Fear and Blessing
As we start this morning I want you to help me out; I know that you guys are very well read, so I want you to help me with the endings of some pretty famous stories.
First is the story of Cinderella, a book about a young girl being raised by a absent dad and a wicked stepmother. She goes to the ball meets a prince, leaves a shoe, and finally prince Charming shows up at her door step and they lived ….. happily ever after.
Then there is the story of Sleeping Beauty, a young princess who pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls into a deep sleep. 100 years later a prince finds her castle during a hunting trip, and enters to find the young princess and kisses her. She awakes and they live ….. happily ever after.
Finally, the story of Jack and The Beanstalk. A young boy from a poor family trades the family cow for some magic beans. His mom throws the beans out the window and the next morning there is a giant beanstalk. Jack climbs the beanstalk and steals a bag of gold, a hen that lays golden eggs and a harp. As he makes his escape down the beanstalk he is chased by the giant. When Jack reaches the bottom he chops down the beanstalk and the giant falls to his death. Jack and his mother lived … happily ever after.
Most of us only know that Disney versions of these fairy tales. It’s interesting that when Walt Disney used a fairy tail for one of his movies he always changed the ending so that the characters could live happily ever after. He knew that we all have this longing for our own fairy tale ending. We’re not asking for much we just want to be able to live happily ever after.
Our Psalm this morning addresses the idea of finding true happiness, which makes sense when you consider that this song was sung on the way to meet God in His temple, and in His city. The closest I can remember to finding this type of joy on a journey was back when Trista and I were working as a youth ministers in Franklin, Tennessee. There were close to 45 Youth Minister families on a plane headed to the National Conference of Youth Ministry in San Antonio Texas. One of the flight attendants just happened to also be a member of a Church of Christ started talking on the intercom about where we were going and what we were doing and next thing you know at 50,000 feet in the air, that plane was filled with singing, joy, and laughter. I think someone even passed a collection plate or something like that. It was the best flight ever.
I imagine our pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem were laughing and smiling as their voices rang out, “Blessed is everyone.” Another way to translate the Greek word here is to say happy. So in biblical terms, happiness and blessedness is the same thing; to be happy is to be blessed, and to be blessed is to be happy.
So if the Psalmist is saying that we can be happy, then I think we may need to take a closer look at what it means to be happy. So many folks seem to have a skewed view of what happiness truly is. In our culture, most people believe that happiness comes with success, good health, a family life, and money and possessions. The problem with the American Dream is that even when it seems to pay off with wealth and success, there is no guarantee that we’ll be happy.
This morning as we continue our look at the Songs of Ascent, we will continue to talk about the psalm and then stop every now and again to sing. Which just seems to to be so appropriate as we consider Psalm 128, how we were created to experience true happiness by a holy God.
Sing We Fall Down/Holy, Holy, Holy
What Does It Mean to Fear The Lord? - Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!
I have tried to emphasize to the boys one of the worst things they can do while driving is to over correct. If your car goes off the road and you jerk it to try to get back on the road you will overcorrect and usually make things worse. The truth is that we can overcorrect more than just a car, and end up making a mess of things.
Twice in this song we are told if we want to find true happiness we must fear the Lord. For most of us here this morning that sounds strange, because we have overcorrected. There was a time when hell fire and brimstone sermons were in vogue. There were sermons written like Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” that caused people to faint and fall into the aisle as he preached about the wrath of God.
We understood that just looking at the wrath of God was not a complete picture, so we began to look at His love and grace and instead of coming to a complete picture of who God is, we overcorrected and Jesus became my best friend. We minimized the call to fear God down to having some type of general respect for Him. And since Jesus is my pal then what does it matter if I worship Him, what does it matter if I put Him first, or last, or somewhere in between. God is going to be ok with what ever I choose to do because that’s what real friends do.
The problem is that Jesus is not our equal, He is our Lord. I know that He calls us His friends, but there’s a very important stipulation that Jesus places on His friendship: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14)
All throughout the pages of the Bible we see that the Lord is awesome and His presence invites fear. In Isaiah 6, the prophet finds himself in the throne room of God and says, How terrible it is for me! I cried out. I'm about to be destroyed! My mouth speaks sinful words. And I live among people who speak sinful words. Now I have seen the King with my own eyes. He is the LORD who rules over all.
In Exodus 20 we read: When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."
In Revelation 15 we read: Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.
And in the books of wisdom, Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, we are told to fear God 59 different times.
It may shock you that the Bible isn't interested in whether we believe in God or not. It assumes that everyone more or less does. Instead it focuses on our response to Him. We need to decide if we are willing for God be majestic and holy, vast and wondrous, or are we going to try to shrink Him down to a size our minds can wrap around. If we try to confine God to the boundaries we are comfortable with then we are not dealing with the God of creation and the Christ of the cross. Instead we are dealing with a cheap dollar store version of something made in our image.
In an effort to keep us from making Jesus our pal, the Bible talks about the fear of the Lord; not to scare us, but to remind us of the overwhelming majesty of God. The Bible wants us to stop the whining and fidgeting, and says that we must spend some time being still so that we can really see God and listen to Him as He speaks His merciful, life-changing words of forgiveness.
Every morning I need to be reminded that God is the center of it all, not me. That’s why I love the statement by A.W. Tozer, “to know God is to fear Him and to be stunned by the splendor of His presence.” God does not exist just to meet our needs. We exist to bow before Him with an attitude of holy fear so that we will worship Him with our whole life.
It’s time that those of us who wear His name spend a little time being stunned by the splendor of His presence. He’s not just the big guy in the sky, or the man upstairs. He’s the Lord of Hosts, the Most High God, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the Almighty who is holy, holy, holy.
The concept of fearing God in order to find happiness may seem confusing because we tend to think of fear as something to be avoided. But fearing God takes away every other fear that paralyzes us. I love the perspective of Oswald Chambers who said “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”
When we truly fear the Lord, we will recognize that He is the Creator and we are the created. He is the Master and we are His servants. He is the Father and we are His children. The phrase fear of the Lord literally means to, live before the face of God. It’s the idea of being so in awe of God that I long to obey Him; it’s really another word for worship. It involves an awareness of being in the presence of the Almighty which results in an overflow of respect and admiration.
There are going to be times when we’re going to be afraid of standing up for our Christianity. There will be times when we will be afraid of losing our jobs, promotions, our spot on the team, the respect or affection of someone we care about, and in those moments we will be tempted to deny or backpedal on our faith. We’ll be tempted to leave our Christianity at the church building. A person who fears what people will do, or say, or think, will do whatever is necessary to distance themselves from God. They’ll find ways not to confess Him. In fact, they’ll deny Him if necessary. Because they’ll fear man more than they fear God.
It’s only when we fear God that we understand the joy that comes from not fearing anything else. When we fear God we can be delivered from the fear of man. It’s only when we learn to fear God that we can find true peace, and happiness in this life. That’s why the Psalmist could write and we can sing Happiness is found in those who fear the Lord. Fearing God means that our very lives cry out Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty Who was and is and is to come.
Sing Revelation Song
Receiving a Real Blessing
Several scholars believe that Psalm 127 and 128 were originally the same song that was divided into two songs. Our man whose quiver is full of arrows can now be found sitting at the table with his large family. A person comes into the house and sees how much happiness and joy exists in the life of the man and his family and wonders where did they find their happiness. Psalm 128 is the man’s response to the question. He remembers why things are so good in their lives. It all boils down to having a proper understanding of who God is and who we are, is that our fear brings about blessings.
There are many people all across this globe, that will gather in houses of worship and ask the same question, what does it mean to be blessed? One of the things we need to do to answer that question is try to unwrap the illustrations in the song. Times, cultures, and language change over time. So what might make complete sense now, might not fair very well in a few generations. So when the Psalmist uses the illustrations of a vine and olive tree shoot the picture probably doesn't jump off the page. It helps me to remember these illustrations are steeped in Hebrew culture and represented a large family, financial prosperity, emotional stability, or physical well-being.
While I believe that those things are external manifestations of God’s blessing, we all know people who are financially prosperous, emotionally stable, and seem to be in good physical health who do not have a relationship with God. So, there must be a deeper meaning to the promise of being blessed by God.
The Hebrew word for blessed used in this text is the word ?????? (esher) and while we translate it blessed or happy, it is interesting to me that the word that has to do with our relationships, specifically our relationship with God. It is not a promise of physical blessings, instead it’s a greater promise of a relationship with God. After all that’s what Christianity is, we are invited into an active and dynamic relationship with the living God.
After all this time, I am still amazed at people who come and sit on a pew three Sundays a month and wonder why they struggle in this life. These are good moral people who treat coming to a building for a few hours a year like a miracle pill that will make everything ok. They don’t realize that their struggle is a worldly struggle, they are living a life without a relationship with the giver of abundant life. They continue to lie to themselves and die of thirst when God offers a spring of living water that will never run dry.
Going back to the images that the Psalmist uses we see that this blessing, this relationship comes in two ways; The first is having a wife that is a fruitful vine. Does that sound as weird to you as it does to me? I mean I tried that little complement out, I called Trista my fruitful vine and for some reasons she didn’t swoon. Maybe we have lost the beauty of the promise in translation. In Hebrew culture, the grapevine was a symbol of prosperity and abundant life.
In the ancient world having a family and a wife who is capable of bearing children were signs of God’s blessing. And the opposite was also true, a barren wife was seen as a curse. Think back to the shame the Sarah expressed at not being able to give Abraham a child, even after God promised He would make their descendants a great nation. Or what about the hurt that Hannah felt when “her rival” Peninnah was able to have children and she was not. It got so bad that in her mourning Hannah would not even eat and spent days weeping.
In Bible times large families were regarded as a mark of prosperity, because their livelihood depended of farming. They didn’t have children they had farm hands. In our urban culture, we miss the beauty of the illustration. Today when a family has lots of kids we ask in hushed tones behind their backs, Do they know how that happens? After all do you know the difference between a millionaire and a couple with 6 children? The millionaire still wants more!
The blessing found in the vine is the idea that God’s blessing will multiply. In this relationship we get to experience His love, provision, and promises and these gifts or blessings from God are not a one time gift, but they continue to grow and multiply in our lives.
The second image is that of olive shoots. In the holy land, a person who owned olive plants and olive trees owned something of great value. The olive tree was vitally important for daily life and the economy of Israel. And olive shoots were a symbol of hope for the future.
When Trista and I were dating, she took me out to Homesville, Alabama and showed me her families home place. There were 45 acres covered in pine trees that her grandparents, in their wisdom, planted as an inheritance for their grandchildren. Every time they cut the timber it was a blessing for our families. But this image of an Olive tree is very different. The Olive tree doesn’t just provide an inheritance for one generation, it provides an inheritance for 30 generations.
My dad used to tell me all the time that he wasn’t raising me; he was showing me how to raise his grandchildren. Maybe he read this text, or maybe he just had some good sense. I believe that your greatest work is not building a business. My greatest work is not building a congregation. My greatest work is not preaching sermons. As a matter of fact when the boys and my grandchildren remember me, I don’t want them to remember the sermons, or congregations; I want them to remember that I loved God the best I could and that I passed on a faith and heritage worth having.
You can’t grow children who will love God by setting up the rules for them and coming home once in awhile and enforcing those rules. You have to bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. If you just have rules, you will provoke and frustrate your children. Instead raise them like a tender olive plant in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
For the ancient Hebrews, happiness is experienced in the fruitfulness of work and family. What I think we can say from these verses is that blessings have a tendency to increase. Happiness spreads and multiplies, it is contagious and wants to be given away. When we really are blessed and happy, it is not something we want to keep to ourselves. Blessedness naturally spreads. Mark Twain said that “Whoever is happy will make others happy too.”
As we close this morning I want to make an important clarification. The Psalmist uses present language, as in God has already blessed us. As Children of God we realize that His blessing is through Jesus. We realize that this blessing is so much greater than money, or possessions, or power, or prestige. We understand the blessing of this world will end up in the garbage heap while the blessing of a relationship with God is forever.