Altars, Altars Everywhere

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 84
February 2, 2020

 

In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Picture this for a moment, a world filled with signs of God’s glory, so many that we’re constantly tripping over them. There’s truth here. In Genesis, we’re told God created everything in the world as good.[2] The Psalms proclaim the world and all that is in it belongs to God, that God is beside us even when we find ourselves in death’s shadows, and that there is no place we can go to be away from God.[3] This is all good news. We’re not abandoned. We’re not alone.

This winter we’re looking at ways of beating SAD: Spiritual Affective Disease. How do we pick ourselves up when God feels so far away? We’ve looked at meditating on the light during darkness, listening to soulful music, laughter, and doing good deeds for others. Another way to lift ourselves up is to realize that God is always close to us. God is accessible. We can easily reach out and connect to the Almighty. Yes, we may feel far from God, but that’s not the case. Feeling far from God has more to do with our feelings than with God’s absence.

         Today’s service is titled “Altars, Altars, Everywhere.” Let me point out that I’m using term “altar” for a place where we worship God. Biblically, an altar was a place for a sacrifice. The word comes to us from the Latin to describe a place where a sacrifice is made.[4] But since Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need to make sacrifices in order to obtain God’s favor.[5] Those of us in the Presbyterian and Reformed branches of Protestantism tend not to use the word altar as a place within a church building. Instead, we have a communion table, where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll do in a few minutes. So, when I use altar this morning, I’m not talking about sacrifices, but I’m using it in a symbolic way for a place we connect to God.

        Our text, Psalm 84, calls us to come into God’s dwelling place. Let me ask you what you think when you hear of such a place? Pearly gates and golden streets? Fluffy clouds inhabited by choirs of angels and accompanied by orchestras of strumming harps? Golden rays of sun highlighting a peaceful landscape?

         Another way of considering experiencing God’s dwelling place is to consider ourselves already there. After all, Jesus taught that the kingdom has come near.[6] We can look around us and can see places God is present. Certainly, at the marsh at the beginning and ending of each day, or at night when we look up at the twinkling stars, or whenever we encounter a mother and child and ponder the miracle of life. Yet, even in times of tragedy, God is present. We hear stories of those who, exceeding the bounds of human expectations, serve their neighbors and strangers in a way that provides a glimpse of Christ’s presence.[7] Opportunities abound for us to experience God and to see the glory of his domain. But is this what this Psalm is about?

          This is a crusader’s psalm. It’s one sung by pilgrims as they made their way from far off, perhaps even a foreign country, to the temple in Jerusalem.[8] The dwelling place for the Psalmist is Solomon’s magnificent temple. The Psalmist isn’t using God’s dwelling place as a metaphor for God’s domain in heaven or even God’s presence throughout the good earth. His joy stems from the thought of worshipping with God’s people in the temple. So, in a very literal sense, we understand the Psalmist call for us to worship at the temple. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a place supersedes our need to worship elsewhere.

        The Psalmist speaks as a pilgrim coming into sight of Mt. Zion, upon which sits the city of Jerusalem. And there in the middle of the city is the temple of God. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” the Psalmist sings. Perhaps this is his first visit to the temple. He’s overcome with joy. Although singing, he’s almost faint from excitement. He observes the birds nesting high up along the roof and acknowledges the glory of God who takes care of all creation, from the greatest mammal to the smallest feathered friend.

         The Psalmist then turns his attention to the priests, those who work in the temple day in and day out. He ponders their happiness. This must be a great job, he thinks.[9] “Yeah,” I think, “like being a vendor at Wrigley’s Field.” Of course, we only see the glorious side of those vendors. We think they’re lucky to be able to catch every game, ignoring their hard work of cleaning up. The same is true of the priests. He sees them leading worship and offering up sacrifices but doesn’t see them cleaning out all the burned meat from the altars or the polishing of the candlesticks. But for someone in awe, the position of the priest is enchanting.

          But then he realizes that he, too, is blessed by God. We see this in verse five, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways of Zion. In other words, he and those who have travelled the road to Zion, the road to Jerusalem, can be glad that God has given them the strength needed for the journey. Then, in the next verse, he recalls his journey through the Valley of Baca, the unknown valley of tears he had to traverse in order to get to Jerusalem. Even that desolate land is blessed by God. A miracle is witnessed as the dry summer heat is replaced with cool rains leaving behind pools of water from which the pilgrim can quench his thirst. Notice, that as the Psalmist sings, he realizes God’s presence is all around, not just at the temple.

         Acknowledging God’s providence in his life, the Psalmist prays in verse 9 and 10 for God’s continual blessings upon those who seek to worship. In verse 11, he shifts to metaphorical language, conceding that a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, even while acknowledging God’s gifts and goodness extends far from the walls of the temple. God is both the sun, the giver of life for the earth, but also the shield, the one who protects us from the sun when it becomes overbearing in the desert. God is the source of all good, or as John Calvin liked to infer, “God is the fountain from which every good gift flow.”[10]

          What does Psalm 84 teach us about worship? While the ultimate worship experience for the Psalmist was the temple, Solomon’s temple hasn’t existed for over 2,500 years. It was destroyed by Babylon. But that’s fine for there are now places of worship all over the world, and hopefully whether it’s here or somewhere else, you will find a home to worship.

But we don’t have to wait till Sunday, either. We don’t even have to be in God’s house to worship God. Because we have access to God, 24/7, worship could and should be continual. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.”[11] And prayer is an essential part of worship, as we acknowledge our total dependence on God. So, wherever you are, whether out in nature where the grandeur of God is evident or in the darkness of your bedroom, know that God is present and give thanks. If we do, as we told at the end of the Psalm, we can find happiness. We are not abandoned. For our scouts, this means that even if you get lost on a hike, you have a companion with you. Don’t ever forget this.

         So, this week, stop frequently and meditate about being in God’s presence. You might even set up a special place to meditate and pray in your home, a reminder that God is with you. Think about bumping into God’s altars, for they are everywhere. Be on the lookout for them, and then give thanks to God for his faithfulness. Amen.

©2020

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarpersOne, 2009), 15.

[2] Genesis 1.

[3] Psalm 24, Psalm 23, and Psalm 139.

[4] C. E. Pocknee, “Altars” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 6-7.

[5] Hebrews 10:10-15.

[6] Mark 1:15.

[7] Matthew 25:40.

[8] Artur Weiser, The Old Testament Library: The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 565ff.

[9] Weiser, 567.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, I.2.1

[11] 1 Thessalonians 5:17


Comments

Altars, Altars Everywhere — 16 Comments

  1. Always found more wonder in the Milky Way than the sanctuary of a stuffy church. That idea use to drive my Grandfather crazy. He didn’t take kindly to most of my hair brained ideas.

    • This is what I said at the opening of worship today (the church was darkened and quiet when I began speaking. When I finished, the lights came on as the choir sang “Open Unto Me.” I think this piece (which wasn’t in the sermon) ties together your thoughts and mine:

      We have some funny notions about worshipping God. When I was a kid, I thought it meant wearing a noose around my neck, which went with my church clothes, along with very uncomfortable dress shoes. And it also meant going to a building where he weren’t allowed to squirm around and had to be quiet and say “Yes Sir and No Ma’am, to adults. But once in that building, we were taught that God is everywhere and in time I realized that we’re to always strive to be worshipful in our lives, regardless of where we find ourselves. God displays His glory at sunrise and sunsets, in the magnificence of a bird of prey soaring high over the water, and in the twinkling of the stars at night. And because we’re all created in God’s image, God can be seen in one another. Today, as we continue to look at ways to beat Spiritual Affective Disorder, I want us to consider the possibility of worshipping not just here on Sunday morning, but in our homes, when we’re out on a walk, or when we’re with friends. When we live in a worshipful state, we find the light irresistible even on dark days…

  2. Barbara Brown Taylor has a way of illustrating with her words – a unique gift. We’re having an unusually spring-like day here in Middle Tennessee and I just returned from a pleasant walk where I experienced many of the thoughts you describe here.

  3. Beautiful Barbara Brown Taylor excerpt.

    I’m closest to my spiritual self outdoors: garden, mountain trail, open desert. If I’m going to crack my shins on altars, it will be in one of those places, so I loved reading her words.

  4. I really like the idea of bumping into God’s altars everywhere we go. It is so true that we are blessed with and surrounded by God’s creation and goodness wherever we go.

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