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Close to God - Psalm 84 Sermon, February Prayer Service

Close to God - Psalm 84 Sermon, February Prayer Service

Mount Olive Lutheran Church / Pr. Ted A. Giese / Wednesday February 6th 2019: Season of Epiphany / Psalm 84 "Close to God"

          How lovely is Your dwelling place,

                   O LORD of hosts!

          My soul longs, yes, faints

                   for the courts of the LORD;

          my heart and flesh sing for joy

                   to the living God.


          Even the sparrow finds a home,

                   and the swallow a nest for herself,

                   where she may lay her young,

          at Your altars, O LORD of hosts,

                   my King and my God.

          Blessed are those who dwell in Your house,

                   ever singing Your praise!


          Blessed are those whose strength is in You,

                   in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

          As they go through the Valley of Baca

                   they make it a place of springs;

                   the early rain also covers it with pools.

          They go from strength to strength;

                   each one appears before God in Zion.


          O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer;

                   give ear, O God of Jacob!


          Behold our shield, O God;

                   look on the face of Your anointed!

          For a day in Your 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.

          For the LORD God is a Sun and Shield;

                   the LORD bestows favour and honour.

          No good thing does He withhold

                   from those who walk uprightly.

          O LORD of hosts,

                   blessed is the one who trusts in You! 

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight O Lord. Amen.

Grace peace and mercy to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Good Christian Friends. In Psalm 23 we have a rather straight forward picture of God being with someone as they walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; that could be the soldier who knows he’s about to go into the theatre of operations, into combat, or the police officer who is about to enter a known dangerous house unsure of what they will face on the other side of the door, or it could be the fire fighter rushing into the flames to rescue someone from death. The Valley of the Shadow of Death is often on the mind of the Christian on their deathbed when they know that the time is come and they are truly dying. This The Valley of the Shadow of Death we understand and know; It has long been taught to us and made clear to us that in those times when death is near to us there is Jesus, the Good Shepherd with His rod and staff to comfort us and care for us along the way … but in Psalm 84 we have another Valley a different the name of which we are not nearly as familiar with or are not familiar with at all: this is the Valley of Baca.

The Psalms are poetry and there is no geographic place named the Valley of Baca in Israel and if there ever was it is lost to ever flowing sands of time. Baca however means “Balsam Tree” and in Israel the Balsam Tree was prized for its aromatic fragrance and used to make medicinal ointments, these trees were cultivated in the city of Jericho and naturally occurred only in one little area near the Dead Sea, historians of the past thought that the tree may have been a gift from Queen Sheba to King Solomon, King David’s son.[1] However these trees made their way to Israel there is an additional poetic play on words here with the Balsam Tree. The Hebrew word Baca sounds very close to the Hebrew word for “sorrow” or “weeping.” So on the one had you have Baca which the original hearer of the Psalm would identity with tree with a fragrant aroma from which medicinal ointments to help a person in a time of sickness could be made and then on the other hand they would also be caught thinking of “sorrow” and “weeping:”[2] Here we have contrasting ideas which very economically create in a poetic way the picture of help in time of need. This play on words is further developed by the use of the word Hebrew word for “pools” which sounds very much like the Hebrew word for “blessings” and then there is also the phrase we have in our translation as “early rain,” that is the rain that comes at the beginning of the rainy season in autumn, that sounds like the Hebrew word for “teacher.”[3]     

So the original hearer would sing and pray the Psalm and as they did so they would have a contradictory set of images coming together in their mind that are further enhanced with additional pun like plays on words:

Speaking of God, who is The LORD of hosts, the Psalmist sings “Blessed are those whose strength is in You, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.” What the poetic language is saying is “Blessed are those whose strength is The LORD of hosts, in whose heart are the highways to Jerusalem (Zion is another name for Jerusalem), As they go through the Valley of Sorrow and Weeping, they find refreshment there, they learn as one taught by a teacher that with their strength in God even the Valley of Sorrow and Weeping is a place filled with blessings, and as they pass through the Valley they grow in this strength becoming steadfast by the grace of God, trusting that each one will eventually appear before God in Jerusalem.

Again there is a play on meaning here. Zion is a word for Jerusalem and while Jerusalem is a City both then and now that you could go to, can go to, Zion and Jerusalem are also used to convey the double meaning of both City and Heaven. They are likewise used to convey eternal glory with The LORD of hosts. We use these place names to point to heaven. In fact more than one of our hymns in the hymnal does this, in “Jerusalem the Golden,” for example, we sing, “Jerusalem the golden, With milk and honey blest, the promise of salvation, The place of peace and rest, We know not, oh, we know not, What joys await us there, What radiancy of glory, What bliss beyond compare. Within those walls of Zion, Sounds forth the joyful song As saints join with the angels, And all the martyr throng. The Prince is ever with them; The daylight is serene; The city of the blessed, Shines bright with glorious sheen.”[4] This hymn is both wistful and hopeful. It’s not exactly sad, there is a melancholy to it, yet it’s actually a hymn full of longing to be there with God in heaven. To be joined together permanently with the saints who have gone on before us, who will come after us, gathered around the throne of God: Gathered around Christ Jesus. This is what Psalm 84 is like too.  

The Psalmist is away from Jerusalem away from the Temple and he longs to be there. He sings out, “How lovely is Your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” The Temple was the place where God had promised to make His dwelling, there and only there could the people come into the presence of God and even there only the high priest could entre once a year into the Holy of Holies, into the very presence of God on behalf of the people. In the Psalm the Psalmist playful implies that he is jealous of the little birds and swallows who freely make their nests in the courts of the Temple around the various altars of God there as fly in and out without worry or care in the world while He is separated from the Temple. These little birds don’t even know what blessings they have while he, the Psalmist, walks through the Valley of Sorrow and Weeping. The songs of the birds ever sing the praise of God and he, the Psalmist, pines to join their song along with the songs of the people gathered there in the Temple.  

There is good reason to believe that this is a kind of devotional Psalm for the soldier, who is way from Jerusalem at a time of festival, because the Psalmist calls God The “LORD of hosts,” that is the LORD of the Armies, the hosts are the angles and the men of Israel who fight on behalf of the children of Zion. It also refers to those who serve in the Levitical priesthood in the Temple and the virgins who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle Tent and the gates of the Temple. So while the army can be deployed in the field these others are together at the Temple with the people, so again you can see the senses of longing in this Psalm: Longing to be together with the rest of those who serve the Lord and with the rest of those who are served by God and His myriad hosts of servants.     

Even though his heart pines to be back home with everyone, even though the Psalmist is homesick for the worship of God together with the rest of his people, even though he experiences sorrow and weeping over it Psalm 84 shows that the trust of the Psalmist is in Christ Jesus. Of course when Psalm 84 was written Jesus had not yet been born, but as Jesus Himself attests the Psalms are about Him[5] and they ultimately point to Christ Jesus. So where is the pre-incarnate Christ Jesus in the Psalm? “Behold our Shield, O God; look on the face of Your anointed!” Jesus is the ultimate Anointed One of God, anointed in His Baptism in the Jordon River by John the Baptizer.[6] Jesus is our justification, “our Shield” Jesus by the shedding on His precious and faultless, sinless blood bestows favour and honour upon us in a way that supersedes and surpasses every sacrifice ever offered in the Temple, a shield to cover us for all eternity: For as the Book of Hebrews says those sacrifices served in pointing towards the once for all Sacrifice of Christ Jesus upon the Cross on Mount Zion,[7] just outside the walls of Jerusalem within view of the Temple. Lastly while the Psalmist shows great trust in God and while he likewise also encourages you towards trust in God, even in times of sorrow and weeping when you are separated from the Devine Service, from the worship of God with fellow Christians, ultimately it is Jesus who exhibits the perfect trust in His heavenly Father. So when the Psalmist concludes Psalm 84 by saying, “blessed is the one who trusts in You! [O LORD of hosts]” he is truly saying, “blessed is Christ Jesus who trusts in You heavenly Father,” The One who trusted God without fail. In whom we have forgiveness for the times we have failed to perfectly trust in God.   

This Psalm is a great Psalm for those who are apart from the Divine Serves, those who are shut in, those who must work shift work to make ends meet, those who are in the Military, Police, Fire Fighting Services, the paramedics and other first responders, and those who provide medical care to the sick and dying: This is a prayer for those who are apart from the gathering together of the body of Christ Jesus in His bride the Church’s communal worship.  Yet it could also serve as a warning to those who are apart from the gathering of the saints of God for reasons that fall in the area of luxury and not necessity. A warning to those who would keep apart from their fellow Christians because of sports or leisure or work when they could take the time off. Remember what it says in Hebrews chapter 10, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”[8]   

Now “During the Old Testament the full joy of worshipping God was possible only in [that] one city, in [that] one building because the sacrifices could be offered only in the Temple of Jerusalem. [Because of Jesus our High Priest] today our worship is not limited to any one place. We are free to worship God anywhere. Nevertheless, our churches hold a special place in our hearts. There we have been baptized, confirmed, and married. There we have witnessed these events in the lives of our loved ones. There we have heard words of comfort [following] the deaths of family members and friends. From the pulpits we have heard God’s word. At the altar we have receive Christ’s true body and blood, which was given and shed for our forgiveness. We too, [with the Psalmist] can say “how lovely is Your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty.” [And while] it is true that we can worship God anywhere [let it be our prayer that we may] never deprive ourselves through our own negligence or indifference of the joy of joining fellow believers in God’s house. God does not need us to come to His house but we need to be there [whether our heart pines to be there or not].[9] Scripture says, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near;”[10] This is an encouragement and so is Psalm 84, for Psalm 84 promises that for those who are separated from gathering together in worship out of necessity, duty, or the care of neighbour, that for such as these God promises to be with them bringing healing and blessings for their weary souls even in the midst of sorrow, weeping, longing and pining. If you have walked that Lonely Valley Christ was with you there, if you walk that Lonely Valley now, the Valley of Baca, the Valley of Sorrow and Weeping, know that Christ is with you. Keep following Him and His path will return you to Mount Zion, to the eternal Jerusalem, to your Happy Home, where one day as a door keeper would be better than a thousand days anywhere else. Amen.    

Let us pray:

Lord have mercy on us, Christ have mercy on us, Lord have mercy on us, “take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, take our hearts and set them on fire; for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 10:1–2, “Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. And when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind.”
[2] A Commentary on Psalms 73-150, J. Brug, Northwestern Publishing House 2005, pg 100. 
[3] This same language and poetic meaning can be found in Joel 2:22–23 “Fear not, you beasts of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit; the fig tree and vine give their full yield.”  “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the LORD your God, for He has given the early rain for your vindication; He has poured down for you abundant rain, the early and the latter rain, as before.”
[4] Lutheran Service Book, Concordia Publishing House 2006, “Jerusalem the Golden” Hymn 762 verse 1 & 2.
[5] Luke 24:44
[6] Matthew 3
[7] Hebrews 10:1–18, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, He said,

                “Sacrifices and offerings You have not desired,

                                but a body have You prepared for Me;

                in burnt offerings and sin offerings

                                You have taken no pleasure.

                Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God,

                                as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.’”             

When He said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then He added, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until His enemies should be made a footstool for His feet. For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying,

                “This is the covenant that I will make with them

                                after those days, declares the Lord:

                I will put My laws on their hearts,

                                and write them on their minds,”

                then He adds,

                “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”     

Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
[8] Hebrews 10:19–25
[9] A Commentary on Psalms 73-150, J. Brug, Northwestern Publishing House 2005, pg 101. 
[10] Isaiah 55:6