June 22, 2014 First Sunday After Trinity
Into the Sanctuary
Jeremiah 23:23-32, Psalm 73, 1 St. John 4:7-21, St. Luke 16:19-31
I have come to a decision. I’ve decided we need a slogan. Something to make us appealing to a younger demographic. Something to show the world that, here at All Saints Anglican Church, we’re hip.
But I’m stuck. I had one I really liked: “God rocks!” I had visions of hordes of young people sprinting through our doors each Sunday morning. Before long, we’d build our own place of worship, something grand, maybe something on the order of the Crystal Cathedral. God rocks!
But then I spied the flaw in it. He doesn’t. He says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). It is when we are still that we draw near to a God who never changes.
When we are still we join the Psalmist Asaph in the sanctuary. And the sanctuary is our home.
Back in the day of the united monarchy in Israel, the ark of the covenant arrived in Jerusalem but the altar remained at Gibeon until Solomon completed the temple in the holy city. King David named one man from each of the three clans of the tribe of Levi to supervise the music in the worship of the sanctuary.
He appointed Heman and Ethan at Gibeon and Asaph in Jerusalem. At the completion of the temple, ark and altar were reunited in Jerusalem and the three musicians were reunited to serve there.
We have one psalm each from Heman and Ethan in Book III of the Psalter but 11 that Asaph composed. One of those is the first in Book III, Psalm 73, which we consider today.
In Hebrew, it begins with a funny little two-letter word, ak, which means “truly.” This word is freighted with none of the disingenuousness the English word sometimes bears. Tell your wife you truly, truly, truly love her and she’ll start rummaging through your credit-card receipts.
The funny little Hebrew word tells us we’re going to hear something decidedly unfunny. And so we read, “Truly . . . God is good to Israel.”
The “truly” signals that this is a creedal statement. When they assembled for worship those Jews of old would sing out the truth they held in their hearts: God is good to Israel. They were swearing their faith just as we swear today that Jesus Christ is very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.
At the core of the Israelite’s belief system is this eternal truth that God is good to Israel. Elohim – God – has separated out Israel from among the nations and made covenant with them. He pours out His mercy upon them. But there’s more.
“To such as are pure in heart.” Let’s pause here to think for a moment about the parallelism that characterizes Hebrew poetry. If those poets of old had used devices common in our poetry, such as rhyme, translators would find it impossible to preserve both form and meaning when rendering large swaths of text in other languages.
Providentially, they didn’t. They used parallelism of thought, following each line with another that expands, explains, compares or contrasts the first.
“Truly God is good to Israel.” Truly He is, but is He good to everyone in Israel? Truly, He is not. He judges wicked Jews as He judges wicked pagans. The Psalmist must qualify his creedal assertion. “To such as are pure in heart.” We now learn to which Israelites God is good.
Sounds fine as corn silk so far. But hold your horses. Is God good to such as are pure in heart? Look out your window and ask yourself that question. Because we’ve all seen good and godly people get the shaft and wretched ones prosper.
Moments ago, we read of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man was worse than a lout. He was a disgrace to the human race. He knew no mercy nor compassion. He stuffed himself each day and spared not a scrap for the hungry, the sick, the powerless and penniless.
Two thousand years after our Lord told that parable, nothing has changed. I recall something the ex-wife of a famous athlete said of him: “As a ballplayer he’s an all-star; as a human being he’s a loser.”
The Psalmist might have known that guy. He has seen “the prosperity of the wicked.” This word “prosperity” translates shalom, that Hebrew noun that encompasses completeness, soundness, welfare and peace.
Is this not God’s promise to the pure in heart? Yet vile persons hoard shalom, prosperity, while the decent and good go wanting. More than that, they lead others into their wicked ways.
Once-devout souls stumble on the path of righteousness and stagger off into the darkness, saying, "How does God know? And is there knowledge in the Most High?"
The Psalmist poses the question that has vexed each of us: How can these things be? He is not surrendering his faith. Only a believer can know doubt, for one can doubt only what he believes.
Doubt is a trial, not a capitulation, just as temptation is a test, not a sin. Still, Asaph cannot tame the doubt that gnaws at his gut.
“Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain.” Why bother with virtue when evil wins reward? The Psalmist has been plagued and chastened; he has received the just desserts of the wicked. Where is justice? Where is the God of justice?
But if he allows his doubt to slip out through his mouth, he may infect others in the congregation. He composes their psalms, clangs the cymbals, directs the liturgy. If their worship leader harbors doubt, how can they remain immune?
Searching for answers on his own proved “too painful for me,” but mulling his responsibility to the fellowship of believers drives him into “the sanctuary of God.” And the light pours in.
Now he grasps God’s perspective. How? We do not know because he appears not to know. To pose the question is to miss the point. God’s ways are for God to know. The right question is: Where? In the sanctuary of God.
Here, in this sanctuary, we meet with God and with one another. We take in His word and answer with prayer and praise and self-sacrifice. Receiving what God says to all of us, we learn to serve one another. Here we find answers . . . and adjust our questions.
When the Psalmist ceases to speculate on God’s motives he crashes into the answer that answers appear in relationship with God and His people. Once again, the right question is: Where? Where does true wealth reside?
Not in the bank vaults of the wicked but in the relationships of the sanctuary. In the sanctuary, he meets a God who has not the slightest interest in his speculation but who invites his worship.
A brief aside: This interpretation is not an endorsement of anti-intellectualism in the Christian life, of retreat into a dreamy mysticism that expects answers without taking the trouble to pose questions.
It is instead a simple acknowledgement that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and our ways are not His ways (Isaiah 55:8).
I read the story of a devout young Englishwoman many years ago who consecrated her life to mission and made ready to depart for India. Before she left, an accident crippled her mother.
For three years, she ministered to her mother, whose dying wish was that her daughter journey to the west of England to visit her ailing aunt, the mother’s sister.
Dutifully, she went, intending to sail for India as soon as she returned. But she found her aunt dying of a lingering illness and without proper care. Again, she remained until the end. She was preparing for India once more when her aunt’s husband died suddenly, leaving five children orphans.
She was the only relative who might care for them. She wrote to a friend: “No more projects for going to the heathen. This lonely household is my mission.”
She embraced the mother’s role and ministered to those five children for 15 years. She was 45 years old when she discovered God’s plan that had been at odds with hers.
She laid her hand in blessing upon three of the children, now grown, as they made ready to sail as missionaries to India. It was 20 years after she had pledged her life to the Lord’s work there.
In those 20 years, it seems, her labors had accrued interest and now yielded a 300 percent return on investment. She had found not the sanctuary she wanted for herself but the one God wanted for her. Her obedience became her reward.
Now, do not miss the meaning of the sanctuary. It is the divine abode, the place for the Lord to dwell in the midst of His people. He calls His own into it and reigns over them there. In Asaph’s day it was the Jerusalem temple. In our day it is the place where you now sit. God is here.
Thinking rightly now, the Psalmist first recognizes that whatever contradiction appearances might suggest, God’s judgment on the wicked in the end is so certain as to be an accomplished fact: “Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors.”
This world that has consumed his thoughts is but one act. God looks down upon the entire spectacle of the great drama of life.
Revelation is hammering the Psalmist in staccato bursts. Doubt creeps into every believing heart and mind but, looking back, we can only rue our envy and self-pity that allowed it in. “I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You.”
Yet the God of all mercies never abandoned him: “Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”
We who take up residence in the earthly sanctuary will join God in His everlasting sanctuary. “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.”
We have what the wicked will never have; we have God. “For indeed, those who are far from You shall perish . . . But it is good for me to draw near to God; I have put my trust in the Lord GOD . . .”
Will we covet what the wicked possess when we have the only possession that matters, Immanuel, God with us? If we prize earthly riches more highly than heavenly treasure, we are in serious need of some serious confession.
“God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
God is surely his portion today. Asaph is keenly aware of this privilege, one that not even David the king could claim. Asaph is a Levite, a descendant of Aaron, to whom God had said:
“You shall have no inheritance in their land, nor shall you have any portion among them; I am your portion and your inheritance among the children of Israel’” (Numbers 18:20).
Now he sees God as his portion forever. Do you?
We have before us a preview of the re-orientation every Christian must experience, the movement from one’s own perception focused on his own circumstances to God’s perception grounded in His omniscience and eternal truth.
Life happens. Its trials are a veil that hides the face of God – from those who walk by sight. What do you want? If what you want most is God, you will always have your heart’s fondest desire. If what you want is the world, report to Joel Osteen. You’re in the wrong place.
But if what you want is God, you’re in the right place at the right time – on the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, we take God into ourselves, celebrating our communion with Him. It is communion with God that separates man from beast.
I cannot offer you the world as your reward for a righteous life. If you assemble here, you’ll have to settle for God. How do you learn to trust the Lord? By trusting the Lord. Practice His presence.
Re-oriented to God’s perspective, we see the sand beneath the feet of the wicked who prosper, who enjoy shalom. Their strength and power are real but the sand is shifting, shifting, shifting. On a soon-coming day it will have all blown away and they will plummet into the depths of hell to join the rich man of the Lazarus story there.
In the sanctuary, the Psalmist encounters God. Like Job, he discovers that God never owed him any answers and, indeed, he receives none. But the fact of the encounter with God reorients him. Indeed, as with Job, God restores to him “twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
Before there was Job there was Adam, who might have said, “Truly God is good,” and, obeying, remained pure in heart. Instead, his sin flipped the world, and the world will not be set right by a return to Eden. A flaming sword bars re-entry.
The only route to the everlasting sanctuary is the long slog forward. At its terminus is not Eden but Paradise in all its glory. There is no temple there.
St. John had a look at the new heaven and the new earth and reported, “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22). Here is the eternal reward for those who desire God.
Our Lord left this promise with us: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).
If you would arrive at that eternal sanctuary you must first stop off in this place, the earthly sanctuary, where you encounter God, and join your voice to the confession of His people, “Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart.” Amen.