January 12, 2018

Level Ground in Christ

Theme: The Level Ground of Faith
1.     It is a place of honesty. (Psalm 26:1-3 – Malachi 1:6-7)
2.     It is a place where evil is absent. (Psalm 26:4-6 – Malachi 1:8-9)
3.     It is a place of true worship. (Psalm 26:7-12 – Malachi 1:10-11)

Dear fellow redeemed of God. For our sermon study this morning we use our two Old Testament Scripture readings in a contrasting way – featuring the qualities of faith in Christ from Psalm 26 and the detriments of wickedness from Malachi 1. May it be a blessing for our lives.

In the 1996 summer Olympics, sprinter Michael Johnson set world records in the 200 and 400 meter races. In order to accomplish this feat, he had to train for more than a decade at cutting down his time by the smallest of margins, sometimes a mere second or two in all. Later on he said this of his training, “Success is found in much smaller portions than most people realize. A hundredth of a second here or sometimes a tenth there can determine the fastest man in the world. Life is often compared to a marathon, but I think it is more like being a sprinter: long stretches of hard work punctuated by brief moments in which we are given the opportunity to perform at our best.”

The Christian faith is very similar to that thought of Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson. Practicing Christianity often seems and feels boring. It seems monotonous, doing the same traditions over and over, reading the same words again and again. But what it is is spiritual training. Repetition of God’s truth and promises over and over again so that we grow stronger in faith, we are led to trust in God in even the most unreasonable circumstances, and we are prepared to be tested. Like many other things in life, even athletic competition, success or failure is often determined long before the actual test – before the event. Victory or defeat is defined in the shadows, when you are alone.

We look at the difference between success and failure, between hope and despair, today in two contrasting examples. In Psalm 26 the steadiness of faith in God is pictured a “level ground;” a place of security, stability, and safety. Three aspects of this even ground come into view here – that it is a place of honesty, that it is a place where evil is absent, and that it is a place of true worship. May the Holy Spirit bless this message and implant it in our hearts.

Part 1: It is a place of honesty (Psalm 26:1-3 – Malachi 1:6-7)

Some things never change when it comes to sin. From the very beginning, men and women have tried to cover up their transgressions before the Lord. It was the first thing Adam and Eve did. Logically, we should know better. Who is going to hide from God? But, hiding is actually the rationalistic reaction to breaking the Almighty God’s commands. We don’t want to have to face Him, knowing we have failed.

The first thing we see about the level ground of faith is that it is a place of honesty. You can’t hide from the truth even if deep down you want to. It is simply present through God’s Word. David recognized this which was why the very first words he penned were “Vindicate me O LORD.” To be vindicated is to be put to the test and pass. It’s to win that spiritual race that we alluded to. This is a bold demand for a sinner to make of God. David was famous and mighty but he knew failure all too well. He had the boldness to make this demand of God, because faith operates in honesty.

David was not putting God to the test. David was claiming what was rightfully his through Christ. He went on to say, “For I have walked in my integrity. I have also trusted in the LORD; I shall not slip.” The LORD has revealed to David that he, a sinner, has access to the blessings won by Christ. And this comes through faith, through trusting God.

What a difference we see in the individual that Malachi pronounced judgment on. This man makes excuses. He acts like He doesn’t know what God is saying. He despises and disrespects the LORD and is not convicted of sin in his heart. In summary, this man runs. He tries to hide from God. He tries to play things off like they’re not all that bad. But, the LORD holds him accountable. His is a place of honesty, brutal at times if necessary.

How often do we look at someone else’s life and think – “Man, they’ve got it all together. I wish I could have that.” Be careful of that attitude because looks can be misleading and looks can lead to coveting. But, in a spiritual sense, this is exactly what God is talking about here. The Hebrew word for “integrity,” used in Psalm 26:1, means to be complete. In other words, to have it all together. God offers that in Christ. It doesn’t mean all problems will cease instantly – quite the opposite actually. In faith, you will continue to be tested and tested regularly. But, listen to David, the believer says, bring it on – I know I am complete, I am together in Christ.

Honesty, with yourself, with others, and with the LORD is so vital to this precious gift of faith. Do not hide from the LORD, rather run to Him and be safe.

Part 2: It is a place where evil is absent

The next thing we see about the level ground of faith is that evil is absent. This seems pretty clear to us. God is holy, therefore He abhors all that is evil, and so should we. But, when it comes to putting this into practice, it can get difficult in life. Listen to several examples in Scripture:

James 3:10 Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.
1 Corinthians 15:33 Do not be deceived: "Evil company corrupts good habits."
Ephesians 5:3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.
1 John 2:15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

What do these verses have in common? Well, besides speaking about evil, they are all addressed to Christians – people who clearly know what God’s stance on evil is. The Lord knows how difficult this is for us. We don’t want to completely separate ourselves from the world in a self-righteous way. We don’t want to shun others who aren’t Christian or perhaps not in our fellowship. But, there is also a very real danger to evil of all kinds and we should think twice before we support, tolerate, or allow it into our lives. 

Again, the contrast is stark. David wrote, “I have walked in Your truth. 4 I have not sat with idolatrous mortals, Nor will I go in with hypocrites. 5 I have hated the assembly of evildoers, And will not sit with the wicked.” David put into practice what Paul would write about to the Ephesians – do not let evil even be named among you. For David, he wouldn’t hang around the wicked. He wouldn’t subject himself to things that he knew were harmful to his faith. Was he strong enough to endure these temptations? Probably, but that wasn’t the point. At any sign of danger, David would turn the other way.

The opposite attitude? From Malachi: The unbelieving man doesn’t care about the Lord’s Word. He offers blind, lame, and sick offerings when the Lord requires unblemished. The lines of right and wrong are blurred for this man. Giving offense by being around evil isn’t even on this person’s radar, they are too busy blatantly disobeying the Lord. Their acts are so worthless that the secular leaders wouldn’t accept them, let alone the holy God.   

For most of us, we know well enough that we shouldn’t live a life of blatant sin. But, do we run from it as David did? Are we willing to show the world that we hate it? Are we ashamed even when the thought of evil is named among us? Or, are we busy saying one thing and doing another? Do we claim to be Christian in our confession of faith but then tolerate and support sin? Do we show them that we are concerned or do we prop up the evil right next to a person? I’m not saying we can’t say at the end of the day, the world is going to do what it wants to do. That is definitely true. The question is, what do we show the world about our faith and how does the world affect that faith? If your idea is to support, join along, tolerate, etc,; rather than hating evil and running from it, it will wear down your faith.

So, how do we keep from letting this become a self-righteous venture or giving off a “holier than thou” attitude? Rely on Christ and point to Christ in all things, which leads us to our third point, the nature of true worship.

Part 3: It is a place of true worship

Here in this last point we truly see the greatest contrast. The twisted perversion of the wicked is on full display because they continue to worship God. Yes, you heard me right, their show their wickedness through their worship, and they showed how great their perversion was. Most evil people would naturally give up worshipping God – at least in that way they show a sense of honesty about what they think. But these individuals that Malachi called out continued to worship but only used it as a cover to look good outwardly. It was a heighted perversion against God. Because of this, God rejected their hollow offerings and practices. He was not pleased with their worship because it did not glorify His name.

Contrast this with David’s sentiments about worship. He looked forward to the house of God because of what he would receive from God there – mercy and forgiveness. What David offered God was secondary to this. David likewise describes the same type of man as Malachi. He calls them “bloodthirsty.” He says that they deceive and swindle, they try to take bribes. They are deceitful, even in their religious beliefs. Malachi said this was akin to “kindling the fire of the LORD’s altar in vain.”

May we recognize the danger of false worship in our lives, but also be ready to confess and repent when we succumb to it. If you think that statement doesn’t apply to your life, then you have already failed. The fact is that even in our lives, we do not come to the Lord’s house to pat ourselves on the back because we’ve been such good people. That’s the equivalent of trying to bribe the Lord. There are many other examples of false worship that we could list. Coming because of family pressure. Coming so that the pastor doesn’t bother you during the week. Coming so that we can add some brownie points with God that we can use later in the week on pet sins. The list goes on. There are many reasons to come to the LORD’s house, but there is only one that leads to the level ground of faith.

That reason is the work of Christ Jesus for you. David was on level ground because he was redeemed by His Savior. This allowed David to show the fruits of his faith – walking in integrity and hastening to God’s truth. His reason for coming joyously to God’s house was to receive this redemption by God’s grace.

Despite the contrast between this and the individual from Malachi’s prophecy, there is a glimmer of hope at the end. God says, “For from the rising of the sun, even to its going down, My name shall be great among the Gentiles; In every place incense shall be offered to My name, And a pure offering; For My name shall be great among the nations,” Today, on Epiphany Sunday, we recognize the fulfillment of this promise. God’s salvation in Christ has been extended freely to all nations. Wherever the Word of God is shared in truth the Epiphany promise continues to grow.

Sometimes, the practices of sharing the Word grow old for us. We look for something different, something fresh, something to give us our own identity. The ultimate difference between these two texts is the source of each person’s faith. The quiet, contemplative, listening heart of faith that receives the same Words of God and the same promises of God day after day marks the level ground. It does not shift because it is founded on God and His unchanging faithfulness. The self-merit faith of the person who constantly dips and dodges God’s law is unstable and ever changing. It’s more interesting I suppose, in that sense, because it’s never consistent. But, when it comes to difficulties in life, it offers no stability.

[Follow the advice of the Olympic Sprinter, Michael Johnson. Life with God, too, is about a series of small moments, when you’re examined, tested, and vindicated. But for those moments to mean anything for your life, you need to have level ground beneath them. You need the timeless and unchanging love of Christ and that is why you stay with His Word day after day, week after week.  

We thank our Lord Jesus for giving us a solid and level ground of faith, in His works and grace. Our celebration today of that truth come into our lives is yet another reminder that it ultimately isn’t about us. May our praise and worship be ever centered in God, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

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