Let it come – the kingdom of you!?

Strange words – unusual to us! When Jesus taught us to pray, “let your kingdom come…”?

The concept of kingdom is unfamiliar to us. The term might prompt us to think of the United Kingdom, comprised of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. We tend to think in terms of geography, boundaries, and landmass when actually we ought to be thinking in terms of government.

The term kingdom is used over 300 times in the English New Testament. Frequently it is used in the sense of a nation. But more often the term kingdom is used to refer to an orderly community of people governed by a roaring authority. A close parallel for us would be to think of kingdom as administration of a President, such as the Obama or Trump administration. It has to do with authority and rule.

There is a sense in which God the Lord is the great King over all that he has created. His providential rule and authority demonstrate his dominance over creation. But this is not what Jesus refers to in teaching us to pray, “your kingdom come.”

Further, the kingdom of our Father in heaven is not a political kingdom. At his trial, Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus responded, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)

Jesus was not concerned with creating a political superpower or in establishing his kingdom by force. This is rather striking inasmuch as the Bible consistently shows a fierce conflict going on between God and his archenemy Satan.

Near the beginning of human history, two rival kingdoms have been at war. Augustine (400 A.D.) accurately and artfully described this conflict in his influential book. The City of God describes the flow of history recorded in the Bible as a struggle between two kingdoms. From the Fall of humankind into rebellion against God, there have been two family lines or peoples – the people of God and the people of Satan. Each of these two kingdoms has its own ruler, its own people, its own desires, and its own destiny.

The battle was engaged in the Garden of Eden; the conflict continues throughout the biblical storyline, through the present, and into the future. Obviously, this is a huge topic; volumes have been and still could be written regarding it.

The biblical account shows that Jesus is the promised and long-awaited King, of the royal family of David. He is the Messiah – Christ, who preached the good news of the kingdom during his days on earth. In fact, he said, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

The good news of the NT is that the Messiah has come.  Jesus is the son of David, who suffered, died and rose again before entering into his glory.  He did this to provide salvation – to reclaim a people for God. Now he is on the throne.  He said that all authority in heaven and earth has now been given to him.  The book of Acts is an account of what the Messiah, King Jesus, does from the throne.  He sends divine power to earth.  He rules over his people by his word and spirit.  He extends his kingship from Jerusalem to Rome, the capital of the known world.  The book of Acts concludes its record of the open-ended story, as Paul preaches the kingdom of God and teaches boldly about Jesus Christ. Even now, King Jesus is subduing all nations and making them his disciples as he works through the church.

The decisive battle has been won, but the war is not over yet.  Christ has established a new order, new values are becoming real, but the old still lingers.  Christians live in the tension of this already and not yet.  Our Lord is on the throne, but all his enemies are not yet under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  Although we know that we are accepted in God’s sight because of Christ and that our sins have been forgiven on the basis of his sacrifice for our sin, we still stumble into sin. This tension between the already and the not yet presses us to pray, “establish your royal rule, O Father!  Your kingdom come!

This tension has been expressed by the history of World War II.  In June 1944, the Allied Armies paid the costly price of establishing a beachhead in Europe.  They broke through German defenses with a successful invasion that spelled the doom of Hitler’s army.  This was D Day, June 1944.  The war was not over until May 1945.  The day of victory is known as V Day.  For almost a year, there was fierce fighting, much hunger, pain and suffering by those in Europe.  The church is praying between the D Day of God’s invasion and the V Day of his total victory.  The liberation has begun; please complete it, O Lord.  Make us completely free.

The Heidelberg Catechism explains how to pray this petition of the Lord’s Prayer by dividing it into four requests.

  1. Rule us by your Word and Spirit in such a way that we submit to you.
  2. Keep your church strong and add to it.
  3. Destroy the devil’s work and thwart every conspiracy against your Word.
  4. Do this until your kingdom is complete and perfect.

Our times will have a conclusion.  But we must pray your kingdom come until our time is complete.  O Lord make us completely free.

Strange words

Several years ago, I went to live in Australia. We purchased a house which needed to be refurbished and restored. I also needed an office, which we intended to fabricate from a garage. One of the first things that I needed was “two by fours” to construct a wall. I searched the phone directory for lumber yards and building material but came up empty. In desperation, I asked a neighbor for advice. He suggested that I try “timber” and directed me to a shopping center.

So, after identifying a source for “timber” I entered the store. I was greeted by 4 or 5 young men, who were willing to help me. As soon as I open up my mouth. They recognize that I was not a native. I told them I needed some two by fours. Each one was befuddled. So, I explained that I wanted to construct a wall and needed some studs. Each man volunteered, asserting that he himself was indeed a stud! Finally, after I endured several more minutes of hazing, one of the men said, “Oh, you need four be twos.”

We were using the same words only in a different way. This caused confusion and frustration on my part – not to mention the great delight of my new Aussie friends.

So it is when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, in the King James English. “Hallowed be thy name…” This is a short clause containing some unfamiliar terms or strange words. Although they may seem familiar, they also seem eccentric. This is because they are! When is the last time you used the word hallowed in a sentence?

At any rate, Jesus instructs us to pray, “hallowed be thy (your) name…” Or “let your name be hallowed.”

First, we see that the name of “our Father in heaven” is to be hallowed. In Scripture, the name of the person signifies everything that comprises him. It stands for the person who bears it. As John Stott writes, it is more than a combination of the letters G, O, D. God’s name includes his person, including his characteristics, accomplishments, and activity. God’s name is God himself as he is in himself and has revealed himself in his acts, and in his Word. What Jesus refers to here is God’s reputation, the perception of him by his children and all of his creatures. We are meant to pray that our Father’s reputation be hallowed.

Now, let’s think about the word, hallowed. The dictionary attached to Microsoft Word suggests “sanctified, consecrate, blessed or deified.” The term in the original Greek New Testament means to make holy and is translated to consecrate or to recognize something as sacred. The concept of sacred is that which is set apart, distinct from others. This is getting more difficult for us because in our culture, almost nothing is regarded as sacred, with the exception of increasingly radical social values. Thus, these views or ideals are accepted and advanced by a militant minority who foist them on the rest of society. This is completely out of sync with the biblical norm, in which God declares and reveals to us what is holy.

The very first use of the term holy in the Bible is found in Genesis 2.3, which tells us:  So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. It seems evident that God made the seventh day, distinct or different from the other days. This is the core idea of holy – to be set apart or to be different from. Just as the “Holy Bible” is distinct from all other writings, so the One to whom it testifies is also absolutely distinct and different from anyone or anything else. Different! Absolutely different from anyone or anything…

So, to make holy is to dedicate or to consecrate; to make holy is to recognize and advance the reputation of our Father as highly esteemed and honored because he is! His name is already “holy” in that it is separate from and exalted over every other name. But we pray that it may be hallowed, that is recognized as holy because we sincerely desire that proper recognition be given to it – that it be given to him in our lives, in the church and in the world.

May these strange words be a frequent reminder that our Father is distinct from all others. May we also reflect his holiness by bringing his light to a dark world.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.” (Philippians 2:14–16, ESV)

 

Alexa

Last Christmas I received a gift which I have enjoyed more and more each day. Ben and Sarah and her family gave me an Amazon Echo Dot, which answers to the name of “Alexa.” It took a couple weeks to it get up and working but now I am reaping the benefits. For instance, when I ask for a weather report, I get an instant briefing for my locality. I can get news briefings, the word of the day, this day in history – all kinds of good things! I especially enjoy the link with Amazon Music so I can play albums and playlists. All I have to do is ask Alexa, who was at my beck and call, ready to do all that I command!

Sometimes I treat God the same way that I treat Alexa. “God, I have this problem. I’d like you to deal with for me.” “Lord, we need XYZ, can you get it for us!” Sometimes, if I’m feeling pious and polite, I would even say “please.”

Although not particularly reverent, there is some biblical warrant for prayers of this kind. Paul does instruct us to “let your request be known to God.” (Phil. 4.6). When I read the rest of the passage, I find there’s a little bit more to it. Taken in context, it reads: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

There is a lot of rich instruction in these verses, but my focus is on how I should approach God. Here, at the very least, I am taught that I should make requests with thanksgiving (acknowledgment of the Lord’s past blessings), trusting God for present and future needs.

When I turned to the Psalms, however, I see many times when the God-inspired writer boldly and bluntly pours out his hurts and needs before his God. So, among other varieties, there are Psalms of petition, penitence (repentance) and even frustration, when the author empties his emotions before the Lord in confusion and bewilderment. “Oh LORD, how long…? In all this, however, there is always a reference and recognition of the greatness and majesty of Almighty God.

There is one passage in the New Testament where God is directly addressed. It occurs in Luke 18.13: But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ Even here respect for God is evident.

God is gracious and attuned to our prayers. He does hear and answer when we call out to him. This does not mean however he is pleased to hear us on our own terms, especially when we are rude or presumptuous. In fact, the Bible abounds with instruction regarding how we should address our God.

The Old Testament reflects great admiration and even fear in approaching God. This is not to say that there is not a closeness between the Lord and his people. There is! Further, there is a noticeable shift when we come to the New Testament. This is because Jesus has both modeled and instructed his people about approaching God as Father.

Jesus unashamedly and frequently spoke of God as his Father. He addressed him as Father, even holy Father. Jesus came to do his father’s will and not his own. In the garden of Gethsemane and facing the agony of the cross, he cried out, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” As readers, we are not surprised that Jesus, the Son of God, should address the Almighty as Father.

We should be amazed, however, that Jesus instructed us at his followers to address God in such a familial way. But he did. Matthew’s gospel reports an extended teaching session of Jesus, frequently called The Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus instructs his followers how to pray. After several teaching points, he states, “Pray like this…” He goes on to give what we call the Lord’s prayer. Again in Luke’s gospel, after his disciples have observed him, praying they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus responds, “when you pray, say…”

So, the Lord’s prayer occurs in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. It is called the Lord’s prayer, not because he prayed it, but because he gave it to his followers. It is his gift to us.

Although I grew up with this prayer I don’t recall ever praying it in the worship services of our church. We avoided anything that could be seen as liturgical, although we had an “order of worship”, which never varied – never varied. The extemporaneous prayers seemed to be predictable and repeated week after week. At the same time, each school day began with a brief Bible reading and a reciting of the Lord’s prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. Things were different in public schools (back then!). It was not until I was in college and attending the college church that I was introduced to the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed as an element in public worship. Nevertheless, everyone knew about the Lord’s Prayer, even if we didn’t utilize it.

Various theological and historical reasons have been offered in defense of avoiding the use of The Lord’s Prayer. One of the most popular is that prayers which are offered repetitively become meaningless. That is, rote prayers are not thoughtful (thought-out) and become empty words.

But to me, none of these objections supersede the clear instruction of the Lord Jesus to his disciples: “When you pray, say…” And “Pray like this…”

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:7–13, ESV)

Jesus has given us both a prayer to be prayed in the pattern to be used for praying. For the next several blog posts, The Lord’s Prayer will be our subject.

I think there is great wisdom in repetitive elements in worship. Chiefly, the so-called rote saying of the Lord’s Prayer and even the Apostles’ Creed, become ingrained in our memory. This is a very good thing. There are many times in life when trauma, fatigue, confusion, medicine and other factors cloud our memory and thinking. At such times, I have found a great comfort to draw upon these precious treasures. I can be assured that Jesus is pleased when he hears me pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Alexa may entertain me, but only God, my Father, will sustain me. Join me in calling out to him using the words that Jesus taught us.

 

Sweet spot

In a recent conversation, I heard someone make the comment, “We want to find the sweet spot.” By that, he meant that it would be beneficial for us to discover the best or proper niche for what we are doing. We should discover the optimum balance in what we are doing.

The term sweet spot reminded me of a scene in one of the favorite movies of our family. While You Were Sleeping has a scene in which a father, approaching retirement, is discussing the family business with his son. While savoring an early morning cup of coffee and a contraband doughnut, smuggled by the son for his “dieting” father, the old man muses about life. After reminiscing about some of the up and down experiences of life, he intimates that in life there is a time, for one moment, everything is just about perfect… The son interrupts, “This is not that moment, Pop.” He then goes on to tell him that he has aspirations other than the family business.

And so it is, that we seek that one thing which will make us happy. We chase the illusion that if only we could… There are many options. People pursue spouses, children, success, education, health, exercise, sex, better houses, improved circumstances, vocational satisfaction, family, hobbies… And so it goes, on and on.

Stop and think about it, it’s not too hard to recognize that much of the advertising strategy of our society is based on this quest. Using a specific product yields satisfaction and fulfillment. The problem is that there are many competing products, each promising a more positive result than others! But no matter how much Nutrisystem I consume, I’ll never look like Marie Osmond! And that brand new, state-of-the-art                         (fill in your own blank) will quickly become worn out, expired, or outdated. “Not to worry, we will give you a great deal on an upgrade or better one!”

So it seems like we are always striving, but whenever we are about to approach our sweet spot, it eludes us. Just when it seems to be in our grasp, it flies away. Our circumstances change, or some limiting or frustrating factor unexpectedly appears. What’s worse is when we actually seem to arrive at the sweet spot, only to discover that it is an empty promise. It does not deliver what we had expected.

This is similar to what the Old Testament prophet Haggai told the people of Israel, as he attempted to motivate them to get busy rebuilding the temple. It seems they excuse themselves because it just wasn’t the right time. Haggai announces: “Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:5–6)

How’s that for a very vivid and accurate portrayal of our unending quest for the sweet spot. Even though we try as best we can, we never have enough. We drink and are thirsty; we clothe ourselves but can’t stay warm. Our resources dissipate unexpectedly. We are disappointed.

This reminds me of the deception of Adam and Eve, who were seduced by the cunning of the serpent in the garden. In Genesis 3.5 we read of how the crafty snake not only disputed the goodness of God but also promised Eve more than he was able to deliver. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Eve (and Adam!) did eat of the fruit and ruined their relationship with God. Ignoring that they were image bearers of God, they fell in league with the evil one, joining his rebellion against God. The change which resulted impacted not only the first couple but all their natural prodigy.

The God-given remedy to this mess required a supernatural birth, an impeccable life, a gracious sacrifice and powerful resurrection. Jesus came as God’s promised Messiah, the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Jesus, the Son of God, came to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3.8), to establish his kingdom and to restore and renew God’s creation.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus explains and instructs his followers about life in his kingdom. After teaching us the importance of “treasuring up treasures in heaven,” he speaks of the relative uselessness of storing up treasures on earth, which will perish. Instead, he encourages his followers:  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

Jesus tells us that the real sweet spot is to be found in seeking a present and an unending relationship with God in his kingdom. In the surrounding context, Jesus unpacks the righteousness that we should be pursuing. The following chapter, Jesus instructs us to ask, to seek and to knock for what we need in this world (see Mt. 7.7–12).

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7) unpacks and explains how he wishes for his followers to live. Take some time this weekend to read and consider how you can live in the sweet spot.

 

Use an old friend to your advantage? … how?

I often think of Psalm 23 as an “old friend.” My choice of wording might seem odd, but I turn to this old and trusted friend repeatedly. For instance, on those increasing occasions when I wake up and can’t fall back to sleep, I have some trusted friends who visit. One of these is Psalm 23. The others include the Lord’s prayer and the Apostles’ Creed. Irregularly, they are accompanied by a fourth, the 10 Commandments. Sometimes, other Scriptures too. But often the Psalms.

On these occasions, I usually recite, in my mind, the words of these close friends. Then, I go back and consider or meditate on one or the other. Often, this brings me to Psalm 23. Then, phrase by phrase, I focus on its meaning. Doing this, I have observed that it may be used in various ways.

Psalm 23 teaches and reminds me of various truths. Yahweh is the one who is shepherding or taking care of me. Yahweh will provide all of my needs. He uses various circumstances in my life to provide rest, reflection, protection, etc. Thus, I can read and review the details of Psalm 23 and be encouraged because I am reminded of these precious truths.

Psalm 23 can be read as an affirmation or statement of faith. That is, as I recite it, I affirm these facts to be true. Thus, I affirm that Yahweh leads me and provides for me. I may reflect how he has been with me in the dark valleys of life. This might prompt me to a different emphasis such as appreciation and gratitude. So,…

Psalm 23 may be offered as a prayer of thanksgiving. I might go through it, phrase by phrase and reflect on how the Lord has provided, protected and led me in the past. I acknowledge his tender care and protection. Then I thank him for it. Thus, it is a Psalm of praise to the Lord!

Psalm 23 can be uttered as a prayer for protection, provision or direction. I might pray something like this: “O Lord, you are my shepherd and have promised to provide for all my needs. Please Lord, refresh my spirit and restore my soul. I am tired and weary; I am confused and don’t know where to turn… Oh Lord, I need your help. Please help me…”

Psalm 23 may be recited as an aspiration or something which I strongly desire to be. Thus, I would pray, “Good Shepherd, I am your sheep, help me to find my all and all in you. Help me to be content with you. I thank you and praise you that you have in the past, led me to pleasant pastures and quiet places. You have restored my soul and led me in paths of righteousness. Please be with me in death’s dark valley. Cause me to know that you are with me…”

Psalm 23 can be used as an intensely personal prayer or, with the focus on others, such as your spouse, children, family, friends, church, etc.

More often than not, Psalm 23 is offered in “kaleidoscope form.” By this, I mean that it is difficult for me to stick to one focus. I might begin with praise and thanksgiving that the Lord is my shepherd – that he is the Good Shepherd who has given his life for me. Then, after giving thanks, I might pray for refreshment and provision. I might request that my faith is strengthened as I phase troubles and difficult situations…

Then, I might turn to the future and reflect on the truth of the Good Shepherd’s promise to be with me in what lies ahead. Doing so might encourage me to think about the more distant future and the wonderful promises he has made to those who love him. I will live in his house forever.

Sometimes, I think of the abundant provision which Jesus has made for me as one of his people. I thank him that even though my enemies surround me, he continues to provide for his own – especially for me! He protects me. I have nothing to fear.

By now, you get the picture. Rather than just sticking to one line of thought, my brain jumps back and forth between these various aspects. Perhaps you’re more disciplined or focused. Great! But I can tell you this, that when I feel confused or alone, I can turn to my trusty friend (Psalm 23), who quickly points me to my Good Shepherd, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Then I quickly confess, “That’s all I want!”

Someone once asked a wise pastor about his preferred version of the Bible. With the great proliferation of versions, both old and new, which is the best – the most helpful? He replied, “Although there are many excellent choices, get one that is a good translation, faithful to the original manuscripts and which you can understand and will obey. He went on to explain that what really matters is that you use the one that you have. That’s it! Use what you have.

Likewise, take Psalm 23 and use it. There are very good reasons for why this Psalm is so well loved. Make it one of your favorites too.

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“Things are going to get better. Looking ahead.”

“It’s not always going to be like this. Things are going to get better.” I hear statements like this often. Usually, they are from well-meaning people who are comparing their hard situations to my circumstances as a quadriplegic. I appreciate their optimism and encouragement. I am also happy that they are hopeful. Often, their reasoning goes something like this. Things cannot get much worse (or at least, so it seems). And if things can’t get worse, they will have to get better! So, they must improve.

Consider these popular beliefs which are said to give help in times of trouble.

  • The power of positivity: “If I keep a positive mental attitude, I’ll handle my troubles better.” Response: some circumstances are really hard and may not get better. It is not possible to “be chipper” all the time.
  • The power of faith: “You gotta keep the faith. If I stay optimistic, things will work out.” Response: things don’t always “work out.” Other, stronger factors may be at work.
  • The power of prayer: “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” “Prayer changes things.” Response: thinking about someone or something may provide you better insight but have no real ability or power to change things. Prayer does not change things; only God can ultimately alter circumstances. It is more likely that he will change my perspective in responding and changing the circumstances.

When I look to myself and others for satisfaction, I am setting myself up for disappointment because all human beings are frail, weak and subject to change. What I mean is that even my strengths become exhausted; circumstances may change my desires and perspective. Often what I really need is beyond my ability.

The bottom line is that I really need help beyond myself. I need help from outside of me. A popular criticism of Christianity is that it is a “crutch.” What is implied is that Christianity is for weaklings. (And not for someone strong like me!) When someone raises this objection to me, I heartily concur and confess that I am weak. And so is everyone else. Every one of us has great limitations, weaknesses and inconsistencies.

So, you’re having a hard time. I get that. Life makes us aware of our limitations, even if we are reluctant to call them weaknesses. In Psalm 23, David has reflected on these obstacles and how Yahweh his God has helped him. As he is about to conclude his meditation, he writes, “… and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

It strikes me that David comforts himself with the prospect of living in “the Lord’s house” forever. Let’s make a couple important observations.

  1. Because of David’s relationship with the LORD, he anticipates – looks ahead to a much better future, specifically, living in the house of the Lord forever. Although David may not know the details, he confidently expects his relationship with his God to be a lasting one. With this he is content.
  2. David’s bright future focuses on the house of the Lord. This phrase also occurs in Psalm 27.4: one thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.

Here, David seems to be finding comfort and strength to respond to threatening circumstances. The house of the Lord symbolizes security and comfort because it represents the physical presence of the LORD, in his Temple. This phrase, the house of the Lord, is used frequently in the OT, especially the Prophets, to refer to the Temple.

 

Looking in the New Testament, this phrase is not used directly. It is striking, however, that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, uses a similar phrase when he speaks of his Father’s House. For instance, the words of Jesus are quoted in John 14:2: In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? But this is not the first time. On other occasions, Jesus referred to the Temple as his Father’s house (see Luke 2.49 and John 2.16 ESV).

Here is the picture. Jesus is Immanuel – God with us and who dwelt – is “Tabernacling” or has pitched his tent – among us (John 1.14) refers to the Temple as his Father’s house. Jesus is God in the flesh, present with his people, pointing ahead or forward to another time and place where he will be physically present with them.

Now, when I read Psalm 23.6 – and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever – I can understand that David points to future blessings, in the same way that Jesus anticipates enjoying the company of his disciples in his Father’s house, which has many rooms and is a place, being prepared for us. In other words, both David and Jesus anticipate intimate future fellowship in the very presence of God. Put another way, David and Jesus both point to a wonderful future in the very presence of God!

On the one hand, I know that I long for this. But on the other, I am deeply attached to this life, as difficult as it may be. Incidentally, the apostle Paul shared the same quandary. (See Philippians 1.20 ff.) Paul intensely desired the spiritual edification of his readers so much that he tempered his desire to be with Christ.

So, as I look ahead to my unknown future, I aspire to be useful for Christ, serving faithfully where he has put me now, while I anticipate a fantastic future with Jesus and my Christian brothers and sisters. We will be together and live in the house of the LORD forever.

It in the meantime, like most others, I struggle with this tension. I once heard someone say, “Everyone wants to go to heaven – just not today!” Even so, I know that Jesus is with me always, even to the end of the age – and beyond!

Looking up and looking ahead…

“Dear Jesus, please help Pop-Pop to get out the wheelchair.” Each of my three grandchildren who reside with me, begin their dinnertime prayer with these words. They (both the children and the words) are a delight and encouragement to me. Although it is quite possible for God to raise me up from my paralysis, I doubt that it is probable. There is, however, coming a day when I will be out of this wheelchair. This will occur either at death or when Jesus returns.

So, I do not understand these words as a childish or futile prayer. They are prophetic to me. As a believer in Jesus, I can anticipate with great assurance that one day I will be out of this wheelchair. These prayers are helpful reminders that I have a lot to look forward to! But in the meantime, life goes on. There will be good days and bad days. Situations often look gloomy, but a wonderful future awaits me. Sometimes it’s difficult to look ahead; I need encouragement now.

In the same way, King David reminds himself and others (like us!) of the continued care and goodness of our great Shepherd. Psalm 23:6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

One commentator in describing the imagery of this verse, suggests that while this Shepherd goes ahead and leads, his Shepherd dogs follow behind and form a “rearguard.” Although I’m not sure of the practice of the Eastern shepherds of antiquity, I do know that this is an apt description of the imagery of this text. Indeed, the Lord is leading his people and goodness and mercy follow me all the days of my life.

Let’s think about this for a minute. The concept of God’s goodness conveys ideas of that which is beneficial, useful, helpful, generous, joyful, valuable and pleasing. This reminds me of what Paul wrote: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, ESV) what a great encouragement. It is to know that God has purposed good for me, no matter what things might look like. So, no matter what, God is working that which is to my benefit through my present circumstances.

The next idea often translated mercy is one of my favorite biblical words. Various suggestions have been made for translating it: loyalty, goodness, loyal love, kindness, covenant faithfulness and steadfast love. British OT scholar Alec Motyer expresses the idea by the words “committed love.” This love is not emotion or feeling. This love is committed, gracious and determined action for the purpose of benefiting its recipient.

By God’s grace, I see this committed love displayed for me every day. Surely God continues to demonstrate his favor towards me. But God has also given me another display of this “committed love.” Not only every day but throughout the day, every day, my wife displays this sort of love toward me. In addition to supervising my care. She is often called on to provide it. Many of the things which she does are repulsive; while some are just difficult and inconvenient. I’ll spare you the gory details but use your imagination. I am paralyzed from the shoulders down.

So, day after day, evening, hour after hour, she continues to display favor and goodness to me as she attends to my wants and needs. I can count on her love expressed by dependable care. This serves as a vivid reminder of the love of my good Shepherd toward me.

There is a major difference, of course. My dear wife is human and therefore experiences fatigue and frustration. She requires rest and time off in order to be refreshed. My good shepherd, not only promises but is able to care for me all the days of my life. Psalm 121 expresses the idea: He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The one who has promised goodness and committed love to us is not only willing but also able to keep his word. Indeed, Jesus has promised. I will never leave you or forsake you.

Now, imagine that you are sitting next to David in the fresh green grass. As you think about your future, you have no precise idea what to expect. You do know that you live in a fallen world and are subject to frustration and the effects of sin. There will be good days and (sad to say) bad days. Your experience tells you that there will probably be more bad days than good days.

Try on this comforting concept: goodness and committed love are following you all the days of your life! No what matter what your circumstances might suggest or how you feel or what you think, Jesus is watching out in caring for you. He will not desert you. He will not abandon you. He is continually working good out of what seems to be bad. Trust him. Rely on him.

Pop-Pop will get out of this wheelchair one day. But until then, he knows that goodness and committed love are following him all the days of his life.

“I’ve got your back…”

These words were spoken to encourage and comfort someone who senses danger or peril.

Imagine yourself embroiled in chaos and turmoil. Controversy rages; “fake news” flourishes. Pseudo-friends show their true colors. You don’t know who to believe. Smooth tongues deceive. Danger looms. Loyalty seems lost. Trust has eroded; while confidence and optimism have evaporated. Fear threatens to overwhelm you; your courage has vanished. Your situation is dire!

Suddenly, a loyal friend says, “I’ve got your back…” Immediately, you are encouraged and strengthened. You are reminded that you are not alone. Someone is watching out for you. You feel assured because your friend means that he/she will help to guard you against surprise attacks – You know, the ones you can’t see coming from your blindside. In military jargon, “I’ve got your six.” (12 o’clock is immediately in front; 6 o’clock is behind you.) Comforting words indeed!

Remember that David is meditating and celebrating the gracious way Yahweh has dealt with him over the course of his life. David pensively reflects on both God’s promises and their past, present and future fulfillment. He depicts Yahweh as his Shepherd, his Companion, and his Host.

This stands out as we review Psalm 23.

As Shepherd, he provides, protects and guides. The initial image is that of the LORD leading David like a shepherd leads his sheep. He leads me beside still waters. That is, he goes on ahead and shows me the way to the cool refreshing waters I desperately need.

As Companion he accompanies me. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with meDavid sees himself in a treacherous situation (the valley of the shadow of death) but has no need to fear because Yahweh is “with” him. The idea is that Yahweh is next to or beside him. He has a formidable companion!

As Host he richly provides. The imagery of a festive meal, suggests that Yahweh, the host, honors David as his guest. David has been abundantly blessed by the presence of Yahweh, even welcomed him into his presence. Reflecting on this, David projects his faith into the future. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life… Once again, a picture of Yahweh’s relationship to David. This time his goodness and mercy are following him.

Do you see how secure David is? The Lord is in front of him – leading. The Lord is beside him – with him. The Lord is behind him – following.

Amazing isn’t it! David may have felt hopeless. David apparently thought he was all alone. He felt threatened and desperate. But all the while, he was under the watchful care of the Good Shepherd.  He is more secure than he can imagine. He is hemmed in by the presence, goodness and mercy of the LORD – surrounded by the love of the LORD.

Let’s apply this to a realistic situation with which you might be familiar. Suppose you’re having one of those really bad times – not days, but weeks or even months. It seems like everything and everyone, or at least most everyone, is aligned against you. You realize that you are in a treacherous situation. You feel overwhelmed. Perhaps your health or job is threatened. Or maybe a primary relationship is falling apart. Things seem to be out of control, with no hope in sight.

You can easily identify with how David must have been feeling. Lonely, under attack, confused, bewildered, unloved, and maybe even rejected by God. But You are not alone. Almost everyone feels like this at one time or another. David did – until he reflected upon his relationship with his God. Upon reflection, he realized that the LORD was the one caring for him.

As God’s people, let us recognize and rest in these comforting truths. The LORD directs our paths, watches over us for good, nourishes and refreshes as God uses these physical lessons to reinforce the spiritual truth that the LORD deeply loves and graciously cares about his people. He sent his own Son, the Lord Jesus, to be the Good Shepherd who would lay down his life for us, his sheep. Further, remember that Jesus is our companion in times of trouble. He has promised never to leave us or forsake us. He has also promised that he will take us to be with him forever. We will be blessed far beyond what we can imagine!

As God’s people, let us recognize that even when we are in grave danger, we are not alone. Rather, Jesus will be with us even in the darkest of circumstances. We will be personally protected and watched over by Yahweh our God. This assurance of Christ’s companionship provides us with great comfort. The promise of a glorious future fuels our hope as we anticipate our future with Christ.

Welcomed or not?

Have you any ever been anywhere you realized that you might not be welcomed? Probably so. Take a moment and reflect. You likely recall those feelings of doubt, uncertainty, and rejection… Not a very pleasant experience! I remember walking unexpectedly into a meeting of some folks plotting against me… It was eerie and very uncomfortable – for everyone.

On the other hand, have you ever felt really welcomed? Immediately, you feel relaxed, comfortable, secure. You know you “belong” there. It’s like coming home. You feel welcomed.

Psalm 23 is comprised of 2 vivid word pictures describing the LORD’s grace. The first image is that of a shepherd, who protects, guides and cares for his sheep (V.1 – 4). The second is that of a gracious host, attending to the needs of his guests (V.5, 6). Verse 5 began with the declaration of a feast or meal. The thought is continued: you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

Anointing in the OT was commonly understood to be the official action of God, through his priest or prophet, which signaled the particular call of God for a specific purpose in service to God. So, Kings, Prophets and Priests were anointed by pouring a sacred oil on the head.

This, however, is not what Psalm 23 has in view. Anointing was an ancient custom performed by Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and other nations. Olive oil, either in its purest form or mixed with fragrant and expensive and exotic spices was used. Although often a part of a coronation celebration, anointing was also practiced as an active courtesy and hospitality extended to a special guest.

In our verse (Psalm 23. 5), David portrays himself as an honored guest of the LORD, who not only prepares a table for him but also hospitably honors him by pouring fragrant oil on his head. He pours it with such abundance that it fills and then overflows his cup.

The New Manners and Customs of the Bible, (James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick) cites a source written in the early 1800s entitled Oriental Customs. The author, Captain Williams, reports a personal experience in many ways similar to that of David: “I once had the ceremony performed on me in the house of a great and rich Indian, in the presence of a large company. The gentleman of the house poured upon my hands and arms, a delightful odiferous perfume, put a golden cup in my hands and poured wine into it until it ran over. Assuring me at the same time, that it was a great pleasure to him to receive me and that I should find a resupply of my needs in his house.”

Obviously, the extravagance of anointing demonstrates not only the generosity of the Lord but also the delight of God in providing such exuberant blessing to his guest. Thus, we are to be assured of God’s extended kindness and compassion.

Between my junior and senior years of college (seems like yesterday to me, but to others, like the middle ages). One of my friends had applied for a teaching position at the local high school. Before the interview, he came to my home with all sorts of questions about the community and school. He was apprehensive as he went but promised to report what happened. After about three hours, my friend returned. The car door flung open and out he jumped crying, “They want me! They want me!” It’s great to be wanted.

There many times throughout life when we feel unwanted. At such times, we feel alone and despondent. We may even think that God has turned his back on us. Things seem they are going from bad to worse and we lose all hope…

This would be a good time to remember the words of Jesus to his disciples. In John 14.1 – 3 Jesus said: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

Sounds to me like Jesus really desires to have his disciples with him. He makes a promise, “I will come again and I will take you to myself, that where I am, you may be also.” Do you know what Jesus was about to do? He was about to go to the cross, where he would die. He would fulfill the prophecy made by his cousin John: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

It was necessary for Jesus to go away in order that he might accomplish what he came to do. That is, he came to provide life for everyone who believes in him. As John quotes Jesus, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Please notice that the disciples had it wrong. Jesus was not about to desert them; he was in the process of providing them with the greatest blessing imaginable. So, when we feel, abandoned and alone, it is good to remember that we have it wrong. It only seems like things are out of control. We are not alone and we are not forgotten. Jesus promised to be with us always. And better yet, he really wants us to be with him. 

“Switching hats…”

When you have more time than money or even if you have neither money nor time, you sometimes must switch roles. For instance, I would occasionally receive a phone call from my wife advising me of a crisis at home. Usually, it was more urgent than critical. Maybe the car wouldn’t start, or the sink was leaking. On these occasions, I often said, “wait until I put on my mechanic’s hat. I’ll be right there…” The saying is, not original, of course, it’s figurative language commonly used to describe a changing of function.

This is what happens in the middle of Psalm 23. Initially, David has been describing the LORD as his Shepherd and himself as God’s sheep. Then, in verse 5, he changes that metaphor, depicting the LORD as his familiar host. The shift in focus is obvious and natural. Both descriptions instruct us about the Lord’s ongoing concern and care for his people.

Thus, he writes, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” Clearly, David sees the Lord as his gracious host and himself as his guest.

Prepared table

David means far more than a flat board with attached legs. No, he evokes a picture of the fellowship shared by those seated around the table. He describes an intimacy of a festal family gathering. The focus is now on the friendship, perhaps even intimacy, of a generous host, who has taken care to provide for his needs.

John RW Scott explains, “the scene changes. I am no longer out-of-doors, but indoors; no longer a sheep in the flock, but a guest at a banquet.” By way of application, God’s children are his special guests – his close friends. So, just as a shepherd cares for his sheep, the host provides for the needs of his guests.

Think of what is suggested here. We, who were once God’s enemies have become his children and close confidantes. By nature, we rebelled against him and resisted him. But through the cross of Christ, we have been reconciled to him. Amazing! Friends with God! Friends of God! Children of God – what a privilege!

There are at least two “tables” which God prepares for his children.

The first is the “table” of his daily care, in meeting our physical needs. David could have had in mind a situation similar to what is described in 2 Samuel 17.26 – 29 when he wrote this verse. David’s son, Absalom, had rebelled against him and was leading the charge to kill him. David hastily fled from Jerusalem and had hunkered down with his weary troops. David was in dire need of rest and refreshment. God supplied David’s needs through the generosity of his friend, Barzillai, who supplied him with beds, cooking utensils, and various foodstuffs him because he recognized the needs of God’s people.

Can you think of ways in which God has provided just what you needed when you needed it? God has called us to live by faith, and many of us have experienced firsthand God’s faithfulness in providing for all our needs. Let’s take a moment and thank him for his consistent faithfulness and provision.

Yahweh, as the perfect father and host, takes great care to provide for our daily needs. Jesus said that we are to ask him for our daily bread. The constancy of God’s provision means that we as God’s people have them in every circumstance and situation. We have already noticed in earlier verses that this is true. God consistently provides for the needs of his children.

So, the first “table” concerns our physical needs. The second table provides for our spiritual needs.

Jesus has prepared a table for his followers, at which his enemies are barred. This table is reserved only for the children of God. Each of the Gospels declares that Jesus elevated the meaning of the celebration of the Passover feast, transforming it to what we now refer to as “The Lord’s Supper.”

The purpose of this symbolic meal is to nourish our faith as we reflect upon (remember) the Lord’s death until he comes. In this spiritual meal, the Lord Jesus through his ministers acts as the host for his followers. Thus, Jesus encourages us, feeds us and builds our faith as we consider his sacrificial death and resurrection. While the elements of wine and bread symbolize the blood and body of Christ, the words of the celebration inform us, as the actions and motions portray the giving and receiving of the gospel message. This is a table of refreshment which only the Lord could prepare. He has prepared it for each of us.

Don’t lose the focus. The Lord provides all these benefits for you. The emphasis of the Psalm is the personal provision of the Lord for his child. David recounts his experience with the LORD so that each of us will also taste and see that the Lord is good. God cares for you. That is, God is caring for you. To put it another way, the Lord is providing for you.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.  Matthew 7.31 – 34