Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 12

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‘Yodh’

Is there a difference between optimism and hope? “Both optimism and hope,’ explains Miroslav Volf (Against the Tide), “entail positive expectations with regard to the future. But…they are radically different stances toward reality.” Optimism is looking at past or current conditions and mapping out likely positive future occurrences based on those experiences. It is based on circumstances and situations. Hope, in contrast, explains Volf, “is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” Yodh, the tenth stanza of Psalm 119, illustrates for us what hope—not optimism—looks like.

Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. / May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word. / I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. / May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant./ Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. / May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. / May those who fear you turn to me, those who understand your statutes. / May my heart be blameless toward your decrees, that I may not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:73-80).

The psalmist has had, or is currently experiencing, troubles of some sort. He’s suffering. He’s been “wrong(ed) without cause” and “afflicted.” He’s a rational person and there is no good reason to be optimistic based on his situation. He cannot extrapolate any realistically good outcome from his current experience with any sense of reliability. Optimism has failed him.

But listen to the hope infusing this segment of the psalm—words like “rejoic(ing)”, and “delight” explode the myth that pain removes dignity from life. Rather, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist looks to his Maker, the LORD God, to be faithful to His promise to be loving and compassionate to him. He is comforted by this relationship of love that God has initiated; he rests heavily on the faithfulness that defines God.

Circumstances have no power over the lives of those who entrust themselves to God. This is the most freeing truth the Biblical text communicates. While optimism can too easily shift to become despair, anchoring our hope in a loving God brings lasting peace and a solution to the dilemma ‘How do I live victoriously in the midst of suffering?’

It all comes back to promise. The faithfulness of God is always expressed and communicated to us in the form of promise. The psalmist recognizes this and reminds himself and God with the phrase “according to your promise.” And what is this promise? It is the theme that runs throughout the Bible from start to finish, spoken and respoken in many ways. An earlier psalm phrases it this way: “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17b). The promise is Jesus whose purpose was and is to bless all peoples through His work on the cross—the unthinkable death of the Author of life bringing unimaginable life to those who were enslaved by death. He is Promise and He is Hope.

The result of living life with hope is a greater awareness of God’s thoroughgoing involvement in our daily lives. We become more aware that He made us with all our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social complexities. We become more resolved to submit to God’s ways (vs.73), more sensitive to encouraging others (vs.74), more open to God’s faithfulness, compassion and love in the midst of suffering (vs.75-77), more faithful in obeying God’s precepts (vs. 78), more connected to others who also fear God (vs.79), and more wholehearted in relationship with God (vs.80). Hope restores our humanity to us through the perfect humanity of Christ.

God never gives us second best. That is why hope beats optimism every time. Promise gives a preview of how life not only ought to be, but will someday truly be. Hope in the Promised One will take even the worst of our suffering and transform us into people with the character of the perfect God-man, Jesus.

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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)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 8

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‘Waw’

You don’t need to speak a word of Hebrew to recognize the out-and-back symmetry of the Hebrew letter ‘Waw.’ Forward or backward, it is read the same way. Like the words ‘mum’, ‘racecar’ and even the sentence ‘Madam, I’m Adam’ the phenomenon is intriguing. Linguists call it a palindrome (from the Greek, meaning ‘running back again)’. Palindromes can even occur in the sequencing of our DNA when a region of nucleotides is inversely identical with a complementary strand (Go ask your nearby biochemist for a better explanation). As we look at the ‘Waw’ section of our Psalm, we see it has a sort of palindromic rhythm to it too.

“May your unfailing love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; / then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word. / Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. / I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. / I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. / I will speak of your statues before kings and will not be put to shame, / for I delight in your commands because I love them. / I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees” Psalm 119:41-48

It begins with ‘love’; it rises to ‘for ever and ever…freedom’; and it ends with ‘love’. The hippie culture of the sixties ran with a similar version of that theme—love and freedom—albeit distorted by an anti-establishment ideology. But the psalmist’s theme is different, worlds different. Running like a golden chain through the beads of this necklace is the psalmist’s respect for God’s authority—not just His authority over the macro-world, the physical universe, but also on a micro-scale, over the minute details of each person’s life. That does not sound hippyish at all. The freedom-loving flower-wearing beatniks claimed freedom would be found in rebelling against laws, any laws, not submitting to them. “Don’t let the man keep you down!’ they insisted.

“Freedom itself,” explains N.T. Wright, “must be generated, protected, and celebrated. But thinkers from St. Paul in the middle of the first century to Bob Dylan in the middle of the twentieth, and beyond, are still asking what “freedom” actually means. In a Christian sense it clearly doesn’t mean the random whizzing about of the subatomic particle, however much some eager political or psychological rhetoric may go on about the total removal of constraints.”

The psalmist recognizes that freedom is ultimately about being free to be genuinely human. This foundational freedom is found only in God who sets the necessary constraints that create the framework for freedom and then communicates those conditions to us through His Word. They come in the form of directions, promises, warnings, and ultimately in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s intentions for us are essential for freedom because only God knows what is truly best for us and has taken action to ensure our freedom.

But the psalmist back then didn’t know Jesus in person. He was positioned in history a millennium before Christ’s advent, yet he had a hope, a notion breathed into his writings by God Himself that true freedom would be coming in the shape of One who would embody God’s Word. Notice how he phrases his hope in the ongoing past tense “I have put my hope in your laws,” and how he envisions that hope to affect his life in the future tense, “I will walk about in freedom.” Accepting this concept, trusting its value, and regulating his life by it gives the psalmist something every person on this planet needs. Hope. His hope was not unreasonable. It was not a flippant ‘I hope God comes through for me’ sort of whimsy. It was based on the bedrock knowledge of God’s trustworthiness.

Trust,” explains apologist Ravi Zacharias, “is not antithetical to reason.” It is supported by reason, by considering a body of empirical evidence and concluding it is reliably worthy of trust. The psalmist had found God to be faithful to past promises, and experiencing that faithfulness led naturally to his trust and hope in God to be a Man of His Word. The hope of God’s loving and ultimate plan to provide freedom for people is a theme that runs throughout Scripture.

Jesus Himself read from the scroll of Isaiah, claiming to be the fulfillment of the passage, “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” The Apostles John and Paul follow that same theme saying, “(Y)ou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free“ (John 8:32); “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17); and “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

The psalmist got us started by speaking of love and freedom and trust, but he must pass the baton on to Christ who is love and freedom and hope embodied in the perfect human. Because of Christ, we have not only a hope of freedom but more, an ever-present friend who Himself is freedom and gave up His freedom to purchase ours. That’s love, freedom, and more love.

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]])

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #23

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Prayer of Repentance and Return to Loyalty to God (Paraphrase of Psalm 137)

Hard as it is to bear, LORD, it is a good thing when we finally realize the bondage to sin we’re in. Only when we compare it to the freedom of life in Christ can we see the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Like finding ourselves captive to terrorists and required to entertain our tormentors with songs of joy, is the realization of the trouble sin has brought us.

As we begin to see there is no true joy in godless living, we are struck by waves of homesickness for your kingdom, LORD; we long for the joy of Your presence, Father. We’re in a foreign land and the songs we thought we could sing stick to the roof of our mouths.

May I never forget to bring You into every nuance of my day, Father. My highest joys come from living in close communion with You. Protect me from falling back into the clutches of sin.

Help me burn those bridges, LORD. Make haste to destroy the influence of evil, the source of so much sorrow in the lives of the proud and the wounded. You are our only hope.

(Photo Credit:Cell 18 of old city jail in Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico; By Tomas Castelazo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6634393

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 10

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Steadfastness:

Most of us love stories of uncommon loyalty, and the tale of Bamse is no different. Enrolled as a crew member on the Thorodd, a Norwegian coastal patrol vessel in the Second World War, Bamse was a unique morale-booster among the ship’s crew. All who knew him would agree, he was anything but an ordinary sailor—because Bamse was a dog.

He once saved the life of a young lieutenant commander by knocking his knife-wielding assailant into the sea. On other occasions he was known to have dragged drowning sailors from deep waters to shore and safety. He learned to ride the bus route from the ship’s dock in Scotland to Dundee where he rounded up and escorted crew back to the ship by curfew. And he regularly broke up bar fights among his crewmates by rising on hind legs and putting his great paws on their chests as if to say, “Calm down, mate. Time to head back aboard ship.” Bamse loved his crewmates with a proactive and steadfast loyalty. In return, the Royal Norwegian Navy honoured Bamse upon his death, by giving him a burial with full military honours.

Bamse’s story is a heartwarming one; we resonate with his constant allegiance and doggy dependability. But he only scratched the surface of loyalty. There is one who acts with even greater steadfastness and commitment toward those on whom his favour rests.

“(Y)ou will not abandon me to the grave,” marvels the writer of Psalm 16, “nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”

Who is the “you” David mentions? He’s referring to God and he’s making an extremely bold statement, even for a psalmist. David is in wonder and awe as he pens words of which he himself hardly understands the meaning. He knows people die. He comprehends the reality of death in the life cycle of all living things. So what could he possibly be saying to connect God’s steadfast loyalty with David’s and our own sure and imminent death?

David is uttering the mystery of the ages; he’s revealing God’s intentions for solving the dilemma of death. Created beings designed for immortality, such as we, feel cheated by death. We feel uneasy thinking of life simply ceasing to exist when our fragile bodies stop living. And so we ought to feel, because it is not natural. We were made in the image of the eternal God, created to live forever with Him. But the fiasco of rebellion in the Garden so long ago ruined it for us all (we would have done the rebellious deed ourselves had not Adam and Eve done it first).

But now David is looking ahead a millennium to a second Adam, our species’ second chance to be represented by a son of God – a unique Son who would succeed in living a perfectly obedient life and follow it by dying a death worth more than the deaths of every rebellious person on this planet. David is seeing Jesus. He is seeing God’s allegiance to His image-bearing creatures.

And Jesus is the epitome of steadfast loyalty. His purpose and resolve is to ensure that every one of us who comes to Him will not be abandoned to the grave. He is the “Holy One” who did not “see decay” – His death was a beginning, not an ending, and He rose from His grave victorious over death’s decay.

What does that mean for us today? It means today is just bursting with hope. Regardless of the chaos and destruction going on about us, we can take refuge in the steadfast dependability of a God who will not abandon us. Our thankfulness to Him for His work on our behalf is the beginning of our worship of Him. It also puts life in perspective. Everything is different because we are not abandoned. He is steadfast.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons [[File:… Landseer – a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter (1901) (14579686117).jpg|thumb|… Landseer – a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter (1901) (14579686117)]])

ROMANS 15

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Insults vs. Blessing:

Floggings received: Five times the forty-lashes-minus-one the culture of the day allowed. Beatings: three with rods; stoned: once. Shipwrecks experienced: one, including a day and night in the open sea. Dangers faced: rivers, bandits, countrymen, foreigners, urban settings, rural settings, false friends, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, lack of shelter and lack of clothing. The list goes on. These are the difficulties described by a follower of Christ who wrote extensively to other followers in the early years of the fledgling church. And it is the same person who writes of the crossroads of insult versus blessing.

Is the emphasis on all the insults believers can expect to suffer for following Jesus as Lord of their lives? There have been plenty of insults. There will be more. Many will lose their livelihoods, their liberties and their lives for the sake of Christ. But instead, the chapter is chalk full of expressions of blessing.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus,” Paul blesses, “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

God gives. He gives endurance and encouragement through difficult times. He does not leave us lost and alone as we face the challenges that come our way in life through following Him.

He gives a spirit of unity among His people so that we have a family of supportive brothers and sisters, unified in purpose and devoted to love and acceptance of one another.

And He gives us the ability to live in a way that glorifies Him – He empowers us to rise above the hopelessness and failings of our lives that characterized us before we met Him.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him,” the Apostle Paul continues, “so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

God gives joy; as we choose to follow His principles of selfless obedience to Him we find the strivings of our old ways empty and hollow shadows in comparison with His joy.

God gives peace; we still experience challenges in this life, but there is a difference now. We have the overwhelming sense of God working all things out for the good for those who love Him. We know the difficulties in life are being used by God to make us more like Jesus. Our lives are not in danger of being wasted, but in the process of being recreated.

And God gives hope, overflowing hope welling up within us by the presence of His Spirit and pouring out to those around us.

“The God of peace be with you all,” he finishes.

God gives Himself. He promises to never leave nor forsake those who turn their lives over to Him. He is ever-present, closer than a brother, deeper than our hearts or minds can imagine, and fuller than we can contain. He is with us.

While God is busy giving into our lives, we are not merely passive bystanders. Look back at both verses of blessing. God blesses as we do something. What is it?

“…as you follow Christ” and “…as you trust in him.”

Those who long to be borne on the path of blessing must recognize that there is a crossroads of decision to be made. We must decide to follow Christ. We must choose to trust in Him every step of the way. There will still be difficulties in life – in fact, we may become the brunt of insults heaped upon us by a world that hates Jesus Christ. But as we follow Him and entrust ourselves to His infinite care, we will be blessed by enough endurance, encouragement, unity, joy, peace, and hope to carry the day. His presence with us ensures that.

That’s the path of blessing. Are you on it?