God Rules in His Sleep – Psalms of Ascent #5 1/2

In Mark’s Gospel, he tells a story of Jesus taking a nap, causing His disciples to panic.  In last week’s Psalms of Ascent post, I asked whether God seems to be asleep sometimes, leaving us feeling adrift the world’s circumstances.  Today is a little detour from those Psalms to a time when God literally was asleep.

The story comes from Mark 4:35-41.

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”  And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling.  But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

At the beginning of the story, Jesus told His disciples they were going to cross the Sea of Galilee, then knowing what was coming, “He who keeps Israel[1] took a nap.  Had the disciples understood Jesus, His napping should have reassured them that they were safe, since He was not concerned about the storm.  Instead, they thought He didn’t care, which showed that fear of the storm had overcome whatever faith they had.  Jesus said they were going across, but they doubted.

Which brings up a very important question.

When did the wind and the sea obey Jesus?  At the beginning of the story, at the end, or both?  Or at all times?  Before Jesus calmed the storm, was the sea being disobedient to God’s laws and will?

I believe Jesus calmed this storm so that next time He wouldn’t have to.  He was teaching them that He always cares, regardless of what the circumstances seem to say.  He was teaching them that even when it seems like He’s asleep, He is still in control of our circumstances no matter how chaotic they look and feel to us.  During the next storm, He wanted them not to panic, but to trust Him because He showed them no circumstance escapes His notice.  The storm does not control us; He controls the storm.

When Jesus calmed the storm, He did not create a hedge (See Job 1:10) around His disciples, He just demonstrated that it existed all along.  God was not going to let His Son drown before His mission was complete and neither will He let His other children drown before their work is done!

Sometimes when God seems distant and we feel we are sinking, in reality we are being given a divinely designed opportunity to learn to trust that:

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
            he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
            your going out and your coming in
            from this time forth and forevermore[2]

He knows sometimes we have to learn the hard way, and He knows best.  Even when He is sleeping.

“Let us go across to the other side.”

[1] Psalm 121:4
[2] Psalm 121:7-8

King David Didn’t Let Politics Keep Him Up at Night

The U.S. midterm elections are later this year, and some are already considering turning off their social media feeds until its over.  Jesus is not on any ballot for the elections, but this does not mean His people are without hope and comfort.  It also doesn’t mean Christians should ignore it all.  Last fall, I wrote a twopart series partly about not over-reacting to the threats of worldly kingdoms because “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” (Psalm 2:4) When recently reading Psalm 3, which is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” I saw that this Psalm may not have come after Psalm 2 by accident and may also comfort us in the face of political bad news.

Absalom’s Rebellion
The story of King David in the Bible is a very condensed version of his life but does not shy away from David’s serious failures and flaws.  The story of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba is not swept under the rug, and eventually, Absalom’s rebellion against his father David was justified in his mind by those flaws.  Absalom harbored resentment for years after David’s lack of punishment for Absalom’s brother Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar.  One can imagine Absalom thinking about his father: “You’re the king of Israel, so why didn’t you protect Tamar, or at least punish Amnon?  If my sister and I don’t get justice, you don’t deserve to be king!”

David, on the other hand, was quite aware of the limits of being king.  In Psalm 131:1, David wrote:

O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
            my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
            too great and too marvelous for me.

Even while writing as divinely selected king of Israel, David knew many things were “too great and too marvelous” even for him.  Instead, David focused his heart on the God-given task before him, which did not include achieving perfection in this world.  That task belonged elsewhere.  Later, Psalm 131 was included in the Psalms of Ascent[1], which served as a liturgy for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for three annual festivals.  In those Psalms are reminders of God’s provision for things the world can’t provide, including salvation for our souls and a way to perfect righteousness.  The pilgrims did not go to Jerusalem to worship the earthly king, but to encounter God, and including Psalm 131 in that liturgy would always be a reminder that our worldly aims should always be rooted in humility.

When Absalom raised several hundred supporters and entered Jerusalem to violently overthrow his father David, “a messenger came to David, saying, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ‘Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.’”  (2 Samuel 15:13-14)

David’s Response
After surrendering the throne and fleeing, David wrote Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” which says in full:

“O LORD, how many are my foes!
            Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
            “There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah

But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
            my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
            and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah

I lay down and slept;
            I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
            who have set themselves against me all around.

Arise, O LORD!
            Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
            you break the teeth of the wicked.

Salvation belongs to the LORD;
            your blessing be on your people! Selah”

Knowing the background of this Psalm and its placement after Psalm 2 make it far more interesting.  David had suffered a massive political defeat, being humiliated and tossed out of Jerusalem by his own son.  Instead of despairing, he turned to God for his salvation because he knew even the king of Israel could not save the people.  He was only a temporary and provincial authority.  Even though God had promised David the throne, God was able to save David, and Israel, without David on the throne.  With the murderous and vengeful Absalom on the throne, was God defeated?  No, instead we have this Psalm as a reminder of God’s presence and provision of salvation in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in.

David, having cultivated over years an awareness of his own limitations as king of Israel, and the limitless power of God, “lay down and slept,” then “woke again, for the LORD sustained me.”  Surrounded by foes and removed from his throne, David slept soundly!  In contrast, Absalom is shown as one who broods upon every imperfection, plotting ways to force justice as he sees it on others, even if he must dishonor God.  You could say he is driven by the “utopian impulse,” belief in a government that can solve all of our problems and shouldn’t rest until it does.

Democracy and Tyranny
Jesus isn’t on the ballot this fall, but flawed candidates of many types will be.  Some more like David, and some more like Absalom.  A lesson from Psalm 3 is that we should be able to sleep at night in good conscience because no matter the world looks like, God says “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6) even when king David was on the run for his life.  The success of God’s plan does not rely on our political success. But a second lesson from the story of Absalom is that a ruler driven by achieving worldly perfection can be the worst kind, even if they seem to have good intentions.

Absalom’s story reminds me of this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth.”[2]

How do we reconcile the two lessons?

Coming This Week
This week, I’m hoping to squeeze in a short series of posts on narratives, history, and (gasp!) politics.  I’m very much figuring this out myself every day and learning how to engage without following my own utopian impulse to cut off Malchus’ ear[3] but I also know that waiting for a perfect answer guarantees failure.  This blog is part of that process for me.  This week’s posts will lead up to the next “History Bits” post I have planned for April 9th and give some background on that series.

Hope you’ll join me and let me know what you think.

[1] I’m currently writing about those Psalms in a series, which began here.
[2] From “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  (1970).  P. 292.
[3] See John 18:10

Is God Asleep? – Psalms of Ascent #5

Does it often seem like God is asleep at the wheel?  Like He is not relevant to the real problems we face in the world?  Today we continue on the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem.  While not part of the Ascent, Psalm 119 precedes it, praising the law of God in the longest chapter of the Bible, and the Ascent begins in Psalm 120 with God’s people living in a world that remains broken even with a perfect law.  In the last post of this series, I wrote that Psalm 121 “asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope.”  Verses 1 and 2 say:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

As these pilgrims looked to the hills, what did they want to find?  Did they expect to find a better group of people?  No, they brought their community with them on the long journey, along with all their baggage.  Did they travel in search of a better law?  No, they had the law God had given them.  Did they travel to Jerusalem to give penance for not keeping the law?  No, they came to find real help for real problems that exist within themselves and in their communities. This help could only come from the LORD.

Then verses 3 and 4 say:

He will not let your foot be moved;
            he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
            will neither slumber nor sleep.

Why does the Psalmist need to say this?  Because even God’s people can doubt that He is interested and cares about tangible problems.  When we focus on our circumstances, on the people around us, or even on God’s holy law, we can miss the power of God.  It can seem like God is asleep.  Like He is not relevant.  The Old Testament prophet Elijah mocked the powerlessness of the Canaanite storm god Baal in 1 Kings 18:27 – “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”  We don’t say this out loud, but sometimes we wonder where our own God is.  If we don’t take the time to intentionally look for Him, it’s easy to think He is asleep.

In these Psalms, God calls us to worship in a central place as a reminder that no matter what the world looks like, He is awake and at work in the midst of very real problems.  In ancient Israel, sacrifices were offered at the temple as a sign of Jesus’ future sacrifice, which provided reconciliation with a God who requires justice, which is our deepest need.  After making the perfect sacrifice, Jesus rose again to give us power to love our neighbor, meeting their needs.

Pilgrims didn’t go to Jerusalem to pay God a visit, then leave him behind when they went home.  They went because God provided a way to remind them that He was always with them in the places they came from, but if they don’t take the time to be reminded, they remain discouraged in their circumstances.  Likewise, on our Sabbath day of rest, we remind ourselves that He is never sleeping, but has been working for the salvation of His people since the very beginning of creation.  His people are the very people we congregate with.  People who are not saved by Psalm 119 and find themselves participating in a Psalm 120 world.  People whose circumstances tell them God is asleep, and who need help with their Monday to Saturday problems.

Here we come to perhaps the most difficult point. Elijah’s mocking is also echoed in criticism of the church today, both from those inside the church and outside.  Where is God in the midst of real problems?  What does God offer above laws and rituals that cannot perfect us?  The pilgrims also could have criticized the other pilgrims.  Those arriving in Jerusalem certainly had among them people who thought the law was the answer.  There were also those who went to practice their religious rituals, check the box, then get on with their lives as they saw fit.  Sometimes the church looks little different than the circumstances we find ourselves in where we live, but that’s nothing new.

The LORD calls us to Him and gave these Psalms to let us know that He is not asleep, no matter what it may look like to us.  The world will more clearly see God as their help when His people lift their eyes up to the hills, go to Him in public worship, and bring back His help to their communities.  This is how they will know He is not asleep.

Therefore, the liturgy of the Psalms of Ascent points us beyond all laws, doctrines, traditions, and institutions, to the help that comes to us from the sacrifice of Jesus, foreshadowed at the temple in Jerusalem:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

Your Family is More Important Than Your Furniture – Psalms of Ascent #4

A prominent feature of the culture I live in is the demand that everyone must respect the “individualism” of everyone else.  Pressure to affirm whatever anyone else wants affirmed about them has ballooned all over the news, social media, corporate policy, and even in churches.  There’s an assumption built into this, which is that the sincere ability to love someone can be the result of someone else threatening us to do it.  Exert enough legal, social, cultural, or even physical pressure and someone’s fundamental nature can be changed by coercion.  The coal turns into a diamond.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so today we return to the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem.  What does this have to do with the last paragraph?  In Psalm 120, the first Psalm of Ascent, we read (post here) that no matter where we live, or where we come from, no matter our genealogy, we live among people with “lying lips” who can’t get along with each other.  In Psalm 121, we are encouraged to find the answer outside of our current place:

A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
            he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
            will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
            the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
            nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
            he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
            your going out and your coming in
            from this time forth and forevermore.

The Psalm asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope.  Not just talk about the idea of it, but to actually do it.  To turn off the outside world and its circumstances and seek God’s help.  It takes effort because the idea that we can solve our own problems is so powerful.  The fall of Adam and Eve was driven by a curiosity that there may be a better system than the one they already had.  In a literally perfect society, they wanted something else.  If we aren’t intentional about avoiding this trap, it’s easy to not realize we are in it.

We’re All Messed Up
I’ve written much about Tyler Joseph, the songwriter of the band twenty øne piløts, and his campaign to create music and stories that help people deal with mental illness.  In an interview years ago, the interviewer criticized Tyler for calling himself “messed up.”  Was Tyler being too hard on himself?  This was Tyler’s response:

“I know I’m messed up. I think to myself I should be able to control myself.  I look at a lamp and I decide that I’m going to stand up and not hit that lamp. Why can’t I make decisions like that about everything in life. I’m not going to get angry at my brother. I want to be the best brother. Why can’t I do what I want to do? That’s messed up. Something is broken in the way we live. It’s proof that something is not right.”

Tyler is explaining Romans 7:13-21, especially verses 15 and 21, but in a way that’s as plain as day to anyone being honest with themselves.  Romans 7:15 and 21 say: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  And “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

What if the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated? If true, it puts the first paragraph into an entirely different light.

In this exact moment as I write this, I’m being very careful not to spill my drink on my laptop.  I have no desire to do anything violent to the couch I’m sitting on but just to enjoy having a place to sit.  If I stop writing to check something on my phone, I make sure I put it down gently in a spot where it won’t fall off and hit the floor.  But at the same time, I know I don’t always treat people with the same respect.  I know if I’m interrupted in the middle of what I think is a great thought or phrase I could get irritated and rude.  Not always, but I could.  I know I could be a better son, husband, father, employee, and friend.  So why don’t I?

Why do we treat our furniture better than our family, even in a culture that increasingly demands with all its strength that we prioritize every individual?  Because we are broken in a way that no political or economic system, no culture or tradition, can fix.  One may be better or worse than another, but none of them has the power to solve the real problem that we can’t consistently love people more than we love our furniture.  We have to go somewhere else to find the answer.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.”

As pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, the Israelites were telling a story by making the effort to move.  A story that the towns they leave behind – no matter where they are coming from – don’t have the answer to their most important problems.  On the long journey, they travelled in large groups and slowly, sometimes by foot.  They probably had constant reminders of their own inability to treat the family they traveled with better than whatever furniture or baggage they brought along for the trip. While togetherness is sometimes uncomfortable, together we must lift up our eyes and look for the answer outside of everything we know.

We’re broken and can’t fix ourselves, but “The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.”  Take some time out of your week and each day to look up to the hills and seek Him.  To set aside everything else.  To focus on the LORD, because He alone loves us in the way we need to be loved and can help us love others the way they need to be loved.  He won’t seek to break you to make you do it, but He Himself was broken to provide us a way.

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

There’s a Place for Us – Psalms of Ascent #3

Fellow travelers,

Today we come back to a weekly series on the Psalms of Ascent, a group of 15 Psalms used as a liturgy for Jews in ancient Israel traveling to Jerusalem for feasts.  Last week I wrote: “To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.”  Psalm 119 praises God’s law, but the following Psalms let us know that the law cannot deliver salvation.

The first Psalm of Ascent, Psalm 120, picks up from verse 136 of Psalm 119: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law,” but it also starts where the pilgrimage starts geographically.  The full Psalm 120 is:

“A Song of Ascents.

In my distress I called to the LORD,
            and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
            from lying lips,
            from a deceitful tongue.

What shall be given to you,
            and what more shall be done to you,
            you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
            with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
            that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
            among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
            but when I speak, they are for war!”

Each person traveling to Jerusalem came from a different place.  Meshech was in the far north; Kedar in the far southeast.  The Psalmist does not live in both places, but picture is that the same problems exist everywhere.  Everyone lives among people with lying lips, a deceitful tongue, and who hate peace.  Each of us in our own way are such people.  In verse 3 the Psalmist is frustrated about what to do about this: “what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?”  The next verse says that force or coercion won’t solve the problem.  It must be solved internally because mankind is fundamentally broken.  Society isn’t the cause of the problem, but an outcome of the problem, and we are frustrated with it.

However, those following the familiar liturgy of these Psalms would know that this frustration is only the beginning of their preparation to worship in Jerusalem.  The place we all live – this entire creation – is groaning for a solution, a way out, and struggling to find it.  All of mankind is in this boat together, but we’re “gonna need a bigger boat.”  The pilgrimage begins with knowing we have a need that we can’t satisfy ourselves.

On their days- or weeks-long journeys to Jerusalem these pilgrims had to bring the baggage from their home lives with them – literally and figuratively.  They certainly lied to and fought with each other on the way.  The trip lasted too long for them to pretend.  Their baggage was visible to all, and they couldn’t make the trip without it.  But they went.  In today’s church, do we go to a place that is full of “good” people, however we define that?  No, we go to a place with people just like us.  We begin as sinners among sinners, from Meshech to Kedar, but we long for a better place.

If you are in distress, call out to the LORD for a place of peace, not just for eternity but for your journey to it.  The church is “called out” to both places.  The journey is worth it.

The title of this post, if you haven’t already guessed, comes from the musical West Side Story.  The song is about the love between Tony and Maria, members of rival ethnic groups that insist on fighting even though they aren’t sure why.  Therefore, Tony and Maria long for a place where the world’s hate doesn’t tear them apart.

In more ways than one, the sentiments of the song echo the last verses of today’s Psalm:

“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”

Here is the song from the 1961 West Side Story film:

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.

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