Get Up; Don’t Be Afraid

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Matthew 17:1-8
February 23, 2020

Today, we’re coming to an end of this series on SAD (Spiritual Affection Disease). We’ve looked at several ordinary activities that can be used, beyond prayer and Bible study, to draw us closer to God. Today, we’re going to see that everything focuses on Jesus. Once we encounter the Savior, we need to fearlessly carry out his work.

Our passage is the Transfiguration. These are some verses I’ve often wondered about. Why are they in Scripture?” I’ve asked. “Is this story needed?” This week, I thought about this passage while attending a two-day Theology Matter’s conference on Hilton Head.[1] We considered what it means for Jesus to be the “way and the truth and the life,” In that setting, I began to clearly understand the importance of this text. It points us to Jesus, and to our need to listen to his Word.

The Transfiguration is a mysterious event with which the western church has always struggled. The Eastern Church, the Orthodox tradition, from early in its history, celebrated the event with a feast. In the West, it wasn’t until the 15th Century, right before the Protestant Reformation, that the Roman Catholic Church set aside a special day to recall the Transfiguration.[2] And for Protestants, we came even later to the table. But it’s important that we deal with this passage for it appears in all three of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke.[3] Let’s listen to Matthew’s account of this story. And as I read this, think about what your reaction to such an encounter might be.  Read Matthew 17:1-8.



There are four questions I want us to explore from this mysterious text. Of course, many other questions may arise, but this morning, we’ll stick with these four:

Why did Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples up on the mountain?
What is the significance of Moses and Elijah’s appearance?
What do we learn about Jesus from this encounter?
And finally, what’s the implication of this text for our lives?


That’s more than we can chew on in one sermon, but let’s see where it takes us.

We’re told that Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain. In Scripture, many things happen on mountaintops, going back to Abraham. So the reader is expecting something to happen up on the mountain, at a place that symbolically links the earth to heaven.[4] But why does Jesus only take three of the twelve disciples? Did the other nine feel left out? We’re not told, but we must admit that there are times it’s easier to have an experience with a few than with many. These three, in a way, form Jesus’ inner-core. Each of these become the major players in the early church.[5] So maybe Jesus had a tactical reason for allowing them to have this experience. Furthermore, mountaintop experiences in Scripture tend to happen only to individuals or small groups and it’s up to those having the experience to share what happened with others.[6]

What’s important here is not that those of us who follow Jesus have a mystical encounter, but that we learn from the experiences of others. Not all of us will have a Damascus moment like Paul, or witness a burning, non-burning bush like Moses, or the Transfiguration like the three disciples. After the resurrection, Jesus responded to Thomas (who wasn’t at the Transfiguration): “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[7] Most of us will fall in the latter category. We are those who have not seen and have yet, because of the testimony of others, believe.

Once Jesus and the disciples make it to the top of the mountain they experience a vision.[8] Jesus begins to glow. His face was like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. That in itself was amazing, but then there appeared Moses and Elijah, who were alive and talking to Jesus. We’re not told how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah. I’m pretty sure they weren’t wearing name tags. But how they knew is not as important as to who they are. These are the two great figures in the Old Testament. Moses brought God’s law down from the mountain to God’s people at Sinai. He represents a fulfillment of the covenant that began with Abraham. Elijah is the representative of the prophets, those individuals called by God to demand the Hebrew people’s faithfulness to their Lord.

The appearance of Moses and Elijah is a reminder of the importance of the Old Testament and how it points to Jesus. The Scriptures of the Old Testament are still valid, but they now take on a different dimension with Christ, the one who came to show us the way home, the way back to God. In their appearance, the past (or what we might call tradition) points to the way forward. This is especially true for those of us on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection.[9]

        This all amazes the disciples and causes Peter to begin babble about building shelters, perhaps to prolong the event. But while Peter rambles, we’re told a bright cloud suddenly overshadowed them. Think about this, Jesus is already dazzling white, so this cloud must have been really amazing. And from the cloud, as it was at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” The words are the same as at Jesus’ baptism except for the last three: “Listen to him.”[10] Again, God confirms Jesus’ identity and role, but now God commands the disciples to listen to him. God is saying that what Jesus says is important. As we learn in the prologue to John’s gospel, Jesus is God’s Word.[11]

Here, in this passage, we have God the Father, and the traditions of the past (Moses and Elijah), all pointing toward Jesus as the way forward. He’s the one whom we’re to follow, which is the core of the message within this passage.

The disciples are overwhelmed and fearful. They fall to the ground. But it doesn’t last long. Jesus comes over and shakes them as they crouch on the dirt and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And as they look up, it’s all over and it’s time for them to leave the mountain and join the rest of the disciples at the base of the hill.        

Two things we should take from Jesus’ words. We can’t stay on the mountain. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out our discipleship in the valleys, with the people, not up on the mountaintops away from problems. Yes, sometimes we need a break, we need time alone.[12] But ministry (and we’re all called into ministry) is among people, down the mountain, where things can be dirty and messy. And as scary as the mountaintops might be, going back down can even be scarier. But we’re not to be scared because Jesus is with us. Our lives are to focus on him, first and foremost. And if we focus on Jesus and trust that he has things under control, we shouldn’t be afraid of anything. Yes, in life some bad stuff can happen, just like it happened to the disciples, BUT Jesus has it all worked out. He’s secured our future so that we might live for him in this life.

         So what does the Transfiguration say to us today? Jesus is Lord, listen to him, obey him, trust him, follow him, and don’t be afraid. “Get up, don’t be afraid.” Good words for us to consider as we, as a congregation, prepare for our future. Amen.



[1] The theme of the conference was John 14:6 (Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life).  See

[2] R. F. Buxton, “Transfiguration,” The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 510.  The Eastern Church celebrates this day on August. 6.

[3] See Mark 9:2-8 and Luke 9:28-36.

[4] Douglas R. A. Hare (Matthew: Interpretation, a Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1993), 198.

[5] Jesus took this same group to Gethsemane to pray (Luke 26:37).  Frederick Dale Bruner, The Churchbook: Matthew 12-28 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 165.

[6] Think of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain (Genesis 22), Moses on the mountain (Exodus 3 and 19:20ff), Elijah on the mountain (I Kings 19:11ff), and Jesus in the wilderness during his temptation (Matthew 4:1-11).  See also Bruner, 165. Bruner refers to J. A. Bengel’s 18th Century commentary. Bengel suggested the mountain may not have been named to avoid superstition. In light of this, I suggest it’s not the mountain that’s important, but the Jesus who is revealed on the mountain, therefore it’s more about what we do with this experience than the experience itself.

[7] John 20:29.

[8] While the story (verses 1-8) doesn’t say this is a vision, when they head down the mountain, Jesus describes it as a vision in verse 9.

[9] Bruner, 167.

[10] See Matthew 3:13-17.

[11] John 1:1-2.

[12] Even Jesus took time alone, away from the crowds. See Matthew 14:13.

Walk This Way

Jeff Garrison 
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 119:1-8
February 16, 2020


We’re back looking at ways for us not to be so SAD. How can we overcome bouts of Spiritual Affective Disease? How can we get closer to our Creator? This series offers us ways, beyond the usual Bible study and prayer, that we can reconnect with God. So far, we’ve looked at meditation, music, laughter, serving others, and appreciating God’s presence all around us.

Today, we’re looking at walking. In a way, the ability to walk is what makes us human. In Genesis, we have that beautiful image of God walking in the garden and wanting the man and woman to join the stroll.[1] According to Bruce Chatwin, in the Middle Ages it was thought that by going on a pilgrimage (which meant walking), you were recreating that original condition of humanity. Walking through the wilderness brought you back to God.[2] As humans, we are designed to move which allows us to experience God’s world, to connect with God’s people, and to come closer to God.

Our two scripture passages from the Psalms this morning have to do with walking. Our third passage, which we heard earlier from the Gospel of Luke, about following a path set forth by God, is about a metaphorical walk. As we journey through life, we need to follow God’s path and use the legs God’s given us to connect with one another and with God. And even if we can’t get up and walk, we can use our bodies in whatever way we can, to move and to delight in God’s creation.

Before reading our last passage, from Psalm 119, let me share a bit about this mega-Psalm. You might know that this Psalm is the longest chapter in the Bible. There are 176 verses to the 119th Psalm. It’s way too much to preach on in one sermon! But it’s also a unique. I know you’ve heard me speak of acrostic Psalms… This is a type of poetry where every line begins with the next letter in the alphabet. In English, it would be like writing, “Apples are red, Berries are blue, Cats are cute… etc. Using an acrostic method helps in memorization. I’ll come back to this later in the sermon.

Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem on steroids. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet receives eight lines, and each of those lines starts with a word with the same letter.[3] Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well across languages. Since Hebrew has 22 letters, you multiply that by 8, and you get our 176 verses! Be thankful I’m not reading them all!

The late Kurt Vonnegut once informed his wife that he was going out to buy an envelope. This was what ensued:

“Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a heck of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And see some great-looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And I’ll ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is – we’re here on Earth to play around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And it’s like we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”[4]

It’s very easy today for us all to become couch potatoes, but that’s not why we’re created in this fashion and with these bodies. If these bodies are still working, we need to use them, even if they don’t work as well as they did when we were younger!

“Travel by its very nature demands simplicity,” Rolf Potts proclaims in his book, Vagabonding.[5] This is even more so when walking, as one is limited to what one can carry. Walking simplifies things further by slowing us down and forcing us to look around. After all, we want don’t want to trip on a crack in the sidewalk or step in a mud puddle. As we start looking around, we become more aware and notice more about what’s happening. We appreciate the flowers that throw off a scent in the spring. Don’t you love it when the oleander and jasmine are in bloom? We can stop and meet our neighbors. Or perhaps we might catch a neighborhood battle that we’d missed as we speed along on asphalt in a car with the windows up.

Have you ever seen an eviction? It’s something to behold. You wouldn’t want to miss it, would you? Now that I have your attention, let me tell about a walk I took a few months before moving from Michigan.

I was walking down Green Street in the early spring and heard all this commotion in the maple trees that lined the road. It was in the evening. Looking up, I saw an owl sitting in top of the trees. The feathery neighborhood association, all of which had eggs or babies in those trees, weren’t too happy. They knew what that owl was up to no good. A dozen or so birds, of all varieties, worked together to encouraged the owl to move on. One would fly close by and as the owl followed it, another bird would come in on its blind side and peck the owl on its head. I stood and watched for a good twenty minutes, until finally the owl had enough and moved to another tree. Think of all we miss as we huddle inside our climate-controlled homes and cars.

Of course, we’re not just to walk for walking sake, even though it is good for our physical being. Scripture tells us repeatedly to walk in the ways of the Lord. Psalm 119 is a meditation on God’s law. Throughout this passage, we’re encouraged to walk in the law, to walk in the ways of God, to let God’s law light the path for our feet.

This Psalm opening section, which I read this morning, speaks of how those who walk in God’s ways are blessed. And so are we, if we do our walking with God at our side, using our time out when alone or with others, to be delighted in God’s creation and to appreciate God’s providence. You see, walking can benefit us, spiritually and physically. When we move, we can connect with others and with God. So, this week, ponder this passage as you take time each day to take a walk. Let’s get moving and enjoying where we live.

But I also want you to join in on another walk, one that will involve all the congregation. As you know, next Sunday we’re going to lay out a new Strategic Plan for our congregation. We want to be a “joyful, thriving church reflecting the face of Jesus to the world!”  Our mission is to “Love God, Love our Neighbors, and to Change the world.” We have set up core values (using an acrostic formation-kind of like Psalm 119-that spells out WORSHIP). These core values demonstrate God’s love by Welcoming, Offering, Respecting, Serving, Helping, Investing, and Praying.  All this is supported by four pillars, which we as a church need to walk within. These pillars will require each of us to commit ourselves to excellence, and we if bind ourselves on this journey together, we will live into our Vision and Mission.

What are these pillars?

  • A joyful worship experience.
  • Grow our membership.
  • Improve our financial sustainability.
  • And increase our community outreach.


In each of these four areas, there are ways for you to walk with your friends here at Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church.

We’re all needed in worship, to lift our praises to God and to focus, first and foremost, on the Lord. Also, we need those of you who have special talents to help with music, with drama, in the sound booth, or with the liturgy. As we continue to work on creative worship, we’ll need to draw on everyone’s creativity.

To grow our membership, we need you to invite friends and family members to experience our church. And once someone visits, they need to see what a caring family we are. We need to love one another in a way that will make others want to be a part of our family.

To improve our financial sustainability requires us to look forward to the future. Past generations built and paid for this wonderful facility. Those of us who came here later received it as a gift. As we move forward, we need to sustain our ministries in a way that finances won’t be such a burden. We need to build endowments and to encourage everyone to be generous as God has been generous to us. What kind of gift can we give to those who follow us?

And finally, we need to increase our outreach into the community. We’ve been doing this with Civility Forums (the next one is March 4th), with the Calvin January Series, and with the very popular sunrise service. What other ways can we reach out and provide a home for those in our community who want to come and to learn and to be a part of changing the world?

It’s time for a long walk. Will you join us? Be here next week for the town hall meeting and between then and now, take a walk or two and ponder what you can do to further the gospel in the world. Amen.


A note about the photos.  All but the photo of the owl (which came from and the one of Kurt Vonnegut are mine. The first one of a two-rack road was taken in Spooner Summit in Nevada (on the west ridge over Lake Tahoe). The lantern was my grandfather’s. The next images were taken on a backpacking trip in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. The last photo of a two-track road was taken on Cumberland Island, Georgia. 

[1] Genesis 3:8-9.

[2] Bruce Chatwin, Songlines as quoted by Phil Cousineau, The Art of Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred (New York, MJF Books, 1998), 18.

[3] This is easily seen by looking at a Hebrew text. For more information see James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, JKP, 1994), 381-382.

[4] I am not sure where this came from. I read it a month ago, cut and pasted it and saved it without providing the source. When I looked on the internet, I realized it’s been a quoted a lot over the last 15 years…  I cleaned up the text a little for the sermon, replacing hell with heck and play for fart.

[5] Rolf Potts, Vagabonding (New York: Villard, 2003), 32.

Questions and answers in a field of sunflowers

Back in December, The Armchair Squid honored me with this award.

Sorry to disappoint  you, but I will give no acceptance speeches that flaunt my politics. I like how “the Squid” modified the original rules:

  • You don’t have to display anything you don’t want to.
  • You don’t have to pass on the award to others in order to accept it for yourself.  You are thoroughly deserving without having to jump through any hoops.
  • You also don’t have to answer my questions, though I hope you will.  I am genuinely interested in your responses.
  • Simply know that I am grateful for our blogsphere friendship.

I’m finally getting around to these questions, which I found interesting and fun to ponder. Here’s my answer.

If you could live one year of your life over again, which year would you choose and why?
Is this a trick question? In Thornton Wilder’s play, “Our Town,” Emily Gibbs is allowed to go back and see one day of her life. It is suggested that she go back to an insignificant day, for it’s going to be so difficult. That said, maybe 1987, when I completed most of the Appalachian Trail. But that’s probably one of the more significant instead of insignificant years of my life.

If you could learn to be an expert at something without putting in the work, what would it be?
A violinist

If you could learn a new language instantly, which would you choose and why?
Mandarin  I might as well know what most of the world is saying behind my back.

If you could give $1 million to any charity, which would you choose?
A charity that works with disabled or disadvantaged children.

When was your Robert Frost moment a la “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…”?  The poem says you can’t go back and that is true.  “Way leads on to way” and so forth.  But if you could, would you?  What is the difference you think it would have made?
It was one winter in Michigan, when the snow was deep and I had shoveled a path to the driveway and another to a large locust tree for obvious reasons. Then, warming up inside by the fireplace, I pinned these immortal lines (with apologies to Robert Frost):

Two roads diverged in yellow snow,
And glad I am not to travel both
One traveler with four legs runs to the tree
And looks down as he hunkers low
And lifts his leg to take a pee

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some where ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged from my front porch, and I—
I took the one with the white snow,
And that has made all the difference

Of course, it didn’t make much difference, but I got a laugh out of it.

Time travel: where would you go and when?  Why?
Virginia City, Nevada in 1875.  Having spent a lot of time studying and writing about Virginia City and the role the church played there, that was an interesting year. It was the year of the big fire and the interesting split within the Presbyterian Church. Visiting would allow me to see how much I got right in my history.

Who would you want on your fictional character bowling team?  You get to pick four.
Yosemite Sam, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and Yogi Bear…

What would you want for your last meal?
I’d be like Jefferson in Ernest Gaines novel, A Lesson Before Dying, who asked for a whole gallon of ice cream and a pot spoon to eat it with. He’d never had enough ice cream, he said, and while I’ve never been as poor as him, I’ve never had enough ice cream, either. By the way, it’s a tradition on the Appalachian Trail to eat a half gallon of ice cream at the half-way point. I didn’t do it at time, eating only a quart!

What’s your favorite song?
Can I have two?  A modern one and an ancient one?  Why yes, I can, my conscience tells me, but remember the Armchair Squid teaches music! Okay, then two it’ll be:

“Deacon Blues” by Steely Dan and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m just barely an extrovert on the Myers-Briggs scale.  That seems right as there are times I like being in crowds, but I also need to retreat into “me time.”

If you came over to my home and I offered you a drink, what would you want me to serve you?
I would ask for your best bourbon on the rocks, unless it’s Derby Day, then I’d ask for a mint julep. If it’s St. Andrews Day or Burn’s Night, let’s have Scotch or maybe a Rusty Nail.

Book Reviews (memoirs and poetry)

David Sedaris, Thief by Finding (audiobooks, 1977) 13 hours 52 minutes.

Years ago, I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. It was a very funny book and I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to another of Sedaris’ books. I was looking for something humorous to listen to in the gym and decided to give this one a try. It took me a long time to get into the book and several times I thought about putting it aside. The first years of his diary are somewhat bare, glimpses of him hitchhiking around the American West, making a few bucks with temporary labor, while spending most of his time getting high.  As we must be close in the same age, so that as I listened to his diary entries, I kept thinking what I was doing during those years. After wandering around the country for a while, Sedaris settles down as he enters Chicago Institute of Art. He still struggles to pay bills (in his early years, he seemed to have a particularly hard time with this phone bill). He hangs out watching people in the International House of Pancakes. And he begins to write. There are some things that Sedaris wrote in his journal from the 70s, that reminded me of that era. Race relationships were often in tension and he had a several scary run-ins in both Raleigh (where he grew up) and in Chicago.  He also wrote about his relationship with his siblings (especially Amy) and his parents (he adored his mother and didn’t care as much for his father, even though his father did give the kids a trip to Greece).

After he graduated from college, Sedaris stayed in Chicago, working day labor jobs and as an adjunct writing professor at the Art Institute. During this time, his journal observations become sharper and more humorous. Then he moved to New York, where he and Amy had plays produced in small off-Broadway theaters. There’s no “eureka” moment, where Sedaris realizes he “had it made” but soon instead of struggling to find enough money to pay the rent or phone bill, Sedaris is eating in nice restaurants and traveling back and forth to Europe.  He publishes Naked. His lover is French and they move there, where Sedaris studies the language (and his teacher didn’t appreciate her portrait in Me Talk Pretty One Day). He also begins to clean up his life, admitting he’s an alcoholic and keeping a count on his days of sobriety. He has some interesting entries concerning 911, both from his time in France and when he returns to visit New York without the twin towers.

I am glad I stuck with this highly edited and published journal. In a way, reading these excerpts, Sedaris provides a personal glimpse of his view of the world in which we both lived, but in very different ways. I was often turned off with the language, but found that as the years went by, Sedaris began to cut the number of times he used the “F-word”. He even noted, while teaching writing, his criticism of a student’s paper that overused such language. Also, the book shows Sedaris sharpening his pen with humor, which is an interesting insight. His writings become mature as he ages. Finally, I was glad I listened to this book while working out in the gym. I’m not sure I would have stayed with it had I been reading it instead of listening to it.


David Baker, Swift: New and Selected Poems (New York: Norton, 2019), 179 pages

David Baker is a poet who is aware of his place in creation. In this collection of fifteen new poems and selections from his seven previous books of poetry, we are drawn into our common world that is highlighted by his keen observations and knowledge of nature. One collection draws upon the negative impact of chemicals used on the farms in Mid-America.  He writes about death and bemoans the idea that the American way of death takes us out of the circle of life as we ensure that not even worms can feast on our bodies.  In a note after another poem, he points out the insane about of fuel used to cremate bodies in North America (estimated to be equivalent fuel needed to drive a car the distance of 80 round trips to the moon).  He hears the coyote cry at night and muses about birds and butterflies, fish and frogs. Through a variety of styles of poetry, some I found easier to comprehend than others, Baker draws us into this world we inhabit. I encourage others to indulge themselves with his words and images and ponder how we might live as a more responsible member of this planet.


Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years: A Memoir (Emergency Press, 2011), 280 pages.

This was a hard book to read. I picked it up after hearing the author, who is a professor at Savannah State University, a few years ago. Knowing he was from the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan, a favorite get-away when I lived in the mitten state, made it more appealing. But my first attempted to read the book failed. It was just too hard to imagine, and I kept thinking that no kid should ever have to live in such situations. But I picked it back up last month and forced my way through this memoir of the first ten years of Faries’ life. A warning if you read this book: It’s brutally honest. The language is rough, drug and alcohol abuse are a constant, and the sex scenes that a child observes is shocking. Yet, there are children who grow up in such situations. It is amazing that Faries survived the 70s.

There are several threads that hold the book together. One is the places they lived. Often, it’s a house, but on one occasion it was a room above a strip club and another above a bowling alley. Faries mother was just a teenager when the book begins and suffers from drug and alcohol abuse and, what seems to me, an addiction to sex. But she does love and cares from her son. While the book is called a “memoir,” there is a little license taken in using that title as the opening parts of the book are obviously before the author had actual memories. For such memories, he had to rely on his family.

A second thread is the constant mobility Chad and his mom make as they roam around the UP and off to Battle Creek (also in Michigan), Florida, Texas and Montana. They travel in old cars, in buses, by hitchhiking, and on the back of the mom’s boyfriend’s motorcycle. In one trip, the three of them rode from Battle Creek, Michigan to the western part of the UP (about 600 miles) with the boy sandwiched between his mom and her boyfriend. The constant moving is highlighted with a simple sentence at the end of each chapter, “And then we moved.”

The third thread is music. Faries begins each chapter with a quote from a “classic rock” tune of the era, and often during the chapters he recalls certain songs of the decade.

While most of the chapters are told from the point of view of the boy, there are a few interesting ones toward the end such as the chapter that is told from the point of view of the hamster who understands his role on earth is to protect the boy. I found myself cheering on a rodent. The last chapter has Faries with his mother and several other women discuss his early life. It’s 2003, and Faries is teaching in Eastern Europe and has come home on a visit. His aunt is tattooing his Greek girlfriend’s name on his back. As she does this, Faries interviews her and his mother about his recollections of growing up. This chapter, written more like a dialogue of a play, serves to wrap up many of the story’s loose ends.
I forced myself to read this book and learned much. But I’m saddened to know that children do grow up in such situations.

Altars, Altars Everywhere

Jeff Garrison
Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
Psalm 84
February 2, 2020


In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”[1] Picture this for a moment, a world filled with signs of God’s glory, so many that we’re constantly tripping over them. There’s truth here. In Genesis, we’re told God created everything in the world as good.[2] The Psalms proclaim the world and all that is in it belongs to God, that God is beside us even when we find ourselves in death’s shadows, and that there is no place we can go to be away from God.[3] This is all good news. We’re not abandoned. We’re not alone.

This winter we’re looking at ways of beating SAD: Spiritual Affective Disease. How do we pick ourselves up when God feels so far away? We’ve looked at meditating on the light during darkness, listening to soulful music, laughter, and doing good deeds for others. Another way to lift ourselves up is to realize that God is always close to us. God is accessible. We can easily reach out and connect to the Almighty. Yes, we may feel far from God, but that’s not the case. Feeling far from God has more to do with our feelings than with God’s absence.

         Today’s service is titled “Altars, Altars, Everywhere.” Let me point out that I’m using term “altar” for a place where we worship God. Biblically, an altar was a place for a sacrifice. The word comes to us from the Latin to describe a place where a sacrifice is made.[4] But since Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, we don’t need to make sacrifices in order to obtain God’s favor.[5] Those of us in the Presbyterian and Reformed branches of Protestantism tend not to use the word altar as a place within a church building. Instead, we have a communion table, where we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which we’ll do in a few minutes. So, when I use altar this morning, I’m not talking about sacrifices, but I’m using it in a symbolic way for a place we connect to God.

        Our text, Psalm 84, calls us to come into God’s dwelling place. Let me ask you what you think when you hear of such a place? Pearly gates and golden streets? Fluffy clouds inhabited by choirs of angels and accompanied by orchestras of strumming harps? Golden rays of sun highlighting a peaceful landscape?

         Another way of considering experiencing God’s dwelling place is to consider ourselves already there. After all, Jesus taught that the kingdom has come near.[6] We can look around us and can see places God is present. Certainly, at the marsh at the beginning and ending of each day, or at night when we look up at the twinkling stars, or whenever we encounter a mother and child and ponder the miracle of life. Yet, even in times of tragedy, God is present. We hear stories of those who, exceeding the bounds of human expectations, serve their neighbors and strangers in a way that provides a glimpse of Christ’s presence.[7] Opportunities abound for us to experience God and to see the glory of his domain. But is this what this Psalm is about?

          This is a crusader’s psalm. It’s one sung by pilgrims as they made their way from far off, perhaps even a foreign country, to the temple in Jerusalem.[8] The dwelling place for the Psalmist is Solomon’s magnificent temple. The Psalmist isn’t using God’s dwelling place as a metaphor for God’s domain in heaven or even God’s presence throughout the good earth. His joy stems from the thought of worshipping with God’s people in the temple. So, in a very literal sense, we understand the Psalmist call for us to worship at the temple. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that such a place supersedes our need to worship elsewhere.

        The Psalmist speaks as a pilgrim coming into sight of Mt. Zion, upon which sits the city of Jerusalem. And there in the middle of the city is the temple of God. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” the Psalmist sings. Perhaps this is his first visit to the temple. He’s overcome with joy. Although singing, he’s almost faint from excitement. He observes the birds nesting high up along the roof and acknowledges the glory of God who takes care of all creation, from the greatest mammal to the smallest feathered friend.

         The Psalmist then turns his attention to the priests, those who work in the temple day in and day out. He ponders their happiness. This must be a great job, he thinks.[9] “Yeah,” I think, “like being a vendor at Wrigley’s Field.” Of course, we only see the glorious side of those vendors. We think they’re lucky to be able to catch every game, ignoring their hard work of cleaning up. The same is true of the priests. He sees them leading worship and offering up sacrifices but doesn’t see them cleaning out all the burned meat from the altars or the polishing of the candlesticks. But for someone in awe, the position of the priest is enchanting.

          But then he realizes that he, too, is blessed by God. We see this in verse five, “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways of Zion. In other words, he and those who have travelled the road to Zion, the road to Jerusalem, can be glad that God has given them the strength needed for the journey. Then, in the next verse, he recalls his journey through the Valley of Baca, the unknown valley of tears he had to traverse in order to get to Jerusalem. Even that desolate land is blessed by God. A miracle is witnessed as the dry summer heat is replaced with cool rains leaving behind pools of water from which the pilgrim can quench his thirst. Notice, that as the Psalmist sings, he realizes God’s presence is all around, not just at the temple.

         Acknowledging God’s providence in his life, the Psalmist prays in verse 9 and 10 for God’s continual blessings upon those who seek to worship. In verse 11, he shifts to metaphorical language, conceding that a day in the temple is better than a thousand elsewhere, even while acknowledging God’s gifts and goodness extends far from the walls of the temple. God is both the sun, the giver of life for the earth, but also the shield, the one who protects us from the sun when it becomes overbearing in the desert. God is the source of all good, or as John Calvin liked to infer, “God is the fountain from which every good gift flow.”[10]

          What does Psalm 84 teach us about worship? While the ultimate worship experience for the Psalmist was the temple, Solomon’s temple hasn’t existed for over 2,500 years. It was destroyed by Babylon. But that’s fine for there are now places of worship all over the world, and hopefully whether it’s here or somewhere else, you will find a home to worship.

But we don’t have to wait till Sunday, either. We don’t even have to be in God’s house to worship God. Because we have access to God, 24/7, worship could and should be continual. Paul tells us to “pray without ceasing.”[11] And prayer is an essential part of worship, as we acknowledge our total dependence on God. So, wherever you are, whether out in nature where the grandeur of God is evident or in the darkness of your bedroom, know that God is present and give thanks. If we do, as we told at the end of the Psalm, we can find happiness. We are not abandoned. For our scouts, this means that even if you get lost on a hike, you have a companion with you. Don’t ever forget this.

         So, this week, stop frequently and meditate about being in God’s presence. You might even set up a special place to meditate and pray in your home, a reminder that God is with you. Think about bumping into God’s altars, for they are everywhere. Be on the lookout for them, and then give thanks to God for his faithfulness. Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarpersOne, 2009), 15.

[2] Genesis 1.

[3] Psalm 24, Psalm 23, and Psalm 139.

[4] C. E. Pocknee, “Altars” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1982), 6-7.

[5] Hebrews 10:10-15.

[6] Mark 1:15.

[7] Matthew 25:40.

[8] Artur Weiser, The Old Testament Library: The Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 565ff.

[9] Weiser, 567.

[10] John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, I.2.1

[11] 1 Thessalonians 5:17