And I Will Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever
Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. Today we wrap up our worship series on Psalm 23, and we start off where we ended: with the Lord. Yahweh. By way of review, the whole psalm begins with the bold declaration that the Lord, Yahweh, is their shepherd. It is the image of God as divine shepherd, protector and provider, which sustains the start of the psalm. About halfway through, the psalmist shifts from talking about God to talking to God, and God becomes the host. Tables are spread, heads are anointed, cups run over, mercy pursues.
And now, we are told that we are no longer guest, but part of the family, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. As one hymn setting of the psalm puts it:
No more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
What does it mean to live in the house of the Lord? In the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, the phrase is meant quite literally. When Moses led the people in the wilderness, they gathered around Mt. Sinai. And when Moses descended with the Ten Commandments, they were placed in the ark, which was housed in a tent. That tent became known as the house of the Lord, and was the focus of worship in the early generations of the faithful. When King Solomon built the Temple, the Ark of the Covenant was moved into the new house of the Lord. In fact, most of the places in Scripture where the phrase “house of the Lord” is used it is meant as a descriptor for the Jerusalem Temple. But…what happens when there is no Temple?
The Babylonians destroyed the first Temple, taking the Judeans into exile. After Babylon was conquered and the exiles returned, the house of the Lord was rebuilt, and it stood until Jesus’ time. Jesus was so distraught the way that his “Father’s house” was being used as a marketplace that it’s one of the few times we see him losing his temper. He even predicts the destruction of the second Temple, which the Romans leveled in the year 70.
This is why other uses of the phrase “house of the Lord” become important. In the Old Testament, it is also used to talk about the people of God. Jesus is the one that makes the shift to speaking of eternal life as the house of the Lord, telling his disciples that after his resurrection, he would go to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Paul picks up on this idea, giving hope to those who see the flimsy, earthly tent of their bodies giving way to the heavenly, eternal house of the Lord.
So even though Scripture uses this phrase to describe variously as heaven, the Temple, and the community of believers, the meaning at the very heart of it is all the same: to be in the house of the Lord is to be in God’s presence.
All of which brings me back to the bumper sticker with which I began today: don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the phrase “house of the Lord”, my first thought is of heaven. I am sure that the fact that I have heard this psalm read over and over as a psalm of comfort in times of death and grieving plays heavily into that. I am hard-pressed to remember a funeral where I didn’t hear the text. When someone dies, we are sad; because we miss what we love. And so, the promise of living in the house of the Lord forever is not only hopeful, it is restorative. It gives us a clear focus on the promise of resurrection we know in Christ.
The idea that there is nothing to fear beyond the grave is an amazing thing. We Presbyterians don’t tend to talk about things like life and death until we absolutely have to. But when we do, we cling fiercely to that hope the there is more to this life than meets the eye. I know that each one of us struggles with doubts – some small, some great. My hope and prayer, though, is that when it comes down to it, you can trust that there is a greater reality that holds us fast.
That all said, if we are honest, we know that having faith holds the potential for temptation. And that temptation is to be so focused on heaven that we forget about living in the here and now. There’s a brilliant satirical song from 1911 that put it well:
Long-haired preachers come out every night, try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. But when asked, “How ‘bout something to eat?” They will answer in voices so sweet: “You will eat, bye and bye, in that glorious land above the sky. Work and pray, live on hay: you’ll get pie in the sky when you die!”
If our answer to every trouble of this world is, “it’ll be better in heaven,” then we have forgotten Christ’s prayer that earth would become more and more like heaven. It is not that we stop yearning for the perfection that heaven promises; instead, if we have the certainty of heaven, it ought to free us to live abundantly in the world around us. We ought to pray that God would open our eyes to recognize those places where the kingdom of heaven is already alive in the world so that we can join in! When we do this, we take that Biblical phrase, “the house of the Lord”, with all of its meanings, and pull them all together.
The house of the Lord is the Temple. It is God’s presence, God at work, right here, right now. The house of the Lord is the promise of eternal life. It is God’s presence, a gift to us that sets us free to love and serve. And the house of the Lord is the people of God. It is God’s presence, God at work within us and through us. Yes, my dear friends of Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church, we – you – are the house of the Lord! When we are at our best, we are the connective tissue between that which is heavenly-minded and that which is earthly good. When we are, we really are the body of Christ, the word made flesh, living in this world, loving this world, and working for the healing of this world. It is a healing that is not in our hands. The gift is that God allows us to be the vessels of divine healing!
Many of you have read of surveys over the past few years that have announced that the fastest growing religion in America is “spiritual but not religious.” These are folks who know that there is more to life than meets the eye, but they want to avoid the trappings and follies of institutionalized faith. Maybe that describes you, too. The word religious means literally to become connective tissue! Re – ligio, from the same root as ligament.
True religion, at its best, is what holds faithful living together! We read the lessons of Scripture not so that we might become convinced of how correct we are. We read them because they reveal the truest character of God in Christ Jesus. Our whole purpose is to be those who reflect that character of love and mercy and grace to the world around us.
That is why we care about people who have no home. That is why we comfort those who mourn. That is why it matters to us what is happening in places as far away Syria and Egypt and as close as Buford Highway and Clayton County. That is what it means to dwell in the house of the Lord forever!
Are you ready? Because your room is waiting…