Recently I have been reading Psalm 84 and have been reminded how the psalmist longs, yes faints, for the courts of the LORD. Better, he says, is one day there than a thousand elsewhere.
As anybody who knows me will tell you, I am something of a cricket fan, one who is fortunate enough to live just a few short miles away from the county ground in Taunton where Somerset, the team I have supported since I was a boy, play their home games.
So, at the risk of boring the uninitiated, I’d like to tell you about a match I went to see there a few years ago. It was, quite simply, a fantastic game, played between Somerset and Surrey. The visitors batted first and scored 291 in their 50 overs. Somerset then started their innings but before very long they were in all kinds of trouble as a result of a batting collapse which left them 5 wickets down for just 22 runs. Now I don’t doubt that the eyes of those with no interest in cricket are already beginning to glaze over but, bear with me, all you really need to know is that Somerset looked to be down and out. But then Roelof van der Merwe joined Dean Elgar in the middle and the pair put on 213 for the 6th wicket leaving just 56 more runs to secure the win, a task that van der Merwe and Lewis Gregory managed with several overs to spare.
You can imagine the tension as that great stand progressed – one more wicket and surely any chance of an unlikely win would have gone. But gradually the crowd became more hopeful and the excitement built such that, when eventually the winning runs were scored, I was out of my seat, as were most of the crowd, celebrating in a way that could possibly have embarrassed my son had he been with me – which he was! It was a genuinely memorable victory. I was as high as a kite with excitement – the crowd cheered and applauded the players as they left the field. It was a great, great day!
The match left me thinking about how my emotions in church on a Sunday morning should be more like those I experienced that day in the early summer of 2017. On that occasions I was an unimportant member of a large crowd, one who, rather than thinking about myself or how significant I was, was instead content to rejoice in the greatness of the players and what they had done in bringing about the victory over the old enemy, Surrey. I had contributed nothing to Somerset’s victory. My faith in their ability to win varied during the course of the match but weather I believed in them had no effect on the outcome of the game. Nonetheless, they did win, and I rejoiced in praising Somerset CCC that evening. And I did so joyfully – not reluctantly. Nobody at the ground that evening was there out of duty. Every Somerset fan would have felt ‘better is one day at the county ground Taunton, than a thousand elsewhere’. There was a real sense of fellowship as we left the ground – everyone smiling and chatting about what they had just witnessed. I came home and just had to talk about it – I even posted a photo of the scoreboard on social media. I had seen the glory of Somerset Cricket – I was satisfied by it and just had to talk about it.
Of course not all of us are into cricket but I hope that we all have had experiences that have genuinely thrilled us, occasions that have taken us out of ourselves, times when we have been made to feel really alive. For some of us it may be music – perhaps we can remember a concert we once went to that wowed us. I don’t go to many but thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bob Dylan three years back and I recall a B.B.King concert I went to many years ago which was simply amazing. For you though it may be Adele or Albinoni, the Beatles or Acker Bilk. For others it may be a film or a trip to the theatre that took you out of yourself, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ maybe, or ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. For still others it may have been an experience of nature such as standing on the top of a mountain or on the edge of the Grand Canyon.
It’s not wrong to enjoy these things since they, along with all other good things, come from God. We are meant to enjoy them conscious of the fact that God is the author of all genuine pleasures. I thank God for the game of cricket and the pleasure it gives me.
But then I must remember this. Whilst I not infrequently get very excited by a game of cricket, the truth is, of course, that cricket isn’t ultimately as great as all that. Though it is still there in part, the joy I experienced that day at Taunton gradually faded, it is less than it once was. And, furthermore, Somerset’s heroics on that occasion was followed by some disappointing performances. Cricket, when all is said and done, is just a bunch of men or women hitting a ball about a field with a wooden stick.
But God – is better than cricket. Much better! After crossing the Red Sea the people of Israel celebrated their rescue from Egypt. We have an even greater rescue to celebrate. When Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross some two thousand or so years ago he received from God the punishment that was rightfully ours. Because of our sinfulness, we deserved the suffering that he endured at Calvary. God saved us that day from his wrath and, not only that, he also reconciled us to himself such that we might spend all eternity glorifying God and enjoying Him. We contributed nothing to that salvation other than our need to be saved. When it comes to our salvation we are not part of God’s team, but rather a part of the crowd of spectators. We are those who,look on, amazed by the victory he has secured for us and who, as a result, are filled with praise and left eager to tell others of what he has done.
Or at least we should be. My emotions in church each week should far surpass the excitement I felt at the cricket. I should leave church on a Sunday morning overflowing with excitement at what I’ve heard about God. I should leave with an overwhelming desire to tell others of what he has done. But the truth is that often I don’t – and I suspect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels that way.
The reason for this, or at least one of them is that I am still a sinner and, consequently, I continue to struggle with my sinful nature which means that I remain only partially sighted in regard to how great God really is. In short, sometimes I find other things preferable to Him.
But the good news is that Jesus also died for our sin of not enjoying him as we should. He died for those of us who are half-hearted Christians. One day we will see him as he really is – and we will praise him as we really should – and we’ll enjoy doing so too.
Just like I enjoyed praising Somerset that day in Taunton
Although, of course, it won’t be like that at all – it’ll be ten million times more enjoyable than that feeble pleasure. And what is more, unlike Somerset, who one week are amazing and the next are disappointing, God will always be great.
So it’s right that we enjoy sport and music and nature, and whatever else it is that gives us pleasure, but as we do so we should remember that, not only is God the source of all these pleasure, but he himself is, or at least should be, what we delight in most, our greatest pleasure of all.
Another way to think of this is to ask, ‘Where are our hearts?’ It is sometimes said, ‘Home is where the heart is’ and so we must ask ourselves whether we are content to make our home in the world, enjoying there its pleasures, or whether we long, as with the psalmist, to make our home with God, in ‘the courts of the LORD’ [Psalm 84:2]. The answer to that question reveals not what we may intellectually assent to but rather what we really desire. And our answer is important since our love for God should be a matter of the heart and not merely an intellectual acceptance of his beauty.
At the start of the book ‘God is the Gospel’, John Piper asks:
‘If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?’
It’s a searching question, one that, in my case at least, reveals that my heart is frequently all too comfortable here in this world. And even when I do find myself longing for heaven, it is too often out of a feeling of wanting to escape the trouble that this world brings rather than out of a desire to be closer to God.
We find then that our hearts are desperately sick and deceitful above all things . Though we may long to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, we find ourselves unable to do so the way we should. Like Paul we ‘have the desire to do what is right but not the ability to carry it out’ and are left asking ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?’ [Romans 7:18,24]. Like Paul though we know the answer to our question is Jesus, who died for sinners such as ourselves. How blessed we are if we know of such a great salvation.
We all long to be blessed but it isn’t only in receiving God’s good gifts that we are blessed. I, at least, am one who needs to be reminded what it really means to be blessed. I far too easily forget what Psalm 84 teaches us, that the blessedness that is known by those who dwell in the house of the LORD is for those who praise God, and not for those who merely seek to enjoy his good gifts without any regard for the one from whom all good things come. [Psalm 84:4]
Blessedness isn’t, however, something we must wait until we are in heaven to enjoy. On the contrary it is something we can experience today. And, since it isn’t measured in terms of worldly pleasures, we can enjoy it regardless of our current circumstances. That means, and sometimes I need to remind myself of this, I don’t need to be watching cricket to be happy.
The writer of Psalm 84 says that the blessed are those in whose hearts are the highways to Zion. The blessed are, therefore, those who know that they are on their way to their eternal, heavenly home. They are the ones whose strength is in the LORD, the ones who go from strength to strength, the ones who rejoice, even as they travel through the ‘vale of tears’, because they know that they will one day, unquestionably appear before God. [Psalm 84:5-7]
And blessing comes to those who, as they travel, walk in the way of the Lord. Psalm 119 begins like this
‘Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the LORD! Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways!’
Here then is another challenge for me, one that is born out of a realisation that my salvation doesn’t stop with my justification, one that is born out of an appreciation that I need to be sanctified too. Whilst it is wonderfully true that I am blessed in knowing that I am now justified, counted righteous in Christ, there is also blessing in obedience. As I am sanctified there is blessing to be known in the keeping of God’s law, in the living of a holy life and in walking blamelessly on the journey home.
Inevitably I will, at best, be only partially successful, there will always remain a need, on my part, for an ongoing repentance and, on God’s part, his gracious forgiveness. But even so there is blessing in the struggle.
Psalm 84 closes by saying that the one who trusts in the LORD is blessed. [Psalm 84:12] As well as trusting him for our salvation, trusting God includes trusting that his commands are good. My life needs to hold these twin truths simultaneously such that, whilst I must never imagine that my works will save me, neither must I think that my good works don’t matter. After all ‘faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead’. [James 2:17].
Therefore, as well as enjoying the blessing of being his people, may we all also know the blessing of walking in his ways – may we know the blessing of the journey every bit as much as we will one day enjoy the blessing of dwelling in his house, ever singing there his praise!
May our home be where our hearts are – and may our hearts be first and foremost with God. May we long for the courts of the Lord even as we seek to enjoy leading lives that are good, not only in terms of the gifts we receive from the giver of every good thing, but also in the way we try to be obedient to him.
May we then, long for the pavilion whilst endeavouring to enjoy a good innings.