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Tent Rules

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 30, 2011.
Psalm 15; Micah 6:1-8

(Note:  Noah and Derek Bryan will be setting up a tent as the sermon begins.)           

Tents can be a lot of fun.  Over the illustrious history of my camping career, I remember getting a little sleep but having lots of fun. 

But tents can also be a pain.  I remember trying to set up a tent after sundown because I waited too long to start, and unlike Noah and Derek Bryan, having all kinds of trouble getting the thing to stand up and then stay up. 

And then there’s the inevitable rain. 

The very first time I camped out I was just a kid.  I was with my parents who were camping out with other friends over Labor Day weekend.  I remember it rained cats and dogs the entire time.  I remember a miniature version of the Yadkin River ran down the middle of the floor of our tent.  And I remember my mother was not a happy camper!

The last time I camped out several years ago I had a similar experience with the rain, which may explain why I haven’t been tent camping in awhile.  “It always rains on tents,” Dave Barry writes.  “Rainstorms will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds, for the opportunity to rain on a tent.”

If you’ve ever been camping, you know there are some stated and unstated rules that govern this form of recreation.  One person who does a lot of tent camping offers the following set of rules:

1)     Keep the screen door zipped when you aren’t entering or exiting the tent to keep the bugs out.

2)    Put your belongings in the same place each time—flashlight beside the sleeping bag, clothes at the foot of the sleeping bag, etc.—so you can find things when you are rummaging for them in the dark.

3)    Remove your shoes before entering the tent so you can keep things clean inside. 

Experienced tent campers always follow these rules.  And they recommend if you tent camp with others, especially a large group, there are some additional rules you should follow:

1)     Respect the space selected by others.  Once someone claims a site, with their stuff, don’t set your tent up on their space while they are away just because they got the smooth ground or the shady spot.             

2)     The usual rules of crowding don’t apply.  When many people are tent camping in a limited space, don’t expect to have an acre to yourself.

3)    Don’t enter other people’s tents uninvited.  Just like you don’t enter other people’s homes uninvited.

4)    Observe quiet time from 9:30 p.m. to 5:00 a.m.

Years ago I learned how important this rule is.  Scott McNeely, Randy Peters, and I took our kids tent camping over a holiday weekend.  The campground was packed, we were jammed very close together, and unfortunately, our immediate neighbors decided to get out their six-packs and party the night away.  All of us could hear every word our tent neighbors were shouting to each other as we lay in ours tents trying to sleep, and lots of those words weren’t very edifying, especially for young ears. 

So, Scott, Randy and I  prayed about what to do, and the Holy Spirit told Randy and me that Scott should  to talk to our rough and rowdy neighbors who were three sheets to the wind.  To this day I believe owe our lives to Scott, who managed to get those folks to simmer down almost immediately.  And to this day I don’t have any problem understanding why Scott has been so successful in the pest control business!  

Maybe you didn’t know it, but the Bible has its own set of tent rules as well.  In Psalm 15 the Psalmist asks, 

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?

                        Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Now to be honest, the author of Psalm 15, who presumably is Israel’s King David, is using “tent” in a metaphorical way as he talks about the temple, a substantial, permanent structure.  And the “holy hill” in the psalm refers to the hill in Jerusalem upon which the temple stands. 

But it was common to refer to the temple as a tent because God’s first dwelling among the people of Israel was a tent.  In the beginning of their history, when the Israelites were on the move in the wilderness during their exodus from Egypt, God instructed them to construct a movable sanctuary, or a tent, to house the Ark of the Covenant.  Each time the Israelites made camp, they would set up the tent in the center of camp, symbolizing God’s presence in the center of their lives. 

Eventually, King David would suggest to God that they replace the tented tabernacle with an immovable temple, but God resisted.  Finally, God allowed David’s son, Solomon, to build the first temple in Jerusalem.  But even after the temple was built, the Israelites would often refer to it as the “tent of the Lord.”

Now in those days people did not enter into the presence of the Lord casually, and there was no sign in front of the temple that said, “Everyone welcome.”  In fact, there were certain categories of people—people with physical deformities, improper parentage, skin ailments, and women in menstruation—who could not enter the temple at all.  Being on God’s presence was considered an honor, not a right, and a prospective worshiper should embody a certain kind of life.

Psalm 15 is described by Old Testament scholars as an “entrance liturgy,” meaning it contains a ritualized set of questions and requirements asked of worshippers as they enter the temple.  Few scholars believe worshippers were actually asked to prove they met these requirements.   In fact, because of their sin no human being deserved to be in God’s presence.   The Hebrew word used for “abide” communicates that all worshipers are God’s guests only because he is a gracious God.  So Psalm 15 provides not so much a checklist of requirements for entering the temple as a description of what it means to walk faithfully with God and his people.

What’s interesting is that Psalm 15 corresponds very closely to one of the best-known passages of the Old Testament—Micah 6:1-8.  Even though it was written at a different time by a different author, Micah 6 looks and sounds and feels like a close relative of Psalm 15.

When Micah pens his prophecy in the eighth century, the nation of Israel is in a moral meltdown.  The rich are shamelessly stealing the lands of the poor.  The nation’s leaders are making a mockery of justice, and almost no political leader or judge is above taking a bribe.  And as long as they get their paychecks from the peoples’ tithes and offerings, the priests and prophets are content to look the other way. 

As Micah 6 opens God is taking Israel to court.  God is the judge, Micah is God’s advocate, and the hills and mountains are the jury.  God’s complaint is that despite all he has done for Israel, she has disobeyed him, even forgotten him.  Israel responds that she still worships God and sacrifices the best of the cattle and sheep for him every day.

If their current sacrifices to God aren’t adequate, maybe it’s time to take the sacrifices to the next level. 

            With what shall I come before the Lord,

                        and bow myself before God on high?

            Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

                        and calves a year old?

            Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

                        and ten thousands rivers of oil?

            Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

                        the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

Surely sacrifices like these will satisfy God and make it possible for even the most corrupt Israelites to enter God’s tent in good standing.   “Not so fast!” says Micah.

            He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

                        and what does the Lord require of you

            But to do justice, and to love kindness,

                        and to walk humbly with our God?

Psalm 15 and Micah 6.  These rich passages contain the tent rules that people of God live by, not just to gain entrance into the temple but simply because they are the people of God.  A peach tree doesn’t grow peaches to prove it is a peach tree.  It grows peaches because it’s a peach tree.  People devoted to God don’t follow the rules to gain God’s favor, but because that’s what people of God, and followers of God’s son, Jesus, do.    

Now, blending these two passages together, here’s how we can list God’s tent rules, or the practices of people who abide in the presence of God.

            Under “doing justice” we can include the following from Psalm 15:

1)    Walking blamelessly, and doing what is right;

2)    Speaking the truth from the heart, and living with integrity;

3)    Standing by your oath and promise, even if it hurts you.

4)    Not lending money  at interest to the poor;

5)    And not accepting a bribe for any reason. 

We should note that the Israelites would charge interest when they lent money to Gentiles, but typically would not charge interest to one another.  And they were especially protective of the poor, whom they said should never pay interest. 

When I think of standing by a promise, I can’t help but remember an incident that occurred in our own family when I was doing doctoral work at Southern Seminary in Louisville.  Joani and I already had two children and were as poor as church mice.  When we first moved to Louisville in the winter of 1981 Joani found a public school job that paid reasonably well.  But that job ended the following summer, and when Joani was offered a much less desirable, and I might add lower-paying job in a church-based private school, she took it.  Just before school started Joani was offered a much better paying job in a public school, but she turned it down because she would not bail out on the private school at the last moment.  That’s keeping your promise when it hurts.

            Under “loving kindness” we can include the following from Psalm 15:

1)    Not slandering others, attacking others verbally and falsely so as to destroy them;

2)    Doing no evil to a friend.  Refusing to harm others physically, or in any other way;

3)    Not reproaching a neighbor, refusing to perpetuate gossip or spread rumors.

I’m not sure that the church has failed any more miserably than in our sins of the tongue.  How many times have we watched “Christians” slice and dice one another with their words, and engage in character assassination without a second thought?

But before I move on, let me point out that this category of tent rules eliminates the possibility of the people of God sexually abusing others either verbally or physically.  Sadly, “Christians” have either participated or looked the other way when co-workers or friends have been sexually harassed, or worse, sexually assaulted. Statistics prove that domestic abuse occurs all too commonly in “Christian” households and sexual abuse occurs all too commonly at church.  Sexually harming anyone for any reason is doing evil to a friend, and is forbidden in the household of God. 

Under our third category, “walking humbly with our God,” Psalm 15 urges us to honor those who fear the Lord.  Notice I do not include the rule that calls for “despising the wicked” because I don’t think that rule rises to the higher teaching of Jesus who loved the wicked.  But honoring those who fear the Lord is appropriate for those who humbly acknowledge that the Lord is our God, and not we ourselves.  We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture (Psalm 100).  Strutting around like a peacock has no place in church or anywhere else because, as C.S. Lewis once said, if you do not know God as being immeasurably superior to you, you do not know him at all.

When you think about it, these rules from Psalm 15 and Micah reflect the very nature of God.  They describe the way God acts toward his people.  And we are called to immitate God.

What happens when by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit we do?  Those who do these things shall never be moved, says King David.  In other words, no matter what happens to us, we shall never be shaken to the core, because God will always be abiding with us pitching his tent in our soul.

And with the presence of almighty God in the tent of our soul, I am persuaded, with the Apostle Paul, that neither death, nor life, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall separate (or shake) us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).