Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 119)

The good life1 is lived in attentiveness to God’s Word. In Psalm 119, every verse in this longest psalm2 has a reference to God’s Word, using a variety of vocabulary words. This study will only look at the first section of Psalm 119:1-8. There must be some significance that this psalm pronounces a double blessing (verses 1 and 2) for the one who seeks to live the good life according to this prescription, in order that they may enjoy the blessing of God. There is blessing in the disciplines of submitting, and there is blessing in the receiving.

The first half of the first section, verses 1-4, of Psalm 119, the aleph3 section, verses 1-8, is marked by strong commitment and action. Blessing does not come as one sits passively to see what will happen. It is a walking psalm, not a sitting psalm (verses 1 and 3). It involves close observation and energetic pursuit (verse 2). This person exercises remarkable restraint (verse 3). Verse 4 understands that we are assigned to keep a close watch and careful guard related to God’s instruction.

But the tide turns in the second half. This blessedness depends not only, or even primarily, on the level of our own commitment, nor the heat of our own actions. In verse 5, the psalmist’s intention sounds almost like a dream - far from a certainty. He first hints, then begs, for God’s assistance. He wants to avoid the shame (verse 6), but isn’t quite sure that it is possible. The giving of thanks in verse 7 is not an initiating action plan, but rather a response to God’s necessary activity. The psalm closes with another statement of determination, followed immediately by the plea of the helpless: “don’t leave me hanging out to dry!”

Living the good life is not the lazy life. It requires blood, sweat, and tears. We have to be all in, pledging our whole hearts (verse 2), and clean hearts (verse 7). But we are never self-sufficient. Our labor is ever and always a decorative accessory to the strong framework of God’s grace.

It is not that God helps those who help themselves. Nor is it that we would expect God to bless those who haven’t bothered to attend to their ways. Rather, we are blessed that God would bother to bless us, and His promise holds a power and persuasion over us, so that we want to find our feet on His path, our eyes on His instructions, and our hearts in His hand.        

1The six psalms that begin with “blessed” are: Psalm 1, 32, 41, 112, 119, and 128. Articles analyzing each one begin here.
2Psalm 119 is an acrostic psalm. There are 22 stanzas of 8 verses each, totaling 176 verses. The 22 stanzas correspond to the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet.

3’aleph’ is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. ‘bet’ is the second letter. Get it? alephbet, which spell check, and you, want to change to alphabet.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 112)

I have included Psalm 112 among the 6 Blessed psalms, or, collection of psalms that begin with “blessed.”1 I am calling this series, “Songs (psalms) for a Good Life”, and I am attempting to distill a distinctive teaching from each of these songs.2 

I find Psalm 112 to be a psalm that describes how the blessed person is stretched. Living on earth, halfway between heaven and hell, we live in tension. We are partakers of glory, and yet we deal daily with shame. We are, according to Luther, “Simul Justus et Peccator,” “at the same time just(ified) and a sinner.” 

Notice with me some of these “stretches.” In verse 1, he is a person who both “fears” and “delights.” You have probably heard discussions that attempt to rub the hard edges off these words. But at face value they do not sit comfortably close together. Verse 2 may hold in tension those yet to be born with those whose years linger on - the tension between the young and the old. Do you think no such tension exists? Ask grandpa to listen in on little Johnny’s jam session. It exists. In verse 4, he is the light in the midst of darkness, no simple task, as we learned from Lot. In verse 9, we find that the person who bends low to help the poor is the one who is lifted up in honor, a very common Biblical theme. Finally, in the biggest stretch of all, verse 10 contrasts the plight of the wicked, who will perish, in contrast to the enduring righteousness of the blessed person, which leads to our next theme - but first an application.

If the blessed life is marked by tension, then why do we complain about tension? If the road to blessedness involves being stretched, then why do we think it strange to be stretched? He whom the Lord loves, He disciplines - He stretches with a view to greater usefulness and fruitfulness and blessedness.

Enduring righteousness is mentioned three times, in verses 3b, 6b, and 9b. The long distance runner trains over long distances. How could it be any different? Can a person train for a 5 mile race by running a block? She can get real good at running the block. But she will not be ready for the 5 miler.There is a time component in blessed discipleship. The question is not so much, “how was your day?”, but “how was your year?” “the last 5 years?”

It seems to me that the heart of this psalm can be found in the little chiasmus that occurs in verses 7-8, following a (little bit messy) ABBA structure. The two center phrases are the key to living in tension: steadfast is his heart (Hebrew word order); upheld is his heart. He has learned through the high’s and low’s of life to replace fear with trust. Neither bad news or bad people (the outer phrases) will shake his confidence. The stretching has made him strong; the tensions have made her tough.

Finally, let me ask you a question, and see if your observation matches with mine: Where is God in this psalm? Oh, He is there, but not in the front row. He is the God who is feared (verse 1), and the God in whom we trust (verse7), and, well, that’s about it. What should we make of this?

In this journey of the someday blessed, we walk by faith and not by sight. We believe that God is there. We know that He is there. But we often cannot see Him, hear Him, feel Him, or anything else, other than believe. We walk the wire, not seeing the net, but knowing He’s there. We face the enemy, quite unsure about our abilities, but banking hard on His.  “You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy” (1 Peter 1:8 NLT). It makes you want to shout, “Praise the LORD.” Maybe that’s why they added it to the beginning of this song.

1Psalm 11-113 begin with the phrase, “Praise the LORD!” It seems to me that this serves almost as a title that identifies a mini-collection, similar to the “psalms of ascent” (Pss 120-134). In both cases, the opening words, or heading, are part of the Hebrew text.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 41)

“How blessed1 is he who considers the helpless; The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble.” (Psalms 41:1 NAS95)

Certainly we are to help the helpless. We are to give to the poor. And here we are, in the month of December, and there is a lot of giving; a lot of gift-giving, and a lot of extra effort to give to the poor. And we realize the truth of the phrase, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”2

But I don’t believe that this is the challenge of this psalm. The first verse does not specifically say to “give” to the helpless, or, poor. Rather, it says to consider, to view the poor with understanding, and to think carefully before you judge that they do not prosper or have success simply because they are poor.Somehow, we must see that "a good life" and poverty or helplessness are not antithetical to one another.

Another reason that I don’t think that this psalm pronounces blessedness of giving to the poor is because of the second sentence: “The LORD will deliver him.” Who is this “him”? Will the Lord protect the one who gives to the poor. That would be nice, though I don’t know why he needs special protection right now. As the psalm flows, it seems, rather, that the “him” of the second sentence is actually the plight of the poor or helpless person. As we consider the poor, we find that they are people who stand under the special protection of God.

And that’s not all. We read that some time, somehow, he will be called “blessed” by people on the earth. His estimation in the eyes of the world will change. I wonder if it is at that time when he inherits the kingdom, because that is the promise of the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). They will endure over the ill treatment by their enemies (further described in verses 5-8), and they will be sustained in sickness, even though they have no access a “cadillac” health plan. On their (death?) bed, God will restore, perhaps a veiled Old Testament reference to future resurrection (compare with verse 10). These are things that we do not normally expect, unless we take time to consider the poor, that they are in position to receive a special blessing from God.

The center of the psalm seems to be verse 4: As for me, I said, “O LORD, be gracious to me; Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.” This makes sense to me, if this psalm is a consideration of the plight of the poor, that he is a blessed person; and, if this person who may be poor in material things is also poor or humble spiritually. He is in touch with his need, not only against his enemies, but in relation to his God. And he confesses that here plainly. And there is a blessing in that.

Remember Jesus’ story of the two men who went up into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The one was so full of himself that it sounds as though he is there to instruct God! But not so the other. “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ This is the Jesus-provided visualization that we need for our consideration of the helpless. He is blessed, in that “this man went to his house justified.”

Psalm 41 not only begins with a blessing, but it also ends with one: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, From everlasting to everlasting. Amen and Amen.” It is the poor and helpless, who is the midst of their material/spiritual poverty find that God is reaching out to them in mercy and forgiveness - it is this kind of people who are most apt to bless God. And Jesus had a story for that as well.4

1This is the third of six psalms that begin with “Blessed.” Two earlier posts are available on Psalm 1 and Psalm 32.

2Paul ascribes this phrase to Jesus in Acts 20:35, though we do not have that quote recorded in any of the Gospels. Of course Jesus said far more than what was recorded. I don’t doubt that. 
But do you know how some phrases sound like they should be in the Bible, and then you are surprised to find that they aren’t (e.g., cleanliness is next to godliness)? Well, in my mind, this is one that I wouldn’t guess would be in the Bible, but it is. 

3Here is a listing from the NAS Hebrew Dictionary on how this Hebrew word is translated in its various uses. You will see that I have used a few of these renditions in giving the sense of our particular usage in Psalm 41: act wisely(1), acts wisely(3), behaved wisely(1), comprehend(1), consider(1), considers(2), discern(1), expert(m)(1), failed*(1), gain insight(2), give heed(1), give insight(1), gives attention(1), giving attention(1), had regard for(1), have insight(4), have success(m)(2), instruct(2), instructed(1), intelligence(1), prosper(1), prospered(3), prospering(2), prospers(1), prudent(2), show discernment(1), showed insight(1), showing intelligence(1), succeed(1), teaches(1), understand(4), understanding(2), understands(2), understood(1), wisdom(1), wise(7), wise behavior(1).

4Luke 7:36-50

The Son we don't Deserve (Isaiah 9:6)

Isaiah 9:6 tells us about Jesus: "a child will be born; a son will be given." But these phrases are not merely parallel. Yes, Jesus would be born as a child is born - one among a million. He shared in our flesh and blood. He walked in our shoes, so that he could die in our place. He fully identified with us so that he could bear our sins.
But Jesus as "son" is not just like us. Throughout world history, sons have disappointed, starting with Adam, "the son of God" (Luke 3:38), and then Adam's son, Cain. The reason that our sons disappoint is because they find that they are like their fathers. 

But Jesus, like the king on the throne, is a son in a different sense. This is the one who is appointed by God to stand in special relationship with Himself, and to represent God to the people. Psalm 2:6,7 reads,  “But as for Me, I have installed My King Upon Zion, My holy mountain.”  “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten You." Historically, this refers to David, the king. But theologically, it looks ahead to Jesus. 

And it is at this point that we realize that Jesus is the "son given" who is not just like us. He is the Son that we do not deserve, but the Son that we need.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life (Psalm 32)

This second psalm of blessing (psalms that direct the godly person into a rich relationship with God; see article on Psalm 1 here) speaks directly and honestly about the need for a clear(ed) relationship with God. It speaks of the maintenance of the spiritual life that depends completely on the gracious forgiveness that only God can and will supply, and yet it calls for a thorough and honest participation on the part of the  sinner.

Let’s do a little theology before proceeding. There is a proper tension that exists between imputed righteousness, and practical righteousness; between that forensic (legal) standing that we have in Christ through justification by faith because he stood in our shoes and died in our place, and that functional walk with Christ that is the pleasant fruit of the Gospel root, that salvation, again, has not been achieved by me, but graciously provided through the sacrifice of Christ. That which is imputed and forensic is the foundation upon which the practical and functional ‘working-out’6 of faith operates. We must never confuse the two. The danger in this psalm is to get confused about forgiveness, failing to distinguish between that which is foundational and functional. Because of the death of Christ, all my sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven. The forgiveness of my sins, in this foundational sense, does not depend upon my confession of sin. Not one of us is even aware of all our sins - so how could we confess them all? I believe what this psalm is dealing with is the functional maintenance of a clear(ed) relationship with God, that is based on the foundation of the acceptance and forgiveness that has already been won by the grace of God in Christ. This psalm is talking about the kind of practical responsiveness to and continuance in God’s grace described in 1 John 1:9 - “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”

The center and key, I think, to the psalm is v.6: “Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found.” A clear(ed) relationship with God assumes the practice of prayer, as does the idea of godliness. Let’s be honest: If prayer is not a prominent feature of our lives, then we must face the ugly truth that there is no clear(ed) relationship with God, and that I am simply not, then, a godly person. Christians pray. A feature of their prayers is thorough and honest confession of sin. 

The problem of sin is devastating in the life of the believer. It is sand in the piston chamber of our souls that will do damage, and more damage, and then still more, as we continue to strive, or pretend, that everything is okay. It can affect our health, and will definitely affect our mood and outlook. Because of this, it directly affects our witness, and how we relate to others, whether it be family members, or the general public. It is a huge energy drain (v.4), since we lose the comfort and power of the Spirit, and so much of our energy is consumed inward with our own brooding selves rather than being turned outward, loving others. Sin makes us selfish and brutish, living properly only by fear or constraint (v.9). Perhaps the indication at the end of the psalm (v.11), corresponding to the initial statement of blessing and forgiveness at the beginning of the psalm (v.1), is an appropriate summary. A clear(ed) relationship with God results in joy, and thus, failure to live in a clear(ed) relationship with God will certainly rob us of our joy.

Isn’t it amazing how dirty our cars get? Maybe it’s not so amazing, since that car travels along roads at high rates of speed with mud and dust mixing with the road grime from dirty petroleum products. We track in and out directly to the car’s carpet from parking lots covered with sand and salt. Let alone what we spill from our drinks and snacks. How could it not be dirty? And so, car cleanness takes regular maintenance. Or, we just give in and drive around a dirty, trashy car, and hope that we aren’t put in the position of giving a stranger a ride.

And similarly, how can our souls not get dirty, living in this iniquitous world. As we travel through, it sticks to us, and we track it, and we contribute to it. And without regular confessing, and receiving the cleaning that comes from functional forgiveness, the Person with whom we most need fellowship is indeed a stranger to us, and we spend more time trying to cover over our sins rather than practicing the truth that the only way one can truly have his/her sins covered is through the forgiveness that God alone graciously offers.

Let’s abandon travelling with dirty souls and all its consequences. Let’s enjoy the blessedness of a clear(ed) relationship with God.7

1notice that there are two “blessed”s in this psalm. The godly person seeking to live a good, God-oriented life is doubly blessed as he participates in a clear(ed) relationship with God.

2blue marks words for sin - 4 different Hebrew words

3red marks words for God’s forgiving actions

4the two larger lines show that, on the front side of center, the “I’s and my’s” refer to the sinner; on the back side of center, they refer to God.

5green marks words of confession, including the action of refusing to hide

6“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;” (Philippians 2:12 NAS95)

7Psalm 32 is the first of 7 penitential psalms in the Books of Psalms. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life

Songs (psalms) for a Good Life1 (Psalm 1)

Six psalms2 begins with the word, “blessed.” They describe various aspects of what is involved in living a good life.

Psa. 1:1    How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, 
Nor stand in the path of sinners, 
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! 

Psa. 32:1    How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, 
Whose sin is covered! 

Psa. 41:1    How blessed is he who considers the helpless; 
The LORD will deliver him in a day of trouble. 

Psa. 112:1    Praise the LORD! 
How blessed is the man who fears the LORD, 
Who greatly delights in His commandments. 

Psa. 119:1    How blessed are those whose way is blameless, 
Who walk in the law of the LORD. 

Psa. 128:1    (Psalm of Ascents) How blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, Who walks in His ways.

A good life is lived, not in the counsel of the wicked, but in the counsel of Jesus. We are to bring every and all the issues of life into the light of his understanding, rather than the viewpoint of the scoffing world which speaks of that which it does not understand (Jude 10).

It is Jesus who is the fulfillment and enfleshment of “the law of the Lord” (v.3). Christians read the written Word (Scripture, or, the Bible) in order to find direction and instruction for living in loving relationship with the Living Word (Jesus, God’s Son). It is in Jesus and with Jesus that we are to “delight” and “meditate” (two words that are almost as churchy as “blessed”).

The phrase “day and night” helps me process these two words, “delight” and “meditate.” It has to be more than going to church or doing daily devotions. What is it that makes up the day-and-night fabric of my life? What are the essential tools of my life “day and night?” I’ll try and illustrate.

For the farmer who lived always with “an eye to the sky,” this practice is not merely discerning the clouds (cf. Luke 12:54-56), but, for instance, recognizing that we serve at the pleasure of the Lord of skies and dry land (e.g., Exodus 9:22,23), and that either flood or drought is not merely a natural calamity, but rather a feature of his good and wise providence. It changes the way one farms. 

Likewise, today’s younger generations live with a smartphone in their hands “day and night.” These devices boast constant contact and instant communication. But, the Christian young person who seeks the goodness of life that only God can give will recognize that Jesus is the only one with whom we must be in most constant contact, with a depth of relationship that goes far deeper than that of a friend list, and with a conversation that extends way beyond 140 characters or a 10-second image.

I’m a book guy. I read books “day and night.” This study has convicted me, that so much of my reading has been Christ-less. It is not that I have read ungodly books. But I have read them in ungodly fashion, because I have so often failed to talk to Jesus about what he thinks of the material, and to seek to gain his understanding of the author’s argument. We are taught in school to read critically (e.g., discerning the author’s bias). Psalm 1 tells me that, even more than reading critically, I need to read Christianly, bringing it all to Jesus for review. For the Christian living in the light of Psalm 1, the endeavor can never be merely gaining a perspective or finishing a book, but rather, learning from the ultimate Author. 

And for the mom occupied with young children 14 hours a day, trying to keep track of things, rein in attitudes and misbehaviors, fix meals and clean up messes, and still do something fun and educational, perhaps some perspectives include knowing that our God “mothers” all of us constantly, never missing a beat, and that He must find us (adults) as difficult to keep in check as we do our kids (Matthew 6:25-34); or, that Jesus was able to minister to multitudes, and he did indeed grow weary, and yet somehow he never seemed in a hurry, or frustrated (Mark 1:32-34); or, that Jesus chided Martha and held sister Mary up as an example, and that we have a lot to confess about being “worried and bothered,” and a lot to learn about “the good part” (Luke 10:38-42).

What then, do we learn about “the good life” from Psalm 1. That I cannot wring goodness from this life with the strength of my own hands. Rather, it is a gift that is discovered in consort with Jesus. We must learn to live out what we sing, “alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair;” or, “you’ve no other such a friend or brother, tell it to Jesus alone.” Those who desire to live out God’s good life will seek to put into practice the art and discipline of practicing a moment-by-moment companionship with Jesus that does not distract from the business of life, but rather, blesses it.

1Why do the title of this series say, “a good life?” Why not, “a blessed life,” or, “a happy life,” or, “a successful life?” The “blessed” word is so “churchy,” I find it hard to translate into daily life. “Happy” sounds a little “sappy.” That’s not what these songs are singing. I struggle with the word “success,” since it has to be so thoroughly re-defined in the face of everyday usage in society.

By “good life,” I really mean “God-life.” These are songs for life lived in right relationship with God. They are psalms that help round out a godly life, that is, a life lived in fellowship with God.

2This collection of psalms is my own, based on a concordance search of psalms that begin with the word אַשְׁרֵ֤י (blessed). There are many other uses of this word in Scripture, but these feature “blessed” at the head of the psalm. Two of these psalms are a little irregular. Psalm 112 actually begins in Hebrew with the words (translated) “Praise the Lord.” Since this may actually be a title that heads three psalms in a row (Psalms 11-113), I see the word “blessed” as beginning the psalm. Similarly, Psalm 128 begins with the Hebrew words (translated) “song of ascents,” common to psalms 120-134, a title for the collection.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Jehoshaphat's Leadership (2 Chronicles 20:5-12)

Next Sunday we will begin a Fall series on leadership, and how God structures leadership for His people. In last Sunday’s meditation, we actually saw a great example of Biblical leadership, as King Jehoshaphat led his people (Judah) in prayer, by praying. In analyzing this prayer, we find that Jehoshaphat openly addresses three tensions that exist for all believers living in a world where we believe in God, though we cannot see Him. 
Jehoshaphat teaches us to tell the truth about God (that He is powerful), and about ourselves (that we are not). We live in a world of lies. We need leaders who will tell us the truth. But there is a kind of balance needed in the expression of that truth. Yes, there is the balance of truth and love, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Here I am talking about the kind of confession that focuses not only on our sins. We most often associate the idea of “confession” with confession of sins. But “confession” means “telling the truth.” And in a dazed and distracted world, we need to hear not only the truth about ourselves and our sins, but also the truth about God - who He is, and what He can do. Jehoshaphat prays both sides of this tension.
He also prays both the promises of God, and their own desperate predicament. He refers back to old promises, such as Abraham and the gift of the land. He remembers details, that Abraham is God’s “forever” friend. I do not believe that Jehoshaphat is using these promises as leverage so much as honoring God’s Word that He has spoken to His people. But then he also honestly states their present predicament. Our faith is not just a faith that lives in the past. It deals with contemporary realities, and brings the ancient promises to bear upon those realities. He does not sugarcoat it. They are in trouble, out-numbered, and so they come to the sanctuary and cry out to God.
This is not silly/sappy worship, but it is, nevertheless, worship. And this worship of God acknowledges both the certainties of who God is, and the mysteries of why God allows what He does. He is the LORD, Yahweh, the God who is what we need in any and every situation. He is the God of our fathers, no recent invention. He is the promise-making, covenant-keeping God upon whom we can depend, and thus, the God to whom we cry out. And yet, we do not have this God all figured out. His ways are mysterious, and parts of the path are exceedingly painful. And so Jehoshaphat prays both the certainties of God, and the mysteries. We do not know everything, but we know some things for sure. And that not allows us to pray, but it compels us to pray.

Of all the things that the king could have done in this situation, Jehoshaphat chose the proper path of prayer, and in so doing, demonstrated Biblical leadership.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Every Promise

I have almost finished marking all the promises in my Bible. I have discovered a few things, and here are some highlights:

There are more ‘negative’ promises in the Bible than ‘positive.’ I use the word ‘negative’ carefully, since God’s promises are all good, though they may spell disaster for those that stand in His way. These ‘negative’ promises can come across as threats or warnings. What I find is that we tend to focus on the positive promises, ignore the negative, and it negatively affects our carefulness and devotion.

  • beware of selective reading of Scripture
  • wrestle with Scripture, with God - what are you telling me?

Related to this, most promises are conditional. Yes, God will do what He will do. But He tailors His actions according to what we will do. We must not, then, presume upon the promises of God, as though they were all, or even mostly, unconditional.

  • beware an attitude of 'all benefit; no responsibility' - 'cheap grace'
  • grace changes a person

Third, there are more promises in the Old Testament than the New. Of course, the Old Testament is much longer, so that might make sense. But one of my discoveries was that even in the New Testament, most of the promises are rehearsals of what was promised in the Old. The New Testament writings are built on God’s Old Testament revelation.

  • then you (the world) will know that I am the LORD
  • I will be your God; you will be my people

Fourth, the promises in Scripture point to Christ, more than I knew. Yes, the hints are often cryptic, or  slender. But all the way through, God is paving the way for the revelation of His Son. How dark it must be to read the Old Testament without the knowledge or anticipation of the coming Christ! And yet how hopeful it is to see Him on page after page!

  • whereas the Old Covenant exposed our deepest rebellions and wounds, the New Covenant heals and forgives that which we could not do ourselves
  • there is cause for hope; reason to be joyful

Finally, for the purposes of this little column, I have found that we are to be people of the promise. Yes, the promises are plural, and yet their fulfillment is singular. The promises of God are fulfilled in Christ. In Him we find and know and practice the wisdom of God. In Him we receive and live out the righteousness of God. Our holiness is dependent directly on Him. Our whole redemption, our identity, is bound up with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

  • Christ is not an add-on, an extra topping on our ice cream. He is not an accessory to our outfit. He is the heart-beat; the life-spring. (Colossians 3:1-4)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Leaving Jacob Behind

As part of our worship, we have spent two Sundays studying Jacob (pt. 2 of Spring sermon series, “Character in Conflict,” on Esau and Jacob. Pt. 1 was Cain and Abel; pt. 3 will be Saul and David, beginning May, 2014). As we approach Easter Sunday, we have left Jacob behind. Or have we?

The strange thing is, Jacob left Jacob behind. It’s a big part of the story. After all his maneuvers and manipulations, Jacob came to the end of himself. He found himself between two grudges, Esau and Laban. He had nowhere to go, and then he found himself hard pressed against God. I guess that’s when we truly come to the end of ourselves, when we have no one to deal with except God.

Yes, Jacob left Jacob behind, because God changed who he would be. “You will be called Israel.” We know that he received a new name. We read into the text if we conclude that he also received a new heart. But I would like to think so. Esau had once left his older brother in the dust, but now it seems that he is to leave his old man in the dust. He is not to be the same person that he was, as evidenced by the new name.

The question for us is, “Have we left Jacob behind?” Whatever that means for you - whatever habits and patterns that will not be welcome in heaven, have we left those things behind? Like Bunyan’s Pilgrim, are we now called “Christian,” identified as followers of Christ? And have we left the old man behind?

The Bible talks quite a bit about striving. I think there is good striving and bad striving. Bad striving is us doing the Jacob thing - over-reaching; manipulating; deceiving; lying; stealing; blaming; justifying; excusing, etc. This is bad striving. All those contests with other people that we have to prove ourselves right and to prove them wrong - bad striving. Exalting self and putting others down - bad striving. Being an expert on other people’s sins, and making the case that their sin is “exceeding sinful,” - bad striving.

God striving is working with God to accomplish His mission through our lives. This requires a renovation of our character, which is a battle in itself. We must battle, but only God will give the victory. And then there is the striving of pushing forward against opposition and persecution, over which, again, only God can bring about victory. This is the kind of striving in which you and I need to be involved. 

But Jacob can’t do good striving. He’s too tied up in the knots of bad striving. He’s fighting with his family, and with his neighbors, and with himself. It’s time to leave Jacob behind, and begin fighting with (not against) God.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Following Jesus, and Jesus’ Fascination with the Kingdom

We aren’t really following Jesus if we don’t care about what Jesus cares about. And one cannot read the Gospels without concluding that Jesus really cares about God’s Kingdom. Do we?

A Kingdom needs a King. We tend to think of Jesus with many different terms: Friend of Sinners; Savior, etc. And He is. But He is also our King. We have not been raised knowing how to give specific allegiance to a king. We tend to do it subconsciously, to many different, competing authorities. But Jesus is not merely a competing authority. He is King. There can only be one.

  • Does this kind of submissive allegiance show up in your following of Jesus?

A Kingdom needs subjects, or citizens. In the New Testament, we find that the citizens of God’s Kingdom are regarded as His adopted children. So when we use the word “Father” of God, we are actually using kingdom language, speaking to the Ruler of the universe who is our Father, and King (I believe it is Biblical to refer to both the Father and Son as king).

  • Does your communication with God make up an important part of your following of Jesus?

A Kingdom also needs a realm, a dominion (the “dom” part of kingdom). But the earth under our feet at the present time is enemy territory. Therefore, we are citizens of a foreign kingdom. That kingdom is presently heavenly, though the Father has given us His Word (the Bible), and the Spirit has been given by our ascended King to us so that we are not left alone. We can be in constant communication even though we live in a dangerous place.

  • Does your reliance on the Word and Spirit form the guidance system of your following of Jesus?

Note these two, key verses from Jesus Himself about the Kingdom:

“Now after John had been taken into custody, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”” (Mark 1:14–15 NAS95)

  • Do acts of repentance and faith comprise the major structures of your following of Jesus?

““Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:9–10 NAS95)

  • Do I deeply desire the coming of the kingdom in fullness, or do I merely desire a slightly better life in my present situation?

Jesus’ fascination with Kingdom shows up 

  • in the obedience of Jesus’ followers (how they establish boundaries and priorities)
  • in the prayers of Jesus’ followers (how they manage and resource their internal world), 
  • in the dependence of Jesus’ followers (on God’s instruction rather than the world’s)
  • in the humble acceptance of correction and change in the lives of Jesus followers,
  • and in the imaginations of Jesus’ followers (their conviction that this is not all there is, and their determination not to live as though it were). 

If this is not happening, we are not really following the Jesus of the Bible.