The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 23

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‘Sin and Shin’

The Vulcan hand salute is well known by Star Trek lovers. What few might know, though, is that Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock) borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish priestly blessing, a blessing he had seen as a child performed in an orthodox synagogue. The blessing shapes both hands to represent the Hebrew letter Sin/Shin representing the initiating letter of God’s name, El Shaddai—Almighty God. It recognizes God’s omnipresence and His genius for affecting the lives of people.

“Always, everywhere, God is present,” observes A.W. Tozer, “and always He seeks to discover Himself to each one.” How does El Shaddai, the Almighty God, affect people’s lives—your life and mine? How does He discover Himself to each one? These are the questions the psalmist explores as he pens the stanza he entitles with the Hebrew letter ‘Sin and Shin’,

“Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. / I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. / I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. / Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. / Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. / I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. / I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. / I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you”(Psalm 119:161-168).

Worldly regimes, observes the psalmist, tend to be fundamentally opposed to faith. Eventually, all ideologies—even those founded on rights and freedoms—degenerate into special, privileged interest groups using government power for opportunistic reasons. The God-centred worldview and practice of believers becomes abhorrent to worldly regimes, whose laws, bemoans the psalmist, “persecute me without cause.”

Yet something unexpected occurs within the man or woman of faith, something that has happened throughout history, regardless of the believer’s age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status when faced with persecution for their faith. They stand and rejoice in the Promise of God.

For one thing, God’s intentions for people are not to persecute them but to bring them good. God doesn’t rule by external pressure but by internally transforming people who joyfully submit to Him. His plans are to give us hope and an eternal future. This, says the psalmist, is the source of the believer’s joy. Persecution takes on as much importance as a tiresome insect.

For another thing, a relationship with God is based on reality, on deep, enduring truths, rather than on the falsehood, corruption, folly and situational ethics to which earthly rulers fall prey. God is the author of truly righteous laws because He made us and understands the core of our being.

More than that, God’s law is a law that produces in its adherents a deep, penetrating peace because it brings people into alignment with God’s ways—that which C.S. Lewis terms, ‘the grain of the universe.’ “Nothing,” insists the psalmist, “can make th(ose who love God’s law) stumble.” “Nothing,” concurs the Apostle Paul, “shall separate us from the love of God.”

How does a person access this uncommon relationship with God? By pursuing human law, by depending on personal rights, freedoms and identity? No. The psalmist says he waits; he follows, he obeys, and he loves everything about God. His confidence is not in his own devotion; it is in God’s devotion to him. God creates, God initiates the human-divine relationship, God loves, and God provides the salvation believers all come to recognize we need.

Which brings us always back to Jesus Christ, God-fully-contained-in-a-man, the One who personifies the “law” about which the psalmist cannot stop praising. Hearts that tremble before Jesus, who rejoice in Him, who love the core truth of Him and take Him as their sure salvation are hearts fully at peace. Come to Him and find the peace that breathes, “…all my ways are known to you.”

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 18

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‘Ayin’

The most awful realization is that one can never be good enough for God. It is also the most wonderful. No accumulation of good deeds could ever outweigh the sins we’ve committed or earn us eternal life, but then again, it doesn’t need to.

“The gospel,” explains theologian Tim Keller, “is, you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe, but you’re more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared hope.”

So in ‘Ayin’—the sixteenth stanza of Psalm 119—as the psalmist opens with the apparent corollary: “I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors”, we must be careful not to make a faulty assumption. The psalmist is not saying that he has an inherent goodness, which has put God in debt to him to make his life easy. Rather, the psalmist knows of an ancient pronouncement made by God regarding humanity—a presage that hinted of a distant future: In order for anyone to truly flourish in full and joyful relationship with God, a certain Someone must and would come to “crush the head” of evil. Only then would the proper relationship between God and people be restored, would rebellion and its consequences be vanquished, and would love overrule law. Not surprisingly, the psalmist builds the remainder of his stanza around the theme of the loving Master-servant relationship. Listen.

“I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors. / Ensure your servant’s well-being; let not the arrogant oppress me. / My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. / Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. / I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. / It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken. / Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.”

We need to consider our reaction to the psalmist’s three-fold use of the term “servant”. Virtually every human based master-servant relationship to ever have occurred in history has been painfully flawed: masters have abused their power causing much suffering; servants have resented their masters’ power, secretly trying to undermine it. It has been a lose-lose situation.

But imagine a Master whose character is noble and perfectly good, who is loving and generous and just. Imagine a Master whose goal is to empower His servants to steward tremendous resources put into their care. Imagine a Master who shares with His servants the fruit of all His labours and who helps them find greater freedom within their servanthood than they could ever experience in their rebellion. Imagine a Master who became human to “ma(k)e himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and who…humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7,8). This is the Master-servant relationship the psalmist catches a glimpse of in his psalm.

The psalmist hints at this relationship because he–writer in the second millenium B.C.– occupies a place in history well before the arrival of Jesus, the Master-incarnated-as-servant. He is yet “looking for (the One who would be his) salvation.” But leaf forward through the pages of Scripture to the Gospel of John, and we hear Jesus speaking to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13,14).

Jesus claims to be the Lord God, the eternal Master of humanity, calling loving hearts to be His servants, recipients of His love, to even become transformed individuals. And how must they demonstrate this new role? Like their Master, they must serve others with humility and love; they must demonstrate their new life to the Master who took the sting out of death by bearing the spiritual death penalty Himself in His crucifixion. They must fix their hope on the eternity their Master Jesus has prepared for them—an eternity of productive, fulfilling, beloved servanthood.

So while it is natural to call upon God to interrupt the oppression and injustice we suffer at times, it is important we recognize God’s greatest act of justice in the history of humankind—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death has made impotent the power of evil. His resurrection has given His followers new lives that will eventually be characterized perfectly by Christ’s own character.

Let’s join the psalmist in looking to God’s salvation, His righteous promise: Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, whose perfect goodness is credited to our account as we entrust ourselves to Him.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 11

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‘Teth’

“Do good to (me)…” begins the psalmist in this ninth segment of Psalm 119. Those four words in themselves are enough fodder for a lifetime of thought: God. Good. To. Me. But there’s more. In and around and throughout the references to goodness, there are also references to evil (in the form of affliction, reputation-smearing, and callous hearts). This is interesting and worth exploring. How do good and evil correlate?

Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. / Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands. / Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. / You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. / Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. / Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. / It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. / The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

The psalmist has an idea that is nine-tenths formed. He is beginning to observe a principle and he wants to run it by God in the form of this prayer-song. We might call it ‘The Suffering Principle’. He sees that there is suffering in this world; there is evil in many forms and he has personally experienced it in the form of callous, reputation-smearing affliction-causing individuals. We know there are many other forms of evil too: illness, injustice, natural and social disasters, death. The list goes on. But there is also goodness; God’s goodness—of being and of doing—as well as a learned goodness the psalmist desires to be part of his own character. Somehow God’s Word is involved in this contest between the two opposing influences, resulting in some majestic phenomenon greater than all the silver and gold in the world.

The psalmist’s principle is this: (my) SUFFERING + (God’s) GOODNESS/POWER = GLORY.

Let that principle sink in for a minute. The psalmist is saying that when we experience evil in this life God is able (that’s the ‘power’ part) to use some divine alchemy to apply His goodness (powers of magnitude greater than any evil in existence) to bring about a process of transforming, mind-blowing, magnificence (what we’ll call ‘glory’).

The one-tenth part of the principle that the psalmist was just a millennium too early to know yet, is Jesus. Not one-tenth, really, but ten tenths, because He is the living Word, He is goodness incarnate, He is humankind’s glorious solution to the trouble we have experienced from the moment we arrived on the scene.

But how does Jesus bring goodness into our lives? Does He arrive like a superhero dressed for action pitting His power of goodness against the powers of evil? No and yes. No, He doesn’t eradicate present evil and suffering by imposing His goodwill upon unwilling earth and its inhabitants. But, yes, He does overcome evil by submitting Himself to the destructive powers of death itself, and, after paying the ransom evil holds over this earth, rises triumphant. He then invites each of us to be the throne on which He rules. In this way, Jesus offers goodness in the form of Himself to each of us. Good comes to us not externally but internally through Christ indwelling any and all who accept Him. Listen to how He explains it to an outcast woman who happened upon Him alone at a well late one day.

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:7-10).

Jesus initiates the conversation by drawing her to see that the good she can give is but a drop in the bucket of the eternal Good He can give her through His Spirit. As she begins to grasp this offer by degrees, her own suffering as a social outcast becomes the platform through which she invites others to experience the goodness of God too. We do not hear each of their stories, but as a community we hear them rejoicing, “…this man really is the Savior of the world(!)” (John 4:42).

The glory the Spirit of the living Christ living in our lives is beyond our greatest expectations. Jesus, the man of sorrows who took our suffering upon Himself to the point of death, does not stand at a distance offering glib condolences to our sorrows. He, the precious Word of God, actually enters into us, girding us up from within, filling us with His own goodness so that our suffering is used for good—has a purpose that transcends the transience of this earth. The result is and will be the greatest glory: the glory of God transforming lives, the glory of good completely obliterating evil, the glory of God and His people someday entirely outside of the influence of suffering.

So let’s come to Jesus for the drink He offers us. Take a long deep draught of it and be refreshed. It is good.

(Photo Credit: By Themenzentriert – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11362535)

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)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #21

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Prayer of Plain and Simple Praise (A Paraphrase of Psalm 135)

There is only One in this universe who deserves our adoration—You, LORD. Your name ought to be featured on every flag, inscribed on every banner, stamped on every endeavor we undertake here on planet earth. You deserve to be praised by each of us who are Your servants, Your children, Your people freed from the terrible bondage of sin.

For You are good. Every intention of Your heart, every word of Your mouth and every action You take is wholly good and will bring complete and ultimate good to those who love You, LORD. We praise You.

You are great. You are the only uncreated Being—existing without beginning or end, unparalleled in Your position of supremacy. All creatures will one day bow before You. We praise You.

You are powerful. You are able to accomplish anything You intend; Everything You created on earth, in sky and sea is for Your pleasure. What better reason for us to exist, and what is more fitting than to say we praise You?

You are personally involved in each of our lives. Nations rise and fall according to Your ultimate plan to bless humanity through Your Son, Jesus Christ. We praise You.

You are loving and compassionate. Your mercy and grace are released into the lives of those who welcome Your presence. One day Your justice will finally wash over this earth and bring all things wrong to right. We praise You.

Until then, You patiently watch as people create their own gods outs of whatever they value most—anything they think will satisfy their pursuit of pleasure. Those gods are no more truly alive than the people who hope in them. They are nothing more than hollow, empty shells about to topple, taking their subjects down with them.

But You, LORD, stand firm and dependable, supporting, strengthening, and giving solid hope to those who bow only to You. There is nothing truer than for us to say, plain and simply, “We praise You!”

 

(Photo Credit: Sunset over the Vercors mountains, seen from Grenoble. By © Guillaume Piolle /, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4994157)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #5

World Prayer (A paraphrase of Psalm 117)

(Hey world! Let’s stop all the spinning and think about what really matters in these lives we’ve been given. Let’s shake off the blinders that hide from us the core truth of our existence, the reality that God…loves…us!

How much? He loves us with a vast, all-knowing, never-ending limitless love that is aimed at our eternal good. Take a long, slow draught of that news. There is no love on earth that comes anywhere near approaching this God-love. It is feather-light, sea-deep and mountain-solid.

Is it fickle, like human love? Not one bit. The faithfulness of the LORD endures forever—not only forever in a time-based sense, but eternal in depth and scope and height of majestic wonder.)

Your inexhaustible love and faithfulness, O God, is our greatest comfort and we thank You. That You will never leave us is beyond our wildest dreams and we praise You. You’ve inscribed it on our hearts, tattooed it on our souls, and imprinted it on our minds. We exalt You and sing Your praises. Give us an eternity in which to do it!