Monday, August 27, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: A Righteous Vanishing Act

Preached on Sunday, August 26, 2012
The Jesus Song-Book: A Righteous Vanishing Act”

Scripture readings: Psalm 12:1-8; Matthew 6:19-24

Years ago, when the school day always began with the pledge of allegiance to the flag, it was the first day of kindergarten, and the teacher began by teaching her class how they would begin every day. She said, “Now, boys and girls, put your hand on your heart and repeat these words after me.”

A mantis in prayer at the church door
One little boy put his hand on his bottom. The other kids laughed, and the teacher saw what was going on. She said, “Johnny! that is not your heart.” And Johnny said, “It is too my heart! When my grandma sees me, she picks me up and pats my bottom and she says, ‘Bless your little heart’ and my grandma would never lie.”

Psalm number twelve is about hearts and about truth. David felt as if he were the only one left in the world with a heart that truly loved the truth.

The psalm, by itself, doesn’t give us any clues about the events behind it. We are told that David wrote it. It could come from the time of a great and terrible change in his life.

When David was loved by King Saul, and married to the king’s daughter, everyone he knew seemed to be his friend. Everyone seemed to care about whatever it was that David cared about.

When the king turned against him, this changed. All those friends disappeared. Perhaps they didn’t disappear instantly. Perhaps they stayed just long enough to come to David privately, and say something kind and supportive. Then they disappeared. Most of the people on whom David depended did a vanishing act, and they were gone.

A view of the cemetery
On the hill high above Washtucna WA
It was this great disappearance that inspired the cry for help at the beginning of this psalm. David was mourning the loss of his friends. They were not lost in death. They were lost through their unfaithfulness. They were lost because their friendship had turned out to be a lie. Their friendship had been nothing more than the flattery that people pay to the popular; but only for as long as that person remains popular.

So David sang this song to the Lord, “Help, Lord, for the godly are no more; the faithful have vanished from among men. Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak with deception.” (Psalm 1:1-2)

If David’s false friends had heard his new song and realized that it was all about them, they would have objected. They would have insisted that David was going too hard on them. David was being unfair.

Didn’t he know first hand what was happening to the King and the kingdom? The King was insane. The King was demented. The King was dangerous. There was no telling what he might do next. Wasn’t one of David’s most important jobs singing and playing the harp to calm the King when he fell into one of his black moods?

If David had to run for his life, at least (if he could get far enough away) he would be safe. But what about them! Poor them! They had to stay with the King and see to the business of the kingdom. They had to stay and risk those famous black moods. They had to hope they could escape the royal spear in the chest that the King nearly gave to David. David owed them pity, not blame. Poor them!
On my walk, looking back to church and school in Washtucna

The irony is that the loyalty of these false friends to the King was just as much a lie as their friendship to David had been. The irony is that David was always a better friend to the king than they were. David was marked by the King for death, but he went on protecting the frontiers and, whenever the King came within David’s reach, within his grasp, David always protected him and gave him another chance.

What David gave the King was what he had also given to these friends of his, until he saw them for what they were. What David gave the King was true loyalty and true friendship, even when the King marked him as his enemy. What David gave so truly, was what he looked for in others.

The “godly” and the “faithful” did their vanishing act right before David’s eyes. They were not what they had seemed to be. David had been deceived and he did not think himself wrong to blame them for it.

Do you know that we are supposed to be the godly and the faithful for each other? We need this from others and they need if from us: or, if not from us, then from whom?

This is what we were created for. This is our calling and our job. Godly and faithful are qualities that have their root in God. They represent, in human form, what God is. They are the qualities that belong to us as creations of God; created “in his image”.

Mr. and Mrs. Grasshopper and Grasshopper Jr.
The word translated as “godly” almost defies definition. When you say that a person moves “slowly”, you describe them as tending toward “slowness”. When you say that a person is “godly”, you describe them as tending toward God. That is the way that English grammar works

Godliness describes a person moving in the direction of God. But the direction of this godliness has a special quality about it. Godly, here, translates a word that describes the steadfast love of God for those to whom he commits himself. It is a love that is unalterable and unchanging. Godliness means moving in the direction of giving to God and to your fellow humans the steadfast love of God.

Those who are godly embody this love. Their actions and their words are one with, and inseparable from, this steadfast love.

Some of the grain elevators at Washtucna WA
Faithful is the quality of trustworthiness. It is what you can absolutely rely on. It is the essence of motherhood and fatherhood at their best. Parenthood is what God is, and it is what we are supposed to be; as creatures who are made in his image. We are created to be caregivers and nurturers for our world and for our fellow creatures, including human beings.

Steadfast love and faithfulness are the qualities that are abundant in God. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, this is what he saw. The Lord came to Moses and declared what he called his name, or his nature. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness….” (Exodus 34:5-7)

David’s false friends used their talk to portray themselves as “godly and faithful” when they were not. Maybe this is being too hard on them. Maybe they really wanted to be David’s friends, but they also wanted to live with the King, and eat his food, and have all the nice things that went along with this, no matter how unstable and dangerous the King might be.

They wanted too many things and, as they say, “You can’t have everything.” It was a matter of the heart. Their heart was in the right place, but it was also trying to be in too many other places at the same time. There was no reliable way to tell where they really stood. It made them into liars.

A dog on the road to the cemetery above Washtucna WA
In the Bible the heart is not the center of  the emotions. The heart is the center of the will. The heart is what makes the crucial choice. It is the center of your desire. It is the part of you that considers everything and then it says, “This is what I want. This is how I will think. This is what I will do. This is what I will be. This is where I will stand.”

What David says about these false friends is that they have double hearts. The New International Version says, “Everyone lies to his neighbor; their flattering lips speak deception.” It should say, “They speak with flattering lips and double hearts.” That would be a more literal translation. “They speak with flattering lips and double hearts.”

Their hearts were divided. They wanted things that couldn’t exist together. It would be like wanting your chocolate milk hot and cold at the same time and in the same cup.

Some things are really hard to keep together. It would be like wanting to be an honest person, and also wanting to run for high public office at the same time.  It would be like wanting to be popular and wanting to have integrity at the same time. It would be like wanting to be unselfish and also wanting to get your own way at the same time. It is dangerous work to be double hearted.

A crow on the gate above the cemetery at Washtucna WA
There can be a real difference between wanting people to like you and wanting people to love and trust you. There can be a difference between being cool, and being good parents; unless you can prove that the real definition of the coolness of a parent is being a good parent.

There can be a difference between being smart and being wise. Wisdom often deals with knowing what it is that you don’t know. And being smart or being wise can both get you into a lot of trouble; only they get you into completely different kinds of trouble.

If you are double hearted, then you have at least twice as many hearts as you can keep track of, and you cannot know yourself. You will have no idea of who you really are. Others will have to learn from experience (perhaps the hard way) what it is that your two hearts really want, and which of your two hearts is the stronger one, and how to deal with you accordingly, or how to let you alone.

The psalm tells us that double hearted people are what most of us are, or what we are without God. Double hearted is what even the godly and the faithful become when they forget God. The psalm tells us about what God thinks about all this.

God speaks up in this psalm and makes a promise. “Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise”, says the Lord, “I will protect them from those who malign them.” (Psalm 12:5)

Remember that this is God’s answer to David. In David’s life the godly and the faithful had ceased to exist. They were exposed as liars. Between their two hearts, their life was an emptiness and a lie.
As the crow flies...

David was impoverished by this. He was maligned by them as if they had slapped him in the face. When you think you know where you stand with people who seem to treat you kindly, and seem to be people you can trust, waking up to reality is horrible. It makes you sick. You feel weak. You feel like you have been robbed. Your soul groans.

The Lord says, “I will now arise.” This is what the Lord has done in Jesus. In a world where love is often not steadfast, where the faithful are unfaithful, God comes, in Jesus, to embody steadfast love and faithfulness.

He comes in Jesus to be this for us, when steadfast love and faithfulness seem to have disappeared. He comes in Jesus so that we can become for others what Jesus is for us.

God came in Jesus and grew up singing this song about the lives that are injured by the vanishing act of those who are supposed to be godly and faithful. God came in Jesus and grew up singing this song about keeping his promise to arise, and to help us in our great need. He sang this song about his promise to bring steadfast love and faithfulness back to the world, and back to the human hearts that have grown tired of their double lives.

That is who we are. When we see God as he truly is, in Jesus, we see the emptiness of our double hearts, and we want a new heart. God came in Jesus to make us single hearted, through the work of his love for us and for this world that he created.

God came in Jesus to suffer the penalty of our double heartedness on the cross, and he defeated the power of that double heartedness through his resurrection.

This is how he makes us whole. Through Jesus, and his cross, and his resurrection, we see the beauty of the single hearted love of God, and we receive the power of God to have one single heart, like his heart, beating within us.

His power makes us able to give that heart back to him. Then we are able to give ourselves to others who need us to be godly and faithful, and we will not do a vanishing act in the end.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: Don't Panic

Preached on Sunday, August 19, 2012

Scripture readings:  Psalm 11:1-7; Matthew 7:24-27 

There is a saying that goes like this: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!” This came to mind while I was thinking about this psalm. ‘In the Lord I take refuge. How can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to your mountain”?’ “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalm 11:1-3)

There were people around David telling him to give up. But it was much more dramatic than that. It was a warning. It was urgent. Run for your life. Let go of the rope. Fly away! It was all in the spirit of panic.
Stormy Summer Sky, Washtucna WA

There are no clues in this Psalm telling us the situation behind the fears and the warnings. The truth is that David did a lot of running in his life.

David became a successful king of his people, but he was a very unsuccessful father of his own children. He seemed not to know what to do with them. He ignored horrible things done by his children to each other when they grew older, including rape and murder.

His failure as a father created some monsters, like his son Absalom. Absalom grew up in the chaos, and grew bitter, and staged a coup that brought down the government for a while. He essentially out maneuvered his father, and David had to go on the run. He had to run for his life.

The foundations of his life and everything he had built seemed on the verge of destruction. And David ran away.

He ran away in order to fight back. This was a hard battle for him to face, but he decided to resist and fight; if not for himself, at least to resist and fight for those who had served him; for those who had befriended him along the way, for those whose lives depended on him.

Here David was not the one who wanted to tie a knot at the end of his rope and hold on. It was his friends who were telling him not to fly away (at least not too far); and not to run but to stand his ground.

It was earlier in his life that David had learned to be a strategic runner. As a teenager, with a slingshot, he had killed the gigantic enemy soldier named Goliath, in a duel to the death. It was a duel fought to decide a stalemated battle.

David’s victory was a victory for his people. Because of his surprising success, he became a favorite warrior of King Saul.

He won Saul’s heart. He won the hand of the King’s daughter in marriage. He won a high commission in the army. He won the friendship of the Crown Prince Jonathan, the heir to the throne. He won the affection of his people.
My Garden "Early Girl" (Variety) Tomato

David seemed to live a charmed life, a blessed life. He was a good man who came out of nowhere and was given life’s gifts on a silver platter.

Then he won the suspicion of the king. He won the status of being marked for death. In spite of David’s loyalty, Saul saw him as a dangerous rival.

David had to become a runner; a strategic runner. He actually continued to serve the king and his people. He continued to fight against their enemies. He defended the frontier. More than once, he protected the king’s life who continued to mark him for death.

But David did this on the run. He often just barely escaped the king’s raids and traps. Those who wanted the king’s favor would report to him on David’s movements and whereabouts. David survived by making himself a moving target; a running target.

David seemed to live a charmed life in reverse. He was a good man who was marked as a bad man. The hand that had given him everything now took everything away. David’s gifts as a commander in the king’s army now made him a chief of the outlaws.

His good motives where not honored. His good work was not rewarded. His family ties betrayed him. The way his country was supposed to work, didn’t work for him. This went on for years; for years. The foundations of his good life had been destroyed, and what could the righteous do?

Apparently David had friends who advised him to give it all up and walk away from a bad game. Just walk off the field; or else run. Fly away as fast and as far as you can.

David did not follow their advice. He was a disciplined and strategic runner. He worked his running into the game. He might run and run, but he would never leave the field. He refused to go away.

During the American Revolution, our army was never a match for the British army. We lost most of our major battles against the British. General George Washington learned, the hard way, not to fight the British on their terms. Washington really won the war by effectively running away, but also (most importantly) by never going away. He never stopped.

My Garden "Cubanelle" (Variety) Pepper
I remember, one time after I had grown up, arguing with my dad. I feel foolish telling you what the argument was about. It wasn’t about anything important. It was this. My dad believed that the pyramids of Egypt were built by aliens from outer space. I politely disagreed.

Every now and then he would bring this up. One day he did it again, and something snapped, and I couldn’t take it any more. So I argued with him.

We just went on, and on, and on, and on, and on. Finally, my dad said, “You don’t know when to stop.” If he had only thought about this, he would realize that I had learned this from him. Once my dad made up his mind about something, he would never give it up. He would never stop.

There is a great power that comes from not having enough sense to stop. Sometimes we can call this faith.

David had friends who wanted him to stop. They had arguments that made perfect sense. David was in an impossible situation. His position was completely unwinnable. David was completely outmatched, but he tied a knot on the end of his rope and he held on.

Actually it was a knot that was there all along. It was God. There is a saying that goes like this: “When you get to your wit’s end you will find God lives there.”

For a long time the question in this psalm has fascinated me: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” The answer, as I see it, comes at the end of the psalm: “The Lord is righteous, he loves justice; the upright will see his face.”

David knew that he had a choice. It was a choice of either looking at the crumbling foundations or looking at God. Righteousness, here, is about doing what is right, saying what is right, thinking what is right, believing what is right, and never stopping.

David’s friends were looking at the foundations being destroyed and they were dismayed. They were on the verge of panic, and they wanted to involve David in their panic.

David was looking at something completely different. He was looking at who the Lord is, and what the Lord loves. David saw the Lord’s face, and he saw nothing there to dismay him; and he saw no reason there for panic.

David and his friends had different foundations. David’s foundation was the Lord.
My Garden: A Cucumber

David had the gift of making friends, and he was often very good at choosing good friends. David’s friends were just as much God’s people as he was, but these friends seemed to live in a different mental world.

They had so much in common with our own world today. They lived, and we live, in a world of a contagious selective amnesia. We forget that the Lord is our way: “the way, and the truth, and the life”. And we forget that the Lord is the real foundation of everything.

After all, the Lord made the heavens, and the earth, and all things visible and invisible. God still makes everything. The Lord still is King. The Lord rules!

The mental world we live in exists in a continual state of crisis and panic; and it is contagious. Even God’s people catch the contagion and spread it among themselves. Election time is the worst time for this.

A Praying Mantis on the Church Door
If we look at the politics of our own nation we can see the contagion of panic. Both sides seem to tell us that this November will either bring the salvation or the doom of the nation.

When we look at the culture and the spiritual state of our nation, we also see the crumbling of the foundations. As God’s people, we think that one of the most important foundations of our heritage is faith, and we see the decline of the value and the unity of faith.

But faith is not our foundation. Faith was not the foundation of the colonists who came to the original colonies, even when they came here for the freedom of living their faith. Their foundation was not their faith. Their foundation was God.

Faith was not their heritage. Faith was the gift of God who was the ground that fed their roots. God was the rock that supported them as their real foundation. Their faith was created by God, and they trusted in God to continually recreate and renew their faith.

If they and their communities lost their faith, they trusted God to bring them to faith again, in his own time. They would be concerned for this. They would work for this. They would pray for this. But they would not panic over this, because they remembered to focus on the foundation that never changes. They remembered to see the face of the Lord who does not know when to stop.

This is true of everything we hold dear: in our church, in our small communities, in our nation. This is true of every relationship we treasure and value; our loved ones, our work, our way of life, and everything that shapes us.

It is true that everything is a potential source of panic if it goes wrong. Everything we know could come crashing down, and bring us down with it. This is true.

A Rabbit on my Driveway
But Jesus is the Lord who came down to us with a faithfulness that does not stop. This is where we can see his face. Nothing is more foundational to God than his own faithfulness.

His faithfulness is wrapped up in his holiness. His faithfulness goes hand in hand with his love of righteousness and justice. His faithfulness is a thing that refuses to stop, even in the face of death itself. His faithfulness is a foundation that never stops, even on a cross.

God’s faithfulness is the foundation that cannot be destroyed. Those who truly build upon that foundation will not panic.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: The King's Justice

Preached on Sunday, August 12, 2012
Scripture readings: Psalm 9:1-20; Psalm 10:1-11; Luke 6:20-23

An elderly lady was driving a big, expensive car, and she went to back into a parallel parking space. Before she could do it, a young man in a small sports car whipped into her spot.

Seagull on Santa Monica Pier
She was so mad that she actually got out of her car and demanded to know why he had done this when it was clear that she was in the process of parking there. He said, “Because I am young and quick.”

He went in to do his shopping and came out to find the older woman using her big car as a battering ram on his car. He yelled, “Why are you doing this?” And the lady said, “Because I am old and rich!” (No source available; “Parables, Etc., Apr ’84)

The news is full of stories of people who do outrageous and horrible things because they can. The Bible is also full of such stories. The people in them are like this. Here is how they think: ‘He says to himself, “Nothing will shake me; I will always be happy and never have trouble.”’ (Psalm 10:6) It’s the justification (or the illusion) of the invulnerable (or of those who think they are invulnerable).

There are stories like this in families, and in big and little towns. There are stories like this in business, and politics, and religion. There are stories like this in every social class; and on the level of governments and nations. The motivation is this: “I will do it because I want to; and because I can; and because I think I can get away with it.” This is how injustice happens, person against person, group against group.

Santa Monica Pier, southern California

It makes me want to shout. It makes me want to weep. Then I ask myself this question: “Have I ever done something I am ashamed of because I wanted to, and because I could, and because I though I could get away with it?” A further question is: “Have I ever been caught? And, has justice been dealt out to me?”

My answer to the first question is: “Yes.” At first thought, my answer to this last question is, “Sometimes.” The real answer is, “Always.” If I haven’t been dealt justice yet, it is still a work in process. I am still waiting for that letter, that phone call, or that knock on the door: you know; about that library book, or some other issue.

A century and more ago, parents were known to hang a certain picture in their children’s room. It was a picture of an eye. It was the eye of God. And it had a verse from the book of Genesis that says, “Thou, God, seest me.” “God, you see me.” (Genesis 16:13)

It comes from the story of Hagar and her child Ishmael, after they were driven away from their home, and God brought water to them in the desert. It is a verse about God seeing in order to take care of us.

But, if you are a child, the idea of God watching you when you think you are alone (or not under your parents’ supervision) in your room would be a scary thing. What if God saw what I said to my sister, or my cousin, or my friend?

View north from Santa Monica Pier.
But the question of what God sees goes far beyond the issues of kids’ stuff. It becomes a much bigger question in the world of adults. There are people who have a good reason to fear what God sees in our world of adults. This is about betrayal, and deception. This is about injury, abuse, and injustice. There are people who don’t want to be seen

We have an even greater reason to want God to see. We agonize (in hope and in prayer) that God will indeed see: see and respond. If only God would see and respond to human acts of injustice; person against person, group against group.

The writer of Psalms nine and ten looks at his nation and the need for God to see what goes on there and respond. There are individuals, and groups, and whole patterns and systems that steal, or trick, or lie, in order to victimize the innocent.

They do this because they want to, and because they can, and because they think that they can get away with it. Isn’t it the purpose of the news to tell us about this every day, and make sure we don’t forget it, and never give us a moment’s peace?

The writer of these psalms looks beyond his own nation. He sees such patterns among the nations of the world, as far as he can see. Does God see?
Tanker off the coast at Santa Monica

The psalms teach us to pray our way through this question. Psalm Nine and Psalm Ten help us pray our way through both sides of this question.

In some ancient manuscripts these two psalms are written as one. That is a story in itself (and it is a story that goes back two or three centuries before the time of Christ), and that is one of the reasons why the two psalms are written as one in Catholic Bibles, though not in ours.

The Psalms state a principle of one of the things we believe by faith. Psalm Nine says, “The Lord is known by his justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.” (Psalm 9:16) This is the message of faith. But the word of God, the way we find it in the Book of Psalms, teaches us to work through this message the long way, from doubt to faith.

Driving up the California Coast toward Malibu
So Psalm Ten starts by saying, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) It takes its time to look at the horrible thought in some detail. And then it says, “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you…” (Psalm 10:14)

Jesus grew up singing all these verses as hymns of worship, with his family, and friends, and neighbors, in the synagogue. And, as Jesus sang, somehow his heart told him that this message was all about him. It was truly his job to see trouble and grief. It was his job to consider it, and to take it in hand: like the psalms said.

Jesus grew to see the sort of self deceit with which humans cover themselves; the self deceit that makes the injustice in these psalms possible. He saw that it was like a disease that filled the world with hurt. It needed to be dealt with. It needed to be taken in hand. It needed healing.

The Psalms cried for God to reach out to a hurting world: “Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death.” (Psalm 10:13) So Jesus grew up and found his heart telling him to reach out in mercy and lift us up from the gates of death.

Jesus did this in a way that is totally different from the ways of this world, where authorities and agencies reach in to bring a solution from the outside. Jesus dealt with the injustice of this world from the inside; from inside the world of the human heart and mind.

Jesus traveled to the gates of death to lift us out of there. Jesus took the injustices of the world into his nail-pierced hands on cross. From the cross, he came very near to saying what the Psalm says, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” He came close to this though the words of another psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1 and Matthew 27:46)

Driving up the California Coast toward Malibu
He came very close to saying, with the psalm, “The victim commits himself to you.” He said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46) These psalms told Jesus who he was, and how he would lift us from the gates of death.

Jesus is the Word of God made flesh; made human. (John 1:1-18) In the song book that Jesus knew so well, the written Word of God told Jesus, the living Word of God, all about himself: who he was when he came down from heaven to Bethlehem; who he was as he grew up in the village of Nazareth. The Word of God told the Word of God what he had come to do for us; to lift us from the gates of death.

On the cross, Jesus takes a world of hurt and injustice in hand. He brings together a heart wracked with questions, and pain, and injustice and, at the same time, a heart full of trust that knows how to be at rest.

He came to take upon himself the poverty of the cross. He took upon himself the poverty of a world of injustice. And he could tell us to believe that we could trust him and what he had come to do for us: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” It takes faith to say this with integrity.

Jesus could say, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Luke 6:20-23) He could say this because he knew it, and because it was his work to make it possible. He told us to live in trust and hope, believing in the power of what he would do for the world through his cross and his resurrection.
Backward glance of the ocean, Decker Canyon, CA

If you have ever been the object of injustice, if you have ever been innocent and found yourself attacked, or victimized, or betrayed, then you know how deadly the affect of this is on your heart, and mind; upon your whole life. The Psalms tells us that it is as deadly for those who do the injustice as it is for those on the receiving end of injustice.

It is not the cross alone that saves us. It is the power of the resurrection, along with the cross, that saves us, and sets us free, and makes us new. The power of Jesus, in his resurrection from the dead, lifts us “up from the gates of death.”

Psalm Ten, which begins with agony, tells us about a kind of faith we can have when the justice of God; even when that justice is still unseen and unfelt. It says, “The victim commits himself to you.”

You don’t yet see how the Lord will take the injustice in hand, but you can see yourself in his hands. You can put yourself there. You can leave yourself there. And then you are able to go forth and leave that darkness and deadliness of spirit behind you.

Maybe you could get a sense of this by using the kind of prayer that puts you on your knees, or even face down on the floor or the ground. Pray, and give up to God everything that agonizes you. Give it to God.
View in Decker Canyon

Imagine it as a kind of residue, or a grease stain, that you leave behind you (there on the floor, there on the ground) when you get up and go forth from your prayer. Look behind you and see that you have left it there. I was about twenty years old when I first leaned to do this. I have to do it again and again.

The Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller, in his book “The Reason for God”, quotes the old Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote about the effects of the work of God to lift us up into a life of hope: “I believe, like a child, that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small…mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they have shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.” (“The Brothers Karamazov”; Chapter 34; or Part 5, Chapter 3, Ivan speaking to Alyosha)
View of Decker Canyon, CA

That is what these psalms tell us. It is what they know by faith. They do not explain how it happens, but they put it into words that are like music for the heart.

They tell us that, if only we will listen, and pray through it the long way, from doubt to trust, we will learn the faith of these psalms. We will learn to say, as they say: “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O Most High.” (Psalm 9:1-2) These psalms sing this way about the hurt and injustice of the world because they know the truth that, “You, O God do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand.”

Jesus came, in his own way, to take it all in hand. In faith, we commit ourselves to him.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Jesus Song-Book: The Glory of Little Things

Preached on Sunday, August 5, 2012

Scripture readings: Psalm 8; Matthew 21:12-17

A little girl was drawing a picture in Sunday school, and her teacher asked her what it was. The child said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “No one knows what God looks like.” The girl answered, “They will in a minute.”

What the child did through her picture, the children in the psalm did through their voices. They made a picture with words. “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.” (Psalm 8:2)

Nature Park near Long Beach, CA
The children made a picture of praise. “O LORD our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” There are two “Lords” in this line. The first “LORD” (which, in English Bibles, is always spelled all in capital letters) is the name that the psalm talks about. It names who God is. The second “Lord” is a glimpse into what God does.

The second “Lord” (written mostly in small letters) is about what God does, and it tells us that God rules. God governs. God keeps order.

The first “LORD” is about who God is. It is the name that God gives to himself. It means, “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.” (Exodus 3:14)

This name is the name for God when he touches us in making us; when he bends down to our world and makes us from the earth. (Genesis 2:6) It is the name for God when he hears us and answers us. It is the name for God when he forgives us, and rescues us, and saves us. It is the name for God when he commits himself to us and makes a relationship with us that he will not turn away from; to which he is always faithful. It is the name for God that he uses as the God of steadfast love.

When the children in the psalm make their picture of praise it is about this name. “O LORD our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

“Majestic” means “excellent”, “wonderful”, “great”, and “awesome”. The name of God is his true identity; as the one who touches us when he makes us; who hears us, and answers us, and forgives us; who rescues and saves us; who commits himself to us and makes a relationship with us; and who is forever faithful and a God of love: this is the name that is excellent and awesome. The excellent identity of God is what makes his kingdom excellent.

The name of God, the identity of God, is the place where children see his kingdom: “O LORD our Lord”. Here is where they paint their picture of praise, because who God “is” is what the kingdom of God is all about.

Psalm number eight looks at the activity of children making their picture of praise, and it sees that this is the most excellent part of the kingdom of God. The praise of children is some of God’s best work. This is the fact that silences the enemy; because the name of God is all about relationship. This is his greatest weapon, and it shows us how differently God sees things than we do.

John & Diana's Garden, Fullerton CA
It is the same with the picture of the man, the human being crowned with glory and honor. The picture shows the glory and honor of being created for the purpose of serving as a kind of bridge between heaven and earth.

Being “a little lower than the angels” means occupying a place that works for heaven on earth. It means being on earth in such a way as to do for the earth and for its creatures what God would do. We were created to embody God’s relationship to his creation.

God created humans in his image to have dominion over the earth, but dominion doesn’t mean domination. If we are created to have dominion over the earth; and if we are created in God’s image; then our dominion will reflect God’s dominion. God did not create us to dominate us, but to love us. God did not create us to dominate the world, but to faithfully rule it in love, and for the sake of sheer delight.

This psalm tells us a lesson that runs completely opposite to the conventional wisdom of this world. This psalm tells us that the greatest things in creation are not the creation we see above us that goes on, and on, and on.

The greatest things are not planets, moons, stars, and suns. The greatest things are not oceans, and mountains, and sunrises, and sunsets. The greatest things in God’s creation are the beings who live on the worlds that God has made; beings made from the dust of their worlds, who learn to govern the creation around them in love. And the greatest things are the little and the young who paint pictures of praise that show the excellence of the faithfulness of God.

Adam and Eve were the first humans in whom God set his image. They were meant to be a kind of bridge or relationship between heaven and earth, between God and the world. They were created to be the kingdom of God on earth, just as solid and rooted in their world as the earth from which they were formed.

They failed their calling because they took themselves too seriously. They really did want to be like gods; only gods of their own self-making, and their own self-controlling.

In the Old Testament, King David, who wrote so many of the psalms, saw this. He also saw another possibility. He saw that the God of relationship, faithfulness, and love still wanted this connection: not the glory of space, and of stars, and of worlds; but the glory of creatures like us, joining heaven and earth together. David saw that God had a plan to do this in a way that could not fail, and could not be broken.

John & Diana's Garden, Fullerton, CA
David saw that God intended to use even him in this plan. God intended to use David, and his family, and his descendents to weave a history of families who trusted and waited for God to keep his promises.

From their hope (even when their hope seemed hopeless) there would come a man named Jesus to walk this world as the bridge between heaven and earth. In this Jesus all things would be joined together for ever because, in Jesus, God brought himself and his human creation together as one.

This man would hold the dominion that was empowered by love and sacrifice. In a vast universe this man would paint the true picture of God by caring for the greatest things even when they looked like the littlest things; the weakest and most foolish things.

When Jesus came to Jerusalem he went to the Temple, and there he chased out those who exchanged currency and those who sold animals for sacrifice. It was the children, singing there, who drew a picture of praise for this.

Jesus was the messiah, the king of the Kingdom of God. But he was a king who loved to hear children and simple people sing. He was one of them. He was the baby in the manger. He was the carpenter from a tiny village called Nazareth.

What the children who sang could not know (and what would have made them stop singing) was that, very soon, Jesus would become a convicted criminal, sentenced to death by crucifixion, killed, and buried. Jesus was the king who joined God with the littlest, and the weakest, and the most foolish things.

When Jesus took over the temple, there was no one left to exchange the currency. The people only had their Roman and Greek money with pictures of the gods and of the divine emperor. You couldn’t use such pagan things for an offering in the place where you came to meet with God. You couldn’t use such money to buy doves, or lambs as your sacrifice for thanks or forgiveness. Jesus had even chased away the sellers of sacrifices. Jesus made the Temple useless.

Nature Park near Long Beach, CA
There was no sacrifice left in the Temple to bring sinners back into fellowship with God. There was no sacrifice left but Jesus who ruled there. The sinners came to him and they were forgiven, as only God could forgive. (Mark 2:1-12)

The blind and the lame had been forbidden by the law from entering enter the Temple. They could only wait outside and beg. With Jesus ruling his kingdom in the Temple the outcasts could come to the place of the presence of God and be accepted, and healed, and changed.

The big priestly choirs were gone. God’s praises were sung by the young and the small. They could see the kingdom of God, when the wise were blind to it. Earlier, Jesus had said, “I praise you, Father, the Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” (Matthew 11:25)

This is the dominion of God. Without God coming into this world, in Jesus, to be the man (the human in God’s image) that we could never be, we would all belong to the “den of thieves” that Jesus saw in the Temple.

“Den of thieves” described the life of rebels who have to hide in caves in the wilderness and make a living by robbery and ransom until they find some way to take the kingdom for themselves. The Temple had become a cave of rebels holding out against God.

In Jesus, the Temple stopped being a place that other people could control and use. In Jesus, the Temple (the place where God and humans meet) became Jesus himself. Jesus is the King and the Temple of the Kingdom of God. The children who sang “Hosanna” were singing about this, even though they didn’t understand it.

The wise, no matter how religious or spiritual they were, followed the conventional wisdom of the world. They looked at Jesus and saw only weakness and foolishness. For one thing, if Jesus had anything to do with the kingdom of God, he should stop fighting against them and start fighting the Romans. Jesus seemed determined to do what was worthless in its weakness, and he would pay for it. The wise watched the children sing and they saw that Jesus was pleased by what was worthless and foolish.

The wise looked at their Temple and their city, and they saw accumulated wealth, and wisdom, and grandeur, and beauty, and tradition, and they saw defensible walls of stone. These were the important things, not forgiveness, or healing, or children singing praise.

The foe and the avenger is our own heart. Our own heart and mind do not see the majesty of God where it really is. Our world tells us to look at the heavens and the vastness of space to be inspired. The world tells us to look at the world of nature.

These are wonderful things, but God’s word tells us to look at the people God has made. God has created them to be relationships, to be bridges of love. God’s word tells us to look at the children who have such a capacity for wonder and praise and think about them, because they live totally in their relationships.

Nature Park near Long Beach, CA
I know parents who confess that they did not understand their own life until they held a child of their own in their arms. Then they knew what was important. Then they knew how they would have to change. The life of the grown up would have to change to fit the child. This is also true of the Kingdom of God, if we want to be children there.

One morning, during Vacation Bible School, I saw a kid hiding in one of the window wells of the church basement windows, on the south side of our building. Go and look at those and think how long it has been since you were small enough to hide in one of those.

Children are small enough to see and go where we can’t. We can see the glory of God in the night sky, or in the fields that spread out around us to the horizon; but we can’t see God in other people; not even when those other people gather to worship and pray.

Psalm number eight tells us that it is our nature to doubt that God is present especially in another person when, all the while, God has “crowned that person with glory and honor.” Maybe no one can see it yet. Maybe they don’t know it themselves. But Christ is the bridge between heaven and earth. Through his dying and rising for each one of us, God came in Jesus to crown us with his glory and honor.

God came in Jesus to make us an acting part of his dominion of love. Beyond your self, God wants you to imagine the crown that awaits the person in whose life you do not see the glory of God.

Somewhere I read that the world of nature around us and the whole universe really only show us the back side of God’s glory. The image of God’s face is found in human beings who cause us so much confusion, and struggle, and pain.

God is a God of relationships, and the face of God is seen in our relationships, and that is why Jesus calls us into fellowship. The word of God calls that fellowship the Church, the body of Christ.

God is seen in the face and the voice of his people when they gather together in faithful relationship. It is our relationship that is Christ’s face. It is our relationship that forms the voice, the hands, and the feet of Jesus in our world.

We live in a time when the conventional wisdom tells us that a relationship is precisely something that doesn’t last, because it is called a relationship. This world tells us that families themselves are expendable, or that they are of value only as they serve us, not as we serve them.

Nature Park near Long Beach, CA
But relationships and families (even when the church is such a family) all have a God whose name makes them holy. They seem like one of the little things (the weak and foolish things) that we can safely ignore. We wonder how God could expect so much from them. But, once again, children know better.

Children praise such things, and relationships are holy to them. Let us seek a miracle from the God who makes us his children in Jesus. Through him, let us become the kind of children who can paint a true picture of God in our lives and in our relationships, so that others will be able to look at us there, and know what the LORD himself looks like; and recognize his voice when he calls to them.