Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 13

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‘Kaph’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHO IS JESUS? #11

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Knower of the Father.

Some things can be separated and still maintain their unique characteristics: a deflated balloon is still a balloon—even without air in it; separate bees from flowers and they will still be bees and flowers, although eventually both will die without the other. But some things cannot be separated and maintain their coherence: split the nucleus of an atom and see what happens.

In a similar way, everything Jesus claims about Himself is inextricably tied to God the Father. Jesus’ glory is tied to the Father’s glory; Jesus’ honouring of the Father is in balance with the Father’s honouring of Jesus; even the sovereignty of Jesus is inseparable from the sovereignty of the Father. So it’s no surprise that in this passage of John’s gospel (8:12-59) Jesus references the Father twenty-eight times. In a word, He is obsessed with Him. The centrality of the importance of the Father to the Son’s identity is summed up in the phrase Jesus now proclaims, “I know him.”

On the surface, to say we know someone is simple enough. We use it quite commonly in day-to-day life referring to family members, friends and even acquaintances. At some point, though, we recognize we can’t honestly apply the phrase to a relationship unless there is a certain level of mutual knowing involved. We may know about our country’s Prime Minister, or its President, or about other famous and infamous people, but we can’t sincerely say we know them unless we have connected at some level of intimacy.

Jesus makes this distinction in His discussion with the sanctimonious Jewish ruling class that have been challenging Him. He highlights the uniqueness of His claim to know the Father against the sham of their claims.

“Though you do not know him, I know him,” Jesus asserts. “If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word.” Sharp contrast. Jesus does not mince His words when He wants to make an important point. He is saying, ‘you lie when you say you know the Father; I would be lying if I said I didn’t.’

The more we think about that claim, the more fantastic we realize it to be. Who can truly know God? Eight centuries earlier, Isaiah, God’s hand-picked prophet, had quoted God saying, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9); and a little later a prophet named Jeremiah quoted God as saying He is not impressed by human power, “but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me…” (Jeremiah 9:24a). The implication is that this lofty goal of knowing God can never be fully achieved by created beings.

So a claim to know—to fully and completely know— the Father is a claim of something at the level of equality with Him. It is a claim of cognitive intimacy that puts Jesus in a unique relationship and on par with the Father. But then Jesus is not a created being as we are; He is the “only begotten”, the “one and only” Son of the Father (John 3:16). His essence is eternally and inextricably bound up in the essence of the Father. We cannot fully know what that means—we have nothing in our experience that corresponds to that kind of knowing of God. At least, not yet.

Fortunately for those who choose to follow Jesus, to accept His offer of relationship, something amazing happens; we are brought into an intimacy with God that is foundationally one of mutual knowing. Jesus explains to His disciples (and by implication, to all throughout history who have looked to Him), “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). So the Apostle Paul extrapolates this idea by saying, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). The author of Hebrews explains that this new thing—this new kind of knowing of God—was in the mind of God to produce in humanity when He conceived of us. It takes time, and it takes the unsurpassed power of God to create the right conditions for it to happen, but without a doubt it is happening.

“I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts,” Jeremiah quotes God saying. “I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:10-12).

Amazing news. Our best response to this news is to commit every day to spending increasing time with Jesus; we can read His Word, incorporating what we learn about Him into our lives; we can commit portions of that Word to memory, recalling them in times of need; and we can converse with Him—a process we call prayer. That is our part now in the glorious adventure we will spend eternity exploring—that of knowing God. There will be more when we finally see Him face to face. For now, know and be known.

(Photo Credit: [[File:NNSA-NSO-504.jpg|NNSA-NSO-504]]

Christmas Wish List

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Remember Christmases when you were a child? Remember the weeks or days leading up to the grand moment and all the anticipation that swelled in your childish heart—anticipation of presents galore? A lot of it had to do with the pictures planted into our minds by the T.V. commercials of the day.

My anticipation always grew to staggering proportions every December. One year my wish list contained the most realistic newborn-sized doll on the market. I wanted that toy badly. I wrote to ‘Santa’—a jolly man with a perfectly white beard who appeared on a seasonal show and answered letters written to the address he’d provided. One of the dozens of letters Santa selected was mine. He read my childish scrawl, assured his watchers that Santa always gives good children what they want, and sure enough my doll appeared in the mail some days later.

I loved that doll for months—until the next round of commercials drew my attention to the newest toys on the market. And so the cycle continued. I always knew I wanted something, but each year’s pick provided fleeting satisfaction. Perhaps you have your own stories of wish lists from Christmases past. Perhaps your longings were for other things: for daddy to come home and live with the family again, or for the bullies at school to leave you alone. Many wish list items remained just unfulfilled dreams.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah speaks of a dream God has had for each of us—God’s wish list published to whet our appetite for the gift to end all gifts. “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” Isaiah quotes God as saying. He was offering the current king of Judah to ask for a sign that would prove God’s interest in people’s lives. The weak-kneed fearful regent refused the offer, believing that nothing could save him from his current problem, the besieging armies that stood on the doorstep of his poorly protected city Jerusalem.

“Listen up, you lily-livered leader!” replied the incensed prophet. “It’s not enough you try the patience of your subjects with your spineless superintendence of the country. Will you also try the patience of God? God has a sign for you, whether you are aware of your need for one or not!” (Isaiah 7:13, paraphrased).

Isaiah moved back into quoting God, “The virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). With these words, God gives a clue to the greatest item ever to grace Christmas wish lists, fill stockings or adorn trees. It was a promise and a riddle wrapped in a ribbon that would take eight centuries to unravel. God was speaking not only to the inept ruler Ahaz. He was speaking to you and to me too.

He was explaining that of all the hopes, wishes and solutions to problems that promise to satisfy our yearnings, only one would truly fill the gap. Only Immanuel—God with us could be the wish list item to end all wish lists. Immanuel would describe the one unique baby who would enter this world’s landscape, who would be God Himself living among us. Neither time nor death would keep Him from accomplishing His purpose—to be forever with us.

The first Christmas morning would begin centuries of generations reflecting on God’s great gift of Jesus—of God intimately with us for eternity. All wish lists pale in comparison to the gift of relationship Christ offers those who want Him to be Lord of their lives. The life that flows through Him becomes an eternal life, which He offers to those—to you and to me—who embrace His presence.

Immanuel. Immanuel. Wonderful Counselor! Lord of Life, Lord of all! He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One. Immanuel. Immanuel!

 

(Photo Credit: By Genealogyphotos on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8803906)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #9

Prayer of a Servant (Paraphrasing Psalm 123)

I’m thinking of Your right to rule, God. My mind’s eye is looking through the heavens and catching Isaiah’s glimpse of You enthroned as King of Kings. This upward-looking attitude is a ready reminder that You are the Sovereign Ruler of this universe, and I am a creation of Yours. It is right that Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

As a creature before her Creator, as a servant before her Master, and as a child before her Father I come to You asking for Your mercy; this world that I live in has gone crazy. Everywhere I look in this culture around me—even in myself—I see evidences of pride and arrogance, foolish ‘wisdom’, impatience and contempt.

Please protect me from these negative and destructive attitudes. I’d rather have a servant’s heart than see myself become like the godless—rebellious against Your right to rule, proud and angry, lost, wounded and dangerous. Rejecting You is a slow soul suffocation, minds dulled to the horror of an eternity without You.

Have mercy on us, Lord. Protect us from that influence. Keep us always looking upward, aware of Your all-encompassing presence, breathing You like air, knowing You as our great and merciful God.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus

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Day 1: Riddle Explained

We all love a riddle. Author J.R.R. Tolkien gives us one in the story of The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins and Gollum contend in a battle of wits. “Thirty white horses on a red hill,” begins Bilbo, “first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”

The answer is teeth.

Riddling goes back a long way. Norse mythology included riddles such as this: “Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty. What am I?” Familiarity with a more agricultural environment might help with this one. The answer is: a cow.

There are riddles in the Bible too. Samson’s riddle (“Out of the eater something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”—answer: honey from a honeycomb built in the carcass of a dead lion), posed to his Philistine wedding party, became the unhappy cause of the failure of his new marriage. But only one riddle has had the power to change the story of earth and its inhabitants for unimaginable good.

Isaiah, prophet of the eighth century B.C., spoke of a “sign” that would signal God’s plan to bring freedom to earth’s inhabitants. “The virgin will be with child,” he began, “and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Many of us have heard this riddle so often it fails to carry the impact it would have had to those first listeners. There are two puzzling situations described: a pregnant virgin, and a child called “God” (Immanuel meaning “God with us”).

In the opening verses of Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus, this ancient riddle is remembered. The virgin is a girl named Mary. The embryo growing in her womb is not only a product of chromosomes contributed by the Holy Spirit, but the baby boy is God Himself, come in the flesh to experience humanity firsthand. The riddle is explained after eight hundred years.

But even in the first scene of Matthew’s gospel account of the life and times of Jesus a new riddle is announced. It is delivered to Joseph, the young man who will take Mary home as his wife, fully knowing of her pregnant condition and trusting she is still a virgin. This riddle is meant to console him, no doubt. It’s not the fairy-tale beginning of a marriage he had imagined when he first dreamed of wedding this girl. Joseph’s plans have been sidelined by God’s bigger plan for Joseph’s role as husband and foster father. Joseph is directed to prepare to name the baby boy ‘Yeshua’ (‘Jesus’ in English) because the name means ‘the LORD saves’—“because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is the riddle that concerns us today. Day One of coming alongside the earthly life of Jesus finds every one of us transported into the midst of the riddle concerning Him. We are the people. Every person is an integral part of the race of humanity created by God, and according to the riddle we need to be saved. We are on some downward spiral to destruction apart from what Jesus came to accomplish for us.

Subsequent days of exploring Matthew’s biography of Jesus will show us more—will help us observe what is recorded about Jesus’ life, show us how He lived, tell us what He actually said. Why are we interested? Because those who discover the truth behind the best of riddles have gained wisdom that is of great value in life; the riddle concerning Jesus and us is no ordinary riddle.

Jesus, grant us the grace to understand the riddle of your intentions for us, we the people You have created. Enable us to have hearts fully open to grasping the truth of your life; give us minds open to insight into our own situation of needing to be saved. We call on You to inhabit our twenty-eight day journey alongside You. Amen.

(Photo Credit: “Laughing Boy” by Josh Giovo from USA – Little Bugger. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg#/media/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg)

The Year of the Lord

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We can thank Dionysius Exoguus for our New Year’s Eve celebrations this evening—or we can blame him for the noise that will interrupt our sleep come midnight. Dionysius was the sixth century character who created the codifying system for historical dates that is the basis for our current calendar. He did it by coining what has now become two very controversial letters: A. and D. They stand for Anno Domini, meaning ‘year of the Lord’ and they divide all of history into before and after the event that marked the human birth of a baby named Jesus of Nazareth.

Why is the phrase Anno Domini so controversial?

When Jesus had barely begun His ministry of traveling through the region of the Jordan Rift Valley—the land of Israel and its surrounding territory—He made a stop in His hometown of Nazareth. There He made a statement that divided His listeners into two camps: the few who would respect and follow Him, and the majority who would be infuriated by His bold effrontery and seek to destroy Him.

He had stopped in at the synagogue in Nazareth because it was the Sabbath day. He was a born and bred Jew and He had spent His boyhood and early adulthood in this synagogue on Sabbath days. But today would be different.

We’re told Jesus stood up, volunteering to read the day’s selection of Scripture, and was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Jesus would have memorized that and many other scrolls as a boy. That was the norm for His culture. He knew the exact passage His heavenly Father intended Him to read that day, and He skimmed through the thousands of words until He found it:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” He began to read, “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 favour.” Then He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. All would have been well if He had left it at that. The status quo would have been maintained. The people would have left the synagogue that day no different than before coming. Their lives would have hidden the same superficiality they had come to accept as the norm for life. “Prisoners” would have meant political prisoners—the Jews knew first-hand about that. The “poor”, the “blind” and the “oppressed” would only have described physical ailments. The “year of the Lord’s favour” would have been a hope for some future return to the glory days of Solomon’s wealthy empire.

But as Jesus sat down, the service did not continue its routine flow as usual. “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him,” we’re told.

“Today,” Jesus explained, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

‘Yes!’ thought the people. ‘Perhaps this man will successfully throw off the fetters of the oppressing Roman Empire! Surely that would be an act descriptive of the year of the Lord’s favour!’

But Jesus could not leave well enough alone. He knew better. This people were—all people are—under an oppression much worse than political or physical in nature. We are in bondage to our own rebellion against our Creator, God. It would take nothing less than an act of God—the perfect life and sacrificial death of Jesus, God in the flesh—to bring freedom from this oppression. But Jesus knew many if not most people would reject His freedom-making work. The year of the Lord’s favour would be spurned. He bluntly told them so.

Anno Domini is offensive and controversial because we struggle against God’s rightful sovereignty over our lives. Yes, yours and mine. We want to live our lives our own way. We balk against being harnessed to a lord. Yet Jesus knew only through Him would freedom from the messes we make of our lives be available to us—at least, to the few who will accept the year of the Lord’s favour.

As we say farewell to 2015 and enter a New Year, it only takes a ‘yes’ to Jesus to begin and continue a journey into a year full of the Lord’s favour. The year is the Lord’s—we know deep down it’s not ours to grasp—and He offers His favour to those who submit their lives to Him. His invitation is open. His favour is for all who accept that Jesus fulfills the role of rescuer from our worst oppression. It is Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord.

(Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AThe_Great_Isaiah_Scroll_MS_A_(1QIsa)_-_Google_Art_Project-x4-y0.jpg)

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>.)