Sovereign Security – Psalm 91

Psalm 91:1-16

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, CA is one of the most spectacular suspension bridges in the world.  It spans 8,981 feet between its two abutments.  When the bridge was being constructed in the early-to-mid 1930’s, several workers lost their lives when they accidentally fell from 220 feet above the water.  As you might expect, progress on the bridge slowed down and eventually the project got off schedule.  That is, until someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting a safety net under the bridge.  Then, if a worker did happen to fall, he wouldn’t tumble to his death rather he’d be caught by the net.

(Just a quick side note.  There were at least 19 men whose lives were saved by the net, and they formed a club they called the Half Way to Hell Club.)

So, for the first time in the history of major construction a net was used as a safety measure.  The cost of the net was $100,000, which was rather staggering considering it was shortly after the Great Depression.  Nevertheless, the effect was immediate and noticeable.  Work proceeded at a much faster rate and the bridge was actually completed ahead of schedule.  All because the workers knew that if they slipped the net would catch them and their lives would be spared.

A similar thing is happening in our world today with COVID-19.  Life is proceeding as normal, and then this virus comes on the scene and people start dying – some rather quickly, and those that don’t die are spending more and more time in critical care.  So, naturally, cities and regions and entire countries begin to slow their pace, and we find ourselves today some 2-3 weeks in near gridlock.

All the while, doctors and nurses and caregivers are working to care for the sick and vulnerable, and researches and chemists and scientists are working to find a cure.  Why?  Because there’s something deep inside all of us that longs to know were secure, we’re safe.  We want to know that if we do get diagnosed with COVID-19 there’s a safety net, there’s a vaccine, that our lives would be spared.

For the writer of Psalm 91, God’s sovereignty had the same effect.  His security was anchored in God alone.  God was the One who would protect him from the harm that surrounded him.  It was the incomparable sovereign security of God that allowed him the freedom to move forward in life with confidence.

For many of you, especially those of you that are singers and musicians, the words of this psalm are the basis for a song titled On Eagle’s Wings by Father Michael Joncas.  And this morning, as we conclude a rather tense and anxious and chaotic few weeks (hoping that tomorrow will bring promise for brighter days), I want to encourage us once more to trust God, to put our faith and hope in the One who knows our coming and going, the One who numbered our days before we were even born, the One who touched the leper, restored sight to the blind, made the lame to walk and demons flee, and the only One who is able to cure a sinful heart.

So, if you haven’t already, let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Psalm 91.  The historical background of this psalm (unlike last week) is uncertain.  The author (unlike last week) is anonymous.  But regardless of the setting, the message is clear.  If you know the Lord, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior, then your security is found in His character, care, protection and love.  Follow along as I read these beautifully poetic words, and just allow the reading of the Scriptures to minister to your soul.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely He will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.  He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.  You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.  You will only observe with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the LORD, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.  For He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.  You will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my Name.  He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him.  With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”

Now isn’t this one of those psalms that you want to read when you’re facing tough times?  God has used the Psalms to bless His people time and time again over the centuries.  It’s a perfect reminder of why the Psalms is such a beloved Book.  And, as usual, I want to offer us three truths from this psalm to hold on to in these trying and difficult times.  The first is that we put our faith in a powerful God.

Faith in a Powerful God

Our Men’s and Women’s Bible studies recently went through a series on the names of God, and the psalmist uses three (3) of those names in these opening two verses.  The first is Most High, which is El Elyon in the Hebrew.  It’s a name that emphasizes God’s strength and sovereignty.  The second was Almighty, which is El Shaddai – a name that pictures God as the active, self-existent One.  And the last name is God, or Elohim, the strong, mighty, supreme deity.

Now don’t get too confused by all the names.  It wasn’t the writer’s intention to impress us with all the knowledge he had concerning God’s character.  Rather, he’s using a poetic feature that was used in many of the psalms.  See, saying essentially the same thing in more than one fashion was a way of highlighting something important.

The image that comes to mind here is when Moses asked to see God’s face (Exodus 33).  You remember that story.  God grants Moses’s request, but He tells Moses that he can’t see His face and live.  So, God hides Moses in the cleft of the rock, and God puts His hand over Moses’s face until He passes by.  Only then can Moses see God’s backside.  That’s the picture in these opening verses.  At the end of the day, if you were going to be tested on the truth of this psalm, one of the things you would know for sure is that the person who dwells in the shelter of the Most High can expect to find God’s strong, sure protection.

In days that are filled with news reports of sickness and death and fear, this is what true faith is – committing yourself to God with full reliance on His ability to provide and protect.  Here, the psalmist displays dynamic faith – a reliance upon God’s invincible might to be the refuge and fortress and security that he needs…  that you and I need.  We put our faith in a powerful God.

The second truth that we encounter is that we find favor from a protecting God.

Favor from a Protecting God

Now, I have to pause (ever so briefly) and make sure that you understand what IS and IS NOT being promised here.  First, please don’t hear these verses as guarantees that you won’t get sick, that you won’t suffer injury, that you won’t have troubles and struggles and difficulties just because you’re a Christian.

Sure, there will be times when God supernaturally protects you and keeps things from happening.  All of us have personal stories that include phrases like, “if I had been 1 minute earlier…” or “I happened to be in the right place at the right time…” or “it could have been a lot worse…” or “God just took care of me and protected me in that moment…” so we know that God can and will protect us.

But the Bible is also full of stories about godly men and women that suffered all kinds of trials and difficulties and even death.  Jesus, Himself, said that we would have troubles in this world, but He would go on to say, “Take heart!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, ESV).  Oh, and don’t think that because verse 13 talks about treading on lions and cobras that you can go down to the Greenville Zoo and climb in the lion’s den, or that you can handle snakes.  This is metaphorical language.

No.  The favor that’s spoken of here is best understood by considering all of the verbs that are used.  God will “save” you (v. 3).  He will “cover” you or “shield” you (v. 4).  You won’t “fear” (vss. 5-6).  There’s language that speaks of God’s safeguarding us, sheltering us, sustaining us, strengthening us, securing us.  When all is said and done, our only sure shield and shelter and security and protection is found in the Lord, Jesus Christ.  No matter how big and bad COVID-19 or whatever else follows it is, the God of the Bible is bigger and badder and remains in full control.

Finally, we see a picture of true fellowship with a personal God.

Fellowship with a Personal God

Notice that the person who’s speaking changes in verses 14-16.  It’s no longer the psalmist.  It’s God.  If you genuinely love God, then you will be delivered.  But I want to go one step further this morning.  Look at verse 14 again.  For those of you watching this sermon, for those of you hearing me today, I want you to notice that this rescue, this deliverance, this salvation results because you and I acknowledge God’s name.

For the Old Testament saints – for people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Moses and David and all the rest – they were “saved” or deemed to be righteous by their faith in God.  Jesus had not yet come onto the scene of human history.  So, when you read verse 14 from the point of view of the psalmist, the name that’s being referred to is the name Yahweh or Jehovah, I AM that I AM.  But for you and me… for the person living in the modern day…  for us that name is the name of Jesus.

Don’t be fooled…  Ultimate delivery and salvation from sin and death only comes to those who acknowledge the name of Jesus.  You say, “Wait a second, I thought we were talking about God.  I believe in God.  Am I not saved?”  This is where Christianity comes face-to-face with Theism.  Christianity explicitly identifies Jesus as God.  Jesus was God incarnate.  Jesus was God in human form.  All throughout the New Testament Jesus was equating Himself with the Father.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, gives this wonderfully expressive description of Jesus.  Listen to how Paul describes Jesus, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, He [Jesus] humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted Him [Jesus] to the highest place and gave Him [Jesus] the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11, NIV).

If you flip to the very next book in your Bible (Colossians 1), Paul would word it this way, “He [speaking of Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by Him [that’s Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.  He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.  And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He [we’re still talking about Jesus] might have the supremacy.  For God was pleased to have all of God’s fullness dwell in Jesus, and through Jesus to reconcile to Himself [God] all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV).

If you’re listening to me this morning and you’ve never made this connection…  If you’re hearing this idea for the first time…  Maybe you’ve been around religion and church enough to believe in God…  Hear me out, this morning.  All of those things were true for Nicodemus.  Do you remember him?  He was a Pharisee.  He believed in God.  He was familiar with the Old Testament scriptures.  He knew his Torah.  And yet, he came to Jesus with these puzzle pieces in his mind that he was trying to make sense of.

We know that you’re a man sent from God because nobody can do the things you’re doing if he wasn’t from God.  And Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again – that he must be born from above.  And then we reach the climax of that encounter and Jesus offers these words that everybody knows:

“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.”  That’s usually where we stop, but let’s continue.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.  Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18, ESV).

If you want any meaningful sense of lasting security and safety and protection and deliverance from the sickness and disease and death and sin in this world and in your heart, then you must acknowledge the name of Jesus.  You must love Jesus above all else.  You must surrender your mind and heart and life to His protection and safekeeping.

A Might Fortress Is Our God – Psalm 46

PSALM 46:1-11

The year was 1527, Martin Luther had been leading the Reformation for ten demanding years, when a dizzy spell overcame him in the middle of a sermon forcing him to stop preaching.  He was genuinely concerned.  Two months later, while eating dinner with friends, he felt an acute buzzing in his ear and had to lay down.  Once again, he was convinced that he was at the end of his life.  He partially regained his strength, but a debilitating discouragement set in as a result of his recovery.  And if that wasn’t enough, he was also fighting heart problems and severe intestinal complications.

During this ordeal, Luther wrote, “I spent more that a week in death and hell.  My entire body was in pain, and I still tremble.  Completely abandoned by Christ, I labored under the vacillations and storms of desperation and blasphemy against God.”

What was worse, the dreaded black plague had entered Wittenberg, Germany.  Many people fled, fearing for the lives.  Yet Luther and his wife Katy remained, believing it was their duty to care for the sick and dying.  Katy was pregnant with their second child, and the Luther’s house was transformed into a hospital where he watched many friends die.  Then, without warning, Luther’s one-year-old son Hans became desperately ill.  With death surrounding him on every side, Luther was driven to seek refuge in God as never before.

That’s when Psalm 46 became the strength of his soul.  Psalm 46 became the impetus for his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  Like Martin Luther, perhaps what we need today is to be reminded that we have a refuge in the midst of a virus.  Perhaps we, too, can find comfort and protection in that psalm today.  Let me invite you to take your copy of God’s Word, or maybe your computer or tablet or smartphone and open to Psalm 46.

As you’re finding your spot, let me take just a moment and explain the first words that you’ll see when you get there.  Psalm 46 begins with a superscription.

It begins: For the director of music.  Now this tells us a few things.  It tells us that this was a song.  It was a piece of music.  But it also tells us that it was written for the director of music.

Next is: Of the Sons of Korah.  This psalm wasn’t written by David.  Many times we think or may say that David wrote the psalms, and while he wrote many of them he didn’t write them all.  That’s why you’ll hear pastors, teachers and theologians sometimes use a generic statement like, “The psalmist writes…” or “The psalmist describes…”  This little line here tells us that the descendants of a person named Korah wrote this psalm.  Psalms of this kind are often called Korahite psalms, for that very reason.

It concludes: According to alamoth.  Now nobody’s really sure what this means.  We don’t have the musical annotation to tell us what alamoth means.  It could be: do this with a reggae beat or something like that.  Some people think that because alamoth is spelled similarly to a lyre-type instrument that was played in the upper register or higher octave, then this song was supposed to be performed by females.  That’s why some of your Bibles might say something about sopranos.

What we do know is that this song was written around the 7th century BC.  That means that it was written about 200-300 years after King David, and we know a little bit about the environment in which it was written.  (If you want the detailed version you can read 2 Kings 18-20, but the short story is that the Assyrian Empire was the bully on the block.)  Geographically speaking, they were to the east and northeast of Israel and they were ruled by a king named Sennacherib (Sin-ak-er-ib).

It was Sennacherib’s plan to take 200,000 troops down to Jerusalem and take control of the city and thus capture all of Israel, and King Hezekiah and all of Israel was just a little stressed out by this news.

It’s in that environment that the Sons of Korah write this song – Psalm 46.  So, follow along with me.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts.  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

Come and see the works of the Lord, the desolations he has brought on the earth.  He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire.  “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  Selah

Eleven verses form this nice, unified psalm; designed not only to get into our heads, but also into our hearts.  I want you to notice (if you missed them the first time) that the psalmist writes the word Selah three times.

It seems that this word is some sort of musical marker – maybe designating three different verses of the song, or maybe indicating a musical interlude between passages, we’re not real sure what it was for.  But we’re going to take those queues as section markers and look at Psalm 46 in three parts.

Our Immovable Refuge

The first thing we learn from this psalm is that help from God is immediately and constantly available.

We’ve discussed this before, but one of the characteristics of the psalms is that their authors are “real.”  They’re honest; transparent, people like you and me.  And in the opening verse of Psalm 46 once again we’re reminded that life’s full of trouble.  There’s nobody that’s on a path that doesn’t have potholes in it.

The Hebrew word for “trouble” means to be in a tight place, to be restricted, to be tied up, to be in a narrow, cramped place.  We might say self-quarantined.  The psalmist was describing being between a rock and a hard place with no way out.  When that happens, when life gets tight and crowded with little or no room to move and breathe God is ALWAYS available.

I heard an interesting description of stress recently.  It was described using a drawing; almost like a line graph.  Think about the visual depiction of Wall Street recently.  Each of our lives is represented by the graph paper or the black digital background.  On each of our lives there’s a line that represents our capacity – the wisdom, knowledge, skill, intellect, physical ability – all of those things that help us deal with life.  And that line usually grows or moves upward on the graph as we grow.

But, at some point in life, our capacity begins to level off.  Now set against that line is another line that represents our responsibilities and demands, those things in life that seek to upset our capacity.  For most of us, we generally do a good job of keeping the responsibilities and demands line below our capacity line.  And that’s a good thing, because it means that we have more than enough capacity to handle the day-to-day demands.  But every now and then those two lines swap places on the graph and now all of a sudden, we find that our responsibilities and demands exceed our capacity.

Let me see if I can give you some quick illustrations.  You have some business to attend to overseas.  You and your spouse have been planning this trip for several months.  This isn’t a last-minute thing; but the day before your flight is scheduled to leave you receive word that a family member is going to the hospital.  Did you see those two lines cross on the graph paper?  The demands and responsibilities put on your life just exceeded your capacity.

Or let’s assume you’ve scheduled a full Spring and early Summer.  The family and friends have been packed in along with the other social and vocational responsibilities and everything looks good and will go smoothly as long as no one hiccups, but then one day you’re doing a little work around the house and you slip and fall and break your ankle.  Well now it’s not the demands and responsibilities that have jumped – those stayed the same – your capacity has been messed up.  And because your capacity has decreased, your demands and responsibilities line just exceeded your capacity.

Sometimes life has a way of pushing those lines closer together than we’d prefer, and what Psalm 46 says is that when we experience those two lines merging and coming into contact with each other there’s help available immediately from God.

Now it’s interesting to ask people what they do when they get stressed because you get all sorts of answers.  One person might say, “I’ll have another chocolate chip cookie, please.”  Another person might say, “Pour me a stiff drink.”  All kinds of statistics are available.  40% of us play video games, watch TV or take a nap.  1/3 of us eat in a way we shouldn’t.  Many of us drink, gamble, and turn to inappropriate relationships.

Most of us know that when we get in over our heads we call on someone to help us.  We do this when our computers crash or when we’re in the middle of a project or if we don’t understand something.  But the writers of Psalm 46 would say DO NOT FORGET the Great God of the Universe; this Mighty Fortress; this Rock and Strong Refuge.  He’s ALWAYS available.

Most of us forget that there’s a God who’s bigger than mountains crashing into the sea, bigger than the sea that’s flooding beyond its assigned boundaries.  We just forget about God…  That is, until COVID-19 hits.  So, Psalm 46 is a good reminder that we have an immovable refuge.

Our Inexhaustible River

The second stanza describes the manner in which God makes His resources available.  Often, God’s resources are unseen and yet they’re very real.  Just because you can’t see them don’t discount them.

Some of us get cynical and we think, “Yeah, right, what good will calling on God do?”  And the truth is, He can do a lot.  A lot more than we give Him credit for, that’s for sure.  The problem is with us.  We’re thinking of solutions in a linear fashion.  Our responses and solutions are formed from an earthly perspective.  We’re thinking this or that, yet God’s answers are often not what we’re expecting.

Let me see if I can show this to you.  Look at verse 4 again, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.”  This is great language.  This is what poets do.  They paint pictures in order to tell us something.  Think about rivers for a minute.  They’re refreshing.  They’re cool on a hot day.  They quench your thirst.  They’re needed for life to exist.  And this is what I want to show you (this is so cool).

Think of the major cities of the world: Cairo, London, Paris, New York, Chicago.  Where did they put those cities?  Right next to a river, right?  Every major city of the world is next to a river.  Now ask yourself where Jerusalem is located?  Do you know where God put that city?  On top of a mountain – no river.

So, let’s go back to the context of this psalm.  Remember Sennacherib?  He’s going to come in and surround Jerusalem with the goal of taking them captive, and so all he has to do is surround the city and wait.  They’ll have to come out for food and water eventually.  And when they do, he’ll go in and take the city.  No big deal.

Now go back to Psalm 46.  What’s going on here?  Well, turns out, there’s a resource that Sennacherib and his army didn’t see.  If you go to Israel – north of Jerusalem – in the hills, there’s a spring called the Spring of Gihon.  Turns out, Hezekiah built a 1,500-foot aqueduct underground from the spring right through the city of Jerusalem until it gets to the south side and empties into the Pool of Siloam (maybe you remember reading about the Pool of Siloam).  As long as the Spring of Gihon flows, Jerusalem has all the water it needs.  But Sennacherib didn’t know that.  So here, in the city of God, where the Most High dwells, there’s an unseen resource to help His people.

But that’s not all.  Notice that this psalm says God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.  I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said the Holy Spirit has been WITH you, now He will be IN you.  How about the promises of God?  Jesus says do not be afraid, I will never leave you nor will I forsake you; that’s true.  All of these resources are unseen from a physical perspective but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real.

God is present and His resources are real and available, even if you can’t see them.

Before we move to the third and final chorus of this psalm there’s one final note I want to share with you from this second stanza and it’s found in verse 7.  It says, “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  Did you see it?  The God of who?  Jacob.  Who was Jacob?  Do you remember him?

Probably one of the most memorable things about Jacob is that he had a name change.  God changed his name from Jacob to Israel.  His family and 12 sons are where we get the 12 tribes of Israel.  But there’s another thing you might remember about Jacob; it comes from his childhood.  He was a deceiver, a scammer, a liar, a cheat.  He made a deal with his older brother Esau in exchange for his brother’s birthright.  Then later, when his father Isaac was about to die, Jacob deceived his father by pretending to be Esau so that he could inherit his dad’s blessing.  Remember that?

“Why is that so important,” you ask?  Well, see, if verse 7 referred to God as the God of Abraham, then you and I wouldn’t have thought twice.  “Yeah, look at Abraham, that’s a no-brainer.”  If God was described as being the God of Moses; again, we would’ve been okay with that.  “Hey, he’s Moses, look at how great he was.”  But Psalm 46 says God is the God of Jacob too.  And that’s important for you and me, because when we’re in the midst of trouble we sometimes think God won’t have anything to do with us or help us because of who we are.  And yet this psalm says that God is the God of people even like Jacob.  God is our inexhaustible river – giving life and health and peace – even when the enemy seems to be closing in.

Our Invincible Ruler

Finally, we’re encouraged to exalt God in the midst of trial.  The first response is an invitation to come and see.  God understands that the things He is doing will never get the same kind of press, the same air time, or publicity that other things are getting.  And while He never demands that we see them, he issues an invitation for us to slow down and behold what He’s doing.  Everything’s noisier than what God is doing.  And for those of us that live in an activity addicted culture, who want one more piece of stimulation after another, this invitation still stands with all of its power – come and see what God is doing.

God is moving in the midst of this pandemic.  He’s using His church and people just like you to serve, to love, to care, to encourage, and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  During this difficult season of life, He’s taking your financial gifts and allowing us to help pay people’s utility bills, and rent, and continue the support of gospel-centered ministries that would otherwise fail.  These types of stories don’t make headlines in the evening news, but they make headlines in individual’s lives.

The second invitation is much like the first and that is to be still and know that I am God.  That phrase – “to be still” – is actually one word in the Hebrew and it means to put your hands down.  It kind of reminds me of the response that Job had when God finally answered him.  Do you remember that (in Job 38)?  “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge?  Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.”  You can almost see Job’s hand going down, like when the teacher calls for someone to answer in class.

I think that’s a great picture to consider in the midst of frustration and fear and confusion and chaos and uncertainty.  Psalm 46 essentially says surrender.  “Being still” is connected to knowing who God is.  Focusing on our problems…  Watching too much news…  Playing the what-if-game breeds fear.  But looking to God…  Being still…  Fixing our eyes on God during this season increases our faith and brings peace and comfort.  At the end of the day and at the end of this dreaded virus, it’s only through faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ, that people find eternal salvation from the coming fury of God’s wrath.

Following Jesus As The Way: Serving

Read:  Philippians 2

Back in 2015, Doritos made a Super Bowl commercial that featured an Amish family who was discovering an elevator for the very first time in their lives.  (Do you remember this?)  The commercial begins with the family pulling up to the Big City Mall in their horse and carriage, and quickly it shows them walking into the store.  Their heads are back and their mouths are open and they’re just standing at the entrance in awe.

Just inside the door they see a vending machine that’s full of Doritos.  As they’re standing there inspecting this machine, an older lady wearing a pink dress walking with a cane puts money in the machine and mashes a button and a bag of Doritos falls out.  She opens the bag and begins to eat the chips as she makes her way toward the elevator.  Meanwhile, this Amish family is still in awe and wonder at everything around them.  The older lady with the Doritos gets on the elevator and, of course, turns around and the doors close and she’s gone.

The Amish father and son are standing there looking at each other asking, “Where did she go?  What happened?  Is she coming back?”  All of a sudden, the elevator dings and the doors open and a young beautiful brunette in a pink dress walks out of the elevator eating a bag of Doritos.  The Amish man looks over at his son, snatches the bag of Doritos from his hands and says, “Quick!  Go find your mother!”

The commercial cuts away to the actual advertisement and a special plug for the new Cool Ranch Doritos, and then it fades back to the Amish man shoving his wife into the elevator, saying, “Here, try the Cool Ranch.”

We love stories of transformation.  It’s about a journey that someone takes and the trial and the travail and the triumph of becoming someone new, of discovering a new part of who you are, or maybe even a better version of you.  Over these last nine weeks we’ve been on our own journey.  We’ve been giving our attention to becoming better followers of Jesus, to becoming a better church, to incorporating some disciplines and practices that draw us closer to one another and closer to God through following Jesus.  And today we’re going to conclude this series.  Let me invite you to turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2.

Looking Out for Others’ Interests

I think this is the heart of this series, and what we’ve been talking about for the past two months as we learn how to be better followers of The Way, better disciples of Christ.  It’s stated most clearly in verse 4, and then Paul illustrates verse 4 by pointing to the lives of Jesus, himself, Timothy, and Epaphroditus.  So that’s what we’re going to do.  We’ll take note of verses 3-4, and then look at four ways it’s lived out in four different people’s lives in Philippians 2.  Let’s begin with verses 1-4:

“So, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (ESV)

The word “interests” there is a filler.  It’s absent in the original Greek text.  In the original, it’s open-ended.  All that’s specified is “your own . . .” or “the other’s . . .”  So it could be, “Let each of you look not only to your own financial affairs, or your own property, or your own family, or your own health, or your own reputation, or your own education, or your own success, or your own happiness – don’t just think about that, don’t just have desires about that, don’t just strategize about that, don’t just work toward that, but look to the financial affairs and property and family and health, and reputation, and education, and success, and happiness of others.”

In other words, verse 4 is Paul’s way of restating Jesus’ words from Matthew 22:39, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  That’s what Paul is saying.  He’s taking Jesus’ words and rephrasing them; make the good of others the focus of your interest and strategy and work.  Find your joy in making others joyful.  If you’re watching television and a friend calls and says, “Hey, can you help me?” don’t just think about how tired you are.  By an act of gospel-fashioned, Christ-exalting will, put their interests before the pleasures of your relaxation.

Counting Others as More Significant

One of the keys to this radical way of living is in the second half of Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  

Last month was Black History Month, and I believe it was Parker that asked me to help him on an assignment associated with Kobe Bryant.  Well, after helping him I somehow found myself reading some accounts of other famous African-Americans and stumbled upon this one from Booker T. Washington, the long-time president of the Tuskegee Institute in AL.

Shortly after he took over the presidency, he was walking in an exclusive section of town when he was stopped by a wealthy white woman.  She didn’t recognize him by sight, and so she proceeded to asked if he would like to earn a few dollars by chopping wood for her.  He had no pressing business at the moment, and so he smiled, rolled up his sleeves, and proceeded to do the humble chore she had requested.  When he was finished, he carried the logs into the house and stacked them by the fireplace.  The woman’s little girl recognized him, and later that evening told her mom who it was that chopped wood for them.

The next morning the embarrassed woman went to see Mr. Washington in his office at the school and apologized profusely.  “It’s perfectly all right, Madam,” he replied.  “Occasionally I enjoy a little manual labor.  Besides, it’s always a delight to do something for a friend.”

The point is not who others are, but who you count others to be.  The focus is: Will you count them as worthy of your help and encouragement, whether they are or not?  Not are they worthy?  But will you count them as worthy?  Will I serve my brother or sister?  Will I take thought not just for my interests but for theirs?  Will I encourage them and take the time to help them and build them up?  Will I stop shooting buckets in the driveway . . .  Will I turn off this TV show . . .  Will I give up this opportunity . . . and show interest in them?

Humble Service and Its Source

And where does that other-oriented commitment come from?  Verse 3 says, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”  It comes from humility.  Literally: “lowliness.”  This is the great opposite of a sense of entitlement.  Humility is the opposite of “You owe me.”  Paul said, in Romans 1:14, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish”.  In other words, they didn’t owe him.  He owed them.

Why?  Why do Christians walk through life feeling a humble sense that we owe service to people, rather than them owing us?  The answer is that Christ loved us and died for us and forgave us and accepted us and justified us and gave us eternal life and made us heirs of the world when He owed us nothing.  He treated us as worthy of His service when we were not worthy of His service.  He took thought not only for His own interests but for ours.  He counted us as greater than Himself: “Who is the greater,” He said, “one who reclines at table or one who serves?  Is it not the one who reclines at table?  But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

That’s where our humility comes from.  We feel overwhelmed by God’s grace: former grace in the cross and moment-by-moment arriving grace promised for our everlasting future.  Christians are stunned into lowliness.  Freely you have been served, freely serve.

So, the crucial relational mark of the culture of our church should be Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  This is the “mind” or the thinking that we should have in life together.  This is the relational atmosphere where God will grant wisdom for the perplexing work of living in this world.

Four Examples of Jesus’ Mindset

Now, let’s take a real quick look at four examples of this mindset.  All we can do is glance.  Later you can read this chapter slowly with this one verse in view and see how central it is to Paul’s purpose in the way he illustrates it four times.

First is Jesus.  Verses 5–8:

“Have this mind among yourselves [the mind of verse 4!], which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count [notice the word!] equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing [literally emptied Himself], by taking the form of a servant [that’s what it means to look to the interests of others], being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, He humbled Himself [He laid down all His legitimate entitlements] by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

If you ever struggle with humility or self-denial or serving those who are hard to love, think on this picture of Christ.  This is what He did for you.  He is the great example of verse 4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  That’s what He did when He came to die in your place, in my place.

To be sure, verses 9–11 show that He was gloriously rewarded for this self-emptying, servanthood even unto death: “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).  And it will be true for you as well.  “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

Second is the example of Paul.  Verses 17–18:

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.  

Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”

Paul loved this church.  He loved all the churches.  And he died every day to serve them.  “I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31).  He compared his life to a drink offering poured out on the sacrifice of their faith.  In other words, he didn’t take thought just for his own interests; he took thought for their faith and was willing to deny himself over and over, and in the end die, that their faith would be strong.

Third is the example of Timothy.  And here’s where the wording is an explicit recall of verse 4.  Watch how Paul contrasts Timothy with others.  Verses 19–22:

“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you.  For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare [literally: your interests, your things].  For they all seek their own interests [there’s the exact wording of verse 4], not those of Jesus Christ.  But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.”

Oh, how I pray that this mind of Christ – to take thought not only for our own interests but for the interests of others – will not be as rare at Mountain Hill as it was in Paul’s experience.  “They all seek their own interests.”  “I have no one like Timothy.”  Would you, with all your heart, join me in praying for this and pursuing this and willing this in the power of God’s Spirit?  Make this the mark of the relational culture of our church.

Finally, the example of Epaphroditus.  Verses 25–30:

“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.  [Notice how amazingly their interests dominate: He was not distressed that he was ill, nor was he distressed that they had not heard he was ill, like most of us who want others to know if we are sick; instead he was distressed because they heard he was ill!  Would they be too worried?  Would they fear he died?  Their interests were on his heart.]  Indeed, he was ill, near to death.  But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. . .  So, receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”

The Beauty of Looking Out for Others’ Interests

There you have four illustrations of what I long to become, and what I long for our church to be like.  Call it “the mind of Christ.” Call it “the 2×4 factor” (Philippians 2:4).  Call it whatever you will.  It’s beautiful.  It was beautiful when Christ put our interests above His own earthly comforts and died for us.  It was beautiful when Paul suffered every day to plant the churches that brought us the gospel.  It was beautiful when Timothy served side by side with Paul, putting the interests of others first.  It was beautiful when Epaphroditus risked his life to complete the Philippian service to Paul.  And it will be beautiful in your life as God makes His wisdom grow up among us where the mind of Christ is so alive.

Lord, do it.  For Christ’s sake.


Following Jesus As The Way: Giving

In September 2013 there was a 49-year old Brazilian man who had a stroke.  The unusual thing was not that he had a stroke or that there was a personality change after the stroke, but it was the degree of the personality change that caught the attention of Neurology Magazine – a peer-reviewed medical journal for the neurological community.  The man is known simply as “Mr. A.”  And Dr. Larry Goldstein, who used to be a fixture of the Duke University School of Medicine but who is now the chair of the Neurology Department at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine said this, “While it’s not unusual for somebody to undergo a personality change, I’ve never seen anything like this.  In fact, it’s so unusual we call it pathological.”

The thing that made Mr. A’s personality change border on the pathological side was the fact that, following his stroke, he’s now a pathological giver.  Pathologically, he wants to give everything he has to other people.  His wife says that he buys candy and Coke’s and other little treats, and he goes out into the street and just gives it away.  She said he spends his days (now) trying to think of ways to take what he has and give it to people he doesn’t even know.  In fact, they went to him and said, “Would you like to go back to work” because he had a job as a very influential manager in a large corporation, and he said, “No.  I love this too much.  I want to spend the rest of my life giving what I have to other people.”

Now it’s interesting and fascinating to me that neurologists call that “pathological generosity,” while Jesus said that should be normal for His people.  That should be normal behavior for the people of God.  We should be so different in our giving that the world would look at us and say, “The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill needs to study you, we think there’s something pathologically wrong with you because you’re so generous.”

That’s what I want us to consider today.  For those of you that are our guests, or if you’re a member or regular attender and you’ve been away a while, we’re in a series that I’m calling The Way.  In January, I challenged us to increase our regular attendance by 20% in 2020, and we’ve come close in the past two months.  But it’s more than simply adding bodies to our worship.  It’s more than just packing the pews.  It’s a challenge to those of us that are here week in and week out to be the kind of disciples, the kind of followers, the kind of church that Jesus desires.

See, to me, there’s a direct correlation between being the type of person that God has called me to be and doing the things that His Word tell me to do (on the one hand), and numerical growth on the other.  Acts 2:42-47 has been the launching pad for this series, and although we’re not going to be in those verses this morning, I want you to hear them again in their context.  See if you can hear and feel the connection between being/doing and growth.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Doesn’t there seem to be a connection between all the things spoken of in verses 42-47 (the being/doing), to the last statement, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  So, you see, our 2020 Vision isn’t simply bringing more people on Sunday morning.  It’s actually bigger than that.  It’s actually focused on us doing our part – being the people, being the church that God desires: devoted to the Bible, devoted to prayer, devoted to fellowship, breaking bread at the Lord’s table, and today we’re going to consider giving.  Verse 45 says, “[t]hey were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

I want to invite you to take your copy of God’s Word and turn with me to Luke 12.  As you’re finding your spot let me give you a little background on Luke’s gospel.  Interestingly enough, Luke’s gospel is the longest book in the New Testament by word count (not by chapter count – that’s a tie between Matthew and Acts).  But that’s not all the trivia there is.  I mentioned this several months ago when we were studying the Book of Ruth, and that’s is Luke is the only New Testament book written by someone that wasn’t a Jew.  Luke was Greek.  And when you read the Gospel of Luke, it reads with a slant toward Greek thinking and culture.  Here’s another difference; Luke’s presentation of Jesus is largely focused on His humanity and compassion for the outcasts of society: women, the poor, the sick.

When you get to chapter 12 of Luke, it’s strewn with words from Jesus about not being afraid.  And in every case, the contentment and peace and fearlessness and courage that He wants us to have is not owing to the human resources at our disposal (like money or ability or possessions or intellect or looks or status or connections).  In every case, the peace and courage and fearlessness that Jesus speaks about is due to the fact that God will be there for us even when human resources are small or fail entirely.

Real quickly, let me run through some examples.  In verse 4 Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”  So, there’s an example of how the basis for fearlessness stands when all human resources of help fail and you get killed.  Jesus says, “Even then, don’t fear, because God will be there for you in death and after death forever.”

Another example is in verse 11: “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”  Don’t rely on human wisdom or memory or creativity or shrewdness, rely on God, the Holy Spirit.  When you feel utterly inadequate to know what you will say, trust God, and not yourself.

A third example is in the parable of the rich fool (v. 13ff) who builds bigger and bigger barns when his income increases.  And he thinks he has found the way to peace and security and freedom from fear.  So, he says in verse 19, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.”  His contentment is in what he thinks he can control – the stock market.  But God says to him in verse 20, “Fool!  This night your soul is required of you.”

A fourth example is verse 22, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. . .”  Again, in verses 29–31: “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind.  For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows you need them all.  Instead, seek the kingdom and these things shall be yours as well.”

He calls us to be different from the rest of the world: “All the nations of the world seek these things.”  Folks, the followers of Jesus replace thing-seeking with kingdom-seeking.  They leave the financial “success” of their ventures with God.  They focus on the spiritual payoff, the righteousness payoff, the mercy payoff, the Christ-exalting payoff – not the money payoff.  Why?  Because verse 30 says, “Your Father knows that you need them all.”  We trust God to be there.

The fifth example is the one I want to camp out on a little longer.  Verse 32: “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Jesus once said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field which a man finds and . . . sells everything he has to buy to have that field” (Matthew 13:44).  The point is that the kingdom of God is a treasure more valuable than anything you own.

Here in verse 33, Jesus says that when we “Sell our possessions and give them to the needy” we’re providing “purses for ourselves that do not grow old and a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.”  The sequence of thought run like this: Don’t seek to have things the way the nations do; seek to have the kingdom.  And you say, “How?”  Let me give you three principles of seeking the kingdom.

I. Kingdom Sought; Not Kingdom Bought

Yes, the verse says to sell our possessions.  And yes, the man in the parable from Matthew’s Gospel sells everything to buy the field with the hidden treasure.  But let’s not make the mistake of assuming we can buy our way into heaven.  Let’s not read this text as proof that if we just give God enough tithes or offerings, if we write Him a big-enough check, if we trade our cars for sandals and our homes for huts, that He’s in some way indebted to us or owes us the pleasures of being in heaven.

Verse 32 is plain: “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  The kingdom of God is a gift, not a purchase; it’s given, not earned.  Although it is a gift, it’s only a gift to those who want it more than they want things.  It’s a gift to those who seek it more than they seek things.  It’s a gift to those who fear missing it more than they fear not having earthly security.  It’s a gift to those who trust the King more than the dollar.  We don’t buy the kingdom when we scale down our material lives and sell things so we can give.  We show that we value the kingdom more than things.

Zacchaeus illustrates what this means in Luke 19:9, he was the rich tax collector.  When Jesus visited his home, his heart was changed and he stood up and said, “Half my possessions I give to the poor.”  When Jesus heard that, He said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  Did He mean Zacchaeus bought salvation?  No, He meant salvation changed Zacchaeus, and the proof was his radically different attitude toward money.

How you handle your possessions shows where your heart is.  And where your heart is determines whether you are saved or not.  And whether you are saved or not determines whether you will inherit the kingdom – the treasure in heaven that does not grow old.

II. Maximize God; Not Maximize Money

In the parable of the rich man building bigger and bigger barns (vss. 13-21), Jesus says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”  What in the world does “rich toward God” mean?  I struggled with that for several hours this week.  Surely it doesn’t mean give God lots of money.  He doesn’t need any money.  He has the cattle on a thousand hills, according to Psalm 50:10.  No, being rich toward God doesn’t mean to enrich God.  I think it means count God as your riches.  If you’re looking for where to be rich, focus on God.  He’s your great reward.  He’s your riches.  You love people, and you want people to love God, so you’re displaying the love of God to them by sharing more and more of what you have.  And in doing that, your joy in God, your treasuring of Him, increases.

Therefore, laying up for yourselves treasures in heaven would be living in such a way as to maximize God as your treasure.  Handle your money in such a way as to show that God, and not money, is your treasure.

III. Fear Not; He’s Our Shepherd, Our Father, And Our King

At the beginning of verse 32 we have the most frequently used prohibition that Jesus utters in the New Testament.  He uses this negative construction more than “Do not steal,” more than “Do not kill,” and more than “Do not commit adultery.”  It’s the exhortation, “Fear not…”  We tend to be afraid, don’t we?  Think about it.

We’re afraid of disease and sickness.  We’re afraid of flying and driving.  We’re afraid of snakes and spiders.  We’re afraid of the dark.  We’re afraid we won’t find “that someone.”  Some are afraid they found “that someone” and they ARE married.  We’re afraid of the weather.  And we’re afraid of money.  We’re afraid that we don’t have enough for retirement.  We’re afraid that the market will crash and take what money we do have with it.  We’re afraid of losing jobs, and the source of our money.  We’re afraid of giving it away.

We think if we give this much to the church, or that much to a ministry that cares for the poor, then we may not have enough.  Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock.”  And if he calls us a flock, what is He?  Our Good Shepherd.  “Fear not, little flock, it is [whose] good pleasure. . .” (your Father’s)  So now we have a Shepherd and a Father, but notice how that verse ends “to give you the kingdom.”  Shepherds don’t reign over kingdoms.  And fathers don’t give kingdoms as gifts.  Only kings have sovereignty over kingdoms.

So, Jesus piles up pictures of God to take away our fear of giving and of laying up treasures in heaven.  He’s a Shepherd.  He’s a Father.  And He’s a King.  Shepherds know everything the sheep need to live, and provide for them.  Fathers take incredible care with their children.  Kings have authority and power to get it done.  God is all of that for you.  So, don’t be afraid.  Be lavish, generous, cheerful givers.  Treat God as your treasure above all treasures, and then show how much He is your treasure by giving and giving and giving to those in need.

One of my favorite poems is by Annie Johnson Flint.  I’ve heard Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias quote it from memory many times, and it speaks of God’s gracious giving.

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,

He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;

To added affliction, He addeth His mercy;

To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,

When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,

When we reach the end of our hoarded resources,

Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision,

Our God ever yearns His resources to share;

Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing;

The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.

His love has no limit; His grace has no measure.

His pow’r has no boundary known unto men;

For out of His infinite riches in Jesus,

He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again!

As we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the Lord’s Supper, the choir will be singing a song that reflects the full nature of God’s giving.  Would you consider His indescribable gift – the gift of His only begotten Son and the price that was paid for you and your sin.