Friday 21 May 2010

If anything, Jesus is Beautiful (Psalm 27)

Despair in death, disappointment in life

In this week's episode of the hit sci-fi TV series, Dr Who, there is a tense, poignant scene where a man dies. He gets shot by an alien, while trying to protect his wife from harm. And as his wife is holding him in her arms watching him disintegrate before her very eyes (did I mention that this is a sci-fi TV show?) - as she watches him die, she turns to the hero, the Doctor, and pleads with him, "Save him. You save everybody. You always do."

The Doctor replies, almost under his breath, "No, not always."

And in this moment of stillness, when you can see that this woman is obviously grieved yet profoundly shocked at the situation, she says to the Doctor - looking straight at him, with zero emotion in her voice - she says,

"Then, what is the point of you?"

The dialogue was not simply meant to convey grief over death. The woman's statement communicated an even more powerful emotion - despair. She was expressing disappointment in someone she thought she could trust to save her husband, but who had let her down in her time of greatest need.

1. Confidence in God's Salvation

I think that a Christian's faith is not put to the test when he faces suffering, pain or even death. A Christian's faith is truly put to the test when he begins to doubt whether God will save him from suffering, pain and death.

That is why Psalm 27 is so relevant, and indeed, so precious to us as Christians. For Psalm 27 speaks about salvation, but more importantly, the Christian's confidence in a God who is able and willing to bring salvation. We want to know that God can save. We want to be able to trust that God will save me.

The LORD is my light and salvation – whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?

(Verse 1)

The author of this psalm, David, is confident that the God of the bible, the LORD or YHWH, will deliver him from his troubles. He calls God his "salvation" and his "stronghold" - a description of a place of safety and security. As we read on, we get a better idea what David is being saved from.

When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh,

when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall.

(Verse 2)

David is facing personal "enemies" and "foes". They advance to "devour his flesh": A very colourful, and rather gross, illustration that the footnotes in my NIV bible tell me is an expression meaning "slander". They want to bring down David's reputation and regard as King. But they also want to bring him down as God's chosen King. He calls them "evil men", meaning they are enemies, too, in God's sight. This is related to verse 12 where "false witnesses rise up" to confront David.

In spite of their attacks and accusations, David is confident. (You might be forgiven for thinking that David appears rather overconfident!) "Whom shall I fear?" he says in verse 1, a rhetorical statement, as the answer in the following verse implies "Absolutely no one!"

Though an army besiege me my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then will I be confident.

(Verse 3)

It doesn't matter that his enemies gather in large forces, ganging up against him. Even war will not shake his confidence one bit.

But you only need to read the account of David's life to realise that David is not boasting of the figurative, but the factual. The mortal threats he outlines at the beginning of psalm 27 are not hypothetical; instead the enemies, the foes, the armies - these constant threats to his life are very much biographical.

The books of 1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament record for us David's career as soldier, fugitive, rebel leader and subsequently, king and ruler over Israel. His was a life full of conflict and battle. He was always going into battle and leading other men into battle. There was always someone out to kill David; most notably Saul, the former king who was hell-bent on hunting down David and taking his life. (The one time when David tried to step back from conflict - this was after he had ascended to the throne, and he tried to stay at the palace and let the soldiers do the fighting for once - that was the time he fell in to sin. He slept with another man's wife, had her husband murdered, and tried to cover it all up. He couldn't hide it from God, of course, who cursed David's career with further ongoing restlessness and conflict.)

So we shouldn't get too romantic with the word "salvation". For David, the dangers were real, the enemies were real - but God's salvation was all the more dependable. Here was a man who had faced the prospect of a gruesome death again and again, but could testify that God's protection had seen him through each and every one of these situations. Salvation for David meant deliverance from death. Verse 13 which speaks of David's confidence of God's goodness in the "land of the living" is a reference to an earthly existence. Elsewhere in the bible, the expression is found in Isaiah 38 on the lips of King Hezekiah worried that he would succumb to his illness and would no longer "see the LORD in the land of the living." Here, it means David hopes that at the end of the day he will still alive; that he is still breathing.

David is describing mounting opposition. The "enemies" and attackers in verse 2, gather as an "army" in verse 3. Yet notice that point of conflict is not external but internal. The battle is not "out there" but in his "heart" (verse 3). That is, the real battle is occurring on the inside - and the focus of David's resolve is his internal struggle and anguish.

The enemies advance against "me"; to devour "my flesh"; they "attack me" - in verse 2. And the army in verse 3 does not march up to lay siege on Jerusalem. No, they "beseige me". Even the declaration of "war" is against "me".

It may be that because David was king and God's chosen servant that he was at the centre of so much hatred, malice and conflict. But I think at some level he is also expressing a point of view all of us share when we are under immense pressure from those around us. That is, it feels personal. It feels like the world is out to get me, and me alone. Pain is an isolating experience. My pain and my problems make me focus on my situation and my plight.

Many students will soon be facing their finals. Yet as stressful as those two hours in the exam hall might be, it's the twelve hours beforehand that really get to you. Trying to cram in just a few more pages of notes; trying to get a good night's sleep. Not surprisingly, some Cambridge students actually thrive on this pressure. It's that gung-ho confident attitude which says, "I can take anything you throw at me", and I guess that's the kind of optimism you need to survive the pressure-cooker environment that is university, at times. Students are encouraged to be independent, confident, self-reliant, sensible...

But that's not David. He isn't facing his situation alone. I mean, he certainly fears it - in verse 10 he contemplates those closest to him abandoning him at his greatest time of need - "Though my father and mother forsake me" - yet he can face any and every external force that comes at him precisely because he knows he is never ever alone. The LORD is with him.

Verse 1: The LORD is my light and my salvation... The LORD is the stronghold of my life

If you're a student the thing to take away from David is not that he is confident, but that he is confident that God is with him in times of greatest need. Firstly, he prays about a real, physical problem - people who want to hurt him, situations that are troubling him. "Salvation" here is not talking about going to heaven, but being delivered from a very earthly hell. So if David can be honest to God about the things that are bugging him, you should, too. By all means, pray to God about your exams. Worried about a test? Ask for God's help. Can't sleep. Pray for God's peace. The worse thing you could do is hold back and not speak to God about the things that are so consuming your life, that he already sees and knows about.

But secondly, David is acutely aware of God's presence and guidance in the midst of these pressures, and not out of them.

In verse 3 he says, "though war break out against me, even then... will I be confident" The ESV has the footnote "In this I will be confident". Meaning, his confidence arises in the midst of the trouble; and not out of it.

When we are deep in our pain and problems, our prayer to God is often that he take us out of our troubles. But the bible is full of instances where God does not take his people out of trouble, but blesses them in the midst of their trouble.

He doesn't take them out, he brings them through.

David knows this. He sees his enemies. He sees all the pressures building up against him. But he knows that God will be there with him, protecting him, guiding him, accompanying him through these difficult situations for his good and God's glory.

At Rock Fellowship, we are studying the latter chapters of Genesis looking at the life of Joseph, and we learn the same lesson from his life before God. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery. Joseph is betrayed by his master's wife for refusing to sleep with her, and is thrown into prison. But God doesn't take Joseph out of slavery, and he doesn't free Joseph from prison. Indeed he is stuck there for thirteen years. Yet, what God does is bless Joseph. Again and again, Joseph finds favour with his master Potiphar and the prison guard. Again and again, Genesis says God is with Joseph. It is in the midst of difficulty that Joseph learns the presence and providence of the living God.

Paul stresses the same point for us as Christians in his letter to the Romans.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:35,37)

It is precisely "in all these things" that we experience the victorious love of Christ - these things which include "trouble", "hardship", "persecution" and "sword" (which means even death) - in these trials, and not out of them, that the experience of God's saving love becomes all the more real and all the more precious.

2. Worship in God's Tabernacle

An amazing thing happens in verse 4. We have just seen David facing up to real physical threats to his life, and this motivates him to trust in God all the more for his deliverance, but verse 4 says, it also spurs him worship the living God in his tabernacle.

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek;
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.

To gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and seek him in his temple.

(Verse 4)

And verse 5 reminds us of the context of trials - it is in them that God's salvation becomes all the more real:

For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling

He will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle

And set me high upon a rock.

(Verse 5)

The picture that David paints for us then, is mounting opposition that we have seen in verses 1 to 3 - with enemies, foes, attackers and armies all gathered against David - indeed, verse 6 says, they still "surround" him at this point. But here in verses 4 to 5, we learn that David has sought refuge in God's presence by residing in his temple. In verse 4, it is the "house of the LORD" and "his temple", in verse 5 he describes it as "his dwelling" and his "tabernacle" (also in verse 6).

Now, all these describe the one and same place - the temple, dwelling, tabernacle and house of God is the place where God has made provision for man to enter into his presence. It was given to Moses together with the regulations for worship, sacrifice and the service of the priests. The word "tabernacle", I should point out, simply means "tent". If you remember during the time of the Exodus, God would travel with the wandering Israelites in the desert. And this "tabernacle" or "tent" was sent up in the midst of the peoples' tents.

We see that the "house of the LORD" is central to David's one main request in verse 4. "One thing I ask of the LORD". There he is facing trouble, facing death, and the one single thing he desires most from God (it's the ONE thing!) is this - to "dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of (his) life".

This does not mean that David wants to hang out at the temple all day. It has nothing to do with coming to church on Sundays, then CF, then FOCUS, then CICCU, then Joshua, then Rock Fellowship, then Paul Group... and filling up your entire week with Christian activities. Though there is nothing wrong with any of this. It's just not what David is talking about.

David doesn't just say where he wants to be (in the house of the LORD) but what he intends to do there; what his motivation for wanting to "dwell in the house of the LORD" all the days of his life. Similarly for us, what is the main motivation for us to gather frequently as God's people around God's word. What draws us to meet together as brothers and sisters in Christ?

David's answer?
"To gaze upon the beauty of the LORD."

David wants to
experience God's goodness. In verse 13, he says "I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living". But more than just see it, he desires to gaze upon it - and that word "gaze" implies a contemplative, reflective and meditative approach to experiencing God. Now, how on earth do we do this?

The key to this is the word "beauty". Human beings are hard-wired for appetites that go beyond physical needs and functional gain. Beauty is something we find satisfaction in our sight and soul - that, though similar to food filling our stomaches - is utterly different in that, beauty is satisfying in an off itself. It is that piece of music, that you can play over and over again, to the annoyance of your neighbours, but for you it changes you, it captures you. Or a work of art you could sit in front of all day and just stare at. Beauty is appreciated - we gaze upon it, we long for it, we are satisfied by it.

Which is why, "beauty" can be utterly devastating when it is the sole foundation for a meaningful relationship. It is one thing to apply our appreciation to an inanimate object, but quite another to say to your husband or your wife, "I will be with you as long as you stay attractive; as long as you stay beautiful to me."

We live in a world where beauty fades. The whole cosmetic industry relies on the fact that we age, that we are constantly losing the beauty of our youth. Yet we will always have this insatiable need to be more and more beautiful.

And even if; even if we could preserve beauty. Through technology - the way we can now digitally capture music; or using some sort of 3D advancement - if we could somehow recreate perfectly the experience of a performance, exactly the way it was meant to be experienced. Even so, we would change. Our subjective desires are fickle and transient. Given enough time, we get bored of anything. People who produce pornography know this: there is always demand for another photo, another model, another issue.

Those of us who are constantly on facebook, know this. It's an addiction - looking for that next high (a video, an update, a funny quip!), and the more and more time we spend on feeding our addiction - we get more absorbed yet less and less satisfied.

You know what the amazing thing is with Psalm 27? David seems to have found the exception! He wants to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD - and he can say "This is the one thing I want; the one thing that will satisfy me!". He can say, "I can do this all day - every day - and I will just want to focus on God alone more each day!"

Now how can he say this? What is David's secret? Look at verse 4 again. Notice how his request is sandwiched between two actions:

One this I ask of the LORD,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.

David seeks God. Twice it says (in the NIV) he will seek God in the temple. He actually says it twice again in verse 8 (we will look at it just a little later). The ESV renders the second "seek" as "inquire". But what do these words mean - to "seek" and to "enquire" of God?

In part, David knows it is going to be process. It is going to take time for him to build his appreciation for God's beauty. He will have to seek God. It sounds a bit like prayer. It sounds lot like contemplation and reflection upon God. Taking time not just to take in God's holiness, goodness but also taking time for his senses to develop an appetite to fully appreciate God's holiness and goodness.

Yet, whenever you find these words "seek" or "enquire" in the bible, and in the Psalms in particular, they usually have a more exact application. It is usually talking about God's word. I mean, you "seek"... God's will, and God's will is revealed in God's word. David is talking about the law of God. He knows he has to spend time reflecting on what God has said in his word about himself.

At first glance this can seems strange! What does appreciating God's beauty, have to do with reading God's word? The last thing a student wants to hear, is that he has to study more! Read more of this book! Learn it, spend time in it! Because the student has spent the past year in books and he has just grown sick of it!

Yet, what you are reading in the bible is not another book - you are reading a person. That's what you have to do to grow in appreciation of an individual. You get to know that person. You find out more about what he or she is like - their likes and dislikes, their experiences, their character. And when you read the bible, you are learning more about God. What he is like. What he has done. Did you know you could do that? You could come to God's word and ask questions about his will. You can come to God's word to hear his voice speaking to you.

And David is saying, the more and more you do this - the more you seek God in his word, the more you will want to. You will begin to see God's character, his holiness, his goodness - his beauty - in his revealed word. You will want to do this, all the days of your life.

3. Mercy from God's Judgement

So, to recap: David is facing mounting opposition from his enemies. He paints a worst-case scenario whereby he is surrounded by attackers, gathering to wage war against him. Yet David is secure in his trust in God. We find him in God's temple, worshipping God in the presence of his beauty and holiness. He is confident, he is fearless, he is full of praise (verse 6 - I will sacrifice with
shouts of joy) - but when we come to verse 7; we find him broken and vulnerable.

“Hear my voice when I call, O LORD;

Be merciful to me and answer me.”

(Verse 7)

David is struggling! Not with man, but with God! He cries out to the LORD saying, "Hear me! Answer me!" What is more, we soon find David struggling with himself!

My heart says of you, “Seek his face!”
Your face, LORD I will seek.

(Verse 8)

Earlier David had resolved to seek God in his temple, and now his heart reminds him to do just that - "Seek his face!" - it says to him. As if his own heart and conscience knows that David is prone to wandering. As if, he himself knows how tempted his not to seek God's direction and will. The original Hebrew is hard to translate at this point. It could just as well be God speaking through David's heart saying "Seek my face". In which case, God knows that David needs reminding. God is holding David to his promise.

But the shocking revelation comes in the next verse. You see, David might be fearless when it comes to man. In verse 1, he confidently proclaims "Whom shall I fear!" Well, verse 9 reveals that David does fear someone, deeply and profoundly. David fears God.

Do not hide your face from me,
do not turn your servant away in anger;
You have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me,
O God my Saviour.
(Verse 9)

Do you see hear what David is saying? "Do not hide your face... do not turn me away" ... in anger? Why would God reject him? Why does David plead that the LORD not forsake him in his time of need?

It is at this point of the psalm that we need to remind ourselves: where is David? He has told us again and again in verses 4 to 6. Where is he, right now, as he engages with God at his time of greatest need?

He is in the temple. The temple: where sacrifices are offered up to God for the sinfulness of man. The temple where God's anger of the sinfulness of man is quenched through the offering of bulls and goats. Everything around him is a grim reminder that God is utterly holy, and man is utterly sinful. But mercifully, everything around him also reminds David that God is loving and gracious. That is what he cries out for in verse 7 - "Be merciful to me!" he says. For God does not deal with his people as they deserve, but provides the sacrificial system, through the temple, as a way for our punishment for sin to fall on the animals and blood sacrifices. David knows this well. The joy he experiences in verse 6 (I will sacrifice with shouts of joy!), is the joy of forgiveness!

Look again at how David addresses God at the end of verse 9. He calls him, "O God my Saviour". O God. My
Saviour! In verse 1, David confidently says of God - he is my salvation. But here, he feels like he desperately needs to reminds God of this fact - "You are my helper! You are my Saviour!"

What is he asking God to save him from? It isn't his enemies. It is God's anger.

"Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger"

So much so, that the only thing that would cause David to fall into the hands of his enemies, is God's righteous judgement. He says in verse 12, "
Do not hand me over to the desire of my foes." Israel as a nation has seen threats from its neighbours - Assyria, Syria, Babylon, Rome; the people of God have always had its enemies. Yet, the bible is clear that whenever the nation fell into the hands of its enemies, it wasn't because God had not been able to protect them, rather it was precisely because God had ordained these forces to punish them in their continuous rebellion against him.

These verses paint two complementary pictures of God's judgement over sin. First, all God need do is hide his face from us. He only needs to let us go. I am reminded of Romans 1 which declares in verse 18, "The wrath of God is being revealed against the godlessness and wickedness of men..." followed by the repeated phrase, "There God gave them over" (verse 24), "God gave them over" (verse 26), "God gave them over" (verse 28). He hands us over, not just to the desires of evil men (verse 12), but to the desires of our own evil hearts - to experience the fullness of our wickedness and the fullness of his wrath.

But secondly, God's judgement is also seen in his rejection. To understand this, we have to understand how David's anguish is not at all expressed physically, but relationally. He doesn't want to be abandoned! He fears that he will be left alone!

Though my father and mother forsake me,
the LORD will receive me.

(Verse 10)

David compares God to his closest kin - his father and mother. So precious is the bond of love and relationship and approval that he treasures with God, that he places it above his own family. And for a man of God like David, he knows the true horror of God's judgement is seen in the severing of this relationship with the Creator, the Author of Life, but also the Source of his Joy. That's why David can long for God's beauty. He isn't merely expressing hope that he will be saved; David is expressing love for his Saviour!

4. Beauty in God's Sacrifice

The question remains - what does this Beauty, or Pleasantness (as in some translations) of God look like? It is his glory? Is it God's power? Perhaps some kind of radiance that is projected from his presence? Can we even see it?

Actually, David isn't describing something in the abstract when he speaks of the beauty of the LORD. It is obvious, isn't it? David it talking about the sacrifice.

The whole temple serves but one purpose. It was one big slaughterhouse. Animals were cut up and their blood and carcasses were offered up to God. The tabernacle (or tent) itself contained one main thing. It housed the ark of the covenant - essentially a huge ornate box - that had as its cover what was known as the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover". And on this, and everything else in the temple was sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice.

What does David see in the temple? It is the blood. He sees the sacrifice for his sins.

For us as Christians, we too, have a sacrifice for sins. We see Jesus on the cross. God made him who knew no sin, to be sin for us. And in Jesus, we become the righteousness of God.

That is, Jesus died on the cross to pay the full price of David's sin, and our sin. Everything that David was afraid of yet knew he deserved - Jesus took on the cross.

The evil men gathering to "devour" his flesh. The false witnesses rising up against him, breathing out violence. Jesus was delivered over to the evil desires of men to be forsaken. On the cross, Jesus died at the hands of his enemies. The Creator was subject to his creation. On the cross, God was forsaken by man.

But more profoundly, on the cross, God was forsaken by God. For Jesus, the eternal Son was forsaken by the everlasting Father. God the Father turned his face away from the perfect humble servant, instead pouring out the wrath reserved for the entire world upon the only innocent man that ever lived - his one and only Son. We need to see: the true punishment lay in the severing of a relationship that had existed since eternity past. On the cross, Jesus would cry out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!"

Friends unless we see how precious Jesus was to his Father, we will not see him as precious to our hearts. The unique lesson of Psalm 27 is that it calls us to look upon a broken man, grotesquely tortured with scars and stripes on his back, in agony and immense pain, bleeding and suffocating to the point of death - the bible calls us to look to Jesus and say with David, he is beautiful! To look upon the blood of the sacrifice and not turn away, but acknowledge the most glorious display of God's love, holiness, and yes, even beauty.

That is, Christians need to come to the point where we seek God not to get his blessing, but just to get God. Not just to be saved, but for God to be our salvation.

I wonder if you noticed that about verse 1. It's an odd thing: David calls God his salvation. He defines salvation not as an event, but a person. As long as he has God, he is saved. The implication being, he might very well be exposed to his enemies gathering around him - but that's OK. What he is truly seeking for, he already finds in God. They might come at him at full force, but he knows where he needs to be - not in a fortified city, but in a tent; in God's presence before God's sacrifice that makes David acceptable in God's presence.

How does Paul put it again?

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?

(Romans 8:35)

You see, the Christian can face danger, pressure, even death, because he knows that in Christ, he is secure. There is no more condemnation for those in Christ (Rom 8:1) - Jesus has taken it all on the cross. So while we still live in a world ravaged by sin and death - we are equipped to face it with confidence and trust - for it is in these very trials and dangers that God's love in Jesus is made all the more real and all the more glorious.

Jesus isn't just useful. Jesus isn't just powerful. If anything,
Jesus is beautiful. His death, his sacrifice, his work on the cross - O, that we might gaze upon Jesus and be satisfied in our souls with him! No need to prove ourselves through accomplishment. No need to strive for our own righteousness. But to look only to Jesus and know full assurance, confidence and love.

But one last thing. In Jesus, we are beautiful in God's eyes. He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). So that in Jesus, we become sinless in God's sight. In Jesus we are beautiful to God.In Jesus we will always be accepted, loved and treasured.

If anything, Jesus is beautiful.

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