God's Dwelling Place

Ephesians 2: 11-22

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the  saints and also members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Ephesians 2: 19-22

Sometime ago I read a detailed description about Martha Stewart’s house in one of her cookbooks. The book had pictures as well which showed an absolutely lovely and gracious house on who knows how many acres of landscaped gardens. After gazing longingly at the pictures I said to myself, “Now that’s a  house where I could feel at home.” She described the kitchen and her fabulous gardens, the dining room where she had wonderful dinner parties and the rolling hills of the surrounding property. She also had a description of all the little nooks and crannies throughout the house where she had tucked away a chair with a lamp so that people curl up and read or just stare out the window at the beauty outside. However, she wrote, she never sat down and read or relaxed, she never used those nooks and crannies because she was just too busy to actually enjoy the home she had created. These sad words made such an impression on me I’ve never forgotten them.

Home can be a place where we return with great delight, where we kick off our shoes and relax, surrounded by the people and the things we love. Or home can be a showplace where we arrange and rearrange the furniture, where we redo and reorganize, where we display our wealth or our hobbies but never take the time to sit down and engage with a book or the people who live with us or the beauty of the view outside a window. Home can be a place where we never feel at home.

Some of us hear with envy about Bill Gates’ home and imagine ourselves living in such a luxurious space with all the amenities. It is a large earth-sheltered mansion in the side of a hill overlooking Lake Washington in Medina, Washington that occupies 50,000 square feet on 5.15 acre land. For others of us, a cottage on the beach or an apartment with a view of a city street is how we think of home. If I were to take a survey this morning, we would all have a somewhat different idea of what home is. If you have lived in one home all your life, you probably have a completely different understanding and feel of home than someone who has moved over and over again during his or her lifetime. If you grew up in a home that was welcoming and nurturing, you have one idea of home – Home Sweet Home. But if you grew up with an emotionally negligent or abusive family the concept of home can come with a lot of heavy baggage. Your home can be 50,000 or 500 sq. feet but there is always something intangible that makes it home. Home doesn’t just mean the physical place where you live. Home also refers to the place where you have your family roots. Home is also where your heart is, as the saying goes; a place where you hope to find acceptance and security and affection; where you have a sense of belonging; where you can be yourself and be loved for who you are.

‘Mid pleasures and palaces though we may roam,” Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home!”

wrote John Howard Payne. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” repeated Dorothy as she squeezed her eyes shut, and clicked the heels  of her red, shiny shoes together and said good bye to Oz. As wonderful as her adventure had been, all she really wanted was to get home. Regardless of the homes we grew up in or live in at the moment, “whether we want to admit it or not,” writes Craig Barnes, “the longing for home is welling up from the soul. This [longing] may even be the most enduring trace of God upon our lives. It’s as basic to the biblical literature as Adam and Eve who long for paradise, Abraham who leaves home in order to find a promised land, the exiled Hebrews who are stunned to be stuck in Babylon, and the prodigal son to whom the memory of the father’s house returns.”

T.S. Elliot describes this home we are searching for as a, “still point of the turning world where past and future are gathered together [and] when you get there you know that you will again be all right.” Some of us have been blessed to know what this still point is like to some degree but all of us keep looking for home, that place where we will be all right.

David longed to create a still point in the turning world for the Israelites when he proposed the building of a temple for God in Jerusalem. Since wandering in the Sinai desert the Israelites had been looking for home. Now God had granted their wish for a king and it was David, their king, who had brought them, at last, to Jerusalem, to the place that they could call home. And it was in Jerusalem that David decided to build a “home” for God. For generations the Israelites had carried the Ark of the Covenant with them as they trekked through the desert. It was a large rectangular box that held the two tablets with the 10 commandments, the rod of Jesse and pieces of manna they had preserved. The Israelites believed that the presence of God resided in this box. As they traveled through the desert the Ark was carried by priests at the front of the Israelites to protect them and to lead the way. Whenever they saw the priests and the Ark, wrapped in blue cloth, they were reminded that God was always with them.

When God finally appointed a place for Israel and planted them in Jerusalem, David decided that, just as his home was no longer a tent but in a house made of cedar, he would make a permanent home for the Ark where God would reside and they would always know where God was. The temple with the Ark inside would be God’s footstool on earth right there among them in Jerusalem.

God’s dwelling place was finally built, not by David but by his son Solomon and apparently there was no building to equal it. As the sole place of Jewish sacrifice, the Temple replaced all the local sanctuaries and crude altars in the hills, and Israelites would come from all around to worship God in Jerusalem. For the next 400 years the Israelites’ worship was centered in the Temple. It was the home of the presence of God.

When the temple was destroyed, 400 years later by the Babylonians in 586 BEC, the Israelites were devastated. In Psalm 79 the Psalmist writes:

O God, the nations have come

into your inheritance;

they have defiled your holy

temple; they have laid Jerusalem

in ruins.

The loss of the Temple was a loss of that still point in the center of their world. When the temple was then rebuilt between 520 and 515BCE after the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem, only to be destroyed in 70 CE by the Romans, a new understanding of God’s presence was forced upon the Israelites and they were encouraged to develop an understanding of God at home within each of them. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write It on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people,” Jeremiah wrote at the end of the Babylonian captivity.

It is usually chaos or failure or a shifting of our foothold on life that drives us to a new understanding of God and of our lives and a seeking for home. Mission trips do that for us, economic reversal, losing our job or our marriage or the death of a loved one plunge us into new ways of living and perceiving. In her coming of age autobiography Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about the disorienting experience she had moving from Somalia to Europe and from the life of a repressed and secluded girl dominated by her mother and the men in her family to a woman free to make her own decisions. “When we landed at the Frankfurt airport, early in the morning, I was dazed by the scale of it. Everything around me was glass and steel and all so finished, down to the last little fixture. Where I came from, airports were chaos. And everyone around me seemed so sure of where they were headed. I was lost. The airport was as big as a neighborhood and all of it looked the same. [When] I stepped outside everything was so clean, it was like a movie. Nothing in my life had every looked like this. It was so modern it seemed sterile. The landscape looked like geometry class where everything was in straight lines. I  had never seen so many white people. I walked until my feet hurt. Everything was so well kept. The grooves between the cobbles on the street were clean. The shop fronts gleamed. I was used to heaps of stinking rubbish and streets pockmarked with huge potholes, where the dirt comes at you and nothing ever stays clean. I felt as though I had been thrown into another world, calm and orderly, as in the novels I’d read and certain films, but somehow I had never really believed them before.” Now “…I knew that another kind of life was possible, I had read about it, and now I could see it, smell it in the air around me: the kind of life I had always wanted…” She had finally arrived “home.”

For the Christian, we arrive home when we come to realize that God isn’t out there, we don’t have to travel to find God; God is our home and God makes his home in us. Thomas Merton, the contemplative monk and scholar, wrote that, “our way of life, all concentrated on externals keeps us from realizing that there in an interior dimension of depth in our lives. It is important to be free from routines and illusions which keep us subject to things, dependent on what is outside us. Whether you understand it or not,” Merton continues, “God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and light which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in a sermon. (Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, p. 53) “To be human is to be created for relationship with God,” declares Howard Rice in his book, Reformed Theology. St. Augustine expressed our longing for God as our home when he wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Craig Barnes likens our search for home to salmon “who knock themselves out to leave the vast expanse of the ocean waters and find their home upstream. The salmon are trying to get back to the place where they were spawned. They don’t exactly remember the place in the way that humans remember home, but there’s something inside them that just knows where they belong.”

Paul writes to the Ephesians about the home God has created for them. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Through the love of God in Christ we are at home in God and God is at home in us. As we go through life, may we all be assured that God is that still turning point in our lives where we can know that all things will again be right. Thanks be to God. Amen.