Aliens And Strangers


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Illegal aliens and border walls and immigration are currently big topics in the US. They are in the Bible, too.

Our church recently started doing a different kind of “read the Bible together” project. Kind of funny because it’s a lot like an old program we did under a former pastor, which he called Table Talk. I guess that was more about discussion, and this go around is more about journaling. But the concept is the same: read a given passage and interact with it.

A few of this week’s passages got me thinking about being alienated. One gives the account of a woman who had a disease of some kind that none of the doctors of the day could cure. It cause her to hemorrhage, which also meant, according to Mosaic law, that she was “unclean” and not permitted to go into the temple. She was as good as an unbelieving Gentile. Alienated. Not welcome. Cut off from God.

Another alienated person we read about this week was the woman who heard Jesus was dining with a certain Pharisee, and went to weep over His feet. Why would she do that? The Pharisee was condemning in his thoughts: if Jesus knew what kind of person that woman was, He wouldn’t let her touch Him. Actually, no, Jesus did know all about her and identified her tears, her worship as her love because her sins were forgiven. She had been alienated, and the Pharisee wanted to keep her in that state of isolation. Not Jesus.

Another one, this a parable Jesus told. A guy wanted to put on a feast, so he sent out the invites. When the day arrived, he sent servants to tell all the people the feast was ready and to come. No, they each said; somethings more important and I can’t make it. Get people off the street, then, the host said. We did and there are still empty places at the table, the servants answered. Then, get people who are outside the city—the place reserved for the alienated, like lepers and unbelieving Gentiles.

Finally, a passage from Ephesians:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

I was an alien, a stranger. But God brought me near, made me a citizen. More than that, He gave each of us who believe in Jesus, a role to play. We’re a piece of the puzzle, a stone in the building, forming a new temple.

Once the aliens could not go into the temple, now they are the temple. Once, the best a person could hope for was to be allowed into God’s presence. Now, God’s presence abides in each of His followers.

It’s quite the reversal—those who didn’t belong, are now official members of the kingdom.

How is this possible?

God tells us in Isaiah 55:

Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the LORD,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (vv7-9)

We don’t by nature abundantly pardon. We don’t invite the outcast to our feast or let the unclean sully our garments. But God declares, He doesn’t think the way we do.

Good thing, because in fact we are all aliens and strangers, shut out from God’s presence until we, too, fall at Jesus’s feet and cry for mercy and forgiveness. Our God who doesn’t see things the way we do, will then abundantly pardon, giving us citizenship and a place at His table.

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Published in: on January 24, 2019 at 5:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Revenge Psalms


Afghan fighter

I don’t think any commentary on the book of Psalms will actually have a section entitled Revenge Psalms, but they exist. I decided to memorize a while back. Mind you, I didn’t realize at the time that it was a revenge Psalm. It starts out so innocently, so sweetly: “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

Yes, I thought, that’s a Psalm for me. I had underlined a few other verses further down such as “He makes my feet like hinds feet/And sets me upon my high places.” Well, who wouldn’t want to memorize that verse? Or how about “The LORD lives and blessed be my rock/And exalted be the God of my salvation.”

Great! So I settled down to memorize Psalm 18. Except, the strength David was talking about and the salvation he was referring to were quite literal. He wanted physical strength to overcome his enemies and he wanted God’s intervention to save him from people who wanted to kill him. If I’d read the intro, I would have realized this.

For the choir director. A Psalm of David, the servant of the Lord, who spoke to the Lord the words of this song in the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. And he said…

I think verse 3 encapsulates the Psalm: “I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised,/And I am saved from my enemies.”

No doubt about it. David had enemies and he needed to be saved from them. But the Psalm gets pretty graphic later on:

I pursued my enemies and overtook them,
And I did not turn back until they were consumed.
I shattered them, so that they were not able to rise;
They fell under my feet.
For You have girded me with strength for battle;
You have subdued under me those who rose up against me.
You have also made my enemies turn their backs to me,
And I destroyed those who hated me.
They cried for help, but there was none to save,
Even to the LORD, but He did not answer them.
Then I beat them fine as the dust before the wind;
I emptied them out as the mire of the streets.

I don’t know about you, but I confess to having problems with the not turning-back-until-they-were-consumed part, the shattering-so-they-were-not-able-to-rise, the destroying-those-who-hated-me, the beating-them-fine-as-the-dust-before-the-wind, and the emptying-them-out-as-the-mire-of-the-streets. It’s all so vengeful.

It reminds me of the modern Middle East with the ongoing battles between Jews and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shiites, insurgents and government forces. People are hating and fighting and praying for rescue, only to turn around and destroy those who were trying to destroy them.

I get that, when we’re talking about peoples who haven’t heard of the love of God, I ought not expect them to act according to the grace and mercy God gives. But when the same kind of attitude crops up in the Bible, it throws me. It’s one thing for God to exercise His just judgment against sinners, but when David talks in such unforgiving tones, I feel a little shocked.

But then I remember the short verse tucked in the midst of all the shattering and destroying: “They cried for help, but there was none to save,/Even to the LORD but He did not answer them.”

I find that verse shocking on a different level. People cried to God for help, but He turned away from them! The Psalm starts out with David being the one who called for help. God didn’t turn a deaf ear to David:

In my distress I called upon the LORD,
And cried to my God for help;
He heard my voice out of His temple,
And my cry for help before Him came into His ears.

The next verses describe God acting, as a result, on behalf of David to rescue him. But those enemies who later cried for help, God didn’t answer.

I’ve got this impression of God that He’s always there for us, that He’ll always answer the cry of the needy, but apparently there are needy wicked who He will ignore. I mean, how could he hear and answer David and at the same time hear and answer those who were trying to kill him? Apparently God takes sides.

David, in this same Psalm, credits his righteousness with bringing God on his side:

The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness;
According to the cleanness of my hands He has recompensed me.
For I have kept the ways of the LORD,
And have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all His ordinances were before me,
And I did not put away His statutes from me.
I was also blameless with Him,
And I kept myself from my iniquity.
Therefore the LORD has recompensed me according to my righteousness,
According to the cleanness of my hands in His eyes.

I emphasized the phrase “in His eyes” because that’s what I think is significant for today. In God’s eyes, those of us covered by the blood of Jesus Christ are righteous. It seems then, that we can call upon the Lord to save us from our enemies.

Except, Paul says our enemies are not flesh and blood:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Eph. 6:12)

So I’m thinking, maybe a revenge Psalm for the Christian wouldn’t be so shocking if we had a clear idea of who the enemy is. What if we prayed for God to rescue us, our families, churches, communities, states, countries, from Satan and his schemes, in the same way that David prayed for physical rescue? I think that would necessitate us viewing God in the same way David did:

The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer.
My God, my rock in whom I take refuge;
My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

Published in: on January 22, 2019 at 5:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Mistakes Of Job’s Friends


The story of Job in the Old Testament is so poignant. It’s hard to read about this godly man who Satan went after in his effort to tear down the worshipers of God. Although I know some think this is controversial, I believe that Satan achieved his goal, but in doing so he opened the door to God reveling Himself more clearly and showing His great mercy, as a foreshadowing of His gift of mercy through Christ. In that respect, Satan failed miserably.

But poor Job! Not only did he lose everything, not only did his kids die and his wife turn against him, not only did his physical health deteriorate horribly so that he had to endure pain and discomfort like he’d never known, but he had a handful of friends who had no understanding of what coming to console the grieving actually should entail.

First, the friends talked. That was their initial mistake. They started well, siting with Job for a long time in utter silence. But when Job verbalized his thoughts, the friends felt the need to correct him. They couldn’t simply let him vent.

What’s more, in speaking, they took it upon themselves to correct Job’s theology. No, Job, they said in their various ways, God would only allow these horrible things to happen to you if you deserved them. You must have done something horrible, or thought something horrible, or perhaps left something good undone. It’s really just your fault that you’re poor now, that all your kids died, and your body is covered with painful sores.

As if this position was not bad enough, there are several places in the text that make me think the friends had some financial stake in the advice they were giving Job. Sacrifice, one said at one point, and God will forgive you. But the way he said it sounds as if somehow the friends would get a share of whatever Job would sacrifice.

Of course telling a man who has lost all his flocks to sacrifice, is a little pointless. Unless they were offering to sell him some of their flock. In chapter 22 one friend says,

If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored;
If you remove unrighteousness far from your tent,
And place your gold in the dust,
And the gold of Ophir among the stones of the brooks,

Well, that might be thin, but earlier Job had said

He who informs against friends for a share of the spoil,
The eyes of his children also will languish. (17:5)

Was he accusing them of “informing” on him, of pointing a finger at him and saying he’d done something wrong in order to get a share of whatever of his possessions remained? Perhaps. Again, earlier he said of the friends,

You would even cast lots for the orphans
And barter over your friend. (6:27)

Seems as if they were at least conducting business while he was in his misery—and business without compassion. At one point he tells them what they ought to be doing, which is a great piece of advice for us, too, I think:

For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend;
So that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty.

The greatest thing a friend can do is point someone who is hurting to God Almighty. But the friends could only tell Job what he must have done wrong or what he had not done right.

On top of this, they misconstrued God’s work in the world. They may have done so because they honestly didn’t know God, didn’t understand His true nature. Basically they told Job it was up to him to manipulate God so that He had to bless Job. This precursor to today’s “health-and-wealthers” ignores God’s sovereignty and mankind’s dependency on His justice and righteousness and mercy.

Job understood that God could do what God wanted to do. The friends painted Him as irrevocably tied to what Man did or did not do. If you do A, they said, God will bless; but if you do B, God will curse.

That’s not altogether wrong. But it’s too simplistic. It doesn’t take into account the bigger picture that includes the spiritual and the eternal. The friends were sort of like people today who can’t see past the here and now, as if this life is all there is, as if what happens physically in this life is all that’s important.

One last thing I think the friends got wrong: when Job lashed out at them (and at God), they got defensive. As I recall, one of the “steps” of grief involves anger. Job does seem angry at times, but who wouldn’t be? A bunch of guys had just robbed him, killed a lot of his servants, and a storm had taken the lives of his children. He himself fell into depression and experienced physical pain because of his health problems. I’d be more surprised if he didn’t have some anger connected with all this.

But the response of the friends seems inexcusable. They kind of gave Job a dose of their own anger.

Scripture says they came to console Job, but they ended up saying things that had to be hurtful. Take for example what one of the friends said about the wicked:

He has no offspring or posterity among his people,
Nor any survivor where he sojourned. (18:19)

The whole speech seems pretty pointed, but these lines take on a mean quality when you think about the fact that this guy is talking to someone who had just lost all his children.

No wonder God stepped in. The defensive nature of the friends’ responses to Job was anything but helpful. They weren’t even truthful, though there was an element of truth in what they said. Just enough to make their ideas sound pious. But they lost sight of the fact that comforting someone else wasn’t all about them.

Actually it started with representing God truthfully, and that’s something Job knew, but they did not.

Published in: on January 21, 2019 at 5:10 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Transcendence Of God’s Mercy


God is transcendent, of that I’ve been sure. He is higher than His creation and therefore surpasses our ability to dissect Him, analyze Him, pigeonhole Him into our compartments of understanding. In fact, if He hadn’t chosen to reveal Himself, we would be forever shut out of His presence in ignorant misery — desperately longing, incapable of reaching.

In fact, one of my favorite passages of Scripture spells out this transcendent nature of God:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9)

I’d never thought much more of transcendence—just that God is. But one day, I came across a passage from Psalm 103 that caught my attention:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. (vv 8-11, emphasis mine)

There, nestled in the middle of the section (it continues for several verses) about God’s compassion, mercy, lovingkindness, is the same line Isaiah used to describe how high God’s ways and thoughts are above ours: as high as the heavens are above the earth.

I realize now I’d never taken the idea of God’s transcendence to its logical conclusion. If He is higher than we, if His thoughts are, His ways are, then it stands to reason that what forms Him, what defines Him as a person—His traits—also will be higher than ours. Hence His love will be higher than ours, His compassion higher than ours, His patience, His forgiveness, His justice, and His mercy—or as some translations have it, His lovingkindness.

Sometimes God’s lovingkindness mystifies me, and sometimes His justice does the same. Why, for example, did David who had Uriah killed become known as a man after God’s own heart? Apart from God’s mercy and forgiveness, it doesn’t make sense. And why, when Ahab let his wife Jezebel murder Naboth in order to take his property, and God said Ahab and his descendants would be removed from the throne, why, I ask, did God relent and tell Ahab he would leave him on the throne after all? In fact, why did one of his sons ruled for twelve years after Ahab’s death? God was merciful, and I’m pretty sure I would have been inclined to throw the book at the whole family. At once. No delay.

Yet how grateful I am for God’s delays in my life. He gives me mercy and help in time of need. He doesn’t slam His door in my face but graciously answers prayer. Over and over and over.

I originally connected this discussion of God’s mercy with the report I heard of an agent friend wh0 was diagnosed with brain cancer. At the time he’d received an all clear from the doctor, but his cancer came back, and he passed away.

More recently, my friend Brandon Barr, who had battled leukemia for a number of years, received a doctor’s report that he had 1 to 2 months to live. He died the day before Thanksgiving.

I had specifically prayed that God would be merciful. And I prayed for healing. But God didn’t restore either man to health. Did He extend His mercy to them? How can I know?

Trying to discern what God is up to is really impossible unless He tells us, because He has the big picture in front of Him. He certainly cares for us in the here and now, but this blip of time that He refers to as a vapor, as a fading flower, a bit of grass that’s here today and gone tomorrow, is not the whole story. God cares about the whole story. He cares about our eternal destiny. He cares about the people we can influence by our dying as much as by our living, by our suffering as much as by our victories.

We are limited in what we can see, as if we’re staring at the sky through a straw. But God has no such limitation. He sees the big picture and He sees it from beginning to eternity.

So really, when it comes to understanding God’s great, transcendent mercy, pretty much all I’ve got is His word. His word and my experience of His keeping His word. His word and my experience and the experiences of believers across time and from all over the globe.

But still, when we can’t know the eternity side of things, how do we know that God is merciful to people like Jim Elliott who was martyred or Betsy ten Boom who died in a concentration camp or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was executed mere months before Germany signed the peace treaty. How do we know?

Because He promised. He has told us that His mercy endures throughout all generations.

He followed that up by promising a Messiah. Then Jesus came. Died. Rose from the dead.

Could anything be a greater demonstration of God’s great mercy?

A verse in Romans explains:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:33—ESV)

God already took care of our greatest need. Is He going to overlook lesser needs now? He won’t. Our problem is that we are still looking at the night sky through a straw. More often than we like, our view of things is bleak, as if Satan is winning.

Unless we fix our eyes on God’s transcendent mercy that shows us our Savior, that shows us Himself. We can’t actually see the crowns, the glory, the joy, the triumph. But we can see Jesus. Hebrews says as much:

But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
But we do see Him (Hebrews 2:8b-9a)

If all things were subjected to him now, no one would be dying of cancer. We’re not there yet. But we do see Jesus, the One who rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” We have His act of mercy and His promise of mercy, and that transcends anything we can see through our straw.

Some of this post is revised from an article that appeared here in December, 2011.

Published in: on November 29, 2018 at 5:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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