Sharing God’s rest

Here’s another commandment given to Israel, but still a commandment to help us Christians keep on track. It’s longer than any of the others, which could suggest we will try to find ways to avoid what it says!

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…’. He tells us there are six days for getting all our jobs done—for us and for everyone we are responsible for. Then, there’s a day of rest—which is what Sabbath means.

The Lord’s talking about time. When we’re busy, forgetting is easy! This may be why the command is, ‘Remember!’ It’s here to help us guard our time—so that we don’t entertain other gods in place of the Lord.

We can gather up what this command means under two headings.

First, we are creatures and not slaves

The Lord’s reason for requiring a Sabbath comes from the creation story. He shows what is important to him by resting on his last day of making everything. He doesn’t need a day off! It’s more a celebration of work completed. And he calls us to share this day with him—a holy day.

We need to know that the world we live in doesn’t just happen, or continue, by our ceaseless activity. God makes everything. We are not merely the result of time and chance. We are what God makes. Everything is for the Lord—that is, holy. And he wants us to share in the delight of that being so.

By stopping for this Sabbath, we acknowledge that the Lord makes things and looks after them and determines their purpose and progress. So, if worship doesn’t affect our time table, we’re missing out on something.

God not only calls his rest day holy. He blesses it. Everything else God blesses in creation is so something can be ‘fruitful and multiply’. So, if we have a sabbath, what will happen? We will have the pleasure of seeing that everything works because of God—not because of us.

One Psalm tells us about how risky this world seems to be—‘mountains fall into the heart of the sea’. But then he says how peaceful it is knowing who is in charge of it (Psalm 46). Then he says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’. The word for ‘be still’ actually means, simply, ‘stop!’

Another Psalm tells us, ‘In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves’  (Psalm 127:2).

There’s a second reason we are given this command. Moses, later on, repeats the command and says, ‘Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm’ (Deuteronomy 5:15).

Slaves can’t plan their own time table. That’s why Israel had to leave Egypt and worship the Lord in the wilderness. Like them, we need to be delivered from this present evil world—it’s goals of self-sufficiency, self-sovereignty and self-determination. These things don’t set us free. They make us their slaves.

So, remembering to stop for long enough to acknowledge and enjoy that God is Creator, and Redeemer, is essential to true worship. It is also essential for human health and social well-being.

Second, Sabbath is a sign not a ceremony

God says the Sabbath is ‘a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so that you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy’ (Exodus 31:12; Ezekiel 20:12). They stop for a day, and God is able to show them that they belong to him.

But Sabbath also shows other nations that Israel belongs to the Lord. They are not slaves to the creation but belong to its Maker, and this affects everything.

But then, when Jesus comes, Sabbath keeping has fallen on bad times. Israel’s leaders have made it a time to signal how pious they are, not how good God is.

First, the Pharisees hate what Jesus does on a Sabbath. He is living in Sabbath rest—all the time. The Pharisees are ‘up tight’—all the time, and their Sabbath is only a ceremony.

Second, Sabbath points to something—to Christ who has come to give Sabbath rest. It takes more than just a day off to know that our life is made useful by God and not by us. Jesus will fulfill what Sabbath means.

Our Lord says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Only Jesus, making himself an offering for our sins, can give us rest from trying to be something by ourselves. Coming to him is the way we enter Sabbath rest (Hebrews 4:10).

So how can Christians go about keeping the third commandment? First, we need Christ to take from us the ‘puff’ of making out we are good. We need him to be our Saviour. But then, we, like Israel, need a sign that we are the Lord’s workmanship—a time to know the Lord is God, and that we are not! It needs to affect our time table!

Paul notes that some people keep a special day and some don’t (Romans 14:5). Clearly, the sign is what is important, not the ceremony.

The first Christians start meeting together on the day Jesus rises from the dead. Gradually, this becomes the pattern (Acts 20:7). Sabbath, for us, is a day, or a time, to be with the Lord, to hear his word and to be with others who trust and love him. Hebrews warns us about missing out on getting together with others (Hebrews 10:25).

As the gospel crosses cultures, each Christian and each church must decide how to regulate their time to remember the Lord. It takes time to know that we are made for God—holy. It requires some stopping of our usual things to realise that God makes us fruitful. It takes time hear and know his word. It takes time to build others up in faith, hope and love.

Those who expect their Christian life to just happen—without heeding the third commandment—may find they drift, or become unfruitful. Or worse.

The Lord finishes his creation by resting. He shows Israel he is their Creator and Redeemer by commanding them to rest on their Sabbath. He sends Christ to make this rest actual and permanent. And then, by resting in the Lord now, we look forward to the day when the whole creation will be fully cleansed, developed and glorious, and ruled over by Christ and all his followers. It is the final Sabbath to which all creation is moving (Revelation 14:13).

Honour your parents

The fifth commandment begins the section of God’s law that tells us how to live with one another. ‘Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you’ (Exodus 20:12).

We remember that these commandments are not written for just anybody. They are given to the people the Lord has freed from slavery. God has every reason to expect that Israel will want to go on being free—and he is showing them the way.

It’s no surprise that this section begins with honouring parents. He is the Father of all the families of the earth (Ephesians 3:14). Israel knows this because he calls them his children (Exodus 4:23; also Deuteronomy 14:1-2). And Christians have lots more reason to know this.

Jesus is God’s Son and he fully reveals the Father (John 1:18). He brings forgiveness through his death, and then leads us to share with him in being sons and daughters of God—his family (Ephesians 2:17-18). Our earthly families are the way we get used to the idea that this world is created as a family affair.

What happens in families affects us deeply. This is where we get our idea of ‘normal’—what we can expect life to be and how to cope with that. It’s here we find out who we are, what we can do, who other people are and how we relate to them. It’s here we learn what to believe in, and why.

So, what parents do matters. But then, it also matters a lot how we respond to what our parents do.

Sometimes, parenting is done badly. And there is something wrong about every family! But bad parenting can’t be replaced with something that isn’t parenting. God, the Father, has made humanity to work this way. The need to honour parents is not because they deserve it but because we need to do it.

So, what does it looks like to honour our mother and father? The word means to ‘give weight to’ who they are. Clearly, this will vary as we grow.

The command is addressed to everyone, and perhaps primarily to adults. There is never a time when parents can be treated as ‘light-weight’. How we regard them and treat them is always shaping what we are. They are a constant witness to the fact that we are not self-made but dependent.

Being a child begins with having no choice—we lie where parents put us and eat what they put in our mouths!

But then, we have a will of our own and need to learn what to do with that! Do our parents need to know what we think, how we feel? Of course.  We are finding out how life works and this is part of it. But then, they have a bigger frame of reference than us. It’s important to defer to that.

Then our frame of reference grows. This is as it should be. No-one is meant to follow parents all their life. Rather, they have been bearing witness to an authority greater than their own—the Lord’s. That’s who they represent, whether they know it or not.

The time comes when we have to take responsibility for responding to that authority ourselves. Being an adult is not doing whatever we like. Rather, it’s understanding God’s word, and doing that. It’s good if parents understand this and help it happen gradually.

Some children have had to honour their parents by not doing what they have been taught. This is why Paul tells children to obey their parents ‘in the Lord’ (Ephesians 6:1). There is a higher authority.

Then, parents get old. Perhaps they need to be wheeled around! How we treat them now tells us a lot about how we regard the Lord. Paul tells us that if children don’t care for their parents they have denied the faith and are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:4-8). So, honour for parents is life-long.

This is the only command to which the Lord attaches a promise; ‘…so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.’ He adds an incentive to encourage us. This gives hope to all that happens in our families. It happens in two ways.

First, parents know their instruction doesn’t start with their own competence and goodness. When their children ask why they have to keep these rules, they must answer, ‘We were slaves…but the Lord brought us out…’ (Deuteronomy 6:20-21).

We all need saving from slavery to this world. If parents know this, and share this with their children, it prevents instruction being dreary and legalistic.

Second, children know they have an inheritance, but staying in it is going to depend on honouring their parents and what they teach. They won’t just grow up. They will grow deeper and richer. It gives ‘weight’ not just to their parents but to them. They are significant.

On a very practical level, our parents may give us a good start to life by providing property, education and opportunity. But this ‘inheritance’ is not our security. We need personal qualities—self-knowledge, humility, determination, tolerance, kindness. We especially need a sense that life is not about ourselves. This is what we can learn by honouring parents.

Jesus makes an important statement about children. Parents are bringing their children to him for a blessing. When disciples think this is an intrusion, Jesus protests and welcomes them. His explanation is, ‘for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ And, ‘…anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:14-15).

One way or another, we need to learn to be childlike. We come from parents. A lot of what we are is because of them. Similarly, there’s no self-made people in God’s kingdom! No proud people! No-one who says they don’t need to be taught!

The Lord showed me something new about being a son to my father when I was in my fifties. I was still learning to be vulnerable. I was able to tell him about things that were troubling me. And it was the best thing— liberating! It didn’t just change things between my father and me. It changed me.

God designed us to learn many things about being his sons and daughters through honouring our parents—as children, and as adults. If we don’t learn it here, we may learn it somewhere else, but then the consequences may be more severe and painful.

But then, honouring parents is being truly human. It’s letting God being our Father get worked out in ordinary life. No matter what our past has been, it will always be a liberating experience to look at them, to appreciate them, to find out what they have to give, and to serve them if that is what they need.

Don’t murder

The sixth commandment says simply: ‘Don’t kill’. The Lord is prohibiting killing that is malicious and intentional. Other laws given to Israel will cover accidental or judicial killing.

We may think this command is simple, understandable, and hardly necessary to talk about because it would never occur to us to kill someone. But each of God’s commands show he is not just interested in what we do but in what we would like to do. This raises different questions!

Murder has been with us from the beginning. The world’s first family has to deal with homicide when Cain kills his brother. Later on, Lamech will attack anyone who gets in his way (Genesis 4:23-24).

Then the earth becomes ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11), and God judges it with a flood. But God says we have no business killing each other because everyone is made in his image (Genesis 9:5-6).

What then lies behind murder? Jesus says, ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder…”. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment’ (Matthew 5:22). He urges us to be reconciled rather than to maintain our rage.

James says something similar. I’ll quote it as Peterson translates it in ‘The Message’. ‘Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? … They come about because you want your own way…. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it’ (James 4:1-3).

So, the command is requiring us to guard our anger, and so, to prevent murder. Here, of course, is something that affects us all.

Anger can take many forms. It might be verbal or physical. But then, it might be just withdrawal from real relationships. We think we are not doing any harm, but lack of love is powerful—just as love is.

Our anger may be about not being able to get something we really want or feel we deserve. Effectively, it’s a little god for which everything else must be sacrificed.

But there is a time and place to be angry. Just check the number of times the Bible tells us that God is angry. He is not content with the status quo when wrong is being done. People who abuse others need our attention. Those who neglect a responsibility deserve our anger.

But then, how does God get angry? His anger is very different to ours. We need to turn to Jesus who has revealed God to us. There are just a few examples to look at.

First, Jesus is among people who are critical of him healing someone on a Sabbath day. He looks at them ‘in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts’ (Mark 3:5). Notice the double description of his emotions—anger, and deep distress or grief.

On another occasion, he attends the funeral of a friend and is ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). Again, both words are important.

Actually, the first word here means he is outraged. The cause of his anger seems to be the distress and hopelessness that death creates for us in this world.

In a way, we all get angry with death—ours, or that of someone we love. Jesus is well out front of us here. He is not only angry. He is going to do something about it (Hebrews 2:14-15).

But in these examples, the anger of Jesus doesn’t stand alone. He is also ‘troubled’, or ‘distressed’. It is a kind of grief that things have got to this state.

On another occasion, Jesus clears the temple of animal traders using God’s space for their private enterprise (Luke 19:45). Clearly, he is angry. But just before this he weeps over the city because it refuses to recognise what will bring them peace (v. 41). Again, the anger of Jesus—and the anger of God—is linked with grief.

If Jesus is angry, it’s because we are preferring our littleness to his generosity. He is grieved that we are not living in the good of what he is doing for us. His grief is a kind of hope. He knows things can be different, and that one day they will be. He refuses to accept the status quo and doesn’t want us to either.

Without this revelation, people who want to protest often move straight to anger—without grief. It’s clear that we can’t cure the world’s problems with anger! Two lots of anger don’t make peace! They divide our communities and make it impossible to talk to one another. Murder happens!

We need to see that God is more offended by wrong than we are. His anger expresses his goodness, not his frustration. It comes with compassion, not distain. He can see that we don’t know him.

And it is because we don’t know God that frustration makes us angry. We don’t know his care for us or his purpose to have us share with him in healing the world. So, everything that goes wrong we take personally. Jesus has loved us, and died for us, to remove this awful sense of loss and replace it with the certainty that we are God’s children.

This is why James can talk about the wisdom that comes down from God and which is pure and peaceable (James 3:17). It is why he can say, ‘Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires’ (James 1:19-20).

Whatever the cause of our anger may be, this command is asking us to take control of it. By reacting, we may be part of the problem! And, as a result, the devil plays games with us. Paul says, ‘In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26-27, 31).

So, don’t murder! That is, don’t even think about it! But even more, see how eager God is that we don’t die, but live—us, and everyone around us as well.

Don’t commit adultery

In this seventh commandment the Lord tells us how important marriage is to him, and what he wants us to do to protect it. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

He means that if someone is married, they shouldn’t have a sexual relationship with anyone else. Sex is not a way of having a casual relationship, or excitement, or doing whatever you feel like. It’s for marriage.

Does this sound as though God is only interested in restricting our freedom? This opinion is commonly held, so, it’s important to remember the events from which these commands arise.

The Lord has saved Israel from slavery. He’s leading them to a land of their own. He calls them his ‘special possession’. By favouring them, he is revealing himself to many others as well. There’s already been 19 chapters of Exodus to tell this story before we get to the commands in chapter 20.

If you don’t have this narrative—and then the fascinating story that follows, right up until God’s Son comes to earth—these commands may be hard to understand.

Commands work properly when they are part of a story of how everything fits together. In fact, if you don’t want’ God’s story. you need to write another narrative to fit the way you want to live.

For example, these other narratives may say that our being alive is simply a matter of chance, that commands are the way we become victims of power plays, or that we must decide for ourselves who we are and what is right for us to do. A lot of work goes in to building up these story lines.

Then, these narratives lead to commands—just as certainly as the Lord’s story does. Just listen to the daily news! We have to make sure other people conform to our story line so that our freedom is secured and we can arrive at the land we have imagined.

However, if these narratives have not researched what God has said to the world, and what he has promised and what he has done, they are not based on all the available information. On the other hand, if we believe our Creator is kind and generous and that he has sent his Son to live among us, we can follow through what his command about marriage means. So, that’s what I’ll do!

There’s nothing new about a man and a woman meeting and marrying. It’s been with us from the beginning (see Genesis 2:18-25). God makes a man, and says it’s not good for him to be alone. So, he makes a woman—a creature like him but opposite to him. He brings her to the man. Only then can they take up their responsibility to look after the creation.

In this creation story, there’s a line of explanation about all subsequent marriages: ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). That is, before they express their love physically, they need to leave one family to create another one, and be faithful to the one who is like but different. Then, they become one flesh by sexual union (1 Cor. 6:16).

The dynamics of people sharing a sexual relationship is so profound that the only place it ought to happen is when a man and a woman say to each other, “I’m going to belong to you and care for you as long as we both live.’ That is what sex is expressing. And marriage is what enables sex to be a power for good rather than a power to pollute and destroy.

And this is what the Lord is now protecting by his command.

It’s not surprising that God makes so much of this. He is creating a community to be close to him, and to be cared for by him. Jesus Christ comes to take this church as his bride (Eph. 5: 25-31).

Marriage between a man and a woman is a covenant like God’s covenant with us. It represents this God-relationship in a human-to-human relationship. And because children are born into this union, they can grow up in an environment of faithful love. This is how they learn to be human beings.

You may say this is all idealistic. Not really. An ideal is an idea we turn into a doctrine—something we create. But marriage is something God creates. It’s not an idea. It’s how things are.

If you are married, there’s something you share with that person that you can’t share with anyone else—sexual union, and all the intimacy that goes with that.

Sex is not OK if you are steady with your girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s not OK if you feel deeply about each other. Your body’s not your own to do what you like with. It needs to be kept for the person you may marry one day. This is the way it is spelled out for young people in the book of Proverbs (Prov. 5:15-21).

Clearly, sexual interest is strong when we are young. God made us this way. However, the fact that our community makes so much of sex doesn’t encourage restraint, so we need to be prepared to be different. And waiting won’t do us any damage—even though it may feel like it sometimes! In fact, it will give us character, and purity to give to the one we want to spend our life with.

Outside of marriage, sex makes increasing demands. Because it’s not ‘the real thing’—that is, an expression of married love—it needs increasing doses, like a drug (Mark 7:20-23). It leads to other kinds of dissipation as well (Galatians 5:19-21)—even community violence.

For generations, our culture has encouraged free sexual expression. But it hasn’t encouraged the best in our humanity. It hasn’t led to happiness. Just look at the number of court cases going on at present over this issue. It hasn’t led to greater creativity and energy. Rather, it leads to dissipation. There’s a dynamic or energy in sex that needs marriage for it to be a power for good rather than a power for evil.

The way Jesus spells this out makes the matter even clearer (Matt. 5:27-28; 19:8-9). He says, ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Matthew 5:28). He goes on to show the lengths we should go to if we are going to avoid sinning with our eyes or our hands.

Paul spells out how careful we need to be with our morality at this point (Ephesians 5:3-7). Effectively, he says, you can’t be a Christian and mess around with your sexual life.

What happens if you’ve been living without this perspective? What if, very deeply, your life is now shaped and soiled by breaking God’s command? Here’s where the difference between God’s story and the story we write for ourselves matters a lot. The stories we write can’t invent a redeemer. But God sends one.

This is why we love Christ so much. He takes to himself all the pollution we gather about ourselves by breaking his commands. He bears God’s judgement on it. And he rises from the dead and says to you and me, ‘You are clean again!’ Whatever has happened in the past, you can be live as someone who is clean, and ready for real marriage. This leaves many current issues unaddressed—things like gender fluidity and homosexuality. But if we understand how God made us, the command he has given us, and the redemption he has accomplished, we will know that sex is for marriage between a man and a woman, and not for anything else. All the other things we discuss need to take this as their starting point.

Don’t steal

We all know the sinking feeling we get when something is missing. And it’s worse if we think if it has been stolen.  But this commandment is not about what might happen to us. It’s about what I may do myself.

God is a giver, and he wants us to be like him. Taking what doesn’t belong to us is no part of his economy! Let’s look at some of the ways this taking and giving happens.

The most obvious stealing is taking someone else’s property—by violence or stealth. Some are clever enough to do it legally. There are many kinds of property, including intellectual property. A thief puts his own interest above that of others and above the well-being of the whole community.

Then there’s stealing by withholding what we owe someone else. This doesn’t attract the same attention as direct stealth, but it is just as damaging. For example, if someone employs you, you owe them your good service. And if someone provides a service to you, they need your prompt payment. Failure here breeds distrust and broken relationships. It’s stealing.

On a more personal level, Paul says, ‘Owe no man anything except to love one another’ (Romans 13:8). In other words, pay your bills, but you’ll never finish paying the debt of love to those around you. God’s love has filled you up so full that you have the resources to help others. If you close up your heart, you’re not paying your bill!

Love is powerful. It builds and heals and provides and creates hope. Withholding of love is also powerful. It breaks and bruises and steals and creates despair.

Paul tells thieves who’ve become Christians not to steal anymore. Rather, they should work at something so they have enough to look after themselves and to give to those in need (Ephesians 4:28). God has designed us to look after things, and each other.

God is not running his creation legally—as though we only have to do a minimum to keep ourselves out of trouble. He wants everyone contributing what they can, and as they have opportunity. John tells us that if we have resources and see someone in need and do nothing, God’s love doesn’t live I us (1 John 3:17). That’s serious!

By telling us not to steal from one another, the Lord has raised the matter of property. This is clear from the fact that we are not to take what belongs to someone else.

But is owning certain things a right? We talk about it all the time in the community. But the value of property is greater than a right. It’s a gift. James tells us, ‘Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father…’ (James 1:17).

This means that if I steal from someone else, whether property, or service or opportunity, I am not merely offending the victim, I am messing with God’s generosity.

We may think that if we work consistently and well, we deserve to have what we have earned. But God sees us doing our job as his gift (Psalm 104:23-24). He’s given us a planet with its seasons and systems that enable things to work. He ensures the success of our work—or otherwise. And he’s given us the joy of participating in making everything function well. And then he gives us the fruits of our own work.

The Lord who gives us these commands is leading Israel to their own country. They are going to have their own plot of land—and it will be protected, productive and pleasurable (Deuteronomy 26:8-10).

And this is true for all of us. The Lord gives freely to all the peoples of the earth so that everyone can eat heartily and enjoy their life (Acts 13:15-18; 17:24-26).

So, the Lord is telling us not to get in the road of his generosity to all his creatures! We’ve been made to reflect his kindness, not obscure it.

People who steal don’t understand what it means to be a human being. They are trying to get something for nothing. This denies our need to contribute, to grow and to love.

Thieves may want to be rich, or fulfill an ambition, or get out of trouble, or impress someone, and take the shortest route to get there. But they are saying ‘No’ to hard work, to difficulty, to saving, to waiting. They are also saying ‘No’ to caring for others, to development of character and to love.

God gives to Israel some interesting laws that show how important it is to be concerned about the property of other people. You can check them out at Exodus 22:26-27, Leviticus 19:9-11, and Deuteronomy 15:12-18.

Perhaps we’ve been taking something that’s not our own, or of not providing something we should have given. Our situation is more serious than civil courts can deal with. Our hearts are being exposed for what they are (Mark 7:21; Romans 7:14-24). The love of God is not there! We are not in a good place. If thieves go on stealing, they won’t be part of God’s future (1 Corinthians 6:10).

But if you feel exposed, that’s what this law was meant to do. And it is meant to take you back to the Saviour who saves you. The wretchedness we may feel does not come down from God so much as up from our own hearts. We know this is no way to respond to God’s kindness!

So, we turn from feeling proud of ourselves to being what we are—sinners saved by grace. And we resolve, not to try harder, but to receive the ministry of the Holy Spirit who is showing us who we are, what we have received, and how we may serve our neighbour.

Don’t bear false witness

Being misrepresented by someone is painful. But here, the Lord is speaking to us and forbids lying that harms a neighbour. This may happen in lots of ways—like giving false evidence in a court, or expressing opinions in conversations or in tweets on social media.

Everyone’s reputation is important to the Lord. He has told us not to take his name in vain, but now he says everyone’s name is valuable to him. No-one should be smeared with lies or tainted by suggestions. Neither should anyone be misled by flattery.

Because of our tendency to fabricate facts to suit ourselves, Israel is told that two or more witnesses must concur in their stories before condemning anyone (Deuteronomy 19:15).

Being honest may not be as simple as it sounds. Think about David lying about his affair with Bathsheba. Think about Peter not wanting to be linked with Jesus. Think about our explanations of what happened when a window is broken. I can remember mine when I was in early primary school: ‘I threw a stone in the air and the wind blew it into the window.’ We’ll try anything!

Lies of all descriptions create cynicism and leave us distant from one another. They certainly don’t make a strong community.

But it’s not easy to simply report what is true—without bias that favours ourselves. Why do we find it so hard?

We need to go back a long way to answer this, but it gets to the heart of the problem.

We go back to Adam and Eve. Satan suggests to them that God is not good. Much later, Jesus calls him ‘the father of lies’ (John 8:44). In other words, our lying come from this daddy of all liars.

Once God’s goodness is questioned, other lies start to appear. Adam and Eve run with Satan’s lie, and immediately, know they’re in trouble. They begin massaging the facts to suit their now vulnerable situation (Genesis 3:11-13).

When we deny the truth about God, we are guilty, even if we don’t call it that, and need to reframe the facts to make it appear that someone else is the problem and not us.

We need to find a way to be confident. This should come from God, but if it doesn’t, we have to find something else to be proud of. We take credit for things we don’t cause. Ambition drives us to ‘boast and be false to the truth’ (James 3:14). It becomes natural, even expected. We seek out communities that allow us to live this way.

Because of this, truth ceases to be considered important, both in private and public affairs, and people who try to be honest get defrauded. The Lord is not happy (Isaiah 59:14-15)!

But nothing we do changes the fact that we should be true—inwardly (Psalm 51:6). This is what David knows when he is caught trying to lie his way out of sexual abuse—and worse. He lies to his subjects, and deceives himself. Then a true witness comes to confront him with the truth. And he is devastated. He knows he will have to be washed clean.

If we give false testimony, we’ve tangled with God, and he is going to have to undo the mess we’ve got ourselves into. Falsehood dies hard!

If you read the story of Jesus you find a very different human being from ourselves. He is the truth—of who God is (John 14:6). He’s also the truth of what a human being should be. We could say, he’s real! There’s nothing phoney about him anywhere.

A group of officers are sent to arrest Jesus. They return with no prisoner and say, ‘No one ever spoke like this man’ (John 7:46). Other enemies approach him with flattering words, hoping to hear something they can use against him. They leave—rebuked and humbled (Matthew 22:15-22).

Jesus exposes who we are. That’s not comfortable! But then, Jesus has come ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14; 14:6)—not just cold, forbidding truth, but truth that has come to heal. This is this truth that sets us free (John 8:32).

Only Jesus can release us from the crippling need to defend or exult ourselves—and he does this by acknowledging the truth about us before the Father, and dying in our place. And he rises from the dead to announce a new truth about everyone who trusts him. We are exposed, and forgiven.

Jesus has unmasked the lie Satan told. God is good. And he has undone the terrible web of untruth we spin.

Jesus has created a new life we can share. We can live the truth, in love (Ephesians 4:15, 21, 25). This is not just refraining from lies but actively revealing the truth in love, that is, in such a way as will do most good. Paul says plainly, ‘…each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body’ (Ephesians 4:25).

God has renewed a right spirit within us, as he did for David, so, we can speak the truth, in love. And the fruit of this will be a community that works, and trusts and grows.

Don’t Covet

The last of the ten commandments is not just about actions. It says, ‘Don’t desire to have something that belongs to another person.’ That is, don’t covet it. It may be someone else’s wife, or their servant (or the services they can access) or their property.

Sometimes, we ask ‘What made me do that?’ We have not been aware of our motive until something brings it to light. So, am I jealous of someone, or for something?

Are we envious of people with many friends? Do we wish we had their abilities or opportunities, their strength, connections, health or money? Envy can be a motive for many things we do. We become restless and driven rather than happily engaged in life.

Coveting can also lead to not doing things we should do. It shows up as resentment over not having something we want, and then, withdrawal from giving the help we could.

So, envy is included with adultery, murder and theft in the damage we can do to other people (Romans 13:8-10). Anyone not loving their neighbour is effectively doing them harm.

Envy doesn’t stay hidden. Finally, it needs to come out and assert itself.

Think of the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus. They come up with reasons for their complaint, but Pilate can see they want Jesus dead because of envy (Mark 15:10).  Jesus can command large crowds and the leaders are losing influence. Coveting the position held by Jesus leads them to murder him.

When God tells us not to covet, he is giving us the chance to see what our problem really is. Something has become more important to us than him. In other words, covetousness is idolatry’ (Colossians 3:5). We are saying, ‘I don’t need God. I need this’—whatever this is. It becomes our passion and nothing else matters except getting what we want.

Jesus shows how coveting works and what we need to do about it.

Two of Jesus’ disciples ask him for top spots in the coming kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). When the rest hear about this, they get angry. Clearly, chasing something that isn’t given to us leads to all kinds of hostility. Jesus tells the disciples to get on with following him and leave the matter of honours to their Father in heaven. What is given to someone else is none of our business. This is what Jesus tells Peter later on (John 21:20-22).

On another occasion, Jesus is asked to intervene in a family dispute over an inheritance. He points out that this is not his job, but also tells them to be ‘on your guard against all kinds of greed [covetousness]; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ (Luke 12:15).

The world says that our life does consist in what we are able to possess. So, it breaks the tenth commandment. It becomes preoccupied with having things, and status and power.

You may have noticed that the more we get our hands on, the more our appetite grows—that is, if we don’t have God as our Father. It’s happening to our whole culture. Governments can’t keep up with the insatiable desire for more and more protections and provisions.

So, God calls us to live without envy. This is another way of saying that he wants us to live with him as our God, and with what he is giving to us.

There’s an African saying, ‘God is good. God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.’ I’ve listened to this being said, often, by people who had little of this world’s goods and many problems to deal with. This is the way to deal with coveting!

Coveting seems to play a role in Paul coming to faith. He says, ‘I would not have known what coveting really is if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’ (Romans 7:7). He may be referring to his own experience.

We know that he is present when Stephen is stoned to death because of his effective preaching about Jesus (Acts 8:1-3). Perhaps he sees Stephen as a rival in being zealous for God—and he becomes ‘as angry as hell’.

But then, Jesus speaks to Paul. He says, ‘It’s hard for you to kick against me’ (Acts 26:14). Coveting is hard work!

But now Paul comes to know that the crucified Messiah is alive and is Lord. His God is being kind to him, saving him from his sins.

All the covetousness drains away and he is, forever, a servant of others. He learns, whatever his situation, to be content (Philippians 4:11).

Our life does not consist in what we may accumulate for ourselves but in knowing God. In finding God, we find that he gives to us all that he has—his Son—so that we may belong to him. We are content then to trust him with all the other needs and circumstances of our life.

Something holy, at Christmas

When God is about to send his Son into the world, an angel comes to Mary to tell her she will be the child’s mother (Luke 1:26-38). She is told a number of amazing things. A son from her womb will be Israel’s Messiah. This child will be called ‘Son of the Most High’. And he will reign forever.

But the thing she asks about, understandably, is how she can have any baby without a father.

The answer is, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35).

This is not going to be an event for which any human being can take the credit. God has promised it, is now announcing it and will physically make it happen.

I want to speak about one word that applies to all of the things that are happening here—the word ‘holy’. The child will be holy because the Holy Spirit will ‘come upon’ Mary. God is holy and only he can cause anything else to be holy.

We tend to think that ‘holy’ refers to behaviour but it is more than that. It indicates that something comes from God, belongs to God and is to be used for his purposes. This leads to a certain kind of behaviour but it is a ‘belonging’ word.

For example, God tells Israel, ‘I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord’ (Leviticus 22:32-33). And on the basis of this he tells them to keep his commands. It is because we belong that we behave.

The opposite of holy is profane. If we use something holy, like the name of Jesus, for a swear word, we utter a profanity.

The same is true for lots of other things. If I take my own humanity and use it for me instead of for God, I am turning something meant to be holy into something profane. I commit profanity. If I go to church and sing songs but am only interested in the form of the service and not its purpose, I turn something holy into something profane. (There’s an example in Ezekiel 22:26.)

Think for a moment about what the world would be like if it was holy. If we reverenced God, his nature would be reflected in all our behaviour and the resulting society. There would be no greed, rivalry or hatred, only generosity, mutuality and love. We would have a great vision of life, not mere ‘me’ goals. There would be no harming, cruelty, sickness or death. We would simply live in and look after the world God has made for us.

But think about a world that is profane. It is very self-righteous. We are constantly being told about what we should and shouldn’t do. But can we produce a loving community? We don’t just need a law to keep. We need a God behind it who says, ‘This is my law. It matters if you break it.’

If we are going to have faithful marriages, ethical business and if we are going to care for the planet, we are going to need a God who says, ‘This is my world. It matters how you live in it.’ A profane world can’t produce what it legislates.

And now, God’s holy Child is coming into this profane world. This is astonishing. It is very difficult to approach people who have no regard for us, but this is what God is doing. We disregard the fact that he made the world and sustains all its operations—and he sends us his own Son to be our Saviour.

An angel has told Joseph to call this son Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. We need healing for our profanity. We need something that only God can do. We have not been able to live without God interrupting our ease and presumption.

So, Mary’s life is all rearranged. She will have a son. There is nothing normal or safe here. God will hover over Mary, just as his Holy Spirit overshadowed the first creation to bring it to life (Genesis 1:2). Here is the beginning of a new creation. Nothing less will change us or our profane world.

These words of the angel are reflected later on when Jesus says to Nicodemus. ‘…no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3). And Nicodemus says almost the same as Mary. ‘How can someone be born when they are old?’ He is accustomed to the natural world, not to the world God owns and manages. Even though he is religious, he is profaning God’s world and his revelation. He needs a life that is from above—a holy life.

But now, see what Mary says. ‘I am the Lord’s servant. … May your word to me be fulfilled’ (Luke 1:38). And she becomes pregnant. The holy Child who will save his people from their sins, has entered our world. And his reign will never end. Holiness has arrived.

So easily can a profane world become a holy one. If with Mary, we say ‘let it be so to me according to your word’, God is our God, our sins are forgiven, love is born, eternity is in our souls, God’s will is done and the world can see its God reflected in the lives of his people.

The rest is over to God. We can only be holy by hearing his word, and letting him do in us what only he can do.

(If you would like to hear these things spelt out more fully, you can listen to a 25 minute talk at  https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=122020610274335 )

God will always be good to you. You can be sure of it!

David finishes his Psalm 23 by telling us how sure he is of God’s goodness and mercy to him. He expects it to continue as long as he lives. He will always be with the Lord! He is emphatic about this.

He actually says goodness and mercy will pursue him. The word he uses means ‘pursue like someone wanting to persecute you’. Sometimes we feel that trouble is chasing us like a mad dog. But David says goodness and mercy are chasing him! The latter word is actually ‘faithful love’—a word with special meaning for those to whom God reveals himself.

This world is a shaky place. And we often share the shakes! But Psalm 23 is not about the world being good. It’s about the Lord being unshakably good. Every blessing David refers to arises from him. How deeply we need this assurance!

Many say there is no God. And this is much the same as saying there is no-one to look after us. The trouble with this is that we then do look around to be looked after by someone or something else. We are structured to have God bless us, for him to be our benefactor and ‘go to’ person for living. When this is denied to us, we seek support from other things. Our life can no longer be the shape it was meant to be. We become harsh, or weak, or irresolute, rather than resilient. It is happening all around us—or even, to us.

So, the question is pressing: ‘Is God being good to me?’ Let’s try to be really sure of this! And to be sure of this, you need your Bible—more than you need your breakfast! It’s no good looking at your circumstances. They change too often and too much. What does God say, and what does he do to show us his goodness? Here are some key points in the story—and some references to look up.

The Lord tells Abraham he will bless the world through his family—and he does (Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:13-14). He tells Moses he will save Israel from slavery and give them a homeland—and he does (Exodus 3:7-8; Psalm 78:52-55). He tells David he will make him king and will preserve his dynasty forever—and he does (2 Samuel 7:8-12: Luke 1:67-75). He tells Jeremiah he will renew his relationship with Israel after they do everything to break it—and this is what he will do (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 10:14-18). These are covenants God makes with his people.

But now look at this last covenant. It is put into action by what Jesus does. He says, ‘This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28). Jesus comes to renew the relationship—or covenant—between us and God. He wants to guarantee it, to put it beyond any doubt, to get it into our minds that we can rely on it. ‘Here’, says Jesus. ‘Eat this bread. It is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’

By this covenant, he not only assures us that God is being God to us, but he ensures that we respond in love to be faithful covenant partners. He puts his law in our hearts. There can be no assurance of God’s love in us until he changes our hearts to be faithful like his. If you like, if you are false, you’ll suspect that God is too. This covenant heals our suspicious hearts and brings us to faith.

We need to hear God saying to us, ‘I am making all my goodness pass in front of you’—just as he did to Moses (Exodus 33:19). We look at Jesus and we are looking at God’s goodness—towards us. The Son of God will give up his body for us—for me! And I am being asked to eat it—that is, to take up what he is doing and make it mine.

And then he goes out and does it! The Son of God, the perfect man, the helper of all, the revelation of God—he, no less, becomes sin instead of righteousness, hated instead of loved, weak instead of strong, hung on a cross. He wants you to know you have a Shepherd, so he lays down his life for you. He needs to take away your life-long dread of not being good enough for God. He needs to take away your resentment of being under his authority. And he does it so you and I can stand before our Father without shame.

This is the reason God gives us for being sure we will be pursued by his goodness and mercy. If the Father gives up his Son for us, and Jesus gives up his life for us, and he is our Shepherd, what lack should we then fear (Romans 8:31-34)?

David also says, ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever’. He probably means he will always have access to the Lord and friendship with him. But things are even clearer now. We will dwell in a new heaven and earth forever. All the unfinished business of this present life will be completed. There will be no more pain, tears, injustice or even unselfishness. As we say, ‘It will be heaven!’

We really need to know this. When we are fretful, we are living for ourselves. Only when the Lord takes away all cares can we be free to live.

I have fears of my own. I want life to be cosy, and rosy. When trouble comes, I get troubled. But then, I get out my Bible, and see what God is about, and what he is about with me. I see how he has made his goodness pass in front of me. I see how wonderful the Shepherd is, how near he has come to me, how fully he has made an end of all that separates me from God. The Shepherd becomes the centre of my attention again.

Then, I notice that the troubles of my heart have subsided. Life is back where it should always have been. And I can say with David, ‘Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’

A feast among enemies

Psalm 23 is telling us how to live by faith. So now, David says the Lord spreads a feast for him, in the presence of his enemies. We know the Lord is with him in dark valleys. What about when enemies are near?

David still speaks to the Lord personally, ‘You prepare a table for me.’ He needs what the Lord can do when it comes to enemies. He knows how to fight and has done very well, but that’s not what he wants to talk about. He wants to tell us how the Lord looks after him.

Earlier on, Israel doubted that God could look after them. ‘Can God spread a table in the desert?’ they asked (Psalm 78:19). They didn’t like the way God was leading them. And then, the Lord gave them food—regularly (Exodus 16:4). But now, David refuses to complain. He says, ‘God provides a feast—right where I am being threatened by enemies!’

But why a feast when there’s enemies around? Battle rations would be more appropriate—something to eat while you keep your eyes open for threats. No. This is a feast, with all the usual extras.

The host has anointed his guest with oil—a courtesy expected in those days. And when it comes to the wine, his cup is brimming over. The host is eager to say that there is no lack when it comes to wine. There’s nothing going wrong at this banquet!

But what about the enemies? People who get angry with us want to be the centre of our attention. ‘Look at me’ they are saying. ‘I am a threat to your well-being!’ If they succeed in getting the core of our attention, the Lord has been pushed to the edges. Our situation has become compromised. We have become embattled—meaning that the battle has become our core issue.

David says ‘No’ to this. The gracious provision of the Lord—the green pastures, the restful waters, the restored soul, the guidance in right paths, are all still happening. The shouting from the edges doesn’t change what is going on between him and the Lord.

The Lord can keep our hearts full—as at a feast—while we are still in the presence of enemies. And this is just what we need. When critics say our faith in God is superstition, and our obedience to Christ is repression, and our hope of heaven is a fantasy, we need a mouthwatering enjoyment of God, and his goodness, and his power. Enemies only have the power God grants to them (John 19:11).

And when our enemy, Satan, taunts about our personal failures, we need to know that our Shepherd has got them all covered—totally. The reason we are feasting in the presence of enemies is because Christ has won the major battle against our accuser. There is no valid reason for him to accuse us because Christ has borne our sins, and the accusations we deserve.

To help us sense what this is like, think of Peter. He is surrounded with enemies accusing him of being a follower of Jesus. He fails badly. But the Lord had already told him this will happen. And he has followed this up with, ‘Let not your heart be troubled.’ And, ‘I go to prepare a place for you’ (John 13:38—14:2). We need to know the Lord is always ready to spread a feast for humbled sinners (Revelation 3:20).

In another time of trouble, Nehemiah told people in Jerusalem, ‘the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10). He also told his hearers to go home and have a feast! They needed to know that this was not a bad day but a good one! 

Enjoying the Lord is vital. We need time out from the battle to taste the goodness of God, to drink in his word, to talk in a relaxed way to our Shepherd.

So, there’s a feast to have. Keep your eye on the opposition but focus on what God has given, and is giving, and will give. Relish him, and our enemies are already at a disadvantage.