Two events coincided in our church this past Sunday. First, our recently homeless five-year-old church met indoors and in person for the first time in 52 weeks. Second, this was our first Sunday in our new location. In person. Indoors. In our own building.
I preached on Psalm 84:1-12. “How lovely is your dwelling place o Lord of Hosts! Blessed are those who dwell in your House!” This seemed fitting, although it came with interpretive risks. Given common misperceptions, I had to clarify that I chose this text about the House of God, not because we had entered a building that was the House of God, but because we, as the House of God, had entered the building.
What made 1001 Washington Avenue holy on Sunday was not its vaulted ceiling, or exquisite stained glass, or thunderous pipe organ (see picture above). What made that location holy was that a congregation of “living stones”—regenerated, gospel-believing, and Spirit-consecrated worshipers of the Living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—chose to assemble as a House in which God could dwell (2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Peter 2:4-5; Eph. 2:18-22).
The age of sacred buildings is over. The Old Covenant tabernacle/temple model that symbolized God’s presence among his people is now passé. What used to happen on location—in a sacred tent or majestic temple—now happens in all locations; wherever a local duly led congregation of Jesus-followers gathers to worship God, hear the Word preached, raise their prayers like incense (Rev. 5:8), and observe the Sacraments. In other words: we are the House of God.
The Dearest Place on Earth
Psalm 84 exclaims that God’s dwelling place is “lovely”. The Hebrew word is better rendered “loved” or “beloved”; which means that Psalm 84 expresses great love for God’s House (John Goldingay, Baker Commentary). This is an exuberant love song extolling the place where God draws near and dwells. With a New Testament understanding of God’s House in mind, we may capture the truth like this: “How dearly loved is the gathered church, the House of God!”
This is Charles Spurgeon-type enthusiasm. A world-renowned 19th century pastor who labored tirelessly in his local church for 38 years, Pastor Spurgeon practiced what he preached:
“Give yourself to the Church. You that are members of the Church have not found it perfect and I hope that you feel almost glad that you have not. If I had never joined a Church till I had found one that was perfect, I would never have joined one at all! And the moment I did join it, if I had found one, I should have spoiled it, for it would not have been a perfect Church after I had become a member of it. Still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us… [Therefore], all who have first given themselves to the Lord, should, as speedily as possible, also give themselves to the Lord’s people” [emphasis and brackets added].
Yes. What he said. And I hope my life models it like his did. I can say that this past Sunday was also the 39th anniversary of my first Sunday in pastoral ministry. For 39 years I have had the weighty privilege of being a shepherd in the House of God. And to this day I would say that there is nowhere I would rather be. Despite all its flaws—and despite all of mine—it is still the dearest place there is, this side of heaven.
Is It Really the Dearest Place There Is?
But is the Lord’s congregation really the dearest place on earth—or is that hyperbolic preacher-talk? We must admit that many have been burnt by the church. In truth, everyone who has joined a church for any length of time has had bad experiences. I’ve been burnt hundreds of times—and undoubtedly, have burned others in equal number. Undeniable imperfections within the House of God might well tempt cynics to respond: “Give us one good reason to believe the church is the dearest place on earth!” But to this the psalmist, as if anticipating the challenge, offers seven.
The House of God is a House of Singing (Ps. 84:2-4). Those who dwell in God’s House sing for joy and praise. Our singing God (Zeph. 3:17), puts a Spirit-filled song within us to share with others (Eph. 5:18-20). God’s people love to sing, both in private and in public—with a preference for the public. Who would deny that the public choir of gathered singing saints on the Lord’s Day is better than a private solo any other day of the week? The House of God is dear because it’s where heaven’s choir practice happens.
The House of God is a House of Safety (Ps. 84:3). It is where the sparrow nests, and the swallow rests. The Lord’s House offers salvation-safety through faithful proclamation of Christ, who saves us from hell and leads us safely into our eternal rest. But our safety here and now is not absolute. Since fake believers, bigots, predators, power-mongers, and disguised wolves can sneak into the church, safety is sometimes compromised. This is why God’s faithful people will try to keep the church a House of Safety through real accountability, pastoral oversight, church discipline, and congregational action; all of which deal with leaders and any others who would do harm among us. Having a House of Safety is wonderful. Maintaining a House of Safety is work.
The House of God is a House of Sacrifice (Ps. 84:3). Birds used to find rest in the temple altars. These altars represented atoning sacrifice in God’s House; which is still needed today. Only now, there is no altar but Calvary, and no sacrifice but Christ. In the House of God, he is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7; Eph. 2:13) offered once-and-for-all-time—to appease God’s wrath and gain our access into his presence (Heb. 7:23-27). In God’s House, preaching, sacrament, and song, remind us to “shake off our guilty fears” and come boldly into his throne-room because “the bleeding sacrifice in our behalf appears” (Charles Wesley).
The House of God is a House of Strength (Ps. 84:5-7). Our text indicates that the House of God is so rejuvenating that it strengthens even before we arrive. Mere anticipation of the Lord’s House turns sun-baked places (the Valley of Baca) into refreshing pools. No wonder the church is dear. It is there that the teaching of the Word, the fellowship of the Body, the prayers of the saints, and the breaking of the Bread all become springs in a desert to replenish our weary hearts.
The House of God is a House of Supplication (Ps. 84:8). In the Lord’s House, the psalmist was moved to pray; which is as it should be. “My house shall be called a house of prayer,” the Lord says (Matt. 21:13). “When people are in my House, I want them to talk to me!” Yes, when we are in his House, it is good that we speak to the Lord of the House in earnest and strong supplications, to praise his name and plead his favor. In the Father’s House the Audience of One is the Audience that matters most.
The House of God is a House of Service (Ps. 84:10). To our psalmist, serving at the temple door was better than sinning anywhere. The Lord’s House has always had doorkeepers: humble, faithful, and serving people of faith. And this, we all should be. In the Father’s House, all are gifted and all are called. Here—as living sacrifices to God (Rom. 12:1)—we exercise our gifts for the edifying of others to the praise of God’s glory (Rom. 12:1-8; 1 Peter 4:8-11). And since the affections of our heart follow wherever the treasures of our money, time, energy, and service are invested (Matt. 6:19-21), there may be no better way to deepen love for the church than to pour out our life in service to its members and mission.
The House of God is a House of Supply (Ps. 84:11). God is the One who bestows favor and honor; the One who withholds no good thing. His is a House of Abundance; a storehouse of mercies and goodness. Whatever we need may be found here. Favor. Honor. Grace. All that is truly good. God will supply it all according to his glorious riches (Phil. 4:19). Far from being a false promise of health and wealth, this is a full promise of grace, comfort, power, and provision. When we visit the Father’s House we never go home empty-handed!
So If Christ Loved the Church…
For these seven reasons the psalmist sang his love for the House of God, and we should, too. To that end I offer a simple spiritual syllogism that I learned long ago:
- Christ loved the Church (i.e.-his House) and gave himself for her (Eph. 5:25).
- I am called to be like Christ (Matt. 11:29; 1 Cor. 11:1).
- Therefore I must, like him, love the Church which is House, and give myself up for her (Eph. 5:1-2).
If we do this as Christ did, we will soon join the song, “O how we love your dwelling place o Lord of Hosts!” And it won’t be long before we will all agree that his Church—despite all its defects—is indeed, the dearest place on earth.