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.

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ROMANS 16

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Foolish or Wise?

Remember the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? It’s a tale we delight in because honest simplicity rules the day. It is the story of an emperor duped by swindlers who deceive him into thinking they are making clothes of the finest magical fabric. “To fools the fabric will appear transparent,” say the would-be tailors, “while to the wise the richly brocaded fabric will attract veneration.” Not wanting to appear a fool and feeling flattered by the praise of the tailors, the emperor pretends to see the imaginary fabric. He orders a new suit to be made of the remarkable cloth, paying a high price for it. Parading himself through the town in his ‘new clothes’, the emperor comes to believe he is wearing a unique and handsome suit. None of the townsfolk dare to argue with him.

Finally, a small child with innocent wisdom pipes up, “But the emperor is wearing no clothes!” The deception is unveiled, the swindling tailors make good their escape, and the emperor is revealed (pun intended) for the fool he is.

As we come to the conclusion of the letter to the Romans, we find a final description of the crossroads the letter has mapped out for those who care to take notice. The previous fifteen chapters have described the two divergent paths of life: One path is marked by broken promises, faithless and fruitless endeavors, stumbling blocks and smokescreens, Paradise lost and deathly outcomes; the other path comprises a guaranteed promise, faithfulness and fruitfulness, a solid Cornerstone, truth, Paradise restored and the gift of eternal life.

In the final chapter the Apostle Paul presents us with a grand finale of path-diverging descriptions.

“Watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way…” says Paul, “for such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.” It sounds like a replay of the false tailors deceiving the emperor into parading his foolishness for all to see. There is no small amount of that sort of thing happening in our culture these days. Smooth talk and flattery promote selfish agendas. Unethical policies serve godless appetites at the expense of their foolish followers; fine-sounding arguments deceive naïve minds. But honest confrontation is overruled, overrun, and overwhelmed by the rising tide of deceived public opinion. The simple voice is not often heard.

“I want you,” contrasts Paul, “to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” Why? Because the ‘clothes’ of deception are flimsy substitutes for the real thing.

Listen to the other path’s description: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you…”speaks Paul in benediction over those who choose this path. “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past but now revealed and made known … so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”

Here, rather than naked foolishness being exposed, a mystery is revealed – the mystery that God loves and invites all people to humble themselves and accept with simple honesty that Jesus alone makes life worth living. The parade of fools cannot prevent even the smallest child from stepping into the way of wisdom. Those who choose this path will find God faithful in ensuring they are firmly established in His ways. No more duping deceptions; no more manipulated naïveté. We become wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

That’s the news of the crossroads. The essence of every choice we make moves us into either one path or the other. As C.S. Lewis describes it, “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

We either serve our own appetites or we serve Jesus Christ. Those are the only two choices and that’s the message of the two thousand year old letter called ‘Romans’. Remember, it is good news. That is what the word ‘gospel’ means, and that is what we will experience when we choose the path of the wise over the path of fools.

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A SEEKER’S STORY: Conclusion (John 3:1-21)

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The night was over. The first rays of the morning sun were sending shafts of sunlight in through the windows. The flickering light of the lamp had gone out, and Jesus and Nicodemus rose from the table and stretched. Their discussion had required all those hours of exploration—Israel’s teacher had needed time to ask the Master questions a thinking person wrestles with. Jesus’ words were rich with truth and understanding, concepts Nicodemus would need to mull over on his own.

But it was clear to Nicodemus that this talk had been a study in contrasts. Jesus had shown Nicodemus the dividing line that separates inclusion in the kingdom of God from exclusion from it; spiritual birth from physical birth; eternal life from mortal life; and living in truth and light from living in evil and darkness.

Jesus doesn’t offer any neutral zone – Nicodemus understood that. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more topics they discussed, but poor old John the disciple could only transcribe for us these twenty-one verses from the conversation. Perhaps he even nodded off sometime after midnight and missed the last few hours of talk. It wouldn’t be the last time that would happen to him.

Regardless, we can be confident that the extent of the conversation John did transcribe was precisely the part God intends for us to hear. There’s probably more in these verses than a person could grasp in a lifetime, and they are as pivotal to us as they were to Nicodemus two millennia ago.

It really all boils down to what and whom we choose to believe, says Jesus. He repeats this concept some six or seven times to emphasize it. To believe in the redeeming work of Jesus as the sole means of restoring our right relationship with God is not random; it is not haphazard, wishy-washy, or ignorant. It is the informed conviction that Jesus not only has the answer to life’s biggest questions, but He is the answer. To entrust our one and only chance at life to the One and Only Son of God is the most rational response any person can have. It is also the most difficult, because it involves admitting that His ideas, His ways and means are better than ours. And sometimes His ways are going to feel a bit uncomfortable.

We’re going to have to live day-in, day-out lives following a God who prefers us to be humble rather than proud, relational rather than detached, honest rather than superficial, and searching rather than apathetic.

It sounds a little daunting, doesn’t it? Again, Jesus draws a clear line for His followers and seems to expect more of us than is humanly possible.

Exactly the point. Jesus’ final words recorded for us of His conversation with Nicodemus explain that those who choose to live in His light are not independently capable of living that way. He says that the kind of life a Jesus-follower lives “has been done through God.”

That’s the amazing mystery. It’s the promise He makes and never withdraws: His Spirit will literally live in us and strengthen us for the challenge and adventure of eternal life. It’s the only way we can live that kind of life. That is the gospel according to Jesus.

Go dig out a Bible and pour over the gospel of John for yourself; see if it’s true. Mull over the life and words of this amazing God-man Jesus and see if He doesn’t turn your life upside down, like He has done for countless others. No one remains in the neutral zone when it comes to Him.