Ep.181: Psalm 80: God of Gardens, God of Armies.

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

Today we look at Psalm 80, a lament for the overthrow of Israel, and a plea for God to make a U-turn, to stop delivering the country to destruction and to begin restoring it. 

The psalm is marked by several striking pictures of God. It opens,
    Hear us, shepherd of Israel,
        you who lead Joseph like a flock.
    You who sit enthroned between the cherubim. . .
      Awaken your might;
      come and save us (v. 1-2).

In these two verses, the poet addresses God as shepherd of Israel, as king whose throne is in the temple, and as a mighty saviour who ought to rescue his people. 

Then follows a refrain that occurs three times in the psalm (vv. 3, 7, 19). The poet says,
    Restore us, God of Armies,
      make your face shine on us
      that we may be saved (vv. 3, 7, 19).

Do you find it odd asking God, the commander of armies, to smile at you? President Trump is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. army, but he isn’t famous for his smile.

As the poem continues, it describes God as a gardener who transplanted his vine, Israel, from Egypt into the Promised Land.There, he carefully tilled the ground and planted the vine, tenderly caring for it until it covered the whole Promised Land from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. But now, God has let the wall around his vineyard crumble. Wild boars trample the vines, insects infest them, and passers-by help themselves to the grapes. “Why have you let this happen?” asks the poet. “After all the trouble you took transplanting and tending the vine, have you suddenly quit caring about it?” 

Let’s pray the pictures of God from this psalm. 

Our father, God of Armies, the nations of our world look for strongman leaders. 

  • Leaders who project decisiveness and strength in the face of racial and economic and social conflict. 
  • Leaders who express sympathy for the troubles and prejudices of common people. 
  • Leaders who do not care about political correctness or moral values. 
  • Leaders with simple solutions to complex problems. 

God of Armies, it is your strength we need, for the time is coming when the strength of human leaders will fail, when their power will be revealed as weakness, and their wisdom as foolishness.

Our father, shepherd your people in these times. Lead us to wisdom. It is simple to believe in you, but not easy. In much of your church we see rigid theological opinions, strange political affiliations, unscriptural belief in individual freedom, and little understanding of community. Bring us out of our worldly values into the fellowship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Expose our illusions of self-sufficiency and lead us into community.

You who sit enthroned in your holy temple, help us live as holy people, as members of your family, as people set apart to serve you. Anxiety disorders increase during COVID-19, government support for the unemployed draws to an end, the count of sick and dead surges. O God, repair the wall around your garden, care for your vineyard again, look in mercy on all you have created, for the sake of your son Jesus Christ, who shared our human condition.

Amen

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

Ep.180: Making Jesus’ Stories Ours.

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

In recent episodes, we looked at twenty stories Jesus told. Today, let’s think about what we’ve learned from them.

I once asked a missionary, “Has your theology changed in forty years since you graduated?” 

He rightly understood it as a trick question. If I believed theology was fixed and should never change, his answer might make him look like a heretic. But if he hadn’t changed in 40 years, it might look like he wasn’t thinking and growing? 

He replied wisely and honestly: that his main discovery since graduation was that scripture gives us not a system of theology, but mostly stories to believe. 

He was right. The central article of our faith is the story of Jesus. Our English word “gospel” comes from Old English “gōd spel”, which means “good story”. 

In C. S. Lewis’ story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the children discovered that the back of their wardrobe sometimes became an entrance to the world of Narnia. In the wardrobe of my life, Jesus’ stories serve that function. My closet is full of worn out clothes and dubious ideas. But when I enter life through the stories of Jesus, they invite me into a new world with different characters and different plot. Jesus broadens my perspective to the possibility of new adventures in a new country. 

That’s how Jesus’ stories work for me. They aren’t just entertainment in the crowded wardrobe of my life. Instead, they tell me who I am, they paint a picture of the person I could be, they tell me where I could go if I step out of my wardrobe into the country of grace. 

As I listen to Jesus’ stories, I  am the woman making bread from 60 pounds of flour, using a bit of yeast to make the whole batch rise. In the back of my flour-dusted, doughy, yeasty wardrobe, Jesus promises, “If you let just a little of my kingdom into your life, and soon I will change all of it.” 

I am the prodigal who prefers parties and entertainment to life on the father’s farm. I fill my days with video games and Facebook and YouTube and messaging. But in the back of my cluttered, computer-driven social media wardrobe is a land where the father waits with open arms of welcome and forgiveness. Shall I run into his arms today? 

I am the prodigal’s older brother, regular at church, faithful in service, careful about my duties, insistent that all prodigals deserve law and order, not mercy. I stand with feet firmly apart and pistol ready to protect the family farm and the local religion from wayward and irresponsible and violent prodigals. But in the back of my righteous and well-ordered wardrobe, the father invites me to a new land where forgiveness reigns, where severity and self-protection give way to partying with prodigals. 

In Jesus’ story, I also become the father. If I look out the back of my wardrobe, I see a neighbourhood of people who need relationships and faith and life. Maybe it’s my turn to play the father, to come out of my closet, and kill the fatted calf, and light the barbeque, and throw a party for the whole neighbourhood. 

Let’s pray.

O Jesus, your stories invite us not to refine our theology, but to live our best lives, to move out of the narrow confines we live in, to explore the expanse of your country. O Jesus, touch our hearts with your stories, help us imagine the bigger and better life you offer. Help us find our way through the back of our wardrobe into the country where you are king. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.179: Psalm 79: War and Peace and Vengeance.

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

Today we look at Psalm 79, a wrenching lament for the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 B.C. A hundred years earlier, when the Assyrians attacked Jerusalem, God protected the city and sent the invaders packing. So the people concluded that they lived in God’s special city with God’s special temple, and that God would provide special protection forever.

The Babylonians, however, ran their cruel army right through the heart of that theory. Listen to the poet’s prayer:
  O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance;
      they have defiled your holy temple,
      they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.
  They have left the dead bodies of your servants
      as food for the birds of the sky,
      the flesh of your people for the animals of the wild (v. 1-2). 

The poet implicates God in the disaster, pointing out that God failed to look after his people and his property and his religion. 

The poet also blames Israel for the disaster, saying to God,
  Do not hold against us the sins of past generations;
      may your mercy come quickly to meet us,
      for we are in desperate need.
      …deliver us and forgive our sins (v. 8, 9c). 

The poet believes that sin in generation after generation contributed to Israel’s great disaster. He asks God to forgive the sins, and to stop the generational consequences. Tellingly, he includes himself among the sinners as he says, “Forgive our sins.” 

The poet also blames Babylon, and pleads to God to take measureless vengeance on that nation. He says,
  Before our eyes, make known among the nations
      that you avenge the outpoured blood of your servants.
  Pay back into the laps of our neighbours seven times
      the contempt they hurled at you (vv. 11-12). 

Like the United States after 9/11, the poet had a deep feeling that the destruction should be avenged, quickly, purposefully, violently, completely. He did not suggest a moderate eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth justice–he wanted God to pay back the perpetrators seven times over. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, as I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace during the Covid pandemic, I am amazed by his vivid descriptions of violent battles, destroyed cities, looting peasants and soldiers, wounded and dying civilians and military as Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. Like the destruction of Jerusalem in the poet’s time, the burning of Moscow left a stench in 1812, 9/11 left a stench in New York in 2001, and America left a stench in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will it never end, Lord? Do war and vengeance go on forever? 

We ask you, we expect you, to protect our country and our religion, for they are yours. But we see in this psalm your willingness to let empires rise and fall, to permit the endless suffering of war, to let even your holy places fall into ruin and decay, and to let your people suffer in the sufferings of the world.

O father, bring us to the place the poet came to in this psalm. A place where instead of planning our own vengeance, we wait for your judgement. A place where we are content to be the sheep of your pasture, and to praise you forever.  

Amen

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

Ep.178: Sheep and Goats.

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

In Matthew’s gospel, the last story Jesus told before his betrayal and crucifixion was a story about sheep and goats. 

For this story, Jesus didn’t use one of his standard story introductions, such as “Here’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. . . “ or “A man was travelling to Jerusalem. . .”  Instead, he began it like a prophecy of future events, saying, “When the Son of Man comes in glory, he will sit on his throne and all the nations will gather before him” (Mat. 25:31). 

The story is about judgement day and Jesus is the judge. He separates everyone into one of two groups, sheep or goats. Then he says to the sheep:
    Come, share my kingdom with me.
    For I was hungry and you fed me,
      I was thirsty and you gave me water,
    I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
      I was naked and you clothed me,
    I was sick and you took care of me,
      I was in prison and you visited me (Mat 25:35-36). 

The people in the sheep-group are surprised and say, “When did we ever do that?” And Jesus will reply, “Whatever you did for my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” 

Then Jesus will turn to the goat-group and say, “No reward for you. Depart from me forever. Because when I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, or sick, you didn’t help me.” 

And these people will say, “What? We never saw you in need.” And Jesus will reply, “But you saw my brothers and sisters in need, and didn’t help them.” 

This story raises the question, “Does Jesus teach that we are saved by what we do instead of what we believe?” It’s a good question because in the story, the sheep and goats are judged by their actions, not by what they say they believe.  

When Jesus taught on earth, he never provided a checklist of what we have to believe to be saved. After he rose from the grave and went back to heaven, lots of people over the centuries created lists on Jesus’ behalf. They wanted a clear statement of exactly what to believe. You might be familiar with some of these lists. The earliest ones like the Apostles’ Creed, stick mostly to story. Later ones like some Protestant Reformation statements include complex deductions from scripture, such as substitutionary atonement and justification by faith. 

When Jesus was on earth, his approach to belief was not to give people a list of statements to agree with. Instead, he invited people to trust him, to believe him. The woman who touched his garment, Zaccheus up in the tree, the blind man shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”, Nicodemus pondering about how to be “born again” — they were not signing up for a Bible 101 course about what to believe. They bypassed even the disciples and made  their appeal directly to Jesus, inviting him into the story of their lives.

I think Jesus’ story about sheep and goats affirms the option of a story-based approach to God, instead of a rational approach that says faith must begin with intellectual assent to a list of propositions. Like the people who listened to Jesus’ stories on earth, we too can approach Jesus directly. We can invite him into our story by asking him to help us. We can participate in his story by helping the poor and the hungry and the naked.

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, we say we believe in you, and we have signed onto the best list we can find of Bible-based propositions.

But we are often in the goat-camp, looking for you only in the pages of scripture, and ignoring you in the crowded turmoil of life. Help us find to you in the poor and the hungry and the naked. O Jesus, take these narrow and selfish stories we live, and make them part of your grand story. 

Amen. 

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

Ep.177: Psalm 78: Learning from Others’ Mistakes.

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

Today we look at Psalm 78, the second longest psalm in the Bible. It is one of four historical psalms which teach lessons from Israel’s history. 

The poet explains that we should teach these lessons to our children: 

     So they will put their trust in God
        and not forget his deeds
        but keep his commands.
    Then they won’t be like their ancestors –
        a stubborn and rebellious generation,
    whose hearts were not loyal to God (vv. 7 – 9).

Yes, we want our children to learn their lessons from the history books, instead of the bitter trials of life where we learned them. May your children be so wise.

Psalm 78 covers three periods of history. 

The first period is when the children of Israel wandered in the desert for 40 years. This was a wonderful time in their history: God leading them with a cloud by day and fire by night, feeding them with manna and meat, making water flow from solid rock. Even though the Israelites had recently escaped slavery in Egypt, they brought their slavish attitudes into the desert, complaining of life’s burdens, complaining of hunger and thirst, complaining that God mistreated and oppressed them. They accused God of being as bad as the Egyptian slave owners. The poet says,
  In spite of all God’s wonders, they did not believe (v. 32b).
  How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
      and grieved him in the wasteland (v. 40). 

After that wilderness history lesson, the psalm flashes back  to the plagues God sent on Egypt, showing his power and love as he transferred ownership of the slaves from Pharaoh to himself. As their new owner. God gave the slaves many reasons to rejoice and to believe that he was powerful and loving. But they just kept complaining.

The psalm presents a third period of history, when the Israelites settled in the Promised Land. The poet says,
    Once again they were disloyal and faithless,
      and unreliable like a faulty bow.
    They angered God with their high places
      and aroused his jealousy with their idols (vv. 57-58).
The poet highlights a shocking story when the ark of the covenant, that special sign of God’s presence, was captured in war and desecrated by enemies, because God was angry at his people for their unfaithfulness. 

The poet’s history lesson concludes on a happy note. Despite Israel’s stubborn, rebellious, and uncomprehending ways, God didn’t abandon them. Instead, he sent the good king David to be a kindly shepherd, leading the people to a time of peace and plenty. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are like the Israelites. You have delivered us from our slavery to sin and made us your children. But we cling to our old habits. Habits of unbelief, habits of complaining and gossiping. We hide behind a victim mentality, blaming you and others for the fault lines in our lives. We hoped that the freedom you offered us would let us easily conquer sin, would free us from trouble and conflict, would let us live in prosperity and ease. But life continues to be difficult, even with you as savior and teacher. Have we simply exchanged the slavemaster of sin for a slavemaster of salvation? 

Our father, today we take this psalm to heart. With the poet, we believe that your goodness in history proves that you are not just another slavemaster. You are the God of freedom, of love, of faithfulness, of hope. Change our desires, change our hearts until we grow beyond our slave mentality into the freedom of your sons and daughters, O God.

Amen

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