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King David knew where God was, at all times. He had a handle on God, specifically he had two handles, or rather poles. It made it more convenient to carry God with the army when they went to battle and when they weren’t, well they could place God in the tent of the meeting where only holy men were allowed to enter, those who were complete, whole and perfect, who were clean. It was embarrassing, to say the least, when David lost God in a battle and had to retrieve the ark from the enemy; I mean, how does one explain to God that you allowed him to be captured and carried away? Solomon, being wiser, fixed God geographically by creating a permanent home, a temple, around which all decent people for centuries would center their lives.
Remember the Samaritan woman questioning Jesus, “Our ancestors worship God on the mountain but you say God is only in the temple” She was baiting him because for centuries God was in the temple, behind the holy of holies, behind the veil. A place so sacred and dangerous that when priests would venture back there they would wear bells and a rope so that those in attendance could listen for the movement of the bells and know if God had found this man displeasing and killed him off. If so they could retrieve the body by pulling on the rope rather than risking themselves, especially if God was angry.
The Holy, the Sacred, is dangerous. It transforms and threatens and changes things. It is unpredictable and wild. The Spirit blows where it will, but mostly, we like to contain it. God in a box. God in a temple. God in a church. This wild ruach, this untamable God, is one we would really like to fix permanently in safe places, in sound theology, in proper worship. We like to tame the wildness and contain the wideness of God’s majesty. It is too overwhelming, too uncertain.
Yet we all want an experience of the divine. The language of God is written on our hearts, simply waiting for them to break so that the words may fall in. It’s the breaking that we fear even as we long for God’s word to enter us, change us, transform us. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth it will not yeild anything, and yet we hold tightly to what we have, fiercely maintaining the good that we know, that we possess and refuse to allow it to fall. Falling we are transformed, remade, broken open and something new, something really truly wonderful grows in, thrives in, the broken places which are surrendered to God, given over that they might be transformed, remade, reborn.
We have this resurrection faith and yet death and dying to what we know, what we possess frightens us. Our fear is evident in our grasping and resistince even as we must be gentle with ourselves on account of this. The holy of holies is a frightening place to be, better to enter with bells on and a safety rope firmly attached because who knows what might happen within?
When I was younger I used to tiptoe into the sanctuary when it was empty. I was convinced that God was watching, no longer distracted by the crowds of worshippers that usually filled the place, if I went in alone, it just felt too visible, too vulnerable.
During holy week we would hold an Easter vigil, from the moment the Good Friday service ended until the Easter morning service began someone would be sitting alone, in the sanctuary below the cross. Parishioners were encouraged to sign up for fifteen minute increments to insure that someone would always be there. My mom liked to sign up for the midnight hours and she would come and wake us in the dark of night and we would drive silently to the church, still half asleep. Once there, one of us would enter the sanctuary in silence, walk to the front of the church and relieve the person who was sitting there and then for fifteen long, interminable minutes, one would sit there at the base of the cross and re-member, re-embody the ones who sat beneath the cross while Christ died on it. It was a holy of holies to sit with death and loss, in silence. It was a moment of being with the horrors of torture and murder at the hands of a police state, at the request of religious leaders. It worked its way into me as I sat there in the silence. God who suffered, God who died, God who came to live with us and became vulnerable to us and who scared the powers that be so much they had to have him killed. You just can’t put that God in a box. Not a god-box, not a pine box. That God simply won’t stay put. No matter how much we want him to.
That God breaks in like sunlight at the dawn changing all our fears into easily dismissed shadows of the night. But we must not be afraid to get down on our knees and look into the tomb, look into the shadow of death itself. This is the God that flows like water into every hidden space, softening what is hard, feeding all the green and growing things and cleansing us of all impurities. This is the God who our ancestors tried to bury and who would not stay buried.
We have this resurrection faith, a faith that tells us death and loss do not have the final word and that God cannot, will not be contained, that God continues to bring new life in the most unexpected and startling ways.
This uncontainable, irreverent God invites us to kneel down in silence, in awe and wonder, and see the vastness of life springing from the seemingly dead inert places in our life. With all humility we are asked to open ourselves up to all that we do not know and to recognize that nothing we know or do can possibly contain God; that the beginning of all wisdom is to be in awe, to tremble with wonder and to let go of our attempts to put God in a box.
The writers of scripture might well have said, the beginning of wisdom is vulnerability. It is not found in the safety of what we believe we know or what we can contain or own. But rather to stand humbly and vulnerably before God and wait silently to be surprised, to be astonished. Standing in the holy of holies is risky business. It is unpredictable and uncertain. And the holy of holies shows up where it will; it moves through people’s hearts and speaks through their mouths. It whispers among the pine trees and it dances with baby goats. If we are observant and we are careful, we might find the holy of holies almost anywhere. The veil has been torn from the temple and there is no separation between us and God. In all aspects of our daily lives God waits to greet us.
Faith is not the absence of doubt nor an unquestioning certainty but the willingness to surrender and continue on our journey trusting only that God journeys with us and that as long as God goes with us, all will be well. Faith is to lay belly up on the waters of God’s love and care trusting that you will not drown in it but will be carried, will be held. It is to allow yourself to feel the warmth of sun above and the cool of the water below and trust the current which carries you on. This week President Jimmy Carter spoke about his faith journey. His astonishing witness was that he is “..perfectly at ease with whatever comes. I’m ready for anything. I’m looking forward to a new adventure.”
When we release our anxious striving and trust that God is in control and it’s OK that God is out of our control and beyond our understanding, then we too can look forward to even death as a new adventure.
Our challenge today in this church is to accept that we really don’t know if this church will survive in this form. It may. It might continue for another couple centuries just like it is, and people will say, wow, First Presbyterian has been in Jasper since the beginning! Because it will feel so long ago to them, but it may not. It’s possible that God is calling us to a new adventure, one which we may not understand right away and one which we might be inclined to resist because it feels too strange. What boxes have we placed around God, how have we attempted to define our expectations of God, and what happens if God turns up elsewhere?
We are very attached to how we do church here. It is uncertain if we will be able to continue doing so. Our faithful response is one of continuing our journey with God, not knowing how it will all turn out, but knowing for sure that God is with us.
We have this resurrection faith and we know that what often looks like dead inert matter can give rise to a rich harvest, even when we don’t expect it, even when everything seems gone, done, finished. God startles us by showing up when we are near death, when we are in exile, even when we look into the tomb.
Our psalmist speaks to us today, “How lovely are your dwelling places, Yahweh Sabaoth” for God dwells with you, and you, and you. For God dwells in startling and surprising places, filling the world with grace and light. “My whole being years and pines for the Lord’s courts.” Yes, and yes, we long for God. Our whole being aches to know that God is here with us. “My heart and my body cry out for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow has found a home, the swallow a nest to place its young.” But Jesus laments the son of man has no place to lay his head. God wanders with us, among us and will not be contained. “How blessed are those who live in your house, they shall praise you continually. Blessed are those who find their strength in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” Because we too are on a journey and God alone is our strength. We ache to stand on the threshold, in that liminal space where we see God most clearly.
We praise God and we enjoy God’s dwelling places, knowing that God is always with us, and no one and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. God is out of the box, the veil is torn from the holy of holies. God is loosed upon the world, out among us, in the most unexpected places. So let’s walk through the world looking for God, seeking God out, until God taps us on the shoulder and says, “You’re it, I mean you’re really it!” and we are invited again, to delight in God and all that God has brought into our life.