Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 24 (Conclusion)

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‘Taw’

“How Should We Then Live?’ asks the provoking title of Francis Schaeffer’s documentary which bears the sub-title ‘The Rise and Fall of Western Thought and Culture.’ The documentary is an expression of Schaeffer’s defense of Presuppositional Apologetics—the view that Christian faith is the only basis for rational thought. Remove that basis and rational thought decays. It’s a bold presupposition, isn’t it?

We all make sense of our experiences from presuppositions we hold. That is why two observers seeing the same thing can come away with two very different impressions. These suppositions, inferences, even hunches create the worldviews through which we make sense of everything we observe. Christian faith, explains Presuppositional Apologetics, presupposes the universe, the Bible, and Jesus, the Son of God are divine revelations without which every other worldview is lacking essential information for rational human life. There are no neutral assumptions from which reason can arise. Only the assumptions that arise from God’s revelation provide us with full rational thought that leads to full flourishing life.

As the psalmist brings us to his concluding stanza of Psalm 119, he summarizes Scripture’s teaching on the personal nature of God. He connects his experience of God with the rational basis of human thought: the Scriptural revelation that God alone is worthy of worship, that God’s precepts alone are faithful guideposts for life, and that God has created one salvation, the ultimate solution to every human problem.

“May my cry come before you, O LORD; give me understanding according to your word. / May my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise. / May my lips overflow with praise, for you teach me your decrees. / May my tongue sing of your word, for all your commands are righteous. / May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts. / I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. / Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me. / I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands” (Psalm 19:169-176).

“Give me understanding according to your word,” pleads the psalmist. He is convinced that the wealth of wisdom (rational thought and the behaviours that arise from it) for the present, and hope for the future come from God. As modern thinkers, we may be tempted to think social consensus or political charters make Scriptural revelation obsolete. But can charters of rights and freedoms really trump the noble virtue God’s character and principles express? What about when society or nature and their current cohort of ‘freedoms’ and restrictions fail us?

The psalmist’s hope is in the Lord. “May your hand be ready to help me,” he prays, and “I long for your salvation…” So the psalmist guides us to look to the Hope of the Nations, the Lord’s salvation—Jesus—who alone offers a rational basis for believing that there is hope for us.

How ought we live each day in order to reflect the rational foundation of our faith? By coming to the Shepherd of our souls admitting we are “strayed…lost sheep” and “servant(s)”, and asking for His help to live lives of integrity, lives aligned with the truth of His revealed will. That is the message the psalmist has painstakingly taken 176 verses in twenty-two stanzas to communicate. Without God we are nothing. With His salvation we become everything He imagined. That’s more than epic. That’s rational.

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Twenty-eight Days with Jesus; Day 3

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INTEGRITY

First impressions stay with us. They persist as a sort of foundation for everything else we come to know about a person, a place or a thing. They become the backdrop and milieu upon which we build all new information we learn.

When the author of the gospel of Matthew describes the first scenario involving Jesus as an adult, quoting the first of Jesus’ words he chose to record of Him, it makes an impression. It should. Here in the third chapter of Matthew—our Day 3 of twenty-eight days exploring the life of Jesus—we learn something foundational about Jesus. A character trait emerges that means everything to our understanding of this unique man.

We are also introduced to the religious leaders of the day. We first see them arriving at a remote desert location to ferret out the source of a grassroots movement. They are concerned an ascetic in the desert might dilute their power over the local people. There, on the banks of the Jordan River where it snakes its way through dry and dusty hills, they find an earthy hermit-like character called John. He’s performing a ritual of cleansing that had started a millennium and a half earlier as a result of an understanding of God’s great holiness.

“You brood of vipers!” challenges the baptizer, honing in on the Jewish leaders with his piercing eyes and voice as they descend the hill. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He turns his back on them in blatant disgust. The crowds that had come to the waters in humbleness look on in disbelief.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” explains the camel-hair-robed sage, turning to those who had come with sincerity to the water’s edge. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”

Perhaps this very day, or at the least not too many days later—we’re not told which—Jesus arrives at John’s river-baptismal. Perhaps he takes his place in the queue or maybe he is there earlier than any of the others at dawn’s break, the desert night’s chill still on the sand.

John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why should the sinless Son of God submit Himself to a rite of cleansing?

Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, we’re told, John consented. He baptized the Holy One and was one of those who heard a Voice from heaven thunder, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

There is a theme in this chapter that runs like a golden thread through the characters to whom we are introduced. It’s about integrity. The unorthodox John who understands his role as one who would “in the desert prepare the way for the LORD”—we see his integrity in his humble admission of need for purity in contrast to Jesus at the river’s edge; the proud Pharisees and Sadducees, arriving to quash this upstart revival of people tired of living meaningless lives—we see the leaders’ lack of integrity in their deficiency of what John calls ‘fruit’, evidence of humility toward God, compassion and mercy toward their followers; the crowds, ‘sheep without a shepherd’, people like you and me who realize that God is holy and we are not—people who are willing to open their hearts to be changed so that their outward lives will be transformed; and we see Jesus—the One whose primary goal was to “fulfill all righteousness”, to live a perfect, sinless, obedient to-the-Father life of integrity in the keeping of a promise made millennia earlier. That promise was to be the seed that would develop fruit to bless all people everywhere.

The perfectly complete integrity of Jesus is the only hope for humankind. By it we may accept God’s forgiveness. By it we may enter into a new life and hope. And by it we may resource integrity growing from the inside out of our own lives day by day.

This ‘Day 3’ message calls out to us from Matthew’s gospel with piercing clarity and truth. We know deep inside we fail miserably every day in our attempts to live with integrity, when we try it on our own. Yet, as Matthew tells us, there is One who is for us, will live in us and through us if we are willing. Let’s come to Jesus, the completely righteous Son who longs to live His integrity through us with only a word from us—yes.

(Photo Credit: “ArugotRiver” by Maglanist at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ArugotRiver.jpg#/media/File:ArugotRiver.jpg)

MARKETPLACE LIVES

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Jesus was making a scene. His disciples stood in the margins in open-mouthed wonder at the chaotic spectacle.

“Get these out of here!” he roared, scattering coins and overturning tables, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”

There was nothing meek and mild about this Jesus. He was not communicating a passive take-me-or-leave-me invitation to those he confronted. Bringing order back from chaos is never the time for tranquility. It’s the time for resolve and focus and intention. And this was no trivial fray. This was the temple.

The temple of God, in first century Jerusalem, was the most sacred and honoured location the Jewish people recognized. At least, it used to be. But the religious leaders, the priests and professors of Mosaic law, had started twisting it for their own personal gain. They had seen a way to turn a profit and were making a day of it.

Vendors of livestock had set up pens in the courtyard where sheep and cattle jostled against each other. The smell of manure and urine mingled with the bawling of the livestock; their owners prodded them with goads, broadcasting their merits to the crowds of involuntary customers. The new twist on an old law required the everyday man to purchase his gift for God at exorbitantly inflated prices or leave empty-handed. He had no way of making peace with God.

I believe this is what infuriated Jesus. The people were like a sheep whose shepherds had become hungry wolves.

His Father’s house was designed to be a house of prayer for the nations. The courtyard was supposed to have been an access point for Jews and non-Jews to approach God. The temple was an entrance for seekers to find hope and peace and relationship with God. I believe Jesus is no less concerned today. But where is the temple?

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” challenges the apostle Paul of the early Corinthian believers (I Cor. 3:16). We need to reconstruct that in our minds. The specifications and regulations and celebrations for which the temple was the centrepiece, were a symbol and prototype of the role of all believers in Christ. God’s presence now resides within us — our lives are the courtyard through which others will find Him too.

Sometimes, maybe inadvertently, we think the courtyard is ours; we think we can do what we want with it, maybe even turn a profit – in a superficially religious sort of way to ease our consciences. We network for our glory rather than for God’s. We build relationships that serve our desires rather than seeking to include the hurting and lonely. We trade in comfort commodities rather than offering relief and consolation, truth and hope to the hopeless.

The solution is both simple and difficult. We must bring truth and love back into our private and public lives for Christ’s sake. We are called to make disciples, to serve the needy, to speak the truth.

Christ is the hope of the nations and we, as gatekeepers, are to have those gates swung wide in welcoming invitation.

“Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; Come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” –Psalm 100.

The invitation is for all.

(Photo Credit: George Gastin; CC BY-SA 3.0 )

JESUS THE GATE, Part 4

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Myth Dispelled

The myth of God as indifferent superintendent explodes. Elaborating on his metaphor of sheep and shepherd, Jesus teaches us something vital about Him. We learn how He views His role in this drama of humanity with which He so closely identifies.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father – and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10: 11-15)

Jesus here expands on the story of the flock of sheep. He moves Himself into the role of shepherd to contrast Himself with other leaders. His audience is familiar with the self-serving religious leadership in their cultural community. They are also accustomed to the indifferent superintendence of the political leadership of the ruling empire. They, like we, are more than a little disillusioned by the lack of authenticity in people who claim to care.

Jesus steps boldly forward here describing His leadership as uniquely good and caring. He is saying that He and only He truly loves people. He likens Himself to a shepherd who puts his life on the line to protect his sheep from the wolf. The hired hand doesn’t care any more for the sheep than that they provide him with income. The wolf surely cares nothing more for the sheep than as objects to be devoured. Only the good shepherd takes ownership of truly caring for the intrinsic value of the sheep. Jesus even foretells His own sacrificial death in this analogy. The good Shepherd stops at nothing to ensure the safety of His sheep. Imagine someone loving you so much they would die for you to ensure your survival. Do you know anyone like that?

We need reminding that the scenario of the human condition includes a bully whose sole purpose is to destroy your life and mine, for eternity. He’s not the only fool, either. We’ve all taken a major misstep. A man in tune with the truth of our condition once said, “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.” Did you hear who it is that must bear the brunt of our human rebellion? ‘The LORD has laid on HIM’—Jesus—‘the iniquity of us all’. Jesus, the good Shepherd takes the rap, pays the consequences, so we can be back in the sheepfold. Jesus has such sympathy for our situation He gives of Himself to give us back something we failed to realize was lost: the ability to choose to return to Him.

Make no mistake, He’s heavily invested in your life. Don’t ever accuse Him of being distant, disinterested, or careless of you. That’s the wolf’s lie. Perhaps it’s been easier to label Him with those tags that to accept that they may in fact describe you. It’s worth considering, isn’t it?

So we see four points in Jesus’ sheep-gate metaphor: Followers of Jesus learn to distinguish His voice from all others; it is life-changing (Have you heard it?); Jesus is the only fodder that can nourish our spirit to live into eternity (Have you eaten it?); Jesus is singularly peerless in providing true life (Do you want it?); and only Jesus truly cares for us (Do you choose to accept it?).

Interesting theme running throughout, isn’t it? Did you hear it? Jesus is uniquely and closely involved in the lives of people. He is the means by which God reveals His interest, participation, and attachment to people’s lives. He’s the only Shepherd that’s just dying to spend eternity with a bunch of sheep.

JESUS THE GATE, Part 1

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Know That Voice

Have you ever bumped your knee or elbow and found yourself rubbing the spot to decrease the sensation of pain? Little did you know that you are doing the best thing you could do at that moment. Neuroscientists Melzack and Wall tell us why. They say that the sensation of pain can be blocked on its journey to the brain by a ‘gate’ in the spinal cord. When we rub the injured knee, that message speeds to the gate some ten times faster than the pain message and blocks the latter from carrying on to the brain. Nothing gets through unless it goes through the gate. I remember learning about the gate theory some years ago and it intrigued me then as it does now.

So when Jesus begins talking in John chapter 10 about a gate in the sheep-pen of life, my ears perk up. Do yours? He says that life is like a great sheep farm. It’s a little humbling when we find out which characters portray us. We are the sheep. It reminds us of a similar metaphor used in the most famous of Psalms, where we hear, “The LORD is my shepherd…” (Psa. 23). Here in the gospel, Jesus places himself in a provocative role in the picture of sheep, shepherd, watchman, pasture, sheep pen, gate, and thief. We see the drama: fearful sheep needing tender care, a good shepherd who provides guidance on the path to pasture and protection from danger, and a thief whose intention it is to steal the sheep, kill them and destroy the farm.

In an unprecedented move, Jesus describes himself as the scene’s unpretentious inanimate object, the gate. But he immediately expands our awareness of the significance of that role. The gate provides for the sheep an authentic entry point for their Shepherd. It directly affects their acceptance of the Shepherd’s leading in their lives, and it opens only for that one Shepherd. The Shepherd, a character Jesus shares with the Father, is intimately involved in the lives of his sheep, those who “listen to his voice”, “know his voice” and “follow him”. In contrast, the thief may attempt his dastardly deeds but cannot lure these sheep to follow him for two reasons: his voice is not the one they trust, and the gate protects the sheep from foolishly following the thief to their demise.

So I want to scrutinize this concept of Jesus the gate. No metaphor can adequately portray every aspect it intends to describe, but there are some intriguing facets worth exploring. Not the least of these is the ability of Jesus to incarnate as so many roles in the sheep farm analogy. He is gate; He is also Shepherd, pasture, fodder, rescuer, redeemer, and guide.

Our response today, I believe, is to learn the unique quality of the Shepherd-gate’s voice. Listen to him speaking today to us. Strain to hear every nuance in that voice. Learn to love it, obey it, turn only to it when other voices call. Come to know that voice as the one and only. That gate is the source of our protection, our true freedom, and the daily entry of the Shepherd into our lives to take us places we could never go on our own.

So open up that Bible of yours; or find it a mere click away. Read through the tenth chapter of the gospel of John. Go slowly, savouring every word of Jesus recorded there. Take time to let his voice imprint on your mind its unique quality. You are coming to the voice of the Eternal One and it must not be rushed. Then pray to him. It may be nothing more than the ba-a-a-ing of a lamb, but he has ears for his sheep and he is listening. Nothing is more important right now than getting to know that voice.