Ep.209: Psalm 95: Call to Worship.

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

Psalm 95 communicates two different messages. The first is a beautiful call to worship, an invitation to praise God in a community of worshippers. The second is a stern reminder, repeated from the previous psalm, that true worshipers listen to God and obey his voice.

The call to worship summons us to praise God because he rules over creation. The depths of earth, the heights of the mountains, the roiling sea and the dry land are all works of his hand. 

A second call to worship summons us to kneel before God, thankful that we too are his creation. But we are not  mere created objects, wandering aimlessly through a vast universe. We are God’s sheep, God is our shepherd. The hand that formed the worlds cares tenderly for his flock. 

The poet now moves to his second theme, saying:
    If only you would hear his voice
         do not harden your hearts (vv. 7-8). 

Here, the poet speaks as prophet revealing God’s heart. God longs that people would listen to him and heed his voice. But he has often experienced the opposite: His people turn from the place of worship back  to lives of faithless struggle. Our songs of praise get lost in lives of employment, pandemic, personal failure, social injustice, or outright idol worship. “O, if you would only listen to me and heed my voice” says God. But sadly,
      Their hearts go astray
          and they have not known my ways (v. 10). 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we worship you in the temple of creation. 

Yours are the depths of the earth and the height of the mountains. The title deed to my small property on earth excludes mines and minerals lurking below. But your ownership extends from the centre of the earth to the highest mountains. You built the world, and your name is on the title deed. 

We praise you for the seas, the vast oceans that we use for work and play, where we harvest food, where our ships travel for commerce and our navies patrol against enemies. Thank you also for the dry land, for we are land animals who walk the solid earth, and work it,and  build on it, and fight over it.

Thank you for sunsets and sunrises as earth spins from day to night and night to day. Thank you for the phases of the moon that regulate the tides and mark our months, for the seasons that attend our pilgrimage around the sun. Thank you for our home in the solar system, for the Christmas conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that reminded us of the Star of Bethlehem.

Thank you that you are our shepherd, the guardian and overseer of our lives. In the pandemic, conspiracy theorists derisively call us “sheeple”, accusing us of giving away our freedoms by wearing masks and following questionable medical advice.

O God, our shepherd, we are not your sheeple, we are the sheep of your pasture, who listen to your voice and  search for your truth.  In the social and political confusion of life, our society shows the weakness of its hold on sanity and wisdom. Care for us, God, lead us through problems bigger than we can understand and solve. We are not the independent, self-sufficient cowboys of the American myth, we are people bound together by a common culture, a shared civilization, worldwide medical problems, and governments that triy to act wisely. 

Help us to live as the sheep of your flock, help us to speak your truth to our world, help to live your life into our culture. And save us, Lord, for we need your deliverance.  

Amen.

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

Ep.208: The Active Word of God.

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

Hebrews 4 makes two comments on how the word of God works in our lives. 

The first comment answers the question, “After God helped the Israelites escape from Egypt to go in the Promised Land, how come they got stuck in the desert for 40 years?”  

The New Testament Book of Hebrews gives this answer: When the Israelites encountered tough times, they were quick to blame God for their problems. They invented a conspiracy theory that God brought them out of Egypt just to watch them die in the desert (Exo 14:11-12). 

Their hearts were stuck in the slave mindset of complaining: blame it on the government, blame it on the leaders, blame it on the opposition. God’s response was another promise. He said,
  “I declared an oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest’” (Heb 3:11, quoting Psalm 95). 

Hebrews concludes that though the Israelites heard the good news, the message didn’t sink in. It did not benefit them because they did not combine it with faith (Heb 4:2).  

God’s promises to us don’t work like his word at creation. Back then, he said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. But his promises to us are useless unless we receive them with faith.

How and where to find faith is a problem. 

Some teach that faith is something you generate in yourself: you focus and psych yourself up until you believe! But for most of us, that doesn’t  work. Instead, ours is a journey of faith, through a Desert of Unbelief. In times of trouble, we struggle … to keep a soft heart toward God. We struggle … to quash the lies and conspiracy theories. We struggle … to live in the light God gives us.  

Hebrews makes another comment about God’s word, saying:
  The word of God is living and active,
        sharper than a double-edged sword
        it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow;
        it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). 

Nothing in this verse suggests faith is required. Here the word of God acts directly and powerfully like it did at creation, separating light and darkness, dividing soul and spirit, piercing joints and marrow. 

Imagine for a moment your knight in shining armor, driving his sword into your stomach, until it hits your diaphragm, separating your breath or spirit from your soul or your sense of self.  Imagine again the sword driving into your elbow, piercing the joint and separating the bones.

Not exactly comforting images, are they? 

Let’s pray. 

Our Father, we sympathize with the Israelites’ wilderness journey. Like them we find your way difficult. You often leave us thirsty and hungry. The promised land is distant and elusive. We are not sure how to quiet our complaining, how to combine your promises with faith.  

We hear you promise that your word is living and active like a double edged sword. May it judge the thoughts and attitudes of our hearts. May it expose the inner sources of our lack of faith. May it do its surgery on our hearts. O God, you freed us from bondage, now free us from the faithlessness we learned in our long years of slavery. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.207: Psalm 94: Praying in Three Voices.

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

In Psalm 94, the poet speaks with three voices of prayer: a voice of complaint, a teaching voice, and a voice of confidence and praise. 

The psalm starts with a complaint to Jehovah, God of vengeance.

This psalm, and others, present two different views of God’s vengeance. The first view is the vengeance as imagined by the poets. The poets are not impartial judges, objectively suggesting measured punishments for measured evil. As victims of ruthless oppressors, bloody wars, slander in court, sometimes hounded to death, they want God to set things right…now… by stopping the evil and stomping on the evildoer.. The poets offer helpful suggestions for how to punish enemies and destroy their lives and property. While we approve the poets’ desire for justice, we are sometimes shocked at their vicious suggestions for revenge. 

The other view of God’s vengeance is how God works to bring about justice. He rarely follows the poets’ violent suggestions. Instead, he’s fair and just in protecting the innocent, delivering the weak, and helping the poor against abusive adversaries. God’s administration of justice often lets people reap what they sow.Those who live by the sword die a violent death. 

After his prayer for justice, the poet adopts a teacher’s voice, pointing out that ignoring God is not an option. Despite God’s silence and apparent indifference, he is attentive to the world he made and the people he loves. God who created ears . . . hears what is happening. God who created eyes . . . sees injustice. God who disciplines the nations . . . will set things right. But perhaps not on the urgent schedule the poet would prefer.  

The poet now moves to his third voice, expressing praise and thankfulness to God. He says,
  When my foot was slipping,
        your unfailing love supported me.
  When anxiety was great within me,
        your consolation brought me joy (vv. 18-19).
  The Lord has become my fortress,
        my God the rock in whom I take refuge (v. 22). 

Let’s pray. 

Lord, we feel that violence should be rewarded with violence. Isn’t the answer to bad guys with guns, good guys with guns? Isn’t the answer to murder, to kill the perpetrator by capital punishment? Isn’t the answer to assault and bloodshed to visit violence on the guilty? Are you not God, the avenger? Do you not find our suggestions helpful?

O God, you are slow to avenge, slow to stop the violent in their tracks, slow to rescue the orphan and widow and alien. Is this because you are not paying attention? Do you not see? Do you not hear?

But you who created the eye, you do see. You created the ear, you do hear. You discipline the nations, surely you will punish the wicked and set the world right. We submit our case to you, God. If our violent solutions are not acceptable, if our proposed schedule is unhelpful, we invite you to do your work in your way and in your time.  

We give thanks that you are God. When we have great anxiety, you console us with joy. When we are vulnerable, you are our fortress. Lead us and protect us until our lives are safe and our world is at peace.

Amen.

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

Ep.206: Heart Problems.

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

Hebrews 3 warns the reader against unbelief, citing as an example Israel’s unbelief during their forty-year wilderness journey. Quoting Psalm 95, it says: 

So, as the Holy Spirit says:
Today, if you hear [God’s] voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
    where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, “Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.”’ (Heb 3:7-11).

The writer warns, “Do not harden your hearts”. Why? Because a hard heart is an impediment to faith.

The first Bible character to be diagnosed with a hard heart was Pharaoh. When Moses advocated  for the Hebrew slaves and God sent plagues on Egypt, Pharaoh refused to understand this new reality that was invading his kingdom. He wanted to keep living in his old reality, where he was the only king and no one questioned him.

When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they wanted to go back to Egypt. Their hearts weren’t big enough to take in the new reality that God might look after them in the desert. 

Just like Pharaoh and the Israelites. people still cling to the past. The “Make America Great Again” movement looks back to a great past, instead of facing current realities. Climate deniers resist evidence that the world is changing around us. Many evangelicals feel the way forward is to return to an older culture and a simpler faith. 

When Carl F. H. Henry was editor of Christianity Today, theologian Karl Barth once asked him, “Is the name of your magazine Christianity Today or Christianity Yesterday?” Each generation struggles to live Christianity today. If we imitate Pharaoh, we focus on the good old days and harden our hearts to today. If we imitate Israel, we want to return to the past instead of learning the difficult lessons God is teaching us today.  

Here’s another example of a hard heart. I once talked to a man who said, “God doesn’t exist. A loving God would end poverty and violence and injustice. Unchecked evil proves there is no God of love.” I replied, “If you were God, you would fix all the evil. But suppose God has a different program than yours? Why don’t you check the Bible to see what God’s program is?” The man had a soft heart toward the suffering world, but was unable to soften his heart enough to ask if God had a different program.

Prayer can also lead to a soft heart or a hard heart. God promises to do whatever we ask, but he doesn’t fix our lives and the world. It is tempting to abandon prayer with the thought, “God must not care about these problems” or “I guess I’m not the sort of person he listens to.” A wiser perspective, that comes from a soft heart, says, “There’s something here I don’t understand. I wonder, what is God saying to me?” 

Let’s pray. 

O Jesus, like Pharaoh and the Israelites, we find change difficult. We are stuck in our old ways of thinking. With the author of Hebrews we pray,
  Today when we hear your voice,
      help us not to harden our hearts (Heb 3:15).

Help us to believe you are active in our world today–in the pandemic, in the  weather, in our wilderness journeys, in the church. Make us willing to hear your voice. Soften our hard hearts until we see your presence and hear your word in the reality we live today.

Amen. 

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

Ep.205: Psalm 93: Unchanging God, Immovable Earth.

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

Psalm 93, which we look at today, highlights three immovable foundations of the poet’s faith: God on his throne is eternal, the earth is immovably fixed in place, and God’s law is unchangeable. 

For us moderns, these fixed foundations raise questions. The poet imagined a stationary earth, with sun and moon and stars circling around it. Our modern imagination pictures a moving earth circling the sun, part of a solar system moving through space, belonging to one galaxy among millions traversing the universe. The earth is far more moveable than the poet imagined. 

The poet also cites God’s law as immutable. To him, God’s law was the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. These books regulated ancient Israel’s diet, clothes, sacrifices, worship, and morality. Our modern understanding of the Old Testament law divides it into obsolete bits we’ve discarded (like animal sacrifices and unclean foods), flexible bits we tweak (like choosing Sunday instead of Saturday for our sabbath), and inflexible bits which we see as mandatory (like most of the Ten Commandments). When we take the Bible literally, we don’t mean we do everything it says. We mean we subscribe to a system of interpretation that carefully selects the bits that apply to us. God’s law in the Bible is not immutable for us in the same way it was for the poet; because we discard bits we think are culturally conditioned and emphasize bits we think are unchanging moral laws. And argue endlessly about how to tell the difference.. 

The poet’s third immovable foundation is God’s eternal throne. Here we are on firmer ground, because like the poet, we believe God is eternal, that he created heaven and earth, and that he rules them a hidden providence. We have moved beyond the poet’s understanding to a faith in Christ who will one day bring the world under his direct and visible government.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, even though our cosmology and our relationship to the Old Testament law differ from the poet’s, we share his articles of faith. 

With him we say,
  You reign Lord,
        you are robed in majesty and armed with strength.
  Your throne was established long ago,
        you are from all eternity (vv. 1-2). 
   The seas have lifted up their voice,
        the seas have lifted up their pounding waves.
  Mightier than the thunder of great waters,
        mightier than the breakers of the sea–
        the Lord on high is mighty (vv. 3-4). 

You, God, are mighty: greater than Carribean hurricanes and cyclones in southeast Asia and tsunamis in the Pacific. In the short history of mankind as we know it, the earth has provided a predictable home for us. The waters of the ocean are held back by land, the rain and sun nurture crops, the climate has been stable. But now, as the globe warms, perhaps due to natural cycles or to human activity, we see the stability of the earth changing. Lands once fruitful are becoming deserts, coastlands flood as oceans rise, weather events are more destructive. 

O Lord, are these changes your judgement for our greedy stewardship of the earth? Or in the cycles of nature that you supervise, is it time for the earth to change, causing the death and dislocation of billions as we seek liveable climate and politics and security? 

Your statutes, O Lord, stand firm. May our lives be defined by your laws, whatever happens in our government and weather. Help us to welcome strangers instead of building walls and buying guns. Help us preserve life instead of destroying it. Help us build community instead of escaping off the grid. As others turn to lies and selfishness, help us hold fast to the truth.  

You are mighty Lord, mightier than floods and winds and changes of time. In our short, uncertain lives, may we be good stewards of everything you have given us. Hold us in your eternal hand, bring us at last to your eternal home. 

Amen.

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