Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

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WHO IS JESUS? #10

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Glorious One, and Glorifier.

It’s easy to give a caustic answer to an insulting comment. That moment when the cold response we have been formulating in our mind escapes our lips and makes its attack is rarely satisfying and usually regrettable. It seldom creates the reaction we had hoped for either. Yet we seem unable to give a reply that is both full of truth and of hope, that stands its ground and yet offers a lifeline to the insulter.

“Who do you think you are?” Jesus’ accusers had hissed. While it may have been a rhetorical question with which the First Century Jewish cultural leaders had attacked Jesus, He chooses to respond. He frames His answer as if the emphasis of the question had been on the words you and think—“Who do you think you are?”

“If I glorify myself,” Jesus replies, “my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me…Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:54-56). In other words, Jesus was saying, ’Let’s not quibble with who I think I am. God the Father thinks I am a gloriously splendid expression of Himself.’

The Pharisees must have blinked in astonishment. Before them stood a man without wealth or prestige by earthly standards, whose clothing was simplicity itself, whose followers were the unremarkables and even castoffs of society: fishermen, tax collectors, lepers and worse. And He speaks of glory?

This claim of Jesus has twofold interest for us who have at our disposal the fully completed Scriptures. The Pharisees had the Old Testament, which in fact spoke exhaustively about the Messiah, God-with-us, setting aside His glory to come in the flesh to humanity; but their hearts had been hardened and their minds were closed to that truth. We have the added support of the New Testament commentary that reveals even more about the Son of God. Yet, soft hearts and open minds are still as much the necessary equipment to understanding Jesus’ claims now as they were then.

Firstly, Jesus is claiming to be “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). He lays claim to that glory as a characteristic of His union with God the Father. He is the Glorious One whose brilliance and energy is the source of the sun and stars and light itself. The glory of Jesus is a term that helps us capture a hint of the sum total of His being—the fusion of His complete goodness and power. This is no small claim. It is also no small thing for His listeners to grasp that concept—they and we are creatures of habit that have gotten used to relying solely on our five senses. “Seeing,” we suppose, “is believing.”

The greatest mystery is that Jesus doesn’t stop there. He is not only the Glorious One; He is also the Glorifier. Jesus offers His followers a reflected glory through association with Him: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ” (Colossians 2:9). As we take stock of our lives—balancing all the hopes and disappointments, successes and failures like spinning plates on batons—we wonder what that glory means. Scripture tells us that when we face suffering for what is right, we “are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (I Peter 4:14). Christ’s glorious strength of character becomes accessible to us to face difficulties with grace.

We are also provided with that inner glory and grace of Christ for the express purpose of loving others, especially the unlovely. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” instructs Jesus, “that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44).

We will not always be here in these troublesome bodies amid challenging relationships plagued by the difficulties of life. As C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory describes, “..all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in. When human souls have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which Nature is only the first sketch.”

Join with me today in giving honour to the One who is both Glorious and Glorifier, for He is worthy. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

(Photo Credit: Bob Embleton [[File:Summit of Black Hill – geograph.org.uk – 685273.jpg|Summit of Black Hill – geograph.org.uk – 685273]])

WHO IS JESUS? #9

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God-honouring.

No one appreciates being misunderstood. Confusion, false perceptions, and accusations about and against our person can be exasperating. Sometimes a simple explanation can correct a false impression, but there are times when no amount or degree of clarification can shed light on the matter. It is as if a dark veil lies over our accuser’s mind obstructing the truth from penetrating within.

“I am not possessed by a demon,” counters Jesus against His opponents’ accusations, “but I honour my Father and you dishonour me” (John 8:49). While the Pharisees were resorting to epithets and invectives in their attempt to obscure and yet defend their position of self-righteous social power, Jesus’ reply is simple: My identity consists in honouring the Father. There is no secrecy or ulterior motive to Jesus. Every facet of His character, every intention and action of His being converges on one purpose: to honour the Father. And, He maintains, I accomplish it.

Only a completely sinless person can bring God honour. Christ does not do as we might expect if He were merely a good man or only a mortal ambassador of God; He does not say, I try to honour God. That would leave room for moments of imperfection. He says I honour the Father. Flawlessly.

Jesus even goes so far as to challenge His antagonists, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?” They wanted to. More than anything else His pious accusers longed to pin on Jesus a charge that would allow them to execute Him. A man who lived like Jesus lived, and taught as He taught is infuriating to those whose purposes are self-centred, coarse, and hateful.

This claim Jesus is making, that He is the uniquely God-honouring One, is problematic for us mortals; we sense the contrast against ourselves that is implied in His claim. Jesus honours the Father in everything, absolutely everything He does—but we don’t. Our thoughts, our words, and our actions are often compromised. The best of us have dishonoured God in untold ways. Jesus’ claim seems to unmask us, causing our less-than-perfect motives and intentions to stand in stark contrast to His. What ought we to do with that feeling? Ignore it? Deny it, hide it, or make counter-claims back at Jesus saying His attitude is just a ‘holier-than-thou’ one?

Let’s keep in mind that Jesus is speaking in this pointed way to an audience that has hardened their hearts toward Him. They and their ilk were spoken about by the prophet Isaiah as leaders whose motto toward ‘lesser’ people was, “Keep away, don’t come near me, for I am too sacred for you!” (Isaiah 65:5). Jesus’ succinct remarks to this group are deliberately intended to challenge their self-righteous attitudes.

So firstly, we must ask ourselves, are we one of these? Have we dishonoured Jesus, allowing Him anything less than full access to our hearts and lives? Have we avoided or wandered from our childlike trust in Him? If so, the only response that offers us any hope is to humbly recognize our error and return to Him.

“Come to me,” Jesus invites. “Believe me,” He enjoins. “Remain in me,” He offers, “and I will remain in you”. When we respond to Jesus in the way He summons, His perfectly God-honouring character begins to flow through us, enabling us to be God-honouring too. Alone, we are unable to do it. But living by Jesus’ strength of character, and being moved by His Word and Spirit lifts us up by degrees to be the God-honouring creatures we were designed to be. With Jesus’ Spirit living in us, we escape the twisted degradation our species inevitably slumps toward. The world does not need any more Pharisees.

Secondly, if we have sought to follow Jesus—to honour the One who honours the Father so well—our best response to Jesus’ claim is to keep on keeping on, to persevere regardless of the way things look today. We need to do as the British WWII morale-boosting message urged: To Keep Calm and Carry On. The disappointments of this life, the weight of our own weaknesses, and the devil whose purpose is to deceive, all conspire against us to tempt us to give up on trusting Jesus. Don’t do it. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart,” reminds Scripture, “and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5,6).

(Photo Credit: By UK Government – UK Crown Copyright – expired, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17015658)

WHO IS JESUS? #4

Deity

Who in this entire world, foolish or wise, can say with complete sobriety and truthfulness, “My decisions are right”—always right? Never wrong, never contestable? In John’s gospel (8:16) the Apostle records Jesus making just such a claim. “(My) decisions,” says Jesus, “are right, because I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me” (John 8:16). It’s a bold claim—and offensive if it is not true. Beyond that, isn’t it a bit confusing to hear Jesus defending the validity of His decisions based on the company He keeps?

The fool thinks he is right—and surrounds himself with like-minded friends—but finds himself amid a cluster of falling dominoes because he has not truly considered the consequences of his thoughts. The madman thinks he is right because his rationality is based on illusions of identity—of grandeur, victimization, or some other self-deception—and has a somewhat more limited scope of friends perhaps because his grasp of reality obstructs relationships.

C.S. Lewis’ memorable alliteration concludes that to make such a claim as “my decisions are (always) right” a man must be either a liar, a lunatic, or—the only other option—Lord. Jesus is claiming to be LORD—Master of omniscience and supreme authority on everything from environmental to ethical decision-making. He is claiming deity, isn’t He?

With complete candour, Jesus gives this alibi as His defense: “I am not alone. I stand with the Father who sent me.” It’s an interesting defense. Let’s take a deeper look at what Jesus is saying here.

Firstly, Jesus is saying that He has the complete endorsement and corroboration of God the Father authenticating every thought, word, and action He undertakes. Every intention of the Father for earth and its inhabitants, claims Jesus, is embodied in me. Taken in context with everything else we know about Jesus through the gospels, it is not incoherent to believe He is speaking the truth. We ourselves cannot imagine claiming that role, but it is not inconceivable that Jesus can and does.

But secondly, Jesus is not only the absolute representative of the Father—in office and in character—but He is saying He is deity Himself.

“I and the Father are one,” Jesus would later spell out, and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Apostle Paul would also explain it this way, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col.1:15). In declaring that He stands with the Father, Jesus is asserting His privilege as the visible second Person of the triune God. As the Son, He is inextricably bound to the Father and the Holy Spirit as a member of the incomprehensible One God.

The Jewish rulers understood what Jesus was claiming by saying He stands with the Father. Their attempts and eventual success in killing Jesus was their response, in their words, “because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). They displayed the ensuing results of disbelieving Jesus’ claim to deity—they attempted to completely remove Him from their world. The modern expression of this reaction is to maintain that He never existed, He was merely a good man, or that He is dead and irrelevant to our present world.

But if we choose to accept that Jesus’ claim to be the visible image of the invisible God is believable, how will that affect our lives? There is no guesswork left but to determine that our full loyalty, obedience and worship should be focused upon Him.

The gospels are rich with Jesus’ wisdom, practical guidance and overt commands waiting to be applied to our hearts and lives. There are more than enough to keep us busy for the remainder of our earthly days. It will not be a burden, but rather a joyful process enabling us to gradually build lives of Christlike character. This is what Jesus intended by coming to earth. This is how He wants to bless each and every one of us. So let’s pick up our Bibles, dust them off if necessary, and begin to pour over, reflect upon and apply everything the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) record Jesus as saying. If He is God, we owe it to Him.

(Photo Credits: By Famartin – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29114992; By ESO/A. Fitzsimmons – http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1320a/, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26190225; By Hernán Piñera from Marbella – Locked in his world, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42201535)

 

 

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #24

Prayer Acknowledging God’s Character-building Work in my Life

(Paraphrase of Psalm 138)

You are worthy of praise, God. In Your love and faithfulness You are changing me for good; You are reforming my heart from the cold, hard, fractured thing it was into a steady, focused core of purpose that moves my life. Instead of chasing every zephyr of this world’s fleeting promises, I’m becoming wholehearted in singing Your praise. The more I acknowledge Your greatness, the more I find You making me strong from the inside out.

In moments of despair or discouragement I call to You for help. You answer me by assuring me You are near and by making me stouthearted and peaceful within. I am beginning to see that You want me to look at troubles differently than as distressing inconveniences; when my focus is on You, LORD, troubles are reminders of Your steady intention to remake me.

I wish we all would turn to You, God. I wish we would turn off the blaring cacophony of this world’s propaganda and listen instead to the life-transforming words You speak. Rather than building a flimsy scaffolding of self-esteem through proud monologues, we would join with the throng of the faithful, singing Your praises. Bowing to Your claim on our lives, we would find You endowing us with strength to stand.

As I walk in the midst of trouble, preserve the inner core of my being, LORD. Make it impervious to my foes. Cause fear and doubt to flee. Replace reckless abandon and selfish striving with self-control and kindness.

I see that with one hand You protect me from my old enemies, and with the other You create in me character. In speechless wonder I know You have envisioned good things for me. You will be faithful to complete and fulfill Your purposes for me, developing in me the character of Your own precious Son, Jesus.

Your workmanship, LORD, is good. Continue Your creative work in me until I am everything You want me to be. Your love, O LORD, endures forever.

(Photo Credits: By NN – Töpfer woodcut from year 1641, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29708898;

By Milartino – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20677304;

By Mcnultyc1 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6749541)

 

 

PROSPECTUS OF THE PRAYING PERSON, PART 4: John 14:8-26 Spiritual Vision

Vs. 17-19 “…but you know him…you will see me…”

 Here, Jesus promises the praying person will know and see Someone no one other than believers is able to know and see.  Sounds interesting.  Maybe even a little Sci-Fi. He says we will know the Holy Spirit, and we will see Jesus Himself.

For centuries philosophers have bemoaned, debated, discussed and complained about something called the ‘hiddenness of God”. They view it this way: If God is completely good, loving, powerful, all-knowing and ever-present, He would want the best for people, His creatures. Relationship with Him would be the best thing for them; an awareness of Him is essential in order to have relationship with Him, but His hiddenness limits that awareness. Some, in frustration, have even declared God must not exist since His presence cannot be verified by empirical data. They cannot see, hear, taste, smell or touch Him.

Jesus confirms they have a problem. He observes, “The world cannot accept him (the Holy Spirit), because it neither sees him nor knows him.”

I don’t presume to have the answer to age-old deep philosophical questions. But Jesus is making a promise in this segment of Scripture that seems relevant to the discussion. He is explaining the connection between sensing God and having a relationship with Him. The ‘world’ (those that are not His followers) wants sensation first; it wants evidence, empirical data, proof that He exists. Then, it will submit to relationship. Jesus says ‘you’ (followers of Him) are different: you submit to relationship first (now that’s faith!), and then you find confirmation in your spirit that HE IS; you come to know Him and see Him with the spiritual vision He supplies you.

It’s like character. No one sees character. We see the effects of character, and then surmise the existence of the core value. For instance, think of endurance. That’s a character trait. When I look at someone, I can’t actually see endurance; it’s not like a nose, or a knee, or a skin tone. As I observe that person for a bit, though, I begin to develop a picture in my mind of something much deeper than skin.  Perhaps I see that person going on regular early morning runs. I begin to think she has set a goal for herself and is trying hard to attain it.  After several weeks or months, if she keeps at it, I begin to see she is quite dedicated.  It’s not until she completes the marathon for which she’s been training, though, that I am finally able to observe in her the trait of endurance. (Perhaps she sees the same perseverance in me for all the months of watching!)

Jesus promises something similar. Those of us who have submitted to God, who have accepted the atonement for our sinfulness provided by Jesus’ redeeming death and resurrection, have moved into relationship with God. We have become His people. As we begin to live each day with this relationship in mind, seeking to please Him in every way, His Spirit reveals Himself to our spirits in a deeper-than-skin way. We know Him and see Him through our spiritual vision.

He’s right, isn’t He? If you love Him, you know what I mean. If you haven’t chosen yet to love Him, what’s stopping you?

God of the universe,

Good and all-powerful,

All-knowing all-present One,

You give me that for which

my deepest spirit longs:

You show me your very Self.

Just who am I that You willingly give

Such a great gift, this knowledge of You.

What of Your hiddenness?

Thus is my spirit

Unseen, with Your presence, at home.

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