zion. The hour is now here when true worshippers will worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” The worship of God is not about location—neither this building nor that sanctuary, neither inside the walls or out among the trees. It is about the interior sanctuary, the space inside of you we call the soul, the spirit, the self. That is the sanctuary of true worship. That is the space where we need humility, trust, mercy, faith, and joy. That is the place where the Living God wants to meet you today.
Third, the Savior. True worship is not limited to a place where once we marked our own ebenezer; and a genuine journey with the Lord Jesus Christ is not limited to an expensive trip across the planet. No. While these are precious and powerful, they are not the only way God reaches into our souls and draws us close to him. There are many other ways that God providentially speaks to us and walks with us and tells us we are his own.
The climax of this ancient hymn are the final words, “O Lord of Hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.” Trusting in God is better than any sanctuary. Trusting in God is better than any trip. Trusting in God is the center of the spiritual life, the center of the converted life, the center of the redeemed life.
Jesus trusted in God. This is the hallmark of his early ministry. Jesus trusted God when he embraced his unique call to be the person God anointed him to be. He trusted God when Satan tempted him and tested him and urged him to compromise. He trusted God when the sick came needing healing and the possessed came needing release and the fallen came needing forgiveness.
Jesus trusted God when the ministers repudiated his teaching and when the people turned their back in indifference and when his own disciples turned scared and ran. He trusted God when he was alone in the garden and prayed for a way to escape the troubles that confronted him. He trusted God when the nails were driven in his hands and the spear was thrust in his side and the voices taunted him from all sides. Jesus trusted God when he prayed, “Father, forgive them” and then prayed again, “Why have you forsaken me?” and then prayed again, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” When they laid him in the grave, Jesus was trusting God.
You can trust God. We can trust God together: to see us through this pandemic; to send a great revival to this wonderful church; to teach us how to pray for those in Afghanistan and Haiti and in the fires in California. We can trust God as we pray for the president and for the diplomats and for the people of Afghanistan. We can trust God when we roll up our shirt sleeve and say, “Stick me, Doc!” I saw a cartoon this week straight from the throne of God. A man says to Jesus, quoting the words recorded in the gospels, “Lord, if you are willing, you can help me.” To which Jesus replied, “I am willing. Get the vaccine.”
Trust God but lock the doors. Trust God but fasten the seat belt. Trust God get the vaccine. And deeper than these simple acts of safety is the calm assurance that God seeks, God cares, God saves, and God wills the very best for you. The most oft repeated command in the Bible is this, Do not fear! Sometimes it is coupled with this, “Do not be afraid. Trust God.”
I grew up singing the song Michael Sebastian will play in just a minute.
Simply trusting every day. Trusting in in a stormy way.
Even when my faith is small, trusting Jesus that is all.
Singing if my way be clear, praying if the path be drear.
If in danger for him call, trusting Jesus that is all.
Trusting as the moments fly, trusting as the days go by.
Trusting him whate’er befall. Trusting Jesus that is all.
When I learned it as a child in big church, I did not know what it meant. But the words and the melody and the meaning sank deep into my soul. We don’t realize how these hymns and scripture versus imbed themselves in the deepest parts of our being. We don’t realize how powerful they are, how they shape our psychic life, our spiritual life, our emotional life.
There is an epidemic of anxiety in our country. People are worried. People are uneasy. People are fearful. WE don’t know all the reasons for this unsettling of the human spirit. We don’t know why so many people are on sedatives. We don’t know why so many people seek the professional help of counselors, and therapists, and ministers. And we don’t know how to respond, except to listen, and pray, and when we are together to sing. Singing the songs of trust in God settles the soul and calms the spirit. Reading the psalms of trust in God eases the mind and erases the cares. Praying the prayers that voice our trust in God—God our creator, God our redeemer, God our savior, God our friend, God the ever present help in a time of trouble—this is the one antidote that we the church of Jesus Christ offers to the anxious world.
“O Lord of Hosts, blessed is everyone who trusts in You.”
O lord of Hosts, make me that happy, blessed, trusting person.