I have been reading the book, "You Lost Me" by David Kinnaman. It is a book about why young people are leaving the church and in some cases the faith. Kinnaman says that, "Wrestling with faith is an enduring feature of the transition to young adulthood…" In other words, we have probably all gone through such a time. However, he also says that, "…it is a particularly urgent dilemma for the Christian community because of the profound changes to the emerging generation’s social and spiritual context…" In other words, there are things happening in our world which are having a more significant impact today on how particularly young people are viewing faith and the church.
Of course there are many young people who are faithful and highly involved in church and in God's mission, but there are others who are leaving and he identifies three broad categories of young people who have grown up with Christian influence, but now wrestle with it or have left it. He calls some of them nomads and says, "For these young adults, faith is nomadic, seasonal, or may appear to be an optional or peripheral part of life. At some point during their teen or young adult years, nomads disengage from attending church or significantly distance themselves from the Christian community. They … put their faith on the shelf for a time. Most, however, do not discard it entirely." He comments further, "The second category of dropout consists of young people who leave their childhood or teen faith entirely. This includes those who deconvert (including atheists, agnostics, and those who say they have no religious affiliation) and those who switch to another faith." The third group he calls exiles and describes them in this way, "For our purposes, let’s define exiles as those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honoring lives."
In the book, he identifies some of the reasons which are leading to this exodus. Some have had such a poor experience in church that it is not surprising that they are gone. Others have struggled to reconcile their faith with the prevailing worldview. As I was reading this book, I found that I could name young people whom I know or have known in each of these categories. Whenever someone leaves faith, this concerns me. When people wrestle with faith, it does not concern me as much, but it does create an opportunity to have good conversations with them about their doubts and questions. At one time or another all of us wrestle with questions and doubts about the truth of Christian faith. Therefore, this morning, I would like to talk about this and encourage all of us to think about why following God is the best way to go and think about what it means to be faithful. Psalm 37 will guide our thinking this morning.
Psalm 37 is an acrostic Psalm. About every second verse begins with another letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Like other acrostic Psalms, the most famous being Psalm 119, it is difficult to discern a logical flow and themes are repeated frequently. I would like to pick up on two of the major themes in this Psalm.
The Psalm is also recognized as wisdom literature which means that it is much like the Proverbs in that it shows us the best way, the wisest path of life.
One of the key themes of this Psalm is an encouragement to follow God. The encouragement comes in the form of demonstrating why not being faithful to God is a bad idea and why being faithful to God is the best way to go.
Those who do not follow God are identified in the Psalm as "the wicked." Although we could interpret this to refer to those who do really bad things, from the perspective of the Psalmist it appears that there are only two categories. Those who follow God and those who reject God and those who reject God are those who are identified as wicked.
The message of this Psalm is that this is a bad idea because those who reject God and His way won't last. Please take note of the expressions in this Psalm which communicate this idea. Verse 2, says that wrongdoers "will soon fade like the grass." Verse 9 says, "For the wicked shall be cut off." and verse 10 "the wicked will be no more." Verse 20 also says, "…the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish – like smoke they vanish away." Verse 35 gives an interesting perspective when it says, "I have seen the wicked oppressing, and towering like a cedar of Lebanon. Again I passed by, and they were no more; though I sought them, they could not be found."
The message of these verses is consistent throughout. Those who do not follow God, who reject God and His people and who live in ways that are disobedient to God will not last. The consequences of rejecting God sometimes come in this life. People who reject God's way and follow a self centered way often run into trouble. For example, greed usually does not produce abundance, violence usually is returned with violence and there is no honor among thieves.
Furthermore, even if someone who rejects God prospers all their life, in the end, they will not experience the eternal life which God intends for those who follow Him. The Bible is clear that only those who follow God will inherit the full and eternal life which God gives to all who love Him.
Therefore, this Psalm teaches that if you reject God and His way, you are getting into something that has a short shelf life. It won't last! When you go shopping, you may be careful to check the best before dates on things like milk because it has such a short shelf life. Rejecting God is like that.
On the other hand, you don't check the shelf life on many other things like canned goods because they have such a long shelf life. In a similar way, following God, in fact, has no shelf life. It is always fresh and good and lasts forever. In this Psalm, there is only one consequence that comes to those who reject God and that is that they won't last. On the other hand, the passage declares numerous blessings which come to those who follow God.
One blessing is that life here and now is good. Verse 3 says, "Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land and enjoy security." Verse 11 says, "But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity." Verse 34 repeats this theme once again when it says, "Wait for the LORD, and keep to his way, and he will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on the destruction of the wicked."
The second blessing is the promise of God's own presence accompanying us on our way. There are several wonderful statements in this regard. Verse 5 says, "Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act." In Verse 23 we read, "Our steps are made firm by the LORD, when he delights in our way…" We are also encouraged by verse 39 where we read, "The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble."
This adds encouragement in that it shows us that even when we don't experience blessing all the time in this life, we still have the presence of God to comfort and encourage us.
The final blessing is that all of this is assured as ours for the long term. Whereas we saw that the wicked won't last, the path of the righteous is long lasting and goes even into eternity. We read in verse 18, "The LORD knows the days of the blameless, and their heritage will abide forever;" The same message is found in verse 27, "Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever."
As we read the Psalm and take note of these things, there is good reason for encouraging each other and anyone we meet to follow God's way. It has so much more to offer and it is the best way to go in this life. And when life is looked at through the long lens of eternity, it becomes clear that living a God honoring life is the best way to go.
If this is evident, the next question becomes, "What does it mean to live a God honoring life?" Verses 3-8 give a wonderful description. As we reflect on these, I am doing so with two perspectives in mind. One is as an encouragement to examine our life to see if we are living in this way. The other is to consider the example of our life. It is my belief that those who watch us, including the young people in our lives, will be encouraged to follow God if they see in us a living and active faith such as described here. So besides being encouraged to follow God in this way, we are also encouraged to live this way so that we can give an example of faithfulness that is attractive and convincing.
Verse 3 has a very concise statement about what it means to be faithful. It says, "trust in the Lord and do good." From this verse we learn that faithfulness involves doing good which means obedience to God. The question which follows is, "What is good?"
One of the problems is that Christians in various places have sometimes tried to define "good" by things that are external. If we say that something is good, but an examination of life and a study of Scripture reveals that it really has nothing to do with being good, then we are living in legalism and people see us as "holier than thou."
When I was young I once found a deck of playing cards. My parents wouldn't let me keep them. At the time, I learned that playing cards were on the list of things that were not good. Later, things changed and my parents played games with playing cards. Clearly this was not in the list of things that were "not good." I am so glad that we have mostly left behind such external rules about what is good and what is not good. However, that still leaves us with the question "what is good?"
According to this verse, we find that the things that are good are those that are associated with trust in the Lord. If our doing good arises out of a desire to look good to others or to earn favor with God, that is not the kind of goodness that arises out of trust. The kind of goodness that arises out of trust is the kind that acknowledges that our hope is in God, His forgiveness and His grace to accept us. It responds to that grace by seeking in every way to do that which responds with gratitude and a desire to be the holy people God has called us to be.
It is in a trusting relationship that accepts the Word of God as God speaking to us, that we will discover those things that are good. Some of the things that we will discover is that doing good includes such things as loving our neighbor, not judging another person, caring about another person enough not to gossip about them and so on.
If we live in that way, we will live consistently and genuinely and our lives will also be an example of true faith rather than religion or legalism. Such faithfulness will be attractive to others and will invite them to also consider following God.
Verse 4 adds another dimension to faithfulness when it calls us to take delight in the Lord.
God invites us to respond to all the good things He has done for us. He has called us His children, He has forgiven our sins, He has accepted us, He has given us life. He leads us through life. He has given us eternal life. He gives us His Spirit. He blesses us with a community of brothers and sisters who care about us.
We sometimes respond to all this goodness of God by becoming distracted by all the things that this life offers. For example, we love our sports teams and we love our recreation. We delight in our vacations. We are thankful for all the money we make or we wish we made more money. Jesus warns in Matthew 6:24, "You cannot serve God and wealth."
Faithfulness to God means that we will delight in the Lord. Not that we won't go no vacations or engage in sports or enjoy music or many other things, but our delight will be in the Lord. If we delight in the Lord, we will have a smile on our face when His name is honored. If we delight in the Lord, we will have tears of joy in our eyes when we see what God has done. When we delight in the Lord, difficulty, persecution and illness will drive us into His arms. If we delight in the Lord, we will look forward to the day when we will see Him face to face.
I firmly believe that if others, specifically our children, our grandchildren or our neighbors see that our delight is in the Lord, they will see a faith that is genuine and attractive and inviting. May we learn what it means to delight in the Lord.
One of the ways in which the church has sometimes failed those who attend is to create a disconnect between Sunday and Monday. Kinnaman writes in the book I mentioned earlier, "One hallmark of the exiles is their feeling that their vocation (or professional calling) is disconnected from their church experience. Their Christian background has not prepared them to live and work effectively in society. Their faith is “lost” from Monday through Friday. The Christianity they have learned does not meaningfully speak to the fields of fashion, finance, medicine, science, or media to which they are drawn."
As a person whose life is focused on Sunday, I share in the blame for that. The question which must be answered by us on Sunday is, "How will I live for God on Monday?" Have we adequately talked about what it means to be a student who follows God? Have we adequately talked about what it means to be a Christian farmer, or mechanic or doctor or teacher?
The Psalmist challenges us in verse 5 that faithfulness also includes that if you are faithful you will "commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him." The word "commit" is a word that has the nuance of rolling in a direction, of going on a particular path.
The way spoken of in this verse is our entire life. Following God is not just about attending worship service on Sunday, as good as that is. If our way is committed to the Lord, then when decisions are made about career choices, career activities or retirement, the question which must guide our thinking is, "how does trust in God lead me to commit this part of my life to the Lord?" I was in a church the other day and over the door as you went out of the church was a sign which reminded the people "You are going out into your mission field." If our way is committed to the Lord, we will recognize that we are always on mission.
When there is a disconnect between what we say on Sunday and how we live on Monday, it is no wonder that the next generation has little interest in following the path of faithfulness. They have seen nothing that engages or attracts to that kind of a lifestyle. If they see one thing lived at church and another thing lived day by day, the conclusion they must come to is that what is talked about on Sunday has no impact on who we really are and then it is no wonder that they choose not to participate in church.
To commit our way to God, in trust, is to know that God is at work in our life and in our world. It means to make our decisions and to choose a path that is guided by God.
The last aspect of faithfulness mentioned in this passage relates to our ability to answer the question, "Do we expect God to act?" There are things which happen in life which are unexpected, unwanted and sometimes tragic. When we are persecuted, when we become sick, when a loved one dies, when people we love suffer and there seems no explanation for it then our faith in God is severely tested. If it is a genuine faith, it will land back on God because it will have found that God keeps His promises. If it is weak, this may be the point at which faith is abandoned.
It is to this kind of faith that verses 7, 8 direct our thoughts. There we read, "Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil."
Faithfulness involves a choice to see how God is at work and a response to God which expresses trust in Him no matter what. Sometimes we just don't understand, but if we are still before the Lord, He will show Himself. Sometimes the struggles seem to go on forever, but if we walk in faithfulness, we will continue to "wait patiently for Him." At such a time, anger, at the situation? at God? does not help, but leads only to evil. Waiting patiently means that we know that God will act in His time and in His way.
One of the most powerful influences in my life has been what I have seen in members of my family who have gone before. Through revolution, war, being refugees, having cancer, I have seen a faith that continued to trust in God.
A faith that knows how to be still and to wait for God shows others a faith that is deep and not easily moved. May we live in and exemplify such faith.
I remember the song I learned when I was a child in Sunday School. "The wise man built his house upon the rock, the wise man built his house upon the rock, The wise man built his house upon the rock and the rains came a tumbling down. The rains came down and the floods came up, the rains came down and the floods came up the rains came down and the floods came up and the house on the rock stood firm." The song is based on Matthew 7:24-27. In that text Jesus talks about how much better it is to follow Him.
The invitation follows after Matthew 7:21-23 where Jesus says, in part, "not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven…" So, if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven, if we want to live well, now, if we want to give an example of a true, attractive, genuine faith, then let us, do good, let us take delight in the Lord, let us commit our way to the Lord, and let us be still and wait patiently for Him. If we do, the promise of life is sure!