About Last Sunday . . .

 

 

As so often happens, the best parts of last week’s class were the questions raised.

 

There were several good ones, but the two that stick with me most were raised by Terry and Don.  Let’s take Terry first, for his question is a little more definite.  Although this isn’t a perfect, word-for-word quote of the question, I think it is fair to say that in essence Terry asked whether there is evidence in the Book of Ruth that our protagonist, Ruth herself, had converted to Israel’s God – Yaweh.

That is an important question – the ultimate question, actually – in any circumstance and it is particularly important here – to our consideration of this little Book.  For we are concerned with Ruth’s motives and with the results of her decisions.  We won’t really understand the Book unless we understand what moved Ruth to act as she did and unless we understand the reason for her great good fortune.

So the question – and we’ll be discussing this next Sunday – is what, if any, evidence is there in the text that Ruth had – or had not – converted to Israel’s God before she left Moab?

The second question is broader and not so well defined, but is of ultimate importance for our study.  It was something like this:  “What about the God part of this story?”

Well, yes.  What about that.  I am reminded of our Lord Jesus Christ’s admonition to a group of Pharisees who were (as was their bent) trying to trip Jesus up on the scriptures.  Jesus – as was His bent – stops them dead in their arrogant tracks with this statement:  “You study the scriptures because in them you think you have eternal life, and they are they that testify of me.”   Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates Jesus’ admonition this way:

“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!

John 5: 39

And our Lord’s words here are certainly words to us as we take up the study of this beautiful little Book of Ruth.  It is a poignant and romantic story, full of heroic and heart-rending acts.  So much so that we might be tempted to take our eye off of the ball here and consider the story only for its human content.  If so, then we might as well be in the public library and not the church.  We read the scriptures because they testify of Jesus Christ and the life we are offered in Him.

Given that, the next, obvious question becomes this: “Where do we find Jesus Christ in this story?”  The short and glib answer would be this:   At the very back of the book where he is mentioned by name as a direct descendant of Ruth and Boaz.  That’s correct of course and also very important; but let’s consider the whole book.  Where do we see Jesus Christ in the story as it unfolds?

Where do we see His character?  And what part of His character do we see?  What in this story is Christlike?   What do we see of His grace?

Meditation on Psalm 143

Psalm 143 is a poem about the heart.

 

Authorship is attributed to David, and David was a warrior and we can imagine the struggles that this psalm speaks of as being quite literal.  That is, when David speaks of his enemies, he means literal, flesh-and-blood enemies – guys who are wearing the other uniform and who are really out to kill him.

 

For most of you reading this blog –and certainly for the writer of this blog –  the enemy is not so solid and well defined.  In this leveled and paved and air- conditioned world that you and I inhabit, we may even think that the idea that we have enemies who are out to get us and who have “made us to dwell in darkness” to be a bit over dramatic, a bit exaggerated, maybe even ridiculous.

But if we give any attention to the New Testament, we must admit that we do have enemies and that they very much do want to “smite” our lives “down to the ground,” and to “make us dwell in darkness.”  Again, listen to what St. Paul says to the church in Ephesus:

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   Ephesians 6: 12

Likewise, the expression of desire in this psalm should not be strange to us.  David is sure of  the object of his desire.  That object is God: “my soul thirsteth after thee, as a thirsty land.”   We may not be so sure of the object of our desire, but if we are honest with ourselves and if we have not hidden it beneath some wall of self-deception, we must admit that we want and want very badly something that nothing in this world can satisfy.

That is why this psalm continues to resonate with men and women even in this modern age.  Even among those of us who are privileged to live in secure democracies and in peaceful neighborhoods where we are not threatened physically; even those of us who have every convenience and entertainment.   Even we desire; even we hunger and thirst, like a thirsty land.  Here is C. S. Lewis:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, “Hope”)

 

When David writes that “my spirit is overwhelmed within me; my heart within me is desolate” we should have little trouble relating to him.  We should know.  If we have attempted anything at all – a career, a marriage, the raising of children – we know that we are opposed and powerfully so.  We know that we can be defeated; we can be crushed; we can be depressed.  We know that our desires always outstrip the satisfactions that this earthly life affords.

And so, this psalm is our psalm, and we pray with David, the warrior:

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning,
For in You do I trust;
Cause me to know the way in which I should walk,
For I lift up my soul to You.

Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies;
In You I take shelter

More Thoughts on Christian Patience

I left off the last post this morning with a note toward balance.

It was kind of an afterthought.  The post was about patience and waiting and I ended with just a bit about what that waiting should be like.  Maybe I should have said a little more about that.

While we, as Christians in this age after the resurrection but before the Second Coming, live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”  That’s old news to any of you readers who have spent much time in church.  It’s kind of a cliché in our circles, I guess.

But I thought more about what I wrote this morning as I pedaled up and down the hills and hollows here in my home State of West Virginia on my daily bike ride.  I do almost 17 miles on a “short day,” and that’s what I did today.  This exercise in the open air – and today in the sunlight – always seems to get the mind stirring.

And as it stirred this morning, and as I thought again and again about this morning’s post, some language from Eugene Peterson’s translation of the New Testament (The Message) popped into my head.  It relates to the concept of waiting, which I wrote about this morning.  But, like so much of Peterson’s translations, it gives us just a little more emphasis here and there.  I love Peterson’s translations of the Epistles, particularly Galatians and Romans.  He has said that his aim in translating was to give the reader not a literal, word for word translation, but a translation that would be faithful to the look and feel of the original writing.  That is, this writing would sound to us modern readers – have the same “ring” as – the original Greek would have had to the early churches.

Peterson translates a couple of passages in Romans that deal directly with the kind of “waiting in tension” that I wrote about this morning.  Look at this:

Romans 5:3-5

There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

 

Look at that!  Patience, yes, but passionate patience that includes great expectancy;  that expects surprise and fulfillment.

Here is one more bit, this one around Romans 8: 23-24 or so:

These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

 

Don’t you think these passages help to understand the nature of the Christian’s waiting?  It’s not a dull, grinding thing that is too timid to hope for much.  Rather, it is “alert expectancy,” “joyful expectancy.”

Meditation on Psalm 131

Psalm 131 
131 Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
Let Israel hope in the Lord from henceforth and for ever.

 

 

The psalmist does not assume or pretend to high knowledge, but has humbled his soul like a child weaned from its mother.
His relationship with God is one of patience and waiting.  He is not nursing at the breast of God – not taking in all and satisfied with warmth and floating in fullness.  No.  That may have been his or her experience at one time – maybe when faith was first kindled.  But now he has learned to be content and that all will come in time.  This is the Christian life.  We live in tension between what is promised and desired, on the one hand, and what has been already given on the other.  What life teaches us is to have patience and wait as a weaned child waits for the satisfaction of its needs.

 

But we must also not lose the hope for the perfect fulfillment – the satisfaction of heart’s desire.

Weeping In Secret Places

But if ye will not hear it, [God’s word] my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride

Jeremiah 13: 17

I try to read some in the Bible every day.

I read the Psalms because they are generally readable in small bites (Psalm 119 is a rather drastic exception) and I often read in short bursts.  I’m still wading through the Psalms for the umpteenth time, but for some reason I have also started going on Jeremiah, too.

Maybe not for the highest of reasons.  I have discovered lately – that is, I think I have discovered,  I might be fooling myself – that I can actually hear the different voices in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament.  That is, I can hear a different voice when I read Habakkuk than when I read Isaiah.  I have never really tried to make these discernments and I know that if someone gave me a passage from one of the prophetic books and said, “Okay, Mr. Scholar, based on the voice you hear, tell me which of the great troublers of Israel this bit came from” I would be at a complete loss, unless it was one of the passages that I have committed to memory and  already knew the author.

That being said, I do find that when I read one or the other of the prophets I find in them different poetic sensibilities.  And, yes, they are poets.  One of the interesting things about this study is the notion that prophesy and poetry are kind of linked.  A prophet was one who proclaimed, not predicted,  and his messages had more to do with interpreting what was happening in the moment than with predicting the future.  I’m sure that some readers with object to this, and they have grounds.  I know that the prophetic books are full of predictions of doom and then of a messianic age when all will be put to rights.   I know.  But I had a very trustworthy teacher, years ago, who emphasized the idea that biblical prophets were “forth-tellers,” and not so much “foretellers.”  And I just read – or maybe heard in one of Carl Trueman’s excellent lectures on the history of The Reformation – that the Biblical prophets were interpreters of the events and circumstances of the day – kind of like today’s pundits, but with the perspective of what God meant in and by those events, and that those who attempted to predict the future were “diviners.”

If you will bear with me for a moment, then, and assume with me that the Biblical prophets were primarily concerned with interpreting the meaning of the events of their day, then the notion of poetic expression and the idea that prophesy and poetry are linked comes back into view.

If we think of prophets as those who interpret and proclaim the meaning of the events of the day, we might compare them to the singer-songwriters of the sixties and seventies who wrote about the meaning of current events – for example, the Viet Nam war, the civil-rights struggle and the ruin of the environment.

Okay, I can just hear the wailing now.  “You – you little blogger, you!  You have the temerity to compare Isaiah, whose words have lasted for three thousand years – whose words were quoted by Our Lord Jesus Christ – with Jackson Browne and Stephen Stills?  Ugh!”

Well, no.  Well, yes and no.  I don’t mean to imply that their writings are at all of the same value.  But what I am saying is that they were doing the same thing – commenting on the affairs of the day and trying to interpret the meaning of those events.  The difference, of course, is that the Biblical prophets were inspired by God’s Spirit and spoke from God’s perspective and with His authority.  No such thing for Stephen Stills.

Still, when we look at it this way – that the prophets of Israel and the songwriters of the sixties were trying to do the same thing, we may start to understand the relationship between poetry and prophesy.  A poet is a maker.  A poet is someone who attempts to convey meaning and emotion through the creative use of language.  A poet employs metaphor to spark the imagination and meter and rhyme to trigger the memory.  Would we have understood – would we have “gotten” – the meaning of the Viet Nam war – as the songwriters wanted  us to get it – without the music and rhythm and rhyme of, for example “Have You Ever Seen The Rain,” or “Run Through The Jungle”:

Whoa thought it was a nightmare
Lord it was so true

They told me don’t go walking slow
The devil’s on the loose

Better run through the jungle
Better run through the jungle
Better run through the jungle
Whoa don’t look back to see

Thought I heard a rumblin’
Calling to my name

Two hundred million guns are loaded
Satan cries “take aim”

“Run Through The Jungle,” John Fogerty

And Jeremiah, for my money, at least, did those very things.  Although meter and rhyme cannot survive the translation from ancient Hebrew into modern English, I can still see and feel the poetic expression in Jeremiah’s writings.  They are full of metaphor and emotion.

Today I was reading in Chapter 13 and came upon this verse:

But, if ye will not hear it [God’s word], my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride

 In spite of the three thousand years in between us, I think I get this verse in a way I could not if Jeremiah had not been a poet.  What does “in secret places” mean?  Other English translations suggest it means that Jeremiah goes off and hides somewhere before he cries; that he is referring to “secret places” in a physical, geographic sense.  I don’t think so.  I think he is referring to the secret places in the heart.  His grief is so great and so woven together with shame that he even hides his tears.  Jeremiah’s grief is so terrible and so unique that it finds expression only in those places in his soul that are  secret; that are hidden, even to himself.

“It is finished . . .”

John 19:28-30
28 After this, Jesus, knowing[a] that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I thirst!” 29 Now a vessel full of sour wine was sitting there; and they filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on hyssop, and put it to His mouth. 30 So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit.

 

 

“It is finished.”  These are words of our Lord spoken immediately before He died on the cross.  What do they mean?  The Greek word that is here translated “finished” is the word “teleos.”    That word does not merely imply that something is “over.”  It means more.  It connotes the idea of completion, accomplishment, and fulfillment.  If we go back only a few verses to verse 28, we read “Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished. . .”   The Greek word there translated “accomplished” is the same word – teleos.   And look at Luke 22: 37, where our Lord says “For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me. . .”  Again, the underlying Greek word is teleos, here translated “accomplished.”

What our Lord is saying then is not simply that he is now ready to die and that His physical suffering is over.  Not at all.

****

I have spent 35 years working for and awaiting verdicts.    Verdicts are words of decision and finality and consequence and power.  When a verdict is pronounced, the battle is over.  Someone wins and someone loses.   I have experienced the rush of joy at a favorable verdict and the bitter disappointment of an unfavorable verdict, time and time again.   I know a verdict when I see one, and these three words of our Lord Jesus Christ are a verdict.  Or, rather, the verdict.

These three words mark the end of a spiritual battle that has been raging since the fall of humanity; since the rebellion of Satan.  These words mark and announce the final and ultimate victory; the inevitable defeat of evil.  It is accomplished.

It is all very fine, you may say, for one to take to the pulpit on Good Friday and speak of grand spiritual abstractions such as the final, universal defeat of evil, but what, you may fairly ask, does it mean to me?  It seems very much like I face potent evil every; I face the fallen world and my fallen nature every day.   Do these great words of Christ mean anything to me, here and now?

Yes, they do.    These words not only have universal and ultimate consequences; they have immediate personal consequences for each of our individual lives, here and now.   These three words are perhaps the most compact statement of the gospel anywhere in the Bible.  They not only speak of the last chapter of history, they speak to us directly, in the very fallen circumstances in which we find ourselves.

And one of those immediate, personal consequences is rest.  Once we understand that God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves; that all has been accomplished; that all will be well, then we may rest in His grace, rest in His assurance, rest in His promise.  Our eternal destiny is fixed; it does not depend on our own merit.   The Christian life may be one of striving, but for the Christian, there will be no anxious striving.  We are fighting battles in a war that has already been won.

****

These words give us rest and they also give us perspective.  How many times have you heard a coach say “get your head up?”   When the team is down and all looks lost, we tend to drop our gaze and look not ahead, but at our feet.  It is a sure sign that we’ve given up the fight and if we are to have any chance of victory, the coach knows that we’ve got to change the way we’re looking at things.

Tim Anderson, the author of several best-selling books on strength and conditioning, takes the matter deeper.  He says that the human body is designed for a forward gaze:

We are made to keep our heads on the horizon both physically and mentally. When we drop our head, when we drop our thoughts, the body and mind follow. We slouch, we get depressed, we lose confidence and we “wilt.” Holding your gaze on the horizon helps keep your posture strong and your mind agile. When you can see the horizon, you have confidence and hope. You also have awareness and peripheral vision – if threats and attacks are coming, you’re more likely to notice. People that slouch, or mope, look like victims. People that stand tall look like victory.

What is the horizon?  It’s the place where the edge of the earth meets the edge of heaven.  It is the place where our hopes and aspirations meet with mundane life – with the frustrations, disappointments and decay of this mortal life.  It is where all of our unfinished symphonies meet the perfect music of the spheres. The horizon is the farthest focal point we can stretch our gaze to.   It is, if you will, the place where time meets eternity.  Dare we turn our gaze there? In light of all that life has thrown at us, in light of all our failure and disappointment and loss, do we dare to keep our heads up and our gaze forward?

These final words of Christ on the cross tell us that we may.  Indeed, they invite such forward- looking optimism.  In light of Christ; in light of His completed work, what we see on the horizon is not death, but delight.  Not frustration, but fulfillment.  We see an empty cross and an empty tomb and hear the Master’s voice saying “All has been accomplished.  Follow me.  I have prepared a place for you.”  And this is enough.  It is all we need.  Despite our failures and losses, our disappointments and frustrations, we may keep our heads up and our gaze forward and walk on to Him who did finish the work, who has accomplished all.  Then we walk with confidence and awareness, from strength to strength, and on toward Him in whose presence is fullness of joy and in whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.

The Spiritual Is The Real

spiritual

In light of Pastor Joel’s letter that mentions the fact that many people attend First Baptist regularly and for long periods of time without joining the church, we’ve spent some time in the last few weeks talking about the whole idea of church membership.

We’ve been looking at the twelfth chapter of I Corinthians and Romans 12: 5 that emphasize the idea – no, not the idea, the fact – that he who is in Christ is a member of the church.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ, that is, into His body, which is the church.  We considered whether the formal registration of that membership in the local body – in our case, First Baptist Church – might be seen the same way we see Baptism – as an outward sign or recognition of an inner, spiritual reality.

We spoke of our inclusion in Christ’s body and then we spoke of the idea of the metaphysical as something higher and greater and even more real than the physical.  That is, the spiritual is not less real or substantial than the physical, it is more so.

I said that the Bible teaches that there is a spiritual world that is greater and more real than the physical world that we can see, hear and touch.  I didn’t consider that a controversial statement, but I was nonetheless asked to find passages in the Bible that supported this idea.  I couldn’t come up with anything there on the spot.

But a couple of hours of reflection suggest that we might find the most direct support for this idea in the story of Elisha and his servant.  [all at II Kings 6: 13-21] They find themselves surrounded by powerful enemies and Elisha’s servant is about to lose heart.  Elisha tells his servant not to be worried:

“Don’t be afraid,” Elisha answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”

(Remember, right then, as far as the physical eye could see, it was only Elisha and his servant, surrounded by the king’s “horses and chariots and a strong force.”)

In this context, Elisha prayed for his servant’s eyes to be opened “so that he may see.”

Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw “the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

We may find further support in the words of our Lord on the night of His arrest.  When the Roman soldiers approach, Peter draws his sword and lops off the ear of one of the members of the arresting party.  Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword.  This is supposed to be happening, He says, that all may be fulfilled.  Besides, He says,  “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” [Matt 26: 53]

These are in fact fine examples of the reality of the spiritual world and evidence that the world we cannot normally see is more real and more powerful than the physical world around us and the powers that have sway in it.  But all of this is just spooning water from the ocean.  The whole of the Bible, the whole of the Christian faith,  is about the miraculous – about the intervention of the spiritual world into this mundane world of ours.  Paul is bold to tell us that the whole of the Christian faith turns on a supernatural event.  If there is no resurrection – “if Christ is not raised from the dead, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”  and we are “of all men most miserable.”

If we try to separate Christianity from the miraculous, from the idea that there is a spiritual world that is greater than the physical and impinges on and invades the physical, we have nothing left.