Psalm 70 – Wednesday of Holy Week

Christ in the Garden of Olives by French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

God! Please hurry to my rescue!
    God, come quickly to my side!
Those who are out to get me—
    let them fall all over themselves.
Those who relish my downfall—
    send them down a blind alley.
Give them a taste of their own medicine,
    those gossips off clucking their tongues.

Let those on the hunt for you
    sing and celebrate.
Let all who love your saving way
    say over and over, “God is mighty!”

But I’ve lost it. I’m wasted.
    God—quickly, quickly!
Quick to my side, quick to my rescue!
    God, don’t lose a minute. (MSG)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that today’s psalm is a plea from a desperate person in a desperate situation of life and death. Help is needed, not in some future time, but immediately!

I don’t know if you have ever been in such a stressful and dangerous situation in which all you could say is “Help! Help me!” The abject feeling of helplessness is palpable and just plain awful. The sense there is nothing you can do to improve your circumstance other than some sort of merciful divine intervention is more than unnerving. Its downright hard to breathe, let alone trying to cry out for rescue.

It seems the psalmist was in a position where there were people getting a twisted sense of joy over the misfortune of others. Its as if they were delighting in the confusion and vulnerability of those unable to stop what is happening.

In the throes of such stress and danger the psalmist wants the evil turned back on the wicked. He wants such persons off his back – to have God hunt them like they are hunting the poor and needy who have no ability to resist.

It makes sense this psalm is short, just a few verses. Long prayers aren’t necessarily better. Prayers can be short, especially when it is a frantic cry for God’s help. There is nothing in Holy Scripture that dictates how long or short prayer ought to be. “Help!” just might be one of the best prayers we can pray. One little word. That’s all it takes.

It also makes sense to me that this is an honest prayer. When in the throes of some horrible situation, all pretension goes out the window. Honest heartfelt prayers are the best kind of prayer. If we are hurting badly enough, boldness comes quickly to the tip of our tongues. I once had a kidney stone (which was extremely painful!). I walked in a bent over position into the Emergency Department of a hospital and yelled at the first staff person I saw, saying, “I want help, NOW!

To confess our great need to a God who listens might just be the best kind of theology we could ever express. In such a terrible place as the psalmist was, there is no thought to keeping up appearances. There is only an unfiltered expression of need. Our prayers can be earnest and urgent.

Prayer can be short, honest, and urgent because emergent situations require it. So, what do you do when you feel desperate? How do you handle your emotions? Where do you go for help?

In this Holy Week we are reminded that Jesus looked to the Father for help. In the worst of circumstances – facing ridicule, torture, and a horrible death – the Lord Jesus let the psalms shape his own prayers of desperation while under severe stress and duress:

“The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9)

“They hated me without a cause.” (John 15:24; Psalm 69:4)

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38; Psalm 42:5-6)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:16)

There is a God who understands our plight. Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, has gone before us in the way of suffering and knows what it is like to experience the agony and anguish of evil’s weight. He is our great high priest, the one who can intercede effectively and compassionately for us in our great times of need:

 Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So, let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16, MSG)

May you find in Jesus the help you so desperately need. Amen.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Palm Sunday

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

I often take the posture of kneeling or prostrating when I pray. I do this, not because I think my prayers are more effective that way, but because this embodies my petitions with a recognition of Christ’s lordship over my life. Also, for me, there is no experience quite like using the kneelers on church pews and bowing together in a common experience of recognizing the lordship of Jesus Christ.

I sometimes ponder a question as I am on my knees: What kind of people would we be if we looked like these verses in Philippians?  The Apostle Paul said to the church in Philippi that their “attitude” should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Their mindset, the way they think about everything, ought to be just like the mind of Christ. If we want to know how to think well and live well, how to relate to others in a good way, then we ought to thoroughly adopt the mind and the attitude of Jesus.  

How we should think and live comes from God. Within the life of the triune God exists three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Within this great three-in-one God exists perfect love, absolute holiness, united harmony, and constant respect. The Holy Scriptures tell us that just as God is holy, we are to be holy. Just as God is love, so we are to love one another. Just as God is harmonious, we are to live in harmony with one another. And just as God is supremely exemplified in the person of Jesus as a humble servant, so we are to practice humility and service in all our relations.

None of this is optional for the Christian. There is no place in the believer’s life for pride, posturing, and power-broking. There is to be humility, taking the posture of lowliness, and using any kind of influence for the benefit and encouragement of others – just like Jesus did while on this earth.

In a world pre-occupied with power and control, safety and security, influence and throwing its weight around, there is Jesus. He did just the opposite of engaging in upward mobility; he practiced downward mobility, and in doing so Christ descended into greatness as Lord and Savior.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped. The pre-incarnate Christ did not sit in heaven as the second person of the Trinity and hold onto his lofty position with tight fists – he did not grasp it tightly. When Jesus came to this earth, there was a humble willingness to open his hands and relinquish his rights and privileges as God. Christ made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus gladly, not reluctantly, emptied himself for us. Jesus became one of us.

The television series, Undercover Boss, is a reality show in which high-level corporate executives leave the comfort of their offices and secretly take low-level jobs within their companies to find out how things are really working and what their employees are honestly thinking about their jobs and what is happening. In the process of this undercover mission, they learn of the perceptions about their companies, the spirit of their work forces and — maybe — something about themselves as well.

None of the executives cease to be executives. They just make a willing decision to take the lowest level job in their own company to hopefully benefit the employees and the entire corporation. The best episodes are when the most generous executives go above and beyond helping the employees around them at the end of the show. 

Jesus descended to earth. He never ceased to be God. Yet, Christ willingly put his kingly robe in the closet and donned Dickies and work boots. He came among us and purposely limited himself to identify with us fully – and secured for us the greatest generosity imaginable – an answer to the problem of guilt and shame through forgiveness of sins.

Jesus became a servant. He completely tied himself to us. Jesus did not come to this earth seeking to be served, but sought to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Christ kept going lower and lower to the point of descending to the greatest humiliation of all – death on a cross. Jesus endured the ultimate shame of the ancient world by dying a terrible death. The King of the universe was killed by vicious humanity so that he might redeem and save those very same people from their terrible plight of bondage to evil.

We are to be humble people, embracing a lowly status of slaves to God and to one another. The ancient Philippian church had a real problem with pride which is why Paul talked about emulating the mind and attitude of Christ in his humiliation. The following are exhortations Paul gave to the Philippians, which were to reflect the practice of humility in relationships:

  • Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). 
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (2:3). 
  • Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (2:12). 
  • Do everything without complaining or arguing (2:14). 
  • Join with others in following my example and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you (3:17). 
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:6). 

Because of Christ’s humble obedience to the Father, he was exalted from the lowest place to the highest place.  King Jesus is on the throne, above everyone and everything. Because of his descent to this earth, Christ has ascended in glory and honor. We can now see God in a new way, through Jesus. And when we do, it causes us to kneel in prayer and profess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the ancient world, this was subversive language. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, and ultimate allegiance does not belong to the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, the local gods are not. And in our day, it is no different. Historical characters and religious deities may come and go, but the issue of ultimate allegiance still pertains to us. If Jesus is Lord, no politician or celebrity is owed lordship status. Pride and arrogance are to be put down at every turn in favor of humble service and loving actions.

If we are to follow Jesus Christ truly and really, we will practice downward mobility and embrace humility. Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating will become second nature to us as we give our unflagging allegiance to Jesus. We will accept our creaturehood and God as Creator. We will live in the reality that Jesus is Sovereign over all creation. 

As we enter the Christian Holy Week, let us acknowledge and know the humiliation and exaltation of Christ….

Just watch my servant blossom!
    Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
    At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—
    a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
    kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes,
    what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
    Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
    a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
    our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
    that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
    that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
    Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
    We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
    on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,
    but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
    and like a sheep being sheared,
    he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
    and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
    beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
    threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul
    or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along,
    to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he gives himself as an offering for sin
    so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
    And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,
    he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
    will make many “righteous ones,”
    as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—
    the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch,
    because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
    he took up the cause of all the black sheep. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, MSG)

Hebrews 4:14-5:4 – What is Your View of God?

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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.

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. That’s why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. (NIV)

Metaphors matter. How we view, imagine, and picture God influences the way we live.

Recently, I met with a young man who was severely distressed, depressed, and had attempted suicide several times in the past several months. After listening to his story, I asked him a question: “How do you see or picture God?”  Without hesitation, he answered, “God is my CO (Commanding Officer).”  He went on to portray and picture General God who gives commands and of good soldiers who obey what’s expected of them. 

As a soldier, you would never walk up to your CO and vent all your feelings. You wouldn’t have a dialogue.  There would be no extended conversations. In the throes of trying to deal with emotional trauma, General God isn’t a metaphor that’s helpful.

Today’s New Testament lesson reminds and invites us to consider Jesus, the Son of God. Christ is pictured as our great high priest. A priest is a person who intercedes for you with God. He stands in the gap and effectively communicates your needs, desires, and feelings to a gracious and loving God.

When you are too emotionally tired to face another day, Jesus our great high priest, has our back and is graciously present with us.

Soldiers don’t have confidence to approach General God with their abject weakness or their ongoing temptations. There is only the giving and receiving of orders and strategies to be implemented. Far too many Christians have such an understanding of God and think there is something wrong with them when they cannot live up to be the kind of soldier that would make others proud.

Grace and mercy, however, are found through the confidence of approaching our great high priest. It is Jesus who thoroughly, completely, and mercifully has a first-hand understanding of what you are dealing with and is able and desirous to help.

As our permanent high priest, Jesus is uniquely positioned to hear us, empathize with our situation, and care for us in ways which truly aid us.

It’s easy to get discouraged. It takes no effort to find yourself on the outside of happiness and on the inside of a black hole. Living in this broken world can sting and hurt like hell. Yet, we have a Savior who has brought deliverance from hell by taking on hell itself.  Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, knows better than anyone what brokenness feels like. Christ absorbed all the sin of the world on the cross. 

Jesus is presently, this very moment, sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven, awaiting your approach with merciful eyes, a compassionate heart, and listening ears. Jesus is our risen and ascended Lord. Christ is so much more than a military officer. Jesus is our ample and able great high priest. He is awaiting you now….

Ascended and living Lord Jesus, you are my colossal high priest. You live to intercede for me. What a privilege!  May you strengthen my nascent faith today and bolster my confidence as I consider your grace and mercy in this messed-up world. Thank you for your kindness, empathy, and ability. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-12 – Facing Our Darkness

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Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
    a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
    therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
    and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit. (NRSV)

David experienced a lot of hard things. Through it all, he held fast to walking with God. Eventually, David became king. He used his power and authority to do exactly what God likes – showing grace and kindness to those in need. Except in the case of Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He made one unwise decision, which led to a bad decision, and then to another and another – until the prophet Nathan came and called David on the carpet.

Whereas King David began his reign using his royal position to show kindness, he ended up acting like any other worldly king by giving orders and using his authority to get what he wanted. Just as David sent others to do his personal bidding, God finally sent Nathan for a divine intervention.

If we confess our sins, God will forgive us. We can trust God to do this. He always does what is right. He will make us clean from all the wrong things we have done.

1 John 1:9, ERV

Nathan wisely helped David see his sin for what it really was. Irresponsibility, adultery, and murder are serious matters. The mental and spiritual gymnastics people make to justify their poor decisions always ends up devaluing what is right and making sin less heinous than it really is.

Good news can only be properly understood considering the bad news.

Without seeing our true predicament of being held in the vice grip of sin and unable to move, we will go on wondering why nothing ever goes like we want. A person who is lost, and doesn’t know it, is in the worst of situations. Calamity is just around the corner.

Like a restaurant owner who fails to see the health violations all around him, the business is about to be shut down with him scratching his head or blaming others for his misfortune. Only when the owner comes to recognize and agree with established health standards will there be a turn around and a renewed existence for the establishment.

We must agree and comply with God about how bad things really are without sugar coating any of it.

Only then can best practices be put into place which help everyone to be safe, healthy, and happy. To King David’s credit, he saw his terrible decisions and actions for what they were and faced them squarely with a repentant heart and a renovated life.

Thus, we have today’s psalm, crafted by David as a response to his own egregious wandering from how God wanted him to reign as king. David’s sin was mercifully outdone by God’s grace. The main event to the psalm is not David’s wrongs but God’s forgiveness. Prayer is the mechanism which accesses divine pardon to even the most awful of transgressions.

The appropriate posture of the devout Christian is to pray.

Specifically, to confess our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at worst, allows a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

I believe one of the best ways to confront the darkness within is by using the ancient prayer book, the Old Testament Psalms. Sometimes when we pray apart from considering the psalms, our prayers go along the lines of something like, “Change my situation so I can praise you, God.” Rather, the psalms guide us toward a shift in direction by praying:

“Change me, God, because I am the problem.”

I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud, slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. Pray it over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across the world who today offer God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

What places in your life allow you the freedom to confess your sins?  What places seem to keep you from confession? How might a regular practice of repentance help you beyond this season of Lent?

May almighty God, who has promised forgiveness of sins to all who turn in faith, pardon you and set you free from all your sins, strengthen you for right living, and keep you in eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.