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October 24 lesson: Praise God for His Presence

October 14, 2021
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Praise God for His Presence

Fall Quarter: Celebrating God
Unit 2: Called to Praise God

Sunday school lesson for the week of October 24, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard


Background Scripture: Psalm 84
Key Scripture (NIV): “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.” Psalm 84:4

Lesson Aims
  1. To understand the importance of our places of worship.
  2. To understand our individual and corporate spiritual journey.
  3. To understand the blessing in experiencing God’s presence.
Preparation for Lesson

Who wrote the Psalm?

Psalm 84 stands in the third section of Psalms. It was written for the Sons of Korah, which implies they did not write this psalm. However, there is a connection with the psalm. The Sons of Korah wrote or are intimately related to Psalms 84,84, 87, 88. Korah was a descendant of Kohath, a son of Levi. Korah was put to death for a rebellion against Moses and Aaron during the Exodus. However, the descendants rose to prominent place in temple worship. They were also gatekeepers. The psalm most likely was written in the era of Solomon’s Temple. Most believe it was written prior to David’s death, around 970 B.C.

For what purpose was it written?

Regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem were a vital facet of the Israelite’s faith. One of the most important pilgrimages occurred during Passover. Many of the psalms were hymns to sing during the journey. Many are characterized as the “psalms of ascent.” These psalms reveal an important truth concerning worship. Many, if not most, of the Israelites were “prepared” to worship. Their thoughts were focused upon the goodness of God and the meaningful experience ahead. Each of us can learn from this revelation. How often do we arrive at worship empty, tired, or preoccupied? When we do so we expect the worship experience to raise us from our state. However, worship is enriched when we are prayerfully prepared. We can add to and participate in worship.

How do we prepare for worship? If you do not prepare, what hinders the preparation? What could you do to prepare and enhance your worship experience?
 
“Journey” is a consistent, constant thread throughout scripture. Each of us is on a journey of faith. There are touches, revelations, illuminations of God during our walk. One of the most important realities to understand is that we never complete this journey. There is always more ahead. Each step moves the us closer to the Kingdom of God and anchors us more deeply in God. This journey is far from just our personal walk. It is also “our” walk. We are on the journey together. When we are weak, another is strong for us. When we are strong, we are there for them. Imagine all of the experiences and learnings present in the Body of Christ! We are the recipients of thousands of years of history. We are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb.12:10). We are a cumulative source of wisdom regarding what it means to walk with God. Furthermore, Psalm 84 wasn’t a psalm just for the Israelites during the biblical era, it is our song as well! We are also a community of those who long to worship God.

Are you aware of your personal journey? Do you find it tempting to slow your walk or neglect it? What are the hurdles that hinder your walk? Are you aware you are joined on your journey in the Body of Christ? Are you aware you have been given the privilege of joining the personal walks of others? What do you think is the importance of walking together?

What type of literature is Psalm 84?

Naturally, the psalm is a poem/hymn. Like most psalms of Hebrew poetry, it uses rich imagery. The psalm uses images to which we can relate and understand. It is also written using couplets and parallelism. However, parallelism is not always used in the same manner. It isn’t always only two lines tied together. Often there is third line that enriches the meaning.

Theological realities that need to be understood prior to reading the psalm

We live on this side of the resurrection. Jesus taught us that God is infinite, loving, personal spirit. However, in the Old Testament many viewed God anthropomorphically. That is, God was imagined as a man. Let it be noted that at least the monotheism of the Israelites saw a special intimacy with God. Instead of gods of wood and stone or gods of the elements such as the sun or stars, they often envisioned God as the highest expression of us. Though it is understandable how they made this jump, God’s revelation consistently reveals the Lord cannot be defined or contained by the human body or any created entity. God stands beyond and above all! What we know of God has been revealed. Before we cast criticism upon the Old Testament people we need to remember they have struggled against polytheism from their inception. God is revealing the divine nature to them “in a manner they can understand.” Our understanding of God today is a result of “stepping-stones.” God has continually revealed himself through the years, and our understanding of God has grown. Notice my use of the pronoun “himself” for God. I have no other means of speaking of God. Any pronoun used is as lacking as the one I employ. I use it because it is tradition. Still, God isn’t he, she, or it. The progressive revelation of God was embodied perfectly in Jesus. We are reading the inspired writing of people who cannot yet fully grasp the reality of God as spirit. The only way they could relate to God was through what they did know at the time. Thus, they gave us images of God as having a right arm, of sitting on a throne, and of inhabiting a house. Today, we are aware God cannot be contained in any human structure. It was rather natural for them to believe God inhabited their place of worship. It did not mean they didn’t believe God could be elsewhere. However, God was “connected” to the temple.

Still, we can relate to Scripture written during this period. Though God does not just dwell in our church building, we still understand the Lord is spiritually and intimately present there. When two or more are gathered in his name, Christ is there.

Do we think of God as greater than any reality in the universe? Do we understand the process of progressive revelation, that is, God revealing himself at the perfect time in ways we can understand? Do we realize there is always more of God to know? Why do you think it is important to realize God’s existing above, over, and beyond? What role do you believe mystery plays in faith?

The Text

Our destiny

This remarkable psalm opens, “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty.” Notice the psalmist believes God dwells in the temple. Again, this does not negate the author’s belief that God is great and omnipresent. Again, it is the way he is able to relate to God in his life and the life of Israel. For the psalmist, those who enter Jerusalem are headed toward “God’s house.” God’s house is holy. It is sacred. For those who enter, make certain they know it is holy ground. Where God is present there is redemption. A person can find their way in life and be restored, even after failing. Therefore, it is place for the birth and renewal of hope. Hope is the belief that God is with us every moment, wasting no experience in moving us toward the Kingdom of God. As the people leave the temple they must understand the God they encounter in the temple is “their God,” the only God, and they are God’s people.

The aesthetics of the temple proclaim the beauty, wonder and greatness of God. The very stones and timbers, curtains, and golden utensils all point to a life that is high and noble. It is God’s life and they were invited to experience that life. There was also power in the gathering of God’s people. It is quite obvious that a crowd can take on a personality and mind of itself. However, in the temple, the crowd experiences the mind and heart of God. This grand truth unifies and enlivens them. Indeed, it is lovely place!

We are called toward the “lovely place.” Our destiny is to dwell with God in his holy habitation. Rev. 21 reads “The tabernacle of God is with men, and he shall dwell with them and they shall be his people.”

Our worship buildings are to call us toward God. Over my 40+ years, many have entered my church because they saw its steeple or building. They knew from the architecture that the people there believed in Christ, and therefore, the hope of redemption could be found within. When I enter a sanctuary, the first thing I do is look at its windows, the worship articles on the altar table, and anything that speaks of God. During communion I intently look at the cross on the altar. When I kneel at the altar I remember I am kneeling before God in all of his greatness and beauty. The colors, the images, the sounds all remind me God is present and we are eternally connected. As the pilgrims sang in preparation for worship, I intentionally look at everything that points to God. I am certainly not alone in such preparation. Many question the importance of church buildings and the ornate décor of a sanctuary. Certainly, we can always overdo anything. However, let us remember everything is to point to God.

While building a church on the Yucatan, I took a day off to visit the city market. Standing near the market was a magnificent cathedral. What a contrast! The poor and disabled lined the sidewalks selling fruit and any item that might help them eat. The front door of the cathedral was cracked. Looking inward I witnessed an ongoing service. I noticed the most incredible sanctuary of brass and gold-plated ornaments. My first reaction was to ask, “How dare they spend such money on the sanctuary with so many poor?” Later, however, I understood the cathedral was one of few beautiful places in their life. It reminded them that there is something and someone greater in life. There is a healthy balance between missional outreach and providing a beautiful sanctuary. People need to sometimes “see something” that calls them higher.

Have you recently studied your sanctuary? Have you intentionally considered the meaning of every image, ornament, and structure? How could these enrich your worship experience? Have we realized how the beauty of the church structure reminds us of where we are going in life?

Our internal motivation

The psalmist passionately claims his body, soul, and spirit cry out for the living God. He claims he yearns and faints for the courts of the Lord. This is perhaps the best he can do in describing what worship in the temple means for him. Sometimes we have no adequate words to fully express our relationship with the Lord. The Spirit inspires him to express his passion in the psalm. However, he still must use human words. The inspired psalmist wants us to understand every facet of his being longs to be in the presence of the Lord.

I experienced the great privilege of worshipping at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem just as the Sabbath began. Men and women, with covered heads, quietly walked to their place of prayer. As I prayed I heard the cries of the men on each side of me. I saw from the corner of my eye those who were physically rocking to and fro while praying aloud. I learned many Jewish men believed in praying with one’s whole being: body, soul and spirt. When words were inadequate, they wailed.

The writer notes that all creation longs to be near God. In Romans 8, Paul reminds us that all of creation groans to be redeemed by God. What a touching imagery is used to describe this longing. A sparrow so longs to be near God she builds her nest near the altar where she will birth her young. From the sparrow to men and women, those who encounter God’s presence in the temple are blessed!

For a person who longs to worship Christ and prepares for worship, the house of God provides a most blessed experience! The Hymns and songs call us to lift our eyes toward our great Redeemer. The creeds and prayers allow us to join the voices of our descendants in the faith in declaring the wonder and glory of our faith. The prayers allow us to still and quieten ourselves that we might listen to the inner voice of God. The bread of life is read and shared. This list could continue. We are indeed blessed when we give everything we are in worship. We are blessed as the body sits, stands and kneels in worship. We are blessed as our voices raise in adoration and praise. Our hearts fill with hope as we listen to the Word. Our eyes are filled with beautiful images representing our faith. When we worship the Lord in the house of God, our longing meets that for which it longs.

Can you articulate an experience in which you believe your entire being sought the Lord? Can you recall a moment when you could not wait to worship? What preceded such moments?

Did you feel called to worship? What experiences called you? Do you recognize this call as from God? Can you recall a moment when you felt so blessed you lacked the words to describe it? Have you ever been speechless before God?

The blessing of pilgrimages

Preparing to worship the Lord in the sanctuary is a blessing itself. I love the wording of the psalmists: “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” This phrase implies intentional focus. Sadly, we often wait to be moved or prompted. The heart is most blessed when the person intentionally determines to encounter God’s presence in worship. Intentionality does not imply a lack of emotional content. Intentionally committing ourselves to worship involves an act of the will. However, our intentionality opens to the door to our spiritual, and at times emotional experience of God. The Lord blesses eager eyes, open ears and longing heart.

The act of preparing also blesses. When one chooses to prepare for worship they look for God in life. They remember their past days of blessing. They are thankful for the privilege of living, loving, and celebrating God’s gift of life.

The prose of Israel walking through Baka is meaningful. Baka literally meant “weeping.” Baca is thus a valley of weeping. Though it most likely was a real place (the psalmist treats it as such), in the psalm it is also used as a metaphor for the blessing that emerges from the pilgrimage toward God’s house. Baka represents a dry, lifeless valley. However, when God’s people walk through such a Baka, the valley bursts forth with life. Springs of water burst forth, creating beauty and life. Most of us understand the metaphor of Baka. Circumstances in life can leave us feeling isolated, alone and lifeless. However, when we determine to seek the Lord, everything changes! We find the presence of God in places others never look. We see light in the darkness and we are filled with hope. God and death do not coexist. God is life and creates life. God took the horror and darkness of Golgotha and revealed the depth and breadth of his love. In our preparation we intentionally see God and note the workings of God in life. Thus, we can enter worship with full hearts.

The psalmist shares that even on the pilgrimage we move from “strength to strength.” One experience stands atop another. Illumination is increased as we travel on our journey. Understanding increases with every step. Rather than understanding the worship of God as an independent event, the author understands the connection and interconnection of preparation and worship.

Can you recall a moment when you walked through Baka? Did you seek God? How did knowing God was present with you alter your perception? Have you recognized the connection and interconnection of worship preparation and worship itself? Can you share a moment in which you believed God changed your outlook in a trying moment? Have you been blessed in preparing your heart for worship? Can you share it?

The blessing of being present in the house of God

After the pilgrimage, the psalmist describes the remarkable moment of worshipping in the temple. His preparation and pilgrimage have led him to the moment of encountering God in the place of worship. The author uses two special images in sharing how he feels. “Better is one day in your house than a thousand elsewhere.” No moment in life can equal the experience of knowing God and realizing God first loved us. There is no greater king before whom he can stand. There is no one who loves us more deeply. There is no greater fulfillment than to breathe and live in the presence of the Lord. We can experience great moments when we marry our beloved or hold our new babies. These moments, like all moments, are enriched when we understand these are gifts of God. The psalmist is not setting the experience of worship against the experiences of life. The psalmist understands that when God is perceived and experienced in worship he is perceived and experienced in life. This imagery, again, is the best he can do in sharing what it means to stand in God’s house and to experience the presence of the Lord. That experience will enrich all experiences. He could not wait to get there, and he is in no hurry to leave.

His second use of imagery involves standing at the gate into the temple in contrast to a sinful existence. Serving as the gatekeeper was far from the best position in the temple. The gatekeepers are from the House of Levi. They open the gates into the temple and shut them at the end of worship. They received tithes from the people and watched over the storerooms. Though necessary and sacred, these positions were a far cry from the ministry of the priests. However, the psalmist lets the reader know he would rather occupy the lowest position of service in God’s house than dwell in the tents of the wicked. The tents of the wicked do not just serve as an expression of the wrongdoers in life, they represent hedonistic pleasure. The psalm proclaims that no physical hedonistic pleasure comes close to serving the Lord in the temple. Attending worship reminds us of a higher, more noble life in Christ. Our bodies will fail us with age and pleasure is fleeting. However, our life in God is eternal. When everything passes, the child of God lives. In worshipping God, we recognize what really matters and understand our priorities.

Contemplate how precious worship is to you. If worshipping God is not a meaningful experience, contemplate why not. What can you do to better embrace the worship of the Lord? What can your church do to help you?

Closing

As I read the psalm I imagined the absence of our places of worship. How stark the landscape would appear. I would see billboards and neon signs convincing me I need something in life. There would be businesses and areas of housing where people live as busy bees, often not knowing why. I thank God for every church I see. From the simplest architecture to the grandest, I cherish each of them. They remind us we are not to be a people running in circles. We have a journey and we have a destiny! I need to know that I need something and someone greater than the world can offer. I need to be reminded that one day with God and his people is greater than a thousand elsewhere.

Prayer

Almighty God, you call us to yourself. Set our feet upon the path of pilgrimage, enlivening each step. Teach us to see you in life. Reveal to us your gifts and blessing that we might worship you with full, grateful hearts. Bless those who join us on our journey and enrich our fellowship. Place us in the lives of others who seek you, that we might be salt and light to one another. We thank you for our place of meeting and worship. We are grateful for all who sacrificed to make such a place possible. Teach us to be good stewards with all we have received at the hands of our ancestors. Bless those who lead us in worship. May your Spirit allow us to worship without restraint. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.

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