Significant

Scripture: Psalm 148

Poor Judgment

We humans are often poor judges of what is significant.

When I look back over my life, my own track record is pretty abysmal. An example: my choice of which college to attend.

Once I narrowed down college choices to three, I visited each. Ultimately, I chose to attend the one with crab grass. Seriously. That was what did it for me. The school I visited previously was so clean-cut it felt artificial. I didn’t fit there. But I fit with crab grass.

It’s a pretty poor logical leap, I’ll readily admit. And a rather flippant sort attitude toward a decision that ultimately shepherded me through theological crisis, introduced me to my spouse and some of my best friends, and had a significant impact in setting me along my current life path.

Another example: I chose to attend seminary as a stalling technique. Seriously, again, yes. I wanted to go to “real” grad school—you know, to work on a Ph.D.—but I had trouble narrowing my field down to the acceptable categories. So I avoided making the decision for three more years by attending seminary.

Again, a fairly petty process of decision-making for a commitment that resulted in more shaping of my worldview than probably any other I have made. This decision set me up for my travels in the Middle East, it forced me to find real-world application for my academic interests, and (perhaps most to the point) it was my official training for the job I now have…… Because of stalling.

On the other side of the coin, there have been countless decisions I thought were going to be life-changing yet are barely noticeable in hindsight. Purchasing decisions tend to fall into this category. So do conversations I’m too afraid to have.

It’s quite humbling, really. If it’s a decision that greatly impacted my life, I probably did not regard it with much significance at the time. If it’s a decision I thought would be immensely significant, it probably didn’t make much difference at all.

Jesus’ Birth

The story of Jesus’ birth illustrates that this pattern is larger than just me. All the people who should have recognized its significance completely missed the point.

All those religious people who knew the bible inside and out……

All those academics who debated the finer—and sometimes trifling—points of theology……

All those priests who serviced the temple and carried out the rituals of the faith……

All of them had all the pieces right in front of them, but they never put them together. It was the most significant event in human history, but it went right over their heads.

Those with Eyes to See

But not everyone missed it. You know who does tend to recognize what is really significant in the world? What really changes things?

Creation. Creation senses things and begins adjusting to shifts and pressures that we haven’t even started to notice.

Outsiders. Those on the margins of the world and culture are more susceptible to shifts that would make them victims, and so they tend to be more in tune with what these things mean.

Those in power. Those wielding the power of this world tend to have keener insight than most when it comes to what threatens that power.

Creation…… Outsiders…… Those in power…… These happen to be the elements in the psalm that recognize the significance of Yahweh God. And if we read closely, these are also the elements in the story of Jesus’ birth that recognize the significance there, too.

1. Creation

Many of the same elements of creation that praise God in Psalm 148 proclaim God’s praise in the birth of Christ as well. In the Luke 2 account, the heavens become filled with “the shining light of God’s glory” (Luke 2:9 VOICE). An angel and then even a “heavenly host” appear proclaiming God’s praise (just like v.2 of the psalm). And let’s not forget the feeding trough in which the baby Jesus is laid; while the bible doesn’t name the specific animals that were nearby, it isn’t too much a stretch to imagine the cattle of the psalm “lowing” near the baby Jesus, as we sing in the carol “Away in a Manger.”

Similarly, in Matthew’s account, the Magi see a peculiar star—something in creation that is out-of-the-ordinary—and follow it to Judea.

The “heavens,” “the heights above,” “the angels,” the “heavenly hosts,” the “sun and moon,” the “shining stars,” the “highest heavens,” the “waters above the skies,” and even the “cattle” have certainly added their voices in recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth.

2. Outsiders

But the psalm also suggests another group that tends to recognize the true significance of things: outsiders. The psalm makes reference to women, the elderly, and children praising God (v.12)—the very people with the least power in the ancient world. They define “outsiders” in the sense that they are powerless.

But the psalmist goes further than that. In the Hebrew Bible (the same as our Old Testament), the writers refer to non-Israelite rulers using the words of v.11 of the psalm: “kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth.” Non-Israelite rulers would of course be people who don’t know Yahweh-God. In the psalm, this trope anticipates a time when all people know and follow God’s direction and justice—much akin to the prophetic visions of Isaiah 2 and other places. The leaders and nations referenced in the psalm are outsiders, and it is outsiders who are precisely the ones who first recognize the significance of Jesus’ birth.

In Luke, it is famously a rag-tag band of shepherds who first receive the birth announcement, and subsequently follow their curiosity and hearts to our infant Savior. For Matthew, foreign, pagan Magi—astrologers rather than kings—travel from afar. Tragically, they are more in tune with what God is doing than God’s own people. They realize it’s significance.

3. The Powerful

There is (then) a third group of people (overlapping somewhat with the previous group) that recognize the significance of what God is doing: those in power. “Kings,” “princes,” and “judges” are ones who ordered the ancient world. They wield the power, control the money, and have absolute authority. That means, of course, that they are the ones with the most to lose when the Son of God—the Messiah—comes onto the scene and turns the world upside down.

Matthew’s story illustrates this for us most clearly. When King Herod began to hear rumors of what the Magi expected to find, he grew concerned—he knew immediately that Jesus’ birth had significant repercussions for his ability to hold onto his power and authority. So he tries to manipulate the Magi into betraying the newborn Messiah; and, when he realizes his trap failed, he slaughters countless infants and toddlers in an effort to protect his power.

Faithful people may have missed the significance of that newborn baby, but those in power knew just how dangerous this Jesus was to them; they did not miss the significance of his unassuming birth.

Conclusion

While I’m not arguing this psalm is prophetic in any way, I find it a remarkably appropriate description and response to the birth of Jesus.

In the advent of Christ,

“the name of the Lord” is praised;
God “alone is exalted”;
and God’s “splendor [shone] above the earth and the heavens” (v.13).

In the birth of Jesus,

God “has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart” (v.14).

In its own way, Psalm 148 guides us into recognizing the significance of Jesus’ birth for ourselves and all of creation. Just as faithful people have seen for thousands of years, this ancient prayer and songbook of God’s people guides us (this morning) into relationship, celebration, and awareness.

And so, in recognition of the significance of the appearing of our Savior, let us join our voices with this Psalmist of old. Let us “Praise the Lord.”

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The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.