I long to dwell in your tent forever

I long to dwell in your tent for ever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

Psalm 61:4

tree-sparrow-with-chicks-in-nest_w725_h485There are times in life when we all feel under tremendous pressure. It might be due to moving house, or planning a big celebration, or a marriage, or a divorce. As a teacher, one of the most stressful situations that I have ever encountered is the OFSTED inspection. The notice of their impending arrival is enough to send even the best teacher in the world into a state of fear and paranoia. An inability to sleep due to the worry, plus the sense that lessons must be planned to the nth degree, and the fear that pupils might say or do something silly in a lesson all lead to a particularly difficult and troubling time.

The Psalmist in Psalm 61 brings a message of peace and hope to all those people who find themselves tired to the core, stressed, exhausted and worried. In verse two he tells God that he is calling to him “from the ends of the earth.” He is at his wit’s end and feels close to breaking point. He explains that his “heart is growing faint.” He is nervous, he is exhausted, he needs rest, and he needs deliverance from his enemies. He understands, though, that if he places his trust in God, God will look after him and protect him.

In verse four we get a real insight into the Psalmist’s mind. He knows where he can get true rest – in the tent of the Lord. He tells God that he longs to dwell in his tent forever, to be his perpetual guest in his kingdom. He knows that God looks after his guests as no ordinary person could do; God is the perfect host. He understands that when he is in God’s dwelling place he will be protected from his enemies and all of his needs will be meet. Not only that but he will get the rest that he clearly so urgently needs – deep, spiritual refreshment to invigorate his soul as well as his body and mind.

The next section of the verse illustrates the care that the Psalmist knew he would receive from God. He had clearly observed how birds look after and protect their young, by sheltering them under their wings. The refuge that God can provide him is similar. A young bird is protected from predators and the elements by their parent’s wings. They are in a warm and comfortable place, next to their parent’s beating heart. The Psalmist understands that if he draws close to God he will protect him and look after him. What a tremendous image this is!

How does the image the Psalmist has of God match up to your understanding of your Father in heaven? Do you see God as the perfect host who protects and provides for his children? Do you think he provides a warm, protective refuge for all his children? This is the picture of God that I turn to when I am tired, stressed and under pressure. I always find it a tremendously encouraging image, and one that helps me no end. Why not try and picture God as this verse portrays him today, and seek to draw close to him, to take refuge under his wings?

Shout to God with cries of joy!

Clap your hands, all you nations;
shout to God with cries of joy.

For the Lord Most High is awesome,
the great King over all the earth.

Psalm 47:1-2

Shout for joyI find that the world always seems a cheerier place when I reflect on all the reasons I have to be joyful. Of course there are times in everyone’s lives when things seem rather bleak and depressing. It is precisely at those points when it is important to think about the blessings that we all have in our lives. Even when things are going well, though, it is useful to think of reasons to be joyful. Why not pause right now and think of two or three things to be thankful for.

Today’s verses from Psalm 47 are bursting with joy. Right from the first lines we’re told to clap our hands and shout to God with cries of joy! God’s word tells us to be joyful. What a wonderful revelation it is to know that God wants us all to be happy! He doesn’t want us to endure our lives, but to enjoy them, to be happy in our daily existence.

What do we have to be joyful about? Well, the Psalmist addresses that very question. We should be joyful because God is awesome and is ruler over everyone, everywhere. Now, just occasionally (very occasionally, admittedly!) my pupils tell me that a lesson I taught them was ‘awesome!’ I take that to mean that my lesson was pretty good, exciting and fun. That, of course, is not what awesome really means. Awesome really means to inspire awe; to cause you to look at something, to think about something, or to reflect on something and think, ‘wow, that is absolutely astonishing, completely amazing!’ Sometimes we might encounter something that makes us think like that, but not very often. God, on the other hand, is truly awesome. We should be astonished every day by our God. We should be astonished by the beauty of creation, by the mystery of life, by the fact that he loves us. We should be astonished by the fact that God loves us so much that he sent his son to die for us. We should be astonished that God knows our every thought and has a plan marked out for our lives. Our God truly is awesome! How could we not, therefore, respond to God by clapping our hands and shouting cries of joy!

Why not make a resolution right now to take time out of your day today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, to shout to God with cries of joy? Why not make a list of all the reasons that you have to be joyful to God? When you’re feeling low take time to look back at your list. You’re sure to feel better afterwards!

You love righteousness and hate wickedness

Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.

Psalm 45:6-7

Pieter de Grebber (circa 1600–1652/1653) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand

On September 9th 2015, Elizabeth II will become the longest serving monarch in British history, surpassing the record set by Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years plus fifteen days. I know that there are some who feel that a monarchy is an anachronistic system that has no place in the twenty-first century, but I believe that Elizabeth deserves our respect and gratitude for her years of service and for her commitment to her role of Governor of the Church of England. Of course, the time will come when Queen Elizabeth will cease to reign; she will not live forever, and eventually she will pass away.

Unlike mortal rulers, God’s rule endures forever. Today’s Psalm is a song in praise of the king on his wedding day. The king to which it immediately referred was a member of the family of King David. The words have been applied to Christ, however. Not only is he a descendent of David, but his rule, or throne, will ‘last for ever and ever’. Christ’s rule transcends time itself and is a constant for which we should be grateful. No matter where we are in time or space, nothing can separate us from Christ’s rule.

What is Christ’s rule like? This Psalm helps us to understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Jesus reigns over us with ‘a sceptre of justice’. A sceptre is a ceremonially staff (or stick!) that represents the power of the office holder. It is telling that Jesus’ sceptre is justice itself. Christ’s sceptre shows that his rule is just and fair; good news for those who live according to his rules, but more problematic for those who do not. We will all be judged according to God’s justice, and we need to consider the outcome of this.

The next section of the Psalm picks up on this point. Jesus loves righteousness and hates wickedness. His kingdom is a righteous place, a fair place, and therefore a pleasant place in which to dwell. Evil and wickedness has no place in Christ’s kingdom, and therefore will be punished appropriately.

Perhaps most interestingly, Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords has been anointed by God with the oil of joy. His kingdom is a joyful place. Joy radiates from the King himself, and touches all those who love him.

What a wonderful picture we gain from this Psalm; a picture of a fair and righteous king, whose reign will last forever. The kingdom will be full of joy. Let’s be thankful that this king is Christ, and that we already dwell in his kingdom. Let’s strive to live righteous and joyful lives.

The Lord is My Shepherd

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
2     He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3     he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:1-4

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 29th April 2012 at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church, Horsham.

It was a cold, wet February day. I was having an extremely stressful time at work, and had decided to go for a drive up to Reigate Hill. I was under enormous pressure, and felt a compete failure in all aspects of my life. Everything at work was going wrong. I was working so hard that I had neglected my friends and family. I had become such a negative person that I could not see why anyone would want to spend time with me. I was depressed. I felt utterly alone.

Then a song came onto the CD player in my car. What struck me first was the chorus, the words “oh no, you never let go, through the calm and through the storm, oh no, you never let go, in every high and every low, oh no, you never let me, Lord, you never let go of me.”

Those words brought me to tears.

Suddenly it struck me that I was not alone at all. God was with me. He always had been, and he always with me. I realised that even when I hit the darkest points of my life, as I had at that moment,that God would never leave me.

After I had listened to the chorus over and over again, I replayed the full song and was struck by the first verse, which goes, “even though I walk, through the valley, of the shadow, your perfect love is casting out fear. And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life, I won’t turn back, I know you are near.”

The reassurance that God loved me, and loved me perfectly, even when I felt caught in almost a perfect storm of busyness and isolation, was exactly what I needed to hear at that point in my life.

Having listened to the song a few times, I parked up my car and went for a walk on the North Downs. Whilst walking I pulled out my Bible and turned to Psalm 23. I knew that the first line of the Matt Redman song was taken from this psalm, and I wanted to see what else psalm 23 had to say.

I learnt a lot from Psalm 23 on that day. I would love share some of that with you today.

We’ll spend some time looking at just the first four verses of this famous and well loved Psalm, and consider how Jesus is our shepherd. We’ll consider four points – I lack nothing, he makes me lie down, he guides me along the right paths, and living in the darkest valley.

On to our first point, then, I lack nothing.

David begins this psalm with one of the most famous statements of the Old Testament. He declares, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Just as he was a shepherd for his father’s sheep, and spent his days looking after sheep, he believed that God was his shepherd, who looked after him.

One of the most crucial roles of a shepherd was to look after the material needs of his sheep. His sheep would be totally dependent on him for food and water. Without the shepherd, the sheep would surely die, since they would be unable to find food for themselves.

In David’s mind there was no doubt at all that God fulfilled the same role for all his people. He knew that God looked after him as he looked after his sheep. He trusted God to take care of all of his needs, and, as we see in the very first verse of the psalm, said with confidence, “I lack nothing.” He knows that all he needs will be provided to him by God.

Living in a materialistic society and an affluent country it is very hard to understand this. We are surrounded by so much stuff, and see other people with so many things, that there is generally always something that we want. It can be very hard for us to say, then,as David did, that we lack nothing. There’s always something else that we want.

Within our society, however, there are always people who are wealthier than we are, and have more than we do, or have nicer things than we have. Our neighbours may have a flashier car. Our friends might have a nicer house. Our colleagues might go on nicer holidays. It can be hard for us to look at people who have things that we might like and wonder why they have them and we do not. Can we really join in with David and say, “I lack nothing?”

There is, however, a crucial difference between what we need and what we want. We might want a better car, a bigger house and a more exotic holiday, but do we really need these things? Of course we don’t.

Sometimes our quest for a better lifestyle can actually make our lives more uncomfortable. We work long hours, we try to gain promotions, we neglect our families, we can even abandon God. Perhaps rather than falling into the trap of materialism we should strive to be more like David, trusting in God to provide us with all that we need. A flock of sheep trusts in their shepherd to provide them with food, water, safety and rest, and he gives it to them, because he loves his sheep. Perhaps we need to be more sheep-like, trusting in God to provide for our needs, and finding contentment in what God has already graciously given us, rather than constantly striving for more and more.

David trusted that God would provide all that needs, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to provide our needs and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

On to our second point, he makes me lie down.

In Psalm 23, we get a vision of peace and tranquility. David says in verse three that God makes him lie down in green pastures, and leads him beside quiet waters. God, David’s shepherd, looks after him by ensuring that he always has sufficient rest and opportunity to sleep. I wonder how many of us here today would love to find that kind of rest? After a busy week at school, a day of sermon writing, and the rather lousy weather we’ve been having, the idea of laying down in a field on a warm, sunny day, sitting beside a babbling brook is very appealing. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. The lifestyles that many of us find ourselves living today are often very busy and very stressful, often through no fault of our own. The demands our employers make on us can often be very great indeed, and, particularly in a time of such economic uncertainty, we often feel that we have no choice but to get our heads down and get on with it.

If we trust in God, though, if we dedicate our lives first and foremost to following him as our shepherd, we can have the same confidence that David had that God will show us peace.

David makes it clear that the kind of peace that he finds through God is not limited just to a nice lie down every now and again, though. If we look at verse three, we can see that the peace that David finds in God “refreshes his soul.” This is the kind of peace that can only be found through knowing God. Augustine famously wrote, “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are rest-less till they find their rest in you.” He, like David, knew that true rest can only be found through a relationship with God.

In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd, and in many ways we can see that he is the same God that is described in Psalm 23. It could even be said that he is the fulfilment of this particular psalm. Elsewhere in the Gospels, in Matthew 11 to be precise, Jesus confirms to his followers that he will give them rest. He said, “come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

If we want to find true peace, real inner peace, then that can be found only in one place – through God. We may try and find peace in many other ways, but true peace only comes from loving and knowing Jesus as a friend and as our saviour. The warring that we sometimes feel within us, that we cannot explain, can only be pacified by having a relationship with the God that made us, through his son Jesus Christ. If we want to find real peace, the kind of peace that refreshes not just our bodies and minds, but also our souls, then we need to trust in Jesus, and follow him as our good shepherd.

David trusted that God would lead him to peace and refresh his soul, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to lead us to peace and refresh our souls, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Let’s move on to our third point, which is, he guides me along the right paths.

Sometimes, all we want in life is direction. As we try to make our way through our lives on our own, it can feel as if we’re meandering around, not really sure of the next step to take, not really certain if we’re heading in the right direction. It can be a real struggle as we consider which direction our lives should lead us in. Where should we live? Who should we marry? Which job should we take?

In Psalm 23, though, David trusts that God will lead him through life. He trusts that the Lord is his shepherd. I wonder if we trust that God is our shepherd? Just as a shepherd leads his sheep in the right direction, David knows that God will lead him along the right paths in his life. David says, in verse three of the psalm, “he guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.”

This final part of the verse, “for his name’s sake,” is very important. The right paths through the journey of our lives are those that we take for him, to bring glory to God. If we put our trust in God as our shepherd, if we seek to follow Jesus, the good shepherd, we should strive to put him at the heart of everything that we do in life. If we want to live the life that God has mapped out for us, we should strive to put him first, and seek to honour him in all that we do. Whether we are teachers, doctors, accountants, florists, bin men, whatever, as Christians our key priorities should be to love God, to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours. Our whole lives should be focused on honouring God.

If we want direction in life, if we want to feel that the course of our lives is more than meaningless meandering, then we should follow the shepherd God. He will lead us along the right paths, ensuring that our lives have purpose, whilst at the same time ensuring that we bring glory to his name.

Again, we can see Jesus as the same shepherd God that David describes in this verse.

In John 14, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

David says that God guides him along the right paths, and Jesus says that he IS the way. Jesus is the good shepherd who leads his followers along the right paths. He turns our meaningless meanderings onto straight paths that lead directly to a place with God in heaven.

If we make Jesus our shepherd, if we seek to follow him, then he will guide us along the right paths for God’s glory, but also the very best paths for us, since he leads us directly to heaven.

David trusted that God would guide him along the right paths and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we can trust in God to guide us, and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Onto our fourth point, the darkest valley.

I described earlier how I found myself in a very dark valley a couple of years ago, suffering from terrible depression as a consequence of, among many other things, a very stressful time at work. In the busy, stressful world of the twenty first century, it is almost inevitable that at some point in our lives we will all feel as if we have been thrust into our own dark valley. The particular valley we find ourselves in might be caused by something entirely different, but the result is often similar – we feel as if life is dark, depressing, and uncomfortable.

David experienced this darkness himself on many occasions. You only need to flick through the book of psalms to see that David often experienced severe low points in his life. Through all of these periods, however, he trusted in God, as we see in verse four of psalm 23, when he says, “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”

What strikes me first and foremost about this verse is the opening part; for David, it is an inevitability that at some point his life will seem dark and depressing. He does not say, “if” I walk through the darkest valley, but “even though” I walk through the darkest valley. He knows for certain that, even if he is following God, life will sometimes take a dark turn.

Even Jesus experienced darkness in his life. He spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. He experienced loss, when Lazarus, a close friend, died. And of course, he experienced real darkness in the Garden of Gethsemane, when confronted by the enormity of his circumstances, and particularly on the cross when he died a humiliating and painful death.

David knew, though, that even at the low points of his life, even when darkness seemed to be encroaching on him from every angle, God would be with him still. He knew that he did not need to fear life in the darkest valley, because God remained with him at all times. He was comforted by the presence of God and comforted by his rod and staff.

As a shepherd, David knew the risks involved with his job. He knew that there would be times when he had to lead his sheep through dark valleys in order to get to the verdant green pastures beyond. He also knew full well that there may well be a time when it was necessary to put himself in grave danger, or even sacrifice his own life to protect his sheep. It seems crazy to us today that a shepherd might be willing to do this, but that was one of the requirements of the job.

Jesus declared that he was the good shepherd, as we saw this morning in our gospel reading. Just as a shepherd has to be willing to lay down his life for his sheep if necessary, Jesus was willing to lay down his life for his flock – those who follow him. He said, in verses fourteen and fifteen of John ten, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Jesus did exactly that. He loved his flock so much that he paid the ultimate price, and gave himself up for us. In order to save us from death, he gave his life. The gospel writer put this much better than I could when he said, in John 3:16, “for God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

David said in Psalm 23 that he fears no evil for God is with him. Jesus is not only with us, but he paid the ultimate price and died to protect us from evil, and to ensure that we have a bright future ahead of us in heaven when we die.

David feared no evil, and said with confidence, “the Lord is my shepherd.” I wonder if we are able not to fear evil and say, “the Lord is OUR shepherd?”

Despite being written around three thousand years ago, Psalm 23 is an incredibly rich treasure of encouragement for Christians living in the twenty first century. We’ve considered today how in many ways, Jesus, as the good shepherd, is the embodiment of the God shepherd that David describes. Through Jesus we lack nothing, we can have real peace our lives, we can have guidance, and we need not fear evil. A shepherd must be willing to lay down his life to protect his flock, and in Jesus we have a shepherd who did exactly that to save us from eternal death.

David proclaimed with confidence, the Lord is my Shepherd.  Will we accept Jesus as our provider, our peace giver, our guidance and our protector? Will we accept Jesus us our saviour, and worship him accordingly?

Can we, as David did, declare, the Lord is OUR shepherd?

Listen to this sermon:

God’s people, together in unity

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

Psalm 133:1

Unity is something that we seem to talk about a great deal in the Church these days. Whether it’s a discussion about whether a particular denomination should allow women to be bishops, or the possibility of two or more denominations merging together, unity seems to be towards the top of many people’s agenda. Then there are the bigger issues, some of which have been discussed and debated for centuries, that divide the Christian church. What part, if any, should the Virgin Mary play in our faith? What happens to the bread and the wine at communion? Who should be authorised to administer communion? What is the role of baptism, and who should we baptise? Sometimes is seems that every way we turn as Christians, there is some big debate lurking around the next corner, just waiting to divide us into ever smaller groups.

Today’s verse, therefore, seems to speak clearly into the Church today. ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity’, the psalmist proclaims. He recognises that there will be divisions amongst believers, but at the same time believes that when we can live together in unity, things are so much better.

Now, unless you happen to be an Archbishop, Pope, denominational president or chair reading this, it’s unfortunately unlikely that you will be able to do much to solve these age old disputes, but that doesn’t mean that we should just dismiss the idea behind today’s verse out of hand. God wants his followers to enjoy unity, not least because we can have far more impact on the world if we’re united, so why not pray to him for unity? Tell him that you want what he wants, and that you are ready and willing to work for unity within the Christian faith.

Why not also strive for unity at a more local level too? It’s not just the global church that is disunited; I know of individual congregations riven by divisions. People argue over theology, doctrine, the format a service should take, the kind of music we should have in our meetings, the time we should meet, even the kind of coffee served at the end of our service. Why not work within your congregation to make peace between the different factions, to work with others to resolve differences, and to strive for greater unity within your congregation?

Most Christians can agree on the basics of the gospel: we are all sinners, saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That’s what’s really important. Let’s try and focus on that life-changing message, and try to put other disagreements to one side.