This sermon is part of the sermon series "Really?". See series.
Why are you the way you are? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Why aren't you like somebody else? Is it your genes? In 2003 the Human Genome Project, the complete mapping of our genetic code, was completed. In addition to all sorts of genes that determine physical appearance—like eye color or hair color—and genes that determine susceptibility to diseases, scientists found what the press has dubbed a "happiness gene." Apparently, your relative happiness is set by one particular gene, and you're stuck in that range. We also now know that there's an IQ gene. We know that there are genes that affect our tendencies toward addictions, toward aggression or the lack thereof. Some even suggest that there is a genetic component to sexual orientation. This popular notion, that we are our genes, has had profound implications. Some philosophers ask if the notion of free will is a coherent, meaningful idea. Lawyers for certain violent offenders have mounted the genetic defense, arguing that since we aren't responsible for our genes, we can't be held responsible for the dispositions and actions that those genes produce. That defense has not been effective yet, but it's only a matter of time before it is. The biological basis of sexuality stands at the core of current arguments surrounding the mainstreaming of homosexuality and gay marriage. Is our identity determined by our genes?
Conversely, some people argue that we are the way we are not because of our genes but because of our upbringing and environment. Prior to Charles Darwin and his cousin, Francis Galton, who coined the phrase "nature versus nurture," this was the majority view. John Locke taught that at birth, all humans have a tabula rasa, a "blank slate," to be written on by the nurture of parents, family, education, and environment. Our growing knowledge of genetics has certainly debunked the idea that nurture is the sole cause of who you are. But it hasn't done away with the influence of the environment. Everything from height to career choices, to the language that you speak to your religious choices, is clearly affected, even determined by, environmental factors, not genes. Who we are is determined neither by just nature nor by just nurture. We are neither just our genes nor just our education and upbringing. Rather, we are a complex interaction of both. From the perspective of our culture, it is your parents' fault. They gave you your genes and they nurtured you.
But is it really that simple? Can we sing along with Lady Gaga, "Born that Way?" Or can we join Harry Chapin in singing, "Cat's in the Cradle," and blame it on our dad? Can we sometimes choose nature and other times choose nurture, but always avoid responsibility? We have been studying some of Asaph's psalms, and we have been exploring common misconceptions some people—both inside and outside the church—have about Christianity. And this morning we come to the question of responsibility. Why am I the way I am? And is there anything I can do about it?
Today we'll be looking at Psalm 78, the second longest Psalm in the Bible, second to Psalm 119. It recounts the history of Israel from the Exodus to the reign of David. But it isn't a history for history's sake. In verse 2, the psalmist says, "I will open my mouth in parables." The gospel of Matthew quotes this verse to explain Jesus' own use of parables. Parables use something familiar and obvious—in this case, Israel's history—to explain something that's not immediately obvious: even though it is our parents' fault, we are still responsible for who we are. Some questions naturally arise: What can we do about it? And what should we do about it?
The Psalm is composed of three main sections. In the first section, verses 1 through 8, we're confronted with the burden of the present. In the second section, verses 9 through 64, the psalmist reviews the legacy of the past. In the final section, verses 65 through 72, the psalmist points us to hope for the future.
The burden of the present
Verses 1 through 8 say:
My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
He decreed statutes for Jacob
and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach their children,
so the next generation would know them,
even the children yet to be born,
and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
and would not forget his deeds
but would keep his commands.
They would not be like their ancestors—
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
whose hearts were not loyal to God,
whose spirits were not faithful to him.
In the complex interaction of our nature and our upbringing, the burden of the present really is the question, What kind of person am I? As the psalmist frames it, we have two options: Will we be like our forefathers who rebelled against God, or will we be people who put our trust in God and follow him faithfully? Will we be rebels like dad, or will we be faithful?
If you're here this morning and you're not a Christian, you may think, Those can't be the only two options. I don't even consider myself a Christian. You may be looking at your own life, thinking, The important question is: Am I going to be a virtuous person. The real questions that concern me are questions like: What career will I choose, what kind of parent am I going to be, am I going to be successful, am I going to find a spouse, and am I going to get by? And if there is no God, you're right. There are lots of other ways to answer this burden. But if there is a God, then all of those other questions you're concerned about, all of those other options that you're thinking about pursuing, boil down to these two options. There are only two ways to live. If there is a God, we either live as rebels against him, or we live as followers and worshippers of him, and there is no escaping those options. That's the burden that this psalm confronts us with.
Now, notice what question is not asked. The psalmist does not ask, Will we make a decision for God? The question is not, Will we say a prayer to God? The question is, Will we trust in God, remember his deeds, and keep his commands? That's not the language of decision. That's the langue of discipleship, of a life given wholly to God. That life may begin with a decision. It may begin with a prayer. Or it might not. Regardless of how it begins, it never ends with a decision. It doesn't end with a prayer. We often confuse ourselves on this point, and we confuse others. We confuse people outside the church when we talk about a life lived in rebellion against God, and then we say that the alternative is to say a prayer, to make a decision. Those things aren't the contrast to a life of rebellion. Like a life of discipleship, rebellion may begin with a decision, but both of these options are recognized over the course of a whole life.
Too many churches in our country and around the world are filled with people who have made a decision for Jesus but haven't followed through. They prayed a prayer, but they live like rebels. And that confuses non-Christians. They think, Wait a minute, you've described for me what a life of rebellion looks like, and I see it in myself. But people in your church don't look that different from me. So why I should become a Christian? It also confuses genuine Christians who are trying hard to follow Christ. Following Christ means dying to yourself, trusting in all that Christ has given you through the Cross, and following him by picking up your own cross.
For the sake of the gospel, we want to be clear. The true counterpart to rebellion isn't a decision. It isn't a prayer. It's discipleship, a life of following Christ. This is the burden that we are faced with. Will we be disciples or will we be rebels? Notice too in this stanza what leads people to put their trust in God. Verse 5 says, "He decreed statues for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God."
God's Word declares who he is and what he has done. God uses Scripture to bring people to himself, generation after generation. As a 21st-century preacher, I find myself asking the question, When did we lose confidence in God's Word? What convinced the American church that the next generation, which is always the youth, wasn't going to be reached through God's Word? There are many preachers and churches who confess that God's Word is the power of salvation, but they give their time, attention, energy, vision, and creativity to other things: the music, the ambience, and the programs. When we think our churches must feel like a music club or shopping mall, when we think that music or affinity groups are the key to our evangelism, it is clear that we have lost our confidence in the Word of God. We have lost our confidence in the very thing that the psalmist says God uses to bring men and women to him generation after generation.
How can you trust in a God that you don't know anything about? How are people going to trust in God if they don't understand that he is praiseworthy, as the psalmist says here? How are they going to know that he has done wonders, that he is powerful, that he is merciful, unless they hear it from God's Word? Parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, youth staff, college volunteers, your job description is pretty clear: Teach the Word, preach the Word, bring boys and girls, youth and college students, everybody that will listen to you, into the sound of the voice of God speaking from his Word. Focus your lessons on God, on his magnificence, on his beauty, on his supremacy. Focus your lessons on the wonders he has done, first in creation, then in redemption and re-creation through Jesus Christ. Bring them to the Word, which is Jesus as he is revealed to us in the pages of Scripture. Only then can we have confidence that the next generation will actually trust in God as he has revealed himself.
The Bible is not a collection of moral lessons. The Bible is the self-revelation of God. It is our access to who he is, what he is like, what he has done, and what he thinks about us. If we are not bringing people to the Scriptures, then how do we know they aren't really trusting in a figment of their own imagination, something that they have created, the god that they like to think of, rather than the God who really is? What a privilege to be entrusted with the self-revelation of God, to give it to somebody else.
Spend time thinking about how to do that. I encourage you, particularly if you're teaching in our Sunday school and youth classes. Do you spend as much time trying to creatively think about how to communicate the truth of the self-revelation of God in the passage that you're teaching as you do to the craft or the activity that you're doing? Surely God is worth as much creativity as our craft projects. Give yourself to this labor. It's a high and holy calling.
Will we be rebels or will we be followers of Christ? Will we be like our forefathers or will we be different? That burden is driven by the main body of the psalm, the second section.
The legacy of the past
Verses 9 through 64 say:
The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows,
turned back on the day of battle;
they did not keep God's covenant
and refused to live by his law.
They forgot what he had done,
the wonders he had shown them.
He did miracles in the sight of their ancestors
in the land of Egypt, in the region of Zoan.
He divided the sea and led them through;
he made the water stand up like a wall.
He guided them with the cloud by day
and with light from the fire all night.
He split the rocks in the wilderness
and gave them water as abundant as the seas;
he brought streams out of a rocky crag
and made water flow down like rivers.
But they continued to sin against him,
rebelling in the wilderness against the Most High.
They willfully put God to the test
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God;
they said, "Can God really
spread a table in the wilderness?
True, he struck the rock,
and water gushed out,
streams flowed abundantly,
but can he also give us bread?
Can he supply meat for his people?"
When the LORD heard them, he was furious;
his fire broke out against Jacob,
and his wrath rose against Israel,
for they did not believe in God
or trust in his deliverance.
Yet he gave a command to the skies above
and opened the doors of the heavens;
he rained down manna for the people to eat,
he gave them the grain of heaven.
Human beings ate the bread of angels;
he sent them all the food they could eat.
He let loose the east wind from the heavens
and by his power made the south wind blow.
He rained meat down on them like dust,
birds like sand on the seashore.
He made them come down inside their camp,
all around their tents.
They ate till they were gorged—
he had given them what they craved.
But before they turned from what they craved,
even while the food was still in their mouths,
God's anger rose against them;
he put to death the sturdiest among them,
cutting down the young men of Israel.
In spite of all this, they kept on sinning;
in spite of his wonders, they did not believe.
So he ended their days in futility
and their years in terror.
Whenever God slew them, they would seek him;
they eagerly turned to him again.
They remembered that God was their Rock,
that God Most High was their Redeemer.
But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.
Yet he was merciful;
he forgave their iniquities
and did not destroy them.
Time after time he restrained his anger
and did not stir up his full wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return.
How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland!
Again and again they put God to the test;
they vexed the Holy One of Israel.
They did not remember his power—
the day he redeemed them from the oppressor,
the day he displayed his signs in Egypt,
his wonders in the region of Zoan.
He turned their river into blood;
they could not drink from their streams.
He sent swarms of flies that devoured them,
and frogs that devastated them.
He gave their crops to the grasshopper,
their produce to the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail
and their sycamore-figs with sleet.
He gave over their cattle to the hail,
their livestock to bolts of lightning.
He unleashed against them his hot anger,
his wrath, indignation and hostility—
a band of destroying angels.
He prepared a path for his anger;
he did not spare them from death
but gave them over to the plague.
He struck down all the firstborn of Egypt,
the firstfruits of manhood in the tents of Ham.
But he brought his people out like a flock;
he led them like sheep through the wilderness.
He guided them safely, so they were unafraid;
but the sea engulfed their enemies.
And so he brought them to the border of his holy land,
to the hill country his right hand had taken.
He drove out nations before them
and allotted their lands to them as an inheritance;
he settled the tribes of Israel in their homes.
But they put God to the test
and rebelled against the Most High;
they did not keep his statutes.
Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless,
as unreliable as a faulty bow.
They angered him with their high places;
they aroused his jealousy with their idols.
When God heard them, he was furious;
he rejected Israel completely.
He abandoned the tabernacle of Shiloh,
the tent he had set up among humans.
He sent the ark of his might into captivity,
his splendor into the hands of the enemy.
He gave his people over to the sword;
he was furious with his inheritance.
Fire consumed their young men,
and their young women had no wedding songs;
their priests were put to the sword,
and their widows could not weep.
These verses tell us that we've been given a legacy of rebellion. That's the main thrust of this whole review of Israel's history, from the Exodus to Eli. It doesn't matter whether we think about it from the perspective of nature or nurture. The point is the Israelites of Asaph's day were the children of rebels. Asaph makes the point by reviewing all of Israel's history twice, first from the Exodus to the wilderness wanderings in verse 41, and then back to the Exodus in verse 42, and all the way through the time of Judges and Samuel, ending with the death of Eli and the captivity of the Ark of the Covenant in verse 64. Why twice? I'm not sure. At the very least, it makes the point that it wasn't just one bad generation that messed it up. This is 500 years of history, generation after generation.
This history lets us see what rebellion actually looks like. The psalmist gives us a taxonomy of sin. In verses 9 and 10, he starts with the way we typically think of sin: disobedience. Verse 10 says, "They did not keep God's covenant, they refused to live by his law." God said, "Go up and take the land," but Israel refused. It was straightforward, "We're not going to do what you say." I think that's the way we typically think of sin. God says, "Don't lie," "Don't gossip," "Don't look at pornography," but we disobey. We do what he says not to do. Or we fail to do what he says to do. But if we stop right there and think of sin as merely the breaking of a law, the disobeying of a command, we don't understand what sin is. We do not understand what rebellion is. The psalmist shows us in verse 19 that underneath our disobedience is mistrust, mistrust of God. The Israelites doubted that God would feed them. The Israelites doubted that God really cared for them. They doubted that he would follow through on his promises. Most of us probably are not worried about whether or not we're going to have food on the table tomorrow. But we still struggle with mistrust. We doubt God's goodness, his intentions toward us. We doubt God's Word about sexuality, money, and relationships. We doubt that he has our best interest in mind. We doubt whether or not he cares about our kids and our families. We doubt that he cares about us when we suffer. We doubt that he cares about our desires, especially as they remain unfulfilled.
Rebellion progresses from disobedience and mistrust. And as we see in verse 36, it turns into hypocrisy. Verses 34 through 37 say,
Whenever God slew them, they would seek him;
they eagerly turned to him again.
They remembered that God was their Rock,
that God Most High was their Redeemer.
But then they would flatter him with their mouths,
lying to him with their tongues;
their hearts were not loyal to him,
they were not faithful to his covenant.
They don't like God's response of judgment: Hey, this is painful, God. We are sorry for disobeying you. Please take away your judgment. We are sorry for getting on your bad side. Please make the consequences go away.
That's insincere, shallow, and hypocritical repentance. The psalmist says they were lying to God and they were lying to themselves. Does that sound familiar? We say, "Sorry for looking at that pornographic site, God. Please forgive me." But we don't do anything about it. We don't put any filters on our computers. We don't take steps to cut off our hands that cause us to sin. We say, "Sorry, God, for losing it with my kids. Sorry for blowing up at my wife again." But in our hearts, we secretly think, I was right, they kind of deserved it.
Finally, in verses 57 and 58, rebellion takes the form of idolatry: "Like their fathers, they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow. They angered him with their high places, they aroused his jealousy with their idols." Israel's idols sat on their shelves or sat on shrines. Ours don't do that. We tuck ours away safely into bank accounts. We display them beautifully on video screens. We worship them at our offices and in our homes. Our sin doesn't happen in a vacuum, and that is made clear by this history. It happens in the face of God's prior love, his prior mercy, his prior provision. Think back over the history that was recounted. God rescued the Israelites from Egypt, but they refused to obey. God gave them water from the rock, but they doubted his care and provision. God, as a Father, chastised them and disciplined them, and they lied to his face. God brought them into the Promised Land, settled them in homes that they did not build, and they used it as an opportunity to worship other, local gods. They forgot the God who had brought them.
This isn't just rebellion; it's aggravated rebellion. It's not just weakness and ignorance; it's wickedness, and it's Israel's heritage. But this is our heritage, too. Not many of us here are descendants of Abraham, but we are all the children of Adam. In so many ways Israel's history is just a recapitulation, a do-over, of Adam's fall. We are not just the children of rebels; we are the children of the first rebel, and we have inherited his nature and guilt. This is what theologians mean when they talk about original sin. We're not born as a tabula rasa. We have inherited a disposition, a tendency, toward rebellion. It is our nature. But then it's not just our nature. Like Israel, we, being born with a sinful nature, are then nurtured in sin and rebellion: born to fallen parents, raised by fallen parents, surrounded by fallen role models. As Israel looked back over her history, what did she see? She saw that rebellion was normal. It was what everybody did. And it's what we see as well.
The psalmist doesn't let them, or us, off the hook. There are lots of places we could go to from here, but let's just look at verse 32 as an example. Starting in verse 31, "God's anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men of Israel. In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe." Original sin doesn't let us off the hook, and our upbringing doesn't let us off the hook either. We can't say we were born that way, that it's God's fault. Neither can we say, "Like father, like son." The whole point of this psalm is that Israel rebelled because they chose to rebel. Generation after generation, God intervened, but time and again they refused to listen. It's not that they didn't hear. There was a moral objection in their hearts to even listening. They refused to listen. They forgot what he did. They did not trust God, love him, or obey his Word. It may be our disposition to rebel, and we may have been nurtured in rebellion, but the Scriptures are abundantly clear: in the end, we are responsible for the choices we make. And that means that our guilt before God is real. It's not the sign of an unhealthy mind. It's not a psychosis. Before God we all stand guilty.
If you profess to be a Christian, what does this passage mean for you? You profess to be someone whose guilt has been forgiven because of Jesus Christ. Is there anything Christians can learn here? First, we should be humbled. This is how bad our state was. This is what we've been forgiven of—not just a few rules broken, but a profound hatred toward and mistrust of God that deserves his wrath.
Second, I think we've also been given some insight into the trajectory of sin's work in our own lives. It begins with mistrust: "I just don't think that God understands what it means to be a red-blooded American male. He does not get my sexual desires. I'm not sure that his Word about my sexuality is really in my best interest. So I look at porn, and dopamine floods my brain. It feels good. Why would God want to deny me something that feels so good, that makes me so happy?" Hypocrisy leads you to rationalizing sin: "I deserve this. I am good in so many other ways. I'm obedient to God in so many other places. I work really hard. I have a hard life. This is just a nice reward." And hypocrisy eventually leads to open idolatry.
This is true of pornography, but you can say the same of any sin. This is the way sin works. You might think, Gossip feels good, and I feel better about myself when I know that I'm better than other people. Actually, I'm not gossiping. I'm sharing prayer requests. Rationalizing sin is all about me playing God, and me making myself feel better than everybody else.
Sin always has a root issue. Sin is not dealt with through more rules. Sin is not defeated by trying harder. We need to understand that the roots of our sin are in our hearts. We do what we do because we want what we want, not what God wants. And what's needed is a change of heart. We need our hearts to be reoriented and our minds to be renewed so that our desires line up with God's desires. That happens by listening to his Word and by being cleansed by the Holy Spirit. That happens as we encourage one another in this battle, as we speak the truth to one another, counteracting the lies that our sin is speaking to us, causing us to mistrust God. Just as God intervened in Israel's history, so he is constantly intervening in your life.
Many times when we're caught in sin as Christians, we don't want to be awakened. I don't want to hear the Holy Spirit's voice. I don't want interruption from God. I don't want to be convicted. I don't want to deal with my sin. No, I want that interruption to go away so I can get back to my sinful habits.
God loves you too much to leave you alone in your sin. Do not run from those interventions and interruptions. Welcome them. Cultivate them. Cultivate an ear for his Word. Cultivate relationships in your life that will interrupt your sin. Cultivate relationships in your life where people will actually speak into your life and say, "Brother, I love you. You do not need to doubt my love for you, but I have to talk to you about this because this pattern in your life does not reflect Christ." This is the kind of people we want to be. This is what we learn by looking at this sordid history.
If you're not a Christian, do you see yourself in this parable? The point of reviewing Israel's sordid past isn't to click our tongues and wag our fingers and congratulate ourselves on not being them. The point is to recognize ourselves in the mirror of history, to recognize ourselves as a people who would prefer to go our own way. We are a people who constantly mistrust and doubt God's love, a people who are fundamentally self-deceived, easily satisfied with insincere efforts at self-reform, a people who worship at the altars of false gods. I don't know what your gods are. They might be money, pleasure, ease, or self-righteousness. What they are doesn't matter. If they aren't God, they're idols.
If you're not a Christian, you need to understand that the greatest danger you face at this moment is the danger of self-deception. Life may be going fine right now, but the day will come when God—as we saw with the Israelites—will no longer restrain his anger. The day will come when he will hold us accountable for our rebellion, which means that today we need to have an accurate view of ourselves. We need to understand that our biggest problem is not outside of us; it's inside, in our rebellious hearts. Our most important relationship isn't horizontal, but vertical—our relationship with God. Our biggest need is not material; it's spiritual—forgiveness and reconciliation. And our highest goal isn't temporal success, but eternal life with God on high. That's what this unpleasant psalm is meant to confront us with. When we begin to recognize our true state, we know that what we really need is hope for the future. We don't need to turn over a better leaf. We need profound hope and change for the future.
The hope for the future
Verses 65 through 72 say,
Then the Lord awoke as from sleep,
as a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine.
He beat back his enemies;
he put them to everlasting shame.
Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loved.
He built his sanctuary like the heights,
like the earth that he established forever.
He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.
And David shepherded them with integrity of heart;
with skillful hands he led them.
The burden of this psalm is that this generation would choose to follow God, unlike their fathers. Do you notice that it doesn't end with Israel making a better choice? It ends with Israel in total disaster, totally responsible and unable to do anything about it. Which is right where all of us are outside of Christ: totally responsible, but utterly unable to change. It ends not with Israel making a better choice, but with a better Father. God steps in, quite dramatically. The psalmist describes it as somebody waking up, as someone coming out of a drunken stupor, and realizing what's going on, and doing something about it because he doesn't like what he sees. It's a striking image to attribute to God.
What does God do when he steps in? Basically, God rearranges the family tree and gives Israel a different legacy. Ephraim—the favorite son of Joseph, who was in all appearances going to be the major tribe of Israel—is rejected, and Judah, who was rather insignificant in the history of Israel up until this point, is chosen as the most prominent. Shiloh, where the tabernacle had been in the area of Ephraim, is rejected, and Mount Zion in Jerusalem, in Judah's territory, is established as the place where God would dwell. And David, a faithful shepherd boy, is made king, the shepherd of Israel. We are told that he leads Israel with integrity of heart. With skillful hands he gives Israel a different history. This image of David leading Israel like a flock seems abrupt, but it shouldn't. God was already described as leading his people out of Egypt like a shepherd. But the point here isn't to return to the beginning of the psalm; it alludes to the previous psalm.
Psalm 77 ends with an image of God's faithfulness to save his people, leading his people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. God is the Shepherd of his own people, and God raises up a good shepherd in Moses to rescue his people. But what happens? Psalm 78 tells us that disaster occurs. After Moses and Aaron die, and even before they are dead, the sheep run a riot. They stray. They rebel against God. Psalm 78 looks like it's going to end with the downfall of Israel. But God acts again, just as he did with Moses. He raises up another shepherd, a good shepherd that leads the people back to God. Like Moses, David enters into a covenant with God. The psalmist ends on a hopeful note. This is the hope, that God has once again rescued his people through the mediation of a good shepherd king.
Yet as we know, the history of Israel moved forward, and it was clear that God's people would need a shepherd even better than David. David fell into his own sin, and his sons after him were even worse. The Old Testament ends with a sense of God's silence and absence. The people are ruled by a foreign king until the day the angels show up outside of Bethlehem to tell a group of shepherds that a boy had been born. But he was no ordinary boy; he was a son of David, one who would be the Savior of his people.
Don't miss the fact that David, the shepherd king, was pointing forward to a greater Son, a greater king. Jesus Christ, who describes himself as the Good Shepherd, the faithful Son of God, laid down his life for the sheep. Jesus described his own ministry as a mission to seek and save the lost, to go after lost sheep. Not just of Israel, but the whole human race. To bring them back, and then to lay down his life for us on the Cross as a sacrifice. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep, taking the penalty, the wrath, the punishment that we deserve so that we could be forgiven and brought back into the flock, adopted into God's family.
That's our hope, not in being better than our fathers, but being adopted into a better Father's family; not in making better choices than our fathers, but in being the object of Christ's better choice. All of Israel's history was preparing us for Christ. He is the bread from heaven that gives us life and satisfies our desires. He is the one who fights our battles for us, defeating sin and death. He is our Exodus who brings us out of slavery to sin, and brings us into the kingdom of the Father. He is the Promised Land. "All I have in heaven is you." What we could not do for ourselves, Christ has done for us. He has given us a different history because he's given us himself. It is his righteousness, it is his Spirit, it is his relationship with the Father that we get, and it is that legacy that defines us as Christians.
Parents, as you think about the opening of this psalm, of passing on the faith from one generation to the next, point your children to Christ, not to being good. Urge them to cast themselves upon Christ and his choosing them, not to trust their own decisions. This doesn't pertain to just parents and children. This is our calling as a church: to be a community that declares and lives out the truth of the wonders of what God has done in Jesus Christ. We are called to be a flock that is following Jesus. The quality of our community and the quality of our discipleship matters, not the success of our programs or the numbers at our events. We aren't a group of people who check the box for Jesus. We're followers of Christ. We're disciples of Christ. We're sheep in his flock, and we want the world to see that we recognize his voice. And when we hear it, we follow wherever it leads.
Perhaps you're thinking, There is no way I can be a part of such a community; my life is too messed up. Go back and read the history. Can your history really be worse than Israel's? I don't think so. God did not give up on Israel; there's no reason to think he will give up on you. Perhaps you've never turned to Christ. Today is the day to begin a new history. Perhaps you grew up in the faith, in the church, but you've walked away from it and it's become less important to you. Today is the day to turn back to Christ. He doesn't want your self-reform. He doesn't want you to clean yourself up first and then come. He wants you, every bit of you, the way you are today. Trust him to be a better Shepherd of your life than you could ever be. Who are you? By nature, nurture, and choice, you're a rebel. That's what you are. But by grace you can have a different legacy and a better future. Trust in Christ, and by grace know what it means to a child of God.
Michael Lawrence is pastor of Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and author of "Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church" (Crossway).