Psalm 34 is also like a children's song in the way it intends to teach to children (v. 11) the "fear of the Lord": Proper speech, departure from evil and doing good, and the pursuit of peace. Today, this message sounds counter cultural. Our culture teaches the good life consists of driving the classiest car, being surrounded by beautiful people, carrying the proper credit card, drinking the right beverages, and generally enjoying oneself to the fullest every moment of the day and night. Millions of advertising dollars are spent ever day to try to convince us that life does consist in the abundance of possessions in direct contrast to Jesus, who said: "Life does not consist of the abundance of things." (Luke 12:15). Of course, we only hear Jesus message proclaimed once a week or so whereas we hear the culture's message proclaimed hundreds of times a day. We are trained from birth to be good consumers.
In striking contrast to our culture, Psalm 34 proclaims life begins with respect for God and God's ways. Life is a gift from God for which God makes gracious provisions (Psalm 34:8-9). Our culture fosters greed, but the psalmist fosters gratitude (Psalm 34:1-3). By permitting us only to show our happy faces in public our culture denies us the full experience of being human. Is it a crime to be sometimes sad about our human experience? The psalmist thinks not. He wants to break us out of our cultural prison and let us run free into a new life with God. The psalmist wants us to be able to withstand the onslaught of evil that is perpetrated against us and the rest of humanity. While the New Age religion says "Don't worry, be happy!" - and proclaims positive thinking as the solution to every illness, listen to the psalmist: "This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble." (Psalm 34:6)
The psalmist experiences life amid suffering, not beyond it. The psalmist's faith is the kind Jesus embodied. It's a faith that knows the paradox that to lose one's life for God's sake is truly to find it (see Mark 8:35). This is a consistent stream of thought in the Bible. The psalmist seeks to sober us up, saying, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all." (19) The psalmist suffers, Jesus suffers, and so did the Apostle Paul. We know how Jesus suffered on the cross. Paul describes his suffering like this:
Five times I have received 39 lashes. 3 times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. 3 times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
Despite his incredible suffering, Paul still says: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39) Like Paul, the psalmist challenges us not just to take his word for it, but to take the taste test: "O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him." (34:8) The psalmist seems to say, "God delivered me from my fears. Take the taste test yourself. Seek the Lord and see if God will not deliver you from your fears."
This summer my family and I took a rafting ride down the Colorado River. Before we started one of the guides strongly encouraged to pack light for the trip. "If you don't have to have it, don't put it in the canoe," he said. At one point, the guides took all the rafters off the river. We climbed ashore and they showed us a tiny log cabin that was once used to board lodgers on the wagon trail who were waiting their turn to cross the river. That old abandoned cabin seemed to be full of old stories to share.
Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of Thomas Hearne, who, "in his journey to the mouth of the Coppermine River, wrote that a few days after they had started on their expedition, a party of Indians stole most of their supplies. His comment on the apparent misfortune was: 'The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day's journey was more swift and pleasant.'
Hearne was in route to something very interesting and important; and the loss of a few sides of bacon and a couple of bags of flour meant nothing more than an easing of the load. Had Hearne been holed in somewhere, in a cabin, resolved to spend his last days eking out an existence, and living on capital previously collected, the loss of some of his stores by plunder would probably have worried him almost to death."
How we respond to "losing" some of our resources for God's work depends upon whether we are on the move or waiting for our last stand. (Lloyd C. Douglas, The Living Faith.)
During this stewardship season our challenge is to take the taste test with our money. Stewardship Dedication Sunday will arrive on November 8. This is a taste test in the sense that you can hear all the sermons in the world but you must take the taste test and try tithing for yourself.
Life is complicated. The righteous have plenty of troubles (15, 17). Faithfulness to God will mean anything but a carefree life! So the good news is not that if we tithe to the Lord then the Lord will spare us from pain and disappointment. Rather, the good news is that God is with "the brokenhearted" and the "crushed in spirit" (18). So, "life" will be experienced in the midst of suffering, not beyond it. Indeed, God will be experienced in the midst of suffering. Fear of God is rewarded not in a material, mechanistic sense but with nearness of God. To take refuge in God is to belong to God and that is what it means to live. To separate ourselves from God is the essence of wickedness and that is what it means to die. To be a servant of God (22) means to recognize God's sovereign claim on one's life. Thus to be a servant of God is to live in dependence on God, which is the essence of righteousness.
Tithing is not an insurance policy against going to hell after we die. Neither is tithing provide us a guarantee that we will not experience suffering in this world. Tithing is simply a spiritual discipline, a way to kneel before God and claim our dependence on God for all we have. Giving a percentage back to the Lord is a way of acknowledging that 100% of what we have comes from God and that we are continually dependent upon God's grace in order to survive.
I would like to take the psalmist challenge and make it more specific to this church at this time. I challenge you to take the taste test: Give a tithe to the Lord by pledging to support the ministry of Christ's church. If you take the taste test by tithing to the Lord, what you will perceive is that God is good. When we entrust our lives to God, we find we are, in the psalmist's language: "Radiant," "happy," and "fully provided for." (8-9)