September 18, 2016 — Psalm 113

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We have heard several times over the last few weeks about God’s delight in reversing our expectations. Though he is mighty and over all the earth, he delights in lifting up the weak and vulnerable. Though he is just and righteous, he delights in seeking out and restoring the dishonest and sinful. God is God. God is free. He is free to be the sort God he chooses to be, not the sort of God we might expect or wish that he were.

We meet this theme again in Psalm 113. It begins with summons to all to praise the name of the Lord in verses 1-3. Then it follows its own directions to begin extolling the wonder of God verses 4-6. He is “High above all nations”, subject to no earthly power, nor even a heavenly power. His glory and majesty cannot be contained by all the heavens (v.4). He is incomparable, and immeasurably above all else, looking down not only upon the earth, but on the heavens themselves. It is hard to depict the immeasurable greatness of God more vividly than verses 4-6.

But then the psalm shifts in verse 7-9. Leaving the heights which look down upon the heavens, the psalmist takes us to the dust and ashes of the earth. For there we find the majesty of God at work. God is there in the dust, raising the poor and the needy (v.7). He lifts them up and places them among the powerful (v. 8). He is there with the lonely barren woman, giving life (v.9). The psalmist will not let us mistake the immense magnitude of God described in verse 4-6 with an immense distance from people. No, the majesty of God is made known in his nearness; his greatness is seen in his proximity to those who need him.

The freedom of God is his freedom to be immanent to us. He is not cut off from our lowliness by his immeasurable greatness. No, the God of the Bible is the God who delights to be known in giving. Giving life. Giving forgiveness. Giving provision. Giving himself. That is the God we have come to know in Christ Jesus. He is the perfect manifestation of God’s freedom to lower himself to the depths of human misery. In the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see the immeasurable greatness of the God of psalm 113.

 

August 25, 2016 — Psalm 146

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What could it be that keeps a soul in perpetual praise? What could be worthy of such a thing? What could possibly sustain someone through an entire life of prayer and praise, such as Psalm 146 describes in vs.1-2?

Nothing less than the God who continually sustains all things by his life-giving work. God never stops giving life. Creation was not something he did way back when; it is the constant and ongoing work of God with his creatures. Psalm 146 contrasts God’s infinite and unending creativity with the finite and temporary efforts of human kind. Do not trust princes, or human begins (v. 3). They are going to die and their plans will die with them (v.4). True happiness (v.5) is found only in trusting the Lord who created all and “remains faithful forever” (v. 6). He continues today his life-giving work: bringing justice to the enslaved and food to the hungry (v.7); freedom to prisoners and sight to the blind (v.8); exaltation to the humbled; protection to the immigrants, the widows, and the orphans (v.9). He alone will bring justice upon all those who hurt and harm their neighbors (v.9). And God’s life giving reign will go on forever, to the very end of the human race (v. 10).

Our difficulty in understanding this kind of praise is that we simply don’t see the truth now. We look at a world in which the slaves have not been freed, injustice continues to ruin lives, widows, immigrants, and orphans continue to struggle for survival. But Psalm 146 sings to us from the End, from the day when God’s life-giving work has been revealed in all its truth: the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. In that day when our Lord returns, God’s life giving work will be revealed and completed, all other words will grow silent. There will be nothing else to say but “Praise the Lord!” As Saint Augustine says of that day, “All will be Amen and Alleluia!”

September 11, 2016 — Psalm 119:169-176

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If you’ve ever tried to read Psalm 119, you will know the relief of finally reaching its end.  At 176 verses long, it is not only the longest psalm but the longest chapter in the Bible!  Like all psalms, it is a poetic prayer, but it doesn’t necessarily read like poetry to us.  Not all cultures have the same idea of what constitutes poetic language.  I’ll be honest; I generally find it boring and redundant.  But if we want to tackle Psalm 119, the only way to do it is to first try to understand its strange poetic beauty.

For Psalm 119 is, in truth, a masterful achievement.  It is an extended acrostic poem, organized in sets of eight verses with each of the eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter.  And the author repeats this pattern through the entire Hebrew alphabet!  Sadly, this is simply lost in translation.  The best our English bibles can do is add the name of the Hebrew letter above each section.  However, Psalm 119 has another poetic quality which is not lost in translation.  The author mentions God’s Torah, or one of ten synonyms for it, in every line (Word, statutes, commandments, precepts, way, law).  Through 176 verses, the author of this psalm praises the Torah of God and rejoices in the life lived under its guidance.  Take a minute to look at our section of this psalm (vs.169-176) to see this pattern for yourself, remembering that every verse begins with the same letter of the alphabet.  Quite a poetic achievement indeed!

One of the perplexing things about this psalm from the Lutheran perspective is that this author does not seem to be burdened by the law at all.  We are accustomed to see the Law as a source of judgment, a mirror that exposures of our sinful hearts.  Yet the author of Psalm 119 says, “I will keep your law continually, for ever and ever” (119:44), “I keep your precepts and testimonies” (119:168).  I don’t know about you, but I find it pretty hard to take these words and pray them as my own.  Interestingly, however, the Psalm does not end with the same degree of confidence.  The very last verse of the psalm sounds a bit closer to my experience, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant, for I do not forget your commandments” (119:176).

Even the author of Psalm 119, for all that he truly delights in God’s law, recognizes that he too goes astray from it.  He too is dependent on the God who seeks us out and rescues us like lost sheep.  For this psalmist’s joy in the Law of God does not turn into self-righteousness.  It remains the joy that comes from knowing a gracious God, from the knowledge that the One who created us has not left us to our folly.  We too can sing of this joy.  We know that God has sent his Good shepherd to seek us out like lost sheep.  This Good Shepherd will never leave us nor forsake us.  We too, when we recognize that the righteous obedience of this Good Shepherd has been credited to us, can begin to make the rest of Psalm 119 our own.

September 4, 2016 — Psalm 1

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The beginning is generally a good time to figure out where you are going.  This is the purpose of Psalm 1, a composition that is intentionally placed at the beginning of the entire Psalter to serve as an introduction to the rest of the book.  It is a summary, a snapshot, of the basic story that directs all that follows.

Where does it lead?  It begins with the basic distinction between two ways of being, two ways of living out our humanity.  The one is the way of the “wicked,” “sinners,” “scoffers;” the other is the way of the “blessed,” the “righteous,” those who “delight in the law of the Lord.”  The first way, the psalmist says, is characterized by futility and impermanence, “They are like chaff that the wind blows away.”  The second is the way of permanence, nourishment, and blessedness, like a “tree planted by streams of water.”

Psalm 1 is saying that our happiness as humans is a question of following.  Who’s in charge?  Who are we following?  The wicked take “counsel” together.  They follow their own law.  We describe this by the word, “autonomy,”  which comes from the Greek words for “self” (autos) and “law” (nomos). The wicked are “self-ruled.”  This is so at every stage in human history, especially today, where consumer culture has elevated autonomy to be the highest human good.  Choice.  Freedom.  Independence.  Be yourself.  These are the watchwords of our culture, where we are continually told that happiness is found in being “true to ourselves,” to our own desires, goals and plans.

Psalm 1 begs us to see is that this autonomy is an illusion.  For when we are left to our own desires, to our self-law, we are left to follow whoever is, at that time, most skilled at manipulating our desires.  Like chaff that has no moorings, we are subject to the winds of culture, marketing, and coercion.  “The way of the wicked will perish.”

But there is another way of being, one that takes its not from self-law but from God’s law, the Torah.  It is important to know that Torah does not merely refer to a list of rules, like the ones you find in Numbers or Leviticus.  It refers to the entire account of God’s instruction, stretching all the way back to the Genesis account of creation.  The Torah teaches us that we were created good by God, but we rebelled against him.  Now, in the broken human state we inhabit, the path toward human blessedness is laid out in the Torah of the God who Created us.

The rest of the Psalter will tell us more about the human life as it lives in the Torah.  It will tell of the pain that is inflicted by scoffers and sinners (Psalm 3).  It will speak of the grief and confusion brought on by death (Psalm 39) and how God sustains us through it (Psalm 23).  It will tell of the guilt we bring upon ourselves through our own sin, and our cry for forgiveness (Psalm 51).  But it ends where it promises, with a psalm of joy (Psalm 150).

August 28, 2016 — Psalm 131

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Humility is an elusive virtue. Like a mythical creature, it tends to vanish as soon as it is seen. If you compliment someone for being humble, you have put their humility in mortal danger. If someone calls himself humble, you know something is not quite right. This makes humility a difficult virtue to talk about, and an even more difficult virtue to acquire. So we ought not be surprised that when the author of Psalm 131 describes humility he is forced to draw upon some perplexing imagery.

I am not referring to verse 1, which seems to be a straightforward description of what we generally think of when we think of humility. A “heart not lifted up”, “eyes not raised too high”, a person who doesn’t stick himself into affairs “too great and marvelous”. Sounds a lot like humility. Yet humility seems to be more than just minding your own business. Verse 2 captures this deeper, more mysterious aspect of this virtue.

“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” If you don’t see anything perplexing about this image, just look over to my two-year-old son, Marek. At two and a half, he is just a little over the age of a “weaned child”. Does he look “calm” and “quieted”? I’m not so sure. When I think of a picture of the calm and quiet of a humble soul, a soul that has abandoned the tumultuous paths of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, I simply don’t imagine a two-year-old. I don’t know what my wife would imagine, but I know it’s not a two-year-old.

Why then is a weaned child with its mother a picture of the humble soul? I imagine it has something to do with another elusive thing: moments of embrace. That moment after the two-year-old has scraped his knee, or lost a race with his older brother, and he runs to his mother, is scooped up in her warm arms, and lays his head on her shoulder. Then there is this beautiful moment of silence. Comfort. Peace. It’s the peace of simply giving oneself up to be held and comforted. Not fixed. Not healed. Not satisfied. Just held and embraced. It is a mysterious aspect of humility; it is a quietness of spirit that is born in the embrace of Another.

This is, I think, the reason this brief psalm on humility ends with the simple advice: hope in the Lord. It offers no five step strategy for becoming a humbler person, no ritual for exorcising the demons of self-importance. Just a simple direction to hope in the Lord. Put your trust in God. Simply be embraced by the God who has committed himself to you as your Heavenly Father, who has embraced you as his own dear child. Trust in God is the soil in which humility takes root. When all our focus and attention is drawn away from ourselves and we are quieted by the recognition of the sheer givenness of all that we have and are, humility grows with a growth that is only from God.

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