Shout for Joy
It is interesting that what may be one the best insights into the nature of poetry was written by a theoretical physicist, Paul Dirac. He said, "In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite." It’s certainly true that the task of science is to gather data, discern how they relate, and provide workable paradigms for the complexity of what we call reality. More simply, science tells people what they don't know in a way they can understand.
Then Dirac goes on to claim that poetry is "the exact opposite.” At first I took this to mean that poetry tells people what they have always known, but in a way they can't understand. His statement seemed to say that it was a literary form that intentionally restates what we already know, but makes it more confusing by putting it in highly figurative language. In short, science explains, poetry obscures.
However, as I thought about it, I began to see that he may not have been putting down poetry at all, but saying something very important about it. I realized that what at first seemed to be a negative regard, may well have been the exact opposite. It could be that while science seeks to clarify, poetry uses a different language that takes us behind the obvious to see the "data" of life in a different way. I began to understand that while science explains for functional purposes, poetry "confuses" for artistic purposes. They are the "exact opposite" in method, but in method only. Both methods reveal truth, but in two different ways and for two different purposes. Science is functional; poetry embraces the larger context of life that lies outside the test tube.
Certainly, both are necessary. Getting to the library is, in a sense, a scientific endeavor. One has to consider such things as distance, time, weather, possibility of interruption, to say nothing – if I’m allowed a big of levity– of the validity of the coordinate system being used. On the other hand, to experience meaning – once you get there and have settled down with a good book – calls for the use of metaphors, which by definition lie outside the realm of science. Getting to the library is impossible apart from some understanding of our material world, but it provides no reason why we should go there. Poetry would like you to put the precision of science on hold for a moment and move instinctively to why you wanted to go there in the first place. Poetry would free you from the limitations of the material, in order to take you via the imagination to some sudden insight into the “whys” of life.
William Blake, the 19th century English poet wrote, “Sweet sleep with soft down, weave thy brows an infant crown” (from A Cradle Song). Today’s scientific mind may well appreciate the insights of poetry, but find it impossible to quantify them. Science and poetry each have their goals, but for me, at this stage of life, the great sweeping generalities, as penned by a poet, are what bring me the greatest satisfaction.
During the past several months I have posted 100 blogs that come from my gospel harmony published as Jesus, In His Own Words. The new book is titled The Jesus Story and will be available in about a month through Amazon. In the past four years the total number of posts has passed the 1,000 mark so current plans are to take a deep breath, repeat some, write some more and see what happens in the process. Today I return to a favorite Psalm that I’ve put in Scottish metre. You may know that the first Scottish Metre dates back to 1564 and is sung every Sunday in every Church of Scotland. My memories of the two year graduate study in Aberdeen are still vivid in my mind. I was deeply moved by the beauty of worship there and have redone for my personal pleasure most of the 150 Psalms. Here is one that has to be the “best” – the 23rd.
There is no other psalm that has been recited at more memorial services and memorized by more school children than Psalm 23. We resonate so strongly to the psalm because of its central motif, which is, as the OT scholar Mark Futato puts it, “the beneficent presence of a personal God.” We were created for fellowship with this God and until that relationship, which was broken by sin, is reestablished, our most basic desire remains unmet. In the psalm God is portrayed as a divine shepherd who protects and guides us on our journey through life. It culminates in a joyful feast and a soul satisfying relationship with Him that will never end. Little wonder that it is a favorite psalm.
If there is any one thing that takes the fun out of living and replaces it with a heavy heart, a nervous stomach, and/or a furrowed brow, it is anxiety. Unfortunately, life provides us with a lot of opportunities in which to be anxious: Are you sure our plane will arrive in time? Will we be able to buy it? Will our house still be there after the tornado? Do I look okay? Etc. Anxiety has little to do with whether or not the situation is real or imaginary, rare or common. It just is. It conflicts the young and the old, the rich and the poor. Anxiety is a common ailment of the human species.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses the issue. He tells the crowd not to worry about what he calls “little things” such as having enough to eat or enough to wear. We might question whether, in a day when most people spent their life close to poverty, it was accurate to say that food and clothing were “little” things. Government programs for the disadvantaged, food stamps, and subsidized living arrangements would have been dreams for the next world. Jesus went on to remind them that God takes care of the wild birds that didn’t plant or harvest, and provides beautiful attire for the wild flowers in the field, so wouldn’t it be far more likely that he would feed and clothe people created in his own image? The answer is clear: God is in control. Instead of being anxious people are to set their heart on the kingdom of God and he will provide them with all they need (Matt. 6:25-34).
There is an important point about anxiety that I want to emphasize, and that is its relationship to concern. To be concerned about having enough for the family to eat leads us to look for new ways to earn the necessary finances. To be anxious is something else because most of the things we are anxious about are those over which we have no control. To be anxious that we not have a major earthquake is irrational because there is nothing we can do to prevent it. The point is that concern is rational and appropriate, but anxiety is irrational and beside the point. Jesus would encourage us to do something positive about issues of concern, but not to waste time and energy trying to solve our anxieties about problems over which we have no control. Is it not true that anxiety is a form of what we might call “practical atheism” since it implies that God is not there so I have to be anxious about it.
It seems a bit strange that John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” would begin his letter by referring to Jesus as “that which.” Yet as he continues it becomes clear that the “that” of whom he speaks is a person not a thing. And that’s because it had been “heard, seen, looked at, and touched.” John’s readers would probably have been familiar with the way he opened his gospel – “In the beginning was the Word.” It was an obvious reference to the man he knew so intimately as Jesus. I can see the elderly patriarch sitting there on the Isle of Patmos, reflecting on his time with Jesus. In just the first verse of his letter John stresses four ways that describe the relationship that had existed “from the beginning” (not of time but of the Christian movement). Let’s look at them.
John writes that he had been one of the Jesus’ disciples and therefore had actually “heard” him, not only as he taught the crowds, but as he clarified to his disciples what he had said to larger groups. John’s information about Jesus was not something that had been passed on to him, but he himself had been right there and heard the very words that came from the mouth of Jesus. Not only had he “heard” Jesus, but he had “seen” him with his own eyes. There was no question about the relationship, it was man to man. John “looked” at him as well. The Greek theaomai, (“to look at intently”) is different than the earlier verb, horao (which means “to catch sight of” or “to notice”) and emphasizes the careful way in which John looked at his Lord. [Sorry about the technical details; I can’t seem to get away from my earlier career.] And finally, John had been right there with him, even “touched” him with his hands. What the elderly disciple is doing is showing how well qualified he is to pass on the teachings of Jesus. He was there with Jesus all during the time of his ministry.
And what did John mean by the phrase “the Word of Life“? It could be a message about life, a message that creates life, or as The Message has it, “The infinite Life of God himself that took shape before us.” My tendency is to steer clear of the extremes in translation; that is: leaving a text somewhat vague, or adjusting it so completely that there is little resemblance to the original. So I would settle for the “Word that brings life.” And that’s exactly what Jesus, who is the “Word,” does.
There is one thing about physical life and that is that we never get out of it alive (except for the Rapture of course). It is a very limited commodity and lasts for only a relatively short period of time. But the life that Jesus brings is spiritual. That life never dies. It is eternal and every believer has already entered it. But wait! Wouldn’t that mean that the Christian wont really die? Right! Only the body dies. Doesn’t God say that the believer “has crossed over (past tense) from death to life” (John 5:24)? Right again! The amazing truth is that when people turn from the old life and accept Jesus Christ as Savior they are “born again,” this time into a new life, a spiritual life that never ends. That is what scripture teaches, and while our body will die, who we really are will continue forever. And that’s a long long “time!”
This morning marks the close of a period in which I have had the pleasure of posting 100 columns that grew out of reflections from my gospel harmony, Jesus, In His Own Words. For me it has been a rewarding time. Each morning I ask God to help me understand what I am reading in the gospel account and to excite my mind and heart as I reflect on his Word. Put simply, I want God to be the one who posts an insight from the gospels using me as the way to get it to you. Each morning my goal is to read, to pray, to listen, and then to write. I take no credit because his Word has a life of its own. A close friend once said that the goal of a preacher is “to lead people unto the presence of God.” And I add, “Should that not also be the goal of an author writing on a scriptural passage as well?”
I had something else in mind when I started this post but let me take a moment to restate what I believe is the most effective way to communicate biblical truth. I can explain a passage, but I can’t take the next step because that is what God does. He is the one who, as I wrote about just a day or so ago, creates the “burning heart.” God operates in an area we call spiritual. By nature we belong to our own limited world – that is, all that God has created. So how does God speak to us in order to explain who he is and what he has done so we can have fellowship with him? He can’t use heaven’s language of spiritual discourse because we can’t understand it. And our language, while it serves our needs, is so incredibly limited that when it tries to explain something in a higher realm finds the task way beyond its ability.
The incarnation makes it possible to bridge that gap. Jesus, the Son of God became one of us, died for our sins, and gave us the opportunity to enter by faith into that other sphere, the spiritual. Now we can talk together. So when the preacher explains a passage, the Spirit is always there to use the words spoken and make them communicate spiritual meaning to us. The result? A “burning heart” Some times it burns with new understanding, other times with encouragement, correction, advice, or just friendly chitchat about what’s going on in life down here below heaven.
What I have said about the dynamic of genuine peaching (God speaking directly to you through the words of a Spirit inspired sermon) is also true of the author who is explaining a passage in scripture and showing its application. Following my mother’s advice, I read Oswald Chamber’s “My Utmost for His Highest.” Those of you who are familiar with this unusual book will understand how a teen-age boy could experience on a regular basis what scripture calls a “burning heart.” God himself visited – of all paces – Minot, North Dakota, to spend time with Bob. To repeat myself, you and I can say the words but only God can speak to the heart.
The website, Shout4joy.net, has been running 7 days a week for almost five years. Beyond that, I have organized the blogs and published them as paperbacks available through Amazon. My major reason was to keep them safe for great grandkids and further generations. I have entitled this last book The Jesus Way, and it should be available in a week or so. Should you want a copy you will know how to go about it. In the meantime I will mix new posts with others that were published at much earlier dates. Then, the Lord willing, I will turn to those few books in the New Testament that I have not as yet used in this way (Acts, certain epistles of Paul, and Revelation). Thank you for reading what I have written, and if now and then you feel a certain “burning of the heart” I will be blessed in that God has used a Shout for Joy post to speak to your heart.
In the sixth chapter of Proverbs, Solomon lists seven things that God simply will not tolerate (vv. 16-19). They are “detestable to him.” We need to pay special attention to this unit because it reveals a concern so great on God’s part that words can hardly express his absolute disgust. The first six things mentioned form a group to which the seventh is added as the ultimate expression of God’s dislike. Unless this six-plus-one is simply stylistic the arrangement places a significant emphasis on the seventh. If that is the case then God is being presented as one who literally detests the “stirring up of conflict.” First we will list the six deplorables and then give major attention to the seventh.
Solomon begins his list with “haughty eyes,” that is, the proud look of the arrogant. Second is the “lying tongue” – God regards truth so highly that any deviation is an abomination. “Hands that shed innocent blood” refers to the customary manner in which people killed one another in those days. God detests the “devising of wicked schemes” because it undermines the stability of family, social group, and nation. “Feet that are quick to rush into evil” pictures the readiness of the rebel to break the established rules of society. And the first six close with God’s abhorrence of “lying under oath.”
A terrible list of six malevolent practices, but there remains one more and it’s in a class by itself – “sirs up trouble in the community” (read family, friends, home-owners association, church, community, colleagues, or any other social group). It would appear that social turmoil is a condition that is absolutely unacceptable to God. As Creator he set everything in motion in such a way that there would be a quiet efficiency in all the “running parts” of the universe – personal and in nature. You will remember that in the creation story at the close of each day, God surveyed his accomplishment and declared it “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, etc.). But in Romans 8, Paul pictures creation groaning as in childbirth and waiting to be set right. In addition, unrest exists everywhere in human hearts because in Adam we tried to do it on our own and the history of the human race has turned out to be one of conflict and war.
Well, that’s the theology of it – God despises dissention because it affects everything in a negative way. In the perfect plan, everything runs exactly as it should, but when humans are factored in, we bring with us the sand and gravel of our fallen nature and the giant gears begin to groan and threaten to break. Family life becomes more tenuous, friends separate, communities draw up battle lines, and nations take up arms against one another. Discord is a major force working against God’s plan and one in which each of us by nature finds ourselves.
May God grant us the strength of character to resist the always ready temptation to “tell our side of the story.” Others, getting their offense in order will probably not listen to it anyway. Understanding, harmony, and goodwill should be characteristic of the various groups in which believers find themselves. It is how God planned it all.
The incarnate life of Jesus Christ closed with his death and resurrection. Then there was a 40 day transitional period in which he appeared to his disciples in various ways. The two final accounts in the gospel story of Jesus are (1) his plan for worldwide evangelization, and (2) his return to heaven. It is fitting that Matthew (the tax-collector given to detail) outline the plan for the expansion of the Christian faith, and Luke (the physician who understood man’s departure from this life) describe Jesus’ last hour.
Jesus had told the disciples to go back to Galilee where he would meet with them. When the group saw their Lord from a distance some questioned whether it was really Jesus. But as he drew closer they recognized him for who he really was and bowed to him with a new sense of awe that had entered the relationship.
The responsibility he was about to assign to them was based on the universal authority that he now possessed. His plan rested upon the universal authority that was now his in view of his resurrection. It was not complicated, but it did require their total commitment, as it still does for all who accept him as Lord of their life. The very first word in the charge is that they “Go.” The Christian faith is not an ethical maxim to be enjoyed in continual reflection, but something that calls for action. They were to “make disciples” from all nations, that is, they were to duplicate themselves throughout the world creating followers of Christ from every nation in the world and every race and color know to man. Baptism would identify them as having died to the old way and raised to become another disciple.
The third part of the commission given to the Eleven was that they “teach,” but the teaching was to be more than intellectual – they were to “teach them to obey.” The convert was to understand and put into action everything that they were commanded by God to do. This could seem difficult, but they were not alone in the task because, as Matthew puts it, “God will be with you always, even to the close of the age.” So, they were to Go, to Make Disciples, to Baptize and to Teach to obey. Christianity is more than an ethical plan; it is an active outreach, a missionary task that calls for the real life involvement of every follower of Christ. The plan holds, even until today.
The final thing that Jesus did during his incarnate presence in our world was to leave Jerusalem with his disciples for a place near Bethany. It was from there that he would return to heaven. It must have been a sacred moment as Jesus lifted his hands to heaven and blessed those who had been with him for 3 years of public ministry. Then he rose up from their midst and was carried to heaven. The disciples bowed in worship as Jesus passed from their sight. We can only sense the incomprehensible joy that filled the disciples’ hearts as they returned o Jerusalem. Then day after day they were in the temple courts praising God for all that he had done through his beloved Son, their Savior.
During the 40 days between his resurrection and the ascension Jesus appeared to his disciples a number of times in a number of locations. Perhaps he wanted them to be absolutely sure that he had been raised from the dead and was actually right there with them. The mind has a way of discrediting whatever is so unusual. Fact and fiction overlap. His multiple appearances help enforce the reality that he had actually come back to life after three days as a corpse. During that 3 days his heart was absolutely still, no blood ran through his veins, not a breath of air was taken and the body had grown cold — he was dead! THEN suddenly everything was like it had always been. Jesus was alive again. He greeted Mary, he walked with Cleopas and his friend to Emmaus plus a number of other events. Here are those that have been recorded:
Ten of the disciples (Thomas was not there and Judas Iscariot had committed suicide) seemed to have feared for their life because they had securely locked themselves in a room when Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst. It must have reassured their confidence when once again he was right there with them. Anyway, the text says they were “amazed and filled with joy” (Luke 24:31).
About a week later Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst. This time Thomas was there. He was having trouble believing that Jesus was actually alive again and said that unless he could put his hand in the wound left by the spear he could not believe. But it didn’t turn out that way. The next week, when he actually saw Jesus, Thomas turned down the invitation to prove to himself that it was his Lord and cried out “It is you! My Lord and my God.”
Then there was the occasion when Jesus was there on the shore of Lake Tiberius and called out to his disciples (John’s gospel lists the 7 by name) who were out fishing. They hadn’t caught anything until Jesus told them to cast their nets on the right side and when they did they landed a boatload. When Peter recognized that the man on the shore was Jesus he – and isn’t this like Peter – plunged into the lake to get to Jesus first. After breakfast Jesus made sure that Peter understood that loving his Lord meant feeding his sheep.
There may have been other times when Jesus appeared to his disciple, but the several that are recorded provide solid support for moving beyond doubt that, as promised, Jesus Christ was alive and had fulfilled his promise. While you and I can understand how these appearances would help the disciples believe the “impossible,” we also recognize for ourselves the role of the Spirit in helping us believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that 2,000 years ago a Galilean man said he was God, died for that assertion and rose three days later to change millions of lives and provide both the power and the reason for the spread of western civilization. Praise be to Jesus, the promised Messiah, the personal Savior of all who accept by faith the reality of his resurrection and all it means.
One of the intriguing things that happened during the forty-day period following the resurrection was the encounter between Jesus and the two men on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and a friend were walking along, discussing all the exciting things that had taken place in Jerusalem during the recent Feast of Weeks. Suddenly Jesus joined them and asked, “What are you two discussing so seriously?”
“You must be the only person in the world who doesn’t know about that man Jesus,” they answered. “What he taught and did was so threatening to the Jewish hierarchy that they took him in custody and turned him over to the Romans to be crucified. We had hoped that he might have been the Messiah, but those in charge had him crucified. But of all things, this morning some women went to the tomb and he wasn’t there. No one has been able to locate the body.”
At this point Jesus, who had been listening carefully, as if he hadn’t heard about his own disappearance, said, ”You foolish men! Why is it so hard for you to believe what the prophets wrote about the Messiah, that before entering his glorious reign it was necessary for him to suffer.” Then Jesus explained to them everything that the scripture had to say on the subject.
When the three of them came to Emmaus, Jesus was going to continue on, but they urged him to stay for a while. It was already late, so Jesus went with the two men to where they lived and at dinner that evening broke bread and blessed it. As he was explaining scripture, their eyes were opened and they realized who it was sitting there at the table with them. Then suddenly Jesus disappeared from their sight. They looked at each other and, in awe, said, “Did not our hearts burn within us when he explained scripture to us as we walked along on the way?”
“The burning heart” has become a favorite expression from scripture. It seems to capture a common experience of everyone who has taken Christ as personal savior and from time to time has been especially aware of his active presence in their life. The burning heart is not a matter of intellectual understanding, or is it simply an emotional experience; it is an existential awareness that combines both in a profound realization that God really is and he’s here right now.
It was when Jesus was explaining scripture to the two men that they became aware that their hearts were burning within them. I’m asking myself, “Has my heart been burning recently?” And I must confess, “Not as often as I now wish it had.” From the account as told by Luke we need to emphasize that the burning heart experience took place when Jesus “talked with us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” The deeply satisfying sense of God’s presence is realized by the believer when we are seriously considering the truths of scripture. More simply, God still speaks through his Word. Scripture is alive, vibrant, personal and life-changing because it is the voice of God. A single verse cannot help but create a burning heart because it comes from the lips of a God who loves us and wants us to hear what he would share with us today. How could a heart open to him help but burn?
Robert H Mounce