Thursday, April 30, 2009

Psalm 118, Matthew 21

52 Weeks at the Table - Week 17

"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" shout the people who have lined the street into Jerusalem, and hae paved it with palm fronds and sashes. Perhaps they are aware that they are quoting David's psalm, later numbered 118 (v. 26); perhaps not. The blessing "Hosanna!" that they cry out echoes the plea and praise for salvation in verses 21 and 25.

But, just a few verses later in Matthew 21 - where the incident is recounted - Jesus quotes the two verses immediately preceding them in response to the challenge of His authority made by the chief priests and elders, telling them parables of obedient and disobedient sons, and of tenants who reject the messengers and kill the son of their landlord: "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22-23). They know that His prophecy about the kingdom of God being taken away means that it will be taken away from them ... yet at this point, they still fear Him too much to move against Him.

We can't know at what age David was when he wrote this Psalm. We can't know if he wrote it, picturing a savior like Jesus. We can't know if the Spirit inspiring him gave David a full view of the import of his words.

We can know that David wrote a psalm of thanksgiving and praise to the Lord, "for his love endures forever;" a psalm to be sung by every son of Israel (v. 2), every priest and member of the priestly tribe (v.3), and everyone who fears the Lord - a scriptural term that generally includes Gentiles as well as Jews (v.3). It was a song of the Lord's protection, guaranteeing "I will not die, but live; and will proclaim what the Lord has done" (v. 17). It speaks of the gates through which the righteous pass (vs. 19-20) and of the light that shines upon them and of boughs in hand for a festal procession that leads to the altar of sacrifice (v. 27). Just so, in that final week, the path of the Christ would lead through the gates of Jerusalem and eventually back out again to a rocky knoll where He would be sacrificed to provide the righteousness for us that only God can give.

God and Father of David the king and Jesus, King of Kings, we give You our thanks for Your mighty right hand and the wondrous things You have done: provided freedom and refuge from sin; and triumph over death. For this bread, His body, we give You humble thanks through Jesus: Amen.

For this cup, His blood, our God, we also give our thanks. For Your love endures forever. You have not given us over to death. You have opened the gate of righteousness to us through this blood, and we give thanks. You are our God, and we will give You thanks. You are our God, and we will exalt you through Christ: Amen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Scriptures and the Power of God

After the Pharisees failed to trap Jesus in his words about paying taxes, their rivals the Sadducees had their turn:
"That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 'Teacher,' they said, 'Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and have children for him. Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. Finally, the woman died. Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?'

Jesus replied, 'You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.'

When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching." ~ Matthew 22:23-33

Sometimes I wonder if we are often in error - even though we may know the Scriptures - because we do not know the power of God. Nor do we even try very hard to comprehend it. So we're certain about things like:

  • "If a person dies before he's baptized - even if he's heard and believed and repented and confessed and is on the way to the church and is killed in a car wreck - he's lost and forever damned."

    Really? The God who held the sun still in the sky for a day can't prevent or delay the death of someone who wants to be immersed into Christ before he can do so? The Son of God who stilled storms and calmed lakes can't forgive a broken, desperate soul who recognizes His divinity ... even if he's being crucified a few arm's-lengths away?

  • "If a person doesn't understand that she is being baptized for the remission of sins, her baptism counts for nothing and she is condemned to an eternity in hell."

    Oh? The God who knows the number of hairs on our heads and the number of IQ points inside them and the teachings we have been barraged with - for better or worse - by folks with the best of intentions teaching us at our churches ... that God can't credit the belief of such a faithful one (as He did with Abraham) as righteousness ... or at least the deep desire for it?

  • "If God is love and is not willing that any should perish, then eventually He will save everyone."

    Are you sure? Then, the God who obliterated all the evil tenants of the earth in a flood, ordered the herem-extermination of child-sacrificers, and whose Son spoke in no uncertain terms of the fates of those on His left and His right ... they were just joshing? That there is only kindness and no severity to those who will not believe? That He is merciful, but not just; loving but not righteous? He doesn't really have the power to be perfectly both? Because, as I understand it, it is impossible for Him to lie.

We could go on and on. (Many have.) If we did, we would probably still be arguing as much from our ignorance of Scriptures as of the power of God.

But I think we especially underestimate His power.

And that may help explain why we so seldom pray and let Him work through us as powerfully as Paul did:
"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. ~ Ephesians 3:20

Monday, April 20, 2009

1 Samuel 11, 16; Matthew 3, 27

52 Weeks at the Table - Week 16

Saul, the reluctant king - tall in stature but small in submission - was often an angry person. When the Spirit of God came upon him at Gibeah (1 Samuel 11), he burned with anger and mustered thousands to defeat the pagans of Jabesh. When the Spirit of God departed from him (16), he often became angry at David, God's new anointed. In his efforts to destroy his humble rival, only God's Spirit - evident in David's meek submission (26) - or coming on him in full prophetic force (29) could deter him. Disspirited by military defeat, he took his own life (31).

Another King, like His ancestor David, was the very figure of submission. He was born of the Spirit (Matthew 1:18), immersed in the Spirit (3:16), led by the Spirit (4:1), and promised His Spirit to His followers (John 7:38-40). He was reluctant to serve perhaps only once - in a garden, where His life hung in the balance with all of mankind's souls for all eternity. Yet, trusting God's ability to wrest ultimate victory from seeming defeat, He surrendered His Spirit (Matthew 27:50), received life again from the Spirit (Romans 8:11) and breathed His Spirit on those to whom He had made the promise (John 20:22).

King of our lives, we honor the submission of Your cherished Son to Your will that was gracious toward us and harsh toward our sins. We honor the victory You achieved on the cross and at the tomb over sin and death and our selfishness and our rivalry. When Your Spirit rests on us as we share this bread, recalling Jesus' body broken for us, may He find a welcome and a yearning and a hunger for more of You deep within us, a place now emptied of self and sin. Amen.

Father God, purge from us the fire of anger and the evil spirit of arrogance that ignites and fuels it while we seek the peace of this table. Fill us instead with your cool, pure, thirst-quenching, life-breathing Spirit as we share this cup which reminds us of Jesus' blood, spilled from His hands, head, feet and side for us. Fill us with a recognition of the cross where He breathed out His Spirit, so that we might breathe in life to the full - acting, speaking, praying always in His name: Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Re-post from Last Easter: "Sunday Morning in a Garden"

It is in a garden that mankind first meets God and chooses sin, and it is in a garden outside an empty tomb that mankind meets God re-infleshed and has the opportunity to choose perfection.

If you read the gospel accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb and you get caught up in trying to determine how many women or men or angels were there and when and where, you miss the simple fact which is not, in any way, related differently among the four individual writers:

Jesus of Nazareth, beaten and crucified and run through with a spear, is not only no longer in the tomb, but He is no longer dead!

It is the single most astounding fact in the history of mankind.

Other people have died and have been raised from the dead by God's agents in the flesh, and scripture is not shy about relating those accounts.

But this is the first time God has directly intervened and raised a man from the dead; restored life to three-days-lifeless flesh and bone; breathed breath and spirit back into His lungs and set Him on His feet and sent Him walking on the earth never to die again.

Can it mean anything but that the man is God's own Son?

I believe that. I would believe it even if I were convinced that the accounts in the gospels contradicted each other on every other fact they relate about the event.

They don't.

They each tell it differently.

There was a time when I felt like I had to know all the right answers in order to believe. It wasn't that long ago. Now I'm persuaded that I'm probably never going to know all the right answers, any more than Job did. He didn't know them before he spoke with God. He didn't know them after. But at no point did he stop believing.

So, in the interest of those who (as I originally described myself as the author of this blog years ago) "question reality and won't settle for an evasive answer," may I offer my personal harmony of the four-fold gospel witnesses in this instance?

On the first day of the week, while it was still dark, there was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

Very early in the morning just after sunrise, the women - Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and Salome - took the spices they had bought and prepared and went to the tomb so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. They asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" They found the stone - which was very large - rolled away from the tomb already.

While they were wondering about this, and entering the tomb, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. One looked like a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed because they saw him but they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. Why do you look for the living among the dead? He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: 'The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.' But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' Now I have told you."

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. At first, they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Then they remembered His words. So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell His disciples - to Simon Peter and the other disciple John (the one Jesus loved) and the rest of the apostles. Mary Magdalene came running and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!" And they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

Peter and John, however, got up and ran to the tomb, the women following not too far behind them. Bending over, Peter saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally John, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. And they went away back to their homes, wondering to themselves what had happened, because they still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.

Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had driven seven demons, stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and again saw the two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

"They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him." At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

"Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Jesus said to her, "Mary."

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

Suddenly Jesus met them all. "Greetings," he said. They also came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. - But do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.' Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me before I go."

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told those who had been with Him and who were mourning and weeping that He had said these things to her.

While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

I haven't added much beyond an "also" or an "and" or a "but" or a "because" to this narrative, and those only for clarity. The rest you'll find in the histories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All I did was try to put them in the right order. What I wanted to point out was that John saw and believed ... even though he and Peter still did not understand. John himself wrote those words (20:8-9) - an admission of his own growing faith, unsupported by knowing all of the right answers. He just believed.

He believed in the most preposterous, unthinkable, ridiculous, impossible truth ever: that God raised His Son Jesus from the dead.

Because He did, all of the other puzzles pieces of life were beginning to fall into place, and all of life's questions were beginning to be answered.

Why God allows evil - so that good can stand in contrast and be freely chosen. Why God lets man sin - so that He can fill the guilty emptiness it causes with forgiveness. Why God allows suffering and death - so that He can end it once and for all.

Through this One. This Son. This life. This death.

This resurrection.

I still can't understand it.

I just believe.

Friday, April 10, 2009

What's So Good About It?

An innocent Man, already tortured within moments of death, struggles to lift himself on feet nailed to a cross in order to take another breath. He has been doing it for hours. While afternoon darkness gathers, He will continue to do it for a few more.

It's Good Friday.

What's so good about that?

Nothing, if the Man were not the very Son of God.

Nothing, if the burdened cross was not succeeded by the empty tomb.

Nothing, if grace had not supplanted law.

It's good because He is perfect.

It's good because He lends us His righteousness.

It's good because He commends His Spirit to God, who pours Him out on us.

It's good because there is evening and morning, a third day.

And God sees that it is good.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

1 Samuel 8 and Isaiah 53

52 Weeks at the Table - Week 15

The last of the judges was a boy named Samuel, a child in a family living among the descendants of Ephraim. Though his mother dressed him like a priest, he was not really a priest. He would grow up to crown a king or two, but not become one. He would be known as a seer, but serve God too early to be remembered as a prophet. For God's people rejected his leadership as judge and begged for a king. God would tell him that they had really rejected Him as their King, so they could be like all the other nations - just like everyone else. They were to be a called-out people, but they wanted Samuel to call in this favor for them.

In the waning days of Israel's true kings, a prophet named Isaiah would describe One later known as Prophet, Priest and King - One who would know rejection, yet nobly serve as a sacrificial Lamb; One who would suffer and die yet see the light of life and be satisfied; One who would bear the sins of many and intercede for them as a priest would intercede. And, having accomplished all, would finally serve as the last of the judges.

Father God, we so often want to be just like everyone else - even though we know you have called us out to be a people in the image of Your Son. We reject Your leadership and want to be in control of our own lives - though we have seen the disaster it can lead to. We think we know what the future holds, but we can't even see the next moment. We want to judge others, but rarely ourselves. We need this bread of Your Word to give us Your leadership and vision and discernment and judgment. Feed us always with this Bread of Life. Amen.

Wondrous and Mighty Lord, we remember the sacrificed blood of the Lamb of God as we share this cup. We recognize the Sovereign King, the Prophet of Eternity, the High Priest of Heaven interceding for us through His own sacrifice. As our lives approach the day when You both will judge us all, we thirst for the perfection that it offers; the light of life that satisfies You and compels our adoration. We gladly yield it through Jesus: Amen.