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02-15-2015 message by Pastor Rich Doebler

Let’s talk about the “highways of the heart.” It’s an image that comes from Psalm 84, which was a song expressing a deep longing to be close to God, to be where he is. It begins: “How lovely is your dwelling place…” (Ps 84:1, ESV)—and it goes on to say people are “blessed” when they come to God…

Ps 84:4-7 (ESV) 4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! 5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion [*Jerusalem]. 6 As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. 7 They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion… 12 O LORD of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!

Here’s some good news about the “narrow way”: If you want a blessing (and who doesn’t want God’s blessing and favor to come upon them?), this psalm mentions three ways you can be blessed:

(1) Dwell in the house of the Lord. That is, live in God’s presence—it does NOT mean we should have a never-ending sleepover, camping out in the church building; it simply means to continually be aware that he is always with you—“Practice Of The Presence Of God” (14th-century monk, Bro. Lawrence [free online]).

(2) Find your strength in him. That is, gain your inspiration, hope, determination from being with him and by soaking in his Word—we recharge our spiritual batteries when we plug into the Power! Rechargable batteries don’t get recharged simply by taking them out of the flashlight and giving them a rest. You need to put them in the charger and plug them in. It’s the same with us.

(3) Trust in him. That is, depend on the Lord—learn to rely on him rather than trying to figure everything out on your own or do everything yourself. We’re supposed to be like sheep, depending on the shepherd to protect us and provide green pasture for us. Those who depend on no one and take whatever they can get are wolves, not sheep.

These three steps to blessings are each part of the bigger theme in this psalm: seeking God and finding God. So I want to look more closely at how to find God, at having “highways in our hearts”—or, as the NIV puts it: “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

Going on a pilgrimage has been a religious custom for millenia. Some religions require a pilgrimage to gain God’s favor—you must travel to a holy place to receive a blessing. It’s one of the five “pillars” of Islam—to go to Mecca once in your life. Every year 2 million Muslims travel to Mecca. But they’re not the only ones who go on pilgrimage. There are an estimated 100 million who make a religious pilgrimage every year. Christians go to the “holy land.” Orthodox priests go to Greece. Catholics have a long tradition of traveling to various shrines or churches to receive a special blessing. The largest known religious gathering ever was in 2001 when 50 million (at one time!) went to the Maha Kumbh Mela festival held once every 144 years in Prayag, India.

The OT view (written long before Jesus came) had similar views on meeting with God. Back then, to meet with God you knew you had to go to a specific place or special location:

  • Jacob once met God in a dream (saw a ladder going up to heaven) and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Gen 28:16) So he built an altar in that place; it became a sacred place.
  • Mountains were often seen as places where you could get higher (closer to God), so altars were often built on the tops of hills. “The king went to Gibeon to offer sacrifices, for that was the most important high place…” (1 Kings 3:4)
  • It was on the Mountain of God (Mount Horeb [Exod 3:1]—also called Mount Sinai [Exod 24:16]) that Moses met with God and received the commandments.
  • God told Moses he’d dwell among the people in a special tent of meeting (also called a “tabernacle”). “There I will meet you and speak to you… I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God.” (Exod 29:42,45)
  • Later, Moses prophesied about the future temple and told the people “5 …to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling… 6 there bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices… 7 There, in the presence of the Lord your God…rejoice in everything you have put your hand to, because the Lord your God has blessed you.” (Deut 12:5-7)
  • When Solomon finally built the temple in Jerusalem, God promised: “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” (2 Chron 7:15)
  • God also ordained special feast times for people to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate, to remember, and to worship by offering sacrifices.

Today, because of Jesus, things are very different. It’s not a place we have to visit; it’s a Person we need to know! When we know Jesus, we can meet with God anywhere! When we know Jesus, we can enjoy God’s presence within our very heart and soul.

Jesus once told a woman: …a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem (John 4:21). He said: God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

Throughout the NT, we see this truth even more clearly: we are temples of the Holy Spirit—God dwells within our hearts, individually and within the church body as a whole! Consider…

—16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 …God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Cor 3:16-17)
—Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own… (1 Cor 6:19)
—…we are the temple of the living God. (2 Cor 6:16)
—21 In him [Christ Jesus] the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:21-22)

So we don’t have to travel to Jerusalem to meet with God. We don’t have to make a pilgrimage to a certain shrine. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, the Spirit of God dwells within the heart of each believer!

Yet, Psalm 84’s description of a “journey to Zion” echoes some of our own experiences in coming to know God. Although Psalm 84 is OT, it’s still God’s Word—and it still resonates with our desire to seek God and know him more. Here is what we learn from this psalm:

  1. Seeking God is a journey. Finding God is often described in the Bible this way.

The Hebrew word in verse 5 is mesillah [mes-i-LAW], literally: “highway, path…raised way, public road.”

(NIV) …whose hearts are set on pilgrimage
(ERV) …Their heart’s desire is to make the trip to your Temple.
(VOICE) …they treasure every step of the journey [to Zion]…

—A journey takes time and commitment. You need to prepare, pack for the trip, map your route. What does it mean to have “hearts…set on pilgrimage”? It indicates a fierce determination, an unshakable resolve, a strong motivation that leads to action. If you’re motivated to pursue a career, determined to find a lover, resolved to make a major purchase…you could say your heart was set on those things. Here it describes strong desire to meet with God.
—A journey is a process. You don’t get there in an instant. It’s a step at a time. One mile-marker after another. You make progress along the way. You gradually get closer to your goal. This is why we as a church have a commitment to each other—to help each other take the next step on our journey with Christ. It’s because none of us have arrived yet. None of us are perfect. We are all still in process.
—A journey means difficulties on the way. Jesus called it a “hard” way—a “narrow” way. Life is difficult—but those hardships and disappointments open the way for God’s blessings.
—A journey is worth the effort. It’s worth facing difficulties if we get to meet with God—to find life, Jesus said. (GW) …Their hearts are on the road that leads to you.

  1. The journey to God starts in your heart. “Hearts…set on pilgrimage” (NIV); “in whose heart are the highways to Zion” (ESV).

But what does it mean to speak of “highways in our hearts”? Several images come to mind:

—It’s like programming your inner GPS for directions to God. If your heart that yearns for more than this world has to offer… If you’re convinced God has something better… then you’re open to the leading of the Spirit, drawing you to himself, calling you to seek him. This turns the highways of your heart to lead to God.
—It’s like a map imprinted on your heart. God wants to imprint a map on your heart showing you the way to himself. It’s God’s heart connecting with your heart!

  • Because he loves you, he took the first step toward connecting with you and bringing you to himself! He didn’t wait for us to call out to him; he called us first.
  • He reaches down to us when we cannot reach up to him. When we’re at our lowest, God stoops down to reach us and love us.
  • God’s love for you maps the way in your heart for you to respond in love to him. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

—It’s like the instinct to migrate.

  • Salmon travel thousands of miles back to the place where they were spawned—a long and difficult journey through dangerous waters, upstream over pounding rapids, jagged rocks. Why? Because they possess an internal drive to find “home.” Salmon have the map imprinted in their DNA. They instinctively know where they need to go.
  • The human heart also longs for “home,” a place near to the heart of God—in his presence. God wants to “map” the spiritual DNA of your heart to search for him, so your heart will listen for his voice, so your ears will hear a voice behind you saying “This is the way; walk in it” (Isa 30:21); so your heart will be drawn in a supernatural, spiritual way to find the way leading back to God.

3. You can find blessings on the way—even before reaching the destination.

—You will go through “the Valley of Baca”—understood in different ways.
(NLT) …they walk through the Valley of Weeping…
(CEV) …When they reach Dry Valley…
(MSG) …They wind through lonesome valleys…
There will be difficulties in life—but those dry, wilderness times of discouragement are not permanent. When weeping comes, we can choose to press on. We can decide to keep going. We can determine to not camp permanently in those valleys.
—How? By being refreshed in the Lord. He provides springs in the desert. Rains in the drought. In the wilderness, Moses saw God make water flow from the rock. Jesus said, “If you’re thirsty, come to me and drink—and rivers of living water will flow from within them.” (John 7:37f)
—You see, dry times open the way for God’s blessings. If you’re weak, find strength in the Lord (v 5). You can go from “strength to strength” (v 7), from one level of strength upward to the next. In the end, you are strongest when you finally arrive in the fullness of God’s presence.

A while back I read in the Duluth News Tribune about some scientists who “deprogrammed” young male canaries so they wouldn’t sing their natural song. They raised them in a laboratory, away from adult canaries, and taught them a computer-generated song with no resemblance to their natural canary song.
One morning, however, the scientists arrived at the lab and discovered that the birds, nearly adults, were all chirping their natural song—even though they had never heard it before!
One of the scientists said that though they could teach the birds something totally foreign, “…the innate learning system must be so strong that the real song breaks through anyway.” Separated from their parents, hatched as “orphans,” never permitted to hear the natural canary song—yet deep down in their DNA, their hearts were drawn back to their true song.
The ways of the world can sound appealing. They can entice us away from what we were made us to be. We may even sing the false songs of the world. But we can never entirely escape the spiritual DNA God put within us. He calls us back to himself, back to his presence, back to sing our Father’s song!  [Citation: “Birds know mating songs by instinct, study finds” by Jamie Talan (Newsday) in the Duluth News Tribune (May 15, 2005).]

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”