1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
The psalmist did not turn to a government or a relative or a rich friend to provide for him. To whom did he turn?
Experience teaches us that walking “in paths of righteousness” is not always the easiest way to go. Why does the psalmist celebrate God’s leadership?
What does the psalmist “get” when he “gives” his submission to God’s leadership?
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
The psalmist is walking on righteous pathways. Why doesn’t he escape “the shadow of death?”
What political and cultural evils do you observe every day? How do they affect your life?
Secular thinkers believe that the things that make them happy must be considered good, even if they are made happy by things the Bible considers evil. How does calling good evil and evil good affect the society we live in?
How did the psalmist respond to evil that surrounded him?
Whom do you trust when you confront evil?
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
You are invited to a “table” overflowing and abundant every time you worship. Do you have the sense that enemies surround that table? Who are they?
In what way are you “anointed” when you visit that table?
How can it be said that you “dwell in the house of the Lord forever”?
How do you explain to secular thinkers what you mean about “dwelling in the house of the Lord forever”?
In 1927, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned, “the sort of friendliness between Church and society that we have cultivated in the past, especially in Germany, is actually the cause of the Church’s increasing irrelevance.” He could say the same thing about churches in the twenty-first century. Only a couple of weeks ago the Presbyterian Church USA abandoned God’s teaching about marriage and family, acceding to political and social pressure by redefining marriage as a union of two persons, who may be of the same or different genders. This change cannot be explained by any new revelations from God. It can only be explained by a decision to put popularity ahead of faith.
Every day we see political leaders cave in to cultural pressure, and even though we deplore it, we expect it of them. However, when leaders of our churches do the same thing, it is much more than deplorable. It feels like treason.
Christian leaders have an important calling, and at the center is Jesus’ command to teach disciples “everything I have commanded you.” When Christian leaders abandon the Bible, the things Jesus taught, and begin to teach that the moral principles in it are outdated, or obsolete, their followers have good reason to be dismayed. Worse, as Bonhoeffer pointed out nearly a hundred years ago, the world at large thinks it sees in such behavior something it always suspected. It thinks that all those old rules were just power plays anyway, and the unprincipled abandonment of biblical teaching looks like an admission that the Bible is not very important after all. It looks as if the leaders are admitting that God really did not make those rules; people did, and they did it as a power trip, not a principle.
Not every Christian leader has abandoned ship. When Bonhoeffer saw what was happening between the Church and the Nazi government of Germany, he spoke out and acted on his understanding that such cooperation and collaboration was ungodly. He paid the ultimate price for his commitment to God and the Bible. There are Christian leaders in the USA who, like Bonhoeffer, refuse to belly up to the government trough, and they refuse to go along to get along. They stand out when they speak in opposition to calling a union of gay men a marriage. They are accused of complete lack of love when they call illegal aliens illegal. They are scorned for their unwillingness to take government restrictions along with government money in their charitable endeavors. They are belittled for a lack of intellect when they refuse to attend or promote interfaith conferences to discuss the “many ways” to God. They are mocked for asserting that God is the God of life, not death, as they counsel pregnant women to turn away from abortion.
The bottom line is that churches are becoming sideshows in the eyes of the population. This misconception is largely due to the ignorance of media types who breathlessly ask if a new pope will move away from the Catholic Church’s antiquated views on abortion. However, media types will not learn what Christ’s church really is from public speakers such as Joel Osteen, who declares that God wants everyone to be rich. They can only learn what the church is from preachers who say that Jesus is the only way or that the Bible is God’s ultimate truth.
The culture does not like anything old, and that is the problem with churches in general. They promote an old idea—Jesus is the only way to God. They promote an old book—the Bible, whose oldest texts root in a past whose distance from today is not known with any certainty. The culture believes that to teach that Jesus is the only way to God is selfish and discriminates unfairly against other religions. The culture further believes that the Bible is a dusty old book about ancient people. In the culture, it is important for all religions to be equal, just as all pay should be equal, all housing and health care should be equal, and marriage should be equal. The basis for all this equality is a line of thought that says humans have evolved into better beings than they were two or three or four thousand years ago. The culture declares that the evolution of humans today makes them wiser than the ancients, and this generation believes that it is actually capable of ending all the evil that defeated past generations. The fact that evil continues today is said to be evidence that God does not exist and churches are irrelevant.
Sadly, many churches feel threatened by the culture, so threatened that they have relinquished everything that used to make them relevant and valuable to the culture. They have sold the moral and ethical teachings about life and truth and God himself for approval in the press. They have rephrased their “theology” to accommodate the public perception that the God who was good enough for ancient people simply cannot handle today’s more nuanced understanding of truth.
What is the consequence of this change? Is the world a better place because churches have shut up and let the political agenda rule the day? There is no evidence to support that conclusion. Evil continues in all its many forms. Conflict of every sort burgeons in suicides, divorce, murder, political rancor, and international wars. The whole idea of family is being crushed under the heavy boot of activism, political and social. Churches that have abandoned the Bible and no longer consider Christ to be the way to God have nothing to say to people who confront evil in its many forms. These churches have become truly irrelevant. They have accommodated themselves completely out of the picture. These churches will become museums that house ancient rituals and art, or they will become nothing more than atheist gatherings where the word God is truly nothing more than whatever you conceive that to be. The myth of human progress, embodied in so-called “progressive” thought, whether political, social, or religious, has nothing with which to arm humankind against evil.
Martin Luther wrote, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.” At the time, he wrote those words, he knew from faith and experience that Jesus is “the way,” not “a way.” He revered the Bible as God’s word to humankind, a guide for faith and life. Martin Luther knew the Church to be relevant and powerful in the fight against evil. It is worthwhile to contemplate what he had to say and to consider how these words still are relevant today:
1. A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great,
and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
2. Did we in our own strength confide,
our striving would be losing,
were not the right man on our side,
the man of God’s own choosing.
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is he;
Lord Sabaoth, his name,
from age to age the same,
and he must win the battle.
Hymn text by Martin Luther, from http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh110.sht
That statement sounds like a copout to some people. Of course, Satan is behind all the restrictions and pressure to conform. Sure, he is the one who motivates even people who call themselves Christians to vote for bad leaders and bad laws. That is a real oversimplification of the difficulties we experience just trying to live our faith according the freedom the Constitution protects.
It sounds too simple to be worth thinking about, but it is exactly what we need to think about. If we think that presidents or senators or judges or laws or neighbors or foreigners or unbelievers are the problem, then we will contend with all those people. To focus our efforts on the people enslaved by Satan is like telling an unjustly imprisoned man to fix his problem by breaking out of jail. If we believe that our society will be improved if we win some legal battles or a few elections, then we are doomed to deep disappointment.
It is the elected and appointed leaders who enact and interpret and enforce laws that restrict religious liberty. It is neighbors, friends and fellow employees who make spiteful remarks about religious fanatics and militant bigotry. But these people don’t dream up all these problems by themselves. They are inspired and motivated and pressured by the most powerful evil force in the universe. Without Christ in their lives, they have no hope of resisting that power. Even people who have received Christ may be very weak in their commitment and may still be lured by satanic turns of phrase that sound ever so sophisticated and mature.
The enemy who masterminds cultural shunning and scorn, government restrictions, and outright persecution is Satan. Eve could not withstand his cunning, and people today are just as gullible. If we fight the world only by fighting fellow-citizens in street demonstrations, petition campaigns, legal proceedings, elections or on the floors of legislatures, we will never really win. In every war, there are numerous battles. Usually one side wins some contests, and the other side wins some. The death of an infantryman in a muddy foxhole may be necessary to the cause. Death and destruction mount up over time. Still, the person who must actually be defeated is the mastermind behind all the action. No matter how many men take the field in a given conflict, there are two generals whose decisions set everything in motion, and one of them must surrender or be soundly defeated. Otherwise, winners and losers scurry off with their dead and wounded, clean up, re-provision, and start over somewhere else. This is what happens when Christians engage in the battle for religious liberty without recognizing the real enemy.
The real enemy is Satan, and the only power who can defeat him in time and space is the same power who defeated him for eternity on the cross: Christ our Savior. The battle for religious liberty in the US and countries around the world is not a battle for the power of good in eternity. That battle was won when Jesus died and rose again. The competition today is against evil in the time-space realm. We battle for religious liberty primarily in order that we can rescue all the people imprisoned in the ranks of Satan’s troops. Think about it. We don’t want to be able to speak and live our testimony to Christ in order to make more money or even in order to feel good about ourselves. We do it, because Christ told us to share the good news with everyone. We cannot share the good news with those who need it if there are laws and enforcers in place to forbid us to speak our testimony.
Laws and rules and practices which restrict and constrain our ability to share the good news in word and deed must be overturned and ended, because Christ loves all the people. He loves and desires fellowship with all the people who call him a figment of a wishful imagination. Those laws were enacted by people deceived by Satan’s lies, because Satan does not want those people to follow Christ. Why do you suppose he offered to hand over the kingdoms of the world to Jesus in return for worship? Satan knew that if Christ, God in the flesh, worshiped him in order to get the kingdoms, the people would be following a Jesus who followed Satan. As long as Satan gets the people, he is not picky about who is leading the pack behind him. He will let anyone lead the pack, as long as he leads the leader.
Christians must remember that Paul warned the Ephesians not to be confused about who was their enemy. He said, “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12 NIV) This is the description of our enemy as well. Before we sign petitions, plan campaigns, vote in elections, sue in court, write to our legislators and so forth, we need to call on the general of our army, the Lord Jesus Christ, and we need to get our uniforms and weapons from him. He wants us in the trenches and the fray, but he probably thinks we march best on our knees.
Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. … And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:13, 18 NIV)
Today’s psalm is a great place to go for an understanding of the way Jesus survived Satan’s temptations. In this psalm is the statement Satan extracted and twisted into a temptation that Jesus rejected. The psalm is not designed as a temptation, but Satan, like many of his slaves, abused the text, eviscerating it and holding up a bloody shred to dare Jesus to show off his power in a dramatic performance rather than live up to his purpose. Jesus the Beloved Son, was sent on a rescue and recovery mission to save human beings, God’s beloved creation. He was not sent to show off and be a sacred celebrity.
The Bible says that Jesus was tempted by Satan for forty days. Only three temptations are recorded, of which one was the last of all, but they are enough to give us a good idea of the vicious, malevolent finesse with which Satan approached the One sent to defeat him forever .
We can imagine, for example, that the temptation to turn stones into bread could have come early in the forty days. A healthy person becomes hungry after only a few hours without food. Did Satan arrive about sundown that first day to taunt his archenemy? Jesus had been baptized earlier that day, and as Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit fell into him, and people heard the voice of God say, “This is my Beloved.” Satan heard those words, too.
It is easy to imagine Satan watching and waiting all day as Jesus trekked into the wilderness with neither food nor water. The path, or perhaps it would be better to say, the route Jesus followed, was dusty and rocky, lined with brambles. One gospel mentions wild animals, although they likely appeared only after dark. Did Jesus find a cave where he could rest for the night, or was he out in the open, unprotected in any way? Mark says the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness, so perhaps he was weary of dealing with that pressure as day began to fade into evening.
Satan appeared. Writers and dramatists portray Satan in all sorts of guises. One novelist presented Satan as a scruffy, smelly old beggar, all in tatters, just the sort of person Jesus would approach lovingly during his ministry. Satan simply sat down beside Jesus and said, “You got anything to eat?” Jesus had nothing, but the reader knows he would later feed five thousand people with almost nothing. Jesus shook his head. In the spirit of the old maxim “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” the beggar says, “Well, we could pretend that stone over there is a loaf of bread.” The biblical conversation develops from that point. Satan has set the stage for not only tempting Jesus to use his power to serve self, but he has cast the scene as a pretense of exactly the sort of thing Jesus actually does later. In the novel, Jesus rejects that temptation with the words of Scripture, at which the filthy beggar takes extreme umbrage and wanders off into the night.
The novelist understands that Satan did not appear with horns, a tail and a pitchfork for his battle with Jesus. Satan never appears like that. In fact, it seems highly likely that Satan himself inspired that image for the purpose of fooling people. When temptation comes our way, it is always dressed up like things a person would actually want, not like a frightful demon. Women tempted to abort their unborn babies do not succumb to a temptation to skewer an innocent baby on a pitchfork. They succumb to a temptation to believe that God himself would not want that baby to be born. They believe that the fact that conception was sired by an irresponsible man means they should never have become pregnant in the first place; it’s his fault for refusing to use a condom. They believe that they don’t have the means to support the baby, and God himself would not want them to take on that responsibility without proper means. Maybe they even think that being pregnant at this time will interfere with their opportunity to achieve personal fulfillment in a career or with a different man or etcetera. Maybe they simply buy the notion of “a woman’s right to choose” and think of the unborn baby as an unwanted interloper in their bodies. They aren’t responding to a demon in red tights. They are responding to subtle and not-so-subtle temptations to serve self and to deny the humanity of the baby.
How was Jesus able to fend off all these temptations? He relied on Scripture. A lot of brain power has been expended in arguments about the nature and authenticity of the Bible. There are a lot of secular thinkers who respect it as literature but reject it as revelation or authority. They look at the Bible and the Baghavad Gita the same way – interesting ancient myths. Jesus helps us learn that the Bible is God’s book, and the fact that Satan tried to use it to destroy God himself is additional evidence that the Bible is powerful. Today’s psalm is a testimony to that power as experienced by one ancient poet. Satan pulled out a shred for nefarious purposes, but borrowing the novelist’s viewpoint, we might wonder if he chose that text because Jesus was actually praying this psalm as Satan showed up. It would make the use of this text even more fiendish.
Psalm 91 begins by announcing that its subject is “those who live in the shelter of the Most High.” What a beautiful image. We can imagine Jesus, parched and sunburned, laboriously battling through the underbrush of the wilderness across Jordan, focusing on the words, “in the shadow of the Almighty.”
As Jesus tried to find a comfortable place to sit in the rocky, inhospitable landscape, he had to know that Satan would come. Jesus knew that the Tempter would not, could not, let him embark on his work without a savage battle to prevent people from learning that their Savior had arrived. Young men in Jesus’ day attended synagogue schools where they learned to read and write, and where they memorized the ancient texts. Perhaps as the Evil One approached, Jesus was quietly praying the psalmist’s words as his own, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, The Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.”
That would have been a perfect time for Satan to appear, whisking Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple while picking up the text of the psalm, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Did Satan dress in rabbinical robes, perhaps with the face of Jesus’ childhood teacher as he said, “Go ahead. You believe it. Prove it.” Jesus replies from Deuteronomy 6:16: “Don’t tempt me!”
Satan comes to us, not as the Enemy, but as our friend. He whispers in our ears, “You are as good as God. Don’t let him lord it over you. How dare he say ‘Thou shalt not.’ God is just an old bugaboo of people who don’t know any better. You’re too smart for that.” Satan always makes us feel really important, like he did when he offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. He offers us shortcuts to popularity and success and gratification. He constantly tells us we deserve better and we shouldn’t be treated like this. When Jesus was in the wilderness, alone and starving, driven out there by the Holy Spirit, Satan played on his knowledge that, in heaven, Jesus was honored and worshipped by angels. Why did he need to wander the earth in poverty and die a cruel death? Satan offered Jesus what he came to claim – the people of the world – and Satan made it look a lot easier than God did.
That’s the way he poses it to us. Maybe it is just a little favor for a friend in high places. Maybe it is one transaction in a million with a few extra dollars to a secret account. Maybe it is the right word in the right ear that opens the right door but now you owe somebody something. Jesus had the same ego we have. He wanted to save all the people, because that was what he came for. The night before he was crucified, he prayed to be spared that agony, if there were any other way to save the world. Here was a chance to escape the pain. It could all be avoided if he simply bowed before Satan instead of God.
Jesus saw through the sales pitch. He knew that to do this would be worshiping self, serving self, saving self, instead of saving the world. He responded, “Worship only God.”
Satan comes to each of us in a thousand different ways every day, whispering, hinting, insinuating, turning even our best impulses into opportunities to reject Christ and serve Satan. The Bible says that Christ was tempted in every way we are tempted. To fight back we need the same ammunition that worked for Jesus. In the Bible’s words, God makes the same promise to us that he made to the psalmist: “When [you] call to me, I will answer [you]; I will be with [you] in trouble.”
For timely articles about the persecuted church and about cultural and political pressure in the Christian life, read Living on Tilt the newspaper.
In this story, Greeks visiting Jerusalem seek out Jesus. They go to Philip first, and he goes to Andrew. Andrew was one of the first to get to know Jesus, and as soon as he realized who Jesus was, Andrew ran to get Peter. Maybe the other disciples thought of him as the one to go to with new people. Anyway, Peter and Philip then went to Jesus. John doesn’t say this, but I think they took the Greeks with them. Andrew took Peter, and I think he said, “Let’s take these people to Jesus.” I think Andrew knew that Jesus would make himself available to speak with these inquirers.
John also doesn’t really say that Jesus talked with the Greeks. However, after Philip and Andrew approach, John says, “Jesus answered them.” I think the rest of the narrative to the end of today’s reading is the conversation Jesus had with the Greeks. Other people appear to have been present as well, but it just doesn’t make sense that John would mention the Greeks and then simply drop them.
In his conversation with the Greeks, Jesus talks about life, and then death. He says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25) It is important to note that the Greek words behind the English words are not the same in all three instances. The first two occurrences in Greek are ‘psyche’ which is organic or biological life. The final occurrence is ‘zoe’ which is a more spiritual reference. Biological life is not eternal. Jesus, therefore, is talking about the difference between the life in our universe bounded by time and space and life in an eternal and infinite universe.
Jesus also predicts that “the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31) People who observe that bad things still happen, that bad things happen to good people, and that the world is not always a pretty place doubt that the evil ruler is gone. They would like to dispute this statement.
I don’t think Jesus meant that the evil one would leave the earth. After all, in the parable of the wheat and the tares, he made it very clear that evil will persist on the earth until the end of time. I think he meant that those who choose the life Jesus gives will live in submission to Christ, not to the evil one. The evil one will be driven out of those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The evil one will be forced out when people choose to enthrone Christ in their hearts.
Anyone who is honest knows that we human beings cannot and do not dethrone self and enthrone Christ in perpetuity. That battle goes on daily, even hourly. It is the reason we continue to need to ask for forgiveness and to give forgiveness to others. What Jesus says in this brief conversation gives us hope, however.
We have all met people who seem to be able to enthrone Christ with great consistency. Mother Teresa is an example. We look at her life, and most of us would say that the evil ruler was certainly driven out of her heart. Yet those who have read her diaries know the truth. Mother Teresa was a flawed human being with great commitment to do God’s work. She did it well and faithfully, but she was not perfect. She did not have perfect faith. She was a human being who struggled with her faith and her calling just as I do.
Jesus gave the key to that kind of success when he said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Faith shapes a choice, and the choice is all about life. If the evil one is driven out, and if Christ is on the throne of the heart, then it is possible to choose real life. The idea of hating the life in this world sounds repugnant, but life in this world means a constant battle. Unless the ruler of this world is driven out by Christ, then a person’s life is ruled by evil.
Whether someone chooses to serve evil or simply chooses not to serve Christ, the result is the same. As Jesus said in one of the parables, it isn’t enough to cast demons out. Somebody must come in and fill that dwelling. When someone chooses to serve Christ, there is no place for the evil ruler of this world to live.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about the kind of life people experience when Christ is not enthroned in their hearts. He said that these people would live with “fornication, impurity, licentiousness,idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21) You might readily observe that you know people who don’t love Christ who don’t seem like bad people. They are kind to children and pay their bills. They work hard and give money to the poor. The point of Paul’s comment is not to give an exhaustive list of the bad things people might do if they do not love Christ. He even says “and things like these.” Lying and theft and adultery, major items in the Ten Commandments, are not specifically listed. And many of the things listed are behaviors we tend to excuse, such as anger, quarrels and factions. Those who value the things that are important in this world, the world of time and space, get caught up in the kinds of things Paul lists, because they do not have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We get caught up in those things, too, when we dethrone Christ and say, “I deserve …” and go what we think is our own way. Our own way always winds up being through the wide gate and down the broad highway Jesus said would lead to our own destruction.
When we recognize the life of this world for what it really is, we learn to ignore the things that the ruler of this world makes so appealing. Money, fame, importance, power, attention. We find that those things lose their appeal precisely because they are constrained by time and space. As a famous rock singer said, you never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. When we put Christ on the throne of our hearts, he drives out the evil ruler of this world and we get a real life. We start enjoying the qualities of that real life right here and now: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) These qualities and these blessings will persist into eternity. When we enthrone Christ in our hearts, we show that we don’t want the temporary excitement of the things that last only in time and space. We show that we have relinquished those earthly values. We choose to live by eternal values, and we demonstrate that our eternal, timeless life has already begun.
When the Greeks came to talk with Jesus, therefore, he set before them the same choice Moses set before the Israelites when he was about to die.
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)
Jesus set this choice before the Greeks and he sets this choice before each of us. Let us choose life.