So over the past couple weeks we’ve been looking at four petitions in Psalm 51 that make up this little prayer that I’ve found to be helpful on an everyday kind of basis. It’s just a short, little prayer taken from Psalm 51 and it begins with the petition in verse 15, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.” And we talked about in the first week, first and foremost, that God is outside of us, and that God does not need our praise, but that he made a way for us to praise him, and we want to get in on that.
And then the second petition comes in verse 10, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And here we find the simple truth that we need God to change us from the inside-out. Last week we talked about how we need God to do within us what we cannot do ourselves, and so we ask God to do that — God, give us new hearts.
And then for today, the third petition in our prayer comes from verse 11. And out of each of these four petitions we’re looking at — and really out of all the petitions in Psalm 51 — I think that the petition in verse 11 is the most earnest. And I need to explain what I mean by that.
The Most Earnest Petition
We can’t know with certainty if verse 11 is the most earnest of these petitions in terms of: we can’t hear the tone of David’s voice when he prayed these words; and we can’t see the expression on his face when he wrote them. As far as we can tell, David doesn’t seem to be doing anything in the structure of how he’s written this psalm that highlights verse 11 above the others. And so just to be clear: I’m not saying that verse 11 is the most earnest petition as an exegetical observation. That’s not what I’m saying.
But as I’m reading verse 11, and as I’m praying it, as a sinner like David — as a human like David — based upon the content here and based upon how it applies to real life (which is how we should read the Psalms) — I think verse 11 is the most earnest.
Because David is basically praying there: God, don’t leave me.
And every Christian at some point prays something like that. Whether you say the words exactly like this, or whether it’s just one of those groanings from your heart, everybody who knows God has needed God’s nearness the same way that David does in Psalm 51, verse 11 — and if you’ve been there you know what I mean by earnest.
David is asking God: “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” God, don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.
Truth and Experience
And so this is what we’re going to do today: For the sermon, we’re going to look closer at verse 11 in two basic parts. It’s going to be first, truth, and then second, experience. These are the two categories.
First, when it comes to truth, we need to see what David is saying here and what’s behind it. Where is verse 11 coming from? And then, for experience, we’re going to look at what this truth has to do with our lives. What kind of difference does this make? So these are two parts, and let’s say it this way:
- Part One: God’s Presence Is Our Purpose
- Part Two: God’s Nearness Is Our Good
Part 1: God’s Presence Is Our Purpose
So in Psalm 51:11, David mentions the presence of God and the Holy Spirit and he does that because he knows they’re connected. He knows that the presence of God comes by the Spirit of God, and when he mentions this he’s actually tapping into one of the greatest themes of the entire Bible. The theme starts in the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and it runs all the way through to the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. And I’m not going to mention all 64 books in between, but I do want to highlight four signposts throughout Scripture that we see of this theme overall. These four signposts pretty much map out how the theme of God’s presence unfolds throughout the history of redemption, and they’re easy to remember. Here they are:
- Presence Lost
- Presence Promised
- Presence Realized
- Presence Secured
So what we’re going to do for Part One is just walk through these, which means we’re basically going to do a survey of the entire Bible — so hang in there; I’ll go fast; this is what the Bible says about the truth of the presence of God.
1. Presence Lost
This starts back in Genesis when God created Adam and Eve. The Bible tells us that God created Adam, and all mankind, in his image and likeness. Humanity’s purpose was to resemble and reflect God, and to do that in the presence of God. That was the reality in the Garden of Eden. God placed Adam in the Garden and commanded him to “work it and keep it” in fellowship with God.
But then in Genesis 3, Satan tempted Adam and Eve and they fell into sin, and with sin came a curse. And one major part of the curse, actually the last thing mentioned in Genesis 3, is that Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden. God “drove them out” of the Garden, which means that the presence of God that Adam and Eve first enjoyed was now lost. The people of God were separated from the presence of God. Sin brought the separation, and therefore, humanity no longer lived in God’s nearness. They didn’t have the same kind of fellowship. That’s Presence Lost.
2. Presence Promised
Then we have Presence Promised. Because God is a God of mercy and grace, he was determined to save us. God was resolved to reconcile the relationship between himself and humanity, and so he had (has) a plan for redemption.
We see that first in the promise to Adam and Eve that there would be an offspring to crush the head of the serpent, and then we see it in Noah and ark — the world was wicked, and God brought judgment on everything, but he saved Noah and his family. And then we see it in God’s call of Abraham — and we’ll be talking more about Abraham in a few weeks when we jump back into Genesis — but one thing about Abraham that we have to understand is that his story is a story of grace. God came to Abraham out of sheer grace, because God wanted to, and God made him a promise that through his offspring all the nations on the earth will be blessed — and the promise also included land.
God promised Abraham, and then later the people of Israel, that he would give them a place. It was called the land of Canaan, or the Promised Land, and the first five books of the Bible are mainly about how God brings his people to that land, from slavery in Egypt and then through wandering in the desert for 40 years
And it’s amazing how the Bible describes God’s presence with his people during this time. When they journeyed, God went before them “by day in a pillar of a cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exod. 13:21–22). That was God’s presence with them.
Then after they crossed the Red Sea they came to Mount Sinai, and God’s presence dwelled on the top of the mountain as a consuming fire (Exod. 16:18). And then in Exodus 25 God instructed the people of Israel to build him a sanctuary called the tabernacle, and this was the place where God said he would dwell in their midst (Exod. 25:8). In the tabernacle there was the ark of the covenant, and there in the ark, at what was called the mercy seat, God said he would “meet” with his people through the priesthood (Exod. 25:22). And the tabernacle was great, God was with his people, but they still weren’t at the place God promised them, and they still didn’t enjoy God’s presence like Adam first did in the Garden.
So then a little later, through the conquests led by Joshua, and despite the roller coaster period led by the judges, the people of God eventually landed in the Promised Land, and then came the kingship, and then there was King David, who wrote Psalm 51, and David was determined to build God a house in Jerusalem, and I mean, it was going to be a real house — not a make-shift tent like the tabernacle.
David wanted to build God a house for his presence to dwell in, called the temple. And the temple of God in Scripture became another way to talk about the presence of God. But God didn’t let David build it, instead, David’s son Solomon built it, and the Bible tells us it was this beautiful and amazing structure, and that on the inside, in the inner sanctuary, it actually resembled a Garden. It was made of cedar and olivewood, and it had carvings of palm trees and flowers (1 Kings 6:32). And best of all in the temple, most important, was the Most Holy Place where the ark of the covenant stayed, it was there that God’s presence filled the temple like a cloud (1 Kings 8:6, 10–11).
And this was all great, too, like the tabernacle — this was God dwelling in the midst of this people — but it wasn’t the same as the Garden, and it wasn’t permanent.
And after a string of bad kings, and the people’s idolatry, God’s presence left the temple, and foreign powers came in and destroyed Jerusalem, and just like Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden because of sin, the people of Israel were exiled from Jerusalem because of sin, and all over again there was this separation between God and his people. And the people of God felt this separation.
But then came the prophets. And these men came as spokesman of God and they told about a day in the future when God would once again be with his people. And the prophet Isaiah talked about how one day there would be this son who is born, and his name will be called Immanuel, which means God with us (Isa. 7:14); And then Jeremiah talked about how God was going to bring Israel back to the place of his presence and be their God (Jeremiah 32:36–41). And then Ezekiel comes and says, actually, God is going to put his Spirit within his people, and he’s going to dwell among them forever, and their land that had become desolate because of sin is going to be made like the Garden of Eden (Ezekiel 37:14; 36:35).
And Isaiah knew all about that. He said this new land is actually a new heavens and a new earth, and it’s going to a place unlike anything we could ever imagine, even better than the Garden (Isaiah 66:22–23).
And it gets almost crazy how Isaiah talks about this place — it’s a place of only joy and gladness; “no more shall be heard the sound of weeping” or the cry of distress (Isaiah 65:19); the wolf and lamb will graze together, and the lion is going to eat straw like an ox (Isaiah 65:25); and all flesh will come a worship God (Isaiah 66:23). And most amazing of all is that this will be the place where God will forever be with his people. That was the promise.
That’s the Presence Promised. It’s basically the Old Testament.
3. Presence Realized
And then in the New Testament, we see the Presence Realized. In the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Jesus, who is called Immanuel, God with us — like Isaiah had said.
Jesus is the promised Son, the promised Messiah, who is not just the Savior for Israel, but he’s the Savior for all of humanity. No longer was the presence of God a fire on top of a mountain or cloud contained to an inner sanctuary, but the presence of God became a person like us.
Jesus is God with us, who walked among us and lived life in our shoes and dwelled in our details. Jesus was presence of God realized — and he looked us right in the face. People touched him and talked to him and heard from him, and Jesus was straightforward about what he was doing. He said that to see him was to have seen God the Father (John 14:9).
And then on the night before Jesus was crucified, he was having dinner with his disciples, and he began to tell them about the Helper, his Spirit, that he was going to send to be with them forever. After his death in our place, and after he was going to be raised from the death and ascended back to the Father, Jesus said he was going to send his Spirit to live in his people as his actual presence with them.
The Holy Spirit had been active and at work in the world since the beginning, and he was at work in the people of God — David talks about him in Psalm 51 — but this was going to be different. Because this time the Holy Spirit was going to be poured out on all of God’s people, which means that better than a fire on top of a mountain, and a cloud in the inner sanctuary, now the presence of God is going to dwell within us by the Spirit of God.
When the Holy Spirit comes, Jesus said, God is going to make his home in everyone who trusts him (see John 14:23). And that is what brings us to the Presence Secured.
4. Presence Secured
The apostle Paul, in his letters, is the theologian of the Holy Spirit. And he shows us, over and over again, how the Holy Spirit in us changes everything.
The Holy Spirit is one of gives us both character and confidence (Romans 5:4–5) —
- He’s the love of God poured into our hearts — Romans 5:5.
- He’s the life of God for victory over sin — Romans 8:11
- He’s the proof of God that we’re his children — Romans 8:16
- He’s the knowledge of God who gives us wisdom — 1 Corinthians 2:12
- He’s the power of God for our obedience — Galatians 5:25
- He’s the fuel of God for our faith — 1 Corinthians 12:3
- He’s the peace of God who unites of together — Ephesians 4:5–6
- He’s the gift of God for all our ministry — 1 Corinthians 12:7
- He’s the minster of God for all our gifts — 1 Corinthians 12:11
- He’s the boldness of God when we’re afraid — 2 Timothy 1:7
- He’s the comfort of God in our sorrow — Romans 8:26
- He’s the joy of God in our affliction — 1 Thessalonians 1:6
- He’s the worker of God in our worship — Philippians 3:3
- He’s the seal of God who will keep us forever — 2 Corinthians 1:22
- He’s the guarantee of God for a glorious future — Ephesians 1:13–14
And I could keep going because the Bible keeps going, but there’s one more that I have to mention because this one encompasses all the others — 1 Corinthians 3:16 tells us that: the Holy Spirit within us is the presence of God who now makes us the temple of God. We as God’s people, because God’s Spirit is in us, we are God’s dwelling place.
Which means that right now, God is not dwelling at Minnehaha Academy. Last Sunday morning God was dwelling at the Riverview Theater, and then at Hiawatha School Park, and right now God is dwelling here, in this room, where his people, filled by his Spirit, are gathered in his name. And when we leave here, he goes with us. Because now, God’s presence isn’t a holy place that his people must go to, but his presence is in his people who go everywhere.
And in fact, he never leaves us. That’s why Jesus can say in the Great Commission, “Behold, I’m with you always to the end of the age.” The Holy Spirit means that no matter where we go, no matter where we end up, even if it’s up in highest heavens or down to the uttermost parts of the sea, God will be with us. He will not leave you, Cities Church. God will be with his people, and that’s what heaven will be.
It’s what the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, describes. Revelation 21:3 gives us a vision of heaven. It says:
Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
The presence of God, see, is our purpose. That is where everything in this world is trending! That’s the whole point! This is what God intended back in the Garden, and it’s what God accomplishes through the gospel of his Son.
And that’s just the truth. David mentions the presence of God in Psalm 51, verse 11, and this is the truth about the presence of God. This is what the Bible says. The presence of God is our purpose.
But here’s the thing: just knowing that is not enough.
Part Two: The Nearness of God Is Our Good
There’s this whole other part when it comes to the presence of God. It’s not just the truth about it, but it’s the experience of it. And that’s where David is at in Psalm 51. David acknowledges the truth. We’ve looked at the truth. But there’s more.
This truth is meant to connect with us in real life. It’s not just a neutral fact, but it means something to us. It makes a difference in us, and the Bible goes there. The Bible shows us that the presence of God is our purpose, yes, and also, that the nearness of God is our good. This is Part Two, and we’re talking about experience.
And I’m getting this phrase on the nearness of God straight from the Bible, in Psalm 73. And some of you might know that psalm, which goes in verse 25,
Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” (Psalm 73:25–28)
And we know that for the psalmist to talk this way that the presence of God is more than a biblical theme. The presence of God is something he has experienced. It’s something he’s known and felt and tasted. The presence of God, then, is the nearness of God — and it’s not just his purpose; it’s his good. And that’s what I want it to be for us. We know that was David’s experience, because that’s the only way you pray like how he’s praying here in Psalm 51, verse 11.
You don’t pray the way David’s praying here in Psalm 51 about a theological category. David knew what it meant to be near God, and he knew he didn’t want to be far from God, so he prayed, “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” God, please don’t leave me.
And what makes this prayer even more earnest for David is that he’s asking “not to be deprived of what he had justly forfeited.” That’s the way Calvin put it. In other words, David knew he had messed up and that he did not deserve to the presence of God. He did not deserve the nearness of God, but he needed it so badly, and he knew he couldn’t go on without it.
And every Christian — true story here — every Christian at some point is going to be in a place like that — not because you’ve done what David has done, but because we all need God the same way.
And so on this level of experience, I just want to mention one thing in closing. This is just one practical thing to remember — to keep it in mind or to store away for later. It’s this:
We need God’s Spirit more than we need his answers.
But see, so many times when hardship comes we get right into the questions. We want to know why. We want to discern the design in the details. And so we press in and we wonder: maybe God is doing this, or this, or this — and it’s okay to do that. There is a holy humility that presses in with God and says, “Father, what are you doing?” That’s okay. The psalms do that, and we can do that in faith.
But even in our asking why, even as we are seeking answers from God, eventually we come to a place where we mainly just need his nearness.
And in that place of hardship and suffering, our most earnest prayer is not for an explanation of our circumstances, but it’s for God not to leave us. Because we know that whatever it is that he brings us to, whatever the situation is, we know that as long as he is with us, eventually everything will be all right. (And I mean that in the deepest sense of “all” and the deepest sense of “right.”) God is creating a new world.
His nearness is our good, and his nearness is enough. And God, we can’t go a step without you.
The pastors met this past Thursday night, and I was telling them that in one way it feels like we’re starting all over again as a church. Having a place to worship on Sundays is a big deal, and right now we don’t have one come September 3. (And I know that when I say that, some of us immediately start thinking about all these possibilities. What about all this place and this place? Some of us are just wired that way, and I’m grateful for that.)
But here’s the thing I don’t want us to miss in this season in our church’s life: We know that God is at work. We know that he’s doing something, and that whatever it is, we know that God is humbling us so that we would learn more not to rely on ourselves, but on him who raises the dead (see 2 Cor. 1:9) — that’s the way Paul understood difficulties in his ministry.
God wants our humility. He wants our faith, and that’s why we’re praying and calling for a fast on Wednesday, but get this — in our fasting and praying, we’re not just shaking heaven for an answer. Yes, we have logistics issues, and God will provide, but in this season that he has called us to as a church, we are coming to God to have more of God, because more of God is what we need the most. We need God’s Spirit more than we need his answers — and his Spirit he has given us. So we pray . . .
God, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise. You are worthy of praise and you will be praised, and I want to get in on that praise. Please. And God, I need you to change me. I need you to change my heart, which means I need you create a new one. I need you to do with my heart what only you can do. And God, whatever comes, please don’t leave me. Tomorrow is so uncertain, and I don’t know why you’re leading me this way — I don’t know exactly what you’re doing — but God, be close to me. Be close to me. Don’t leave me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
And this is what brings us to the Table. The servers can come forward. Let’s pray.
One of the most practical ways that Jesus has given us to remember his nearness is this Table. At the the Table, first, we remember the death of Jesus for us — the bread symbolizes his broken body and the cup symbolizes his shed blood. But also at the Table, when we eat the bread and drink the cup, we remember that Jesus is with us. Jesus, who is more real than anything else, is present with us at this Table by his Spirit. And our participation at this Table expresses our union with him. So if you’re here trust Jesus, if you’re united to Jesus by faith, we invite to enjoy this meal with us.