November 26, 2000
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
At our Regional Conference this past April, one of the musical teams introduced to the conference a song which began, God is good, all the time.... We sang it a number of times, and I think people enjoyed the song because God is like that. After all, in a place like Psalm 73, Asaph says, Surely God is good to ... the pure in heart. But the very next words speak of a problem, But as for me... I had almost slipped. The reason the Psalmist was having trouble was not that his own life was going wrong: bad things happening to a good person; the reason the Psalmist was having trouble is this: he saw good things happening to bad people. And so he asks, What is going on in this crazy, mixed-up world? And that brings us to this mornings sermon, When Good Things Happen to Bad People.
You know how I struggle with sermon titles. Ive talked about it before. My titles in the bulletin and the pages where I plan my sermons a year or more in advance run from prosaic to irrelevant because they finally dont fit, and yet every once in a while, I get a title I really like. I love the title of this weeks sermon. I put the title in the bulletin before I left for Nashville a week ago. While I was in Nashville at the meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, I was looking at the Westminster/John Knox book display and there was a new commentary on the Psalms. So I pulled it down from the shelf, turned to Psalm 73 and this commentator had stolen my title. He had used for Psalm 73 the title, When Good Things Happen To Bad People.
Of course, its so appropriate to this Psalm when you know Rabbi Kushners book, When Bad Things Happen To Good People. So this title struck us both. Lets see how this lesson works out in the Psalm. Psalm 73 admits one of the great problems of life. The Psalmist, like us, knew evil people who are wealthy and live in big homes, and who have the national dream. While people who have tried to keep their hearts pure, like the Psalmist in verse 13, live a life where one tough thing after another happens. How can bad people prosper?
Psalm 73 begins - and ends - with a confession of faith. So the Psalmist is a man of faith. Verses 1-16 are about how a person of faith almost lost his faith. It is possible, you know. Maybe some of you have been down that road. The people the Psalmist is having trouble with, and they are affecting his faith, are not atheists. In verse 11, their argument is that God doesnt know what is going on, not that there isnt a God. They arent atheists, but they are evil.
We can trace the Psalmists progress in this issue by noting the three times the word surely appears in this chapter. Verse 1, Surely God is good to Israel. He is also good to the pure in heart, or to the upright, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it. That is the confession of faith that stands at the beginning of this Psalm. This is parallel to you saying, I really trust God in my life. Now I know you believe that, so you are starting out where the Psalmist does. But what happens? He becomes envious of wicked people.
In verse 13 the Psalmist comes to the nadir of his experience of trying to be a person of faith, Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure. Theres the underlining word again, surely; and theres the Psalmists own statement about the unfairness of life. I remember a time when in a class where there was a particularly unobservant teacher the students around me were cheating on a test, sharing answers and correcting one another. I refused to enter in to that. I got a B while, most of the cheaters got As. My line to myself was, well at least Ive got moral integrity, I just didnt get an A. So what is more important, good grades or moral integrity? Now Grad schools cant measure moral integrity. They can only measure grades. So who wins? Thats the place where the Psalmist is in verse 13. The bad guys seem to be getting the best of it.
There is one other part to the situation. Notice verse 15. In spite of being troubled by the prosperity of bad people in the world, the Psalmist is concerned about the children in the community. When do you talk to children about experiences in your life? Do you take them through the uncertainties and hesitations you go through? When you are trying to sort things out, it may be too soon to talk to children. Let them see you pray for guidance, like in verse 1. Let them see you not do so well as others but still come to worship God like in verse 17, and then pass on your story to them. We have a responsibility to others, particularly children. We cant talk with only our own hurts in mind.
When Gods word came to Joel in Joel 1, Joel asked, has God spoken to anyone recently? No. But now hes speaking, so, tell it to your children that God is speaking. They need to hear Him.
We had a new rug delivered to our home recently. We paid $20 to have the carpet company put it down in our room. They were to move two pieces of furniture, put the carpet down, and move the furniture back on top of the carpet. When the truck came to deliver the carpet, there was only one man in the truck. He said he hadnt been told there was furniture to move, so I helped him move the furniture, put the carpet down and move the furniture back. And as we worked, we talked. He was a Christian from Ramallah in Palestine. He had moved to the States to escape the persecution from both Jews and Muslims in Ramallah. He was proud of how his children were doing in school here. They love to read, he said. I need to learn to read, he added, and to spell.
So we talked and what could have been a time of outrage because we paid $20 to have them do this work, and I could have said, why should I help you? turned out to be a time of good conversation that encouraged both of us. Whats $20? Thats the kind of story you can tell your children, because all of us are trying to figure out how to live in life. The issue is, do we live with integrity? Or do we live holding tightly onto money and not letting people take advantage of us?
The end of how the Psalmist almost lost his faith is in verse 16, when I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me. And then something happened that brings us to the second part of this Psalm, verses 17-28, which we might title, How the Psalmist found his faith again.
It is in verse 17 that the change comes. Even as his questions reach their height, the Psalmist goes to a worship service and suddenly there, as he worships, God gives him His perspective on what is going on: Till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood....
What does the Psalmist understand there in worship? Let me answer that by telling a story about my grandparenting skills. One of the great wonders of the world is to watch grandchildren learn. I remember playing with trucks on the floor with Wil, our middle grandchild, when he was one. Id roll this truck to him along the floor, and hed push it back. Sometimes for him it would go a few inches; sometimes, all the way over to me. One time I pushed the truck right past him and it rolled under a chair. He turned around to find the truck, but didnt see it, so he went off to do the next thing in his busy 1 year old life.
Karen was sitting nearby, our daughter who is a pre-school teacher. I looked up at her, asking what happened. Thats when I found out about object permanence. Heres what Karen explained, When Wil cant see the truck, it doesnt exist. Now, I understand that. Some people in the Grantham Church are like that. When God isnt working wonderful things in their lives, they focus on something else. And thats what is happening to the Psalmist in verse 17. Something is wrong with God, he thinks, but then he comes with a lot of other believers to worship God, and something in that worship experience makes the end of evil people and the presence of God visible to him again.
There is a way you can notice that in the text. From verses 1 - 17, the Psalmist talks about God. Beginning in verse 18, he begins to speak to God. Verse 18 is also where the third surely comes in the passage. Verse 18, Surely you place the wicked on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin.
First his faith in God, verse 1, surely.... Then, verse 13, his depression, surely.... Now in verse 18, at the third surely, object permanence returns. He sees where evil people are going to end up. Theyve been living in a dream. Nice dream while it lasted, but it isnt going to last. There had been something in the bitterness of his heart and soul which made the Psalmist insensitive to God. But something in worship of God and in being with other believers made the Psalmist open again to Gods perspective. In fact temptation often come when a person is alone. So it is that in a community of people, a person can often find help for a way through.
But in worship, the Psalmist, through the influence of the Holy Spirit - the Psalmist doesnt say this, but we know through the New Testament writings that it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to Gods people - the Holy Spirit shows the Psalmist and us, in verse 23, that God holds us close to him and verse 24, that God guides us and that God receives us into glory. And the result in peoples lives from the time of the Psalmist on is that testimony of verses 25 and 26, In heaven whom have I but you? On earth, I desire nothing other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail - as they almost did in verses 1-16, but God is the strength of my heart and he is my portion. To come through to that conclusion, after the trauma of the first 16 verses is remarkable. It comes when a person has a fresh vision of God. Are you praying in your life for a fresh vision of God? I need to do that. For me, I find fresh vision as I study Gods word and you have some of the fruits of that as I preach.
What is the power of worship in your life? Is worship a thing you feel you have to do? For then you cant expect to be renewed in worship. Do you delight in worship because you meet God there?
One thing we can notice in this passage is how the Psalmist uses the word heart. For the Psalmist the heart is that deep inner place of a person where he feels true things about himself and about God. Notice how the heart is affected over the course of this Psalm, and use this revelation as confidence that God is reaching out to your heart.
Verse 1, God is good to those who are pure in heart.
Verse 7, speaking of the evil people who disturb him, their hearts overflow with fatness.
Verse 13, All in vain (so the Psalmist thinks) I have kept my heart pure.
Verse 21, Now that the Psalmist has come to worship and he knows that something has happened in his heart, he confesses that his heart was pricked by the Spirit even as he worshiped.
Verse 26, and finally there is this great confession which can be your confession too, my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart.
What is going on in the deep recesses of your life? God can change you even there. He wants to give you the sort of confidence for your life that this nearly undone Psalmist knew. God is the strength of my heart.