Monthly Archives: April 2017

OUR SCANDALOUS FAITH

I’ve borrowed what follows from a little book I wrote called The Dragon Slayer (Amazon has it).

The cross of Jesus claims that the true measure of sin is not how we feel about it or how repulsed we are by it or even how much agony it has cost us when others have sinned against us. As I see it, this is one of the places at which the cross appears in its most scandalous light.

God does not hold us responsible for not being God. And when he teaches us (as he does throughout the Bible) that He sees sin more clearly than we do He does not hold us in contempt because that’s true. He understands we can’t know it as He does because no one is holy as He is holy and it is only the holy one who truly sees sin for what it is. So when we feel and speak against it as we do—limited though our sense of it is—He is pleased with the genuineness of our renunciation. Just the same, He insists on our believing that the true and full measure of human sin is seen only in the cross of Christ.
But think how difficult that is for millions to believe. Let me focus on the astonishing evil that exposed itself during the Hitler & Stalin years. There must be thousands of books that rehearse the crimes that leave us speechless until we feel we must say something if only to keep from saying nothing. And who can forget the images that we’ve seen on television and in the movies? Haven’t we at times been on the verge of rising to stick our boot through the television set in irrational fury? And haven’t we now and then shouted at God, “How could you let this go on?” This is how we who are spectators feel, so how must it have been for those who were actually enduring it.
Now try telling those people that the true measure of sin is not the crucifixion of the Jews and other nations by the Nazis at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald or the Stalin murder of millions, and elsewhere. Tell them that the true measure of sin is revealed in the crucifixion of a young Jew on a cross outside Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. Tell them that and see their response!
Tell that to those who know what has happened in the gulag prison system down the years where on Solzhenitsyn’s conservative figure, 68.7 million people have died after prolonged crucifixions. Tell it to the multiplied millions who lived in the dark nights of Papa Doc, Pol Pot; tell it to the people in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Africa, North Korea and the numberless oppressed, ancient and modern.
Tell them that that the New Testament teaches that the comparatively humane death of Jesus of Nazareth is the true and full revelation of Sin. In unison they will tell you that you’re deranged.  And they’ll feel insulted beyond measure because it will look like you’re minimizing the awesome magnitude and depth of their loss and the twisted malevolent evils that confound adequate description.
But that’s not what the New Testament is doing. That’s not at all what the cross of Christ does! It doesn’t make less of human suffering—it makes more of it! We see all that as moral evil and the cross says it’s more than that—it’s sin!
When my child is raped or my family tortured I want you to tell me that my feelings matter and that my pain is a measure of the sinfulness of sin. But I want you to tell me it’s worse than that! I want you tell me that if there’s a God that He thinks it’s worse than that. I want you to tell me that there aren’t enough words in the entire world or enough passion in the whole of humanity to damn it with. When my personal pain is multiplied by tens of millions and we stand in speechless rage and utter bewilderment at the sights and sounds of it we want someone to say, “Yes, the eternal God agrees with you. It’s as bad as you feel. Your devastation and your ceaseless fury-filled protests are a measure of it all. But it’s worse even than that.”
That’s what Christians mean to do when they say the cross of Christ is the true measure of sin. Minimize the world’s hurt and the oppressor’s wrong? God forbid! And the cross forbids!
When Judas betrayed Christ that night something more profoundly serious had happened than a friend turning against a friend (Luke 22:3-6). A “world spirit” was defying eternal holiness and God’s aim to bless a world. Spiritual hosts of wickedness in all their forms were weighing in against holy loveworlds were colliding. Cosmic corruption and pollution was showing itself and coming to focus in that specific moral crime and in that specific person. That’s what Luke meant when he said Satan entered Judas! At the cross it was more than religion and politics and realism in a deadly mix doing away with an innocent man (as they have so often done). It was satanic evil against God himself. It was Satan screaming, “You will not redeem them.” It was human evil as part of a corruption that reaches beyond the stars. The monster that swelled in the nineteen twenties and forties in Europe until it blocked out the sun is beyond our comprehension. As inexpressibly vile as these crimes are in and of themselves, they are only the ulcers generated by a galactic predator that has ravaged worlds seen and unseen. Sin!
At Calvary, Christ was saying to every sufferer down the ages, “What has happened to you is more sinister than you know. It is part of creation’s self-destruction; it’s part of creation’s sinful alienation from its God and you in your awful agony have exposed its hind quarters.” But we could never have known this except via the cross of Christ for that is where the alien power fully exposed itself. We could stutter something legitimate about moral evil but we couldn’t see it as “sinful” because the word “sin’ only makes sense when God enters the picture.
Make less of our astonishing cruelty and inhumanity? No, Golgotha is Auschwitz and Africa and Cambodia, Syria, North Korea and every other hell-hole seen through the eyes of God. We don’t mean to diminish the sickening savagery when we speak of the cross. We have another agenda in mind.
If He is such a lover of humans why doesn’t He do something about itnow? God could answer that perfectly legitimate question, He has the answers but we couldn’t grasp the complexity of the situation. That’s not a dodgeit’s the truth (compare John 16:12). We know from our own experience that we’re faced with a host of specific questions that we can’t wrap our minds around even when most of the facts are before us. But even if God explained everything satisfactorily that wouldn’t be enough; it’s not explanations we want when we’re in agonywe just want it to stop! What He asks for, and He knows how great a thing He is asking for, is for us to trust Him that He will right all wrongs—He asks us to trust Him. In the meantime He has made it clear in Jesus Christ who came and shared in His own life some of what the tortured millions have suffered, that He sees and will not forget what is going on. I am one of the countless who have been called by God to give the plundered and abused of the world a gospel and it’s this—THIS IS NOT HOW IT ENDS! THIS IS NOT AS GOOD AS IT GETS FOR YOU. HE NOT ONLY DIED FOR YOU, HE AROSE IN TRIUMPH OVER ALL YOUR ENEMIES. THOSE WHO OPPRESS AND TORMENT YOU HAVE MADE AN ENEMY OF HIM.

(Holy Father, convince us that You love the entire human family and deliver Your people from our self-centered search for more “rights” while millions of our brothers and sisters in this human family suffer so terribly. More and more deliver us from Sin that we might give the hurting world hope and a song to sing. Remind us that Resurrection follows the Cross. Our prayer in Jesus’ name.)

I KNOW YOU KNOW BUT I WISH YOU KNEW…

It will always be so. As long as there is sin that would completely destroy the life of a nation there will need to be a faithful remnant to be a witness to what Sin will bring, a witness to what faithlessness will rob us of and a witness to who we drag down with us when we turn from God. We affect the innocent and bring trouble down on the heads of the righteous. One day if we’re very fortunate we will look at such people, people warm and righteous, and we will realize that their suffering is a result of their being identified with us who are not in God. This happened at some point in the Babylon exile. Please see Isaiah 52:13—53:12.
The righteous had opposed Israel’s treachery and its addiction to the gods and called on the people to trust in Yahweh. But, still, the nation went into captivity and the lovers of God were taken with the guilty. Their homes were burned, their children died, their wives were raped and they were beaten. If God cared and they loved God surely He would have spared them such a “crucifixion”. The guilty thought the faithful people were afflicted by God for their sins (Isaiah 53:4) but it dawned on some that the righteous shared the agony of national punishment due to the guilty  and that they suffered it for the guilty nation’s benefit (compare Amos 4:8-13 with its 5 times repeated “Yet…”) And the punishment that was aimed to bring them (the guilty) back to God and peace fell on the righteous and the innocent. God wasn’t punishing the innocent (babies) or the faithful. The faithful felt the pain along with the guilty.
The guilty noted (where it was seeable) how the righteous endured the oppression resulting from their unfaithfulness of Israeland the Gentile forces. And they began to muse and (who knows?) some prophetic voice may have explained to them the truth about the grace and patience of these righteous men and women; men and women who took the mistreatment like sheep being sheared. And in some (for Isaiah 53 is confessional) there came the realization that without the righteous the nation would be swallowed up in darkness. They understood (some did) that it was inevitable that the righteous would suffer along with the unfaithful nation if they maintained their identity with the guilty nation that triggered the exile. (See Romans 8:3 for identity.)
They also sensed that by the empowering God the righteous would see fruit for their suffering and be satisfied. The faithful would be vindicated and their faith well placed. The righteous were a gift of God to the nation (see Isaiah 42:6; 49:1-9 and note the “us” in Acts 13:47) and to all the nations.
These faithful ones were the mold in which Jesus of Nazareth was foreshadowed and it was how He came to be. The sinless One on whom the nation’s hope rested is the one they jeered at and then in their thousands came to understand that the deliverance they looked for was to be found in the very Person they thought was afflicted by God.

I’m getting old and feel the difference but what did I expect? When by faith I came up out of the baptismal water with the living hope fulfilled? Did I expect to be exempted from the hurts that are being experienced by the entire human family? Did I expect to be taken to heaven in an immortal and glorious body at that point? Did I think it was all about me and mine? Was I to be taken from a needy world and was my family to escape all trouble? (John 17:15)
No, our Master has made it clear—suffering and then the glory, that’s how His Body is conformed to the image of its Head (Romans 8:17-18, 29) and it’s how it comes to experience (attain to) the resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11). Our suffering as Christians is the same but not the same as the poor sufferers of the world. Even our death is not the same as theirs though it is the same (see John 6:50; 11:26—”Do you believe this?”). By His grace we are in the world but not of it and it’s sad that their suffering and death is not like ours though it is very much like ours and so often exceeds ours in the depth and dimension of pain.
I wish I knew—deep down, intellectually and emotionally, who I am for I know it would have a transforming effect on whatever pain I endure along with my fellow-humans. I wish you who might read this and who hurt deeply but have given yourself to Him—I wish you could know who you are and the wonder of what He and His Father are doing in and through you. We’d rather they did know but it’s all right that non-Christians currently don’t know; maybe in the end what counts most is that you know. People like you and the Lord Jesus and all the faithful down the years, for all your differences have a lot in common.

(Holy Father, as you have promised we pray through Jesus Christ in confidence and ask you to keep your suffering people near your heart and their hearts near to your own. For your glory, for the glory of the Lord Jesus, for themselves and for all with whom they have influence. This prayer in the Spirit of the Lord Jesus.)

LOVING THE “BENT KING”

This is a long piece but I hope you are able to get a few minutes to read it. I do. But don’t begin it until you are free to do it. God bless us all in such matters.
In his extended poem Saul. Robert Browning has David called to play his music for the wayward king Saul who is in the dark abyss of depression and feelings of abandonment. David’s music, we’re told, had soothed Saul in times past (1 Samuel 16:23) and if ever Saul needed help he needed it now.
The love of David for Jonathan, son of Saul, is well known to Bible readers, but David’s deep feeling for Saul is not given the notice it calls for and merits (see 1 Samuel 24 and 2 Samuel 1 as parts of the story). Browning uses the biblical text and his own depth of imaginative insight and gives us a lesson we need to hear again and again. I hope you can read what follows with patience. In a world as mad and bad as this one is and can be, the existence, depth and selflessness of human love at its best says something the whole creation needs to hear.
David’s met by Abner who tells him the king is in a dreadful state and that he and the men haven’t eaten a bite since he went into his tent. Nor would they eat or drink until David came back out to say the king was alive and well because he has been three days in the black tent in the middle of the camp—in complete silence. The troops know a struggle is going on between Saul and the Spirit of God.
David first prays and then enters, creeping in on his knees, praying as he goes, into the great darkness. He speaks into that darkness, “I’m David, your servant.” Not a word or a sound, only deep darkness. Then his eyes make out something even darker, an upright—the center beam of the tent and then, blackest of all, he makes out the huge figure of Saul. A beam of sunlight suddenly gives some light and David sees him there, propped up against the central beam with his arms draped over the cross beam—like one crucified, covered in sweat, head drooping, like a king-serpent, cut off from his own kind while he’s waiting to shed his skin.
David begins to play the kind of music he plays for His sheep—the kind that calms them; then music that charms the birds and other animals, even crickets. Then he played happy music, the kind they play at harvest when friends enjoy one another and expand each others’ hearts and then came the kind of music they play as they bear a man to his grave. The kind that goes along with the praise they proclaim as they walk saying, “The land has none left such as he on the bier.” Then there was wedding music and music that men do hard work by when they have to get their shoulders under huge stones when building. And more, there was the praise music as when men go to worship, led by the Levitical singers,

up to the altar in glory enthroned. But I stopped:
for here in the darkness Saul groaned.

For a moment David’s silent, listening, then the tent shakes “for mighty Saul shuddered”, but after that only his head moved. David begins to play again, speaking of the joys of human life, the rock-climbing, swimming, bear-hunting. He sings of love of family and the joys of it, the love of boyhood friends and then of the king’s coming to glory and being monarch of the nation. And at that point, carried away by the beauty and truth of it all, and anxious for Saul to drink it in and end his night, he calls out the king’s name—Saul!
The whole tent’s brighter with the singing but the figure in the center is like a dark mountain that’s the last thing in the valley to be hit by the rising sun’s light. But not so dark that David can’t make out the scars the king bears, scars he received in the nation’s defense. Saul gives a long shudder, then silence again, but now he’s aware of who and where he is. He has heard all the words and in great sadness:

He said, “It is good;” still he drinks not:
He lets me praise life,
Gives assent, yet would die for his own part.

David understands that the king knows something he doesn’t know. That all David has sung, while it’s true, and lovely and joyous—it’s not enough. There’s got to be more. Life’s joys aren’t enough to take the awful sting out of living much less out of dying.
David imagines himself lying in a little rock fissure while he’s out tending his sheep. The rocks on each side hem in his view of the sky and narrow it down to only a sliver while high above him flies an eagle. What can he see? From that height, what can he see? Much more than David! David as a shepherd boy knows so little of life, and there’s so much more. Now convinced of that, he takes up his harp and begins to sing again.
He tells the king he’s right not to put too much stock in life as it is on the physical level, “it’s good” but it’s not enough, and people grow tired of it and feel empty. But this life and the praise the king will get in future years from a grateful nation is God-given! God gave it!
And as he sings, Saul moves, fixes his hair , adjusts his turban, wipes off the sweat with his robe, fixes his tunic and stands erect; looking now like the old Saul “before error had bent” Then, weak, with his back against the central post he slides down to sit on the ground right close to David, his huge knees hemming the boy in. And then, without a word, slowly, he lifts a hand and puts it on the boy’s head with “kind power” and pushes it back so he can look long in his face. David’s heart is bursting with love for the man. He hears himself say he would give anything, anything if he could make the king well, if he could give him not just longer life—but new life! If love could do it, love would. His mind leaped to God and the thought startled him and he could play no more nor sing.
                           Can David out-love God and so what?
Shocked into silence by the new and daring thought, he reflects on creation, admitting it’s more than he can fathom, it far outreaches all his wisdom, it exposes all his limitations. And what of God’s love—did it not surpass his? He thinks of his own love for Saul, Saul the bent king. He thinks how gladly he’d do whatever it took to make him right. And in this, does the creature do better than the Creator? Does he compare himself with God and out-shine God? It’s true he doesn’t have God’s power to execute, but does he think he has out-willed God? Does he will Saul good more than God? Does God have more power but less good will toward sinners than David? No, God out-wills him as well as out-powers him.
Should David then in all the lesser matters trust God and when it comes to what matters most “distrust” him? Is it too good to be true? Should he, now having seen so much go “thus far and no farther?” Would God make Saul and not love him? And if He loved him, would He not redeem him? David would! Could God be less than David in loving? Perish the thought! When the truth sinks in, he begins to weep. His own weakness doesn’t prevent him from willing Saul’s redemption though his weakness depresses and frustrates him. Still, it suddenly dawns on him, “tis not what man does which exalts him, but what man would do!” So David’s service is perfect; weakness doesn’t change his purpose.
Could I wrestle to raise Him from sorrow,
grow poor to enrich,
To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would….
Oh, speak through me now!
Would I suffer for him that I love? So
wouldst thou—so wilt thou!

Knowing then that God felt as he felt, Browning has David long for the incarnation of that character, purpose and power (compare Psalm 27:8).

O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a
Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever;
a hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee!
See the Christ stand!

All this came to David with stunning power and since it was so profound a revelation, involving the Creator of all things in a “covenant” based on His very own character, David feels that the whole of creation must have been affected.
He stumbles His way home in the night and feels there’s a host of creatures as well as a universe watching Him, like a nation famished for news on how the war went.
As He walks home it’s getting close to dawn and creatures stand, awe-stricken at the revelation, flowers stare in awed astonishment, winds whisper and brooks quietly murmur in hushed voice—all, joining together in responding to the “new law” (which was really an old law) given to David, “Even so, it is so!”
All of this comes to us in stunning power too for we now know that what Browning has David long for has actually taken place in Jesus of Nazareth: God’s character, purpose and power has shown itself in a face like our faces; the face of one who is not only able but has the will to bring new life to all of us no matter how far we’ve gone astray.

(Holy Father, this moves us and makes us want to be more like you but it seems to call us too high though we constantly long for such heights. At least, Holy One, enable us we pray, to love in such a Christlike way our beloved ones whom you have given to us to protect and love and who are within our reach.  And perhaps in so loving them we will grow to feel more and do more for those who are not our special ones with whom you have blessed us. Hear our prayer because we ask it in the Lord Jesus and in His Spirit.)

I’M SURE I READ IT SOMEWHERE

Why did God come?

The answer’s simple, isn’t it? He is infinitely holy and we’re abysmally sinful so He came to punish and damn us. Well, that’s what holy people do, isn’t it? They cut the unholy off and speak the truth when they say that that’s all the unholy deserve. How can you argue with that? Can you imagine the unholy claiming that their unholiness merits reward? That would be dumb. That would be sinfully dumb! So now we know, the infinitely holy God came to punish and damn us. He came to pay us back for what we did to Him and to His Son.
Oh well, what can we expect?
But…um…He went about it a funny way didn’t He? You would think He could have damned us without ever leaving His house; without ever coming to deliver the verdict personally. Are you sure He came to condemn us? Here He came to tell us personally that He wants to damn us and what does He do? He heals our sick, feeds our hungry, weeps over us, raises our dead and…forgives our sins. Forgives our sins?
Wait. Wait. Wait!! Wait just a minute! That’s not the behavior of someone who came to damn us!
And on what grounds did He forgive our sins? He said He had come to give His life a ransom for us (Matthew 20:28; 1 Timothy 2:6)? And on what grounds did He heal our sicknesses? We’re told He healed them by bearing them (Matthew 8:16-17)?
This is so confusing. The Holy God came in and as Jesus Christ to damn us and yet He carries our diseases and gives His life a ransom for us? And didn’t I hear that as He passed a cup of wine at the Passover He said, “This is my blood, which is shed for the forgiveness of sins”?
Maybe He didn’t come to condemn us!
Sigh.
If only when He came He had said something like: “God did not send Me, His Son, into the (sinful) world to condemn the world but that the world through Me might have life.”
Yesssss…yesssss…now that I think about it…now that I think about it…I do believe I read that somewhere.
Think I’ll go and look that up.

A GODLY JEALOUSY

I must have first read this piece at least fifty years ago though I know I’ve read it dozens of times since then. I don’t know that I’ve ever read it without a sense of shame at my failures in life. But I also know that reading it made me want to be a better man and reading it again today brought the same feelings and the same resolve.
It reminds me of men and women I knew personally when I was a boy. My family was poor–but then, all the families around us were poor—and I saw every day the kind of thing the writer talks about here. Back then I didn’t see it as heroism—it was life and you had to muddle your way through it. Even as I write this, names and faces come quickly to me, and easily. Mrs. Montgomery, Mary Crosset, Bobby Tomelty, Billy Nut, Mr. Henderson and Mr. Mc Erlean.
Years later I began to see the glory of their endurance and gallantry and I began to be jealous that I hadn’t what they had. I feel that right now. I’m happy for them and I’m trying not to mope at what I think I’ve never had. God will help me (as He has–He must have always helped me or I wouldn’t still be here, resolving…). George Adam Smith, Scots theologian (died in 1942) wrote what follows.
“Temptation, too, is a bit of the destiny of man. Suddenly though the assault surge upon him, it is no accident. Solitary as he feels in his battle, he does not in fact fight alone. He is one of an innumerable army of warriors, and if for a little he will give play to his imagination, what an army it will appear. On that field no living soul is idle, or left to itself without orders, without a trust, without a pledge. Every one with his own temptation; every human figure interesting, pathetic and stimulating to look on. Some may be blind, some in panic, some forlorn.
But there are a nobler multitude. If God be hidden, they cling the more tightly to His bare word; if they sometimes feel He has left them alone, they cherish with the more passion—and by just the measure of the distance to which He seems removed—the conviction that He has trusted them to be alone.
Think of the dim multitudes who are fighting temptations more grinding and persistent with far feebler strength than yours. Think, for such are still left in the world, of those who prefer a life of exhausting poverty to daily opportunities of compromising with honesty or selling their purity for gold. Individualize them, my brothers, individualize them; and you will find a conscience and a rally in every one of them.
Think of the men, and they can be found in every city, who when the law had freed them from all obligation to pay their creditors, have as fortune came back to them used its favors to pay every one of their former debts, though it means a life of hard labor instead of one of comfort and ease.
Think of the women, you will find them, too, in every great city, who are battling for themselves and their children on a few shillings a week against temptations that say, “Yield to us and we can give you food and clothing enough for them and you.” You’ll find them holding out!
What starved garrison, that marched from its inviolate fortress with all the honors of war and to the admiration of its foes, ever deserved half the glory or for our hearts was charged with half the inspiration, which thousands of tempted souls deserve and can afford to us, who hold the fortresses of their lonely lives against the devils of dishonesty and greed and lust. And yet you have strong men whining to-day all the world over— and some of them parading their whines in literature—that the temptations of their strength are too great for them; and slipping off into the pleasant mire with the cry, I cannot help it. What forgetfulness! What cowardice!”
(Holy Father, lover of this entire human family of yours. Come to our aid and generate within us the gallantry you’ve generated in others—so many who did not even know your name—and deepen our faith and gratitude even by the struggle and when we don’t experience your presence in tangible ways enable us that we can cling to your bare word. This prayer in the gallant Lord Jesus who so loved strugglers.)