Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 21

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‘Qoph’

Distraught. That’s how the psalmist sounds as he pens ‘Qoph’, this fourth-to-last stanza in his epic 119th psalm. Anxious. Something is deeply troubling him. Further along he gives a few more details of his dilemma, but he avoids the kind of details that might tempt us to discount his anxiety as an obsolete cultural anomaly. Perhaps he knows how endemic anxiety is in many a culture, in every era, in most people. Perhaps he is giving us clues to lead us to find the kind of relief he has found. Listen to how he puts it.

“I call with all my heart; answer me, O LORD, and I will obey your decrees. / I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. / I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. / Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws. / Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. / Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true. / Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.”

It doesn’t take much for us to see that, according to the psalmist, relief from anxiety comes from the LORD. Let’s explore that a little. Who is the LORD, what do we know about Him, and how can He help—not only with anxiety, but also with every dilemma that we face?

‘LORD’ is the English term for the Hebrew name Yahweh by which God refers to Himself. The psalmist understands a few things about Yahweh—the LORD—that come into play as he composes this psalm-prayer. Rather than an impersonal cosmic force, the psalmist understands that the LORD is a personal, relational Being whose essence is expressed to humankind in the form of His Word. His Word is not only Scripture—a body of writings including the Law, poetry, historical records, promises, prophecies, and later the Gospels, epistles, and more prophetic writings—but most succinctly in the form of Jesus, who is called “the Word”.

The LORD loves people and He engages in meaningful dialogue with people because it brings Him joy. Through His Word He expresses His eternal views and expectations as far as we are concerned, because they are for our good. He hears and answers those who cry out to Him. He even holds Himself accountable to making and keeping promises with people because He wants to give us hope and a meaningful future. He is not far off (as those who don’t know Him imagine), but is near—nearer than our worst dilemmas, our most overwhelming anxieties, or our most daunting enemies.

And as the psalmist comes to this point—the nearness of the LORD—we can almost hear the soul-deep sigh of relief the psalmist breathes. This is it: the nearness of the LORD is what God’s Word is ultimately about. The psalmist only grasps a small piece of it, but he knows that God’s nearness—His presence—is the key to human flourishing. He is also aware that God’s nearness is on a very different plane from the nearness he experiences from “those who devise wicked schemes.” The nearness of human dilemma, of anxiety and trouble is trifling compared to the great nearness of God to those who call on Him with all their heart.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul a millennium and a half after the psalmist’s time. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Then he answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

The love of God that is expressed Christ Jesus—also known as ‘God-with-us’—is the prescription for our greatest anxieties. The nearer we draw to Jesus through prayer, through exploration of the Scriptures, and through a determination to obey His commands of love, the more we will sense His great nearness. It may mean “ris(ing) before dawn” and even staying awake “through the watches of the night (to) meditate on (God’s) promises” rather than yielding to anxiety, but it will be worth it.

Let’s do as the psalmist does. Let’s call on the LORD with all our heart today. Let’s read His written Word, obey His commands, meditate on His promises, and enjoy the communion we have with Him who is so closely present here with us. “You are near, O LORD.”

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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)

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 5

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Part 5: Security

Family. Physical and Mental Health. Career. Finances. Happiness.

Make a mental checklist. How many of the above spheres of your life are performing at one hundred percent their optimum? Which of them could take a turn for the worse and begin a downward spiral at any moment, heedless of your most determined efforts to the contrary?

If we’re honest, we will admit that while we have some control over the circumstances of our lives, things can go south all too quickly. Marriages struggle. Health fails. Worries plague our psyche. Unforeseen events sidetrack careers; finances plummet. Regardless of our best attempts at making our one chance at life work well, security seems to elude many of us. Life is a precarious and shaky arrangement at best and nothing is really secure against the wind and tide of the unexpected.

David, the psalmist, speaks hope into our situation by penning some simple but profound words in the fifth verse of Psalm 16.

“LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure.”

Did we catch the first and last words of this statement? ‘LORD’ and ‘secure’. They stand like solid bookends bracketing his life. David, king and mighty protector of the Hebrew people camped on Promised Land surrounded by mightier nations wanting the land, recognizes where his security comes from. It comes from God.

“LORD” he addresses God. That is an English word for the Hebrew name Yahweh. It was a name expressed by God half a millennium before the psalmist, designating God’s eternal existence and being. It means, “I AM WHO I AM”, or just “I AM” for short.

This somewhat incomprehensible name speaks of the vast self-determined nature of God who cannot be fully understood by His creatures; so He simplifies His name to the most basic of tags, “I AM” or LORD.

But how does God’s name affect or effect our security?

There are two parts to it. “You have assigned me my portion and my cup,” begins the psalmist. In other words, ‘The food on my plate has been grown, cooked and served up uniquely for me, as has the drink in my cup’. God, the all-powerful and compassionate One knows exactly what conditions and situations make us most prone to turn to Him and rely fully upon Him. For some it will come within a tender and loving home environment. Others will need to experience the tough knocks of life before they are ready to see God as their loving Father and accept Jesus as their Redeemer. The point is, becoming bitter with our portion in life is counterproductive. Using it for our ultimate and eternal advantage by letting it turn us toward God is what God intends for our good. It’s who He is. It’s embedded in the name “I AM”. Take note, God does not make anything bad happen—He is the giver of only good and perfect gifts—but He is uniquely capable of transforming bad situations into settings that bring eternal good. Just look at the cross.

The second part of the psalmist’s observation is, “you have made my lot secure.” We are prone to think our lot in life is up to us. ‘Be born with it or work hard to get it,’ says our culture, ‘but don’t be surprised if someone stronger tears it away.’ God’s gift of Himself for us is very different. We cannot earn it, nor can we be too far-gone to receive it. And once we have it—that is, the forgiveness and new relationship He offers through His Son and His Spirit—it is eternally secure. “No one can snatch them out of my hand,” promises Jesus.

This verse is amazing, really. It has the power to transform our thinking and our living. The confidence inspired by God’s direct participation in our lives gives us a peace and comfort nothing–absolutely nothing—else can provide. Who wouldn’t want that? That kind of security is surely something to be thankful for.

Thank you, Father, LORD, the Great I AM, for assigning each of us our portion and our cup. We trust that You know exactly the portion and cup we need to be drawn to you. Thank you for making our lot secure. We entrust our lives and our eternal well-being to Your care.

CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS 2013, Part 2

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Gabriel’s Message (Luke1:26-38)

Having set in motion the series of events we call the first Christmas, the angel Gabriel has a second visit to make. Six months have passed since he informed the elderly priest Zechariah that his prayer was being answered. His grey-haired wife is now in her third trimester, savouring every moment of this long-awaited blessing. The angel now makes a visit to Elizabeth’s young cousin, Mary.

“Good morning, daughter of God’s Chosen People. You’re more chosen than you realized! God is with you!” Even the most joyous of Gabriel’s greetings strike hearers with a certain amount of fear and this one is no different. Like Zechariah, Mary is surprised and not a little frightened. She has never before had a response to her morning prayers like this.

“Don’t worry, Mary, God sees your heart and likes what He sees; He has found in you someone who is simple enough to be responsive to His will.” Gabriel goes on to explain how God’s presence in her will take on new proportions. She will bear the Father’s Son through the conceiving work of the Holy Spirit. She will deliver the long-awaited Deliverer of mankind. The covenant made by God millennia earlier to bless all nations through an offspring of Abraham will be fulfilled in the child she will bear.

The angel’s one instruction to her?  “Give him the name Jesus.” Call him Jeshua. Yahweh saves. The Regent of heaven will come to humanity, a baby born of a virgin. Mary doesn’t understand it fully but accepts the angel’s words. She submits to Yahweh’s will.

“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replies. “May it be to me as you have said”.

Like Mary, we who have submitted ourselves to the greater authority of God are sometimes surprised and a little fearful of His plans for and through us. His greatest plan is to transform us from within, through that same Jesus Mary bore. The eternal life of Jesus pulses within our being as a result of our own servant-like attitude. Like Mary, the greatest daily prayer we can breathe is to say, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”

Speaking through an earlier servant, the prophet Isaiah, God reveals His heart to those who will listen: “This the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” Our acceptance of the indwelling life of Jesus in us can transform us into people esteemed by God. We know ourselves well enough by now. Humility does not come naturally to us humans. To be contrite in spirit? Not easy. To tremble in awe of God’s plans without doubting that He is able? Rarely. Yet this is what God wants for us today. The life of His Son is to be at our core, empowering us, flowing through us, moving us to love those around us. It starts with a prayer of submission. Let’s pray it.

‘O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell:
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Immanuel!’