Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” Matthew 4:8-9 (NIV)
This past fall I gave a message among my local gathering of Jesus’ followers. In the message, I shared a handful of stories from my early adult years which were harsh life lessons. I was harassed and threatened on a job because I chose not to join the union. In another job, I repeatedly witnessed government employees breaking the law and others simply choosing not to do their job. They could do so without consequence because they worked for the political machine that had been in control for generations. In yet another experience, I learned the hard way that even a local church can be secretly controlled and manipulated by a powerful and wealthy member.
Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that people easily forget that the Great Story told from Genesis to Revelation is a story of good versus evil. The enemy messes up things for humanity in the Garden of Eden in the opening chapters of the story. The final chapters of the story speak of a final conflict in which evil is vanquished once-and-for-all. In between the two, the conflict is perpetually present.
In today’s chapter, Jesus withdraws to the wilderness for 40 days where He is tempted by the evil one. The Hebrew audience to whom Matthew is focusing his account would have been reminded of the 40 years of wilderness wanderings of their own people (recorded in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) in which they failed the test. The three temptations Jesus faced are, likewise, the same basic temptations that Adam and Eve faced: the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life.
In the second temptation, the evil one shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” and offers to give them to Jesus. This means that they were his to give.
The harsh life lessons of my young adult years taught me that there is a certain truth about how the world works. No matter how good we like to think we are, there is no escaping the fact that both individuals and institutions in this world are driven by lust and pride. The Great Story makes it very clear that this world is the dominion of the evil one, whom Jesus called “The Prince of this World.” The Prince of this World, and his disciples, set themselves up as anti-God and can always be found lurking to promote darkness, hatred, corruption, chaos, and death. This is why Jesus came in the first place to make a way of light, love, goodness, peace, and eternal life for any who, by faith, believes.
In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that the kingdoms of this world are still, at this point in time, under the dominion of the Prince of this World. Commerce, politics, and even the institutions of religion will be given to corruption and evil until things are ultimately set right in the climax of this Great Story.
I am equally reminded that Jesus came to exemplify a different way of being and to teach me to live differently in this world as a citizen of a kingdom that is “not of this world.”
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him, but with an overwhelming flood he will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness. Nahum 1:7-8 (NIV)
The world has watched in horror the past week-and-a-half as Afghanistan quickly fell into the hands of the Taliban. No matter which side of the political aisle one stands, and setting aside the argument of whether NATO forces should have been at all, there is no escaping the brutal realities of life under the Taliban. It’s been hard to read and hear the eye-witness accounts. A woman shot in the street for not wearing a burka. Another woman burned alive because she was considered a bad cook. When a mother is willing to throw her own baby over barbed-wire in an effort to ensure that he/she will have a life elsewhere, it tells me something.
Much of the story of what we refer to as the Old Testament is really about how one people, the Hebrews, lived and survived throughout several centuries in which one empire after another sought to control the world: Egyptians, Medes, Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans.
The ancient prophet, Nahum, lived in a time when the Assyrian Empire was the largest the world had seen to-date. Its capital city, Nineveh, was the largest city on the planet. He was probably writing his prophetic poems during the reign of Assyria’s last great king, Ashurbanipal (see featured photo). The Assyrian army was particularly brutal. Ashurbanipal’s records speak of him flaying enemies (removing the skin off of bodies) and draping the human skins over piles of corpses and city walls. The Assyrian armies would leave piles of dismembered limbs and dead bodies impaled on stakes as calling cards telling everyone they’d been there.
Enter Nahum, a prophet who both seeks to comfort his people and encourage them to trust God, but who most warns the Assyrians/Nineveh that God will see to it that their mighty empire will fall. In today’s opening poem, Nahum establishes God as both kind and stern. He predicts Ninevah’s fall and Judah’s joy when it does.
The Great Story is layered with recurring themes. Justice is definitely one of them, and Nahum is a mouthpiece for God’s message that the mighty empire of Assyria/Nineveh with its record of violent oppression and brutality will not last. Their just downfall is coming. But that same message also exists on a grand scale of the larger eternal epic of the Great Story. The night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He tells His followers that “the prince of this world stands condemned.” The end of the Great Story is about eternal justice on a cosmic scale. Wrongs are made right. Justice prevails. Love wins.
In the meantime, the story continues. The journey goes on, and the kingdoms of this world perpetuate injustice, violence, and brutality. Jesus tells His followers to be agents of a very different Kingdom marked by blessedness of those who are poor in spirit, the mourning, peacemakers, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the persecuted. He asked me to be marked not by power, anger, vengeance, violence, hatred, but love that is manifested in joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
Being a follower of Jesus is a faith journey, and that faith includes believing that justice will prevail, just it did for Nahum. After Ashurbanipal’s reign the Assyrian Empire quickly fell apart. Its decline was swift and historians argue to this day how could so quickly fall apart and recede. So, I believe, the end of the Great Story will come just as prophesied.
In the meantime, I press on doing what I can to act justly and with love. One simple agent of a different Kingdom journeying amidst the kingdoms of this world in faith that justice will ultimately prevail, and that Love wins.
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. John 17:15-16 (NIV)
Earlier this year Wendy and I were on the back patio with friends late into the evening. One of the things we like to do in the dark of night is keep our eyes peeled for meteors, satellites, constellations, plants, and other interesting objects in the night sky. On that night I spotted a satellite, which basically looks like a moving star, trekking slowly from west to east. Then there was another one right behind it. I’d never seen two of them so close and moving in the same trajectory. Then came another, and another, and another, and another.
Pulling up the internet on my phone to find out what we were looking at, we learned that evening about the satellite train. The brainchild of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it is a long string or “train” of 60 satellites that follow one another in orbit. SpaceX plan to eventually have 12,000 of them in low orbit to provide internet service everywhere from space. Fascinating.
It’s an amazing time to be alive and to make this earthly life journey. In the course of my lifetime, the world has arguably changed more rapidly and drastically than in any other time in human civilization. Advancements in technology and science are beginning to outpace our ability to comprehend the effects of all that it possible.
Along with the “progress” has come a sharp decline in the number of people who adhere to traditional Christian belief systems or attend institutional Christian churches. One of the things that I read consistently about this trend is the criticism that believers and churches in America haven’t done enough to address social justice issues and the problems of our world.
Today’s chapter is traditionally known in theological circles as “the high priestly prayer.” John records Jesus praying just before He was betrayed by Judas and arrested. In the prayer Jesus acknowledges two important things. First, that His followers are “not of this world.” In my experience, Jesus is acknowledging that those who follow Him have expanded their world-view beyond this earthly life to God’s eternal Kingdom. After acknowledging this, Jesus consciously chooses that His followers not be removed from this world, but protected from the same prince of this world that will see Jesus crucified within twelve hours of this prayer.
To quote Hamlet, “ay, there’s the rub.”
In this world, not of it. How do I, as a follower of Jesus, hold that tension?
That’s what my soul and mind are chewing on in the quiet this morning. And here are a few of my thoughts…
I confess that critics of Christianity are not wrong. Followers of Jesus and the institutional churches of history have not done enough adhere to personally fulfill Jesus’ mission of crossing social boundaries, loving the outcast, and caring for the poor. Mea culpa.
At the same time, history has taught me that revolutions and reformations typically paint complex realities with broad-brush generalizations, and then throw babies out with the bathwater. Despite the moans and wails of how awful of a state the world is in, here are a few undisputable facts:
In 1966 (the year I was born), 50% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. In 2017, that’s dropped to 9% despite population growth.
When my parents were young, average life expectancy was between 30-40 years. In two generations it’s risen to 72, and still climbing.
In 1975, 58% of children with cancer survived. By 2010, it was 80%.
In 1980, 22% of one-year-olds received at least one vaccination. In 2018 the percentage was 88%.
In 1970, 28% of the world’s population was undernourished. In 2015 that number had dropped to 11%.
In 1900, roughly 40% of children died before the age of five. By 2016 the percentage was down to 4%.
In 1980, 58% of the world’s population had access to a protected water source. By 2015 the number was 88% and climbing.
It’s easy to cast a stone at the institutional church, its members, and cast stones regarding all that it hasn’t done. I also know many believers in my own circles of influence who, led by their faith in Jesus and dedication to His mission, have given their lives to contribute to the numbers I’ve just quoted.
Scott and Marcia have helped mobilize native efforts in Eswatani Africa to care for unwanted babies, lower the spread of HIV, increase access to clean water, and improve agricultural yields to feed the local population.
Tim and an entire host of individuals in our local gathering of Jesus followers have done a similar work in Haiti. Learning from the mistakes of the past, they are helping native Haitians create sustainable and healthy life and community systems.
My college suitemate, Tim, has dedicated most of his career to helping care for impoverished children and single mothers around the globe. He’s now leading a non-profit to address the 12% of the world’s population that still need a protected water source.
I have long believed that with the technological age I may just be witnessing humanity’s next great attempt at building a tower of Babel. Instead of bricks and mortar, we’re using processors, fiber optics, CRISPR, and satellite trains. The goal is the same: nothing is impossible, and we ascend to be our own god. I find it fascinating to observe what I perceive to be “Babel 2.0” is that we largely still speak the same language but our transmission and translation are increasingly confused. What one intends to say, what they say, and what the other hears and interprets to have been said are incongruent. Language is hijacked and redefined in a moment by part of the population. New words are created, defined, and trend within one part of the population while everyone else in the population failed to notice. They are therefore ignorant and confused when they are discussed.
So what does this mean for me today? I don’t run an institution, nor do I want to. I am a follower of Jesus and, as such, I have a world-view that sees beyond this world and incorporates God’s Kingdom into my earthly existence. I seek to accomplish His mission of “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth” and I take that responsibility seriously. This earthly journey is not about biding my time until death and eternity, but rather trying to bring a Kingdom perspective into my every day intentions, choices, work, actions, and relationships.
I am in this world, a world which remains the dominion of the prince of this world, which is why Jesus prayed for my protection on that fateful night. Jesus asks me to affect this world with love, service, and generosity that He exemplified. He told His followers to be “shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove.”
And so, I enter another day of the journey with those intentions.
Note: Three messages have been added on the Messages page. Click here
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Mark 8:31-33 (NIV)
Inflection point has become a buzzword in business during my career. And, it’s often misunderstood. The inflection point is the point on a line where the line changes its sign. It’s when the curve of that line reveals a shift of direction. When it ultimately shifts direction, that’s called the “turning point.” The turning point happens later. The inflection point is the subtle shift that precedes the turning point. If you see the inflection point, you can predict the turning point.
In today’s chapter, the narrative of Mark’s version of Jesus’ story hits an inflection point. The majority of the first eight chapters is an endless stream of miracles, wonders, and exorcisms seasoned with Jesus parables and teachings. It has been all about Jesus interacting with people’s lives in this world. He’s feeding hungry people, healing sick people, delivering possessed people, and teaching people spiritual principles of God’s kingdom in contrast to the human religious system controlling most of their lives.
Out of the blue, Jesus tells his followers quite plainly that He will be rejected by the religious power-brokers in Jerusalem, He will be killed, and then in three days He will rise from the dead. We’re just half-way through Mark’s biography of Jesus and Jesus let’s fly with the greatest spoiler of all time without once issuing his listeners a Spoiler Alert.
This event is a narrative inflection point. From this point forward, Mark’s version of events will drive towards the very events Jesus predicts.
What really resonated in my heart and mind this morning was Peter’s reaction. Upon hearing Jesus explain the end game of His mission on earth, Peter pulls the master aside and “rebukes” Him. In the quiet, I imagined what Peter’s rebuke might have been…
“You can’t die! We’re just getting started!”
“The twelve of us have left everything to follow you assuming this was a long-term gig! How are we going to retire if you leave us in the lurch?”
“Jesus, dude, you’ve got what it takes to ride this wave all the way to the throne. With your powers and the people behind you, there’s nothing that can stop you from ruling the world!”
“Look! Your parables and stories are confusing, but they’re great. People love them. The miracles and the free fish sandwiches, that’s what the people want. If you go off-message and start tweeting about your death like some crazy-man, it’s over. You’ll lose your momentum. These people will stop following you. Then where will we be?”
He’ll be right where He just predicted He’d end up.
It struck me this morning that this is more than just an inflection point in the storyline. This is also a spiritual inflection point in Jesus’ teaching.
I am so focused on this life. I am so concerned with my immediate circumstances. Virtually every moment of my day is concentrated on my place in this world. My time, energy, and resources are spent trying to make this earthly life last as long as possible (even if it ends up being no Life at all). I do all that I can not to think about death, talk about death, or consider the undeniable truth that my body is going to die.
“You’re right, Tom,” Jesus says through the text of today’s chapter. “Thanks for being honest. Because that is what needs to change. That is the inflection point…“
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Mark 8:34-37 (MSG)
If I follow Jesus at this inflection point, then down the road a whole bunch of turning points in my words, decisions, actions, and relationships will reveal themselves. Consider Peter. It’s at Cornelius’ house in Acts 10 that the turning point is revealed.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself contemplating this spiritual inflection point at which Jesus asks me to consider God’s eternal Kingdom more real than this physical life, more important than the things of this world, more valuable than anything this life could afford.
This is also a point of tension. It doesn’t mean that I ignore this life, coast through this journey, live as if nothing on earth matters. It does! It matters enough for Jesus to come and do exactly as He predicted. The spiritual inflection point gets down to the motives at the core of my being.
What is it I want?
What is it I’m living for?
What does my head answer? What does my heart answer?
If there is ultimately no evidence of a turning point on my calendar, on my credit card statement, and on my task list, then the truth is that I missed the inflection point.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” Mark 7:18-19 (NIV)
When I was a young man, I spent a short period of time working in a county office building where I participated in the the legal investigation and documentation of real estate transactions. I did it for less than a year, but it was an eye opening experience. I observed and learned how government worked under the control of a political machine. I observed and learned how people use the letter of the law to circumvent the spirit of the law to achieve their own selfish ends. I learned and observed how people try to use real estate to con others, and once or twice I actually caught people doing it. It was a crash-course in “how the world works.”
In yesterday’s post/podcast I mentioned that it’s easy to get stuck looking at the text with a microscope while ignoring the bigger picture. I can lose the forest in the trees, as the old saying goes. In today’s chapter, what resonated most with me was, once again, not mired in the minutia of Jesus words, but the larger context of what is happening in the story.
Jesus ministry, at this point, has taken place in the rural backwaters of Judea. If I were to use the United States for context, I would say that Jesus has been spending all of his time and energy in fly-over country while avoiding both coasts. All of the miracles, crowds, and exorcisms have Jesus trending off the charts and the establishment powers-that-be have begun to notice. Since the beginning of time, power-brokers at the top of the political, commercial, and religious establishments have known to ceaselessly look for any threat to the stability of their power and the continuity of their cashflow.
I found Mark’s observation fascinating:
“Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it.”
The more they talk about it, the more of a potential threat Jesus becomes to the religious powers-that-be. In the beginning of today’s chapter, Mark notes that an entourage of political and religious leaders from Jerusalem come to see for themselves what the hub-bub is all about. They are big fish coming to the small pond of Galilee, but along the blue-collar shores of Galilee they are not in their own environment while Jesus is definitely in His.
The Jerusalem entourage are here to find ways to discredit this threat to their control on the religious institution and the lives of all who adhere to it. They quickly call Jesus out for not washing his hands before supper, which the establishment long ago elevated onto the checklist of religious rituals and behaviors they used to maintain their self-righteous judgement of who is naughty-or-nice, who is in-or-out.
Jesus response resonated with me because He calls them out on a point of legal order. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments or the laws of Moses was ritual hand washing a thing. The religious-types, over time, had created rules that were part of legal codes which codified and expanded the interpretation of the original spiritual principle. Jesus turns this into a very simple illustration that gets to the core of the difference between His teaching and that of the institutional human religious establishment.
The religious leaders made a spectacle of their ritual hand-washing before meals to show how pious and righteous they were. Jesus quickly points out that at the same time these same religious leaders had used the letter of the law to allow children to avoid the obligation of adult children to care for their elderly parents. They allowed people to bring “offerings” as a charitable donation to the religious establishment which would otherwise have been the money needed to pay for their parents needs. They then declare a form of bankruptcy as to escape their financial obligation to their elderly parents with the absolution of the religious institution who benefitted handsomely for it.
This is a version of what I observed and learned in the county office building when I was a young men. This is how the Kingdoms of this World work.
Jesus’ response was a simple word picture. Along with hand-washing, the power-brokers from Jerusalem also had many dietary restrictions which also fell into the category of religious rule-keeping. Jesus’ observation is so simple. Food, he says, goes in the mouth, through the stomach, and out the other end. Whether eaten with ritually cleansed hands or dirty hands, the food never passes through the heart.
From a spiritual perspective, the distinction is essential, Jesus says:
“It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” Mark 7: 20-23 (MSG)
The entourage will return to Jerusalem. Their dossier on Jesus will speak of a popular teacher among the poor and simple masses who follow Him in throngs, hang on His every word, and are won-over by His miracles. He will be labeled an enemy of the institution. He threatens the stability of their power, their control over the masses, and ultimately the stream of cashflow from their religious racket. We are still a couple of years away from this religio-political machine condemning Jesus and conspiring to hang Him on a cross, but the pieces are already moving on the chess board.
In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again inspired by Jesus. The more I read the story, and read His teachings, the more I see the contrast between the heart-principles of the Kingdom of God and the religious rule keeping of the institutions of this world. I am compelled to continue following the former with all my heart while exposing the latter for what it is. In other words, I want to be more and more like Jesus while shunning the religious institutions and establishments who point to their moral codes and religious rules and say, “this is what Jesus meant.”
I believe that humans will perpetually turn eternal Truth into earthly rules and religious systems. C’est la vie. It’s part of the fabric of a fallen world in this Great Story.
Nevertheless, I get to choose every day which I follow.
“Hang on Jesus. I’m lacing up my shoes for another day. I’m right behind you. Where are we headed?”
…Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6:20 (NIV)
Here in Iowa, the science of agriculture is big business. Each autumn when harvest rolls around the crop yield is a make-it or break-it reality for farmers. Which is why I know friends whose livelihoods are spent studying soil and seeds to try and grow as much as the land can possibly yield. As I have often confessed, agriculture is not something about which I have vast knowledge. Just enough to appreciate a good parable.
As I’ve trekked my way through the Great Story again and again over the past forty years, I’ve learned that sometimes the lesson is not in microscopically mining the minutia of the text, but in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.
Back in chapter four, Mark records Jesus parable of the sower, in which the Word falls like seed on different human hearts that each are like a different quality of soil. A quick recap:
Like seed fallen on a hardened footpath: A soon as this person hears it, the enemy snatches it away like a bird.
Like seed fallen on rocky ground: Life sprouts in them, but it doesn’t put down roots and can’t survive through difficult weather.
Like seed fallen among thornbushes: Sprout and grow, but the things of this world choke it and render it unfruitful.
Like seed fallen on good soil: Sprout, put down roots, grow, and bear fruit.
Starting in chapter Five and continuing in today’s chapter, Mark records stories of different people who rejected Jesus, His teaching, and His miracles.
Despite the fact that Jesus drove the demons from the heart of the man living among the tombs of the Gerasenes, the townspeople wanted nothing to do with Jesus. Their hearts are like the hardened footpath. It’s as if the demons snatched the Word from their hearts on their way from the man to the pigs.
In today’s chapter, Jesus goes home to Nazareth. The people of Nazareth listened to Jesus’ teaching, and some were amazed as if the Word was sprouting new life in them. But ultimately, nothing took root as their hearts couldn’t see past their prejudices: “How could Jesus Bar Joseph, the Carpenter’s boy who fixed my chair that one time, be a rabbi?”
Then we get to Herod Antipas, the local ruler of Galilee. Herod sits atop one of the “kingdoms of this world,” the descendant and co-heir of a ruthless tyrant who amassed wealth, political power, and all the luxuries it affords through corruption, deceit, and bloodshed. When Satan went “all-in” and offered Jesus with all the “Kingdoms of this World,” Herod’s kingdom was there in the pot, and Jesus knew it. Jesus grew up knowing all about Herod’s wealth, power, fortunes, women, and fame.
Mark then does something unusual compared to what we’ve read thus far in his biography of Jesus. Mark tells a story that is not about Jesus, but about Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. It gives us a picture of seed that falls among the world’s thorn bushes.
Some quick gossip from the tabloids at the checkout line at the Galilean grocery stores: There was a whole sex scandal in Herodian royal family, and Herod Antipas ends up marrying his brother’s wife. John the Baptist is a local religious figure who is extremely popular and extremely revered by all the deplorable religious types in Herod’s constituency. John publicly preaches against the immorality in the Herodian palace, and Herod can’t risk a drop in his approval rating so he has John arrested. He even has John brought before him (and his guests on occasion) to hear his religious rants. Mark tells us that Herod, “liked to listen to him.”
To Herod, John and his message are playthings. They are one more thing that wealth and power afford him. He has his own holy man at his beck-and-call. John is God’s little vine surviving amidst the entrenched hedge of Herod’s prickly power. Herod might have John preach for him and his party-guests. He might have John beheaded at the whim of his lust for his own step-daughter. It is of little consequence for him. He can always find another holy man: “I keep hearing about this Nazarene,” I can hear him say to his dinner guest after John’s head is carried out on a platter. “Maybe I should arrest him. John’s sermons were so entertaining. I’ll miss them.”
In the quiet this morning, I am reminded that Jesus had as many enemies, detractors, and people who dismissed His teaching as He had disciples. Perhaps 3 to 1 if the parable is any indication. My experience is that Jesus’ followers rarely think much about this reality.
And so I find myself thinking about the soil of my own heart.
Is my heart hard and unyielding?
Is my heart shallow and unwilling to put down spiritual roots?
Is my heart choked, overshadowed, and/or overgrown by the things of this world?
Is my heart fruitful with the mixed-fruit of faith, hope, and love?
As I meditated on the metaphor again this morning, I found myself mulling over the fact that the seed among the thorns and the seed on the good soil both sprout, take root, and grow. The only difference Jesus described was that the good-soil plant was fruitful while the plant choked by the thorns of this world didn’t yield fruit.
I also find myself thinking about these chapter-a-day blog posts and podcasts that I scatter across the internet each weekday wondering where in the world they might land. Hard soil? Rocky soil? Thorn bushes? Good soil? I have learned that there is both grief and freedom in not knowing the answer. Such is the lot of the sower who must wait until harvest to know the yield.
I hope this lands well with you, my friend.
Have a great day.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.
May all the kings of the earth praise you, Lord, when they hear what you have decreed. Psalm 138:4 (NIV)
Tomorrow night I have the honor of giving the Good Friday message among my local gathering of Jesus followers. Good Friday is the annual remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death just two days before the Resurrection celebration on Easter Sunday.
One of the themes that I’m addressing in my re-telling of the events of that day is the conflict that is happening on two different levels. There’s the human conflict happening between Jesus and the power-brokers of earthly power in Rome, Judea, and Jerusalem. There’s also the conflict that is happening on the Spiritual level between the Son of God, and the Prince of this World. I believe one doesn’t fully understand Good Friday without an understanding of the conflict happening on both levels.
That’s one of the fascinating things I find about the Great Story. It weaves the stories, and holds the tension between both levels: Earth and Spirit. Perhaps that’s why, as I sit in the quiet of my office this morning, and mull over today’s chapter, I find it also resonating with me on those same two different levels.
Yesterday we got to the end of a section in this anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics that focused on Jerusalem (Psalms 120-137). There were all of the songs of “ascent” along with songs of dedication to Jerusalem, like yesterday’s chapter. Today we kick-off a section of eight songs in which the liner notes attribute the songs to King David.
The lyrics of today’s chapter begin with David proclaiming praise to God. You might remember from earlier posts in these posts in Psalms that Hebrew songs often put the central theme of the song smack-dab in the middle. In today’s lyric, David’s theme is “May all the kings of earth praise you.”
On a purely earthly level, this theme fits in with the thread of the earthly story within the Great Story. God promised Abraham that “all peoples” would be blessed through his descendants. The law of Moses spoke clearly about loving and being deferential to other peoples living among them. Jesus exemplified this in His inclusive teaching and behavior towards women, Samaritans, and Romans. He then gave His followers the mission of spreading His teaching to all people. In the final chapters of the Great Story John is given a vision of Heaven’s throne room in which the multitudes include people of “every tribe and language and people and nation.”
So, on one level, David’s lyric prophetically points to Jesus’ teaching and God fulfilling the promise to Abraham. The Great Story began with Abraham, expanded to his tribal descendants of whom Jesus was one, and then burst out to all peoples.
On the level of Spirit, the Great Story makes clear that the enemy of God remains the “Prince of this World.” The “Kingdoms of this world” remain in his clutches. Power, wealth, and pride still fuel the institutions of earthly power: politics, commerce, and religion. When Jesus prayed, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth,” He was not talking about a grand, earthly power grab as His followers had been taught would happen and expected. That’s how the “Kingdoms of this World” operate. I’ve come to observe that whenever I see human institutions leveraging power to control others, it’s definitely not the Kingdom of Heaven.
Along my journey, I’ve come to observe that the paradigm of the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus taught is about love and the spiritual transformation of individuals, who in turn love and transform their circles of influence, which in turn has the possibility to transform human systems. It’s not top-down systemic power but bottom-up organic transformation of Spirit.
The prophetic visions of John also point to an end of the Great Story when “the Kings of this earth” (not the earthly level individuals who might be transformed by the love of Jesus, but the spiritual level power-brokers representing the institutions of worldly power) will eventually face a final conflict and ultimate resolution.
So in the quiet this morning I find myself holding the tension of the two levels. I’m praying for Dave, my city councilman, whom I l know and love. I’m praying for my state’s Governor, whom is well-known and loved by members of my family. I’m praying for my friends who are heads of industry and business. I’m praying for my friends who lead their own local gatherings of fellow-Jesus followers. These are all in my direct circles of influence. I also find myself praying for matters and individuals on the national and global stage that are far out of my control, yet still part of the Great Story which I believe will ultimately play out as foretold, but probably not as I expect.
And so, I enter another day trying to bring love and hope to my circles of influence and those things I do control, while having faith in God’s plan and purposes on levels I don’t control.
Wendy and I returned last night from our “spring break” in which we spent a long weekend getting our Playhouse at the lake opened up and ready for the coming summer. Our friends joined us for a weekend of hard work, a long task list of chores, along with good meals and time together in the evenings. We arrived home last night with aching muscles and weary bones, but our souls were overflowing.
Our place at the lake was not something which Wendy and I long-planned or even desired. Looking back, it was one of those things on life’s road that just sort of unexpectedly falls into place and you realize in retrospect that it was meant to be part of the story in ways you could never have foreseen. We have had our ups and downs with it. In fact, on more than one occasion we’ve felt strongly that it wasn’t what we desired at all. Yet in each case, we were given the assurance that we were to stay the course.
This past weekend, I had a lot of time to contemplate as I spent a number of hours sequestered in the isolation of my earplugs and the din of the power washer as I sprayed siding, windows, trim, decks, docks, and sidewalks. I have thoroughly enjoyed all the blessings that have come with the place over the years. It’s not, however, about the thing or the things that come with it. What I really treasure about the place has no worldly value. I can’t buy family or friendship. I can’t use legacy or cherished memories as collateral. Purpose, quiet, rest, laughter, peace, relationship, intimacy, conversation, and healing will never appear on an appraisal when it’s time for this chapter of the story to end. Yet, that’s what I value so much that our “spring break” was spent working our butts off.
Today’s chapter, Psalm 135, is an ancient Hebrew song that was sung as part of the temple liturgy. It’s a recounting of history and a celebration of God. As I came to the verse that says, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold,” it resonated with power-washing ruminations. There are lots of things that I observe are valued in this world, especially in a place like the lake. They are the things of silver and gold, made with human hands. And, that prompts in me continuous soul-searching.
On the drive home last night, Wendy and I spent time talking through the various intimate conversations we enjoyed with our friends this past weekend as we worked together, ate together, and rested together. Wendy talked about the unique struggles each person and each couple are going through on our respective way-points on Life’s road. We prayed together for our friends. I treasure these moments, conversations, meals, rest, and friends. Not silver and gold, but spirit, flesh, and relationship.
In the quiet this morning, I return to the routine. I find myself thankful for my many blessings which include a place on the lake (that requires up-keep and work weekends) and really good companions on life’s journey with whom to share both the labor and leisure. And, I find myself praying to always treasure those things that have no tangible value in this world.
The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Psalm 97:1
Zion hears and rejoices and the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments, Lord. Psalm 97:8
This past week was among the most unique experiences of my entire journey. I spent the week in quarantine with Wendy, our daughter, and her family. While we were cooped up in the house together, the outside world here in the States seemed to sink deeper into a level of crazy I would have never thought possible were I not witnessing it. I have found the juxtaposition of those two realities are a bit strange and unsettling.
And yet, I sit here in the quiet at the beginning of another day, and a new work week. Each is a clean slate. Both are tiny reset buttons in this journey. Just as the prophet Jeremiah wrote as he sat amidst the chaotic rubble of Jerusalem, his life, and everything he had ever known:
Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:21-23 (NIV)
Today’s chapter, Psalm 97, is another in a series of celebratory songs of praise. The editors of the anthology of ancient Hebrew song lyrics we know as the Psalms, put several of them together in this section we happen to be trekking through. Psalm 97 is a call to the listener to join in rejoicing and praising God.
This song is two thematic sections (vss 1-6; 8-12) that are hinged on a central verse (vs 7). What I found interesting as I read through it and meditated on it in the quiet this morning is that the first section recognizes God as Lord over creation, the universe, and literally everything. The second section brings things down to God being the Lord over Jerusalem, the little villages of Judah, and God’s people therein.
As I mulled this over, I was reminded of one of my recent posts and my morning pages. In my stream-of-consciousness journaling I discovered that I seem to have an easier time trusting God with the big things of the creation, time, and the universe. It’s in the small, personal things of my own personal journey that I tend to struggle.
The macro and the micro.
Chaos in the world outside and family quarantine here in our house.
In the quiet this morning, I hear God’s Spirit whispering to my spirit. The Spirit gently reminds me that, in both the macro and the micro, “I’ve got this.”
I simply have to listen, receive, embrace, and believe in each strange moment of the strange, present realities in which I find myself on both the macro and micro levels.
When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny. Psalm 73:16-17 (NIV)
Wendy and I were having a conversation early in our relationship and she used a metaphor that I’d never heard before. She spoke to me of “ugly” sins and “pretty” sins. It gave language to something I’ve always inherently understood but never really knew how to simply express.
Ugly sins are those types of moral failures that, when brought to light, are typically accompanied by public shame and humiliation. Ugly sins generate scarlet letter status within a community. We not may make modern day Hesters stitch the letter on their clothing anymore, but it doesn’t mean others haven’t stitched it there with their hearts and minds. Ugly sins generate gossip, slander, and hushed whispers behind the sinner’s back long after the secretly committed sin was made public and created sensational community headlines.
Pretty sins, in contrast, are shortcomings we largely ignore because we all do it and so there is an unspoken social and spiritual covenant we have with one another to turn a blind eye. No need to notice the speck of it we might perceive in the eye of another so that no one will point out the log of it in my own. Pretty sins are typically overlooked, dismissed if noticed on occasion, and sometimes we even find ways to make them virtuous.
Envy is one such pretty sin, and it’s at the heart of the song lyrics of today’s chapter, Psalm 73.
With Psalm 73, we start Book III of the Psalms. What’s cool is that the editors who compiled the Psalms put three symmetrical groupings together: six songs, five songs, six songs, with the middle song as the “center” of Book III. It’s the same way an individual Hebrew song would be structured. So they made Book III one giant psalm with individual songs as the “verses” of the structure. Psalms within psalms.
Psalm 73 is an instructional psalm in which Asaph confesses to the sin of envy. He looks at the lives of the wickedly rich and famous living in their Beverly Hills mansions, driving their Maserati, and jetting off to their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard or their yacht in the Caribbean. Life is so easy for them. They don’t know what it means to struggle. On top of that, they are so arrogant looking down their noses on the rest of us.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had a week or two ago with a friend of mine who is a retired CEO. He lives near an elite golf club that caters to the jet-set and took a part-time job driving club members from their private jets to the luxurious private golf club. He told me how amazing it was to drive these billionaires around and routinely get treated like crap and stiffed for a tip. That’s the kind of people Asaph is singing about. Like Asaph, I confess that I’m envious to know what that kind of life must be like, even as I feel contempt for them.
As Asaph’s song continues, he goes into God’s Temple and it’s as if the Spirit of God gives him an attitude adjustment. He stops looking at the objects of his contemptuous envy with earthly eyes, and he opens the eyes of his heart to view them with an eternal, spiritual perspective.
Jesus taught that we who follow Him should maintain a similar spiritual perspective. On multiple occasions, he told parables warning about spending our lives “gaining the whole world” while we “lose our souls.”
Asaph ends his song of instruction understanding that it’s “good to be near God.” Along my journey I’ve discovered that contemptuous envy of others leads to destructive ends on many different levels. When I stick close to God, as Asaph instructs, it’s easier for me to keep both the eyes of my body and the eyes of my heart focused on things of eternal value. I can see my contemptuous envy for what it is, and can better perceive the spiritual price paid to gain this world and the things of this world.
In the quiet this morning I am looking forward to a simple feast with a few family members tomorrow. I’m looking forward to being home surrounded with love, joy, peace, and gratitude.
Wherever this finds you, I wish you and your loved ones a Happy Thanksgiving. I’m taking the next few days off. See you back on this chapter-a-day journey next week.