READ : Psalm 27:1-14
There are all sorts of good things in life, items we want, goals we pursue. Let me tell you today about the very best objective of all, the most desirable thing in the world.
The book of Psalms has always been the hymn book of the people of God. These 150 Psalms were originally written to be sung, and for thousands of years Christians have followed Jews in doing so. So the Psalms really is a book of Songs for the People of God.
DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO MEA
Several years ago I had a chance to fulfill one of my life’s little ambitions. I visited the city of Oxford in England. I had long been attracted to that city because of my love for English writers, especially C. S. Lewis, the Christian scholar who lived and worked in Oxford for most of his life. When I first saw Oxford’s famous spires from a distance, my heart began to beat faster. As I came into the center of the city, dominated by the university’s walled and cloistered colleges, I marveled at their beauty and antiquity. I strolled through the garden of Magdalene College, where Lewis lived and taught for nearly thirty years. I entered the university church, St. Mary’s, where John Henry Newman served a hundred and fifty years ago. A century before that John Wesley had preached a sermon from the pulpit of St. Mary’s Church to the assembled dignitaries of the University which helped to spark the renewal movement that came to be known as the Great Awakening. Looking at all the magnificent buildings I noticed over and over Oxford University’s Latin motto inscribed in stone: Dominus illuminatio mea, “The Lord is my light.”
Those are the opening words of the 27th Psalm, whose first verse says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?” For centuries this was believed at Oxford and taken literally. The Lord is our light; only in the light that comes from knowing God can we see what is the truth, understand real wisdom, and know what is to be believed. The Lord is our salvation; only by putting our trust in God can we be saved, both from the difficulties and dangers of this life, and for all eternity in the world to come. One of the things I especially wanted to see in Oxford was the Martyrs’ Memorial, a graceful stone column adorned with statues of three great English Reformers: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer. The memorial honoring these sixteenth-century martyrs was erected in the nineteenth century, just a few hundred meters from the spot where they were burned at the stake in the Oxford High Street because of their adherence to the evangelical teaching of the Bible known historically as the Reformed faith. My first thought in looking at the memorial was that it would never happen nowadays. No one in the civilized world would be executed today over a disagreement about Christian doctrine – which I’m sure we’d all agree is a good thing!
But then I reflected further. Even if someone were martyred today for their Christian faith, a place like Oxford would never erect a public memorial to them. Modern elite universities no longer pay tribute to evangelical Christians for any reason. The fact is, Oxford no longer believes what its own motto proclaims on every stone, seal and crest: that the Lord, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the Light and Salvation of all humankind. And they certainly aren’t unique in abandoning that faith. Secularism and pluralism are now the dominant philosophies among the ruling and educated classes of the post-Christian world.
But believers still stoutly maintain that the Lord is our light and salvation. What does that mean? Well, first of all it means that God is the source of all truth. Light is a symbol for truth. The Lord illuminates our minds the way light dispels the darkness when we walk into a room and throw the switch. We really can’t know ultimate truth unless we know God. To say the Lord is our light and salvation also means that God is the source of all purity and goodness. “God is light,” wrote the apostle John, “in him there is no darkness at all.” And it means that God is the source of all real hope. He alone can save us from every trouble, from the darkness that’s closing in, from meaninglessness, despair, and death itself. The prophet Isaiah predicted how this would happen when Jesus Christ came into the world:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
And the glory of the Lord rises upon you…
No longer will violence be heard in your land,
Nor ruin and destruction within your borders,
but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise
The sun will no more be your light by day,
nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the Lord your God will be your glory . . .
The Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end.
Isaiah 60:1, 18-20 (niv)
Recently I read about a book written by a woman named Deidre Sullivan. The book’s title is What Do We Mean When We Say God? Sullivan had interviewed thousands of people to find out who or what they understood God to be, and produced two hundred different personal definitions of God from her research. Some examples:
- A California attorney who said, “Sometimes when I meditate God comes up as my grandmother with a frying pan in her hand.”
- The late science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov who dismissed God as “a convenient invention of the human mind.”
- “God is a kind word, a helping hand,” according to an Illinois woman.
- Or this from the president of something called the Amalgamated Flying Saucer Clubs of America: “God is the electro-magnetic field surrounding the earth out of which everything is composed.”
What those quotes illustrate, besides the appalling spiritual ignorance of the American public, is the fragmentation of our culture’s belief system. Two hundred and fifty years of Enlightenment rationalism and individualism have convinced people that personal opinion can be substituted for the knowledge of the truth. In fact, many people no longer even believe in objective truth. There is only personal opinion, they think, and whatever anyone chooses to believe must be OK.
We may think of idolatry as existing only in faraway times and places, as something belonging just to the biblical world or to foreign lands and primitive societies. But the fact is that in contemporary America we are rapidly becoming a society with not just dozens, or even hundreds, but millions of gods, as individuals increasingly define God according to their own taste or inclination.
But, in fact, there is only one God. He is not an idol. He isn’t just the product of somebody’s imagination. He truly exists. And he exists as he is in himself, as he describes himself to be. You can’t just define God the way you imagine him to be. He is not a myth, or a falsehood. No. God is Light. He is ultimate truth. God is Salvation. He is the only source of hope. God’s word is true, shedding light to scatter all our delusions. God’s grace in Christ is what rescues us from the judgment we deserve.
“THIS IS WHAT I SEEK”
But there is more to this song of confidence in the Lord who is our light and salvation. It’s not just that he illuminates our darkness and leads us to his truth and life. It isn’t only the protection from our enemies, and the deliverance from danger, that cause us to sing God’s praises. No. There is something praiseworthy and desirable about God himself, as he is in himself. We shouldn’t just want God for what he can do for us. If we really know him, we’ll want him, just because of who he is, just because he is God. And there is nothing in all the universe, and no one in all creation, better to have and know than God.
“One thing I ask of the Lord,” says the psalmist. “This is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.” The singer of the 27th Psalm doesn’t want all sorts of things anymore. He doesn’t want cars and houses and money and business success. No, this man has outgrown all those passing desires; he’s found something better. Now he wants just one thing: “that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. . . .” If you read that 4th verse of Psalm 27 casually, it sounds like this man is saying he wants to go live in a church building for the rest of his life. But that isn’t what he means. He’s talking about his desire for God himself. He’s tried everything else in life; now he realizes that what he truly wants – what he has always wanted beneath and behind all the superficial appetites of his earlier life – is to know and experience the reality of the living God. All our other human desires are really lesser forms of our desire for knowing God. I like the way this verse is translated in one of the very old English versions: “One thing have I desired of the Lord . . . even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord (Prayer Book Version).
“The fair beauty of the Lord” – I love that phrase. Not just beauty, but fair beauty, as if to say God’s attractiveness goes far beyond anything we have ever known or seen. Think of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring scene you have ever witnessed, a mountain sunset, for example, or the majestic crashing of the waves on a rocky sea-coast. God is infinitely more beautiful. Think of the most delirious joy you can imagine – scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final, say, or winning an Olympic gold medal. Knowing God makes you infinitely happier than that. Think of the greatest moment in your life, perhaps your wedding day, or the birth of your child. Living with God in his presence is a never-ending succession of moments that infinitely surpass any of those.
The truth is that of all the experiences we find most desirable on earth, none can begin to compare with the experience of seeing God. I suppose most of us would agree that the best thing life on earth could offer would be to enjoy good health and comfortable means while having fun, doing rewarding work, and living in a loving and happy family. But even all those things put together offer only the faintest hint of what living with God in heaven will be like. As the great eighteenth-century American theologian Jonathan Edwards put it:
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, to fully enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.
Is this what you want? It’s what I want, more than anything else in the world: to know the true and living God, who is the real object of every desire, the satisfaction of every hunger, the substance to which every shadow pleasure here below points. To know him, live with him, and enjoy him forever.
If that is what you want, then there’s only one way to have it. Put your trust in Jesus Christ. Pray to him now, offering yourself and your life to him entirely, sincerely. Do it today!