Message 18, Optional Session: God with Us:
One great theme of the Bible is God’s presence with His people, and God was present with His people during the Reformation. This session considers what God’s presence with His people meant for His people then, as well as what it means for us today and for the future.
It is wonderful to be back with you, and I have a new phrase for Lee that I learned from a colleague of mine over, over many years. You, at the optional sessions are really not the elect. You are the select of the elect.
And, so you are to be much commended for being here with us, and I always look forward to this conference. It’s a wonderful time to learn, to listen, to grow in faith, and to think about wonderful thoughts and of course this being the Reformation year, I think Ligonier has really outdone itself with its vision of wanting us to talk not just about the Reformation as something past, but to talk about the Reformation as that which should help chart our future.
So that we are looking forward more than we’re looking backward. We need to look back to learn from the past, and that’s critical, but we want to take what we’ve learned so that we can live for Christ in the future. So that our lives can be different and so that we can bear a witness that will help others to be different, because they know the Savior, and so I am delighted to have this marvelous topic, God with us.
I was tempted to say something mean about Chris Larson, but he’s not here. His wife is, so I’ll be better behaved than usual, which means slightly duller than usual. Chris usually gives me really bad titles. But this is such a great title I hardly know what to do with it. It’s a huge title, a huge subject. In a sense you could almost put that phrase over the whole Bible, couldn’t you? “God with us.” “God with us” when He created us and walked with us in the garden of the cool of the day.
What an intimate fellowship that must have been with God, just strolling by, stopping to chat. That may be overstating it. He was still holy, He was still majestic, He was still sovereign, but that intimacy of contact that God established with the creatures He made to bear His image, and then our first parents ruined it.
And so there was alienation, there was distance, and one could say that the whole message of the Bible is how God comes back to us. God does not leave us in our situation that we are against Him, but He comes because He’s for us. And, so it’s a huge topic. We could look at the whole Bible. How does the Bible end? It ends with God making His dwelling place with man. I
t ends with His people being in the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, come down from heaven where they can see Him face to face. And so, God is at work not only restoring what we had in the garden, but bringing it even to a higher and greater and grander level of fellowship and contact that we can enjoy with Him.
And so, in twenty minutes I could summarize the Bible. Or we could just step back and talk about theology. “God with us,” turns to any number of theological topics. It turns to the topic of omnipresence, doesn’t it? God is always with us. Psalm 139 in a sense, is a meditation on that.
God is with us even when we don’t want Him to be. “Where can I flee from your presence O Lord? If I reach the highest heavens, Thou art there. If I go to the deepest hell, Thou art there.” In a sense, whether we want it or not, God is with us. There will come a day when the wicked will cry to the mountains to fall on them so that God will not be with them, but they will not escape Him. He will be with them. That’s a very sober thought, isn’t it?
But most of the time in the Bible the reflection on God with us is a reflection on God for us. And that’s what I’d like you to think with me a little bit, now. We’re going to look in this conference, we’ve already started, we’ll continue to do this at some very big issues, some very big historical characters and events, some grand theological topics.
But I think it’s important we don’t forget that the Reformation is also very much about the reality of God with my soul, of God with me, of God caring for me. You were just, most of you were hearing about ‘The Legacy of Luther’ book, and Luther frequently in his contact with his wife bore testimony to that. Because, Katherine Luther was a bit of a worrier. And Martin could be too, but, he felt the responsibility as her husband and as her pastor to offer good advice, and you know how wives love good advice from their husbands. They look forward to that. They anticipate that.
And so it was with Martin and Katherine, and sometimes Katherine would worry so much and Luther would say to her, “Oh, has God gone away? Is He not hearing prayers today? And of course, sometimes when Luther was really low, Katherine would dress in black and say, “I’m mourning today.” And Martin would say, “For whom are you mourning?” And she would say, “I’m mourning for God, He must be dead the way you’re acting.”
Well, you see they were reflecting on the way a knowledge of God should be a personal contact with God that makes a difference in the way we understand the world. And there’s a wonderful reflection on that, that I’d like us to turn to this afternoon in Psalm 56. Psalm 56. Where we have marvelously blessed truths preserved for us about the soul with God, when God is for us, in Jesus Christ.
Psalm 56, I’m going to read verses 8-11. This is God’s own Word. “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God whose word I praise, in the Lord whose word I praise, in God I trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Is that not a glorious confession of faith? Is that not a glorious summary in one sense of what it means, that God is with us because God is for us? The psalmist here is meditating on how he can have assurance that God remembers him. Remembers him particularly in difficulty. “You have kept count of my tossings.”
David seems to be reflecting back on a time when he was in flight, in fear for his life, sleeping in the wilderness, no doubt tossing and turning on the rocks of the desert. And he said, “Every one of those times I rolled over and groaned, you kept track. You were with me.” And when David, in desperation and fear and alarm and grief, wept before the Lord, David says, “You put my tears in your bottle.”
That has to be one of the most beautiful, poetic images in Scripture. For God’s people, not one tear is ever shed that God does not remember. That God does not know about, and care about and draw close to us. Isn’t that amazing? Can you think of the tears in your lives? It’s as if God was standing so close to you He could catch each one as it fell, in His bottle, to preserve it, to remember it because He cares for you.
Are they not all in your book? All of these are different ways of talking about how God cares, how God remembers, how God is close, how He is not distant. How He hears our prayers and knows our suffering and draws near to us and loves us. That’s what’s being said here. And Luther, as he would read this passage, would say to us, “And we know that, we’re assured of that, we can have confidence of that.” Because God has given us His own Son. And we see His face for us in the Son, we see His love for us, in the Son. The Son’s name is God with us. Emmanuel. That’s how much God loved us that while we were still against Him, He was for us.
And so sent His own Son to show His love, and show His care. And to die to take away our sins so that we could be His own dear people. And He wants us to have that kind of confidence, that kind of assurance.
When Luther was a young man and was considering becoming a monk there was a proverb in his day. And the proverb was, “Doubt makes the monk.” And it tried to capture the thought that people become monks and nuns because they doubt their relationship with God, and so they want to give themselves full time, all the time, to trying to figure out what their relationship to God is.
How does God feel about them? How does God react to them? But what Luther discovered is that the longer and harder he worked to try to come — to try to overcome his doubts, the more filled with doubt he was. This was not working, this monk thing. Samuel Johnson would later observe of monasticism, “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.” And, that was certainly the case for Luther in the monastery.
Doubt, doubt, doubt. But what Luther discovered in the face of Jesus Christ, what Luther discovered testified to throughout the Scripture, was God does not want a doubting people. He want a confident people. He wants an assured people. He wants a people who can say with David, “This I know, that God is for me.” This I know that God is for me.
Now, how can you know that? You can’t know it because of your own strength or your own wisdom or your own holiness. You could only know it if God has reached out to you in grace, to bring you to faith in His Son. But when you’ve known the Son, when God has come to be with you in the Son, then whatever the troubles, whatever the circumstances, whatever the loss, whatever the pain, we can say, with David, “This I know, God is for me.”
It’s one of the great blessings of the Reformation. This is one of the great blessings that can come to God’s people in every age. Now, we must never say this in a presumptuous way. I mean a real danger in the contemporary Christian church is that people say, “Well of course God is for me. I like me so much God must like me that much.” That’s to utterly miss the point. That’s to pervert the gospel. God doesn’t like you because you like you. God doesn’t like you because you ought to be liked. God likes you in spite of you. Because of Jesus Christ. If you’re in Christ.
And that was the great — the great message in many ways of the Reformation. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself so that every one of us who is reconciled to God through Christ is able to say, “This I know, God is for me.”
And so, when David was persecuted, when he was in exile, when he was afraid, he could be restored, he could be renewed by remembering God is for me. And so he can speak with this wonderful confidence, “In God I trust. I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Well, maybe some of you are thinking, “I don’t know, man can do a lot to us.”
You remember that after Martin Luther made his famous, “Here I Stand” speech, before the emperor, and was dismissed from the imperial presence so that the emperor could meet with his advisors to render a verdict on whether Luther would be declared an outlaw or not, be subject to capital punishment or not. As he walked out of the chamber the imperial bodyguards muttered to Luther under their breath, “To the flames, to the flames.”
And Martin Luther for years after that believed that at any moment the imperial guards might appear at his door and carry him off to execution. He long believed that he would die a martyr. But that would not for a moment have stopped Luther from saying, “I trust in God. I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
What could man do to us? They could take us and nail us to a cross, couldn’t they? It’s happened before. But what Luther would want to say today is: “But it didn’t work, did it?” They may have nailed Him to the cross, but on Easter morning he said, “I trust in God. I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
And what our Savior has done for us he will do in us and through us, as we testify to His greatness, to His love, to His care. He never forgets us, He never abandons us, He never stops hearing our prayers. And how do we know that? Well, there are probably a number of good answers for that question. But the one that David seems to focus on here is verse ten of Psalm 56. “In God, whose word I praise, in the Lord, whose word I praise, in God I trust.”
How’d we learn to trust God? How’d we learn that He is for us? How do we learn that He puts our tears in His bottle? How do we know that we are redeemed in His Son? Through His Word. That’s what the psalmist focus is on here. Through His Word.
That’s why I thought what Dr. Ferguson had to say to us on worship was so powerful, so critical. It is not primarily what we see in worship, or what we touch in worship, it’s what we hear in worship that matters. It’s when we hear the reading of the Scripture. Dr. Ferguson was giving you tests for a good worship service. Might add a couple more to the list.
How much is the Bible read in our worship services? If we don’t have time to read the Bible we don’t have very good worship services. And does the sermon really help us understand the Bible that was read or does it wander off into some other interesting but not very Word-centered directions? It’s the Word that brings God to us because it’s The Word of God. You know most answers to most theological questions are really pretty simple. Why is the Bible important? Because it’s God’s Word.
If instead of calling it the Word of God, we said, “It’s God speaking,” would we have a different feeling towards it? Do we have a different feeling about R.C Sproul’s books that we do about R.C. Sproul in the podium? Well, maybe we do. That’s OK. But the Word of God as we have it inscripturated for us is God speaking to us.
Now, another great theme of the Reformation is indeed that the Spirit has to work to open our eyes, to melt our hearts, to bring Christ to us. But the great Reformation inside is that the Spirit works through the Word, the Spirit works with the Word. He does not work apart from the Word. He uses the Word. The Spirit is the Spirit of God, the Word is the Word of God. The Word of God contains the Christ of God. All these come together to bring God to us, to make God with us. And that’s why listening is at the heart of the religion that God has revealed to us. It is the way that God comes to be with us.
A number of years ago, friend of mine was preaching on a somewhat controversial subject and he entitled his sermon, ‘Don’t Pray, Obey.’ He got in a lot of trouble for that sermon. And there are a variety of ways in which that could be misunderstood or misapplied but what he meant by that is, when God has spoken clearly in His Word to you, you don’t need to pray asking the question, “What is your will, O Lord?” Because what you’re really doing when you pray that way is, “Lord, can you help me find a way around Your Word?” Don’t pray like that, obey.
Now, you may need to pray to accept the Word. You may need to pray for strength to fulfill the Word. But when God has spoken clearly in His Word you don’t need to pray as to whether what He has said is true or not. Don’t pray, obey. Because the Word brings God to us and that means that in all of the circumstances of our lives, all the struggles of our lives, those moments when perhaps we fear that God is dead for us, that God has forgotten us, that God had gone away for a while.
Now, most of us are too pious to say that, but we feel it. Why is God doing this? Why? Why? Why? Preachers always tell you don’t ask why. It’s because they don’t know. But God never — it never — God — bothers God that His people ask why. The Psalms are full of whys. As people struggle honestly, emotionally before the Lord. We think of the greatest why in history. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
You know what John Calvin wrote in his commentary on that verse, Psalm 22:1? He said, “What Christian has not every day of his life asked, ‘God, why have you forsaken me?’” Brought home to me how much more spiritual Calvin is than I. But still, we’ve had that feeling, haven’t we? Where is God? Why is He doing this? He seems away, He seems to have abandoned me. This doesn’t make any sense. And how do we find comfort? How do we find assurance? How do we find God close to us? By turning again, and again, and again to His Word.
The evil men were after David, he wasn’t paranoid. But in the midst of his flight and his fear, he was able to say, “God is for me. God is for me. I trust in God. I shall not be afraid for what can man do to me?” The Word helps put everything back in place, everything back in perspective. Because God by his Word comes to us, and we know that God is not only with us but God is for us. Let’s pray together.
O Lord our God we pray that every person here might have legitimately that confidence that David has, to be able to say, “This I know, God is for me.” That each of us here might be able to say that because we’ve been redeemed in the blood of Christ. And our prayer is, O Lord, that the deep-seated confidence in your love that is ours, might be a light shining in a world full of fears and that we might be able to say to many around us, “Come with me for I have found a Savior.” Hear us and bless us and encourage us we pray, in Jesus’ name, amen.