Ep.227: Psalm 105: Memories.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Psalm 105 is a recital of Israel’s history. I used to find it rather tedious and wondered why the poet thought it necessary to versify this material. Surely the history books were adequate. Couldn’t he be more creative with his poetry?

Re-reading the psalm recently, I learned it may have been written to encourage Israelites during the Babylonian exile. Let’s observe how the poet chose stories from history to hearten the discouraged exiles. 

The psalm’s history review begins with Abraham saying:
    God is mindful of his covenant forever. . .
    the covenant he made with Abraham
      his promise to Isaac. . .
    which he confirmed to Jacob as a statue,
      to Israel as an everlasting covenant (vv. 8-9). 

God made his promises when Abraham and his descendants were a little lost tribe in the vast land of Canaan. God protected them there, even rebuking kings, saying “Do not touch my anointed ones!” (v. 15). This sounds like the stories where Abraham passed off his wife as his sister, and God warned the local king not to take her into his harem (Gen. 20). If the Israelites in Babylon felt like a little lost tribe in a big, dangerous world, the poet’s message was, This is not a new experience for Israel or for God. He can handle it. He will be faithful to his forever promises. 

The writer next cites Joseph, whose brothers became annoyed that he was daddy’s favorite, and that he had dreams about becoming the family patriarch. When they sold him to Egyptian traders, his dreams were lost in exile, slavery, and prison. But God remembered him and made his dreams come true. Joseph became a powerful Egyptian ruler and saved his family and the whole country from famine. The message for exiles is that God who remembered Joseph in Egypt remembers you in Babylon, and he will help you. 

The poem moves to a third historical recital, the story of the Exodus, where Moses and God confronted Pharaoh with plagues until Pharaoh released God’s people from slavery. Then God helped them escape, taking them on an impossible journey through the Red Sea and the desert to the Promised Land. This God will one day free the exiles from Babylon and take them on their journey home. 

A striking feature of this psalm is how the poet edited Israel’s history. He deleted all the sin and rebellion! There is no mention of the evil Joseph’s brothers did or, of 4forty faithless years wandering in the desert. The poem recites only larger events that ended happily. Why? I think the exiles already knew how badly things go wrong. They needed encouragement and hope.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, you reminded the Israelites of their their history. You watched over Abraham when he was a stranger in a strange land. You protected Joseph as a prisoner and slave. You remembered your people in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land to worship you. 

Lord, we too are foreigners and exiles (1 Pet 2:11), for our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). Lead us through danger and deserts to the land you have promised. With the poet we pray:
    Bring us out with joy,
      your chosen ones with singing.
    Bring us to a place where we
      we can keep your statutes
      and observe your laws (vv. 43, 45, paraphrased).       

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.226: Dirty Conscience.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Hebrews 9 says that worshippers in ancient Israel’s religion needed to be cleansed with the blood of bulls and goats. The author continues: 
   How much more will the blood of Christ,
      who through the eternal Spirit offered himself . . . to God,
      cleanse our consciences from dead works,
          so that we may serve the living God (Heb 9:14). 

The Christian conscience needs to be cleansed? From dead works? Let’s look for a moment at this problem conscience, and at what kind of works it must be cleansed from. 

I was raised to believe that my conscience is God’s gift to help me tell right from wrong. If my conscience feels guilty, I have done wrong. If my conscience isn’t bothering me, I must be doing right. 

The New Testament presents a more nuanced view of the conscience. It talks of a seared conscience (1 Tim 4:2), a defiled conscience (Titus 1:15), a weak conscience (1 Cor 8:7), and in our passage today, a conscience attuned to dead works (Heb 9:14). Paul even suggests keeping your conscience in the dark sometimes. For example, if your food might have been offered to idols, don’t ask, because your conscience might make a fuss (1 Cor 10:27). Paul says of himself, “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4). 

In short, the conscience is a useful but defective arbiter of good and evil. It needs to be trained (Heb 5:14, KJV) so it will help your spiritual life instead of hindering it. 

Hebrews goes on to say that our consciences must be cleansed from dead works. What are these dead works that dirty the conscience?

Modern ethical theories focus on the question, “What is ethical behaviour?” They pose problems like this: A train is hurtling down the tracks toward an accident. If you throw the switch to divert the train onto a siding, it will save 25 passengers. But it will kill the five workmen on the siding. Should you throw the switch? 

Scriptural ethics have a different focus. Rather than creating endless lists of right and wrong actions, or specifying all the works you need to do, scripture addresses the kind of people we should become. We are on a journey of the heart. Our attitudes and motives must be purified, our thinking must become wide and loving like God’s. On this journey, as we become like Christ, our consciences come free of scrupulous attempts to manage all the details of behaviour, and instead grow sensitive and flexible to relationships where love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8) –both our sin and others. 

Luther famously wrote, “Sin boldly, but believe even more boldly in Christ and rejoice.”  Sin boldly? Does that sound Christian? He wrote this in a letter to Melancthon, his fellow reformer, who was prone to scrupulosity and attacks of conscience (Fred Sanders at “Sin Boldly!” – The Scriptorium Daily). Luther was addressing ta similar problem Hebrews. That is, don’t permit a weak conscience to govern all your actions. The measure of our lives is not the volume of evil we manage to avoid, but the great love we learn to give. This requires us to step out in faith and do something useful in the world. Our attempts at love and service will often be impatient, wrong-headed, or self-serving. But we can trust God’s grace and forgiveness to see us through our failures.

Let’s pray

Our Lord, some of us have spent too much time trying to keep a clear conscience and to manage our behaviour. We have spent too little time learning to love you and our neighbors. Our feet and consciences are dirty from walking through this world of idols and materialism and moral relativity. Wash our feet, Lord, as you did the disciples’, cleanse us from useless works, so that we may serve the living God.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

Ep.225: Psalm 104: God’s Playhouse.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Psalm 104 opens with an amazing description of God:
    The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
        he stretches out the heavens like a tent
        and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
    He makes the clouds his chariot
        and rides on the wings of the wind.
    He makes the winds his messengers,
        flames of fire his servants (vv. 2-4). 

These striking pictures of God playing in his creation. He dresses himself up in light. The heavens are the tent  he plays in. The upper story of his house goes right through the blue sky, with its joists fixed on the water above. He makes a chariot of the clouds and employs fire as his personal valet. He uses wind for the messaging app on his world wide web. God who created light, water, wind, clouds, and fire, now uses them for his clothes, transportation, servants, and messaging app.

Let’s pray some of the phrases from this psalm. 

Our God, we have seen wildfires in California and Australia and Siberia, driven restlessly by wind, consuming the plains and forests, sending smoke to the heavens. You are the God who rides on the wings of the wind, whose servants are flames of fire. 

The poet says:
    You water the mountains from your upper chambers;
       the land is satisfied by the fruit of your work.
    You make grass grow for cattle,
        and plants for people to cultivate. 
        The earth provides food:
     wine that makes our hearts glad
        oil that makes our faces shine,
        bread that sustains our hearts (vv. 14-15). 

You provide the necessities and luxuries of life: wine, oil, flour for bread. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, and which incorporates itself with the grapes to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy!” 

The poet says,
    All creatures look to you
        to give them their food at the proper time. . . .
    When you open your hand,
        they are satisfied with good things.
    When you hide your face,
        they are terrified;
    when you take away their breath,
        they die and return to the dust.
    When you send your breath,
        they are created,
        and you renew the face of the ground (vv. 27-30).

We, like all creatures, Lord, receive our food from your hand. When your hand is open, we are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, we are terrified. When you take away our breath, we return to dust. 

But when you send your spirit, we are born again, and you renew the face of the earth. 

O Lord, this is the mystery of life. Our bodies come from the ground, and our food grows in the ground, and our lives end in the ground. But our breath, our spirit comes from you. We try to own the ground from which we come, and manage the clay bodies we live in, but it is you who sets the limits of our lives. You breathed into us when we were dust, you sustain us on this dusty earth, and one day our breath will return to you. 

With the poet we pray,
  May your glory be forever, Lord,
      may you rejoice in the work of your hands (v. 31).
  Let us sing to you, Lord, while we live,
      let our hymn be of you as long as we have breath (v.33). 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.224: How God’s Covenant Went Wrong.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

The book of Hebrews makes this comment about the covenant Moses mediated with God at Sinai: “If there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, there wouldn’t be a need for another” (Heb 8:7). That’s strong language. Something was wrong with the covenant God organized? So he had to abandon it? And make a new one? 

To describe what was wrong with the covenant, Hebrews quotes the prophet Jeremiah,
    The days are coming, declares the Lord,
        when I will make a new covenant
        with the people of Israel. . .
    It will not be like the covenant
        I made with their ancestors
    when I took them by the hand
        to lead them out of Egypt,
    because they did not remain faithful to my covenant,
        and I turned away from them,
            declares the Lord (Heb 8:8-9). 

Did you notice: the author used that quote to turn a hidden corner in his argument. Instead of telling us what was wrong with the covenant, he tells what was wrong with the people who agreed to the covenant. That’s a big difference.

Then, Hebrews tells us what the new covenant will look like, again quoting Jeremiah:
    This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel. . .
          after that time, declares the Lord.
    I will put my laws in their minds
          and write them on their hearts. . .
    No longer will they teach their neighbours,
          or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”
    because they will all know me,
          from the least of them to the greatest (Heb 8:10-11).  

I have three observations about the new covenant. 

First, it was promised to Israel, not Gentiles. So does the new covenant belong to the Church? Jesus and the New Testament do not clarify how the transition from Israel to the church worked. The church has discarded parts of the old covenant, like animal sacrifice, and claimed other parts as its own, such as God’s promise to bless the whole world through Abraham. The church has consigned much of the Old Testament to the category of “stories about God from which we can learn lessons”. What we learn is not to repeat Israel’s wars, its politics, or its religion. Instead, we want to reproduce something of the relationship with God which Israel expressed through the prophets and the psalms. 

A second observation on the new covenant: it has not yet been fulfilled in the way Jeremiah explained it. For example, he says,
    No longer will they teach their neighbours,
      or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”
    because they will all know me (Heb 8:10-11).

If you’ve attended church or browsed some Christian books recently, you’ll notice that a frequent topic is, “How to know God better”. Clearly, we’re not yet where Jeremiah promised, where it’s no longer necessary to preach that sermon. 

My third observation on the new covenant is a personal question: “Has God put his law in your mind and written it on your heart?” Or does your heart, like mine, keep going astray? As far as I can tell, God has not given me one life-changing event in which he wrote his law on my mind and heart. Rather, he writes it bit by bit, day by day, as I meditate on scripture and engage in spiritual disciplines.  

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we want to receive the new covenant you promised Israel. We want your law written on our hearts and in our minds. Help us grow out of our immaturity, out of our need for constant teaching and reminders. Help us grow into the place where we know you in a deep and permanent way. 

We pray the Anglican collect, “Grant us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the scriptures] that by patience and the comfort of your Holy Word we may embrace and hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. . .” (Book of Common Prayer, collect for Second Sunday of Advent).

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

Ep.223: Psalm 103: Bless the Lord, O My Soul.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Psalm 103 opens with a well-known call to worship:
    Bless the Lord, O my soul,
        and all that is within me
        bless his holy name (v. 1). 

Some modern translations say “Praise the Lord” instead of “Bless the Lord”, but I prefer the word bless. I like the reciprocity, the relationship implied by mutual blessing: God blesses us, and we bless him back. When we feel God’s goodness in our lives, we respond by speaking blessing to others and back to God. Bless the Lord, O my soul. 

The poet blesses God for the good things he gives. God forgives, heals, redeems, crowns us with love and compassion, satisfies our desires with good things, and renews our life like the eagle’s (vv. 3-5). God’s blessings move us toward  lives of wholeness, health, and meaning. 

The poet, who has faced God’s anger and displeasure, does not give way to fear, but asserts positively:
  He will not always accuse,
      nor will he harbour his anger forever;
  he does not treat us as our sins deserve,
      or repay us according to our iniquities.
  For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
      so great is his love for those who fear him;
  as far as the east is from the west,
      so far has he removed our transgressions from us (vv. 9-12). 

Author Walter Brueggemann says, “Psalm 103 stuns those in the chaos of the exile with the proclamation that YHWH [God] acts out of compassion rather than a precise moral calculus. Divine generosity far outlasts the encounter with divine wrath” (Psalms, by Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Cambridge University Press, 2018, Kindle, chapter “Psalm 103”). God doesn’t crunch the numbers, weighing our bad deeds against our good. He  forgoes punishing sin, he discards the memory of it, and acts with infinite love. 

Let’s pray to this generous God. 

   As a father has compassion on his children,
    so you have compassion on us, Lord.
  You know how we are formed,
    you remember that we are dust (vv. 13-14). 

Our father, where we have castigated ourselves for broken relationships, failed resolutions, and endless sin, we come to you for forgiveness, healing, and redemption. Where we have lived with long regret for things done and said, and for things not done and not said, we come to you. We remember your promise to satisfy our desires with good things and to renew our life like the eagles (v. 5). Satisfy us, Lord, with the healing of our bodies and minds, with the restoration of relationships, with growing character, and hearts at rest. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days (Ps 90:14). 

The poet says,
    The life of mortals is like grass,
        they flourish like a flower of the field;
    the wind blows over it and it is gone,
        and it’s place remembers it no more.
    But from everlasting to everlasting
        your love is with those who fear you,
        and your righteousness with their children’s children (vv. 15-17). 

Yes Lord, we feel our lives and our world passing away like grass. The great American democracy drifts toward chaos, Russian politics revert to brutal dictatorship, and the Chinese empire assets its power in a violent world. Our bodies age, our loved ones decline, we attend more funerals than weddings. But your love, O Lord, is from everlasting to everlasting, and your righteousness with our children’s children. 

With poet John G. Whittier, we respond to your love, as he says:
    Yet, in this maddening maze of things,
        And tossed by storm and flood,
    To one fixed hope my spirit clings,
        I know that God is good.
    I dimly guess from blessings known,
        Of greater out of sight,
    And with the chastened psalmist own,
        His judgments too are right (The Eternal Goodness, lines 41-44, 53-56).. 

Judge us, O Lord, as you must, but in mercy and love, in kindness and gentleness. 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.