Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 23

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Reprimand.

William took the reprimand from his grandmother gracefully. Apparently leaning down to chat with his young son during the Royal Air Force demonstration could be construed as disrespectful. So William straightened up when he saw the flick of his grandmother’s hand, and all was well again. It’s not everyone, of course, whose grandmother is the Queen of England.

When Matthew records Jesus speaking to a crowd, we get a chance to eavesdrop in on a reprimand. It would have been an unforgivably embarrassing rebuke because it was directed at the religious rulers of Jerusalem of the day. They had clout. Their control over the Jewish people was undisputed. No one challenged the Pharisees and the teachers of the law because the people assumed their leaders had the backing of God. But Jesus saw things differently.

“Do not do what they (the Pharisees) do,” Jesus warned the people publicly, “for they do not practice what they preach.” Ouch. That was a public reprimand no one had ever dared to deliver to the Pharisees before.

“Everything they do is done for men to see.” But Jesus was not content to warn only the crowd. Seeing a band of Pharisees striding toward Him, Jesus began a scathing chastisement that would make Queen Elizabeth’s reprimand of William look like gentle kindness.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Jesus began. Imagine how that went over. The crowd would have hushed. The Pharisees would have stopped dead in their tracks. There was no doubt the people were watching a delightful contest of power where the bullies were being put in their place for once.

“You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence,” Jesus challenged them. “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.”

Jesus said much more of that sort of thing in that moment. Read Matthew 23 and gloat to hear the status quo being challenged by a voice of real authority. But we cannot read too far before we notice something beginning to happen. The relish with which we hear someone else being reprimanded begins to turn to dust in our mouths. Our smugness evaporates.

We, too, live much of our lives “for men to see.” We are experts at presenting our best face, going out in public looking the part, wearing a façade to make ourselves appear as we want to be seen: trendy, intelligent, exclusive, ethical, self-assured. Choose the adjective that fits.

But Jesus calls this fraud (see Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of “Woe to you…you hypocrites!” in The Message). God sees the interior. He knows each of us for who we really are, and He sees the mess we hide deep inside our hearts and minds. He is telling not only the Pharisees but us too that something must be done to clean up our interior or we’ll become nothing more than “whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones…”

“Keep me from deceitful ways,” penned the psalmist David, “be gracious to me through your law. I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws.” The psalmist is not talking about the external law of Judaism, or about social laws, or about politically correct conventions. He is referring to God’s moral requirements for us as humans that we be authentically honest with ourselves and with Him. It means accepting the truth of God’s sovereignty not only in the vastness of this universe but also in our day-to-day lives. It means recognizing that we don’t make reality and we don’t make the rules. It means seeing ourselves through His eyes, humbling ourselves and asking His forgiveness for our misplaced pride.

Ultimately only God can clean the inside of our ‘cups’ and keep them clean. It takes the daily work of Christ’s once-for-all redemption and the Holy Spirit’s transforming power in us to do the otherwise impossible task. The reprimand is not intended to bring humiliation, but humility. Are we willing to listen to it? What better time than this to have an honest conversation with God…

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus; Day 5

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Perfect.

We’ve heard some strange laws in our time and read of bizarre rules in other places. Apparently in Thailand it is illegal to step on money; in Samoa it is illegal to forget your wife’s birthday; and in France it is illegal to name a pig Napoleon. Every culture, every country and every club has its profusion of laws. The list, in fact, is endless. Have you ever wondered why?—why we need to have any laws at all?—why we can’t all get along?

When we spend time with other people we begin to notice something about ourselves: we don’t always see eye to eye on issues, and, (generally speaking, of course) in issues of differences, we tend to think our way is best. Think of an example—like, what should I wear today? That’s simple enough. If we were to ask a hundred people that question, we would likely get a hundred different answers. But in the end, we would choose for ourselves what to wear. Why? Because we fundamentally believe we are our own bosses. But of course it only takes multiplying ‘we’ by the billions of people that live and have lived on planet earth over its history and multiplying that by the number of possible conflicting ideas and we come up with nothing less than chaos if a consensus is required.

As Jesus began His public ministry in a tiny corner of earth under domination of the powerful Roman Empire, he started by talking about this fundamental state of mind we all have. He was speaking to Jews, primarily, because he was one Himself. The Jews were a people solidified through their law. Rather than being created by a committee, the law was God-given, inscribed by the divine finger on stone tablets. Remember them?

1.Worship no gods but God alone; 2.Neither make nor worship idols; 3.Do not misuse God’s name or reputation; 4.Rest every seventh day; 5.Honour your parents; 6.Do not murder; 7.Do not have extramarital sex; 8.Do not steal; 9.Do not slander others; 10.Do not crave others’ property or relationships.

That sounds clear. No one could mistake the meaning of the Big Ten. Yet fifteen hundred years later Jesus stood among the descendants of those who had received the Law. He saw the moral bankruptcy of the race He had been born into. Every command had been broken countless times over the centuries. Not one person had been able to keep the Law with the impeccable integrity it required. And it wasn’t only the Jews who had failed. They simply typified the common experience of every person on this planet.

What the teachers of the Jewish Law had engineered, though, was a means of twisting the true intent of the Law by adding a plethora of traditions to veil the deficiency. Instead of loving God with their whole heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving others as those made in the image of God, the Law had become legalistic. It had become a form for maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the hierarchy of power among the people.

Jesus enters this milieu and says something entirely different. Does He say ‘drop the façade and just do what feels right’? That’s what would make us all feel much better about the way we live our lives. No. The fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying something that turns our world upside down.

“Be perfect,” he instructs, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

What? That’s impossible! No one is perfect. No can attain that standard. Is Jesus a madman to even suggest the possibility?

No again. Jesus is the ultimate realist. He’s laying the cards on the table to show us our true reality. We are all far from perfect. We cannot get anywhere near pleasing God by keeping even the most rigorous of laws. What Jesus is saying is that He will transform people from the inside out by His indwelling Spirit. We cannot keep any law perfectly, but the Law of Christ—His perfect and powerful law of grace and love—can keep us.

He speaks to the Jews to show them that their law had become distorted; He speaks to us to show us that our own attempts at social and political and moral law have all become distorted too. Only He can redeem the shadow of what we call law to become the perfect solution of restored relationship with God and people. As we invite Jesus to rule in us we learn what that means in ways more relevant to each of our lives than any external law was ever able to do.

“To him who is able to keep you from falling,” invokes Jude, another New Testament writer, “and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

(Picture Credit: [[File:Rembrandt – Moses with the Ten Commandments – Google Art Project.jpg|thumb|Rembrandt – Moses with the Ten Commandments – Google Art Project]])