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Commentary

The United States Is Mortal

I was struck this morning reading Psalm 9 at the way the psalmist wrote about the nations of the world.

In verses 19-20, he writes:

Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph;
    let the nations be judged in your presence.
Strike them with terror, Lord;
    let the nations know they are only mortal.

The psalmist is crying out to God for help and deliverance from his enemies. The surrounding nations are harassing God’s people. Yet the psalmist knows God is a refuge for the afflicted.

The plea for the nations to know their mortality is a plea for the nations to understand that Yahweh is God, not the nations. No king, sultan, pharaoh, emperor, prime minister, or president is mightier than the Mighty One.

The nations here, and throughout the Psalms, is used in contrast to Israel–God’s people. Israel was a geo-political nation defined by borders and a particular piece of real estate in the world. But it was also more than that. It was a nation ruled directly by Yahweh, their true king.

Israel’s central statement of faith (known as the Shema) was a simple declaration of allegiance to God: “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is the only one!” The nations are anyone and everyone whose allegiance is to something other than Yahweh.

As we come to the New Testament, we see that this extends to God’s people in the Church. The Church is God’s new thing–a new people, a new nation.

The Church’s central statement of faith was three simple words: “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century context, that emphatically meant “Caesar is not.” (A profoundly politically statement!)

The Church is not defined by political policies or geographic borders, but by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No geo-political nation on earth today is ruled by the God of the Bible like Israel was. Not one. Not even the United States.

Yet it’s easy for Christians in the United States to read a prayer like Psalm 9 and pray as if the United States is God’s chosen nation. Many Christians believe the U.S. is exempt from being judged by the Lord. That we are, somehow, not a part of “the nations.”

When a Christian believes this and then comes to Psalm 9, they are likely to pray something like this: “Lord, bless the United States and strike all the other nations with terror. Make all the other nations know that they are mortal.”

But the United States is part of the nations. Like all other nations, it will be judged in God’s presence. The United States is mortal and, one day, it will know it. This is not something our country can escape.

“Wait!” you may say. “What about Psalm 33 and ‘blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’? Our nation can make the Lord our God!”

Well, the context of Psalm 33 reveals “the nation” is God’s people Israel–not just any nation. The rest of the verse goes like this: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”

Let me say it again. In the Old Testament, that heritage is Israel, and through the Gospel, we see that the Church is God’s new people, his heirs through the work of Jesus (see Romans 2-4, Ephesians 2, and the entire book of Galatians).

What’s the point here? Failing to understand all of this is one of the first steps toward Christian Nationalism. It leads to an unbiblical view of how the gospel and the kingdom of God intersect with and “converse with” the kingdoms of this world.

God’s Kingdom is distinct from this world. It’s altogether it’s own thing and it will never end. The United States, however? It will fade and in the end, its mortality will be plain for all to see.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28)

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Life

From the Valley of Tears to Springs of Living Water

As Jewish pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh in the temple, they would travel through hard, dry terrain. This journey through the rugged Judean wilderness become illustrative of their spiritual life with God. Psalm 84 is one place where this pilgrimage is poetically captured.

In that psalm, we see worshipers who passed through a valley named “Baca,” which means “tears.” The wilderness was a dry and weary place, a sad place. A place to lament. No one should live there. Or ever want to.

But because the Jews were on a pilgrimage through this wilderness, this place that brought tears became to them “a place of springs.” This sad place was an occasion to look forward to the joy that awaited them when they appeared before God in the temple. Why? You cannot know the true joy of Jerusalem if you have never endured the deep sorrow of Baca.

We, too, are on a journey. Not to a physical temple, but toward a new creation. And doesn’t it feel like Baca? I struggle to literally cry (ask my wife). But I’m learning to mourn the brokenness in the world and in me.

Jesus, of course, leads the way. He has walked through Baca—death itself—so he might be for us Living Water. He is our Place of springs in the wilderness. And one day—I can’t wait for the day—he will bring us to the New Jerusalem where Baca will dry up and the river of the water of life will flow forever.

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Life

The Gift of Enemies

The first prayer-proper in the Psalms (Ps. 3) is a not a praise or thanksgiving. It’s a cry for help, “O Lord, how many are my foes!” In the Psalms–the prayer book of God’s people–enemies are everywhere. Out of 150 chapters, there are only 7 confession or penitential psalms. There are upwards of 68 psalms of lament or complaint and many, if not most, have to do with the enemies of God’s people.

The entirety of the Bible is clear that our biggest problems are inside of us, not outside of us. Sin condemns us. But because of sin, the world is a scary place. The enemy-psalms aren’t there to make us paranoid. They are there, however, to ensure we don’t become naive. Not everyone in the world is singing kumbaya and trying to get along. Some people actually are out to get God’s people.

Who is an enemy? Simply, anyone who doesn’t have your best in mind and who actively seeks your hurt.

There is some horrifying stuff in the Psalms when it comes to enemies. Like Psalm 137:9, “Blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your babies and dashes them against the rock!” That seems un-Christian to pray, right? But it’s not.

These psalms teach us that when God feels distant because of enemies, we must go to God as we actually are, not as we think we should be.

Therefore, when we pray because of enemies, we seek to be accurate, not nice. Many of us were taught to pray sweet little angel prayers to Jesus. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as it goes. But if so many of the psalms seem more like war than precious devotional moments, we should take note.

Second, we need to cry out for God’s justice. Be honest. Be raw. Call down for God’s holy wrath on injustice. If we aren’t angered by sin and evil, something is wrong with us. We’re not seeking personal vengeance here. We’re asking God to show up. Appealing to God’s justice is the most powerful resource in the world to keep us from violence against others.

Finally, we need to walk the line between God’s justice and loving our enemies. Jesus has the last word on enemies. He told us to love our enemies and pray for them. On the cross, he cried out, about those enemies who were killing him, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

He was praying for you and me. At one time, we were at enmity with God. If God can save us, he can save those who are against us.

So now we pray the same. And we love our enemies. Why? Horrible and real as they seem and are, they aren’t the ultimate enemy. Satan and his dark realm is (Eph. 6:12).

Yet, truth be told, Jesus doesn’t call us to love our enemies even mainly for their sake. It’s for ours. “Love your enemies…so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).

Jesus had the privilege of loving his enemies even unto death. He gives us the gift of enemies so that we have the opportunity to share in his sufferings and become like him.

We might even say that we are never more like Jesus than when we are loving our enemies.

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Life

When God Seems Distant

If you’ve been a Christian for more than a day, God has seemed distant. What I’ve learned over the years of walking with Jesus (and I’m still learning, of course) is that the the emotions we feel when God seems distant are signals that God wants to do something important in our lives. What in the world does God want to do when we think he’s so far away? Among other things, he’s training us to ask, “In these seasons, what kind of God do I want? A god I can control? Or a God who is in control?” Second, he’s training us to hunger for him. Just him. When God seems distant, we long for him more than ever. There’s probably a thousand other things. But those are two big things.

When God seems distant, he’s teaching us what we can only learn through experience. And, in that way, these times are a gift. Backwards as it seems.

Of course, what we come to see in the gospel is that Jesus is really the only one who has actually been abandoned by God. On the cross, what you and I sometimes feel, Jesus actually endured. God really left him alone. Why? So that you and I would never have to actually be alone.

The miracle of Christmas is “God with us.” The miracle of the Passion is that the One who is “God with Us” was abandoned by God so we would forever have God with us. You can’t make this up.

So what about the times we feel like God is incredibly distant, even when we know intellectually and theologically he is not distant? In those times, God is giving us a gift, backwards as it seems. We are being made more like Jesus. He’s saying to you and me in those moments, “I have been there. I’ve been to hell and back. When you feel God is distant, like he’s abandoned you, he’s not. My Father—your Father—is preparing you for resurrection.”

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Life

The Pits and Christmas

It’s the pits. The worst, most depressing situation you can imagine. We use it playfully today, exaggerating our circumstance. The saying has lost its luster.

But it was not always so.

Out of the 150 chapters in Psalms, perhaps as many as 65 to 67 of them are laments or what we can call “complaint psalms.” These are songs in which the writer is disoriented because of sin, affliction, sickness, attack, or some other result of the brokenness of the world.

And one of the dominant motifs of these kinds of psalms is “the pit.” No, it’s not a reference to a stinky arm pit. It’s much worse. The poets of the Psalms probably took this image from the passage in Genesis when Joseph’s brothers threw him down a literal pit as they sought to get rid of him. In Psalms, it’s a metaphor describing God’s lack of presence or the feeling that his hesed (steadfast love, lovingkindness, etc.) has failed.

Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 143:7)

I am counted among those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 88:4)

Be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 28:1).

The biblical vision of “the pit” can be a powerful tool for our prayers in the midst of true despair. When your child dies. When your spouse leaves. When you are wrongfully accused. When you are marginalized. When you are mocked for your faith. When you get the news you have cancer.

Truly, the pits. And if we’re honest, most of life in this world is like this.

In the Psalms, it’s interesting that the remedy is almost never a reversal of the dire situation. It may be. But often the situation cannot change. Most often, however, there is a radical gift given by God: a reorientation to the reality that God is actually with us despite appearances. Circumstances remain unchanged. But the psalmists—and we with them–can now say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire beside you” (Ps. 73:25).

In these moments of reorientation back to God, it’s as if we read about and experience ourselves that God, though he doesn’t always bring us out, actually joins us where we are.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Christmas means that God came. He joins us in the pit. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, took on weak, frail, death-bound flesh. He exposed himself to the harsh realities of a broken world.

But Christmas means even more than that. Jesus did not merely come to sit in the pit with us by becoming a human being. He came to enter the ultimate pit for us on the cross. It was there that he—who is himself the Presence of God—actually lost of the presence of God his Father for you and me. Imagine the horror of this eternal, loving relationship being broken! And for what purpose? So that we might eternally live in the smiling, loving presence of God. Jesus’ resurrection from the pit of death is God’s stamp of guarantee it will happen.

When we experience “the pits” and feel that God has abandoned us, we can quickly realize it’s just that—a feeling. Now, the feeling is real. Oh, is it real! It’s raw. It hurts. It requires lament to get through it (not around it). But make no mistake. God is doing something while we’re in that pit. He’s Immanuel, with us, right there. And he’s drawing us to depend on him alone.

God himself is the prize.  As Michael Card has written, “You didn’t come to fix things, did you? You came to join me.” He’s better than a fixed situation. He’s taking us to resurrection, to himself.

One last thought. For many, Christmastime is the pits. Our Americanized version of Christmas is laden with artificial smiles and romantic comedy solutions. So any measure of sadness in our lives seems abnormal. Why are you sad? It’s Christmas! You can probably think of your own reasons why this year’s family gathering will feel pit-like.

But let us remember that this is precisely the reason Jesus came. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” says the Christmas carol. Not clapping and guzzling egg nog. He came because we needed it. He came to join us in the pit, endure it with us and for us, and raise us out. One day, he’ll come back again to lift us out finally and and forever into his loving, face-to-face presence. If your Christmas this year is the pits, what a glorious time to recall and hope in this most precious truth.