Shout for Joy
Psalm 124 opens with a question that is met with a very positive response from every Christian I know. It is –
“What if the Lord had not been there?” A haunting question; but a reassuring answer. God as protector is the theme so beautifully expressed in this relatively short psalm of praise. Israel had been surrounded by enemy forces and the odds were greatly against them but then God, that one who “made both heaven and earth” stepped in and all is well. God himself sees the danger just around the next corner of time and moves to protect his own.
History has always honored the protector, whether on the part of the brave soldier on the battlefield retrieving a fallen colleague at personal risk, or the mother explaining to a child the serious risks of the drug culture. Every proactive act calls for involvement in the life of another. It costs and that is why we honor those in whose life it plays a central roll. Israel honored God for protecting them from the angry assaults of others (v. 2), from being swept away by a flood (v. 4) from the sure death of being held in the hunter’s trap (v. 7). For Israel all help came from God so the psalmist closes his song of praise, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, Who made heaven and earth” (v. 8 NLT).
So here is David’s concise but moving song:
At 96 I have had any number of times to experience the protecting hand of God over my life. Some were physical others intellectual or spiritual. At 13 I was walking to school with friends when a large truck changed lanes to round the corner. My two friends jumped back and I took the impact, was dragged a half-block then dropped and the truck would run over my leg. I woke up two hours later and when my mother saw me she passed out and they put her in the next bed. God protected me. In careful New Testament research there are times when a secular interpretation makes sense but only at the cost of surrendering absolute confidence in the reliability of scripture. Yes, he has protected me there as well. So, in the words of our psalm, “Praise be to God who brought us through; our help is in the Lord.”
John the disciple had a way of presenting Jesus Christ and his earthly ministry in the clearest of terms. In the very first chapter of his famous epistle he writes that they had “seen him with their eyes” and “touched him with their hands.” He had experienced the source of life and was proclaiming it everywhere so that others could enter the same rich relationship. He wanted them to experience the presence of God, the source of all light. He writes, “in him (that is, in this relationship with God) there is no darkness at all” (v. 5).
But here comes the “proof of possession:” if a person claims to have fellowship with God, yet is walking in darkness, that person has deceived himself and is not living cleansed from sin (vv. 6-7). At this point John clearly lays out the two alternatives: His readers can deny their sinfulness, which will leave them in darkness, self-deceived; or they can confess their sins, which will lead to forgiveness and purification. It is interesting to note that the if-then sequence is repeated 3 times: “if we claim” in v. 8 and 10, and “if we confess” in v. 9. Those numbers suggest that it is twice as likely that we’ll claim we haven’t sinned as it is that we will admit it. Sounds like human nature does it not!
There are several points of theological interest in this short passage. One is that if we claim to be without sin (or “have not sinned” v.10) we deceive ourselves. It is a serious thing to lie to one’s self because before long we’ll begin to believe it. This in turn affects how we look at everything from that point forward. When our mind-set has been reoriented in the wrong direction we are now one step further from truth.
Another point is that when we confess our sinfulness, God responds in two ways: he forgives and he purifies. It is not his desire to punish or to get even, but to forgive. He is not an angry god who keeps the pressure on to break us. God is forgiveness. He wants us close. Christ died on Calvary to make it possible for the prodigal to return to love and safety. Those who don’t grasp the reality that God desires reconciliation, simply do not understand who God is. He does not want us to continue as we are; he wants us to begin to take on a family resemblance.
And that brings up a last point: If we confess our sins he will also “purify us from all unrighteousness” (v. 9). While it is theologically true to say we are purified in Christ (God sees us in his Son and therefore as perfect), it is not true that we no longer need daily cleansing and forgiveness. As all are “in Adam” so are all believers“ in Christ." The transformation from our original state to our current condition requires a relatively long period of time (I know no one who has completed it.) The process is called sanctification and the coming completion is called glorification. When Christ comes again and we are raised we will also be totally transformed into what God desired from the beginning. What a glorious achievement!!
Is any one surprised about the way you live? Peter asks that question of the first century believers to whom he was writing. He has just described pagan conduct as “living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry” (4:3). Then he speaks of their surprise that Christians didn’t “join them in their reckless, wild living” (4:4). Not only that, but they heaped abuse on believers for their sterile lifestyle. Since we today are of the same faith, I ask you, “Has anyone expressed surprise about the way you live?”
I remember a speaker who posed a similar question: “If you were on trial for being a Christian in a dictatorial country, could they find enough evidence to convict you?” It struck me at the time that I was sufficiently like my secular friends that I could probably get by. And that’s the problem! We weren’t called to be like the nonbeliever, but to be like Christ, to be transformed into his image. Since we are but sojourners here on earth we ought to have the accent of heaven. The soldiers around the fire on the night Jesus was being examined by the high priest knew that Peter was a Galilean because he had the accent.
Some have solved the problem by dressing differently. The burka identifies the Muslim, the bonnet the Mennonite. Others have done it with a sort of religious rigidity that makes you want to suggest, “If you’re happy, let your face know it.” Certainly there is a better way. God doesn’t make people look different; he makes them different. And that difference is the result of looking at all of life from a heavenly point of view. It is an inward transformation that permanently alters who we are and how we act. How then should people view us? Well, it shouldn’t be something like, “And what kind of a religious wall flower are you? Come on, the pub’s still open and the bawdy house never closes.”
So, from one standpoint, it doesn’t look too good to follow Christ. It makes us different. Gives others the chance to feel superior. So? That’s their problem. We have the joy of joining the apostle Paul in his deep desire to know Christ and to participate in his sufferings (Phil. 3:10, cf. Rom. 8:17). No one knows exactly what the transformation will mean on a personal basis, but we are to embrace the future with enthusiasm because we are on the right side of history. Be different, I dare you!
In 1 Timothy 1.16 Paul tells us that it was because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners that he, Paul, was shown such great mercy. He reasoned that If God could save him, “the worst of sinners” – and He did! - then God could save anyone. (The New Jerusalem Bible translates the apostle’s self-description with “the leading example of his inexhaustible patience for all.”) And that is what I would like you to join me in thinking about. Was Paul the worst? Did he actually think he was the worst? Or is this simply the use of metaphor?
That Paul was a sinner, there’s no question about that, we all are. But he claims to be “the worst” so from Paul’s point of view no one else can make that claim. We know that he was a zealous young Rabbi, which ought to argue the opposite, but he viewed the burgeoning Christian faith as such a heretical menace that he secured permission to hunt down those who had embraced such a terrible heresy and throw them into prison. In fact, he stood by and watched the rabid religionists stone Stephen to death. He even gave them his permission and guarded their clothes while they killed him (Acts 22:20.)
Does that make Paul the worst? I don’t know for sure, but I am quite sure he is a reasonable candidate. The reason I hesitate is that all sin is wrong. It may be that some does far more damage to society, but in the long run, sin is sin. There’s a tendency to separate sins on our own scale of seriousness. We judge things like killing, stealing, hatred of the other as really bad – about 8 or 9 on a scale of 10. But then we seem to be not quite so turned off with such bad habits as arrogance, envy, or greed and score their “badness” no more that 2 or 3 at the most. Perhaps we could call them “Christian sins.” But wait! Doesn’t Paul put ”greed” right there in the middle of a group of “really bad sins” (as we would say) such as wickedness, evil, and depravity? (Romans 1:29)
The truth is that from God’s point of view, sin is sin; it separates us from God. All Adam and Eve did was to pick a piece of fruit from a little tree and mankind has suffered the results from then until now. Paul may have been the “worst of sinners,” but in terms of separating man from God, any sinful act could have accomplished that. The point that reaches me is the hideous nature of all sin. Some sins have a greater and more immediate affect on society, but each and every one kills in the very real sense of separating us from communion with the source of all life, even God. We are all “worst sinners.”
Since God the Father, for the benefit of his wayward children, sent his only Son to the cross where he would experience the unutterable desolation of separation from the Father, every thought or act that played a part in that unthinkable tragedy is a sin for which there is none greater. We are all “worst sinners,” but we are loved by God and forgiven. As the more expressive among us would say, “Hallelujah!”
There is a very special verse in Psalm 115. When I first read verse 8, it slipped by unnoticed. The first part of the verse said, “Those who make them become like them,” to which was added for literary balance, “So do all who trust in them.” Seems straight forward, but wait a moment; Doesn’t the thing that is made become like what the maker had in mind? – not the other way around? It’s a result, not a charge, is it not? For instance, if you want to carve a duck you take a chunk of wood about the right size and as you carve, it gradually comes to look like what you had in mind. While that is true it is not what the text has to say. It says, “Those who make them” (i.e., who do the carving) “become like them” (i.e., the carver comes to look like the duck he is carving.) Now that is really interesting. Obviously people don’t begin to look like that in a physical sense, something they are doing with their hands, so it appears that we need to read the verse in a more metaphorical way.
When we look at our verse (v. 8) in that way and consider it in context, we see a basic truth arising out of the turmoil. The setting is an extended list of negative observations about the secular life of the day. For example: The people forge expensive idols, but their own mouths can’t speak, the ears are beautifully carved they cannot hear, their own hands can’t feel nor can their own feet walk – no matter how carefully you listen you will hear no sound come from their mouths (v.4-7). In that setting we hear the psalmist say, “Those who make them become like them.” You can’t get by creating a world that does not include God. You can make idols that represent what you want the world to be like, but you will find that in the process you become like them: your idol has eyes, but you can’t see, it will have ears but you cannot hear, feet that take you no place, and hand that can feel nothing. Man believes he has created something of lasting beauty, but it turns out to be imaginary. Not only that, but in the process secularism has built its own prison, God has allowed man to forge his own chains. Were we to turn this process into a university class we could title it something like, ”Building your own casket, 101”
Let’s take a break at this point and listen carefully to the Psalm itself:
So you see that trusting God is the central theme of our Psalm. He rules from heaven above and the various gods of this world are impotent by comparison. So put your trust in him, Israel. In Yahweh you will find protection and blessing.
“What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” (Rom. 3:1-2).
Paul has just concluded that a person is a Jew if he is one inwardly (2:29) and this raises the question of what advantage is there in being a Jew. If the Gentile has an inner sense of whether something is right or wrong, and this corresponds to the role of the Jewish law, then, what’s so important about being a Jew. Paul answers, ”Much in every way,” and cites the fact that “the Jews have been entrusted with the very words of God.” The Old Testament is not simply a book of ancient history combined with the traditional wisdom of prophets and kings. Its pages contain ”the very words of God.” They are as authentic as if God himself sat down at a desk, took a pen in hand, and wrote what is recognized as absolute truth. Gods “word,” the holy scripture, is exactly what he wants to say as the omniscient creator of all that is.
Is that the way we approach the Bible? Do we regard its history, it’s poetry and its proverbs as God himself speaking? I do not ask that question from a theoretical standpoint but in terms of one’s actual practice. If God himself came to your house for a visit would you take the time to talk with him? Would you show him the common courtesy of listening to what he had to say specifically for you, or would you use that time for something like Dancing with the Stars? My question was not intended to make you, the reader, feel uneasy, but to point out the unfortunate distance in today’s world between reality and perception. Truly, we are sin-damaged goods. Yet at the same time we are precious in God’s sight. He chose to have his only Son sacrifice his life on a cross so we could be forgiven and become members of his family. Our concern should be family resemblance to Him. Like the hero in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Great Stone Face, to “look” at him on a continuing basis is to become like him. We are molded by the content of our thought life. Life in the gutter creates its own look, as does time spent in the more lofty regions of life.
The point has to do with the transforming experience of continuing exposure to “the very words of God.” Let your heavenly father create in you the very person you have always wanted to be since turning in faith to Christ your savior.
In the early days of his public ministry Jesus and his mother Mary were invited to a wedding in the Galilean town of Cana. Such weddings often lasted a full week, so at one point Mary came to her son with the news that they had run out of wine. Jesus told his mother that he didn’t share her concern because his time (apparently his time to reveal that he was the Messiah) had not yet come. However, Jesus told the servants to fill some stone water jars and when they dipped some out it had turned to wine, in fact a wine that was superior to what they had been drinking. The Gospel of John points out that this was the first of Jesus’ miraculous signs (2:1-11).
The question I want to ask is, “In what way are we to be like Jesus when it comes to performing miracles?” Is it in our power to do what he did? Granted, the early church was able to perform acts of healing, but for the most part that gift is not exercised in the contemporary church. Should it be is the question?
It will be well at this point to define miracle. The British Dictionary says a miracle is “an event that is contrary to the established laws of nature and attributed to a supernatural cause.” Other dictionaries say roughly the same in more erudite language. The one thing that is clear is that miracles call for a force outside the human realm and that implies that they are not something a person can do on his own power. They are acts of God. So when the early church was “filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:43) it was actually God at work through them. When we say that an apostle performed a miracle what we mean is that God used the apostle as the agent through whom he carried out his supernatural act. All the miracles performed by members of the early church were divine acts wrought through humans. They healed the sick and drove out demons, which not only served the physical needs of the afflicted, but helped authenticate the message they delivered (Acts 8:6 reports that the people paid attention to Philip’s message “when they heard and saw the signs which he did.”).
Against this background I would suggest that miracles are happening all the time in the contemporary church. Perhaps not the more typical miracles of New Testament days such as healing the sick, but if a miracle is an act of God performed through one of his own, then every answered prayer is a miracle – every intervention of God into the human sphere at our request is “miraculous.” Recently a friend involved in campus ministry told me of a number of freshmen who early that year opened their hearts to Christ. Our understanding of miracle makes each of those conversions a miracle. In every case what happened was beyond human competence and required the supernatural. Wherever God is at work in this world miracles are happening on a continuing basis. And we can be part of that!
So the answer to the question stated in the title of this piece, Can you perform a miracle?” is No, but I in anmother sense I can answer Yes, because God can use me as the agent though who he does he miraculous.
It is interesting to note that the man “after God’s own heart” is not one who has conquered the darker side of life. He is not a super saint whose spiritual maturity is a model for all the rest of us who are still struggling to learn some of the basics of the Christian life. Take prayer for instance. David seems to be unsure about God’s response so he pleads, “Hear me when I call,” and again, “Come quickly when I call” (v. 1). He both needs and desires the protection that only God can give. In v. 8 he reminds God that it is in him that he has taken refuge and prays that God will not “give him over to death.”
There was a time when I felt that when a person invited Christ into his life he moved out of the uncertainty of this life and almost immediately enjoyed the victory over sin that corresponded to the reality that in Christ I was totally forgiven and perfect in his sight. It didn’t last because it didn’t match what I was experiencing in the real world. It was so helpful to learn that two of the outstanding people in the bible, David and Paul, admitted that their life was not as free from defeat as the preachers of “victorious living” promised. David, the psalmist, began the 141st with, “To you, O Lord, I call for help” and Paul confessed that he “didn’t do the good he wanted to,” but “kept on doing the evil he didn’t want to do”(Rom. 7:19). I’m not suggesting that defeat is the norm for a child of God, but that our enemy, the Devil, is a master of deceit and is testing us on a continuing basis. Prayer becomes central for those who accept the demands of continuing growth in Christ.
Psalm 141 reflects the seriousness of David’s prayer life. He recognizes that he needs God’s help when it comes to dealing with the forces of evil. But he is also concerned about temptation that arises from within and calls upon God to place a guard at the door of his mouth. It all comes to this: may the wicked be trapped in their own snares and may the psalmist pass by unharmed.
In Proverbs 2:1-6 Solomon describes what it means to fear the Lord and to learn about God (v. 5). He gives his advice in a simple If-Then format – if you do this (vv. 1-4), then this will happen (v. 5). The “If section” states 8 conditions and is followed by a two-fold result. A quick read shows that the prerequisites for acquiring wisdom are to –
Accept his words – store up my commands
Listen to wisdom – concentrate on understanding
Beg for knowledge – plead for insight
Seek it like silver – search for it like treasure
It is crystal clear that wisdom is not something that happens accidentally, but requires considerable effort. Wisdom is not a free gift distributed somewhat carelessly to the uninvolved. When it is sought in the way described, the result is a deeper reverence for the Lord and an increased knowledge of God.
It is important to note that wisdom is not to know all about God, but to experience Him. Solomon is not laying out requirements for learning about the world in which we live, but the way to know the One who created it. Information is important and should not be dismissed as irrelevant but the more important thing is to know God.
Christian thought assumes the existence of God, a spiritual being. To call that belief an assumption does not make God less likely. All worldviews begin with an assumption, even atheism (since it believes without support of any kind that God does not exist). Since God is a spiritual being our contact with him must be spiritual, that is, by means of the Spirit. The relevance of this is that knowing God, or learning how to fear him, is an experience made possible by His Spirit. Solomon is not teaching us how to be wiser in general but wiser in our relationship to God. That which we learn from textbooks may be informative and helpful but it cannot make us wise in the way Solomon uses that word. The sage is telling us that to be wise (in the sense of an existential understanding of God who is spirit) we must genuinely desire wisdom and take the necessary steps to make it a reality. It is not that God has a set of ironclad regulations for us to meet, but that we must genuinely desire him to know him. Ultimately that is the only kind of “wisdom” that matters. As we read so often in the Old Testament, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 11:10, Proverbs 1:7, 9:10).
The rather common view that people in public office may be there for their own benefit is nothing new. Some 2,500 years ago Aesop, the Greek storyteller, observed that while “we hang the petty thieves” we “appoint the great ones to public office.” Regardless of whether or not there was an historical Aesop, what he had to say about leadership in the public square has been generally true from the beginning of time. Granted, good storytellers (and Aesop was one of the best) are given to hyperbole, but that doesn’t really change the issue. His observation about the moral laxity of public officials seems to be exceptionally accurate in today’s world. As we come to know more about what is going on in the centers of power, the more Aesop’s bon mot about petty thieves in high places, rings true.
Let’s think together about what might be called the personal adjustment of moral values in the public arena. The newly elected goes to his place of responsibility with lofty ideals that will benefit those he represents. If it requires some “swamp draining” he/she is ready to take on the task. Once in place, the rookie discovers that to be rewarded with a place that will help him to fulfill his commitment to the voters back in Bucketville, certain adjustments must be made. He wlill have to give a bit in order to get a bit. It becomes a sort of swap meet in which the goal of each perrson is to acquire the necessary leverage to make a difference. What that means is that one needs to have a certain amount of “power.” Without influence, to use a more acceptable term, newly elected public officials may find themselves back home with little to show for their term in office.
It was over 100 years ago that John Acton, the British historian and politician, wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet, without granting that dangerous commodity to some, is there any other way to provide governance for a people? Of course, theocracy would be ideal, because a righteous Deity would move us (whether community, state, or nation) quickly and effectively down the right path. Speaking of the delegation of power, I tend to think that the real culprit is not the power itself, but our innate tendency to abuse whatever power falls to us, whether in the public domain, at work, or in the home. Ultimately it is a theological problem.
Do I think that politicians are bad people? The answer is a qualified No. As members of a fallen race we are all “bad” (Read Rom. 7:15-25), but we are also made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27) and that’s “good.” In Adam we doubted God and decided to disobey. You know the result. In time some of us sinners looked back at the “Garden” we left (life as God meant it to be) and decided to return by faith (made possible by the redemptive death of Christ) to be where God originally planned for all. Others don’t return. What I would desire for “petty thieves in public office” (as Aesop phrased it) is that they “go home spiritually” so as to provide leadership that doesn’t violate conscience while successfully carrying out the task.
Those of us not in public office have a significant role to play in the process; not only are we to be submissive to those chosen for leadership (Rom. 13:1-7), but we are also to uphold them in prayer (1 Tim 2:1-2). The apostle Paul taught submission to governing authorities, and our Democratic Republic is still the best way for a moral population to live and work together toward a brighter future.
Robert H Mounce