God Is Both Near and Far (Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21)

God giving life to Adam, by Michelangelo (1475-1564) on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome

I will exalt you, my God the King;
    I will praise your name for ever and ever.
Every day I will praise you
    and extol your name for ever and ever.

Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    his greatness no one can fathom.
One generation commends your works to another;
    they tell of your mighty acts.
They speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty—
    and I will meditate on your wonderful works….

The Lord is righteous in all his ways
    and faithful in all he does.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
    to all who call on him in truth.
He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
    he hears their cry and saves them.
The Lord watches over all who love him,
    but all the wicked he will destroy.

My mouth will speak in praise of the Lord.
    Let every creature praise his holy name
    for ever and ever. (New International Version)

The Lord is both near and far. The God of Holy Scripture is, at the same time, both:

  • approachable and aloof
  • close and distant
  • beside us and beyond us
  • available and elusive
  • revealing and remote
  • warm and cool
  • knowable and mysterious
  • readily at hand and at arm’s length
  • a good neighbor next door and a politician over in a city you’ve never been

The technical theological terms for describing God in such a way is that the Lord is both immanent and transcendent. And that is a good thing. We need the Lord to be both.

This psalm is a hymn of praise to God. The psalmist, David, celebrates the attributes and the actions of the Lord. David understood, better than most, that God is so far above humanity in divine majesty that miracles are always possible. Because God is God, the Lord’s arm is never too short to extend help and deliverance.

David knew that God’s powerful ability and God’s loving affection go hand-in-hand together; God’s mighty strength and God’s compassionate spirit work together harmoniously for our benefit.

They did not conquer the land with their swords;
    it was not their own strong arm that gave them victory.
It was your right hand and strong arm
    and the blinding light from your face that helped them,
    for you loved them. (Psalm 44:3, NLT)

God’s interventions, wonders, and miracles are never done dispassionately; the Lord’s arm is extended with deep concern and loving care for people.

The Lord acts as a close relative, like a parent, exhibiting qualities of both father and mother. God is close enough to not only hear our verbal prayers but to also hear our faint whispers. Indeed, the Lord is so close that we don’t even have to speak for the prayers of our heart to be heard.

The righteous call to the Lord, and he listens;
    he rescues them from all their troubles.
The Lord is near to those who are discouraged;
    he saves those who have lost all hope.

Good people suffer many troubles,
    but the Lord saves them from them all. (Psalm 34:17-19, GNT)

In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus gave us instruction on how to address God: “Our Father in heaven.” Not just “my” Father, but “our” Father. We are to pray with the mindful sense of our union with the Lord, as well as our connection with one another as believers.

The Lord sits in heaven as the Most High God, the transcendent Lord of me, you, and all people – watching over and protecting all whose hearts are in the right place, and effectively guarding us from a lofty divine vantage point.

My shield is God Most High, who saves the upright in heart. (Psalm 7:10, NIV)

Clap your hands, all you nations;
    shout to God with cries of joy.

For the Lord Most High is awesome,
    the great King over all the earth.
He subdued nations under us,
    peoples under our feet. (Psalm 47:1-3, NIV)

With our transcendent God always having a watchful eye over us, we need not fear anything or anyone. The Lord knows the score of how things are going in the world and in your life. And, what’s more, God knows the ropes in providing for us, protecting us, and powerfully handling any and all enemies to our souls.

Yet, at the same time, all the time, God is both our high holy King, and our close intimate Friend. Indeed, the Lord is graciously immanent as my Abba – the Father who is near and dear to our hearts.

Because you are [adopted] sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” Therefore, you are no longer a slave but a son or daughter, and if you are his child, then you are also an heir through God. (Galatians 4:6-7, CEB)

Christians everywhere in the world, and throughout the ages, gather together and repeat the Lord’s Prayer, every Sunday, as well as in weekly small groups, and daily individual prayers. We cry out, “Our Father in heaven” as the most used phrase over the course of our Christian lives.

And that sort of repetition is a good thing. It is important to verbalize that God is transcendent – far above all earthly powers as the sovereign Lord of the universe; and to vocalize that God is immanent – near to us as a father to a child.

Just because a phrase can become vain repetition doesn’t mean that repeating it is a bad thing. Using our words to reiterate both the far distance and the close relation of God is a worthy activity which fortifies our faith, and which passes truth to successive generations of the faithful.

The best way I know of cultivating a healthy sense of God’s transcendence and immanence (outside of reading scripture and praying) is through clouds and kids – both of which require mature adults to practice some much needed humility.

There is nothing quite like putting clocks and schedules aside, stretching out a blanket on a hill, laying back, and watching the clouds roll by. The perspective of massive highness reminds us that our problems are neither as daunting nor as important as we thought.

In contrast to the high clouds, there’s also nothing quite like forgetting your age and getting on the ground to be eye level with a kid. Fortunately, I have rambunctious and curious grandsons who continually remind me that, the lower I get, the better I understand what’s truly most important.

Neither my kids nor my grandkids care all that much about the what’s in my life – what I do – my work, my hobbies, my angst, my daily activities. But they do care a great deal about who I am and why I’m with them.

Intentionally developing a sense of God as both far and near, helps us remember who we are and why are here.

Ironically, the closer I get in touch with the reality that I’m mere dust, and will return back to the ground, the better I’m able to see the Most High God. And, conversely, the more I gaze into the sky, the greater awareness I have of the people around me. I learn to love God and neighbor, as I ought.

There’s no better time than now to get out there and take advantage of the clouds and the kids. It will likely help you to know God better; and it will probably bring a greater awareness, clarity, and connection to the truly significant which is always around us.

Father God, you formed us from the dust of the earth. Remind us of our place as your creatures at home in your creation. Forgive us when we forget our connection to the earth, and our dependence upon the goodness of your world. Lord have mercy.

Brother Jesus, you were born into this world, and made your earthly home in Nazareth. Help us to know and love the people and places where you have set us. Forgive us when we fail to care for our homes, our communities, and your creation. Christ, have mercy.

Blessed Holy Spirit, you desire to grow in us your fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Forgive us when our roots are so shallow, and our hearts so restless, that our lives fail to bear fruit. Enable us to find our home in you, and in the places to which you call us. Lord have mercy.

Blessed Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – the God who is both far and near: Forgive us our sins, settle us in a place of belonging, and enable us to bear fruit for your kingdom. Amen.

Psalm 113 – There Is a Deliverer

Shout praises to the Lord!
Everyone who serves him,
    come and praise his name.

Let the name of the Lord
    be praised now and forever.
From dawn until sunset
    the name of the Lord
    deserves to be praised.
The Lord is far above
    all of the nations;
    he is more glorious
    than the heavens.

No one can compare
    with the Lord our God.
His throne is high above,
    and he looks down to see
    the heavens and the earth.
God lifts the poor and needy
    from dust and ashes,
    and he lets them take part
    in ruling his people.
When a wife has no children,
    he blesses her with some,
and she is happy.
    Shout praises to the Lord! (Contemporary English Version)

It is appropriate, as we approach the Nativity of our Lord in just a few days, that we acknowledge and celebrate Christ’s incarnation by using today’s psalm.

Believers everywhere serve a God who is attentive to humanity. Although high and transcendent above all creation, the Lord carefully observes the plight of people. And God determines to do something about it. God breaks into the human experience by becoming human.

In the New Testament, the Apostle John frames this movement from heaven to earth in this way:

The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish. (John 1:14, The Message)

This grand descending to earth plumbed the very depths and despair of humanity.

In the largest cities of the world, like Mexico City, Mexico and Manilla, Philippines, there are huge garbage dumps that cover several square miles. On top of these heaps of waste there live hundreds of families who have made this their home. 

Each day they send their kids out to forage for scraps so they can have something to eat and survive.  Few others tread where these families are.  Yet, there are Christian believers who make the journey and try to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to such a place.

As incredible and sad a situation that this is, it doesn’t compare to the journey from heaven to earth that Jesus made. God became flesh, Christ descended to earth and came to the sin-soaked dump of this world – to us who were living on a heap of garbage – and entered our lives to save us from our wretched and pitiable condition.

God’s generosity in sending the Son was a gracious and cataclysmic entry to this earth on our behalf. It’s as if Jesus moved into the garbage dump and was born on the heap of waste so that God might be present with us.

Jesus did not just appear to be human, but actually became like us and lived with all the same things we face from day to day. He “tabernacled” with us, using the imagery of God’s presence with the ancient Israelites.  God is with us!

Jesus interacted with the families in the dump. God was coming to save the people.  he way to reach people, who are so concerned for scurrying about their business and trying to survive apart from God, is through the incarnation – both through testifying to what God has done in Christ, and through being sent, we ourselves, as little incarnations of entering into people’s lives. 

We are like the moon, not producing light ourselves, but in the middle of darkness, reflecting the light of the sun so that the earth may know that Jesus is coming.

The mystery of the incarnation is that Jesus became human and lived among us. 

May we believe.

May we know there is a Deliverer.

May we rejoice and be glad in this reality, and may it move us to be used of God to save those on the sin heap of this world.

May the poor and needy be lifted up.

May you have a blessed Christmas and enjoy peace with God and others in this next year.

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 90 – Of God and Humanity

Lord, you have been our help,
    generation after generation.
Before the mountains were born,
    before you birthed the earth and the inhabited world—
    from forever in the past
    to forever in the future, you are God.

You return people to dust,
    saying, “Go back, humans,”
    because in your perspective a thousand years
    are like yesterday past,
    like a short period during the night watch.
You sweep humans away like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning.
True, in the morning it thrives, renewed,
    but come evening it withers, all dried up.
Yes, we are wasting away because of your wrath;
    we are paralyzed with fear on account of your rage.
You put our sins right in front of you,
    set our hidden faults in the light from your face.
Yes, all our days slip away because of your fury;
    we finish up our years with a whimper.
We live at best to be seventy years old,
    maybe eighty, if we’re strong.
But their duration brings hard work and trouble
    because they go by so quickly.
    And then we fly off.
Who can comprehend the power of your anger?
    The honor that is due you corresponds to your wrath.
Teach us to number our days
    so we can have a wise heart.

Come back to us, Lord!
    Please, quick!
    Have some compassion for your servants!
Fill us full every morning with your faithful love
    so we can rejoice and celebrate our whole life long.
Make us happy for the same amount of time that you afflicted us—
    for the same number of years that we saw only trouble.
Let your acts be seen by your servants;
    let your glory be seen by their children.
Let the kindness of the Lord our God be over us.
    Make the work of our hands last.
    Make the work of our hands last! (Common English Bible)

The Bible is first and foremost a collection of books about God. Even though Scripture’s pages are filled with the fame and foibles of humans, nevertheless, the biblical drama unfolds because of the Lord. Holy Scripture is, indeed, a self-revelation of God.

There are times we get too focused on ourselves – our fears, inadequacies, weaknesses, failures – and lose sight of just how huge God really is. Today’s psalm helps reorient us back toward the grand Sovereign of the universe. There is a decidedly theistic worldview espoused and embedded in the psalm. It is a cosmology dominated by the immensity and largeness of a Creator God who is pictured as completely in control of all creation.

Let’s face it: Our lives are a weird and complex concoction of fear and joy that can combust at any time. We swing from high to low, and low to high. If we are on an even keel, its only because we are currently in the middle of swaying to one extreme or the other. Even introverts are familiar with this – it just happens to take place mostly inside their vast inner world, instead of on the outside for all to see.

So, we all need the grand vision of God in this psalm to anchor us through the unpredictable vicissitudes of life. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the earth was formed, from everlasting to everlasting the Lord is God. 

The transcendent God, although high and above everything in all creation, is not at all aloof from humanity; the Lord of the universe is also imminently close. God is near enough to know both our outward iniquities as well as our secret sins. Nothing gets by God. The Lord always knows the score.

The proper and appropriate response to such a God is to exclaim along with the psalmist to teach us to number our days so that we may get a heart of wisdom. Whenever we appropriate a biblical worldview, we learn to measure our days and live consistently moral lives with wholeness and integrity. 

This is why a regular regimen of the psalms is important to us, so that we will continually have before us the basic nature and character of God. And, as we do so, we cannot help but reflect God’s glory and contribute to human flourishing on this earth and the care of all creation.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, we rejoice in your greatness and power, your gentleness and love, your mercy and justice. Enable us by your Spirit to honor you in our thoughts, words, and actions, and to serve you in every aspect of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 Samuel 6:16-23 – Shameless Worship

As the Ark of the Lord came into the city, Saul’s daughter Michal looked out the window. When she saw David jumping and dancing in the presence of the Lord, she hated him.

David put up a tent for the Ark of the Lord, and then the Israelites put it in its place inside the tent. David offered whole burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the Lord. When David finished offering the whole burnt offerings and the fellowship offerings, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord All-Powerful. David gave a loaf of bread, a cake of dates, and a cake of raisins to every Israelite, both men and women. Then all the people went home.

David went back to bless the people in his home, but Saul’s daughter Michal came out to meet him. She said, “With what honor the king of Israel acted today! You took off your clothes in front of the servant girls of your officers like one who takes off his clothes without shame!”

Then David said to Michal, “I did it in the presence of the Lord. The Lord chose me, not your father or anyone from Saul’s family. The Lord appointed me to be over Israel. So, I will celebrate in the presence of the Lord. Maybe I will lose even more honor, and maybe I will be brought down in my own opinion, but the girls you talk about will honor me!”

And Saul’s daughter Michal had no children to the day she died. (New Century Version)

“God wants worshipers before workers; indeed the only acceptable workers are those who have learned the lost art of worship.”

A.W. Tozer

A true celebration of God was underway, enjoying the blessing of God. The sacrifices before God were sweet smelling because they were done in a spirit of obedience and humility, and according to the specifications of worship with the Ark of God’s Covenant.

However, David’s wife, Michal, the daughter of the former king, Saul, did not worship. She critically observed David and the others and evaluated the worship service by how it appeared to her. Michal was not with everyone else giving herself to the true worship of God. She did not like how her husband went about worship. 

The acceptable worship of God was not acceptable to her, and she gave David an earful about it. Yet, David was undaunted. He had his focus where it ought to be.

We get a cryptic last note on Michal, describing that she was barren to the day of her death – it is a note on her meant to convey both a physical reality of her body, and a spiritual reality of her soul.

So, how are we to worship God? In the New Testament Gospels, Jesus said about worship: 

“Indeed, the time is coming, and it is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. The Father is looking for people like that to worship him. God is a spirit. Those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:4:23-24, GW) 

Neither good intentions alone (in spirit) nor appropriate actions alone (in truth) constitute acceptable worship.  We must possess both. The worship Jesus talked about was literally “to prostrate oneself before God.”  In other words, it is to embrace both the disposition and the attitude of submission and humility toward God, seeking to obey the Lord as rightful Ruler, rather than superimpose our desires on him. 

Furthermore, God is both near to us and far away from us, all at the same time. God is close to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ, and now in the person of the Holy Spirit. God exists supreme and far above us, calling the shots of how we ought to be living our lives.

We must appreciate both divine transcendence and divine immanence.

The presence of God is both comforting and dangerous. God’s holiness is like a fire, giving us light and warmth – get too close to the flame and you will get burned, even destroyed. We do not get to tell God what we are to be doing and how to go about it. We have collective promises and blessings given to us as God’s people. Yet, at the same time, we have a responsibility to know God’s will and to do it in God’s way.

God cares about worship. If we worship any old way we want without consideration of how God wants it done, or if we just critically watch worship without engaging in it, then we ought not to expect blessing. However, if pay attention to God and are careful to do what God wants in God’s way, then we will enjoy God’s approval.

The Church is first and foremost a worshiping community of redeemed persons through the blood of Christ, which are given to the world in order to glorify God:

Everyone on this earth,
    sing praises to the Lord.
Day after day announce,
    “The Lord has saved us!”
Tell every nation on earth,
“The Lord is wonderful
    and does marvelous things!
The Lord is great and deserves
    our greatest praise!
He is the only God
    worthy of our worship.
Other nations worship idols,
but the Lord created
    the heavens.
Give honor and praise
    to the Lord,
whose power and beauty
    fill his holy temple.”

Tell everyone of every nation,
“Praise the glorious power
    of the Lord.
He is wonderful! Praise him
and bring an offering
    into his temple.
Worship the Lord,
    majestic and holy. (1 Chronicles 16:23-29, CEV)

The text in 1 Chronicles, a restatement of our Old Testament lesson for today, goes on to say:

David left Asaph and his coworkers with the Chest of the Covenant of God and in charge of the work of worship; they were responsible for the needs of worship around the clock.

He also assigned Obed-Edom and his sixty-eight relatives to help them. Obed-Edom son of Jeduthun and Hosah were in charge of the security guards. The priest Zadok and his family of priests were assigned to the Tent of God at the sacred mound at Gibeon to make sure that the services of morning and evening worship were conducted daily, complete with Whole-Burnt-Offerings offered on the Altar of Burnt Offering, as ordered in the Law of God, which was the norm for Israel.

With them were Heman, Jeduthun, and others specifically named, with the job description: “Give thanks to God, for his love never quits!” Heman and Jeduthun were also well equipped with trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments for accompanying sacred songs. The sons of Jeduthun formed the security guard. (1 Chronicles 16:37-42, MSG)

David exerted his kingly authority by instituting that in Israel the worship of God was to take place every day – not just one day a week. He hired hundreds of musicians, singers, and worship leaders to minister before the Lord every single day, twice a day. 

“I must take time to worship the One whose name I bear.”

Oswald Chambers

Many believers bemoan the morality and lack of spirituality in our world. Yet, if God’s people are not first and foremost a worshiping community, then we have nowhere else to look to institute the change which is needed.

In addition, every conceivable instrument and voice was used to praise God in worship. New songs were written continually by David, and arranged by Asaph, the worship leader. 

While we make plans and conceive of ideas for our lives, God is waiting for us to worship. It would be good to spend some time each morning when we arise, and each evening at bedtime, in worship following the example of David: remembering God, and who we are; singing to the Lord; confessing sin; claiming forgiveness; reading Scripture; and, praying. 

If we all devoted ourselves to worship without shame, then we might begin to imagine God opening to us blessing upon blessing.

*Above sketches of King David dancing before the Lord, by Rebecca Brogan