God lives among and around god’s people!
Happy New Year! I could have said that earlier. During the announcements. But I thought this would be a better time. So, Happy New Year! There was no countdown. No fireworks. No midnight toast. In fact, other than the leftovers from Thursday, last night wasn’t much different from any other. But here in the church, it’s a new year, nonetheless. A fresh start. A new beginning. Something that snuck up on us and caught us unaware. Happy New Year!
And as we’ve done every Sunday, this morning, we get together. To sing the song. Say the prayer. And if we were anywhere else – inside – we’d light the first of four blue candles. Then, we’d sit back and hear the words. Words we’ve heard, for decades, now. At least, for the last two hymnals, anyway. Cranberry. Green. Over the years, I haven’t done it all that often. But this year, I thought I’d focus on the psalm for the day. On the psalm for the week.
“I was glad,” [says the singer,] “when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
“Beth-El” is the phrase in Hebrew. “The house of the Lord.” Of course, back in the day, when the song was first sung, it could mean only one thing. The Temple! On Mt. Zion! In Jerusalem! It’s hard for us to imagine. But that Temple was god’s house. God’s home. Where god lived in every sense.
“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let’s go!’” To that place! To that building! 31©, 46’, 39.54” North! 35©, 14’, 7.69” East! That’s where the Temple was! That’s where god would be! There in the holy place! In the holiest place! Twenty-four hours a day! Seven days a week! One generation after another after another! It wasn’t just a metaphor. A figure of speech. It was – literally – god’s palace! God’s mansion! Every brick, every beam of it! “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
It was Solomon who built it. Probably not so much because god wanted it, as because Solomon wouldn’t take no for an answer. Not even from god! Solomon built it; then four hundred years later, Nebuchadnezzar tore it down. Then, Nehemiah rebuilt it. Herod built it, again, into one of the wonders of the world. Then, at about the time the gospels were being written, Rome destroyed it, one last time. After that, it was never rebuilt. In the end, it felt like god had turned around and walked away. Homeless ever after. “I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” Unfortunately, the house of the Lord was no more.
Over time, they continued singing the song. At first, the words conjured up memories of the Temple. But with time, that changed. Becoming synagogues. Like the one in Odessa. Temple Beth-El! Temple House of God! It was no longer glorious. Or grand. But it was, at least, a place where god could be found! Instead of a single, solitary Temple (Temple with a capital-T), the house of the Lord became thousands, ten thousands of smaller ones scattered around the world! Like the one in Odessa. Each god’s dwelling place! Each a house of god! Metaphorically speaking! So, after a hundred generations, that structure … on top of the hill … inside the walls of Jerusalem … was all but forgotten. “I was glad when they said to me, [when they said to us,] “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” It was still a building. An address. A set of coordinates. It continued to be somewhere to go to visit god. But then, there’s Jesus …
Twenty-some years ago, Bishop Herbener came to Lubbock to install me as pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. During his sermon, he mentioned that the building we were in wasn’t the house-of-god. It was the house of the house-of-god! He told us that we were, actually, the house of god! All of us! Together! The building around us? It was nothing more – and nothing less – than the dwelling place of the church! And within THAT church was where god lived!
You see, not since that first Christmas has god lived in a house. Not of straw. Not of sticks. Not of stone. But god has lived, instead, in church! In congregation! In community! “And the Word became flesh and lived among us ….” Inhabiting us! Dwelling among us! That’s how John pictures it! God between us! God around us! Not as individuals. In our heart. In our head. But as a people! That’s why Jesus talks of church as where two or three are gathered. It can’t be one. You singular. Church doesn’t work that way. It takes US! All of us! Together!
“Do you not know you are God’s temple,” Paul writes! YOU are the house of the Lord! YOU are Beth-El! Thing is, Paul’s not writing to one person. He’s writing to a community! To the church! And he’s saying, “You plural!” “Yinz!” “Y’all!” All of you together are god’s Temple! God’s palace! God’s mansion!
And that passage, at the end of the book? It’s not about pearly gates or streets of god! It’s about YOU! About ALL OF YOU! “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them ….”
“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” That house, my friends … that house we’ve been singing about … that house we’ve been looking for … that house that brings such joy … that house is YOU! Not each, but every! Not one, but all! Faith isn’t something we can do all by ourselves! And church isn’t something we can be all alone! It takes two! Three! Even here, in cyberspace! One to speak; another to hear what is spoken! One to promise; and another to trust what is promised!
I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the Temple!” I was glad when they said to me, let us go to house of the Lord! I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of god!” I was glad, my friends, because I saw your faces!