truth is stranger than fiction

For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

Psalm 22

Experiencing what we’re going through right now in the United States and the world does bring to my mind the accounts in Scripture, and especially in the Revelation (symbolic though much of it is), and helps me see just how the world can be shut down, and how vulnerable the world economy, the economy of all the nations actually is. Covid-19 is not something to be blinked at; it is indeed dangerous. But one can at least imagine worse viruses, and scientists have been warning us that these things will happen, so that we need to try to be better prepared for them.

Psalm 22 speaks of great suffering, but then a great ending. Bible students will easily recognize scenes from Christ’s suffering here. But then the vision goes to God’s blessing. It seems to make little sense.

But when we factor in the reality that the gospel is about life coming from death, specifically new life, that of the new creation in Christ, then we can start putting two and two together. And somehow Christ’s sufferings, though once for all accomplishing salvation and the beginning of this new life, go on in us, those who are “in Christ” in this existence.

Going over this psalm recently, I was struck how it seems to me that truth is often stranger than fiction. The truth we find in Scripture may often seem strange to us, and of course I call it truth because I’ve accepted it as such by faith. And by faith have come into the “blessed assurance” that it brings. But we will find that it rings true and exposes all that is a fraud, all that’s false. But to see that requires faith and time.

Thanks be to God (I would say, thank God, and mean it, but too often that comes across to me as too much like, “Oh God”) for what he accomplished and will accomplish in and through Jesus.

do we suffer for the Name?

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”[a]

So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

1 Peter 4:12-19

I’ve been impressed in going over 1 Peter this time the prominence suffering in the sense of being persecuted for Christ has. Most often our suffering is due to our own faults or sometimes the problems of others. It seems most rare that we’re actually suffering for the name of Christ.

I know there are more than a few Christians nowadays where I live (the United States) who think they’re suffering for Christ. In most cases I would beg to differ. At least not when you consider this letter (1 Peter) and church history. And start considering the world scene today, the many Christians who are undergoing persecution.

Just to simply draw near to Christ, to be faithful to him might draw some persecution here, although most of us where I live will never find our lives in jeopardy over our witness.

1 Peter doesn’t mince words or try to make it sound easy. The mark of a Christian is to suffer for Christ, and thus to be in participation with the sufferings of Christ. It makes me wonder about myself. Not that we’re to look for persecution, but are we ready to suffer for Christ if that time ever comes?

1 Peter seems like an austere book when you consider the theme of suffering etched in it. Surely not one of the most popular books of the Bible, except for the verse or two you’ll find tucked away in precious promise books. But needed for our full development into Christian maturity. In and through Jesus.

stepping aside for others

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

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.

Philippians 2:1-11

This passage in its rich context tells us that as those in Christ we’re to value others above ourselves. We’re to take the place of the servant just as the one we follow, Christ did. Of course he did it par excellence, like none other. He not only set the precedent, but only in and through him can it be lived out to its fullest. Not to say we can ever do it to the degree and perfection he did. No. But certainly by the Spirit, we can live it out from the heart.

There’s a time to step aside and let others take over and lead the way. Maybe after we’ve shown them the way by example and word. Then we can continue to be an example by letting them take over.

We do well to take the lower place. We want to do so in fellowship with the one who took the lowest place for us and for the world: Jesus. That’s the fellowship in which we’re to live ourselves, and with others in him. In and through Jesus.

weeping willows and violins

I’m fond of violins, maybe not so much fond of weeping willow trees, though they have their own unique beauty. I’m not sure why there’s either an ambivalence or even abhorrence toward sorrow. It seems as if you can’t be a Christian and be down at any time.

Violins are one of the most beautiful of in fact many wonderful instruments. Jews and Russians are especially known for violin playing. It seems that those from backgrounds or ethnicities that have experienced profound suffering are especially proficient at the violin.

I can’t understand why Christians shouldn’t enter into the suffering of the world. I’m not at all saying that our traditions say we shouldn’t; it’s just that too often our Christianity is more attuned to the sound of celebration rather than lament. But scripture includes both. Certainly praise of God, but sorrow as well. Certainly over our own sin, and over the brokenness we experience. But also over the plight of others. In fact we ought to be present when others suffer, so that somehow we can empathize and enter into their suffering, and be a support for them. And in seeking to be a “faithful presence,” Christ can be present.

God’s grace helps us to be always rejoicing, even when sorrowful. But it also helps us to grieve over the loss of others, over the problems, indeed crises of the world. It is certainly true that we can only bear so much. That we have to cast our cares on God. But it’s not like we are then removed from the sorrow around us, or our own.

We look forward to the day when there will be no more sorrow, suffering and pain, when God wipes away every tear from our eyes. But now by grace we want to remain in the pain of the world, sharing in its suffering, knowing that through Christ’s suffering even now great help can come. To love others and find God’s comfort in our own sorrows, that in turn we might comfort others in their sorrow in and through Jesus.

following the suffering Messiah

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

We have to take the full Jesus as given to us in scripture, or else we risk having no Jesus at all. The Jesus given to us in scripture is no less than the suffering Messiah. What the Messiah was expected to do was triumph unscathed, definitely not suffer, as Peter makes clear. I think not only Peter’s concept of Messiah was threatened, but that probably Peter himself felt threatened, likely enveloped in fear.

God had given Peter the revelation that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But then Jesus pointedly tells what the lot of the Messiah, his lot, is to be. One of rejection, suffering, and death, before rising from the dead. Jesus kept his Messiahship under wraps because people expected a conquering Messiah in the way of the world, likely with the sword. But instead it would be the way of the cross. Something unfathomable to everyone, no less to Jesus’s followers.

Peter took Jesus aside, and rebuked him, but then Jesus roundly rebuked Peter. And used the occasion to teach that their lives must be marked by what is to mark his life if they are indeed to be his followers, his disciples. And that it’s either or. You can’t have the world and Christ. You either lose your life for Christ and the gospel only to find your true life, or you end up gaining the world, but losing your life.

The issue is a question of identity. What defines us? What informs and out of that, forms our lives? For the Christian, it’s to be Christ. And not just any Christ or maybe something of the world’s, or even our own imagination. But the one revealed in scripture. And revealed to us by the Spirit. Peter knew by God’s revelation that Jesus was the Messiah. He had yet to understand the mission of the Messiah, how the Son of Man, a term for the Messiah, would fulfill scripture.

To follow Christ is to follow the way of the cross, as Paul says, to become like him in his death (Philippians 3:10). Something we’re to aspire to as Christians, given to us in and through Jesus.

when there is no answer or rest

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.

Psalm 22

We are in Lent, now close to Holy Week, a time of reflection on our Lord’s sufferings, and also a time for repentance along with the acknowledgement of our mortality. It is a season during which we in a sense should embrace suffering both in rememberance of what our Lord suffered, as well as seeking in some way to participate in that suffering. And besides, we suffer ourselves because of our own sins, and because of the sins of those around us, which again reminds us of how our Lord took the brunt of our sin upon himself in the death that he died.

But what about times, as the psalmist said, quoted above, when God does not seem to be answering our prayer, and when we can find no rest? Those surely are the times to persevere in faith and not quit, even as the psalmist did not (see the entire psalm from the link above). Nor Jesus himself, hanging on that cross. We continue to pray and look to God, and carry on with our assigned tasks, even when the world seems crashing in on us. And in that process, we do find God’s answer, and at least the final rest, in and through Jesus.

preparing for Holy Week

Father Michael Cupp pointed out to us something new to me, that Sunday began Passiontide, which is the last two weeks of Lent, ending on Holy Saturday, the next day, of course, being Easter. So that this week is actually to be a special preparation for the week that follows, the most important Christian holiday, or holy day of the year, and actually days at that, beginning with Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, Holy Tuesday, Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

This coming Sunday, Palm Sunday starts in a celebratory way with Palm branches being waved along with exclamations of Hosanna praise to Jesus. But it soon becomes somber as the hard reality sets in on just why Jesus had “gone up to Jerusalem” at this time. John 12:1-8 was the gospel reading for Sunday, Father Michael adding verses 9-11 to point out how the religious authorities wanted to kill Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, since many Jews were believing in Jesus because of him.

There will be hate for our witness to Jesus, even if in our case in America it is largely if not completely confined to the hate of the demonic host, with our own demon seeking to snuff out both our witness to Jesus, as well as our very life in him. But even during those occasions, we can use them for drawing near to God in and through Jesus. Assured, as Father Michael thought it likely that Lazarus was assured (and not afraid), that God has our life in his hands, and that even in the trouble we face, God is working for our good.

The focus necessarily should not be on us, even though we along with the world become the objects of the subject we are focusing on. Our focus should be on the Lord and his sufferings during this time. What he went through, what this means for us and for the world both in terms of our salvation, sanctification and service, as well as judgment and new creation in him.

The hour was coming in which the Son of Man would be glorified, and God would be glorified in him. And oddly enough at the same time, the hour when darkness would reign, and Satan would have his way through Judas Iscariot with the Jewish religious leaders and Herod, along with Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers. It would be a terrible time when all the darkness of this world would be honed in on Jesus, but with the end result that the darkness is to be vanquised at last through his death and resurrection.

I had kind of an odd turn Sunday which has left me ill at ease, nothing that I haven’t experienced numerous times before. But such experiences are not easy to go through. But I receive it as part of what God can use to prepare me for Holy Week, and beyond, to have the grace with God’s people to share in Christ’s sufferings, that we together, along with all creation may indeed share in his glory.

meditation for Holy Wednesday: Jesus’ sufferings for us

I offered my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard;
I did not hide my face
from mocking and spitting.

When we think of Christ’s sufferings for us, we are transported into a different world altogether than the world in which we live. In our world justice in the minds of most means evening the score. If you strike me, I’ll strike you back. After which I am struck back again, and this goes back and forth, unless some power over us enforces a peace that is on paper.

But when Jesus suffered, he did no such thing, nor was there a power that stopped it, even though Pilate wanted to. Jesus willingly in love suffered for us, for all. And he did so entrusting his life into the hands of his Father.

Jesus suffered much before his suffering of death. The life we are given through him is a call to follow in his steps. We too are to accept what suffering comes our way because of our witness for Jesus, and our stand for righteousness. It is how we do that which makes the difference. We are to follow in our Lord’s steps, even by the Spirit, who when we suffer, will rest on us. We are to do so as a witness to the world of our Lord, who is the person and presence in our suffering. We want to make him known, his suffering love, even through what we suffer, which is usually trivial in comparison to his sufferings. Even though in those sufferings, he suffers with us.

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins”in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

 

 

the joy of the Lord and sorrow

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

The people in the story had every reason to be filled with sorrow because of their sin, a sorrow that would lead them to repentance. And that would necessarily follow. But before that, the Lord knew these people needed to experience joy over him. And surely something of his joy, themselves.

At the core of our existence there needs to be a reverential awe as well as awe-struck wonder in God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And the revelation that comes to us in Jesus is one of love: God’s love for us and for the world. It is not merely intellectual, but something to be experienced by the Spirit. Of course it is in and through the cross, Jesus’ death, that God’s love is made known. God is not wanting humans to cower in his presence, though that is necessarily so when they are judged because of their wickedness. In Christ by his death God takes on himself our judgment and reveals himself as the God of consummate love and never ending beauty. And again this is not just like appreciating a great work of beautiful art. It is somehow being included ourselves, so that we can begin to experience something of the beauty of the Lord. Our sins being forgiven, so as now to be included among God’s people in God’s presence in which there is fullness of joy.

The joy of the Lord and sorrow are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In a sense they are not at all. Even in the deepest sorrow, the joy of the Lord is present, yes even in those depths, though we likely are not thinking of that at the time. It is a grace to weep in this world, borne by the joy of the Lord. The two can go hand in hand. In the case of the passage quoted above in Nehemiah, the people were beginning to develop a healthy sorrow over their sin, as scripture was read. Such conviction of sin is a companion with the joy of the Lord. Paradoxically we experience joy over the Lord, and the Lord’s joy as we have proper conviction over our own sins, and even as we share in the sorrows and suffering of Christ in this world.

meditation for Holy Monday

Our Lord had set his face like a flint to head to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. This was the baptism he had to undergo. The humility with which he lived in being obedient even to the point of death, even the death of the cross, a most dreaded and despised death.

In our society, dare I say it, even in our Christian society, and I speak from firsthand experience and participation in this, we don’t reflect much on our Lord’s sufferings, or what he did for us, even during such times as Holy Week. Holy Week, the time from Palm Sunday through Holy Saturday (just before Easter Sunday) is often only highlighted on Good Friday.

But it is for our good to meditate on God’s love for us in sending his only Son for us to die. As the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the entire world. Through his death, the world, the flesh and the devil are given their death sentence, and the new order, and new life is now present through that death and the resurrection that followed.

We don’t want to live in such a state of suffering, but as followers of Christ, we are to participate in his sufferings. That should be part of our psyche, of our demeanor, and way of life. We refuse to give into temptation to sin through prayer and self-control all by grace as we look to our Lord’s example for us. We refuse to lash out against those who have wronged us, and may continue to do so, instead praying for them. And we seek to do good, even when we may not feel like doing so. Left to ourselves, indeed we would do little or nothing of this. And apart from grace it would have no value before God. Although God’s grace is often present even when we would think not. We do well to be wary of sinning against that grace, as the book of Hebrews warns us. And of course we confess our sins to God and when need be to each other, or our pastor. All of this must indeed become a way of life for us. That can be so only in and through Jesus, in dependence on God in prayer, and living in the community of Jesus’ body, the church, here on earth. In mission, the mission of God in and through Jesus. Together in and through Jesus for the world.

A suggested reading for today: John 12:1-11