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On The Upper Room Discourse Re-Release For Lent 2024

Sparrows, Swallows, and Prodigals

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.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and
my God. 
Happy are those who live in
your house, 
ever singing your praise.

Psalm 84:1-4


“There’s no place like home!”  “There’s no place like home!”  With those words of deep longing and three clicks of her heels, Dorothy is back home in Kansas from the land of Oz.  She opens her eyes, and there is Auntie Em, Uncle Henry, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and all that matters most to her.  She is home!

Most of us know what Dorothy is feeling.  There is no place like home.  Although we delight to travel and explore the wide world we still feel joy in coming home.  Home is where the heart is, we say, along with the home cooking, our home page, and all things homemade.  Who can forget E. T., the Extraterrestrial, longingly pointing his bony finger toward the sky, and imploring, “E. T. phone home.”   We long to be home.

Home represents to us safety, warmth, and acceptance by the people we love and who love us.  “Home is”, as Robert Frost reminded, “the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in.”  The prodigal son knew that even as a hired servant, home was far better than any place ever roamed.  There is the universal and powerful longing to go back home where we belong.

The late Bartlett Giammatti, commissioner of baseball, and before that, the president of Yale University, spoke knowingly of the longing to go home.  When he was asked to explain the enduring popularity of baseball in America, Giammatti said that baseball was more than just a game.  “Baseball is about going home,” Giammatti explained, “and we all want to get home”.  He said that it was the ancient Greek idea of nostos, and the “longing for home”.

I read today’s Scripture text and feel in it this longing to go home.  The text is from one of the pilgrim songs that the people of God sang as they traveled to the house of God to worship.  In the psalm the poet-psalmist sings longingly of coming home to God.  He delights at being in the very presence of the living God.

But as the psalmist comes into the sacred court he is taken aback by what his eyes see!  There at God’s “altars” of sacrifice and incense “even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself”.  He marvels to see a sparrow’s nest of grass, twigs, straw, and other debris, in the midst of the temple worship.  He sees also on the altar a swallow’s nest made of mud and bird saliva with baby birds poking out their little heads.  The psalmist rejoices to see that even in the holy house of God the sparrow and the swallow and their young “finds a home”. 

Out of reverence for life the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 22:6) prohibited moving a bird’s nest or violating the babies.  No priest, Levite, or temple custodial staff dare touch or tidy up after these messy little creatures of God.  Even the birds of the air can find a home in God’s house.  They are in fact right where they belong.

But in seeing the sparrow and swallow at the Lord’s altars, the Psalmist is Holy Spirit inspired to draw a deeper lesson.  He sees there in the nests more than just a lowly sparrow or swallow.  He sees in them people longing to come home. For the ancient Hebrew people the sparrow was a symbol of the worthless person, the no-good, the no-account, rebuffed by the community.  And the swallow, ever coming and going, represented for them the restless, shiftless soul, who never finds a place where he fits.  But it is at the altars where God is worshipped that the sparrow and swallow find their home.  They cannot be messed with or hurt.  Here in God’s house is where they belong.

If we live long enough, we start longing for a home that is eternal.  We long for the home that Jesus went to prepare for believers in His Father’s house (John 14:1-3).  We long to round the corner and to be at home in one of His “many mansions”.  It’s a place we know we are welcome, a place where we belong.  It’s a place that if you go there, they have to take you in.  My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Grace and peace to sparrows, swallows, and prodigals–Tim

Photo by cml.1674

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