The Unbridled Thrill of Going to Church
Scriptures: Psalm 84:1-12; Psalm 42:1-11
There is a song by Tom Chapin that was very popular among
children at the church I served in Spokane. It was called "Preacher Herman." We never sang it in the church service, but the children loved it in Vacation Bible School. The words went like this:
Preacher Herman preached a sermon on a sunny day, But all that I could think about was going out to play. Squirm, fidget, fidget, fidget, scratch, fidget, fidget,
Squirm, fidget, scratch, fidget, squirm, scratch.
The next verse said,
Preacher Herman's Sunday sermon stretched on endlessly, Till everybody in the church began to feel like me. Squirm, fidget, fidget, fidget, scratch, fidget, fidget, fidget, Squirm, fidget, scratch, fidget, squirm, scratch.
There are several verses to the song, but I will share one more:
Preacher Herman did not hear the congregation roar, "If you don't stop were getting up and going out the door!" Stand, fidget, fidget, fidget, sit, fidget, fidget, fidget, Stand, fidget, sit, fidget, stand, sit.
It sounds like dog obedience school. This was a favorite song of the children in Vacation Bible School, including my own.
Now I am sure none of you share those feelings, but in case
you do listen again to Psalm 84. [Slide 1, click 1] Verses 1-2: "How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord." This is talking about going to church.
The same feelings are expressed in other psalms. [click 2]
Psalm 122, verse 1: "I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the Lord." [click 3] Or Psalm 27, verse 4: "One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple." These people live for going to church.
Which was not easy to do in those days. I know that some of
you drive from Federal Way or Bellevue to get to our church, but that is nothing compared to what it took for some in ancient Israel to get to the temple in Jerusalem. During annual pilgrimages people came from as far away as 100 miles traveling on foot. And they probably sang these psalms as they traveled.
If you look closely at Psalm 84 you will see that it was
written for people traveling to the temple in Jerusalem. [Slide 2, click 1] Verse 5 says, "Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion." Zion was the name of a hill in Jerusalem. The highway to Zion is the route that pilgrims took to get to the temple in Jerusalem. Verse 6 describes part of the journey: [click 2] "As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rains cover it with pools."
This verse is less of a description and more of a metaphor. We don't
know of any valley around Jerusalem called the valley of Baca, but in Hebrew the word Baca sounds like the Hebrew word for tears. So the name may be symbolical. The valley of Baca is the valley of tears through which people must pass on their way to worshiping God in Jerusalem.
It might have been like this valley. [Slide 3] I took this picture
from the Mount of Olives looking across a valley at the temple mount in Jerusalem. At the bottom of this valley, I discovered, is a cemetery. [Slide 4] Those white blocks you see at the base of the wall are cemetery crypts. The whole valley is a cemetery, and in the middle of it is the Garden of Gethsemane. [Slide 5] It is a valley of tears, a place of grief and anguish.
But for the pilgrims on the way to the temple, the valley of Baca is
transformed. It becomes a place of springs, watered by early rains. This too is a metaphor. When God's people go through the valley of tears, they look toward their destination. [Slide 6] And when they look toward Zion, the holy city, and they are renewed. The prospect of worshiping God in the temple is like a cup of cool water in the desert. It keeps them going through the valleys of tears.
The same idea is woven into Psalm 42. [Slide 7, click 1] Verse 3 says,
"My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, "Where is your God?" Sometimes when you are in the valley of tears, you wonder where God is.
But verse 4 says, [click 2] "These things I remember as I pour out my
soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival." In the midst of tears the psalm writer remembers going to church, traveling with others to the temple in Jerusalem, rejoicing with others in God's presence. And that gives the person strength-verse 5: [click 3] "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God." Experiencing the presence of God in worship gives strength for the times when God feels absent. That's why Psalm 84 says, "A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere." It's not that God is absent elsewhere. It is not that God is absent from the world. It's that one day in church can help you see God in all the places you go, including the valley of tears. [Slide 8 Blank]
I have known numerous people who told me that they feel closer to God
on a golf course than in church. I understand that. Though, I have to say, that for me golf is not an experience of God; it is an experience of human failing. Sin, I once read, is like hitting a slice off the tee. It starts out a little off line and just keeps getting worse. That's how I feel about golf. I usually feel closer to God on top of a mountain.
But the question is not how close to God you feel on a golf course or
on top of a mountain. The question is how close to God you will feel when you are in the rough, when you are in the valley of Baca-the valley of tears. Where will God be when you sit in that hospital room and the doctor comes in with news you have been secretly dreading? Where will God be when you lose your job, your home, your spouse, your health, or even your mind?
The only way you will experience God at times like that is if you have
practiced your relationship to God before that. Anyone can feel close to God on a mountaintop, but to feel close to God when you are at the bottom, when you are walking through the valley of tears, that takes practice.
During my senior year of seminary I was a chaplain at a nursing home
in Princeton, NJ. On Sunday mornings I led a worship service in their meeting room. I remember one woman in particular. She had had a stroke that left her unable to walk or talk, but every Sunday when I asked her if she would like to go to church, she emphatically nodded her head yes. Talk about someone who longed, yea fainted, to go to church-she was it. So I wheeled her down the hall to the church service. She slept through most of the sermon, which made me feel like Preacher Herman. But the minute we sang the Doxology, her head came up, and she began swaying in time to the music, and she mouthed the words as we sang them. Then when we prayed the Lord's Prayer, I watched her form every syllable with her lips. Cut off from her home, her friends, and most of her familiar activities, she still felt the presence of God because she had practiced the presence of God in countless worship services.
Perhaps that is why the psalms writers are so thrilled about going to
church. It's not because church is so exciting. Sometimes it is, but maybe not always. Still, church is where we practice the presence of God in a family of faith, and that practice will help you experience God later on in situations when you never thought you could.