Rock Bottom – Sermon for the Return to the Sanctuary after Pandemic and Fire

Today, as we go into the sermon, consider—What does it mean that God is with us? What does it mean to be Emanuel? Consider that, however you will. What does it mean that God is with us? What does it mean that God is with you? And what difference does that make for us, for you as we face this adventure called life?

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’”

And how…And how…

This day has been long in coming, Emanuel! Are you as glad as I am that we’re back in the house of the Lord, worshipping together, in our sanctuary, in these walls so strong and now restored? “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’” Thanks be to God for this day. Thanks be to God…

Those words—“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord’”—they’re the opening verse of Psalm 122. This psalm, like all the psalms, is a sacred song or hymn directed to God, not only as a song, but as a prayer. The psalms are prayers that are meant to be sung, and like every other psalm, our psalm for today is a prayer. And it’s a prayer of joyfulness, of thanksgiving, of praise.

What makes today’s psalm special, though, is it’s part of a set of psalms that the Jewish people would sing on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for significant festivals. Psalm 122 is the first of these Psalms of Ascent, as they’re called, because when the Jewish people came to Jerusalem, to the temple to worship, they literally had to ascend the Temple Mount to get to the temple. They scaled this mountain, which is more or less a giant rock, to come near God’s house. These psalms were used as prayers of praise to God for entry into his holy dwelling place—much the same way that we begin worship with a hymn, the kyrie, and a hymn of praise. Our Christian worship, after all, comes down to us from our Jewish roots.

And so as the Jewish pilgrims came to Jerusalem to worship, they sung this psalm—“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’” Why were they glad? They were glad because they could come near God, close to the seat of holiness. They were glad because they could commune near God as they remembered God’s deliverance from the hand of Pharoah at Pesach, or Passover. They were glad because they could commune near God as they remembered God’s gift of the law at Sinai at the festival of Shavuoth, or the Feast of Weeks. They were glad because they could commune near God as they remembered God’s blessing of a fertile land, a land flowing with milk and honey, in the festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, so called for the temporary shelters that farmers would build when they took in the harvest. These pilgrims were glad because they could commune near the holy dwelling place of God for these important, sacred holy days in their religious life. They were glad to go be near the presence of God and worship him in his holy dwelling—worship him for his blessings to them.

And yet, the Jewish people weren’t always able to worship God in his holy temple in Jerusalem. In 605 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon besieged Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar’s army pillaged the city, destroyed the rampart wall, and razed the Temple—utterly destroying the holy dwelling place of God. This time in the history of Israel is called the Babylonian Captivity, the period when a great number of Israelites were taken back to Babylon as captives, not far from where modern-day Baghdad is.

This was a dark time for the Israelites, who first came to be called Jews at this time by the Babylonians, a label meaning “captives from the province Yudah.” Until this time, their religious life centered on the Temple, where God lived. And yet the Temple was now destroyed, and they found themselves yet again captive, this time not by the Egyptians, but the Babylonians.

During their exile in Babylon, during this Babylonian Captivity, the Jewish people were miserable, cheerless, and seemingly without hope. They had hit rock bottom. And yet—what they found, was their faith and, more specifically, the psalms saw them through this time. Even as they were in exile, they found comfort in the words of these sung prayers and kept their festivals. Even as they couldn’t ascend the holy Temple Mount to the house of the Lord, they realized that God hadn’t abandoned them because God’s relationship with them wasn’t bound to a particular place, but it was rooted in a promise—a promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. And so, even as they hit rock bottom, they held fast to their faith, to their relationship with God and that relationship saw them through.

And so it with us, Emanuel. And so it is with us…On March 13, 2020, Angie Hollenbeck, our council president, and I made a very difficult decision. On that day, we sent an announcement to you—“All church activities, including outside organizations, are suspended for two weeks.” That was the announcement. What a long two weeks that turned into! Who could’ve known that a worldwide pandemic would keep us from safely worshipping in our sanctuary, a place whose name literally means a place of safety? Who could’ve known that we’d face months on end of uncertainty about this new disease that now has taken millions of lives the world over? Who could’ve known…?

And yet we still hadn’t hit rock bottom. On August 24, 2020, as if the pandemic stress hadn’t been enough, even as we gathered outside to prepare to return inside for worship in mid-September—on August 24, 2020, disaster struck us again. Fire in the sanctuary. The sprinkler system kicks in, dowsing the building in water. Smoke filled the whole building and billowed out of the open windows like a steam engine. And our beloved organ was completely reduced to crumbling soot and black ashes. It was a huge sentimental, emotional, and spiritual blow. Our sanctuary violated, desecrated, defiled by the vagary of nature.

What were we going to do? Angie and I even considered if we should have worship immediately following the fire—seriously considered. Was it appropriate? And the answer to that turned out to be a resounding, “yes.” We are God’s people, people of resurrection. We are God’s people, and the defining thing we do is worship, and at the center of our worship is our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. And so we gathered, and we worshipped—embodied simultaneously the pain of the crucifixion and the hope of the resurrection.

As we hit rock bottom, we gathered, we sang, we prayed, and we remembered that God is with us no matter what.

And now today, we come back rejoicing.

We’re glad to once again gather in our sanctuary where we can once more, in these walls so strong and now restored, sing, where we can pray, where we can worship together as God’s people. What saw us through the difficulty of separation from one another in the pandemic, what saw us through all the sorrow wrapped up in the fire and its aftermath—what saw us through that wasn’t our own sheer will. For surely left to ourselves, alone, we would’ve failed, and failed wretchedly. No—what saw us through that was our unshakable conviction that God has not, does not, and will abandon us, especially in our hour of need. For when we hit rock bottom, we know the rock is none other than Jesus Christ, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, but the very rock God chooses to build up a new creation. Even at our lowest place, Jesus still supports us, a rock amid the coursing floods of life.

Through this pandemic, through the fire, and through the reconstruction, God has brought us to a deeper, more fundamental understanding of what it means that he is with us. God is with us in the words of Scripture read aloud. God is with us in the sermons preached, both challenging us to think of new possibilities and comforting us with the old, old story of Jesus and his love. God is with us in the love of one another shown—in trips to the grocery store, calls made to check up on each other, in vaccine appointments made, in smiling work parties to unpack chairs or sort through dry cleaning. God is with us in the sound of songs sung to music, in prayers prayed, and silences appreciated.

God is with us…

We, Emanuel—we whose name literally means “God with us”—we have come to more fundamentally understand who we are. We are God’s people, God’s family. We are God’s body in the world. We are Jesus’ hands and feet. We are the building blocks of God’s New Jerusalem. We have learned that we are deeply loved, that neither disease nor fire, neither separation nor connectedness, neither anxiety nor fear of the future can remove us from relationship with God. God is with us no matter what…

And so today, as we come again to this house to worship together, to this holy house of prayer, the house of the Lord, we remember that God is with us, and all that means. As we enter here, as we pray, sing, and keep silence here, God re-members us to himself and each other. We are brought back together with God and one another…As we gather round this altar rail, as we take Jesus’ own body and blood into ourselves, God re-members us to himself and re-members us to one another, in a mystical communion that you have to experience to fully appreciate.

We, each of us, individual members of Jesus’ body, are brought together here, in this place, nourished not only by being near the presence of God, but being in the presence of God and literally taking God into our very selves. We are nourished by the presence of God in words proclaimed, bread eaten and wine drunk, and love shown us in the faces, handshakes, and hugs of one another, our brothers and sisters, fellow members of the family of God.

And what’s more, we in a way like our Lord Jesus, are rocks, building blocks for the kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem. And out of us, strong and now restored in the faithfulness of his promise, God builds a new, living temple—a temple with a solid rock foundation, the foundation of Jesus Christ. And like Christ our rock supports us, we go from this house of worship, this temple, to support as we have been supported, to accompany as we have been accompanied, to love as we have been loved.

Though we hit rock bottom, Jesus is the rock on which our relationship with God is founded. We cannot fall lower than the rock of Christ can support us. Rains may pour down around us. Rivers may rise up and threaten to overflood us. Raging tornados may swirl through our lives—but nothing shall shake us from the foundation of our relationship with God. That relationship is fixed, as firmly as a house built on a rock—fixed in Jesus, our Rock and our Redeemer.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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