The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 10

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The Blessing

Now Isaac, Abraham’s son, had become old. His eyesight had faded, his joints were stiff, and he had by now passed off the day-to-day responsibility of the running of his estate to his middle-aged twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Aged as he was, there was one thing that had never left Isaac’s mind: The Blessing.

The oral teaching and tradition of this one particular call of God, passed along to Isaac at his mother’s knee and later at his father’s side, was a careful record of the Blessing. It would be another five hundred years before Moses would commit to writing the Blessing that provides the infrastructure to the book of Genesis. Isaac had heard about his ancestor Adam whom the LORD God had blessed with the ability to be “fruitful.” The Blessing had been imbedded into the curse upon the serpent through whom Adam and Eve had rebelled against God, vowing, “(Eve’s) offspring…will crush your head.” God had spoken the Blessing over Abraham, promising, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” and had reiterated it to Isaac word for word. The Blessing was tied inextricably to offspring—to one specific Offspring.

The Blessing was not the same sort which other peoples invoked or to which other people groups aspired. Isaac’s wife Rebekah had come from a family who had transacted her wedding to Isaac with the typical tribal blessing of “…may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.” That sort of blessing was based on survival of the fittest, on having the top competitive edge, on producing the greatest number of progeny as an insurance policy for ethnic survival. It was a cutthroat ‘us over them’ mindset.

God’s Blessing was different in several ways. Firstly, the Blessing was to be carried through a select line of people within the larger ethnic group. Abraham heard God speak it and from him the lineage must begin. In time his younger son Isaac heard God speak it. Later Isaac’s unlikely son Jacob would hear God speak it. The Blessing insisted a particular family line must be the channel to reach the objective. God designated this lineage specifically and through unexpected individuals to transmit and convey the Blessing toward a specific end: One particular Offspring. It was this Offspring who would crush the head of the serpent who had invaded the Garden of Eden, and dissolve the curse the slippery devil had diverted onto earth’s inhabitants.

Secondly, it was designed to benefit all people—not a select ethnic, social or political group. God had promised, “All nations on earth will be blessed,” with an emphasis on the word ‘All’. Nothing like this had ever been considered before. Disparate peoples were fanning out over the globe, each bent on their own survival and, at times, dominance. In contrast God’s Blessing speaks of a unified human glory—a joy of which every human heart has heard the inner whisper, and for which some yet dare to hope. What did the angel bespeak to the shepherds on the holiest of nights this earth has beheld? “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The Blessing is offered to all.

Thirdly, the Blessing foreshadowed the arrival of God Himself entering human history as one of its own. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” the eyewitness John would one day recount.

And fourthly, the Blessing impacts and continues to transform all—without exception—who have submitted to its power. Passive and a little foolish in his favouritisms, Issac learned to love both his sons and was successful in moving the Blessing forward. “By faith Isaac,” the 11th chapter of Hebrews chronicles, “blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.” While unknown confounding influences were at play as Isaac blessed his sons, the Blessing found its mark as determined by God. Forty-one generations down Isaac’s lineage, the Blessing would be fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The author of Hebrews records Isaac’s part as “by faith.” While he could not have imagined Jesus, he performed his part of the blessing as an act of faith that God has the future in His control.

And so it is with us. We see Jesus as the object through which the Blessing is realized, but we do not yet see our promised future Blessing, our eternity with Him. We too must walk by faith. As we daily open our ears and hearts to Him we step forward in faith into the Blessing as Isaac did. Confounding influences may seem to hold sway over events in our lives, but God is faithful. His Blessing will not be hindered. Come to the Blesser today.

 

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OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 3

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‘Aleph’ cont’d.

How can we move ourselves onto the path of life and blessing when our natural tendencies draw us toward things that damage and destroy that option? This is the question the psalmist explores in this first stanza of his psalm. In his deepest, truest self he wants to be “steadfast in obeying (God’s) decrees” but knows from experience he is incapable. There is always that part of him that messes up, that unpredictably thinks, speaks and acts in defiance of God’s ways.

Here, in Aleph, the psalmist begins to answer this question in a theme that will fill 176 verses—an answer that for himself and his listeners becomes the seed of the greatest answer available to humanity. The key to the door of blessing, to the path of not only a flourishing life but one that fulfills everything God created it to entail, is immersing oneself in God.

Seeking and immersing ourselves in a god…isn’t this a bit too reminiscent of the religions of the world, the attempts of humans to seek something greater than themselves, and by focused desiring attempt to find meaning in life? Is it, then, all about our efforts, regardless of the specific god we have in mind?

No. The psalmist is very clear to highlight Whom he means. He shows the “LORD”—Yahweh, the Great ‘I AM’—is the locus of it all. People, he says, who “seek him with all their heart” are those who will find life and blessing. What the psalmist doesn’t fully know yet is that God is a greater seeker than we are. God originated the seeking by creating a world that, though it would go afoul of His moral laws by the abuse of its freedoms, would also be the womb out of which a rescuer would come.

Words like the “law of the LORD”, “his ways…decrees (and)…commands” referenced in the psalm are principally and at their core, descriptors of the One who embodies that moral law, the fully God and fully human solution to our problem, the eternally existent One born into humanity: Jesus Christ.

“In the beginning was the Word,” explains the Apostle John in the opening lines of his gospel account of the life of Jesus, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5).

There it is. “In him was life.” John will also later quote Jesus as calling Himself not only “the life” but also “the way”, “the truth”, “”the door”, “the vine” and many other metaphors to help us see that it is He of whom the psalmist speaks as the source of blessing.

So God first seeks, but then we seek too. This is the foundation of the solution to the problem the psalmist mulls over. A blessed life is one wrapped in relationship with God. Knowing the Father as our loving provider, Jesus as our redeemer and friend, and His Spirit as our internally-abiding comforter and confidante is the beginning and end of what the psalmist is trying to convey. God does, but we also do. God provides moral strength, but we must avail ourselves of it. God reveals His will for our thoughts, speech and behaviour, but we must obey it. God expresses His majesty in His creation but we must choose to recognize it and worship Him within it.

It’s a learning process. We don’s always respond as we should, even if we have surrendered ourselves to Jesus. The psalmist admits it is a process of “learn(ing) your righteous laws.” But God is patient, and everything in Him is encouraging us to learn and to seek Him, because when it comes to God, “everyone…who seeks finds” (Matthew 7:8).

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 2

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‘Aleph’ (vs.1-8).

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes, and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”

Not many of us know Hebrew. Many Bibles, though, have labeled the stanzas of Psalm 119 in that ancient language. The first stanza is labeled ‘Aleph.’ Does it sound familiar? Think of our word alphabet. The Hebrew Aleph is our ‘A’ and Bet is our ‘B’. Alphabet is simply ‘The A’s and B’s of a language.’

It’s an interesting device the psalmist uses. It’s as if he is saying, ‘These are the a b c’s of living in close communion with God; this is the language we must learn if we want to be part of God’s original intention for creating us.’ But just read through those verses again. It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see the incongruity and conflict that has escaped from the psalmist’s pen.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless…Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” he bemoans. The psalm-writer has begun to examine his own life and beliefs about God and with a shudder realizes he has fallen short of the glorious God-centred life he thought he could live. Perhaps he suddenly recognizes the two-edged sword of human free will: God has revealed His moral nature, but He gives humans the choice to discount Creator-dependent living in favour of their own freedom-seeking trial-and-error methods. To do so comes naturally to us, but also comes with a price. We bypass the blessing and success God designed our lives to produce.

We hear in the psalmist’s words his anxiety and apprehension. His best attempts to be true to God, to be morally consistent and steadfast in obedience have failed. He is a sinner with a sense of morality that won’t go away. He tries to reverse the negative influence of his choices by looking up at the moral benchmark where he sees hope shining. He sees blessing and an upright heart and an overall goodness of living that he wants. What he also discovers is an intersection of two distinct and diverging paths, a crossroads he faces every day. He seems to describe the paths as the Way of Blessing and the Path of Shame, roads he, like every human, consciously or unconsciously walks upon as a result of choices made. He hasn’t got the full picture, but he knows his own anxiety because his walk is inconsistent.

Centuries later, Jesus elaborated on the picture the psalmist was beginning to sketch. He described those paths and the dilemma of our struggling moral nature. “Enter through the narrow gate,” He advised, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). Jesus clarified the psalmist’s and our dilemma by revealing that the situation is both worse and better than the psalmist had imagined.

Jesus expands the psalmist’s word shame into total destruction. A gram of rebellion against the Creator becomes a mushrooming cancer of self-destruction in the eternal realm Jesus foresaw. Yet Jesus also expands on the psalmist’s term blessing; he calls it life, an expansive, God-infused, flourishing and eternal life to which He will refer on many other occasions. He shows us something we know deep inside. The stakes are high; the rumours are true: the decisions we make in this life matter for eternity. Our moral nature intimates and necessitates it. We are more than tissue and bone; the One who made us calls us to prepare ourselves for our unseen future while we are still bound by that tissue and bone.

The trouble is that inhabiting bodies as we do, we are the most natural materialists and sensualists. We are drawn toward things that satisfy our senses—things we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. Many of those hankerings are good and are essential for our survival: food, clothing, shelter, loving relationships, and meaningful work are the basics of life. But some of those appetites damage us: harmful addictions, injurious relationships, and unethical work. We can make our own lists of those ones.

But the real danger is when we allow our senses (empiricism) to block our perception of God communicating to us through our spirit. Because we fail to literally see the two paths, our tendency, in practice, is to deny or at least ignore that they exist. Yet, recognizing this, there seems to be nothing more we can do than to cry out as the psalmist does, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” Or is there?

(To be continued)

WHO IS JESUS? #12

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Promised Blessing.

Looking out at the religious figures that surrounded Him now, Jesus saw livid faces. He saw irritation and annoyance, indignance and outrage. His claims about Himself had been more than they could take; He had called Himself everything from Light of the World, to Out of this World. His claims had not enamoured Him to these men whose religious dictatorship of the community had not before been questioned.

They were an obstinate and thickheaded group. They simply could not understand Jesus because they would not understand Him. Referring to God as His Father had gotten Jesus nowhere—perhaps it was too abstract a concept for them—so He returns to the subject of Abraham. Earlier they had crowed, “Abraham is our father,” and Jesus now uses that notion to reveal His next claim about Himself

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day,” announces Jesus; “he saw it and was glad.” His opponents were incredulous.

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

The air was thick with their incredulity and cynical skepticism.

Jesus had gone further than hard hearts could follow. He was explaining the motivation that had inspired Abraham’s life from the time he left his idolatrous roots in Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization,’ was a promise. More than a promise, it was a covenant made by Yahweh to the then-named Abram. It was a covenant promising that Abraham would become a great nation quite separate from civilization, as it was then known, a covenant whose purpose was to bless all peoples on earth—eternally. The covenant had come with the stipulation that Abraham leave his own country, people group, and father’s household and go to the land God Himself would show him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The author of Hebrews comments on the kind of faith required to follow a promise like that. He lists Abraham as one of several historical characters whose lives revolved around that kind of faith, who “considered Him (God) faithful who had made the promise.”

“All these people,” writes Hebrew’s unknown author, “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11,13-16).

Jesus is saying, ‘I am the personification of that promise. I am the Object of Abraham’s faith; I am the One that embedded in Abraham’s heart the joy of knowing Yahweh’s covenant would one day be realized; I am the One whose task is to bless every people group on this planet; I am the Promised Blessing; I am.’

To this very claim each of us must personally respond. The mark of a response that is authentic and truly receptive of everything offered in God’s covenant is that it will be accompanied by two things: it will be focused on Jesus, and it will be attended by an inner joy.

“Therefore,” Hebrews continues, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

So today we have this before us: we have Jesus and we have joy. These are the anchor points of the covenant God made so many millennia ago in which He even then intended us to be included. Jesus is the Promised Blessing. Let’s embrace Him today and be blessed.

(PHoto Credit: By Till Krech from Berlin, Germany – ghost shipUploaded by perumalism, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28664411)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #15

Prayer of Perseverance (A Paraphrase of Psalm 129)

From its infancy, Jesus, the body of Your believers has faced opposition. From the first to the twenty-first century—for two thousand long years—we have known the antipathy of Satan’s power deceiving the cultures around us, but Your people have persevered.

The regimes of Iran and Iraq, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, North Korea, South Asia, and even North America have sought to destroy Your people, Lord. But the LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed: You have not allowed our suffering to gain any ultimate victory over us.

In Your justice You have freed every one of us from the various grasps oppression attempts. Some of us You miraculously remove from difficulty—responding to the prayers of Your people and rescuing by Your mighty hand.

To some of us You give the grace of endurance; lessons learned in captivity or under the tyranny of the faithless have been the testing-ground for developing Christ-like character.

And some of Your beloved ones You allow to experience death at the hands of ruthless persecutors. Yet we all know Your presence more powerfully than fear. Your faithfulness shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Your blessing is for those who persevere. Lord, help me honour Your greatness by joining the throng of the faithful, of whom it will be said, “The blessing of the LORD be upon you; we bless you in the name of the LORD.”

[Photo Credits: By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Typhoon in Hong Kong. Mcyjerry~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=267320

By NASA/Tim Kopra [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #14

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Prayer of Blessing (Paraphrasing Psalm 128)

The only blessing worth having comes from You, Lord-from fearing You, from holding You in highest esteem, and from living the nitty-gritty of our lives by Your principles and power.

For one thing, our labour, when it is focused on Your kingdom, results in a grand spiritual harvest; we benefit both now and for eternity. We become more Christ-like and we see others join in on the journey toward holiness.

For another thing, our families produce a social harvest of loving relationships, husbands, wives, sons and daughters complementing and caring for one another with uncommon compassion. It’s like a feast at a dinner table, abundant, nourishing and comforting.

We truly reap what we sow. Fear of You, Lord, produces all this blessing and more. I want this blessing for others too, Lord. I want to say to them:

‘May the Lord bless you with His presence all the days of your life; may you have eyes to see His kingdom come in your life now and for eternity; may you find that life with God is life to the fullest; and may you bless future generations by passing on to them the great inheritance of the gift of Jesus.’

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #3

Praising the Unseen God (A Paraphrase of Psalm 115)

Taking my eyes off myself, God, and looking to You alone is where my hope is secure. Why? Because of Your love and faithfulness toward those who fear and honour You.

How strange that we doubt Your existence because You are unseen. What should we expect? That You would submit to our demands, You who rule the universe and beyond?

When we have a perspective of doubt, we show that we prefer a god we make ourselves—one that justifies the way we want to live, that condones our grasping, grabbing, selfish lifestyles. That perspective is just a façade for empty, impotent and temporal intentions. People who create gods for themselves end up becoming like them: deaf, blind, mute and paralyzed to attaining what You, God, designed them to experience.

Help those who honour and fear You, God, to continue to entrust themselves to Your help and protection. You know each of us inside out. You remember our frailties and will bless us with the kind of blessings we each need most. You bless those who fear You, whether we are young or old, obscure or well-known—all alike are blessed.

One way You bless us is by making Your family increase: we increase in love for You, faith in You, fear of You; we increase in character traits like Christ and in power to accomplish Your will; we increase in compassion for others—something often beyond us.

Continue to bless us, Lord–Maker of heaven and earth–so that we are enabled to realize Your great plans for us. We inhabit the earth but You invite us to share the heavens with You.

So the contrast becomes quite clear, God, between those who reject You and those who honour and fear You. The former gradually shrink and fade away like a dead leaf, fallen and blown away. But those who extol Your wonders expand for eternity in worshipful awe.

(Photo Credits: By Uroš Novina from Semič, Slovenia – Maple leaf in summer, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50029518;  [[File:Fern Unfurling – geograph.org.uk – 160963.jpg|thumb|Fern Unfurling – geograph.org.uk – 160963]];  By Karlostachys – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31299697)