Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 15

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‘Mem’

Comparison provides context. In Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver observes “a royal personage inspiring awe among the tiny Lilliputians because he was taller than his brethren by the breadth of a human fingernail.” In this case, the character Gulliver—of gigantic proportions compared to his miniature captors—sees from his perspective the diminutive physical differences that constitute ‘royalty’ by Lilliputian standards as nothing compared to his own human size.

In the same way, the writer of Psalm 119 uses comparison in this thirteenth stanza labeled ‘Mem’. He uses it to help him register the impact of knowing the boundless, enduring existence of God (especially as extolled in the previous stanza, ‘Lamedh’) in contrast to ignorance of God.

‘Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. / Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me. / I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statues. / I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts. / I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word. / I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me. / How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! / I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119:97-104).

Did you hear the comparisons: ‘wiser than’, ‘more insight than’, ‘more understanding than’ and ‘sweeter than’? Let’s look a little closer. God’s message to humanity—His word recorded as Scripture and the person of Jesus communicated throughout those Scriptures—is of vastly greater significance than the difference between Gulliver and his Lilliputian governors. The psalmist observes that God’s Word and presence gives him a wisdom advantage not only over his enemies, but also over the wisest of his teachers and leaders. The gospel message of God’s love for humanity has transformed him from the inside out. God’s presence has moved his choices toward an unimagined wholesomeness and given him a greater appetite for virtue than for the sweetest things this world can offer. How is it this change has happened?

An even more ancient writer than the psalmist put it this way. “I kept thinking, ‘Experience will tell. The longer you live, the wiser you become.’ But I see I was wrong—it’s God’s Spirit in a person, the breath of the Almighty One, that makes wise human insight possible’ (Job 32:7,8).

God’s Spirit, the breath of the Almighty One, in us? Impossible as it seems, that is the psalmist’s prayer and the gospel message in a nutshell. The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” That is the outcome of Christ’s work: His dying to ransom us from our perishing, His resurrection to lay the foundation for our eternal life, His ascension to the heavenly throne of glory, and His indwelling in us to enable us to experience the glory of true humanness as God intended it.

In some ways the psalmist’s comparison only lifts the edge of the page to a whole new story for us. There is really no comparison between the best of what the world can scrape together and the life Jesus offers. It’s not a new, improved and better life. It’s a whole new way of living. So cast off the feeble ties with which this Lilliputian world is trying to hold you down. Rise to a life filled to the fullness of God Himself. Know the One who is Wisdom Himself.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 7

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Instructions for House-building.

Jesus is bringing His famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ to its conclusion. Endings of sermons, speeches and stories are epic; they are key to understanding everything the speaker intends. They summarize the main point—they reiterate the heart of the issue. If our attention wanders or our focus wanes anywhere, it is best that it not happen during the conclusion. We don’t want to miss the wrap-up.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is like that. It rises and falls in cycles of proposals and warnings. His conclusion brings his ideas to the apex. “Free at last!” he sings out, casting his vision for a unified country, a people no longer in bondage to racial injustice.

The conclusion of Jesus’ sermon is even more powerful. Its impact strikes the responsive listener with hurricane-like force. His words cut to the foundations of each of our lives.

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus sketches for us an image of two lives. He compares and contrasts these two people, describes their common experience and their differing responses. Those who live their lives by the often-challenging ethical demands of Jesus’ teachings are building under difficult conditions. The craggy foundation is high and there is much effort in climbing its heights each day to lift another post and lay another beam on its footing. The footprint from which they must rise has a definite shape and they must conform to it. Building a house on a rock takes everything they have and more.

Meanwhile, those who live their lives as they please, choosing to believe their own inner voice is rather to be followed than the words of God, are building on something that is attractive at the time. Sand is malleable and will take whatever shape the house-builder chooses. There are no hard edges that require the builder to adjust plans. There are no high and unyielding standards to which they must conform. What could be better than a beachfront villa with an ocean view—metaphorically speaking, of course?

Then comes the storm. Tornado-like winds drive pellets of rain against all sides of the two houses and torrents of floodwaters rise from below, thrashing both buildings mercilessly. When the storm subsides the results become visible. The house on the rock stands unscathed, while the house on the sand is nothing more than a splintered wreckage of debris.

What does it all mean? The storm is death. The houses are our lives. We each are given the freedom to ‘build’ our lives as we please. But each of us will eventually leave this world; each of us will experience death—there is no escaping it. What God gives us is the opportunity to prepare for the life hereafter in such a way that the experience of death will not harm us. That, says God in numerous ways throughout Scripture, is wisdom.

Here, at the end of Jesus’ famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’ Jesus gets specific about how to build our lives wisely. He explains that the wise put His words into practice. Jesus will many times during His life and ministry explain that every word He speaks completely conforms to the Father’s words and will. He is God in the flesh. When people like you and me practice what He preached we express our faith in Him. At times that faith is painfully stretched because practicing Jesus’ commands is hard work. But that, Jesus is saying, is what building on ‘the rock’ involves.

Our life choices matter for eternity; they reflect either obedience to Jesus’ words or careless disobedience. There is no middle ground. Hearing a sermon or podcast, scanning a blog explaining Scriptural truths, even reading the Bible is not enough if we don’t put Jesus’ words into practice in our lives. On the other hand, the simplest life lived in obedience to His words is able to build an indestructible edifice for eternity.

That’s good news and it is accessible to all. Now the challenge is to take advantage of it. We need to go back and take another look at the words recorded in Jesus’ sermon (Matthew, chapters 5-7), find His commands, and start doing them. There is enough in there to keep us busy for a while. It’s hard work, but it will be worth it, because there’s a storm coming.

(Photo Credit: Jose, M.B. [[File:Wave santander 2014 001.jpg|thumb|Wave santander 2014 001]])

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus

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Day 1: Riddle Explained

We all love a riddle. Author J.R.R. Tolkien gives us one in the story of The Hobbit when Bilbo Baggins and Gollum contend in a battle of wits. “Thirty white horses on a red hill,” begins Bilbo, “first they champ, then they stamp, then they stand still.”

The answer is teeth.

Riddling goes back a long way. Norse mythology included riddles such as this: “Four hang, four sprang, two point the way, two to ward off dogs, one dangles after, always rather dirty. What am I?” Familiarity with a more agricultural environment might help with this one. The answer is: a cow.

There are riddles in the Bible too. Samson’s riddle (“Out of the eater something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet”—answer: honey from a honeycomb built in the carcass of a dead lion), posed to his Philistine wedding party, became the unhappy cause of the failure of his new marriage. But only one riddle has had the power to change the story of earth and its inhabitants for unimaginable good.

Isaiah, prophet of the eighth century B.C., spoke of a “sign” that would signal God’s plan to bring freedom to earth’s inhabitants. “The virgin will be with child,” he began, “and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Many of us have heard this riddle so often it fails to carry the impact it would have had to those first listeners. There are two puzzling situations described: a pregnant virgin, and a child called “God” (Immanuel meaning “God with us”).

In the opening verses of Matthew’s account of the life and times of Jesus, this ancient riddle is remembered. The virgin is a girl named Mary. The embryo growing in her womb is not only a product of chromosomes contributed by the Holy Spirit, but the baby boy is God Himself, come in the flesh to experience humanity firsthand. The riddle is explained after eight hundred years.

But even in the first scene of Matthew’s gospel account of the life and times of Jesus a new riddle is announced. It is delivered to Joseph, the young man who will take Mary home as his wife, fully knowing of her pregnant condition and trusting she is still a virgin. This riddle is meant to console him, no doubt. It’s not the fairy-tale beginning of a marriage he had imagined when he first dreamed of wedding this girl. Joseph’s plans have been sidelined by God’s bigger plan for Joseph’s role as husband and foster father. Joseph is directed to prepare to name the baby boy ‘Yeshua’ (‘Jesus’ in English) because the name means ‘the LORD saves’—“because he will save his people from their sins.”

This is the riddle that concerns us today. Day One of coming alongside the earthly life of Jesus finds every one of us transported into the midst of the riddle concerning Him. We are the people. Every person is an integral part of the race of humanity created by God, and according to the riddle we need to be saved. We are on some downward spiral to destruction apart from what Jesus came to accomplish for us.

Subsequent days of exploring Matthew’s biography of Jesus will show us more—will help us observe what is recorded about Jesus’ life, show us how He lived, tell us what He actually said. Why are we interested? Because those who discover the truth behind the best of riddles have gained wisdom that is of great value in life; the riddle concerning Jesus and us is no ordinary riddle.

Jesus, grant us the grace to understand the riddle of your intentions for us, we the people You have created. Enable us to have hearts fully open to grasping the truth of your life; give us minds open to insight into our own situation of needing to be saved. We call on You to inhabit our twenty-eight day journey alongside You. Amen.

(Photo Credit: “Laughing Boy” by Josh Giovo from USA – Little Bugger. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg#/media/File:Laughing_Boy.jpg)

DEFENDERS, RESCUERS, DELIVERERS

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Picture God—in all His magnificence and might—in a group huddle, preparing to give his team the play, the mental blueprint every player needs to know. They wait expectantly, envisioning the glory, the acclaim and renown of playing for God on team ‘gods’.

Then they hear a great roar, the mighty waterfall-like voice of God saying, “Go now! Use my wisdom and great insight to bring justice to all people. The nations are my inheritance. The weak, the fatherless, the poor and oppressed must be given hope. I am God; you are gods. Use my wisdom, power and love to raise up those who have been treated unfairly.” The players blink in surprise.

“You mean,” they ask, “it’s not just about us? It’s not exclusive? We’re not the whole team?”

No, it’s not just about us, the inner circle of players. It’s not even a game. Those of us who have heard God saying those words to us are gradually coming to see it as more of a race than a game. We have a task and time is running out. We have each been given a finite opportunity here on planet earth to do His bidding on behalf of the downtrodden, to be salt and light, bring hope and love, insist on justice for the oppressed. This is not a game where those who have been brought onto the team can just bask in the glory. We can’t look blankly toward the stands at those who are left out of the game and see only a sea of shapes. We have not been given freedom to ornament and embellish our own jerseys for the glory of the team. Jesus calls us to give our jersey to others, to the weak and disheartened, the lost and the lonely. And like the fish and bread served to five thousand our back will never be short of jerseys to share.

Asaph, psalmist of two millennia ago, describes a similar picture of playmaking in Psalm 82. Here’s the dialogue:

Psalmist narrates: “God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the “gods”.

God to team: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. They know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.

Psalmist to God: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.”

It’s a rather sharp correction God gives to us, isn’t it? God’s team is not an exclusive Old Boys’ Club. Living in insular security our wealthy and programme-oriented lives is not the play God has called. Players on this team must move off the artificial turf, the falsely smoothed ice, the perfect court of what we have considered our playing field and get into the stands.

Our Defender calls us to defend the weak; our Rescuer’s desire is that we rescue the needy; our Deliverer’s power is for delivering the oppressed. As sons and daughters of the Most High we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of padding our own coffers while there are yet some in this world who could benefit spiritually, emotionally, physically and financially from what we can offer.

How did Jesus live given the context He was born into? How did He practice justice? The record of history tells us His feet stepped out to find the needy. His hands touched the untouchables in healing comfort. His voice spoke words of truth and hope and challenge.

Are we rising to the challenge Asaph records in the Psalm? Are we imitators of Jesus? We have a high calling—let’s answer it.

(Photo Credit: BillyBatty, Wikimedia Commons)

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 1

Matthew 5:1-10

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 We’re in the midst of a desperate struggle, you know. On the surface of this earth’s old crust it appears as if the material is the only reality, but it goes much deeper than the simply observable. Important things always do.  Our Life Trainer, Jesus, calls us to trek up a mountainside with Him for some essential training; it’s a sort of boot camp. We call it the ‘Beatitudes’, eight pithy directives that set the tone for His famous ‘Sermon on the Mount’. These eight maxims form the essence of the principles of living in the kingdom of heaven; this eternal kingdom, unseen as yet, requires elements of living foreign to earth’s fallen principles of ‘might is right’. Each begins with a revelation, the elements of true blessedness (say happiness if it helps you see the relevance) and couples it with an eternal reward.

It’s easy to read through the Beatitudes without thinking too much of their significance; there’s a rhythmic cadence about them that is a bit mesmerizing. Blessed are people with such-and-such characteristics, for they will receive so-and-so rewards. Memorizing the list can leave one a bit confused as to which reward goes with which characteristic.

I think it’s time to wrestle. Not only with the maxims, but it’s time to wrestle with God regarding them. No disrespect intended. The patriarch Jacob wrestled with God and was blessed for it. He was finally desperate enough to desire God’s blessing more than anything his grasping character had ever wanted before. Let’s take this training to a similar level. Let’s work through each of these eight directives in a way that brings us into the presence of God. Let’s move from discussion and memorization to wrestling with God Himself regarding these life-changing directives. Let’s pray the Beatitudes.

Read what the Gospel of Matthew records of the Beatitudes. Read them again. Mull it over in your mind. Taste the words, their sounds, their usage and their flavour.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Begin to pray for wisdom regarding their truths. Then we will begin to wrestle with them one by one. May God bless our endeavor.

Meditations on Psalm 15: Introduction

Prayer is nothing more or less than openness to God.  It flows through our being in many forms: thoughts of Him, songs of and to Him, actions inspired by Him, and, of course, words spoken to Him.  I am aware of my need to be more open to prayer, more exposed to God, windows open to the fresh air of His presence.  This blog is part of my quest.  I am keenly interested in others’ thoughts, discoveries, and surprises in their God-focused journey.

Man reading Psalms at the Western Wall. Jerusa...

Man reading Psalms at the Western Wall. Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine, March 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the next series of postings I will be exploring the ‘blog post’ of the Psalmist, David, ancient writer/poet/historical figure of the nation of Israel some three millennia ago.  He expresses some thought-provoking comments regarding God, sources of great wisdom for those who will listen.  The one labeled ‘Psalm 15’ is titled ‘The man who abides with God’, and is a treasure worth exploring.  I thought I would work through this Psalm with some thoughts of my own, and would love to hear your thoughts too.  May God grant us His truth and wisdom as we explore His Word.