Isaiah 43:8-13 – God Is Sovereign and I Am Not

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Bring my people together.
They have eyes and ears,
    but they can’t see or hear.
Tell everyone of every nation
    to gather around.
None of them can honestly say,
    “We told you so!”
If someone heard them say this,
    then tell us about it now.

My people, you are my witnesses
    and my chosen servant.
I want you to know me,
to trust me,
and understand
    that I alone am God.
I have always been God;
    there can be no others.

I alone am the Lord;
    only I can rescue you.
I promised to save you,
    and I kept my promise.
You are my witnesses
that no other god did this.
    I, the Lord, have spoken.
I am God now and forever.
No one can snatch you from me
    or stand in my way. (CEV)

I confess that I am an unabashed Calvinist – a Protestant theologian, pastor, and chaplain in the Reformed tradition. What that means to me is that I believe in God’s unconditional election of persons to salvation and new life. Maybe that means nothing to you, and to others it means everything. For many folks, it is just some churchy mumbo-jumbo which is rather irrelevant to the real stuff of the Christian life. 

I do not agree. It seems to me to be quite important. The heart of Reformation faith is a focus on God’s sovereignty, majesty, power, and grace. It is God who justifies, and not any human. That means there are no conditions to which God is beholden to act.

God works in the world according to divine free will and is not dependent upon anyone or anything to accomplish good purposes and fulfill good promises.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a soaring view of God’s grace and powerful control. Yes, indeed, throughout all eternity God is God. There is none who can thwart the Lord’s plans. God acts freely and mercifully and nothing can cancel out those actions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. 

We might jump from finger to finger in our puny attempts at autonomy, but we are not getting out of God’s hand! 

This really ought to be a comfort to every believer. God’s decrees will be fulfilled, and there is not one thing any wicked person can do to subvert divine initiatives. Furthermore, there is absolutely no way we can screw-up God’s purposes. We simply do not have such power. Our great task as believers is to rest secure in God’s will and place our trust in the One who knows exactly what he is doing in the world.

So, take a few minutes, draw a few deep breaths, and think on the wonderful truth that God is sovereign. To help you, here is the great opening to the Reformed confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, giving us a glimpse into the majesty of God:

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own,

but belong with body and soul,

both in life and in death,

to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins

with his precious blood,

and has set me free

from all the power of the devil.

He also preserves me in such a way

that without the will of my heavenly Father

not a hair can fall from my head;

indeed, all things must work together

for my salvation.

Therefore, by his Holy Spirit

he also assures me

of eternal life

and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready

from now on to live for him. Amen.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Specially Crafted by the Divine

Psalm 139 stained glass by Dutch artist Ted Felen (1931-2016)

Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it….

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
    Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
    If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you. (CEB)

It is no wonder so many people struggle with their self-image. Beautiful people reign in television and movies; the rich and powerful are highlighted in the media; and people with perfect teeth and immaculate attire are splashed in front of us in the daily barrage of advertisements. Meanwhile, the rest of us 99% of the population quickly notice we do not measure up to such a standard. You don’t have to be a people watcher to know that less than perfect bodies are the norm and that most folks do not have a budget to live like the other 1% humanity.

If we make comparisons with others too much and for too long, it gets downright depressing. Yet, into this dark abyss of one’s self-image enters the biblical truth that each one of us, no matter our station in life, was personally hand-crafted by a heavenly Being who loves us dearly. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Creator God took great care to make us and form us just so. The psalmist, David, praised God for the way we were created. The real standard from which we ought to judge ourselves is this: God knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and neither condemns us nor shames us but loves us wholly.

Psalm 139 by Dutch painter Ellen Van Randeraat, 2013

So then, rather than wasting our emotional energy and mental faculties on wishing we looked different or were more like so-and-so who seems to always have it all together, try practicing what David did: Praise God. 

Whenever we have the notion that we do not measure up to our imposed arbitrary standard, keep in mind that the only real measurement is grace. No matter who we are, the entire race of humanity has been created in the image of God, and, on that basis alone, we have inherent value, worth, and majesty. Let us, then, treat ourselves and others with the yardstick of grace.

The inner critic, that is, the inner judgmental dialogue we have with ourselves, needs to be replaced with the truth of Psalm 139. Although we might be rather hard on ourselves and say things in the reclusive parts of our minds and hearts that we would never say to others, nor tolerate others saying about someone else – God speaks to us with tender words of grace. Perhaps you think that only you know the depth of your own sorrows, hurts, fears, insecurities, and worries.  Except….

God. The Lord knows it all intimately – and is not one bit repulsed. You see, God knows that the answer to all the self-doubts is Divine care and protection. You and I have the freedom to plumb the recesses of our hearts and souls – to bring out all that is inside the cluttered closet of our minds and lay it all on the table without fear of God calling you what you call yourself.

Therefore, please do not quickly pass over the inspired words from Holy Scripture contained in today’s psalm. Take the time to carefully digest each phrase slowly so that the message becomes internalized and believed in real-time experience.

One of the theories of human psychology is that people are driven by two primary needs: 

  1. To intimately know another person.
  2. To be intimately known by another person. 

God knows us even better than we know ourselves – and still loves us! There is nothing we learn about ourselves that God does not already know. No human relationship can even come close to the level of knowing that God has for us and about us.

To know God is perhaps the greatest and highest pursuit we could ever enjoy. God is so immense and infinite that we will spend an eternity getting to know the Lord and will never get to the end of it. That is the kind of God we serve. Be encouraged today and always with the reality that you are known and can know God – and even more, loved deeply as a specially fashioned creature.

O God, thank you that I am wonderfully made in your likeness.  I praise you that I am fully accepted, even when I do not accept myself.  In Jesus Christ you have demonstrated the height of your love and mercy.  May this grace be with me every day so that I will conduct myself in a manner worthy of being part of the human family.  Amen.

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from heaven!
    Praise God on the heights!
Praise God, all of you who are his messengers!
    Praise God, all of you who comprise his heavenly forces!
Sun and moon, praise God!
    All of you bright stars, praise God!
You highest heaven, praise God!
    Do the same, you waters that are above the sky!
Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because God gave the command and they were created!
God set them in place always and forever.
    God made a law that will not be broken.

Praise the Lord from the earth,
    you sea monsters and all you ocean depths!
Do the same, fire and hail, snow and smoke,
    stormy wind that does what God says!
Do the same, you mountains, every single hill,
    fruit trees, and every single cedar!
Do the same, you animals—wild or tame—
    you creatures that creep along and you birds that fly!
Do the same, you kings of the earth and every single person,
    you princes and every single ruler on earth!
Do the same, you young men—young women too!—
    you who are old together with you who are young!

Let all of these praise the Lord’s name
    because only God’s name is high over all.
    Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven.
God raised the strength of his people,
    the praise of all his faithful ones—
        that’s the Israelites,
        the people who are close to him.

Praise the Lord! (Psalm 148, CEB)

This is the Christmas season.  We are in the third day of the twelve days of Christmas.  This time in the Church Calendar gives focus to declare along with the angels and all of God’s creation:  Glory to God in the highest; praise the Lord!  Everything in all creation points to a creator who cares for us. 

These days between December 25 and January 5 are to be a great celebration because King Jesus has come and is the rightful Sovereign over all creation.  We are to grasp the meaning of Christ’s incarnation; and affirm the identity of Jesus as both full human and fully divine.  Beginning with Christ’s birth, we enter a reflection on the meaning of Christ’s life and prepare for the journey toward the cross and the empty tomb.

Today, however, we simply praise the Lord along with all creation.  This is what the psalmist calls us all to do.  The entire universe is called to praise the Lord.  Everything outside our earth is to give God glory.  Everything in the universe points to a God who is worthy to be praised.

Let us assume the distance between the earth and the sun (ninety-two million miles) was reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper. If that is the case, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers seventy feet high. And the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of papers three-hundred-ten miles high. Our galaxy is just a speck of dust in the universe, yet Jesus holds the universe together by the word of his power.

We serve a big God who is worthy to be praised, not only out there in the universe but here on earth.  The psalmist calls on all the earth to echo the adoration of God.  That means everything and everyone on earth – fish, animals, birds, even trees as well as people. 

Research in the field of bioacoustics has revealed that every day we are surrounded by millions of ultrasonic songs. For example, the electron shell of the carbon atom produces the same harmonic scale as a Gregorian chant.  Whale songs can travel thousands of miles underwater.  Meadowlarks have a range of three hundred notes. Supersensitive sound instruments have discovered that even earthworms make faint staccato sounds!

Arnold Summerfield, a German physicist, and pianist observed that a single hydrogen atom, which emits one hundred frequencies, is more musical than a grand piano, which only emits eighty-eight frequencies.  Science writer Lewis Thomas summed it up it this way: “If we had better hearing, and could discern the singing of sea birds, the rhythmic drumming of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of flies hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”

Praise the Lord.  We have a vision in this psalm of all creation praising God as one great big choir. Praise is to occur with both words and actions.  With words, praise is an expression of gratitude to God for who she is and what he has done.  With actions, praise is a posture of submission and an acknowledgement of dependence.

Therefore, through testimony we declare what God has done in our lives and how he is worthy to be praised and obeyed.  With the emphasis on praise in a season dedicated to joy, we must also recognize that for many people Christmas is difficult.  Loneliness, thin finances, unemployment, illness, strained relationships, and bittersweet memories can all be a discouraging contrast to the celebration going on around them.

Praise, however, is not just for the joyful; it can happen no matter the circumstances because the Christian’s happiness is not dependent upon positive situations but rather upon the person and work of Jesus.  It may not be easy to find our voice of praise along with everyone else, but we are not alone.  We can choose to join with all creation to praise the name of the Lord. 

A dear parishioner of mine shared this a few years ago after experiencing multiple surgeries in the year:

“I am thankful for a chance to get out of the house. Of course, my walker was with me.  I am amazed how quickly folks move over, slow down, and give me space when I am out with that thing….  At church it feels like I am parting the Red Sea! The reason I hate the walker is because it says to the whole world, ‘Hey, I’m broken!’  I realize we all have areas that we are broken, most of them we can hide or cover up. Why are we so ashamed to confess the truth? Who really has it all together? I know we love our privacy and shun pity. However, I have been shown so much grace, kindness, and compassion as I push this piece of aluminum around that I hope this experience continues to change me for the better. I hope in the future I will be sensitive to those who are broken on the inside as well as the outside. May the love of Christ give me eyes to see people as he does, precious and accepted, just as they are.”

That, my friends, is the reasonable and logical end of praising the Lord – to connect what God has done and is doing with what he can do through us as we glorify his name. By simply being who we are created to be, we praise the Lord along with all creation.  When we as people in God’s image, reflect that image in how we talk and how we live, we participate with the universe in declaring God is good. 

Praise is to be the glue that binds us all together. Let us praise the name of the Lord. To be more specific, let the church praise the Lord!  Let leaders everywhere praise the Lord!  Let healthcare workers praise the Lord!  Let salespersons and factory workers praise the Lord!  Let police and lawyers praise the Lord! Let the trees, mountains, and all living things praise the Lord!  Let engineers and educators praise the Lord!  Let the little children praise the Lord!  Let clerks and cashiers, waiters and waitresses, janitors and housekeepers praise the Lord!  Let the lost and the lonely praise the Lord along with the happy and satisfied. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!  Praise the Lord!

Whether you are bursting to proclaim it, or struggle to say it and live it, praise the Lord along with everything in the universe because we serve a God who keeps us close to heart.  Praise the Lord!

What do you have to praise the Lord for today?

How do you express your praise, both personally and publicly?

Where is your favorite place to praise the Lord?

When does praise to God come easily for you, and when it is difficult?

Who do you like praising the Lord with?

May your life become a paeon of praise to the God who is worthy to receive all glory, honor, and praise. Amen

Psalm 149 – Praise and Punishment

Church stained glass windows sword dividing

Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the faithful.
Let Israel be glad in its Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
For the Lord takes pleasure in his people;
he adorns the humble with victory.
Let the faithful exult in glory;
let them sing for joy on their couches.
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

The initial question that arises with me is this: Is this a psalm of praise to the Lord, or an imprecatory psalm encouraging the punishment of the wicked? Well, perhaps the obvious answer is “yes.” I suppose what I am really struggling with is that out of all the one-hundred fifty psalms in the psalter, only this one has this unique combination of vocal praise and punishing action.

The psalm begins much like many psalms of praise but takes the unexpected turn of a call to a war-like operation to execute vengeance on enemies. I freely admit that I do not know quite what to make of this strange amalgam. I wonder along with the venerable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann who said, “One cannot tell whether this is a responsibility to fend off oppressors or a temptation to gather imperial power.”

Perhaps my wrestling with this psalm is really the struggle with history itself. The Holy Scriptures do not shy away from the realism of its times and often offers historical events and human attitudes with unvarnished narratives. The Bible, and especially the psalmist, will not let us sanitize the past as some idyllic bygone era of divine drama to be envied. Instead, we receive the liberation of God’s people with all its harsh truth.

So, it could be that is why I also loathe seeing some mass market crosses which look ornately beautiful, as if Christ’s death was some pleasant affair. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell came at an awful price. Jesus absorbed all the foulness and degradation of a tortuous ignoble death. In other words, he was a bloody mess, publicly displayed for all to jeer at and be repulsed by.

What is more, for the Christian, perhaps the sagest approach to today’s psalm is unabashedly choosing to view it through Christocentric lenses. Christ is the strong man who has bound the ruler of this dark world with iron chains and secured our liberation from a hellish existence. And the Lord will return, the nations of the earth will be judged, and the faithful will reign with Christ forever.

Even if I read a bit too much into the psalm by interpreting it Christologically, it still leaves the intention of the imprecation open as to its true nature. In other words, the psalm simply does not tell us the trajectory of the curse which comes out of the praise. We are left to wonder in what kind of direction it goes. The Christian tradition of reading psalms and seeing Jesus in them might be our best guide.

Whichever way we choose to examine this unique psalm, the thing which we do know is that it unequivocally stands as a defiance of the nations and peoples of the earth who oppose the living God. Resistance to injustice, unrighteousness, and evil is encouraged by this psalm. The only ruler of this earth who has absolute power is God; and, anyone or any group which attempts to gain and grab such power for themselves is to be resisted. For the harsh reality of living on this created yet fallen earth is that violent and insolent people still desire total control and will do just about anything to get it and keep it.

Almighty and sovereign God, we, your people, ask in the Name of your most precious Son, Jesus Christ, our risen and ascended Lord, to look upon the good desires of your humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of your power to be our defense against evil in all its insidious forms. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.