Psalm 125 – Mountain Theology

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Everyone who trusts the Lord
    is like Mount Zion
    that cannot be shaken
    and will stand forever.
Just as Jerusalem is protected
    by mountains on every side,
the Lord protects his people
    by holding them in his arms
    now and forever.
He won’t let the wicked
rule his people
    or lead them to do wrong.
Let’s ask the Lord to be kind
to everyone
    who is good
    and completely obeys him.

When the Lord punishes
    the wicked,
he will punish everyone else
who lives a crooked life.
    Pray for peace in Israel! (Contemporary English Version)

Psalms 120-134 comprise a collection of short songs of ascent meant to guide Jewish pilgrims on their communal trek up to the city of Jerusalem, and ultimately to the temple mount. 

Ascending to the Light by Alex Levin

The rhythm of the pious ancient Israelites centered round particular festivals, seasons, and Sabbath. Taking the annual pilgrimage to the Holy City was an especially anticipated time of year. This yearly cycle brought both increased faith and needed spiritual stability to the people. It reminded them that, like the mountains themselves, God cannot be moved. God will always be there.

Robust understandings of God are good solid mountain theology. Mountains make up about one-fifth of the world’s landscape and 12% of the world’s population live on them. They are more than imposing and impressive statues of rock. About 80% of our planet’s fresh water originates in the mountains.

So, when the psalmist likens God to a mountain, it is a reference not only to protection and strength; it is also pointing us to the source of life. With God, every need is met and satisfied.

On a mountain, Noah settled, Moses was given the law, Jesus preached and died – and the beans from my morning coffee were grown. I have everything I need in the mountainous God of all.

The most fundamental truths about God is consistency and constancy in the divine nature. God is forever present with people. 

If God seems or feels aloof or unconcerned, it is not that the Lord is avoiding us or is distracted with other important matters of running the universe. It simply means God chooses to reveal divine character and the divine will whenever the appropriate time ensue, for our benefit.

A mountain looks like it never moves. Yet the slow but steady rains, the creeping of tectonic plates, and undiscernible changes within the earth shift mountain ranges over time. The Lord is most certainly responding to us, our movements and changes, in a way we cannot perceive with the naked eye.

Our responsibility in the entire affair is to engage in consistent rhythms of spirituality which place us in a position to receive grace when God decides to give it. If we are still, we can feel the movements of grace enveloping us with life.

Perhaps we need to become adept at being spiritual mountain goats, using our wide cloven hooves of faith to negotiate the immense crags and rocks of God. After all, we will spend an eternity getting to know God and never exhaust the exploration.

Therefore, we must not despair but anticipate meeting with God, just as the Israelites of old looked forward and upward to their annual worship at the top of the mountain. The truth is that God surrounds people, even when we do not always perceive it to be so. 

The sturdiness of God is able to handle and bear the weight of our heaviest burdens.

Throw all your anxiety onto him because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:7, CEB)

If we will but look up, there is abiding help for the most vexing of problems.
I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
    Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
    the maker of heaven and earth.
God won’t let your foot slip.
    Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. (Psalm 121:1-3, CEB)

There is peace and settled rest when we call upon the God who surrounds us.

I call out to the Lord,
    and he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep;
    I wake again because the Lord sustains me. (Psalm 3:4-5, NIV)

It is through trust that we become mountains ourselves – strong in faith and giving life to those around us.

Ever-present God, there is no place where I can go where you are not.  Help me to so intuit your presence that it bolsters my faith and resilience for daily life in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Song of Songs 5:2-6:3 – I Am My Beloved’s

Song of Songs by German illustrator Egon Tschirch, 1923

Beloved

I was asleep, but my heart was awake.
    It is the voice of my beloved who knocks:
    “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled;
    for my head is filled with dew,
    and my hair with the dampness of the night.”
I have taken off my robe. Indeed, must I put it on?
    I have washed my feet. Indeed, must I soil them?
My beloved thrust his hand in through the latch opening.
    My heart pounded for him.
I rose up to open for my beloved.
    My hands dripped with myrrh,
    my fingers with liquid myrrh,
    on the handles of the lock.
I opened to my beloved;
    but my beloved left, and had gone away.
My heart went out when he spoke.
    I looked for him, but I didn’t find him.
    I called him, but he didn’t answer.
The watchmen who go about the city found me.
    They beat me.
    They bruised me.
    The keepers of the walls took my cloak away from me.

I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,
    If you find my beloved,
    that you tell him that I am faint with love.

Friends

How is your beloved better than another beloved,
    you fairest among women?
How is your beloved better than another beloved,
that you do so adjure us?

Beloved

My beloved is white and ruddy.
    The best among ten thousand.
His head is like the purest gold.
    His hair is bushy, black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves beside the water brooks,
    washed with milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like a bed of spices with towers of perfumes.
    His lips are like lilies, dropping liquid myrrh.
His hands are like rings of gold set with beryl.
    His body is like ivory work overlaid with sapphires.
His legs are like pillars of marble set on sockets of fine gold.
    His appearance is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
His mouth is sweetness;
    yes, he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, and this is my friend,
    daughters of Jerusalem.

Friends

Where has your beloved gone, you fairest among women?
    Where has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?

Beloved

My beloved has gone down to his garden,
    to the beds of spices,
    to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.
    He browses among the lilies. (World English Bible)

God is love. God rejoices over you. 

There is a reason why so many people in this cruel and calloused world are unloving and unkind: They are unaware that God loves them. 

If we neither believe nor know God’s infinite love for us, then our words and our actions will reflect more of hate than love. God really truly does love you and me. This is crucial. Do not forget this. Believe it. Live it. Enjoy it. Know it. Tell it to yourself until you are thoroughly bathed in it, because it is more wonderful than any ‘70’s sappy love song could ever describe it.

I believe the small book of Solomon’s Song of Songs too often gets a weird hermeneutical spin of literalism from modern-minded simpletons. For nearly all of history, this poetic ode to love was understood as an allegory of divine love for humanity – and the believer’s reciprocal response.

When the beautiful text of Scripture says I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine, and that his desire is for me, it is a wonderful way of communicating that God’s love for us is not abstract, distant, or detached. (Song of Songs 6:3, 7:10) 

The truth is: We belong to God. The Lord’s desire is for you and me. God has an intense and overpowering longing for you. Let the deep desire of God for you shape and form your thoughts so that fear is replaced with faith; loneliness with enjoyment; the fickle nature of others with satisfaction; praying as duty with praying because I want to be with the God who loves me so much.

Oh, how we need a vision of God singing over us with joy! Yes, God loves you that much! Grab a hold of what the prophet says:

The Lord will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.

Zephaniah 3:17, NLT

Even the most unlovely of people are made lovely through God’s persistent and pursuing love for them. You are being wholly seen every single day by the infinite gaze and eternal compassion of God, who watches our every step with delight.

Christianity does not “happen” simply by knowing some beliefs about God, as if it is a mere contractual signing-off on a doctrinal statement. Rather, Christianity “happens” when individuals experience the white hot burning love of God in Jesus Christ. 

Jesus came not only for those who skip church and only occasionally read their Bibles. Christ came also for the hard-hearted prick, the immoral adulterer, the strung-out addict, the terrorist, the murderer, and for all those caught in bad choices and failed relationships. 

“I have not come to call respectable people, but outcasts.” (Matthew 9:13, GNT)

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life.” (Matthew 28:19, MSG)

“You will be witnesses for me.” (Acts 1:8, GNT)

“Love each other in the same way that I have loved you.” (John 13:34, GW)

All Christ’s words and actions are because of the Lord’s intense desire to love the world, and to love it through the divine beloved people of God.

God’s love is never based on our performance, or how good we look to others; it is never conditioned by our moods. The love of God only looks longingly at you and me with the potential of what we can become in Christ and cares for us as we are. It is a world-altering revolutionary thought that God loves me as I am and not as I should be. 

God loves me as I am, and not as I should be.

God has shown us how much he loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! (Romans 5:8, GNT)

Despite the erosion of church attendance, the majority of people still believe God exists. Conversely, however, many people do not believe God really loves them. We are in a crisis of love. People need to know the God who is pure Love. 

Christianity never begins with what we do for God to make ourselves lovely. Christianity always starts with what God has done for us, the great and wonderful love that exists for us in Christ Jesus.

It wasn’t so long ago that we ourselves were stupid and stubborn, easy marks for sin, ordered every which way by our glands, going around with a chip on our shoulder, hated and hating back. But when God, our kind and loving Savior God, stepped in, he saved us from all that. It was all his doing; we had nothing to do with it. He gave us a good bath, and we came out of it new people, washed inside and out by the Holy Spirit. Our Savior Jesus poured out new life so generously. God’s gift has restored our relationship with him and given us back our lives. And there’s more life to come—an eternity of life! You can count on this. (Titus 3:3-8, MSG)

All the wrong turns in the past, the mistakes and the moral lapses, everything that is ugly or painful, all melts in the light of God’s acceptance and love for us.

If the consuming passion of Christ’s followers is not showing God’s love, then we have lost both our mission and our first love of Jesus. Perhaps we must let time evaporate, as we bow at the foot of the cross, and experientially know the great love of God in Christ for us and for the world.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Luke 11:5-13 – Pray

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

“So, I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (New International Version)

Jesus, in his teaching ministry on earth, often used the lesser-to-greater argument in getting his point across. And that is precisely what he was doing with his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson, instructing them about the nature and motivation of prayer.

The lesser-to-greater argument implies a comparison of values. It’s grounded on a common sense and logical convention that if this lesser thing is true, then, of course, how much more is this greater thing! If something less likely to happen is true, then something more likely to happen will probably be true as well. The technical phrase for this is the a fortiori argument. It is a Latin term meaning, “for a still stronger reason.”

So, then, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that prayer has value because God is a loving Father, not a begrudging friend. Whereas the friend in the story was badgered just so the person could get some real necessities, God needs no badgering to generously give good gifts that may or may not be considered as necessities by us.

Jesus desired to highlight that prayer has veracity because of whom those prayers are directed.

”Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the one who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.” 

Max Lucado

In the ancient world, it was common understanding you needed to get the local gods attention if you wanted something. Which is why, for example, in the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, that Baal’s worshipers were yelling, gesticulating, and even cutting themselves for hours. They fully expected to put a lot of work into getting Baal’s attention, maybe even needing to convince him of intervening in their ancient version of a wild West shootout.

In contrast to four-hundred prophets of Baal, a single prophet of the Lord utters one simple prayer, then fire comes rushing down from heaven. Much like the person who badgered the friend for bread, the prophets pestered Baal for hours.

It all comes down to who really cares. The friend? Not enough to jump out of bed right away and meet a need. Baal? Not so much. God? Now we’re talking.

We typically don’t ask, seek, or knock, if we believe we will not get a response – or if it will take a lot of energy, time, and effort we don’t have. Yet, if we are confident of being heard and our requests taken seriously with care, then we are likely to have a habit of asking, seeking, and knocking.

If a friend begrudgingly gives to you because of persistent knocking, how much more will God graciously, generously, and with gaiety give you goodness when you ask? Because God is good, God gives. The largess of the Lord is willing and ready to dispense grace from an infinite storehouse of mercy.

This is why Jesus encouraged people to not pray like those who don’t know God, babbling on because they think they’ll be heard because of the sheer volume of words. (Matthew 6:7-8)

Two misconceptions of prayer which existed in Christ’s day, and even today, come from non-Christian sources:

  1. There must be a lot of prayer before prayer “works.” Although I believe repetition is important for forming good habits, praying the same prayers over and over again so as to be heard betrays an ignorance of God, not to mention an actual lack of faith. Many ancient religions were based in learning how to manipulate the spiritual forces out there to get what we need. It’s kind of like a divine version of hustling for love in all the wrong places. Christians need to know they don’t need to have thousands of people praying in order to get God’s attention to answer prayer.
  2. I must convince God of the need to answer my prayer. God is not a reluctant listener. The reason the Lord already knows what we need before we ask is because God has been paying close attention to us well before we got around to asking, seeking, and knocking on the divine door. God’s ear is already inclined to hear us – expectantly and anxiously awaiting our petitions. This is a tremendously freeing idea, that I can come to God openly and honestly, without drudgery, and without wondering if I am heard, or not.

May we be encouraged to pray, to truly connect with God, because the Lord is available without appointment, and is waiting for us to ask with bended ear.

Eternal God, by whose power we are created and by whose love we are redeemed: Guide and strengthen us by your Spirit so that we may give ourselves to your service and live today and every day in love to one another and to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 111 – Praise

painting by P.J. Bruzzi

Shout praises to the Lord!
    With all my heart
I will thank the Lord
    when his people meet.
The Lord has done
    many wonderful things!
Everyone who is pleased
with God’s marvelous deeds
    will keep them in mind.
Everything the Lord does
    is glorious and majestic,
    and his power to bring justice
    will never end.

The Lord God is famous
for his wonderful deeds,
    and he is kind and merciful.
He gives food to his worshipers
    and always keeps his agreement
    with them.
He has shown his mighty power
    to his people
    and has given them the lands
    of other nations.

God is always honest and fair,
    and his laws can be trusted.
    They are true and right
    and will stand forever.
God rescued his people,
    and he will never break
his agreement with them.
    He is fearsome and holy.

Respect and obey the Lord!
This is the first step
    to wisdom and good sense.
    God will always be respected. (Contemporary English Version)

Sometimes we forget. Difficult challenges, heavy stress, or daunting responsibilities might become the focus of our lives to such a degree that we lose sight of the big picture. Today’s psalm helps us to back up the truck and take a sweeping panoramic view. The backdrop to all those concerns we presently experience is a Divine Being who is unfazed by any trouble. In other words, God’s got this.

The basis for this settled faith is a realization of who God is and what God has done.

Whereas change and loss is a reality all people must navigate, it is a comfort to know there are some things which never change. God is the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. God’s character is always right, just, and good. And God makes good on all promises.

Throughout the psalter, there are admonitions to praise the Lord. I personally do not believe the reason for this is because God requires adoration, like some self-centered narcissist. No, I think it has to do with God knowing we have a need to praise.

Our brains are complex organs. There is a lot we don’t know about it. Yet, what we now know is that things like gratitude, adoration, beauty, affirmation, and praise changes our brain chemistry in a healthy way.

Yes, praising the Lord perfectly syncs with our brains in such a way as to cause mental health.

People’s lives are improved when we are attentive to God’s law, God’s promises, and God’s works. Attention to these will surely result in praise. Everything God has created is good. All creation bears witness to the beauty and majesty of its Creator.

Believers throughout the millennia are a great cloud of witnesses, testifying to the veracity of God’s benevolent and gracious deeds. And together with them, we anticipate with confident faith the culmination of God’s promises when Jesus returns. This is basic Christian theology – and it is theology which is robustly sustains us through any type of trouble.

People need to delight in what is good, right, just, and beautiful.

Our brains are designed for it. The acknowledgment of the good is a sacred conduit which links us to the Designer of all that is good. Enjoyment of food and drink, fellowship with friends, participation in family life, and worshiping together with believers who share our most cherished spiritual values, is a gift from a benevolent God. It is worthy of offering praise.

God feeds us in many ways – with both physical and spiritual food. Pausing for gratefulness and thanksgiving is an appropriate and mentally healthy way of responding to the gift of nourishment. And acknowledging that all God’s commands and laws are trustworthy, through lifting prayers of gratitude for such a rich bounty of spiritual food, moves us into a healthy groove of wellness.

All of this healthy living is the way of wisdom. Attention to God and God’s Word is the starting place for a wise way of being in the world. The biblical psalms are much like a tutor which teaches us the best paths to walk in our daily life.

When we take the narrow road of righteousness, we discover the gifts of understanding informed by wisdom, self-control established through sage counsel, and knowledge guided by love.

The activity which bookends and binds such gifts together is praise to the Lord. Praise is what opens us up to the possibilities of life as it is meant to be lived. To press the transformation and enjoyment even deeper, believers shout their praise with raucous noise.

For true spirituality is not always staid and silent. It is also boisterous and loud.

Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer. Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, it is now, and ever shall be, forever and ever. Amen.