The Benefits Of Belief
29/09/2002 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by David Holloway
Last week we were thinking about Thomas and his doubts and the words of Jesus to Thomas in John 20 verse 29:
"Because you have seen me, you [Thomas] have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."So if you believe in Jesus Christ you will be "blessed". But what does it mean to be blessed through believing? Or put another way, what are the benefits of belief - our subject for tonight. To help with our thinking I want us to look at Psalm 128 in the Old Testament section of the Bible. You see, at this church we believe that it is no good just coming up with your own ideas about God and religious issues just out of your own head. We start from the assumption that you will get it wrong if you do. Nor is it that you cannot think or are not educated.
Many of you, indeed, have been (or are being) privileged with a good education. But we know that education has its limits. And why? - because of human sin which means we all resist both God's wisdom and God's ways. William Temple, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, once put it like this:
"I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand ... Education may make my self-centredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like climbing a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision, while leaving me still the centre and standard of reference."
So that is why if you want to know the real truth about the basic questions of life - is this life all there is? what happens when I die? is there a God? and so on - you will not get reliable answers just out of your own head or the heads of others. For you and they are, by nature, biased against God and his answers. And that is why many of the ideas we all are indoctrinated with these days are so wrong.
Yesterday The Times reported that John Major had had an affair with Edwina Currie for four years in the 1980s. The BBC's political correspondent immediately said on the radio that we now see John Major as a "well rounded" character - implying that we previously saw him as rather wet and colourless. How totally wrong! The bible doesn't say that cheating on your wife after being seduced by a woman is "well rounded" behaviour. It says it is a dreadful sin which if not forgiven by God will exclude you from his kingdom. But it is also totally wrong to leave the matter there as some of the Tabloids do. For the bible then gives you the good news that adultery and all other sin can be forgiven through repentance and faith in Christ. And when you are forgiven you will be included in God's kingdom for ever. How you need to have your newspaper in one hand and your bible in the other. Only in the Bible will you get reliable answers that you can trust and guidance that you can live by. For the bible is "God's Word Written" as the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles of Religion call it.
So we come to Psalm 128. And it is important for Christians today to read the Psalms. On the cross, as Jesus was dying, he meditated on one of the Psalms. And Christians ever since have meditated on the Psalms. Richard Wurmbrand was a remarkable Christian who was imprisoned and tortured for his faith under the former Communist regime in Romania. He tells us that he quoted some Psalms from memory while in periods of solitary confinement. You see, the Psalms are a statement of what it means to be a believer in the true God, the God of the bible, the God who is revealed as one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You say, "but aren't the Psalms just for ancient Israel?" No! Let me explain.
The Old Testament is the record of God teaching and preparing, little by little, his people for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ, God the Son, at exactly the right time. But right from the start - right from the call of Abraham, centuries before Christ - the way and the only way people could be in a right relationship with God - a holy God - was, as it always has been, by faith in response to God's grace and mercy. Yes, the first people to read this Psalm probably read it as they went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for some festival and sacrifices. But if they were truly God's people, they were not going to the Temple to get right with God through sacrifices. No! Because they were living in a relationship of trust and faith in God, they were already right with him. So they went to the Temple to sacrifice to show that they were sorry for their lapses into sin and out of obedience to the God who used the sacrificial system to teach them the seriousness of sin.
They were forgiven not for mechanically going through sacrifices and rituals, but because their obedience in sacrificing was evidence of their faith in God. Indeed, these sacrifices were simply pointing forward to the sacrifice that would and did atone for sin - Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, where he died for the sins of the world, in our place. So after the coming of Christ faith for us is much easier, while a wrong sort of legalism from all these ceremonies and sacrifices was only too easy for these ancient believers. But at the heart of their religious life was simple trust in a holy God who loved them, cared for them and when necessary disciplined them. For us today in 2002 it is exactly the same, except we have God's full and final revelation in the Lord Jesus Christ that proves more clearly his justice, his grace and his mercy.
So the Psalms are for believers - ancient and modern. And Psalm 128 tells you about the benefits of belief - our subject tonight. And there are benefits in believing. And it is vital that you realize that this is hard fact - that a believer has a better life, a more enjoyable life and a more satisfying life spiritually and materially, on average, than he or shee would have as an unbeliever The devil will tell you otherwise and the majority of non-Christians will deny it. They will say, "it is much better to be a pagan - to do what you like, when you like and how you like." Living for Christ (they say) is far too restricting. But Psalm 128 says "No!" Look at verse 1:
Blessed are [not will be, but 'are'] all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.And this is what Jesus taught as we heard in our New Testament reading. Jesus emphatically said there, Mark 10.29:
"I tell you the truth ... no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields--and [note this] with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life."Jesus is talking not only about the future and eternal life but about the present. And this is what Paul understood and taught. Listen to him writing to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4.8:
godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.It is not only "pie in the sky when you die". Yes, heaven is infinitely more glorious than you can ever imagine:
"No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor 2.9)So always keep heaven in mind. But you will get higher hopes of heaven, if you let God open your eyes to the benefits now. If things are good now, what will it be like then? But perhaps you are asking ...
WHO exactly ARE the "BLESSED"?
This you will see is my first heading on the outline. The answer is clear from verse 1:
Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.It is "all" who fear the Lord. You can be rich or poor, beautiful or less beautiful, educated or uneducated, black or white - it is "all" who fear the Lord. What, then, is it to "fear the Lord"? It is reverent trust. It is a positive fear. It is not a negative fear like the fear you have of things that go bump in the night; or the fear of not having got your tax form in by first thing tomorrow morning - 30 September. Rather it is more like the fear of not wanting to fail someone you respect and love. And with God it is a positive fear because of his holiness, greatness and goodness now seen in Christ. So that leads not to terror but to obedience. The "blessed", therefore are not only those who "fear the Lord" and trust him, but also those who "walk in his ways" - who obey him.
WHAT then ARE THE BENEFITS?
That is my second heading. Four benefits are listed here in Psalm 128.
a) or, first, there is the benefit related to work. Verse 2a:
You will eat the fruit of your labour.Yesterday I got in the wrong queue at Asda - I found myself in the Lottery Queue. A number of the people in front of me would have said, "I don't think this is much of a benefit. My idea of blessedness is to win the Lottery and never have to work or labour again." But you know as well as I do, the misery of many who suddenly come into large fortunes and give up work. Yes, the bible makes it clear that because of the Fall work has a negative dimension of strain, sweat and toil. But God intended man to be a "working" creature. He is made in the image of a God who "worked" for six days and then rested on the seventh at the dawn of creation. So work is inherently a good thing. And the Psalmist says here that the believer is not promised a life of ease, but of satisfaction through work.
And it is true that Christians can find even the most menial of tasks satisfying when they do what they are doing, "as unto the Lord" Yesterday also, before going to Asda, I had spend two hours folding ninety paper serviettes in a rather fancy way to hold the knives and forks for today's Parish Lunch today - it was our Home Group's turn to prepare the lunch. It was tedious. But it was satisfying, not because of the repetition but because I could see it in a wider context. George Herbert put it like this in his 17th century hymn:
b) or, secondly, there is the benefit related to wealth. Verse 2b:Teach me, my God and King,In all things thee to see;And what I do in anythingTo do it as for thee. A servant with this clauseMakes drudgery divine;Who sweeps a room, as for they laws,Makes that and the action fine.
blessings and prosperity will be yours.It is simply true that on average believers do better financially than non-believers. But this can be a problem as well as a blessing. John Wesley, the great 18th century evangelist, put the problem like this:
I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger and love of the world in all its branches.So be warned - other things being equal, many of you will probably earn large sums of money some day. Be warned by our reading tonight about the rich young man. And heed Wesley's advice, when he also said: "earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can." One of the blessings undoubtedly that comes the way of many believers is prosperity. Oh! God can suddenly take it all away. And some of the finest believers go through testing times, financial collapse and poverty.
I know a number of people who have experienced that sort of thing. Job did in the bible. And many Christians in the developing world suffer greatly through poverty. But on average believers are more prosperous than unbelievers - even where there is poverty.
A US National Longitudinal Study of Youth showed that among those from a background of similar poverty who attended church weekly in both 1979 and 1982, average income in 1993 was one-third higher than of those who never attended church in 1979 and 1982. None of this allows for a prosperity gospel - pray and you will get rich to fulfil your selfish desires. But it does confirm what the Psalmist is saying.
c) or, thirdly, there is the benefit related to sex. Verse 3a:
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house.Sexual relationships for the believer are to be restricted to sex within marriage. The bible makes that as clear as clear. Adultery and fornication (sex outside and before marriage) are wrong; so is homosexual sex. Sex is for heterosexual marriage alone. And marriage is best for children, for the spouses and for society at large - that is clear from social science as well as the bible. And marriage is good for sex itself. Believers who reserve sex for heterosexual monogamous marriage, on average have the best sex lives.
Many studies have proved that including the large Sex in America survey, published in 1995 and parallel to the British Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles survey of 1994. That study blew the minds of some hard-bitten secular journalists when it was discovered that women most like to achieve orgasm regularly were conservative Protestants - those with a strict biblical sex ethic. Such people are simply following the maker's instructions. So ignore health educators, politicians, teachers, silly friends at the university, and liberal clergymen, who tell you it is legitimate sometimes to have sex outside marriage. No! Reserve sex for marriage. If you "walk in God's ways" you will discover that marriage is one of God's great benefits. And if you are single - like Jesus was - you can help preserve marriage for others by also "walking in God's ways".
And d) or, fourthly, there is the benefit related to the family. Verse 3b:
The olive is a very rugged and hardy plant. It is the opposite in terms of biblical imagery to grass. Grass is here today and gone tomorrow. But the olive endures. So this is the promise of an enduring and thriving family. And an enduring and thriving family is where you have a "wife ... like a fruitful vine" - where you have a "married" family. The "love" family - the family that depends not on God's gift of the institution of marriage with all its social supports, but on the emotional or sexual attraction only of a couple - is, too, fragile. And we now know, form social science that cohabitation has a range of negative outcomes. Tragically, with our modern anti-Christian divorce culture, even "married" families often are now fragile and collapse with also negative outcomes for the couple, any children and for wider society. But the believer who is obedient to God's word and God's rules for marriage - with a commitment for life, "for better or worse" is blessed and benefits.
So we come to verse 4 - by way of summary:
thus, (in at least these four ways) is the man blessed who fears the LORD.He or she is blessed and has a benefit in respect of work, wealth, sex and the family. Well, if this is the case, what should you do?
If you are not a believer, why not start to believe? Why not start to "fear the Lord ... and walk in his ways"? If you are a believer, you need to pray for others and yourself.
So our final heading for tonight is PRAY. Look at verses 5 and 6:
May the LORD bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem, and may you live to see your children's children. Peace be upon Israel.The Psalmist suggests there should be prayer for individuals to be blessed by God. But remember that these "blessing" are, as I have put it, on average. At certain times God will allow you to go through difficult times that the devil wants to use to trip you up but God wants to use to discipline you and strengthen you. Who is going through such a time at this moment? That is why Jesus tells us to pray that we should not be led into temptation.
I must conclude. I do so with the last words of the Psalmist:
"Peace be upon Israel".The early Christians used that as a prayer for the church - certainly Paul did. Do you know the peace that the bible speaks about? That is going to be our subject next Sunday night. So let me close with quoting Romans 5.1:
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,That is always the greatest benefit of belief - a right relationship with God through faith and through our Lord Jesus Christ with sins forgiven and new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the practical consequences of such a faith include benefits in this life as well as for eternity.
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