Monday, July 9, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: A Prayer for the Gauntlet

 Preached on Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 5; Matthew 23:13-39

Feather River, East of Live Oak CA
In the center of my high school, two hallways joined together to make a “T”. The top of the “T” began at the main door and the school offices. It crossed the upright part of the “T”, and went on to the rear of the building, to the science room, and to the gymnasium. The center of the top of the “T” is where you “ran the gauntlet”.

Our student body could have been called a hierarchy, a “pecking order”, a totem pole, or a “food chain”. The students at the top of the order formed the gauntlet. I should say it was the male members of the top of the order who formed the gauntlet.

You know that “running the gauntlet” is a kind of ordeal. Sometimes it is an initiation into a higher rank of the order. Usually it is a form of punishment or humiliation forced on prisoners, or on defeated enemies, or on losers of some kind by the victors, by the winners, by those at the top of the order.

In a real gauntlet you are forced to run between two lines which are armed with clubs, or with sticks, or hands and fists, and they do with you whatever they want. In our high school it was not a true gauntlet, but the dominant class of boys stood along one side of the hall and made wise cracks, or faces, or just stood there looking superior to everyone who passed by.

Trail by Feather River
You may find this surprising, but I was not a member of the dominant class. I was just one of many who were forced, every day, to run the gauntlet. One member of the dominant class was a boy who was called “Buzz”. Buzz seemed to feel a special calling in life to take a personal interest in harassing me every day.

I remember once, between classes, when I was alone with him and he was taunting me, and giving me a bad time, and I was trying to ignore him. Buzz said, “You hate my guts, don’t you, Evans?”

It took me a second to answer, during which time I thought to myself that I didn’t want to hate him, but I wasn’t sure I was being very successful at it. Then, I said, “I don’t hate you. We’re just different.” That was all I said.

It was a struggle. I wanted to be a good person. I knew that Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” (Matthew 5:44) I loved Jesus, and I wanted to do what Jesus wanted. More than that, I knew that Buzz knew this about me, and he had devoted himself to making a mockery of my desire for goodness and my desire to love Jesus.

Buzz was sure that he could prove that I was a phony, and a fake, and a hypocrite. He did everything he could to break down my resistance. I knew in my heart that Buzz was not far from the truth.

I also knew enough about the Bible, even then, to know that there was a lot of talk, in the Bible, about enemies, and the hatred of one’s enemies, and God’s hatred of evil. I knew that Jesus himself could be hot in his anger against the people who seemed to be his enemies; or was he?

There is a lot of talk about enemies and hatred in the Book of Psalms, and this talk had been set to music by the people who wrote them. The Psalms were the hymns of God’s people. They sang these songs during their worship.

Jesus grew up singing these words. “You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong. You destroy those who tell lies; bloodthirsty and deceitful men the Lord abhors.” (Psalm 5:4-6) This was one of Jesus’ songs of worship and praise all his life.

But Jesus did say, “Love your enemies.” Here is Jesus speaking for God. And Jesus prayed for his enemies while they were killing him on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Here is Jesus, loving his enemies with the compassion and mercy of the heart of God.

Do you know what it’s like to know, for certain, you have done the work of the Devil? I do. So I have been interested, for a long time, in understanding what it means to hate the enemies of God. I want to know where I stand, and what to expect. I want to know what hope I have.

I am not bloodthirsty, so maybe I am off the hook. After all, the writer of the psalm was talking about “bloodthirsty men”. (5:6)

I was talking to someone about the gospel. I was telling them about sin and our need for the saving love of God in Christ. The response of this person was they were not a sinner; they had not killed anyone. They said, “I’m not a sinner. I haven’t killed anyone.

I was surprised by this. I thought they were setting the standard rather low, and I had the feeling that what they said was misleading. Even if they hadn’t killed anyone, they knew they were a sinner. It was a kind of dishonesty. And doesn’t the psalm here tell us that God will “destroy those who tell lies”? (5:6)

Trail by Feather River
Even the matter of lies is hard. The truth is hard. The truth can hurt.

I knew this girl in college who would often quote the Apostle Paul’s phrase about, “speaking the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) She spoke the truth all the time; and it was not very nice. The truth can be used as a weapon.

What can a perfectly innocent husband say when his wife asks him a question such as, “Do you like this dress on me?” or “Do these pants make my thighs look fat?” Imagine the trouble that an innocent husband can get into; answering such questions. Maybe you can tell the truth in a lovingly redemptive way, “Honey, I love your thighs in those pants.”

I noticed a number of connections between Jesus and the words of this psalm (Psalm 5) One connection comes where Jesus lashes out against his enemies, the Pharisees (this party of people within the Jewish religion of those times who tried to make God’s laws into formal, practical, measurable things). “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs which look beautiful on the outside, but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matthew 23:27) What an interesting thing, to compare a version of holiness with death.

Jesus hated the way they took the life out of living. They took the spirit out of the life that God had designed for his people. Jesus saw a contagious deadening of the spirit. “You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But your have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” (Matthew 23:23)

You see the connection with tombs and graves, because justice, mercy, and faithfulness are living things. They contain more of the feeling and passion of life than setting apart a tenth of everything, even when that tenth part is a gift for God and his work.

The psalm says, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted; their heart is filled with destruction. Their throat is an open grave; with their tongue they speak deceit.” (5:9) There is a way of talking that creates a death of the spirit.

Tree Trunk by Feather River
The Pharisees were angry with Jesus because he spent time with people they considered to be enemies: collaborators with the Roman invaders, people who were not interested in the ways of God, and the people who knew the law and broke it. They considered these people to be the enemies. Jesus was the friend of their enemies; and the friend of their enemy was their enemy. This is what they thought of when they sang Psalm 5 in worship.

Jesus thought of the Pharisees and their like when he sang this psalm in worship. “Their throat is an open grave.” Their words deadened the passion of the life for which God made us.

C. S. Lewis wrote a novel about an unfallen world; a perfect world, where the first woman (the Eve of that world) was being tempted to do the one thing that was forbidden in her world. The tempter tempted her by telling her stories about the women in our world who broke forbidden boundaries in order to make things better for those who were not brave enough to break those boundaries for themselves. Sometimes the women in the tempter’s stories died because of what they dared to do.

The Eve character in that unfallen world did not understand what death was, and so she asked the tempter, “What is death? Are you trying to teach me death?” And the tempter said, “Yes, I have come that you might have death, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Jesus was born into our world, and our human life, in order recreate our world and our life. Jesus faced temptation and overcame it. He faced the sins of others and forgave them. He faced hypocrisy and injustice and exposed it. Then he prayed for them on the cross.

He shouldered the sins of the world on the cross. He became the sacrifice that takes away our sins, as we see him and trust in him. He became our new life, and our new world, by rising from the dead. We enter that new life and that new world as we see him and trust in him.

Feather River, East of Live Oak, CA
This mercy and life are a gift that no one can measure, and it requires us to stop measuring ourselves and others. It requires us to live by grace. It requires us to be givers of mercy and life to those around us. It requires us to be builders and not destroyers.

Think of this on a very small scale. I am eight years older than my youngest sister, Nanci. When Nanci was about two or three years old she had very plump cheeks. At that time, there was a TV western called Bonanza, and it was the story of a rancher with three sons. One of those sons was a man with very plump cheeks, who was called “Hoss”. Someone in our family started calling Nanci “Hoss”. It wasn’t my mom, or my sister Kathie. It might have been me. It might have been my dad.

It seemed like an innocent joke or a little teasing, but Nanci remembers it to this day. It was not funny to her. It was a little stab. It was also, really, a lie; a lie that stuck. It drew blood. It was a little work of the Devil. It was a little word of death.

The writer of the psalm mentions the words and the throats of the enemies because words are powerful. Even the people thousands of years ago were more than wise enough to know this.

The world we live in is no better, and since we have a lot more words buzzing around us, with all the news and commentary, and the internet, words are more powerful than ever. It is a good thing that the Bible was designed to speak about this to such an educated and civilized world as ours!

Our words, as well as our actions, stab, in countless ways, the lives of others, and we even do it to ourselves because our brains are self-programming. We take away life when we take away, by our words, what people are supposed to know about themselves as creations of God.

Peach Orchard, East of Live Oak, Irrigation
God hates this. It is the plan of God for this to stop. We know whose side we are on by what side we take; by the side our lives prove that we love.

Even this ancient song knew the secret of the answer of God to this problem in our world, and this problem in our lives. “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness because of my enemies – make straight your way before me.” (5:8)

From my own experience, I find that my enemies are not a threat simply because they are against me. They are threat because I find it so easy to be just like them and take their methods as my own.

I should say that I have no enemies. I always say that I can get along with anyone. The problem is that not everyone can get along with me.

I haven’t changed that much since I was sixteen and running the gauntlet in school. I know what enemies are, even though I think I don’t want to be one; or do I?

The picture of the enemies in the psalms is there for us; not to identify the enemies on the outside. The picture of our enemies is there to warn us not to become the enemy ourselves. Our enemies are so tempting. We would so like to be them, just once or twice. The Bible is designed and inspired to be like a mirror that shows us our own face; what we are, what we might be, what we could be.

The scriptures are also inspired to be the mirror of the Lord’s face in Christ. We need the Lord to lead us; not in our righteousness, but in his righteousness. We need to not find our own way. We need for him to make his way straight (and accessible) for us.

Irrigation District Mowing the Canal East of Live Oak
Jesus grew up singing this song of our need for God’s righteousness to come into our hearts. We need God’s righteousness to save us from becoming the enemy. Jesus grew up singing this song of the prayer that the Lord would it possible for us to walk upon God’s own personal path.

Jesus grew up to bring God’s righteousness into human hearts. Jesus grew up to become “the way”: “the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) He came to be with us so that we can live through him. This is what we come back to, over and over again, every day.


  1. O my, what an eloquent, insightful post. So glad to have discovered your blog. God bless you; have a lovely, glorious day :)