A Called-Out People – Psalms of Ascent #7

After another long pause, we return today to the Psalms of Ascent (120-134), used as a liturgy for ancient Israelites traveling to Jerusalem for annual worship festivals.  The last post covered Psalm 122, where David wrote of the joy found in the house of the LORD in Jerusalem.  Next comes Psalm 123, which discusses the attitude of the journeying pilgrims to that LORD, and the attitude of the world to them as a result.  Here are the first 2 verses:

A Song of Ascents.

To you I lift up my eyes,
            O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
            look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
            to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
            till he has mercy upon us.”

Earlier in Psalm 121, the pilgrims lifted up their eyes to the hills, away from their circumstances, to seek the Lord and His help.  Here, the Psalmist emphasizes the Lordship of the Lord, who is “enthroned in the heavens.”  His people look to him as “servants” to “their master”, or as a “maidservant” to “her mistress.”

While the idea of treating the Lord as an actual lord to be served should be obvious, it often isn’t, even for our Biblical “heroes.”  In Acts chapter 9, when Jesus confronts Paul (who was still a self-righteous Pharisee called Saul) about persecuting Christians, Paul responded by saying “Who are you, Lord?[1]  Apparently stricken by the miraculous light and voice, Saul somewhat ironically calls Jesus Lord before he even knows it is Jesus, and while he was on the way to threaten and arrest Christians.  In Acts 10, Peter answers a command from Jesus by saying “By no means, Lord,”[2] as if basing his disobedience on the very lordship of the one currently telling him to do something!

Right up to modern times, the Lordship of Jesus remains hard to accept.  We would rather accept Jesus as Savior than as Lord, but the God who is one is also the other.  The two cannot be separated any more than I can ask my boss to keep giving me raises and time off, while I insist on ignoring my job.  If I wish for God to save me, but have no interest in what He wants to save me to, I might as well say “By no means, Lord,” or “Who are you, Lord?”  If I wish to live for eternity in a world without sin, I need to agree that the Lord can define sin and that sin, especially my own sin, is bad.

While making the pilgrimages to Jerusalem and reciting the Psalms of Ascent, the Israelites would testify to the other nations that 1) God, as Lord, does not take disobedience lightly, but also that 2) He has provided a solution to their inability to serve Him, as symbolized in the temple and its sacrifices.  Similarly, believers today gathering on a regular basis are a sign to the world that salvation is only to be found in another place, through sacrifice, and that it’s worth the effort to go there.  Since the time of Christ, God’s people have been called the “ekklesia,” a Greek word translated as “church” in the English New Testament.  “Ekklesia” literally means a “calling out” – a call into the kingdom of God under the Lord of that kingdom, and out of the kingdoms of the world.  This new kingdom brings hope for a future world with no sin, bought by the sacrifice of One Eternal, Perfect High Priest on a dirty cross.  In that world there will be no liars, no deceit, and no war.  No evil of any kind, or in any degree.

Therefore, church – even if only a few are gathered together – should be a place dedicated to reminding us of the sacrifice required, and provided, to give us this hope.  It should be committed to “preach Christ crucified[3] because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.[4].

The ancient Israelites could seek help in many hills, but there is only one LORD.  All hills are part of our world’s circumstances and can only provide us with more of what we already have, except for one hill.  Our help comes from this hill in particular – the one called Calvary on which Christ was crucified.  But the Bible also says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,[5] and Psalm 123 ends with:

“Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
            for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than enough
            of the scorn of those who are at ease,
            of the contempt of the proud.

The kingdoms of the world, and those who have faith in them, have contempt and scorn for those who follow another way.  When we return to this series, Psalm 124 explains that our Lord has not left us alone.  In His mercy, He provides us help and comfort as we await the coming of His kingdom in its fullness.

Amen.

If you’ve missed the earlier posts in the Psalms of Ascent series, the first post is here, and each post links to the next at the bottom.


[1] Acts 5:5
[2] Acts 10:14
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:23
[4] Acts 4:12
[5] 1 Corinthians 1:18

How to Avoid Being the “Greater Fool”

My day job involves helping people save and invest for retirement, and every now and then it involves helping people avoid speculation.  What’s the difference between investment and speculation?  A short explanation is that speculation often means you’re trusting the “Greater fool theory” to make money.  According to Investopedia[1], “The greater fool theory states that you can make money from buying overvalued securities [stocks, bonds, currency, etc.] because there will usually be someone (i.e., a greater fool) who is willing to pay an even higher price.”  Another way to put it is that speculators buy things because they think someone else will later find them more valuable, whether they actually are or not.  Speculators seek to sell before others figure out that what they’re selling might be worthless.  Instead of trusting this, investors do some work to find out what something is worth and why it would be worth more later to someone else.

In an earlier post about saving for retirement, I noted that “Solomon did encourage us to invest for the future” but also “not to stress too much about what may or may not happen.”  So, this post is not about how to best invest for goals like college or retirement, but about how do we avoid ultimately being the greater fool?  The longer you extend the time frame – even beyond death and into eternity – any investment or speculation in this world looks very different.  In the words of Jim Elliot, an American missionary martyred in Ecuador: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”[2]  In eternity, much of what we now consider investment will look like foolish speculation.

Consider this excerpt from Ecclesiastes 2:18-21.  “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?…sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is cautioning against counting on things we can’t control, such as what will be done with our worldly goods after we’re gone.  If we agonize over accumulating goods, not only are we not satisfied, but do we also teach the next generation to overvalue things, rather than their Creator, thus making our efforts futile and foolish?  Even if our goods outlive us, can we hope that they help those who receive them than they helped us?  Or is this just speculation?

As an alternative, Solomon says in 2:24: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Solomon argued that we can’t trust in goods to help our descendants – but what about the question of whether our goods will do us any good in eternity?  Can we trust goods to help us after we’re gone?  Jesus had this in mind in Mark 8:36, when He said: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul?

Jesus’ question is rhetorical, because we cannot offer any goods to God which are not already His: “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein.”[3] Also, nobody else can pay the cost of our soul either, because they owe their own.

Jesus, the Greater Fool
If our souls are eternal, but we’ve spoiled them by speculating on the goods of this world, who is the greater fool who will pay for them?

Fortunately, the only One who can pay the cost of our souls is also the one who values them the most – even more than we do.  This One was willing to become a fool to the world to purchase the souls of His people.  This One has soul that was not wasted on the things of this world; therefore, He can offer it for others if He chooses to.

Fortunately, this One is also the One who values every soul the most because as Creator, He loves His people.  An old proverb says, “a thing is worth only what someone else will pay for it.”  On the cross, this One paid His own life for you, because to Him you are worth it and His own life was the price He was willing to pay.

Jesus is this One and in eternity, the only way to avoid the “greater fool theory” is to give our lives to Him and follow His advice to love Him and love our neighbor.  Then we will always have everything we need, and we will never lose it.  Even after death and into eternity.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Jesus, in Matthew 6:19-21


[1] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/greaterfooltheory.asp
[2] More on Jim Elliot likely coming in a future History Bits post.
[3] Psalm 24:1

He is Always Abba, Father

Fellow travelers,

Just before being betrayed by Judas and arrested, Jesus sought some solitude in the garden of Gethsemane, where “he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.  And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” (Mark 14:35-36). Jesus knew He was soon to die.

Donald McKim notes that “In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, Abba is the word for ‘Father.’ It is a term that expresses the closest and deepest intimacy of the relationship of parent and child.”[1]  Jesus knew this intimacy even on the way to the cross.

McKim also quotes Philip Melanchthon, who said: “’Abba, Father’. By this he taught us that these two things are required in prayer, namely, the ardent affection of the mind and the faithful trust of children toward God: these two words testify that both of these aspects were present in Christ.”

The Father loves us always, even on our most difficult days.  Trust Him in prayer today.


[1] McKim, Donald K.  Everyday Prayer with the Reformers (2020).  P. 73.

Don’t Let the Stink Stop You – Blessed are the Meek #5

Since it’s been nearly 3 months since the last post on the topic, here’s a review of the series on meekness[1] so far.  The first two posts contrasted two characters from the movie The Matrix, Agent Smith and Neo, to Jesus.  Agent Smith was the “Malevolent Incarnation,” who used and enforced rules to keep people in their place.  Smith can’t stand the stink of humanity and just wants to be free of it.  Neo, the hero of the Matrix series, is the “Ambivalent Incarnation” who wants to free mankind from rules, but otherwise wants to let them be as they are.  However, under Neo’s no-rules philosophy of “everyone should do what they want,” there is no foundation from which to object to anything someone else does, including brutal oppression.  Any objection is also an objection to the same philosophy Neo claims to hold, and “no city or house divided against itself will stand.”[2]

Jesus, contrasted to these, is the “Benevolent Incarnation.”  Jesus is more aware of the problems that make Agent Smith repulsed by us and that make him want to control us, but He also does not leave us alone with no way to overcome our problems.  He rules us for our good, and because we cannot meet His perfect standard, He lived it in our place, then died to cover the cost of our failure.  He wants to fix our stink, not because He hates us as Agent Smith does, but because He loves us in spite of our stink.  He refuses to allow us to stink forever, as Neo would.  He is benevolent, not malevolent or ambivalent.

Meekness is the third step in the Beatitudes, an intentionally sequential series of statements that describe what’s involved in following God, like gears in a machine: “First, being poor in spirit means that we have emptied ourselves of all illusions that our plans are better than God’s.  Second, mourning the state of ourselves and our world means we are emotionally engaged.  That we care.  In the third Beatitude, being meek is where we begin to engage our will, submitting it to God as our benevolent Lord.”

He wants us to also be benevolent incarnations, however we often don’t want to engage the third gear of meekness, where “the rubber meets the road” so to speak.  But if we don’t embrace it “the first two Beatitudes alone can leave us in a place where we’re a mess and the world is a terrible place and there’s nothing we can do about any of it.  It can be a place of depression and despair.”

Martha almost found herself stuck in this place when Jesus returned to Bethany after the death of Lazarus, her brother.  Jesus found the family mourning, then: “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”  (John 11:39).  Jesus intended to raise Lazarus from the dead, but for Martha the stink was all she could think of.  Patently, Jesus encouraged her, the stone covering the entrance to the tomb was moved, and Lazarus walked out of the grave alive!

Don’t Let the Stink Stop You
Does the stench of sin keep us from being meek?  Do we, like Agent Smith, just want people to behave so we can go about our way?  Or does our obedience come first?  Jesus wants us to live as He lived, but we only can if we accept His righteousness and become invested in it at all levels of our being.  If we are truly poor in spirit and mourn our sin, what’s stopping us?

God won’t tell us to move the stone from Lazarus’ grave – that was Martha’s task. It also was not Jesus’ task.  We don’t do what Jesus would do, but what He would have us do.  He could have moved the stone Himself, but He wanted Martha to participate in His work, but to do that she had to be willing to be uncomfortable.

We all are often in Martha’s place, struggling with what Jesus wants us to do.  He asks us to do things that don’t make sense to us, that don’t make sense to the world, and sometimes it stinks (sometimes literally).  Jesus wants to bring His people to life, as He did with Lazarus, but there may be a stone He wants you to move, and it will only move if you have faith in Him stronger than the stink involved.

Meekness is the Cross
Meekness means carrying the cross the Father assigns to us.  For Jesus it was taking on all the sin of the world, not just by His death on a literal cross, but also by proactively taking on the consequences of it for the benefit of others.  We stink but He did not leave us alone.  For us, carrying the cross involves taking on some of the stink of the world, stepping into the suffering of others and offering the life that only Jesus can give.  What an amazing contrast this is to what’s so common today: pointing out sin everywhere and demanding those “other sinners” pay the price, or demanding that government solve the problem somehow, or withdrawing from problems that seem too big to do anything about.

Is there a stinky situation you’re aware of, but avoiding?  Being meek toward Jesus means we’re on board with His plan of salvation and willing to do our part, whatever that is.  Sometimes all that’s needed to bring someone life is moving a stone and enduring the odor.  While the smell was enough for Martha to hesitate, to Jesus it was part of the cost of living and dying for us.  He was willing to bear it, and if we meekly move the stone, Jesus will do the rest.


Post Script
Sometimes I put off writing thinking the time is better spent on the people and situations right in front of me.  Is hiding behind a screen and keyboard just an avoidance tactic?  At other times I know that each person’s meekness includes a response to their own calling and use of their specific gifts: “if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching.” (Romans 12:7). Meekness is difficult, and I pray we all find better balance as we grow in Christ.  Do the things God calls you to, even if it stinks sometimes!


[1] If you have the time, the previous posts are here: [1], [2], [3], and [4].  But I’ll summarize here as best I can.
[2] Matthew 12:25

The Cross of Christ is History

Christians rightly focus on the historical fact of the life, death, and resurrection as the foundation of their faith.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14 – “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”  For Christianity to matter, these things must have actually happened.  Therefore, a lot has been written providing evidence that these events happened, and that Christian faith is not based on speculation, but on solid history.

Today I’m going to take a different angle on the significance of the “historical” part of “historical fact.”  This post is about the more straight-forward meaning that these events happened in the past.

Why This Matters
Because Christ lived in the past, the life of righteousness He lived for us, and that we inherit through faith, is unchangeable.  There is no other life that could be lived, or will be lived, that could be better or achieve more than what God intended it to achieve.  Perfection is assured because it already happened.  He has not fallen short.

Because Christ died on the cross in the past, He did it in consideration of every past, present, and future sin of His people.  Nothing you, or I, or any of His people have done, are doing now, or will do in the future, can undo the cross, because it has already happened.  He will not change His mind, and He will stand by those who have faith in Him.

Because Christ was resurrected in the past, He has proven that death cannot hold Him and that He will raise His people to new life as well.  He is alive now, and aware of everything happening not only in the global 24/7 news cycle, but also in the hearts and minds of every man.  The same power that raised Him works in His people, telling them through His Spirit that there is no better plan than the cross to create a world where man perfectly loves God and loves his fellow man.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 6:5-11

In a world full of pain and despair, “Preach the gospel at all times. And if necessary, use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi