When Life Seems About to Crumble – Psalm 11

Crumbling houseYou’ve spent half a lifetime making the house you live in your castle. Then one day you see a crack in the family room ceiling, or suddenly three days before Thanksgiving the oven quits on you. You experience distress but you recover because you know these are problems that can be fixed and life will go on.

But on another day you come home to discover the main floor of your house slants at a frightening angle, doors hang limp on their hinges, and the basement is filling with water from broken pipes. The whole foundation of the house has shifted.

The psalmist, David, knew that life brings lesser and greater crises. On the one hand, setbacks come to all and they may be annoying, costly to fix, even distressing, but in due course all will be well.

But, there are situations that rumble like an earthquake, shaking the very foundations of life. One’s name may be maligned at great personal cost, integrity may be questioned, employment threatened, a friendship shattered and one sees no way to safe footing. Life seems suddenly beyond repair, and headed toward collapse.

The psalmist, David, had the latter experiences that shook his foundations. He was made a fugitive in the wilderness for long periods by King Saul’s murderous rages. His son, Absalom, nearly succeeded in wresting the kingdom from his rule and driving him away as an outcast. This to David was a shock of near tectonic proportions

In such crises, David could have thrown up his hands in despair, saying, “I quit.” In fact, in Psalm 11 some timid counselor appears to have offered that very solution: “When the foundations are being destroyed,” the counselor suggests, “what can the righteous do?” It’s the counsel of hopelessness; there’s no out.

David rebuked such a hand-wringing solution outright.
He declares his stand in the first words of the psalm: “In the Lord I take refuge.” Everything following flows from that. So the rebuke he delivers to this cringing counselor is clear:

How then can you say to me:
Flee like a bird to your mountain,
For look, the wicked bend their bows;
They set their arrows against the strings
To shoot from the shadows
At the upright in heart.”

In brief, David replies: Shame on you! Yet his own answer to the question, “What can the righteous do?” is not spoken with bravado or bombast. Instead, you will see from the psalm that David has a more humble, faith-based answer. First, he says,

God is in his holy temple;
the Lord is on his heavenly throne” (Psalm 11:4).

In other words, God reigns! In this world one’s foundations may seem to be shaken but the house built on faith will not collapse because God is sovereign over all.

He goes on:

He observes the sons of men;
he examines the righteous
but the wicked and those who love violence
his soul hates” (Psalm 11:5).

In other words, God sees to the finest detail what’s really going on when one of his own is under evil attack; he is on the side of the righteous even though he may not give instant deliverance. The implication? Move up close to him. Hold on.

Then comes David’s summary assurance:

For the Lord is righteous,
he loves justice;
upright men (and women) will see his face” (Psalm 11:6).

In the case of the believer today whose foundations are being shaken, this promise may not be satisfied immediately. Think of the pastors in Vietnam who are held in prison for their faith, or of believers driven from their demolished homes in Iraq.

Yet in all of these scenarios, God’s promise will be fulfilled for people of faith. Whether sooner or later God’s faithfulness will be revealed.

In the closing words of the psalm the believer is promised “to see God’s face.” This means in Hebrew thought that the true believer will have intimate communion with God and will sense his approval and his ultimate protection, even as for a time the foundations continue to shudder and rumble.

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Jesus’ Teachings After a Controversial Sabbath Miracle

"Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda", Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

“Christ healing the Paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda”, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1667-70.

Last week I wrote about Jesus’ healing of a crippled man on the Sabbath. Remarkably, his critics were enraged because in doing so he had broken one of the many rabbinic laws about Sabbath!

In Jesus’ response to his critics, three times he introduced what he had to say with the words, “I tell you the truth” (NIV). This introductory declaration occurs 25 times in John’s account of the Gospel so we must treat it as very important.

But first a brief aside about the words themselves: While the New International Version translates the original language as, “I tell you the truth,” the King James Version says “Verily, verily I say unto thee…”, a more literal and compelling rendering.

The Greek word for “verily” is “amen”, a word found throughout the Scriptures. It means, “It shall truly and certainly be.” Thus, this word launches our Lord’s sentence with vigor and conviction. In addition, repeating the word, verily, verily, is one way to increase the word’s force. It is like his saying “I really, really, mean this!” Or “I speak this with certainty”.

The miraculous healing of the man crippled for 38 years should arrest his critics to hear the claims Jesus is about to make. In his first “Verily, verily” statement, he asserts of himself: “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21).

With these words he makes it clear that he and God, the Father, are one in being. The rage of his detractors was greatly inflamed by the claim that Jesus made himself equal with God (John 5:16-23). He also made it clear that the Father his critics professed to worship was compassionate on every day — and so was he.

His second declaration was an even more amazing claim. “I tell you the truth, (verily, verily) whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned: he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). He is claiming not only the power to heal, but also to grant eternal life and the forgiveness of sins.

Our Lord’s third claim growing out of the conflict over his Sabbath healing of the man crippled for 38 years seems stronger yet: “I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live” (John 5:25). This promise is to those who are willing to hear without resistance when the Father calls.

In his healing of the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda Jesus again had performed a miracle that validates his origin and his divine power. Into the intense and sometimes hostile discussion that follows he weaves these certainties: Only I can give eternal life; the Father raises the dead and gives them life, and so do I; a day has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear him will live.

These ringing statements are claims of truth about the shared life of God the Father and his Son, Jesus our Lord: about his compassion to us all, his eagerness to give the gift of eternal life, and the assurance that there is life after death. On those subjects only Jesus can say with certainty: “I tell you the truth.” And only we who respond in humble, contrite faith can receive these great statements of truth for our eternal benefit.

Image credit: The National Gallery

One Sabbath in the Life of Jesus

6679741465_7cd29b9d3a_mLast week I wrote about the Sabbath principle — one day in seven set apart to desist from the labors of the week and to gather with God’s people for worship. I noted that in time Christians shifted to observe Resurrection Sunday as their holy day. My purpose in writing was not to reestablish a sabbatarian rigidity such as many of the Pharisees of New Testament times promoted but to note that today we Christians are at risk of an overly casual approach to our special day, allowing all sorts of unnecessary activities to crowd in and diminish God’s merciful intent.

Today, I recount the story of an event that took place on a particular Sabbath in the life of Jesus. At first, it can look like Jesus himself disregards God’s plan for the Sabbath. But instead, we see that Jesus does his special healing and reconciling work at all times, and that he is Lord of the Sabbath. The story shows also that even the strict observance of the Sabbath can become infected with human rather than divine prohibitions.

The Apostle John reports in his gospel that Jesus came upon a man who had been crippled for 38 years (John 5:1-15). He was lying helplessly beside the Pool of Bethesda among a great number of other afflicted souls. All of them were there for the same reason: they believed that from time-to-time the waters of the pool would be mysteriously stirred and at such a time the first among them to get into the water would be healed.

Ignoring the pool and it’s supposed powers, Jesus asked the man: “Do you want to get well?” The man answered with overtones of despair: “Sir, I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. When I am trying to get in someone else goes down ahead of me” (John 5: 1-7).

Jesus’ response was direct and firm: “Get up! Pick up your bed and walk.” At once the helpless man was on his feet, his mat rolled up under his arm, and he was walking about for the first time in 38 years.

Imagine what this would mean to that man! Life would become incalculably better! Still contrary to what would seem appropriate, this healing created a serious problem in the minds of the enemies of Jesus. It was the Jewish Sabbath and the man was about to carry the mat he had been lying on for so long. The Jews had strict laws against anyone carrying a burden on that sacred day. For example, one rabbinic law said anything weighing more than two figs was regarded as a burden and should not be carried on the Sabbath.

What was intended as a day of physical refreshment and worship had been made into a confining straight jacket by a long string of laws made by generations of Rabbis. For example, a woman was forbidden to look into a well on the Sabbath lest she see in her reflection a white hair and be tempted to pluck it. That would be work. By their laws, only emergency care for a wound or illness should be done on the Sabbath. For anything less, let the sufferer return later.

The religious leaders who saw Jesus’ healing of the lame man were angered by it. Jesus’ healing of a man on the Sabbath broke their list of rigorous Sabbath prohibitions. The undercurrent of their reaction to this was murderous.

Scholars of the times note that although the Pharisees of New Testament times made Sabbath a burden there is other information that shows many of the Jews observed Sabbath as a healthful and faith-renewing event in their times.

On Friday evening the trumpet was taken to the tallest building of the community and blown three times — the first time as a signal to the workers in the field to start for their homes; the second time to shop owners to close up shop; and when it sounded for the third time the Sabbath candles were lit all over the village.

On Sabbath morning people went to the synagogue. The noon meal that followed had been prepared the day before, and was in every way special except that it was eaten cold because fires were not lit on the Sabbath. In the afternoon, if the village had a school attached to the synagogue people gathered and local community scholars addressed some of the religious questions of the day.

The religious rulers who complained against Jesus’ healing of the man crippled for 38 years seemed to know nothing of this good side of Sabbath–its rhythms and rest and spiritual focus. And their religion lacked the compassion which Jesus demonstrated on that special day.

In today’s secular, frantically busy, and distracted times, Christians are in danger of going too far in making the day available for anything and everything they might do on other days of the week. We need to revive the original purpose: rest and restoration, and to focus on thanksgiving and worship, the holy side of Lord’s Day worship. (More next week)

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What Shall We Do With Sunday?

5977391697_7230c99dcf_mWithout question, our culture has embraced secularism and the absolute autonomy of the individual as the new credo for living.

In keeping with this change over the past several decades, practices that once regulated public life to a degree, such as Sunday store closings and the setting apart of Sunday for worship and rest, are no longer seen by most people as of any consequence.

Without realizing it, many Christians too appear to have become lax in how Sunday is to be observed. Rather than making it a true Lord’s Day for worship and rest from the labors of the week, Sunday might include doing laundry, shopping for groceries, washing the car, mowing the lawn, cleaning house, or spending hours of hard study to compensate for a poorly disciplined week.

To refocus on the Sabbath principle (Lord’s Day observance) consider a brief review of Bible texts that give a good sense of how Sabbath observance came into being and how Christians should be encouraged to set the day apart even in our secular times.

We begin with the account of Creation. The Book of Genesis tells us that after six days of creation, “on the seventh day God rested (ceased) from all the work of creation that he had done” (Genesis 2:2,3). This rest is sometimes referred to as a Sabbath rite, a standard to be observed by God’s creatures.

Then, in Exodus, the second book of the Bible, we learn that during Israel’s wilderness wanderings, God gave the miraculous gift of manna as daily food (Exodus 16:22). Each morning the Israelites were to go out and collect enough for the family for only that day. But, on the morning of the sixth day, they were to gather enough for two days so they would not need to gather on the Sabbath.

Again, this arrangement reflected God’s merciful provision for the temporal needs of his chosen people and at the same time his call for them to desist one day out of seven from their weekly labors in order to rest in his mercy and celebrate his care.

Then, later came the giving of the Ten Commandments. The fourth said, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy” [setting it apart, sanctifying it] (Exodus 20:8). Commandments one, two, and three say “You shall not…” Commandment four is a ‘You shall’ positive command to remember and observe the Sabbath Day.

Many centuries later, the Israelites were well settled in the Holy Land and had become prosperous. As so often happens when people feel wealthy and secure, they became neglectful of God’s laws. Prophets like Isaiah prophesied against their wanton disobedience, pinpointing as one major piece of evidence their disregard of the Sabbath.

To counter their offense Isaiah prophesies, “‘If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath / and from doing as you please on my holy day, / if you call the Sabbath a delight / and the Lord’s holy day honorable, / and if you honor it by not going your own way / and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, / then you will find your joy in the Lord, / and I will cause you to ride on the heights of the land / and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.’ The mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13,14).

Do New Testament teachings agree with these examples from the Old Testament? In the four Gospels there are at least 58 references to the Sabbath. The problem with Sabbath observance then was that several generations of Rabbis had embellished the basic Sabbath laws with all sorts of picky regulations making the special day burdensome rather than renewing.

The Gospels do not cancel the Sabbath principle — one day in seven for worship and rest from one’s labors. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man.” He humanized it as the Father intended for creaturely renewal — a day to throw off the labors of the week, worship God among his people, and launch the new work week refreshed in body and soul.

In time, Christendom generally switched the rest day from Saturday to Sunday. That’s because Sunday is the day of Christ’s resurrection. It is celebrated as the Lord’s Day.

Is there adequate reason for this change? Jesus rose from death on a Sunday and appeared to his followers both morning (John 20:1-17) afternoon (Luke 24:13-32) and evening (Luke 24:36-49). These meetings set the stage for the weekly celebration on Sunday of our Lord’s resurrection and the promise of ours!

A generation later Paul and Luke were in Troas (now Western Turkey) and Luke writes, “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread’ (Acts 20:6-12). Again, Paul instructs the Corinthians to set aside their special offerings “on the first day of the week” — Sunday, rather than Saturday. (1 Corinthians 16:1,2).

Wise and devout Christians to the present see the wisdom of making Sunday a special day of worship and a day of rest from the labors of the week. They find joy in meeting with a company of Christians for the worship of the resurrected Christ, and setting aside week-day labors to renew faith and clear their vision of life through the living Christ.

In observing the Lord’s Day with care — carefully avoiding making it “just another day” — we acknowledge God’s mercy. As well, we bless ourselves and our families by turning our thoughts heavenward and consciously resting in God’s faithfulness.

(Adapted from my booklet, Give it Rest)

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Re-post: An Exercise in Prayer

Photo credit: khrawlings (via flickr.com)A minister was counseling a parishioner on how to restore meaning to his dry and discouraged prayers. He told the parishioner that for one month in his daily prayers he was not to offer a single request for himself, or his family, or to bring any of his affairs before God.

Dumbfounded, the parishioner asked, “What then shall I pray for?” The minister was unyielding, “Ask for anything that is in your heart only not once for yourself.”

At first, the man could find nothing to pray for. He would begin a familiar petition, but would then have to drop it because it was asking something for himself.

It was a serious but enlightening month for him and he learned a great lesson. He could see that in praying only for himself and his needs he was praying selfishly, and that kind of self-preoccupied prayer doesn’t awaken in us the larger concerns for God’s kingdom. Before the month was over passion was coming back into his prayers.

The man’s state had been sad because prayer is not only for the satisfaction of our own needs. It also aligns us with God’s will, and then moves us to entreat his favor on the lives of others, even at a distance, who have a pressing need for our prayers.

Such further-reaching prayers can bring joy back into our prayer times. Archbishop Trench wrote, “Lord, what a change within us one short hour / Spent in thy presence will avail to make!”

And the late Ruth Graham had this bigger picture. She wrote. “We cannot pray and remain the same. We cannot pray and have our homes remain the same. We cannot pray and have the world about us remain the same. God has decreed to act in response to prayer. ‘Ask,’ he commands us. And Satan trembles for fear….”

To be a follower of Jesus and to have a prayer life that is dry or even non-existent is very sad because, as George Buttrick wrote. “… if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with him is our first concern, worthiest art, best resource, and sublimest joy. Such prayer could brood over our modern disorders, as the Spirit once brooded over the void, to summon a new world.”

The pastor suggested for his parishioner a simple adjustment in prayer but one that refreshed the daily experience of prayer for him — and could work for us too. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That’s personal. But ahead of that he taught them to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.” That kind of petition extends prayer’s range and increases its joy.

George Buttrick gives us a good tip about prayer: such praying could become our “sublimest joy”.

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Anger: How Well Do We Manage It? Part Two

The_Phillip_Medhurst_Picture_Torah_408._Moses_striking_the_rock._Exodus_cap_17_v_6._PozziI wrote about anger last week because this strong and sometimes unpredictable emotion perplexes us, particularly as its expression relates to Christian character and witness.

Among Christians, what we may least understand is that not all anger is the same. There is good anger and bad anger. The anger that moves a man to intervene when he sees a disabled boy being bullied in public is good anger. Road rage is bad anger.

As Moses was descending from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets freshly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, he saw that the people had returned to pagan practices of worship and celebration. This made the Lord angry, and Moses, too, as God’s representative. As Moses neared the camp, he dashed the tablets to the ground, smashing them as an object lesson to the people.

In that account God’s anger is mentioned three times, and Moses’ anger is appropriate. The Lord does not rebuke him (Exodus 32:7-20). We can call this good anger.

But later, when the Israelites are without water in their wilderness journey, the Lord instructs Moses to take his staff and “speak to that rock” while the people watch. Instead, he addressed the people as rebels, speaks so as to take God’s glory to himself, and strikes the rock angrily twice (Numbers 20:2-11).

We call Moses’ anger that time bad anger — self-seeking, self-serving and disrespectful of the people he was called by God to serve. He paid dearly for his angry outburst.

Today, we are living in angry times, and too much of the anger we experience or witness is bad anger. Such anger is not just fueling terror and destruction in other parts of the world; it gets into important relationships and strikes often close to home, in family, or church.

We must not forget we are capable of anger because we are made in the image of God. Without this capability we would be less than human. Yet we need to understand that anger is like fire: under control, fire can keep a whole household comfortable on a cold wintry day; undisciplined it can burn down the house and the neighborhood too.

All this is why the Apostle Paul warns against the danger anger poses. Borrowing from Psalm 4:4 he writes, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

If destructive anger is damaging our witness for Christ, God’s mighty Spirit who dwells in believers enables a better way. Here are three suggested steps we can take to cooperate with the Spirit.

First, we tell ourselves the truth. A woman in a Christian organization became angry with her boss and would not speak to him. One day he asked her: “Are you angry with me? She replied, “No, I’m just perturbed.”

Perturbed is a good word but not rigorous and pointed enough to summons conscience with a call for change. Attaching the right word to any condition we want to deal with is the first step toward appropriating grace to bring about the change needed. There is a saying, “To know oneself diseased is half the cure”.

Second, we tell God the truth. He of course already knows, but confession opens the way for God to work in us when we speak of our sins to Him. The psalmist prayed, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).

Third, tell someone else the truth. Sometimes we need the support and coaching of another human being, like a pastor or counselor, to face up to sinful anger. That person can be a conduit of the Lord’s grace, helping us to recognize our anger and to learn new ways of dealing with this emotion.

It is not God’s will that we become incapable of anger. Even Jesus was appropriately angry with hard-hearted Pharisees who had no compassion for a man with a withered hand who needed healing (Mark 3:5).

But in our fallenness this emotion too is tainted by sin and needs redemption. So, while we rejoice in the grace God has already given us, if our anger is corroding our spirits or proving hurtful to others we implore for added grace to make us whole, remembering the promise given the Apostle Paul: “my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a)


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Image info.: “Moses Striking the Rock.” A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations.

Are You Managing Your Anger Well? Part One

4243823948_672835e4fb_mWe experience anger because we are made in God’s image. The Scriptures give us instances in the Old Testament of God’s anger with his people when they were disobedient (Exodus 32:9–14). However, his anger is always righteous and appropriate to the situation.

Our anger, by contrast, often falls far short of that standard. Because we are members of a fallen race, our natures tainted by sin, our anger at times may be explosive, hurtful, even punitive. If we are sensitive and aware our expressions of anger may leave us with deep feelings of sorrow and perhaps helplessness. But, as Christians we should not allow ourselves to say, “That’s just the way I am so take me or leave me.” There is hope in the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church about standards of conduct for Christians. He exhorted them to “Put away all falsehood (Ephesians 4:25a NLT). And, “If you are a thief, stop stealing.” (Ephesians 4:28a NLT). These practices were sinful and were to have absolutely no place in the Christian life.

But he spoke differently about anger, “ And don’t sin by letting anger gain control over you” (Ephesians 4:26 NLT).

Apparently anger was not forbidden in the way lying and stealing were. It was nevertheless identified as a human emotion that, if not managed, could do great damage and could be the source of grievous sin.

I can see at least five ways we can display hurtful anger.

Sullen anger. This is not displayed by slamming doors or talking in a loud voice. But sullen anger puts a dark cloud over those against whom it is directed. Nothing is said but much is felt. Sulking, tense silence, or seething beneath the surface may be devices for sullen anger.

“Nice guy” anger. My wife and I boarded a narrow-gauge open platform train in California to ride up a mountainside to the site of an early mining effort. A couple with two children got on and took a generous amount of space. Then another family of four boarded and sat next to the first couple. They were crowded and the first couple made no effort to sit closer together as a courtesy.

There were a few words. Then the woman of the second family turned with her back to the first but sat with a frozen smile on her face for the rest of the ride. I believed her message to those who saw the exchange was, “See, I’m not angry. I’m too nice to be angry.”

Transferred anger. I once saw a cartoon divided into four frames. In the first frame a boss was chewing out his employee. In the second the employee was at home and his words to his wife were drawn as loud black lines. In the third frame, the wife was scolding her little girl harshly. In the fourth, the little girl held her ragdoll by one arm, spanking it with her free hand. Anger’s target often shifts.

Abusive anger. This may be marked by shouting, even screaming, or quiet but psychologically violent abuse. It’s out-of-control anger – like road rage or air rage.

Finally, there’s unrecognized anger. Once, when preaching to a large congregation, I referred to a category called “adult children of alcoholics”. I noted that they often seemed to live under three imperatives: Don’t talk / Don’t trust / Don’t feel.

After the service, a minister came to see me. He had written the imperatives on his hand. With energy he said “That’s me!” As the grown son of an alcoholic father he explained in detail how each of those orders fit his tended ways of functioning. He did not trust anyone – including me, he said. He had never seen his self-directed techniques before. All this denial was a heavy burden to carry. He needed and received professional help.

What can we do so that anger does not dominate us in sinful ways? A story from Doctor Ben Carson’s life leads us to the Gospel. When he was a teenager, in a burst of anger he stabbed at another boy and only the boy’s big belt buckle saved him. Ben Carson went to a nearby room of seclusion and spent a long time calling on God to deliver him from such anger. He reports that God answered that prayer.

Just as for Dr. Carson, the Gospel holds before us the means for curbing or directing our anger for Jesus’ sake, and enables us to live in freedom as redeemed men and women. But there are techniques to be learned. More on them, next week….

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