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)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 7

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‘He’

Eight verses; nine requests. A flood of appeals leaps off the page as the psalmist makes his entreaty to God. For what does the ancient writer ask? Is he pleading for fertility for his land, his people, and his own posterity—like the Greeks would assign to their gods Aphaea and Demeter? Does he want power over invading armies—like the Assyrians’ pleas to Ashur and Ishtar? Is he demanding protection from environmental disasters—like the Incas did through their child sacrifices to the sun god Inti? Is he exploiting the powers of a deity of the dead—like the Egyptian demands of the embalming afterworld gods, Anubis and Ra? No. Rather, the fifth stanza of Psalm 119—petition to the One known as LORD—is a prayer for authentic, holistic, whole-life relationship with God.

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end./ Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart./ Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight./ Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain./ Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word./ Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. / Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. / How I long for your precepts! Preserve my life in your righteousness”. (Psalm 119:33-40).

The psalmist has come to the Great One Himself to ask to be part of God’s plan for humanity. He wants to become what God envisions for him, and is willing to undergo whatever the process requires. Did you see that as you read his request?

He asks for a transformed mind (”Teach me…Give me understanding”)—he recognizes that his natural mind is prone to misunderstandings, assumptions, even ignorance. He wants to know God’s commands so that his rational, logical mind can be engaged in the process of obeying God.

He also asks for a transformed heart (“Turn my heart…”)—he acknowledges his usual set-point is one of selfishness, and this self-centredness has distorted his humanity. To get to the root of the problem, the psalmist knows, to be truly authentic his heart must be God-centred. He must love God, but he needs God’s help to do it.

He then asks for clarified goals (“Turn my eyes…”)—he identifies the fickleness of his own desires, the tendency for his sensual nature to override his mind and his heart. To become constant, committed and unswerving, the psalmist asks God for blinders. He wants to repulse the flare and dazzle of temptation so as to be sensible to the radiance and glow of true (hu)manliness. But he needs God’s help if he’s ever going to conquer this powerful adversary.

But the high point of the psalmist’s appeals comes after the requests for his mind, heart, and senses. The zenith of his petition points to a promise. The psalmist has read God’s word and has discovered a treaty, a promise made by God and confirmed by a covenant. It was a promise to bless all peoples (Genesis 12:3) through a ‘seed’ (Genesis 3:15). The psalmist recognizes that a promise made by God is as good as a promise gets, and he wants to benefit from it. What the psalmists doesn’t yet fully understand is how the promise will be fulfilled—that the promise is not a what but a who.

Centuries later who would come onto earth’s scene but a baby, a descendant of the woman of Genesis 3 and of the man of Genesis 12. He was Jesus, the Promised One who alone could assure the transformation the psalmist desired in himself.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,” explains a later writer, “…was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes,” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ…Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (I Corinthians 1:19-22).

So we see it is He, Jesus, who answers and completes the psalmist’s petition. He transforms hearts, minds and goals. He takes away the disgrace the psalmist dreads of being less human than his Creator intended; He is the source of the precepts of Scripture; He is the Righteous One whose ransoming death and resurrection preserves the lives of those who submit to Him. He is the source of relationship with God. He is the answer to every prayer.

(Photo Credit: By Alex Sancliment – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33675549)

WHO IS JESUS? #12

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Promised Blessing.

Looking out at the religious figures that surrounded Him now, Jesus saw livid faces. He saw irritation and annoyance, indignance and outrage. His claims about Himself had been more than they could take; He had called Himself everything from Light of the World, to Out of this World. His claims had not enamoured Him to these men whose religious dictatorship of the community had not before been questioned.

They were an obstinate and thickheaded group. They simply could not understand Jesus because they would not understand Him. Referring to God as His Father had gotten Jesus nowhere—perhaps it was too abstract a concept for them—so He returns to the subject of Abraham. Earlier they had crowed, “Abraham is our father,” and Jesus now uses that notion to reveal His next claim about Himself

“Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day,” announces Jesus; “he saw it and was glad.” His opponents were incredulous.

“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

The air was thick with their incredulity and cynical skepticism.

Jesus had gone further than hard hearts could follow. He was explaining the motivation that had inspired Abraham’s life from the time he left his idolatrous roots in Mesopotamia, the ‘cradle of civilization,’ was a promise. More than a promise, it was a covenant made by Yahweh to the then-named Abram. It was a covenant promising that Abraham would become a great nation quite separate from civilization, as it was then known, a covenant whose purpose was to bless all peoples on earth—eternally. The covenant had come with the stipulation that Abraham leave his own country, people group, and father’s household and go to the land God Himself would show him (Genesis 12:1-3).

The author of Hebrews comments on the kind of faith required to follow a promise like that. He lists Abraham as one of several historical characters whose lives revolved around that kind of faith, who “considered Him (God) faithful who had made the promise.”

“All these people,” writes Hebrew’s unknown author, “were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own…Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:11,13-16).

Jesus is saying, ‘I am the personification of that promise. I am the Object of Abraham’s faith; I am the One that embedded in Abraham’s heart the joy of knowing Yahweh’s covenant would one day be realized; I am the One whose task is to bless every people group on this planet; I am the Promised Blessing; I am.’

To this very claim each of us must personally respond. The mark of a response that is authentic and truly receptive of everything offered in God’s covenant is that it will be accompanied by two things: it will be focused on Jesus, and it will be attended by an inner joy.

“Therefore,” Hebrews continues, “…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1,2).

So today we have this before us: we have Jesus and we have joy. These are the anchor points of the covenant God made so many millennia ago in which He even then intended us to be included. Jesus is the Promised Blessing. Let’s embrace Him today and be blessed.

(PHoto Credit: By Till Krech from Berlin, Germany – ghost shipUploaded by perumalism, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28664411)

CROSSROADS, Part 9

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Boulder Matters

We arrived at dusk and set up our tent in the semi-darkness. There was a deep blackness on the far side of us, which we took to be the cliff; we knew that it rose several hundred feet from the floor of the river valley on which we camped. We sensed rather than saw its massive presence. Awaking the next morning we peered sleepy-eyed out of our tent and saw something else. There beside us perched a huge boulder, some five metres in diameter and ten tonnes in weight. When had this megalith landed here? With dawning realization we began to understand our delicate position: we were either beautifully safe, protected by the huge sentinel that shadowed us from other harm, or we were in desperate danger, lounging in avalanche territory.

The Apostle Paul describes another boulder of dual impact. He quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah who describes God saying, “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

This megalith is Jesus. He holds a unique and controversial position as a result of His arrival among us. He was a Jew, defined by His heritage as one who kept Moses’ law, but He up-ended the system by His work on the cross. He nullified the natural inheritability of being considered ‘children of God’ by birth, rather making relationship with God available only by faith.

“In other words,” explains the transformed Jew, Paul, “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring.” He continues to explain that those who pursue moral or spiritual merit by works, pride or ignorance will not attain it. Only those who simply entrust their future to the finished work of Jesus are considered right with God.

Jesus becomes a stumbling block to the one, and a Rock of Ages to the other.

This is why Jesus is so controversial here on earth. People seem to despise, discount, or dishonour Him, or they find Him to be their sole hope and protection. It comes down to how we embrace Him.

So here again we find ourselves at a crossroads. This time there is a huge boulder in the middle of the path. We cannot go over, under, around or through it. We must place ourselves under its shadow, in deference to its power, or stumble as a result of it. We make the choice every day in innumerable ways.

When we awake, we choose to honour and praise Jesus for our opportunity of life, or we ignore Him and plug into the world’s messages for counsel. When we do our daily tasks, we consciously seek to please Jesus by living with integrity and loving those around us, or we insist on seeing the world as our plaything. When we have leisure time, we choose to invest in our relationship with God and others, or we invest in our own pleasure. We make these choices every day.

The Cornerstone is not going away. His influence is here to stay and we can either be strengthened by Him, or stumble over Him.

“For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God?” (Psalm 18:31).

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia COmmons; MinuHiiumaa [[File:Majakivi 2014.jpg|thumb|Majakivi 2014]]

PROSPECTUS FOR THE PRAYING PERSON, PART 7: Apocalyptic Love

Part 7: Apocalyptic Love; John 14:8-26

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 Vs.  21 “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

I once urged a group of extended family members to take an excursion. I wanted to show them a beautiful waterfall that cascades onto a remote beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  It was near the end of summer when the day outing finally arrived. The long drive on twisting roads was followed by a hike through forests of towering cedars and Douglas fir.  Reaching pristine Mystic Beach we trekked along the shoreline to the end of its span, just before a sea cave marks the beach’s limit.  Looking up, a dozen pairs of eyes scanned the salal-covered cliffs. That day, though, only a few drops of water dribbled down the clay bank, landing in a rust-coloured puddle before being absorbed into the sand. Where was the cascade? Where was the tumbling surge of falling water? The waterfall had dried up into virtually nothing. The day’s objective had dismally failed us.

As we come to this verse in Jesus’ prospectus of promises for followers of His we come to a very important objective; it seems to be a sort of waterfall of cause and effect correlations.  I see a cascading culmination of action and reaction like torrents of water falling over rocks and cliffs.  Stay with me.  I want to explore this metaphor that seems to illustrate some important truths for people like us. Praying people.  Followers of Jesus. We might be in for some amazing scenery.

We’ll label this promise ‘Apocalyptic Love’. The word apocalypse does not mean a catastrophic destruction or end of the world, as its usage by the media seems to imply. It means to uncover or reveal.  Apocalypse comes from the Greek; its counterpart, ‘revelation’, comes from the Latin.

Here, Jesus is uncovering for His friends a promise that has previously been hidden.  He is saying that He, God of the universe, Father, Son and Holy Spirit will embrace us in a new level of love.  This relationship will include revealing Himself to us.  Think that through again: Jesus promises to love us, and to show Himself to us.  It is a revealing love, an ‘apocalyptic love’.  This is the pool at the base of the most beautiful coursing waterfall in which mankind ever bathed: God’s love for us.  We don’t merely view it; we are invited to submerge ourselves in it. If the thought is breathtaking, what must the experience of it be?

Now, I’ve said it is a cascade of cause and effect correlations, so what lies upstream?

Jesus describes the subject (“whoever”) as anyone who has His commands and obeys them.  So that means anyone, and is delightfully inclusive.  But it also means only those who obey Him, and that is decidedly exclusive.  In regard to His commands, He has been very clear.  He is on record as having clearly described His laws of love: We must love God first and foremost; we must love our neighbour; and finally, as members of God’s family, we must love each other.  Our lives must be a cascade of love, gushing surging, overflowing, spilling out, getting everything wet within sight.

I like this picture.  More than that, I believe it.  I’m staking my life on it.  It’s nothing like the fickle waterfall at Mystic Beach, its vibrancy dependent upon the whims of season and nature.  This image is the essence of life.  It’s a promise, and I want to be fully available and open to it.  How about you? Want to come along?

PROSPECTUS FOR THE PRAYING PERSON, PART 5: Eternal Life

Eternal Life: John 14:8-26              Vs.19 “Because I live, you also will live”.

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C.S. Lewis observes, “…You won’t get eternal life by just feeling the presence of God in flowers or music.”  He goes on to say,

If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die.

Jesus tells us in verse 19 that our access to life is contingent upon His life.  Knowing He was about to die, it’s an interesting comment He makes.  In fact, He’s revealing to His disciples (and us, by extension) the promise every person longs for.  He’s promising eternal life.

He’s showing us how life becomes Life; how the temporal becomes eternal; how creatures of God become children of God.  Tell me this earthly life is enough (that it’s a fluke of chance, and we must make the most of it) and I’ll ask you to explain why we are so bothered by death.

Lewis has understood something core to the concept of this eternal life.  It’s not obtained by talking oneself into the idea that peace and beauty bestow the Life. Eternal life is borne out of the eternal One. It is not an impersonal aura transposed from some cosmic source of energy. Jesus claims it can only be procured through Him.  He is Life.  His resurrection displays what we will someday experience.

But wait a minute.  Who is the ‘we’ that will experience this eternal life?

Jesus is very clear about the extension of His Life to people.  While it is freely given, it was purchased at a dear price (a costly ransom of forgiveness), and is not automatically dispensed at birth or any other time; it is available to those who want it badly enough.  It cannot be bought by money, good works, church attendance, knowing the who’s who of Christendom or any of this world’s religions.  But it will cost me giving up my own plans.  I must give up my own ideas for procuring eternal life and accept His.  I must give up my own ideas of what is sin and what is right. I must give up any hope of self-righteousness and accept that it is only Jesus’ life, given for me, that makes me righteous in the sight of an eternally holy God.

Unending existence is something every human soul is granted by God, but eternal life is His gift only a few will consent to accept.  He promises to give it.  It really is the keynote promise for the praying person.  By prayer we step into the realm of faith that says, “I’m trusting You, God, to make good on your promise. I want to be part of the Life that exudes from You, and I’m willing to give up my pride and independence in order to receive it”.

Amazing Life, this God-borne thing, held out to me, O gift of love. My every thirst and hunger deep, I see is but a symptom of my want of this Eternal Life. Because You Live, I also live, O Christ of God, O Life of life.  And as I take this gift You give, my soul is held in loving grip within Your Self, O Mystery!  Eternal Life, how broad and deep, I would but drown beneath its depth, except You breathe Eternal Breath in me. My Life’s first cry, “O God, I live!” will echo on eternally.