When Life’s Foundations Seem to Be Crumbling: A Meditation on Psalm 11

Psalm 11 is one of the many chapters of the Psalter that David, King of Israel, is believed to have written.

He was a man after God’s own heart and, in one lifetime, rose from lowly shepherd boy to king over the nation.

Samuel the prophet anointed him to replace Saul son of Kish. Saul, who as Israel’s first king preceded David, seemed unable to follow a prophet’s orders and stay within the righteous boundaries of his kingship. Because of his disobedience his reign was shorter than necessary.

David first appeared on Israel’s national scene when he delivered supplies to his brothers who were serving in Saul’s army. While there, he saw Goliath, the Philistine giant, who was terrorizing Saul’s soldiers, challenging any one of them to fight him.

No one would accept the challenge. The war was at a stalemate. So David came forward, declaring that, in the name of the LORD, he would fight Goliath. It was a strange match — a young stripling fresh from the care of a few sheep going against a seasoned warrior who at a little more than nine feet tall towered above him.

Disregarding Goliath’s taunts, David ran toward him, swung his sling above his head several times and released a stone from its pocket. The stone struck the giant in the forehead. Stunned, he collapsed on the ground. David took the giant’s sword from its scabbard and made the victory complete.

The Philistines ran away terrified, with Saul’s soldiers in pursuit. It was a great victory for Israel.

This achievement and David’s general giftedness brought him fame and later a position as the royal musician in the palace. Later still it brought him a leadership position in Saul’s army.

His popularity made King Saul jealous and afraid, filled with hatred. His moods became dark and his impulse to kill David grew out of control. Twice he flung his spear at him to pin him to the wall. David nimbly jumped aside. All this took place although David in all circumstances was faithful to Saul, and had no designs on the throne.

Finally, David’s only option was to flee the court. For about 20 years he was a hunted man. In time he gathered about him a fighting force of men who were also fugitives in the wilderness.

They slept on the open ground when necessary and sometimes in caves when available. They foraged for food. Their goal was survival, knowing the king and his soldiers were often hot on their trail.

David, was also a poet and at some stages of those twenty years he must have jotted down prayers and snatches of poetic reflection about faith in God or life’s perplexities.

It appears that some of his poetry found its way into the hymn book of the temple, and that Psalm 11 may have been one of them.

It is a poem that reflects two opposite ways of responding when facing imminent danger. David declares his own fixed resolution in its first line: In the LORD I take refuge.

But this robust faith is not shared by some of his advisers. Who can blame them for being exhausted by the constant threat of death? Still, he quotes back to them what may have been their frightened advice:

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 against the upright in heart. When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

It appears that his advisers’ counsel is to take his cue from a little bird that, when threatened by a bird of prey, flies like an arrow across the skies to the safety of the nearby hills. They argue that the very foundations of life are crumbling and flight is their only alternative.

Then comes David’s response. In essence he says: The LORD is on his heavenly throne. For him, everything flows from that conviction. God reigns. He elaborates this certainty in several ways, but he concludes with the following assurance to the beleaguered and fearful:

For the LORD is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.

David affirms for himself and his companions that however the days seem to be going in the moment, by God’s power they will end well.

For the righteous, in testing times the foundations of life may shake but they will not crumble — and we can rest in the larger perspective that God forever rules and our future prospect is to see his face when perfect justice will prevail.

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Photo credit: Jimmy Brown (via flickr.com)

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I Believe the Resurrection!

Fra Angelico’s ‘Noli Me Tangere’ (c.1438–50), public domain.

To reflect on the resurrection of Jesus I like to read the account in the Gospel of John as he reports the first visits disciples made to the tomb where Jesus‘ body had been laid. This is reported in chapter 20.

First, I ponder what Mary Magdalene was doing there alone on that Sunday before sun-up in the deserted burial district outside Jerusalem. Why wasn’t she in solitude as other disciples were, almost in hiding, after the brutal death and hasty burial of the Lord?

She was probably drawn to his tomb by her great love for him, since he had given her life back to her by delivering her from demon possession. She was there seeking nearness, and to weep and grieve over her loss.

She did not expect to find the entrance to the tomb a gaping hole in the face of the rock. Its closure by the soldiers the day before should have been permanent. Historians tell us it would have taken great strength to roll back the stone in the groove at the mouth of the tomb.

A glimpse into the open tomb was all she needed in order for her to conclude that there could be only one explanation.

She ran to Peter and the other disciple (John, the one recording the account) to report. Panting from exertion, she said: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him!”

According to John, the two men ran to the site to verify her report. John outran Peter, and it is likely that Mary returned, though at a slower pace.

John arrived at the tomb first, but once there was less venturesome. Without entering he stooped down to peer into the gloomy interior. Impetuous Peter caught up to him and was the one who first entered.

There was no body. Mary’s assumption seemed correct. Unexpectedly, John saw the linen strips in which the body had been hurriedly wrapped for burial. They were lying on the stone shelf where the body had been placed in repose.

And, more remarkably, it was as though the body had sublimated out of the wraps, which collapsed in place, with the wrap from his head perfectly spaced and separated from the strips that had enclosed the body.

The writer tells us that John saw and believed. But what did he believe? Only that the body had been moved? Possibly so at first, since the Scriptures had not yet been opened to them clarifying the promise of Jesus’ resurrection. So the two men started back to their lodgings in the city.

After they had left Mary arrived back at the tomb. She stood weeping. Bending down to look inside this time, she saw two angels dressed in white sitting where Jesus had lain and they ask her why she is weeping.

Through her tears she answers that someone had robbed the tomb of the body of the Lord and she didn’t know where it had been placed. It was as though to say: I have unspent grief and am angry at such an indignity.

At that moment she turned around and saw a man standing there, but with vision blurred by her tears and grief, she does not know it is Jesus. He asks her the same question the two dressed in white had asked: Why are you weeping?

She assumes it is the gardener and, perhaps again indignantly, asks the location of Jesus’ body so she can see that it is properly cared for.

Jesus speaks her name, … Mary … In an instant she recognizes him and utters in a burst of joy: Rabboni! Teacher! She is obviously the first of his followers to witness the Lord as resurrected.

I review this particular account to refresh my faith and give life to Jesus’ promise elsewhere made: Because I live, you too shall live (John 14:19).

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The Second Coming: What Do You Expect?

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo (Public Domain).

The late Billy Graham made a statement long ago, the essence of which has stayed with me through the years. He said: “Every morning when I rise I say, ‘This may be the day!’”

His statement arrested attention, but is the doctrine to which he referred — the Second Coming of Christ — central to the gospel or merely a sidebar to it?

It is mentioned in the New Testament 218 times — eight times more than his first coming. Jesus referred to his own promised return twenty-one times. The letter to the Hebrews shows the importance of the Second Coming very clearly: So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (Hebrews 9:28).

Consider three effects this promise of a Second Coming should have on our lives as believers.

First, our Lord’s promised Second Coming prompts us to keep our lives morally and spiritually undefiled. The Apostle Paul wrote to Titus: For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope — the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-13).

In our fallen world, “ungodliness and worldly passions” make their constant appeal. They may entice through salacious magazines and books, seductive television and movies, gambling, pornography, illicit drugs, unhealthy companionships and even cheap and defiling talk.

Prompted by the hope of the Second Coming and with trust in the power of the Holy Spirit we are to purge ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit (2 Corinthians 7:1).

Second, our belief in the Second Coming prompts us to carry out our Christian assignments with diligence — always with the promise of Christ’s return. Consider a story Jesus told that reflects this point (Matthew 24:45-51). It represents a summons to faithful duty.

In a wealthy man’s estate there were many servants. The owner planned to be away for an unspecified length of time, so he assigned his most trusted servant to make sure all the workers were adequately fed and cared for during his absence.

The worker had two options: If his master returned to find him carrying out his assigned duties faithfully he would promote him, trusting him with a much larger responsibility. But if the servant should wickedly shun his duties, beating the other servants and drinking with neighborhood drunkards, the master’s return would bring severe punishment.

As it turned out, in Jesus’ story the master returned unexpectedly. The servant had failed his test. The punishment was severe. So will it be at the Second Coming of Christ: the faithful and the unfaithful will be identified and rewarded or judged.

Third, in the light of the promised Second Coming we are to live creatively as believers, making the most of the resources entrusted to us for kingdom purposes. The Parable of the Talents, in Matthew 25:14-30, represents the joy of service and the challenge of taking risks in the life of faith.

A wealthy man who had to go on a long journey did not know exactly when he would return. So he called his three servants together and distributed his wealth among them — to one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags of gold and to yet another one bag of gold. He dispersed the quantities according to each servant’s abilities.

The first two servants received the bags of gold with excitement. They immediately headed for the business district to invest their contents. They wanted to gain as much profit as possible for their master’s sake before his return. When the master returned, the five bags of gold had been increased to ten, the two had become four. To each of these servants the master said, Well done, good and faithful servant.

But the servant who received only one bag of gold had a different story. The trust the master had shown him had been a burden. He had dug a hole, buried the gold and forgotten about his assignment. When his master appeared the one-bag man returned exactly what had been entrusted to him. It had gained nothing.

He tried to blame his master for his failure. The master addressed him with two words: You wicked and lazy servant. He was thrown into outer darkness. As believers, our faith energies are to be joyfully productive.

The Scriptures’ exhortation to moral and spiritual purity plus Jesus’ two stories foreshadow a promised return of Christ. We are called to live with this awareness.

There is no scriptural suggestion here that by such means we could work our way into heaven. That is a grace issue. But there is the suggestion that whether we actually care about the things Christ cares about — that we live upright, holy lives, and live true to Kingdom purposes — will be revealed when the Second Coming breaks upon the world and leads us all towards great reward or divine judgment.

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Judas Iscariot — Why Did He Fall?

There were many ill-advised characters in the life and ministry of Jesus — corrupt priests, pride-blinded Pharisees, scornful siblings, weak Roman officials, conscienceless soldiers.

But although one person in the passion story had every advantage by his proximity to Jesus, he proved the darkest and most sinister of them all. It was Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot.

How did Judas become one of Jesus’ apostles? Luke tells us that Jesus spent a whole night in prayer before choosing from among his many followers the twelve whom he would call Apostles (Luke 6:12-16). He then invested three years in their training, and Judas was there the entire time.

Judas had heard Jesus teach the lessons of the Sermon on the Mount. He witnessed the healings. He was present when the Master called Lazarus from the tomb. He had heard and seen it all.

Why then was his end so grim?

There are a few passages in the Gospels that shed light on the question. During a time when Jesus’ popularity with the crowds began to fade, John tells us, Jesus addressed a crowd of complainants and made a grave statement: Yet there are some of you who do not believe (John 6:64a).

John becomes even more explicit. He writes: For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him (6:64b). The whole of John’s Gospel is about believing in Jesus.

Only a short time before this crisis moment, some in the crowd had participated in the miraculous feeding of five thousand. They wanted more. They reminded Jesus of the manna in the wilderness; he countered by speaking about the bread of life.

Then he used a metaphor to declare what he meant when he called them to believe in him: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6:53). Believing involved soul communion, identifying with Jesus in a very personal way, trusting oneself to his Messiahship and his cause.

Judas must have heard Jesus’ words. Judas still traveled with Jesus but obviously did not believe in him for who he really was.

We recall that John was writing his Gospel account many years after the events. Time on occasion sharpens perspective and deepens insight. He recalled the special dinner in Jesus’ honor and the outburst of Judas when Mary poured the expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet.

John knew what was at issue. Judas was a thief. He was the treasurer for the Apostles and he helped himself to the bag at will. His failure to believe with heart and soul had left him open to the devil’s corrupting power.

For those who hear his call there is a cost to believing in this wholehearted way, but there is a greater cost to refusing to believe.

At the end, Judas led a crowd of officials to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he identified Jesus with a traitorous kiss, and addressed him as “Rabbi” — not Master.

How unsettling to realize even today that one can know Jesus through Holy Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s ministrations and yet not fully believe. In reading about Judas, one feels the tragedy again and asks with each of the disciples: Lord, is it I?

Easter is a great season to examine the depth of our faith in our Living Lord and the degree of our commitment to his cause.

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Image info: The Conscience – Judas, Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Ge (Public Domain)

Belief That Will Get Us into Heaven

Point to a saucer of milk you have put down for your kitten and the kitten may simply play with your pointing finger. The kitty doesn’t understand your sign. But point a six-year-old child in the direction of his lost ball and he will run immediately to retrieve it. He takes the pointing finger as a sign.

That’s how John uses the word, sign, when he refers to Jesus’ miracles. They point to something beyond themselves. When, for example, Jesus feeds the 5000 men miraculously from a lad’s five barley loaves and two sardine-sized fish he is pointing to something more.

The crowd experienced the wonder of the miracle but didn’t understand what it pointed to. Their scheme in response to the free meal was to capture and make Jesus their king. They must have thought: free meals for life!

They were so serious about their scheme that his life was in danger. Jesus slipped away to a nearby mountain, and when night came he walked on water and the next morning was with the disciples in Capernaum.

When the crowds discovered that both Jesus and his disciples had disappeared from the northeastern shore of Galilee they took boats to Capernaum on the western shore. They hoped to see more miraculous deeds and perhaps experience another miracle meal.

When they found him, Jesus challenged their motives: I tell you truly, you are looking for me not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill (John 6:26). Then he led the discussion in the direction of a food that  will endure to eternal life.

When the men asked, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:28,29). The rest of the chapter deals with the sign and the conflict his words awakened. They were in no mood to believe.

In this chapter John used the word “to believe” nine times. At the outset, Jesus said to them: The work of God is this: “to believe” in the one he has sent (John 6:29). The word, believe, used in this way was to be taken seriously.

The men suggested that Jesus repeat the miracle of manna given miraculously to their forefathers in the wilderness. Jesus’ corrected them and in doing so moved them one step closer to understanding the sign he intended the feeding of 5000 to be: For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives light to the world (John 6:33)

He was referring to himself, an immeasurably better gift than manna. Their obtuseness in the presence of our Lord was remarkable. They argued back. They asked questions filled with doubt.

He even put his finger directly on their unbelief when he said: But as I have told you, you have seen me and still do not believe (John 6:36).

The picture is enlarged. God the Father was deeply engaged in this gift of eternal life for his creatures. Jesus said: all those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). But he added, For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day (John 6:40). The two promises belong together.

Jesus’ strongest and most arresting statement during this exchange was this: Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you, whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54).

This was Jesus metaphoric way of saying that believing in him involved more than a surface confession — the tipping of a hat or the signing of a pledge. He was the bread of life. Believing in Jesus involved their receiving him, the taking of him into their very beings by faith to live there.

When the gospel is simply given and a small child is asked: Would you like to invite Jesus into your heart, they usually have an instinct for answering. Believing in Jesus at any age involves bidding him to enter and live within us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

On this occasion his teaching proved to be too exacting for the timid and shrunken souls of some of them. They grumbled at his imagery. Even a goodly number of his disciples said his teaching was too hard to accept. The crowds thinned out.

Then Jesus put this question to his twelve disciples: You do not want to leave me too, do you? Peter responded: Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life (John 6:68). It was a golden moment for Peter. He momentarily understood what was behind Jesus’ miracles and words. He understood the sign — Jesus, the bread of life for time and eternity.

O for a faith that will not shrink
though pressed by many a foe,
That will not tremble on the brink
of poverty or woe.

Lord give me such a faith as this,
and then whate’er may come
I’ll taste e’en here the hallowed bliss
of an eternal home.

William Bathurst, 1831.

 

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Image info: TumbleDryLow@Angela (via flickr.com)

Re-post: God’s Super City

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)And I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband (Revelation 21:2 RSV).

The city is neither modern New York nor ancient Sodom. It is neither buried beneath centuries of sand nor clouded by the haze of fossil fuel combustion.  It isn’t marked by human genius, nor is it scarred by human depravity.

Its splendor owes nothing to man; it is the city of God. Humans, wherever they have gone, have organized into communities. Their skills in social structures have come to a peak in the building of cities like Tokyo, San Francisco, Toronto, London, and Atlanta. These highly developed communities have witnessed across history to the genius of their creators. Yet cities have fallen one by one: sacked by enemies, corrupted by their inhabitants, or emptied by the vagaries of history.

The Bible has a dual attitude toward cities. Jesus loved Jerusalem and wept over it in great tenderness, then pronounced destruction upon it. It was his city, the place of the patriarchs and prophets, and it had known great moments. But it also distinguished itself for its stoning of the prophets. Then this city that God had uniquely honored had swelled with pride and rejected his Son.

The Bible begins its story of mankind in a garden and ends its story in a city, the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:2). The vision of this city, given to John on Patmos, is rapturous, and the Book of Revelation records it with splendor of expression.

This last book of the Bible speaks throughout in what some have called cartoon language. It has been pointed out that a cartoonist today wanting to show tensions between Russia and China, for example, simply pictures a bear being eyed menacingly by a red dragon. We would get the message.

The Revelation is filled with verbal pictures – four-headed beasts, angels with vials, and cities like the New Jerusalem – from all of which we are intended to get a message too.

The message is that in his time, God will provide the perfect community for those who belong to him. Paul calls it the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:26), and our commonwealth . . . in heaven (Philippians 3:20 RSV). It is the city toward which Abraham was headed, the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10 NEB), the eternal dwelling place of God and His people.

Today, many of the cities of man are under a cloud, if not one heavy with a cloud of sulphur dioxide or a threatening cloud from a dirty bomb. The city is a place of physical decay and human despair to many forgotten people, to them a seeming hell without flames. Yet, their leaders keep a proud silence about God and his Kingdom, and grope only on the horizontal plane for solutions to their troubles.

Even so, Christ wept over a city ruled by such attitudes, and he healed body, mind, and spirit of people in its dirty streets. Can God’s people do less? In every sector there are needs which compassionate Christians can meet, despair they can work to relieve, boredom they can help to replace with meaning. In many decaying cities, small corps of Christians join to help relieve such problems.

But here’s the paradox. We can serve with compassion in the city of man only if we are convinced at every level of our beings that our true destination is the New Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.

Photo credit: blogmulo (via flickr.com)


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The Night Nicodemus Talked with Jesus

The story of Nicodemus in chapter 3 of the Gospel of John sometimes stops me in my tracks.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee, so he has high moral and religious standards. Besides, he’s a member of the ruling council in Jerusalem, a man greatly respected there. He may have approached Jesus in the nighttime because he wanted a serious, undisturbed discussion.

Like many in Israel, Nicodemus believed in God’s coming kingdom on earth. He believed all enemies would be defeated and the Messiah would rule righteously. He wanted to be welcomed when the day came.

Nicodemus begins by affirming Jesus with the words: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him (John 3:2). Perhaps Nicodemus and his peers had shared opinions about Jesus.

Jesus engages Nicodemus in a serious discussion of eternal matters. To this specialist in religion and morality, Jesus announces: Very truly I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again (John 3:3).

Nicodemus asks Jesus quizzically: “By born again do you mean start the cycle of life all over again in my mother’s womb?” Our Lord follows with a fuller explanation.

Very truly I tell you no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is symbolic of the promised washing away of sins, effected in Jewish thought by the shedding of sacrificial blood. This washing is humankind’s universal need, for all have sinned and do fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).

Jesus explains that fallen human nature can produce only fallen human nature; that is a fixed reality. But God’s Holy Spirit can and does infuse the seeker with a new quality of life. That’s why it’s called a new birth, or being born again.

The transformation is a mystery, for sure, but so is the wind we feel in our faces but don’t understand its source. Nevertheless, we accept from experience that it exists.

This transformation is often spoken of in Scripture. Ezekiel prophesied to Judah in troubled times: I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean . . . . I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you (Ezekiel 36:25, 26).

All this is of grace — God’s undeserved generosity — and it happens in response to our exercise of the faith God engenders in us as a gift.

The born-again person is not just washed clean; that by itself wouldn’t last very long. But at the same time the Spirit of God indwells him or her. Not infrequently the indwelling Spirit is evident in a believer.

A few days ago a man came to our house to change batteries in a device. He was a total stranger. I sensed somehow that he was a Christian and I asked him. He beamed as he answered that he was a born-again Christian and immediately told me where he worshipped and served.

A new birth brings about change, not all at the same time or in the same way for different people. The change is internal and yet often discernible. Attitudes change. Relationships are corrected. A love to be with God’s people develops. Bad habits are addressed and broken.

So what about Nicodemus? Isn’t he already above reproach? Trying hard? Succeeding in his attempt to “reach upward” to God? Even for Nicodemus, and for people everywhere who are striving to be “good,” the issue remains the new birth — believing in Jesus and inviting him through the indwelling Spirit to exercise lordship over their lives.

That is, the issue is still sin for the “virtuous” like Nicodemus, and spiritual renewal is necessary to gain entrance into the Kingdom now and at the end of the age.

We meet Nicodemus just twice more in John’s Gospel: he is helping Joseph, a secret disciple of Jesus, in the burial of our crucified Lord’s body (John 19:38). We can infer that his encounter with Jesus “re-birthed” and changed him for the rest of his life, and for eternity.

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Image info: Jesus and Nicodemus, by Crijn Hendricksz Volmarijn (1604-1645)