A Psalm for a pandemic

A Psalm for a pandemic

Are you intrigued by the convergence of pandemic and Easter, of world-wide death and a celebration of resurrection life defeating death?

Psalm 91 (NIV)

1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.[a]…

3 Surely he will save you…
from the deadly pestilence…
5 You will not fear…the arrow that flies by day,

6 or the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
7 A thousand may fall at your side,…
but it will not come near you.

These words seem very relevant to our time – the promise of rescue from the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,…the plague that destroys at midday.

Does this mean that those who rest in the shadow of the Almighty don’t need to wash their hands and keep physical distance during a pandemic?

The line before pestilence that stalks in the darkness is You will not fear…the arrow that flies by day.

Does the Most High always protect His followers from military violence? If not, how do we interpret these promises?

Commentator Derek Kidner* suggests Jesus’ life and teaching to understand this Psalm.

First, God’s help in facing trouble doesn’t mean we won’t die by violence (333). Jesus said,

16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. (Luke 21)

This promise leaves us again scratching our heads. If not a hair of our heads will perish, why will people be able to kill us? Doesn’t the prospect of God’s people meeting a violent death negate the Psalm’s promise that we won’t fear the arrow (Psalm 91:5)?

Kidner goes on to show that for Jesus, miraculous protection came in the form of “angelic help …when it was most needed” (333) On the night that Jesus was arrested,

41 [Jesus] knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.[a]

45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow.

Jesus received angelic strength to keep praying so that he could face the work He had to do; namely, to lovingly submit to those who planned to ask the Romans to kill him and to voluntarily die for the sins of humankind.

Having died, Jesus then rose on the third day as He had predicted, demonstrating most eloquently the reason why His followers need fear neither violence nor pestilence. The promise not a hair of your head will perish gives Jesus followers the assurance of resurrection life on the other side of death. Jesus’ death and resurrection give meaning to the promises of Psalm 91.

Paul of Tarsus writes, then asks rhetorically

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”[a]

55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15)

Strength for the inevitable journey toward death, whatever form it takes. Death swallowed up in victory. In the meantime, wash your hands.

*Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 Inter-Varsity, 1975

Apostles’ Creed: I believe in…the holy Christian church, the communion of saints…

How many different ways are there for people to distinguish themselves as members of a group?

a) Some groups distinguish themselves by a uniform (police, sports teams)

b) Some groups have a distinctive colour of clothing (gangs, monks)

c) Some groups wear a logo on their jackets (motorcycle groups)

d) Some wear distinctive headgear (quite a number of religious groups)

e) Some wear a distinctive piece of jewellery (engineer’s ring)

There are more!

Jesus told His followers that they, too, were to be distinctive. However, it was in none of the above ways.

A new command I give you; Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:34-35.

What do you think about that? The distinctive mark of Jesus followers; that is, members of “the holy Christian church, the communion of saints” is the love they have for one another.

Now, the command to love was not new. It was in the Torah (Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary 2nd ed., InterVarsity 2014, 290).

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD (Leviticus 19:18).

What does that love look like? For starters, a Bible translation guide suggests to translators that they use a “a term which would reflect love between members of a family. If such a term is not appropriate, an expression indicating ‘deep appreciation for’ may be satisfactory” (Newman & Nida, A Handbook on the Gospel of John United Bible Societies 1980, 285).

Jesus went on, a bit later in the same conversation, to tell His followers what that love looked like.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:12-13).

There are two steps in understanding what makes Jesus’ command a new one.

First, instead of commanding people to love someone as much as they love themselves, Jesus says, As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Second, Jesus said that the greatest love is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

That is what Jesus planned to do within the next 24 hours after that conversation.

Jesus followers, then, distinguish themselves by loving one another as Jesus loved them.

Such love becomes more remarkable when we consider that Jesus welcomed all people to be His followers, whatever their race, ethnicity, wealth, painful past, no matter what they had done wrong. Everyone was welcome. If they were willing to follow Jesus, they automatically became part of the family, and as such they became beneficiaries of that love.

There’s no uniform, no distinctive type or colour of clothing, no unique tattoos or marks. Just sacrificial love.

Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints

I believe in… the holy Christian church, the communion of saints…

1. What’s the first question that comes to mind when you read that line? Is it “What’s ‘the communion of saints’?”

Paul answers that question in the opening of his letter to the church in Corinth.

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ 1 Corinthians 1:2-3, New Revised Standard Version

Saints is simply another name for Jesus followers. “’Saints’ is one of the most common designations of first century believers. Only later was the word used for the spiritual elite, such as the martyrs. In the first century…all members of the church went by this title.” Ewert, The Church in a Pagan Society: Studies in 1 Corinthians Kindred 1986, 3.

2. Probably there’s another question from Paul’s greeting; namely, what does it mean to be “sanctified in Christ Jesus?” “Sanctified” simply means set apart for a special purpose. My mom had a set of silverware that only came out when guests visited for a meal. That silverware was sanctified for entertaining guests. The Message translates this phrase Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.

Does that mean that those Jesus followers are perfect? A quick reading of the letter that follows the greeting above clears up that illusion quickly. This community had multiple problems. There was fighting and bickering. Some in the church were taking others in the church to court. There was immorality that was shocking to the surrounding permissive Corinthian popular culture. But with all their internal issues, Paul still called them saints.

A church, then, is a gathering of imperfect people committed to following Jesus. They march to a different drummer than the beat of popular culture. Those imperfect Jesus followers are also called saints.

3. How is a church different from any other gathering, such as a parents’ council or a community club? Or is it?

One writer responds,

We may dutifully attend church three out of five Sundays per month, cook a pie for the youth fundraiser, and make a generous donation to the mission trip, making us feel like we are actively participating in the life of the church. Without discounting the value of these activities in their proper context, we must admit that we also…do similar things as part of other clubs and organizations…The ordinances of baptism, the Lord’s Supper and footwashing are… the Spirit-led and Spirit-filled activities that bind us all across time and space.” Selley, ‘Being the Communion of Saints,’ The Messenger Sept. 2016, 8.

Next time we’ll look in more detail at these activities that distinguish a community of Jesus followers.

For now, if you’re not a Jesus follower, how would you like to be a saint? Become a Jesus follower by making Him the leader of your life, and you become a saint just like that.

If you are a Jesus follower, how about saying to yourself, as you look in the mirror, “Hey, there! You’re a saint, you know!”

The Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit: Spotlight

Do you ever wonder why the Holy Spirit gets so little attention when He’s one of the Trinity? At least part of the answer is in the fifth of Jesus’ descriptions of the Holy Spirit’s work.

I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.

He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.

He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.

All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you. John 16:12-15

Why don’t we hear much about the Holy Spirit? J.I. Packer says it this way:

Jesus’ words indicate the self-effacing character of the Spirit; he functions as a floodlight trained on Christ, so that it is Christ, not the Spirit, whom we see. In the gospel message, Jesus is set before us throughout, saying: come to me; follow me. In our conscience as we hear the gospel with the inner ear of faith, the Spirit, standing behind us, as it were to throw light over our shoulder on to Jesus, constantly urges: Go to him; deal with him. So we do – and it is this that makes our life Christian Packer, I Want to be a Christian Tyndale 1981, 81.

Remember the last concert or public event you attended? Before the event, the stage was dark. The entire hall was dark.

Then a light shone down and you saw the speaker of the evening or some musicians – the star or stars of the night. They were the ones you had come to see. You were excited – you’d waited for this ever since you bought the ticket, and perhaps long before!

Did it occur to you to pull out your smartphone and turn on the flashlight so you could get a good look at the light that had illuminated the star of the show?

Of course not! You were grateful the light was there to do its task of illuminating the star you’d come to see and hear.

Exactly. And that’s part of the answer to the question: Why don’t we hear more about the Holy Spirit?

Jesus is the star of the show and the Holy Spirit is the spotlight. He will glorify me (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit’s role is to honour Jesus.

It’s important to shine the light on Jesus because Jesus is the only path to life.

Two chapters previous, Jesus said,

I am the way and the truth and the life.

No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)

Jesus taught that this is not only the Holy Spirit’s role. Every Jesus follower’s role is to draw attention to God, not to ourselves.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

To do good deeds is very important. Jesus makes that quite clear.

How can you do them in such a way that they cast the floodlight not on yourself but on your Heavenly Father?

The Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit: Truth-Prover

Do you ever notice, in the news, a report of a person who was convicted of a criminal offense but who was later proven to be innocent? That’s a shocking thing, isn’t it?

One of the Holy Spirit’s roles among humans is to expose just such a miscarriage of justice.

[Jesus said,’ But I am telling you the truth; it is better for you that I go away, because if I do not go, the Helper will not come to you. But if I do go away, then I will send him
to you.

And when he comes, he will prove to the people of the world that they are wrong about sin and about what is right and about God’s judgment.

They are wrong about sin, because they do not believe in me;

They are wrong about what is right, because I am going to the Father and you will not see me any more;

And they are wrong about judgment, because the ruler of this world has already been judged. John 16:7-11,
Good News Bible

You see, Jesus made spectacular claims. Here’s one.

‘I and the Father are one.’ John 10:30

Those listening to him picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’

‘We are not stoning you for any good work,’ they replied, ‘but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.’ John 16:31-34

Jesus’ listeners clearly rejected that spectacular claim.

The truth-prover, in the quote above, will prove people wrong about three things:

1. They are wrong about sin, because they do not believe in me. John 16:9

Sin, says Jesus, is not first of all murder, robbery or fraud. It’s a failure to believe that Jesus is who He claims to be, as did those who picked up stones to throw at Jesus. He claims to be God. That’s an outrageous claim
– unless it’s true.

2. They are wrong about what is right, because I am going to the Father and you will not see me any more. John 16:10

One scholar writes, “The language is obviously that of a courtroom….The case is clear: the world vs. Jesus of Nazareth. The facts are known: the world determined that Jesus was not from God. On the contrary, it seemed expedient
of the peace and stability of the nation that Jesus with his disturbing claims should be eliminated….In fact, that there was no divine intervention was persuasive argument that justice was served. The case for the world is closed. A function of the Holy Spirit,
however, is the enlightenment that offers another reading of the evidence” (Craddock,
Knox Preaching Guides: John John Knox 1982, 119-120).

In other words, some who watched Jesus die reasoned like this:

(1) Jesus claimed to be God

(2) When He was executed, no supernatural power intervened to rescue him.

(3)If He had been God, a supernatural power would have rescued Him.

(4) Therefore Jesus was not God

Jesus said, “That’s the wrong conclusion. I am going to the Father – that’s proof that I am who I claimed to be.”

3. They are wrong about judgment, because the ruler of this world has already been judged. John 16:11

“The ruler of this world is [a term of John’s] for the devil….Jesus interprets his death, not as defeat, but rather as a triumph over the ruler of this world.” Newman & Nida, A Handbook on the Gospel of John United Bible societies 1980, 505

In other words, Jesus planned to defeat the devil using the devil’s plan to kill Jesus. Jesus would die innocently, voluntarily, for all the wrongdoing of humanity through the centuries – and prove His victory over evil by rising from the dead.

Do you ever wonder how a person executed as a criminal 2,000 years ago became elevated to the status of God?

Andy Stanley suggests an answer:

“[T]here is no viable, natural explanation for why the church survived the first century, much less twenty centuries….From a purely secular perspective, the story of the church goes something like this:

“A small band of Jewish dissidents defied a superpower and a religious system that had been in place for a thousand years and, in the end, prevailed. At the center of this grassroots movement, originally referred to as The Way, was a Jewish carpenter whose messages centered on a ‘kingdom’ that wasn’t directly connected to this world. He spoke mostly in parables that few could understand. He insisted that those who followed him love the Romans and pay those onerous taxes. He alienated the influential and the powerful. He offended practically everybody. His family thought he had lost this mind. After only three years of public ministry, he was arrested, publicly humiliated, and executed….

“In a relatively short amount of time, this Jewish knockoff religion replaced the entire pagan pantheon of gods as the primary belief system of the Roman empire, the same empire responsible for crucifying its central figure. The same empire that launched several vicious inquisitions with the intent of stamping it out completely.

“Doesn’t really add up, does it? Not without an actual resurrection anyway.” Andy Stanley, Deep & Wide Zondervan 2012, 52-4

It’s the Holy Spirit’s role to help people connect the dots to see reality the way Jesus saw it, enabling people to see that Jesus died innocently to defeat evil – and that the next step must therefore be to recognize Jesus for who He is; namely, God in human form, alive, risen from the dead.

The Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit: Witness

Happy 2020!

What is a person’s responsibility if they experience something that changes their life for the better and that could also change the life of every person who was open to that change if only they knew about it?

There was a dreadful famine inside the walled city because of the long siege by invaders. People were desperate. There was even resort to cannibalism.

Four beggars at the city gate decided to go out to surrender to the invaders simply because they had no hope of survival inside the city. When they got to the invaders’ camp, they found it abandoned. The entire invading army had clearly fled on foot in such haste that they had even left their horses and donkeys behind.

The men…entered one of the tents. They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them…Then they said to each other, ‘We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace. 2 Kings 7:8-9

We’re back studying the benefits of having the Holy Spirit in our lives. We saw before Christmas that Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to live inside each person who becomes a Jesus follower. The Holy Spirit creates new default settings, and is an Advocate for and a Teacher to each Jesus follower.

The next benefit of having the Holy Spirit, based on Jesus’ final address to His followers before His voluntary surrender to arrest and execution to save us, is this: The Holy Spirit sets the pattern for our testimony about our experience as a Jesus follower.

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning (John 15:26-27).

Testimony in court is simply the telling of what you personally experienced about the event that is the subject of the court case.

Jesus first says that the Holy Spirit will testify about Jesus. As we saw in previous episodes, the Holy Spirit’s methods of testimony to Jesus followers include reminding them of what Jesus said and helping them understand what Jesus said. The Spirit’s testimony is based on the Spirit’s own experience of Jesus – and that experience is intimate and accurate, because they are both members of the Trinity.

Then Jesus says to His followers, ‘And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning’ (John 15:27). His followers’ testimony, like courtroom testimony, is based on their experience with Jesus.

Remember what Jesus said about His purpose for coming? We looked at it shortly before Christmas.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:10-11.

Jesus came to die in our place, and to give us life to the full. He came to undo the forces that were stealing, destroying and killing our spirits.

Testimony about Jesus is simply the telling of the story of how Jesus has brought life, wholeness, healing to the parts of our lives that were broken.

When we look around, we see evidence of the thief’s work all around us. There’s a lot of stealing and destroying and killing of all that’s wholesome, all that’s good.

In the same chapter of John, Jesus said,

‘…anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.’ John 10:1

A few verses later, Jesus made His point: ‘Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep….I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:7, 9).

If there are a lot of hurting people in the world, and if there’s only one cure for their hurting, what is the responsibility of those who have experienced Jesus’ life? The answer of the four beggars fits, doesn’t it? The loving thing to do is to tell people.

And the Holy Spirit can help each Jesus follower with that. You’re not on your own!

On the Feast of Stephen: grace and power

One of our lovely Christmas carols begins like this

Good King Wenceslas looked out on the Feast of Stephen

When the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even

Brightly shone the moon that night, though the frost was cruel,

When a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.

Four verses later, the song ends

Therefore, Christian men, be sure, while God’s gifts possessing,

You who now will bless the poor shall yourselves find blessing.

The Feast of Stephen, the occasion mentioned in the song, is on Boxing Day, the second day of Christmas. Clearly, for the song writer, it’s a day to celebrate generosity.

Remarkably, Stephen gets only two chapters in the Bible, apart from three other references to him. The early church chose him as one of seven leaders to oversee the needs of ethnic widows (Acts 6:1-7). His qualifications for the job were that he was “full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3). He came to the attention of the authorities for performing miracles and for winning debates.

The charges against him in the Sanhedrin (Jewish governing body) were not about things he’d done wrong but about what he had said. It was alleged that he had said Jesus would destroy the Jerusalem temple and change the customs Moses had given (Acts 6:13-14).

In his response, Stephen didn’t respond to the charges, but enraged this group with life-and-death power over him when he said,

You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? But your ancestors did, and so do you!

Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute!

They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One – the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered.

You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, though you received it from the hands of angels. Acts 7:51-53, New Living Translation 1996

He then locked in his violent death:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand.

And he told them, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!’ Acts 7:55-56, New Living Translation 1996.

As he was dying by stoning,

Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’

And he fell to his knees, shouting, ‘Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!’

And with that, he died (Acts 7:59-60 New Living Translation).

We see in these words why the writer of Acts says Stephen was full of God’s grace and power (Acts 6:8).

Power: He spoke candidly about their shortcomings, pointing out their responsibility for the death of an innocent man.

Grace: As he was dying violently for a speech offence, he prayed that God would forgive them. In other words, his candour was motivated by concern for them, not by dislike. Not even deadly violence could get an angry word from him

How’s that for a resolution, two days into a new year and a new decade? To speak candidly but without ill will, motivated by love and concern for those with whom we speak, driven by goodwill regardless of their response to our well-intentioned candour?

How does Stephen’s response to personal attack compare to your own?