Earlier this week I was sitting on a bench in an outdoor shopping mall just before twilight. Around my feet crowded over a dozen sparrows, picking at the edges of the paving stones, tenaciously attempting to find some undiscovered crumbs in hidden cracks. I thought of the countless sparrows that regularly inhabit my backyard, emptying three birdfeeders within a couple of days, and I wished for the language to issue an invitation to these hungry birds on their futile quest. “Come on home with me. There’s more than enough for you there.”
Perhaps such an image was in the heart of the psalmist who penned Psalm 84, for surely this is a psalm about home–longing for home, being away from home, journeying toward home, protecting home. In it we are invited to sing of dwelling places and courts; homes, nests, altars and houses. And…we cannot avoid the psalmist’s longing to be home.
Since it would appear that David was not actually able to be in the Lord’s courts at that moment, one wonders if this psalm was written in that terrible time when David and his followers were fleeing from Absalom. In the midst of the terror at the impending revolt the priests picked up the ark of the covenant from its resting place in Jerusalem and carried it to the outskirts of the city while all of David’s servants and subjects passed before it on their way into the wilderness.
After they had all passed by, David said to the high priest, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his dwelling place. But if he says, I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.” The priests carried the a rk back into the city, and David and his people went up to the Mount of Olives, weeping as they went (2 Samuel 15:13-30 ESV).
I imagine David looking with longing toward the retreating backs of Israel’s priests bearing the tangible presence of God between them. Perhaps he sighed at the irony of life. Important people, like kings and those associated with them, were banished to the wilderness, while the little creatures could still find their place near God’s altar. The sparrows, flying low, could find a home in an unobtrusive place near the ground, and swallows, soaring up into the rafters,
could lay their young far out of harm’s way.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for
where she may lay her young
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God. (Psalm 84:3)
There are some real advantages in going unnoticed in the eyes of the world. These little birds experience the particular kind of freedom that comes with being hidden by and near God. They are not hiding in fear, nor are they erased as being of no value in the kin gdom. They appear more than once in Jesus’ illustrations of something very precious to the Lord. If his Father cares for the sparrow, how much more will he care for us? But they are hidden. They fly under the radar…and they carry those in their care right into the presence of God.
There are few days when my soul does not long for rest near God’s altar, even on the days when nothing more traumatic disturbs my peace than having nothing ready for dinner. (Well…what really disturbs my peace is when my sixtee n-year old son begins his commentary on my cooking, or lack thereof.) Yet how do I, on this side of the atonement, come into the presence of God as simply as that nesting sparrow? How do I cross the threshold to the altar when a vigilant doorkeeper protects the holy place from people like me who, when I am honest, all too often dwell in wickedness? An old gospel hymn points the way in:
Oh, Jesus, blessed redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God.
Hold us, who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.