A New Year started this week. There is something about starting a new year raises up within each of the hope that we can start over and get things right or righter this year. So many will make resolutions, and dream of losing those 20 pounds, reading more books, being more positive…One of the biggest resolutions people in the church make is to grow closer to God…to pray more…to read the Bible more.
We are starting a new message series called Twisted Scripture because I know many of you are starting afresh this year with a Bible reading plan so you will be reading more of your Bible…at least until you get to Leviticus and Numbers. As you read, my hope is that you will learn to read the Bible well, to understand what is being said in its pages, to experience God’s presence and guidance through your reading.
Unfortunately there is a bigger trend in American Churches and America in general. In a recent survey George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli put it this way, “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it.’’
We like the Bible. We believe people should live according to the Bible. We get upset if we think a pastor isn’t teaching the Bible…the problem is we often don’t know what the Bible says. And for some they read it, but they don’t know how to understand it.
We are looking at a book written over a couple thousand years by many different writers in a language and culture that is so far removed from our own that it can be like talking to a Martian. This doesn’t mean we can’t understand what is being said or need a thousand hours or training in Greek and ancient cultures, but it does mean that it takes more than glancing read over to understand it at points.
The purpose of this message series is to help you acquire some tools to understand the Scriptures you are reading by looking at some verses we normally take out of context, and so you can help those around you gain deeper understanding of the Scriptures they misquote. And one of the biggest tools we need is understanding the context in which a verse is placed.
Context is extremely important.
We cannot rightly understand a passage of Scripture if we don’t have it’s context.
Let’s take the simple sentence: I’m dying! and move the context around to see how this works. On the surface, this sentence seems to be about someone whose life is leaving them.
But if a runner says this while jogging past you in the middle of a race it is different than if the same jogger says it while laying on the ground clutching his chest. It has one context if a standup comedian says it as she exits the stage, and a completely different meaning if she says it laying in an alley after a mugging. Context is important.
You hear your spouse talking on the phone, and they say, “I love you!”
The context needed is who is on the other end of the phone…different context if it is their mother or if it is a lover.
And context matters when it comes to our understanding of Scripture.
This morning we are starting by looking at a verse many of you probably know and have recited…
Psalm 37:4 says, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
How do we often misunderstand this verse?
This verse is a great example of how we often incorporate our own selfishishness into a passage of Scripture.
We want what we want, and here seems to be a verse claiming that if we love God then he will give us our desires.
I want to have healthy family, so I will serve God.
I want to make good money, so I will look to God.
We will often figure out what we want in life, and then convince ourselves that serving God will get there. And if we read this verse out of context that is exactly what it seems to be saying.
So let’s place it in context:
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.
The context of this passage is stated in the very first verse: Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong…
Every time I do a wedding, I try to encourage the Bride and Groom not to get too worked up over the things that can and will go wrong. Brides, especially, are worried about the bad things that will happen. In fact, these will be the things they remember and it is best to believe, years down the road, they will see the humor in these things…because of the way our brains function, though, we are able to remember the fearful and the bad things much more clearly than the good things. This was great for our ancestors…they needed to be very clear about the things to be afraid of or they wouldn’t survive.
The problem with this is we can become overwhelmed by the bad things that happen in our lives. The deaths, the painful times, the struggles. On New Year’s day I saw countless posts that began with something like: “2014 has been a tough year…”
It is hard to get through some of the painful things we experience to at least a place where we can breath and survive.
But it we add in our desire to compare and contrast our lives with others it can become impossible to heal. We look at the pain and sorrow we feel and then see those people, who we know hate God, and they seem to be doing just fine.
I remember driving behind a Jaguar with the Jesus fish symbol on the back…my car was barely making it, I was on the edge of bankruptcy, struggling to pay the bills, doing God’s work by planting a church…and thought, it would be a lot I would love Jesus too if I were driving a Jaguar.
We like to compare our hard times with other people, and when they aren’t as “committed” to God as we are it can become worse for us. This isn’t a new thing…for thousands of years those in pain and fear, those who are suffering look at the lives of others and cry out to their gods about how unfair it is…
The Psalmist is thinking about the pain and struggle he is in and looking at his neighbor who seems to be doing pretty good. He follows God, and that fellow disobeys God at every turn…and yet he is struggling while the unbeliever succeeds!
Psalm 37 reminds us that this struggle is real, but should not be our primary focus.
Because when it is…we fret. We worry. We hate. We covet. We get angry And we begin to think, “Maybe I’m following the wrong path.” or maybe, “I’m following the wrong God!”
Every year thousands of people walk away from God and the Church because God didn’t do what they thought He ought to do. And a good bit of it is rooted in the fret, the worry, the anger that comes as we compare the pain and the struggles of our righteous lives with the ease and success of those who have rejected and turned from God.
And if we don’t outright walk away, we certainly create distance as we brood over our perceived slight by God.
So what does the Psalmist suggest?
First, Take a Long Term Perspective
The Psalmist reminds us, “…for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.”
Evil, while it may seem to succeed, will not last. One of the primary messages of Revelation, which we just finished, is to remind that God has a plan to restore and heal our world and bring justice and punishment to evil, pain, and death.
So when you and I look at the “success” of the wicked we should not see something to fret and worry about…we should see it for what it really is…something that will be exposed and judged.
It is easy to miss the forest for the trees, as they say…and it is easy to believe that the pain, the hurt, the loss you experience is all there is and all there ever will be.
Facebook has given us an unprecedented look into the minds of people. Simply watch the posts of people you know…for some you can see that the pain and hurt they experienced is not just something that hurt them once. It is something that continues to hurt and break them into pieces.
And the call is to take the longview…to look at evil’s end. To see it as the momentary reality that it is.
In order to do this, the Psalmist gives some suggestions:
Trust in the Lord
In the Old Testament is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The King of Babylon forced everyone in his kingdom to bow before a large statue of himself and worship, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused. They worshipped God, and refused to worship a false idol.
When they were brought before the King, he threatened them, showed them the fiery furnace where he was going to burn their bodies, but they still refused. Their response shows the trust this Psalm speaks about, they said, Daniel 3:16-18
“King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
Even if he does not…even if God does not answer or respond the way they think He should, it doesn’t negate his love, his concern…it doesn’t mean he hates you or is punishing you.
It really is easy to follow God when things are going well. It is much harder to trust when we are in the overwhelming darkness of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. When we don’t know how our next bill is going to be paid…when we lose the person closest to us…when our marriage is falling apart…when it seems like we don’t have a friend in the world.
And yet we are called to trust. Not because we get what we want, but because we know who we are following. Time and again we have seen God at work. We have experienced His presence. We trust that even though we don’t fully understand, that God is in control and working.
We get into such debates about “doing” good deeds. The problem is we are making it an issue of salvation. We are not saved by anything we do, but when you are saved…you do good things.
And doing good does a couple of things…first, we were created to do good works.
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
The way God works in the lives of other people is through you and I doing good things. God has committed himself to a partnership if you will. He put the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden to work it. He had the man name the animals. Even in salvation, Jesus left his god-ness and became human to rescue us.
When someone needs God to move on their behalf to feed their family, make their rent, get their car working, process the death of a loved one, fight and addiction, get over a tragic event…God invites someone like you and I to step in and help as His representative. Often, those who have gone through similar events in their lives better understand what’s needed.
But doing good does more than that…when you and I do good for others it brings healing to us. There is something about serving others that opens the doors in our own healing…
Do you know how you become more generous? You live generously. You give to others…You give to God’s work. You stop complaining about all the takers.
Do you know how you become more patient? You live in the midst of things where you need to be patient.
Do you know how you become more forgiving? You begin to forgive.
Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery programs are built on the power of helping others as a way to also being helped yourself.
Finally we come to our verse…
Take Delight in the Lord
The word delight means to be “delicate, dainty, to take exquisite delight in.” It carries with it an understanding of being molded and shaped by the object we are focusing on.
The key to getting past the worry and anger at all the “success” of evil around us…to get past our hurts and heartbreaks…is to delight in the Lord…to be molded and shaped by our unyielding focus on the Lord. To enjoy his presence…to seek after Him…to develop in yourself a love of being with Him.
And as you do this your “desires” will change. If you are molded and shaped by God, pretty soon your desires will be his desires.
I think we might be able to interpret this passage to help us understand it a bit better.
“Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you what you are delighting in.” If you delight in the Lord…you will receive the Lord.