Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 13

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‘Kaph’

Hunger, yearning, longing, desire: these are all concepts God endorses. In contrast to Eastern religions, Christianity boldly advocates—even insists upon—desire. We’re not talking about desire as an end in itself, though; that would be discontent. Nor are we talking about desire for anything that attracts us; that would be greed. And we’re definitely not talking about desire for things that could in any way harm us or harm anyone or anything around us; that would be destruction. What Christianity embodies is a desiring for what God specifically promises us in His Word. We’re talking about desiring God. Some of His promises are accessible right now, but some of them are for the future, a distant but very real future. This is what the psalmist speaks of in the stanza labeled ‘Kaph’.

“My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’ / Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees. / How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors? / The arrogant dig pitfalls for me, contrary to your law. / All your commands are trustworthy; help me, for men persecute me without cause. / They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. / Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth”(Psalm 119:81-88).

The psalmist is fairly bursting with desire. His soul faints with longing for God’s salvation. His eyes fail for looking for God’s promise. He bemoans how long he is being required to wait for comfort, for relief, for rescue. He desires these things so fully that it occupies his heart, his mind and his senses. This desire is essentially for God to make good on a promise He made centuries earlier. It was a promise initially wreathed in mystery with revelations by increments made through an array of God’s prophets. Yet as little as the psalmist knows of the promise’s vast extent, he is entirely consumed by hoping for it, because he knows it embodies God’s love for him. So the promise itself has been the cause of the desire that fills the psalmist.

Since Jesus incarnated as a man and accomplished His redeeming work on the cross a millennium after the psalmist lived, the bulk of the promise has been fulfilled. But rather than dulling the desire of the promise, He magnifies it. His vast expansive eternal being enlarges and expands our appetite for Him so we desire Him not less than the psalmist but more. It seems to be true that ‘the more you have the more you want’. Jesus’ unbounded, immeasurable, limitless love makes us hunger more for Him with each successive taste of Him we swallow.

Not only is Christ the source of “the mystery of God…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3), but He is “this mystery…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Christ living in the lives of those who invite Him within is both the source of and solution to our deepest desiring. ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ was Bach’s name for Him. All other desires are cheap imitations of Him our true desire.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,” invites Jesus through the prophet Isaiah, “come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?…Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1-3). If we want our desiring satisfied, it’s Jesus to whom we must come.

(Photo Credit: By Deepak Vallamsetti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52197985)

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 9

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Part 9: ‘Zayin’

“Endurance,” explains Glaswegian minister William Barclay, “is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” Perhaps this thought is what lies at the foundation of the psalmist’s next stanza of Psalm 119. ‘Zayin’—or seventh Hebrew letter—is the ‘z’-sounding letter that is also a word meaning weapon or sword and food/nourishment. The psalmist seems to have used this letter to explore suffering as a theme for these eight zayin-headed verses. It’s a stanza of the paradoxical, though. In the face of suffering, of enduring mockery, of indignation against the apparent mastery of evil over good we hear of hope, of comfort and even of a song.

Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. / My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. / The arrogant mock me without restraint, but I do not turn from your law. / I remember your ancient laws, O LORD, and I find comfort in them. / Indignation grips me because of the wicked, who have forsaken your law. / Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge. / In the night I remember your name, O LORD, and I will keep your law. / This has been my practice: I obey your precepts” (verses 49-56).

Suffering becoming glory. It’s an enigma, a puzzle, and a conundrum. It goes against our intuition. We want to avoid pain and heartbreak, not endure through it to reach some distant joy. Yet there it is, both the sword and nourishment contained in Zayin, are laid out for us to help us triumph over our common dilemma. How can the psalmist—not to mention we—access this great paradoxical prescription so that he and we can weather the deepest difficulties of life with the confidence that God will preserve us?

The key is Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering…Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (sections of Isaiah 53).

Jesus stepped into the deepest crevasse of suffering known to humankind—the chaos of bearing God’s just wrath against humanity’s rebellion. We want a just God. Here He is, and here Jesus is made to die an exponential death for your rebellion and mine, times the billions who have and ever will live on this planet. But Jesus is God in flesh and so the sword, though it caused untold suffering for Him, could not extinguish His being.

That is the message of Easter. “He is risen. He is risen indeed!” Jesus’ body broken like crisp bread, and His blood draining from His wounds like spilled wine, become for us the nourishment after the suffering. Trusting in the work of Jesus to solve our troublesome dilemma is what the Spirit of God infused into the psalmist’s pen so many years ago.

Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, helped two of His distraught and discouraged followers see that all of Scripture is about this amazing plan of rescue God devised for humanity. “He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

There it is again: suffering then glory. Jesus, in His larger than life way, takes the greatest suffering so that we may be infused with His life and become able to bear our portion of this earth’s trouble. But the suffering is only a bothersome interlude—it has no lasting grip on us just as it had no ultimate hold on Christ. The hope of glory to come that God has promised was on the tip of the psalmist’s pen and is ours for the asking too.

The Apostle Paul wrote, sensing the end of his life was at hand, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7,8).

Suffering’s grip is weak compared to the comfort of the Father’s hand. Let’s step into that great loving hand today, and as the lyrics of a current song say, “Just be held.”

(Photo Credit: By James Emery from Douglasville, United States – Bread and Wine (Cracker and Juice)_2048, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35135837)

WHO IS JESUS? #5

Sinless One.

Certain truths can be more intolerable to us than their corresponding falsehoods. For instance, accepting a rejection for promotion is more repugnant than assuring oneself that the hiring process was flawed. Or, learning to live with the effects of aging can be more frustrating than spending thousands of dollars trying to reverse those effects. A recent president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) found it more distasteful to be identified as a white woman of European descent than to falsely claim African-American heritage.  “I identify as black,” she claims.

As Jesus stations Himself to engage in a conversation with the hypocritical religious ruling class of His day, He claims something that infuriates them.

“I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come” (John 8:21). His listeners’ ears would have burned hearing that absolutely intolerable phrase— “you will die in your sin.” A flush of anger would have arisen up necks and merged with darkened faces. Not only had Jesus communicated a condemnation of their lifestyle (you sin— you die), but He had also deliberately conveyed a ‘holier than thou’ message.

Foreshadowing His own imminent death at their hands (“I am going away”), Jesus was not saying ‘like you, I too will die in my sin.’ Rather He contrasts Himself with all of humanity by claiming, “Where I go you cannot come.” He would die, but with not even a shadow of sin staining His person; contending to be uniquely sinless, He claims sole admittance to eternal life.

He is not saying that the concept of sin is passé. Jesus is not an early forerunner of today’s materialistic ideology that promotes tolerance of all personal choices, of the broad-mindedness that condones all pursuit of ‘trueness to self,’ of the rejection of the concept of sin.

He is saying, You are all sinners and will perish in never-ending death. I will die but will not perish because of my sinlessness. I possess the power of eternal life.

Now that standpoint is intolerable to many. To those who have never really explored Jesus’ claims about Himself it might even come as a shock. That perspective seems so illiberal and parochial—so old fashioned. Yet without that foundation to our understanding of Jesus we cannot move on to the offer He makes us. We must accept His sinlessness and its corollary—our sinfulness—if we want to avail ourselves of the eternal life that He possesses.

Most of the Pharisees never accessed the hidden offer in that so-offensive claim of Jesus. One or two did. They took the bad news along with the good. They understood and accepted the reality of Jesus’ sinlessness as the redeeming exchange for their own sinfulness and became recipients of Jesus’ gift of eternal life. Nicodemus was one of them and the Apostle Paul was another.

Here’s where we come in. How ought you and I to respond to this dichotomous news, this claim that Jesus is the Sinless One—eternally holier than us—and that we are dying in our sin?

If we accept that Jesus’ claim represents the magnificent intolerance of God to sin’s destructive presence and of God’s intention to ensure that the final end of it will be the death of death itself for those who entrust themselves to Him, our whole attitude to sin will change. We will by increments embrace a lifestyle that desires pure and holy living. We will respond more and more quickly to our conscience’s urgings to love God and to love the people around us like Jesus. We will choose to be more patient with people in our world; we will care for others’ needs to the point that our resources are more focused on them than ever before.

Rather than being offended by His claims, we can take comfort in Jesus’ sinlessness because it means He is the perfect lover of our soul and supplier to us of power to love others. One of the most beautiful epithets ever applied to Jesus—ironically by the self-righteous Pharisees themselves—was ‘Friend of “sinners”.’ May Jesus be that and much more to each of us as we have a fuller understanding of who He really is.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #31

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Prayer of Thinking on God (Paraphrase of Psalm 147)

Hearts glowing with thankfulness and awe, we think on You, God. Singing Your praises puts words to our reverence and opens the floodgates of our full-to-bursting hearts. To praise You, Father God, is not only fitting to Your majesty, it creates in us the fullest, highest, broadest and deepest pleasure we humans can experience.

You build up those who humbly bow to You; You gather to Your arms the lost and lonely. You heal hearts broken by this hurtful world, binding up our wounds and drying our tears. To think on You brings comfort.

You created the constellations of the universe by Your unequaled power and wisdom. You placed them in their vast settings and sustain them by Your ever-present might; You call them by name in Your intimate knowledge of each one, shining jewels of the macrocosm. To think on You brings wonder.

You cover the sky with clouds to water thirsty grass and trees, crops and animals. You send winds to clear the skies and allow the sun to warm our faces. Our souls are watered and fed by Your tender care for all our needs. To think on You brings satisfaction.

While You love to see Your creatures physically healthy and fit—wild herds thundering across varied terrain, ultra-marathoners achieving their conquests, what really brings You pleasure is available to the weakest and simplest of us: You delight in those who fear and respect You, who put their trust in Your unfailing love, and live with that in mind. So each of us may fulfill the purpose for which You made us. None may say, “I never had the chance to think on You and praise You, God!”

You strengthen the boundaries between good and evil—though our culture tries to blur them. You bless us when we turn our eyes to You, though opponents beleaguer us. You grant peace as we die to selfishness, satisfaction as we give up God-empty pursuits, and joy as we obey Your call to holy living. To think on You brings breathtaking thankfulness. Nothing is more important than praising You, LORD!

(Photo Credit: By USAID Africa Bureau (Elephant herd  Uploaded by Elitre) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 3

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 3

Matthew 5:4

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

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If we thought with yesterday’s axiom we were done with spiritual oxymorons, we are mistaken.  The second one is stranger still: (paraphrased) ‘Happiness is…being sad.’ Perhaps that is an oversimplification. Let’s look at it more carefully then.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. There is a reward: comfort. Yes, comfort is a good thing, but is it reasonable to go to such great lengths, merely to reap the reward of comfort? Isn’t that like inflicting a wound so as to be given a bandage?

In answer to that question I think we must look at the concept of mourning. ‘Mourn’ is a verb, an action word. It implies the act of deep sorrowing over something. When we hear the word mourn we often think of our response to a loved one’s death. It is grieving.  It is denial, anger, bargaining and despair. It is wanting to change events so that the past can be reversed, and the loss avoided. That, in the spiritual sense, is exactly what Jesus wants us to experience. He wants us to mourn, to be sensitive to, and to grieve over our own sinful bent in such a way that we want death, spiritual death, to be stayed.  That is repentance really. The injury to our soul is a mortal one. If we, like lepers, fail to sense our hopeless wound we will be doomed to an eternity of regret. Only by attending to the wound, bringing it to the Great Comforter, can we be healed. The comfort is thorough; it penetrates to the very core of our being.

Jesus teaches the second axiom, like the first, by following up with application. He again directs us (in Matt. 6:12) to pray. He calls us to plead with the Father, “Forgive us our debts”. Prayerfully confessing our rebellious ways (thoughts, words, actions—anything unloving toward God or our fellow humans) expresses grief. It is mourning. And it, says Jesus, is a blessed activity because it is prerequisite to forgiveness, wholeness, and daily-restored relationship with God. Not surprisingly, God’s Holy Spirit is often referred to as the Comforter. Prayerful mourning allows Him to work His great comfort in us.

Let’s take that nugget of truth offered us by the One who knows true blessedness. Let’s place it in the satchel at our side along with the jewel of Axiom One. They look rough on the exterior, but inside their beauty is stunning. May God help us embrace the strange but necessary call to be poor in spirit and to mourn.