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