This sermon is part of the sermon series "Four Best Places to Live". See series.
Where is the best place to live? Every year, the UN asks this question about countries, and every year they release their recommendations in the Human Development Report. Canada topped the list for the first three years of the new millennium and then slipped to third last year, nudged out by Norway and Australia. Every year, Money Magazine asks the same question about cities and towns in the US. Forbes Magazine does a similar assessment on a world scale.
The UN uses only three basic criteria to determine the world's most hospitable and inhabitable countries: life expectancy, educational level, and annual income. Countries whose inhabitants live the longest, know the most, and earn the most, win. Underneath the simplicity of those measuring sticks is a complex evaluative grid that touches on issues of politics, economics, cultural institutions, and the like. Money Magazine's touchstones include leisure activities and cultural opportunities, access to health care, number of golf courses, air and water quality, and traffic density.
This idea got me thinking: What are the Bible's best places to live? What are God's criteria for determining that? We're going to look at the Four Best Places to Live, not according to the UN or MoneyMagazine or Forbes Magazine, but according to God and Scripture.
The criteria are these: Where do we become most alive, most fully ourselves? Where do we find greatest joy and peace and wisdom? Where do we experience the deepest sense of belonging? Where is it that, at one and the same time, is safe and yet abounds with adventure? Where resides true riches?
For example, just take one of the UN's three criteria for determining Best Place: longevity, or life expectancy. According to the UN, this benchmark is determined by quality of and access to health care, a societal stress index, ecological and dietary factors, and so on. Basically, rich people surrounded by doctors, gyms, and ample leisure fare best. But consider what the Bible says in Psalm 92:12-15.
The Bible says righteousness is the best prescription for a long life. Indeed, the oldest people I've ever met are several Christians in Kenya. Kenya does not rate high on the UN scale, but in one day there I met two pastors well past 100 years of age—one was 120—who were still active in ministry. I asked one of them—the youngster of a mere 103 who had earlier that year buried his 126-year-old mother—what his secret was. "I eat well," he said. "I walk every day. And," he said, looking me straight in the eyes, "I always obey my God."
Worship requires our whole being.
What are the Bible's Four Best Places to Live? One of them is the House of Worship. Let's look at this remarkable passage from the Book of Exodus. It comes right on the heels of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. In Exodus 20:18-21, God, as validation of his law, orchestrates a demonstration of fearsome power from atop Mount Sinai.
There's a scene in the movie Ocean's 11, where a large hotel in Las Vegas is imploded—this massive structure brought down, in a plume of smoke and dust, through an intricate, precisely-timed series of detonations so that it caves in like a spiral of dominoes. Two men are in a hotel across from the demolition site. One stands at the window and watches the event live. The other sits on the couch and watches it on television. The man watching out the window asks the one watching on television why he'd choose to behold this spectacle second-hand, scaled down to the size of a toy, when he could take a few steps and see the thing in all its colossal power and raw immediacy. "This is easier," the man responds.
That's always the attitude of idolatry—why we would choose God scaled down, God second-hand, over a real encounter. It's easier. It demands less of me. It calls for no engagement on my part. It requires nothing of me—not emotion, not intellect, not action. That seems to be the attitude of the Israelites toward God in this passage in Exodus. They would rather meet God scaled-down and second-hand. They'd rather reduce any encounter with the Almighty to rumor, to an edited sound bite delivered in a speech by someone who was there, than behold for themselves the terror and the wonder of meeting the living God. It's easier, yes. It's just not best.
Who wants to live in that place of listless blandness, where you depend on someone else to tell you what God is saying and what he is like? Do you really want to have that when you could take a few steps and see God as he is? Annie Dillard ends her book For the Time Being with the story of a British Explorer named James Taylor who, in the 1930s, carved a runway in the mountain highlands of Papua New Guinea and, to the utter astonishment of the tribes people there who until then had no contact with the outside world, flew his little two-seater plane in and landed. When he prepared to leave, an old man from the tribe came forward and fixed himself with vines to the fuselage of the aircraft. He explained to his frightened and bewildered family that, no matter what happened to him, he had to find out where this thing came from. I love that old man's courage—the man who, no matter what happened to him, had to make the journey. Why don't you decide right now to make a journey deeper into the mystery and reality of God? Why don't you resolve right now to dwell in the house of worship?
Worship makes us whole.
Let me entice you with a few benefits of dwelling there—and by dwelling I mean when worshiping God is something you do, not just for an hour on Sundays, but more and more as a lifestyle. To dwell in the house of worship is to live and move and have your being in God.
One benefit is that you discover who you truly are. As we come to know God, we come to know ourselves. Our identity is closely tied to what we value. Saint Augustine said that we are not what we do, but what we love. Worship is loving God. We lose ourselves in the presence God in order to find ourselves in the reality of God. David lost himself in the presence of God, throwing off restraint and dancing joyfully before God as the ark was brought into Jerusalem. He didn't care what others thought. It wasn't about them. Because he could lose himself in the presence of God, David increasingly found himself in the reality of God. God was David's largest, most vivid, most compelling reality, not some wispy idea that occasionally flickered across his thoughts. God was his urgent, present reality, the one in whom he lived and moved and had his being. Because of that reality, David had an ever-deeper clarity about who he was. He went from being the runt of the litter—errand boy living in obscurity—to the grandeur of kingship. Some accomplish such transformation by something that seems like luck, others through raw ambition and relentless drive. But David's path was worship: as he knew God more and more, he knew himself more and more. The greater his love for God, the greater his understanding of his unique calling and destiny and purpose.
The quickest way to find yourself is to lose yourself in God. John the Baptist said that Jesus had to become greater, while he, John, had to become less. That's a great motto for the worshiping life. But here's a paradox: as Jesus becomes greater and we become less, we become less in such a way that we actually become greater. We become more our true selves. We discover who we truly are—what our God-given purpose is.
Worship gives us our dignity.
Our dignity is also tied to what we value. We are either exalted or demeaned by what we give our hearts to. We are what we love. If we give our hearts to what is base and crude and vile, we will ourselves become base and cruel and vile. If we give our hearts to what is noble and fine and pure, we will become these things. That's why the only lasting cure for addiction is passionate worship of the one true God. Where addicts give hearts to a substance that strips them of all dignity, they can now give their hearts to the creator and ruler of all creation and gain a sense of their enormous worth.
One of our pastors has been wrestling through some big and daunting questions since her diagnosis with cancer. The most urgent is, "How then shall I live? If this cancer radically shortens my days on this earth, how shall I live in light of dying?" We all need to ask that question more often. There are many ways we might be tempted to answer that question: should she go on a long trip and try to see as much of the world as possible? Should she go on a wild shopping extravaganza and try to acquire as much as she can? Should she take up a series of dangerous sports—skydiving, paragliding, free climbing, cliff jumping—and try to rack up as many thrills as possible? But I suggest the question is askew. Here's a better one: What should she give her heart to? What should any of us give our hearts to? Because we are what we love, our identity and our dignity depend on what we love and the depth and passion with which we love. When the golfer Paul Azinger was diagnosed with cancer in 1993, he was stunned. He wrote: I was in shock. I had thought that Dr. Jobe would tell me they had discovered some weird infection in my shoulder or possibly even a stress fracture. The one word I never expected to hear him say was cancer. Azinger went through treatment and came through cancer-free, but he was different. He wrote:
Is golf still important to me? Yes and no. Yes, of course golf is important to me. I love the game; it is how I make a living. But no, golf is no longer at the top of my priority list. In fact, it runs a slow fourth. My priorities now are God, my family, my friends, and golf. Golf is no longer my god. Golf is hitting a little white ball. God is my God, and God is a whole lot bigger than golf.
God is my God. The man discovered that he is what he loves.
Worship is ascribing to God the truth of who he is.
Now we know some of the benefits of dwelling in the house of worship, but how do we get there? Psalm 29:1 & 2 gives a clear and crisp portrait of what's involved: Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
Worship is fundamentally about ascribing. We declare something that is true to be true. Do you understand the distinction? To believe something is true is vital but insufficient. Generally, such truth has little bearing on our inner life and outward actions. Objective truth becomes living truth by the power of ascribing—literally, by writing it out. Remember the old classroom discipline of writing something on the chalkboard hundred times? "I will not dip Becky's hair in the inkwell, I will not …." The teacher instinctively understood the power of ascribing—that objective truth becomes living truth through it. What might begin as just a faint idea at the back of our minds can be turned into hard resolve and burning conviction through the practice of ascribing. More than that, ascribing shapes our response. This happens on the human level. If you ascribe to someone greed, you guard your wallet around him or her. If you ascribe to them generosity, you open your hands with them. Ascribe to someone foolishness, and you'll dismiss everything they say. Ascribe to them wisdom, and you give extra weight to every word they utter.
So it is with God. What we ascribe to him dictates how we see him and therefore how we behave around him. The most famous biblical story about that is the parable of the talents. Two of the master's servants ascribed to their master generosity, and so they acted accordingly. One servant ascribed to his master stinginess, and acted accordingly. It was the mistake of his life.
When we ascribe things to God, we take truth about God that otherwise might remain stuck in vagueness and abstraction, and we make it vivid and concrete. We write the truth about God on our hearts a hundred times, until it seals resolve, sets conviction, and shapes response. To worship is to ascribe to God things that are true about him until we actually believe that truth and live according to it. Last Sunday night we had a prayer and praise time at the church. We were praying and spontaneously began to worship and to ascribe to God qualities that are true about him: his goodness; his fatherly tenderness; his warrior fierceness. It was remarkable, as we did that, how faith rose in the room.
Let me ask this: are you bored in church? Do you want the service over with? If so, some of that is probably my fault. But some of it, I'm guessing, is your own: you have not yet learned the power of ascribing to God the things true about him. It's through ascribing to God qualities such as strength and glory that you enter into an encounter with him and are released to worship him in the splendor of his holiness.
Earlier I alluded to the passage in Exodus where the Israelites ask Moses to keep God at a distance. The writer of Hebrews, in one of the Bible's great passages on worship, refers to that experience. What he says is that through Jesus Christ, a way has been opened into the presence of God that is at once less terrifying and more so than what the Israelites experienced.
Why don't you take a few steps closer today? Why don't you even consider fixing yourself to the hull of the plane, and see where it goes? Why don't you stop watching God from a distance, and begin to worship him in reverence and awe. It's one of the best places to live.
Mark Buchanan is an Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at the Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta.