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)

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PSALM 106: WHOLENESS

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Part 1: Goodness and Love (Psalm 106:1)

“Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.”

Two attributes of God are relevant to every aspect of our lives: that He is good, and that He is loving. His goodness is bent on making the form and function of His creatures whole, while His love impels Him to give of Himself to benefit those creatures.

God’s goodness means that He is poised, positioned and disposed to bring wholeness toward every person here on planet earth. He made us not only for His own good pleasure (neither masochistic nor neglectful), but also for our pleasure; He wants our lives to bring joy to both ourselves and Himself – not egocentric, self-gratifying amusement, but deep, wholesome forever-enduring pleasure. He will do everything divinely possible to bring us out of this present dominion of self-destruction into the kingdom of renewal and re-creation. God’s goodness empowers people who are willing to become new from the inside out. Our awareness and appreciation of God’s goodness will lead us to praise Him in worship of His being, and to thank Him for the transforming experiences we face in this life. This mindset, where people praise and thank God for His goodness, is a mindset of spiritual health, wellness and wholeness. All else is cheap and disappointing imitation.

God’s forever-enduring love intentionally leads us toward something called the ‘kingdom of heaven’. His love guides us to the gate between here and there, between the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the unseen. His love carries us across the lintel, over the doorstep and into an eternal, limitless expanse where love is the rule of order – not selfish, grasping love, but life-giving, spirit-growing love. We begin to be touched by this love when we allow His Spirit to help us grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that (we) may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18,19).

There is a catch. In order to be recipients of God’s goodness and love we must humble ourselves before Him – the most difficult endeavor our free-willing selves will ever undertake. We are told we must kneel before the Father, accept strength from His Spirit, and have faith in Jesus the Son. That is a tall order. Those actions describe submission to One by whom we are willing to be mastered, and then praise and thank Him for every event He allows in our lives.

We all know how some events feel like anything but expressions of God’s goodness and love. That is where faith comes in. Like submitting ourselves to a trying therapy we know will bring us eventual healing, we must trust God’s goodness and love. This is the only way to wholeness. In the quietness of our inner soul, we must rest in the firm belief that God is equal to the task of ultimately proving His faithfulness to be both loving and good.

O good and ever-loving Father; help me see that your goodness to me is not about ease or selfish gain, but about full and complete wholeness as You designed me to be. I accept Your goodness, regardless of how it feels to me today. Satisfy my craving for Your love, so wide and long and high and deep it is beyond comprehending. That You, Jesus my Redeemer, should pay my moral debt, I am eternally thankful. And that this love goes on into eternity’s future leaves me breathless and wondering. To be so loved is beyond my greatest hope and wildest dream. Thank You.

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Conclusion

Behind the Scenes

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Nothing is as simple as it appears. To most things in life there is a behind-the-scenes complexity that is known only to those intimately involved. For instance, we’ve heard that 90% of the iceberg lies submerged below the sea. A two-hour movie takes hundreds of hours to film, multiple costumes for each character, and sometimes years of legal wrangling to obtain filming rights. Or think about our bodies. What has been happening in our brains to enable us to read, decipher and understand the squiggles on this page is staggering. Reality is just that way; there is always more than meets the eye.

When the lifeless body of Jesus was lowered to the ground from the bloodied cross, hastily wrapped up and tucked into a nearby burial tomb, it seemed like the end of a dream. The sun set on that day. The Sabbath day came and went. Then early on the first day of the new week some women went to that tomb. They had spices. They wanted to do for their dead lord what there had been no time for on His dying day. Tradition demanded they pay Him this final honour.

But something had been happening behind the scenes in places much vaster than the confines of that dark tomb. Jesus, Son of God, the fullness and the exact representation of God was at work. We’re told He was “disarm(ing) (evil) powers and authorities, mak(ing) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”. He was “cancel(ling) the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us.” He was “reconcil(ing) to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”; He was “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19,20; 2:14,15).

That is definitely more than meets the eye. Its complexity fits, though, doesn’t it? Real things, things that take honest effort are like that, aren’t they? How much more must things involving God be full of behind-the-scenes action. So, how is this relevant to us, to our lives here and now?

I think that word ‘reconciling’ is the key for us. It speaks of relationship. It describes a broken relationship made right, a separation ended, an estranged alliance recovered. That is the way God sees it. He was heartbroken by the rebellion every one of us would defend as our personal right. He knows what that would actually mean for us beyond this world’s brief existence – absence from Him is only eternal darkness and terror, hatred and loneliness. But because we haven’t any way of seeing behind the scenes, we have to trust Him on this. He wants so much more for us. He knows that His presence alone is what gives us light and love, hope and meaning. So He came to earth for the express purpose of doing what it would take, playing by His rules of justice, to reconcile us.

That is what Easter is. That is what was happening those silent days between Jesus’ death and that first Easter morning. And that is why the resurrection is so relevant for you and me. Without it, we could not have the relationship with Him we were designed to have. Without it, we would be eternally lost, alone and afraid.

It makes perfect sense when we see what lies behind Easter. But we need to do more than admit that it’s reasonable. We need to be willing to accept the reconciliation He offers. It will mean life change—relationship always does. What Easter means is that now the behind-the-scenes work can be happening in us. God’s Spirit has a world of good to do in us to enable us to know Him in deeper ways, to transform our character, and to love others by His power.

As the singer/songwriter Don Francisco reminds us, “He’s alive! He’s alive and I’m forgiven, heaven’s gates are open wide!”

(Photo Credit: Andrew Kudin, Wikimedia Commons)

A NEW CREATION: Conclusion

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You. Results. Health. Guarantee. Discover. Love. Proven. Safe. Save. New.

Did you catch those words? According to studies done on the psychology of advertising, these are the ten top words to use if you’ve got something to sell.

What do these words tell you about us as people?

I read in those ten words: relevance, trustworthiness, relevance, trustworthiness, hope, relevance, trustworthiness, trustworthiness, relevance, and hope. We want a product that fits our situation, can be relied upon, and that gives us something no other product has fully been able to do before. We’ve been disappointed far too often in the past by promises that were not fulfilled. We’ve become jaded, wary, and cautious of what we will buy into. Do you think those words only apply to our culture, and our generation?

Have you noticed something about the past nine parts in this series on ‘A New Creation’? Of course there has been the repetition of the word ‘new’: new song, new thing, new name, new covenant, new heart and spirit, new compassions, new commandment, new life, and a new and living way. But looking deeper, have you seen the relevance, the trustworthiness and the hope each of these aspects of a new creation evoke? We must admit, God’s message to people is timeless. It’s relevant, it’s trustworthy, and it gives us something nothing else can: it gives us real hope.

I’ve been reading an article comparing the atheism of Richard Dawkins to that of his predecessor, Friedrich Nietzsche. The author attempts to show that Dawkins’ basis for hope in a godless existence is shallow compared to Nietzsche’s. Yet the latter’s self-described hope consisted in accepting only the tragic nature of life; and ironically Nietzsche suffered an emotional and intellectual breakdown in the prime of his life that left him insane, insensible and wretched. His ideology had left him hopeless. Not a confidence-inspiring advertisement for ‘life after God’, is it?

When the ideological leaders of Jesus’ day refuse to believe his deity, Jesus has a few words for them. He gives them the true picture of human existence (John 5:16-47):

  1. The Father and the Son are the sole givers of human life, which does not end in the grave.
  2. The moment defining our ‘life after grave’ future lies in what we do now with Jesus. Do we hear his voice and live? Or do we refuse to come to him to have life?
  3. Jesus will not judge the latter—that will be done by the ideology in which they trusted.
  4. The former, entrusting themselves to the Giver of life, will find their hopes realized.

So what we do now with Jesus is incredibly relevant to us. Becoming a new creation is for the here and now, but it is also for the then and there of eternity. It makes sense, doesn’t it? The new heart and spirit are built for immortality. The new covenant goes beyond the grave. The new name gives us an identity fit for eternity. And the new song has unending ages in which to be sung.

The great true irony of life is that only when we humble ourselves to accept a new life outside of ourselves do we become the creatures we were designed to be. That’s what God’s creative love does, and it’s a guarantee you will find nowhere else. So, go on. Reach out to the Hand that’s reaching out to you, and become a new creation.

GOD’S LIFEWORK: Part 2

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Light of the World (John 9:5-7)

Have you ever noticed your circadian rhythm? (No, that’s not got anything to do with your toe-tapping tendencies). Circadian rhythm is all about the cycles of day and night. Regardless of our work and leisure activities, our bodies respond to a roughly 24-hour schedule. Do you know why that is? It’s because of the sun. Apparently our brain picks up sunlight that enters in through our eyes; it then releases chemicals that set us up for the circadian rhythm we generally experience. Not so the blind. Their eyes not only fail to convey images to the brain, but also to transmit light there. The result? Some blind people find they are not synchronized to the usual 24-hour rhythm of life. They are always a little off this world’s schedule.

It’s interesting that as Jesus approaches the blind man of John 9 (see “God’s Lifework: Part 1), he speaks directly to that man’s need. He describes circadian rhythms and then confides, “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

“What is light?” the blind man must be thinking. “How is light relevant to me?”

I’m wondering if we sometimes think that about Jesus. How is he relevant to me? How is what He is offering connected to what I really need? How is He able to affect my relational problems, my responsibilities, my character flaws, my physical ailments, my doubts? Jesus’ answer always gets to the root of our problems. He knows how we tick; He created us for Heaven’s sake. And it just may be that we are praying prayers that are actually superficial. Our prayers may only be scratching the surface of a much deeper, foundational need that we can’t yet see.

No doubt, the blind man in this narrative had been praying for sight. If only he could see, life would be O.K. But Jesus offers him something incredibly greater: He offers Himself, the Light of the World. Physically speaking, if the man had the full capacity of sight, but there was no light (no sun, no firelight, no light anywhere), his sight would be useless. Jesus is revealing a truth to this man regarding his spiritual need. He needs something Jesus can give that is of far greater value than physical sight. He needs the Light of God’s love and truth, of forgiveness and of hope. His prayer for opened eyes will be answered by giving him an open heart first if he will accept it.

With this offer, the light of insight pierces the blind man’s soul. The silence is broken by the earthy sound of Jesus spitting onto the dirt. The blind man hears a scraping, a rubbing of fingers, a scratching about down in the dust. Then Jesus’ hand is back on his shoulder and he feels something sludgy plastered onto his eyelids. It smells like mud.

“Go, wash…” commands Jesus.

And we’re told the man went and washed, perhaps with the help of a friend or family member. Or maybe he knew how to shuffle his way to the pool, hands feeling the stone walls that led there. We’re told he “came home seeing”. We’re not told of the exhilaration he felt as the mud washed away a lifetime of blindness. We’re not privy to the sense of gratitude he felt for the One who gave him a deeper sight. But we know Jesus is a man of His word. He has become light to the blind man.

Has he become light to us? What do our prayers sound like? Is it possible we are asking for too little? Has the Light of the World got something even greater for our needs than what we can envision? If we listen to what He is saying, His light will pierce the deepest places of our souls. The time for darkness is over.