Watching over

The human race has been at war for millennia and whenever nations and kingdoms have established a professional base of soldiers, they have developed a code.

One of the consistent ones is that soldiers on guard duty are in a pile of trouble if they leave their post without being relieved or fall asleep.

We see this at Jesus’ resurrection. An angel appears in frightening, ethereal splendour and ‘The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.’ (Matthew 28:4, NIV)

Some of the soldiers on guard duty then conspired with the Jewish elders to craft a narrative and admit to their commander that they fell asleep while on watch and let the body of Christ be stolen.

They would have been in serious trouble but received a promise from the elders that they would intervene and keep the soldiers out of as much trouble as possible.

A certain amount of trouble would have been inevitable. The soldiers would have been punished, but they were paid ‘a large sum of money’ by the elders.

Compensation. For their trouble and the going rate for a false report.

Watchfulness is a discipline. And discipline is a constant in a professional unit. Falling asleep on duty is labelled a dereliction of duty according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The guys in the US Marines are pretty gung-ho about the code that they serve by and following orders. Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise starred in a little movie about that a while back.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104257/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

I was thinking about this by contrast this past week.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121&version=NIV

The Lord is watching over the Psalmist. Watching over Israel. Watching over us, His children.

The keeper of Israel or the single soul.

He never falls asleep on duty.

As for me and my house

A lot of people put stock in the idea that things come in threes. Good things, bad things. I must confess that when twos happen, I expect a three.

Its not often that things truly happen in threes. This past week, the people of New Zealand experienced three earthquakes affecting their island, with the last measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2021/03/04/new-zealand-earthquake-tsunami-warning-issued-coastal-areas/6918719002/

A cursory search of the internet seems to debunk the idea that things truly happen in threes.

https://www.seeker.com/do-bad-things-really-come-in-3s-1792581105.html

Basically, as human beings we look for patterns to assign meaning to randomness. The term coined for this is apophenia. And you get the impression if we resort to this type of thing too often we stray into the realm of believing conspiracy theories. Or Bible codes with hidden meanings.

I’ll buy that.

But what are the odds that this past week, while navigating through the internet and social media, that I simply happened across the same verse? No less than three times. Precisely three times.

Random events may have synchronicity but no message. Bad things that happen in threes may make me feel unfortunate, or good things that happen in threes may make me feel fortunate.

The same verse three times is less likely to be randomness. But if it is, its still Scripture, all of which is God-breathed and useful.

I was strolling down memory lane with Carman songs and re-discovered one that I really liked: ‘Serve the Lord’.

Then I’m listening to this guy named Joshua Aaron, and he has a song about Joshua’s exhortation to Israel, to choose whom they will serve, but as for Joshua, he and his family are going to serve the Lord.

Really, I wasn’t looking specifically for this verse. And then I see on Instagram that Chris Tomlin and Pat Barrett have just put out a song: ‘As for for me (and my house).’

Is this random? Just perhaps. On the other hand, there is nothing more fundamental than choosing as a family to serve the Lord.

And this week, we had an evening Bible study. And it was very good.

Vault of my heart

What does it mean to hide God’s word in your heart?

Its one of my favourite verses in the longest psalm, Psalm 119. Its all about the vitality of God’s word and how essential it is for us to read it and live by it. 176 verses of reminding in case you forgot.

But hide it in my heart? How am I to do that? I like the way The Message gives me a fresh perspective because I dig idioms: “I’ve banked your promises in the vault of my heart so I won’t sin myself bankrupt.”

The wording reminds me of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven, where neither thieves, nor rust can touch them.

Because of my connection to the world, my own sin, and other fallen people, circumstances and words can infiltrate deep inside me and eat away at the things that I’ve thought were untouchable. I need to internalise Scripture so deeply that nothing can touch that sacred place where I study it and it seeps through my skin and into my bones.

Once Scripture is part of me so deeply and fundamentally that its as good as part of my DNA, then I can draw on it to fight against sin. The Psalmist hid Scripture in his heart and he used it to resist sin.

Jesus was obviously immersed in Scripture, quoting it constantly. In fact, he quoted the book of Deuteronomy a lot. He quoted it when he was in the desert facing barrages of temptation from the enemy:

Man does not live on bread alone…
…Don’t put God to the test…
…Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.

Man does not live on bread alone…God humbles his people so that they will realise that they need God’s word more than anything else.

Don’t put God to the test…don’t doubt Him, or His love and concern for us. Kind of a refutation of Depeche Mode’s ‘blasphemous rumours’ (your 80’s cultural reference out of left field for the day).

Fear the Lord your God and serve Him only…He’s done it all for us so we should honour Him. Our way of life should be all about him.

I can’t just keep Scripture in the vault of my heart and keep it locked away. I find that when the vault stays locked for a while and I don’t venture inside to review Scriptural treasures, I’m more vulnerable to sin.
Sin: a game of whack-a-mole.

Scripture: a wooden hammer with heft that fits into my hand. Batter-up.

Patience, or Hall monitors

Still in Romans, peeps. Now in the 15th chapter and Paul’s pen is dripping with ink, theology soaking into the page, and practical directives spreading out into the margins.

 

That’s what happens when the writing of your epistle is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

 

Verse 1:”We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” Why do I need to do that? Can’t I just leave the weak to their own thing?

 

Verse 2: ” Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” Okay, I see what Paul is saying, I’m not a guy in isolation, but I’m connected and interconnected with my Christian brothers. I don’t often feel like it though. Like Monday is not a good day.

Verse 3: “For even Christ did not please himself…” Totally selfless. I’ll never get there on my own. I’m as full of selfishness as the air in my lungs. I gulp it in and breathe it out. It reaches to the farthest capillaries in my extremities. You can smell it on my breath.

 

From what Paul is writing here, I can infer that there is a direct proportion between my level of maturity and the patience that I do (or don’t) show.

 

Mature Christians are supposed to be immersed in Scripture and trending in the direction of more endurance and patience. Which results in the mature Christian showing that patience with his or her more legalistic brothers or sisters.

 

Verses 4 and 5: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

 

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had…”

 

Subjectively, it feels as though I have less patience as I get older. But then, there are different types of patience. A sign that I need to read more Scripture? I think so.

 

My impatience is never more obviously on display than when it comes to people who are legalistic about masks, social distancing, and other regulations, which to me don’t seem at all reasonable.

 

There are certain of my Christian brothers and sisters who take what the government says literally and seriously, neither of which I do. It remains difficult for me not to become impatient with the culture of hall monitoring that has emerged.

 

In verses 6 through 7, another reason becomes clear as to why the more mature Believer should be less selfish: because of unity, all of us praising God with one voice.

 

Verse 7:”Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”

 

Christ accepted me in love. I should not do any less for my fellow Believers. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians describes what love is like, as well as not like:

 

What it is like:

  • Patient
  • Kind

 

What it is not like:

  • Envious
  • Boastful
  • Proud
  • Dishonourable
  • Self-seeking
  • Easily angered
  • Keeping a record of past wrongs
  • Delighting in evil

 

What it does:

  • Rejoices with the truth
  • Protects
  • Trusts
  • Hopes
  • Perseveres

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+13%3A+4+-+7&version=NIV

 

These are the things that Paul is writing about in Romans…patience, perseverance.

 

The Christian has so much freedom, as Paul says: all things are permissible, but…

 

Not everything is beneficial.

 

Not everything is constructive.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+10%3A+23+-+24&version=NIV

 

If freedom is like a car, I’m one of those who wants to put my foot on the gas until it mashes the floor, but Paul writes that I have to moderate my acceleration. I have the freedom, but the road isn’t only mine.

 

We have a problem with selfishness, a default setting that wreaks havoc. Even the Christian is easily swayed by that most natural of human settings.

 

Its literally stunning how selfless Christ was, doing nothing on his own, listening to and submitting to the Father, seeking to glorify the Father, making it pretty obvious that by contrast I don’t measure up.

 

We need to spend more time in Scripture in the example of the early church who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2: 42) which led to a quiet revolution and transformed them into a community I want to get to.

 

Acknowledgement to February 2020 sermon by Pastor Skip Heitzig:

Having a heart

Lyrics from a Michael W. Smith song give meat and bones to an idea whose bare bones lie in front of me as I walk the hound:

 

“Guarded and cynical now

Can’t help but wondering how

My heart evolved into

A rock beating inside of me” (Missing Person)

 

I like to think I’m a caring person. I cry to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and ‘Passion of the Christ’. I love my family, but I realise while walking the dog that I care about a few people but have largely grown apathetic about others.

 

I’m not talking about people dying, because who doesn’t care about that? I can’t really categorise it by socio-economics or politics, but I realise that I don’t feel in touch with the human race in general.

 

Perhaps part of it is seeing less of people, feeling more isolated. Part of this horribly mangled lockdown that we are all mandated to participate in.

 

Like Michael W. Smith (saying Michael Smith while leaving out the W. is as awkward as saying Samuel Jackson without the L.) writes: how did it happen that he’s become uncaring like this?

 

My heart is literally like a rock beating inside of me.

 

I have to perform an internal diagnostic, right there while walking the dog. Is my heart isolated from God too?

 

I suddenly want to know by feeling. I know my connection to God, and can cite Scripture as proof. But I want to feel what I know.

 

I want to feel moved, feel connected to Him. After all, it’s the easiest thing in the world to morph into a Pharisee, being legalistic but basically like a tomb.

 

I think of that passage in Ezekiel where God promises to give Israel a heart of flesh in place of their heart of stone.

 

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekial+36&version=NIV

 

Basically, God is talking to his people, how they were expelled from the land and the land kind of misses the people and animals being on it. Almost like the land is lonely.

 

Because God is serious with zeal for His Name, He had to get the Children of Israel to leave, but it is equally true that because He is serious with zeal for His name, that he has to bring them back. But not before some changes are made.

 

They needed to be changed: restored, cleansed, with a new heart (of flesh) and filled with the Holy Spirit.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekial+36%3A+24+-+27&version=NIV

 

I think of John Donne’s poem asking that God would ‘batter [his] heart’ because until then God had been so gentle with him and he realised God had to break him down to build him up properly.

 

https://poemanalysis.com/john-donne/batter-my-heart/

 

I realise that the human heart is partly understandable, but largely mysterious, and even more obstinate when it comes to change. But that it cannot resist a holy and beneficial invasion from God who knows it, and even more incredibly the individuality of each one separately.

Shepherd

So, 2021 picked up right where 2020 left off, and things did not improve. I wasn’t lulled for one moment into thinking things would get better, but whatever the prize for that prognostication is, I don’t want it.

Earlier this week I had to go to the local constabulary to get a document attested to and on walking into the reception area was confronted with framed photos of smiling government ministers, which really annoyed me and didn’t help things.

I haven’t been skating above things like Marty McFly on his hoverboard, I’ve hit the dirt, lost perspective.

Each day is a waking nightmare of police overreach, stamping of the constitution underfoot and diktat. But I don’t need to tell you that dear Reader. You too are drowning and I’m describing the water.

This week I was reading through the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John. Wondering whether people are like sheep in the sense that they are gullible, or because their rump is delicious for the wolf to bite down into (I’m pretty certain of who the sheep and who the wolves are).

The wolves in this chapter represent enemies of Christ who attempt to kill and scatter his flock. In general, I look around and foolishly read the news and see wolving and sheeping going on all the time.

There are a lot of wolves in the world. Regretfully, too many people in positions of power easily bare their lupine fangs. Their wolfishness is not the context of John 10 though.

But the Christian is described as being part of a flock of sheep, defenceless but for the Shepherd.

Being a suburbanite, I had to look up what sheep are really like, beyond the taste of lamb chops, Christmas lunch and Shaun the sheep on Wallice and Gromit.

Sheep apparently have poor eyesight, specifically poor depth perception. So, if a sheep ever had to wonder into a forest, he would not be able to see the wood for the trees. Literally.

https://www.softschools.com/facts/animals/sheep_facts/2487/

They compensate for this by having excellent hearing. Sheep are more intelligent than their unfortunate reputation for stupidity and can recognise up to 50 faces and presumably, voices.

Jesus was spot-on when he remarked that his sheep follow him ‘because they know his voice.’ The context of John 10 is the sheep not following the fakes and phonies but the real shepherd.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+10%3A4+-+5&version=NIV

My depth perception is off . There is crazy stuff happening all around, smiling wolves, the darkest valley. But I have a Good Shepherd.

I will fear no evil, for my Shepherd is with me.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+23&version=NIV

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.” (Psalm 23:6 NIV)

About convictions

I’m almost at the end of Paul’s letter to the Roman believers. In chapter 14 of his epistle, Paul writes that when it’s not about matters of doctrine but of conscience, we should be patient with one another.

 

The reasoning goes something like this: for the Believer, Scripture is very clear on doctrine, how we should live, Whom we should keep our eyes on and stay connected to. All Christians should buy into that.

 

Some things are less clear though and where Scripture doesn’t necessarily say something, we should be guided by our Christian conscience.

 

So, Scripture first, then conscience second.

 

Now someone’s Christian conscience may come out at a different point than with someone else when it comes to things like special days, consuming alcohol or foods.

 

In these cases, we are to “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.” (14:1 NIV)

 

When it comes to our conscience about a disputable matter (again, not doctrine) and when we believe something is wrong, we should follow our Christian conscience. A Believer may think something is wrong (for him or her) when it is not necessarily wrong for a stronger Believer:

 

“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” (14:1 – 3 NIV)

God has accepted both the weaker and the stronger brother. And we are in fact brothers so we ought not to judge but to show love to one another.

 

Paul writes that when it comes to issues that are debatable, that ‘nothing is unclean in itself’ (14:14) but if another brother disagrees, then for that brother it is unclean.

 

Okay, how does this work today?

 

What about alcohol? And the issue of church on the Sabbath or church on Sunday? How about tattoos? Should we celebrate Christmas on 25th December even though the calendar date coincides with a pagan feast? Should a Christian watch a Martin Scorsese film with high levels of profanity?

 

On matters of debate that are not critical to doctrine, we have a lot of freedom, and “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause [our] brother or sister to fall.” (14:21 NIV)

 

The faith of our brothers is more important than our freedom.

 

(Acknowledgment of sermon by Mike Winger of Hosanna Christian Fellowship: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wi1Claoj1Uk)

 

The year of the rat

What did we learn from the year 2020? If we look at the area which supposedly was the epicentre of our common experience of corona virus, 2020 in the Chinese calendar broadly equates to the year of the Rat.

 

Rat or bat, 2020 has been rodentine.

 

Speaking personally, my main takeaway from 2020 is that so many people in power and authority were exposed for being unapologetic hypocrites.

 

Saying one thing, doing another. Or saying something virtuous and leaving it at that.

 

Kind of like political or cultural Pharisees.

 

You might think the Pharisees weren’t such a bad bunch, but Jesus looked at the impact they had amongst religious people and let them have it. They kept people from truly making themselves right with God.

 

In the midst of a rough week, God led me to Psalm 73, a psalm of Asaph.

 

Asaph is a priest using his eyes to look around. He sees the arrogant, the powerful, and it seems everything is going right for them. They’re doing what they want, seemingly without consequences.

 

“Surely God is good to Israel” he writes. Asaph knows this to be true, that God is good “to those who are pure in heart” (73:1 NIV). Asaph is not a child, he knows that God rewards those who seek him and do what is right and yet what he sees with his eyes is that those who are wired in, chummy with the powerful in his day, seem to get away with the most outrageous behaviour.

 

I don’t identify with Asaph’s envy of the arrogant, but I do look around at the news and I see the prosperity of the wicked.

 

The guilty walk free too many times, the simple people only seen when the powerful look down to see what it is they stepped in.

 

God’s judgement and justice are unfashionable. “They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”” (73:11 NIV).

Do you wanna bet?

 

Asaph wonders whether it has all been worth it. Is he on the right side? Is there a side? Will God blow his whistle, bang his gavel and adjudicate?

 

Surely God is good to Israel, to the pure in heart, Asaph writes. But surely he has sought to live a holy life in vain, Asaph continues.

 

It’s easy to lose perspective. Who hasn’t lost perspective many times in this year?

 

The powerful did what they wanted or thought they had to do. The Titanic was taking on water, like 2020 whacking into a covid iceberg, and it was every man for himself. The band played light music, and our ears were filled with pleasant untruths and media narratives.

 

I look around and see cabinet ministers, governors and mayors shredding the constitution, controlling the flow of information.

 

I see politicians issue decrees backed up by police action that strangely don’t apply to them.

 

I witness the media run away from truth and conform to the official narrative.

 

No one is held accountable for mistakes or wilful errors. No one has to resign because of lies and half-truths. Pandemic or no, the same powerful people do the same things and the same nothing keeps on happening.

 

Asaph is conflicted. Asaph has no answer for his doubts. “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God.” (73:16 – 17a NIV)

 

Spending time with God in his house lets Asaph see that what he perceives with his eyes is not eternity. Perspective. Looking through from the beginning to the end.

 

In the end, Asaph recommits to the Lord: “I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.” (73:28 NIV).

 

It’s been the year of the rat, or the year of the bat, but it’s not over yet.

 

I need to get to the concluding point where Asaph was, and see this as the year of the Lord. To recommit that I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge, and that I will tell of all His deeds.

The turkey

A few years ago – I don’t remember how many precisely – we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving here in South Africa.

 

We got some cranberry sauce and a porculent looking frozen Canadian turkey. On the way back home on the N1 highway somewhere around the Karl Bremer Hospital, we ran out of petrol and didn’t have a working cell phone. All told, we got home late, everyone was in a tizzy and the turkey was finally roasted for Christmas.

 

Needless to say we didn’t do Thanksgiving that Thursday many years ago.

 

So, why an American feast day? We’re in Africa.

 

So, I say why not? I fancy making food green for St Paddy’s Day and having an Irish tipple.

 

We watch an otherwise obscure recording of an English comedy skit on New Year’s eve (Dinner for One) and enjoy a good lamb curry when the feeling strikes.

 

One of my favourite YouTube clips is a collection of rugby tries by Lwazi Mvovo set to ‘Nkalakatha’.

 

Cultural things are transferrable.

 

I enjoy many things about American culture, although I also would have enjoyed the 1950s more.

 

Giving thanks is a very Biblical thing to do, especially in coming out the other side of a crazy year, as the Pilgrims discovered.

 

102 Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts on 11 December 1620, some 400 years ago now. The winter until the autumn of the following year was very rough on them.

 

Their number was cut by half because of disease and hunger.

 

At the first Thanksgiving attended by 91 Wampanoag guests (who taught the Pilgrims how to survive in the New World) were barely more than 50 Pilgrims: 22 men, a mere 4 surviving married women and 27 children and teens.

 

Like 1620 for the Pilgrims, we all seem to have had a rough year.

 

We’re still here. Some are barely doing it, but we’re holding on. It’s something for which we can give thanks:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Thessalonians+5%3A16+-+18&version=NIV

 

http://www.hardydiagnostics.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/The-First-Thanksgiving.pdf

 

https://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving

The armour of light

Keeping up with the election season in the States can make the most normal person feel tired and worn out.

 

Its a constant drama and the spectre of a contested result must be maddening to those people who have gone to all the trouble of voting without being sure that things will turn out legitimately. As a South African I have no skin in the game and can tune it out, but then I turn on the local news and I find myself in the middle of equally familiar controversies and arguments, which go round and round in circles.

 

Okay, so I tune out the local news too. I still feel tired and worn out. Where’s that coming from? Spiritual warfare, that’s where.

 

The feud is ever present. The battle is pitched. The war rages constantly.

 

Paul is writing to the Believer in Romans 13 and providing a perspective. In the light of this thing, we are to live like this.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=romans+13%3A11+-+14&version=NIV

 

In the light of what? Our future glory, our hope. There is a tension between the flesh and the spirit within us and there are three tenses that describe where we came from, what God did for us, what He’s doing in us now, and what He will do in us in the future.

 

We are saved from sin’s penalty.

 

We are being saved from sin’s power, learning to walk by the Spirit.

 

And we will finally be saved from sin’s presence. This is the hope that we look forward to, an actual day. We should be living for this future day of glory, living in light of this fact.

 

Sin’s power still engages in combat with us. Paul writes that we must awaken from our sleep. When we sleep, we are dull of hearing, in a dream world, vulnerable to danger. For a member of the military, falling asleep while on watch is considered a dereliction of duty as defined by Article 92 of the UCMJ.

 

It is a sense of duty and mission that prompts us to stay awake, or wake up from our sleep. Elsewhere in Ephesians, Paul writes that the Believer is to be strong in the Lord and to put on his armour and take a stand against the devil.

 

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=ephesians+6%3A10+-+13&version=NIV

 

Here in Romans 13, Paul writes that we can look forward to a day when sin is beaten and the battle won, and to put aside the deeds of darkness now, almost like a foul coat that we can shrug off our shoulders and put on the armour of light, put on Christ Jesus. In a visual sense, I picture Tony Stark putting on the Iron Man suit.

Wandering around in a state of sleep is like walking into the enemy’s skirmish line. Who hasn’t found themselves there from time to time? I’ve been snapped awake, aware of the combat in which I’m engaged, face-palming for having walked into obvious ambushes.

 

The battle is pitched. I’m in it.

 

https://www.preceptaustin.org/romans_1311-14