“When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.”
Was happy to welcome him. Zacchaeus hurried down from his tree and was happy to welcome Jesus into his home.
Now, you might think you know where I am going with this. You’re pretty familiar with this story, right? It’s an absolute staple of Sunday School and family worship because it’s such a great image. The short guy who wanted to see Jesus, so he climbed a tree to get a better view. I bet quite a few of you sang the song too – do you remember?
Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he
And at the end of that Sunday School lesson, or that family service, I am willing to bet that the teacher or preacher said something like this:
“Now children, Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus into his house – but we need to welcome Jesus INTO OUR HEARTS”.
Am I right?
Now, it’s not that this isn’t a good message. It is. It’s a brilliant message, because we do need to welcome Jesus into our hearts. And if I stopped right now and you went away with the message that you should welcome Jesus into your heart I would have done my job.
But these are special circumstances. Our first day back in church after so long, our first worship together in this pandemic, I couldn’t rest with the obvious message – I needed to dig a little deeper.
So as I’ve been thinking and reading and praying about this service, I’ve kept coming back to the Psalm we heard earlier, Psalm 84, and thinking about the dwelling place of the Lord. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!”
This is such a lovely psalm, full of such lovely images about the dwelling place of God – a place where everyone is happy, singing praises to God, a place so lovely that a day there is better than a thousand anywhere else. God’s dwelling place is a place of strength and protection. It’s also a place of safety, a place where even a tiny bird can nest. It’s a place that replenishes everyone who lives there, fills them up so much that they overflow with goodness and wherever they go they bring God’s abundance with them, so that pools spring up in their footsteps.
Beautiful. To us, such a beautiful set of images of God’s kingdom. But think about this for a moment – this is the reason I’ve been thinking and praying with this psalm so hard lately. To the Jewish people of the Old Testament, God’s dwelling place wasn’t Heaven – it was the temple. Don’t forget, for them, God was literally present in the temple, in the Holy of Holies. Sometimes physically visible as a pillar of smoke, sometimes audible as a voice, actually present. God’s dwelling place, the place described in the psalm, was the temple.
So fast forward a few thousand years and that means that for us, God’s dwelling place is ……… this. Here. This building. Our church.
Now of course we have a much more complex understanding of God’s dwelling place than that. We are the temple. Each one of us is the Body of Christ, a living sacrifice, God’s holy temple – which is why the Sunday School teacher at the start of this sermon was right to say we have to invite Jesus into our heart.
And of course, God is everywhere, in everything, always present, throughout all creation. There is nowhere that is not full of the presence of God.
And yet, we build churches, we cherish churches, we make them beautiful, with architecture that fills us with awe, with art, with stained glass. We gather here to worship – not because we have to, because God is everywhere and we know that. We gather here to worship because we want to, because we know that while God is everywhere, there are some places where we feel that more strongly, where God’s presence is more evident to us. Churches are thin places, where the barriers between us and God are more permeable, where we hear God’s voice and feel God’s presence more strongly.
“How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy
to the living God.”
God seeks us out. We saw that in the story of Zacchaeus – God doesn’t miss a single detail, sees us where we are, with all our imperfections and shortcomings, and calls us by name. God invites Godself into our lives, into our homes.
And then, then God invites us into God’s home. Into God’s kingdom, into the heart and body of Christ, into heaven. And also, yes, God invites us into this little, physical dwelling place of God, God calls us to church. God’s home, right here.
And our home.
Welcome home, my brothers and sisters. Welcome home.