Ep.216: Psalm 99: Holy God.

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

Psalm 99 says three times God is holy.

In ancient Israel, to be holy was to be set apart. When we think of God as set apart, we imagine a great and remote king on a throne somewhere in the universe. We see his righteousness and wrath like a consuming fire. He is incomparable, different, distant.

But Psalm 99, doesn’t emphasize the distance and difference between God and the world. Instead, it emphasises that relationship and communication are the distinctives that set God apart. 

In verses 1-3, God’s “set apart” relationship is that of an awesome and divine king. The world and Israel are right to fear his power and submit to his decrees and praise his great name, because he actively rules the earth and the nations.

In verses 4-5, God’s “set apart” or holy relationship is his love of justice. Unlike other kings, human or divine, God is not a self-promoting, self-enriching, self-protecting despot. He cares about his people, he establishes righteous laws that apply to everyone. No king or president is given a pass to commit murder, adultery, and slander. No peasant is given a pass to complain and denounce and rebel. When a community embraces God as king, and enters into the relationship he offers, it becomes a society of order and wholeness.

Verses 6-9, describe God’s “set apart” relationship with the prophets and priests of the religion he established. When the Israelites worshipped a golden calf in the desert, God threatened to wipe them out. Moses interceded until God changed his mind. When God in his wrath sent a plague among the Israelite wanderers, Aaron interceded and God stayed the plague (Numbers 6). When the Philistines attacked the Israelites at Mizpah, Samuel interceded for the people until God gave them victory (1 Sam 7). These three intercessors illustrate God’s “set apart” relationship with his people: he hears their prayers and responds by granting their requests. He saves them from their enemies–and from themselves.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, thank you that you are holy. You are set apart from other gods and kings. Thank you that your “set apartness” is not just distance, but also difference. You are different from others because you desire relationship. You initiated a relationship with Moses, inviting him to lead your people to freedom. You initiated a relationship with Aaron, inviting him to be your priest. You initiated a relationship with Samuel, speaking to him when he was a boy, sharing with him your pain when Israel rejected you as king, when they insisted on a human king like the nations around them. 

O Lord, we fear that if you come near to us, your greatness will overwhelm us. Your world-embracing love will expose our narrow and provincial loves. Your ceaseless activity for justice will expose the sloth and laziness of our service. Your freedom from sin and evil will expose our slavery to anxiety and lust. 

O Lord, forgive us for our fears that avoid you and resist your approach. Come near to us as we come near to you. Be the love that conquers our selfishness, the king that inspires our loyalty, the God who hears our prayers.  

Amen.

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

Ep.215: Baby Bottle or a Steak Knife?

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

Hebrews 5 says,
Though by this time you ought to be teachers,
    you need someone to teach you
            the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.
    You need milk, not solid food!
  Anyone who lives on milk,
    is still a baby,
            and is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
  But solid food is for the mature,
    who by constant use have trained themselves
            to distinguish good from evil. (vv. 11-14). 

After introducing us to baby food and grown up food, the author of Hebrews goes off in a strange direction. He doesn’t tell us to start eating adult food to make us grow up. Instead, he tells us to get into a training program, in which we constantly distinguish good from evil. What makes us grow is not adult teaching, but adult practice in discerning good and evil. 

It’s easy for teachers to get a bit defensive about this passage, saying, “Oh, yes, it is  important to practice discernment, but the foundation for good practice is good teaching. You have to start with the milk of Christian basics–how to be born again, etc.; then you proceed to some meaty teaching that will guide your discernment of right and wrong.” 

Good argument, maybe, except it completely misses the point Hebrews is making. The author doesn’t emphasize teaching and knowledge as the foundation for maturity. On the contrary, he says that people can’t even understand advanced teaching until “by constant practice [they] have trained themselves to discern good from evil” (v. 14). 

So what does training in discernment look like? Some would say, “That’s easy. Just read your Bible and do what it says! It tells you everything you need to know about good and evil.” 

I say it’s not quite that simple. Scripture provides lists of things not to do because they are evil, but you can’t grow up just by staying home and doing nothing

Because God wants us to grow by discerning and doing what is right. I must replace bad attitudes with love. I must replace neutral behavior with activity that builds community. I must replace  foolish opinions with wisdom. When I am solidly engaged in the project of transforming my heart into a heart of love, and my neighborhood into a community, then I am ready to stop sucking milk from my baby bottle, and start eating a bit of solid food.

Solzhenitsyn said, “If only it were all so simple!. . . But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (The Gulag Archipelago, Part I). Discernment, training in good and evil, starts with seeing my own heart problems and destroying the evil there. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, it’s time for us milk-drinkers to move up to solid food. Help us to discern the good and evil in our hearts and in our actions. Give us a vision of true righteousness. 

– Help us discern where our obsession with news and social media and entertainment obstructs our ability to hear you and obey.

– Help us discern which is more important to you: Should we be politically active in helping church and government adopt the right policies on abortion and gender and sexuality? Or does our activity there simply contribute to fragmentation and divisiveness in society?

– Help us discern where our hearts are wayward and careless and unruly, that we may bring them fully into your kingdom. 

Our father, we feel the line between good and evil that runs through our hearts and our attitudes and our actions. Help us to practice discerning good and evil in our hearts, in our relationships, in our world.

Amen. 

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

Ep.214: Psalm 98: Sing a New Song.

Ep214_Psalm098. Sing a New Song.

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

Psalm 98 begins,
    Sing a new song to the Lord,
        for he has done marvellous things (v. 1a). 

The poet’s suggestion for a “new song” answers traditionalists who say, “What’s with this modern music? The old hymns are better–more singable, more substantial than this fluffy modern stuff.” Consider, however, that the psalms model many of the most criticised features of modern worship music:

– Too repetitive? Psalm 136 repeats the phrase “His love endures forever” 26 times.

– Too much complex instrumental music? Psalm 150 is all about instrumental music and dancing. Perhaps churches should add worship dance to their contemporary music.

– Too much emphasis on personal experience, too little on doctrine? Psalm 133 is all about the unity of God’s people; God is just a footnote in the last verse.

– Too much emphasis on personal emotions, too little on God? Psalm 40, “Why are you downcast, O my soul” is about personal depression. Psalm 100, “Shout for joy to the Lord” is exuberant, and probably too loud for the traditionalists in many churches. (inspired by Rant About Worship Songs | Jeremy Pierce | First Things). 

Traditional hymnals speak the cultural and musical language of an older generation. However good that culture is and however regrettable its loss, the church needs to move on, translating the gospel into new words and cadences that speak to moderns. The lost tribes of the Amazon need the Bible translated into their language. The lost tribes of western civilization need to hear and see the gospel in their lyrics and their culture. 

The  happy-clappy hymn, “In my heart there rings a melody”, was page 276 in the hymnal I grew up with. It is a lasting testament to the fact that every generation needs exuberant songs of the heart, even if they don’t teach sober doctrines. Perhaps God approves us translating the heartfelt melody into contemporary English accompanied by contemporary music.  

“Sing a new song,” the poet tells us. Don’t stay stuck in your old way of doing things. 

Let’s pray. 

Lord, I too am stuck. Week after week I pray familiar psalms in a similar manner. Teach me a new song, new words to speak to you, new melodies in which to live my life, new metaphors to communicate to the modern world. 

O Lord, we are all stuck in complaints about our churches and their style of worship. The sermon is too long or too short, the music too old or too modern, the church culture too traditional or too irreverent. 

O Lord, teach us to know you and love you and to experience you in the ways the poets did in the psalms, in the ways the hymn writers wrote and sang about, and in the ways our modern music speaks of you. 

Teach us to
  Sing a new song
      for you have done marvellous things!

Amen.

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

Ep.213: Suffer and Obey.

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

Hebrews 5 says
  [Jesus] offered prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears
      to the one who could save him from death,
            and he was heard because of his reverent submission.
  Though he was a Son,
      he learned obedience from what he suffered,
      and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation
            for all who obey him . . . (vv. 7-9). 

Here are two observations about this passage. 

First, the word “obey” occurs twice: Jesus learned obedience through suffering, and he saves those who obey him. I find it interesting that Jesus learned obedience, and that suffering was part of the lesson plan. We don’t talk a lot about Jesus growing and maturing and learning during his human life on earth. 

After pointing out that Jesus learned obedience, the Book of Hebrews says he saves those who obey him. This is not a description of instantaneous salvation by faith. It’s an invitation for us to learn and grow as Jesus did, to respond to our sufferings by learning obedience, and to receive the promise that he will save those who obey him. 

A second observation is that this passage presents prayer as a paradox. “Jesus prayed. . .to God, who was able to save him from death, and God heard him because of his reverent submission” (v. 7). From this verse, you might conclude, “God heard Jesus’ prayer and saved him from death.” 

Bad conclusion. Jesus prayed at Gethsemane that God would bypass the way of the cross. But that’s the very thing God, “who could save him from death”, didn’t do. 

This is the paradox of prayer. If we are on the path of salvation, obeying Jesus with reverent submission, God hears our prayers, as he did Jesus’ prayer. We are confident God is powerful enough to grant whatever we ask. But for reasons of his own, he often refuses to give what we ask, and sometimes he even gives us the opposite. 

Why bother to pray, then? Because prayer is part of our path of obedience. As we learn obedience through suffering, part of our pain is that God often lets the suffering continue, declining to release us from it or to fix the problems that cause it.

Let’s pray. 

Our father, after Jesus asked you to bypass the cross, you refused his request, and you made the cross the centre of his story. You place a cross at the centre of our story too, for Jesus told us to take our cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). Since he provides salvation for those who obey him, we must live the story of our cross, abandoning our fantasies of comfort and riches and pleasure.

Help us then to learn obedience through the things we suffer, as Jesus did. And bring us to eternal life with him.     

Amen. 

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

Ep.212: Psalm 97: God’s Storm.

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

In Psalm 97, God shows up in a storm and earthquake, like he did at Mt. Sinai when he gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The psalm says:
  The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; 
     let the distant shores rejoice. 
  Clouds and thick darkness surround him; 
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.
  Fire goes before him
    and consumes his foes on every side.
  His lightning lights up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles (vv. 1-4). 

Exodus tells us that when the commandments were given, “There was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain. . . . Mount Sinai was covered with smoke. . . and [the mountain] trembled violently” (Exo 19:16, 18). Here, in Psalm 97, God uses similar special effects, as he comes to the temple in Jerusalem to establish Zion as the seat of his kingdom, and to rule the nations of the earth.        

God’s rule brings Israel security, good government, and joy. He plans the same for other nations, to deliver them from false gods and injustice. The poet says:
  Zion hears and rejoices [at your coming, God],
      and the villages of Judah are glad
      because of your judgements (v. 8).
   Light shines on the righteous
      and joy on the upright in heart.
  Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous,
      and praise his holy name. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, in scripture you often appear in a storm. On Mt. Sinai you delivered the law with darkness and clouds and lightning and earthquake (Exo 19:18). When Job finished talking and started listening, you spoke to him out of a storm (Job 40:6). Jeremiah predicted that that “the storm of the Lord will burst out in wrath, a driving wind swirling down on the heads of the wicked” (Jer 30:23). On the Sea of Galilee, Jesus slept through a storm, until his fearful disciples woke him. Then he rebuked the wind and raging waters, and asked the disciples, “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:23-25). 

Father, our faith is in your storm-like presence in our lives. We experience you as a hurricane blowing away the lies we construct, as an earthquake destroying the religious systems we build, as a fire burning impurities out of our lives until we become like gold. O God, be the lightning of love that destroys our selfishness, be the fire of holiness that burns away our sin, be the refiner’s fire that melts away our dross and makes us holy and beautiful. 

Father, your presence is a storm in the church, a storm that would overturn comfortable evangelicalism and make it into an army of God. You are the cyclone that devastates lukewarm Christiantiy, and calls us to be hot or cold (Rev 3:16). You are the breath of the Holy Spirit that blows through our stale lives, opening them to the wind of God.  

Father, you are the storm at the end of the world, for you promise, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (Heb 12:26 quoting Haggai 2:6). 

Thank you that you come not only for destruction, but to rebuild and protect and save. As the poet says,
    You, Lord, are the most high over all the earth,
      you are exalted far above all gods.
    You guard the lives of your faithful ones,
        and deliver them from the hand of the wicked (vv. 9-10).  

With the poet we pray, 
        Let your light shine on us, Lord,
          Give us joy.
        Teach us to rejoice in you,
            For we praise your holy name (vv. 11-12). 

Amen.

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