Sunday, July 17, 2016
Sermon: Psalm 15 "Who May Abide?"
The folks at Chippewa Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as always, warmly received me.
When we would visit my grandpa in rural South-eastern Iowa, we would often go on long walks through the timber. It was the one event I always requested, rain or shine, regardless of the season. It was peaceful, quiet, and full of small beauties and wonders. To get to parts of grandpa’s property, though, we had to walk by -- and bypass -- large black tires that had on them “No Trespassing” written in large white letters. The tires would be strung onto wires that made up fench-like property boundaries. Grandpa would hold the wires up for us to walk under and we’d continue our journey. When I asked him about it, he’d say that he had permission from the neighbor, but I always -- in my very young and skittish mind -- wondered whether we would be arrested when we came out, or maybe even have shots fired at us. But grandpa was in the right: the exclusion given by “No Trespassing” was itself bypassed because of neighborly trust and affection.
Psalm 15 seems to include a rather large “No Trespassing” sign: it is a psalm of exclusion. Who can say that they “walk blamelessly,” or “speak truth in their heart,” or “swear to their own hurt and not change,” or “not put their money out at interest”? What started as a beautiful invitation, asking who might abide or sojourn in the tabernacle of the Lord, has become a boundary that we cannot cross. We are reminded of the warning given to Moses and the people of Israel at another mountain, “Take heed to yourselves that you do not go up to the mountain or touch its base. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death” (Ex. 19:12). We are reminded that only the Levites could dwell in the Tabernacle, and even they could not go into the Holy of Holies, as that was reserved for the Aaronic priest, whose level of holy separation was the most stringently guarded among all the people of Israel.
Certainly, the people could go to the Temple, bringing their offerings for purification along with repentance. But to sojourn there? To “dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of life” (Ps. 27:4)? In the end, no one -- not even Aaron and his sons -- could stay in God’s presence, for death would take them all. God’s House was a place of Life, for He is Life, and so all the purity and holiness laws of the Torah -- including what we would consider moral things -- were the exclusion of death and the bearers of death from the holy places. Scripture shows us that death is the true problem of humankind, for it is behind sin. “The barb of death is sin, and the strength of sin in the law” (1 Cor. 15:56) and “just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, in which all sinned” (Rom. 5:12) and “when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (Jam. 1:15). Death, which was not part of God’s good creation, is brought into the world through sin, which now reigns through the fear of death: it is the vicious circle that makes so much of our lives now tragedy.
Why do we slander and revile and listen to rumors and lies about our neighbors? Why do we seek to get out of the commitments we’ve made once they are uncomfortable or put us in a bad light? St James tells us, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war” (4:1-2). St Peter calls this the “corruption in the world through lust” (2 Pt. 1:4), meaning the desire of Adam and Eve to “partake of the divine nature” on their own terms, a desire that we all share, seeking to become like God in power, or stature, or authority, or immortality. We fear death and so harm our neighbors in an attempt to thwart it, ignorantly giving it more power over us.
In the face of our own overwhelming desires, not to mention our sins, we find ourselves excluded from the presence of God, just as Adam and Eve walked towards the East away from the Garden. As St Augustine says, “I had become to myself a wasteland” and “where should my heart flee from my heart? Where could I flee from myself?” Or as St Paul puts it, “For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do...O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:15, 24).
Let us listen, though, to what St Paul says immediately after: “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In the Gospel according to St John, we learn that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14): the word “dwelt” here could be translated as “tabernacle” -- in the Incarnation, God the Word tabernacles with us in human flesh. The Psalm is a prophecy of the great mystery of our Faith: that Christ our God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. He is the holy Hill that we must ascend, yet we should notice -- in all the ministry of our Lord -- that He does not exclude us, but calls us to repentance and to communion. In this tabernacle, the true and last sacrifice happens, for “He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Heb. 9:26). He is the One who has “walked blamelessly” and “does no evil to his neighbor,” who “despises a vile person,” that is, the demons, yet who “honors those who fear the Lord,” the repentant who come to Him in faith.
It is not just that Christ is the tabernacle, nor that He is the one fit to dwell there, but that He goes through death for us, defeating it, and then calls us to abide with Him in His heavenly dwelling, His resurrected Body. Listen again to St Paul, “do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?...For he who died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him.” Because of this, then, that we have shared in the death of Christ through faith and baptism, we can join Christ’s holy life: “reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord; therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts...for sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:2, 7-9, 12, 14). Since Christ has defeated death, He has defeated the power of sin; as we are joined to Him, we have liberation from both sin and death, and can live in love of God and neighbor, for “through death He [has] destroy[ed] him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release[d] those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:14-15).
Now we can turn to John’s Gospel and find even deeper meaning behind our Lord’s words when He says: “You abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine and you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit: for without Me you can do nothing...If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (15:4-5, 7-8). It is only as we abide in Christ, through joining in His death and living His resurrected life through the gift of the Spirit, that we will bear fruit. It is only as we dwell in the tabernacle of His Body, the Church, in love and forgiveness and repentance, which He gives us the power to do, that we will see the world transformed and radiating out the glory of God. It is here, then, that even our desires, which led Adam and Eve astray, which cause wars and fighting and sin and death, are changed, are put to death and resurrected, that they even might be glorifying to God.
As we return to the Psalm, we see the “No Trespassing” sign in a new light. Instead of being excluded, as we were, Christ has welcomed us through His work on our behalf. Who may abide in the House of God? Through Christ, we may. We may, with the Psalmist, say: “One thing I have desired of the Lord, that will I seek: that I may dwell in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His Temple” (27:4). But the sign remains; now, though, it does not exclude us, but excludes sin and death, casting them from our presence, that the City of God might truly be “the joy of the whole earth” (Ps. 48:2). “It’s gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there), and they shall bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. But there shall by no means enter it anything that defiles, or causes an abomination or a lie, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life” (Rev. 21:25-27). So, “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean and I will receive you” (Is. 52:11), “therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Draw near, then, having your hearts cleansed by the washing of the Word (Eph. 5:26), for “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel” (Heb. 12:22-24). In other words, come, abide in Christ, and He in you, for this is why He has come among us. Amen.