Saturday, March 20, 2010

We Were Like Those Who Dream

I sat yesterday evening with a beloved sister in Christ who is on her way Home. She would not awaken at first to greet me with her customary "oh wow" (who doesn't like to be welcomed with such exciting words?). So I sat by her, and, as we were forgotten in the bustle of the business of the household, I read the Psalms to her. Close to her ear, in a low voice (not a whisper), I read to her the inspired Book of Prayer and Praise at the heart of the Word of God. At first there was no response, but the longer I read, I began to have the feeling she was reading with me. A slow, slight nod of the head at certain points, a quiet moan when the Psalm was completed. I started losing myself in the favorite place to be.

You know that the Bible is authored by God the Holy Spirit. Normally when you and I read a book, the author is some name attached to a photo on the back of the dust sleeve. We know the author had something to do with the words on the page, but there is a disconnect because we don't know the author very well. The Bible, though, is different. The Author dwells within the children of God in Christ. For those that hunger for that fellowship with Him in His living Word, He works a joyous closeness and exultant communion. He is good, and His covenant love endures to where the long road meets the horizon and beyond.

This is where I was, losing myself in the Word in a time of being held with this fellow believer in the grip of the Holy Spirit. It is not a technique or a human-centered meditation; it is a gifting grace of God Himself that allows us to become small before the only One worthy of being considered ALL. Forget this garbage of "finding yourself," becoming "centered," or "self-esteem." Only a fool stares in the mirror during a Southwest sunset. Only a sorely benighted soul lifts his voice to be heard over the boom of the breakers on a New England shoreline, or thinks about his own greatness standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon or under the parade of the heavens. The gracious gift of God is to lose oneself in something infinitely greater, more glorious, and loving beyond degree. "God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). His Spirit, God the Holy Spirit, Who dwells within believers, makes them one in Christ's Church, and conforms each to the image of God's Beloved Son. His truth (not the "everyone must find his own truth" bilge vomited forth as wisdom in this perverse age), which is His Word (John 17:17). The Holy Spirit and Bible cannot be separated or experienced apart from one another, for in the economy of God they are bound in an undivided unity (1 John 5:6). When we separate them or seek to experience them apart from one another, we quickly enter the deadly zone of error. They are the means by which we truly are brought into the presence of the Creator to worship Him as creation must.

So I sat there with this dear sister and God the Holy Spirit, being woven into His glorious and timeless truth as we worshiped in the Word. Words became emboldened with fire and great weight in places I'd never noticed before. "Forever" gains a special heaviness and light when in a gathering with a saint not far from touching it.

Then we came to Psalm 126. I can't say I've ever paid a lot of attention to this Psalm before, but as I read just the first line my voice caught in my throat.

"When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream." Chills went up my spine and my heart lept at these words. I don't even know if I can explain why. Paul speaks of a knowing beyond knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). This doesn't mean we ignore disciplined study, intelligent meditation, or eschew sound biblical teaching. These are the doorway to the knowledge beyond knowledge, which we can only touch in part in this world, in these frail mortal bodies. A moment comes, when the mind is glorified with the body in eternity, and we find out that we had only known a faint shadow of the pebbles at the foot of Everest when it came to knowledge of God. These small truths are powerfully inspired and infallible here, but the MORE of eternity will fill us with an ever-growing fullness of joy that will never cease for all the days of "forever." I can't adequately teach Psalm 126, but here are a few thoughts that are those shadowy pebbles. We have (with the exception of my dear sister in Christ) a long way to go before we begin the tireless and invigorating climb up the celestial Everest...ZION.

Paul says of heaven that our citizenship is there (Philippians 3:20). So, what are we here? The Bible has numerous testimonies to the fact that we are not home yet and are but pilgrims and sojourners here. Let me tap into our current theme of the majestic and transcendant Word of God and quote a single verse to illustrate this truth: "Your statutes are my songs in the house of my pilgrimage" (Psalm 119:54). I love that verse. Psalm 126:1 speaks of bringing back captives to Zion, to Home (see my thoughts on our captivity here). Being brought back to Zion, being brought Home to God Himself by God Himself, "we were like those who dream."

I immediate thought of a very young child laughing in her sleep. Resting, without fear or concern, relatively pure in thought...laughing. As we watch her laughing so peacefully and joyfully, we cannot help but smile or laugh ourselves. We don't know the secret joke and carry the baggage and responsibility of adulthood, but for a moment we are drawn into that joy. "We were like those who dream." The best of dreams suddenly becoming unending reality with a dreaming laughter suddenly filling our hearts with such joy. We're Home, and Home is ZION. It is His Home, and He has brought us here out of our wandering captivity.

"Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them.' The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad." There's no need for me to go on in exposition, except to say that true and lasting joy starts in the truth of the Word of God that lifts us up to a worthiness that is not our own and a reality in which we are not the center of gravity. That is our purpose, and the reason for which Christ died for our sins: "...Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God..." (1 Peter 3:18). Not to a mystical, self-actualized exalting of ourselves (our most natural and depraved be god). True joy comes from Him and entering into relationship with Him through the salvation available only in Christ. And, in His Word through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (in the context of the gathering of the saints in His Church), we begin to be trained for that ultimate reality. And, no matter the persecution, tribulation, or trial around us, we begin in slow spiritual maturity to "greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory" (1 Peter 1:8), even though we don't see Him yet and are not setting foot in Zion.

What now? I'm content to wait. I am part of His awesome Church, which is the "fulness of Him Who fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). That's pretty glorious and all-encompassing. I will go back to Psalm 126 several times in the next days, as I did yesterday evening. I have, once more, caught a vision of my purpose - training the saints to walk together in the Word, guided by the Author. And though we may not get to Zion at the same time (my dear sister may beat me there), we will never cease to be one in Christ, and the captives will be brought to Zion in ceaseless joy and laughter, "like those who dream."

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Eldest Brother is Waiting at the Table

I am, as I often do, meditating on the Lord’s Supper. In the midst of the chaos of life, the churning of multiple oceans somehow touching each other in competition over the allotment of time, investment of feeling, and burden of the midst of this the simplicity of the Table gives me direction and peace. It is not ritual, tradition, liturgy, or denomination. It is Gospel. At the Table we confess without words, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1). All stormy seas must calm and become subordinate before this indestructible and unshakeable Truth.

Today I am thinking of the Resurrection in the proclamation of the Table, and the promise of Presence that echoes the last words of Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20).

Let’s look at Jesus’ words after His proclamation of the cup and His blood in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). They promise a post-Resurrection communion between Christ and His Church at the Table.

In the Gospel of Matthew

“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom’” (Matthew 26:27-29).

We know the first part of this. We hear it every time we gather at the Table. Paul quotes it (1 Corinthians 11:25) and it has become more liturgy than re-enactment or remembrance. It’s the promise after the giving of the cup that has long held my attention and contemplation. Jesus promises a day when He drinks the cup (representing His sin-forgiving, relationship-establishing blood) new with us in His Father’s Kingdom. When is this to happen? If we can identify Matthew’s theology of the Father’s Kingdom and its realization in our lives, we can find out when Christ will drink the cup again with us.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father Who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS’” (Matthew 7:21-23). These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom are also those who enter the “narrow” gate and walk the “narrow” path (7:14), a reality for the minority. These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom are those who produce good fruit (7:16,20). These that are allowed to enter the Kingdom build their lives on Christ’s words (7:24). Are these qualities applied only at the Judgment, or are they qualities that have an importance in identifying whether or not we are a true part of Christ’s Church now? I would suggest to you that those that do the will of the Father, produce good fruit, walk a narrow path, and build their lives on Christ’s words are those who are true members of Christ’s Church today, and therefore are proclaimers and citizens of the Father’s Kingdom today (I reject a separation of the Church and Kingdom, since the “King of kings” is the Lord, Savior, and Bridegroom of the Church). So those in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who are part of the Church today. Now. Not just at the Judgment or in the sweet by and by.

“And He said, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then THE RIGHTEOUS WILL SHINE FORTH AS THE SUN in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear’” (Matthew 13:37-43). Let’s dabble for a moment in the quagmire of eschatology (over which I plan on walking without my rat-claws ever touching the mud). This parable’s resolution, like all of Jesus’ similar teaching, points to the “end of the age,” when Herod’s Temple was destroyed by the wrath of God (using the Romans) in A.D. 70 in judgment for Second Temple Judaism’s rejection of the Messiah and persecution of the Church. The Church becomes the sole voice and expression of the Kingdom of the Father.

“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go work today in the vineyard.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he regretted it and went. The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, ‘I will, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you’” (Matthew 21:28-31). So it is not confession primarily, but obedience after repentance (“he regretted it and went”) that are elements of participation in the Kingdom of God (one of the four times Matthew uses the term “Kingdom of God” instead of “Kingdom of heaven”).

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40). The King is Jesus, Son of God. The Kingdom has been prepared for the blessed of the King’s Father from the beginning. Those on the King’s right are those that showed mercy NOT INDISCRIMINATELY TO THE NEEDY OF THE WORLD, but to the King’s brothers, even the least of them. Are these not those adopted into the King’s family through the King’s saving work on the cross, that is, the Church (Romans 8:15,16; Galatians 4:5-7; Ephesians 1:5)? Are not those that serve the Church as if it were the King Himself those that are part of the Church?

Let me mention Jesus’ great post-Resurrection statement: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is King now. His authority is complete now, and it is over all things. And His presence is exclusively with His people (28:20).

This inordinate longing for heaven so present in the sentimentality and singing of the Church lessens the absolute glory of the Church today, now. The totally sovereign King is present with us NOW. So when Jesus promises on the eve of His death on the cross (the subject of our mutual proclamation at the Table) to drink again with us in His Father’s Kingdom, and when the post-resurrection Jesus announces His complete authority over all and unending presence with His Church, I propose to you that He drinks of the cup with us at the Table when we drink it in proclamation of His work on the cross.

In the Gospel of Mark

“And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. And He said to them, ‘This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’” (Mark 14:23-25).

Mark records “Kingdom of God,” but the rest of the statement is basically the same. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry the content of His message was about the Kingdom: “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (1:15). It is only the most self-centered hermeneutic, demanding that all Scripture is about us and about right now, that makes “fulfilled” time and the phrase “at hand” to mean a delay of millennia. The rule of God was made manifest in the world by the teaching of Jesus and His work on the cross (and subsequent resurrection).

“…the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, ‘Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ And Jesus said, ‘I am; and you shall see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING WITH THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN’” (Mark 14:61,62). Again the desert rat hovers over the chaos of eschatology. “Right hand of power” is the language of authority over all. “Coming with the clouds of heaven” is language utilized throughout the Bible for God’s coming to judge His enemies. Jesus alludes to the A.D. 70 destruction of Herod’s Temple and its religious system.

Jesus, Lord over the Church, is Preacher of the Kingdom and Destroyer of its enemies. He is also present with His Church, and has promised to drink the cup new with us in God’s Kingdom. He proclaimed the imminence of this Kingdom at the start of His earthly ministry, and announced Kingdom judgment just before His crucifixion. Here we are, after resurrection and after Kingdom judgment, and Christ is present with us at the drinking of the cup not just in remembrance, but in participation.

In the Gospel of Luke

“And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, ‘Take this and share it among yourselves; for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes.’ And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:15-20).

Jesus promises to the disciples that He will eat the Passover again when it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. Is there any doubt that Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfillment of the Passover?

“Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7,8). The Passover fulfilled, so Christ’s promise to eat it again is present with His people.

The Kingdom of heaven is said to belong to the poor now, not at some future date (Luke 6:20).

The Kingdom of heaven is said to have come near to those hearing the preaching of the apostles (10:9,11).

“…if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20). Well, did He cast out demons by the finger of God?

“And someone said to Him, ‘Lord, are there just a few who are being saved?’ And He said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, “Lord, open up to us!'” then He will answer and say to you, “I do not know where you are from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets”; and He will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you are from; DEPART FROM ME, ALL YOU EVILDOERS.” In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God’” (Luke 13:23-29). At the Table will be those from all over the world, eating at the Table in the Kingdom. Surely these from the four corners of the world are the Church, made up of all tribes, tongues, and nations. Those who rejected Messiah, who thought their salvation was based solely on their racial heritage, will not be present at the Table.

“The Kingdom of God is in your midst” (17:21). This was during the earthly ministry of Jesus. Does His removal after the resurrection to the right hand of the Father mean that the Kingdom has now retreated from our midst? Do we really want to say this? He also promises us His unending presence. With Jesus' presence is the presence of the Kingdom of God among His Church alone.

When the children of God in Christ gather at the Lord’s Supper Table, Jesus Himself is present with the Church, partaking of the meal to which He gave meaning, the meal that speaks of Him. Why then, dearest saints, do we neglect the Table? We are a family that rarely gathers at the Father’s Table with our elder Brother! Time to make the gathering at the Table a weekly part of the gathering of the saints. Let’s grow up out of our sad reasons for neglecting the Table (logistics, our intolerance of the simple, fear of constant practice leading to lessening of meaning…which is code for “our hearts are hard,” and the fullness of our services with other things not explicitly given by our Lord). Embrace the Table, pray our vision is given a singular focus (1 Corinthians 2:1), and ask the Spirit to awaken our hard hearts to the proclamation of the Table.

Our Savior, Lord, and Brother is waiting for us, to drink the cup again in His glorious Kingdom (the Church)!

Addendum, Postscript, and/or Feedback Loop (Overkill and possible Distraction, no matter what it is!)

I never know when to stop, and have a twisted delight in adding material that disrupts rhythm (or forces the subject through an overweight addendum to start tumbling toward a disintegration of the piece’s original focus). I am a teacher at heart, though (even if not in gifting, reception, or effectiveness), and am willing to sacrifice art for one more moment of scriptural exposition…and I suspect that the artist’s willingness to strain art for the sake of the Larger is, in itself, art! Anyway…two items from the Revelation of Jesus Christ in tangent to our contemplation.

First is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). We have in our minds, through creative preaching and emotional singing (and perhaps too much perusing of bridal magazines), a massive Table attended and headed by God Himself. Endless, evermore delicious fare that will never add to the celestial waistline and will never become mundane is served before us, and at that table no one will ever make the observation, “their god is their appetite” (Philippians 3:19). Even better, the loved ones we miss so much will be there, too, for that Thanksgiving Dinner loaded with an infinite nostalgia. One big smorgasbord, forever and ever, Amen. Well, perhaps, but that’s not the point of the “marriage supper of the Lamb” in Revelation 19. Not to be a downer on your hopes for the best wedding reception ever (in the fashion of what we would do here on earth if we had unlimited resources), but let Scripture interpret Scripture, not your memories of holiday family get-togethers or visions of American wedding excesses. “The infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, I.9). Read all of Revelation 19. Given the context of the chapter and the entire movement of the Revelation as a whole, I suspect rather strongly that the “marriage supper” is synonymous with the feasting of the aviary on the corpses of God’s enemies in 19:17-21. God’s ways and thoughts are definitely higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8,9), and we have not resisted sin to the point of the shedding of blood (Hebrews 12:4), so maybe we should set aside the imposing of our ideal wedding party on Scripture. The marriage supper is the feasting of scavengers on the carrion that was the enemies of God and His Church. Don’t worry. I’m sure the food in heaven will still be good, but that’s not what Revelation 19 is about.

Second, finally, and in return to our original subject, let’s go backwards from Revelation 19 to chapter 3. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (3:20). Given Jesus’ promise in the Synoptic Gospels to partake again of the fruit of the vine in the Kingdom of God, and my proposition that this is a post-Resurrection communion with His Church, let’s read the glorified Christ’s promise to the Laodicean Church in this context.

He’s here, Beloved, and desires communion with His Bride at the Table. Open to Him, gather at His Table, and let’s dine. We have woefully underestimated the awesome reality of the gathering of the redeemed with their Redeemer!