Monday, March 31, 2014

The mind of Christ revealed...

Friday past. It was a grey and gloomy day, wet and bordering on being cold. Not the best time to hold any sort of event that would require leaving the comfort of your warm home, getting into and out of your cold car, and walking up a muddy path to the door of Doug Young Studios.

On top of everything, the Studio is not that easy to find. Situated in the heart of Taylors, South Carolina, one of Greenville's largest suburbs, it appears to be hidden - tucked away behind some unassuming buildings and homes off of Taylors Main Street - like some hidden bit of treasure, just waiting for diligent diggers to discover it. The building itself, interestingly enough, was the former filtration plant for the Southern Bleachery Mill.

So what was it that made people brave the elements and give up the popcorn and television option - what was it that they came to see? They came to see ten paintings portraying the nine biblical stations of the cross. But it was more than just that...they came to prayerfully, thoughtfully, and meditatively walk from image to image, listening as the passion narrative was read from the Scriptures, reflecting on the meaning of each recorded event while gazing on the artist's impression of it, and responding in unison with prayer and supplication.

It was a grand time together. Brothers and sisters from different denominational backgrounds united by the Cross. A glimpse of what the Lord surely intended. Hearts were warmed as each relived the moment when our pardon was purchased, when the handwriting that was against us was wiped away, when principalities and powers of darkness were defeated, and when access to the very throne room of Almighty God was granted. Here, at the foot of the Cross, the ground is level. There is no high ground or low ground. Here, we see each other eye to eye, face to face, broken image to broken image. There is no place for pride here, only humility. Here the mind of Christ is revealed and our focus is forced to shift from ourselves - from each other - to Him.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Refuge even in the midst of apparent hopelessness

4th Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 90    Galatians 4:21-31    John 6:1-14
The Hope of the King

The south-western African country of Angola was once a very wealthy and prosperous Portuguese colony. It was (and still is) rich in minerals such as gold, copper, tin, diamonds…and oil. Consequently, when the cry for freedom from colonial oppressors reached her borders, there were many foreign entities willing to help her gain her “independence”…the Soviet Union, Cuba, the United States, and others. Soon Angola became a pawn in the cold War. As the three rival nationalist factions competed for power, the colonial war turned into a civil war, displacing hundreds of people as they fled for their lives.  Those who were Portuguese nationals escaped to Portugal, but many had married into the indigenous population and had to leave their wives and children behind.

These ‘war widows’ and ‘orphans’ fled south to Namibia (then South West Africa), often with little more than what they could carry. Any valuables were used for bribes to ensure safe passage along the way. One such ‘war widow’ settled in a make-shift refugee camp outside the small town of Opuwo in north-western Namibia. In spite of the fact that she was poverty-stricken herself, she volunteered to help us in our efforts to feed the refugees. Her home was a corrugated iron sheet shack, with a few wooden boards for windows and doors held together with bits of wire and rope. One evening, as we sat around her tiny table, she pulled out a precious memory – a well-worn photograph of her house on her farm in Angola. It was a large, spacious, beautiful home, with a gorgeous garden and large shade trees all around. As we stared at the photograph in shock and sadness, she spoke about her hope to return one day. She never did…

In Book I, Psalm 1, we saw the standard set for the ideal king – a man meditating on God’s Law day and night so that he might exercise dominion over creation as God had originally intended for humanity to do prior to sin’s entry into his perfect world. And then, in Psalm 2, the spotlight was turned onto the eternal covenant the Lord had made with the Davidic Monarchy. God had set his king upon his holy hill in Zion to rule over the nations.

But in Book II, we saw that this Monarchy shared the same basic flaw with the rest of humanity. We watched David the king – a man described almost in terms of the ideal in Psalm 1, as a man after God’s own heart - not only commit adultery, but also heap deception upon deception until plans to cover up his sin turned into murder. From this point on, the Monarchy began to crumble and, in Book III, we saw the eventual demise of the king as he and his people were led into exile by the Babylonians. In Psalm 89 we heard the anguished cry of a nation without a future – they had lost it all – their land, their king, and, some may have thought, even their God. And now those who had once been delivered from bondage in Egypt found themselves in bondage once again in Babylon.

If the Book of Psalms was compiled some time during or after the Babylonian Exile to reflect the history of the nation of Israel, it is no surprise then to see that Book IV starts with a Psalm of Moses…the great leader used in God’s deliverance of His people from Egypt in the Exodus. I believe that this Psalm introduces the theme for Book IV – the theme of hope that one day the Davidic Monarchy would be restored and with it the kingdom of Israel.

The theme of Psalm 90 itself is basically a call for the reader to consider the fragility and brevity of this life in the light of God’s sovereignty and of eternity. Moses, the author of this Psalm, was a great man, chosen by God to lead his people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And yet he never did cross over the Jordan. Those who left Egypt were miraculously delivered through the Red Sea, and miraculously sustained in the desert, and yet all but three of the original adults died in the wilderness. The Davidic Monarchy was established for eternity and yet Israel had been sent into exile and the king’s house was incarcerated and thus effectively defunct. But although God had disciplined Moses and those of the Exodus period, his promises to the Patriarchs were fulfilled through their descendants who did cross over the Jordan, together with Joshua, Caleb, and Eleazar the High Priest.

Thus, I believe, those who edited and compiled the Book of the Psalms deliberately placed this Psalm here at the beginning of the section dealing with hope in spite of discipline and disaster. One generation or two might never see the return of the "kingdom" (in fact this was the very question the disciples asked Jesus), but a remnant would return to the Land and God’s promises would yet be fulfilled...almost a mirror image of the Exodus and the Conquest. As such, this Psalm served as an old faded photograph of the home to which they longed to return.

Shortly before his death on Mount Nebo, Moses pronounced a final blessing upon Israel. Echoes of some of the words in that blessing can be found in the Psalm. “The eternal God,” he said, ‘is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; he will thrust out the enemy from before you, and will say, ‘Destroy!’” No doubt, the intention was for the reader of the Psalm to recall the words of that final blessing so that the connection between God’s promise to Israel then and God’s promise to Israel in their present day was the same.  He thrust out their enemies once before…he would thrust them out once more. As always, their hope was not to be found in humanity – their hope was not in their own strength, as they had failed – their kings had failed, even the best of them. No, their hope and security was in God Almighty.

The Psalmist portrayed humanity as creatures of dust…no doubt an image taken from the opening chapters of Genesis…he was formed out of the dust of the ground and he will one day return to the dust of the ground. The lesson seems clear. We often take ourselves far too seriously – we think more of ourselves and of our fellow creatures than we should – we fear humankind when we should really fear God.

Think on this. Where are some of the greatest men and women of the past? Where is Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Nero, Elizabeth I, Lenin, Hitler, or Stalin? They were all greatly feared in their day, but where are they now? In years to come our children and grandchildren will ask the same questions of those world leaders who are greatly feared in our day. The Psalmist likens humanity to a sleep that is over in a night…to grass that is cut down and withers in an evening. We think we will live forever on this earth, but we are just one solitary breath away from eternity. But to God, even a millennium is like a day or one of the watches of the night.

In verses 7 through 11, the Psalmist explored our mortality against the backdrop of God’s judgment on sin. Because of sin, our forebears were driven from the Garden of Eden…because of sin, Israel was expelled from the Promised Land…because of sin, we were cut off from our only source of life…and thus we are all subject to death and decay. Our days are filled with toil and trouble because of God’s penalty for sin. Our sins are ever before him as he knows all and sees all…even into the very depths of our souls. But the words of the Psalmist are not bitter…rather they express a calm and sober realism. We are all destined to die – our lifespan is brief because we live as those under judgment.

So, there is no hope in humanity as humanity is sinful – humanity is dead – humanity is fragile and untrustworthy. No, our hope, like the hope of Moses, of David, of Israel, is firmly founded upon God and his mercy. And therefore the Psalmist ended with a threefold petition:

1. Teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom. In other words, help us to realize that our time here is short...and there are so many better things to do than what we are doing at present.

2. Have compassion on your servants (remember that we are but dust)…satisfy us early with your mercy…make us glad according to the days you have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil.

3. Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands, so that when we pass on, others might be able to build upon what we began.

Life is too short. We have hardly begun our journey when death interrupts our plans. Thus, if we are to use our time wisely, we must be aware of our own limitations…limitations of time and limitations of strength. But these limitations must be seen in the light of God’s lack of limitations, especially when it comes to his mercy and grace, without which nothing we do will ever prosper or be established.

So, as the editors of the Psalms struggled to come to grips with their own dilemma as they sat exiled in Babylon, they found hope in looking back to the wisdom of Moses, a man chosen by God to be the instrument through whom he delivered his people from bondage and slavery in Egypt to bring them to the Promised Land. As he had been a help to those in the Exodus, so he would be a help to those in the Exile,  and so he still will be a help to us who yet wander as pilgrims in the world.

Yes, life may be short…our days may be filled with toil and trouble…they may seem hopeless and futile from time to time…we may feel trapped in our powerlessness and inability to change the cruel circumstances of life. But if we consider this seeming futility in the light of our only true stability…if we consider that God alone is from eternity to eternity…if we consider that his character is always to have mercy…then we will find him to be our refuge even in the midst of apparent hopelessness.

Humanity is but dust…from dust we were taken and to dust we will return. If one stops there, all hope is indeed gone. Moses failed because he was dust. David failed because he was dust. Israel failed because they were dust. We fail because we are dust. But there is one Man who did not fail and that is the Man Christ Jesus. Thus the hope for the restoration of the Monarchy rests on him…the hope of the restoration of the kingdom rests on him…the hope of our return to Paradise rests on him…because he took our penalty for sin upon himself…that which separated us from God…that which caused the ultimate exile from God. He took the handwriting that was against us and removed it by dying in our place so that we might be reconciled to God and that we might anticipate our entrance into eternity with great assurance.

And it is at his table that he reminds us again and again of the hope that rests on him…of our deliverance from bondage to sin. It is here where he sustains us throughout the wilderness of this life. And it is here that we enter boldly into Paradise to sup with him at his banqueting table in the presence of angels and archangels, so that we might be strengthened with his body and be cleansed by his blood. Yes, our bodies will return to the dust from which they were once taken, but because of the hope we have in the finished work of Christ, we know that those bodies will rise transformed from corruptibility to incorruptibility on the last day. The same God, who has helped us in ages past, is still our hope for years to come…he is our shelter from the stormy blasts of life in a sin-sick and broken world…and he is our eternal home.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III 2014

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

To whom do you belong?

Labels. You love them and you hate them. They are at once both defining and restrictive, liberating and confining; positive and negative. Labels declare what you are and what you are not at the same time. Labels include and exclude; they unite and they divide. Labels determine and justify your actions or lack of action.

We spend a lot of time doting on our particular label. We examine it, study it, discuss its merits, reflect on its genesis and its logic, we argue for its supremacy, we parade it as something both desirable and indispensable, and we defend it as if our life depends on it. We frown on other labels, we laugh, we scoff, we scorn, we mock, we jeer, we dismiss, we put down, we divide, we demolish, we destroy.

I am...

You are...

OH, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat...*

Labels are inescapable. They are part of the warp of woof of life. They establish identity and meaning. They tell us who we are and to whom we belong. They help make sense of our past, our present, and our future. Labels are necessary.

But for the follower of Jesus, the use of labels is governed by the greatest label of all. It is love that labels us as disciples of the one who is love. It is love that builds up, edifies, restores, forgives, picks up, and makes whole.

And yet, in the Christian community labels all too often have been used as walls and as weapons. They have fostered and nurtured pride and arrogance. They have justified anger and abuse. They have confused those who belong to the many other so-called gods and lords, as we clash and clamor in our battle to plant the banner of our label firmly over the stumbled bodies of the "weaker" of our brethren. The din has obscured the nature and character and person of the one to whom we belong.

The question then is simply this: is your label worthwhile? If your label leaves the answer to the question "to whom do you belong?" ambiguous, your label may require reexamination, reflection, and either rejection or readjustment.

* The Ballad of East and West - Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)

Monday, March 24, 2014

A lesson in despair...

3rd Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 89    Ephesians 5:1-14    Luke 11:14-28
The Demise of the King
Have you ever been in a situation where you are suddenly struck with the realization that there is absolutely nothing you can do or say to change anything or anyone? As a child, I was once locked in a wooden chest my mum used for storing blankets and tablecloths – a prank I did not think was very funny at the time. Regardless of how much I struggled, how loudly I screamed, or how hard I kicked and pounded on the heavy lid, I could not get out of there.

In the light of this rather claustrophobic image, I want you to imagine the despair of the defeated and exiled Jews living in Babylon. In 587 BC Jerusalem was destroyed and the Davidic monarchy seemed to have become little more than a fond memory and any thought of restoration a hopeless dream. The demise of the Davidic king and his kingdom appeared to many, to indicate the demise of Israel as a people, and, in their moments of dark despair and depression, the demise of the God of Israel himself.

Book III of the Psalms seems to have been edited and compiled to reflect this theological crisis of Israel in captivity, anticipating an answer to their many questions and a solution to their dilemma in Books IV and V. In the closing Psalm of this third section, we can clearly hear the anguished cry of someone who has found themselves locked in an impossible situation – they had lost it all, their land, their king, and, for all they knew, their God – and there was absolutely nothing they could do to change a thing.

But rather than lose hope or lose faith, the Psalmist explored and reevaluated the covenant promises of God regarding the monarchy. Ever since creation, God exercised authority over his world through a human agent. Indeed, humanity was made in the image and likeness of God expressly for this purpose – to exercise dominion over all that God had made. The Davidic monarchy was simply an extension of the original divine intention, but the Davidic monarchy failed because, together with all humanity, it was fundamentally flawed in that sin was part and parcel of their nature as fallen, broken creatures living in a fallen, broken world. So, in spite of God’s promises made to David concerning the eternality of his throne, the monarchy appeared to be doomed to fail and the Babylonian exile appeared to all but closed the case.

For this reason the author of Psalm 89 reviewed, not only the Davidic covenant, but also the character of the one who made that covenant with David. Indeed, he began with a statement of praise with regard to the unchanging faithfulness of the Lord. “I will sing,” he wrote, “of the mercies of the Lord forever; with my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations.” It is upon this foundational remark that the Psalmist sought to rebuild the case for God’s eternal oath to establish David’s throne.

Herein lies the lesson for the reader. Whenever we are in a jam and we are tempted to wonder whether or not we will ever get out of our dilemma, we should stop and remind ourselves of who God is and what his promises are toward us. As he never changes, his promises can never fail, and thus once we have laid this firm foundation, only then are we ready to ask the really tough questions and to seek possible solutions…or perhaps even to face the fact that there may not be any immediate solution…at least not on this side of eternity.

But it is not only the Psalmist who is compelled to sing God’s praises. Remember, when the Pharisees told Jesus to stop the crowd from proclaiming, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”, he replied, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” Here in Psalm 89, the heavens themselves declare the incomparable greatness of God. The series of rhetorical questions that the Psalmist then asked are designed to lead the reader to the conclusion that there really is no other god out there besides the Lord. Therefore he alone is to be feared and he alone is to be revered. He alone can calm the raging seas (usually an image of chaos – something beyond our control) and he alone can scatter his enemies. These latter statements, no doubt intentionally, conjure up images of the Exodus where Moses and the people of Israel were stuck between the advancing army of Pharaoh and the Red Sea. But God opened the Red Sea and that which had appeared to be a dead end vanished like a vapor before the almighty power of God. God’s power over the raging sea also reminds us of an incident in the New Testament, when the experienced fishermen-come-disciples were dumfounded when the Lord stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee. These images are meant to make us consider the question: “Who is this whom even the wind and seas obey?”

If they obey him…if he controls them…then he indeed is God. And if he is God, then why do we fear that which seems impossible to us?

Everything belongs to the Lord by virtue of the fact that he created it all. “The heavens are yours,” the Psalmist wrote, “the earth also is yours; the world and all its fullness. You have founded them.” The logical conclusion is that nothing in all of creation is more powerful than him because everything has been made by him…indeed, everything is sustained by him. Consequently, when faced with danger in this world, the believer ought to bring to mind the fact that God is above and beyond even the greatest problem we may ever face. When threatened by the very men who had executed their Lord as a common criminal, the disciples employed this same emboldening technique in their prayer. “Lord,” they prayed, “You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them.” In fact, as far as they were concerned, even the apparent triumph of their enemies in the crucifixion was to be evaluated in the light of God’s sovereign pre-ordained purpose – the wickedness of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Jews, and the Gentiles simply accomplished all that God has determined before to be done. “Now, Lord,” they concluded – now that they had regained perspective – “look on their threats, and grant to your servants that with all boldness they may speak your Word.” In other words, if God is God…if he is the sovereign creator of all…if he rules over everything in existence and controls even the so-called bad things in life…then what are threats from a few of his creatures? When one contemplates the enormity of the person of God, things suddenly fall back into place. God will deliver us from the hands of our enemies, no matter how powerful their hands appear to be.

Yes, it is true, that one is not always delivered immediately. In one sense, many are not delivered at all in this world. The exiles knew this all too well. It was nearly two generations later before they returned to the Promised Land. But the lack of an immediate deliverance does not change the fact that God alone is God. When the arrogant king Nebuchadnezzar threatened to cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace should they refuse to bow down before his image, they boldly replied; “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us from you hand, O king. But (and this is the most amazing part of this story), if not (if he does not deliver us and we perish in the furnace), let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you set up.” In other words, even if God would not deliver them, they would not bow down to something that simply was not God. They seemed to understand that while God was well able to do the impossible, He is God and He is not obliged to any one of his creatures. Thus there can be no bargaining with God. “Lord, if you help me then I will do this, that, or the next thing.” “Lord, if you really are God, then please give me what I want.” No, God is God whether he give us what we want or not – whether he answers our prayers in the affirmative or not – whether he delivers us or not. He is God and that is sufficient reason for us to serve him wholeheartedly and unquestioningly. When the teaching of Jesus caused many to leave him, he turned to the twelve and asked if they too wished to go away. In spite of the fact that we are told in the Gospels that they too did not understand his teaching, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I have been faced with many an impossible situation before, as I am sure you have too. At times, as I cried out to the Lord from the very depths of my soul, I had to consider the possibility that he might not deliver me…that he might not vindicate me…that he might expect me to face what I could not change and what might never change for all I knew. But none of that changes the fact that He is God and that he is a good God…that he is the God who made all things and sustains all things…that he is a God who always does what is right…that he alone is worth following…that there really is no other god out there besides him. And so I got up off my knees knowing afresh that regardless of my circumstances, God is still God. He still rules over that which he has made and righteousness and justice are still the foundation of his throne.

The appropriate response to such an understanding is captured in the Psalmist’s words in verse 15-18. “Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance. In your name they rejoice all day long, and in your righteousness they are exalted. For you are the glory of their strength, and in your favor our horn is exalted. For our shield belongs to the Lord, and our king to the Holy One of Israel.” Tue happiness is not based on circumstance…true happiness is founded upon the unchanging character of our God.

But what do we do when things go so wrong that we feel we are trapped in a dark, heavy wooden chest? What about God’s promises to never leave us nor forsake us; to grant us the desires of our heart; to hear and answer our prayers; to keep us from stumbling; to be our refuge and strength, our shield and our defender; to be our very present help in times of trouble? This was the dilemma the Psalmist faced as he sat in Babylon, far from the Promised Land, reviewing God’s promises to David while David’s kingdom had all but crumbled to dust. “But you have cast us off,” he cried, “and abhorred, you have been furious with your anointed. You have renounced the covenant of your servant; you have profaned his crown by casting it to the ground. You have broken down all his hedges; you have brought his strongholds to ruin.” In other words, is there any hope left when one apparently has been forsaken by the only God there is?

Yes, yes, and yes, again…God’s former loving kindnesses are still present realities and the Psalmist, in spite of his cry of apparent hopelessness, bases his plea for mercy upon them. “How long, O Lord?” he weeps, “Will you hide yourself forever? Will your wrath burn like fire?” The purpose of these questions is not to cause despair, but rather to kindle the flame of hope in the reader…to remind them that though weeping may endure for the night, joy does come in the morning. And the Scriptures clearly teach us, through the lives of men and women just like us, who faced similar fears with similar anxious thoughts, that with our God, the God who made all thing and controls all things, nothing is impossible and even when he chastens us, his children, for walking in the darkness of sin rather than in the light of faith and love, his mercy will yet win the day. 

The exiles found themselves trapped in a tight spot. Theirs was no heavy wooden chest, but the sense of panic was similar. How on earth would they ever get out of this? The demise of the king of Israel brought with it an uncertainty for the future and a crisis of identity. Without the king and the kingdom, who were they supposed to be? What were they supposed to do? Where were they supposed to go? Even after the exile and way into the period of the restoration, Israel continued to be an occupied, defeated nation of serfs – not a kingdom.

But the God, who promised an eternal throne to David, burst into their history and took upon himself the form of a lowly descendent of the largely defunct royal house. And even though his enemies seemingly triumphed over him, their very deed of wickedness brought about the purposes of God in his plan to enthrone his King upon his holy hill of Zion, so that he might deliver his people from sin, death, and the devil.

The disciples, of course, did not know this. And so, we see that same despair of the exiled Psalmist in the latter chapters of the Gospels as the disciples struggled to come to grips with the dead end they apparently faced. “We were hoping,” the disciples on the road to Emmaus said to their as yet unknown companion, “that it was (Jesus) who was going to redeem Israel.” In other words, that Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel as the rightful heir to the Davidic throne (cf. Acts 1:6) But rather than commiserate with them, their unknown companion (whom we are told was Jesus Himself) rebuked them and said, “‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24)

Like the Psalmist…like our Lord…we too must start with Moses and all the Prophets and find in them the strength to stand even when all seems lost…even when it appears that we are trapped in a hopeless situation…because the God who has chosen to reveal himself in the Scriptures is the Lord of all. Nothing is impossible for him…nothing is more powerful than Him…nothing can ever thwart his plans…not even a crucifixion.

The exiles despaired in the demise of their king…the disciples despaired in the demise of their Lord…what is it that is causing you to despair right now?

As you return to our Lord’s Table to partake of the symbols of his body and his blood, consider the fact that these symbols were once realities…his body truly was broken and his blood truly was shed for you and for me and for as many as call upon the name of the Lord. As we read our Lord’s prayers in the garden of Gethsemane, we hear the same cry of one seemingly trapped, struggling to pass by the bitter cup, and yet submitting to the one whose faithful covenantal promise would carry him through his darkest hour into the glory of the resurrection. Ask your King who walked the Valley of the shadow of death before you so that he might be seated upon the eternal throne of David, to take your hand and to lead you through your impossibilities so that his strength may indeed be made perfect in your weakness.

© Johann w. Vanderbijl III Lent 2014

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Conquering conflict...

Someone hurt you...deeply...and then disappeared from your life, either literally or figuratively. You nursed the festering wound for months or even years - until the tenderness faded. Perhaps there was some tangible problem they left in their wake - a debt, a dent, a death. But that's all in the past now...

Then you turn the corner of an aisle in a grocery store and you quite literally and unavoidably bump into that person. In an instant, the past comes rushing to the surface and suddenly you are dealing with the hurt all over again - it is as if the wound had never healed at all. And as one part of your mind is still reeling from the shock, another part of your brain kicks in and begins to assess the situation and to plan an exit strategy. Perhaps you stand staring at each other for an awkward amount of time. Perhaps you both blurt out meaningless words and common small-talk cliches. "Hey, long time no see. How are you doing?" "I'm fine, how are you?" "I'm fine, how are you? Uhm...the weather outside is frightful."

From this point on, there are a number of different scenarios, most of which depend on your temperament or personality or heritage or upbringing.

You could give the person the proverbial cold shoulder. Simply keep moving on and hope that your pounding heart does not reveal itself in a red hot face.

You could give the person your best left hook.

You could give the person a verbal dressing down.

Or you could do what most people do. Suppress your inner raging emotions, suck in your bottom lip, and put on a happy face...make as if nothing happened, walk away, deal with your festering wound once more, and hope that this sort of thing never happens again.

Mental note: That particular grocery store is now out of bounds for you.

Joseph faced such a situation when, after years of dealing with the consequences of his brother's awful actions against him, he quite unexpectedly came face to face with them in the royal Egyptian court. He was a powerful man by this longer a weak little brother, or a slave or a prisoner. So, there were many options open to him. He could have snubbed them and sent them packing with nothing but what they came with in their sacks. He could have slammed them hard and left them in prison. He could have verbally abused them, mocked them, and humiliated them. Or, he could have simply given them what they needed and let them go back without another word. After all, they didn't know who he was and he had started a new and happy life...gainfully employed, happily married, and a father of two strapping young lads. Why not let bygones be bygones and losers be losers?

But in a series of events, Joseph not only dealt with the past, but also with the present and, indeed the future. His statement in Genesis 50:19-20 says it all. "Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive."

How on earth did he get to the place where he could actually speak those words and mean them? Looking at the life of Joseph and the general teaching of the Scriptures, I believe we can come up with a few principles that may help us when we find ourselves in a place of conflict, whether, physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

Be prepared. It is a small world we live in and bumping into your past is very easy. We are not told whether Joseph ever contemplated the possibility that his brothers might one day show up grovelling in the dirt before him, but, if he was anything like me, it is probable that once in a while he would recall his dreams and ponder on their meaning and possible fulfillment. We also need to remember that it doesn't have to be a face to face encounter with can be a smell, a song, a picture...anything can bring back a memory and invoke pain and you need to be prepared for that. Benjamin Franklin once said, "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

Be proactive. Do not try to deal with your hurt on your own. Seek help and make sure that the wound is properly healed before moving on. When the confrontation does take place, it may not be as open to re-infestation as it would have been otherwise. We are told that "the Lord was with Joseph"...I believe we can safely assume then that Joseph took all his hurt and pain to the Lord on a daily else would he be able to cope as well as he did?

Be patient. Not only did Joseph wait for years to have his dreams fulfilled, but even at the time of confrontation - when his brothers stood before him - he took a few steps back to give himself time to think through the situation before making a move. I wouldn't necessarily recommend some of his might not be a good idea to throw someone in prison or to keep them hostage while accusing them of lying and spying...but take appropriate actions that will allow you to calmly test the waters before setting sail.

Be prayerful. Again, we are not told explicitly that Joseph sought the Lord's guidance, but then do we really need a "chapter and verse" for this? The prayer that immediately comes to my mind is the prayer our Lord Jesus taught his disciples. Yes, you know it well enough to recite it from memory, but do you mean what you say in that tricky middle part? "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors."

And then there is that little bit Jesus added on after the Amen. "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Oops. 

Easier said than done is quite the understatement in this case. Two options are open to us here. Either we can jump through all sorts of theological hoops to reason away the obvious meaning of the text, or we can find a way to actually do what Jesus seems to be saying. Forgive as we are forgiven. For me, the way to do this is to meditate on the cross. Figuratively speaking, those nails and that hammer were in my hands. To quote Stuart Townend: "It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished." If he forgave me then, and forgave me yesterday, and the day before, and all the way back and all the way forward, then who am I to hold onto a wound that is minor in comparison?

So, I pray and contemplate and meditate on what made the cross necessary - my own sin - on a regular basis , so that when I am confronted with the sins of others - even those committed against me - they fade in the light of my own guilt.

Once you find yourself standing at the foot of the cross, you are able to view others in a different light. You quickly find out that the ground is level here - we are all equally guilty of offences against each other and against God - and once you get to this point, all the commandments you once thought were the least...esteem others better than not your enemy...all of these begin to make sense. Of course they may still be difficult, but if you live before the cross, "looking unto Jesus" and considering him "who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls," they come to be within your reach.

Be peaceful. Following the Prince of Peace means that you ought to seek ways to prevent further conflict through personal inner healing or through mediation. The world has always needed peace-makers, so be one. You will be blessed as you will closely resemble the character of your Father God. Paul encourages us to "repay  no one evil for evil" and "if it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men."

Joseph certainly sought to establish peace with his brothers and ensured that things would remain peaceful by looking beyond the offense to focus on the divine intention instead.

Have you bumped into a "blast from the past" before? How did you deal with the situation? Were you happy with the outcome? Perhaps just reading this has brought something sulfurous bubbling to the surface.

Why not try to conquer conflict? It will take time and loads of practice and many retakes, but if a mere man like Joseph could do it, so can you.

Are you prepared?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What would you do should your dreams come true?

I have been told that, on average, 90% of lottery winners blow it all in five years or less.  Some now live from paycheck to paycheck...others have had their marriage or social lives destroyed...and there are those who wish it had never happened.

But I don't want to talk about money. I want to focus on something much wider. I want to look the things we want most...our dreams.

Joseph had dreams. Actually, he had really big dreams...dreams that would make him a ruler over his own family. You know the story well. Jealousy got the better of his brothers and for many years, the dreams remained...well, dreams...or worse...nightmarish mockeries.

But things changed. Joseph's fortunes took a dramatic turn for good and his humiliations were changed into great honor. About thirteen years had past by this time. Did Joseph remember his dreams all those years? Did Jacob remember them? Did his brothers remember them?

We don't really know, but we are told that once his brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces in the dirt that the dreams came flooding back to Joseph. He who had once begged them for his life was now the one before whom they were begging. His dreams had come true! What would he do now?

There were basically two things he could have done. One was to blow it all right there and then. He had it in his power to take more than an eye for an eye. Imagine the thoughts that went through his mind! "They don't remember! They say they are honest men, but they lie!" Seriously, if you listen closely, you can hear the strains of a mini violin as the brothers relate their sob story to the Pharaoh's right hand man. "Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more." And remember, Joseph did not know what they had told Jacob. Did his father know that he had been sold to the Midianites? If so, why had he not come looking for him? What sorts of memories came rushing back as he stood listening to their voices in his present and to the voices of his dreams in his past?

Don't move on too quickly at this point. Joseph shared the same flaws and foibles with the rest of humanity. Many believe that they have a right to bear grudges...that vengeance is sweet. Wars are made of such stuff.

But Joseph did not take this route. Perhaps he remembered that there was a part of the dream that was yet to be fulfilled. Here were only ten stars, not eleven, and the sun and the moon were absent. But Joseph more than likely knew that God had given him these dreams for good, not for evil, and in spite of all the earthly strings that may have been tugging at his heart, he chose not to give evil for evil, but to overcome evil through doing good. And because of his choice, not only did his dreams come true, but so did those of many others...many were, friends, and foes alike.

Touch choice, true...but the right one.

What would you do should your dreams come true?

Monday, March 17, 2014

If you knew you were dying...

If you knew you were dying, what would you choose to say to your loved ones? How would you use this precious time? Where would your focus be? Would you apologize for things done or left undone? Would you rehearse the reading of your last will and testament? Would you try to justify your actions or lack thereof? Would you attempt to make up for lost time and opportunities?

What would you say?

In Genesis 49 we read about what one father chose to say to his loved ones as he lay dying. Jacob could have concentrated on his own life - his tragedies and triumphs. There was much he could have said by way of an apology. But instead of turning inward to find what may very well have been his final words spoken between labored breaths, Jacob looked beyond his limited self so that he might speak the words of the only one from whom all blessings flow - the only one whose words do not return to him empty or void - the only one whose words will never pass away.

And as he did, he spoke words that proved to be so accurate that some Western scholars believe these words were not Jacob's words, but that they were added at a later time by an editor. But for cultures where the community is still valued and where the aged are still respected and revered, these prophetic utterances of both blessing and curse do not present a problem.

To be sure, Jacob's determination to speak prophetically caused him to utter words a loving, doting father would probably not have thought of himself, but, I believe, therein lies the lesson for those who read this passage so many centuries later.

We may speak many words (or in this day and age, type of text) either good or bad, but there is only one whose words will always be consistently effectual. The decision for us, as we read Jacob's dying words to his loved ones, is simply this. Whether living or dying, when we choose to speak into the lives of our loved ones or even those who are not our loved ones, will we look within ourselves to speak from the shallowness of our own finite wisdom, or will we pause to look beyond ourselves to find words of eternal value so that the words we speak may be eternally appropriate to the one receiving them?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The joy of confession...

2nd Sunday in Lent 2014
Psalm 51    1 Thessalonians 4:1-8    Matthew 15:21-28
The Failure of the King
I recently received a letter in the mail from a well-known publisher, wanting me to buy more books, of course. But the opening line of their letter made me stop and think. They wrote: “Which book would you choose as your sole companion on a desert island?” Although the letter was generic, my first reaction was to ponder on what a strange question it was to ask a clergyman…but then, on later reflection and given the manner in which the Bible has been largely cast aside by many of our modern day clergy, it may not be that odd a question after all.

But is this really such a ‘modern’ problem? Reading the words of Paul to the church in Thessalonica seems to indicate that the all too human tendency to ‘do it my way’ (to quote Sinatra) without reference to God’s Word was a very real problem that faced this young 1st century community of faith. The Apostle had taught them the basic guidelines for life in the kingdom – indeed, his trademark was to teach all the churches the whole counsel of God, which is probably why some complained that his teaching was so hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15-16) – and he wanted to encourage them to continue to walk in an appropriate and godly manner. But he was not na├»ve as to the nature of man and so he reminded them that they were not called to uncleanness, but to holiness – in other words, to a life characterized by keeping what God had commanded in His Word.

But going even further back than Paul, we find that David, a godly king, considered to be a man after God’s own heart, struggled with the very same problem when the sight of a lovely woman bathing on her rooftop in the cool of the evening drove God’s Word far from his mind. You no doubt know the story well…the author of 2nd Samuel tells us that “in the spring of the year, at the time when kings go out to battle (a statement that causes the reader to wonder why David did not go out with his forces), that David sent Joab (his general) and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the people of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.” So it seems like a perfect set-up for clandestine activities. The king was alone and was bored, no doubt, and, as the old English saying goes, satan finds evil work for idle hands to do. Perhaps the king thought his rest was well earned…he had, after all, been fighting for his kingdom all his life and a little retirement from the fray wouldn’t do anyone any harm. And so, strolling along his palatial porch one evening, watching his pot plants grow, his eye caught sight of something he would not have seen had he been out with the rest of the Lord’s army doing what he ought to have been doing. Why Bathsheba chose to perform her bathing ritual in full sight of the palace, and why there is no mention of her resisting the advances of the king, or protesting, or crying out, or quoting the Law of God to a man who ought to have known better, we will never know. All we are told is that the lust of the eyes turned into the lust of the flesh and that conception was the result.

Perhaps we need to pause at this point to think on how this sort of thing is all too common. It happens every day. Boy meets girl, girl meets boy…young, old, single, married, divorced…he likes what he sees and she likes what she sees…one thing leads to another and bingo a tiny human being begins to make his or her presence known. The sense of panic of being found out and the wrong choices resulting from this sense of panic is another common feature. David tried to cover his tracks – he got Uriah her husband back from the front in an attempt to get him to foot the bill, so to speak, but Uriah refused to enjoy the legitimate pleasures of married life while his fellow soldiers were giving their lives for the sake of king and country. So David was left with only two other alternatives – public repentance or murder – and, unfortunately, rather than loose face (or perhaps loose his life – Proverbs tells us that the wrath of a jealous husband is a terrible thing), David chose the latter – he chose the easy way out – he chose murder – in his case, the murder of Uriah, but today, it is all too often the murder of the unprotected, unheard, and unseen pre-born child.

But murder is murder (whether in or out of the womb), adultery is adultery, and sin will always be sin…and sin has a way of destroying the lives of all involved.

Perhaps the most troubling part of this whole tragedy is the fact that King David knew the Word of God as the kings of Israel were required to make their own copy of the Law to read throughout their life so that he might learn to fear God and obey his statutes (Deuteronomy 17). He also knew first hand what had happened to a king when he chose to turn his back on the Word of the Lord…David’s knowledge that God had forsaken his predecessor, King Saul, may very well be behind the cry in Psalm 51:11 “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me.” And yet he still did what he did – seemingly blind to the obvious iniquity of it all, adding wrong upon wrong.

Worst of all, is that when Nathan the prophet confronted him with a prophetic parable in which he told the king of a rich man who had refused to take a lamb from his own flock, but rather took the only lamb of his poor neighbor and slaughtered it to feed his guest, David responded with wrathful indignation. “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die (a little over the top as the Law did not require the death penalty for theft nor for oppression of the poor)! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity (which is the penalty for theft required by the Law)!” But think on this. David…knowing in his heart that he was guilty of a far greater crime…knowing that he himself had sinned…David had no qualms in casting the first stone. But the stone struck home as Nathan whirled around and declared, “You are the man!”

To David’s credit he did not attempt to justify himself, nor did he try to further cover up his sins by blaming others (as did his predecessor, King Saul when confronted by Samuel!), nor did he attempt to silence the messenger. He could easily have had Nathan killed as well…in this day and age, of course, no one literally kills those who point out sin(at least not in the West), but they are slaughtered verbally before all too sympathetic audiences in the next church down the road. But David did not choose any of these options. Rather, his immediate response was confession…and Psalm 51 is the result.

As with David, all too often we only truly appreciate our need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness once we have been confronted with the awful gravity of our own sin. Thus the confession of the fallen king begins, not with explanations (I couldn't help myself – I had a troubled childhood), or accusations (Lord, that woman you gave me!), or justifications (well, I’m only human, you know) – no, David begins with an acknowledgement of his own guilt and with an appeal to the character of God. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your loving kindness; according to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.”

The words “blot out” indicate a removal of handwriting from a book, in this case the wiping away of the penalty for his sin. This image was later used by Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians in reference to what actually happened at the cross: Jesus, he said, “having wiped out (or blotted out) the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us…has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” Paul also borrowed from David’s next statement in which the king asked to be washed thoroughly and cleansed, both terms usually used for the laundering of clothes. Addressing those who once were fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, sodomites, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortionists, Paul said, “and such were some of you, but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God.” Isn't it sad that this understanding of being cleansed from something one once was is so different to the modern acceptance of categories of people the Word clearly states will not inherit the kingdom of God? This is just one more indication that the Word of God is no longer the foundation of the modern Western Church – people simply do what is right in their own eyes – indeed, their Christianity is self-manufactured.

As most of us know, sin has a way of sticking around, even when it is accepted and excused. It looms up before us like a demonic phantom, accusing us and exposing us for what we know we are inside. And so it should come as no surprise to hear that people who live in various states of sinfulness turn to drugs and alcohol to soothe their pricking consciences…they may blame society or science or biology, but the bottom line is that they know that what they are doing is wrong. Sadly, they try to shoo the phantom away with everything but confession.

But there is a more serious problem that David brings to the fore in this Psalm, namely that sin is something committed against the highest authority of all – God himself. Of course, sin can be committed against ourselves or against others, but ultimately sin is against God because he is the Creator and Lord of all. We are not our own – we have been bought with a price – and we all are created in the image of God. So sin can never be a private matter and it is therefore always an affront to God who owns all because he created all and sees all. It is in this light that Psalm 51 reveals the main dilemma of humanity – a nature so corrupted by the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, that sin is inescapable in that it is part and parcel of who we are as human beings living in a broken world. We are all warped creatures as we all come from faulty stock.

But if the essence of humanity is corrupt and wicked (as the prophet Jeremiah tells us), then the only possible solution to this dilemma is surely an entirely new creation…and it is to this hope that David turned. “Purge me,” he prayed, but that was not enough. “Wash me,” he cried, but even the purest driven snow will eventually become tainted with dirt. “Create…” Ah, yes. “Create in me a clean heart.” Only the creation of a clean heart (as opposed to the deceitful heart of stone) would suffice. Surely at this point we must hear an echo of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “If anyone is in Christ (the one who blotted out the handwriting of requirements that was against us by offering up his sinless self on the cross in our stead), he is a new creation; old things have past away; behold all things have become new.” The cry of Psalm 51 was heard and answered at the cross of Christ – it was heard and answered in the plea of the Syro-Phoenecian woman – and it is still heard and answered today wherever and whenever a sinner confesses his or her sins before God’s throne of mercy and grace.

Once confession is heard and absolution is received, only then can joy return…no drug, no alcohol, no therapy can ever do what confession does for the troubled soul. And so the forgiven transgressor becomes the teacher of fellow transgressors. Not a judge, but a teacher. I am a sinner, but I found grace…I am a sinner, but I found mercy…I am a sinner, but I found peace…I am a sinner, but I found cleansing…I am a sinner, but I found true joy in Jesus, because his broken body blotted out my transgressions and his shed blood washed me thoroughly from my iniquity.

The failure of King David thus becomes a paradigm for fallen, sinful Israel…for the fallen, sinful Church. His physical adultery speaks to our spiritual adultery; his realization of the inadequacy of any kind of earthly offering speaks to the inadequacy of the various forms of ritual we turn to, religious or otherwise; his confession calls to us across the expanse of time and teaches us that what leads to freedom from the phantom of our sins and what leads to true joy is a broken heart, not a proud, hard heart…a contrite spirit, not a self-defensive, self-justifying spirit…that is what is acceptable to God.

David’s story and the story of his descendants served as an example for Israel in exile. Having been chastened for their sin, the words of the Psalmist convicted, challenged, and yet also provided hope. They had done wickedly and their sins had found them out…just like the great king David. They were facing the consequences of their sin…just like the great king David. But would they now confess their sin and receive absolution…just like the great king David? That was the question they faced…and that is the question we still face today when we read the words of Psalm 51.

Before we come to the Lord’s Table of mercy and grace, we like the great king David, must be confronted with the awful gravity of our own sinfulness. Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit, who alone can reveal to us the deep hidden recesses of our heart, to show us our sins as He sees them…and as we cringe in the dirt of our own unworthiness, let us lift up our hearts to embrace the most gracious gift of a new creation…and having received the symbols of this gift, let us leave cleansed, washed and recreated so that we might go our into the darkness of this world to teach fellow sinners of his merciful ways.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III Lent 2014

Saturday, March 15, 2014

On (cold) camping - a lamentation

Louise and I have had our camping gear packed and ready for more than two weeks now. It has just not been warm enough to risk an overnight hike in the mountains...until this Friday! Imagine our glee when our telephone weather information app said that it would be 78 degrees (that's Fahrenheit my dear non-American family, friends, and others) on Saturday. Sure it would drop into the 40's overnight, but we could live with that, right?

But it was Greenville's weather we were looking at...Louise swears she told me what the real temperature would be. It seems selective hearing can get one into trouble from time to time.

About the half way there, I realized I had forgotten to bring my meds with me. Ah me, but I should have enough Thyroid hormone in me to last the night and day, so no, push on. Perhaps I should have taken this as a sign. "Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways."

Getting to the campsite was no big deal. It wasn't too steep nor was it too far. Thanks to daylight savings time we managed to get the tent up, the "beds" rolled out, the fire going, and supper cooking. But when the sun dropped below the horizon, so did the temperature. Consequently, we were in bed by 8:30.

Funny thing, getting older. Back in the day, we would sleep out under the stars with nothing underneath us but God's green earth...or brown, as it usually is in Africa.

But now, the hip above begins to complain - quietly at first, but quickly rising to a yell and a demand; "Turn over on the other side!" So, I flip over - cold air rushes in - I get tied up in the sleeping bag liner - the slip for the pillow is stuck on my head - Louise groans. Now the right knee begins to complain about the left knee bearing down on him. "He's bony," I hear him say. Left knee shoots back, "Not as bony as you!" And then the other hip begins to chime in for good measure. And it is getting colder by the second.

2 AM, and I am still tossing and turning. Louise is fast asleep. She has never been this happy about her hot flashes. To make matters worse, the moon is shining brightly, so on the odd occasion I manage to summon up enough courage to stick my head out from under the covers, it looks like it is morning...but I hear the moon chuckle and I dive back down under the covers.

Finally, the 6 AM alarm! But it is still early and the sun is an hour late this morning - thanks a lot daylight savings! By now, my entire body is in rebellion. The knees and the hips are no longer complaining individually. Sometime during the night they decided to form a choir, together with the shoulders and neck and they are chanting an imprecatory Psalm in unison. And so, the weary body creaks and groans as it attempts to dislodge itself from the dangled liner. The lungs nearly stage a revolt as the shock of the 28 degree air threatens to shut them down in an instant. But there is the promise of warmth from firewood waiting to be burned that seems to ward off the calls for civil war...and coffee...God bless the Ethiopians!

And as we huddle around those gorgeous flames, the sun peeks out over the mountains and the weeping of the night before began to give way to the joy that came with the morning.

The glorious day turned out to well worth the discomfort of the night and, as they say, all's well that ends well.

 Postscript: I think we are going to be sore tomorrow...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Not merely another freed slave...

I am sure you have heard it said that God often denies your request because he wants to give you his best. The would be comforter means well, but nevertheless you are left with a bitter taste in your spiritual mouth as you wonder, "How long, O Lord?"

One of the many things I love about the Bible is the fact that it tells the stories of men and women just like you and me, who struggle and stumble through life, seemingly making more bad decisions than good ones, and yet being carried through it all by an infinitely patient, loving, compassionate God whose thoughts towards his people is ever for good and not for evil. In the Daily Morning Prayer Service we remind ourselves every day that we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. He is the Good Shepherd who still leads his people into green pastures and causes us to rest by still waters.

This morning I read about Joseph in prison. This is a rich passage that deserves to be examined at a far deeper level than what this blog has space for, but in the light of the perplexing question of unanswered prayer and the glib cliches offered for comfort I thought we could look at a single verse which I believe speaks into our dilemma.

"Yet the chief butler did not remember Joseph, but forgot him."

Before you read on, meditate on that verse. Try to put yourself in Joseph's sandals as best you can. Tell me, what stirs in your heart? Profound disappointment? Indignation? Resignation?

Think on this. Joseph...the boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth...the boy whose golden destiny was foretold in dreams...the boy favored by his father. Joseph...betrayed, enslaved, falsely accused, unjustly sentenced, imprisoned, and forgotten. Tell me, what stirs in your heart?

Look at Joseph's petition. "Remember me when it is well with you, and please make mention of me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house. For indeed I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews; and also I have done nothing here that they should put me into the dungeon." Is there anything wrong with this request? Was Joseph putting his trust in man rather than in God? Was his faith perhaps not strong enough? Why did the Lord not prompt the cup bearer to remember him? Was there yet a task for Joseph to complete in the prison? Was this not the 'right time'?

At this point, we might do well to remember another like Joseph who was destined for greatness and who was yet betrayed, falsely accused, unjustly sentenced, imprisoned, and forgotten. His request too was denied. 

It was a full two years before Joseph was released, but when he emerged from prison, he rose from the dark dungeon and entered the throne room of the most powerful king in the world at that time. Had he been released two years earlier he would have been one among many other freed slaves. But God had destined Joseph to be more than merely another freed slave for reasons the dreamer and diviner of dreams could not possibly have envisioned. Tell me, what stirs in your heart?

A Collect for Fridays
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen. *

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Principles of resistance...

Temptation...a knock on an as yet unopened door. The disguised visitor is at first subtle, gentle, and persuasive...the voice a calm whisper of suggestion, of wooing, courting, and invitation. Knock, knock, knock...are you there? Will you let me in?

You see, it is not only Jesus that stands at the door and knocks. The Lord's words to Cain say as much; "If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it."

Sin lies at the door...temptation is its knock. Will you answer the door? Will you let the slime ooze through the crack?

Paul tells us that "whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope." The story of Joseph in Genesis chapter 39 is one such treasure trove from which we can derive a number of lessons on the subject of temptation, and on how to keep our door firmly shut. Here are a few principles of resistance...

1. Be aware. Temptation is common to humanity ever since the Fall, so we should not be taken by surprise when we hear the siren song. Since Eden, the serpent continues to slither into our lives, lulling us to sleep with lullabies of lies. But for those who seek to live godly lives, Paul tells us, these lullabies soon change into ferocious screams of fury as the wicked one unleashes his hatred upon those whose doors remain sealed. So be aware - temptation will knock and persecution will threaten to break you down.

2. Be mindful of the nature of sin. Joseph's reasons for resistance and refusal show that he understood that no sin was ever a private matter...succumbing to her temptation to lie with her would have been an affront, not only to Potiphar and everyone else in the household (as Joseph had been entrusted with the affairs of his master), but also to God, as the right name for it was wickedness.

3. Be vigilant. "Sin lies at the door," God told Cain. "Your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour," Peter warns us. Be watchful, be wary, be awake, be alert...

4. Be proactive. It was when Joseph was alone in the house that Potiphar's wife nailed him! I learned a long time ago never to counsel anyone on my own. This is not a lack of trust in the person or in is a principle of proactive resistance. Solomon tells us that "two are better than one...for if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to pick him up."

Of course, one cannot predict the times and places temptation will present we ought always to...

5. Be run! We are explicitly told in Scripture to flee sexual immorality and other ungodly desires and to rather pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Finding himself in a rather sticky situation, Joseph ran...even though his resistance cost him his prospects. When that happens, as it often does, there is only one thing to do and that is to...

6. Be humble. Peter tells us that we ought not to think it strange when fiery trials come our way as though something strange was happening to us. Being reproached for the name of Christ is a blessing, and if we are called to suffer with Him as a Christian we ought not to be ashamed, but rather to glorify him in the matter. So, don't loose the battle at this point by launching a counter attack - that in itself is a temptation - but rather submit yourself to God in continuing to do good as to a faithful Creator. We have the promise that he will exalt us in due time.

And so finally...

7. Be dependent. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells that Jesus, not only shared our human form, but also suffered as one of us, being tempted in all points, yet without sin. As a sympathetic High Priest, he is then well able to aid us when we are tempted. Depend on him...rely on in him...and let him help you keep that door shut.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

...our desire for greatness...

Lord Jesus Christ, we repent of our desire for greatness, our desire to have the final word, and our insistence on having our own way. Remind us Lord that we are called not to magnify our churches or denominations but to boast in your great name and in the cross of the one who has called us to follow his example. May we not be those who demand our rights but those who wash the feet of our brothers and sisters so that we might humbly serve you and truly show the world who Jesus is. 

Collect taken from Trinity School for Ministry 2014 Lenten Devotional, Katie Black.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Stopped dead in his tracks...

1st Sunday in Lent 2013
Psalm 2    2 Corinthians 6:1-10    Matthew 4:1-11
The Ascent of the King
My brother once challenged me to a race. He had timed himself while running a certain number of laps around our house and wanted to see if I could do any better. Obviously, I rose to the challenge and began to run as if the devil himself was behind me. Apparently, my brother realized that I was going to win and so he ambushed me as I took the final corner – he hit me in the head with a wooden golf club. He stopped me, quite literally in my tracks, from achieving what I was determined to do.

 This is something similar to what is going on in our readings for today. Regardless of how the world may rage, how the devil may tempt us, and how the adverse circumstances of life may try to trip us up, satan himself has been dealt a blow to the head and although his advance has not been stopped, it has been checked, and the gates of his dark lair are no longer able to resist the onslaught of the advancing Church.

Previously we saw that Psalms 1 and 2 form an introductory unit to the whole Psalter. As such, they set the tone and theme for the entire collection, namely that in order to be blessed, one is to depend solely on the God who alone reigns as supreme Monarch over all that he created. This theme of God’s kingdom is one of the great themes of Scripture, from start to finish, as the divinely inspired authors and editors wrote and compiled their material in such a way as to point out that rebellion against God as universal King only leads to destruction. Starting with the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, the Scriptures trace the lives of various biblical characters who either prosper because they submit themselves to the rule of God or who are crushed under the weight of their own stubborn resistance to His reign. The latter category are those who set out to challenge their Creator and who are, in one way or another, and at some time or another, divinely dealt with.

The authorship of Psalm 2 is ascribed to King David by the Early Christians in Acts 4 where they quote the Psalm in reference to the united forces of the Jews and Gentiles against Christ in His trial and crucifixion. Indeed, this Psalm is often quoted in the New Testament because of its Messianic claims and because of its vision of His universal rule. It is most often considered to be a coronation Psalm spoken or chanted when the eternal covenant between God and the House of David was renewed each time the new descendant of the Davidic dynasty ascended to the throne. So, the words, “You are My Son”, would then mark the renewal of the covenant in the person of the newly crowned king. 

Thus, if we are correct in assuming that the Book of Psalms in its present Canonical form was compiled some time during or after the Babylonian exile, at which time the Davidic dynasty seemed to be a thing of the past, the significance of this Psalm as an introduction to the rest of the collection may highlight the post-exilic hope that one day, God would restore His promises to David at the coronation of one of his descendants…a restoration the New Testament claims was fulfilled in the Person of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus the Christ. In the words of the Archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary; “He shall be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:32-33)

The Psalm itself dives right into the deep end of life in a fallen, broken world with a question of amazed astonishment at the pointless and futile rejection of God’s rule through His anointed and appointed ruler. “Why?” the Psalmist asks, ‘why would anyone dare to rise up against the One Who is and always will be Lord?” If King David is the author of this Psalm, it may be that he is recalling the period of time between his anointing as king at the hands of Samuel and his actual ascendance to the throne after the death of his predecessor and persecutor, King Saul. The young David, who was and yet was not king, may have marveled at the fury of Saul and others who sought to bring an untimely end to his existence…and perhaps he pondered on the futility of resisting what God had already clearly ordained. Whether or not this is the case, there does seem to be a tension between the now and the not yet…between the appointment of God’s ruler over the world and the final subjugation of all the nations under his feet. Perhaps the shadow of the reign of David’s greater Son can be seen here in that Jesus was, indeed, enthroned at the right hand of God (Hebrews 10:12), having received all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18-20), having led captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8), having disarmed principalities and powers, having made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross (Colossians 2:15), and yet He is still to reign for a protracted period of time before all His enemies are finally placed under His feet (Acts 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:24-25). Satan's advance has been checked, even though not quite stopped...

As I have alluded to before, one of the central themes of Scripture is the Kingdom of God. This can be seen right from the beginning in that the first humans were created in the image of God to be God's vice-regents in the ruling of God’s world. Ultimately, of course, God alone is the universal King, but Adam and Eve were to exercise dominion as representatives of their Divine Monarch. However, they failed in their task because, unlike Jesus (whom the New Testament portrays as the 2nd Adam), they chose to follow the word of the enemy and would be usurper rather than the word of their one true King. This can perhaps be illustrated by an ambassador who has been appointed by the authorities to represent the interests of his country elsewhere, and who yet chooses to turn traitor and side with an enemy. Nevertheless, this idea of God’s reign in and through a human representative resurfaces time and again throughout the Scriptures, but especially during the period of the monarchy in which the joint-kingship of God and man can be seen most clearly. Unlike the kings of the pagan nations, the king of Israel was not free to rule as he pleased, but was governed and judged by God’s Word, by God’s Law…and he was, himself, to govern and judge God’s people using the same Word, the same Law. In this sense he was God’s son – a term used by God Himself to describe His relationship with King David’s son, Solomon – because he was considered a human (not a divine or even quasi-divine) extension or expression of the Divine will on earth.

It is probably because of God’s universal reign that the jurisdiction of His earthly representative, in this case, David and his descendants, is portrayed in terms of a world-wide authority. This ideal, however, only became a reality in the Person of Jesus as we have already seen. But what is important for us to note here, is that the humanity – the human nature – of our Lord is an essential part of God’s creation arrangement for a Man to rule over the world. This is why the New Testament writers are anxious to show that Jesus is, humanly speaking, both a descendant of the 1st Adam, and well as a descendant of the royal lineage of King David, a lineage that was divinely decreed to be eternal. This is why Paul refers to Jesus as the Second Adam and why other New Testament authors refer to Jesus as the Son of David – Jesus is the reality of which Adam and David were but shadows. The genealogical records of Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was at once both the son of Adam and the son of David. All four Gospels also tell us that Jesus died and rose again to life everlasting because death could not hold the sinless Son of God. Thus Jesus is not only entitled to the throne to reign over God’s world, but He is also, unlike His human predecessors, well able to rule for all eternity because of His divine nature – because He is God.

It is interesting to note that after the demise of the monarchy during and after the Babylonian exile, the prophets began to predict a future new covenant with the House of David that would essentially involve the ascent of a descendant of David to the throne. Just as the young King David no doubt pondered on the interim period between his anointing by Samuel and the death of King Saul as well as the subjugation of various enemies before he actually was enthroned as king, so too the exilic and post-exilic prophets contemplated the nature of the renewed kingdom. How was God going to restore the monarchy?

We are not sure whether they envisioned a divine King as such – most commentators seem to think this is doubtful – even though the biblical authors and characters often used terms that would normally be applied only to God, such as ‘Almighty’ and ‘Mighty God’ – and even though both Elizabeth and Mary referred to the Child in the womb as ‘Lord’ – most assume that this may merely reflect the joint-kingship of God and his representative ruler. So while we are not sure of what they had in mind, what was certain in the mind of the author of the 2nd Psalm was that regardless of the fury of the nations and their plotting and scheming against God and his anointed, nothing would be able to thwart the eternal decree – “I have set My King upon My holy hill of Zion”. In other words, no matter what happened, no matter how hopeless things might appear to be, God would fulfill his promise to King David and restore his royal house to the throne.

In the light of this prophetic Messianic hope, imagine then how startling the message of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself must have seemed to their 1st Century listeners. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!” In other words, the time for the fulfillment of the Messianic hope had dawned. Be prepared, for the King is coming!

The words ‘You are My Son’ are used in reference to Jesus not once, but several times in the New Testament. At his baptism (Mark 1:11), his transfiguration (Mark 9:7), with reference to his resurrection (Acts 13:33) and his eternal priesthood (Hebrews 5:5-11). It seems obvious then that John the Baptist, the divinely inspired authors of the Gospels as well as the other New Testament books all believed that in Jesus God was fulfilling his promises to David concerning the eternal nature of his throne.

Once again we must remind ourselves that the Early Church in Acts 4 applied the fury and violent rejection of God and his anointed representative depicted in this Psalm to the participation of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the Jews in the trial and execution of Jesus. The point that they were attempting to make in quoting from this Psalm in their prayer was that even though the enemies of Christ did their worst and actually crucified the Lord of glory, Jesus did triumph in the end clearly shown in his resurrection and in his ascension to his heavenly throne at the right hand of God – and so, even though these same men (the Sanhedrin in particular and later the Empire of Rome) were now threatening them with violence should they refuse to comply with the order to stop preaching in the name of Jesus – even though they would follow through with their threats – the Church would continue to triumph in their quest to bring God’s world into subjection under his rule. The gates of hell would not, indeed, could not prevail against the advance of God's people...

This eschatological inevitability of divine victory in spite of adversity still remains a source of comfort and hope for the Church today. Many missionaries have been encouraged to take the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all nations because of this Psalm. They have also been sustained in their efforts in spite of discouragement and hardship in the field and in spite of rejection, resistance, and, at times, even persecution. Like Paul, they believe that as Christians they are ambassadors for Christ – that they have been given a task to reconcile the world to God through Jesus – and for this reason, they endure temptations, tribulations, needs, distresses, beatings, imprisonments, and all other manners of discomforts, so that, through them, the nations may come to share in the blessing that is ours in Christ.

But there is a further dimension to the reign of Christ in which the continuing rebellion of the world to this day is also addressed. Jesus is King. He does reign presently at the right hand of the Father. But he reigns now ever to place his enemies under his feet. Thus once more, we are confronted with the sense of the now and the not yet, as the climax of his reign remains a future reality. So it is not surprising to see that this Psalm is quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews as a remedy against discouragement and doubt in the present reign of Christ and that it is quoted frequently in the Book of the Revelation – a book that anticipates the eventual triumph of the God-Man Jesus over all the world.

For this reason, the Psalm ends with a summons issued to all worldly authorities. Their only hope is in their submission to God’s anointed and appointed King. But notice that this final statement is couched in the language of an invitation and not that of an ultimatum. God’s graciousness may yet be resisted, but, if it is, they can be rest assured that their rejection of his mercy will result in their ultimate destruction. They may be determined in their objective to win their battle against the Lord – and it may even seem as if they are succeeding from time to time – but they will be stopped dead in their tracks as surely as if they had been hit in the head with a wooden golf club.

As you partake of the symbols of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, recall the words of Martin Luther’s well known hymn. “And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us. The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, has ascended to the eternal throne of his father David – through his sacrificial death he has secured his inheritance of the nations and indeed the ends of the earth and he has dealt a lethal blow to the head of the serpent. He has pierced the dragon and has given us the key to his lair so that we might plunder it. Let us then come to his throne with bold and joyful hearts, and let us leave his throne with confidence, knowing that as he has won the battle, so we shall win the war, for his Kingdom is forever.

© Johann W. Vanderbijl III Lent 2013