A sermon on Psalm 24 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 1 August 2021
Unfortunately, worship and religion are often confused. By religion, I don’t mean he label we give to our faith. Presbyterian, Christian, or whatever. And by religion, I’m not talking about a system of teachings and practices. By religion I mean the attempt by human beings to control their lives by making peace with whatever spiritual power rules the universe.
The last day of October, for example, October 31, is Halloween. People dress up in scary costumes and go trick or treating. The custom comes from the belief that unless we give a gift, an offering to the spirits around us, they will hurt us. This is religion at its heart. Or people believe in the “sporting gods.” Athletes may prepare their best for the competition, but ultimately they are at the mercy of the sporting gods who decide their fate.
And this kind of religion can infect our worship. We might believe that if we give to God in our offering then he will give to us some blessing. We might believe that if we come to church, God will make our business or our farm successful. We might believe that being part of the church makes us more respectable, that people will think that we are good people. But that is religion. It is not worship.
Psalm 24 teaches us about the heart of worship. It teach us that worship is not about us. It is not about controlling God for our own benefit. It is not about doing God a favour so he will do us one back. Worship is about God. Psalm 24 teaches us that worship is about our whole life, not just about a small part of it. And it teaches us that at the heart of worship is the God who rules as king in our hearts, in our souls and in our minds. It involves all of us, every one of us, the whole of us, and every part of us.
Psalm 24 is a psalm of worship. It was probably sung as pilgrims in the Old Testament walked in procession to the temple in Jerusalem to worship God with their offerings. As they arrived at the temple gates, the pilgrims were confronted by the priests who served inside. And this Psalm was possibly sung back and forth. Different lines by the priests and other lines in answer by the pilgrims. And the song was composed to teach the pilgrims the true meaning of worship.
It begins in verse 1 and 2.
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. For he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.
It teaches us that at the heart of worship is not ourselves, our needs, our hopes and fears about the future. But it is the Lord. The creator of the world. The one who provides for every creature. He made the world and he cares for it. And everything belongs to him. The mountains are his. The sea is his and all its creatures. The trees belong to him. The ground and all its mineral wealth. The elephant and hippo, the kangaroo and wombat, the ibis, the pelican and the wedge tailed eagle. They are his.
And so are you. You belong to the Lord. He made you. He gave you life. He sustains you with strength. We belong to him. Our time. Our present and future. Our working time and rest. Our Sunday and Monday and Tuesday and every day. Our talents. Our opportunities. Our responsibilities. We are his. We do not gather to worship a god who exists in some small corner of life, who is content with good intentions and with a token effort. But we gather to worship the Creator God who does not acknowledge any boundary between what is his and what is not. All of us, all of each one of us, belongs to him.
And there is nothing that we have that he needs. He doesn’t need our money. He doesn’t need our time. He doesn’t need our talents as if his life would be any less perfect if we held them back from him. We can’t do him any favour that would put him in our debt. Instead, he does us a huge favour to include us in his purposes. And it is a privilege to live for him and to serve him. To exclude ourselves from his service does not hurt God. It only hurts ourselves. If we come to church with the intention of putting God in our debt, if we leave church thinking that God now owes us, we are not coming to church for the right reason.
In verse 3 Psalm 24 asks the question,
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?
The Lord’s temple in Jerusalem was built on top of a hill. Mount Zion it was called. To go to the temple, to offer a sacrifice within its courts, the pilgrims would go up, they would ascend the hill up the path to the top. And there they would stand in his holy place. “Who may do it?” the priests would challenge the pilgrims. “Who has the right?” “Who may come before the Lord to worship him?” Verse 4 gives the answer.
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false.
To have clean hands is to do right. It is to be innocent in your conduct towards your family and your neighbours. No one is hurt or harmed or robbed or cheated by what you do.
To have a pure heart, though, is more intentional. My hands may be clean because I am careful about what I do. But inside my heart could be seething with anger or resentment. I may smile to your face, but curse you behind your back. I might not hurt you, but secretly I might want to, and I’m just too afraid to. My hands are clean. But my heart is not pure. To be pure in heart, then, is to be a person of integrity. It is to be the same on the inside as you seem to be on the outside. So that the secret me is the same as the public me. So that my hands are clean, not because I’m careful to notice who is watching me, but because my heart is pure. My motives are honourable. My intentions are good. My character is upright and just and fair.
It’s a reminder that worship isn’t just about what we practice on Sunday, but that it concerns our behaviour and our character, not only in public but in private every day of the week. Those who dare to gather to worship the Lord, those who seek to bask in his goodness and love, must be like him. The Lord can’t be treated like a fool. There is no blessing, no fellowship with God for those who only maintain an appearance of godliness.
To lift up one’s soul to an idol and to swear by what is false means to have divided loyalties. It means to love God with only half our heart. While giving some of our love, some of our allegiance, some of our service to something else. Whether it is money or luck or something else. To come before the Lord, our Creator, in worship and yet still keeping back some part of our heart and giving it to something else, is nothing less than spiritual adultery. We belong to him. All of us. All of each one of us. To call on him, to ask for his help, to seek his blessing means that not only must our heart be pure. But our heart must be wholly his.
It does not mean that there is some kind of entrance exam into the kingdom of God. God calls all to come to him. Both the bad and those who think they are good but in their hearts are just as bad. The most wretched sinner, the laziest bludger, even the person who has lived the most miserable and worthless life, is summoned by God to his presence to confess their sins and to seek their pardon by the grace of God made available in the death of Jesus Christ his Son. All are called. You are called to receive the gift of salvation. But all who are called and answer the call and put out their hand to receive this wonderful gift of life and joy and peace are called to live a life worthy of that salvation.
Think how we use the word “un-Australian.” Any one can be born an Australian. High Court judges and drug dealers can have babies born in Australia. But we have this idea that to be an Australian is not just to acknowledge an accident of birth and the possession of citizenship. But that to have this citizenship, to belong to this great nation demands the possession of certain values and the demonstration of a certain lifestyle. That we believe in a fair go and looking out for each other and treating others the way we want to be treated. And that anything less is un-Australian.
How much more in the kingdom of God. The most wretched sinner, even you, may come to Christ and unload upon him all your wicked thoughts and thoughtless actions, and receive the wonderful gift of new life and forgiveness. In the Lord Jesus Christ we may become citizens of the kingdom of God. But to have this citizenship, to belong to this great movement of God in the midst of the people of the world, demands the possession of certain values and the demonstration of a certain lifestyle. Of forgiving those who sin against us. Of keeping our promises. Of caring for the weak and the poor. Of serving one another. Of keeping our hearts pure and undivided in their love for our Creator. It is not an entrance exam into the kingdom of God. But anything less is not un-Australian. It is un Christian.
In verses 7 to 10 we have another set of questions and answers. We can imagine the pilgrims approaching the doors of the temple and asking to be let in.
Lift up our heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
It’s a fancy way of asking for the doors to be opened by the people who do that job. No one is expecting the doors to open themselves. The request is made by the pilgrims not on the basis of their clean hands and their pure hearts, but on the basis of belonging to the King of glory. But who, the priests challenge them, who do the pilgrims acknowledge to be this King of glory. Who is it that they trust in? Who is it that gives them the right to present themselves to worship in the temple of the Lord. They reply,
The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle.
It is the Lord who can do whatever he plans and whatever he needs to do. The Lord who fights, but not against flesh and blood, not against people. The Lord is for people. The Lord doesn’t take sides in the petty disputes of nations. But the Lord fights, nevertheless, against the forces of evil that oppress his people. The request and challenge and answer are repeated in verses 9 and 10 to emphasise the point that it is the Lord Almighty, the God of all times and places, who is the king of glory.
This is the God we come to worship. The God who fights for the poor and lowly, who will come one day to put all wrongs right. The Lord Almighty before whom all must and all will bow. Who claims us for himself, all of us, the whole of us, every part of us.
Psalm 24 is a psalm of worship. It teaches us that worship is about our whole life, not just about a small part of it. It teaches us that at the heart of worship is the God who rules as king in our hearts in our souls and in our minds.