Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon: Psalm 119:65-72 The Adversity Gospel

Have you ever heard a message which goes a little something like this: God is ready to bless you, and fulfil all your needs, if you will just trust him. All God’s blessings are available for you tonight - God owns the cattle on a thousand hills and he wants to rain down blessings on you - your bank balance will increase; your home will be extended; you will never again be sick, sad, or suffer; you might even have a private jet just like mine.

Now perhaps it hasn’t been just as blunt as that, but the message suggests that, in the words of one book, you can have ‘Your Best Life Now’ (Joel Osteen). Now if you heard that message, you’d want to jump in straight away, wouldn’t you? You would even send in a cheque to his ministry if it guaranteed an easy life - wealth, health, happiness.

Even when we don’t hear a message like that, we might still have the assumption that everything will be better when we’re a Christian. But what happens when things don’t turn out the way we hope? When we find ourselves in hospital, either ourselves or visiting a family member. When you’ve lost your job, and fifty applications later, you’re still looking. When the exam results aren’t what we thought they would be. When a planned long and happy retirement is suddenly cut short. What do we think then? If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably ask the question - is God really good?

If God has promised to bless us, then why do we find ourselves in dire straits? Does God not care? Is he not good after all? We’re continuing our series in Psalm 119 this morning, having jumped over a few sections. I do hope you’ve been reading it through the whole way - if not, there’s still time to start as we’ve another two weeks in Psalm 119.

If you have been reading through it, you’ll have noticed a few times already where the writer mentions some difficulties - princes plotting against him (23), taunts (42), and affliction (50). In this 9th section, he reflects further on his affliction, and how it relates to God’s goodness. Our natural reaction might be to question God’s goodness, but the writer’s response is to declare and confirm God’s goodness. As we’ll see, God’s goodness means that he helps us in our troubles, rather than removing them.

We’re going to use verse 68 as the lens through which to view this section, using each of its phrases to explore what Christopher Ash calls ‘the Adversity Gospel’. The writer says to God: ‘You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.’

So first up - ‘you are good.’ Is God good? In verse 65, we find these words: ‘You have dealt well with your servant, O LORD, according to your word.’ Throughout the Psalm, the writer uses this capital letters LORD to address God - it’s the rendering of what we would have known as Jehovah (Yahweh), which is the covenant name of God. It’s the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush when he begins the process of bringing his people out of Egypt, rescuing them, and forming his covenant with them.

In the covenant, the LORD has promised to bless them, be gracious towards them, and so the writer says yes, the LORD has done this - he has acted ‘according to your word.’ The covenant-making LORD is the covenant-keeping LORD. His word, his covenant, is the expression of his character. God is good - perfect, holy, noble, true, all these and more.

But if this is what God is like, then what will the good that God is working towards in our life be? Happiness and healthiness? Will it not be holiness that reflects our God? Holy living, not easy living?

If you stopped people on the street (or even in the church) and asked them what the good life looks like, they’ll picture a Caribbean island, white beach, drinks from waiter service, beautiful partner, and perfect health which goes on forever. The good life God has for us reflects his own goodness, and wants us to become more like him. And surprisingly for us, that includes affliction.

‘You are good and do good.’ I wonder if you ever think like this - when things are going well, God is in control, he is in charge, working out his purposes. But once things start going wrong, then we assume God is no longer in control. Has God taken a coffee break, or slipped up in some way?

The Psalmist isn’t engaging in this double-mindedness. Rather, he sees that God is in control even when these afflictions come. The remarkable thing is that God can use afflictions in order to help us grow as Christians - it is his good gift to us.

Just think of that famous verse from Romans 8 - ‘And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.’ (Rom 8:28) The NIV renders it ‘in all things God works...’, but either way, doesn’t it express what we’re seeing here?

Now perhaps you’re going through a really tough time at the moment. It’s even hard to listen to this, but let’s look at what the writer has learnt about God doing good even through afflictions. ‘Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.’ And later, ‘It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.’

He’s looking back, thinking back to what happened, and how it has changed him. And what he has realised is that he was going astray, going his own way. When afflictions came, they brought him back to God, they left him with nowhere else to turn, they brought him to his senses (like the Prodigal Son in the pigpen). Christopher Ash remarks that God can use afflictions like an electric fence around a sheep pen, to keep the sheep from wandering. There may be a little pain, but they don’t stray.

Have you ever felt at the end of yourself? Realised that there was nothing you could do to help yourself? As the situation crowded in on top of you, you need someone to help. You rarely feel that way if you’re on top of the world, succeeding, do you?

Let’s be clear that this affliction is not a punishment for our sins - if you’re in Christ, then he has already borne the punishment, there is no condemnation. The truth is that Jesus himself, who committed no sin, knew this affliction. Hebrews 2 tells us that Jesus ‘Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.’ (Heb 5:8). Jesus was afflicted in order to bring us to God. Rather, what’s in view here is the discipline of the Lord (see Hebrews 12), ‘he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.’ (Heb 12:10).

‘You are good and you do good; teach me your statutes.’ As we learn that God is good (even in our afflictions), and that he does good (even in our afflictions), what will our response be? If we’re in tune with the writer of the psalm, then our desire will be his desire - for God to teach us his statutes. But what will that look like? What is it we should be asking God to do in our lives as we cling to him in the adversity gospel?

We’ll be wanting to learn how to live as a Christian, seeking to please God. That’s what the writer is saying in verse 66: ‘Teach me good judgement and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.’ Help me to make good decisions and to be wise. Help me to walk in your ways.

These good decisions and wise ways are even more important when we remember that we’re still facing struggles and opposition. The insolent smear me with lies - it’s still going on - so teach me how to respond to opposition. How should we respond? Not with threats or retaliation, but by focusing still on God’s word - ‘I keep your precepts... I delight in your law.’

All the time, we should be asking what is God teaching me through this? How can I become closer to God through my circumstances? What have I been learning from God’s word that will help me deal with this?

Afflictions bring us nearer to God as they remind us how dependent on him we truly are. They drive us to know him more and more, and also, as we see in the final verse, to value God’s word, because it brings us to know him.

The news this week has been buzzing with that big win in the Euromillions lottery. £161 million won by a couple in Scotland. No matter where I’ve gone this week, people have been talking about it - discussing what they would do if it had been them - the holidays they would go on, the houses they would buy, the fashion and new car they would be seen in, on and on it went.

Psalm 119 reminds us that we have something more valuable than a lottery win, more precious then thousands of gold and silver pieces. That precious thing isn’t locked away in a bank, under guard. We hold it in our hands - ‘The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.’ The law (or teaching) of his mouth is the expression of God’s character, which helps us keep going even when the odds are stacked against us, even when times are hard.

You are good and do good; teach me your statutes - so that we can glorify you through the hard times as well as the good, and know you better, as we journey towards heaven. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 17th July 2011.

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