The House of My God
Every summer we go through a different book in the Psalms—there are five altogether, and this year we’re on book 3 (Psalm 73 to 89).
I had a difficult conversation early in the week that rocked me to my core. It wasn’t the intention of the person I was talking to that I be rocked like that, but as we spoke the lines began to be drawn more and more clearly in my head, and as our conversation progressed I got this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that got bigger and bigger, because I remembered something I’d heard a long time ago from a pastor I trust.
He said that within the first few years of beginning pastoral ministry in a church, what’s wrong with the church is what’s wrong with you. It’s hyperbole, of course—you guys sin too, and all of that can’t be laid at my feet. But some of it can, and some of it should. There are some harmful habits and characteristics that our church has picked up over the last four years, particularly in regards to the way we gather together on Sundays, and as much as it hurts me to say it, some of these habits come from me.
This will make more sense as we go along, so I’ll invite you to go to Psalm 84, and to begin reading with me at verse 1.
In Psalm 84, the psalmist is writing about the temple in Jerusalem, and his joy at being able to come worship in the temple. And what we see here is a fairly large disconnect between the way he esteems corporate worship in the temple, and the way we esteem corporate worship in our church.
The House of My God
Let’s begin at v. 1.
(NOTE: In French translations of the Bible, the introductions to the Psalms—in this case, "To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of the Sons of Korah"—are very often counted as the first verse of the psalm. This is the case of the translation we're using in church today, the Segond 21. So the verse numbers of Psalm 84 in the French Segond 21 are one ahead of the verse numbers in English: v. 1 in English = v. 2 in French, and so on.)
1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
The temple in Jerusalem was the place where God manifested his presence to the people of Israel; it was the place where his people came to worship together. And we see the psalmist describe his own feeling about the temple, v. 2:
2 My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.
This is the kind of language we saw in the Song of Songs a couple weeks ago; a lover speaks this way of his beloved. When I first moved to France I had to leave the country for three months while we waited for our marriage paperwork to go through, and Loanne already had a job so she had to stay here. This was before Skype or Facetime, and before phone plans where you could call the U.S. for free. So for three months we didn’t see each other, and we only spoke on the phone very occasionally.
The best way I can describe those three months is to say it was like holding my breath: you know that burning in your lungs, and in your head, when you hold your breath for a long time? I remembered my wife’s face, and I felt an ache in my heart to see her again. And when I finally came back to France, and saw her again in the airport, it was like I could finally breathe again.
This is the feeling the psalmist describes when he is not in the temple, but he wants to be, more than anything.
And then he gives reasons why he feels this way, v. 3:
3 Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.
The house of God is so desirable because here even the most insignificant find a place to rest, and a home. All are welcome here.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house,
ever singing your praise!
The house of God is so desirable because it is here that God’s people get to sing God’s praises. Worship for the people of Israel was not a quiet affair—there were instruments, and shouting, and dancing, and celebration.
Why? Because they had reason to celebrate! Among all the peoples in the world, God had chosen to reveal himself to them, and to save them, and to not cast them off, despite their sin against him. Among all the peoples in the world, they were the one people who were able to do that for which they were created.
Next, it is in the house of God that God provides for his people, v. 5:
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
6 As they go through the Valley of Baca
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength;
each one appears before God in Zion.
Now, of course God provided for his people outside of the temple too. But it was here that they felt his provision most keenly, because they would sing about it together. They would come together, and see their fellow Israelites proclaiming the same truths about the same God, singing the same songs, and their faith in God’s provision and goodness to them would be fed—to such an extent that even making their way to the temple, just being on the road to get there, would renew their strength.
Next, it is in the house of God that the people could pray that God would provide for and protect them again, v. 8:
8 O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer;
give ear, O God of Jacob!
9 Behold our shield, O God;
look on the face of your anointed!
Asking God for protection, asking God to be their shield, asking God to listen to their prayers, should have been such a ridiculous idea that they wouldn’t have dared do it. God is such a holy God, and they were such a sinful people, that the mere idea of coming into his presence, much less asking for something from his hand, should have filled them with fear.
But God consistently invited his people to come to him with their needs, and he consistently promised to protect them when they humbled themselves in this way. So they came to him with joy, and asked once again for his favor and protection, knowing that God heard and answered their prayers.
The next verse is my favorite, because it states the simplest reality at play here: the house of God was so desirable simply because it was so good to be there. V. 10:
10 For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
There is an image this always calls to mind. About ten years ago Loanne and I went on vacation to Pisa. Every evening we were there, when it was cooler out, we would go to the grassy area between the leaning tower and the church, and we would spread out on the grass and read. We read there for hours. It was wonderful: there was nowhere else we needed to be, there was nothing else we would have rather been doing. The temperature was perfect, the grass was soft, the reading was stimulating, and I was with the one person I loved more than anyone else. It was just good.
That image is a pale reflection of what he’s talking about here.
The people of God loved to be in the house of God simply because it was good to be there. In the presence of a mighty God who loves you, what harm could possibly come to you? What could you possibly lack there? If you are created to look upon the glory of God and be satisfied, and you finally come to a place where that glory is fully manifest, you are satisfied—it doesn’t matter what you’re doing there. One day in that place is better than a thousand days anywhere else.
Lastly, the house of God was so desirable because it reminded them of who God is for them, and how his goodness goes far beyond what anyone would ever expect, v. 11:
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
12 O Lord of hosts,
blessed is the one who trusts in you!
When you are in the presence of the all-powerful God, and you know that because of his love and faithfulness toward you, you will never lack anything that is truly good for you, you can do nothing but exult in that place, and revel in that experience, there with your brothers and sisters.
The psalmist feels about the temple—this place of rites and rituals and sacrifices—the most intense feelings of satisfaction and joy, feelings many of us don’t even feel about coming home. These are pleasures few of us ever truly experience—not because they’re out of reach, but because we simply don’t esteem the house of God so highly.
The House of God, Today
Let’s take a step back. It’s easy to write off this psalm today, because we no longer have a temple. When Jesus was talking to the woman at the well (John 4.21-24), he tells her that God’s presence isn’t limited to any one place or time: God’s worshipers worship him in spirit and in truth, not merely in the temple.
But this doesn’t mean that the temple, this house of God where his presence dwells, no longer exists. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes (Hebrews 3.5-6):
5 Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, 6 but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house, if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.
Did you see it? WE are his house. Because Christ came, and lived and died and was raised for us, we are reconciled to God. And we are reconciled to him so completely that his presence now lives in us. The people of God are his temple—we are his house.
This means that if you have faith in Christ, every day—when you are on the metro going to work, or sitting at a cubicle in your office, or at home alone in a building in which you may be the only Christian—God is there. We don’t have to go to church to be in his presence—he lives in us. This is a full and wonderful assurance we have.
But this doesn’t mean that what the psalmist describes in Psalm 84 is no longer applicable to us.
After Christ came, the apostles went out and began planting churches in cities all over the region, and these churches celebrated their God by regularly gathering together to worship (this is what we call “corporate worship”). We see in Acts 2 that they “devoted themselves” to these gatherings; they would listen to the Word of God preached; they would praise God; they would enjoy fellowship with one another; they would pray together; they would serve one another with gratitude and generosity.
You see, although the context of corporate worship has changed from the time of Psalm 84—migrated from the temple to the gathering of believers—the character of corporate worship remains the same.
Brothers and sisters, although we do not need to come to church to enjoy God’s presence, something special happens when we do. There is a particular joy, a particular pleasure, a particular service, to be enjoyed when God’s people gather to worship. It is in our regular gatherings with one another that we have a unique opportunity to enjoy the presence of God together, to stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10.24).
And the reason why this is so important is because it’s not the end: the joy we have in the presence of God when we come together to worship is merely a reflection of the joy we will have in his presence for all eternity—once again, together. God lived in his house (the temple), God made us his house through Christ (the church), and one day Christ will return to bring us to live in his house (the new heavens and the new earth). In all three incarnations of the Lord’s house, what we do is the same.
When we gather together for worship, we invite our brothers and sisters to join us in our enjoyment of God’s presence. We help those who are weak or weighted down by guilt or suffering to enjoy God as they ought. We serve those who need serving. We receive from God’s presence and God’s Word, in order that what we receive might overflow in love for others.
The problem is, Christians don’t often do this. There is a massive disconnect between what Christians say they feel about church and how they actually do it.
Look at how the psalmist speaks about coming to the temple for worship. He is passionate about it, he is thrilled about it, he is satisfied by it.
When we love anything else that much, and know our joy depends in large part upon it, how do we approach it?
Think about vacation. What are we willing to do for vacation? We make allowances to arrive at our flights on time. We bring with us everything we need. We encourage others to enjoy the same joys we have (“You’ve never been to Venice? Oh it’s wonderful.”) We think ahead, and do all we can to maximize our pleasure and—if we love them—the pleasure of those with us when we get there.
These are things we do without even thinking about them.
But that’s not the way many of us come to church.
There are exceptions, of course; we have many exceptions here. But on the whole, the gathering of believers for corporate worship has become for us a lazy affair. As time goes by, more and more of us come to church the way we’d go to a restaurant: we arrive whenever we want; we speak to those we know and like; we sit back and say, “Feed me,” and then wonder why we don’t get more out of the whole experience.
Many of us arrive at church in a lackadaisical manner because they don’t realize what they’re doing when they come here. If we felt about our gatherings the way the psalmist felt about the temple, chances are our gatherings would be wildly different.
So what is missing? What can we do to not just say, but show each other the immensity of what’s happening when we gather together? (We’re about to get super practical.)
Practical Responses to the Gift of Corporate Worship
Firstly, pray Psalm 84 to yourselves before coming here on Sundays. Pray that God would help you feel the joy of what we’re doing here as keenly as the psalmist does. Pray that we too might see corporate worship as God sees it: not as an optional add-on to an already full week, but as an integral part of how we grow into the likeness of Christ, as a body.
Secondly, come regularly. Many of you, we only see 50% of the time. I know this is Paris, and everyone leaves on the weekends. But just because it’s accepted behavior for the rest of Paris doesn’t mean it should be acceptable for us.
When you look at how the New Testament speaks about Christians, it nearly always speaks to us in terms of the group, rather than in terms of the individual. God did not send Jesus simply to save “people;” he sent Jesus to save “a people.” It is theologically impossible to separate an individual Christian’s life with God from the church’s life with God. They always go hand-in-hand.
So it is no surprise that God commands us to come together to worship. Hebrews 10.24-26 says,
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
“Meeting together” is one of the main ways God gives us to stir one another up to love and good works, to encourage one another in the faith; so the call to meet together regularly is not a suggestion; it is not optional; it is necessary to our faith, and the faith of our brothers and sisters.
Thirdly—and I’ve said this before, but it is far from the least important—come early. This is one of the areas where the church has taken after me—I need to ask your forgiveness for this. Very quickly I got into the habit of starting the service quite late; initially because I hadn’t planned well enough to have everything ready on time, and then after a while, because if I started on time, most people wouldn’t be here.
Typically in our church, if the service starts at 11:00, visitors arrive at 10:45, and the first people in the church begin to arrive at 11:05 or 11:10—and sometimes as late as 11:45. So we don’t actually start the service before 11:15, because if we started on time most of us wouldn’t be here, and we don’t want to ask first-time visitors to sing songs they don’t know all by themselves.
It sounds silly, but coming to service consistently late says something about its importance to us—at least it does to those visitors who have been waiting for a half an hour, or those brothers and sisters who showed up at 9:30 to serve everyone else by setting up and praying and getting ready to welcome people.
It says, if I may be blunt, that this gathering is not important enough to plan ahead for—after all, what time do we show up for a movie? or a train taking us on vacation? I’m sure that most of you don’t actually esteem the gathering this little—but that it is the unintended message it sends.
So for the sake of your brothers and sisters who are serving you, whom you could serve; for the sake of those visitors who are perhaps wanting to know more about Jesus and who will otherwise be waiting a long time alone, don’t just aim to come on time. Aim to come early, to serve those who need serving, to encourage those who need encouraging, and to prepare yourselves for worship. Don’t let yourself fall for the lie which says, “This is Paris; everyone arrives late.”
After all, if we felt the same desire as the psalmist—My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord—we would get to those courts as soon as humanly possible.
Fourthly, serve one another when you are here. If you come early, there will be things to do. Many people have come to the church and asked how they can serve, and my answer is invariably the same: come early enough to help set up, or to help welcome people if we’re done.
Look out for those who are alone, and speak to them. Seek out those who seem uncomfortable, and welcome them. Ask people how you can pray for them, and then pray for them, right then and there! There are countless ways we can serve one another every week, ways which have nothing to do with programs or teams or schedules or tasks. As we read earlier, let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.
Finally, enjoy God’s presence together. Biblically, the corporate gathering of the church has always comprised four main ingredients: prayer, the reading of Scripture, worship, and preaching.
Enjoy God’s presence together by praying together. A group of Christians meets here every Sunday at 10:00 to pray. Come early and pray. Or like I said, ask each other how you can pray, and don’t wait. Don’t hesitate, if you feel compelled, to lift your voice in prayer during the worship service—whether it’s in between songs or during a designated moment of prayer. Pray together.
Enjoy God’s presence together through the reading of the Word. In every worship service, before or after the sermon, there are at least two moments when Scripture is read aloud. Don’t consider these moments mere filler, to fill the space between songs. When Scripture is read, God is speaking to us. Listen to his voice together. Respond to his voice in prayer and song. Honor God by the way you listen to his Word read.
Enjoy God’s presence together through worship. Last Sunday France won the World Cup. In the streets, in bars and homes all across the capitol, the city resounded with the sound of La Marseillaise being sung at full volume, to the bursting of vocal chords.
I don’t want to make anyone feel guilty, but think about it—if you celebrated with the rest of the country, how did you sing La Marseillaise last week? How did you clap for our team? How did you shout in celebration?
Compare that to how you sing to your Lord every week, and you may have an idea of what’s off.
Our church sings well—many of you have been musically trained, and know how to sing harmony that complements the melody. That’s wonderful, and it shouldn’t stop. But worship is more than knowing how to sing. V. 2: not just my flesh (my mouth), but my HEART and flesh sing for JOY to the living God.
If we would break a lung celebrating our team after the World Cup, what does the God who created us and saved us and redeemed us and made us his own deserve? Worship like he deserves it.
Finally, enjoy God’s presence in listening to God speak through the preaching of his Word.
When a pastor faithfully preaches the Bible (and I emphasize faithfully), he is showing his congregation what it looks like to dig into the Word, to hear what God tells us as his people, and to respond to that Word. Faithful preaching is a lesson in worship. So we enjoy God’s presence together by sitting under the faithful exposition of the Word of God, and by responding to that Word in worship and obedience.
Brothers and sisters, it is no light thing we do when we gather together for worship. And I am sorry I haven’t better shaped the life of this church to reflect that. The good news is that it’s never too late—when the Word of God exposes areas in our hearts that need growth, we can always repent of that, and respond in obedience.
Let us be faithful to what corporate worship actually is. It is the regular gathering of believers in the presence of God, to express our desire for God, our love for God, our need for God, our submission to God, our dependence on God, and our gratitude to God. Let us be faithful, not just in our enthusiasm and joy and warmth, but in the small details that communicate larger truths to those around us. Let us gather in such a way that when people see what happens here when we come together for worship, the implicit message might be resoundingly clear:
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! Our souls long, yes, faint for the courts of the Lord; our hearts and flesh sing for joy to the living God. A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere!"