May 15, 1988
Doctors often measure physical health by our appetite for food. Alistair Begg explains that we can likewise measure spiritual health by our appetite for worship. Our spiritual appetites are healthy when our hearts yearn to praise Him, when our yearning is not based on an outward feeling, and when we realize the presence of God in our worship.
Sermon Transcript: Print
The focus of our study, both this morning and this evening, is on the Eighty-Fourth Psalm. And those of you who are regular with us will know that since our conclusion of our studies in John’s Gospel, we have not entered into another book that we’ve begun to study—at least not yet. And yet there is something of a pattern to what we’re doing, although it might not be readily detected. What we’re doing is, as it were, checking the health of our body. We’ve checked it in relation to the question of its ability to verbalize and live out its life. We began to check it last Sunday morning in terms of its ability to offer up to God a sacrifice of praise and thereby declare the reason for its existence. And this morning, and also this evening, we’re going to take a look at the appetite of our body, both individually, in terms of us ourselves as a spiritual entity, and also corporately, in terms of who we are as God has gathered us together as a local congregation.
By way of introduction, then, to our studies in this psalm today, I’d like you to turn to Luke 15 for a moment. In Luke 15, Jesus is addressing a problem which the Pharisees have—a problem of hypocrisy. And he provides for us three stories which have to do with lostness: in verses 1–7, a story about a lost sheep; in verses 8–10, a story of a lost coin; and then, from 11 to 21, the story of a lost son; and then the conclusion, with which we’re less familiar, because we tend always to make more of the boy who left the home of his father and went away and “wasted his substance with riotous living.” But I would like, by way of introduction this morning, to have you focus from verse 23 to the end of chapter 15.
You will remember that the context is that the father is so delighted at the return of his son that he orders a great celebration to be taking place. He orders a fatted calf to be killed; he orders that there will be a feast, that there will celebration. The reason for it, verse 24: “‘This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” And “so they began to celebrate.” Now, “they” represented, it would seem, almost exclusively the totality of the household. But then we’re told that one individual did not enter into the celebrations. Verse 25: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field.” And “when he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.” That helps us to understand that even the servants were in on the celebration. He calls one of them out; he said, “What’s taking place?” Answer, verse 27: “‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’”
Now, for those of us who were reading the story fresh for the first time, we would take a breath, rub our eyes, and look on and see what happens next. Is it a tremendous ending, where the brother says, “Terrific, I love a party”? No, not at all. Verse 28: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.” “I’m not going to celebrate!” was his response.
So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the [fatted] calf for him!”
How do you think his father felt in that moment? Listen to his response, “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Now, I want to use this to make one simple and yet vital statement to harness our attention this morning. What was the problem with the older brother? “Well,” you say, “it was pride. It was envy. It was jealousy.” It was whatever it was. Answer this question in your own mind: Was there reason enough for celebration for the older brother? Yes, there was. There was music. There was dancing. There was joy. There was happiness. There was celebration. There was food. It all was there! It was all fine! It was a tremendous experience to be entered into. But he stayed out of it. Why? Because he had no appetite for it. Because he had left his heart behind. And all that represented joy, and all that represented celebration, and all that was there as a potential for him he remained at arm’s length from. And the problem was with his appetite—a man who had left his heart behind.
Now, hold that thought in your mind, and let me say this: neither prayer nor praise nor the hearing of the Word of God will ever be profitable to persons who attend upon it having left their hearts behind. It is the same singing. It is the same food. It is the same opportunity. It is all there and all ready. But it will be of no profit to those who attend upon it having left their hearts behind.
Watch a mother’s face who, having slaved away in preparation of the meal, having sent out the word and gathered in the crowd (whether it be family and an extended family), as she presents all the efforts of her labor before the group assembled round the table—watch the people eat, and watch the mother’s face, and there will be a direct correlation, I wager, between the enthusiasm of eating and the joy on the face of the preparer. And so it should be, for all of the heart that has gone into laying it out is now responded to. And a group may gather round the table, and some may eat voraciously while others pick. Is the issue with the food? Is the issue with the flowers? Is the issue with the silverware? No. The issue is ultimately with the appetite of those who sit at table.
Now, God has prepared for us. He has prepared for us in his Word all the food that we ever need. It is a perfectly balanced diet. It takes care of every facet of our existence. And he welcomes us to his banqueting house, and his banner over us is love. And he says, “Come and eat at my table. Come and be full of the goodness prepared for you in my Word.” And the correlation will yet remain between those who pick at it and those who benefit from it as God looks from heaven this morning and asks us, “How’s your appetite? How’s your appetite?”
You know, Jesus in the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5, made it very clear that there is a blessing which accompanies a good appetite. Matthew 5:6, he says, “Blessed,” or happy, “are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” So there is a direct linkage between a hungry, thirsty heart and the experience of God’s fullness in an individual life or in the life of a congregation. God is not in the business of jamming food down the throats of those who have no spiritual hunger. But he is in the business of pouring out of his bountiful riches and glory to the point where we are full to overflowing with his goodness. The issue is an issue of appetite.
I went to the doctor with somebody this week. It wasn’t for myself but with another. And I noticed the doctor did all kinds of things that seemed to be at least interesting: made the individual close their eyes and hop on their right leg and then close their eyes and hop on their left leg, walk down the line in the carpet, put their hands out in front, do all manner of things. What was he doing? He was taking very specific checks regarding the health of that little body. And one of them related directly to appetite. For physicians know that our appetite is some indication of how things are going with us.
Today, as God gives us time—and less time, perhaps, this morning as I look at my watch—I want to suggest to you that out of Psalm 84, we have three identifying features of a good spiritual appetite. And the first identifying feature… (And you can pinpoint them, incidentally, with the word “blessed,” which comes three times in the psalm: first of all in verse 4, then in verse 5, then in verse 12. We’ll deal now, this morning, with the first four verses.) The man or woman whose spiritual appetite is good will, first of all, be found praising with God’s people. That’s the fourth verse: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.”
Now, back up from there to the first verse and let’s just look at this section. Will you notice that in verse 2, the verbs are very graphic?
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh cry out
for the living God.
Now, you take those three verbal statements: a yearning, a fainting, and a crying out. They’re indicative of a spiritual longing within the psalmist. They represent to us the fact that this is not some skin-deep consideration. The psalmist, here, is not superficial in these matters. Rather, he is saying, “If you were trying to explain my life, if you were meeting me along the journey of my days and saying, ‘What makes you tick?’ you would be forced to include in the biographical sketch that within my being there is a longing after God. I am hungry for God. I yearn for him. My knees become weak as I think of him. And in my days and in my nights, I cry out for the living God”—a spiritual hunger not skin-deep but welling up from the longing of his heart.
Ask yourself this question, as I do: What’s the longing of your life? When’s the last time you yearned? It’s a great word, yearn, isn’t it? It’s a terrific word. It’s hard to find another word to say yearn. It’s like the word cherish in the marriage vows. Give me five other English words that say cherish. Hard.
Now, the yearning of our hearts… It’s not a concern, this morning, about the yearning of the person next to you or the yearning of the person in front of you—just the yearning of your heart and of mine. It’s just you and me—the two of us and God. And God says, “What do you yearn after? What do you long for?”
His appetite and his praise may be discovered by noticing, first of all, its location. Its location. And then we will notice its foundation. And then, finally, we will notice its expression.
The location of his praise.
Now, we must understand this within the context, historically, of the psalmist. His place is in the temple courts. Turn back for a moment to Psalm 42 and Psalm 43, and we see this expressed clearly. The psalmist says in 42:4,
[Those] things I remember
as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go with the multitude,
leading the procession to the house of God,
with shouts of joy and thanksgiving
among the festive throng.
Then will I go to the altar of God,
to God, my joy and my delight.
I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.
So, here in the first four verses, the psalmist is exiled from that experience. He is distanced from the opportunity to be where he really loves to be. And he longs to be back in the action. He says, “When I think about your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty, I love it there. I love being there. I’m jealous of sparrows. I’m jealous of little birds that today, as I think of them, will be nestling right up in the rafters of that lovely, holy place. How I long to be in that place!” There’s no question about his appetite. There’s no question about his hunger. It is given testimony to in the words that he speaks.
Incidentally, this joy in the presence of God, in the place of praise, localized in the temple experience in the Old Testament, is a joy which is quite unfamiliar to those who are merely superficial. Turn with me to the prophecy of Amos. Amos. I’ll give you a moment or two. Start in the middle of your Bible, and turn left, and go back towards Genesis, and you’ll find it in there. If you hit Habakkuk, you’re somewhere around Amos 8:5. This is the contrast in appetites, you see? It’s not a contrast in attendance; it’s a contrast in appetites. Both the psalmist in 84 and this guy in Amos 8 are prepared to attend, but it’s the appetite that differs. And the Sovereign Lord speaks at the beginning of the chapter, and this is what he says. Verse 4:
Hear this, you who trample the needy
and do away with the poor of the land,
And this is what these people say:
“When will the New Moon be over
that we may sell grain,
and the Sabbath be ended
that we may market wheat?”
In other words, “When will the worship be over? When can we be done with being in this place so that we may then go out from here and do that upon which we’ve set our hearts?” Both have the experience of being in the place. We are distinguished from one another by the appetite of our hearts.
A very real test is to ask ourselves, “When I am absent, either because of sickness or because of travel, from the place of praise, is there a longing which arises in my heart?” You know, some of us who have the privilege of worship here week by week—if we might just apply it specifically in these terms—it is possible for us to become so familiar with everything, so unappreciative of everything, that in point of fact, a period of exile would do us good. Because is it not true that often, in exile, we appreciate our homeland even more? Because while we’re there, we grow familiar with it, and familiarity breeds contempt. And so a little spell away reveals to us what we really love. And sometimes God chooses to set us aside, to take us away, to teach us that our problems are often arising from an appetite that has grown less and less responsive, and we’ve become fault finders, and we’ve become nitpickers, and we’ve begun to complain about this and about that and about the next thing, and there’s no yearning for God left; there’s no hunger for his Word; there’s no longing for praise. Not so with this man. He says, “Oh, I long for it. I long to be there.”
Well, we ask ourselves the inevitable question as we seek to understand and apply the Scriptures this morning: What is the possible application of this as we live life in the twentieth century, distanced by time and geography from the psalmist’s world and from the localization of God’s presence in the temple? Is there some way that we can understand and apply it? Yes, there is.
Turn with me to 1 Corinthians and to the third chapter, and put your finger in the sixth chapter. First Corinthians 3:16. And Paul writes to these believers, and he says, “Don’t you know,” plural, “that you,” plural, “yourselves,” plural, “are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” First Corinthians 6:19: “Do you not know that your body,” singular, “is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” And what we discover is this: that the psalmist’s love for the temple courts is to be matched by our love for the body of Christ, for we are, individually and collectively this morning, God’s temple. And so the key thing is not the building in which the temple is enshrined. The key thing is not ultimately the location of the location. The key thing is the involvement with those who comprise the temple. And that’s what Paul’s saying. He’s saying in the Old Testament, the people came to the temple courts. The psalmist says, “Oh, I’ve got to be there. I imagine the rafters and everything about it.”
And it’s not wrong for us to have associations with a building. It’s not wrong for us to have a place that becomes hallowed ground. And one of the reasons it’s very difficult for a place like this to become hallowed ground is because so many of our joys and our sorrows are removed from it. So many of the experiences of our lives are distanced from it. I got a kind of strong belief that it takes funerals, and it takes weddings, and it takes tears, and it takes disciplines located within a place that makes the experience of God’s people coming to that place so very, very real. Even last week, in our baptismal service, we baptized in a swimming pool. And that was fine, and it was lovely, but when we entered here this morning, there was no association with the place.
“Well,” you say, “surely you wouldn’t want to draw on that.” No, not particularly, but there is a benefit to it. Because if it had taken place here, as soon as you came in this morning, you would have looked back to this spot, and you would have immediately recalled: “Oh, the wonder of God’s grace to us! Oh, the tremendous testimonies! Oh, the joy I felt in my heart last Sunday evening!” And instead of looking around and wondering what to do before the orchestra strikes up, we would bow our heads in praise and in wonder that God, in his manifold goodness, had met with his people in this place in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.
But setting aside all considerations of physical plant, the application is clear: the hungry heart yearns, faints, cries out to be amongst God’s people in the experience of worship. And when you or I are voluntarily absent from God’s people over a prolonged period of time, it says far more about our spiritual appetite than it ever does about the preacher’s ability or the style of the worship or whatever it might be.
And don’t think that because I have to be here every Sunday morning, I don’t know that experience. You know the story of the mother waking her son up in the morning for church—says to him, “Come on now, John, it’s time you were up for church.”
He rolls over and looks at her and says, “I’m not going to church today. I don’t want to go today.”
She says, “Well, I think it’s very important that you’re there.”
And he says, “I don’t see why.”
Eventually, she says to him, “Come on now, John, you’re thirty-five years old.” And she says, “And also, you’re the pastor of the church. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
So I am able to distinguish in my own heart between the call of duty and the call of joy. I do not always walk here with the same spirit. I do not always come here… ’Cause I’m a real person in the real world, and I know what I’m talking about. There is a distinction in the realm of appetite. Where God’s people long to be together, it’s appetite. It’s appetite. How’s your appetite? One meal a day?
The location, however, is secondary to the foundation. For the foundation of his praise is expressed in the final statement in verse 2. Because he says his heart and his flesh “cry out” not ultimately for the location but for the God who fills the location. His flesh and his heart “cry out for the living God.”
When Stephen, in Acts chapter 7, preaches that tremendous sermon before he goes to be with Christ as a result of stoning, he makes this important point then. Acts 7:48. He’s preaching. He’s preaching to Jewish people who are hung up on location, location. And this is what he says: “However,” despite the fact that Solomon built this tremendous temple, “the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all … things?’” And verse 54: “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.”
God is the true object of a spiritual appetite. And when somebody says to me, “Oh, I couldn’t go anywhere else; I couldn’t be anywhere else,” it indicates that our favorite place has been visited without an understanding of purpose. If you fall in love with somebody else, and you decide to go out together for the evening, while it may be very, very nice to go a very, very lovely place, I put it to you that if you really love the girl, it won’t matter so much to you where you go as who you’re with. And just to walk and just to talk and just to know one another’s companionship is the thing that makes that relationship so meaningful. And whenever you have a relationship that is dependent upon whether you go nice places and do nice things, you’ve got a major problem on your hands. Because it will be fine as long as you can go those nice places and do those nice things, but as soon as the money’s gone for that—unless you love one another so much that you’re happy to sit and let the rain run down the outsides of your car window and look into one another’s eyes and say, “Hey, I really love you; it’s nice just to be here and talk”—you don’t really have much to talk about.
And the psalmist says, “My heart cries out for the living God. I’m preoccupied with a person; I’m not preoccupied with a place. The sparrow is there. The swallow is there. They’ve found a resting place.” And he cries out for “the living God.”
Do you remember in the ’60s, when they had all those T-shirts that made these tremendously profound points? They had a T-shirt that said, “My God is not dead. Sorry about yours.” After that big “God is dead” thing had come through Bishop Robinson, a number of people went around wearing those T-shirts. You know, I don’t particularly like that on a T-shirt. It’s almost crass. But the expression is important. And I want to say this morning for some who may be here and wondering and questioning, some for whom religion may be at arm’s length, for whom a question of appetite is almost an irrelevancy because there seems to be so little… I don’t know, and you only know, and God knows, but church really is no place for you. The Scriptures are not an open book to you. It’s a long time since you prayed, and somehow, you know that God seems a long way away, and “If only he might be known!” Well, let me tell you: he may be known, because he is the living God. He is alive. God’s not dead; he is alive. And he has explained himself and expressed himself in the person of Christ. And Christ’s not dead. He’s alive. And Christ walks and talks with those who are his by the Holy Spirit. And his awareness, and the awareness of his presence, brings reality and joy to our lives.
The apostle Paul said, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has … been raised from the dead”; he’s “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Our preoccupation is with God—the living God.
Not only is he the living God, but you’ll notice in verse 3 that he is the glorious God. He is the “Almighty” God. He is the God who is worthy of our adoration: “O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.” One of the sad aspects of twentieth-century Christianity is that in a quest to know God personally, we have diminished God. We have brought him down where he may become our pal, as it were, rather than that we should bow before the wonder of his goodness. That’s why the music of this morning, in a very real sense, captures this in Psalm 84. It captures the splendor and the wonder of it all. It lifts our spirits up within us to say, “O Lord God Almighty, my heart cries out for you!” We’ll never know what it is to praise until that’s true.
The location of his praise was the temple, and ours is amongst the people of God. The foundation of his praise was the living God, great and glorious. And the expression of his praise comes in verse 4: “Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.”
In other words, it’s continual. It’s not a little section in my day. It’s not an adjunct to the rest of my life. I do it with my voice. I do it with my hands. I do it with my heart. I do it in the routine of my days. As you return tomorrow to all that life will mean to you, the experience of Psalm 84 ought not to be locked back at eleven o’clock here but ought to be taken into the fragrance of our lives.
As I noted with you last Sunday morning—and I want to reinforce it again; it’s a burden on my heart in these days—it is not inconsequential that Paul in Ephesians 5:18, where he exhorts the believers to “be filled with the Holy Spirit,” then goes on to say, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, [and] always [give] thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord [and] Jesus Christ.”
Our appetite will be revealed in our praise—not the style of our praise, because that will vary from country to country and continent to continent and congregation to congregation. That is ultimately a matter of taste. But it will be revealed in the reality of our focus upon God. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, writing in an earlier generation, addressed his congregation at the conclusion of a service with these words: he says,
Men whisper their praises … [when] a hearty outburst of song would be far more natural. It is to be feared that the church of the present day, through a craving for excessive propriety, is growing too artificial; so that [the] enquirers’ cries and [the] believers’ shouts would be silenced … in [most of] our assemblies. This may be better than boisterous fanaticism, but there is as much danger in the one direction as [in] the other. For our part, we are touched to the heart by a little sacred excess.
I love that phrase: “a little sacred excess.” You know when your mom comes to you and says, “Would you like some more dessert?” Let’s take it she comes to her husband, and she says, “Would you like some more dessert?” And your eyes look in the place, your children watch you, and your children start to say, “Oh, you’re not supposed to! Remember the cholesterol from Revco. You’re not supposed…” And you look at your children, and you say, “Wouldn’t you allow me just a little sacred excess?” And your wife’s eyes sparkle, because she prepared it. She loves to see it eaten.
Listen: God’s eyes sparkle this morning as he looks upon a congregation that finds its location amongst the people of God, that finds its foundation in the living God, and finds its expression in, sometimes, a little sacred excess.
My conclusion, with three phrases.
That about which we speak this morning is, first of all, an affair of the heart. I may return you to our beginning: neither prayer nor praise nor the hearing of the Word will be pleasant or profitable to persons who attend having left their hearts behind. It’s an affair of the heart.
Secondly, such an experience does not come as a result of external stimuli. Such an experience of praise and of worship, the revealing of an appetite, does not come in the heart of man because everything is the way we want them, everything is the way we decide it should be—it’s the right tune; it’s the right words; it’s the right phraseology. That, ultimately, is not the issue. It is not that bells are rung from the outside. It is rather that a bell rings within. Listen to Spurgeon put it: such an individual “needed no clatter of bells from the belfry to bring him in, he carried his bell in his own bosom: holy appetite is a better call to worship than a full chime.” And, dear ones, if we think that by the ringing of the bells we create worship—we create that within our experience—we’re looking to the wrong place. For it is as our hearts are open to the living God that the bells ring from within. And that which is external merely is the fruit and the leaves of a heart in tune with God.
And finally, unless when we come together in worship we realize the presence of God, we have done nothing. For the mere gathering of ourselves together is worth nothing. And unless you and I met God this morning in this hour—for our time is over, and we’re about to leave—unless we met with God, unless we heard his voice, unless our hearts were tuned in praise, we were present, but that was all. For we’re not here to get points for attendance. We are here to give praise and adoration to God. And a healthy appetite will be revealed, says Psalm 84, part 1, amongst people who are found praising with God’s people. This day, the Lord’s Day, gives us an opportunity to assess the appetite of our hearts. God grant that we might use it to that end in the hours that he gives us.
Shall we pray together?
O Lord our God, you are very great. Your greatness is unsearchable. We have rejoiced in song and in music and in the proclamation of your Word. Our words are not our own; we look alone to you. And I pray that you will come to each of our lives this morning and address us in this area. Grant that any conviction we sense may be that of the Holy Spirit, any encouragement that we derive may be from the same source. And as our morning worship ends and we go on from here to Sunday school, to fellowship, to the rest of this day—yes, to our worship tonight—oh, may our appetite get better and better, and may your heart be blessed. To this end we commit one another lovingly to your care. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
 Luke 15:13 (KJV).
 See Song of Solomon 2:4.
 1 Corinthians 15:19–20 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 5:19–20 (NIV 1984).
 C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2, Psalm XXVII. to LVII. (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 85.
 C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 3, Psalm LVIII. to LXXXVII. (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 433.
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.