A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Mark Phythian-Adams on 27 March 2019.
I have chosen to talk about Psalm 84 because of the bird in the nest sculpture here, in what was the sanctuary of the original church. As a churchwarden used to opening and closing the church from time to time, I am particularly taken by the message of verse 10, which sums up the whole psalm:
“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of ungodliness.”
The theme of the psalm is pilgrimage, of longing to be with God and longing to praise Him ……. in a defined physical place. In the first reading fromDeuteronomy we heard of a specific place, the “promised land”, later to become the Holy Land. In the psalm, the place is the dwelling place or in Hebrew the tabernacle of the Lord, which was the sanctuary of the Temple, the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, where Yahweh was present.
We have the longstanding belief that, somehow, God is especially present in our church, as He was for the Jews in the Temple in Jerusalem, …. andnot only at the consecration of the Host during communion. The bird in the nest here in Iffleyalludes to Psalm 84; such symbolism goes back at least to the ninth century in illustrated psalters.
“The sparrow has found her a house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; at your altars, O Lord of Hosts, my King and my God.”
Was Christ alluding to this psalm when in St Matthew, He says:
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul… Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
But as we heard from Graham last week, psalm 139 emphasises, as we would expect, the omnipresence of God.
“Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”
Why the apparent contradiction?
Well in the early church the emphasis was on the omnipresence of God and many such as Origen and later Gregory of Nyssa criticised the increasing attention given to place – to the places in which Jesus lived and carried out his ministry.
There was however a step change when Constantine embraced Christianity and especially when he commissioned the building of the church of the Resurrection – Anastasis or, as it is known in the west, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This building was on the site of Christ’s crucifixion, burial and resurrection, with a huge martyriumbasilica. In psalm 132, one of the fifteen psalms of ascent for pilgrims going up to the Temple, verse 7 read in the Greek text “Let us worship at the place where his feet have stood” and Eusebius the Bishop of Caesarea quoted this as referring to Jesus, when relating the visit of Constantine’s mother Helen to the Holy Land. There followed increasing numbers of pilgrims to the places where His feet stood, together with increasing numbers of monks, who settled in the Holy Land.
Whereas Yahweh, God, had been invisibly present in the sanctuary of the Temple as his special dwelling and indeed also omnipresent as in psalm 139, the incarnation enabled Christians to worship at the places where His feet had stood, in buildings conceived as being the successors of the Jewish Temple as the Holy of Holies.
But the presence of God in this world, after the resurrection and ascension, is no longer in the incarnate Christ but in the new Temple made without hands, namely the whole Body of Christ,… in all of us, …. St Paul’s “new creation”.
As we step up to the sanctuary here at St Mary’s, we are together ascending in the spirit, as the whole Body of Christ, to the Godhead whilst He descends to us, especially in the Eucharist.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose hearts are the highways to Zion.”
Zion was commonly thought of as signifyingHeaven. In the version of the bible, in use when our church was built, this verse read
“Blessed is the man whose help is from you;” (in other words God’s grace) “in his heart he has disposed to ascend by steps.”
The pilgrimage of life is a continuous experience ofascent and descent, reflecting Christ’s descent to this world and his subsequent ascension. Jacob’s vision of the ladder with angels ascending and descending adumbrates this truth as does the Ladder of St John Climacus, a seventh century monk at St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, with his30 steps to God. His feast day is this Saturday.
Here, we move East ascending with God’s Grace towards the Almighty and then return to the west, descending back into the material world. By contrast, our mundane worldly existence is solely on the horizontal.
Importantly, we are all living stones of the Temple – the Body of Christ. We are not individual temples. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 6:16:
“We are the temple, the sanctuary of the living God.”
As a Jew steeped in Holy Writ, was Paul there casting his mind back to psalm 42 which Andrew spoke of two weeks ago and to 84, the only psalmswhich use the phrase .. “the living God”?
So it is surely appropriate that, as we, the Temple of the living God, come together to praise him and receive him in the Eucharist, this building, hallowed by many centuries of worship by theBody of Christ, may be seen as a dwelling place of the Lord and as a reflection of the heavenly kingdom from which He enters all of us, especially when we meet together in his Name.