Unmarked Graves and the Hells We Have Made: Jeremiah’s Judgment Sermon and the Residential Schools
Sermon preached on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, at Billtown Baptist Church, NS.
On Thursday, a new national holiday will be observed: the Day of Truth and Reconciliation, a day to remember indigenous peoples and the tragic events that happened to indigenous children in the residential schools.
In June of this year, while we were all trying to get by from the pandemic, we learned of an atrocity that, for many of us, made our problems seem so small. The unmarked graves containing 215 remains of indigenous children were found in Kamloops, BC. Others have been discovered.
While this shocked many of us, indigenous communities have been fighting for awareness of what took place in these schools for decades. To date, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified 3 200 remains. They listed the names on a long red banner, and it was revealed in October of last year. Here is a picture of it, and as you can see, it goes around the room and out. It is so large. That’s how many. If you saw this as I did, I remember falling back in my chair, overwhelmed with the magnitude of this massacre.
These schools operated for over 150 years, the final ones being shut down in the 1990s. That means it is estimated that about 150 000 indigenous children went through these schools. The survivors face terrible mental health difficulties from these experiences. They estimate that the death toll to be somewhere around 5 000 children. In other words, there are many more graves yet to be discovered.
There were 137 of these schools throughout Canada run by churches. Most were Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United, but there were Baptist ones as well.
How do we wrap our heads around the fact that our nation, our churches, participated in something so cruel? How do we process the fact that these schools were operating in plain sight for over a century? It was not a conspiracy of a few individuals. There were reports, visits by other clergy, politicians, and townspeople. People knew. It was an act of systemic racism and genocide because it took many people, many laws and administrators, a whole culture of prejudice to do it. What words can we muster to talk about something so unspeakable?
I am going to suggest to you that we need to talk about God’s wrath. We cannot help but think about God’s anger, for if we don’t, the possibility that God is okay with these things, people doing these things to others, the alternative is worse: it makes God look uncaring and apathetic.
Many of us, however, have a toxic understanding of God’s wrath inherited from our fundamentalist upbringings. I am going to suggest to you that if we think rightly about the figures of hell and the fact God’s wrath actually flows from God’s love, we have a way of grasping this formidable failure of Christian morality. And yet, there is hope; there is hope for redemption and reconciliation.
In order to do that, I am going to read a text of bitter medicine. It comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 7:1-11, 17-20, 30-34 (abridged for time):
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord…
17 Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. 19 Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own hurt? 20 Therefore thus says the Lord God: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched…
30 For the people of Judah have done evil in my sight, says the Lord; they have set their abominations in the house that is called by my name, defiling it. 31 And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. 32 Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the animals of the earth; and no one will frighten them away. 34 And I will bring to an end the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bride and bridegroom in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for the land shall become a waste.
What I have read to you is one of the most important judgment passages in the whole Bible. It is Jeremiah’s judgment sermon on Jerusalem that he delivers in the temple.
Jeremiah is called the “weeping prophet” because he was called by God to give the people the worst news in the whole Old Testament: Because of the sins of the people, Jerusalem will fall.
What could have led them to that point?
Jeremiah, in this temple sermon, says why. The people have become so lax in their walk with God that they turned to idols: the gods Baal, Molech, and Ishtar, whose title was the queen of heaven and was celebrated with ceremonial cakes that Jeremiah mentions.
Idolatry in the ancient world was really an attempt to barter with the gods, to get power and prosperity out of them, forgetting God is the only true God.
The way of God is a sharp rebuke of this: God is already on our side; we now just need to follow his way if we want good things in our lives because the right way is the best way. Goodness begets goodness, and God’s justice is good for everyone. We can’t manipulate God out of doing the right thing. We can’t butter him up with long prayers or church services. God simply says, repent and do good.
Justice is always hard work, especially compared to idols that offer a seductive bargain: if you give this to Baal or Molech, then you will be blessed without having to be a blessing to others. It sounds so much easier.
But the allure of idolatry is fatal: if you are trying to convince false gods of our delusions to do good to you, what is enough? Do you sacrifice more crops? Do you sacrifice more animals, even the ones you need to make it through till next harvest? Do you slash your body and bleed in the act of devotion like the prophets of Baal did in the time of Elijah? Or do you go even further and sacrifice the very thing, the very person you place hope for the future in, your own child, whom you love and care for?
This is what the people did. The idolatrous religions of Canaan demanded you sacrifice your child in the flames. With the growing worry of a new superpower in the east, the Babylonians, the Jews, after they prayed in the temple, took their children secretly outside the city to the valley. It is here, in the valley of Topheth, the valley of Hinnom, that the people did something unthinkable, a crime so terrible, God calls it an abomination. And he says that if the people tolerate the sacrifice of children in the flames, Jerusalem will have an ironically similar fate. Jerusalem will burn.
The people responded mocking Jeremiah: “We are God’s people. Jerusalem is where the temple is. That will never happen. God is on our side. We’re safe.”
The king, Zedekiah, ignores Jeremiah, and in his arrogance, breaks his alliance with Babylon, siding with Egypt, thinking God would protect him. After Jeremiah warns the king not to do this, God’s judgment was simply God saying, “Alright, have it your way.” The same callous hearts that sacrificed children was the same that sealed Jerusalem’s fate. Sin is its own punishment.
The brutal armies of Babylon came and laid siege. As the defences broke, the city was burned, and the people were pulled out of their homes, tortured, and killed. The corpses were set ablaze and left smouldering in the valley.
Jeremiah’s prophecy stated that there would be so much carrion and bitumen produced by the fire that he calls it a permanent, unquenchable fire.
In fact, writers like Philo and Josephus 600 years later speak about how the effects of the flames were still visible in the valley. The scorched soil, Philo says, permanently had sulphur in it, a lasting reminder of the inescapable inferno.
1. Places Reveal
In indigenous spirituality, their culture is not a written culture but an oral culture. For them, places are revelatory, for the land holds memory; the land tells a story, stories that are told and retold down through the generations. In that regard, their culture is closer to ancient Israel than ours, and perhaps we can understand our Bible better if we are willing to learn from them that places reveal things.
When my family and I were on vacation on Manitoulin Island, Ontario, we stayed at cottages owned by an indigenous family in the unceded village of Wikwemikong. Each day we would explore a different part of the island. It has beautiful beaches, breathtaking trails, waterfalls, as well as villages with little cafés and shops. One day we drove into Wikwemikong. We were looking for a hiking trail, and as we drove just outside the village, there stood these eerie ruins.
This was the site of one of the residential schools. This was the old building of the Wikwemikong Residential school that operated from 1840 to 1963.
I read an account of these schools by a woman named Ida Embry. She tells of how every fall she would be forced to go to this school, her and her sister. The children were beaten severely with a thick leather strap for things such as simple as trying to talk to another in their native language. The children were referred to by number, not name. The curriculum openly taught them to despise their parents in an attempt to rid them of indigenous thinking.
Why did these schools exist? The first Prime Minister of Canada, John A. MacDonald, was one of the first initiators of the schools and said the schools needed to cut off contact between the child and their family in order to get rid of the “savage” in them. He believed this was his Christian duty to Christianize the world. These actions are a part of a long history of Christian imperialism and colonialism, where Christians felt it was their responsibility to take indigenous land from them and impose a Christian order onto their society no matter the cost. Put another way: it did not matter the sacrifice.
The people of Jeremiah’s time sacrificed children in the flames of the valley of Topheth to idols in order to gain divine favour. I am going to suggest to you that Canadian society has engaged in its own child sacrifice. Only the children were not Canadian children, nor was the land ours to do it on.
But they were sacrificed to idols. These were sacrifices to the idols of power, empire and colonization, cultural superiority and racism, idols that led Christians to believe their faith automatically made them the good no matter what they did, and that the mission of the Gospel could be accomplished by doing very things Jesus was categorically against.
Part of me wondered, why didn’t they level this evil place to the ground? But, this place stood as a reminder. Places reveal if we listen.
I have known a few survivors of these schools. I got to know them in Toronto, where I was the coordinator of a soup kitchen, as well as in Sudbury, where I pastored for five years.
The stories these children of God have told me have kept me up at night. The crimes of these schools are so terrible we don’t even want to think about them. They are so jarring; they are an existential threat to who we think we are as Christians and Canadians, what we believe about ourselves, and our responsibility to each other.
Are Christians always the good guys of history? No, not always. Is it possible that Christians can use the Bible and their beliefs to motivate horrific acts of hate? Yes, we have.
I am going to suggest to you, however, that if we don’t dwell in these painful places, repent, and learn what is necessary to rectify these injustices, we will never display a faithful witness in Canada fully. But more than that, we will never learn to love in a way God wants us to, to love the stranger as ourselves, to love the victims of our foolish beliefs. The God of Scripture loves the forgotten of this world and us also too much to let us get away with this.
We forgot about those unmarked graves. God did not. Those schools, those graves, are our Topheth. Putting it that way is certainly startling, but we must understand something else:
2. God’s Anger Intends to Heal
I apologize if you came this morning with the expectation of a cheerful sermon, but let’s think about these things more today because I have realized that when we understand God’s anger correctly, God is trying to heal us, not hurt us.
What is Topheth? It has many names in the Bible: the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Here it is called Topheth. It is a valley that stretches outside the city down to the Dead Sea, which also had a nickname that is a part of this land of judgment: the Lake of Fire. Perhaps you recognize that one from the Book of Revelation.
As I said, the effects of these moments of judgments on Jerusalem linger to this day, and that is why the fire was called the “unquenchable flame” or the “eternal fire.” When we understand the geographic figure of Topheth, of the valley of Gehenna, the Lake of Fire, we also understand what God is doing a bit better with what Christians have called hell.
The word, “hell,” is a European term that does not do a very good job at translating nearly a dozen places of judgment in the Bible. The doctrine of hell has been really one of the most misunderstood and abused ideas in the church. I will suggest to you it is because we have forgotten that it comes out of this history of the land.
I remember as a boy coming home from church being shaken by a sermon a pastor preached that if you don’t stay on the straight and narrow path, I will go to hell for eternity. I remember crying that night, terrified that I just would not be good enough, terrified of the thought friends and family or anyone could be trapped there.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. Perhaps you are like many modern Christians that just choose to ignore hell. Some of us are content to say, God is love, and therefore God never gets angry, and when we come to a passage of the Bible that says differently, we more or less just skip it and go on our merry way.
Many of us are content to think of hell as a place under the ground ruled by cartoonish devils dressed in red and with horns and pitchforks. It looks a lot more like European mythology than Hebrew memory. Many of us modern people are content to think of this version of hell in the same way we think of unicorns or leprechauns.
I did this for a time, but I just could not get around how Jesus uses this language. Jesus uses this figure of Topheth and Gehenna to warn people.
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that when we refuse to reconcile with others, we are in danger of going into Gehenna.
Jesus also says that when we refuse to deal with sin, it would be better to cut off our arms or eyes that cause us to stumble than have our whole bodies go into the unquenchable fire (that’s language from Jeremiah’s Topheth).
The fact that these scriptures exist and are even statements of Jesus breaks through our assumptions about what love is and what judgment means. Love is not about turning a blind eye to how we harm others, but neither is judgment about God giving up hope on us.
I never understood why Jesus, who has died for the sins of the whole world, who is perfect and has self-sacrificial love towards sinners, who reflects the heart of God, who Paul tells us, “desires all people to be saved” – I could never understand why Jesus gives these warnings. Not sweet, gentle, never hurt a fly, Jesus?
Then I became a father. As you already know, Meagan and I have five very busy boys. Being a dad is really the greatest privilege and responsibility one can really have. It is your job to do what is best for them and try to stir them towards the best future. But we all know we can’t control our kids, and sometimes our kids make terrible decisions. Sometimes this fact is exasperating, and it makes us, parents, angry. Angry because we love them so much. I can tell you the things that make me the angriest as a parent is when my kids hurt each other and don’t care. It is in those moments, as parents, we plead for our kids to stop. We word our warnings in the strongest possible terms in some hope our kids will take the consequences of their actions seriously.
One time my one son was about to hit their brother, and I said, “You do that, and you are dead meat.”
Another time they were really rude to one another, and I said, “You keep acting like this, and I am just going to take away TV forever.”
Have you ever said anything like that to your child? These are called hyperboles. A hyperbole is a statement purposely worded so strong it will grab the other person’s attention. Jesus uses hyperboles all the time. God’s wrath is his outcry so loud and so strong that God hopes it will break through our stubbornness and apathy.
Let me suggest to you that the images of hell work something like this. What seems to be happening here is that these memories from Jeremiah’s day, of fire, permeant, and unavoidable destruction, become pictures of the end, and God uses these to warn the people about the course they are on.
He does this, sadly, because we so often use heaven and salvation as a big cop-out. We tell ourselves that God loves us so much he will fix all that when we get to heaven. I don’t have to do what is right; God forgives me; I’m good. When that happens, God, like in the Book of Revelations, holds up this moment of the valley of Topheth (which in that book is called the lake of fire) and says, one way or another, you will have to deal with this. I love you too much to just let you avoid it. If you don’t deal with this evil, this sickness in our soul, what makes you think you can participate in the fullness of eternal life I have for you?
3. But Hope is Real
God’s judgment is often those moments God steps back and allows us to feel and see the consequences of our decisions. When we fixate on these moments, however, we are tempted to believe God gives up hope on us, that God has chosen some to be saved and others not, or that God does not actually love all people and want to save them. But the prophet Jeremiah says this in his book, Lamentations, chapter 3:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness…
31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.
Notice that Jeremiah warns the people with the figures of unquenchable fire but also comforts them, saying God’s love never fails, and ultimately God rejects no one. No one is cast off by the Lord forever. It even says that when he does bring punishment, he does so reluctantly, unwillingly. The prophet Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in punishment. The prophet Isaiah actually depicts God as weeping as he judges the people, feeling their pain. That sounds a lot more like a loving father trying with everything he’s got to turn his children from hurting themselves and each other towards something better.
The images of Topheth, Gehenna, and the Lake of Fire are God mirroring our brutality back at us. But make no mistake, God is not brutal or pleased with torture, nor does he give up hope in us or ever stop loving us. Isaiah depicts God’s judgment fire like it is the fire that purifies polluted ore into precious metal. Malachi imagines the fire judgment of God burning the sickness of sin away like a strong soap cleansing infection.
We often fixate on these dire warnings, but these warnings must always be coupled with the promises of restoration: We can’t understand redemption without both.
Jesus uses these punishment images of Gehenna, but we must never forget that Jesus went on then and accepted Gehenna’s punishment on our behalf.
With these warnings, how do we know there is hope for us with these atrocities in Canada’s past? We can have confidence because God in Jesus Christ was the child of God sacrificed for our sin. He was deemed expendable by the religious authorities, who wanted to keep their power. He was arrested, taken, beaten, and brought outside the city, to a place in the valley of Topheth, a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of death.
It is there that God counted the murder of his son as a sacrifice for the sins of those murdering him. He died praying for forgiveness for the very people who killed him.
If we have any doubt that God loves sinners, even when we have done the very worst of things, we can look at Jesus and know, he has gladly taken the hells we have made, the ones we are trapped in, and he chooses to bear them on the cross.
But that does not mean we get off the hook for the wrongs done in our world, in our history, and in our society. It does something different. It says there is hope that we can overcome them. The God of second chances forgives us and is now giving us opportunities to make it right, to learn and to repent, to heal and to restore: others and ourselves.
If there is no darkness that cannot be overcome by resurrection light, there is no wrong of the past that cannot be amended with God’s forgiving, reconciling future. But God gives us a choice: confront the hells we have made, unmake them with God’s gracious help, or the hells we have made for others will become our own.
But there is always hope because our God is a God of hope, a God that was pierced with the nails of hopelessness itself on the cross so that all the graves that Death and Sin have scarred God’s earth with might one day be emptied into Jesus’ eternal life.
Jeremiah reflects on the valley of Topheth later in his book, in the light of God’s promises to one day save his people, give them a new covenant, and place the law of love in their hearts, renewing them, and he says this in Jeremiah 31: 38-40:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord… The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes… shall be holy to the Lord.”
One day, these places of brutality and judgment will be healed and holy. The places of our greatest failures can be sites of forgiveness.
Let me suggest to you that if these graves of the residential schools are Canada’s Topheth, the hells we have made, it is a place of warning if we forget what happened there. But it will also be a place of hope if we remember the stories these places tell. It will be where we must look for how to repent fully, authentically, where God is sending us to carry out the work of reconciliation, where we as the church in Canada will find a new sense of Christ’s hope, a hope he has for us all.
If we treat these graves of these precious children as holy, letting their family’s laments be our laments, their battles for justice be our battles too, letting go of the idols of power and self-preservation, the arrogance that the face of Christ can only be found in faces that look like ours, these mentalities that centuries of Christians have held on to before us, to our own determent and destruction, if we do this – if we do this, God promises we will see glimpses of nothing short of heaven on earth, holy ground, the inbreaking of what Peter called the hope of the restoration of all things.
Psalm 84: Dwelling Place
How lovely is your dwelling place,
When Meagan and I were first married, we lived in Holland Landing, just about an hour north of Toronto. Holland Landing was a farming community that at one point had a community of radical Quakers. Quakers are a Christian fraction that believes less in the scriptures per se and certainly no traditions of any kind (which I don’t think is actually possible), choosing instead to prioritize the raw experience of the Holy Spirit. They got their name from sitting in silence meditating till they quaked with the Spirit.
Their church, depicted here, is a temple, which is now a historic site. I toured it one day with some friends. It was beautiful inside because they intentionally designed the interior like heaven. The building has three levels like how heaven is symbolically described in the Bible. Inside there is a rainbow shaped staircase going to the very top, representing Jacob’s ladder. The sanctuary has no pulpit, just a center where the Bible was placed. Everyone sits in a square with everyone equal. The windows on all sides let in an enormous, moving amount of light in the morning, filling the room as your eyes are drawn upwards to the top of the ceiling.
It is a deliberate attempt to symbolically create this sense of heaven on earth, God’s dwelling.
I grew up in Stoney Creek. Hamilton has the mountainous escarpment going through it, which then moves straight up all the way to Manitoulin. One point, formed by glaciers, is a bowl shaped small canyon. It is called the Devil’s Punchbowl. Legend has it that it got its name from someone dying there by suicide. That’s just a legend though. At the top of the punchbowl is a look out with a cross. This cross you can see from most of East Hamilton, and always gave me a sense of hope. I remember hiking around up and down the Devil’s punch bowl as a kid, and it always felt eerie. Looking up at the bowl from its base gives you this uneasy looming feel, while looking down at the bowl from the look out with the cross was serene. The place for me was a kind of religious place, representing God’s presence in the world.
The cross at the top of the punch bowl felt like a lasting reminder of God’s victory over the devil.
My wife before we were married went on a missions trip to Turkey with her college friends. They stayed in southern Turkey and worked at a mission, teaching English and assisting the missionaries there. They got some time to tour the country and went to Istanbul. Istanbul was at one point the capital of the Roman Empire, after Emperor Constantine moved the capital from Rome to there. In doing so, he commissioned this massive cathedral. When Muslims eventually conquered Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Now it is a tourism site. One of the architectural masterpieces of the ancient world, the Hagia Sophia uses its golden domes, widows, and candle chandeliers to bring light in and give this heavenly sense to the room. Look up and all you see is golden light coming down on you. It’s beautiful isn’t it?
I grew up 45 minutes from Niagara Falls. One thing we did often as a family was to go and tour the Falls. We would go on the Maid of the Mist, which was a boat that went right up to the edge of the bottom of the waterfall. The roar of water was intense. Whether at its base or just looking at it from the other side, the sound was moving. Some people described it like the voice of God: commanding, rumbling, powerful. This spectacle of nature remind people of the power of God.
On my wife and I’s honeymoon we went to Europe.
My favorite day was touring Rome. We went to the Vatican. I remember walking into St. Peter’s Basilica and looking around. The walls are encrusted in artwork and monuments to great saints of the Church. When you get to the center altar and look up, no picture can do this sanctuary justice. It is so large you can fit 4 statues of liberty inside this dome comfortably. The little specks in the distance were people look down from a second level balcony. The room is so large and beautiful, you cannot help but feel moved with its splendor.
These are all places that people have descried as heavenly, reminders of God dwelling in the world.
However, these are in the end just man-made buildings and the creation, not the creator.
God has chosen to dwell on earth, to make his dwelling place here, in a place more beautiful than St. Peter’s basilica, more powerful than Niagara Falls: God has chosen to dwell in our hearts.
While the saints of the Old Testament met in a temple, because Jesus is the Word made flesh, because he sent his Spirit, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, our hearts are spaces of God’s beautiful dwelling.
The theme of dwelling place is what we are going to meditate on.
How lovely is your dwelling place,
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
3 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.
1. God dwells with us.
As we have been talking about, this Psalms longs to worship God in the temple, a place where ancient Israelites knew God’s presence dwelt.
The Israelite temple was built around 960 BC by King Solomon. Solomon in his wisdom and wealth set out to make a proper temple for God. The temple was a magnificent achievement of the ancient world. It had three sections. The deepest section was the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant was placed. The floors and ceilings were lined with approximately 20 tonnes of gold.
The Temple was meant to speak of the symbolism of the splendor and majesty of God.
But this Temple was inevitably destroyed 400 years later by the Babylonians and the people were carried off into exile. A replica was made by Ezra after the exiles returned.
About 500 years later, Jesus shows up and says that he is the new temple. Through him, people will be able to worship in spirit and in truth. As John 1 says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
How lovely is your dwelling place: that dwelling place is Jesus.
Jesus is our King, our God, the Lord Almighty. It says that as he died on a cross for our sins, the barrier to the Holy of Holies in the Temple broke asunder. There is no barrier between God and man. God has taken our sins away and is now with us. God’s dwelling is now with us, in us, always for us.
40 days after he rose from the grave, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles to begin the church.
Where does God dwell? We see his beauty in mountains and waterfalls, in temples and buildings, but the truth is God dwells with us, in our hearts. He is with us in his Spirit.
He is in our hearts as we trust and accept him. He is in our midst when we worship and praise him. He is around us as we love one another.
God’s dwelling place is you. God’s dwelling place is us. God is dwelling with us right here, right now. Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered, there I will be.”
That is all a church is. It is us. Don’t forget that. It is not this building.
A church is the people, the community, the people of God, who have taken time to dwell with each other to remember God dwells with us.
In our modern age it is important to remember that the church is not the building, the church is not the organization on paper. The church is God’s people. These other things are just an organized effort that we do as a community to help worship together and advance the Gospel together. They are important, but not the center point.
But the other side of it is that I can’t be a church by myself. Sure God is with me when I am by myself, but if God is love, he is most intensely present not in solitude by myself but in service to each other. That is why we have “church.” God is present to us when we get together with others different from ourselves and learn to love as he loves us.
In Jesus God dwells with us, not through a temple anymore, not a building, but in our hearts, in each other, through each other.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you…
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage…
2. Do you take time to enjoy God’s dwelling with us?
Blessing is that sense of joy knowing God approves of us and loves us. It is his reward and embrace.
While the ancient people heard this to refer those that made the trek to the temple, in the Spirit we hear this another way.
We can take this to mean today that we are blessed when we take time to remember God is with us. We are blessed when we sing to God, listen to his word, fellowship with other Christians.
We are blessed when we tune into God in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. We are blessed when we take time to see God in each other. We are blessed when we love others and see God active in that.
I know singing to God charges me up. I know just sitting and having a word of prayer renews my strength. Those are their own blessing. They are right there for us to do. God gives us all these means for enjoying him. The question is will be take advantage of them?
It says blessed are those whose strength is in God, whose hearts our own pilgrimage.
Is your heart on pilgrimage? Have you resolved that there is nothing more satisfying, more strengthening than knowing God’s presence? Have you resolve to seek nothing but God’s truth and have your resolves to seek that truth using nothing but God’s strength? Because you will never find God by your own strength. It is only by God’s grace, let me tell you.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
3. When God dwells with us, we bring God to others.
What is the Valley of Baka? Well Baka means “weeping” so this is the valley of weeping. It was also called the valley of Hinnon or “Gehenna.” Gehenna is used as a metaphor for hell in the New Testament.
The valley of Baca or Gehenna was a place pagans would sacrifice their children in the fire. King Josiah tried to stop these detestable sacrifices by burning their alters there in turn, as a kind of ironic judgment. Then the prophet Jeremiah warned the people that if they kept sacrificing children in the flames in Gehenna, the whole city would burn and be like the fires of Gehenna. Sure enough, the Babylonian army came and leveled the city, burning it to the ground. The whole land looked like a charred wasteland. Jesus takes this warning up again in the Gospels and says if we don’t follow God’s ways, something like what happened in Gehenna will happen to us. Hell after we die is something like this place of burning punishment. In fact, the area of Gehenna, a valley going all the way to the dead sea where Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed in burning brimstone was called the Lake of Fire. So, the Book of Revelation picks up on this imagery when it warns us of the dangers of refusing to follow God.
So, this valley has a rich and powerful history, as biblical history and memory continues. But for right now, the valley of Baca or Gehenna was a place of death, a burn wasteland, full of ash and carrion.
Any pilgrim going from their town to the temple to worship God would have to pass by this place of death and judgment, reminding them of what can happen if they refused to acknowledge God and follow pagan ways.
These are places that we think of as places of the absence of God.
Think of the desolation from the Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This desolation you could think of as a place of the absence of God, places of death and destruction. Although these were not created by God’s judgment on the Japanese but by our sins as the Allied forces, mostly the Americans but us as well, who were quite comfortable killing hundreds of thousands of innocent lives in order to stop a war, in the ultimate ends-justify-the-means logic.
Or one closer to home is look at the regeneration that has happened around us due to the reforestation projects. Sudbury terrain has turned from a wasteland to beautiful forest.
The Psalmist names this geographic symbol of a place of God’s absence and then says that those whose hearts are close to God are like healing streams to places of desolation. They are like streams that refresh and regenerate and restore.
Through the biblical narrative the imagery for hell, the places that the prophets use to warn us about our consequences of sin, also are captured with symbols of restoration. Ezekiel describes the waters of the temple replenishing the dead sea back to life. Revelation depicts the waters of flowing outside the gates of the city. And here, Baka, the valley of weeping, is turned into springs of life.
Those that walk with God turn hell on earth into heaven on earth, and that is the deep heart of God.
Let me ask you: Are you a healing presence to those around you? Are you bringing hope to others around you.
When you walk into a difficult situation, is it your natural inclination to just pass it by, walk away, don’t bother? Or do you feel called to help, heal, comfort, speak truth in places of deception, forgiveness in places of hate, hope in places of despair?
Do you turn valleys of Baka into Mounts of Zion? Lakes of fire into streams of Eden? Do you bring heaven to into places of hell on earth?
When God dwells with us, we bring God to others.
8 Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, God of Jacob.
9 Look on our shield, O God;
look with favor on your anointed one.
The psalmist longs for their prayer to be heard. And their prayer is for God to raise up the king, the anointed messiah, to be the protector of the people, bringing them back to God, bringing back justices and righteousness and mercy.
In the line of the human kings of Israel, that hope failed. God’s people were not meant to place their hope in human strength. But God filled this Scripture in sending Jesus, a descendant of king David, to be the perfect messiah, the perfect anointed one.
10 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 the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
4. To have nothing but God is to have more than to have everything except God.
In our world today, we face very real and powerful and persistent forces that want to choke us off in our faith.
We are far more likely to worry about our finances than to worry about our faith.
The rat race of life can keep us from prayer and pursuing God’s will for our lives. Even something as good as our families can quickly become an excuse to forget about meeting together as a church.
All the worries of wealth, the stress about work and time, the obligations of friends and family, school, sports, and whatever else. God is easily forgotten.
Jesus warns us, what profit is there if we gain the whole world but forfeit our souls?
It is the same truth as this Psalm. What is really worthwhile: working more and more to get that promotion or that next achievement and in doing so forget about God?
Better is one day in God’s presence than thousands elsewhere. Better is just a few moments resting in his love than a whole lifetime wasted trying to win in this world.
I’d rather be a door keeper in the house of God: If we had the choice between kings and billionaires in this world, this life, and being peasants in the kingdom of heaven…
To have nothing but God is to have more than to have everything except God.
Or as Jesus said, “What profits a person if they gain the whole world but forfeits their soul?”
We as Christians all know this, but the question is will we start to live it.
12 Lord Almighty,
blessed is the one who trusts in you.
Let’s pray recommitting ourselves to trust in this