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Sermons 2003

Happiness is in the House of God

1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, and 41-43 & Psalm 84

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 24th August 2003

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

In my childhood, one of the happiest places for me to be was in my church – the First Presbyterian Church of North Arlington, New Jersey.  I loved going to church every Sunday.  It was my favorite day of the week.  My church was beautiful, with its Georgian architecture, clean, classic lines.  I can remember the winding walk, under Dogwood trees and past the perfectly trimmed hedges, which led up to the steps of the church.  I can remember the garden that graced the front of the church as you approached the door – full of roses.  I remember the brilliant color.  It was a welcoming, joyous, happy place (full of people with Scottish brogues).  That was my second home and the people who worshipped there were my extended family.  I had a place there; I was warmly greeted every Sunday.  It was the place that formed me and first taught me about the love of Jesus.  My great-grandfather was an elder there; my grandmother was a deacon, my mother a Sunday school teacher for forty years.  Everyone knew my family, everyone knew who I was.  Church school was always a lot of fun; and so was fellowship hour in the Eastwick Room.  My brother Craig and I were always  first in there, especially on those Sundays when my grandmother was helping her circle host the after church feast of coffee, tea, punch and crumb cake, fresh from the neighborhood bakery.  Without anyone knowing, we usually sneaked a few pieces off the serving dishes before the Postlude was over (although my grandmother knew, but didn’t say anything).  That church was home for me and I loved the place.

But once you made your way up the walk, into the church, through the narthex, you turned right and into the sanctuary.  When I was a child, that place was literally the sanctuary.  For me it was the place where God actually lived.  That’s what I believed.  The sanctuary was God’s house, God’s dwelling place.  It was holy and special and beautiful.  You entered the sanctuary with reverence; people lowered their voices to a gracious whisper.  Sometimes it was silent; sometimes the massive space was filled with the roar of the organ (which I loved).  The sanctus – that is, the holiness of God – filled that room and God seemed almost palpable.

When I reflect back upon those memories now as adult, it was more like the sense of absence in that room that pointed to the presence of God.  I didn’t see God and didn’t associate God with any particular feature, like the font or cross or pulpit.  It was the absence of God that struck me; God was somehow there in not being there.  Even though I didn’t see God, the presence of the Holy was felt in this special place set aside for worship and praise, for sacrament and sermon, for baptism, ordination, and funeral.  Everything that took place in that setting was profound, mysterious, and out-of-the-ordinary, it was holy.  I was happy, really happy, in the sanctuary of the church, struck with fear and awe to be in such a place.  “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! (Psalm 84:1)” I can relate to the verse of the psalmist, “Happy are those who dwell in thy house, ever singing thy praise! (Psalm 84:4)”

There is nothing like being in those places where we feel the presence of the Living God. For some, it is this sanctuary that represents the presence of God.   We are like the psalmist, whose “heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” of Israel, his heart faints and longs for the “courts of Yahweh.”  Indeed, “a day in thy 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. (Psalm 84:10)”

This psalm, psalm 84, is a song of praise of the pilgrim who set out in search for Zion.  Zion is the place of God’s dwelling, the temple mount in Jerusalem.  Zion is the resting-place of the ark of the covenant of the LORD, the place where sacrifices are offered to Yahweh. It’s the place where the divine presence, in Hebrew, the Shekinah, the cloud of glory fills the temple, where Yahweh’s people come close to the Holy One of Israel.

The Common Lectionary matches this psalm with Solomon’s dedication of the first temple.  This is an extraordinary, historically significant account in 1 Kings.  Can you sense the awe and reverence of the worshippers; do you see the drama and majesty of this scene?  They are approaching holiness and setting aside this place as a special place, as holy for Yahweh, as a final resting-place for the ark.  The temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world.  It was massive and beautiful, with only the best materials offered for Yahweh.  Nothing but the best is reserved for Yahweh.

But if you read between the lines of this text from 1 Kings, staying close to the text and listening very closely, you can detect that Israel has stumbled into a dilemma that has to be resolved, because if its not, the presence of the temple could represent something other than the glory of Yahweh.  The dilemma has to do with the temple itself.  Let me explain, but first by saying something about the ark. 

As I was writing this sermon, my spellchecker insisted upon capitalizing “ark” and “covenant.”  No doubt the employees at Microsoft must have been fans of all those Indiana Jones movies (which I love).  The ark is not to be capitalized; it is not a cultic image as Spielberg & Company would have us believe.  The ark was a symbol of divine presence in the midst of the people. It was a reminder that God’s presence is in the midst of the people. God’s presence cannot be limited to a box.  Nor can God be rendered by any hand-made image, without violating Yahweh’s commandment.  And it’s an ark or symbol of the covenant of the LORD.  The covenant is a formal agreement between Yahweh and Israel.  It represents the covenantal relationship between both parties that they will be faithful to one another.  As such, Solomon prays to Yahweh, “O Yahweh, God of Israel, there is no God like thee, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to thy servants who walk before thee with all their heart; who has kept with thy servant David my father what thou didst speak with my mouth, and with thy hand has fulfilled it this day. (1 Kings 8: 23-24)”

It is then in Solomon’s prayer, wise as he was, that we begin to see the dilemma.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?”  In other words, how can Israel build a temple for the presence of Yahweh without confusing the temple with the presence of Yahweh?  He continues, “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built! (1 Kings 8:27)” The temple represents the intense presence of Yahweh.  Throughout Judaism, Yahweh is identified with certain places, such as Zion.  But we have to be very careful in our theological imaginations not to limit Yahweh to a particular place, because no place can contain the holiness and majesty of Yahweh.  No place, no person, no image or thing, no theological idea (not even Calvin’s) can exhaust the fullness of Yahweh.  That’s why Yahweh cannot be rendered by any image, nor identified with any image.  Yahweh is always present, yet beyond at the same time.  Yahweh is always close, but always other.  Walter Brueggeman put it this way, “Presence too closely claimed for the temple belittles Yahweh’s true character, but presence too leanly affirmed leaves Israel excessively exposed.”[1]

And what, we might ask, is Yahweh’s “true character”?  Yahweh cannot be constrained, because our God moves.  How do we know this?   The poles give us a clue.  In other religions of the time, it was common to build temples to a deity and establish a foot stool or box was to serve as the throne for the god.  The box was permanent.  Those poles that support the ark are significant.  Yahweh is not like the other gods.  The poles represent mobility.  The ark can be moved and will be moved.  Those poles mean “the freedom of the deity even in the sanctuary.”[2]  This text fires our imaginations so that we come to see that the God who created us, called us, claimed us and redeemed us is a God who cannot be controlled and limited by human creations and constructions.  And this, my friends, should make us very happy, indeed.  It was Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who said, “The God understood is no God.”  God is God.  We’re not. Therefore we are called to bow our heads and yield our knowledge of God to God.  This means that we must let God be God.  The God we serve, this Yahweh is “a roving, moving, free God who will not be hemmed in or domesticated by a temple.”[3]  This God will not be housebound.

I often wonder what people think when they drive by and see the sermon titles up on our sign, especially today’s sermon title.  I love reading sermon titles and reading in the newspaper what other preachers have come up with.  My good friend, Dr. Macleod, former professor at preaching at Princeton Seminary, who now lives in his retirement at Charlestown, used to say that sermon titles should catch one’s eye if you were driving by the church on a bus, the title should entice you, or at least make you curious enough to return to church on Sunday.  I certainly can’t claim that for every sermon title, especially today’s.  I have to admit that sometimes sermon titles scare me.  I read in The Washington Post yesterday that the sermon title this morning at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is “Whatcha talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?”  (It’s a line from the old television series “Different Strokes.”)  I have no idea what that sermon might be about; maybe that’s the point, to entice me to show up.  Several weeks ago, the sermon title at Georgetown Presbyterian Church really worried me.  It was: “Why Do Crabs Die?”  Now what on earth does that all about?  What do non-Christians or new Christians think when they see a title like that?

Do folks even read the sermon titles as they drive along Frederick Road.  If they do, what do they think?  For some, today’s title makes perfect sense.  It is true, our happiness is found in the house of God.  But for many, I would think, they read the title and must have said, “What a joke.”  Not everyone has a happy experience in church, in the house of God.  For far too many people, the house of God was a place of dysfunction and maybe abuse.  For some it was boring, isolating, and painful.  For others it wasn’t a place where they met God, or encountered God’s presence, or grew to love Jesus. For some it’s a place that is so heavenly minded, it’s no earthly good.  It’s a backward place, full of dated thinking, hopelessly out of touch with the world.  For many folks, it’s a place that is racist, ageist, sexist, and any other –ist you can come up with.  Some have given up on the church altogether and prefer to find happiness elsewhere.  And there are days when I don’t blame them.  I don’t agree with them; but I don’t blame them.  And I couldn’t help up think of those folks in Jerusalem who were on that bus that was bombed this week, full of children.  They were returning from a visit to the Wailing Wall, all that remains of the Second Temple.  It is dangerous being a follower of Yahweh.

From what I read and hear these days, my childhood experiences were rare.  If it wasn’t for my early experiences, I wonder if I would have stayed in the church.  My childhood experiences in North Arlington prepared me to be open to the holiness of God.  God was identified with that place and because of that, that place was a happy one, full of love and joy and peace.  But I grew up, left home, and entered the wider world only to discover that this God went with me, led the way, could not be hemmed in or domesticated.  No place can contain the holiness of God.  God moves us.  God moves with us.

But we still need to come together, we still need to gather, we who have experienced the love of God, especially in the face of Jesus Christ.  For what Jesus explained to us is that God dwells with God’s people.  The psalmist says, “Happy are those whose strength is in Yahweh, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. (Psalm 84:5)” That’s an incredibly beautiful image.  Your hearts are the highways to Zion.  God dwells with you, moves with you.  And when God’s people gather and live together, like in the church, God promises to be there, too.  God dwells in the company of worshipping people.  God’s presence is known wherever and whenever people gather to sing and pray together.   The happiness of God is promised in the presence of God. 

But where is the presence of God?  We are back to this tension highlighted in 1 Kings.  The tension continues today.  God can be identified with a house of worship. God can also be found outside this house.  It’s a both/and situation.  It’s a paradox.  Today, most people prefer to find God elsewhere, away from the temple, for all the reasons I listed earlier.  This means that we, who prefer the house of God, must be ever mindful of what people experience when they come here to worship.  Do they experience the holiness of God in this place?  Do they have that sense of awe?  Do they feel welcomed, affirmed?  Do they feel happy here?  That’s what I dream for this congregation.  It is my hope for everyone who steps through our doors.  Will they come; will you come week after week, and say “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts”?   Happy are we who dwell in thy house, ever singing thy praise!”


[1] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN:  Fortress Press, 1997), p. 675.

[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1999), pp. 68ff.

[3] Brueggemann, p. 675.