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.

 

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 11

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‘Teth’

“Do good to (me)…” begins the psalmist in this ninth segment of Psalm 119. Those four words in themselves are enough fodder for a lifetime of thought: God. Good. To. Me. But there’s more. In and around and throughout the references to goodness, there are also references to evil (in the form of affliction, reputation-smearing, and callous hearts). This is interesting and worth exploring. How do good and evil correlate?

Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. / Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands. / Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. / You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. / Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. / Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. / It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. / The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

The psalmist has an idea that is nine-tenths formed. He is beginning to observe a principle and he wants to run it by God in the form of this prayer-song. We might call it ‘The Suffering Principle’. He sees that there is suffering in this world; there is evil in many forms and he has personally experienced it in the form of callous, reputation-smearing affliction-causing individuals. We know there are many other forms of evil too: illness, injustice, natural and social disasters, death. The list goes on. But there is also goodness; God’s goodness—of being and of doing—as well as a learned goodness the psalmist desires to be part of his own character. Somehow God’s Word is involved in this contest between the two opposing influences, resulting in some majestic phenomenon greater than all the silver and gold in the world.

The psalmist’s principle is this: (my) SUFFERING + (God’s) GOODNESS/POWER = GLORY.

Let that principle sink in for a minute. The psalmist is saying that when we experience evil in this life God is able (that’s the ‘power’ part) to use some divine alchemy to apply His goodness (powers of magnitude greater than any evil in existence) to bring about a process of transforming, mind-blowing, magnificence (what we’ll call ‘glory’).

The one-tenth part of the principle that the psalmist was just a millennium too early to know yet, is Jesus. Not one-tenth, really, but ten tenths, because He is the living Word, He is goodness incarnate, He is humankind’s glorious solution to the trouble we have experienced from the moment we arrived on the scene.

But how does Jesus bring goodness into our lives? Does He arrive like a superhero dressed for action pitting His power of goodness against the powers of evil? No and yes. No, He doesn’t eradicate present evil and suffering by imposing His goodwill upon unwilling earth and its inhabitants. But, yes, He does overcome evil by submitting Himself to the destructive powers of death itself, and, after paying the ransom evil holds over this earth, rises triumphant. He then invites each of us to be the throne on which He rules. In this way, Jesus offers goodness in the form of Himself to each of us. Good comes to us not externally but internally through Christ indwelling any and all who accept Him. Listen to how He explains it to an outcast woman who happened upon Him alone at a well late one day.

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:7-10).

Jesus initiates the conversation by drawing her to see that the good she can give is but a drop in the bucket of the eternal Good He can give her through His Spirit. As she begins to grasp this offer by degrees, her own suffering as a social outcast becomes the platform through which she invites others to experience the goodness of God too. We do not hear each of their stories, but as a community we hear them rejoicing, “…this man really is the Savior of the world(!)” (John 4:42).

The glory the Spirit of the living Christ living in our lives is beyond our greatest expectations. Jesus, the man of sorrows who took our suffering upon Himself to the point of death, does not stand at a distance offering glib condolences to our sorrows. He, the precious Word of God, actually enters into us, girding us up from within, filling us with His own goodness so that our suffering is used for good—has a purpose that transcends the transience of this earth. The result is and will be the greatest glory: the glory of God transforming lives, the glory of good completely obliterating evil, the glory of God and His people someday entirely outside of the influence of suffering.

So let’s come to Jesus for the drink He offers us. Take a long deep draught of it and be refreshed. It is good.

(Photo Credit: By Themenzentriert – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11362535)

CROSSROADS, Part 3

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“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.

“And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”

At the climax of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, an exchange occurs; an unexpected substitution extricates the story’s protagonist from his imminent appointment with death. An eleventh-hour switch happens and a ransom results.

While in this story the anti-hero who orchestrates the exchange is by no means faultless, his act is reminiscent of the greatest ransom and rescue ever performed, not in literature, but in real life, by a man who proved Himself to be God’s Son. It is this great rescue to which the apostle Paul refers in this third chapter of the letter to the Romans.

This concept of rescue is not as easy to accept at it would appear. Sometimes we even abhor the idea; the offer of a remedy we fail to see we need strikes us as intrusive advertising. At other times, we catch a glimpse of our desperate situation, but then do not believe the rescue will accomplish what we want; we’ve become skeptical in our old age and new morality, unable to believe there is a solution to our problem. Sometimes we philosophize there are no problems – only appearances. We just need to look at life from a new angle and all will fall into place, we think.

Who wants a rescuer?

Only children do, really. Yet, only when we see ourselves as children do can we admit that a rescuer is necessary. Romans 3 looks at this crossroads because it’s the place where we choose the direction our thinking will follow.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Paul is saying it’s a crossroads everyone entertains. In earlier verses he divides people into ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’, divisions that described the religious milieu of the day. He is saying we all come from one perspective or another that has its own road: the narrow law-keeping road, or the broader naturalist road. Those traveling each road consider themselves on the right road. Do you see yourself on either of these?

Yet, says Paul, the historical death of Jesus changes everything. It creates an intersection out of which two new paths issue. One path he calls faith – not faith in general, but specifically faith in the death-defying ransom paid by Jesus. The only other path is the absence of faith, in all its various expressions. Our daily lives are marked by our passage on one of these two roads. The former is easy to stray from, because we are, as one songwriter so aptly put it, “prone to wander”. The other path is so much easier to traverse but its ending, by small degrees and ultimately, destroys us.

As we make choices that will define our steps today, we do well to keep in mind a clear picture of that ransoming crossroad. It will be our best guide and strongest motivation to keep pace on the faith road and stay the course.

“Did You die for all humanity?” we ask Jesus.

“And for you. Hush! Yes.”

(Photo Credit: “La route qui mène vers le coté obscur”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg#/media/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg)

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Part 4

Ransom

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When Tom Hanks plays the merchant mariner Captain Phillips in the 2013 film by that name, he learns something about ransom. Somali pirates, hostage taking, threats, and finally an eleventh-hour rescue keep viewers on the edge of their seats. We understand the concept of ransom. When I have something you want, you can ransom it back by exchanging it for something I consider precious.

As Jesus stands before the Roman establishment, betrayed by His culture, His religious leaders, and one of His own disciples, a ransom is happening. This is no accident. It is not even an event that catches Him by surprise. There is no ransom forthcoming on His behalf to rescue Him from His unjust captors. He Himself is the ransom being offered. It’s the scandal to top all unprecedented feats. There is more here than meets the eye.

Remember the crowds that had met Jesus only days earlier as He crested the Mount of Olives on the back of a donkey? The echoes of their hosannas have hardly had time to fade away. Now they are replaced by cries of ‘crucify him!’ What strange passion has altered the people’s loyalties?

Beaten by guards before being brought to mock trial, Jesus puzzles His captors with His quiet yet powerful responses. He is passed from Jewish elders to Pilate’s jurisdiction. From Pilate to Herod, and back to Pilate, none understand the transaction that will take place.

In confusion, Pilate considers His options. Roman justice requires him to release the innocent. Yet, the crowd of Jews will surely revolt if Pilate lets Jesus go free. The loophole of releasing a prisoner to the people as a Passover concession has closed; the mob demands the release of a murderer rather than Jesus.

So Pilate succumbs. He releases Barabbas and condemns Jesus to crucifixion. Now the shouts of the people line Jesus’ path not with palm branches and hosannas but with laughs of derision. He submits Himself to the humiliation, the pain, and the destruction of His body for one reason. He is the ransom.

Isaiah 53 prepares us centuries before for this day, “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. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

But could we ever be fully prepared for this? Jesus, the Son of God, comes to be the ransom for you and me and every one of the billions of people who have lived on this planet or ever will. He is the only one precious enough in the Father’s eyes to be the exchange. What do we mean by exchange?

Who of us claims to be perfect? None. We’ve all missed the mark by God’s standard. We’ve been taken hostage by sin and Satan and our own self-destructive flesh. There is no limit to the violence and darkness and death with which we’ve allied ourselves. God has not created Hell for us; we’ve designed it for ourselves. But He just won’t leave us to our own designs. And so, Jesus hangs there on the cross to be the ransom for us. It’s more than a fair exchange: one perfect man for countless imperfect ones.

It’s an eleventh hour rescue. We have three days to absorb it all. Let’s use that time wisely. Let’s start by praying, “Jesus, my ransom…”

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons