Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Journey Toward God

This is the second message in the series, which I shared this past Sunday.

Series: Going toward God—Psalm 84
Part Two: The Journey toward God
Psalm 84:5-8

You never stay the same. I talk to people all the time. I ask them, “What’s happening?” And over 50% of the time I get the answer, “Not much. Things are about the same.”

And when I hear that, there’s a part of me that says, “More is happening than you’re aware of.”

It is the nature of living things to change. So if you’re alive, you’re changing. You’re either becoming more of what God wants you to be, or less of what God wants you to be. You are not staying the same.

If you think that you’re relationship with God is OK and that it hasn’t changed much in the last month, or year, or decade, then I have bad news for you. If you think it hasn’t changed, it’s probably gotten worse.

It reminds me of that story often told about an old dirt road, where someone put up a makeshift sign: “Chose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it the next 38 miles.”

You were designed to have a deep and significant and growing relationship with God. You were designed to keep growing in that relationship. If that’s not happening, then you’re not living by your design. It’s like trying to use a blender as a pencil sharpener. It just doesn’t work.

Psalm 84 is a Psalm about our design. It’s a “pilgrimage” Psalm. In vs. 5, the writer says, “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their heart on pilgrimage.” This is a Psalm for people who determined to get close to God.

One way you got close to God in the era of the Old Testament was by going up to Jerusalem, to the Temple.

Psalm 84:1-4 speaks of this intense desire to go and worship God at the Temple:

1 How lovely is your dwelling place,
O LORD Almighty!
2 My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
3 Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
O LORD Almighty, my King and my God.
4 Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.

The Psalm is divided into three sections, each one ending with the word “Selah” a musical notation marking the sections of the Psalm. The first part, vs. 1-4 is about that desire to seek God. We looked at that last week, and we considered some of the enemies of desire for God:

• Noise: all the distractions that can get our eyes off God
• Comfort: because we attempt little for God’s sake, we have no passion; when we are so comfortable, we fall asleep
• Ingratitude: we forget all His blessings, and so lose a passion to know and serve Him
• Sin: anytime we declare a cease-fire with sin in our lives, we put ourselves in a place where God can’t and won’t use us, and our passion drains away

Any of these can cool off our desire for God. We have to watch out for them, and resist them.

Next, in vs. 5-8, we see what the real journey toward God is like. That’s our focus today. Then next week, we’ll look at the lifestyle of a real worshipper as we examine vs. 9-12. That’s the destination of the Psalm, and it’s the real desire of God for us all, to become through and through, from-the-heart worshippers.

How do we get there? Well, now, let’s look at the central section of Psalm 84, the part about the journey itself, vs. 5-8:

5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.
8 Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty;
listen to me, O God of Jacob.

OK, I want to suggest six things about the journey toward God based on these verses.

1. The journey has a goal: the presence of God (v. 1, 5, 8)

Here’s something you hear a lot: “I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.” My reply is, “I’m not religious, but I am relational.” Real spirituality is about a personal relationship with God.

The goal is not fuzzy; the goal is not a feeling; the goal is not a generality; the goal is a Person, God Himself. This Psalm is about someone determined to get closer to God. In vs. 1, he has the vision: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!” That’s renewed in vs. 5: “Blessed are those whose strength is in you…”

This is not someone who wants to become “more religious” (whatever that means). This is someone who wants to know more of what it means to experience God’s own strength in their lives. They pursue God in prayer, as in vs. 8: “Hear my prayer, O LORD God Almighty; listen to me, O God of Jacob.” They know that the goal is a Person: the God of Jacob.

This is not someone who wants to join a church, or join a class or take some lessons; this is someone who wants to get close to God. Now, joining a church, or getting some instruction is good, but it’s not the same; it may be a means to help achieve that end, but it’s not the same. The goal is being close to God Almighty, the Creator and the Redeemer, the one who gave His Son over to death so that we can have life.

2. The journey isn’t my journey; it’s our journey (v. 5-7)

Now this one is a little bit of a surprise, so let’s take some time to get it. First, look at vs. 5-7, and take note that this isn’t an individual’s quest; it’s a group journey:

5 Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
who have set their hearts on pilgrimage.
6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

The Biblical vision of spiritual growth always involves the individual, but it’s never limited to individuals. Groups of people seeking God grow together. This is a concept that Americans have a hard time with. Individualism is a great thing for a country, but it produces some blind spots for a believer.

Look, this is not hard to prove. Think for a second. I’m guessing that 80% of us would say that the times of greatest spiritual growth in our lives occurred in the context of a group of believers. In a class or a youth group or a home Bible study—I’m guessing a lot of us can relate to that.

And some of you here right now are thinking, “I can’t relate to that. I’ve never had that kind of experience.” And a bunch of you are still wondering why you’ve never had that accelerated experience of spiritual growth. Here’s why: you thought you could go on this pilgrimage all by yourself. You can’t.

That’s why you’ll always hear me beating the “get into a group” drum. Get into a Sunday morning class or get into a growth group. Because that’s the way pilgrimage works: not lone hermits going up to the temple, but families and whole villages making the trip. The journey to get close to God isn’t my journey; it’s our journey, and I need you and you need me to make it to where God wants us to be.

3. The journey must go through the dry, difficult valley (v. 6a)

…they pass through the Valley of Baca…

OK, here’s true confessions time. This verse is the hardest verse in the Psalm to translate, so you’ll find a lot of variations in different translations.
Here’s what we have. “Baca” means “weeping”; “baca” is also the word for balsam tree. Balsam trees like really dry, arid places.

Another thing: we have no knowledge of a place called the Valley of Baca. The writer seems to be using it as a symbol. It’s the valley of weeping, the valley of dry places, the valley of hardship.

It’s kind of like Psalm 23 where David writes about “the valley of the shadow of death.” Well, that’s a symbol too.

Let me try to bottom line this for you where it matters: if you really intend to go on a journey toward God, it means that you’d better plan on going through some tough places. You’d better plan on a harsh desert. You’d better plan on going through places that will give you pain.

Is that because God will bring you pain? No, it’s because there’s a lot that’s bent and messed up in you and me, and when we say, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you wherever you say, and I will be the person you want me to be,” then God will take us through tough places to work that out in our lives.

Even Jesus had to spend 40 days in the desert fasting to get to the place where He could begin His ministry. The journey toward God, when it’s genuine, will always take us through some hardship.

Last spring I read the book Born to Battle by the late Australian missionary R. Arthur Mathews. It’s a spiritual gem. He was a missionary in China at the time of the communist takeover. He writes that when the communists were first coming into their area—near the border with Tibet—he and his wife and the other missionaries were constantly praying for deliverance. But the communists kept coming and the situation went from bad to worse.

At this point, God brought to their attention the story of Jesus asleep in the boat while the disciples battled the storm. They woke Him: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” Well, of course He cared; the fact that He was sleeping was no proof that He didn’t care. Gradually their prayers changed. He writes,

We found our strength, not in dreams of escape, but in complete surrender to whatever God wanted to do with us. We realized that God’s claims are absolute and that we must accept them without bargaining…we almost wanted to pray for greater troubles because of the greater joy they brought in God’s assurances.

They were going through the Valley of Baca. If you’ve set your mind on pilgrimage toward God, you have to go through the Valley of Baca. God has some things to teach you in the Valley of Baca, things you can’t learn anywhere else.

Now, something really good happens in the valley—now let’s read all of vs. 6:

6 As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.

That leads to fourth observation…

4. Perseverance in the journey turns the same hard place into a place of blessing (v. 6b)

The dry place, the desert place, becomes the place of springs, the place blessed with the autumn rains. Go through Baca with faith and God turns into a place of blessing.

Some of you here today are dragging your soul through a spiritual Death Valley and you’ve wondered where God is. Here’s the truth: under ever rock in that valley, there’s water. There is spiritual nourishment and hope and peace of mind right there, you just have to trust God.

God’s on your side. Maybe you know the story of Elisha and his servant. It’s in 2 Kings 6. Whenever the Syrians were planning to attack Israel, God would tell Elisha what they were up to, and then he’d warn the king and the Syrians would be defeated. The Syrians eventually figured out that Elisha was the secret weapon, so they sent an army just to capture him. The servant looked out one morning to see them surrounded by a battalion of crack Syrian soldiers. He ran to tell the old prophet, who said, “Don’t worry; we have more on our side than they do.” The servant counted 1-2 and looked out the window and said, “I don’t think so!” Then Elisha prayed, “Lord, open up his eyes so he can see.” Then he saw that they were surrounded by an angelic army of soldiers and horses and fire.

Hang in there in faith, and God will show you the army too. Trust Him and your dry place will start to bubble up with springs. He can turn your desert into a meadow. If you set your face toward seeking God and do not flinch, God will send you all the blessings you can handle.

5. As we continue on the God-ward journey, we become stronger and stronger (v. 7a)

They go from strength to strength…

Whenever the Bible uses the formula, “from X to X” it means “with ever increasing X.” In Romans, Paul talks about “from faith to faith” and in 2 Corinthians he speaks of “from glory to glory.” In both places the context demands that we understand this as meaning “with more and more faith, with more and more glory.” So also here: the pilgrims go with more and more strength. Holding on, persevering, going through Baca, makes them stronger and stronger.

Increasing faith! Check out 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4:

3We ought always to thank God for you, brothers, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love every one of you has for each other is increasing.

Their faith was “growing more and more.” How did this happen? Because they also know what it was like to go through the Valley of Baca. Look at vs. 4:

4Therefore, among God's churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

I’ll say it again: want a strong faith? You will not grow it on your couch. You will grow it on the battlefield, in the valley and in the arena, striving for the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The Russians have a proverb: hard carrots make for strong teeth.

6. We then, as individuals, appear before God (v. 7b)

Imagine you’re in that ancient caravan, going up to Jerusalem. You’ve traveled for days, singing your songs of Zion when in the distance the city comes into view. Your heart leaps with joy, and then again when you come into the gate. Through the streets you go until you go up the hill called Moriah where the temple sits.

Vs. 7 says,

7 They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion.

You’ve “arrived.” You kept the faith in Baca and saw what God can do. Your spiritual muscles are toned now. You’re not perfect—far from it. But you have endured.

And now you, as an individual are there, “till each appears before God in Zion.” You know God and you know that God knows you. He is high and holy, but He is also close and loving.

In John 15:15, Jesus says something amazing:

I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.

To really get this, to grasp this; this is the goal of the journey. In Old Testament terms, it is to “stand before God in Zion.” In New Testament terms, it’s to know God as friend. It is when, as Psalm 37:4 says, we “delight yourself in the Lord.” We come before God strong and joyful and in a place where God can use us in ways we never imagined.

Dave and Lynn Philips started Children’s Hunger Fund in 1992. It was the culmination of a lot of soul-searching and God seeking. It meant the end of their guaranteed income life—it meant stepping into a life of faith with no safety net.

Just six weeks after getting started—when CHF was operating out of their garage, Dave got a desperate phone call from a hospital in Honduras. He still doesn’t know how they got his number (this was BG: Before Google!) On the other end was a doctor telling Dave that he needed a certain drug to save seven kids’ lives—seven Honduran kids with cancer. Dave wrote down the name of the drug and told the guy in Honduras that he had no idea how he’d get the drug. So he said, let’s pray.

The prayer went something like this:

Lord, we love you and we’re doing our best to obey you. And we know that you love these kids. I don’t know what to do, so you’re going to have to show me. Thank you Jesus, amen.

As he hung up the phone, before he could even let go of the receiver, the phone rang again. It was a drug company in New Jersey asking Dave if he could use 48,000 vials of that exact drug! Not only that, they offered to airlift it anywhere in the world.

God has things he wants to do through your life. Will it be this dramatic? Maybe not. Maybe yes. But you’ll never know, unless you take the journey toward God.

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