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)

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THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 4

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Unique Life

It was forty hours since Jesus’ excruciating death and hurried burial late that Friday afternoon. The Sabbath day had begun that evening, preventing anyone from visiting His tomb all the next day. Now it was Sunday, the dawning of the first day of a new week.

We’re told it was women who first came to the tomb that morning—two Marys and a Salome, followed by some others. There had not been time to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial on the Friday, but two of His friends had done their best. A man named Joseph had purchased a linen wrap and Nicodemus had brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, fragrant spices meant to camouflage the odour of a decaying body. It seems the women wanted to do more for Jesus’ body, though, and were coming to anoint it. They weren’t sure how they could perform this final act of service, because a large stone blocked the tomb’s entrance and Roman guards stood on patrol ensuring no one got in or out.

As they approached the tomb site, the women felt the ground beneath their feet give a violent heave and shudder. Looking up they saw the tomb’s entrance opening as the weighty, tomb-sealing boulder was shifted aside by a shining figure. With a muffled clatter the guards fell to the ground in a terrified faint leaving the women alone to face this otherworldly vision.

“Do not be afraid,” the messenger reassured the women, “for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here;” Seeing their confusion, he added, “he is risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.” Peering obediently into the tomb lit by two other shining beings, the women saw the empty burial wrappings lying on the rocky mantel – but no body. “Go quickly and tell his disciples: He has risen from the dead.”

And with that, an ever-widening body of witnesses has come to recognize the occurrence of the world’s most significant event. Jesus is alive. His death was more real than you or I will ever be able to comprehend, but it didn’t finish Him. Just as His death was unique – the author of life submits Himself to His own righteous condemnation in order to proffer life for us – His life is unique too. He cannot be held down. No grave is deep enough to restrict His victorious and powerful life beyond what He allows.

“After the suffering of his soul,” foretold the prophet Isaiah, “he will see the light of life and be satisfied.”

Nothing less than providing complete exoneration for rebellious humanity and eternal existence for those who will accept the gift would satisfy Jesus. His life is unique, His love is unique, and His offer is unique.

Today, Easter Sunday, is the anniversary of the greatest event planet earth could ever celebrate. Today, the unique life of Jesus, Son of God, gives us our one and only opportunity to live the way He designed us to live. We can be like the Roman sentries and turn away in fear, in disbelief, in the deception of rejecting Jesus’ resurrection life; or we can be like those first women and thousands of others who rejoice that He is risen. His eternal life gives us eternal life, forever. This is Easter!

(Photo Credit: >The Athenaeum<Thomas Cole>. Licensed under Public Domain via <a href=”//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/”>Wikimedia Commons</a>.)

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 3

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Unique Death (Isaiah 53)

Crucifixion completed Jesus’ earthly life in apparent humiliation. No human body could withstand its life-sapping horrors without a miracle, but no miracle came then for Jesus. He, the Lifegiver, gave up His spirit with the final words, “It is finished.”

Eight centuries earlier, Isaiah had written that this Man would be a “man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering”. That, “by oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”

It’s pretty clear that the crucifixion was no surprise to Jesus. He knew the plan for Easter long before His crucifiers or their ancestors were born. He’d had an eternity prior to His earthly life to think about the “oppression”, “crush(ing)” and “suffer(ing)” He would be enduring as part of the plan for Easter.

Imagine that for a moment. Why would anyone do it? Why would God bother with the effort of rescuing a race gone awry, especially when it would cause Him such personal sacrifice in the rescuing?

There is only one answer: Love.

God, the personification of the deepest and truest of love, cares about you and me. He designed each of us for so much more than any of us have experienced yet, and He hated to stand by and watch us self-destruct. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Not that He was the only person ever crucified. It is estimated that many thousands of people have died by crucifixion. In the year 70 A.D. alone, five hundred people daily met their slow, excruciating deaths by that inhumane method of execution.

But He alone did it out of perfect love for a world of people who didn’t even realize their own hopeless condition.

Not only is His love totally inclusive toward every person ever conceived, it is also completely effective. It has the power to restore each of us to the relationship with Him we were designed to have—if we will accept it. Included in that, relationship with God means accessing His version of life which is unending; it means escaping our own unnatural mortality, and finding our life becoming eternal.

Imagine being loved by One who knows all our secrets, all our weaknesses and foibles, all our insecurities and stumblings, yet His love not diminishing one bit.

Imagine being loved by One who experienced the horror of death on our behalf, in order that death could become for us a passage from the shadow lands into the great expansive eternal existence with Him.

Doesn’t that change our perspective on Easter? Doesn’t that give us a clue as to why the day we commemorate as Jesus’ death is called ‘Good Friday’?

The love of God for you and me, expressed in the willing death of Jesus, is no more explicitly seen than in the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life. It’s not morose to think about it. It’s true and right and proper considering its great significance. What is unseemly and even shameful is when we ignore the essence and magnitude of what Easter really is. We do a disservice to ourselves and to God’s love when we fail to think deeply about what He did for us that first Easter.

Don’t despair. It’s not all death and darkness. That is only the first part of Easter. There is more to His plan. There is even more to His love. Are you ready to hear about it?

(Photo Credit: “Fred Holland Day- Last Seven Words” by F. Holland Day – Frizot: Neue Geschichte der Fotografie, Köln 1998, S.302. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg#/media/File:Fred_Holland_Day-_Last_Seven_Words.jpg)

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 2

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Visible Jesus

While lambs and bunnies and foil-wrapped chocolates are a hollow substitute for the true significance of Easter, they’ve got one thing right: they’re visible, tangible, unmistakable objects that symbolize something about Easter for us. They represent new life.

God’s plan for Easter expresses it much better than bunnies do, though. He planned to put His own invisible, immortal being into a visible and tangible package we people would understand: He became fully human.

Isaiah describes the unpretentious figure God would assume, describing Him “like a tender shoot”, “like a root”, “like one despised”, “like a lamb”, and “like a sheep”. Those expressions are how the Sovereign Immortal God chose to reveal Himself as the man Jesus. They don’t conjure up for us much in the way of majesty or power, do they? In fact the plan was that Jesus would show up in flesh and blood during the peak of the Roman occupation of the Middle East when prelates and prefects had the power to treat innocent people like animals to be slaughtered if they so desired.

Didn’t God know that when He made His plan for Easter?

Yes. He did know that. It’s one of the most pronounced and palpable examples of how God works in peoples’ lives: He takes hopeless and painful situations and brings unimaginable good out of them. A writer to the early Christians in Rome in the first century A.D. would describe this penchant of God like this: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). God works good out of all things, even things that appear bad.

So God squeezes Himself into a form expressed by twenty-three pairs of chromosomes and shows Himself to be a real man.

But in living among men and women of first century Roman occupation something became noticeably obvious. He was like other people in every way except one. He never did a single wrong thing. Never. He never hurt or hated another person or disobeyed any moral law in any way. Not even once. He never spoke the whitest of lies, never judged those who had fallen into immorality, never coerced or manipulated others to have His own way.

So Isaiah’s pictures of Jesus as a tender shoot and a lamb accurately describe the core uniqueness of Jesus as perfectly sinless. But those of you who know anything about the Jewish culture into which Jesus would come know something else about the typology of lambs. They are not merely the tangible embodiment of new life and flawless innocence. They represent the concept of self-sacrifice for another.

Debts must be paid. Sins must be punished. Offenses cannot be swept under the carpet when a completely holy and just God must be faced.

So the Lamb of God is the uniquely sinless One who could be the visible, tangible perfect human worthy of taking the death consequence every one of us has earned by our own rebellion against God. Do any of us claim to be innocent, completely perfect and free from any wrong-doing? We know better. We’ve all fallen short of the high mark of perfection God designed us for. We’ve chosen to make up our own rules. And, sadly, we’ve all become prisoners of the merciless taskmaster of sin whose wages are death.

That is why Jesus chose to die – not because the Romans put Him on a cross, but because He wanted to pay the moral debt we owe. That is why He came to earth as visible, tangible man. That was the plan for Easter. The big question is: Will we accept Jesus as the ultimate Easter gift?

(Photo Credit: “Osterhaeschen aus Hefeteig” by Schwäbin (Wikimedia)License: CreativeCommons by-sa-3.0-de (deed). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons)

 

THE PLAN FOR EASTER, Part 1

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Malady

In 2800 B.C., when the idea of civilization was still a young one, people already knew there was a problem. An Assyrian tablet inscribed in that period bemoans, “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days…Bribery and corruption are common”—that comment from a military civilization known for its extreme and violent barbarity.

Two millennia later, inscribing with stylus on stone or lead, the prolific Hebrew writer Isaiah observed the same core problem with humanity, saying, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Our ‘own way’, he observes, has led us into “infirmities”, “sorrows”, “iniquities” and a lack of “peace”.

He is a spokesman for every one of us. From the earliest cave dwellers and nomads, to the metropolitan elite of our day, every one of us must concede we suffer the same malady. We are, by nature, a species in pursuit of elusive peace: with God, with others and with ourselves.

But Isaiah’s purpose is not to express a fatalist’s perspective. His intention is to reveal God’s means of resolving the conflict. This is one of the earliest and clearest prophecies outlining God’s proposal: God’s plan for Easter.

Of course, Isaiah doesn’t call it Easter. He’s too busy inscribing words he would likely have had no way of fully comprehending. He was eight hundred years too early to see God incarnate being arrested, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.”

Have we thought of that as carefully as we ought to? God Himself, knowing more intimately than anyone else how dreadfully our sorrows and iniquities mar our lives, plans our malady’s resolution to come at His own expense.

He wasn’t planning the lighthearted Easter egg hunts we love to celebrate with children running in green spring fields. He wasn’t devising new ways to wrap chocolate in brightly coloured foil. He wasn’t even insisting it ought to be imbedded in a four-day weekend so that we could gather with loved ones from near and far. Those are joyful add-ons to Easter.

God’s plan was to create a place for Himself to enter humanity’s broken world the way we all had to enter it, in flesh and blood, and bear a crushing blow on our behalf. The One who is rebelled against by every one of us bears the brunt of His own righteous justice. Can we understand it?

It would be like a judge pronouncing with the fall of his gavel the death sentence on a guilty prisoner, and then stepping up to the gallows himself to take the punishment. It is inconceivable, isn’t it?

And yet, that is what God’s plan for Easter was, long before our lives, long before Jesus’ life on earth, even long before Isaiah’s life. The writer of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, describes Jesus as “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” (Rev.13:8). What that means is that God, knowing we would each choose rebellion against Him in one form or another, made plans way back at this earth’s birth, to solve the malady we would bring upon ourselves. And He would solve it at His own expense, by His own incarnate death.

That was His plan for Easter.

As we prepare for Easter 2015, let’s begin to think that thought through, and Isaiah’s chapter 53 is a good place to start.

(Photo Credit:Wikimedia Commons; Creator: Luba Petrusha)

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Conclusion

Behind the Scenes

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Nothing is as simple as it appears. To most things in life there is a behind-the-scenes complexity that is known only to those intimately involved. For instance, we’ve heard that 90% of the iceberg lies submerged below the sea. A two-hour movie takes hundreds of hours to film, multiple costumes for each character, and sometimes years of legal wrangling to obtain filming rights. Or think about our bodies. What has been happening in our brains to enable us to read, decipher and understand the squiggles on this page is staggering. Reality is just that way; there is always more than meets the eye.

When the lifeless body of Jesus was lowered to the ground from the bloodied cross, hastily wrapped up and tucked into a nearby burial tomb, it seemed like the end of a dream. The sun set on that day. The Sabbath day came and went. Then early on the first day of the new week some women went to that tomb. They had spices. They wanted to do for their dead lord what there had been no time for on His dying day. Tradition demanded they pay Him this final honour.

But something had been happening behind the scenes in places much vaster than the confines of that dark tomb. Jesus, Son of God, the fullness and the exact representation of God was at work. We’re told He was “disarm(ing) (evil) powers and authorities, mak(ing) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”. He was “cancel(ling) the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us.” He was “reconcil(ing) to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”; He was “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19,20; 2:14,15).

That is definitely more than meets the eye. Its complexity fits, though, doesn’t it? Real things, things that take honest effort are like that, aren’t they? How much more must things involving God be full of behind-the-scenes action. So, how is this relevant to us, to our lives here and now?

I think that word ‘reconciling’ is the key for us. It speaks of relationship. It describes a broken relationship made right, a separation ended, an estranged alliance recovered. That is the way God sees it. He was heartbroken by the rebellion every one of us would defend as our personal right. He knows what that would actually mean for us beyond this world’s brief existence – absence from Him is only eternal darkness and terror, hatred and loneliness. But because we haven’t any way of seeing behind the scenes, we have to trust Him on this. He wants so much more for us. He knows that His presence alone is what gives us light and love, hope and meaning. So He came to earth for the express purpose of doing what it would take, playing by His rules of justice, to reconcile us.

That is what Easter is. That is what was happening those silent days between Jesus’ death and that first Easter morning. And that is why the resurrection is so relevant for you and me. Without it, we could not have the relationship with Him we were designed to have. Without it, we would be eternally lost, alone and afraid.

It makes perfect sense when we see what lies behind Easter. But we need to do more than admit that it’s reasonable. We need to be willing to accept the reconciliation He offers. It will mean life change—relationship always does. What Easter means is that now the behind-the-scenes work can be happening in us. God’s Spirit has a world of good to do in us to enable us to know Him in deeper ways, to transform our character, and to love others by His power.

As the singer/songwriter Don Francisco reminds us, “He’s alive! He’s alive and I’m forgiven, heaven’s gates are open wide!”

(Photo Credit: Andrew Kudin, Wikimedia Commons)

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Part 4

Ransom

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When Tom Hanks plays the merchant mariner Captain Phillips in the 2013 film by that name, he learns something about ransom. Somali pirates, hostage taking, threats, and finally an eleventh-hour rescue keep viewers on the edge of their seats. We understand the concept of ransom. When I have something you want, you can ransom it back by exchanging it for something I consider precious.

As Jesus stands before the Roman establishment, betrayed by His culture, His religious leaders, and one of His own disciples, a ransom is happening. This is no accident. It is not even an event that catches Him by surprise. There is no ransom forthcoming on His behalf to rescue Him from His unjust captors. He Himself is the ransom being offered. It’s the scandal to top all unprecedented feats. There is more here than meets the eye.

Remember the crowds that had met Jesus only days earlier as He crested the Mount of Olives on the back of a donkey? The echoes of their hosannas have hardly had time to fade away. Now they are replaced by cries of ‘crucify him!’ What strange passion has altered the people’s loyalties?

Beaten by guards before being brought to mock trial, Jesus puzzles His captors with His quiet yet powerful responses. He is passed from Jewish elders to Pilate’s jurisdiction. From Pilate to Herod, and back to Pilate, none understand the transaction that will take place.

In confusion, Pilate considers His options. Roman justice requires him to release the innocent. Yet, the crowd of Jews will surely revolt if Pilate lets Jesus go free. The loophole of releasing a prisoner to the people as a Passover concession has closed; the mob demands the release of a murderer rather than Jesus.

So Pilate succumbs. He releases Barabbas and condemns Jesus to crucifixion. Now the shouts of the people line Jesus’ path not with palm branches and hosannas but with laughs of derision. He submits Himself to the humiliation, the pain, and the destruction of His body for one reason. He is the ransom.

Isaiah 53 prepares us centuries before for this day, “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. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

But could we ever be fully prepared for this? Jesus, the Son of God, comes to be the ransom for you and me and every one of the billions of people who have lived on this planet or ever will. He is the only one precious enough in the Father’s eyes to be the exchange. What do we mean by exchange?

Who of us claims to be perfect? None. We’ve all missed the mark by God’s standard. We’ve been taken hostage by sin and Satan and our own self-destructive flesh. There is no limit to the violence and darkness and death with which we’ve allied ourselves. God has not created Hell for us; we’ve designed it for ourselves. But He just won’t leave us to our own designs. And so, Jesus hangs there on the cross to be the ransom for us. It’s more than a fair exchange: one perfect man for countless imperfect ones.

It’s an eleventh hour rescue. We have three days to absorb it all. Let’s use that time wisely. Let’s start by praying, “Jesus, my ransom…”

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons