We are Poetry in Motion

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Ephesians 2:10, NIVUK

Introduction
The film Memento came out in the year 2000. It is directed by Christopher Nolan. He is now famous for doing strange things with time in many of his movies. Memento is no exception. It tells a story where some scenes are chronological and others are in reverse order because of a memory issue for the story’s lead character. Only at the end does it finally make sense as the reverse scenes arrive at the start of the story.

This post, whilst not as complicated as a Christopher Nolan time-twist, proceeds backwards through one verse—a single sentence—of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.

Why look at this verse backwards? Well, the last part of Paul’s sentence can be easily misread or misheard. And the first part of the sentence is the place where I want this post to end—to marvel that we are God’s handiwork.

At the outset of this look at Ephesians 2:10 we should note that all three elements of this verse are the work of God in Christ our Cornerstone:

• We are God’s handiwork.
• We are created in Christ.
• Our good deeds are prepared in advance by God.

God’ action here is both excellent news, but also potentially confusing. What place is there for us if God does all of this?

Prepared in Advance
Such a short crisp verse. And yet for many it comes with distracting baggage. For seasoned and new Christians alike the final phrase, ‘good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ distracts us with its apparent affirmation that our lives are predetermined by God. For some young Christians I know, it can be an immense barrier to faith rather than just the subject of idle musing.

Predestination is hardly a new debate. Some answers to this question have been labelled as heresy, for example Pelagius’ teachings at the turn of the 4th to 5th BCE, and other answers have founded denominations. Both extremes of accounting for predestination are problematic.

I suggest that the Bible does not tell us that all of our good works are already decided by God. For a start this would contradict both the freedom that God gave humankind to choose to love him, or not. Perhaps more problematic still, it would kill dead the freedom of the gospel that Paul speaks of elsewhere:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.
Galatians 5:13-14, NIVUK

If we think Ephesians 2:10 tells us we have no choices, we are not seeing it on its own terms. This is because we wear glasses with a narcissistic prescription. We are so used to being individuals that we read ourselves as an individual into every biblical claim.

Contrary to what we are told from cradle-to-grave in Western culture, we are not even the centre of our own lives—it is Christ the cornerstone who should be central. To Paul we would all look like self-obsessed narcissists. The predestination of Ephesians does not refer to our individual deeds, played out frame-by-frame with the inevitability of a Christopher Nolan film—our lives are not one inevitable cause-and-effect after another. Ephesians refers to God’s beautiful plan for this world. The plan to create a single people, to reverse the expulsion from Eden and the stupidity of Babel. This universal and corporate perspective is seen in Chapter 1 if we suspend our self-obsession for a moment:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.
Ephesians 1:11–14, NIVUK

Paul’s concern in Ephesians is with the building of the people of God, built on Christ as the cornerstone. A few verses after Ephesians 2:10 Paul goes on to talk about the dividing wall that lay between Gentiles and God’s first family the Jews. Jesus Christ has torn down that wall—the first of many. It is a wall demolished, in order to build one people, with him the measure and foundation—our cornerstone.

Our baggage does not end when we put on corporate glasses, rather than our default individualistic ones.

The phrase ‘good works’ also has baggage of its own. Our culture would not only attempt to have us redefine God’s work to create a universal Church, as the creation of a lot of self-obsessed individuals. Our culture also misreads the good news because it has misread ‘good works’.

Our culture has a pervasive myth that Christianity is about earning entry to the afterlife by doing ‘good deeds’. This is not the message of the Bible. This myth goes back to the Middle-Ages when the Church did teach something like this. Although the Reformation produced a new perspective on justification it also created another myth.

The is the idea that the Judaism of the Bible was all about earning salvation by good deeds. We might have learned this in our formative years. Judaism then, and Judaism today, is not about good deeds and earning salvation. Jews believe they are chosen, elected, by God—predestined to know God in the age to come.

When Paul says in the preceding two verses to Ephesians 2:10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.
Ephesians 2:8–9, NIVUK

He is not comparing Jew and Gentile; he is pointing out something that all the community of faith can agree on. Both Jew and Gentile are saved by grace not by works.

Created in Christ
The gospel is the news that God, through the work of Christ Jesus, has established a single people. In Paul’s day best expressed by the impossible dream of Jew and Gentile being made one. This is good news, Isaiah’s good news, or evangelion:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
‘Your God reigns!’
Isaiah 52:7, NIVUK

The Incarnation, Jesus’ ministry, the cross, the resurrection, his ascension, all testify to this good news. In Jesus’ person and in his deeds, there is new creation. All of humanity can be created in him to join the one people of God. Whatever our views on predestination, good works, philosophy, whether we are catholic or protestant, our one foundation is Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ ascended.

We are created not by the actions of a man, but they work of God. Created upon one sure foundation, Christ our cornerstone. In being created in Christ Jesus we are to do good works. They flow from relationship with the one God, through Christ. There is no better work than telling this news.

There can be a temptation to make the gospel a little simpler, to oil the wheels. Have you noticed that there is a difference between sharing ‘Jesus’ and sharing ‘Christ Jesus’?

It is relatively easy, and culturally acceptable, to speak of Jesus the man. The amazing carpenter from Nazareth. The great teacher. This is the Jesus who even the atheist Douglas Adams admired and gave a role to at the start of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy:

“one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change . . .”

Yet, if we speak of his miracles, we stray from acceptable polite conversation. If we move on to anything, like the resurrection, that claims Jesus was not a good man but the God-Man, then the shutters often come up. But Jesus the man can only inspire. Jesus the God-Man provides a foundation, a cornerstone, for our lives.

Our faith, our foundation as God’s people, the gift of the Holy Spirit, all centre on Jesus being The Christ, being both man and God.

Of course, proclaiming the gospel is not the only good work. All sorts of good wholesome deeds are central to being God’s handiwork.

God’s Handiwork
What does it mean to be God’s handiwork? Firstly, we need to pay attention to this at a corporate level. We are God’s handiwork as the universal Church and as a local church. In Paul’s language we are Christ’s body and Christ is our head. We can go further, both forwards and backwards in time too. The universal Church breaks the boundaries of time in a way that Christopher Nolan can only dream of.

Lying behind the NIVUK’s phrase ‘God’s handiwork’ is the Greek word poiema. Paul says that the local communities he writes to are poems and by extension so are all its members.

The language of being poems fits perfectly with the wider passage. As poems we are both established in Christ, just as a poem has rules, convention, and a framework that make it a poem. At the same time poems have a freedom, a beauty within a framework.

Being founded in Christ means we are poems, with Christ the cornerstone as our framework and foundation. The language of a cornerstone for the messiah comes originally from Psalm 118 and is used by Paul in verse 20 of Ephesians 2.

God has done his part of the poem by establishing us in Christ our cornerstone. Our dependence on him will enable us to rhyme and resonate with our cornerstone. Our lives will sound and look right when this happens.

Mercifully, there is room for redrafts when we do not rhyme with our cornerstone.

Responding to the Psalms: On Poetic Freedom

Poetry is an art and not a science. Rather than existing by virtue of agreed rules, or laws, it has conventions. The art of poetry is to obey and, at times, break these conventions. Over time, these conventions evolve and change. Some fossilise and are admired at a distance or honoured by the homage of modern poets.

The biblical psalms are many things. Above all they are poems. This comes first, ahead of any other claim on their form and content. I recently explored the implications of this for the preacher, in a short article [1]. Others have explored a psalm’s poetic nature to a fuller extent, and in a more scholarly manner [2].

The Psalms have, at times, had modern poetic conventions foisted upon them. This unhappy situation largely ended with the work of Robert Lowth (1710–1787) [3]. Lowth mercifully rescued the psalms from the anachronism of applying Graeco-Roman poetic ideals to them. This welcome outcome still left the question open as to how we moderns might inhabit and celebrate these ancient poems, given our quite different notions of poetic form. One obvious way in which the psalms are contemporised is through being set to music for corporate worship. This is generally not just a process of translation but a process of transformation too. It is commonly the case that such works not only provide rhythm but also make use of rhyming. A notable recent and accomplished example of this is Adam Carlill’s Psalms for the Common Era [4].

Such work is essential for the ongoing recovery and rediscovery of the Psalms. Valuable though this is, it is not enough. Poetry is polysemic and as such, one transposition cannot capture all its possibilities. Given these poems are Scripture we should welcome multiple translations, transpositions, and responses. Even those fluent in biblical Hebrew and culture could not leave these texts fossilised, for they inhabit the modern world, as well as the world of Second Temple Judaism (cf. Gadamer’s ‘fusion of horizons’ interpretive paradigm [5]). To make interpretation even more complex we should note that there is not even a singular ancient horizon—the psalms were written, collected, arranged, selected, and edited over hundreds of years [6].

Every translation and every setting of a psalm is a response to that psalm. They vary in freedom depending on the aims of the new poet. There is increasing freedom from strict literal translation, such as that of an interlinear, to readable translations, such as the NRSV and NIV, to paraphrases, such as The Message. The poetic freedom continues as interpreters and poets seek new poetic forms. This trajectory continues as the interpreter breaks free of any notion of representation to aim for re-presentation. Of course such responses can differ in both form and use. They are for study, prayer, sung worship, meditation, or reflection. All such attempts look to the original, and pay homage in different ways—this might range from a meaningful bow to a knowing nod.

Three examples of such responses, in alphabetical order by surname, are:

1. Maria Apichella’s Psalmody [7]. This is a response in the form of poems describing a relationship, between a secular man and a Christian woman, in which aspects of the Psalms and the Life of David are echoed.
2. Edward Clarke’s A Book of Psalms [8]. This is a personal response to each psalm. Sometimes the poetry is very close to that of the original text, sometimes beautifully and even provocatively distant.
3. Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown [9]. Which we refer to below.

The diagram below captures something of the nature of the ‘responsorial’ freedom in translating and presenting the psalms. The scale is not meant to be linear and is presented to enable readers to reflect for themselves. The diagram reminds us that the English Bible versions, even those that are not metrical, are a step away from the original Hebrew. This is true of all attempts to translate, such as the LXX which is a Greek translation of the Hebrew text. Even today’s critical Hebrew text is a reconstruction using multiple manuscripts, of what is the best effort to match the unknowable autograph produced by the ultimate editors of the Psalter.

Responsorial Freedom diagram July 2020

Once an effort is made to not only translate but to set to music then the freedom of interpretation increases so as to make the task possible. The three responses to the psalms mentioned above are also shown on the diagram. Whilst it is easy to argue that Apichella’s work is the one that has the most freedom, and therefore distance from the biblical Psalter. There is room for debate with the other two. Let the reader make up their own mind.

To conclude this post, we turn to Malcolm Guite’s David’s Crown. This is in one sense a live project. Every few days Malcolm posts the next poem on his Blog [9]. On the day of writing he has reached Psalm 29. The complete work will be available as a full response to the Psalter when published by Canterbury Press, hopefully in early 2021. In Malcolm’s own words:

So I have begun a new series of short poems, responding freely to the daily psalms, and drawing on their leading images, as a starting point for Christian reflection. My hope is to weave these poems together into a corona, a crown or coronet of poems, the last line of each linking to the first line of the next, a chaplet of praise to garland the head of the one who wore the Corona Spina, the crown of thorns for us, and who suffers with us through this corona pandemic. [10]

His poems are indeed woven together just like that first crown of thorns. The delightful play on words links not only Christ’s suffering and Covid-19 but additionally they allude to a poetic convention. I had not heard of this convention until his project began. The convention is simply stated, but rather more challenging to deliver. Each poem in a corona, or crown, of sonnets is linked to its neighbours. This is achieved, as Guite explained above, by the closing line of one poem being identical to the opening line of the next. Fifteen sonnets linked in this way can be termed a heroic crown. I am not sure what term might be given to 150!

This remarkable project sublimely conveys the idea of convention and convention-breaking in poetry. In the first instance there is immense discontinuity in this response to the Psalter and the entity that inspired it. Each and every psalm response has the same literary form. This is clearly not the case with the original psalms. Indeed, scholars still spill ink on their categorisation. The continuity is found in some rich connections between the defining convention of a corona and some features ubiquitous in the Psalter.

The intertextual link, of identical closing and opening lines of adjacent psalm responses, is a reminder of the parallelism that is so characteristic of biblical poetry. The richness of parallelism, which goes beyond the three proposed ideals of Robert Lowth [3], is still the subject of analysis to this day [11]. This link also echoes another feature of the psalms. The biblical psalms are deliberately paired with their neighbours. This pairing takes on many forms. Sometimes it is simply through the use of headings or repeated opening and closing words. The Hallelujah Psalms, Psalm 111 to 118, exemplify this with their propensity to open or close with Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). Sometimes chiasmus is employed. A good example of this is how Psalms 1 and 2 are linked with a macarism, or blessed/happy saying, see Psalms 1:1a and 2:12. Phrases can also be used. For example, ‘holy hill’ in Psalms 2:6 and 3:4. This linking of psalms forms a continuous chain and has therefore been termed concatenation [12].

The precision of the parallelism in Guite’s project also reflects a peculiar feature of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120–134) which have the poignant convention of making the same statement twice. Perhaps most famously in Psalm 130:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
Psalm 130:5–6, NRSV

I hope that many readers will join me in waiting for the complete Corona Spina that echoes not only David’s crowning glory, the Psalter, but the glory of the one who bore the crown of thorns for us all and today bears a better crown.

 

References

  1. Mark Whiting, ‘Singing a New Song’, pp.3–5, The Preacher, 178, July 2020.
  2. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp, ‘Poetry of the Psalms’, pp.79–98 in The Oxford Handbook the Psalms, William P. Brown (editor), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  3. Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, G. Gregory (translator), Andover: Codman Press, 1829 [Latin original 1753].
  4. Adam Carlill, Psalms for the Common Era: Hebrew Psalms in Modern Metrical English for Individuals, Choirs and Congregations, Independently Published, 2018.
  5. H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall (translators), New York: Continuum, 1989.
  6. Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shaping of the Hebrew Psalter, Macron: Mercer University Press, 1997.
  7. Maria Apichella, Psalmody, London: Eyewear Publishing, 2016.
  8. Edward Clarke, A Book of Psalms, Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2020.
  9. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/06/19/corona-spina-the-crown-of-thorns-and-the-crown-of-glory-psalm-21/
  10. Malcolm Guite. https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/beatus-vir-a-reflection-on-psalm-1/
  11. Adele Berlin, The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, revised and expanded edition, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008.
  12. David M. Howard, Jr, ‘Editorial Activity in the Psalter: A State-of-the-Field Survey’, pp. 52–70 in Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, J. Clinton McCann (editor), Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993, p.54.

Ian J. Vaillancourt’s ‘The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118’: A Book Review

Ian J. Vaillancourt, The Multifaceted Saviour of Psalms 110 and 118: A Canonical Exegesis, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019

Given this book’s subtitle it will come of no surprise that the canonical approach is at the heart of this book. What might be less obvious is just how wide-ranging this work is given its apparent focus on just two psalms. The central aim of this review, therefore, is to highlight its importance to anyone interested in the ongoing development of canonical criticism of the Psalter.

The early pages of this book rehearse a story that will surely be familiar to anyone choosing to read this volume. This account of the origins of canonical criticism is told concisely and with refreshing clarity. The genesis of the ‘new’ interpretive paradigm for psalms studies, with the work of Brevard Childs, is explained along with an acknowledgement of others who pointed in a similar direction before him. The work of Gerald Wilson who explored ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Masoretic Psalter, and more fully unpacked so many of the areas that Childs highlighted, is introduced with equal verve. Vaillancourt focuses on a key aspect of Wilson’s understanding of both the formation and form of the Psalter—the distinction, at the macrostructural level, between Books I, II, and III of the Psalter, on the one hand, and Books IV and V, on the other (pp.19–24). It is not that Vaillancourt fundamentally disputes that there are both diachronically and synchronically-based distinctions between these two ‘halves’. Rather, the disagreement lies over whether the editors of Books I, II, and III had distinctly different conceptions of the future role of the king than those who edited Books IV and V. These different views make for different readings of the significance of Psalm 89, which closes Book III. Wilson famously saw Psalm 89 as the final death knell for a hope in a future Davidic king. For Wilson, at least in the majority of his work, Books IV and V tell a story that side-lines the Davidic king in favour of a return to pre-monarchical reliance on Yahweh and his torah (pp.21–24). Vaillancourt wants us to reconsider this—to be open, as it were, to a further plot twist in the story of the promised anointed one.

Vaillancourt considers a raft of scholars who have built on Wilson’s approach. He singles out J. Clinton McCann Jr., Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Erich Zenger, Bernard Gosse, Martin Leuenberger, Egbert Ballhorn, James Luther Mays, David M. Howard Jr., and Michael K. Snearly. He helpfully distinguishes their different assessments of the nature of the human saviour figure portrayed in Book V of the Psalter. His assessment culminates in the conclusion that there are essentially five distinguishable conceptions of this figure in Book V. These five views are held by eleven (Childs and Wilson are added to the other nine) major scholars of the canonical approach. The nuance and complexities are such that four of these scholars see the key figure conceptualised in two of the five categories concomitantly. This provides the context in which Vaillancourt develops his hypothesis that Psalms 110 and 118, viewed in canonical context, provides an array of evidence that there is still an expectation within Book V of the Psalter of a future salvific figure—Vaillancourt’s point is that previous scholars have missed his multifaceted nature. One, of the many, interesting points made by the author as he unpacks Psalms 110 and 118 is that form criticism’s inability to perceive Psalm 118 as a royal psalms has been a barrier to appreciating just how important is the eschatological expectation of the anointed figure to the theology of Book V (p.130).

A large part of Vaillancourt’s argument centres on his claim that confusion has arisen because of the variety of facets that belong to this one figure. It might be argued that the Qumran community made the same mistake as some of Vaillancourt’s interlocutors given their expectation for more than one anointed one, each embodying different characteristics. This matter is interest for its wider interpretive implications. Why did the final editors of the Psalter combine the promise of a Son of David (cf. 2 Samuel 7) and a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18) into a single figure and the Qumran community hold to more than one anointed eschatological figure? To be fair this lies outside the clearly defined scope of this book.

There is much to commend in this book. Throughout, the reader is firmly signposted as to where they are in this interesting journey with Psalms 110 and 118. Vaillancourt pays head to the interplay between the Psalter’s macrostructure and microstructure. This is vital, as although we always know the working hypothesis that is being tested, the underpinning presuppositions are always made clear. Those who wish to consider the author’s work in detail are helped enormously by Appendix B which details the key word links for Psalms 110 and 118 with other texts. The extensive array of literature and information provided in the footnotes is also helpful for those wanting to go beyond simply reading this work. Appendix A, on other readings of Psalms 110 and 118, is also useful. I would have preferred it to have been integrated into the opening sections of this monograph. The book also provides five tables at key points in the argument. This might not sound like a big deal but such aids, seldom used in biblical scholarship, make for convenient summaries of what is obviously a complex problem. On the point of clarity there is only one disappointment. Clearly many readers of this book are likely to have knowledge of NT Greek, biblical Hebrew, French, and German but to assume that every reader has all four to technical fluency seems a little optimistic. Whilst clearly the technical discussion needs to be in the primary languages, an author’s translation in some places would have been helpful to this reader at least.

I will leave other readers to make their own judgement as to whether Vaillancourt’s canonical reading of Psalms 110 and 118 is compelling in describing the role of ‘the anointed’ in Book V, and thereby the Psalter as a whole. Of course, as Vaillancourt briefly notes, the authors of the New Testament were in little doubt that Psalms 110 and 118 both firmly attest to the future coming of the messiah at another level of canonical story (pp.160 and 182).

Palm Sunday 2020: Gathered though Scattered

Given the challenging events of the past days and weeks perhaps some of us have forgotten which day of the week it is. Palm Sunday is the day we remember Jesus arriving in Jerusalem at Passover, less than a week before he would be executed by the Romans. The name Palm Sunday arises from the gospel accounts in which Jesus arrives on a Donkey. The crowds acknowledge his arrival, celebrating in various ways including waving palm leaves in a party atmosphere. In doing this they practice the words of verse 27 of the Passover festival’s Psalm 118.

Today we are looking at the testimony of Luke of events just ahead of that triumphal entry. Events in which Jesus is feeling anything but triumphant. We read from Luke Chapter 13 verse 31:

31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, ‘Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.’

32 He replied, ‘Go and tell that fox, “I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.” 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

34 ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35, UKNIV

In the context of the Covid pandemic many of us have a wish to hunker down. We want to gather those we love and protect them from harm. We might want to gather our children and protect them. What could be more natural than this? We might want to gather our elderly parents and try and look after them? Some of us might wish we could gather the homeless and the vulnerable to help them weather the storm.

To want to gather and protect is a basic human instinct. Jesus wants to gather the children of Israel and protect them. In spite of their fickleness in waving palm leaves one day and approving of his death almost the next. His natural human inclination is to protect and gather those who are his people.

Of course, he is not only a man. He is God incarnate. Lest we imagine that there is a tension between his humanity and his deity we should note that Jesus is identifying with God. Six times in the psalms the Psalmist sees God as a hen protecting her brood with her wings.

What an image—a hen gathering her chicks. This is God and his people. Jesus wanting to gather even those who will abandon him—his desire is to protect them. The imagery is not only powerful it is remarkable. Remarkable not only in its tenderness but in its motherliness. For it is mothers who best exemplify the level of care offered by the God-Man Jesus. Jesus the Mother hen!

In our best moments we share the wish to protect. But we don’t have the ability to succeed as Jesus did. Sometimes the more we close our loving wings the more we struggle to hold everything together. In the cosy West we tell ourselves the lie that all is under our control. And often it looks like this is the case. Deep down, of course, we know this is not true. We know that day-to-day, apparent blind chance rolls the dice in accidents, in disease, in mental illness, in fire and in flood. If nothing else, we must learn to put our hope in the one who is one hundred percent faithful.

Jesus wished to shield his people. He wanted to spread wide his arms to embrace them and ward off evil. He couldn’t do it in those days before Easter Week, but later that week he did. He let others spread his wings and fix them to a beam. Lashed and nailed to a tree, those wings gave the best protection ever devised by man or by God.

Those spread-wide arms can ward off any ill, even a newly minted virus. And whilst there is no guarantee of this anti-viral effect there is a guarantee that those outstretched arms can cure sin and death.

This world is desperate for a vaccine to the pestilence name Covid-19 but we have something better. Jesus spread his wings for us—having learnt from the Father who sent him. In doing this he has cured us all. Sin and death will be no more.

And we recognise the profound truth of Jesus’ words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”.

Psalm Sunday: selah #2

Psalm 118:20

This is the gate of the Lord;

    the righteous shall enter through it. (NRSV)

This verse referred to the city gate of Jerusalem when this psalm was written and used in festivals. By the time of Jesus such festivals had been taking place for hundreds of years. Jesus was going to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday because it was the Passover festival. Of course unlike any one of the other thousands of pilgrims he was not going to celebrate Passover simply to remember the past. Yes he would join with his disciples in commemorating the mighty act of his Father in delivering the nation from slavery in Egypt. But his celebration with the disciples would be a subversive one. It would echo the Passover but there was to be no ordinary lamb. In the months before, Jesus had realised that he himself was to be the Passover lamb.

Not only was he to be the sacrifice but he knew what his sacrifice would accomplish. As the Lamb of God he would take away the sin of the world. He would open up the gate of the Lord. Through him anyone could acknowledge him and become righteous and in being righteous could enter the gate of the Lord.

  • It is because of God’s immense grace that we can walk with him in this life.
  • It is because of God’s grace that we know that our journey leads us home to the heavenly city.
  • It is because of grace that we can anticipate eternal life with God the Father and his son, the Passover Lamb of God.

Grace is free. Yet grace is not without cost.

  • The grace that we experience on our path was costly indeed.
  • The Father knew the cost when he sent the Son to become a man.
  • Jesus knew the cost as he made that journey to Jerusalem.
  • Jesus knew the price as the crowds waved, as the people shouted, as the whole world went after him.

Free grace at such a cost is worth celebrating, it is worth shouting about.

The gracious act of Jesus means that a roughly-made cross is now the gate of the Lord through which the righteous can enter.

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: selah #1

Psalm 118:5

Out of my distress I called on the Lord;

    the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. (NRSV)

The Bible is all about the relationship between God and people. Each one of us has a relationship with the living God—the one referred to as Yah in this particular verse. Like any relationship, our relationship with God can be in a good place, a bad place or it can even be broken.

Relationships have their ups and their downs. The ups and downs are not the only movement however. They also tend to continually move slowly in one direction or another—the relationship either becomes steadily deeper and closer or the partners move slowly inexorably apart—the ups and downs are just noise. The key is the slower background journey.

The Bible looks at the relationship between God and people with remarkable honesty. Much of the language about relationships fits around two words: ‘calling’ and ‘answering’.

The Prophets, that we are so keen to ignore, focus on the sobering reality that when God calls us, sometimes we do not answer him. The Prophets’ concern is of course with communities of people and not individuals. But God calls each of us individually to something—even if it is the base call of being a faithful disciple of Jesus; in fact there is no higher calling, there are only more specific ones.

We all would do well to ensure that we know God’s call on our lives and that we have answered him.

But here in Psalm 118, as is usual for the psalms, we have the reverse situation. Someone is calling on Yah. And Yah has answered. Who is it that calls on God in this way? If we imagine it to be King David then the Psalm makes a lot of sense.

But the writers of the New Testament see this psalm as being all about Jesus. Not only all about Jesus but about his experience in Easter Week and especially Palm Sunday. The psalm takes on a whole new depth when we see Jesus at its centre. It is a festival psalm and so is closely connected with Jerusalem and in fact it refers to entry into Jerusalem. I don’t think it is taking too many liberties to imagine that Jesus might well have prayed this psalm before he himself entered Jerusalem. He would have known something of the deeper resonances that he was about to fulfil. In a few days he was expecting to hear this psalm being read as it is the last in a series of psalms read at the Passover—known as the Egyptian Hallel.

Coming back to verse 5, Jesus would have known the ‘distress’ mentioned in this verse. The actual Hebrew word has a sense of being constrained, being limited in options. Perhaps in English being in ‘dire straits’ captures the sense. Unable to turn left or right for fear of hitting a rock in the midst of turbulent water. This contrasts with the ‘broad place’ that the Lord provides. The psalms celebrate the broad place elsewhere. It is not just about God taking away problems but it can be about being given the resources and strength to remain strong in spite of them. The broad place can be God’s answer to our prayers but it also becomes the place in which we are ready to answer God’s call to us.

What might Jesus have wanted as he called to the Father? What answer did he hope for? He had already set his face to travel to Jerusalem and now he was here. For Jesus the answer was no literal physical broad place. In his final days and hours, by slow inevitability his options narrowed and narrowed. At the end there was not turning to the left or the right. What he did have was the strength to stay the course even though that meant hitting a rock—a roughly-made cross.

If you are in a broad place then rejoice in answering God’s call. If you feel ‘constrained’ or even ‘distressed’ then call upon Yah and know that he will answer. He can relieve or he can strengthen and sustain us. You’ll have an answer if you call out. Do it this Easter Week or better still do it today.