Tuesday, September 25, 2007

“God’s Truth”

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Luke 14:25-33[1]

In our study of the Psalms we’ve learned a lot about the torah of the Lord, God’s truth:

• We’ve learned that God’s character is defined by a refrain that echoes throughout the Hebrew Bible: “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” God’s character is such that he “raises up the needy out of distress” but he “pours contempt on princes” who bring oppression on the poor (Ps. 107:39-41).

• We’ve learned that God’s justice is the compassion and kindness that creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially the most vulnerable.[2]

• We’ve learned that the kind of faith God seeks from us consists of a commitment to a way of life that is shaped by the commands of God.[3] What God wants from us is not ritual, but a heart that is open to God’s truth, eyes of compassion that see the needs around us, and the will to work for God’s justice in the world.

• We’ve learned that there is something inherently self-destructive about evil. There seems to be something programmed into the nature of life itself that eventually undoes evil. But we’ve also learned that sometimes our self-righteousness is just as destructive.

• We’ve learned that when everything seems hopeless and we feel helpless, the final answer to all our struggles and all our needs is the presence of God.[4] The Psalmists praise God joyfully, not because they are oblivious to the suffering of human life, but because of their confidence that God will never fail us or forsake us, that that God will keep his promises.[5]

• We’ve learned that the ultimate goal of our faith is a world where God’s unfailing love and saving grace define the way we live with each other. The Bible calls it the kingdom of God, and in the long run, it promises that both the evil of the “wicked” and the self-serving smugness of the “righteous” will one day be redeemed in God’s kingdom.[6]

But our Psalm for today does not simply call us to be able to recite a litany of truths. The Psalm calls us to “delight” in the torah of the Lord, in God’s truth. But what does it mean to “delight” in God’s truth? Are those of us who have become so saturated with information and so jaded by the market of competing truth claims even able to delight in God’s truth? When we embrace the ideology that places the highest value on “think for ourselves” and “listening to our own inner voice,” what possible significance can time-tested truths from an ancient book have for us today?

James, the brother of Jesus, described the process of delighting in God’s truth this way: “if you keep looking steadily into God's perfect [truth], the [truth] that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don't forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it” (James 1:25). For him, “delighting” in God’s torah is a matter of carefully studying it, taking it into your heart and mind to the extent that it changes the way you live your life. The opposite approach, the one I’m afraid we take all too often, James describes like this: “if you just listen and don't obey, it is like looking at your face in a mirror but doing nothing to improve your appearance. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like” (James 1:23-24).

As one wise pastor puts it, “disciples are made, not born.”[7] What that means is that it takes an intentional commitment; it takes the will to persevere, and the courage to swim against the stream to become disciples of Jesus the Christ. I think that is what Jesus had in mind when he warned that those who will not carry the cross and follow him cannot be his disciples.

The truth of God is serious business; it’s not just something we read because we have nothing better to do—like looking at old issues of People magazine in the doctor’s office just to pass the time in the waiting room. As Deuteronomy reminds us, God’s truth is a matter of life and death! Embracing God’s truth with one’s whole heart and obeying it leads to life. Turning away without listening and going astray after the various “truths” out there leads to death.

I can think of no better illustration than my own experience with sleeping disorders. As you know, I was diagnosed with severe Sleep Apnea a few months ago. I used to joke that I had a “terminal case of snoring.” The members of our session will bear witness to the truth of that claim! But in fact, I’ve learned that severe sleep apnea is linked to sudden fatal heart attacks! So I don’t joke about it any more—my grandfather died of a sudden heart attack due in part I think to Sleep Apnea. So how would it be if I went through the sleep study to determine I have Sleep Apnea, learned all about Sleep Apnea and discovered that it could kill me, got a Positive Air Pressure machine, and then decided that I didn’t want to take the trouble of actually using it?

We do that kind of thing all the time, don’t we? I hope that our study of the Psalms has taught us not to do that with God’s truth.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/9/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 86; J. David Pleins, Psalms—Songs of Tragedy, Hope, and Justice, 51; H.-J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 236.

[4] A. Weiser, Psalms, 352; P. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 134, 329; C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 52.

[5] Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 357.

[6] W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 85-86.

[7] William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 204.

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