Praise Awaits You | Psalm 65

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

Psalm 65 is a communal song of praise. It invites us out of ourselves and calls us to give thanks to the one from whom all blessings flow.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion. To you our vows will be fulfilled. To you all people will come. To you. To you. To you.

This psalm is about God. And I’m thinking that for us, this thanksgiving holiday is also about God.   

Of course, in our culture, thanksgiving means many things. Its a celebration of the harvest. A time to get together with family and friends. These things are good.

But we who believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, we look beyond the things of this world. The harvest, family… all these things come not to us by chance, but from God’s Fatherly hand.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

Psalm 65 gives us three reasons why God is to be praised. But before going into those reasons, a word about what it means to praise.

Praise grows out of a thankful heart. Its an expression of gratitude. You praise the chef, because you are thankful for the meal. You give your mom and big hug and celebrate her, because you are thankful for her presence in your life 

Praise is our gut reaction to things that delight us and are valuable to us.

The other day, I made an apple crisp. And when Brittney told our children that we were having apple crisp for desert, my children went crazy. They jumped up and down. They yelled: “Thank you, thank you thank you thank you. Apple crisp, apple crisp, apple crisp.

To praise is to let what you are experiencing on the inside to come out. Sometimes we clap. Sometimes we jump up and down. Sometimes we sing. We are trying to give voice, in a fitting way, to the thankfulness and joy we feel inside.

And its pleasurable to give voice to that thankfulness. You feel alive when you let it out. It feels wrong to be a keep it within. I mean, try not clapping after a soloist nails her part. Its hard not to clap. It feels good and right to let it out.

Its pleasurable to praise, and its also healthy.

One of my friends deals with chronic pain. Its something that she will probably have to for the rest of her life. She’s been in pain for so many years that the pain has impacted her brain. Now she feels pain, even if there isn’t actually any painful thing happening in her body. Somehow, the pathways in her brain have formed to play that mean little trick.

She went to the pain clinic not long ago, and part of her therapy involves trying to reform those pathways in her brain. The only way to do that is to practice gratitude. To express thankfulness. Its healthy to praise.

And it fits our design. The 2nd century theologian, Irenaeus, once said: “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” By this he meant that we are never more alive, never more fully human, then when we are expressing thanks and praise to God. 

And that’s because he is the being of ultimate value. He alone is the worthy of our thanks and praise. We were made to delight in him and to express gratitude.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion. 

Why praise God? Psalm 65 gives us three reasons. 

Firstly, God is be praised, because he forgives and fills our lives with good things in this  presence.

When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions. Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts! We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple. Psalm 65:3-4

You may not know this about Brittney, but Brittney’s favourite day of the week is garbage and compost day. She is overjoyed when the garbage and compost trucks unloads our bins, and she gets very upset if I forget to bring the bins out. Don’t mess with garbage day.

I don’t share Brittney’s obsession with this, but I do get it. I mean, there’s a two week supply of dirty diapers in that garbage bin. And a two week supply of rotting food in that green bin. There are going to get messy and smelly, if we have to wait two weeks more weeks.

Well, it strikes me that sin is a little bit like garbage and compost in our life. It builds up and it begins to stink. You try to keep in contained, but the pile gets bigger. You try to hide the smell from visitors, but eventually it gets out.

Imagine if we lived in a world where sin stuck around, and there was no way to empty the bin. 

God is to be praised, the Psalmist says, because he forgives.

Kippur is the Hebrew world being used verse 3. It means to cover over, or to make atonement for. Perhaps you’ve heard of Yom Kappir—the day of atonement.

In many ways, the day of atonement was the apex of the Jewish Calendar.

The highlight of the day took place in the temple court. A priest would come out with a goat. And then, laying hands on the goat, the priest would pray a communal prayer of confession. The idea was that the sin of the people was being transferred to the goat.

And then, once the prayer was done, the priest would chase the goat out of the temple, and then someone else would chase the goat deep out of the city and into the wilderness.

The whole event was meant to convey the reality that God had dealt with the sins of the people. That “As far as the east is from the west, so far have has he removed our transgressions.” (Psalm 103)

Its such a deep human need, eh? Forgiveness. Thanks be to God that he does not leave us with our trash.

God used the blood of a goat in the Old Testament. But the sacrifice was never final. It was simply a shadow of things to come. But when the time was right, Christ entered the world. John the Baptist summarized Jesus identity and ministry: “Look the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus was driven out of the city. And there in the wilderness, he was nailed to the cross. The one for the many. Atonement. The forgiveness of sins.

Not only did God take out the trash, in Christ, but he has also filled us with good things in his presence.

I mean, those who make their home in Christ, no longer live in a trashy house. Through the Spirit, God has formed a new house. A Holy House. You get new clothing in this house. New brothers and sisters. A set-aside seat at the Father’s table. Good things!

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

So God is to be praised for his work in Spiritual renewal. But he’s also to be praised because he is sovereign. This is what’s being communicated in verses 5 through 8.

God revealed his sovereignty when he delivered his people from Egypt. He displayed his power over Pharaoh and nature with the 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

And at creation, God displayed his authority by overcoming the forces of chaos and creating habitable order through his word.

You know, scientists have often said that its amazing that we exist at all. A lot of things had to line up just so in order for life to flourish. Get too much closer to the sun, and we’d all burn. Get too much further away and we’d all freeze.

Who do we have to thank for all this? Our lucky stars? Mother Nature?

Not a chance, says the Psalmist. The Lord be praised.

And if we need more proof that the Lord is the ruler of all nations and the earth we need only look to the empty tomb. The Resurrection. That sign has brought praise to the lips of people from every tribe and tongue. People who were far apart, at war with each other, have made peace through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Praise awaits you, Our God, in Zion.

And the final reason to praise God according to Psalm 65, is because God is more than a cosmic orderer, he’s also a gardener.

You care for the land and water it… The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain… You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing. Psalm 65:10-15

Food. It doesn’t magically appear on you plate, you know. You can’t 3D print a turkey. Someone had to prepare it. Someone had to cook it. Someone had to purchase it. The grocer purchased the turkey from the butcher and the butcher purchased it from the Farmer. That Turkey hatched from an egg and the farmer fed it grain. That grain grew in a field that had been planted by a farmer. The seeds needed for that crop came from the previous harvest. There was no guarantee that they would grow. But they did.

Who deserves to be thanked for the Turkey you find on your plate?

Mom and dad probably deserve a little credit. The Farmer should probably be thanked too.

But our thanks, as Christians, can and should go much deeper. Who makes the sun to shine? Who makes things grow? Why is there such a thing called a Turkey?

We can manipulate and influence the things of this world, but at the end of the day, God is Lord of the harvest.

Every spring, I am totally anxious. I plant seeds. But for a few weeks, nothing grows. “It’s not going to work” I tell myself.

But then, by August, I am inundated with vegetables, and overwhelmed with gratitude.

Here is a picture of Joseph and my stash of butternut squash. I picked about 40 squashes in all. I only planted 6 seeds.

He crowns the year with bounty. My minivan over-floweth.

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion.

All is good in Psalm 65. The world is as it should be. Salvation, creation, the harvest. Blessed be his name.

For some of you here today, 2018 has been a good year. Maybe you got promoted at work. Maybe you moved to a new and improved house. Maybe your primary relationships are thriving and you feel such joy. Its easy to sing the doxology when the world is as it should be.

But it can be hard to praise during years of drought. Maybe the harvest wasn’t good for you this year. Maybe the year was marked by suffering. There are more lament Psalms in the psalter than there are Psalms of Praise. So you’re in good company today, if you’re struggling to praise.

I don’t know what this year has been like for you, but I do know that we were created to praise. And that one day soon, we will praise the Lord God with a joyful heart and weep no more.

The praise in this passage is future. Praise awaits you, our God. When we get the temple, we’re going to praise like we’ve never praised before. And when we get to the new Jerusalem, we are going to praise like we’ve never praised before. May that day come soon, O God in Zion. May that day come soon.

Amen.

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Those Who Mourn | Matthew 5:4

We are exploring the sermon on the mount this Fall. This is Jesus’ most sustained teaching on what it looks like to live in sync with the reign of God. Together, we’re trying to grow in knowledge and practice. We’re trying to hear, and obey. And so build on the rock solid foundation of Christ and his word.

Before we look at Beatitude #2, a reminder about the beatitudes.

These blessings are descriptive of those who are on the right track. The poor in Spirit, the meek, the peacemakers, they are in alignment with the Kingdom of God. Congratulations to them. How fortunate they are. Blessings be upon them.

Last week I mentioned three preliminary observations that can help us make sense of the beatitudes. I’ll quickly repeat them now, because they are important.

  1. All beatitudes are for every Christian. The goal is to embody not just one or two, but them all. They go together. They’re a package deal.
  1. The beatitudes are not natural capacities, but the fruit of a relationship with Jesus.  These beatitudes are not natural nor the fruit of hard work. They are the fruit of accepting the gospel, and coming under the reign of God’s Kingdom. Beatitude people are beatitude people because Christ has made his home in them and they are making their home in him.
  1. The beatitudes set us apart. They make us different. The values of Jesus’ Kingdom are very different from the values of this world. Disciples march to the beat of a different drum. The poor are lifted up. The mourners are congratulated. This is not how the world works. But this is how the Kingdom of God works!

So, with that in mind, let’s turn to the scriptures. In our reading, we’re going to start at the beginning of the text each week, and then stop reading at the Beatitude for the day. When we get to the beatitudes, I’d like us to read together.

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

This blessing is incredibly strange.

Happy are the unhappy. Fortunate are the brokenhearted. Blessings be upon those who break down and cry.

One begins to wonder if Jesus is actually interested in putting together a winning team. Last week, we learned that his people are the ones who come with empty hands. Now, we see that Jesus blesses those who can’t stop crying.

The strangeness of this blessing is heightened by the grammar.

The world “Mourn” is a present participle in the greek. This means that the mourning is present and ongoing. “Blessed are those who are in mourning,” Jesus is saying. Or, a different way of saying the same thing: “Blessed are those who are in a state of mourning.”

Penthos—the greek word for mourn—is a strong word choice too. To Penthos is to grieve, to mourn, to be filled with sorrow. It was commonly used to describe those mourning the loss of a loved one.

The stoic philosophers of ancient world thought Penthos was a pathology. “Don’t mourn” they said. They key to living a blessed life is to be as even keeled as possible.

But Jesus isn’t interested in the strong, stoical type. His people are open hearted people. Gospel people have hearts that are porous to the pain of the world. Blessed are those who mourn…

Now, to be in mourning, and to grieve, its no fun. Its a terrible pain, literally. Its an ache that won’t go away with Tylenol. Its hard to sleep. Your mind races. The days are dark and cloudy.

Sometimes its even hard to be around people who are in grief. If you’ve ever gone through a funeral line, to try to comfort someone who’s in mourning, you’ll know that it’s a relief to finally make it out the other side.

Deep grief is deeply unpleasant. It usually means that there has been deep loss. Many of you have first hand experience of loss and grief.

But the presence of sorrow can sometimes be a sign of health too.

I mean, as a pastor, I don’t worry about parishioners who break down and cry. I worry more about about the ones that seem unaffected. Its not that everyone needs to be a sniffling mess—everyone mourns differently—but some moments in life do need to be mourned.

An acquaintance of mine lost his mother at a young age. His dad, he told me, never mourned the loss of his spouse. Never shed a tear. He never talked about her again. Instead, he took comfort in southern comfort. And it makes you wonder. How could life have been different for him, if he had the courage, or were given the permission to let out the pain?

It’s not always good for us to try to be calm and carry on. Sometimes we need to be a mess, and let the Lord sort out the rest.    

Some of you were told as kids: “Big boys don’t cry.” And you took that message to heart, because you wanted to be a big boy.

Some of you were told, maybe even by pastors and elders, that to grieve deeply was somehow a betrayal of your faith. A sign that you don’t really trust the Lord.

But to mourn is not to betray your masculinity, your faith or your God. It can be a healthy expression of emotion.

I mean, there are physiological and psychological benefits to mourning. How do you feel after a good cry? Better. Right?

But even more to the point this morning… To mourn, says Jesus, is to be on the right path. The presence of tears and sniffles is a sure sign that the gospel is taking root in your life.

Now, if its true that the mourners are blessed, then I live in a very blessed house. My children cry all the time. Right now, they all want to sit beside dad at the dinner table. And when that doesn’t happen, they penthos all over the place.

This is obviously very affirming for me. But its also annoying. “This isn’t worth crying over.”

Little children fall apart when they don’t get their way. Cry babies. Some people never grow out of the cry baby stage. They mourn, but it has nothing to do with God’s Kingdom and everything to do with the fact that things didn’t get their own way.

This isn’t the kind of mourner that Jesus blesses.

Jesus blesses those who ache for his Kingdom and who mourn over what the world has become. That’s what happens when Jesus gets involved in your life. His concerns become your concerns. His tears become your tears.

When Jesus saw the crowds coming out to him, he was filled with compassion for them.

That word compassion in the greek is splanknizomai”.A simple definition of that word is “To have one’s bowels yearn.”

Jesus saw the crowds, and his guts were impacted. They were hungry and didn’t have food. But that’s not what impacted Jesus. He felt deeply for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

No good teaching. No godly leadership. The elders had dropped the ball. And the people were wandering without direction. So Jesus led them to green pastures and started to teach them.

Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave too. Why? Well he loved Mary and Martha, and Lazarus was their brother. And he loved Lazarus too. But more so, Jesus wept because he knew that in God’s Vision of things, death is the enemy. Death is the consequence of sin in the world. Jesus felt that sting, and it broke his heart.

Jesus also mourns over Jerusalem. “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jesus says through tears. If only you could recognize the things that make for peace. If only you weren’t so blind to God’s plan for salvation.”

Jesus knew that the results of this spiritual blindness was going to be catastrophic. So he mourned over the city that God so loved.

Jesus never mourned because things weren’t going his way. He mourned because the world was not as it should be.

You know, in the 1980s, Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a heartbreaking little book called “Lament for a Son.” If any of you find yourselves in a season of sorrow, I heartily recommend this heartbreaking but restorative little book. It will help you mourn.

Wolterstorff’s son, Eric, died in a Mountain climbing accident when he was 25. The book is a series of short journal entries. Its a dad, working out his grief.

Here’s what Wolterstorff says about this Beatitude. Do listen up, this is gold.

“Blessed are those who mourn.” What can it mean? One can understand why Jesus hails those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why he hails the merciful, why he hails the pure in heart.… These are qualities of character which belong to the life of the kingdom. But why does he hail the mourners of the world? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm.

Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death.

The mourners are aching visionaries.

The Stoics say: Avoid grief. Stay calm. Jesus Says: Let the world break your heart. Blessed are you who ache for the new day.

Imagine, if in the face of evil or brokenness, you merely shrugged your shoulders. “Whatever,” “Who Cares” “As long as it doesn’t effect my internet connection.” Such people are far from the Kingdom of God.

Or worse, some don’t mourn the brokenness, but find a way to twist it to their advantage. They profit off the madness.

But Woe… Woe to you who laugh now, says Jesus. For you will weep and mourn later.

Wolterstorff helps us to see that the mourners are those gospel people who cry for things to be made right. He’s exactly right.

But if I could add one other thing cry about, it would be that we also need to cry over the sin that exists in our own hearts. The troubles of this world are not solely out there. Its in here too.

I fear that the Reformed Tradition has probably paid too much attention to the sin within. In generations past, those who sorrowed over their sin were considered to be the most spiritually alive. The goal for the average church goer was to look as serious, downcast, and totally depraved as possible. Some of them succeeded. 

This wasn’t necessarily a healthy Christian posture.

But sometimes I worry that the pendulum has swung a little too far the other way. Sin’s not really a big deal anymore. “Oh, that’s old fashion,” I hear. I’ve had conversations with people and they experience and express no remorse. “What’s the big deal? Its not like a hurt anybody.” But sin is a big deal.

I mean, there’s no need to flog yourself. But a little godly sorrow is an important sign of spiritual health. For the problems of this world aren’t simply out there. We participate in them. We perpetuate gossip and slander in our workplaces. We illegally download things that don’t belong to us. We watch internet porn which is fueling an industry that is using and discarding women at an alarming rate.

It is so important that there is space in our worship gatherings for godly sorrow and mourning. I’m talking to you, worship leaders. Of course, we’ve the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts. And we should express that without reservation. But we also live in a world that is torn apart by sin, evil, and injustice. It falls short of the glory of God. And so do we.

Therefore, we need space for tears of sadness, space for lament.

And sometimes I wonder… Maybe grieving people wouldn’t disappear from our worship community, if they knew that they’d have space during worship to mourn.

Could our gatherings, somehow, provide more space for the ones that Jesus blesses?

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Comfort comes to those who weep. For those who weep over the reality of sin, there is the good news of the gospel. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Our only comfort, in life and in death, says the Catechism, is that I’m not my own, but that I belong, body and soul, in life and in the death to my faithful saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. And he has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

Richard Foster, a wise man in the realm of spiritual formation, once did a life confession with one of his trusted friends. He shared everything. Every sin. Every evil thought that he could remember. When the confession was over, Foster’s friend put the sign of the cross on Foster’s forehead. Brother, in the name of Jesus, you are forgiven.

Comfort. Gospel comfort now. And you can experience that day. Just look to the cross, and the empty tomb.

But of course, the comfort we experience in this life pales in comparison to the comfort we will experience when Christ returns. On that day, Jesus will restore the world to God’s design. On that day, the tears of the mourners will be wiped away for good.

This summer, a tragedy struck the Christian Community in Victoria. Emory Hutchison, a two year old girl, was hit in her driveway by the family car. She died.

At the funeral, Scott Anderson, Pastor at Lambrick Park, preached on Isaiah 65.

Isaiah 65 is a picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth.

In that passage, God says: I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more.

“Never again will there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days…. Isaiah 65:19-20

Never again. Scott said to the crowd of mourners who had gathered at Shelbourne Street Church of Christ. Never again, not when Jesus returns. Not on God’s holy Mountain.

Never again will cancer ravage our bodies. Never again will dementia tear apart our minds. Never again will we be tempted to twist the truth, tear down a neighbour, or disobey the Lord of life.

Never again will there be in it an child who lives but a few days.

We mourn now, because the world is not as it should be. But one day, the sound or weeping will be heard no more, for the mourners will be comforted.

Amen.

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The Poor in Spirit | Matthew 5:3

This fall, we’re exploring the Sermon on the mount. This is Jesus’ longest teaching on what it looks like to live in sync with the values of the Kingdom of God. And of course, at the beginning of that sermon we find the beatitudes.

We’re going to go through these 8 beatitudes one by one. Today we’ll explore the first one.

Before reading it together, I want to offer some set up.

First Beatitude. What does that mean? Beatitude is an English word that we don’t use anymore. It means “supreme blessedness”. It has its origin in the latin word “Beatus”. In the Latin version of the bible, each of the 8 beatitudes begins with latin world “Beati” (which is the plural form of Beatus). So, that’s why these sayings of Jesus are called the beatitudes.

Beatus means: Blessed, rich, or happy.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit. Rich are those who mourn. Happy are the meek.

The Greek word behind blessing is Makarios. Makarios is often translated as “happy”. But for various reasons, most translations go with blessed.

Happiness, in our modern world, is understood to be a feeling. But a feeling is not what Jesus is trying to communicate. To be Markarios, is be objectively in a good place. It could include the feeling of happiness, but not always. Those who are persecuted for Christ’s name, may not feel happy about it, but in God’s eyes, they are still, objectively on the right track. There lives have become aligned with the Kingdom of God. And that’s where the Christian most wants to be.

Darrel Johnson, in his book on the beatitudes, lays out a number of creative translations for Makarios.

Congratulations to the poor in Spirit

Right on are those who mourn.

In alignment are the meek.

In sync are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

Fortunate are the merciful.

These people are in the right place. The Father is smiling upon them. For they are living in sync with his Kingdom.

A few more things about these beatitudes:

  1. All beatitudes are for every Christian. Its not like some of you are going to major in peacemaking while others of you are going to master meekness. No, the goal is for every Christian to embody them all.
  1. The beatitudes are not natural capacities, but the fruit of a relationship with Jesus. Some of you may think that you’re naturally poor in Spirit, or naturally meek. But none of these characteristics are natural to the human heart, at least not in the way that Jesus understands them. “No one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” And no one can live in sync with the Kingdom of God unless Jesus is at work in their heart. As Christ makes his home in us and we make our home in him, these characteristics, these blessings, will more and more shape our life. They are not natural to us, but the fruit of our union with Jesus.
  1. The beatitudes set us apart. They make us different. This is due to the fact that the values of Jesus’ Kingdom are very different from the values of this world. The meek don’t inherit the earth as it runs today. And the poor in Spirit are not given keys to places of power. And yet, in God’s Kingdom, these are the people who will inherit and rule. Jesus is forming a new kind of people. His Kingdom is here, in our midst, but it is not yet complete. So the challenge for the Christian is to be in sync with the values of God’s Kingdom, even when that means being out of sync with the ways of the world.

Everyone with me?

Don’t worry, we’ll return to these points in the weeks ahead.

Right now, let us turn our attention to Jesus’ word and the first Blessing. We’re going to read Matthew 5:1-3. But when we get to the first beatitude, I want you to read it with me.

Matthew 5:1-3

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Lifting up the “poor in Spirit” is sort of an anticlimactic way to start a sermon.

Its even more anticlimactic if you think of this less as a sermon, and more of a throne speech. Jesus, Matthew has been clear to say, is no ordinary man. He’s the son of David, the son of God. The long promised King.

Jesus has just preached the good news of the Kingdom, and now’s he’s giving his throne speech. This is his manifesto for life on earth.

You’d think Jesus would start by firing up the troops. 

“We may be small. But we’re mighty. We may not have guns and tanks, but we have heart and soul. Now let’s get out there and show the world what we’re made of.”

But Jesus doesn’t pump everyone up. Instead, he heaps supreme blessedness upon those who feel very inadequate. 

Fortunate are you who have nothing. Congratulations to you impoverished ones; you who bring nothing of value and are totally dependent for everything. Yours is the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit.

Now in Luke’s version of the blessings, the “in Spirit” part is dropped. In Luke, Jesus simply says: “Blessed are the poor”.

So who exactly are the blessed poor? Is Jesus blessing a social class, the physically poor, or is he blessing poor souls?

You know, in the Old Testament, to be poor meant be lacking in material goods and dependent upon the generosity of others. The widows and the orphans were poor.

But overtime, the word poor began to expand in use and meaning. David, for instance, in Psalm 34, refers to himself as a “Poor Man”. But David’s poverty, here, is not physical poverty. Rather, he’s troubled and in need of help. And so, being unable to take care of himself, he begs God to help.

The Word poor began to be used as a metaphor. We do this too. We say that we’re in poor health, or that we have a poor job. For Israel, to say that they were poor was simply a way of describing their need and dependence upon God.

This is what Jesus means when he blesses the poor.

Jesus is not congratulating those who live below the poverty line, because they live below the poverty line. Rather, he’s congratulating those who see themselves as having nothing of value to offer to God. In fact, they stand in need of help.

Robert Guelich says that the poor in Spirit “are those who find themselves waiting, empty handed, upon God alone for their hope and deliverance.” ~ Robert Guelich

Most kings look for capable people to recruit into their Kingdom. They select the strong, the accomplished. This is how the world works.

But not so with Jesus and his Kingdom. Jesus heaps praises upon those who have nothing to offer. In sync are those who know their poverty, and know they need God.

And the knowing part is important here.

In truth, we all depend upon God each day. For salvation, health, and daily bread. But not everyone knows that. The Rich in Spirit, for instance, feel themselves to be quite capable.

I think of the Rich Young Ruler who came to Jesus. He felt capable. “What must I do to be saved?” He asked. “I’ve kept the commandments. What else must I do?”

He thought he had what it took to inherit the Kingdom. He had figured out how to win at the game of life, why couldn’t he win eternal life applying the same work ethic?

“What must I do?”

This guy didn’t see his poverty. And so, graciously, Jesus deflated this man’s bubble. And the rich man went away poor in Spirit. Little did he know that in that moment, he was closer to the Kingdom of God than ever before.

In contrast to the Rich man, Matthew presents us with the children. The disciples tried to keep these little rascals away from Jesus. “Why should Jesus waste his precious time with them? They have nothing to offer.”

Perfect, says Jesus. “Let the Little children come to me and do not stop them, for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of heaven.” Then he blessed them.

Fortunate are the ones that do not hide behind their accomplishments and wealth. Congratulations to the those who have come to know their poverty, and who come empty handed, like children, to Jesus.

Jesus makes a similar point in one of his parables.

“Two men went to the temple to pray,” Jesus said. “One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.”

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you the truth, Jesus said. The tax collector went home justified before God, not the Pharisee. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

You know, if you compare yourselves to others, you’re always going to find someone that’s worse that you. There’s always someone out there who is “more of a sinner”.You can always say: “At least I’m not like them! At least I’m not that bad.”

But only those who are far from the Kingdom of God play the comparison game.

Instead of comparing yourself to others, what happens when you begin to see yourself in the light of God’s glory and holiness.

Isaiah had an encounter with God and he was levelled. “Woe is me,” he said. “I am a man of unclean lips.”

When Peter first encountered Jesus, he fell down before him. “Get away from me, Lord. For I am a sinful man.”

John Newton, the author of Amazing grace, used to think of himself as a pretty good guy. Better than a lot of people, at least. But then one day, while reading a book called “The imitation of Christ”, he had the blessed experience of being levelled by God. And he came to see himself as a “wretch” in need of grace. 

About 3 years ago, I was at my parents place in Ontario. For whatever reason, I was home alone. And suddenly, an aspect of my life was revealed to me, and I saw clearly my own twisted, self-centeredness. A heavy feeling came over my body, and I literally felt like the only appropriate thing for me to do was to lie face down on the carpet.

Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips.

That’s only happened to me a few times in my life. Its awful and amazing at the same time. Awful because it hurts to come to grips with your own poverty. But its amazing, because God doesn’t leave you on the carpet. Never, ever, will he leave a contrite heart facedown on the carpet.

I love God’s word in Isaiah 57:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—

  he who lives forever, whose name is holy:

“I live in a high and holy place,

    but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,

to revive the spirit of the lowly

    and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Isaiah 57:15

Do you ever feel like a complete failure? The Lord makes his home with failures.

Do you feel stuck, afflicted and ashamed because of a besetting sin? The Lord makes his home with humble sinners.

Do you feel broken, incapable of turning your life around. The Lord makes his home with the broken ones.

He lives in a high and holy place, but also with those who are contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.

Jesus embodied this in his ministry. He made a home with the prostitutes and the tax collectors, not the Pharisees. This is why the Thief hanging next to Jesus on the cross inherited the Kingdom of heaven, while the chair of the Jewish Sanhedrin did not.   

It can be very uncomfortable to acknowledge your poverty. Even harder to admit it to others. It makes us feel insecure, exposed. And so we hide from others and ourselves. We hide from God. We self medicate with food, drink, pornography, etc… Anything to fill the void we feel. We have all manner of tricks up our sleeve—many of them unconscious—to ensure that we don’t feel or appear poor.

But today I want to encourage you to let down your guard and come out into the light. Let the Lord level you, and then let him love you. It is his delight to lift up the poor, to heal the wounds of the hurt.

Could it be possible that the ones who feel the most out of sync with God’s Kingdom, are the ones who, when they acknowledge their poverty, are closest to the Kingdom.

Its the poor in Spirit, not the proud, that are on the right track. Theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

I’m sure glad that the Sermon on the Mount begins with this blessing. For, as we go through Jesus’ throne speech, there will be many moments when you will feel exposed, and inadequate. Jesus has hard things to say about lust, worry, hypocrisy, etc. His sermon will level you.

But when that happens—and I encourage you to let it happen—then you can return with confidence to beatitude #1.

Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rock or Sand? | Matthew 7:24-29

The sermon on the Mount: Its Jesus’ longest, and most thorough teaching on what it looks like to be a disciple, a disciple that is living in sync with the Kingdom of God.

Many influential people throughout history have admired this sermon. Thomas Jefferson was a fan. So was Karl Marx. Leo Tolstoy was obsessed with it. And most recently, the well-loved and well-despised psychologist, Jordan Peterson, has talked highly of this sermon.

Christians have long loved the sermon on the mount too. But we haven’t always done a good job of listening to its message.

This fall, and for a good portion of 2019, we are going to work our way through this famous sermon. We are going to go slow. Not fast. We’ll take a break for advent, and then resume in the New Year.

The Goal:

1: To grow in knowledge of what it looks to be a disciple, based on Jesus own definition of a disciple. That’s the first goal.

2: The second: I want us to not only hear Jesus words, but practice them, and in so doing build our life on the rock.

With that in mind, I want to begin at the end. Jesus finishes his sermon by giving his hearers a choice. And I think that leading with this choice is a great place to start.

Matthew 7:24-29

There’s a saying in the investment world that I like. It goes like this: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” (Warren Buffet)

In other words, its only when the market dips that you discover who’s overly exposed.

I’m sure that there are similar proverbs or sayings in the construction industry. If not, Jesus gives us a good one. “Only when the rains come down and the flood waters rise, do you discover who’s been building on rock and who’s been building on sand.”

You can’t always tell by looking at appearances, right? Contractors are skilled at making houses look good. Professional photographers can magically make a terrible house look like a million bucks.

But it only takes one hurricane or earthquake for the truth to be revealed.

Wise is the person who doesn’t cut corners when building a house. Wise is the person who not only listens to the building inspector’s words, but does what the building inspector says. This person digs down deep, and sets their foundation upon the rock.

I don’t think there are too many construction workers in our sanctuary today. But regardless of your profession, all of you are builders. Each day, you are constructing the house that is your life. 

Your life is the sum total of your choices. Each habit you develop, each bar you set— they are the bricks and mortar that make up your life. You cannot not build. To live is to build.

What or who is informing your building?

This past Monday, I talked with a distressed couple at Cathy Visscher’s funeral. “You just never know,” they said. “One day your here, and the next day…” “It just goes to show you,” he continued, “that you have to enjoy life while you still have it.”

There’s a philosophy of life lurking behind this comment. This is the “You only live once” philosophy of life. Don’t worry too much about foundations, this philosophy says. Rather, get out there and live it up, for the sun won’t shine everyday.

How will a house on that foundation do when the rains come down and the waters rise? 

A few years ago, I was talking with someone in our church who was close to death. “Do you have peace with God?” I asked. “Well,” they answered, “I’ve gone to church my whole life. I’ve always been generous.”

There’s a philosophy of life lurking behind this comment too. This is the “be a Good Christian” philosophy of life. Show up for worship, pay your tithe. Give God 10 percent of your life, and then you get to keep the rest. 

But how will a house on that foundation do when the rains come down and waters rise? 

Most of us don’t think too much about foundations. Typically, we end up just doing what our parents did, or we do what we see our neighbours doing.

My dad taught me to work hard, so now I work hard. My neighbour bought an R.V. and goes camping on the weekends, so now I buy an R.V. and go camping on the weekends.

Why? I don’t know. I’m just trying to live, man.

But your not just living. Your building a life. And that’s serious business. Because when the flood hits, and it will, whether that be tragedy or death, or Christ’s return, you want to be on solid ground.

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

You know, there’s a motif in scripture that can help us make sense of the sermon on the mount.

There are a number of occasions in the Old Testament where God leads his people to a mountain in order to clarify the way that they should live.

In Exodus, after delivering Israel from Egypt, God takes his people to mount Sinai. There, Moses is given the 10 commandments.

Later on, after the battle for Canaan, Joshua led the people to a mountain. There, Joshua reviewed the covenant, and he invited the people to recommit themselves to the Lord.

And then, years later, after being exiled in Babylon, some Israelites were permitted to return to Jerusalem. There at the gates of Jerusalem, on top of mount zion, Ezra met them with the book of the law. And everyone recommitted themselves to the Lord.

These were big, foundational moments in Israel’s life.

And there’s a few things to notice about these mountain moments.

1: In each case, the giving or reading of the law was preceded by an act of grace. Israel did not get themselves out of Egypt. They did not conquer the promised land through their own power. Nor was it their political savvy that allowed them to return to Jerusalem from Babylon. In each case, God had been at work to make these mountain moments possible. Grace.

2: Secondly, in each case, God’s law is read in the midst of turning point, or at a critical time.

For years, the Israelite people absorbed the customs of Egypt. But now that they were free, who were they going to serve. Would they follow the ways of Egypt, or the ways of the Lord?

In Joshua, the people were about to settle into the land and build-up lives for themselves. Who were they going to be? Were they going to build like the Canaanites, or would they build on God’s foundation?

And when the remnant returned from Babylon they had a similar choice to make. For years, they had been influenced by Babylon. But now that they were free, who were they going to be?

These were critical transition moments. Identity shaping moments.

3: And then thirdly, in each case, the leader confronts the people with their options.  “Are you going to choose the path of Life,” says Moses. “Or are you going to choose the path of death?”  “Choose this day who you will serve,” Joshua proclaims to the people. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

So now, with this motif in mind, let’s fast forward to the New Testament.

Jesus has been born. And he has been baptized. And now he’s roaming Galilee preaching the good news. “The time has come,” he’s saying, “repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.”

What is Jesus message? His message is that God’s new day has come, and that the long-waited for liberation is about to take place. The Kingdom of God is being established.

And Jesus isn’t just preaching this word, but he is also displaying it with his life. He heals the sick, the lame, he releases the demon possessed.

This is grace, right? No one on earth made this new day possible. This is the new day that the Lord has made.

And what does Jesus do next? Well, he gathers a small group of people, and takes them up a hill. This is a critical time. And Jesus needs to teach his disciples what it looks like to live in sync with the Kingdom of God.

Don’t be like the hypocrites who babble on in prayer?” Rather, when you pray, go into your room and shut the door.

Don’t be like the pagans who anxiously worry about what they will eat and what they will wear. Rather, build your life on the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. And all these things will be given to you.

And then, at the end, Jesus confronts his disciples with the choice. On what foundation will you build? Rock, or Sand?

Seeing Jesus sermon within this motif can help us better understand its purpose.

This sermon is not about salvation. This instruction is directed at those who have already left their nets. It presupposes a basic level of discipleship.

And this also helps us make sense of Jesus’ goal. Like God wanted Israel to choose life and to model God’s ways among the nations, so Jesus wants his followers to choose life and model God’s ways among the nations. Jesus wants his followers to live lives that will last. Lives that are congruent with the Kingdom that is at hand.

Probably the most difficult verse in the sermon is found in chapter 5. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48)

What does that mean? You can understand Jesus setting a high bar, but “perfection” is pretty high.

The Greek word behind “Perfect” is Teleois.

The telos of something is the end or purpose of that something. The telos of an arrow is not to sit in a quiver, its meant to hit a target. The telos of a box of legos is not to be scattered all over the floor, lego is meant to become a spaceship, or a car, or something—anything but scattered all over the floor.

In a few weeks, PCS’s new Gym will be unveiled. The telos of that building is not just an immaculate new space, its purpose is to be used by children for play and sport.

Well, the telos, the perfection, for a disciple, is full and complete maturity in Christ. Its about being integrated like God is integrated. Whole as God is whole.

Fully mature people love their neighbours, and they are growing in their capacity to love their enemies.

Fully mature people not only avoid committing murder, but they are training their heart to eradicate anger and hate.

These are the people that harmonize with God’s new day. These are the people who will not be washed away when the rains come down and the flood waters rise.

And they will come, right? No person is spared suffering and death in this life. Both the wise and the foolish are hit by the same flood.

I wonder. What kind of life are you building?

Its fitting that our church is built on a hill, I think. On Sundays, we ascend the parking lot and take our place under the word. It can feel ordinary, a little boring perhaps.

But maybe this isn’t just any old Sunday morning. Maybe this is a turning point. A critical moment.

You know, so much has changed in Canada since the 1960s. In 1967, Canada celebrated its 100th birthday. A priest, a pastor, and a rabbi all participated in the event. Hymns were sung that day and prayers were prayed. It felt like a church service.

And that’s because, in 1967, nearly 98% of Canadians identified as Christians. That number is much lower today. Less that 23% of Canadians worship regularly in a religious community. And that number includes the other religions as well.

Roughly 51 percent of British Columbians say that they have no-specific religious identity. And in Victoria today, roughly 95% of the inhabitants have taken a pass on Sunday worship.

You all feel this. In your life and places of work. These radical changes have impacted your families.

The question is: Who are you going to be? Will you follow the crowds and build on the foundation of expressive individualism? Or Consumerism? Or, will you serve the Lord?

This is a significant moment in our nation, but maybe its also a significant moment in our church. Many of the patriarchs and matriarchs of our community have passed away. And if they haven’t passed away yet, they will probably pass away soon. I’m not trying to be morbid. I’m just trying to name reality. We’re in the midst of a generational transition.

Who are we going to be? Are we going to build our house on the Lord Jesus Christ, and his word. Or will we just go through the motions, sing our favourite hymns, complain when our favourite hymns aren’t sung, all the while praying that we’re not nominated to be a deacon.

I was asked a good question this week. A christian leader, new to Victoria asked me: So what do I need to know? What challenges does the Christian Community face in Victoria?

My answer was that I think we need to have a DTR with respect to Jesus and his word.  We need to “determine the relationship”. Do we believe that we actually need Jesus and that others need him too. Is he essential, not just as a moral teacher, but as our saviour and Lord. And are willing to submit ourselves to his word, even when that’s unpopular.

I believe its time for us to climb the mountain. To hear Jesus’ describe what it looks like to be a disciple. And then to put into practice what he says. “Choose this day, who you will serve!”

You know, one of the haunting pieces to this parable is that the divide between those who build on the rock and those who build on the sand is not that big. Its hardly noticeable.

Both builders hear the word. Both the wise and the foolish are sitting in Church today. They will both sing the doxology. They may both even be serving on committees and are doing all those things that “Good Christian” people should do.

And yet, one is submitting, practicing, and building their life on the rock. While the other, its just a veneer. Faux brick. They are building on the sand.

You can’t really tell the difference between the two until the rains come down and the flood waters rise. But then the truth is made plain.

May you be someone who hears and does and so grows toward full maturity in Christ.

Amen.

Posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Return of the King | Psalm 132

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

This Psalm, like the other Psalms we’ve been studying this summer, is a Song of Ascent. Most scholars believe that this grouping of Psalms, had a specific function within Israel’s prayer life.

Every year, on multiple occasions, faithful Jews would make their way up to Jerusalem to worship God. Jerusalem was an elevated city, built upon mount Zion. So, to get to the temple, pilgrims would have to ascend the hill. And as they walked, they’d pray prayers and sing Psalms. The songs of ascent was their prayer and songbook for this journey.

Now we’ve looked at 3 different ascent Psalms over the last few weeks. Each of them expressed a different longing, hope, or need.

Psalm 121 is a song for safe travels.

Psalm 130 is a prayer for forgiveness.

Psalm 127 is a song that acknowledges that our life is lived in dependence on God.

There was a song for every occasion and every kind of traveller.

But I’m thinking that all the travellers would have all prayed or sung Psalm 132. For the need and longing captured in this Psalm is political. This is a song for the city. A prayer that Yahweh, the Lord, would bless the king, and that his blessings would flow through the king, down through Jerusalem, and out to the nation.

Its amazing how much of life goes sideways when there’s political uncertainty. You wouldn’t plant a vineyard, for instance, if you thought that a rebel army was going to burn your operation to the ground. And if you wouldn’t plant a vineyard, you wouldn’t hire employees to build the trestles, nor would you buy little vine shoots from your neighbourhood greenhouse. And if you’re not growing grapes, then you’re not making, drinking, or selling wine.

Everything dries up when when the political situation heads south.

People cease to make long term investments in business or community. Parents don’t let their Children play out on the streets. Neighbours turn against each other in the battle for survival.

Last summer, I read a Novel called the Cellist of Sarajevo. It was a troubling look at what life is like in a war torn city. Sarajevo, as some of you know, is the capital of Bosnia-Herzgovina. And from 1992 to 1996, is was the centre of a brutal civil war.

For 4 years, the residents of Sarajevo didn’t have a reliable water source, so they were forced to make daily pilgrimages to get it.

The trip to the well was long and difficult. Water isn’t easy to carry. But the biggest problem was the Snipers. Everyone knew that they were up in the hills. And every now and then, they’d pick off a civilian out in the street.

So, as people made their way through town there would always be little groups of people huddled up against the end of the building at an intersection. They’d wait there, waiting for someone to have the courage to cross. Sometimes the first person that ventured out got shot, sometimes they’d make it through. If they made it through, others would follow. If they got shot, people would choose a different route.

Over 11,000 people died in Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996. 1,500 hundred of them were children. Another 56,000 were wounded, 15,000 of them were children.

Some of you have lived through war. Its not joke.

And its not just war that ruins the life of the city. Political corruption kills community too.

The people of Venezuela are currently experiencing that. Hugo Chavez re-wrote the constitution in the early 2000s. Then, he took over the media. Then he made all the resources of his oil Rich Nation public. He was accountable only to the cheering crowds. For a few years, things looked good. The poor became less poor.

But then oil prices dropped, and everyone in power went scrambling for the money. There is no rule of law in Venezuela today. Prices for basic goods are doubling every month. Medical supplies are in short supply. What will the 32 million people who live there do?

The rich are getting out. But the poor, the elderly, the little children, they’re stuck.

Who hears their cries? Who sees the the suffering of the little ones? Is there anyone that can help?

It doesn’t take much for a city, or a country, to fall apart. But when it does, everyone suffers.

The people of Israel knew what it was like to suffer in this way. Outside of the golden age—during the reign of David and Solomon—the Israelites lived with constant political corruption and unrest.

Imagine them singing this song as they entered a war torn Jerusalem:

“Arise, Lord, and come to your resting place,

    you and the ark of your might.

9 May your priests be clothed with your righteousness;

    may your faithful people sing for joy.’”

10 For the sake of your servant David,

    do not reject your anointed one.”

This is a prayer for the Lord to return to his temple. For if the Lord is in his temple, and the King is on his throne. Then, the blessings of the Lord may flow down from Zion once again. 

Remember David, the people prayed. Remember that it was his desire to exalt your name instead of his own. Remember that he promised to not rest until the Ark of the Covenant was restored to Jerusalem. He was afflicted, so that your name could be hallowed.

And as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into the city, David led the procession. He danced. He sang.

Do not forget your servant David.

If you know the stories in 1st and 2nd Samuel, you’ll be familiar with this narrative. In his early years, David lived into God’s design for king. He emptied himself of the desire for power and prestige, and he became a servant of the Lord. 

The Lord made a covenant with David after David restored the Arc to Jerusalem.

First, he promised to make David’s name great.

Second, he promised David that Israel would now be secure in the land. In other words, they could now plant vineyards and let their children play in the streets.

Third, God Promised that one of David’s children would become King, and that that child would be loved by the Lord like a son. And that through his child, an enduring Kingdom would be formed.

“Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” 2 Samuel 7:16

Scholars John Walton and Andrew Hill believe that this covenant is best described as an open-ended covenant rather than an enduring covenant. The promise is for a potentially everlasting kingdom, not an absolutely everlasting kingdom. God could always dethrone Davd’s descendants, should they stop serving the Lord.

In first Kings, God engages Solomon with the conditions of the covenant: If you walk before me with integrity and uprightness, God says to Solomon, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel indefinitely. In other words, “Live with integrity. Follow my laws. Serve the poor. And your son will sit on the throne too.”

Now, if you’re familiar with the history of David’s lineage, you’ll know that it is the story of a tragic unravelling.

God kept his word to David. David’s son Solomon took over David’s throne. Solomon built the Lord a temple. And for a time, the riches of the world streamed into Jerusalem.

But then Solomon started getting a little wishy washy in his worship life. And he also broke God’s will for the Kingship when he took for himself many wives and concubines. Those wives brought idols into Solomon’s house.

Infighting within Solomon’s gargantuan family broke the country in two. The 10 tribes to the north formed their own nation. The two to the south formed another.

Out of grace, not necessity, the Lord allowed Jerusalem and the southern Kingdom to remain under the rule of David’s descendent.

But even still, slowly, the blessings stopped flowing from Zion. And the people began to suffer.

In time, the Northern Kingdom fell, and then the southern Kingdom fell too. The Lord’s blessing had been lifted from Zion.

The Jewish people knew that David’s descendants had blown their end of the covenant. Their only hope now was that the Lord would act graciously towards them, by remembering the covenant he made with David.

This is what Israel held onto while in Exile. This became their hope. The prophets foretold a day when this would happen.

This from Jeremiah:

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

“‘In those days and at that time

    I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;

    he will do what is just and right in the land.

In those days Judah will be saved

    and Jerusalem will live in safety.

Jeremiah 23:14-16

And this from Isaiah

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [Jesse is David’s Father];…

The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him….

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,

    or decide by what he hears with his ears;

4 but with righteousness he will judge the needy,

    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth….

6 The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat,

the calf and the lion and the yearling[a] together;

    and a little child will lead them.

Isaiah 9:1-6

Now it starts to become clear why the Angel’s message to the Shepherds in Luke 2, was so radical.

“I bring you good news, the Angel said, that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the city of David, a saviour has been born to you. He is the anointed one, Christ, the Lord.

And before that announcement, a similar announcement was made to Mary: “The child in your belly will sit on David’s throne.”

And Jesus himself owned this identity: One day, while in the synagogue, the scroll of Isaiah was handed to him. He opened to Isaiah 61 and he read: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me, to release the captives, to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight for the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. Then he rolled up the scroll and handed it back. Today, he said, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

And Jesus didn’t just claim to be King. He lived it. He did what a King should do. He kept God’s law close to his heart. He released the suffering and the sick from their oppression. He waged war against the dark powers the keep this world in bondage. He served others, not himself.

But of course, the people of first century Palestine, didn’t recognize Jesus as the Lord’s anointed King.

And instead of a radiant crown, they gave him a crown of thorns. Instead of a royal robe, they stripped him of his clothes and paraded him through the streets. A sarcastic little sign was placed over his head as he hung on the cross: This is “The King of Jews” it said. They were trying to make fun of Jesus. Little did they know, that that sign was telling the truth. Little did they know that they’re King was laying down his life, so that they could be free.

By refusing to go cheap for power, and by staying true to the Lord’s commands, Jesus fulfilled the human side of the covenant made to David.

And because of this, God raised Jesus up, and exalted him to the highest place. He has given Jesus an everlasting Kingdom. He has made Jesus’ name great. And one day, when the time is right, Jesus will return to the secure the whole earth.

You see, God did answer the deep longing behind this song of ascent. There is hope for the war-weary pilgrim. God sees. God hears. And he has acted in Christ and will one day act again. The blessings will flow again from Zion, through the King that sits on the throne.

Do you know Jesus as King? Do you see yourself as a citizen of his already started, but not-yet complete Kingdom?

You know, its one thing to have Jesus as a buddy. A good friend is good to have. But a buddy, or a friend, can only help so much when the city is crumbling around you.

What you need, what I need, and what this world needs, is a true, and good King. Someone who can not only wipe the tears from our eyes, but take away the conditions that lead to tears in the first place.

The good news of the gospel, brothers and sisters, is that Jesus is that King.

The blessings of internal joy and peace are available now to anyone who confesses Jesus as Lord now.  And one day, when Jesus returns to earth, he will complete God’s Kingdom of earth. And on that day, everything contrary to God’s will will be discarded. And everyone who opposes Jesus will be put to shame.

I know that this takes faith to believe. And that keeping the faith is not always easy. Jesus doesn’t appear to be on his throne when we watch the nightly news. For all we can tell, there is no higher power who notices the suffering in Sarajevo, or cares about the desperate in Venezuela.

But the claim of the scriptures is that Jesus is Lord, that he does care, and that Jesus will one day return.

Don’t loose heart, weary travels. Keep Walking in faith, hope and love. Keep longing and working and praying for the city of God, even as the city of earth crumbles around us. Your labour is not in vain.

The poor will eat and be filled. And the blessings will flow from Zion again.

Amen.

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Unless the Lord Builds the House | Psalm 127

Not that long ago, it was common for pastors and Christian Reformed people to sprinkle two letters in their written communications. The two letters were ‘D’ and ‘V’.

“Our classis meeting will taking place on October the 5th, D.V.”

“Pastor David we believe that God is calling us to be our pastor. We request that you begin your ministry in January of 2011, D.V.”

For a while, these two letters, D. and V. filled me with great angst. What does D.V. stand for? I thought to myself. Divine Vengeance? Demand Verification? Drive your Van?

For me, reading D.V. in a communication was a little like receiving a text message filled with those ridiculous little abbreviations. ROFL. YOLO. NVM.“What does that mean! Use real words!

And then one day, I google searched D.V., and alas, all became clear.

Does anyone know what D.V. stands for? It stands for Deo Volente. Which is a latin phrase, meaning, God willing.

Our classis meeting will take place on October the 5th, God willing.

We request that you begin your ministry here in January of 2011, God willing.

That certainly works better than Divine Vengeance.

As best as I can tell, the practice of CRC people D.V.ing their communications has its origins in our understanding of the Bible’s teaching about God’s sovereignty.

We believe that the Lord reigns. He created this world and sustains it. He is skillfully directing history towards its proper destiny.

This means that we’re not in control.

We have agency of course. We can plan and build, plant gardens and have babies. And yet, none of this happens without the Lord’s favour. And if he wills differently, our planning and acting will amount to nothing.

The Apostle James spells this out in his teaching to the Church:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Wise is the person who recognizes his or her place in relation to God. Wise is the person who makes plans, but does so with humility, knowing that unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain.

Psalm 127 is a wisdom Psalm for the journey of life.

As I’ve been saying throughout this brief series on the Songs of Ascents, these songs and prayers were written for the road. Every year, Faithful Jews made their way up to Jerusalem to celebrate religious feasts and festivals, and to worship in the temple. Along the way, they’d sing these songs and pray these prayers.

Fundamentally, these feasts and festivals were meant to remind Israel of their utter dependence on God. The passover reminded Israel that it was the Lord their God who brought them up out of Egypt. The feast of weeks reminded Israel that it was the Lord who sustained them in the wilderness and lead them to the promised land. And, the day of atonement reminded Israel that it was the Lord who forgave their sins and restored their relationship.

Israel was never to think of herself as being self-made nation. Rather, they were to see themselves as living day to day in dependence upon the Lord.

This Psalm fits the theme:

Unless the Lord builds the house,

    the builders labor in vain.

Unless the Lord watches over the city,

    the guards stand watch in vain.

Its easy to forget, eh? You have a few wins at work. Your net-worth starts increasing. You renovate your house. You do a good job. You even figure out the plumbing all by yourself. “Look what I did”, you say to yourself. You start to feel confident in your own abilities. You begin to wonder why other people don’t have their life together. “Its not that hard,” you say. “Just make a plan and get to work.”

A few years ago, I had a good garlic crop in my little garden plot down the road. I worked hard to raise up to richen up the soil. I Planted good seed in October. The shoots took off in the spring and by mid July I was pulling out huge heads of garlic. I pulled about 60 heads in total. Enough to last our household for a whole year. Enough to plant 60 more plants the following year.

Look what I have done, I said to myself. In the realm of garlic, I am entirely self-sufficient.

The next year, I went through the same process. I worked the soil. Planted good seed. But in the Spring, my whole crop was destroyed by a white fungus.

2 In vain you rise early

    and stay up late,

toiling for food to eat—

    for he grants sleep/prosperity to those he loves.

My dad used to pride himself on his capacity to work. And he used to look down his nose at unemployed people. “Lazy bums.” He’d say. “Gain a skill. Show up on time. Its not hard.”

But then one day, he found himself unemployed. He called all his contacts, but no one was hiring. Finally, he found a job at a tool rental shop. He made minimum wage for about a year. Now he’s slowly losing his ability to work, as he slowly looses his ability to walk.

“What is your life?” James said. “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.”  You are a mist that appears for a while and vanishes at dawn.

We live our life with a big D.V. beside our name.

Who of you can control the beat of your heart. Or the functions of your brain. Who of you chose to be born. You didn’t choose your size, your looks, your strength, your family.

You know, we can control enough things in life to start to feel like we’re self-made men and women. But really, to be human is to be radically dependent.

Wise is the person who recognizes his or her place in relation to God. Wise is the person who makes plans, but does so with humility, knowing that unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain.

Psalm 127’s main concern is to remind us that even the simple things in life go nowhere without the Lord’s blessing.

Your household, the security of the community, productive work. The successes we have in these areas is not our own doing. Unless the Lord looks on us with favour, our efforts will amount to nothing.

This, of course, this does not mean that God’s people should check out from the human enterprise. We can’t say to ourselves: “Hey, God’s got it under control. I’ll just pull out my lawn chair and wait for him to finish my house.” Or “Our city doesn’t need any security guards, the Lord is watching over us.”

Its true that if the Lord doesn’t build the house, the labourers labour in vain. But its also true that if the workers don’t work on the house, the house isn’t going to be built, either.

If you don’t plant seed in the spring, God is not going to give you a harvest.

We need to give it our best effort, and we to do so in the understanding our efforts will amount to nothing without the Lord’s favour.

In other words, we need to work and pray. Ora et Labora, to use another latin Phrase. Pray and Work.

Now what comes first? Should we start building, hoping that God will bless our plans? Or should we wait for God’s instruction, do some discernment around that, and then start building following God’s lead?

Tough to say…. Obviously, there are two extremes that should be avoided here.

Some make the error of rushing off to accomplish their own ideas and plans. “This is a good idea,” they say “Let’s build this.” And then, after the building has begun and is almost finished, they start praying. “Lord, we think this is a really good idea, and we really want you to bless it!”

These people take the wheel, hoping that God won’t mind sitting in the passenger seat. But wise is the person who prayerfully discerns before breaking ground on one of their good ideas.

However, on the opposite side of things, you can error on the side of being so prayerful, that you never take the risk of moving out into work.

Sometimes we get clear instruction from the Lord. But other times, things aren’t so clear. Does God want me to sow barley or soy this year. Does God want me to marry this or that person. Is this what God wants me to do with my life?”

We can become so paralyzed trying to answer that question, that we don’t do anything at all.

Wise is the person, who, after a season of prayerful discernment, begins to experiment their way forward, taking time for prayerful reflection, and course correction, along the way.

Sometimes its in the going, and trying, that the Lord’s will becomes clear.

Praying with humility. Working with integrity.

Praying with integrity. Working with humility.

This is how to live wisely under the Lord’s Sovereignty.

The First half of Psalm 127 is relatively easy to understand. But the second half is, at first glance, a little strange.

I must say, as a Father of two sons, that I took a little pleasure thinking of my sons as arrows in my quiver. I imagined shooting Peter at my enemies. Take that. See if you can ever sleep through the night again.

But all kidding aside, how are we to understand this section? Especially the part about children being a “reward.”

Rewards are usually given to those worthy to receive awards. Is this how we are to understand children: Rewards given to those who meet the requirements?

I don’t think so.

The point the Psalmist is making here is the same point he made in the first half of the psalm. Nothing happens without God’s gracious provision. Our labour is only fruitful, if the Lord causes our crops to grow. Marital intimacy and family life is only fruitful, if the Lord allows it be so.

When Adam and Eve received the wages of their sin, they were told that they would have trouble in a few different areas. First, they’d have to toil to make a living. Thorns and thistles would make farming and eating difficult. And secondly, they were told that having children wouldn’t be easy. There will be pain.

This Psalm is simply recognizing that unless the Lord intervenes, our efforts in this area are likely to be subject to frustration.

In my pastoral work, I’d say that at least 30 to 40% of the couples in this church have wrestled with infertility. Some, after a long period of trying and waiting, were able to have children. Others, never could.

I know that some of you have suffered a great deal, wondering why it hasn’t happened for you. You wonder what God is up to. You see other families receive their little blessings. But not you.

I don’t have any answers for you this morning, other than to say that you are not alone. 

And for those of you who have children, its important to remember that there are no mistakes when it comes to children.

We live in a strange times. One the one hand, children are far more likely to be spoiled today, than they were in the past. Children are treated like little queens and princes. The get spa days, and eat expensive organic snacks. Parents will adjust their entire schedules just to make sure their kids have every opportunity possible.

But on the other side, we live in a time where pregnancy is considered a nuisance, and child-rearing a burden that people would rather not bear. There’s a growing number of people who are openly talking about the fact that they regret becoming a parent. Saying this out loud, publicly, has somehow become an act of “courage”. 

Children require a lot of work. They will break your heart. Disappoint you. They’ll pee all over your carpet, and then laugh about it.

But they are not pests that invade your life. They are gifts from Lord, to be celebrated and stewarded.

In ancient times, children were also a big part of a person’s social security. A neighbouring tribe would be less likely to steal your land or livestock, if you had a quiver full of sons. A court case at the gate would be more likely to tilt your favour if all your sons testified on your behalf.

Children were also expected to take care of their parents when they became old and frail. This was ancient social security.

Without the Lord, the house will not be built. Without the Lord, the house will not be full.  Unless the Lord wills, D.V., our labour bears no fruit.

Ancient Israelites went on pilgrimages to Jerusalem to remember their dependence on the Lord. What do you do to remember this important truth?

My hope is that this reminder happens weekly at Church. Every week, you make a small pilgrimage here to 661 Agnes Street. Every week we sing songs and read scripture passages that de-centre you. Remind you of your place in God’s world, and will. The practices of Sabbath keeping and tithing can help you remember your dependence on God too.

While the content of Psalm 127 is the simple things of life, we need to understand this Psalm in light of the drama of salvation as well.

As Ancient Israelite travellers made their way up to Jerusalem, they would see the house of David sitting on the hill at the top of Jerusalem. And they would remember the covenant that God made to King David and to David’s household.

One from your family will always sit on the throne, God promised the King. He will be like a son to me. You household and your Kingdom will endure forever before me.

God promised to build David’s household and bless King’s family. And God kept this promise.

Many years later, in the city of David, David’s great great grandson was born to a woman named Mary. “He will sit on David’s throne,” the Angel told her.

Through Christ, the Lord laboured to build a house for David on earth. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new foundation was laid. And through the Spirit, a new family came to be formed.

Unless the Lord builds the house, the priests and lay people labour in vain.

In Christ, the orphans find a Father. The parentless find children. And those estranged from their earthly families find the security, care, and forgiveness they desperately crave.

Jesus redefine family. Who is my mother, my brother and sister? Jesus asked. I’ll tell you. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven. They are my mother, my brother and sister.

Our purpose in the world, brothers and sisters, is not primarily to build up our own families and households. As members of the family of Jesus, our mission is to make disciples and so join the Lord in building up the household of God, on earth.

Wise is the Church that recognizes her place in relation to God. Wise the Church who makes plans, but does so with humility, recognizing that unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain. 

Amen

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Out of the Depths | Psalm 130

“Out of the depths, I cry to you O Lord.”

The depths. Have you ever been there?

Its a dark and formless place. Nothing to grab onto. No secure place to place your foot. The Psalmist in Psalm 69 can help us get a better sense for what is meant by the depths.

Save me, O God, [he prays]
 for the waters have come up to my neck.’

2 I sink in the miry depths,

    where there is no foothold.

I have come into the deep waters;

    the floods engulf me.

3 I am worn out calling for help;

    my throat is parched.

Out of this place, I cry to you O Lord. Lord hear my cry.

Of course, this weary pilgrim isn’t actually sinking in a pit. He or she is actually somewhere on the road between home and Jerusalem. But existentially, he’s lost. Emotionally, she’s underwater.

So what has happened? What’s the Psalmist’s story?

We’re not totally sure. The lament is general and not specific. But we do get a little information in verse three.

“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand.”

So, its sin that has got the Psalmist sinking. He’s weighed down by guilt. He’s feeling that terrible feeling we call shame.

Perhaps he has tried to get his gambling addiction under control for the 10th time. But now, again, his ancient bank account is empty and his marriage is on the rocks.

Or perhaps she let loose some juicy gossip about a friend, and now that the word is out, she can’t contain the story. She’s ruined one of her best friendships and feels sick to her stomach.

You know, there are a few different words and images that can help us make sense of the biblical concept of sin.

Three words in particular are used most frequently. There’s sin, there’s transgression, and there’s iniquity. Often you see them used interchangeably or in conjunction with each other. For instance, in Psalm 51, David prays: Lord: “blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity. And cleanse me from my sin.”

Sin has its origins in archery. It means to miss the Mark. God has set up a target for human behaviour in the world. “Love your neighbour as yourself.” When you miss the target in your living, that’s sin.

Transgression is boundary crossing. God sets up a boundary—a stop sign. You see it. But you choose to roll through. David saw Bathsheba bathing. He knew about God’s boundary line: “You shall not commit adultery.” But David decided to transgress that boundary.

David missed the mark. And he crossed the boundary.

And iniquity, iniquity implies that something straight has become crooked.

You can’t hit the target if your bow is crooked. You can’t stop at the stop sign if your brakes are malfunctioning. David committed adultery, and murdered Bathsheba’s wife, because he had become the kind of person that was capable of abusing his power. His heart was crooked.

Its perhaps helpful to know that the word translated sin in verse 3, is actually the word for iniquity.

If you O, Lord, kept your eye on my crookedness, O Lord, who could stand.

So, its likely, that this poor pilgrim is in the depths not just because they have committed a few isolated wrongs. Its worse. He or she has become disillusioned with the kind of person that they have become.

So not only is he saying: “I can’t believe I did that.” She’s also saying, I can’t believe that I’m the kind of person that is capable of doing that.”

This is guilt and shame.

Guilt is the feeling you get when you know you’ve missed the mark or crossed a boundary.

Shame is the feeling you get when you realize that you are the kind of person who misses the mark and crosses boundaries. It makes you feel sick about who you are.

Its a humbling thing to come face to face with your own corruption.

I’ve been getting to know some other dads in town. We meet on Saturday mornings.

One of the men recently shared with me that he’s frustrated at the gap that exists in his life. The gap between who he is, and who he wants to be.

He wants to be more patient and less angry as a Father. But he’s having a hard time. He wants to be more self-controlled and less impulsive with eating, but he can’t seem to keep his hand out of the cookie jar.

“Tell me about it,” I said. “I just found a bucket of cookies in the freezer at church. I want to eat them all.”

I thought we were just having some light conversation. But then I took a closer look at his face and realized that this wasn’t a joke for him. He’s feeling ashamed about who he’s become. And he doesn’t know how to change.

You know, much of modern day counselling has tried to downplay guilt and shame. “You’re alright,” we hear. “You just had a poor upbringing. What do you have to feel guilty about? This isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. Your the victim!”

And yet, the feeling of guilt and shame is hard to suppress. Because its not just an illusion that can be shaken off through reassuring words.  Most people know, deep down—even the ones that relativize moral standards—that they are not who they could be.

We feel that feeling, but we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know where to go with it or how to resolve it. So we medicate it. We eat. We drink. We do drugs. We compensate by trying to prove our worth in various ways.

Whatever we do, we don’t want others to know what we know about ourselves. “Because if they find out who I really am, they wouldn’t want to be with me.”

So, like Adam and Eve, we hide from God and each other, trying keeping the real us safely under wraps. Which doesn’t work, of course, because keeping the real you under wraps is a little like trying to hold a beach ball under water. Every now and then, the real you emerges and makes a scene.

Having your guilt and shame come out into the light is a terrible experience. It feels like death in the moment.

But on the flip side, it is a relief to not be holding that beach ball under water, isn’t it?

And, once out in the light, at least there is the opportunity for grace, repentance, forgiveness, and healing.

If you O Lord, kept your eye on iniquity, O Lord, who could stand. But with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared.

Though internally this pilgrim is in the depths, externally, he’s on the right path. He’s taking his guilty self up to the temple to meet with the God who forgives.

Its not that God doesn’t notice the pilgrim’s iniquity. God sees.

Nor is it the case that God simply shrugs off the pilgrim’s sin. “No big deal. You’re alright, buddy.”

No. Sin is a weighty reality and God does see.

Its just that with the Lord, there is forgiveness. The Psalmist knows that the Lord will not turn away a weary pilgrim who calls to him from the depths.

Contrary to popular conception, the Lord is not an angry judge who resides in the sky, and is generally disappointed with us foolish humans down below.

N.T. Wright used to be a Chaplain at on of the big universities in England. In his ministry, he tried to meet with the students in his building.

Many of the students said to him: “You won’t be seeing much of me, chaplain. You see, I don’t believe in God.”

“Oh really,” N.T. Wright would say: “Well, tell me about the God you don’t believe in.”    

They’d try. And inevitably, they’d talk about this Being that exists in the sky and judges human behaviour.

“Well,” Wright would say. “I’m not surprised you don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in that God either.”

Then, Wright would have the opportunity to share the gospel. And he’d share the story of God’s long-suffering relationship of love with the world. How the Lord is not a God that keeps his eye on our crookedness, but embraces us in sacrificial, steadfast, love.

The Lord is not to be messed with, of course. And his standards are not to be flippantly tossed to the side. But make no mistake, the Lord is no out to get you, or drive you further into the depths.

Instead, he throws a rope down into the miry mess, and he himself climbs down.

God sought out Adam and Eve in the garden. He made clothes for them to cover their shame. God made a costly covenant with a rebellious people. He knew Abraham was far from perfect. He knew Moses was a scaredy cat. And yet he signed his name to their life, anyway.

And when the time was right, he himself entered the picture as a baby born to a disgraced and ashamed teenage mother.

Jesus ate and drank with sinners. He forgave the guilty. He restored the ashamed to community. And motivated by love, he offered his life up for the sake of the world.

Paul gets at the amazingness of this love in Romans.

Rarely will someone die for a righteous person, he says. Maybe there are few people in the world who will take a bullet for someone else. But that someone else is probably a pretty important, a good person. But not too many people would take a bullet for a chronic gambler. Or a friendship destroying gossiper.

But God is loyal in love beyond anything we’re capable of. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

While were stuck in the messes that we’ve made, feeling totally helpless, a failure, not worthy of love, Jesus came. He entered the depths. So that we could be brought out. Forgiven. Restored. Healed.

The Lord knows you. And he loves you. Do you believe it Weary pilgrim? For his steadfast love extends to you too.

The reality is, of course, that we will continue to wrestle with sin and the ramifications of sin in this life. This is true, even for the redeemed. The Psalmist knows that the Lord forgives, but still he waits for full redemption, more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.

The same is true for us. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, says Paul, but still, we await the day when our crooked hearts will be fully straightened out by Christ in the New Jerusalem.

And so, in the meantime, its important that we put our trust in God’s word.

And by God’s word, I don’t simply mean the bible. I mean the new identity that God has  spoken over us, given us in Christ.

We all have a little shame voice that works overtime on us, you know. It tells you that you’re no good. It says: If people really knew you, they wouldn’t love you. It says: How could God continue forgiving someone as crooked as you.

That little shame voice is not helpful. Nor is it telling you the truth. For the truth about you is what God says about you. And in baptism God says: You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter. In you, I am well pleased.

You will make mistakes. Yes. You will feel guilt. Confess to God and to the people impacted by your mistakes. Receive God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of othersm and sin no more.

But—contra your shame voice—you are not fundamentally a screw-up, or a crooked failure.

You are someone in whom Christ dwells. You are justified. A New Creation. A saint in the Lord.

So travel lightly, friends. Assured that the God who began a good work in you, will complete it on the day of his appearing.

Amen.

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