Do you know what it takes to get into a hog barn? If you were to visit a barn and if you wanted to see what was going on inside, you would have to have a shower and put on the clothes they give you and only then could you visit the barn. When trucks come to pick up pigs, they have to be washed down before they back up. Some places even have a truck that transfers pigs from the delivery truck to the barn truck so that the delivery truck will not come in contact with the barn. When new animals are brought into the barn, they remain in a quarantine area to make sure they don’t have any disease. All of this is to prevent anyone who could jeopardize the health of the pigs from going in.
What does it take to go into the presence of God? This is the question asked by Psalm 15:1, “Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”
At Christmas we celebrate that God has come to meet us. We have parties, we have programs and we celebrate God’s goodness in coming. But who is this God who has come to us? We think about the baby in the manger, but in fact the God who has come is the holy God, just and righteous; high and lifted up.
Advent is a season of preparation for His coming. If God is such a great and amazing and holy God, are we properly prepared to meet Him? What does it take to prepare to meet the God who has come to meet us?
Psalm 15 is what is known as a Psalm of approach. It was a Psalm which might have been sung by the people going up to the temple to meet God. The temple is on a mountain and so the people would have walked up the holy “hill” as they walked towards it. It was a “holy” hill because it was the place where God was and as they went up they would have had an awareness that they were going up to meet God. The question and answer of this and other Psalms like it would have helped them prepare for that meeting with God.
As we recognize that God has come to us, how do we prepare to meet Him?
As the people approached the temple, they asked these two questions. They are not really two questions, but the same question repeated twice. It was common in the Psalms to write such parallel phrases that mean the same thing.
The Psalmist uses the word “dwell” in one question and “live” in the other. The implication is to ask who can come and stay in the presence of God.
But what does this question mean?
The first thought might be that the question is about who is qualified to enter into God’s presence. It may appear to be about limiting access to the presence of God. It is like access to the pig barn - only those who have showered and put on barn clothes can go into the barn. Only those who live in the way prescribed in this passage can go into the presence of God. Some of the translations suggest this kind of thinking. In The Message we read, “God, who gets invited to dinner at your place? How do we get on your guest list?”
Matthew 7:21-23 has a similar thought with the warning, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Is this the kind of thought this question implies? Is access limited to those who act in a certain way?
In Randolph County, West Virginia there is a high hill called “Bickels Knob” which is the highest point in that County. You get to the hill by driving along a winding gravel road. When you get to the parking lot, you are not yet at the top. From there you need to take a 100 yard climb up a steep hill. At this point, there is still not much to see because the trees in the area are so high. When you get to the end of the path, there is a tower. If you climb this tower, which is about 100 feet high, you get above the tree line to a platform which gives a spectacular 360o view of the hills and forests in the surrounding area. Ralph Andrus writes, “Most people do not do not get here because of the difficulty, the effort and themselves being out of shape.”
Is the way to God a similarly difficult path which limits most people from meeting God because they just cannot measure up? If that is how we read this Psalm, it would be a rather discouraging Psalm because most of us know that we are not fit to meet with God. In fact, from other places we know that no one is fit to meet God. Romans 3:23 reminds us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In response, the gospel encourages us that we are made fit to meet God only because of what Jesus has done in dying and rising from the dead.
So perhaps the question has a different emphasis. How else could we understand this question?
Perhaps, when we ask this question, we should rather ask it with a reflection on what kind of a heart desires to enter God’s presence. Craigie talks about the question in this way. He suggests that this speaks about “…the nature and character of the person who desires to enter God’s presence.”
When the question is put that way, I am reminded of the picture in Matthew 25:31-46. In this passage, Jesus commends those who fed and clothed Him. Those who had been kind to the poor and had fed and clothed them wondered when they had cared for Jesus. The response of kindness was so natural to them, so much a part of who they were from the inside, at the depth of their being that they were hardly aware of their own goodness. It is clear that such people had been changed by God and had become people who pleased God out of their very heart.
There are different ways of looking at who is fit to meet God. Some think about it by thinking about what mathematicians call a “bounded set.” When we think about this question from the perspective of a bounded set, we ask, “who is in and who is out.” The other way of looking at this is by what mathematicians call a centered set. When we look at the question this way, we ask a different kind of question. We ask, “Who is moving towards God and who is moving away from God.” I think the question in this Psalm is one that we should ask from the perspective of a centered set. Who is moving towards God? Whose heart has been changed so that it is becoming what God wants it to be? There are many examples of people in the Bible who were far from perfect, like David and Moses, but who longed to walk with God and whose heart and lives were faced towards God.
Such reflection invites us to ask the question of ourselves. What are the indicators that I am moving towards God? Asking the question in this way invites us to examine ourselves by thinking about the markers in our life that would suggest that our heart is faced towards God. What kind of a heart does one who desires to meet God have? What kind of life does one who desires to meet God live?
Craigie says, “The question, if genuinely asked, will elicit an answer which invites examination of the self and hence appropriate preparation for admission to worship and to the divine presence.”
So how do we recognize a heart, a life that is moving towards God and evidently desiring the presence of God? The answer is given in Psalm 15:2-5a
There are 10 items listed here, probably because that would make it easy to remember the things written here as you counted off the ten items. We also notice another memory device in that there are three positive items in verse 2, three negative items in verse 3, two positive items in verse 4 and two negative items in verse 5a. It is a Psalm of approach, but in this section it is also a wisdom Psalm, teaching us the ways that will indicate the heart that desires to meet the God who comes to meet us.
I would encourage you to examine these ten items and reflect on how your life matches them. Does your response to these items suggest that your heart is directed towards God? I won’t go over all ten items, but would like to reflect on a few of them.
The first phrase is, in the NKJV, “He who walks uprightly, And works righteousness…” Although many translations use the word “doing” I prefer this translation. The danger if we are “doing” righteousness is to develop a list and check off each righteous act as we do it. The problem with that is that we feel guilty when we aren’t able to check off every item on our list, even if God never put it there. The other problem is feeling superior to those who do not keep all the items on our list.
If we think about walking uprightly, we think of a journey which has a direction. We may stumble, we may be weak, but there is no doubt about where we are going. We think critically about those things that are right. We desire to work into our life those things that are just and fair and good for the other person and pleasing to God. That way of looking at it is not so much a check list, but a lifetime of discovery pointed in a God-ward direction.
The heart that desires to meet God is a heart that really wants to know God’s way and to walk towards God. It is evidenced by a life that is marked by walking uprightly and working at righteousness.
There are a number of phrases in this Psalm which mention “speech” but the one I would most like to think about is verse 2c which says that the person whose heart is God directed “…speaks the truth in his heart…”
We often criticize those who lie to others and well we should, but this phrase gets at the issue of deception at a much deeper level. It recognizes that any time we deceive others, it has probably begun with a deception in our heart.
There are many ways in which we deceive ourselves about what is true about our life. For example, if we are given too much change at the store, how do we respond? If we can cheat someone in order to get a better deal, do we take the opportunity? If we have a chance to make a quick buck by gambling will we do it? We would probably not admit that we have a love for money, but if our actions reveal that we do, we are not speaking the truth in our heart.
Speaking truth in our hearts means that we do not deceive ourselves about who we are. It takes great courage to be honest with ourselves, but it is the knowledge of the grace of God which assures us of acceptance and the knowledge that God’s Spirit is changing us that allows us to be honest with ourselves from the heart.
A heart that is moving towards God is a heart that desires truth in the inward parts as Psalm 51:6 says.
A number of the phrases have to do with our relationship to others. They are all stated negatively to indicate that a person who is living with his or her face towards God has a good relationship to others.
The text mentions that the person who is faced towards God “does his neighbor no wrong.” I have been reading the book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass. In this book he tells about what it was like to be a slave in the US in the early 1800’s. He writes, “In August 1832 my master attended a Methodist camp meeting held in Bayside, Talbot County, and there experienced religion. I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that if he did not do this, it would at any rate; make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty...As an example, I will state one of many facts going to prove the charge. I have seen him tie up a lame young woman and whip her with a heavy cow-skin upon her naked shoulders , causing the warm red blood to drip and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this Scripture – “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
Jesus indicated that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love neighbor. In Scripture, these two ideas go very closely together. The person who is quick to hurt another, who doesn’t mind observing the suffering of others has not grasped what the heart of God is all about. To know that we are loved by God, is to live with love for others.
The text also says that a person who follows God “has no slander on his tongue.” John Trapp writes that, “the tale-bearer carrieth the devil in his tongue, and the tale hearer carries the devil in his ear.”
There is a story about a man who came to see a Rabbi and told him he had passed on some slander to another person. He asked the Rabbi what he could do to get right with God.
The Rabbi said, “There are just two things you need to do: one today and one tomorrow.”
The man said, “So what do I need to do today.”
The Rabbi said, “Get a feather pillow, cut it open, walk through the center of town, and spread the feathers along the way.”
So the man did that, and he came back the next day and asked what he needed to do now.
The Rabbi said, “Today, you need to go through town and pick up all the feathers.”
The man responded, “But that is impossible.”
The Rabbi said, “Yes, that’s the problem. That is why we need to watch what we say.”
One of the difficult sayings is the phrase, “who despises a vile man.” It is clear enough what it calls for. It calls for us to hate evil. What is not so clear is how to do that. When you read some of the Old Testament literature, hatred of evil involved a significant comfort with killing evil people. Through the eyes of Jesus, we have a different perspective who taught us to love our enemies and who always left open a way for evil people to repent. One way we get past this difficult saying is to suggest that we are to love the sin, but hate the sinner. That seems like a nice solution, but sin resides in the sinner and the text does not say we should despise “vile things,” but “a vile man.”
Perhaps we do not need to set up such a dichotomy. Larry Osborne in his sermon on this passage asks, “Are my heroes godly or godless?” In other words, do we honor those who are righteous and who walk in a righteous way or do we look down on good people, while at the same time honoring those who do evil? Let me tell you about one way in which I have questioned my own heart in this regard. Sometimes I have looked down on good wholesome Christian movies and would rather watch a secular movie that has violence and questionable morals. What does that tell us about what we value? Why do I do that? What does it reveal about my heart?
Isaiah 5:20 warns, “You are doomed! You call evil good and call good evil. You turn darkness into light and light into darkness. You make what is bitter sweet, and what is sweet you make bitter.”
Another interesting value has to do with promises we make. We read in verse 4, “who keeps his oath even when it hurts.”
There is an interesting story in Jeremiah 35. Jeremiah invited members of the Recabite family to the temple. When they all came together, he put bowls of wine before them and invited them to join him in a drink. This was an act of kindness and generosity, but the Recabites refused this gift. It must have been a rather awkward moment. Jeremiah was told by God to offer this gift and it was refused. What was going on?
These people informed Jeremiah that they had a custom in their family. Their forefather, many years earlier, had made them promise that they and all their descendants should never drink wine, never cultivate crops, never settle in a village, but always live in tents. There was nothing wrong with any of these things morally. Many people in Israel drank the fruit of grapes, cultivated plants and lived in houses. For whatever reason, however, their ancestor had them all join in to a covenant by which they would not do these things. For many years now they had kept the promise they had made.
The point of the story is that Jeremiah was to make a prophecy to the people of Israel based on the example of the Recabites. What he indicates is that on such minor things that don’t really matter all that much, the Recabites had always been faithful and had kept the promise they had made. Jeremiah points to their example and contrasts the way of the people of Judah. God had spoken to Judah about things that really mattered and they had failed to keep the promises they had made. God had redeemed them out of Egypt and made a covenant with them at Sinai and they had not kept the covenant they had made with God. God was trying to shame them because of their failure to be faithful to Him.
However, lest we dismiss this story as merely illustrating Judah’s unfaithfulness, we need to take note of the final verse where we read, “Then I told the Recabite clan that the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, had said, “You have obeyed the command that your ancestor Jonadab gave you; you have followed all his instructions, and you have done everything he commanded you. 19So I, the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, promise that Jonadab son of Rechab will always have a male descendant to serve me.”
God honored their faithfulness, their commitment to keeping the promises they made, even when it was hard to do so. That is what this verse is all about. It recognizes that a person whose heart is turned towards God will be a person who keeps his promises even if it costs him to do so.
I must commend Larry and his Bible study group today in this regard. He has a family gathering this afternoon, but he made a commitment almost a year ago to be in charge of the service at RRVL this afternoon and he and their Bible Study group are going. I appreciate such faithfulness.
A person who follows God keeps the covenants he/she makes.
The question is asked and the answer is given. The person whose life gives evidence of godliness is the person whose heart is turned towards God. The answer reveals the true nature of the person who desires God and is prepared to come near to God. If that is what we are like, then this becomes a promise. If our lives are moving in the directions indicated in these verses, then we will meet God.
A more explicit promise is found in the last part of verse 5 where we read that such a person “will never be shaken.”
When we went to Israel last year, the people on the tour came from many different places. Some travelled from BC, we came from Manitoba and one couple had already been in Turkey for several weeks previously. We drove from Rosenort to Winnipeg and the people from Winnipeg met us at the airport. We moved towards the same location and so we met. The people from out west and those from Winnipeg both moved towards Toronto. Because we were moving towards each other, we met. Then we flew from Toronto to Frankfurt. The couple who had been in Turkey also flew to Frankfurt and because we were moving towards each other, we met.
If we are moving towards God and God is moving towards us, we will meet.
Christmas tells us that God is moving towards us. He has come through Jesus.
Are we moving towards Him? During this advent season, it is a good time to examine our lives. What does our life reveal about our heart? Is our life set in a direction of desiring and seeking to live in the ways mentioned in these verses? Is our heart preparing to meet God?
God is moving towards us and as we move towards God, we will meet and experience all the blessing which come to those who are in a relationship to God.