Friday 28 May 2010

The Call of the Kingdom (Matthew 9:9-13)

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples.When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

(Matthew 9:9-13)

It is tempting to focus on the one individual Jesus approaches and enlists as his disciple here in this passage. My NIV bible heads the section as "The Calling of Matthew". The other two gospels have "The Calling of Levi" (Levi being Matthew's other Jewish name) in their parallel accounts of Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-32.

Yet, in all three accounts, the controversy surrounds Jesus calling not one "sinner", but gathering around him many "sinners". Here in Matthew's gospel, verse 10, it is when many tax collectors and sinners come and eat with Jesus, that the religious leaders start to kick up a fuss.

This is not to say that Matthew's invitation by Jesus to join him in life and ministry is not important. Rather the calling of Matthew as an individual, soon gives way to the calling of a community made up of many individuals like Matthew, which forms the basis of a Kingdom proclaimed to many sinners like us. This passage progresses from:

  • The Call (Verse 9)
  • The Community (Verses 10 to 11); to...
  • The Kingdom (Verses 12 to 13)

1. The Call

Matthew is a tax collector. His profession is highlighted three times in the passage. In verse 9, he is sitting at the tax collector's booth. In verse 10, many of his tax collector friends join him at home. In verse 11, the religious leaders criticise the whole bunch of tax collectors as "sinners".

All his life, Matthew never forgot that. In the next chapter, Matthew's name is among the twelve chosen apostles of Jesus. Yet even there, he is called "Matthew the tax collector" (10:3). Being in the inner circle of Jesus, witnessing his miracles and listening to his teaching, even writing this gospel account Jesus' life, ministry and death - never changed the fact that Matthew would always be remembered for this one job he once worked. But what was so significant about being a tax collector?

It is often taught in Sunday School that tax collectors were greedy businessmen who imposed harsh taxes on the people of Israel, forcing them to pay more than they could afford to line their own pockets. But the hatred of tax collectors goes deeper than even that.

2000 years ago, Israel (and much of the Western world) was ruled by the mighty Roman empire who enforced their power and influence through a strong military presence. The only way to finance the large number of troops needed for such a massive operation was tax. Money was collected to pay for soldiers, arms and supplies. Jewish businessmen bid for contracts to collect tax on behalf of the Roman government from their own nation. In effect, these tax collectors were financially enabling the occupation of their own country.

Tax collectors were seen as political traitors. But the label of "sinners" goes one step further to say that theirs was a moral offence against the God of Israel. Working in close proximity with Gentiles made them "unclean" - they couldn't come into the presence of God. Colluding with a foreign nation was an affront to the Kingdom of God - they stood under the wrath of the Almighty.

For Jesus to call Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him as a disciple is surprising, if not offensive. Not least because Jesus could have had his pick. Huge crowds followed him wherever he went. Many came seeking miraculous healing. Large numbers gathered to hear him preach. Not a few approached him to be discipled. In the previous chapter, Jesus had a learned scholar coming up to him to offer his services. "Teacher," he said, "I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus rebuffed him, "The Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Or later in chapter 19, when a rich man claiming to have kept the commandments of the God's law sought after Jesus, only to end up leaving sorrowful, having been asked by Jesus to sell his possessions.

Jesus could have chosen the best, the brightest and the influential. Instead, he chooses Matthew - a traitor, an outcast and a sinner. Matthew: who was not there in the crowd that day but stayed in his office minding his own business. He doesn't even bother to get up when Jesus finds him "sitting at the ... booth". But Jesus sees Matthew, Jesus calls Matthew, and Matthew responds.

"Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

To be called of God, is to be invited by Jesus. Personally. Irresistibly. To get up from wherever you are in your life right now, and join Jesus by walking with him and living for him alone. This is what it means to follow Jesus. This is what it means to become a Christian.

And Jesus says the reason he came is to call people like Matthew. He came to call sinners.

2. The Community

The religious leaders did not understand this. When Jesus is in Matthew house with Matthew's friends, the Pharisees gather outside to condemn Jesus for the company he is keeping.

When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"

But notice that the point of contention is not just Jesus' company, but also his activity. Jesus is eating with these sinners. The issue is defilement. A sinner is unclean, and eating with a sinner makes you unclean. It was bad enough for Jesus to enter Matthew's home. But to eat his food? Doesn't Jesus realise he is contaminating himself not just externally but internally now?

Later in Chapter 15, Jesus would say to them, "Listen and understand. What goes into a man's mouth does not make him 'unclean,' but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him 'unclean.' " In Chapter 23, Jesus would condemn them for their concern with outward appearances but ignorance of their inner hypocrisy: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence."

The Pharisees raise their objections to Jesus' disciples. Perhaps they are trying to be polite (yeah, right!) by passing the message along. More likely, the religious leaders are standing outside Matthew's house, unwilling to risk defiling themselves by entering in. Yet there they are, standing on the outside, refusing to join in the celebration, and looking down disapprovingly on all who do.

The scene reminds me of Jesus' parable of the wayward son and his older brother in Luke 15 which ends similarly with a big party. The youngest son who had insulted his father by demanding his share of the inheritance only to leave home and squander it all on "wild living", returns home sheepishly only to be welcomed with open arms by his loving father. The father throws a huge celebration in honour of his youngest, much to the displeasure of his oldest son, who comes home after working all day in the estate, and starts kicking up a fuss. The older brother refuses to even step into the house. "No! I won't!" Like a small brat he throws a tantrum, blaming his father, blaming his brother, all the while insisting on being in the right.

And here in Matthew's gospel, outside Matthew's house, the Pharisees act like the older brother - who complain against the wayward, sinful brother; who pour scorn on their joy; who criticise Jesus for associating with these outcasts; and who still see themselves as righteous, holy and acceptable. It is worth asking at this point: why were they so confident of their rightness and Jesus' wrongness? What was it about the Pharisees and religious leaders that made them think so lowly of the tax collectors, indeed, of Jesus for mixing with the tax collectors?

It was their goodness.

Sunday School kids are often taught, "Don't by like those Pharisees, those hypocrites! They are the bad guys!" We imagine Pharisees to be spoilsports, mean-spirited, grumpy old men. But actually, the Pharisees were the good guys. They read their bibles. They followed the rules outlined by God's law. They looked forward to God's kingdom. They were religious, respectable and biblical. They were the kind of people you wanted teaching your kids in schools. They were the kind of people you wanted to run your churches - serious about sin and fervent about God's word. Pharisees were the good guys.

And Jesus shocks them by saying he didn't come to look for the good guys. He's come for the bad.

"For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

Ironically, it was not their badness that kept the Pharisees away from Jesus, it was their goodness. What about us? Are we tempted to think God will love us more because we have kept the rules? By maintaining a regular appearance on Sundays in church? Through our grades? What is our measure of goodness? A job? Cleanliness? What makes us look respectable, acceptable before other men? Our education? The number of friends on our Facebook page?

While we are at it: what is our modern equivalent of badness? Who are the sinners in our day and age? Who are the people we stay away from? The criminals? The hypocrites? The poor? The rich, maybe? The proud and arrogant? Are we tempted to think that they deserve God's judgement for what they have done, more than we do?

The issue at heart of it is prejudice. Everyone agrees it is bad. Yet, everyone has prejudices; everyone discriminates based on their subjective judgement of what is good or bad, what is beneficial or unprofitable, what is useful or harmful. We might try to legislate against the act of prejudice - by enacting laws against hate crimes, unfair hiring practices or discrimination in schools and workplaces. But how do you legislate against the heart? How do you imprison hate? How do curb envy?

You see, even the Sunday School teacher, summarising a passage like today's by saying, "Kids, don't by like the Pharisees!" is essentially doing the exact same thing the Pharisees were doing. "We are good, they are the ones who are bad!"

Which makes Jesus' reply to the situation all the more radical. He brings the matter back to God's judgement. But more pointedly, he brings the matter back to his own mission. Jesus' call would be the true measure of righteousness and acceptability in the Kingdom. For Jesus is the King who has come to bring in the Kingdom. Jesus is the Judge who determines God's judgement on who gets into the Kingdom.

3. The Kingdom

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

There was something very significant about Jesus sitting down and eating with these tax collectors, and the Pharisees could see that. It wasn't just the food, though it was a possible issue of defilement. And, it wasn't just his friends, as hated as these tax collectors were. It was what the food and the friends represented together - a fellowship. Jesus was giving a glimpse into the new community that he would establish as God's new kingdom.

Every week, Rock Fellowship meets to study the bible and a big part of our coming together regularly each week, is meal we share beforehand. It is such a blessing to be able to do this as a fellowship, as a church and as a family. It really isn't just about the convenience of not having to grab dinner at McDonald's after work, or saving money, or even savouring a good hearty Chinese meal (though that helps!). Eating together is something you do regular with people you share your lives with. You eat with your friends. You eat regularly with your family.

The early church did this. In Acts Chapter 2, three thousand people became Christians in one afternoon. And from that day on, Acts 2 says these three thousand believers did three things. Every day, the met to study from the bible, to pray, and to eat together. They ate together as a sign of their new life together in Jesus.

So we as the Chinese Church gather on the first week of every month to share the Lord's Supper. It is simply a meal, consisting the bread and the cup of wine (well, cups - plural... filled with of Ribena), representing the body and blood of Jesus. We do this to proclaim his death for us, as one body in him. Often, you will hear us refer to this as "Communion" - our coming together as a community, to share this symbolic meal, as a reminder of the cross.

The bible speaks of heaven as a huge banquet. It is a feast prepared by God and shared with God's people. We looked at one such parable of Jesus on Valentine's Day recently when we studied Matthew Chapter 22 - The Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Here in Matthew's gospel, Jesus points forward to that hope of God's presence, blessing and salvation; he foreshadows that new reality - when we gathers these "sinners" around him and eats with them.

The Pharisees could see this. Theirs was a loaded question. They were essentially saying, "Why is Jesus choosing them over us?" The following passage reinforces this, where in verse 14, John's disciples, aligning themselves with the Pharisees also question Jesus' allegiances. "How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" Notice, how complaint still has to do with food? One party feasts while the other fasts? And notice, how the issue is essentially about taking sides? We and the Pharisees - as opposed to - you and your disciples (which may have also been a dig at the tax collectors - ohh, so these sinners are your disciples now are they, Jesus?).

Jesus' reply engages them at three levels.


The first is need. "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick." Jesus says the reason people don't come to him is because they don't see their need for him.

For all the objections I've heard for years about the claims of the bible, about who Jesus is, about what he did for us on the cross, about the existence of God and the so-called problem of evil (which is really more a problem for the atheist that the Christian who actually believes that there is such a thing as good and evil, and a God who determines what is good and evil) - for all the effort that rightly goes into explaining and defending the truth of the gospel; what Jesus says here really hits the nail on the head. The number reason people aren't Christians isn't because they don't think it is true. It's because they think they don't need this truth.

Healthy people don't need a doctor. Good people don't need Jesus.

Jesus uses a very powerful analogy, doesn't he? Sickness as picture of sin. Now understand here that Jesus is not equating how you sick you are with how sinful you are (we will look at this in more detail in the next study). What Jesus is showing us is how aware we are of our sickness, yet how blind we are to sin.

That's because we don't ignore pain. We don't delay in dealing with our suffering. I have a headache, I take a few pills. I have a tootache, I immediately make an appointment to see a dentist. But we don't see our sin. We don't realise how it is killing us. We don't see how it affects the people around us. We don't realise how God is angry with our sinfulness.

Not all pain is a curse. God ordains some pain and hardship to open our eyes to the fact that we live in a sinful world. God sometimes uses pain to open our eyes to the reason for pain - our sinfulness and God's judgement over our sinfulness. There will come a day when God release this world from the bondage to decay. But until then, we cannot forget that heaven is not yet here, and Jesus has not yet returned. Seeing our pain, and recognising the pain of others ought to drive us to pray. It should remind us that we need God's grace to survive in this broken world, and ask him daily for grace, and long for daily for his Kingdom.

At the same time, not all health is blessing. Our wellness, our wealth, our privilege in life might very well be God's judgement in condemning a rebellious world in its blindness to the true source of life, treasure and joy in Jesus. It is one of the real dangers of the prosperity gospel over-emphasising blessings in this life. It spoils our appetite for Jesus. We don't need him as much as we need stuff from him.

Jesus says the healthy don't see their need, and they would not seek him to fill their need.


Secondly, Jesus emphasizes God's mercy. He says, "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' "

Here Jesus quotes from the Old Testament book of Hosea, and you find that it's such an important verse, Jesus quotes it twice in Matthew's gospel. Here as well as Chapter 12. Both times, he is speaking to the religious leaders. Both times, it is about condemnation that they bring against Jesus and his followers. Both times, it stems from a misunderstanding of God's will in his word, which is why Jesus points to Scripture to clarify the situation.

And Jesus mentions two good things, yet one is better.

Jesus talks about two godly things, but one one is desired.

What is the mark of a true community of God? Isn't it tempting to say "sacrifice"? "Wow, look at that guy - he is giving so much of his time, and money, and energy to serve in this church! He has sacrificed so much!" Isn't sacrifice a virtue we value in the Chinese culture? The kind of thing we look for in our leaders? The mark of a true Christian?

Friends, I suggest to you that maybe we lack one thing. Mercy. I mean, think with me for a moment. What would it even look like? When I think of the brothers and sisters in our fellowship, in our church, it is easy to recall how sacrificial we have been for one another. That is truly a blessing. That is truly commendable. But what would an instance of mercy look like in our group, I wonder?

You see, "mercy" means not one of us deserves to be here. Mercy means I deserve God's judgement, not his love. Mercy means I am a sinner; we are all sinners. When Jesus calls Matthew and hangs out with the tax collectors, he isn't denying that stand under God's anger. He identifies their sickness that needs healing. He acknowledges them as "sinners".

But Christians are a special subset of sinners. We are forgiven sinners. We are to be repentant sinners. In the other gospel accounts, we learn that Matthew leaves his job. He repays all he has cheated. He leaves his life of sin - of living his life for himself - and follows Jesus, living his life to serve Jesus.

God shows mercy by pouring out his mercy on undeserving sinners. That is what Jesus does with Matthew and his friends. He is showing them what it means to be loved by God. Not surprisingly, the original quotation in Hosea could be rightly translated as "I desire love, not sacrifice". The word in Hebrew is chesed - a rich description of God's covenantal, faithful, everlasting love.

A community of Jesus that displays mercy, is a community that displays God's love. It means constantly forgiving one another, having received forgiveness from God. It means loving one another with the love we have received from Jesus.

Jesus' Call

Finally, Jesus sums up by pointing to himself - his authority to call sinners to himself. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

To see the weight of Jesus' conclusion, we need to first notice a shift in pronouns. Previously, Jesus was quoting from Hosea where it was God who was speaking. "I desire mercy, not sacrifice," declares the God of the bible. In Hosea, it is God speaking to his people who have rejected him again and again. God desires that his people love him, with the love that has been shown them. A love that is constant, unchanging and steadfast.

And almost immediately, Jesus shifts to the first person. He says of God "I desire". Then Jesus says of himself, "I have come". One is the expression of God's will. The other is the fulfilment of God's love.

Jesus says the whole reason he came - into ministry; into this creation - was to call sinners. But more than that, he underlines the focus of his call by emphasizing the negative. He did not come for the righteous. There is a serious lesson here we need to take on board. Jesus did not take on flesh, to walk as man, to die on the cross, to be raised from the dead - just to give us a pat on the back for all the good things have done for God. He came to seek sinners who could not possibly help themselves. He came to save those who could not possibly save themselves. He came to die so that we would not have to face the final judgement of death ourselves.

This is in fulfilment of Hosea 6 - Jesus displays God's ultimate, merciful love to those who do not deserve it and could never earn it.

But it is also a display of Jesus' ultimate authority as God. For God the only righteous Judge can show such mercy in forgiving sinners. Only God has the ability and the authority to love the unlovable. The Pharisees for all their religion could not - their goodness could not save themselves, much less those around them - they lacked the ability and they lacked the will. But Jesus did. He had the authority to call sinners because he had the authority to lay down his life for sinners. That is the reason he came.

By quoting Hosea 6, Jesus offers a glimpse into the source of his divine authority - his sacrifice. Our sacrifices can never make us acceptable. Our goodness can never make up for our sinfulness. But Jesus can. On the cross, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice for our sin, by taking God's judgement for our sin upon himself. He gave his life as a sacrifice for us, that we might receive mercy from him.

If you are a sinner, this means Jesus came for you. He died so that you could receive God's mercy, love and forgiveness. There nothing for you to do, nothing that you could do - because Jesus has done it all for you through his sacrifice on the cross. All you can do is respond. By obeying his call and by following him as your Lord and as your Saviour.

Hear the call of the kingdom
Lift your eyes to the King
Let His song rise within you
As a fragrant offering
Of how God rich in mercy
Came in Christ to redeem
All who trust in His unfailing grace

King of Heaven we will answer the call
We will follow bringing hope to the world
Filled with passion, filled with power to proclaim
Salvation in Jesus' name

Monday 24 May 2010

The Grace of Exposed Sin (Genesis 38)

"I am sure that God is bringing good out of evil every single day"
Mark Ashton, 3 March 2010

Genesis 38 is one of those chapters you probably skipped in Sunday School. It's a story about sinful actions, selfish desires and God's judgement. No one comes out looking good in this chapter. Yet, to much of our embarrassment, there it is. In the bible, to be read, in church, in our homes, and applied in our lives. What on earth do you with Genesis 38?

Answer? You read it and marvel: at how amazing, gracious and loving is the God of the bible, who brings good out of evil, every single day.

1. Judah

At that time, Judah left his brothers and went down to stay with a man of Adullam named Hirah. There Judah met the daughter of a Canaanite man named Shua. He married her and lay with her; she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, who was named Er. She conceived again and gave birth to a son and named him Onan. She gave birth to still another son and named him Shelah. It was at Kezib that she gave birth to him.
(Verses 1 to 5)

The story revolves around Judah, one of the twelve sons of Israel, and picks up from the previous chapter where Judah and his brothers have just sold one of their younger brothers, Joseph, into slavery. In fact, selling Joseph was Judah's bright idea. The brothers simply wanted to kill Joseph. But Judah thought, why not make a quick buck while they were at it? So he suggested that they sell Joseph, their own brother, to a gang of slave traders en route to Egypt.

So Judah isn't what you could call, a nice guy. But by the end of this account, we will see how God convicts Judah of the wickedness of his own sinfulness and brings him to the point of repentance for his actions.

Chapter 38 begins with Judah marrying a local pagan girl and having three kids. Already, this looks bad. Judah's father and grandfather were not allowed to take a wife from among the local Canaanite women, for fear of being enticed into ungodliness. Isaac and Jacob, Judah's dad and granddad both got wives from the distant home of their forefathers. But here Judah doesn't consult his father Jacob. Judah is a guy who makes up his own mind, thank you very much - in choosing his best friend (a man named Hirah the Adullamite, who will play a key role in Judah's sin later on), and in choosing his wife (a Canaanite woman named Shua). The brevity of his encounter with Shua and his marriage to her, suggests that Judah is a man who decides his own path and acts on his own impulses. He marries Shua and lays with her. As we read on, notice how Judah is constantly giving instructions to others. He expects to be obeyed, yet displays no willingness to submit himself to his own father, or even to his own conscience.

2. Tamar

Judah got a wife for Er, his firstborn, and her name was Tamar.
But Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death.
(Verses 6 and 7)

So, apparently, while Judah feels free to choose his own wife, the rule does not apply to his own sons. Judah "got a wife for Er, his firstborn". But God sees Er's wickedness and kills him because of it. We are not given any details on how Er offended God, but it must have been pretty serious. Not since the earth was destroyed by flood in Noah's time, or when Sodom and Gomorrah was levelled at the time of Abraham, has God visibly struck down sinful man. And even then, these were judgements poured out on masses of people, who had collectively sinned against God. Here, God kills this one individual. It is extraordinary in circumstance, but the uniqueness of the event, hints at the seriousness of Er's wickedness before God. It might be worth comparing him with his younger brother's sin later in verse 10, who also suffered the same fate and was similar described as "wicked in the LORD's sight".

Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother."
(Verse 8)

With the firstborn dead, Judah instructs his second son, Onan, to "fulfil his duty". The request is as crude as it is direct. Judah doesn't say, "Marry Tamar, take care of her, and honour your brother's memory by raising a family with her." There is no hint of marriage. Only the very functional instruction to "lie" with Tamar - literally, to go into her. He doesn't even address Tamar by name - she is "your brother's wife", perhaps appealing to Onan's sense of duty, or even sympathy.

Deuteronomy 25:5-10 spells out the Mosaic law of levirate marriage (the word "levir" derived from the Latin word for brother-in-law; the Hebrew equivalent "ybm" appears 6 times in the passage). So, there was provision for this practice among God's people. We will look at how this applies in the following verses.

We studied this passage at Rock Fellowship recently, and as usual, we began by having members read a few verses each aloud. I do pity the brother who struggled to read out verse 9!

But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother.
What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.

(Verses 9 and 10)

Onan refuses to carry out his duty and verse 9 tells us why. Any offspring would not be his. This could mean either that Onan was worried that he own estate would be put at risk - in the scenario that he doesn't have children of his own, any sons borne to Tamar would be in his elder's name and inherit Onan's wealth upon his death. Another possible motivation is greed. With Er dead, Onan now stood to gain the larger portion of the inheritance. Producing an heir for his elder brother would negate this. So, it could either have been an aversion to risk, or Onan's motivation of greed, that led to his refusal to comply with his father's wishes.

But there is another possibility - shame. Onan didn't simply refuse to carry out his responsibility. Rather he deceived everyone into thinking that he did. He still slept with Tamar. But whenever he did, Onan would deliberately take steps to make sure she would not be impregnated. It is sometimes mistakenly thought that Onan's sin was that of masturbation, as described colourfully in verse 9. Such is the use of the word "onanism". However, looking at the context of Genesis 38, what Onan was practising was closer to coitus interruptus.

It is interesting to note that the law of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25 spells out a very peculiar form of punishment for a man who refuses to adhere to the Mosaic code. In essence, the law says he is to be shamed. This is in stark contrast to all the other penalties which involve compensation and payment. In this case however, the widow had the right to publicly humiliate the offender.

His brother's widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, "This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother's family line." That man's line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.
(Deuteronomy 25:9-10)

So Onan wanted to keep up appearances without keeping to his promises, all the while avoiding the shame of public exposure (on himself as well as his future offsprings - who would be labelled the 'Unsandalled ones'); all the while sleeping with Tamar. Notice, that verse 9 indicates that he did this frequently and repeatedly, "Whenever he lay".

However, he could not hide his actions and motives from God. Onan was struck down for his "wickedness".

Judah then said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, "Live as a widow in your father's house until my son Shelah grows up." For he thought, "He may die too, just like his brothers." So Tamar went to live in her father's house.
(Verse 11)

Judah sends Tamar home. On the surface it looks like it is in her best interests. There, Tamar would be cared for in her father's household until Shelah, Judah's son was old enough to marry her. The text tells us, however, that Judah is more concerned about Shelah (what a name to give your kid!), and may not have intended to give him to her. He may have even been superstitious about her very presence, and wanted Tamar to be as far away as possible from his only surviving heir.

Whatever his hidden motives, Judah's words constituted a betrothal. All the more serious, when we consider how his subsequent sin in the following verses, would constitute adultery against his own son.

3. Blind to sin, justified in condemnation

After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him.
(Verse 12)

Sheep-shearing was a season of celebration - marked by feasting and drinking (Esther 8:17, 1 Sam 25:2-8 - a good day , 2 Sam 13:23-24). As owner, it was also important for Judah to be there with his workers (eg. Laban in Gen 31:19, Nabal in 1 Sam 25:8 and Absalom in 2 Sam 23:24).

However, the celebration would have been at contrast in the wake of the death of Judah's wife, Shua. We find Hirah with him again. Perhaps he was there to console him in his grief. What is clear is, he is there now with Judah on his journey up to the festivities and celebration.

When Tamar was told, "Your father-in-law is on his way to Timnah to shear his sheep," she took off her widow's clothes, covered herself with a veil to disguise herself, and then sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah. For she saw that, though Shelah had now grown up, she had not been given to him as his wife.
(Verses 13 and 14)

Tamar realises that her father-in-law had no intentions of honouring his promise to allow her to marry Shelah. The son was now of age, but Tamar was still in her father's house, waiting. She hears of Judah's journey up to the sheep-shearing celebrations and she lays out her plan to meet him - what she was about to do was planned. It involved a change out of her mourning attire into a "disguise" and a "covering", which translates an expression can also describe the putting on of perfume.

Then Tamar waits at the entrance of Enaim - which means "Twin Springs" or "Eyes". Genesis wants us to notice the irony in all of this: Tamar waits by the place of "Eyes" to capture the attention of a man who would be "blind" to her identity and his own sin.

When Judah saw her, he thought she was a prostitute, for she had covered her face. 16 Not realizing that she was his daughter-in-law, he went over to her by the roadside and said,
"Come now, let me sleep with you."
"And what will you give me to sleep with you?" she asked.
(Verse 15)

Judah is direct in his speech. No sweet-talk. No opening lines. He propositions her, inferring that Tamar is a prostitute from her "covering".

Yet, Tamar herself is direct and unabashed in her reply. She immediately asks for an offer for payment. "What will you give me?" She leaves it to Judah to set the price.

"I'll send you a young goat from my flock," he said.
"Will you give me something as a pledge until you send it?" she asked.
He said, "What pledge should I give you?"
"Your seal and its cord, and the staff in your hand," she answered. So he gave them to her and slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes again.

(Verses 17 to 19)

Judah's offer of a goat is substantial. Proverbs 6:26 mentions a "loaf of bread" as payment for a prostitute's services (going with the ESV's translation of "price" against the NIV's rendering of "reduces you to").

Tamar requests a guarantee of this promised payment; a pledge consisting of Judah's seal, cord and staff; the ancient equivalent of his credit cards and passport. They were personally and specifically identifiable to him. The seal was a small, tubular-shaped and made of clay with engravings on its side (There are examples on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum). This was rolled into wax to leave an imprint of its owner. It typically had a hole in it and the cord mentioned in verse 18 was the rope or string that threaded the seal, allowing it to be worn round the neck.

Meanwhile Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite in order to get his pledge back from the woman, but he did not find her.
He asked the men who lived there, "Where is the shrine prostitute who was beside the road at Enaim?"
"There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here," they said.

So he went back to Judah and said, "I didn't find her. Besides, the men who lived there said, 'There hasn't been any shrine prostitute here.' "
Then Judah said, "Let her keep what she has, or we will become a laughingstock. After all, I did send her this young goat, but you didn't find her."
(Verses 20 to 22)

Eager to retrieve his personal property, Judah sends his buddy Hiram with the goat to search for the prostitute. Tamar isn't there, so Hiram tactfully tries asking around for her. He enquires among the townsfolk of the "shrine prostitute", a slightly different term from the one used to describe Tamar in the earlier verses, and more politically-correct one.

It is interesting to see Judah so determined to honour his agreement with a stranger when he has been less than honourable with his own daughter-in-law. The irony, of course, being they are one and the same! Still, it becomes clear that Judah is trying to cover up the matter as quickly as possible. "Let her keep what she has," he says. He is thinking about the seal, cord and staff that he has lost, yet Judah is more afraid of losing face should his encounter be discovered, "... or we will become a laughingstock."

Despite all that has happened, Judah can still justify his own actions. "After all, I did send her this young goat." He did try to honour his part of the agreement, didn't he? His eyes remain closed to his actions at the place of "sight" (Enaim). They will not stay closed for long.

About three months later Judah was told, "Your daughter-in-law Tamar is guilty of prostitution, and as a result she is now pregnant."
Judah said, "Bring her out and have her burned to death!"
(Verse 24)

Judah discovers his daughter-in-law's pregnancy and his immediate reaction is outrage. "Burn her!" he instructs his servants. No need to check the facts, no need for explanations. Tamar has sinned. Tamar should be punished! Again, Judah feels entirely justified in his actions and words.

Verse 24 unpacks Judah's hypocrisy at several levels. Firstly, Tamar no longer lives under his roof. She is under her own father's care and authority. Secondly, Judah has himself recently slept with another woman not his wife.

But thirdly, Judah was quick to mete out a punishment that was so severe, it was reserved for a specific situation in the bible. Burning was only outlined in Leviticus 21 for daughters of priests who had prostituted themselves. You see, the only way Tamar could come close to being guilty of committing the specific sin of adultery, was if she was formally engaged to Shelah. However, Judah himself had taken steps to prevent this from happening. He never intended to let his only surviving heir marry this "black widow", yet was more than willing to keep up appearances, even if it cost Tamar her life. He might even have seen this as the perfect opportunity to get out of the sticky situation.

The real question is: why was Judah so angry? He is so angry that he demands that another person be burned alive as punishment for their sin. Why was he so incensed?

Judah is being religious. He is. He can see sin clearly. Just not his own.

When it is someone else's sin, that's bad. When it is someone else's fault, they need to be punished. And sometimes we need to realise how blind we are to our own sinfulness by simply looking at the last time we lost our temper. Was it over something that we needed to repent first of, before pointing it out to others? And sometimes it is precisely because we know that we are guilty of that same sin, that we are so passionate about it with others - in church, at home, on our blogs and Facebook - it's hypocrisy.

This isn't some of us, it's all of us. One thing the bible does is not just expose our sins, but our hypocrisy and blindness to our sinfulness. And God does this for our good, that we might begin to realise just how messed up we are but how gracious he is. For Judah, he thinks he is fooling everyone around him, by hiding the fact he went to see a prostitute, by living his life his own way but telling others how they should listen to him when it comes to their life decisions, by being hard on the sin of others and laying down the law - but in the end he cannot fool God, and he only fools himself. In such an instance, the one gracious thing God can do, is expose his blindness.

As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."

Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.

(Verses 25 and 26)

Tamar lets the evidence speak for themselves. The seal, cord and staff belong to Judah. Judah is guilty of adultery. Judah slept with his own daughter in law!

Now, look at Judah's reply. Notice that he doesn't try to cover it up. Judah doesn't make excuses about not recognising who Tamar was, of the grief he had in being recently widowed - none of that. In fact, he goes one step further. He admits his earlier fault in withholding Shelah in marriage to Tamar.

The scene ought to remind us of another account of adultery and infidelity. In 2 Sam 11, King David took another man's wife to his bed, and tried to cover it up when the woman got pregnant. He killed her husband, brought the girl into his palace, and thought the matter was over and done with. He thought he got away with it. Yet chapter 11 ends with the words, "But the thing David had done displeased the LORD." God saw, and in the following chapter, God spoke.

The prophet Nathan confronted David, not directly appealing to his shame by exposing his sin, but interestingly, by appealing to his sense of justice. In 2 Samuel 12, we read how Nathan told David a parable - of a rich man who stole an ewe lamb from his poor neighbour. David's anger flared up, "As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity."

Nathan's reply to David? "You are the man!"

Same thing happens here in Genesis 38. Tamar was essentially saying to Judah, "You are the man!"

We see an even tighter connection in the final verses of this chapter.

4. Salvation for sinners

When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. As she was giving birth, one of them put out his hand; so the midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his wrist and said, "This one came out first." But when he drew back his hand, his brother came out, and she said, "So this is how you have broken out!" And he was named Perez. Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his wrist, came out and he was given the name Zerah.
(Verses 27 to 30)

The account of the births of Perez ("Break out") and Zerah ("Bright colour"), echo that of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25. A struggle occurs in the womb of the mother. The older brother is displaced by his younger sibling. It is a picture on the one hand, of conflict that is so ingrained in our natures it occurs between the closest of kin. Yet in the bible, it is also a key theme of God's sovereign choice, in blessing the weak, underlining his gracious undeserved mercy in salvation. As with Abel over Cain, Jacob over Esau, so here Perez in chosen over Zerah.

The birth of twin sons signifies God's mercy over the Judah-Tamar episode. Two sons given for two sons taken. In every genealogy listed on the bible since then, Perez and Zerah are counted as Judah's sons. But the story doesn't end there.

Ruth Chapter 4 ends with a genealogy of King David. Ruth, like Tamar, was a pagan woman. She, too was a widow. And when Ruth gave birth to her son, it was meant to be an adherence to the Deuteronomic law of the kinsmen-redeemer, the levir, who was a righteous man named Boaz. Yet, all genealogies since then, acknowledge Boaz as the true father. The genealogy in Ruth 4 is significant, of course, because it ends with great King David. Yet, notice how it begins in 4:18 "This then is the family line of Perez."

The New Testament incorporates both accounts into the family line of Jesus, the true King, the true Son of David. Matthew 1:3 reads, "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar" and verse 5 reads "Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth".

Four women are notably listed in this line of Kings and important men. All four are unexpected. Matthew doesn't include great matriarchs like Sarah, Rebekah or Rachel - instead, we find Tamar. We find Rahab, a prostitute, the mother of Boaz. Ruth is there as well, a foreign pagan woman from the people of Moab - who was borne of the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter-in-law.

And Matthew caps the genealogy of Jesus with Mary. Another girl embroiled in scandal. Whom Joseph married to avoid her being punished for the appearance of having been unfaithful. But from the gospel accounts, we know that Mary had Jesus through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. She was faithful to her vows to Joseph, and in her obedience to God.

Jesus was born to be King. That is what Christ means - it means Messiah, Chosen One - it means God's chosen King. But he was given the name Jesus because "He will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). That is what his name means. Saviour.

And God has brought this great good through great evil. Through a royal family line that is ridden with sinfulness and wickedness, God establishes his king in righteousness and purity. Through a people who would crucify and kill the only innocent man who ever lived, God would bring salvation to sinners, through Jesus' death on the cross.

It's a funny thing that Christians often do when they gather together - they confess their sins, and they ask God show them their sinfulness. Because as believers in the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know we have a saviour who takes our sins, purifies us with his blood, and raises us together with him in righteousness and glory.

Depth of mercy can there be
Mercy reaching even me
God the Just His wrath forbears
Me the chief of sinners spares
So many times my heart has strayed
From His kind and perfect ways
Making clear my desperate need
For His blood poured out for me

Give me grace Lord let me own
All the wrongs that I have done
Let me now my sins deplore
Look to You and sin no more
There for me the Savior stands
Holding forth His wounded hands
Scars which ever cry for me
Once condemned but now set free

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.