Desiring the God who desires sinners

It’s easy to theorize about preaching; it’s not so easy to put theory into practice. Thus, a few weeks ago, after I wrote some articles on preaching from the Song of Solomon, I kept hearing a little voice saying, “Well buddy, get to it!” So I did, and posted the sermon notes here.

I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when, after giving 7 Tips for Balanced Biographical Preaching, the little voice started up again: “How about it then, Murray?” When a few people channeled my inner voice in the comments section, asking for examples of preaching that balanced redemptive history lessons with personal application, I pointed people to some of Joel Beeke’s Genesis sermons, but also decided I really have to work harder at this myself.

So, last Sunday, I preached on 2 Samuel 6, where David’s ill-fated attempts to return the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem resulted in the death of Uzzah and blessing on Obed-edom. Originally I entitled the sermon “A Holy Home for a Holy God,” but as I meditated on the passage, the stronger message became, “Desiring the God who desires sinners.” I’ve posted the full manuscript here (pdf) and my summary notes here (pdf); and below you’ll find the introduction and first point in full. I tried to follow a three step process in each of the main points:

  1. The Original Story: An explanation of what’s happening in the text
  2. God’s Story of Redemption: What the story teaches about God and His plan of redemption
  3. Your Story of Redemption: How God’s story of redemption impacts and intersects with our own lives.

Hope this might help someone just starting out in the great calling of preaching the Gospel.

Desiring the God who desires sinners

Whatever else the Bible teaches us, it teaches us that God wants to live with men and women, boys and girls. He desires to enter our lives, our homes, and our hearts and to dwell with us.

Why else did He make our world and us? Look at Him in the Garden of Eden, visiting with Adam and Eve, regularly walking and talking with them. He loved doing that.

And even when they sinned and ran away from Him, He sought them out, found them, and announced a way He was going to recover the situation and make them His friends again (Gen. 3:15).

Time and again throughout Genesis we find God seeking out sinners, drawing near to them, walking, talking, and living with them. He’s saying repeatedly, “I want to share your life and I want you to share mine.”

In Exodus, God made the clearest statement yet of this desire. He orders the construction of a Tent-palace by which He would dwell in the middle of the Israelites. And in a special holy section of the tent, at its center, would be a golden throne, a gold-covered box (4×2.5×2.5 ft), with a heavy golden lid, also known as the mercy seat, bracketed on either side by golden cherubim looking towards the mercy seat.

This golden throne was called the Ark of the Covenant, partly because it contained a written copy of the covenant arrangements in the box, but mainly because it was the central expression of God’s covenanted commitment to dwell with men on the earth. It was the place God specially dwelt, often demonstrating that presence through a bright fiery cloud that hovered above the mercy seat, between the cherubim.

This is how God puts it in his building instructions: “You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim” (Ex. 25:21-22).

And that’s the phrase that greets us right at the beginning of this chapter (2 Samuel 6:2). David and multitudes of people decided one day to go and bring back to Jerusalem the “ark of God, whose name is called by the name of the Lord of hosts that dwelt between the cherubim.” They desired the God who desired them.

The theme of this chapter and of this sermon is: Desiring the God who desires sinners.

1. Desiring God (vv. 1-2)

a. A Lost Ark
Why was the ark not in Jerusalem? Well, about 65 years previously, Israel lost the Ark because of their sin. In 1 Samuel 4, when the backslidden Israelites had tried using the Ark as a kind of lucky charm in battle, the Lord gave the Israelites over to the Philistines, who also took the Ark. A modern-day equivalent might be Islamic terrorists capturing the Liberty Bell, or perhaps taking the British Queen’s crown. But remember, Israel had lost far more than just a patriotic symbol; they had lost God’s throne, God’s dwelling place, the way God lived among them.

b. A Lost Desire
You would think that Israel would try to recover the ark at the earliest opportunity. However, they didn’t seem to be that bothered. Though God desired to live with them, they really had no desire to live with God.

But God continued to express his desire to live with the Israelites by chastising all the heathen who came into any contact with the Ark. So much so that eventually the Philistines and others got rid of the ark, sending it back to Israel where it arrived in the house of Abinadab of Kirjath-jearim. And there it stayed for 20 plus years, about 7-8 miles NW of Jerusalem, and virtually no one enquired after it (1 Chron.13:3). Few if any desired God. What an indictment of Israel! God desired to live with them, God ensured the Ark’s return among them, but virtually no one wanted God to live with them nor they with God.

c. A Renewed Desire
This poor state of spiritual affairs clearly vexed David, as we can discover in Psalm 132. His first thought, therefore, after his enthronement was the enthronement of God above the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chron.13:1-4). He gathered 30,000 of the best men in Israel and marched to Kirjath-jearim to the house of Abinadab to bring back the Ark of God. God is at work stirring up in David and in others a desire for God

God’s Story of Redemption

The Ark was a picture promise of what God was going to do on an even bigger scale. Old Testament believers looked at the Ark and hoped for something more, something even closer, something even more accessible, something even more personal, something even more beautiful.

Jesus is the fulfillment of that picture promise; the satisfaction of that Old Testament faith and hope; the ultimate, emphatic, and enthusiastic expression of God’s desire to live with sinners. He was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

Your Story of Redemption

1. Respond to God’s desire for you with desire for Him. Many Israelites came to faith through believing the message of the Ark. Priests and prophets and other believers would point fearful, guilty sinners to the Ark and say: “Look, despite all that you are and all you have done, God desires to live with you. He sits on a mercy seat and promises to meet with you there.” What an encouraging sermon! Who could not but respond to that with desire for God?!

But we have an even louder and clearer message. Jesus said He was greater than not just the Ark, but greater than the whole Temple (Matthew 12:6). He is our throne of grace and mercy to come to in our time of need (Hebrew 4:15-16). Respond to God’s desire for you with desire for Him.

2. Re-kindle your desire for God by meditating on his desire for you. Perhaps you used to desire God. But now your heart has grown cold. You’ve neglected and ignored Christ for too long. You don’t have much appetite or longing for God. How can you re-kindle that? The same way that David and the Israelites did after decades of neglect. Back to the Ark! Re-kindle your desire for God by reminding yourself of God’s desire for you, Christ’s desire for you, the Holy Spirit’s desire for you.

Read the rest here.

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Therapeutic Praise

Despite hundreds of new Christian songs, of every possible genre, being composed every year, the ancient Psalms are experiencing somewhat of a revival in various places. Why?

I believe the main reason is their therapeutic value; in a day of so many disordered emotions, worshippers are discovering how the Psalms minister so powerfully to their emotional lives.

The Psalms balance divine revelation and human emotion
Some Christian songs are emotionally stirring, but have little theological content; the heart is engaged, but not the mind. Over-reacting to this, some have composed songs that are full of theological facts, but don’t engage the worshipper’s feelings. They are more like sung sermons.

The Psalms strike an inspired balance of doxological theology and theological doxology; they combine the objective with the subjective in perfect proportions. Time and again we read, “Praise the Lord for…” followed by reasons and motivations for this praise. God is declared and described, but always to stir up our hearts and interact with Him through His self-revelation.

The Psalms express the full range of human emotions
The Psalms contain an incomparably rich mixture of extreme and varied emotions: grief and joy, doubt and confidence, loneliness and fellowship, despair and hope, fear and courage, defeat and victory, complaint and praise, etc.

Is it any wonder that Calvin called the Psalms “an Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul”? As he explained: “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

The Psalms paint a realistic portrayal of Christian emotions
The Psalms do not portray the Christian life as victory upon victory. Derek Thomas has pointed out that because a lot of contemporary worship is upbeat and positive, and therefore at odds with what Christians experience in the rest of their week, it sometimes produces a disconnect that eventually leads to cynicism and a loss of assurance.

But when we turn to the Psalms, we find bold and bald honesty. Although the strong expressions of stark reality can initially jar our refined ears, we are soon relieved to find kindred spirits who helpfully express what we often think, feel, and experience in our messy daily lives.

The Psalms open a welcome outlet for our painful emotions
Have you ever sung about assurance while being full of doubt? Have you ever sung about joy when feeling depressed? Me too. And it’s horrible isn’t it. Why can’t I sing what I really feel? With the Psalms you can! Some allow us to express doubt and even despair (e.g. Ps. 88); others help us describe our struggles with providence (e.g. Ps. 73); still others guide us in explaining our battles with depression (e.g. Ps. 42).

The Psalms open the pressure valve of our hearts and direct us in how to articulate our most painful emotions. We don’t need to bottle them up or deny them. Instead God has inspired songs to admit them and let them out. As someone said: “What a relief! I can sing what’s really on my mind and heart, and God provides me with words to rightly express these emotions. The Psalms reach in to find these emotions and then reach upwards to God with them.”

The Psalms call for the transformation of our emotions
The Psalms not only permit us to “vent” our emotions, but also call for their transformation. We are not left to wallow in our feelings, but are shown how to move from fear to courage, from sorrow to joy, from anger to peace, and from despair to hope. The painful starting point is legitimate; but it’s only a starting point. The end-point of emotional healing must be kept in view, and moved towards with the help of Psalmist’s guiding hand.

The Psalms summon us to sympathetic emotion
As a rebellious teenager, I often sat in my Psalm-singing church wondering why I was singing words that had no relevance to me whatsoever. Why sing about sorrow, when I was perfectly happy? Or, some Sundays, why sing about joy when I feel so depressed about my life?

Well of course, such is the mindset of a self-centered teenager. But when God saves us, we begin to look a little beyond ourselves and to realize that while I may not feel these things, others certainly do. The Psalms call me to weep with those who weep, and to rejoice with those who rejoice, no matter if I feel exactly the opposite. They remind me of the emotional diversity of the body of Christ and invite me to share in the sufferings and successes of others. They turn me inside out.

The Psalms supply an emotional stimulus to righteous living
I’ve been trying to emphasize the emotional engagement and stimulus of the Psalms. However, ultimately, the Psalms use the emotional energy they generate to stimulate practical obedience. Notice how many “wisdom” Psalms are interspersed throughout the Psalter, setting forth the path of obedience for the stirred up and energized worshipper. Emotional transformation must result in life transformation.

Originally published in January 2012 issue of Tabletalk.

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A Divine Invitation to Pastoral Rest

Pastor Greg Lubbers, a graduate of Puritan Reformed Seminary, preached a wonderful Chapel message for us yesterday on a theme that has become very dear to my own heart. I’d love for every over-worked Pastor to hear and obey this precious and gracious invitation.

Just the day before listening to this, my wife pointed me to a passage in Anthony Selvaggio’s excellent book, A Proverbs Driven Life. He argues that the sins of sloth and workaholism are very similar sins, both resulting from pride, self-centeredness, and idolatry.

Today, I believe Christians are actually more likely to become workaholics than they are sluggards, simply because the idolatry of workaholism is more socially respectable. In fact, it is so widely praised that many Christians don’t even consider it a sin! As a pastor, I certainly became a workaholic . . . and my idolatry won me praise! People often commended me for my ability to multi-task and get things done. I often allowed the boundaries between work and rest to be blurred. There were so many “good things” to do with my time: preach, teach, counsel, discipline, go to the soccer games and plays of the children in my congregation, teach at seminary, teach at college, speak at conferences and write books. In serving “24/7,” I was trying to build God’s house without his help by shouldering all the responsibilities for his church myself.

In the final analysis, we can stop working and rest because God is sovereign. He is in control, not us. If we are not pursuing his priorities—which include rest as well as a broad range of responsibilities—our efforts will ultimately be futile, no matter how hard we work. But as we embrace a balanced life that includes work, rest, and proper attention to all our responsibilities, he will provide all we need to accomplish his will.

It’s extremely liberating to recognize that God gives us enough time to finish everything to which he has actually called us. Here are some of those things: devotional time with God; relationships and service in your  family, church, and community; and matters of stewardship over your material goods. If any of these areas are suffering because of the amount of time you spend doing other things, take a close look. Perhaps you are becoming—or became long ago—a workaholic, an idolater who has foolishly dethroned God by believing that his ways, so plainly presented in Scripture, are inferior to your own.

Both Sins the Same
The sin of the sluggard is serious, but so is that of the workaholic. In fact, they are very similar sins. The man or woman who builds all of life around work is every bit as proud and self-centered as the sluggard. At either extreme we worship an idol called “Doing it My Way.” Perhaps the Bible spends a lot more time on sluggards and a lot less on anything we would call “workaholism” because the workaholic is really just a variety of sluggard by another name. Both are interested in avoiding responsibilities that don’t interest them. The workaholic simply avoids things by a different technique—crowding them out of his calendar. And where the sluggard is sure to suffer economic loss, the workaholic suffers losses that are often more relational than monetary, but nevertheless real, lasting, and painful.

Work, whatever form it may take, is a core activity of each of our lives, taking up most of our waking moments. What a tragedy to despise it like the sluggard, and live for those times when we are not doing it. to worship it like the workaholic, as we strive to deify ourselves in our little kingdom; a tiny god over a tiny world, as if we had created that world ourselves, or sustain it ourselves, or even understand its true workings.

A Proverbs Driven Life by Anthony Selvaggio.