A Picture of the Kingdom – Psalm 128

Psalms BonhoefferWe’ve been studying the Psalms. Originally following Bonhoeffer’s little book, but breaking off toward the end to look at a couple of Psalms of the day or those incorporated into the introit. But I’ve been casting around for a way to wrap up the study. For the one group I settled on the Songs of Ascent.

The Songs of Ascent were sung as you went up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feasts. You have one scriptural picture of such a pilgrimage in the story of the 12 year old Jesus in the temple in Luke 2:41-52. There are a bunch of psalms so labeled right around number 128. And we imagined their catechetical use in the vein of Deuteronomy 6:7. Instead of answering “are we there yet?” and “how much further?” questions (although I sure those came up as well), as you walked by the way Dad might say Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD. And there are all kinds of questions that could be asked or suggested. We happened to look at what does ‘to fear’ mean in class, but what does blessed mean or who is included in everyone are just two others off the top of my head. Son, what do you think the blessing of the LORD looks like? Then sing the rest of the psalm and it answers the question.

Psalm 128:1-6
A Song of Ascents.
Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands; you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

The LORD bless you from Zion! May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!

The blessing of the Lord is: 1) peace, 2) useful and profitable labor, 3) Fruitful family life, 4) Good times for the people of God. Son, if you want to walk in the way of the Lord and live a good life, seek these things.

One of the things that I brought up was to what extent does that describe now and to what extent is the psalmist calling for the coming kingdom? Bonhoeffer’s key thought remember is that the psalms are OT prayers that reflect the Lord’s Prayer. And one of the points, taken by the class to greater or lessor degrees, was eating the fruit of the labor of your hands. My grandfather did this explicitly. He was so blessed. But this is something that at least from my perspective has been disappearing from our society. It is not even the goal often anymore. The goal is more to find a place to erect a toll booth or game the system by taking pieces of the labor of others. This is not a criticism of real capitalism. The trader buying for x and selling for y performs labor of either transport, discovery or just taste. It is a criticism of taking from x to give to y. If y is poor and needy, x should be moved to Christian charity. But to have z take from x, while taking a slice for himself ever bigger, in the name of y is not a blessing. And it eventually erodes that first blessing of peace as x, y and z all queue up to argue instead of doing useful and profitable labor. This can be fulfilled here to a greater or a lessor extent, but its true fulfillment is in the New Jerusalem. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Pastor Wilson looks at the effects of this in a “News this morning” way by way of Cyprus. A perfect example of not eating the fruit of your labor but losing peace arguing over other people’s labor.

Then the Cyprus debacle happened. The European Union demanded that bank accounts in Cyprus take “a haircut” in exchange for the next bailout, though they are now signaling “flexibility” on the issue because their stealing appeared to be stealing to too many people. We shall see what happens. I suspect that flexibility simply means slippery. Now bank accounts used to be private property, pure and simple, but not any more — whatever happens.

And you probably don’t need to be reminded that the money that was going to be used to bail out Cyprus was money that was stolen from somebody else, oh, weeks ago, and so we will not let that detain us. So the Cypriots wanted this bailout, see, paid for by some German sap or other, and they had a bunch of plump bank accounts of their own just sitting there. What did you expect?

When you attempt to govern a society of thieves with an elite corps of thieves trying to manage the whole affair, sooner or later a fight is going to break out over the swag. We are probably past the point of no return, and Europe most certainly is.

Paragraph to Ponder; Lament and Studying the Psalms

We’ve been studying the Psalms and one of the things that you can’t avoid is lament in both directions. There is the lament of the faithful calling on God to be faithful like Psalm 27:7-10. There is lament of God for his people like Psalm 81:11-16. It is from reflection on passages like these and the way that primarily OT characters sometimes go after God that my spiritual advice has often been “God’s a big guy, he can take it”. That was usually quickly followed by something like “just be ready to be silenced from the whirlwind” (Job 40:6). Following Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms we’ve been presenting the Psalms as two things: 1) the prayers of Christ himself and 2) the Lord’s Prayer in different form. It is that second category that is meaningful here. For what is the Lord’s prayer if not a study in Lament. Your kingdom come (because we certainly don’t see it much now). Your will be done (because the bad guys seem to have free reign). Lead us not into temptation (because it certainly feels like you are a capricious God). Deliver us from evil (because our enemies surround us to devour our flesh). Like the psalms, lament leads the way to two things: 1) reaffirming the Lordship of God and 2) our faith in his promises. Psalm 27 referenced earlier ends with such a raw declaration of resurrection and faith, Psalm 27:13-14. When God laments he closes with reiteration of his promises, Psalm 81:16.

Wesley Hill, quoting a review by Lauren Winner, touches on some of these points in the paragraph to ponder…

An important theme in Rittgers’ account is the intensely biblical nature of Lutheran suffering. Protestants, far from assuming that suffering was always a direct divine punishment for sin, offered a range of explanations for suffering. (The recognition that suffering ultimately emerges from sin, Rittgers notes, is not the same as the claim that every instance of suffering is a punishment for a person’s individual sinful act.) Protestants could articulate many different explanations for suffering because the Bible “contains … explanations for suffering that have nothing to do with punishment.” Job imagines suffering as a test of one’s devotion to God; the Psalms, Proverbs, and other texts explore suffering’s capacity to refine one’s faith; the New Testament suggests that suffering can be a means of identifying with Christ. Laypeople heard these themes expounded in the pulpit and encountered them in books about proper Christian suffering; they also copied down or memorized consoling words of Scripture, so that in a time of trial they would have biblical words to help them persevere.

Yet one important biblical response to suffering did not find a place among Luther’s heirs: lament. The psalms, in particular, contain illustration after illustration of God’s faithful people calling God to account because their suffering defied not just explanation but indeed God’s covenantal promises. This tradition did not find a place in a “premodern consolation literature” that consistently advised men and women to “accept their suffering patiently and make no protest against the workings of divine providence.” Rittgers intriguingly suggests that this loss of lament may have had profound consequences, among them contributing to the “gradual disenchantment of the world …. Perhaps in the (very) long run, the insistence of the Western churches that human beings must face suffering without the possibility of lament has worked to undermine the plausibility of Christian faith.”

In one sense I understand the point being made. Protestants, learning the theology of the cross, were often preached to skip right to the consolation. The Gospel is consolation. But taken so easily as the review suggests was done, is missing the core of Luther’s insight. Law and Gospel is a tension. We can take consolation in the promises of God now. We can even take consolation in the visible sacraments and those brief moments – like the transfiguration – when the glory breaks through the veil. But, all things are not yet brought to completion. The devil, is still the power and principality of this realm. We are still burdened by our frail flesh which works against us. The theology of the cross is a learning to bear it and learning where that strength comes from. The reformation might have made an intellectual jump, but the emotional learning lags behind. Or maybe better is that we each come to our own understanding of the one truth. Lament, in its biblical forms points the way. The feelings are true. The Psalmist does not deny them. Jesus tells us to pray them. Instead of the the effect that the review highlights, “the gradual disenchantment of the world”, the way of the cross is toward trust in the promises. Lament’s resolution is not in immediate divine action, nor is it in abandonment of the expectation of divine action in favor of our own action. The purpose of lament is to stir belief. My God, why have you forsaken me to be met with the response into your hands I commit my spirit. Belief that God has acted ultimately. I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Psalm 27:13). And belief that allows us to walk the way here. To love our enemies.

Prayer and Belief

Take a look at 1 John 5:16-17

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life– to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1Jo 5:16 ESV)

Church at prayer IconThis passage came up initially before study, but a congregant had an interesting experience/question after our Sunday morning bible study. We started looking at the Psalms and Bonhoeffer’s take on the Psalms as prayer in Thursday morning bible class, but the reactions were interesting enough and the groups different enough that I wanted to see what Sunday morning would do. (That is a hint, if anyone is interested, this is your invitation to come to class on either of those days if you would like to look at the Psalms and prayer. Now back to the point.) The experience was a statement that “the unbeliever is not able to pray”. The question was: in what sense that is true?

Bonhoeffer says that natural man left to herself would only pray the 4th petition (give us this day our daily bread). When you think of that in light of what Luther says in the catechism about the 4th petition (God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people) and the 1st article of the creed (All this he does out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy), that is not a big step from saying “the unbeliever is not able to pray”. The only thing they are able to pray for is what the Father provides from His very nature without our prayer. Luther goes on in that 4th petition to say that what we are really asking is that we would recognize God’s providence.

That leads to the 1 John passage. What does this mean: a sin that leads to death and one that does not lead to death? Roman Catholic tradition, stemming from the scholastics (I think), talks about mortal and venial sins. It is a gross distortion, but mortal = you are going to hell without repentance and venial = just purgatory. And this would remain one of the big stumbling blocks between a true Protestant and a Catholic. To the protestant all sin is mortal; but we are simultaneously sinners and saints. (See Augsburg Confession Article 2, and Formula of Concord Article 1.) As a confessing Lutheran we can’t actually put that interpretation onto 1 John.

What is the situation that John is talking about? Witnessing a sin that does not lead to death. What is that? Well, I would venture any sin except unbelief. Unbelief alone leads to death (John 3:18). If you are praying for the sin of someone, if they believe, that is good and acceptable. Pray that they will see the error of their way and God will give them life. This might actually be a good verse to think about the ELCA or other church bodies that have wandered into grave error. Lord, put them on the right path. We don’t know what that looks like, but that seems to be a valid and Christlike prayer. And it accepts their confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The next part is the tougher part. If one is committing the sin that leads to death (unbelief), John doesn’t say we should pray about that. Do we give up on them? I don’t think that is what he is saying. In the context John is talking about our continued life in Christ. For the fellow believer we pray that God’s mercy would be present. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” For the unbeliever, they are already “blinded and bound in the devil’s kingdom”. The only prayer that is possible is “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come”. That must happen before any mercy for sin.

Going from there back to the initial question, can an unbeliever pray? The answer is a squishy no/yes. As Bonhoeffer would say our natural (i.e. our unbelieving) prayers would be just the outpourings of our hearts which would be 4th petition stuff. And we don’t need to pray for that; God is good. What the Holy Spirit would be praying in those circumstances, or Christ as our High Priest, is that that we would recognize the true providence. The other part of that prayer would simply be that God’s kingdom would come to us also. So what I think you would see, if you could “see” the spiritual reality of an unbeliever’s prayer, is Romans 8:26. The unbeliever might have lots of words, none of which would be what they need to pray for. The Holy Spirit would be praying – “your kingdom come” or “help me see your providence”. And the divine response to that prayer might not look anything like what that stream of “OMG, help me” words that they would be conscious of is asking for. Can they pray, yes, but only for what they don’t currently know or believe.

In a deeper sense, I wonder if this is not always the Spirit’s prayer. If we are not all, in some sense, unbelievers. That our ultimate poverty is such that we always need the Lord’s petition, “forgive them Father, they don’t know what they do.”

The Milk of Faith

Draft 1.0

There are some very simple statements that are rarely expressed that are the seed bed of faith. You get close to them if you look at the world and just say what you see. Do you see millions of atoms randomly moving around? Do you see a tragic beauty? Maybe just beauty? Probably your answer to that sets your course. You presuppositions typically set your logic.

I was converted in a way to our VBS this year. It did a masterful job of talking about some of the unexpressed basic assumptions. Who is God and how does He act in regards to us? What are your gut level thoughts and presuppositions about God? VBS took Psalm 139 as the text. I pays every Christian to bring those basic thoughts to life every now and then. The world and our adversary will try and convince you that you are a fool for thinking something like: God loves you no matter what. But that is what God has revealed about himself in the Bible, in Creation and most clearly in Christ, in the cross. Those simple statements are the simple milk of faith.

[Note – in the podcast the sermon starts about the 5:00 mark]

VBS Ending

First some pictures…

Here is the Spotlight Drama CD as a zip file. Just download and extract to disk to see the story we built this week. (Warning! This is a large file. It could take 20 mins to download. If you have trouble downloading, give me a call or an email and I’ll forward that way or mail you a disk.)

Finally, this was a great VBS. If I had to admit it, I was a little worried about the theme at the start. But, by the end this was a great VBS. It got the core gospel message across very simply for many who might never have heard it, or only heard it at long interval. Let me tell you a little way I mean. Here are the five/(six) phrases that someone who attended this VBS will leave with.
1. God Created You
2. God Listens to You
3. God watches over You
4. God loves you no matter what
5. God gives good gifts
(The sneaky Lutheran liturgical propaganda response (inside joke, sorry) to all of them was #6. Thank You God!)

The exacting theologian in me would hem and haw and tweak things. (Most of that has to do with one thing. What we see as good gifts and what God sees are often quite different especially for the young in faith. That Gap in understanding is what leads to things like the prosperity gospel or Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.) The practical theologian says yeah, it’s that simple. It is all by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. In an age that is largely biblically or theologically illiterate, that introduction is a good proclamation. That is the milk of faith. As we live the Christian life we discover the riches of the Kingdom. Give me the Pandas at the start.

Ash Wednesday

This morning we took psalm 51 as our text. We know the famous portions – restore unto me the joy of your salvation – but the last four verses spoke a couple of points to me.

Psalm 51: 16-19
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Two points:
1) The purpose of repentance is restoration to the community of God; it is not just private.
2) The purpose of repentance is not a hang-dog sorrow, but a preparation for joy.

Look at the progression in the verses. The Lord refuses the formal sacrifice which leads to a broken spirit. The broken spirit (repentance) leads to God rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. That is a communal ideal, Jerusalem the city and people of God. Being restored to the city of God leads to being part of the community’s worship; sacrifice is accepted. Personal repentance is necessary, but repentance is not just a personal bath. It is a rejoining to the people of God.

The Lord welcomes and restores sinners. Dust I am and to dust I will return, but I have not been cast away from God’s presence. The Lord has promised salvation. He builds the walls and does good to Zion. We are a people held in His palm, in His memory. The restoration first seen in Christ, is then displayed in this collection of remembered and reformed dust. The Lord remembers his dust.