Psalm 34:1-8 – Deliverance from Trouble

I will praise the Lord at all times.
    I will constantly speak his praises.
I will boast only in the Lord;
    let all who are helpless take heart.
Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness;
    let us exalt his name together.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
    He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
    no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened;
    he saved me from all my troubles.
For the angel of the Lord is a guard;
    he surrounds and defends all who fear him.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
    Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! (New Living Translation)

Gratitude and praise are more than a nice thing. They have the power to spiritually form us, emotionally buoy us, and mentally change our brain chemistry for the better – not to mention connecting us with divine help.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving. The psalmist intentionally recalls being delivered by G-d from trouble and hardship. And he invites us to experience G-d’s salvation, as well.

Desperate people who are between a rock and a hard place need divine help. The Lord is able to intervene in both small and large ways. David, the psalmist, crafted this psalm in a time when he had no resources available to him. He was alone with nothing but the Lord. And that was plenty. Even a little bit of G-d is enough to thoroughly rescue.

Take note of the verbs used to describe G-d’s activity in helping David: “answered” “freed” “listened” “saved” “surrounds” and “defends.” These multiple actions of the Lord were all activated through David’s initiative with one single verb of his own: “prayed.”

It is one thing to pray because of expectation or routine. It is altogether a different thing to pray out of desperation from the depths of your gut.

So, when David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good and to take refuge in G-d, he is calling us to pray – to know something of God’s promises, presence, provision, and power and to actively ask, seek, and knock for help.

David, the psalmist, really wants us to experience prayer. He desires us to cry out on behalf of ourselves, as well as lifting up others to G-d. Yet, truth be told, helping those with afflictions and sickness through prayer is something we don’t always handle well.

We might too quickly and reflexively dispense our homespun opinions and ideas, as if we are experts on another’s situation, rather than hurrying to G-d in prayer. In our pride, we believe that if folks will just follow our recommendations that all will be well.

And then there are the silly and even hurtful things we say to others in their distress, rather than interceding for them before G-d. We may toss out a flippant and simplistic statement like, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen, and nobody knows quite what to do.

We can also be guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when the trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the hurts and troubles plaguing us all, because we live in a broken world where everyone needs redemption.

Many times, we have no problem believing G-d will work on behalf of others. We trust the Lord for deliverance and the miraculous for them. Yet, when it comes to us, we harbor serious doubts of whether G-d will rescue us, or even wants to.

There are a lot of things we just don’t know. However, what we do know is that the God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and to redeem lives from desperate situations. And this is why David could boldly invite us to tell of the Lord’s greatness, and call us to praise G-d’s name together.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts, be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places. 

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions and from the fear of the known and unknown.

May the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen. 

Psalm 39 – Being Honest with God

I promised I would watch my steps
    so as not to sin with my tongue;
    promised to keep my mouth shut
    as long as the wicked were in my presence.
So I was completely quiet, silent.
    I kept my peace, but it did no good.
    My pain got worse.
My heart got hot inside me;
    while stewing over it, the fire burned.
Then I spoke out with my tongue:
    “Let me know my end, Lord.
    How many days do I have left?
    I want to know how brief my time is.”
You’ve made my days so short;
    my lifetime is like nothing in your eyes.
        Yes, a human life is nothing but a puff of air! Selah

Yes, people wander around like shadows;
    yes, they hustle and bustle, but pointlessly;
        they don’t even know who will get the wealth they’ve amassed.
So now, Lord, what should I be waiting for?
        My hope is set on you.
Deliver me from all my sins;
    don’t make me some foolish person’s joke.
I am completely silent; I won’t open my mouth
    because you have acted.
Get this plague of yours off me!
    I’m being destroyed by the blows from your fist.
You discipline people for their sin, punishing them;
    like a moth, you ruin what they treasure.
        Yes, a human life is just a puff of air! Selah

Hear my prayer, Lord!
    Listen closely to my cry for help!
Please don’t ignore my tears!
    I’m just a foreigner—
        an immigrant staying with you,
        just like all my ancestors were.
Look away from me
    so I can be happy again
    before I pass away and am gone. (Common English Bible)

God is big. The Lord is big enough to hear whatever is on our hearts. It really does no one any good to have pretense with God. The psalmist initially thought he had to hold back in speaking with God:  He was silent and held his peace with God. However, his distress grew worse.

The psalmist, David, finally opened up. He went on to speak openly and honestly to God, with flavorful expression, about what was really on his heart and mind.

Sometimes we may mistakenly believe we need to be guarded with God – that somehow we should treat the Lord of the universe like we do with other people – coy, hesitant, keeping a respectable distance in conversation.  Maybe that ought to occasionally happen with other people, but it is silly to approach God in such a manner. With God, we ought to be brutally honest about how we are really doing and how we are actually feeling. 

If we desire to move mountains and have God work powerfully in and through us, then we need to acknowledge and admit there is a mountain smack in front of our faces.

I’m quite sure God has heard it all from people in the long millennia of human existence. The Lord isn’t going to be surprised by any of our thoughts and words. So, why hide them? 

It may be a radical thought for some that we can say anything to God and express our deepest emotions to the Lord who desires to listen. God wants to help us journey in this pilgrimage of faith we are on. For that to happen, we must be up front about our current location and how we are doing.

Like everything in life, honesty is a skill to be developed and utilized. Being honest with ourselves and the Lord involves the following:

Acknowledging both the good and the bad.

Shying away from the shadowy places of our hearts will never resolve the icky-ness we may feel inside. Neither will peace come only by focusing on our screw-ups and bad traits. There is both bad and good within us all, and so, we need to hold them both together, recognizing the tension. The better we accept this reality, the sooner we can walk the path of faith with patience and confidence. Both prayers of confession and praise help us keep the good and the bad in mind.

Giving some time and space, daily, to reflect.

Debrief with yourself about your day or events within the day. What did you do well? What could you have improved? Is there anything you will do differently next time? How might you engraft this kind of reflection into your daily prayers?

Admitting your mistakes and when you need help.

Only a person who admits their mistakes can learn from them and correct them. This is a necessary part of spiritual growth and development. Faith cannot be properly formed if we don’t face up to our own reality. Blaming others only causes us to take the focus off our own needs. Failure and admitting need is to be human. Asking for assistance requires humility and courage – qualities we all possess if we will access them.

Paying attention to your emotions.

David, the psalmist, did it. He was aware of his emotions, acknowledged them, and expressed them to God. Our feelings are not some necessary evil. Rather, they are important to our faith and well-being. All emotions exist as signs for us to pay attention to something, whatever it is.

Listening to the gut.

You and I can learn the difference between an impulsive reaction and an intuitive response. The gut level instinct we possess is our conscience giving us insight. Avoiding this important epistemic ally usually results in a lack of self-awareness and poor decision-making. However, listening to the spiritual whispers within can serve us well.

Reading a psalm every day.

The psalms are emotional. They are also, obviously, biblical. Therefore, emotions are godly. A daily regimen of reading at least one psalm out loud can have the effect of bringing our mind, spirit, and emotions into alignment so that they are not disparate parts inside us.

God of the Ages, you are above all and know all things. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears.  I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my forefathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!  My hope is in you; without your abiding presence I am nothing. Maranatha, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Hebrews 4:12-16 – Jesus Is Our Great High Priest

Jesus, the Eternal High Priest, by Joan Cole

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (New International Version)

Church Persecution and Christian Suffering

The book of Hebrews was originally a sermon preached to a group of believers who had come to Christ out of Judaism. From the book of Acts, we know there were thousands of Jewish Christians who were dispersed from Jerusalem when Stephen was martyred.  A great persecution broke out, and many believers fled west to places like Galatia, Ephesus, Greece and Rome. 

The Jewish believers were immigrants in a foreign land, looking to practice their faith without harm. Yet, their experience was anything but ideal. These followers of Christ found fellow ethnic Jews in the places where they went, yet those Jews had no use for these people that they believed were in some sort of aberrant cult.

What is more, the surrounding Gentile culture did not understand Christianity, at all, and many of those who held to pagan religions bought into rumors, such as, that Christians were cannibals who ate at what’s called the Lord’s Table.

So, here we have a situation where these displaced Christians had no respect from both Jews and Gentiles. As a result, they had a difficult time carrying out business because no one trusted them. They were essentially alone in the world. 

Losing Their Grip

Initially, they embraced their identity as Christians and held up quite well under the stress. However, over time, their resolve began to slowly erode. The followers of Jesus began to question their adverse situation. 

They began listening to their fellow Jews throw doubts on their faith. The hard life was not improving, maybe even becoming worse.  Eventually, the church came to a point where they began re-considering their whole way of life as Christians, and their faith commitment started slipping. The Christians actually considered leaving the Church and Christianity and going back to their old life in Judaism.

The Message of Hebrews

It was at this point that a vigorous believer in Jesus came to town, saw the situation of the church, and preached a spirited message to them. The preacher called them to hold tight to their commitment – to see Jesus afresh and anew as superior over all the Old Testament, as the fulfillment of all the promises of God. 

So, then, throughout the book of Hebrews we have this wonderful explanation and exposition of how to make sense of Jesus and the Old Testament, and of what Jesus really means to the church. Throughout his sermon, the preacher occasionally paused his teaching and gave the people a stiff warning about falling away from Christ. He called the church to be bold and confident in Christ, to stand up to the suffering, and to confront their temptations so that they would persevere in their commitment to Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives.

God’s Word and Work

We pick up the teaching and the exhortation in chapter four. Hebrews 4:12-16 is composed of two distinct sections that are paired together for a reason.  Verses 12-13 give us a graphic visual of the penetrating work of God’s Word, of the reality that God can get deep inside us. The next section, verses 14-16, lays out God’s response to our being under divine scrutiny – that there is grace and mercy available because of Jesus, our great high priest who is superior to every priest of the Old Testament to the point of being the last and permanent priest forever! 

These verses are bound together because we all need to struggle with the tension between God’s Word to us, and our words to God; between God’s judgment that opens our souls on a spiritual operating table, and God’s grace which jumpstarts our broken hearts. Our most fundamental need is for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Life

It is important that our outer lives and our inner lives match each other. Whenever the two are out of sync, we come under the judgment of God’s Word. These early Hebrew Christians had slowly drifted from the truth so that their inner and outer lives did not line up well.

Some of them still performed the outward duties of being a Christian yet were inwardly despising their hard situation. A growing vacuum developed on their insides as they slowly started letting go of Jesus as their object of devotion. Their hearts began to harden because of their hard lives. 

On the other hand, there were other Hebrew Christians who began drifting in a different way. Inwardly, they tried to maintain their devotion and commitment to Christ. Yet these believers began compromising their outward life to match the culture around them. In both cases of hardening inwardly, and of compromising outwardly, they each shared the situation of drifting away from their original commitment to Christ.

Even today, it is a real temptation to try and avoid suffering, to grow weary of our present circumstances and look for a way to get out from under the pain and find a quick fix.  Whenever we find ourselves in such a situation, the remedy is to be reminded that we must continue to hold firmly to the faith we profess because of who Jesus is.

15th Century Orthodox icon of Christ the Great High Priest

Jesus As Permanent High Priest

Jesus is our great high priest. In the Old Testament, among the twelve tribes of the ancient Israelites, the tribe of Levi made up the class of priests. One of those Levites, always a descendent of the original Levite priest, Aaron, had the task of once a year entering a place called the Holy of Holies, which was at the center of the Temple, to offer a bloody sacrifice on behalf of the people, to atone for their sins from the previous year.

Jesus is our great and ultimate high priest. He did not enter the temporary sacrificial system to deal with sins for only a year. Jesus not only took on the role of high priest, but became the sacrifice, as well. As a result, we now have a thorough and permanent forgiveness of sins through Christ. So, the Hebrew Christian who considered going back to an old outdated system needed to be brought back to his senses and embrace again the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. 

As they considered Jesus, the believers needed to remember that Christ was not so far removed from them that the church could not relate to Jesus. Rather, Jesus is able to sympathize with each and every trouble, trial, and temptation we face because he faced the very same kind of sufferings. 

The only difference between Christ and his followers is that Jesus did not succumb to the trouble, but persevered and secured for us deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Jesus is the One who deserves every bit of our commitment, allegiance, and devotion. Christ is the One whom we are to worship inside and out.

Approaching God with Boldness

Let us then approach Jesus with confidence, with boldness, knowing that with him there is mercy and grace. Jesus not only suffered for us in the past; he also suffers with us now, in the present. We, as believers, are in union with Jesus. Christ is our great high priest, the One intimately involved in every nook and cranny of our lives. He knows what you and I are going through and is ready to give grace to help right now. 

Approaching Jesus has nothing to do with being good enough to do so. Coming to Jesus is about grace. Whenever we drift from Jesus and are confronted with God’s Word cutting us to the heart, the end result is not wrath or judgment; the result is mercy and grace.

Like the early Hebrew Christians, we all face situations out of our control that wear us down and cause us to become weary. In our tired state, we can be tempted to let our commitment to Christ slide in some small way. Over time, the small compromises of faith can snowball into a big slide away from God. 

Yet, Jesus is not sitting in heaven frustrated or confounded. God is not looking for a reason to punish people. It is just the opposite. Jesus, the Son of God, our great high priest, is looking for a reason to give grace and help us in our time of need. Christ is waiting for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. Right now, Jesus is alive. He is scanning the world and the church, looking to extend mercy to those who need it. 

Asking for Help

We must avoid a spiritual hardening of heart which estranges us from approaching Jesus. Every one of us needs help. We are not God. We have weaknesses. We have confusion. We have limitations of all kinds. We need help.  And every one of us has something else: guilt and shame. At the bottom of our hearts, we feel undeserving, and so, avoid coming to Jesus. Yet, we need with family, loneliness, work, health, finances.

So, what to do? I can try to deny it all and be a superman who doesn’t need any help. I can try to drown it all with alcohol. I can be obsessive and compulsive about controlling events and/or people. I can simply succumb to discouragement. Here is what God declares: Jesus Christ became a High Priest to shatter despair with hope, to rescue that drowning person and that anxious individual.

God planned for a High Priest, a Savior, a Redeemer, and a gracious Helper. You and I are not trapped. We have Jesus. 

The book of Hebrews is all about a call to commitment – an invitation to come to Jesus.  And it is the most important invitation you will ever receive. Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence….

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: That if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. Spirit of God, lead us into your will. Help us in all things. Fill our hearts and lives to overflowing with divine mercy and grace so that what comes out of our mouths and the actions we do are compassionate, kind, and good, through our great High Priest, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 55:1-15 – Pray as First Response

God, listen to my prayer;
    don’t avoid my request!
Pay attention! Answer me!
    I can’t sit still while complaining.
    I’m beside myself
        over the enemy’s noise,
        at the wicked person’s racket,
        because they bring disaster on me
        and harass me furiously.

My heart pounds in my chest
    because death’s terrors have reached me.
Fear and trembling have come upon me;
    I’m shaking all over.
I say to myself,
    I wish I had wings like a dove!
    I’d fly away and rest.
    I’d run so far away!
    I’d live in the desert.
    I’d hurry to my hideout,
    far from the rushing wind and storm.

Baffle them, my Lord!
    Confuse their language
    because I see violence and conflict in the city.
Day and night they make their rounds on its walls,
    and evil and misery live inside it.
Disaster lives inside it;
    oppression and fraud never leave the town square.

It’s not an enemy that is insulting me—
    I could handle that.
It’s not someone who hates me
    who is exalted over me—
    I could hide from them.
No. It’s you, my equal,
    my close companion, my good friend!
It was so pleasant when
    together we entered God’s house with the crowd.

Let death devastate my enemies;
    let them go to the grave alive
        because evil lives with them—
        even inside them! (Common English Bible)

We all likely know he modern day proverb, “The squeaky wheel gets oiled.” The saying is often used in reference to someone who is loud, even obnoxious, about what they want. 

In today’s psalm, David cannot avoid the squeaky wheel. There are people in his face and all up in his grill. The only thing we know about David’s enemies from the psalm is that they were nursing a grudge against him about something. David was hurt and betrayed.

So, David prayed. He pleaded with God to hear his prayer – to not hide from his plea for mercy. David desperately wanted the Lord to respond to his terrible plight. He couldn’t sleep. He had racing thoughts. He was hyper-vigilant. He was downright anxious. David felt the ache of people speaking against him. For whatever reason, they had an axe to grind and were determined to make David’s life difficult.

Although, like David, we sometimes feel like flying away and being at rest from the turmoil, we must deal with the insults, the false rhetoric, and half-truths of others. 

The way David confronted the problem was primarily through prayer. Whenever David prayed, it was never a quick on-the-run sort of prayer to God in the rush of dealing with all his kingly duties. Instead, David offered specific, agonizing, timely prayers, asking, even begging God to not let the violent speech and actions of his enemies prevail.

David was committed to maintaining peace, equity, and justice in the public square. In those times when injustice reared it’s ugly head, David’s first response was to pray.

Out of the range of possibilities we might do in response to slander, gossip, backbiting, threats, and general sins of the tongue against us, prayer needs to be the primary tool to face it all. Heartfelt, passionate, detailed, and pointed prayers can and must be offered to the God who hears the righteous in their grief. 

If you are in such a position of being oppressed by another, a sage way to begin addressing the situation is through praying the very same psalm that David did when he was under duress.

The biblical psalms are prayers which are meant to be prayed as our own. There is no such thing as praying them too often. It is always open season on praying the psalms for our own contemporary purposes.

The prayers are more than personal. They are public, as well. Violence, strife, iniquity, trouble, oppression, fraud, and injustice effect the entire community. Our prayers can and must include asking God to put an end to all this awful muck.

It’s one thing to have some schmuck we’ve never met make a disparaging social media comment against us, or some random persons spout baseless lies. And it’s quite another thing when it is someone close to us, a trusted friend who turns on us.

God cares about our adverse situations. Unlike fickle friends, the Lord is a faithful companion who will neither leave us nor forsake us. The New Testament affirms and encourages prayer to God in anxious times:

God cares for you, so turn all your worries over to him.

1 Peter 5:7, CEV

Jesus modeled a life of prayer in response to injustice, suffering, and belligerence.

“Into your hands I entrust my life.” (Luke 23:46, CEB)

“I don’t ask you to take my followers out of the world but keep them safe from the evil one.” (John 17:15, CEB)

May we know that loneliness is far from us. God is with us, always and forever. Amen.   

Listening God, you hear the cries of the righteous. Give ear to my plea. I cry out to you for respite from those allayed against me.  I ask for justice in my life and in the public square so that the wicked and the unrighteous do not have their way in this world, through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.