Have I already mentioned how much I like having songs pop to mind as I read the Psalms? Well, I’ll say it again!
How wonderful and beautiful a tool music can be to help us listen, process, remember, experience, reflect, share, understand… The list just goes on.
In Psalm 43, we sort of continue right along with Psalm 42. They work well as one larger piece, pretty much sharing the refrain, “Why are your cast down, O my soul/Hope in God.” I talk about Psalm 42 a bit in the service for this coming Sunday and share a song there, but I wanted to do the same here for Psalm 43.
There is pain and anguish in both, and the Psalmist takes that to God. Why is my enemy victorious? Why am I lost in mourning? Yet such lament is always directed to God, for the psalmist always sees that God is still his hope. These two Psalms are likely written with the context of a people who led the worship of God at the temple yearning to return there, to praise God again. Whatever the solution, God will be the one to bring them back, so the call goes out, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me…”
It is a humble posture. To acknowledge the need to be led is to acknowledge we don’t always know the way. Even in the midst of pain and anger, anger even directed toward God, this psalmist can still humbly say, “God, you need to be the one who can deliver me.” God remains the source of hope and joy and salvation.
Give a listen to this song based on Psalm 43 by Sandra McCracken. Actually first read Psalm 43 and then you’ll really see how closely this beautiful captures the words.
We begin reading the book of Mark this week and even in these opening chapters you’ll see the quick pace he’s known for. He’s pretty direct and to the point, at least compared to the other gospel writers.
He starts off, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet it is so important that at this beginning, Mark immediately then quotes the book of Isaiah. So verse one says this is the beginning and verse two tell us that it actually goes back further. He begins by looking back. It’s of great importance for the reader to understand that something new has happened in the coming of Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, in his life, death, and resurrection is unlike anything that had come before. But before he came, the prophets were pointing the way. Therefore is it also so important to hold the whole Bible in your hands, and not think that the New Testament is the start of God’s Word. The gospels mark the beginning of the turning point of history, but there is history that preceded Jesus.
So hold those two ideas together: Jesus is the beginning of something new, but the plans of God go way back. We can’t lose that link, and if we do, we miss out on how God is able to work throughout all time and how he has always had a plan that in Jesus, his Son, he would come to set things right.
We’ve had a short hiatus with posts to go along with our readings, but we are back. (And if you needed something to tide you over, we did have a couple worship services that, as always, draw from the readings in both the times of prayer and preaching.)
We’re finishing up the trio of Johannine letters this week with 3 John. While there is a great satisfaction with finishing a good, long book, finding a good, short book is wonderful, too. And John comes through for us three times. And his short books don’t make them insignificant.
There are issues behind all the letters of the New Testament, and we’re pretty certain one issue for John was something like a first century Christian conspiracy theory, Gnosticism. Gnosticism itself wasn’t new and it often would morph and latch on to different ideas of the day, and Christianity was just another target. John’s repeated insistence on Jesus coming in the flesh in 1 John was a direct challenge to gnostic beliefs that Jesus only appeared in the flesh.
Gnosticism appealed to a desire to know a secret truth behind the public truth. Something hidden and kept back, and that knowledge gives you power. If you know something that others don’t that gives you a leg up. A similar draw is found within conspiracy groups who claim to see what no one else can see.
Here in 3 John the author continues to drive home that truth is still very important. In verse four he says there is no greater joy for him than to hear that the church is walking in the truth. Walking and truth go together for him. Action and belief are linked. For them to waiver from the truth of Jesus will undoubtedly lead them astray in their walk. He even name drops an example of someone doing this, Diotrephes, who is a clear example of how closely tied a belief (I am first) goes with action (put myself first). And Dio is talking “wicked nonsense”—not harmless lies, but harmful—that leads him to harm some brothers.
Yet the truth of Jesus is in contrast to the gnostics. The wonderful news of Jesus is that he came to reveal the way, the truth, and the life. What was not known in full has been shared, and the fullness of God is seen in the face of Jesus! It isn’t to be kept back and made a secret so that only the few may know. Jesus did all he did for us so we can know and experience life with God. While yes, not everyone knows this and certainly not everyone believes it, the tone of the gospel message is out of step with the gnostics who seek to maintain some level of secrecy. Jesus came so that the whole world may know the truth and he invites us to walk in it.
John through his three letters shows that link between truth and action, and frequently truth and love. There is no expectation of one without the other. Hence, he’s not content to write about these issues. That’d make it too easy to lean upon truth alone. Rather John puts down the pen, intending to be with them soon, face to face, able then to join action to his words.
Have you ever had some ask you, “Well wasn’t polygamy OK in the Old Testament?” You think about it and how there are many examples of men having multiple wives (or concubines, even) and wonder for yourself. But there is a really simple, useful tip for Bible reading that I think can be overlooked:
Just because it happened doesn’t mean it was good.
There is plenty to admire in a person like Moses or Abraham, but just because Moses or Abraham did something, doesn’t make it good. Should we have multiple spouses, act out of fear or anger, deceive? No. We don’t need to condone every action or emulate every attitude. King David was described as a man after God’s own heart, but he had an affair and had someone murdered. Yet the simple guide reminds us, just because it happens on the pages of the Bible doesn’t mean it is good. These people sin and thankfully we can learn from that, as well as learn from the good.
I think we can even apply this tip to our own lives. In a discussion we may be quick to say, “that’s not how we did it when I grew up.” We have a little nostalgia for whatever it was that we observed or experienced in our own lives. But just because it happened doesn’t mean it was good.
It doesn’t mean it was bad either, but we need to be able to recognize that mere existence isn’t enough. Something, whether in the Old Testament or our own lives, may be normal—status quo even—but God shines his light on us all, revealing what is good on the basis of his own goodness. We need to be able to discern by his Spirit, critique what is wrong, let go and move toward Christ in all we do.
I just love reading Scripture and hearing lyrics start to run through my head. There’s a more recent song by MercyMe that finds its lyrics in 1 John 4:4b:
for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Let me tell you some thoughts on the song. First the good. Any Scripture put to music is a great place to start. Music has an incredible ability to help us remember the holy words of the Bible, and we need any help we can find to store them up. We want an overabundance of God’s word in us. So the fact that this song focuses on this as its chorus helps me recall this good news and that is great.
Another good of this song: the tone. Just because a song has Scripture-soaked lyrics doesn’t mean the tone matches. Not all of Scripture is upbeat, and to sing a lament with your toes tapping doesn’t quite match up. But these words of 1 John can have that uplifting feel. We are confessing God’s greatness and how he is greater than the difficulties we’ll face out in the world. In 1 John he’s writing about false spirits and antichrists. So this is like a rallying cry. Something we need to remember again and again. We have a knack at forgetting what we believe to be true and we need that constant refreshing. So a song like this can do well when we direct it inward and keep telling ourselves that God is greater.
1 John does have plenty to say for how we should Iive and love. The call of the Christian is a high calling. But ultimately it is about what Christ has done and he is greater than any other so-called powers.
(Now I’ll quietly say my one persnickety nitpick. I’ll put this whole paragraph in parentheses to further downplay it. Skip if you’d like. The refrain is this long “in the world.” Or more accurately, “in the wooooooooorld.” You can listen below. That tone is strange because the part that is held out repeatedly is talking about the the false spirits in the world and “he” who is out there with power. He’s likely talking about Satan. God in us is greater than Satan, or any demonic forces in the world. If I write a song that says “God is greater than Satan”, I’d try to avoid repeating “Satan” in a soaring chorus. Anyways…)
Again, this song helps me remember that God is greater, and for that I am appreciative. Give it a few listens and let that victorious truth lift you up.
Frequently with this reading guide we’re trying to help you understand unfamiliar or confusing passages of Scripture, but what do we do with the familiar ones? The ones we’ve heard hundreds of times, recited aloud, even memorized?
This week we read Psalm 23, perhaps one of the most familiar passages of the Bible, certainly one of the most familiar from the Old Testament. How can we read this psalm without our hearts and minds disengaging?
Here are a few ideas:
Try a different translation. No, I’m not saying your favorite translation is bad. But the change may help our brains hear things in a new way. If you usually use a more modern translation, try something older. You like King James, go way in the other direction with the Message, and hear these poetic psalms differently.
Try listening. Many smartphone apps or websites that are for Bible reading are also equipped to help you do Bible listening. See if hearing the Word does something differently.
Try slowing down. With this psalm, take it one line at a time and keep yourself from jumping ahead. Just read “The Lord is my shepherd” and sit with that. What good news is in that one line? What do you think David, a shepherd, meant when he wrote it? How does it impact you to think of our God as a shepherd? Keep going through Psalm 23 slowly, line by line, and see if a verse that never stood out has something to say.
There are all sorts of techniques to help us as we read—whether the passage is familiar or new. We absolutely should pray as we do this, for the Spirit is our guide. You can journal or highlight as you go. Maybe you are a doodler and drawing in the margins will help you reflect. Grab a study Bible that will provide a few helpful notes along the way when words are foreign or the text is tricky.
But take your time so you can take it all in. Read and reread; let a verse stay with you all day. The goal is to not to break it down and dissect the Bible like a frog on a lab table, but to sit slowly and enjoy each part. Like when you eat a delicious meal, knowing its ingredients helps you recognize each one and enjoy its depth even more. Studying and meditating on God’s Word will give a richness to our understanding and help us see the depth of God’s love.
We aren’t in a sanctuary this year, but thankfully our God does not solely dwell in such places. Make an effort to prepare your space and take the time to focus on Christ this Ash Wednesday.
What is Ash Wednesday?
Forty days (plus Sundays) before Easter we enter a season of preparation. We are to reflect as we ready ourselves for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but we do so remembering what preceded that joyful morning.
Traditionally we receive ashes on our forehead, reminding us of our own mortality and death. These ashes call to mind that from dust we were made, and to dust we will return (Genesis 2:7, 3:19).
Why make a time of reflecting on mortality a part of worship?
You may wonder why do this? Why focus on death with Easter just around the corner? Can’t we focus on the positives? Just the chipper, upbeat parts of our faith?
We need these times to face death. Humanity has a tragic tendency toward death. Not just that we are mortal and will die, but in our sin we engage in behavior that furthers death in our world. So since death is present in this world, the church must know how to respond. How do we grapple with it? Understand it? Accept it? Confront it? And shouldn’t our worship do something to shape our response?
Emphasizing this need for worship to be an experience that forms us, Matthew Kaemingk of Fuller Seminary, wrote this:
Those people sitting in the pews are not simply vague and abstract “worshippers.” Within twenty-four hours, they will enter a divided and traumatized polis serving as teachers and lawyers, doctors and managers, activists and academics, police officers and politicians. These worshipping citizens need songs, prayers, and postures that they can bring with them into dark and divided spaces, liturgical rhythms that will stick with them as an ever-present reminder that God’s justice, hope, and healing is more real than the darkness that surrounds.
That article was published on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018. That same day there was a school shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen people were killed. You may remember this image:
A woman bearing the cross from an Ash Wednesday service now having to face the harsh darkness prevalent in the world. This is why we can’t gloss over our mortality and why we have a service like this.
Our times of worship cannot serve to disconnect us from the world; to remind us of fairy tales that do not touch reality. Worship reminds us of what is real. Our God tells us the truth of what we will face, he prepares us with hope and strength not our own, and he sends us to work for his kingdom.
We are dust. We are mortal. But the one who formed us out of dust has promised to reform us, when our perishable body will put on the imperishable, and the mortal will put on immortality. For there is victory over death in Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:53-57).
A Time of Prayer and Confession
We may know this truth, but too often we live out lies. We act like the world is full of heroes, ourselves included, who have no failings or blemishes. Then when we are confronted by our failings, we struggle.
So let us confess over and again our sin and our need for God to be our provider. Let us acknowledge and know intimately our mortality and how our world is fallen. Let us then unite around that truth, recognizing our shortcomings, looking with hope to the grace of God.
Let us pray this together, from St. Ambrose:
O Lord, who hast mercy upon all, take away from me my sins, and mercifully kindle in me the fire of thy Holy Spirit. Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh, a heart to love and adore Thee, a heart to delight in Thee, to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen
And let us confess to our merciful God with this prayer taken from the Book of Common Worship
God of mercy, you sent Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost. We confess that we have strayed from you and turned aside from your way. We are misled by pride, for we see ourselves pure when we are stained, and great when we are small. We have failed in love, neglected justice, and ignored your truth.
Have mercy, O God, and forgive our sin. Return us to paths of righteousness through Jesus Christ, our Savior.
Here is a song to aid in worship and lead us to further confession, “Lord, Have Mercy” by Matt Papa.
Humbly Look to Receive Everything from Christ
As we reflect on our mortality in this season of Lent, we are to become humble. We are brought low in God’s presence. The goal is not shame or defeat. Rather humility is to give us a posture where we can and will receive all we need from God.
When we can say we are mortal and frail, that we are guilty and deserving death, we then humbly look up and see Christ on the cross. He took on the weakness of our flesh and took all our burdens, so we can receive all we need in him. Humbled we learn to depend on him alone.
Let us now listen to a song that captures this so well. A song called “All I Have is Christ”, by Jordan Kauflin.
For a people who have lost much, and will face more loss, let us confess this enduring truth: Hallelujah, all I have is Christ
And this truth is not spoken bitterly, but proclaimed joyfully for such a possession is all we need. Hallelujah, all I have is Christ
For a mortal people surrounded by death, let us confess this good news: Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.
And not for this life alone does Jesus save, but forever. Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.
Receive this benediction from Romans 15:
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Like many protestants, growing up I placed more value on prayers that were off the cuff. To borrow more contemporary phrases, you want to be “authentic” or “organic.” Just reading someone else’s words was too “ritualistic.”
While I do think there is value in praying without a script, I’ve grown to appreciate learning from and using other’s prayers, too. Like in any relationship, you need to be both spontaneous as well as deliberate and thought out. Written prayers can help with that deliberate side, as you search and meditate on the words.
The psalms are such a rich place to do that sort of prayer. It is full of words that can not only be our prayer, but teach us to pray. That doesn’t mean we need to come away speaking King-James-style (the Bible translation, not Lebron) every time we pray. But we can learn from the content, the patterns, and the heart behind these psalms.
This week we read Psalm 19, and it ends with such a simple and beautiful prayer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used it, and I hope it can be a blessing as you use it to pray, as well as a model to help you learn to find our own words.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.