Christ and Caesar

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

 

Our recent studies in the book of Revelation began with war in heaven.  Satan, once an angel and a creature of God, rebels and is defeated.  “Michael and his angels” fight against the rebellious dragon, defeat him and throw him down to earth where he gathers himself and undertakes his mission of destruction here.

The passage tells us that the beaten Satan is even further frustrated in his attempt to kill “the woman” who represents many things – the church, perhaps and, perhaps, all that is good and beautiful.

Beaten and frustrated, Satan conjures or waits for two creatures he then employs to help him in his dirty work here on Earth.

The first of the two is the sea beast.  Our commentaries – Poythress and Peterson – both agree that this beast would have been understood by the churches to which John’s message was originally written to represent the power of earthly governments.  Poythress particularly emphasizes that John’s description of the beast here is a direct reference to the beasts seen in the prophetic visions in Daniel chapter seven.  The book of Daniel is explicit that the beasts of Daniel’s vision represent particular, earthly kingdoms.  Poythress asserts that the similarities between Daniel’s vision and the vision in Revelation are too direct and multiple to be anything but intentional.

 

The overall point in John’s vision is that Satan may use governments to aid him in his plan to destroy souls and suppress human flourishing.  We may find it easy to support this notion when we look at infamous governments like those of the Roman Empire that demanded that citizens worship the Emperor or the governments of Stalin or Hitler that carried out the genocides of the twentieth century.  But Peterson suggests that democratic governments may be co-opted, too.  On the one hand, the individual may tend to worship them in the sense that they look to the government as the ultimate authority (take for example, the notion of same-sex “marriage.”  For the moment, the government of the United States – acting through a 5-to-4-vote majority in the Supreme Court – has asserted that same-sex relationships may constitute “marriage.”  It has been the position of the church through the centuries that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for one lifetime.  The question that individuals are now faced with is “which definition governs?”   There are those who believe that it is the province of the government to tell the church what is right and what is wrong on the point.  That is, these people hold that it is within the province of the government to dictate to the church that it will perform same-sex weddings or face consequences.  This is an example of the government overreaching its legitimate boundaries.)  So governments, even democratic ones, may be the tools of Satan insofar as they set themselves up as moral arbiters.  Where they dictate according to one agenda or another without regard for God.

On the other hand, individuals may tend to elevate government inordinately.  Looking to the government as a means of salvation, as a means of moral light, as the means of order.

Government is limited in the United States.  This is an idea that probably has its roots in Christian teaching and culture.  Government is not absolute, it does not have the last word; it is not the final authority.

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Meditation on Psalm 25

 

A prayer for guidance

 

Make me to know your ways, O LORD;

teach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth and teach me,

 

The God of the Bible is a God who reveals Himself.  He is not the God of the Deists, who imagine that God created the universe and then left it to run on its own.  No, the God of the Bible is constantly intervening in His own creation; constantly warning, constantly advising, constantly comforting, constantly delivering.  Indeed, the whole Bible is a record of God’s revelation of Himself to man.

And it is not just that He announces Himself on some national, political level.  It’s true that God revealed Himself to Israel in sort of a national and political way.  He dealt with Moses and Aaron who in turn dealt with Pharaoh for the release of the nation of Israel from slavery.  But the God of the Bible is a God who deals with individuals.    That is one thing that this psalm unquestionably teaches:

 

Who is the man who fears the LORD?
Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose.
His soul shall abide in well-being,
and his offspring shall inherit the land.
The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him,
and he makes known to them his covenant.
My eyes are ever toward the LORD,
for he will pluck my feet out of the net.

The Christian life is necessarily a life lived in community, but God teaches, confides in and rewards individuals.   We may learn in community, we may learn from community, and we are certainly called to serve the community.  But in the final analysis, the state of a man’s heart is an inner, individual affair.  We may tithe mint and rue, that is, we may be rigorous and energetic in charity, and yet our hearts be far from Him.

 

If God is one who reveals Himself, who confides in individuals and who rewards them, who would not want such a relationship – such communion?  Answer: Lots of us.  Rather than desiring communion with the loving and almighty God, we would prefer to have things our own way, thank you very much.

This psalm is clear and definitive on the point. Who gets guidance from God?  The humble!

The meek [humble] he will guide in judgement; and the meek [humble] he will teach his way

And

The Lord confides in those who fear him

 

I have to be careful here.  I don’t want to suggest that our salvation or our relationship with God is based on our own merit.  All is of grace.  All is of God’s initiation.  All is of God’s doing:

 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it isthe gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

Maybe the point here is simply to think about what humility actually is.  It’s easy for us to make mistakes here.  Some equate humility with modesty.  That the humble man is an “aw shucks” kind of guy who is always putting himself down.  But humility isn’t that.  CS Lewis said that it is the most attractive of virtues:  If you’ve ever been around anyone who is truly humble, it is like having a drink of cool water in the desert.  Here is Lewis:

He [God] wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble – delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself. If I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief and comfort of taking the fancy-dress off–getting rid of the false self, with all its “Look at me” and “Aren’t I a good boy?” and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in the desert

 

 

 

Meditation on Psalm 24

 

The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof;
the world, and they that dwell therein.

This Psalm begins with a basic, yet profound proposition: God made the earth and it belongs to Him.  That notion is so deeply embedded in Christian thought and teaching that those of us who’ve been around awhile might tend to glaze over when we see or hear it once again.  Oh, yeah.  God made the world and it belongs to Him.

But, like so many other things that we tend to ignore or sleepwalk through, these ideas have great consequences and they merit our continual contemplation.

There are (at least)  two problems raised by the proposition:

  1. If God made the world and it belongs to Him, why in the world is it in such a shape? Why do the innocents suffer?  Why do tyrants rage?  Why does wrong seem to prevail so often?
  2. When Christians start talking about God having “made” the world, the whole subject of the creation accounts in Genesis – you know: On the first day God said “Let there be light: and there was light.” Then on the fourth day, God created the sun and the moon and stars in the sky.   The question, of course, is: How literally do you believers take this?   Are you one of those who holds that all was done in six, twenty-four hour periods?

The first question has been around for so long that it has been given a name: “theodicy.”

Theodicy is defined by some as the defense of the omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of overwhelming evil in the world.

Suffice it to say that an in-depth discussion of this issue is far beyond the scope of this blog and far beyond the powers of its writer.  I’m no theologian and the purpose of this blog is simply to read and react to the Psalms as they hit me on that day, with the hope that my sort of normal and unprofessional thoughts might be of some aid or interest to others.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I have spent some time thinking about the whole theodicy problem.  I mean, it does kind of force its way on you.  And I think there is a one-word answer: freedom.  There is evil in the world because God has allowed his creatures freedom.  And freedom, if it is real, means the freedom to rebel; to refuse God’s grace and plan.

The bible teaches that the first evil is rebellion in heaven.  The first rebel was Satan, who has been banished to earth and who hold some limited sway here.  Not really hard to see that.  The Rolling Stones put this into the vernacular of the age:

I watched with glee while your kings and queens

Fought for ten decades for the gods they made

I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”

When after all, it was you and me

Let me please introduce myself

I’m a man of wealth and taste

And I laid traps for troubadours

Who get killed before they reach Bombay

 

We don’t tend to think of Jagger and Richards as theologians, but this song is really pretty consistent with Christian thought.  That line about who killed the Kennedys – “after all, it was you and me” – really captures the idea of

the falleness

 of all of us.

Now, with regard to the whole business about creation occurring in seven, twenty-four hour periods, let me give you my own take on it.  I think those accounts in Genesis – although they are the word of God, although they are authoritative as scripture and although they contain enough truth to fill every one of us up forever – I do not take them literally, as to time.

I spent a career as a prosecutor.  One of the things that happens when you start putting a case together for trial is that you start believing your own theories.  You should, of course.  Nobody should bring a prosecution that they don’t believe in – that they don’t believe is true.  But here is a corollary problem:  when you start believing in your own theory, you might tend to ignore contrary evidence.  The defense counsel presents you with other facts and these tend to undercut your case.  Do you take them seriously or do you brush them away for one reason or another because you are so confident in your own case?

Let me tell you, it is very easy to do the latter.  And we do it – I have done it – to our own peril.  Many times the contrary evidence should not be believed.  Sometimes it is cooked up; sometimes it is based on the testimony of unreliable witness.  But not always.

Here is what happens when we ignore evidence that is inconsistent with our theory:

  1. You will get your butt kicked in the courtroom
  2. You will lose the most precious quality that any prosecutor can own: credibility with the court.

For my money, there is overwhelming evidence that the universe is very, very old.  I have heard the number 14 billion years kicked around, but after you get past the first couple of billion years, it all starts to run together for me.  There is also overwhelming evidence that life on earth as it now appears, took countless ages to appear.

Like I said, this is all way beyond the scope of this blog, but a serious consideration of the evidence that the sciences have come up with – and there is a rather impressive consensus on this matter among the various disciplines – is set forth compellingly in Frances Collins’ fine book The Language of God.   That book is a serious and satisfying effort to harmonize the scriptures with the evidence that science has uncovered over the centuries, written by the man who headed the Genome project and who is, himself, a devout Christian.

There are those who will argue that once you consider any part of the bible as poetic expression, i.e., not literally, scientifically true, then it all goes by the wayside.  Not so.  Take the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for example.  The evidence for the Resurrection, even taken from a legal and philosophical point of view, is overwhelmingly strong.  For that, read NT Wright or any of Lee Strobel’s books.

 

The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the strongest evidence we have for any historical event in antiquity.  If we would dismiss the Resurrection as being based on unreliable evidence, we’d have to do the same for everything we know prior to the advent of videotape.  The evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is stronger – much stronger – than the evidence for the Battle of Thermopylae.

Meditation on Psalm 22

IN the last few posts, we’ve looked at these ancient poems and songs and made an effort to apply their meaning in our own, modern context.  We have considered the military allusions – to battles and kings – as metaphors for the existential battles we all face daily.  We went so far as to say that these psalms, in assuming that life is a battle, are a corrective tonic to any modern mindset that is tempted to see life as something completely out of one’s control and that has long relinquished any idea that a person might actually reach his or her “heart’s desire” given the gigantic forces at work against us in our circumstances.  Instead of being fully engaged in a battle, we may see ourselves as simply cast upon high currents and tides that it would be futile to fight against.  So we lift our feet from the pavement and let the earth spin beneath us and we drop our hands and simply coast through life.

If people really believed that their “heart’s desire” might be attainable, they would not fall into addictions and idolatries that are nothing but attempts to fill the void in our hearts.  The scriptures teach – and they say this over and over again in the Psalms – that God will give us our heart’s desire.

Here is Psalm 37: 4

Delight thyself in the Lord

And He shall give thee the desires of thine heart

 

It’s hard for me to leave this theme.  It is so intriguing to me personally.  “Heart’s desire.”  That means something for me.  Something that will satisfy every longing in me.  Wow.

But on to today’s meditation.  Psalm 22.  And this is a different story altogether.  When we read the first verse of this Psalm “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” we are stopped in our tracks.

Or, at least, I should say, those of us in the west who are familiar with the Christian story are immediately stopped in our tracks.  I forget that most of the “likes” recorded for this page are from India and the South Pacific.  (I’m very happy about that.)  For those of us who are familiar with the Gospels and with the Christian calendar, the words “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” are immediately recognized as the words of Jesus Christ on the cross, in the midst of His agony.  They echo and ring in our minds.   It is almost ridiculous for us to try and give them any other meaning or context.

And maybe that is the point here.  The point for the day, at least.  In the final analysis, the scriptures – Psalms included – are about Jesus Christ.   That is implied in His constant reference to them during his lifetime.   He not only quotes this Psalm from the cross, when He is tempted in the desert He answers Satan with quotes from the Pentateuch. (Torah)   When we read the Gospel accounts of His life it is inescapable that Jesus Christ knew the scriptures inside and out and considered them relevant to life. He very consciously ordered His life to fulfill the scriptures.  It is not too much to use the modern phrase and say that Christ “found himself” in the scriptures.

Even more – He said the very same to the Pharisees in no uncertain terms:

John 5:39-40The Message (MSG)

39-40 You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.

And so, if we attend to the scriptures diligently, it is not so much that we will “find ourselves.” Rather, we will find Jesus Christ.  What does that have to say about our own fulfillment?  Our own heart’s desire?  Everything.  For Jesus Christ is in fact the fulfillment of every desire.  That idea is deeply embedded in Christian tradition.  Consider Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.  Consider the traditional Christmas carol, Hark, The Herald Angels Sing:  “Come, desire of nations, come.”

 

Neither is scripture silent on the point.  What are the first words of Jesus Christ recorded in Saint John’s gospel?

Only these:

“What do you want?”

Meditation on Psalm 21

O Lord, in your strength the king rejoices,
    and in your salvation how greatly he exults!
You have given him his heart’s desire
    and have not withheld the request of his lips.

Here we have another psalm about life as a battle.  This one is particularly about a king who has enemies all about.  Here the psalmist sings about how the Lord makes short work of the king’s enemies.

We could spend more time talking about the idea of life as a battle.  And about the fact that it may be a temptation in modern life to ignore the idea that life is a battle; that there are enemies about us and skirmishes daily and that something real is at stake on our efforts.  That is, there are great prizes to be won and kept and there is always the potential for loss – loss which might be avoided.  We’ve said that modern life, for many of us, at least, is so regimented and so divorced from reality and we are so subject to great forces in the world that we don’t have any control over and may not even be aware of that we see life as just a hamster wheel or trip on one of those moving walkways in the airport.  You just keep going.  You don’t have to take a step and you keep moving.  And there is no way to get off.

But we did all of that yesterday.

What can we moderns, who live in established democracies and who are far from any physical, military battlefields, take away from this psalm that seems so tied to its ancient context?

Well, just maybe one more word about life as a battle:  Look at the first verse:

The king shall joy in thy strength, Oh Lord;

And in thy salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!

This psalm, or this bit of it, at least, is about winning!  I know, I know.  It’s not the Charlie Sheen kind of winning.  It is victory in the Lord.  What does that mean?  It means that the victory that is enjoyed here was won by God.  And he who rejoices acknowledges that fact.  This is humility.

Do we want victory, do we want to win for our own glory?  Just to show them all around what we can do in our own strength?  Or are we willing to accept the help of God that leads to winning, but not to bragging?

What kind of winning are we talking about?   The bible talks about winning over sin, defeating evil in our lives.  Does that sound unduly abstract to you?  A little vague and ambiguous maybe?  Well, how about this:  what if we would admit that the attitudes and habits we have let ourselves fall into and be controlled by are . . . . “sin?”  What if we admitted that?  The far end of the spectrum here is, of course, addiction.   There are those who are addicted to hard drugs.  What a joy it would be if they could break free from that prison.  What a win that would be.

But all the rest of us have our own addictions – things that we ought to want to conquer or win over.  We may eat too much.  We may not rest enough.  We may be overburdened with work at the office.  We may spend impulsively or without order and discipline and thereby constrict our own freedom.  We may be consumed with hate or resentment for one reason or another.

These things are our enemies.  The forces that are out to destroy us.  And it is in these battles that God delivers us.

Back to yesterday’s point:  life is a battle and victories are possible.  There are real interests at stake and they can be lost or won.  This Psalm, Psalm 21, is a song about great reward and great happiness and joy.  This is how the Bible describes life.  Have we lost that perspective?  If we don’t see the battle and if we don’t believe that it may be won or lost, we will always, always lose.

But God promises victory to those who follow Him.

Meditation on Psalm 20

May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
    May the name of the God of Jacob protect you!

May he grant you your heart’s desire
    and fulfill all your plans!

 

The Psalm simply assumes that there will be trouble in life.  As we think about that just now, there is nothing strange about it.  We all know what comes – sickness, accidents, financial losses, career failures, relationship failures, the increasing infirmities of age – we all know about all of those things.  So what is strange about this Psalm?  What can it teach us?

For starters, maybe this: although we know that there will be “days of trouble” in life, do we really look at life as a battle that can be won or lost and do we really credit the notion – and let’s even leave out the idea of divine intervention for the moment – that there are certain troubles that we may be saved from.

In other words, how tempted are we to look at life – not as we reflect on it in this moment of meditation, but as we live and make decisions, day by day – as simply a long, downhill slide that we cannot do much about?

It’s true that sickness and infirmity and finally physical death will come to us all, but how much of sickness and infirmity and other kinds of loss might be avoided altogether if we in fact conducted our lives as if they were a battle – as if there really was something to be gained, as if there were losses that were not inevitable, that might be avoided?

I guess the easiest example available for making my point here is how we treat our bodies.  I keep hearing that obesity and diabetes are at all-time highs.  Both of these conditions create horrible problems for the person afflicted.  Not only that, but they create all kinds of problems for those who surround them.  Finally, these two conditions multiply – and I mean multiply – the load on our health-care system.  Is it too much to say that if people would watch their diets and exercise regularly that our health-care crisis would abate?   Insurance premiums would diminish?  Relationships would improve?  Households would prosper financially?

All those things are true.  All of them could happen.  And none of that is beyond our doing – beyond our ability to make a decision and stay with it.

And yet, so many people ignore these things.  Do they act as if life is not a battle?  As if, rather than a struggle that can be won or lost, a place where ground might really be gained and kept, that it is all just one long, slow downhill slide and that the only thing we can do is enjoy little indulgences, day by day?

Who believes that good decisions, daily discipline in matters of health and finance, will actually pay dividends?  Not only in terms of money, but in terms of ability to enjoy life and to carry on joyful and fulfilling relationships?  That the battle fought wisely and vigorously, day by day, may end in lifelong victories?

The psalmist here may be talking about physical, military battle – he does speak of “chariots and horses” – but the psalm, if it is to have any meaning at all for most of us – must have more general application than that.  It must mean that life itself is a battle.  It must mean that there are parts of life that may be won or lost.

The psalm teaches that our hope is in God.  We may prevail only in His strength, only with His guidance, only in His grace.  But we will not prevail – we will not bow and seek Him – if we do not see life as a battle, if we have not the first notion that we might, given His help, actually win, actually thrive and flourish, actually prevail.

A Meditation on Psalm 18

Christians cannot be shy about poetry.  It is an indispensable part of our heritage.  So much of the Bible is poetry – the Psalms, the book of Job, the Song of Solomon, and lots of passages from the Prophets.  On top of that, our faith is a singing faith.  The second most important book in the Christian tradition is the hymnal and although not every song is poetic, lots of them are.  Lots of them employ metaphor and exalted expression.  Here is how one hymn writer expresses the birth of Jesus Christ:

. . . Lo, how a rose e’er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung . . .

 It only makes sense that writers would have to employ poetic expression, poetic imagination, in this context.  They are trying to communicate a world that is invisible and outside of normal, sensory experience.  It is only logical that they would have to employ metaphor.

It is with this poetic perspective that I consider this great Psalm.  Many of the Psalms are attributed to David and scholars disagree about which or how many of them David himself wrote.   Here is C. S. Lewis in his book, Reflections on The Psalms:

I think certain scholars allow that Psalm 18 might be by David himself.

It is far beyond me to make any judgement about the authorship of this or any Psalm.  I am not taking any position on the question of whether all of the Psalms that are “attributed” to David (about half of them) were actually written by him.  But I will say this: Psalm 18 is a distinctive work.   It is personal and experiential, like many others, but it is poetic in ways that many of the others are not.  David, in his troubles, calls on the name of the Lord.  Now look at the imagery used in describing God’s response to David’s prayer:

Then the earth shook and trembled;
the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken,
because he was wroth.
There went up a smoke out of his nostrils,
and fire out of his mouth devoured:
coals were kindled by it.
He bowed the heavens also, and came down:
and darkness was under his feet.
10 And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly:
yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his secret place;
his pavilion round about him were dark waters
and thick clouds of the skies.
12 At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed,
hail stones and coals of fire.
13 The Lord also thundered in the heavens,
and the Highest gave his voice;
hail stones and coals of fire.
14 Yea, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
and he shot out lightnings, and discomfited them.
15 Then the channels of waters were seen,
and the foundations of the world were discovered
at thy rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of thy nostrils.

If this is not poetry; if this is not the poet’s vision, I don’t know what is.  This is – and is clearly intended to be – staggering.  The earth shakes and trembles; the hills move.  God rides upon a Cherub, flying on the wings of the wind.

What are we to make of it?

In the book of Revelation, Saint John shares his vision of the altar before the throne of God in heaven, attended by an angel who offers there incense mixed with “the prayers of all the saints.” (Rev 8: 3 NIV)  What results?  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “reversed thunder:”

Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake. (Rev 8: 5 NIV)

What do these two passages have in common?  First, and most obviously, they both describe fantastic occurrences: the shaking of the earth, lightning and thunder.

But in both instances these fantastic events are the result of prayer.  In the Psalm, it is David’s prayer for deliverance.  In the book of Revelation it is the prayers of all the saints for God’s justice.

Whatever else these passages may be interpreted to mean, they at least point to the power and effectiveness of prayer that is so profound that it is hard for us to imagine.   These answers to prayer are “above all that we ask or think.”

We need powerful, fantastic imagery to even begin to wake us up to the reality of it.