Sunday, April 20, 2014

Behold, the King!

Easter Sunday 2014
Psalm 147    Colossians 3:1-4    John 20:1-10
Behold, the King!
As a child, I was once told that I had “camel knees” and that my legs resembled those of a wooden puppet named Pinocchio. Imagine my delight then, when I discovered Psalm 147! “The Lord takes no pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his mercy.”

But these verses refer to more than the ridiculous nature of male vanity…the whole Psalm exposes the futility of that which we consider to be powerful and what we consider to be important. Psalm 147 is one of the Psalms of praise that make up the final collection in the Psalter. Each Psalm begins and ends with “Praise the Lord!”, or, in Hebrew, “Hallelujah!” In fact, before even looking at various items for praise, the Psalmist examines the glory of praise itself. “It is good to sing praises to our God,” he writes, “for it is pleasant and praise is beautiful.”

In verses 2 – 6 the Psalmist mentions his first and primary motive for praise: the fact that it is God who builds up and gathers together his people. This statement may reflect the exilic or post-exilic hope of restoration, but we who live on this side of Calvary know that it foreshadows the very words of Jesus himself, not only when he said that he would build his Church upon the Rock of faith in him, but also that he would send out his messengers (represented as stars in the Book of the Revelation) to gather together all the elect from the four corners of the world. Jesus also said that he had come to heal the broken hearted and to proclaim liberty to the captives. There is so much packed into these five verses!

Verses 7 – 11 tell us that God is worthy of our praise as He is a God who cares. He is not a great divine clock maker who made the world, wound it up, and then let it tick on its own merry way. No, our God is involved in every aspect of his creation – he sends rain in due season, he causes the grass to grow and gives food to bird and beast alike. Of course, the implication is that if he does what seems to be so insignificant in the scheme of things, how much more will he not do what is really important?

This kind of care is meant to evoke wonder and worship, but verses 10 and 11 put a little bit of a spin on how we are to respond properly. Having made it clear that our God is not impressed with the showy displays of human strength, the Psalmist declares that our great caring Giver looks for humility of heart demonstrated through trust in his provision and protection. As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” You see, God’s strength, contrary to our understanding of power, is demonstrated primarily in his covenant faithfulness toward his people…a faithfulness displayed chiefly in the giving of his Son for the life of the world.

The final section of this Psalm reveals God as both Lord of creation and Lord of recreation…in both cases it is his Word that brings all to pass. God’s dealing with his chosen people (Israel and the Church as the continuation of Israel) has as its goal the restoration of the whole world. This can be seen in the fact that the Bible does not begin with the story of the Exodus, but rather it begins with the story of Creation. Neither does the Bible end with the resurrection and with the birth of the Church at Easter and at Pentecost, but rather it ends with the new earth and the new heavens in which righteousness dwells…a return to the idyllic pre-Fall state of creation.

You see, both Israel and the Church were meant to be a light to the world…their presence was meant to bring healing to the nations. Abraham was not called for his sake alone. The nations were to be blessed through his descendents. Israel was not delivered from Egypt for their sake alone, nor were you and I redeemed from sin and death for our sake alone. No, Jesus died and rose from the dead to raise us up and seat us in heavenly places with him so that through us, he might reconcile the whole world to God the Father.

The force that is behind the acts of nature is no impersonal force…he is no unmoved mover. No, this Psalm teaches us that the power who made the stars, who controls the snow and the frost, the wind and the waves, is the same one who builds us up, who gathers us together, who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds, who lifts up the humble, and who reveals himself in an intelligible and life-giving word to his people. In fact, the only hope this world has is that the intelligent designer of the complex cosmos has a personal face that looks on what he has created in steadfast love.

This personal face is seen most clearly in the New Testament where we are told that the Word of God, used here in Psalm 147 to command and to communicate, took upon himself the nature of humanity. “The Word,” John wrote, “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” And in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the writer explains why the creator stooped down to take upon himself the form of his creation. “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, he likewise shared in the same, that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”

This verse transports us back to the beginning to when humanity first came into being…to a time when they were innocent and free…to a time when the only negative command was not to eat of one certain tree in Paradise…to a time when just one bite brought not only shame, sorrow, suffering, and slavery, but also expulsion from Paradise and ultimately death as we were exiled from the presence of our only source of life. The story of God’s dealings with Abraham and subsequently with Israel shows God’s remedy for this tragedy…in the call of Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans to a land God promised to give to his descendents… in the Exodus out of Egypt to that same promised land…and in the return to that land from exile in Babylon.

We see God repeatedly redeeming his people from captivity and bringing them into a land that is described in terms of a Paradise where God’s presence is known. Coupled with this image are the many images of redemption expressed in terms of sacrifice, particularly blood sacrifice, or more specifically, the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb. But this image goes back even further than the first Passover – indeed, it goes all the way back to the Fall where two animals had to die for Adam and Eve to be covered and clothed…to where Abel offered a lamb as an acceptable sacrifice to God…to where Abraham sacrificed a ram instead of his only son. But these were all merely pictures of something far greater to come as nothing in the world could ever pay the penalty of death incurred at the Fall…no animal, as it was humanity’s penalty…no human as no one is free to pay the penalty of another as we are all guilty and under the same sentence of death. And so, God the Father sent his Son, portrayed symbolically in the New Testament as the Lamb of God, to take upon himself the form of a human being to die as a human being on behalf of all human beings so that humanity could be set free through faith in him. Free from slavery and exile, and free to reenter Paradise.

Easter Sunday tells us that for the first time since the Fall, there was an empty tomb.  Yes, Jesus died, but death could not hold his sinless person and so he was resurrected by the power of the same Spirit whom he has poured out into the hearts of all those who believe in him. Surely the only proper and fitting response to such amazingly glorious news is to echo the very words of the Psalmist: Praise the Lord!

The Early Church recognized our need to respond with thanksgiving and so they brought together in one service the offering of our Lord for us and the offering of ourselves to him. At our Lord’s table, we not only remember what he did on the cross, but we remember that being delivered, being built up, and being gathered together to live in his eternal presence as his people, brings a certain amount of responsibility on our part. Since we are raised with Christ, we must seek those things which are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Israel was not delivered to live as they pleased, but were given the perfect law of God to obey. Neither was the Church delivered to live as she pleases, but we were given the Holy Spirit of God who is to cause us to walk in that self-same law…to enable us to keep his commandments to do them. And so here at his table, we both receive the offering of his body broken and his blood shed for us, as well as offer up ourselves, our souls and our bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice to him, so that through us the world might behold the King, and come to respond to his divine care for his creation with praise and thanksgiving. Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!

© Johann W Vanderbijl III 2014

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