Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 49 The Hope of Life

This morning, I hope you have your thinking caps on. I’ve got a few little riddles for you. 1. What gets wetter the more it dries? A towel. 2. What goes around the world but stays in a corner? A stamp. 3. What has holes in the top, bottom, left, right and middle, yet holds water? A sponge. 4. In a red bungalow, all you can see is red: red wallpaper, red carpets, red curtains, red chairs, red table, red bathroom. What colour are the stairs? There aren’t any in a bungalow! 5. What is the longest word in the dictionary? Smiles - there’s a mile between the two s.

We’re familiar with riddles and puzzles. If you listen to Hugo Duncan on BBC Radio Ulster, he has his wee teasers. They’re things to make you think. In Psalm 49, we find a riddle. This is something that has been bothering the sons of Korah for a while. They’ve meditated on it; they’ve gained understanding, so now they are speaking wisdom. It’s wisdom and understanding for everyone. Just as we’ve seen them call all peoples to praise God, so here the call goes out to everyone: ‘Hear this all peoples!’ Whether you’re high or low, rich or poor, the sons of Korah have a riddle for you.
We find the problem in verses 5 and 6. ‘Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me, those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?’ Can you picture the scene? The writer finds himself in times of trouble; he’s being cheated by those who are rich. He’s set to lose out. He’s intimidated by those who have more than him and make sure he knows it. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in the same position. You’re struggling to keep your head above the water; the bills keep coming; you’re at a loss as to what to do; you’re fearful.

The riddle, the puzzle is at the start of verse 5: when all this is going on ‘Why should I fear?’ Hard circumstances will come. We all get storms in life. The question is, how will we respond? Will we fear the rich and powerful? Why should I fear? This isn’t just a Countdown conundrum, a quick thirty second solution. Yet over time, the sons of Korah have come up with an answer. Are you ready to hear their wisdom; to gain from their understanding? The answer comes in verse 7, a wander around the graveyard.

‘Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.’ What he’s saying is that you can’t buy God off and keep on living. Some people try it all the time - through a new fitness plan or plastic surgery or herbal treatments. Here’s the latest trick to increasing your life expectancy.

But the simple truth is that you just can’t do it. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s true - one day, each of us will die (unless the Lord returns first!). If even the wise die, then also the fool and the stupid must perish, and leave their wealth to others. No matter what size your house might be, we all end up in the same plot of ground.

That’s what verse 12 says. ‘Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.’ Trusting in wealth and riches makes you just like a beast. He then goes on to show the path of those with foolish confidence. Here’s the road they’re on, the direction they’re going. They’re sheep for Sheol, and death is their shepherd, leading them on the way. Sheol is the Old Testament word for the place of the dead, a dark, dreadful place from which there is no return. It’s how we understand hell. Foolish confidence in riches leads to hell.

We see that in Luke 12. A man wants to make sure that he got his fair share of his inheritance. But Jesus gives a warning about greed. He tells the story of a man with a bumper crop. He plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones. He’s all sorted for years to come. He can trust in his wealth and take life easy. But God says he is a fool, because he has stored up treasures for himself but is not rich towards God. He thought he had a long and prosperous life ahead of him; he died that very night.

This is the truth that the sons of Korah are telling all who will listen. Your money won’t save you. Riches won’t rescue you. As Paul writes to Timothy, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Confidence in riches leads to Sheol. But there is another way. Look at the contrast between the end of verse 14 and verse 15. ‘Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.’ In the midst of the gloomy darkness, as the shadows of Sheol surround the psalm, suddenly there is a burst of light. Here is the hope of the gospel, in Old Testament form. No one can ransom their own soul, but God will ransom my soul. I won’t be abandoned in Sheol; God will receive me. ‘But God’ is the turning point of hope.

He doesn’t know how it will happen. He just knows it will happen. From our place in time, we can look back and see how God ransoms souls. But it wasn’t with the payment of gold or silver. The price of a life is costly. So costly, in fact, that it took the blood of Jesus. The Lord Jesus came as our ransom, our redeemer. He gave his life in place of our life. He died the death that we deserved. He entered the place of the dead. He suffered hell, the darkness and absence of God, and bore the punishment for our sins.

For the Christian, death will come, but death is not the end. Death is but the entrance into God’s nearer presence. ‘He will receive me.’ That’s the gospel promise in a nutshell. The new heavens and new earth are where God dwells with his people. That’s the answer to the riddle. Why should I fear? Those who oppress you, those who boast in their wealth, it won’t last. Consider their future - and yours.

From verse 16 on he applies the truth. The question: Why should I fear? The answer: No man can ransom, but God will ransom me. So now apply it. ‘Be not afraid when a man becomes rich.’ In verses 17 and 18 we find the reason. Each of them are a ‘for.’ ‘For when he dies he will carry nothing away.’ You’ve heard of the story of a rich man. He called in three friends before he died. He gave them each £10,000 and asked them to put the money into his coffin just before his funeral. A week after all was over, the three gathered. The first confessed that he had held on to £1000 but put the rest in. The second had put half in. The third, well he wrote him a cheque for it!

The Pharaohs in the pyramids took their wealth with them, but it was of no use to them. You can’t take it with you. Money is just for here and now. So don’t fear the rich, if they’re only rich in the world, think how poor they really are. V18 ‘For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed.’ Blessing now but Hell hereafter. This life is the nearest some people will ever get to heaven. It’s like the story Jesus told of the rich man in his castle and Lazarus at the gate. The rich man died and went to hell, and could see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom in paradise. (Luke 16)

Verse 20 is like a chorus. We’ve heard it before. Did you notice in verse 12 it runs the same way. ‘Man in his pomp... is like the beasts that perish.’ The words in the middle reflect on each other. Those who ‘will not remain’ are those ‘without understanding.’ They are those who refuse to listen to the wisdom of the sons of Korah, the wisdom of the scriptures. To gain understanding, to be truly wise, we need to come to God, to find our hope only in him. It is the only path of life. So don’t fear the rich, those who cheat you. Find your hope in God, not in wealth.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 10th August 2014.

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