Lenten Devotional…Week 3, March 1-7

Monday, March 1…Psalm 68:24

Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary. In front are the singers, after them are the maidens playing tambourines

The Psalmist here describes the festal procession celebrating the occasion of the Ark of the Covenant being brought back to the Temple.

He says that the worshippers actually see God processing as this festival is played out. I think that if some of us American Christians were there we would have only seen the procession (the costumes, the professionalism, the precision, the ages of the singers and what style of music they played) and not God himself. We would have separated out the “spiritual” from the “act” and made a judgment as to how worshipful the service was. CS Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms uses the analogy of a child who cannot separate the religious from the festal character of Christmas or Easter. To the boy, chocolate eggs and Jesus’ resurrection are a unity. “And once he has distinguished (them), he must put one or the other first. If he puts the spiritual first he can still taste something of Easter in the chocolate eggs; if he puts the eggs first they will soon be no more than any other sweetmeat. They have taken on independent, and therefore a soon withering, life. Either at some period in Judaism, or else in the experience of some Jews, a roughly parallel situation occurred. The unity falls apart; the sacrificial rites become distinguishable from meeting with God.” 

Do we separate out the spiritual from the act of worship and judge the effectiveness of the latter by how it moves us? Might it be that we judge those who lead us in worship as guilty of performance when it is we who fail to see God “in the procession”?   

Reflect on this reflection and tomorrow we will make another application.

Tuesday, March 2… Psalm 50:8, 9, 12, 13, 17, 19

I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens…If I were hungry I would not tell you for the world is mine, and all that is in it…Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats? You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you…You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.   

The other danger of separating out the unity of worship (the spiritual from the act) is vividly portrayed in Psalm 50, as well as in Isaiah 58. Israel’s performance of worship and other acts of piety became separated from the obedience that God required, or the slave-owning church-goer making no connection between his worship and his ownership and treatment of human flesh of another color.

Instead of seeking and honoring God in all of life, the sacrificial system and the worship of the Temple became a kind of commercial transaction, which traded carcasses of animals for God’s blessings, as if God needed animals and blood in order to survive. Many a “religious” person in our day looks to rites and rituals as a means of merit that earns God’s favor eventuating in salvation. In Morocco, I am told that a Muslim earns one point each time he prays at home, but twenty-seven points for praying at the Mosque.

It is a proper understanding of the gospel that provides the antidote. “Not the labor of my hands can fulfill the Laws demands.” We cannot achieve a right-standing with God on the basis of any work or act of worship. It is only through the worship (sacrifice) of Christ that we are made acceptable to God. And it is through the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit that we are given a heart that desires to seek after God, to long for his beauty and to obey his commands. It is, therefore, God’s work for us and in us through Christ that breaks down the barrier between the sacred and secular, and all of life becomes a venue for expressing our praise and adoration to God—whether it is in act of “temple” worship or in the worship of making coleslaw for supper for the glory for God. 

Not what I feel or do, can give me peace with God. Not all my prayers and sighs and tears can bear my awful load. Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin. Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within. Thy love to me, O God—not mine, O Lord, to thee, can rid me of this dark unrest and set my spirit free. I bless the Christ of God, I rest on love divine, and with unfaltering lip and heart I call this Savior mine.  (Horatius Bonar)

Wednesday, March 3…Job 40:1-5; 42:1-6

I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I lay my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer; twice, but I will say no more… Therefore, I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

Spirituality has become a very big business. The tools and techniques that were used by New Agers off in the dark corners of our culture twenty years ago have now been mainstreamed into a very popular vague, tolerant, and fluffy spirituality. There is also a very interesting shift in our culture where the terms religion and spirituality have been separated so that the latter has more to do with us than with God. 

However, unlike our culture’s version of spirituality, biblical spirituality does not begin with our own self awareness, but with God and the awareness of His holiness. John Calvin wrote “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. [But] which of them preceded and produces the other is not easy to discover. [For] no man can take a survey of himself but he must immediately turn to the contemplation of God, in whom he lives and moves.” (Institutes1.1.1.),

In doing this (contemplating God), however, we run into an immediate problem. True Spirituality does not “feel good” initially because coming to know the biblical God is a deeply unsettling experience. Modern religious movements “de-fang” God and transform him into some nebulous higher power or tolerant grandfather.  

You know the story of Job, a righteous man who lost all his possessions through war, a natural disaster that took the lives of his ten children, and finally he was incapacitated by a painful skin disease.Job yelled and complained and wondered why he was even born.  He told his friends who were no help at all and only added to his suffering. Then he turned to God and asked, Why?  Why me?  Why not someone else?  All the normal questions; but as we read on it gets uncomfortable because of Job’s uncensored honesty.  Job tried to reconcile his integrity with his adversity and he couldn’t, so he questioned God’s justice.  God is tormenting me for reasons that have nothing to do with my behavior.  Is that justice?  I want God to come out of hiding and answer my questions!    

Suddenly God showed up! It was He who hurled question after question at Job.  He didn’t unlock the mystery of suffering or solve the enigma of death.  He simply revealed Himself as a God of power and wisdom. And before the presence of the Living God, all Job could do was repent in dust and ashes.

Almighty and merciful God, to whom the light and darkness are both alike, and without whom nothing befalls your children; strengthen us to meet all the experiences of life with a heart that responds like Job who said, ‘the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’ We pray this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, March 4…Isaiah 6:1-4

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…

Isaiah had this vision of the sovereign God in a time of national crisis.  Uzziah (Azariah) was the first godly national leader since Solomon.  Under his leadership, the nation prospered and Temple worship was restored to its proper place.  He reigned for 52 years and with his death, the hopes and dreams of Judah also began to die.  It is in this context that Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision, probably while worshipping in the Temple.   

Isaiah saw the awe-inspiring splendor of God.  He saw his sovereignty and his holiness. What a scene! Isaiah saw the holiness of God, the only attribute ever mentioned in this three-fold way (the Trisagion). Never do we hear, Love, Love, Love or Justice, Justice, Justice…but we do hear, Holy, Holy, Holy.  God is ethically pure, absolutely upright and utterly truthful in all His ways.  All his other attributes flow from his holiness.  The primary meaning of God’s holiness, however, is not just his ethical purity, but the fact that He is distinct or separate from all created things. [hagiasmos, signifies separation; we are to be holy, which implies a separation from the world and unto God.] There is nothing in this universe like God; He is completely unlike anything we can ever imagine. “God is not beautiful; he is beauty itself, the fountain from which all beautiful creatures draw their excellence. God is not loving; he is love. His attributes are the infinite standard against which all limited perfections are measured.” (Richard Lovelace)

What are you, O Lord, what are you? How shall my heart think of you? Certainly you are life, you are wisdom, you are truth, you are goodness, you are blessedness, you are eternity, and you are every true good. But these are many, and my narrow understanding cannot take in so much in a single glance and take delight all at once. (St. Anselm, ca.1033-1109)

Friday, March 5…Isaiah 6:5

Woe to me, I am coming apart.  For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.  

What was Isaiah’s reaction to this vision of God? Did he get warm and fuzzy feelings all over? Did he experience a sense of worthiness and acceptance, embraced by love? On the contrary, Isaiah found that God’s holy character was too much for him to bear. He had the sense that his whole being was being undone, coming apart, “shriveled to a clinker.”  And so, Isaiah fell on his face in worship before the mysterium of God, and repented.

We have seen Job’s and Isaiah’s reaction to the untamed, undomesticated God of the universe. If we desire to know true spirituality, than we must begin to know God for who he is and that he is holy; that he is completely different than we are and there is no possible way we can stand to be in his presence. Our only possible recourse is to bite the dust in humble repentance. 

This is also where the gospel begins. Saving faith in Jesus Christ can so radically change the spiritual landscape of our lives that instead of cowering in God’s awesome presence or trying to flee from him in fear, we will desire to draw near to him and to be in his presence. Jonathan Edwards wrote: “As I walked (in my father’s pasture)…there came into my mind so sweet a sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God, as I know not how to express…God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in everything… I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full, and ready to break…Prayer seemed to be natural to me, as the breath by which the inward burnings of my heart had vent.”  

Jonathan Edwards’ relationship to God was changed when he understood the work of Christ. Christ Jesus came into the world to bridge the chasm between a holy God and sinful humanity, so that we might be forgiven and brought near to Him. Has that been your experience or are you still running from God and involved in a spirituality of your own making? Have you found your rest in Christ?

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought; my sin, not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more, praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul. It is well, with my soul, it is well, it is well with my soul. (Philip Paul Bliss)

Saturday, March 6 … Romans 1:16

I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation of everyone who believes…just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  

Martin Luther in commenting on this passage wrote, “Night and day I pondered until…I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through the open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on new meaning… This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven.” 

This was a radical departure from the Roman Catholic understanding of Justification. The Church understood it as an infusion of righteousness whereby a person is actually made righteous through the sacraments. However, Luther discovered in The Book of Romans that Paul used the term justification in a declarative and forensic manner. In other words, when we believe in Jesus Christ we are not made righteous (we can talk about that in terms of Sanctification), but we are declared righteous. Here is an excellent definition: Justification by faith is “the legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” (Louis Berkhof)    

Luther was a priest and a professor in the Roman Catholic Church. He had been taught that one’s acceptance by God was based upon the spiritual life of good works and the merits of Christ’s death. The Scriptures convinced him otherwise; that his only hope of being in the right with God was not on the basis of our efforts, but on the basis of faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone. 

In Christ alone, I place my trust , and find my glory in the power of the Cross. In every victory, let it be said of me, my source of strength, my source of hope is Christ alone.

Sunday, March 7 … Psalm 32:1, 2

Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.    

Paul quotes these verses in Romans 4:7, 8 and gives us another perspective on Justification by Faith. God justifies completely the one who believes, so that not only is the righteousness of Christ credited to our account, but He also refuses to credit our sins against us.  Paul quotes King David who wrote Psalm 32.  It should be noted that David was a believer, one whom God had declared righteous and yet he committed adultery and tried to cover it up by becoming a conspirator in the murder of an innocent man.  He kept his crime to himself for about a year before the prophet Nathan confronted him and said, “You are the man!” David confessed his sin and repented of what he had done and then wrote of the blessings of forgiveness in Psalm 32. 

Thus, we see that being justified by grace through faith involves a positive; the crediting of righteousness to our account even though we are morally and spiritually bankrupt.  Justification also involves a negative; the forgiveness of all of our sins and never counting them against us ever again. That is why the play on the word justified is so accurate: just-if-I’d never sinned. When a person believes in Christ, that person is accounted righteous in the sight of God. Every sin—past, present, future, is washed away and God will never bring them up again. David also expressed this in Psalm 103:12, As far as the East is from the West, so far has He removed our sins from us. The prophet Micah agreed in 7:18-20, Who is a pardoning God like you, who pardons sin and forgives transgression…and hurls all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. God doesn’t throw them into the shallow water where we can go and scoop them out, but he casts our sin into the depths of the sea where they are lost forever in his grace. 

As believers, our slate is clean with God because of Christ. We should not respond to this grace by sinning all the more because we know we are forgiven.  In fact, it calls us to a higher standard of righteousness (“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees.”) It calls us to a life in community where love, justice, and mercy live. It calls us to care for the poor and the oppressed, because that how we were before Christ liberated us by his grace. This grace should humble us and motivate us to live in such a way never to disappoint the one who has been so gracious. “O God, thank you for your grace and forgiveness and that I stand completely accepted and loved in your sight. Now, help me by my love for others to show just how much to you I owe to you. Amen”

Be sure to check back here next week for our last week of Lenten Devotionals...