Basking in beauty - Psalm 27

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 1st June 2008.

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You will probably be aware that in the past one of the arguments often used by Christians for the existence of God was the fact and the wonder of the universe. The sublime nature of the cosmos on the grand scale and the intricacy of nature on the micro-scale spoke of design. And if you have design, so it was argued, then you needed a designer and the most obvious candidate was God. And as we saw last week looking at Psalm 19 there is some measure of truth in this- ‘the heavens declare the glory of God’- and it is there for all to see, whether you are an Eskimo or an Aborigine – the song of creation is being sung to the praise of the Creator. However, it wasn’t long before that argument was turned on its head. ‘Sure,’ some said, ‘there is integration and order in the world, but there is also disintegration and disorder, evil as well as good. So how do you account for that? Is God responsible for that too, if so then what kind of God is he?’ Now, one of the many wonderful things about the Bible, and especially the Psalms, is its realism. It tells it as it is. What is described is the world as we know it, a world which is made up of the good, the bad and the ugly. So the question is: How is a believer in God, a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, going to be enabled to cope living in this broken world where not everything is rosy, where there is a good deal of pain as well as pleasure? Well, the psalm that we are looking at together this morning helps us answer those kinds of questions. So do turn with me to psalm 27 as we think about basking in beauty.

This is a lovely psalm of King David which has caused a good number of commentators to scratch their heads in bewilderment because they feel it doesn’t quite fit together. They say that verses 1-3 are full of tremendous confidence and assurance, written by a man who is certain in his faith: ‘1The LORD is my light and my salvation-- whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life-- of whom shall I be afraid? 2When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. 3Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then will I be confident’. That seems clear enough doesn’t it? This man knows what he believes and knows where he is going. But glance down to verses 7-12 and they seem to tell a different story; ‘7Hear my voice when I call, O LORD; be merciful to me and answer me. 8My heart says of you, "Seek his face!" Your face, LORD, I will seek. 9Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger; you have been my helper. Do not reject me or forsake me, O God my Savior. 10Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me. 11Teach me your way, O LORD; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. 12Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, breathing out violence.’ He now seems much less certain. The wind has been decidedly taken out of his sails. In fact some commentators are so struck by the drastic change in mood they conclude that what we are dealing with here are two different psalms which have been awkwardly stuck together by a compiler who came along later. But you know, a much simpler explanation is available. The fact is in the Christian life circumstances can alter radically within a matter of moments. One minute things are going along swimmingly. Your walk with the Lord seems close, the family is happy, you are enjoying life, praising God for his goodness and then- wham- tragedy strikes and you are knocked sideways. The lips which only a few moments before had been busy singing praise are now working overtime in offering prayer- pleading with God to do something. Isn’t life like that for you or is it only me? More than that, the change can occur immediately following on from a spiritual peak casting you down into a spiritual trough. And that is what seems to have happened to David, hence the connecting verses 4-6; ‘4One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. 5For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock. 6Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his tabernacle will I sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the LORD.’ David may have literally been in the tabernacle or the tent in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant denoting the presence of God amongst his people. He may well have been engaged in public worship at the time and we know how David was enthusiastic about that- dancing in the presence of the Lord when the ark was brought into Jerusalem, employing singers and instrumentalists to ensure that the richest form of praise could be employed for the glory of God and for the enjoyment of his people. That is where he was and he loved to be there, this was a haven for him. Or it may be that he is using figurative language which simply conveys the deep knowledge that he is close to God, that God is with him- so he speaks of ‘the house of God’, the ‘temple’ of the Lord (and this was before a physical temple had been built by his son Solomon), his ‘dwelling’- literally lair or hideout, his ‘tabernacle’ or ‘tent’. All of these things speak of the nearness of God, his willingness to live close to those he loves- like David. And it may have been that up to this point he was secure, God had been good in protecting him from his enemies-of which there were many- but no sooner does he come out of the tabernacle that he looks up and he sees armies surrounding him, ready to strike him down. And maybe some of his own men have turned tail and ran, or having found one or two traitors in the camp-vv10-12. And that is what life can be like can’t it? You are in church one minute full of praise and in the dumps the next full of pain. A moving example of this very thing was given by the American preacher John Macarthur a few years ago. He spoke of a minister and his family who worked in Utah in a small struggling church trying to win Mormons for Christ. Well, one day the minister phoned MacArthur saying that he would like to come down to visit MacArthur in Los Angeles to enrol his two lovely teenage daughters at the college linked to MacArthur’s church and would also be bringing along two exchange students from Italy because they wanted to see them converted. So they set off and were excited about the prospect of going to a big church on Sunday which was several thousand strong- it is, Heather and I visited it a few years ago- very impressive with several hundred in the choir. So they went and it was a time of pure joy. But on their return journey home, for some inexplicable reason, the father pulled out too soon at a red light just as a large truck was travelling towards them in the other direction. As the truck hit them broadside, the two girls were catapulted out of the rear window, hitting the curb and killing them instantly. The son and the two Italian boys were taken to intensive care, severely injured. The car itself had been cut in two and then went up in a fireball. But the parents had miraculously survived. What began as a day of consummate joy ended in a holocaust. As soon as MacArthur arrived at the hospital, he went to see the father and said to him, ‘John, what are your thoughts?’ And he replied through tear stained eyes, ‘Well, I keep thinking maybe it’s all a dream and I will soon wake up. But I know that’s not going to happen. My second thought is this: Isn’t God good? Isn’t he good that he spared those two unconverted Italian boys and took my two Christian girls?’ He then said this, ‘I wanted my girls to have a big church experience, but I didn’t think it would be this big. I wanted them to hear a big choir, but I didn’t think it would be the angels.’`

Now how do you account for that reaction? What perspective is available to view tragedy in that way? Well, I want to suggest to you that the reason is that that man practised what David preached in v4, look at it again, 4One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple’ With the result that when it counted, when he really needed it the most he experienced v 5, ‘For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.’

So what does David mean when he says that the one thing he seeks, that is, the thing above all else he desires, is to ‘gaze upon the beauty of the Lord’? How do we actually go about that? Does David have in mind some sort of vision of God, similar to the one Isaiah had in the temple? Well, I don’t think he is speaking of literally gazing upon the beauty of the Lord with his physical eyes- since such visions were exceedingly rare in Scripture- very few and far between. Because here he seems to be speaking about something which could be his at anytime- either as he is in the tabernacle in public worship or anywhere else for that matter knowing that God is present with him. The word translated, ‘gaze upon’, means to ponder, to meditate upon, to consider. It carries the idea of recognising and revelling in the desirableness of God, to see the beauty of his goodness and to contemplate the Excellencies of his Being. There is this one burning desire to be so wrapped up in God, to be drenched in his glory, to be saturated in his goodness, to be so moved by his beauty that all other desires pale into insignificance.

But this doesn’t just happen. One writer puts it like this: ‘Delight in God cannot occur in an intellectual vacuum. Our joy is the fruit of what we know and believe to be true of God. Emotional heat such as joy, delight, and gladness of heart, apart from intellectual light (i.e. knowledge of God) is useless. Worse still it is dangerous, for it inevitably leads to fanaticism and idolatry. The experience of heaven’s inhabitants confirms that our knowledge of God (education) is the cause or grounds for our delight in him (exultation), which blossoms in the fruit of praise and honour and glory (exaltation). (One Thing-p81-82- Sam Storms). And I believe that is right. So what sort of things about God should we be filling our minds with so that our hearts will be enlarged and our devotion deepened? There are three things which are suggested by the psalm, but which other parts of the Bible illustrate.

First, there is the beauty of the majesty of God. This I think is what lies at the heart of verse 4- ‘to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.’ The temple, amongst other things denotes the dwelling place of God. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the blueprint of the tabernacle Moses was to build and which later became the template for the temple Solomon was to build was in fact a copy of ‘heavenly things’( Heb 9:23). And what do we see now that the doorway to heaven has been opened to us b y the Lord Jesus Christ? We see, with the eyes of faith what John saw in Revelation chapter 4, ‘Before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. 3And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne. 4Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. 5From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. Before the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. 6Also before the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.’ Do you know what that means? It means that at the heart of the universe is pure, unsullied, Beauty. Jasper is white and like a diamond, carnelian red, like a ruby, emerald is green. And the word for rainbow could mean the vertical multicoloured bow we see in the sky after rain, or something horizontal, more like a halo or like the rings which encircle the planet Saturn. I guess the nearest we can get to experiencing this is seeing the crown jewels in the Tower of London. As you enter this large well lit room, right in the centre is the most wonderful display case ,which is simply a visual feast. Crowns and orbs and swords ,made of gold and silver in which are set the most amazing stones-diamonds and rubies and emeralds, with the light refracting through these stones casting up a perfect kaleidoscope And you can’t drag your eyes away-you are simply enchanted by their brilliance. And you find that when you move your head slightly the pattern of light changes, then you move your head a few degrees more and it changes again ,its as if there is life in the light, causing the diamonds not only to sparkle but to dance.And when you come out of the exhibition at the end. You don’t think . ‘Eh there is lots of money in there!’ Your mind is left racing at the indescribable beauty you have just witnesse. But the point is this: that what John sees as he tries to describe the indescribable, taken together have the effect of evoking a picture of entrancing beauty. John is saying that the most mesmerising, heart stopping, mind engrossing scene in the entire universe is God seated upon his throne. And when you think on that, as you get your mind around that- where else would you ever want to be? Beauty draws praise from you unconditionally, you feel the pleasure of it- that is what happens when you see a beautiful bride walk down the aisle or a gorgeous little baby lying in the cot or a magnificent sunrise as it breaks over the horizon or even as you remember such things- their beauty enriches you- how much more so the Beauty who is the originator of all beauty- God?

Secondly, there is the beauty of the humility of God. What do I mean by that? Well, when God met with his people at Mount Sinai and subsequently in the tent of meeting-the tabernacle, do you realise what was being proclaimed about God? Just think about it. There were the Jews moving around the desert for 40 years living in tents, nomads, hundreds of thousands of them with the walls of their tents flapping in the wind and right there in the middle of them was God living in his tent. The God for whom the heavens are not large enough to contain him, shrunk himself as it were to live amongst these griping, complaining, hurting and sometimes believing people. There is only one word to describe such a being that is willing to do that and that word is -humble. As someone once said, ‘Humility is the garment of Deity (Isaac of Nineveh- 7th C). Do you remember what the apostle John said happened some 2,000 years ago and he was around to see it? John 1, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling (literally pitched his tent- tabernacled) among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ There was a moment when the Creator became the created without ceasing to be the Creator. We are talking God as a foetus, holiness sleeping in a womb, the invisible becoming visible, the omnipotent becoming breakable. Now isn’t there something intrinsically beautiful about that? Isn’t there something moving and entrancing about this divine humility that simply melts your heart, to think that God was willing to do that? One person who as he thought about these things was simply blown away by them all as the 5th century Christian leader from North Africa Augustine. By any measure Augustine was a genius- he had the brain the size of a small planet, and as he gazed upon the beauty of the Lord in the face of Jesus and the incarnation he wrote these words: :He, through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!’ Now there is a beautiful thought.I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living. 14Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

God never promised David that he would be free from trouble-never. But he did promise David that he would be with him in the trouble and ultimately deliver him from trouble. And now of course because of Jesus, great David’s greater Son, we can know this promise for ourselves in a much more profound way. Jesus is our Prophet- the one who brings God’s revelation to us; he is our King who exercises God’s rule over us, and he is our Priest who offered God’s sacrifice for us in his body on the cross-which is why he became one of us in the first place- Hebrews 2: 17, ‘For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tested, he is able to help those who are being tested.’ The paradox is that there is a beauty in the cross. The vilest act that mankind has ever committed, the butchery of the divine Son- the nail pierced hand and feet, the bloody crown of thorns, the severed , is the kindest act God has ever committed-the means of exhausting his righteous anger and reconciling people like us to himself. It is at the cross, foretold by the temple- the tabernacle in which David would see bloody sacrifices being made and in this act gazing upon the beauty of the Lord- that we see the beauty of the Lord. It is the beauty of holiness which deals with that which is so offensive to God- human rebellion and idolatry; it is the beauty of divine love which tenderly transforms rebels into children. As he sought the beauty of the Lord on the real altar of Calvary, the writer John Calvin expresses his thoughts like this: ‘In the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theatre, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures on high and below, but never more brightly than in the cross….’ Now do you believe that? If so the you should be able to say with even greater conviction than David, 4One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple’

Thirdly, there is the beauty of the fidelity of God- that is, he is a faithful God. This comes out in several places in the psalm but particularly the conclusion in v13-14,

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