Holy Living in Forest Hill
It was April 16, 1798, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge penned a very famous poem called France, an Ode. It was written to celebrate the revolution in France, to uphold the glory of liberty, and to inspire others to follow the dream of liberty. He likens his passion for what happened in the French Revolution to worship:
And O ye Clouds that far above me soared!
Thou rising Sun! Thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
Bear witness for me wheresoe’er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest Liberty.
For Coleridge, liberty was divine; a gift from God; and to be worshiped. Later in his life he felt he should not have written it, was embarrassed by it in fact. When France invaded Switzerland, he felt that his wonderful words extolling the virtues of the revolution were banal and wrong, and he never wanted it to be read again. Such was his passion for liberty though, reflecting his own convictions and beliefs, that he still felt that liberty was an ideal, one worthy of support, and worship. Unfortunately, it is a concept that when placed in the hands of men and women can turn into something else. There is no point adoring liberty if people do not live their lives in accordance with its precepts. For Coleridge, this was like a crisis of faith.
In many ways, what we have in our passage from Psalm 15 is a disconnect between an ideal of worship and the reality of lives that are lived in response to it. To the psalmist it wasn’t just a matter of coming into the house of the Lord and giving praise to God, or making sacrifices in the Temple to God; it was also about the life of the people who were worshiping. It was about the way they approached the Temple and the House of Worship. He was more concerned in writing this Psalm with the attitude, the character, and the moral fibre of the people who were coming into worship than worship itself. In other words, like Coleridge he loved the idea of liberty and worship and praise, but he was more concerned with what was going on in the lives of people who were coming in to that place of worship. Some have said that this passage was a catechism for those preparing to come to worship, and that it was written for a simple presentation by the priests to people before they entered the House of the Lord to prepare them: a form of moral and spiritual introspection. It has also been noted that there were ten recommendations in this passage. If you listened carefully you would discern those ten things. Some have speculated that this was a reflection of the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. Or, maybe it was simply that we have ten digits and it is easy to tick off the ten things on ten fingers. It might be just as simple as that. We don’t know.
What was evident was the psalmist was concerned about the lives of worshippers. The language that he uses at the beginning clearly tells us that this isn’t just any old worship. This is worship in Mount Zion, this is worship in Jerusalem, and this is coming into the Temple itself. The preparation required was all the more important. He understood that there were Levitical traditions spelling out the type of worship and ritual that should be performed. He respects that; he doesn’t denounce that. He just thinks that people need to prepare themselves morally and spiritually before they get to that point. He also understood, and this was evident at the time, that there were already restrictions in place as to who could go into the Temple: lepers were not allowed; those who were physically disabled, the blind and the lame, people who were not observing the law; and those who had demonstrated some very noticeable sin were not allowed in. This was not a place with a sign outside that said “All People Are Welcome”! But he is not even talking about those conditions. Rather, he is concerned about the worship before they even get to the Temple, and the way their lives are transformed by the very act of coming into that worship. It is not dissimilar from what Jesus said in Matthew’s Gospel, “It is not what you put into a person that defiles their life”. In other words, it is not what they ingest; what defiles them is what comes out of their lives. Their character, their behaviour, their life – that is what defines them! A psalmist hundreds of years before Jesus was saying the same thing.
It might sound on the surface to be a little harsh. Is there not really a sense of grace in these? It seems you have to fulfill these before you can come into the House of the Lord. It almost implies on a first reading that you need to be perfect before you can come into the House of the Lord. It is not saying that either. It is simply a form of checking in. Before you come into the House of the Lord you need to think about these ten things. And these ten things are more easily categorized into four groups, and it is those four groups that help us. We know we are not perfect when we come in to worship. If we were perfect why would we bother with a Prayer of Confession? Why would we have an Assurance of Pardon? No, we are not perfect!
Nevertheless, there are some things we should take note of here, and they are as timeless in their truth as anything ever written. The first is “to walk in an upright manner”. Now, it doesn’t mean in terms of physical stature; but in terms of integrity. Our uprightness of character when we come into the House of the Lord. We should come with a clear conscience, and the knowledge that the way we live, how we act, and what we do in public as well as in private, in the sanctuary as well as in the street are commensurate with what God would have us do; to live in an upright way. It also means to have truth and honesty about ourselves, not a pretentious view of our own self. To walk in an upright manner is to hold our head up high and know that we can neither deceive God nor others with the way that we live, whether we live with a conscience that is clear.
I love a story that I read, I think it was in Reader’s Digest – that fount of all wisdom! I am sorry about that, but it is pretty good at times! Anyway, there is a story that illustrates this beautifully. It is about a newly appointed general who moves into his new office surrounded by his new staff. This general is very excited about his advancement. He thinks he should impress those around him with how important he is. So, he leaves his door open and sits down at his desk. He knows that his staff and adjutants and corporals are just outside, and he picks up the phone and he has a conversation – so called – with the Chief of Staff of the United States military. He explains to the Chief of Staff how he is thrilled to be in this position, how he is grateful to be given this honour, how he will live up to all the expectations, and most of all would he please kindly give his greetings to the President. He puts down the phone, thinks: “That will impress them!” A corporal comes in and the general looks him in the eye with a big smile, and says, “Corporal, what can I do for you?”
He said, “Sir, I have come to hook up your phone.”
You didn’t see that coming, did you? Integrity! Walking uprightly! Walking uprightly means having a true appreciation of yourself, but also a recognition that you are coming into the presence of the household of God where there are no phoneys.
The psalmist also gives some other advice on how you should speak. Be careful with your words. Fine advice! He says, “Do not gossip and do not slander.” Perhaps it was in the Ten Commandments that it is put most eloquently: “Do not bear false witness.” In other words, don’t let the tongue be a source of concern and pain for others. The way you speak and what you speak of has power and influence. What you say, how you talk about others, how you put other people down, can be hurtful. He is like the Book of James, which spends a lot of time on this in the New Testament suggesting that the tongue can be a source of good and a source of evil. The best illustration I ever heard was actually in one of Aesop’s great fables: the Fable of Xanthus, the philosopher. Xanthus asks Aesop to prepare a dinner for his guests. What he wants him to do is to lay out a magnificent meal to impress all those who are coming to Xanthus’ home. Aesop does; he buys the food, prepares the meal, and presents it. Xanthus is shocked, because what Aesop has prepared is five tongues from five different animals with five different sauces. Xanthus says, “Is this what you consider a good meal? Tongue! Of all the things!”
Aesop said, “Absolutely! The tongue is an important thing! From tongues come constitutions. From tongues come words of wisdom, wise ideas and philosophies. Out of these come ways of building people up. With the tongue truth is spoken. The tongue is a wonderful thing.”
Xanthus has nothing more to say. But he is planning another meal, so he says to Aesop, “I am going to be hosting a meal tomorrow (and then he uses reverse psychology), how about this time you serve the worst food that you can think about (maybe that will work?)”
Aesop goes away, prepares the meal, presents it, and what is it? Five tongues and five different sauces!
Xanthus says, “Didn’t I tell you that I wanted something that was worse than what you had presented before? Didn’t you understand that I did not appreciate the five tongues?”
Aesop says, “But sir, you asked for the worst, and out of the tongue comes deceit, and out of the tongue comes lies, and out of the tongue comes hatred, and out of the tongue comes war. I have given you what you asked for.”
The tongue can be a good thing, speech can be used to build up. It can be used to speak truth and to promote the good, but it can damage, it can tear down, it can hurt, it can lead to evil. The tongue can do both. The psalmist is saying, “Watch what you say. Do not slander. Do not gossip.” Because it is so easy to shame and to break down, and it is so hard to build up and renew. How we use the tongue, this powerful weapon, says a lot about us before we come into the House of the Lord, doesn’t it?
He also suggests that we not only watch what we say, but also with whom we associate. He is saying honour good people. I was trying to think of an example where somebody who is considered bad was honoured for being good in the eyes of someone else. I had to think long and hard. The name that came to mind is not one that would roll off your tongue, Christo Brand, a guard who looked after Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. He had been appointed by the South African government to keep Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia Group in prison. That was his job. To look after Nelson Mandela, yes, but also to be his guard on behalf of the government. Mandela, once he was released, spoke so highly of Christo Brand, of their friendship, their camaraderie, their common discussions about good, and about how he had seen Brand change from someone who supported apartheid to being very much in favour of the release of Mandela. What Mandela was doing was associating with a good person even though that good person seemed to be despised by so many of Mandela’s other supporters. To hang out with good people, to have good company, to be with those who speak in a Christ-like way, and act in a godly way is a wise thing to do.
A couple of years ago, I ran into a young man who was speaking at Tyndale College and Seminary. He had belonged to a gang here in Toronto. I am not talking superficially here. He was in the heart of it. He was speaking at a seminary about his life in Christ and his ministry to people who were in gangs. We had a wonderful conversation afterwards. I asked him what turned him around. He put it down to one person - that is all! It was somebody who had taken time to sit down with him, not to talk about gang affairs, but just to talk about him and his wife. He said, “This person took an interest in me, and he simply said, ‘Where do you see yourself in five or ten or fifteen years time? Do you think the gang will still be there for you? Do you think that your criminal activities will allow you to be free? Do you really think that as your life evolves from being a young person in this gang that you are going to have any life at all?’” He thought about it. He listened but he sort of dismissed it until one point when this person who was kind to him said, “What do you think God wants your life to be like?”
This young man said, “You know, that is not the first question people in a gang ask themselves when they get up in the morning – right? What does God want me to do?” He continued, “But this was the first time in my life anyone had posed that question to me. You get so caught up in the rhythm of gang life that you cease to have any other perspective, but a kind word by a good person started to change my life.”
That is what the psalmist is getting at here. Before you even come into the House of the Lord, make sure you have honoured good people, listened to wise advice, and sought the counsel of others. That is what we do in a church. That is the heart of our fellowship. Seek the wise, considered counsel of people who love God and care for you.
The final of these four is like hitting the ball out of the park when everything else seems unimportant. Be careful what you do with your money. Money is power. How you spend your money, and share it reflects your values. There is nothing that shows what you believe more than what you do with your money. Money speaks for you at times when you have nothing else to say. What you support, what you encourage, what you develop, who you give it to: these are things that say something about you and your life. Jesus put it this way, “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” Money matters and what you do with your money says a lot about who you are. I think one of the great lessons of life is to think about the effects that our money has and how it can be used, like the tongue, for good or ill.
What was going on around the time of this Psalm was horrendous. There were people who were money lenders sitting outside the Temple lending money to poor people who were going into the Temple to make their offering. They would loan this money at high interest rate, exploiting them in their weakness. There were people who were actually using worship as a means of lining their own pockets, and doing it in an unjust way by making the poor dependent on them! That is often the case even today. Those that have little become dependent on those who have much and those who have much benefit from the weakness of those who have little. According to the psalmist, this isn’t right, and he is correct. Money is not only about what we believe and how we have values; it is about our own sense of what is right and wrong, and it is a powerful thing.
Who would have thought this passage would hit you in the eyes like this? It does! It does not mean that we don’t come into the presence of God in a graceless way. It does not mean that God is not forgiving and kind. It just means that when we come into the House of the Lord, we should walk in an upright manner, we should be careful in what we say, we should honour good people, and we should use our money wisely. Maybe a little advice for holy living in Forest Hill! Amen.