Ep.120: What is Truth?

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

After Jesus’ prayer in John 17, the action moves quickly toward his crucifixion. Judas betrays him, the Jewish high priest interrogates him, Peter denies him, and Pilate, the Roman governor, tries to figure out what it all means. 

Consider Pilate’s conversation with Jesus in John 18. 

Pilate opens with a contemptuously ironic question to the lone prisoner who had been deserted by friends and hounded by countrymen, “You are the king of the Jews?” 

Jesus replies in a suitably ironic fashion, “Did you think this up yourself or did someone tell you?” 

Pilate replies, “I’m no expert on Jewish politics. It’s your people who want me to judge you. What did you do?” 

Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.” 

“Ahh!” thinks Pilate. “He has a fantasy kingdom.” So he plays along with the fantasy, saying, “Then, you are a king.” 

Jesus replies, “You’re right. I was born to speak the truth. Everyone who cares about the truth listens to me.” 

Pilate looks at the the unlikely prisoner. Is this man king of the truth? Is this man king of the Jews? He shrugs and says, “What is truth?” 

Pilate’s truth was the Roman truth–the truth of power to conquer ancient nations, to suppress news he didn’t want to hear, to grant pardons to friends and crucify those who annoy him. He saw no truth in Jesus’ religious arguments with Jewish leaders. He saw no truth in Jesus’ claim to kingship. He had no time for this fantasy kingdom, a kingdom not of this world. To Pilate, Jesus was the king of fools, living in a country of foolish Jews. Someday Rome might have to crush all this foolishness.  

Meanwhile, Pilate had to respond to the Jewish leaders who brought Jesus to him for questioning. “I find no basis for a charge against him,” he said. “But it’s time for your passover festival. I can release one prisoner for you.” And then with ironic scorn that he knew would nettle the leaders, “Shall I release the King of the Jews?” 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, you said that whoever cares about truth listens to you. But we are pragmatic like Pilate. Our truth is things that work. A democracy with good leaders and a Christianity that grows through conversions. Our truth is medical technology that heals bodies, psychology that heals hurts, and a military that protects us and buries our enemies with shock and awe. Our truth is scriptures that tell us what to do and how to do it, and a God who rewards the good in us and punishes the evil in others. 

But you did not give Pilate a pragmatic truth. You did not explain the truth to him. You only said that you tell the truth, and that those who care about truth listen to you. O Jesus, give us ears to hear what you say. Give us eyes to see the truth of your kingdom. Give us courage to leave the kingdom of Pontius Pilate, the kingdom of the Jews, and the kingdom of this world. Make us citizens where you are king, in the kingdom of your truth.

Amen. 

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

Ep.119: Psalm 51: I Have Sinned.

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

Today, we look at Psalm 51, King David’s penitential psalm. Here’s the back story: While a soldier named Uriah was posted to a war zone, David got Uriah’s wife pregnant. So David arranged for Uriah to get killed in battle. With Uriah out of the way, David married Bathsheba. The problems were nicely solved. Except that the prophet Nathan visited David and rebuked him in God’s name for adultery and murder. Psalm 51 is David’s response to Nathan’s stinging rebuke. 

I find Psalm 51 is remarkable for several reasons. 

First, David does not name the sin he is confessing. Is it adultery? Murder? Abuse of power to weave a web of lies around his failure? Is it ignoring the covenant relationship with God and acting like an arrogant oriental despot? The psalm doesn’t say. 

Psalm 51 is also remarkable because David does not identify the individuals he sinned against. He says his sin is against God, and God only (v. 4). And he says nothing about the human relationships he has damaged through adultery, murder, and abuse of power.

Another remarkable feature of the psalm is its vivid images of sin. Listen to them: 

  • I know my transgressions 
  • my sin is always before me 
  • against you O God and only against you have I sinned
  • I have done what is evil in your sight (vv. 3-4).
  • I was born guilty
  • I was a sinner when my mother conceived me (v. 5).  
  • deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed (v. 14). 

David presents no comforting metaphor of sin as sickness. He does not attempt to justify his actions. He does not hide behind excuses or reasons. All he can offer is a clear confession that evil is present in his person and actions.   

Now listen to the poet’s powerful request for cleansing from sin, for relief from guilt, and for a restored relationship with God. 

  • Have mercy on me, O God
  • Blot out my transgressions.
  • Wash away my iniquity.
  • Cleanse me from my sin (vv. 1-2).
  • Purge me with hyssop. 
  • Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow (v. 7) 
  • Hide your face from my sins (v. 9).
  • Create in me a pure heart (v. 10)
  • And deliver me from guilt (v. 14).

And finally, hear the poet’s remarkable assessment of what God really wants: 
     You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it (v. 16).
     My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit.
         A broken and contrite heart
         you, O God, will not despise (v. 17).
There on the altar of his life David places his broken spirit and his broken heart. What other offering can he make for his sin? 

Let’s pray the psalm.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love.
According to your great compassion,
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions.
    My sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done evil in your sight.
You are right when you sentence me
    and justified when you judge me.

Indeed, I was born guilty.
  I was a sinner when my mother conceived me. 
You desire truth in my inward being.
  Teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have broken rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins,
  blot out my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not fling me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    grant me a willing spirit to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.

Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Savior.
    My tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, O Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God,
    you will not despise.                                                                         

Amen.

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

Ep.118: The Hour has Come.

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

The day before he was crucified, Jesus prayed the prayer in John 17. He begins, “Father, the hour has come…. I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.” Jesus announced that his work on earth was finished. He had a clear sense of God’s to-do list for him, and he did it all. 

I’m more like Calvin, of Calvin and Hobbes, who said, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I am so far behind I will never die.” For Jesus, dying the next day was part of the work God gave him to do. Oddly enough, in the whole gospel of John, Jesus never said clearly he was expecting to die. He left it to the gospel writer John, to explain his puzzling predictions. For example, when Jesus said he would be “lifted up from the earth,” John explains that he was describing death on a cross (John 12:32-33). 

Let’s look briefly at three requests in Jesus’ prayer in John 17.

First he prays for himself saying, “Glorify me, God, so I can glorify you.” On meaning of “glory” is “beautiful” or “majestic” as in “a glorious sunrise”. It is also used of fame or success, like when a sports star “covers himself in glory.” Or more commonly with the teams I support, the commentator says, “They sure didn’t cover themselves with glory today!” 

I think the glory Jesus prays for is the success of the work he plans to do by dying and rising again. Jesus wants this great finale of his ministry to cover himself and God in glory. And then he wants to return to the glory he came from, a place of beauty and majesty and splendor in God’s presence in heaven.

Second, Jesus prays that God will protect the disciples from the evil one and sanctify them by the truth. He recognizes how dangerous the evil one or other enemies will be as they try to subvert the disciples’ mission or kill them. Failure may come from discouragement, unbelief, or moral failure within, or from persecution without.

Jesus prays for his disciples: “Father, they are not of the world. Sanctify them by your truth.” The disciples will live in the world as Jesus did, but he prays that their strength and identity will come from outside the world, from the truth that resides in God.

Third, Jesus prays for future believers–those who will receive the disciples’ message. He prays they will experience complete unity, in the same way Jesus is in God and God is in Jesus. Given the disunity in the worldwide Christian church today, it seems to me this prayer has gone unanswered for 2100 years. I hope the answer will come during our lifetime. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we pray for our mission as Jesus prayed for his. Our lives and work look small and mundane and unimportant. When at last we bring them to your judgement, may we hear you say, “Well done.” May we be covered in glory. 

We pray for all your servants as Jesus did. Protect us from the evil one. Sanctify us by your truth, for your word is truth. 

We pray for the church using the Anglican liturgy:
“Remember, Lord,
your one holy catholic and apostolic Church,
redeemed by the blood of your Christ.
Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace” (The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada. Toronto: ABC publishing, 1985. 195.)

Amen. 

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

Ep.117: Psalm 50: Cattle on a Thousand Hills.

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

There’s an old Sunday school song that begins “God owns the cattle on a thousand hills.” It goes on to say, “He is my father so they’re mine as well.” 

Clearly the songwriter was inspired by Psalm 50, in which God says he doesn’t desperately need all the animal sacrifices the Israelites offer him because he already owns the cattle on a thousand hills. However, I’m not so sure that these cattle are “mine as well” I’m not heading out to the hills any time soon to bag a heifer for my freezer. 

Psalm 50 begins with God summoning all the earth to a meeting. There he addresses his people, those who have agreed that they will live their lives in relationship to the God who provides for them. This agreement was formalized in the covenant Moses negotiated with God at Mount Sinai. It was ratified with an animal sacrifice–the blood of a bull from one of those thousand hills (Ex. 24:8). This covenant implemented a social economy to care for the Isarelites and a system of animal sacrifices to express their continuing relationship to God. In Psalm 50, God gives messages two groups of covenant members: those who honor their relationship with him, and the wicked who ignore the terms of the covenant. 

God starts by reminding the Israelites that he is not their average local deity who depends on sacrifices to keep his table supplied with good quality meat. In God’s economy, sacrifices are not commercial transactions or bribes that manipulate God into producing what the people want. Instead, God offered the Israelites a relationship in which he looks after them as they honor him and create a human community in the pattern he suggests. While the sacrifices are acts of worship that God accepts, what he values most is the heart-felt thanksgiving that accompanies sacrifice (v. 14). 

God also speaks to the wicked In Psalm 50. He points out they they try to use the covenant to manipulate him. They go by the book, they have memorized all of God’s laws. Because they bring the prescribed sacrifices at the right time, they imagine that God is obligated to take care of them. But God complains that they don’t value the covenant relationship. They ignore God’s words, they partner with robbers, adulterers, and slanderers. God promises that the wicked will be destroyed, torn to pieces like the sacrifices they offer on his altar (v. 22). God is not rewarding their sacrifices, he is responding to their hearts.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we understand a law of contracts–a clear set of requirements that specifies and limits our obligations. Much like the system of sacrifices that gave instructions for exactly what to bring at each new moon or feast day or harvest. 

But in Psalm 50, you say that our duty is not limited by a contract, it is expanded by a covenant. Whenever we bring something to you, you want a heart of thanksgiving, a joy in relationship, our welcoming of your presence and goodness. Is it not enough for you that we attend church and sing in the choir and complain about the sermon and talk with a few friends after? Is your desire that we build a community where we love each other and you? 

The sermons tell us to abstain from evil. But what you want is not mere abstinence, but growth in love and giving and relationship. That is a high standard, God. Perhaps we’re not capable of it.

We invite you then to come to us and change us. As Thomas à Kempis prayed more than 500 years ago:
“Let your love dissolve my hard heart. Let your love raise me above myself. Let your love reveal to me joy beyond imagination… And let me see your love shining in the hearts of all people, that I may love them as I love you.” (Thomas à Kempis, Christ for all Seasons, ed. P. Toon, quoted in Harper Collins Book of Prayers compiled by Robert Van de Weyer. New York: HarperCollins, 1993. p. 359). 

Amen.

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

Ep.116: You Will Have Trouble.

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

In John chapters 14, 15, and 16, Jesus made long speeches on random topics with lots of repetition. He predicted events but didn’t give a timeline. He said, “I’m going away. You can’t come. I’ll send an advocate. In a little while you won’t see me, and then in a little while you will see me.” 

The confused disciples asked (in John 16), “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he’s saying” (vv. 17-18). I have the same problem: I often don’t understand Jesus. 

Instead of interpreting Jesus’ speech in John 16, I’ll just make a few observations:

First, it’s a fool’s errand to improve Jesus’ message by giving it an outline, putting his predictions in chronological order, and deleting his repetitions. Charles Neider took that approach with Mark Twain’s autobiography, quite successfully I think, but it’s not a job I’m competent to do, especially with things Jesus said. 

Second, I can’t explain Jesus’ words in a way that will give you “A ha!” moment making you feel, “Now at last I understand it.” For that, you need my Study Bible for Curmudgeonly Seniors. Unfortunately, I haven’t written it yet. I hope you don’t mind waiting.  

Another observation on John 16: Jesus describes two departures, not just one. 

First, he’ll go away for a little while. That’s when he is crucified and buried. It would have been much clearer if he had said, “Tomorrow is my crucifixion day. It will make you sad. But wait a little while, because Sunday is my resurrection day. That will make you glad.” 

Jesus’ second departure would be when he returned to heaven, only a couple months after the Last Supper. And he promised that when he went away that time, he would return in the person of his invisible advocate–the Holy Spirit–who would live in his disciples. That too would make them glad. 

My final observation is that Jesus promises to give many gifts to his disciples. One was the Spirit of truth (v. 12). We desperately need that gift today! Why? Because we struggle with many truths: the objective truth of science, the self-evident truth of nature, our intuitive sense of truth about people’s desires and motivations, the carefully interpreted truth we find in the Bible. We need the Spirit of truth to guide us to Jesus, who is himself the truth.

Jesus also gave the gift of prayer when he said, “My father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (v. 23). Prayer doesn’t work that way for me. I don’t get whatever I ask. But I’m with the disciples on this. I’m on the journey with Jesus. Somewhere, somehow, the promise is for me. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, John 16 closes with your statement “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (v. 33). You had trouble in this world, Jesus. You died a martyr, and you invite us to come and die. We experience the trouble you promised: trouble in our minds and hearts and emotions, trouble in our relationships, trouble finding our way in the world. And we hear your promise of more trouble ahead.

But we believe you have overcome the world. Conquer the world in which we live, and conquer the world within us, Jesus. Live inside us by the advocate you send, correct our thinking by the Spirit of truth, teach to us ask the Father for whatever we want in your name, and bring us to that place you promised where no one can take away our joy.

Amen. 

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

Ep.115: Psalm 49: Death will be their Shepherd.

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

As a wisdom poem, Psalm 49  reminds us that wealth can not protect us from the disaster of death. 

The first point the poet makes is that we are all held hostage by death. He says,
No one can redeem the life of another
     or give God a ransom for their life – 
the ransom for a life is costly,
     no payment is ever enough –
that they should live on forever
     and not see decay.
You see that the wise die,
     that the foolish and the senseless also perish,
     leaving their wealth to others. (vv 8-10) 

Death holds a gun to our head, the long fingers of Sheol grab at us from the grave. Rich and poor, foolish and wise, all will decay and become food for worms.

Is this cause for despair? Does this mean our lives are wasted?  The poet says, “No”, and suggests a different way to look at death. He says,
Here is the fate of those who trust in themselves,. . .
They are like sheep and are destined to die;
death will be their shepherd. . .
But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead;
     he will surely take me to himself (vv. 13-15). 

If you trust in yourself, death will be your shepherd. If you trust in God, he will shepherd you and redeem you from the realm of the dead and take you to himself.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, what a shocking view of life. Is life really just a parade to the grave? When my mother turned 90, she told me that her social life was mostly attending funerals. When she moved and I cleared out her room, I found a large collection of funeral bulletins with pictures and eulogies to people she knew and loved. But in the end she let all her friends go, and then she joined them. 

As the poet says,
    Despite their wealth, people do not endure,
      They are like the beasts that perish (v. 12). 

Are we like beasts before you, O God? Help us not to live as beasts, acting out our appetites for food and sleep and sex. Raise us up to be humans made in your image. Our life is short and temporary. Help us not to be slaves to our culture of things–filling our closets with clothes, our garages with vehicles, our lives with technology, and our safe deposit boxes with jewelry. Show us the futility of our efforts. Show us the danger that death will be our shepherd.

Jesus, we want you as our shepherd. Guide us through this world of stuff. Show us the true wealth of living in your care. And when death comes to call, may we hear your voice. Redeem us from the realm of the dead and take us to be with you. 

Amen.

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

Ep.114: Grapevine and Branches.

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

In John 15, Jesus told the disciples to abide in him, to remain in him. He explained this with a word picture, in which God is a gardener, Jesus is a grapevine in God’s garden, and the disciples are branches growing out of the vine.

The branches have two choices: stay connected to the vine so life will flow into them and they will produce grapes. Or disconnect from the vine, in which case they will fall off, dry up, and be burned as rubbish. 

I have never connected strongly with Christ’s gardening metaphor. I don’t think of myself as a branch waving in the wind trying to produce grapes. I’m more on the consumer end of the food chain–I like grapes that have turned into wine, beside a small plate of appetizers and a good book. 

In God’s garden, the branch is permanently and organically connected to the vine. Jesus wants his disciples to have a similar relationship to him. Here are two things I notice about this relationship.

First, unlike the branch and the vine, our connection to Christ is invisible. We don’t see him, we don’t see the Spirit he sends as advocate, and we don’t see a joint where our branch grows out of his vine. Remaining in him is an invisible process. 

Many people say about world religions, “They’re all basically the same because they all say ‘Do to others as you want others to do to you’.” But that’s not what Jesus says in John 15. He does not tell us we need a visible standard of moral behaviour. He says we need an invisible connection to him so his life can flow into our life and produce fruit. He tells us to remain in him, to sustain the connection, to persevere in our relationship. Fruitfulness is not the goal, it is a byproduct of the relationship. 

A second way in which the garden picture can play out is if the vine and the branch terminate their relationship and go separate ways. A branch disconnected from the vine will die.  If we disconnect from Jesus, we lose the flow of his life him into us that makes it possible for us to bear fruit and behave well.

Author Larry Crabb in his book, “Inside Out” (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2013) says the only way to achieve true and lasting change is to change on the inside first. Jesus wants to do an inside job on us, to connect us to himself in a way that changes our inner motivation, our thinking, our heart. 

Notice, however, that Jesus doesn’t avoid the topic of moral responsibility. He goes on to  say, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Does it sound like he is promoting love as the means by which we remain in him? Or is love the fruit of remaining in him? Jesus doesn’t give us a scientific formula to explain this. Nor does he give instructions on how to manage our relationship in a way that guarantees the fruit of love. Jesus just makes two simple suggestions: abide in him and love one another.

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, we have often set out to love our neighbor–perhaps our spouse or children or colleagues or others. But our good intentions founder on the rocks of our selfishness, our hurts, our likes and dislikes. We seem to be conditioned against long term, faithful love for these fallible and wayward humans around us. How quickly our grand plans reduce to “Don’t do to others what you don’t want others to do to you.” Is this a golden rule? Don’t be a jerk. Don’t promote evil against others. Maintain a nice, negative morality that requires only a grudging willingness to behave moderately well, that doesn’t aspire to love.

Jesus, we need to be changed on the inside. We need a new capacity to become lovers–lovers of God and others. We need a new source of strength to enable us. We need an abiding connection to you, so your life will flow into us and bear fruit. 

Amen. 

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