Your Love Is Better Than Life
From Gospel Translations
O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.
I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.
On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
They who seek my life will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.
But the king will rejoice in God;
all who swear by God's name will praise him,
while the mouths of liars will be silenced. (NIV)
Those of us in leadership at Bethlehem believe that the more sharply you can bring the goals of the church into focus, the more intentionally and strategically you will be able to help achieve those goals. Or to put it another way, if you can't state clearly and concisely why we exist as a church, then it will be harder for you to serve the purpose or mission of the church.
And we believe with all our hearts that just as every eye and ear and tooth and tongue and finger and toe should serve the purpose and calling of the human body, so every individual member of Bethlehem Baptist Church should serve the purpose for which we exist as a church.
What Our Mission Is
Four years ago the Council of Deacons and staff of the church crafted a philosophy of ministry and statement of priorities to answer the question: Why do we exist? What is our mission? The answer was given that the church has three priorities, one relating to God, one relating to believers, and one relating to unbelievers.
- Our reason for being as a church is to see that every member is growing to maturity in the personal and corporate worship of God;
- that every member is growing to maturity in the ability to love fellow believers and strengthen their faith; and
- that every member is growing to maturity in the courage and effectiveness of reaching unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We exist to worship God, nurture each other, and evangelize the world, all to the glory of God. I preached on these three priorities two years ago because we were so convinced that the more clearly you know why we are here, the more intelligently and freely and strategically you can make your essential contribution to the cause.
The Need for Reminders and Refreshers
But now time has passed. And by a powerful law of fallen human nature the mission begins to dim and the goals become blurred and the momentum of strategic thinking lapses into the mentality of maintenance. I don't think that has happened at Bethlehem. But it will happen if we don't refresh our sense of mission and renew our reason for being again and again.
So our aim for the next three Sundays is to remind ourselves why we exist, and to let Scripture unfold for us the meaning of our three priorities. And my hope is to describe the mission of Bethlehem in such a way that every member will be able to articulate it for yourself and for others in a few simple sentences and have a biblical basis for what you say.
New Ways of Saying Old Things
The mission hasn't changed over the past four years, but we have hit upon some new vocabulary for saying the same thing in a different way. And I think this has an advantage not only in keeping our sense of mission fresh, but also in keeping God central—which is all-important to us.
The way we state the mission of the church these days is that Bethlehem is a vision of God, and the reason we exist is to savor that vision, instill that vision, and spread that vision. These are the old three priorities and they make up our reason for being.
- We savor the vision of God in worship.
- We instill the vision of God through the fellowship of nurture and teaching.
- And we spread the vision of God through evangelism and missions.
Keeping God at the Center
The great advantage of describing our mission like this is that at every point God is the explicit center. He is not only central in the vertical act of worship. He is also central in horizontal acts of nurture and evangelism. We aim never to lose sight that from him and to him and through him are all things (Romans 11:36) . . . that in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) . . . that everything we do, whether we eat or drink or worship or work or witness, should be done for his glory.
The Plan for the Next Three Sundays
So for three weeks we want to talk about these three priorities of the church—savoring the vision of God in worship, instilling the vision of God in nurture and education, and spreading the vision of God in evangelism and missions.
Instead of taking separate Sundays to develop the vision itself, I have decided simply to let the texts themselves bring out some of its features each week. In a sense every message morning and evening is aimed at refining the vision. So today we turn to Psalm 63 and attempt to let at least the first eight verses of this psalm unfold for us the priority of . . . savoring the vision of God.
David in the Wilderness
The psalm begins with a heading that says, "A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah." In verse 9 he speaks of "those who seek to destroy my life." So he is probably a fugitive of some kind. Someone is chasing him in the wilderness.
We are inclined to think of the days when King Saul chased David in the wilderness and tried to kill him. But verse 11 points to a later time. It pictures David as the king already: "But the king shall rejoice in God; all who swear by him shall glory; for the mouths of liars will be stopped." But when Saul was chasing David, he wasn't king yet.
But there was a time when David was king and a fugitive from his own land and forced to flee to the desert, namely, the time when his son Absalom rebelled and tried to overthrow his father's throne. According to 2 Samuel 15:23 David fled the city, crossed the brook Kidron, and went into the wilderness. This is probably the experience behind the psalm.
"O God, Thou Art My God"
He is in the wilderness, and he begins his psalm, "O God, thou art my God." These words are important for several reasons.
A Man Who Has a Relationship with God
First, they make plain the tremendously important fact that the seeking and thirsting for God which we will see in just a moment is not the seeking of a man who was unacquainted with God. It is not the seeking of a man who had no relationship with God.
On the contrary, "O God, thou art my God," is the deepest affirmation that between David and God there is a covenant, a relationship based on God's oath. God had said to Abram in Genesis 17:7, "I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you . . . and I will be their God."
When David says, "O God, thou art my God," he reasserts the rock under the quicksand of his own emotions. When he cries, "O God, thou art my God!" he doesn't mean that he is always lifted above the pangs of soul-thirst. When he says, "O God, thou art my God," he means at least these two things:
- When he thirsts, he will seek to slake his thirst on God alone and not on anything else: "O God, thou art my God."
- And he means that when he seeks his God, God will be there and meet his need. "O God, thou art my God!"
Are You Like David?
Are you like David this morning? When you are driven into the wilderness by tragic and painful circumstances and you begin to suck for air in the quicksand of your own emotions, can you cry out among the jackals and the snakes, "O God, thou art my God!"? The covenant stands! There is a rock beneath and it will rise in time.
Do you have a covenant relationship with God this morning?
If you say, What is that? What is it like? let me read you the words of a man who made a covenant with God when he was 19 years old. Jonathan Edwards wrote about this some years later like this,
On January 12, 1723, I made a solemn dedication of myself to God, and wrote it down; giving up myself, and all that I had to God; to be for the future, in no respect, my own; to act as one that had no right to himself, in any respect. And solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else, as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were; and his law for the constant rule of my obedience: engaging to fight against the world, the flesh and the devil, to the end of my life. (Personal Narrative)
Have you made a decisive covenant-commitment to God? Have you ever met Jesus Christ standing in your way, having tracked you down on the path of insurrection, and in his hands a declaration of amnesty from God, signed with his own blood, the blood of the covenant? And have you ever looked into his eyes and heard him say, "The King will cancel your debt and forgive your insurrection and welcome you into his kingdom if you will kneel and swear faith and loyalty to me forever"?
Have you knelt like Jonathan Edwards and made this covenant oath: "O God, henceforth, in faith and loyalty, thou art my God"? I urge you to do it even as you listen this morning . . . and all of you, to reaffirm your covenant vows.
The Psalm Is Built on This Foundation
The reason I dwell so long on this first phrase this morning is that the rest of the psalm is built on this foundation. Without this rock beneath there is no true worship of God.
But once this foundation is established, what appears in the psalm is that God is savored in at least two ways, and therefore worship takes at least two forms. Verses 1–4 describe the savoring of God through thirsting. And verses 5–9 describe the savoring of God through feasting. In other words in verses 1–4 the vision of God is not clear and present and satisfying and so David faints for it. But in verses 5–9 the vision of God is present and rich and David eats his fill with satisfaction.
The Fainting and Feasting of David
I want you to see this clearly this morning, because it is so important for understanding the movements of your own redeemed soul. God is worshiped and honored and savored both by fainting for him and by feasting on him. Will you please remember that! It is not a clever sermonic alliteration. It is straight out of the text!
In the RSV verse 1 says, "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirst for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is." And then the Lord of the covenant comes. The rock rises to meet David's feet. The banquet of his glory is spread before the eyes of faith, and David says, "My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat."
God is worshiped, honored, and savored both when we faint for him and when we feast on him. Fainting is the form of worship when God is distant, and feasting is the form of worship when he is near. The heart that savors God above all things will experience yearning and longing and thirsting and panting and fainting when the vision of God is distant and dim. And that same heart will experience feasting and satisfaction when the vision draws near and becomes clear.
This is a great help to us when we wake up in the wilderness. And some of us wake up there every day.
Let me make just two other observations from this text for the sake of our worship life at Bethlehem, and for the priority of savoring the vision of God.
The Essence of True Worship
The first is that even though worship does involve expressions of thankfulness to God for his gifts, this is not the essence of true worship. In fact there is a gratitude to God for his gifts that has no true worship in it at all. In other words there are people who love their health and family and job and hobbies, and thank God for them often, but don't love God. They don't savor God. And when God is not savored for the sweetness and excellence of who he is, he is not worshiped.
Desiring God More Than Life Itself
David makes this plain by the way he expresses his longings in verses 1 and 3. In verse 1 he says, "O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee." This is not primarily a thirst for any of God's gifts. It is a thirst for God. David has a heart for God. He has a taste for fellowship with God.
He makes this even more explicit in verse 3: "Because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee." This means that David wanted God more than he wanted life. And if you want God more than you want life, then you want God more than you want all the joys of this life—family, health, food, friendship, sexual relations, job-satisfaction, productivity, books, skateboards, computers, music, homes, sunsets, fall colors. When David says that the love of God is better than life and therefore better than all the beauty that life means, he is not denying that all these good things come from the love of God. He is warning us, rather, that if our hearts settle (even gratefully!) on the beauty of the gift and do not yearn for the infinitely greater beauty of the Giver, then we are idolaters and not worshipers of God.
Why We Need the Wilderness
I wonder whether this is why we cannot do without the wilderness experiences life. If all of life were a paradise, as so many people think it should be and as so many try to make it, then would we not much more often become addicted to savoring the gifts of God rather than God? Surely that is why Jesus said it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. And surely that is why he takes his loved ones again and again through the desert fires. He would disenchant us with the world and give us a taste for eternity.
And don't think it came easy for David to give up the gifts of God. Not many days hence the rebellion in Jerusalem will be quelled, and Absalom dead with the darts of Joab, and David in his chamber crying, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son" (2 Samuel 18:33).
The wilderness is the way of God to wean us from the most precious things in the world. And those who savor the vision of God know that his love is better than all that this life can give.
The Importance of Corporate Worship
The last thing I want us to see from this psalm is the importance of corporate worship in the life of the soul. Do you see from verse 2 what the function of temple worship was for David while he was in the wilderness?
Its Function in David's Life
He says, "So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory." What does this mean? It means that when he was out in the wilderness, cut off from the worshiping community at the Temple, it was the memory of experiences there that brought God home to him with clarity and power and finally gave him a feast in the wilderness.
Neither in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament was the worship of God bound to a building. But both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament God has blessed the regular gathering of his people with the vision of his power and his glory. This is the vision that feeds our souls on Sunday morning, and then later on, in the wilderness, functions to remind us that God is great indeed and make us thirst and faint for his power and glory.
The Implications for Our Worship Together
I wish there were time to unfold all the implications that this has for our worship together. But let this closing word suffice. When you understand the essence of worship to be the genuine savoring of God, whether through fainting or feasting, thirsting or bursting, you can't treat it lightly any more. It becomes the very center-piece of life. It becomes radically God-centered. It becomes intense and earnest. It becomes for most people the only hour in the week when they become silent with reverence and awe before the power and glory of God.
What We Do to Help You Become Worshipers Like David
And therefore we do everything we can to help worshipers like David go hard after God.
- We urge you to seek God during the prelude, and not to talk to each other.
- We close the doors for extended times of worship so that those who are here can give their undistracted attention to God and not man.
- We have moments for praise and meditation and offering with no verbal direction so that you can deal with God in the stillness of your own heart.
- We let much of the service flow without comment or announcement so as to draw as little attention as possible away from your communion with God.
Exerting Our Minds and Hearts Toward God
Most of us did not grow up in a tradition that took God-centered worship seriously. Most people come to church with a passive entertainment mentality, and therefore, except in the most riveting of moments, the mind tends to float aimlessly from one human thing to another. And the thought of exerting effort to direct the mind's attention and the heart's affection towards God is foreign. And therefore what David described in verse 2 must be learned. "So I have looked upon thee in the sanctuary, beholding thy power and glory."
May the Lord give us a passion to worship at Bethlehem and so to fulfill the first and most basic step of our mission, to savor the vision of God.