Last Friday afternoon I came out of Café Lento, which is not far from the entrance to Headingley cricket ground, and immediately got caught up in the crowds happily wandering down the road to watch the T20 against Derbyshire Falcons (which we won by 8 wickets). I stood for a while watching them go past and wishing I could join them.
A couple of weeks ago Alison and I went down to Elland Road, where Leeds United play their own special brand of Championship football, to watch Sam Newman playing in the final of the Leeds United Millennium Cup (U13). He played really well although they lost 2-1. As I walked into the ground I was immediately reminded of some of the games we used to watch their when Leeds were in the Champions’ League. Memories of huge crowds, chanting and singing and brilliant sport.
This Psalm reminds me of those scenes. Picture it:
The temple was a huge building (especially in that day) on the top of a hill;
Surrounded by high walls with the main entrance through a gate to the East;
Lots of noise as hundreds of people were milling around, priests making constant sacrifices, sheep and goats and birds turning it into a farmyard, musicians & choirs playing and singing;
An aura around the Holy place where few were allowed to go, activity around the altar raised on a plinth in the centre of the courtyard;
Looking out through the East gate across the valley you would see pilgrim convoys walking up toward the temple with increasing excitement (imagine this picture without the buildings);
Some tents at a distance – belonging to critics of the King, don’t like what’s going on here. Merchants who want to trade, politicians who want power.
The sun hot in the sky, water at a premium.
We don’t know who wrote this Psalm. My favourite theory would be Jehosophat. He was a king of Judah who loved the Lord and loved to worship. A good and Godly king some four generations after David. He worked really hard to bring the people back to God, sending out ministry teams all over Judah and built a formidable reputation for the country.
So I imagine King Jehosophat, maybe after one of his famous victories – where he didn’t do anything but God defeated the enemy without a shot being fired – standing, worshipping at the altar (he was allowed quite near).
He just loves it here, he thinks of God’s great power and grace, he remembers previous celebrations of God’s victories.
And then he spots a nest up on the wall near the altar. A sparrow has made its home there. He watches as the sparrow flies back and forth getting food for the chicks in the nest.
A home near the altar
Then big J turns around and wanders down a few steps and looks through the East gateway across the valley to the Mount of Olives a bit lower down. He watches the excited pilgrims as they crest the hill on the far side of the valley and see the temple for the first time and increase their pace. He gazes at the pilgrim convoys nearing the temple as they climb the last hill, he steps aside to let the constant traffic go past – thinking about where they have come from and the journey they have undertaken.
In the distance he notes the tents where some of the merchants and political elite are based, watching. He knows that they would get rid of him if they could. He knows that they have no experience of the mercy and love of God in their lives – although they may be wealthy and powerful. They choose to stay away from the place of worship, away from the altar.
And as he stands at the gate with a sense of God’s presence in the temple and memories of what God has done and the excitement of people coming to worship, J is taken up in praise and thanks for God and how fortunate he is to be standing there.
1 How lovely is your dwelling-place,
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
3 Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young –
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.
5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
8 Hear my prayer, Lord God Almighty;
listen to me, God of Jacob.
9 Look on our shield, O God;
look with favour on your anointed one.
10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
11 For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favour and honour;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose way of life is blameless.
12 Lord Almighty,
blessed is the one who trusts in you.
Where are you in this picture?
Are you standing at a distance from God? Unsure? Not feeling that excitement of knowing God’s presence and work in your life? Or not wanting to take the risk of joining in?
Are you a pilgrim on your own?
In those days, when pilgrims came to worship, they did so in caravans. Not the ones with wheels which sway about on the inside lane of the M1 - caravans made up of several families and groups of people joining together to make the long journey by foot from their villages to Jerusalem. I am sure that the caravans went too slowly for some, too fast for others, that they took routes which some didn’t think were right. But they stuck together because it was too dangerous travelling on their own.
Are you a follower of Jesus but standing a bit apart from the community of faith at worship?
Is your journey a difficult one?The pilgrim’s journey to worship, into the presence of God, was not an easy one. It was arduous and fraught with danger. But in verse 5 it describes how, as the pilgrims come through dry and barren valleys, they seem to get stronger, refreshment arises around them. Rather than letting their circumstances get them down they lift their faces, they look forward and they bring a blessing to everything around them. Are you on a difficult journey? Are you struggling to get close to the altar, to the presence of God? Does he feel far away? Are you full of doubts and uncertainty?
Are you in His presence already? You have arrived close to Jesus, and are trying to turn to him in prayer and praise. But it’s noisy and hot and dry in the temple but amidst all the hustle and bustle of life you are trying to worship and make a sacrifice of praise.
Are you the sparrow or swallow? They have made their nest as close to the altar as possible. Going about your business in the light of God, building a life and a home under the protection of his shield, raising your family close to him and his people.
This is my message today – take inspiration from the sparrow and make your nest as close to the altar as you can. This is not to say that you bring your sleeping bag and camp stove and set up home in one of the choir stalls behind the pulpit.
In the time of the Psalmist, if you wanted to be in the presence of God you came to the temple. And to get close to God you needed a sacrifice. And to make a sacrifice you needed a priest who was allowed to stand between you and the Holy place – to connect you to God - like being one connection away on a social networking site.
But since Jesus came to reveal to us what God is like and since he sent his Holy Spirit to fill our hearts – you don’t need to go to Jerusalem, or HMC – the temple of God is now in your heart. So the pilgrim’s journey is an inner journey.
You don’t need to carry a goat for the sacrifice, Jesus has paid the sacrificial price once and for all by dying on the cross for you and me.
You don’t need a priest to stand between you and God, you can be his “friend” yourself. The curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from people has been torn down. You can approach the throne of grace with confidence and find grace and mercy to help you in your time of need.
So what do I mean when I invite you to make a home near the altar?
Firstly: How close?
to make your home there. When you moved home you drove around the area to see where you wanted to live. You checked on Zoopla or Right Move. The birds fly around trying to find somewhere out of the sun (cos they don’t want their eggs to be hardboiled) and sufficiently hidden (safe from predators) and shielded from the elements (bad weather). It often takes them more than one go to get the location right.
Where’s your nest? How close to the presence of God have you chosen to live? Some of you have stopped short or even retreated when your first nest didn’t seem to work.
God is reaching out to you because he is passionately for you. You can be forgiven and have your relationship with him restored. A personal relationship with the living God who made you.
Choosing to be close to the altar, to God’s presence, is to fully, unconditionally, surrender to the love of Jesus. Hands up, nothing between you and me God, full transparency, complete surrender.
So how close is your nest?
Secondly: How good is your nest?
how you build. Nests take some building. Having chosen their site birds painstakingly build the nest where they will live and work and play and raise a family. It takes a lot of effort and time. A sparrow gathers grass and feathers to make his nest in the cavity of a wall. A swallow finds a spot on a rafter or beam and builds a cup of mud one beakful at a time and then lines it with feathers. It’s hard work and takes time.
How is your nest? Is it looking compete and lined with feathers - or a bit unfinished? Have you got the right things there? Are you still working at it or have you given up? Is it a good place to go about your business and play and to raise your family? Is it robust and safe and fit for purpose?
So how good is your nest?
Invite the Holy Spirit into every aspect of your life, make prayer not an activity from time to time but a place, a way of being near to Jesus every step of the way. Verse 12 – trusting in God brings his blessing. Choosing to be close, choosing to surrender, choosing to trust.
It’s about doing life with others, not on our own, being part of the pilgrim’s caravan. It’s about serving each other about giving and ministering. It’s about devoting yourself to the scriptures. It’s about cultivating a prayer life where you turn to the Lord all the time, where you hear his voice all the time. It’s about worship together on Sunday being an expression of your ongoing life close to the altar.
Making your home near the altar means – do your work, raise your family, enjoy your play, to live your life – more and more aware of his love and power at work in your life – learning to live in His presence.
Let’s wait on God in prayer – asking him to show us where we have built our nest and what the condition of our nest is like. Let’s ask him to help us make our home nearer his presence.