New Years Resolutions
There seems to be a feeling of flux right now in the world. I’m sure you’ve felt it. A feeling of instability in our hearts, community, country, and world. There are people going through relationship transitions as the dynamics of their marriage, friendships, partnerships and workplace change around them. Some are facing personal transitions as their body changes with age. Some are making decisions that will bring about a new season of life and the lives around them. On top of that, we have all the environmental changes happening around the globe, wars and rumours of wars, and of course the recent elections in our own nation, the one coming in the US, and political instability around the world. Sometimes, with all this uncertainty, it can feel like the ground beneath our feet is shifting. The question comes, then, what can we do to ensure that while the world around us shifts and moves, we are on solid ground?
Please open to Luke 6:46–49,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”
The Fruit of Obedience
What we have just read is the end of one of Jesus’ sermons, called The Sermon on the Plain. We know that Jesus didn’t just speak a message once and then never repeat it again, so this is likely a second telling, and summarized version, of the longer Sermon on the Mount from Matthew where He described what life in the Kingdom of God is like –the laws of the Kingdom, the attitudes and character of His people, and how they will relate to God and live in this world. I want you to notice that at the end of this message, He concludes with a question and a story:
The question was:
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
and it is just as sharp today as it was the day He spoke it. He contrasts the difference between hearing and doing, confession and obedience. If you look at the previous verses you’ll see Jesus tell the parable of “The Tree and its Fruit”,
“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:43–45)
This whole section is talking about hypocrisy: saying one thing (“Yes, Jesus is my Lord, I got saved, I’m a Christian, I go to church, blah, blah, blah…”) but not having a life that reflects it. How can you tell a good tree from a bad tree? They might look the same on the surface, but the real test of a tree is whether it produces good fruit and seeds and offspring. In the same way, the definition of a disciple is not simply someone that calls Jesus “Lord, Lord”, it is someone who produces spiritual fruit.
What is spiritual fruit? Let me give you a couple of verses for that so we know what we’re talking about.
- Think of John 15 where God is presented as the Gardener, Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
- Philippians 1:11 and Hebrews 12:11 speak of the “fruit of righteousness”.
- Colossians 1:10 speaks of believers, “bearing fruit in every good work”.
But flip over to Galatians 5:16–25 and we get to see a much clearer picture,
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”
Does this mean that we are saved by doing good deeds or having a good attitude? No. The New Testament is very clear that we are not saved by good works, we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-10). Jesus isn’t talking about how He wants us to perform good works to earn our salvation, but instead is being clear that anyone who believes in Him, who is reborn as a Christian, who has had the curse of sin lifted and is now a new creation in Christ, will demonstrate that by leading a changed life. Will it be a perfect life? No. We still suffer from the effects of sin in our bodies and are surrounded by temptations – but will we hate sin, want to be free from it, and seek to do good works? Yes.
Consider James 2:14–19,
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”
Believe it or not, the demons have better theology than you do. They know Jesus, the Bible, the plan of salvation, and have seen everything from the beginning to the end. They believe in Jesus. They know Jesus is the Saviour of the World. They fear Him as God and shudder at His name. Knowing about God isn’t enough. What matters is faith that leads to repentance which leads to obedience. Knowing you are a sinner that cannot save yourself, knowing that Jesus is the only way of salvation, isn’t enough. You must believe in Jesus as your Saviour and your Lord, and demonstrate that belief by turning away from sin and self and obeying Jesus. That’s what the demons won’t do. They believe all the right things – but they won’t submit to Jesus as Lord.
God hates hypocrisy. He often warns about people who look and sound like believers but are not.
- He calls them “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15)
- or “rocky and thorny ground” (Mark 4:10-20).
- The Apostle Paul warned of “false apostles [and] deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” Saying, “And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Cor 11:13-15)
How can we tell the difference between good trees and bad, good soil and bad, someone that claims to be a Christian but isn’t and a true believer? How can you tell within yourself whether or not you are a real Christian or merely a “cultural Christian” or just going along with what your family says? The answer Jesus gives is simple: Do you call Jesus Lord and then do what He says? Does your life bear the fruit of obedience to Jesus? Have you ever asked yourself, “Do I really love Jesus? How do I know if I really love Jesus? I feel like a sinner. I feel guilty and shameful. I don’t feel like I love Jesus enough.”
Listen to Jesus words in
- John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
- John 14:23, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
- John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
Believers turn away from sin and towards Jesus. Ask yourself: Do you want to obey Jesus? In your heart of hearts, does Jesus get the last word in your life? Is He your highest authority? When you slip up, fall to temptation, sin against Him, is He the first person you turn to in order to ask forgiveness – because you know that your sin, guilt, shame, and all the mess that came from it, was because you didn’t obey Him? Do you readily accept His discipline because you know that even though it’s painful at the time, you know that He’s trying to produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” in your life (Hebrews 12:7-11)
Turn to and listen to the words of 1 John 5:1–5,
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”
A true believer knows that the commands of God are “not burdensome”, which is why we readily and joyfully and eagerly obey them.
For example, say someone has seriously wronged you. What does the world tell you to do? What does your sinful flesh tell you to do? It wants you to blame, and get bitter, and stay angry, and punish them, gossip so their reputation is ruined, seek revenge, avoid people because they might hurt you again, get angry at the world because you were wronged, hang around other bitter people, make that pain your entire identity, have it colour every relationship and decision you make for your whole life. Right? And how does that all feel? Awful.
What does Jesus want us to do? Forgive the person. See them as a fellow sinner. Grieve, share, pray, and then let God mete out the punishment – either on that person in Hell or on Jesus on the cross. To see that Jesus weeps with you, and will one day rescue you from all that pain. That one day it will be forgotten. And further, God wants you to even recognize that He is bigger than the pain and can even cause it to produce fruit in your life. That He can allow you to become a source of help, inspiration, and healing for others because you are now equipped in a way no one else is.
Now, which is more “burdensome”? The world’s way or God’s?
It’s the same with so many things. The world says, “Use alcohol, chemicals, and porn to make yourself feel better.” God says, “Practice self-control, turn your burdens over to me, and openly share your weaknesses with others so they can help you.” Which one is more burdensome?
The world says, “Hoard your money because the future is uncertain. Gather up possessions because having stuff will make you feel good. Don’t share with anyone because no one can be trusted. Don’t lend your stuff because it might get broken.” God says, “Trust that God will provide what you need when you need it, so be generous with each other. Love people instead of things because all the stuff is going to rust and break anyway. Hold all your things in a loose hand and share generously because it’s not yours anyway, you get to feel the joy of giving, you won’t get upset when something breaks, and more people will be blessed.” Which one is more burdensome? Greed or Generosity?
Christians know that trusting God, following God, loving God, turning from sin and self to obeying God, isn’t just a bunch of religious rules to try to get heaven points – it’s literally a path to freedom laid out by Jesus Himself.
And so, God treats us like fruit trees or vines. Because He wants us free from the burden of sin and the world, and to bear fruit that leads to an abundant life, He prunes us. God doesn’t have much interest in fruitless branches. And then tells us that the difference between a good tree and bad, a good branch and bad, a true believer and a hypocrite – is fruit.
Jesus doesn’t care about the number of people that call Him “Lord”. But He does care very much about producing fruit. Jesus isn’t planting a forest. He’s cultivating an orchard.
The Struggle of Obedience
And so, at the end of this sermon, Jesus looks at the crowd – and to us – and says,
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?”
We all struggle with this, don’t we? We pray, “Dear Lord, God…” and then almost immediately disobey Him. We read a scripture, hear a sermon, feel a conviction in our heart from the Holy Spirit, and we absolutely know that our Lord God, Creator of the Universe, has just told us to do something – and then we don’t do it.
God says, “Forgive that person. Be reconciled to your brother or sister. Stop pursuing worldly gain and start looking after your spirit, your family, and your church. Go be a peacemaker to that troubled situation. Go tell those people about me. Get rid of that unrighteous anger. Stop lusting after people that you’re not married to. Stay married to your spouse and do everything you can to love them. Quit lying and breaking your promises. Show love to your enemy. Be generous with the needy. Read your Bible and talk to me every day. Take time to rest and fast. Smash the idols you have in your life. Stop worrying about things and trust me. Show humility and stop putting yourselves above others. Obey your parents, teachers, and elders. Submit to God in all things.” And then says, “Will you do what I tell you?”
That’s the Sermon on the Mount and on the Plain in a nutshell. And at the end of that incredible list, Jesus asks us to evaluate our hearing and our doing, our confession and our obedience, our talk and our walk. He wants us to check to see if they line up.
Why? Because, as we live in this world, we are going to face a lot of storms and He wants to make sure that we’re safe. It’s an act of love! He knows that until He comes again, this life is going to be filled with difficulty, uncertainty, and temptation. There are liars and cheats that want to manipulate us, charlatans who pretend to love us but don’t, huge decisions all the time, pain and sorrow beyond our ability to handle, immense temptations, and our enemy, the devil, prowling around like a lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pe. 5:8). Jesus wants us secure in Him so we’re not overwhelmed by the storms of life. He knows that if we do what He says, we’ll be safe.
It’s kind of like a parent sending your teen off on a road trip. We tell them, “Ok, be careful. Do you have your itinerary? Did you check the oil in the car? Do you have gas? Washer fluid if it rains? Don’t do anything stupid while driving. And when you get there, call me. Your hotel room is going to be full of temptations, so how are you going to handle that? Your friends are going to ask you to do dumb stuff. How dumb are you planning on getting? I know you’re going to want to live on pizza and pop, but please eat a vegetable and drink some water. And remember, if you need anything, or you get in trouble, just call me!”
We’re not doing that because we’re mad, or we want our kid to obey us to prove something, or that we’re trying to load them with burdens. Why do we do this? Because we love them and want them safe! Jesus’ sermon isn’t about rules – it’s about love!
I want to close by asking you to consider the story Jesus tells about the two builders for a moment.
First, notice that both of them hear the message. One “hears… and does” while the other “hears and does not”. We’re not talking about people who have not heard the message of the Gospel and the teachings of scripture. Jesus is talking about people who have heard what God wants and expects from them but doesn’t do it.
Second, notice that both of them build. In the story, the house represents a person’s life. Everyone builds a life. Both builders are placed in the world, both are given the materials they need to for a good house. Both builders use their skills and abilities and God-given resources to build.
Third, notice that they both build near the stream. They are neighbours. Similar materials, similar environments, similar issues. We all, for the most part, are working with the same stuff. Yes, we all have our own uniqueness –physical or mental advantages, more or less money, some more prone toward certain temptations, some differences in upbringing or personal baggage. We all have things that make us us, and God has certainly gifted each one of us with a special purpose, but our similarities vastly outweigh our differences. We all live by the same stream. We all have skills and abilities, we all face temptation, fear, grief, and pain.
Which leads us to the fourth similarity between the builders: they both experienced a flood. The flood represents the troubles of this world and the final judgement before God. In other words, immediate consequences and eternal consequences.
What’s the difference? Both hear the message, both build a house. On the outside, to anyone else, they look identical. As the two trees from the parable, they look the same for most of the year. The difference is only shown during the storm. And it’s something unseen, something under the house. Something neither builder built. The foundation.
One dug deep and built on the rock. He did the work. He put it into practice. It took time and effort to dig a hole the size of a house in the sandy land by the stream until he hit bedrock. He had to put off building his house. He didn’t do the fun stuff first. He dug down, down, down, until he found the solid bedrock near that stream and then built on that.
Hearing is easy. Obedience takes work. Getting saved is a free gift from Jesus, living with Jesus as Lord requires sacrifice. It might mean putting off things like career advancement, certain relationships, or things you enjoy – so you can dig into God’s word and practice obedience, removing the shifting sand from beneath your house, one shovelful at a time, knowing that leaving it there will cause problems later.
It might mean removing some things you go to for comfort or getting rid of things that distract you from your relationship with Jesus. I remember as a college student destroying over a hundred CDs in my music collection because – at the time – they were a stumbling block between me and Jesus. It hurt, but it had to go – there have been many more since.
It might mean removing things from your schedule so you can pray, read scripture, attend church each week, and have a Sabbath rest. It might mean changing your finances so you can live a generous lifestyle. It might mean throwing out or selling something you enjoy because it causes you to sin.
Each shovelful of sand you remove that separates you from the foundation hurts a little at first, but obeying God in these ways actually removes burdens. There goes my pride. There goes my selfishness. There goes my Sunday morning sleep. There goes that TV show I like. There goes my favourite addiction. There go my internet privileges. There goes my gossip group. There goes my vacation. There go my career plans. There go my marriage plans.
As empty the hole and dig down deeper and deeper to the bedrock of Jesus Christ we aren’t leaving ourselves empty though. It’s not like God’s perfect plan is for us to sit alone in an empty room, meditating. As we empty our lives of ungodly things, choosing to obey God, He back-fills the hole with good, godly things. As God helps us remove the sand, he replaces it with strong stone after stone, replacing our thoughts with His thoughts, our ways with His ways, our heart with His heart, our will with His will, our habits with His habits, our words with His words, our plans with His plans, the things we use to enjoy, with things that bring us true and real joy, until we have built a solid foundation on Him and how He wants us to live.
The Joy of Obedience
And then when the rains come down and the floods come up, and the stream grows into a river – we face death, loss, fear, persecution – we are able to experience the greatest joy of all as our house continues to stand. Others around us are falling apart – marriages exploding, addictions growing, debt mounting, anxiety overcoming, sadness overwhelming – and there we stand, secure in the midst of the storm. Not because of anything we’ve done – but because of who we are built on. All the work of faith, all the pruning God did, all the discipline, makes sense. And then, instead of that water washing us away – it actually becomes the food, the nutrients, that allows us to bear more fruit than before! We see what Romans 8:37 means when it says that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” And of course, in eternity, when we face Jesus after we die – those who believe and obey stand, and those who do not, fall. And as we stand, we don’t pat ourselves on the back – we give thanks to our foundation!
You’ve probably experienced a few storms by now, and it has shown you a few things, hasn’t it? It’s shown you where your foundation lies. Maybe you fell apart, maybe parts of you fell apart. The storm showed you the sand that remains between you and your foundation. And, hopefully, it’s shown you how firm a foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord. If you did fall apart though, hopefully, it’s shown you how feeble your foundation is and how much you need Jesus.
Remember, the one that listened to Jesus and built their life on His word stood secure. The ones that listen to Jesus, and didn’t do what He said, fell apart. The story is a warning to people who act religious, act like Christians, attend church, use Christian language, claim to be believers, but who see God’s commands as burdensome, don’t do what Jesus says, and who, when difficulties come, fall apart – and in the end, will go to hell.
You may think that you’re doing pretty well with a foot in both worlds – you get the security of feeling like a believer and get to be around a bunch of Christians, while at the same time living a worldly life where you get the pleasures of sin – but here’s the thing: the storm is inevitable. Jesus says very clearly that “the flood” is not an “if” but a “when”. Pain will come in this life… and you are going to die and face the Judgement Seat of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:10)
Jesus’ question is, “What’s the point of calling me ‘Lord’ and pretending to be a Christian if you’re not going to do what I say? It won’t help you avoid the storms, your life will be insecure, and it won’t help you in eternity. What benefit is your hypocrisy? If you call me ‘Lord’ do what I say, then you will get the benefits of what I’m trying to give you!”
The start of the year, as I said last week, is a time when a lot of people take time to evaluate where they are in life and make some decisions about making some changes, often called “New Year’s Resolutions”. They feel convicted that some area of their life needs to change, and the tossing out of the old calendar seems like as good a time as any to start.
Some people focus on their physical health, vowing they will eat healthier and exercise more. Others focus on their work life, telling themselves that this is the year they will finally get a better job, get that promotion, take that training they’ve been putting off, get a raise, or change their habits so they’ll be more effective. Some people turn towards relationships, running through the list of people on their contact list and deciding to purge the toxic people and make new friends, get reconnected with old ones, spend more time with their family, or even decide to start a family for themselves. Some decide to be more environmentally conscientious or to do better with their money. Others look more deeply at their spiritual side, vowing to meditate more, get more “centred”, pursue things that bring more meaning, and finally figure out why they have been put on the earth in the first place.
I think all of these are good things. I applaud anyone who puts down the remote and their phone, turns off the computer, gets quiet and does some self-evaluation. Introspection is usually a genuinely positive thing that is a good step towards true, substantial, life-change.
But no matter how much introspecting and resoluting we do, it often doesn’t get very far, does it? For every New Year’s Resolution there’s a breaking of that resolution. We want to be better, but temptation is too strong. Diets are abandoned, the new guitar sits dusty in the corner along with all the books to be read. Gyms are packed full in January but back to their regular clientele by February – not they care considering all the 1 year, unbreakable memberships they sold. The folks who made the resolutions feel like failures – but repeat the cycle for their birthday, when spring comes, when school starts, and then again the next year.
So, what can we do to make sure that those changes stick? Well, there are two things that we need to do before we ever make those changes. We need to talk to God, and we need to find accountability.
Bringing it to God
The first thing we need to do when it comes to these moments of resolve is to make sure we talking and listening to God. There is a real danger if our introspection and decision making is done in a vacuum. What I mean by this is that we as individuals shouldn’t be doing all this evaluating and resolving without including others in the mix. We, by ourselves, are generally not very good at either figuring out what’s wrong with us or how to fix it. We will usually err one of two ways, either toward pride, thinking too much of ourselves, giving ourselves too much credit, and making excuses for ourselves, or we’ll err too much toward the negative, beating ourselves up, evaluating ourselves too harshly, and change things we really don’t need to.
For example, we assume that people don’t like us because of our looks so we spend time changing our body and clothes, and it turns out that it’s because we’re actually a jerk who doesn’t shower enough. Or we assume that we’re amazing at drawing or singing or writing, so we figure it’s time to let the world see our wonderful works, but it turns out that we’re actually terrible at it. Or vice versa, we look at our art or listen to ourselves sing or play or write and we think we’re terrible, but if people saw it, they’d actually really like it.
So, the first thing we need to do when it comes to these things is to make sure that what we are deciding to do, or the thing we want to change, lines up to reality – and that can’t happen without including others in the mix.
And the most important “other” we need to be sure to include is God, for He is the source of all truth and the one who knows us best. Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” Or Proverbs 19:21, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.” Psalm 127:1-2 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.”
Non-Christians, and too many believers make these grand decisions without ever consulting God or His Word, and so everything is messed up from the very start. John Calvin once said, “Man’s nature is a perpetual factory of idols”. The Bible says it this way in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
When we make these resolutions or life-changing decisions without bringing them to God and listening to Him, we will almost always be listening to our own deceitful heart and feeding our idol factory. I’ll use myself as an example: I turned 40 this week so I posted to Facebook asking for any tips. Most of them were about taking care of my physical self because it gets harder from here on in. Buy a scale, watch the diet, exercise more, sleep enough, take care of my knees, start taking vitamins – only one person told me to buy a red convertible and embrace a mid-life crisis. And all those physical things are good advice I need to take, but what happens when I decide to do this without talking to God?
Well, I slip into the error of 1 Timothy 4:8 that says, “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.” In other words, it’s possible for me to make all these wonderful resolutions but actually miss the real problem. My issue isn’t that I eat too much sugar, not enough vegetables, and watch too much tv. If I solved all that myself, I would be healthier, sure, but God isn’t simply concerned about my weight and vitamin intake.
The deeper issue is that there are areas of my life I haven’t fully turned over to God and still believe myself to be in control of. I still believe that my way of handling stress, sadness, or temptation is better than God’s. I still believe that God won’t provide comfort or help or peace, so I go looking for it in an idol called food or entertainment. The issue isn’t sugar intake or lack of self-control, the issue is that I don’t trust God enough, I don’t fear God enough, I don’t believe God’s promises enough. Which come down to an inadequate prayer life, a stale worship life, lazy bible reading and study habits… which cause me to drift from God and leave me open to demonic temptation.
When I talk to God about this and list to His word, the problem becomes clearer, more understandable, deeper – and I see that the solution isn’t a weird diet and exercise plan or some vitamins, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where I decrease and He increases, where I fall at His feet and ask Him to be my greater joy, where I realize that He’s not saving me from merely bad habits, but deadly sins that leave me spiritually weak and an easy target for the enemy of my soul.
And now the solution come more clear that if I am on my knees more, read God’s word more, learn to trust Him more, believe Him more, and ask Him for more grace – that I will learn that Jesus will help me more than my idols will and I will gain more joy from His good gifts of food and work than I did before when they were my slave masters.
Do you see what I mean? It’s no different with any other resolution we may have. We feel convicted to learn guitar, build better relationships, become more successful in our work – and we think we need to simply rejig our schedule and buckle down, but when we come to God with those things He shows us so much more.
Our desire to learn guitar is a deeper desire for acceptance, love, to feel special, to fill a gap in our heart – which are all Gospel issues addressed when we realize we are already loved. Our desire for better relationships, more friends, better friends, or closer ties to family, ends up becoming a journey that shows us where we have grown bitter with unforgiveness, reveals our fear of abandonment, our habit of blaming others, or a realization that we hate ourselves and use others to distract us from that self-hatred – which are all issues that are addressed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a closer relationship with God. Our desire for success and commitment to work more hours ends up, when turned over to God, becomes a realization that we are never satisfied, that we are addicted to adrenaline, that we’re afraid of failure, or that we have been working somewhere doing something that God never wanted us to do in the first place – which are all Gospel issues, addressed by finding our identity and purpose in Christ and the practice of listening to the Holy Spirit more.
So the first thing we must do whenever we feel that sense of conviction or are making a big decision like this, is to invite God into the conversation, but we also need to invite others. This is the greatest disadvantage of our society’s turn towards radical individualism. When the only voice in our head is ours, and the only standard for good that matters is whatever we decide, we’re in trouble. When the only people we’ll allow to talk to us is the echo chamber of people that think and act like us, we’re in trouble. Certainly the greatest form of accountability is reading God’s Word and listening to the conviction of His Spirit, but we can’t do that alone either. We were designed to be in community. When we become a Christian by trusting in Jesus as our Saviour, He gives us a lot of gifts, and one of those is to be made a member of the Body of Christ, the church. (1 Cor 12:27).
It is this community that Christians are meant to be part of most, where our closest relationships outside of that of God and our family are formed. Not our sports team, community clubs, affinity groups, or even para-church and ministries, as wonderful as those are. Christians are meant to be part of a growing, diverse, Christ-centred, church. It is with the church that we share our hopes, struggles, sins, fears, and convictions. It’s within the community of a Word-centred church that Christians experience God’s teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness. It is in the church that we grow the most in our faith.
Now, there are some churches that have taken up the world’s view on things and have decided to become more and more homogeneous, more and more alike, more uniform, separating people from those that are unlike them, and that’s not good. It is in our diversity of ages, experiences, maturity, preferences, hopes, fears and struggles, that we grow most. Sure, it’s nice to hang around people that are like us – same age, same experiences, same backgrounds – and it has its place, but that’s not where we grow most. We do ourselves a disservice when we remove ourselves from the diversity of the church.
For example, say you’ve been thinking and praying about some changes in our life and have come to some resolutions and conclusions. You’ve felt God’s conviction, have read God’s word, and think you’ve got a good handle on things. How do you know you’re hearing right? How do you know you’re not stuck in an echo chamber, just hearing what you want to hear? What about your blind spots? And if you did get it all right, how will you get started? And you know you’re weak, so how will you make sure you stick to it? “God will do it for me!” is true, but God most often works through His church.
We need to listen to people that are wiser and older than us, people who have struggled with similar things and have seen God’s victories, people who have been reading the word and praying for longer than us. We need people to help us choose good books, good helps, good tools, based on their experience. We need people younger than us to give us inspiration, energy, unique perspective, to ask questions we never thought of, to introduce us to tools and concepts we’ve never considered, and to cheer us on. We need elders to lend us wisdom, deacons to visit us in our struggles, small groups to pray for us, and the presence of children to hold us to a higher standard. We need to see amazing, Godly people that give us a standard to strive for, and see a whole bunch of messed up people so we know we’re not alone in our striving.
The church is where we experience the “one anothers” of love, encouragement, spurring to good deeds, serving and being served, instruction, honour, kindness and compassion. (1 John 4:12, Heb 3:13; 10:24, Gal 5:3; Rom 15:14; 12:10, Eph 4:32)
Listen to the words of James 5:13-20,
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit. My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”
James is a very practical book of the Bible. If we have issues in our life that need changing, what James calls “sufferings”, what are we to do? Bring it to God and pray. Then what? Tell the church and ask others to pray. What if you’ve sinned? What if you’ve totally messed something up? Are you to keep that secret because sinners don’t belong at church and everyone will just judge you? No. Confess the sins to people at church and pray that God will heal your heart and the situation. Why? Because prayer has power, and the prayer of many has more power. What if someone wanders away from the truth, follows lies, and gets all messed up? Someone from the church should go get them, tell them the truth, and bring them back (Gal 6:1).
All of this is God working through the church. We’re never meant to do any of this on our own.
I’m not sure what’s been going on in our heart and life over the last month or so, but I am sure that every single one of you experience some sort of conviction to change something in your life – maybe multiple somethings – and you feel you need to do something about it. Some of you are trying to ignore that feeling because you’re too lazy or too afraid of failure. Others are ashamed of their issue and want to keep it secret – either because it’s something that will get them in trouble, or something they think is too shocking to share, or they think their alone, or their afraid of being judged. Some have already started and failed at their change, and feel guilty about it. Some look at the mountain of changes they feel they need and are utterly overwhelmed. Some have physical handicaps, others emotional weakness, that make it harder. Some have spiritual and religious problems they can’t get past, others have addictions that keep them bound to failure.
My simple point today is this: Allow those convictions, those desires for change to drive you to your knees before God, into His Word, before the face of Christ in prayer – to be the fuel that runs your prayer life and makes you desperate for God’s forgiveness and healing.
And then, once you have started working with God, bring it to the church. Vow that you are going to be honest, once and for all, about what you are struggling with. Vow that you are going to drag the sin into the light so it can lose its power and finally be dealt with.
In invite you to call me so we can talk about it. Talking to your pastor is a great place to start and walking with you and helping you is one of my greatest joys. If not me, then talk with one of the deacons or a Sunday school teacher or a Christian friend. If we can’t handle it, we’ll help you find someone that can – and then stick with you along the way.
Not only that, but make the commitment that you are not only going to make sure you are at church for as many Sundays as you can get here, but that you are going to join a small group, the youth group, a study group, or some other place where Christians are invited to share, pray, and grow together. Not simply because you are supposed to, but because you believe that it is when the church gathers that God chooses to do most of His work.
“For Christmas one year we bought our children what was called, ‘Ant City.’ This consisted of clear plastic plates on either side, filled with sand and ants. From our vantage point outside and above, we could see what these busy little creatures were doing underground. We watched as they tunneled their way underground, leaving a maze of trails. In a similar fashion, God scrutinizes our paths. From where we are, tunneling along, all we see is the sand immediately ahead, behind and beside us. But from His vantage point, He can see exactly where we’ve been and precisely where we’re going.” (“The Mystery of God’s Will” by Chuck Swindoll)
New Years is usually the time when we stop to take a look at the paths and tunnels we have been digging over the previous year and look forward to what we’ll be doing in the next. We examine our lives, looking back on our journey, and see places we wished we could have gone to and some that we know we shouldn’t have. And maybe you’re feeling like it’s time to make some adjustments. Maybe even throw out the Biblical phrase “back on ‘the straight and narrow”.
Today I want to look at Psalm 139 which is all about the God who knows everything; the God who carved the “straight and narrow path”. The God who shows it to us, writes it in our hearts, and then gives us the freedom of choice to walk it or not.
Some, will be encouraged by this psalm, while others are going to be angered by it. Some people are drawn to worship, while others are disturbed. Some find peace, protection and comfort in it, while others feel a sense of foreboding paranoia in which they find no comfort, but feel exposed, spied on, intruded upon by a malevolent force, which they reject.
This psalm is divided into six different sections. Each section has a different emphasis, supporting and expanding the rest of the whole, culminating in the final passage at the end of the journey.
God Only Knows
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in—behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:1-6)
Verses 1 to 6 begin, first and foremost, with a declaration of truth. There is nothing in this first part that speaks to why God is watching, only that He does. Words like, “know, search, perceive, discern, familiar with, know completely, hem me in”, and even verse six where the knowledge is called, “too wonderful” and “unattainable”, describe the depth of the knowledge God has about us, not the reason or motive for having that knowledge. The whole concept at the beginning of this psalm is about how absolutely and ultimately God knows us.
God, sees much more than we do. Sure, we have a sense of intuition that goes a little beyond the physical, but anyone who has been lied to knows how limited our powers of perception are.
God’s knowledge is absolute. The Hebrew word for “KNOW” used in this section is a common word that is found in the Bible about 1000 times, it’s the Hebrew word YADA.
YADA and is the word that is used for many different types of “knowledge” in many different contexts. It’s used for merely seeing something, but also for having an intimate knowledge of something or someone – Adam yada’d Eve. It is used to describe when someone knows something well enough to take care of it, who has examined it very closely, like scientific research. It is used when someone understands something or even experiences something. It’s used of people who have experienced the presence of God.
When used of God, YADA encompasses all of these, speaking of a special kind of knowledge that we could call complete, divine discernment. God knows us intimately, scientifically, experientially, completely.
Take a look at verse 2-3. He knows when we sit and rise (where we go and what we do), our thoughts (our motives), the path we are living on (our past and future) and where we will lie down (when or where we will die). That’s a lot of knowledge!
Two Reactions: Peace or Paranoia
Now, here’s my point for this section: the depth of this knowledge, as I said before, will give you one of two reactions. It will either give you comfort, or make you paranoid.
Consider for a moment the concept the psalmist uses when he says he is “hemmed in” in verse 5. Some people find comfort in this. They are safe, taken care of, given boundaries, protected – to them, God’s knowledge feels like the guardrail keeping them from falling into the Grand Canyon.
Others will read this exact same phrase and feel great discomfort. They feel trapped, walled in, as though their freedom has been taken away. How dare God want to “hem me in”! How dare He “lay His hand upon me”! It’s like almost like a psychological test.
So, the first question I have for you, and the answer to this question will help you understand your relationship with God: What is happening inside you when you read verses 1-6 – that God knows you so intimately, has set up walls for your life, and is scrutinizing every step you take along your path? You reaction will really affect how you read the next section.
Nowhere to Hide
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:7-12)
There are two very different ways to read and understand this part. It’s like when a psychiatrists hold up the inkblots and asks to see what you perceive in them. It is supposed to tell them about what is going on in your subconscious mind. So, the question is, what is going on in your mind when you read this?
Is the author trying to flee and hide himself from God? When you read “Where can I go from your Spirit?”, or “no matter how high I go or how deep I go, You are there!” Verse 9 is a poetic way of saying, “no matter how far East I go” (“the wings of the dawn” where the sun rises), or how far West I go (“the far side of the sea”, which is the Mediterranean that bordered the land to the West), even there I will find Your hand holding me.” Verse 11 gives another extreme. “If I find the darkest place in the world, and crawl inside, I will be found there too.”
How does it strike you? Is the psalmist trying to hide from the God who knows him too well? Is he seeking some place where he can ‘be himself’ and do what he wants away from the prying eyes of the Almighty?
OR, is he marvelling at how closely God is involved in his life? Is he thankful for how well he is known; that no matter how high, low, near, far, light or dark his life gets, God will always be with him, fully aware of his situation? Is this a dangerous, embarrassing exposure that he must escape from, or the assurance of a safe refuge from anything this life may bring? The answer to this question will tell you a lot about how you see God, the Church, the Bible, and even yourself.
Designed with Care
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139:13-16)
Verse 13 is a wonderful verse, and one of my favourite in the whole Bible. It begins to show the motive that we were lacking in the first sections. It shows a relationship between the knower and the knowee.
Up until this point there has been a kind of detachment in the knowledge… an almost surgical understanding, a distance between God and the human He’s observing. God is there, He knows, He sees, but He has yet to do anything. Now the picture changes completely. Verses 13 to 16 move from detached study to an intimate and personal interaction, from studying to experiencing.
As they say… “it’s one thing to read the book, but it’s another thing to actually get your hands dirty.” Medical school is great, but who would trust a doctor that has only studied the books, but has never seen a patient? Who would acknowledge someone as an expert in art that had never picked up a paintbrush? How can you practice or teach law well if you have never been in a courtroom? Can you call yourself an expert chef if you’ve only memorized all of the recipes, vocabulary and conversion table, have even supervised other chefs, but have never actually cooked anything yourself? Of course not.
The language here conveys that, even in the womb God is designing, knitting, and forming not only our physical features, but our passions as well! The words, “inmost being” are actually the single Hebrew word for KIDNEY. It says, “You formed my kidneys.” I’m sure that helps you understand this passage a great deal.
Hebrew culture saw and spoke of the kidneys in much the same way our western culture speaks of the heart. It is considered to be the center of a person’s emotions, passions and morality. When we say that a person has a “big heart”, we aren’t talking about the internal organ, but that the person seems to have a lot of love to share. I’m guessing that an ancient Hebrew would have said that a loving person had “big kidneys.”
Twins, who are identical in appearance can be remarkably different. One likes music, the other science. One is an adventurer, the other an introvert? That’s because God doesn’t just stir the DNA soup that makes up a person, but designs their personality and interests too!
Verse 16 tells us why God does that. It’s because you and I are made for a purpose. These different characteristics make us so that we can serve God in our own unique way.
The psalm says, “…in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” His “book” (as the passage calls it) has all of the schematics for who we are, how we were made, and what our life is designed to be, and will be. In it is written who you are, and what the potential for your future can be.
Consider for a moment what it means that you are known intimately, designed with care and precision, and were called and equipped for your life before you were born! Are you getting a sense for why David, and those in relationship with God, don’t have a foreboding sense of God’s intimate knowledge, but instead it causes them to worship? And when we open the rest of the Bible and it reveals how we are to live, the best way to relate to others, and shows us that God loves us so much that He was willing to save us from ourselves, by the work of Jesus Christ… can you see why we worship here this morning?
Pause to Praise
“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.” (Psalm 139:17-18)
David, the author of the psalm, is overcome with what God is sharing with Him and in verses 17 and 18 he just breaks out into worship. He’s overwhelmed by the sheer volume, the loftiness, the vastness of the knowledge that God has about him — the care that has been taken in the planning of His life. He is stunned by the God who would take the time to design him to be him! The perfect Creator who designed the most wonderful things in the world, also designed him.
It reminds me of a great song I heard by David Crowder called “Everything Glorious”. In it he looks around at all the beautiful things he’s seen and then says, “From glory to glory, You are glorious, You are glorious, Which leads me to believe, You make everything glorious, And I am Yours… so what does that make me?”
He’s echoing Psalm 139 there. God is glorious. God makes beautiful things. And all that God makes is glorious and beautiful – so what does that make you and me?
God has a vast sum of plans, and designs for each of us, unique and special. The one who designed the sun, moon, planets, stars, oceans and land, took the time to create every part of who you and I are, and watches over you with great care every day!
Consider how different you would be if you knew that you were chosen to be trained and destined for a grand purpose, perfectly suited for you, and whose work would have eternal significance. How would that change how you see yourself? How would that change how you saw God? It feels pretty good to know you are unique, gifted, important, significant, and special –your great deeds have been anticipated by the host of heaven! It’s true!
One reason we praise God is because He is the One who chose and designed us, and watches over us every moment of every day!
“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! They speak against you with malicious intent; your enemies take your name in vain. Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19-22)
The next verses, 19-22 give the other, natural reaction we should have to this knowledge – on one side is praise, but on the other is something understandably unpopular among us polite Canadians. Along with the response of worship, where we see God as the One who knows us intimately and designs us for a purpose, are verses 19-22 which show frustration and anger against all of those people who despise and reject their God-given potential, even insulting the One who created them with such care and precision.
This is anger against the enemies of God who refuse to acknowledge who God is, who they are because of God, and actively work against Him. David finds such comfort and encouragement in his Creator, but sees no purpose for God keeping all these wicked people around. He distances himself from them, loathes them, and even asks God to just kill them off! They are not living out their God given purpose, and are harming those who are. God has given these evil people amazing gifts – life, skills, happiness, resources, time, families, even power and wealth – but they selfishly keep it all for themselves, put their faith in it, and then use it to work against God’s plan! They worship idols and profaning their Creator’s name!
How can God keep these people around?
In verse 19 David is jealous with impatience: “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me!” He’s angry at the wicked, but he also seems to be frustrated with God’s patience toward them. He is frustrated with the prideful, selfish, wilful, evil people in the world, but notice that He’s not taking the situation into his own hands. No, He’s leaving the ultimate decision of what should happen with them to God. He is not worthy to deal out punishment, only God is.
It’s God’s choice (and thank God it is) to be patient, to keep knocking on the doors of their hearts, and to continuously pursue them with His amazing grace. To send another prophet, another message, another conviction to their heart, another blessing to show His love for them, another punishment to show the consequence of their sin. God is actively involved in trying to change all of them. Though, most refuse to listen.
David’s words here are actually a traditional Near Eastern pledge that kings would require of their new servants as they came under their authority. King David is pledging himself to be a servant of a higher King. They would come into the presence of the king and say, “With my friend you shall be friend, and with my enemy you shall be enemy.”
“Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24)
David’s pledge of loyalty goes even deeper here in the climax of the psalm as he says, “Lord, I have committed myself to you. I trust you, you are my Creator. I have looked at your enemies and made them my own, but I have also looked inside myself. I know my own wandering heart, and I know my allegiance. And so God, I invite you to test the integrity of my devotion. Look deep into my being, find anything that separates me from you, keep me true, and lead me down the path that you choose.”
What is most interesting, and unique about this last part, is that it is an invitation. The first part of this psalm is a declaration of God’s absolute knowledge of Him, this is an invitation to make the examination. Remember I talked about how the knowledge of God is going to give you one of two reactions: Paranoia or Peace? This is the reaction of a Christian.
God knows all this stuff anyway, but it an amazingly humble thing to invite God to scrutinize your soul! David says, “search me, know me, test me, check my thoughts, see if my motivations and actions are pure.”
It is no light thing to ask God to do this. The implication of this invitation is that David is looking to see how he can respond accordingly. “What if I’m NOT pure? What if I’m not on the right path? What if I am grieving the one I’m pledged to? What if my thoughts are a mess? Then God, correct me, teach me and lead me the right direction! Get me off the path of destruction I’ve chosen for myself and send me down the right path.”
This is the right response to God’s complete knowledge, His status as your Creator, and the knowledge that you cannot escape His judgement: to ask forgiveness, submit to His authority, and trust Him with your life. It require the humility of admitting that the path you have chosen is the wrong one, and that His is the right one… in other words… repentance.
This admission is quite difficult for many people. Admit that the tunnel we are digging and the path we are on is wrong, that it ends in destruction is too much for our pride to take. Yet scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6)
To choose to follow God’s leadership and His “way” instead of our own requires submission of our wills and the admission that His way is the only one that leads to life. The psalmist admits he’s wrong and submits his will to God’s correction and direction.
My hope is that sometime over this New Year’s celebration you will take this journey through Psalm 139 yourself. Find some quiet time and go through these six sections with God. Acknowledge that God already knows you. Discover the God that you cannot escape. Be drawn you into both fear and worship. Learn that He designed you with love and purpose and praise God for it! Start hating what God hates, and let it motivate you to tell the story of Jesus’ salvation to this world. And humble yourself and give your whole being to Jesus to scrutinize and examine, that He may He lead you on the path of salvation.