Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sermon for Sunday January 20th: Psalm 36

The Brightness of God and the Darkness of Sin

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to have a book published; it’s called ‘Starting at the Beginning’, and it’s a book about the basics of Christian faith. Of course, when we were getting close to the end of the process we had to start making decisions about things like ‘What typeface shall we use?’ or ‘Do we want a cover photo?’ or ‘What colour should the cover be?’ The designers chose a very nice cover photo showing a very diverse group of people sitting in church – at least, I think that’s where they were sitting – and then, in a stroke of genius, they chose to use a black cover. Somehow the black cover really served to emphasise the colours in the photograph. Also, the red letters of the title really stood out well against the black background. I’m told that artists will often do this – paint something in bright colours against a dark background, so that the colours stand out.

In Psalm 36, the author, who might have been King David, is painting with bright colours against a dark background. David thinks that the life of following the Lord is the most wonderful life he can possibly imagine. He praises God for his steadfast love and faithfulness, and for his righteousness and justice. He describes God’s steadfast love as ‘precious’, and he celebrates how God has protected him, nourished him, and been a bright light to his life. He calls on the world of nature to help him celebrate the wonder of God: God’s steadfast love stretches to the heavens, his faithfulness to the clouds, his righteousness is as strong as the mountains, and his justice is as deep as the ocean. What a wonderful God, and what a wonderful life that God gives to us! These are the bright colours David is using to paint his picture.

And yet, the bright colours are painted against a dark background: the fact that there are some people who just don’t seem to see it! They are ‘the wicked’, and they are convinced there’s no God looking down on them to judge their actions, so they do whatever they like to get their own selfish way, not caring how many other people get hurt along the way. This is the dark reality of the world that David lives in, and he sees the joy and wonder of God against the background of that dark reality.

This is the world that we Christians live in too, isn’t it? We’ve read the story of Jesus and seen the brightness of God there. We’ve put our faith in Jesus and committed ourselves to living as his followers. We’re learning that following Jesus may be hard, yes, but it’s also wonderful, a journey of discovering and experiencing God’s steadfast love for us, of learning to see life as Jesus sees it and to live life as he taught it. And yet, we know that many people around us don’t see what we see. And there are times when we don’t see it either; there are times when we experience unanswered prayer, or we go through suffering that seems unfair to us, and the darkness looms large and the bright colours of God’s love seem to dim. That’s the joy and the struggle we face. Psalm 36 helps us recognize that joy and struggle, and it helps us choose to continue to follow God’s way.

So let’s start by looking at the bright colours. David has chosen to live a life focused on God, the God who made the world and everything in it. What has he found out about that God? Look with me at verses 5 and 6 (I’m using the New Revised Standard Version, not the version in the BAS, because it’s closer to the original Hebrew):
Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgements are like the great deep;
You save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

First, he reminds us of God’s ‘steadfast love’. The words ‘steadfast love’ translate the Hebrew word ‘chesed’. The ‘ch’ sound is guttural, so it’s a soft word with a hard sound at the beginning of it! And ‘chesed’ is a soft concept with a toughness behind it; it’s love, but not just a sweet, sentimental love.  It’s steadfast love, love that you can rely on, love that will always be there, because the lover has committed himself to the one he loves. It’s very close to the idea of ‘faithfulness’, which is why David combines the two in verse 5: ’Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds’.

So the words ‘steadfast love’ reminds us that God has made a promise to love his people through thick and thin. This promise is utterly reliable, because God is utterly reliable. I often say to couples preparing for marriage that in soap opera land they might say “I do”, but in the church we’re a little wiser: the promise they will make is “I will”. “I do” is a promise about feelings; it answers the question ‘Do you love her?’ But really, why do we have to ask that question at a wedding? We know they’re in love with each other, in the emotional sense, but emotion isn’t enough to sustain a lifetime together. “I will”, by contrast, is about decisions and actions: I promise to be there for you, to care for you, to serve you in big ways and little ways, even when I don’t feel like it. And that’s what God’s steadfast love is like: God has bound himself to us by a promise, and he will not let us down.

David says that God is also a God of ‘righteousness’. The Hebrew word for ‘righteousness’ is a hard one to translate into English, because it holds together many different ideas. It includes the ideas of straightness, staying on the path, of justice, of doing what it right. It’s often tied with the idea of judgement, so God is a just judge who gives righteous judgements to rescue his people and punish the wicked. So if you’re one of the godly poor who are always being trampled on, God’s ‘righteousness’ is a comforting thought to you; it means that even though the wicked may be getting it all their own way right now, it’s not always going to be like that.

What’s it like to live in fellowship with a God like that? Look again at verses 7-9:
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.

So living in fellowship with this God is like having a place of protection you can go to when times get tough, just like the little baby chicks will run and take shelter under the wings of their mother when they’re afraid. That’s what God is like, David says; when times are tough, we can go to him and experience a sense of safety, of protection from the storm. We may not literally be delivered from our troubles – David certainly wasn’t – but we will know that God is with us through them.
Again, David says, it’s like being nourished by the best food and drink, with a feast that never ends and a river of cool, fresh water to drink from. Jesus talks about the same reality when he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Jesus is our soul food, and it’s not just chicken soup for the soul, either: it’s a three-course meal of the most delicious food imaginable.

Again, David says, it’s like shining a bright light into a dark place and seeing things as they really are. When we don’t have God in our lives, we can get really confused about what’s important and what’s not important, about what’s good and what’s bad. But when we turn to God and his way, his presence is like a bright light, and suddenly we can look at our life and see things as they really are. As David puts it, ‘In your light we see light’ (v.9).

These are the bright colours of the love of God that David paints for us in the foreground of his picture. I wonder if you’ve experienced these bright colours in your life? I wonder if you’ve begun to discover the wonder of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, and I wonder if you’ve tasted of the goodness of God and thought, “This is the best thing life has to offer! Nothing else matches up to this!”

But as we said at the beginning, the bright colours aren’t the whole story. They are set against a dark background – the fact that not everyone sees what David sees. Verse 1 says,
Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God before their eyes.

The word ‘transgression’ is one way of describing ‘sin’; to transgress a law is to break it, so sin is seen here as breaking God’s law. ‘Sin speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts’ – and not just to the wicked, of course, but to all of us! David is describing an experience I have every day, when a voice inside me points out how attractive it would be if I would just cut loose and do what I want to do, instead of what God wants me to do! We call this ‘temptation’: the voice of evil calling us, singing a siren song to lure us away from the way of God.

The wicked listen to the voice of sin in their hearts; ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes’, says David, and so they really do believe that there is no one watching what they do. Verse 2 says that ‘they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated’. And this has consequences for the way they live, as verses 3-4 point out to us. Here they are in the New Living Translation, which is especially vivid:
Everything they say is crooked and deceitful.
They refuse to act wisely or do good.
They lie awake at night hatching sinful plots.
Their actions are never good.
They make no attempt to turn from evil.

So – we have these two strongly contrasted ways of seeing reality, the bright colours of God’s steadfast love and goodness, and the darkness of those who don’t seem to see it, but hear only the voice of sin calling them in their hearts. What makes the difference? Simply this, says David: for the wicked, ‘there is no fear of God before their eyes’ (v.1). It seems strange, after we’ve been celebrating the love and faithfulness of God, to find that it’s the fear of God that makes the difference! What on earth does that mean?

Well, it means that we remember this: even if no one else is watching us, God is always watching us, and God is always pleased when he sees people turning away from evil and doing what is right and good. God is not just pleased by this: God is thrilled all the way down to his socks, just as we are when we’re bringing up our kids and we see them finally getting the hang of the things we’re trying to teach them. Those of you who are parents, do you know how that feels? Don’t you cheer and shout and say “Good job, buddy!” when your child learns that lesson? And that’s how God feels when he sees us, his children, learning to turn from evil and do good, even when no one else is looking.

And of course there’s another side of that too: the disappointment of God when we choose not to follow his ways. We don’t want to disappoint God, because he’s our wise and loving Father. And so we learn to walk in the fear of the Lord – that is to say, we’ve made the decision that losing the sense of his pleasure in us is the worst possible experience we can have, and we’re determined to avoid it. So we intentionally remind ourselves every day that we are walking in the sight of a just and holy and compassionate God who wants us to walk with justice and compassion, even when no one else is looking.

So the psalm sets before us this contrast between the bright colours of God’s love for us, and the deep darkness of the life of wickedness, where we listen to sin speaking to us in our hearts and we choose to turn away from God. It’s not always easy to make the right choice, but we pray for strength to make it anyway. And we hold the fear of God before our eyes: we remember the sense of joy we get from the presence of God, and that dull, painful sense of guilt when we realise that we’ve turned away from his path, and the sunshine of his love seems to have gone dim.

So let me invite you again, as I finish this morning, to remember and celebrate the wonder of God’s steadfast love for you. Come and take refuge in the safe place under his wings! Experience the nourishment that Jesus, the Bread of life, wants to bring into your life every day. And let the light of God shine in the darkness to help you see reality as it really is. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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