Pastor Joel Leyrer - The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost - Sunday, August 1, 2021

Text: Psalm 84

Watch Service Video

Dear Friends in Christ, we sometimes hear people talk about escaping bad news or a stressful situation by saying they are going to their “happy place.”  It’s usually said in a lighthearted yet wistful manner. Maybe you’ve used this cliché yourself. What does it mean, and where is it?

A person’s “happy place” can mean lots of things and is as individualized as we are. It could be an actual physical location like the beach or a cottage or a favorite park; but more often than not it’s a mental image that calls to mind a pleasant memory of a happier time in life. 

Wherever and whatever it is, it’s a place that conjures up feelings of peace and rest and calmness and contentment that helps us transcend whatever it is we may be going through at the time. Kind of like an emotional oasis in one of life’s desert periods

We do not know the name of the person who wrote Psalm 84. Nor do we know the exact background behind what he was personally going through. What we do know is the Psalmist’s “happy place.” We know this because he talks about it repeatedly.

He longs to be in the “house of God” – a reference to the Old Testament Temple in Jerusalem. That was his “happy place.” That is where he obviously felt closest to the Lord Almighty and where he personally experienced the theme of today’s service:

GOD’S PRESENCE

God’s presence, of course, is not limited to a specific geographical location or a spot on the map, and we’ll explore this further in a few minutes. But first, let’s work our way through this mildly melancholy yet mostly uplifting Psalm and consider it in its context.

How lovely (or perhaps better according to the Hebrew, “beloved”) is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

It is generally assumed that the Psalm writer was a dedicated temple worker, possibly a member of the priestly choir known as the Sons of Korah. For some reason (some suggest it was written at a time of war) he was either unable to fulfill his duty or prevented from joining a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Whatever the case, he expresses a deep longing to be at and in the Temple. He says his soul, heart, and flesh – in other words, every fiber of his being – wants to be there.

We can relate. The modern-day equivalent for us would be March of 2020 when all of sudden we could no longer come to church because of the pandemic. Remember that? March turned into April and April turned into May. And while we worshiped online (and many still are), our hearts longed to be back in this physical house of God. In a very personal way both we and the Psalmist came to understand the truth of the old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

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, O LORD Almighty, my King and my God. In his mind’s eye the Psalmist sees the birds that find a home in the nooks and crannies of the temple walls. He is envious of them. He wishes he could be as close to the building as they were.

All of which reminds him of a single word description for those who could be where he currently was not: Blessed are those who dwell in your house. Why? Because they are ever praising you. This man missed being with his fellow believers in church!

Sadly, that wasn’t possible for him at this time. He visualizes those who were making their way to Jerusalem for one of the Old Testament religious festivals, even the route they were taking (although he may be speaking figuratively here). He repeats his single word description for them:   Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion. (In this context Zion means Jerusalem, or in a broader sense, the place where God is).

Although he couldn’t be with this pilgrim band or ultimately end up where they would, that didn’t mean he still wasn’t blessed by God’s presence. God is as near as those who pray to him. So that’s what he does: Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty; listen to me, God of Jacob. 

And this is his prayer: Look on our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one.  Shield and anointed one is probably a reference to the king. The safety and welfare of the nation rested on him, so the Psalmist prays for his strength and wisdom.

Now the Psalmist doubles down on his desire to be back at the temple, where even the most menial task is greater than a successful life without God at the center: 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.

He goes on to explain why he feels this way: 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. The believer’s walk is blameless, because it is the walk of faith in the knowledge that our sins are forgiven through the work of a Savior – a Savior the Psalmist knew was coming, and we know has come: Jesus Christ. Through his atoning work, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “though [our] sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are as red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”  In other words, we stand blameless in the eyes of God.

The Psalm ends appropriately with this simple declaration of fact and praise:  12 O Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you. For the third time the Psalmist describes as blessed those who know the Lord and, wherever they may be, find comfort and strength knowing God is present in their lives. Who could disagree with him?  

Actually, he’s talking about us. We’re the blessed ones. Let’s talk about the blessing of God’s presence in our lives. What does this mean for us personally, and practically?

First and foremost, it means we’re never alone. 

If someone today was doing a psychological profile of the Psalmist, they might determine that he was suffering from loneliness. He wasn’t with like-minded people. He was geographically separated from the one place he really wanted to be. And he was unable to join others in the one exercise that he looked forward to every year – a pilgrimage. 

All of which the Psalmist acknowledges. Yet, we don’t seem him wallowing in his loneliness.  Just the opposite, there is a confidence that rings through this Psalm. It’s the confidence of knowing God is present in our lives even if things are not going as planned.

When we feel alone (and feelings of loneliness can descend upon us even when we’re surrounded by other people) – the fact is, we’re not. “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” says Jesus. And this is what King David writes in Psalm 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.”

No, we are never alone. God is always with us. And because we are never alone, we are also never unattended.

It’s kind of interesting that the Psalmist talks about birds. Jesus did as well. Maybe you remember these words from his Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”

All of which is to say, God attends to his children.

The greatest provision he made for us, of course, comes to us in his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness of sins he provides us through his life, death, and resurrection. As has often been said before, if God has attended to our greatest eternal need, we can trust that he will also attend to our far lesser earthly needs.

Bottom line: Ours is the God who is there. Always. 24.7. And while that is a great blessing of God’s grace that we cannot (or would not want to!) change, it is a blessing that we can cultivate and grow to appreciate more and more. And the more we cultivate it, the greater the personal blessing it becomes.

Let me end with an illustration.

In 17th century France lived a man named Nicholas Herman, but because he spent the majority of his life in a monastery, he is better known as Brother Lawrence. He originally entered the monastery for the wrong reasons. He had a skewed performance-based idea about God and wanted to earn his favor by a life of sacrifice. But in time, Lawrence came to understand the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. As a result, his perception of God changed from a heavenly taskmaster to be appeased to a heavenly Father to be loved and served.

This transformation showed in everything he did. While his fellow monks often struggled, he did his daily tasks with joy and contentment. This became so pronounced that his superior approached him and asked him what his secret was, and then recorded his answers in a series of four short conversations. Those conversations are the basis for one of the enduring Spiritual Classics still read and available to this day. It’s title: “The Practice of the Presence of God.”

It’s not a how-to manual or a twelve-step book that promises great spiritual enlightenment if correctly followed. No, the message is not complicated. Essentially what Brother Lawrence said is that every day he thinks about God. A lot. And when he thinks about God and his grace to him, he is moved to love him and serve him in response.

So “the practice of the presence of God” is to simply remember and rejoice in who he is and what he has done for us in Jesus and that he is always there for us. When Brother Lawrence did that, he said he was able to willingly accept whatever the Lord allowed to come into his life, because he knew it was filtered through the love God had shown him in Jesus Christ.

That’s it. That’s how Brother Lawrence practiced the presence of God.

That’s how our Psalmist for today also practiced the presence of God.

That approach is instructive for us. Because when we understand that we always, every day, stand in the presence of God, come what may, we will always be in our “happy place.” And there is no better place to be. Amen.