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Archive for April, 2010

Meditations on Isaiah 53

Isaiah 53. Words on a suffering servant. The text is familiar, but lately in some dark times of trial, of haunted remembrances of the past and fears of the future, such comfort is here.

Who has believed our message?

Indeed. The first question preceding the passage reminds us that Jesus would not be believed for who He was and is, the Christ. Questions, recrimination, false accusations, incredulous disdain, charges of blasphemy, sarcasm. Such was to be His world, a world that would laugh at His salvific name calling it a cruel joke as if to say, “Yeshua meaning Savior? Yet you cannot even save yourself.”

In whom has the LORD revealed His powerful arm?

A stark contrast to the first question which implies that the message would not be believed, the second question sets the condition that none other than God’s personal emissary, very image, likeness, representation, and Revelation would be treading the Earth.

My servant…

This cannot mean “my servant” as in the denoting of a person who is lower and thus rightly serves a person of higher worth. Why? Because very quickly, the speaker will admit to rejecting Jesus, so this cannot be the voice or thoughts of God the Father. “My servant” can be understood in two ways: A man may say Christ is my God not in the sense that the man owns God any more than saying “My world is large” implies a universal kingdom that I own. Secondly, though we should feel a prohibition to claim Christ as our servant in feeling a healthy reverence, it is Christ Himself who says in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

…grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground.

Because Jesus was begotten–not made–and was with God the Father from eternity past, His growing up refers to the earthly life. A poor child of a woodworker, how did He grow? Still in the Lord’s presence. Absent from the emotive, bursting, eternal-past love that the Father and Son had always known, the Son still grew in His Father’s presence: transcendent, prayerful, obedient, growing in favor (and infinitely always growing so!) The next two images are negatives. The tenderness of the green shoot is weakness, the root in dry ground is the stunted environment of a fallen world. This is evident because rather than the natural images being a contrast, the images’ ideas extend into a description of Jesus’ homely appearance, rejection by men, and deep sadness.

There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance. Nothing to attract us to him.

Really? What kind of an earthly body was God the Father imagining? Why not give Him the kind of attractiveness that would make people seek Jesus’ face? Surely the eyes were evenly set, deep brown, penetrating, a royal and strong nose, a singular symmetry to his strength. Might Jesus have been cross-eyed? Missing a couple of teeth? A deformity of the ear? The images of our mind’s eye will not allow it. It seems to disdain Him. And yet Jesus would spend a lifetime trying to convince people that though the outside of a grave may be whitewashed or the outside of a cup may be clean, the inside was integral to understanding the content. So nothing majestic, kingly, sovereign, regal. No Caesarial pomp. Nothing physically magnetic.

He was despised and rejected–a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.

Where are you in your life? Battling to move forward to tomorrow? Struggling with the kind of depression that makes you want to sleep? So Christ. Misunderstood by Dad and Mom? So Christ. Impugned with doing wrong for doing righteousness? So Christ. Falsely accused? So Christ. Slandered by others? So Christ. Humiliated and rejected? So Christ. The list is not endless, but it is all-inclusive in the sense that no temptation or sorrow will come to you that He did not willingly bear here on Earth in order to become the High Priest described in the unsurpassed book of Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

We turned our backs on him, and looked the other way. He was despised and we did not care.

For Jesus’ goodness, what did we return? He left His father’s immediate presence and humbled himself as Philippians 2 recounts, “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of man,” an incredibly shocking condescension. Bawled as a baby. Spit up. Had growing pains. Fell in learning to walk. Must it have seemed an outrage to the heavenly hosts but for an understanding of the infinite mercies of God the Father and the Son? And yet for Jesus coming to “seek and save the lost,” forgive prostitutes and tax collectors, cleanse the corruption of false religion, give sight to the blind, make straight the feet of the lame, drive away depression, demons, and death, lovingly welcome children, obliterate cultural stereotypes, embrace beggars and lepers, eat with the rejected and unclean, feed hundreds, become the propitiation for sin–what was our reaction? What was your reaction and mine? We turned our backs. At best, we slept in the Garden as He painstakingly poured out His heart to His Father and sweat drops of blood (perhaps I fell asleep yet again meaning to converse with Him but thoughts of tomorrow’s concerns drifted me off to sleep). We kept the false bravado of heroic martyrdom up only to deny Him (perhaps I did not want to seem judgmental, narrow, or offensive so I weakly remained quiet when the topic of religion came up). At worst, we kissed Him and traded the infinite joys of being with Jesus for the guilt-ridden clang of false hopes as the silver haunts us in the worst exchange we had ever made, a truth for a lie, a joy for a sorrow.

Yet it was our weaknesses He carried; it was our sorrows that weighed Him down.

While we did not care and had our backs turned, He carried our burdens. O Lord, how could you take my weaknesses? I am one of billions of your creatures, but I believe you personally shouldered my guilt, my fleetingness and wandering heart. You exchanged my sadness so that I might have joy. You tasted death that I might live. You didn’t deserve to shoulder what I could not.

And we thought His troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for His own sins! But He was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was broken so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.

Not only would Jesus be wrongly impugned as having done wrong and encountering God’s punishment in much the same way that Jesus’ own disciples asked what the parents of the man blind from birth had done wrong (likewise Job’s friends probe to find out Job’s supposed secret sin). But you and I deserved to be pierced, crushed, broken, whipped for the wrongs done–not Him! Now our present age is one in which many scoff at the idea of man’s greatest problem being his sinful state. The Good News no longer becomes “good” if man doesn’t think he has a problem in the first place and is not in need of salvation. But we are. And so your palm remains unblemished while His were pierced. The Great Exchange is made. With the fury we deserve, God sees our foul rebellion and takes out His anger on His own Son so that in Judgment, He can look not on us in our frail weakness. Instead, He will look at the perfect, humble, righteous obedience of His Son and judge us on His accord. What mercy and love have I to thank you for, O Lord!

All of us like sheep have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own paths. Yet the LORD laid on Him the sins of us all. He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet He never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep is silent before the shearers, He did not open His mouth. Unjustly condemned, He was led away.

Jesus followed a straight-and-narrow path for the increased glory of His Father. He sought His Father’s will, praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” I often follow the paths of my own gods, the Will, Possessions, Dreams of Power, Self-Exaltation. Not Jesus. When I feel wronged, I be sure to let the person know. Of late being in the military, a great pet-peeve is being cut by someone in line. I feel the greatest sense of outrage and wrong. Why? Because I will eat 10 seconds later? I be sure to say something. And yet for the greatest crime and outrage perpetrated both in history and in the universe, Jesus is silent. He follows His Father and when persecuted, remains obedient to the call. I follow my heart and when given the natural result of doing so, complain to God about Him putting me in a situation I insisted upon having. How good is the Lord that He is not done with me yet!

No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.

No one cared. The Lord Jesus greatly battled the fight of His life in the Garden, overwhelmed to the core of despair–alone. In the trial, the shouts for Bar-Abbas drowned out all else. When Peter who had promised to be there to the death was questioned, he shouted, “I don’t know the man!” The words of belief came from a fellow cross-bearer pleading mercy. Take it not for granted that Jesus “had done no wrong” and the purpose of His death–your rebellion. Mine. Buried like a criminal? There would be no funeral anointing save for the pre-anointment from Mary of Bethany (Mark 14:8). Around 700 years before, Isaiah foretells the wealthy Joseph of Arimithea providing a tomb carved from stone.

But it was the Lord’s good pleasure to crush Him and cause Him grief. Yet when His life is made an offering for sin, He will have many descendants. He will enjoy a longer life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in His hands.

I love my son Ishmael. Should I be asked to sacrifice him to a peaceful death for the sake of another that I loved, I could not. To put him to death in pain, much less excruciating pain, is incomprehensible to me. And yet to do that for a deserved criminal in a state prison–never! Yet it was the “Lord’s good pleasure to crush Him” even though no greater sorrow or sacrifice has ever been made. What is the end result? Notice the contrast. While no one cared that Jesus’ life was cut short and lacked descendants, “He will have many descendants.” I gave our newest son Immanuel the middle names of “Justin” and “Gerald,” in no small part because I want him to grow up to be like his uncle and grandfather in spirit and in character. So just as we name children after those we would like them to be like, so we take the name of Christ.

Christian, you may have life cut short by persecution, pain, or the finite leaves of time inexorably marching from this autumn season to winter’s grave. But because of Christ, you will “enjoy a longer life.” God the Father’s good plan will prosper in the hands of His son. Worship in the images: a father holding his son’s hands, the scarred hands making our way possible, the trees and the rivers and multitudinous peoples clapping their hands. And in a quiet moment some day hence, look at the very hands of your Father and see graven in His palms the very name whispered to the nurse at your earthly birth.

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Depending upon how you calculate it, America is on the verge of entering its longest-ever fought war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Here are some thoughts on how to win the war, something that because it is fought by asymmetric, insurgent warfare is first of all based on “hearts and minds,” the center of gravity being the populace there. Secondly, it is based upon “hearts and minds” here, the center of gravity being the American people’s willingness to see the war through despite adversity and setbacks. This is easier said than done. Three quotes that are particularly timely:

1.  Intelligence is key–from mud to space.

“Know your enemy. Know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather: your victory will then be total.”  Sun Tzu

2.  Do not be naive about the long-standing impact of victories as we must be on guard for the sake of security.

“Experience is the ability to recognize a mistake when you make it again. Four times in the last century the US has come to the end of a war, concluded that the future of man and the world had changed for the better and turned inward, unilaterally disarming and dismantling institutions important for our national security giving ourselves a so-called ‘peace dividend.’ Four times we have chosen to ignore history.” Secretary Defense Robert Gates (Nov.2007)

3.  Take the fight the way the fight is fought. Adapt, adapt, adapt.

“I didn’t carry out my tactics in Malaya by raises masses of local troops and putting them all in British uniforms and giving them enormous loads to carry so that they became completely immobile. We did it by equipping them and training them as near as possible to the enemy they had to compete with in a particular terrain. This applied not only to local forces but also to British troops.” Field Marshal Gerald Templer, 1968

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“I have a childlike conviction that the suffering will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concotion of man’s Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world’s finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villany, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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Recently, I reread Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. While there are some flaws (self-aware explanation, overly didactic inserted lessons, some odd allegorical elements), it is an in-depth, soul-searching examination of the intimate walk that one can have with our Lord. In the allegory, Much-Afraid desires to ascend to the heights but is trapped by her betrothed, Craven Fear, and his companions. While many allegories fall apart because of their quaint neatness in which each element exasperatingly represents a corresponding element, the power of Hinds’ Feet lies in the scenes in which Much-Afraid is tested.

Not only does the Shepherd confront her with challenges too great for her, her cobbled, twisted feet and deformed face are certainly not prospects inherent to climbing great heights. There are certain scenes which are poignant beyond words. If you get a chance to read the novel, read “Lessons Learned on the Slopes of the High Places,” offered in many publications as an appendix. It is an account of how Hannah Hurnard came to see in the beauty of Switzerland (cascading waterfalls, precarious chairs swinging over dangerous peaks, delicate flowers), the lessons of intimacy in which a walk of faith boils down to, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In this post, let me share with you some of Much-Afraid’s realizations in a few scenes of revelation both about the world in which we live and more importantly about our great God:

1.  The imaginations of our fears are much greater than the reality that we face, especially when we face our fears with God.

Based on Hurnard’s own experience of being afraid of heights, Much-Afraid has to take a fragile-looking metal car attached to a cable with no support below. The rickety car is pulled hundreds and hundreds of feet above jagged peaks and rocks to and fro. You can well imagine all of the scenarios being played in a person’s mind. Hurnard writes, “Once on the track, Much-Afraid discovered to her surprise and deep thankfulness that it was not so appalling in actual fact as it had seemed in anticipation…though the Shepherd had disappeared from view Much-Afraid had a lovely sense that he was still close beside them” and later, “However, even with the handrail to steady her, Much-Afraid was very careful to close her imagination altogether to the picture which Craven Fear had painted. From bitter experience she knew that pictures thrown on the screen of her imagination could seem much more unnerving and terrible than the actual facts” (132, 135). In the end, Much-Afraid is grateful that the Shepherd has not only put her upon the heights in such a precarious position, she is stronger for it, the beginning of a motif where the Shepherd provides training to become great and then being the means to reaching those great heights.

2.  Suffering and sorrow are companions to be welcomed in a fallen world if we have faith to believe they are means to an end and not the end.

When Much-Afraid receives the companions that the Shepherd has chosen, she does not want them. They are veiled and cast a terrible shadow upon her hopes of ascending the heights. However, their presence becomes a constant in her becoming better, stronger, and closer to the Shepherd. John Piper has rightly said that it is in the darker times of longing and needing, indeed of sickness and pain, that we seek the light, true fulfillment, a physician, a healer. Although it is in the times of greatest pain that I have felt resignation to seek but God, I do not welcome suffering or sorrow. I would rather eat fine food, feel good, play with my children, be entertained, and concentrate my efforts on ease, comfort, and shallow joys. But James 1:2 makes the point that we should “count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Hebrews 12 makes the same point that while discipline is not enjoyable at the time, we know that it is from a loving father training us.

Much-Afraid therefore says to the Shepherd, “It is the way you have chosen for me to go. It looks so dreadful, Shepherd, so impossible. I turn giddy and faint whenever I look at it. The roes and the hinds can go there, but they are not limping, crippled, or cowardly like me” to which the Shepherd responds, “The only way to develop hinds’ feet is to go by the paths the hinds use–like this one.” When Much-Afraid claims she doesn’t want them after all if it means so much pain, the Shepherd says, “Oh yes you do. I know you better than you know yourself. You want it very much indeed, and I promise you these hinds’ feet” (126). A greater joy trumps the false contentment. As C.S. Lewis said, “God loves us too much to leave us as we are.” As the Shepherd says, “Love is beautiful, but it is also terrible–terrible in its determination to allow nothing unblemished or unworthy to remain in the beloved” (179).

3. God loves His sheep.

Such a simple statement. One of the great deadly sins I believe I am most guilty of is seeing God’s grace as common, usual, normal, dull. How I must be forgiven for responding with an “of course” to anything God has done. If God loves us too much to leave us as we are, we are the objects of His affection as He makes us His bride. We were not lovable or desirable. Isn’t it ironic that Isaiah 53, that great precursor to the Christ, should foretell that Jesus had no attractiveness and that we would esteem Him not when He was infinitely beautiful and good? And yet while the description of revulsion is apt for us in our sinful rebellion, God loves us while we are yet sinners scorning, mocking, and hate-filled! The Shepherd in the allegory says gently, “Much-Afraid, don’t you know by now I never think of you are now but as you will be when I have brought you the Kingdom of Love and washed you from all the stains and defilements of the journey?” (164).

This past Easter Sunday, Jose who runs the Hospitality House here on post recounted the physical sufferings of Jesus from a physiological point. The ravages of crucifixion, the breaking of arteries, a body in shock, sweating blood, the dislocation of joints, the struggles to breathe or speak unless one excruciatingly pushes upon one’s feet to support a body cavity (Jesus spoke seven times including once to ask for forgiveness for those mocking and killing Him.) Jose’s voice kept breaking because He said, “And He did this for me? Do you know what I’ve done in my life? I couldn’t give my son’s life for my friends, and yet Scripture says it pleased God to bruise His Son. I cannot understand it,” his voice said cracking.

Too much grace it would be even if God did it with resignation. How great then is the fact that He delights in us. For those of us like Much-Afraid, weak, ugly, struggling, with what wonder do we hear the words spoken by the Shepherd: “How lovely and how nimble are thy feet, O prince’s daughter! They flash and sparkle and can run more fleet than running water. On all the mountains there is no gazelle, no roe or hind, can overtake thee nor can leap as well–but lag behind” and said another way, ” Thy joints and thighs are like a supple band on which are met fair jewels which a cunning master hath fitly set. In all the palace, search where’er you please, in every place there’s none that walks with such a queenly ease, nor with such grace” (Song of Solomon 7:1).

4. The world and our Enemy will call this foolishness and work to increase doubt in God.

On the face of it all, the way doesn’t make sense. A loving God? A call to bear a cross, to walk with sorrow and suffering, an invitation to rocky, near-death climbing of heights with deformed feet. Whispers will come in all directions that God is not loving, it’s too hard, and this so-called faith is really an opiate for us to escape reality. “‘You poor little thing,’ came the whisper of Self-Pity through the mist. ‘It is too bad…just think of all the time you are wasting, getting nowhere at all. Trudge, trudge, day after day, nothing to show for it, and you ought to be getting up onto the High Places'” (160). The Shepherd tells Much-Afraid to trust and asks her if He is a man that He should lie. He tells her, “Believe steadfastly in what you have seen. Even if the way up to the High Places appears to be obscured and you are led to doubt whether you are following the right path, remember the promise. ‘Thine ears shall hear a word beside thee saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand and when ye turn to the left” (189).

5.  God is good and as we become more than conquerors, let us raise our ebenezers.

Much-Afraid has a running motif of saving a small stone from nature after she has built altar after altar, reminiscent of ancient Israel’s ebenezers as the ebenezer stone represented a fresh beginning, a reversal of course for God’s people, a memorial of God’ s goodness. The stones of remembrance become the gems in the crown, the jewels of truth, victory, steadfastness. In what ways has God helped you conquer fear, sickness, pain, loneliness, abuse? Remember them. Remember Him.

6.  The truest joy is emptying ourselves and being filled with Him.

Hurnard uses a striking image which I had never thought of. Once Much-Afraid reaches the Heights, she longs to go back to the valley to those who are lost. She first captured this image in Switzerland by the Brumbach Falls where everything in nature seemed designed to teach her about the Creator’s nature. “The first characteristic of true love is humility: the pouring of oneself down lower and lower in self-effacement and self-denial. The message of the running water always is, “Go lower. Find the lowest place. That is the only way to true fulfillment…’Perfect love casteth out fear.’ Yes, that is what the water utters so exultingly as it rushes toward the great, terrifying rocky lip of the gorge and plunges over, utterly abandoned and unafraid of the dreadful depths into which it must fall, down onto the threatening rocks below.” Because we are filled with God, only by Him is joy then possible so that “the downward motion is light, adventurous, and perfectly happy. The water, after casting itself over the rocks, seems to be held up and supported as though floating on wings! A glorious contradiction indeed.”

Pick up Hinds’ Feet on High Places. More importantly, delight yourself in the fountain of delight and strength that is the Lord! Leave off the broken cisterns of self-exaltation so that you may be brought up to His heights, a place where more joy may be found than we can imagine. May we say together with Habakkuk 3:19, “GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

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