Sunday, September 27, 2015

On the Holy Hill

Last week, as we gathered together, the darkness of our sin just made the light of God's grace in Jesus Christ shine all the brighter. We learned that the gospel isn't a crutch; the gospel is the power of resurrection. Jesus stepped into our bankruptcy, our barrenness, and made a dead desert bloom with life! And that calls for gratitude and service. See, we're “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). All these incredible blessings – we can't even imagine how great they really are. We have no idea just how much we owe. When we really consider God's grace, what should we do? So “should we sin because we aren't under law but under grace? By no means” (Romans 6:15)! Not a snowball's chance down under! Being free from the law doesn't mean lawlessness; it means obedience to love. Being free from the law means gratitude that leaps and soars before the law can even open its mouth to bark an order to hop. “Teach [us], Lord, on earth to show, / by [our] love, how much [we] owe” – but what does that look like?

The Hebrew singers asked the question a different way. They thought about what questions a priest should ask at the gates of the temple, God's house, up on Mount Zion, the holy hill, to symbolize meeting with God on his turf on his terms. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). In the new covenant, though Jesus Christ we've all “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” filled with “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23). The psalmists want to know, who gets to live there? Or in other words, what kind of person would God pick for a roommate?

In the three psalms we read, I count eight general requirements, eight things that God is looking for us to do with the grace he's given us. First of all, he calls for purity of hearts, eyes, and hands. From their heart, God's roommates must speak the truth (Psalm 15:2). Even standing on the hill needs “pure hearts” (Psalm 24:4). Jesus himself said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Christ's earthly half-brother James, the first leader of the Jerusalem church, observed that conflicts within the church come from “your cravings that are at war within you,” arising from covetousness for some desired thing – maybe wielding power over others, maybe maintaining the power or respect we already have, and when we don't get these things, we “engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). But we'd have all we really need if we'd just anchor our desires on God instead of ourselves, if we'd just quell those inner cravings: “You ask and don't receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). The solution is to “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The opposite of being double-minded, being filled with these warring cravings, is a pure heart. A pure heart isn't divided in its commitment; a pure heart isn't chasing after one shiny thing after another. A pure heart is settled on God so sweetly that we don't need to covet, because everything else pales next to the Maker of heaven and earth. And how can we get that purer heart? Because Jesus Christ is “a great priest over the house of God,” and by abandoning our coveted yearnings and cravings at the foot of the cross, he takes our hearts and makes them “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Hebrews 10:21-22).

And with a pure heart, then it isn't as hard to have pure eyes: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base” (Psalm 101:3), prays the psalmist, much like Job “made a covenant with [his] eyes” not to look lustfully at someone or something that didn't belong to him (Job 31:1). In our media-saturated world, we're constantly bombarded with visual stimuli; we're awash in temptations, in images of things that are base. The first thing we think of is defiling our eyes with an all-too-lingering glance at images designed to stimulate the desires meant to lead to fulfillment in marriage. And let me tell you, even in seminary, I met plenty of future pastors and church leaders – men and women alike – who all struggled a great deal with living up to the psalmist's pledge. But there are plenty of other base things we can set before our eyes. Christians across the world are astonished at how enthusiastically Americans love to watch images of simulated violence, for example. And I wonder if some of the commercial attitudes we see all around us – relentless greed, a consumerist mindset – well, those are pretty base themselves. Why do we continue to willingly set consumerism – advertisement, advertisement, advertisement – always before our eyes?

Pure heart, pure eyes... and then the psalmist asks us to have “clean hands” (Psalm 24:4). In David's victory song, when he was rescued from Saul's hot pursuit, David said that God had “rewarded me” in accordance with “the cleanness of my hands in his sight” (Psalm 18:20, 24). Along with the double-minded purifying their hearts, James calls on sinners to cleanse their hands (James 4:8), to not dirty them in sinful actions. To what use do we put our hands, our bodies? Are they serving obedience to God, or are they stirring the muck of sin? God isn't looking for a roommate who tracks mud all over the carpet, who leaves grimy fingerprints on the curtains and countertops. God's looking for people with good spiritual hygiene, from the heart all the way to the hands. That's an answer to grace.

Second, the psalmists describe people “who walk blamelessly, and do what is right” (Psalm 15:2), those who are willing to seriously “study the way that is blameless” (Psalm 101:2). More than just having hands and feet that aren't bathed in the sewers, God wants us to be actively engaged in doing good. It isn't enough to just withdraw from the world. God sends us into the world (John 17:18). It isn't enough to talk the talk; “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). We have to walk the walk. Clean hands are meant for honest labor. God “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7). “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” James said (James 2:18). So “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). We encourage one another.

And what's more, the psalmists speak of people who “do not lift up their souls to what is false” (Psalm 24:4). Three other times, the psalms talk about lifting up our souls, and to whom are we supposed to lift them up? “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; O my God, in you I trust” (Psalm 25:1-2). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means to anchor our trust there, look for our safety and protection there. “Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Psalm 143:8). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means to accept practical instruction, to open ourselves to be conformed to him, her, or it. “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Psalm 86:4). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means looking there for a source of gladness. Seeking safety, seeking wisdom, seeking gladness – that's the story of the human race. Just about everything in history could probably be boiled down to one of those three things. And the sad story is, we'll look just about anywhere for them – we'll lift up our souls to any caller we find on the street – except the relentless God who made our souls in the first place. Constantly we lift up our souls to what is false. But the psalms tell us thrice over to lift up our souls only to the God of Truth. God's looking for people ready to lift up our souls to him, and only him, as a living sacrifice, as a holy offering (Romans 12:1) – seeking safety, wisdom, and joy in God, and not in any of our self-made idols – you know, our flags, our passports, our pensions, our media, our celebrities, our entertainments, our freedoms, our power to choose our own path – our idols.

Third, the psalmists advocate integrity and honesty: “I will walk with integrity of heart within my house” (Psalm 101:2). Integrity of heart means to be all of who you are, all of the time – to not put on one mask in church, a different mask at home, yet another mask at work or at school. Integrity was a defining characteristic of Job: God himself said that, in spite of all Satan's attacks, Job “still persists in his integrity” (Job 2:3), which is what exasperated Job's own wife, who wanted him to die and get it over with (Job 2:9). In spite of it all, Job refused to bend, refused to turn, refused to give lip-service to what he didn't believe: “Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die, I will not put away my integrity from me” (Job 27:5). So God held Job up as an example because Job was the same person in public and in private, the same person in prosperity and under pressure. Job had a transparent chest: you could see his heart as plainly as if he wore it on the outside. He gave everyone a clear look at the view of him that God saw, because Job lived with honesty and integrity, maintaining his balance and his posture. “Better to be poor and walk in integrity than to be crooked in one's ways even though rich” (Proverbs 28:6). That's what Job was committed to; that's what these psalmists say that God is looking for.

There's a link between integrity and honesty there. Living in God's presence means having nothing to do with lying or with slander. After all, what does Revelation say? “As for … all liars, their place will be in the lake that...” – well, it's not where you'd want to go for a swim (Revelation 21:8). A lifestyle of lying isn't the narrow path that leads to the narrow gate into the kingdom. What's left are people who “do not slander with their tongue” (Psalm 15:3), people who “do not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4) – “one who secretly slanders a neighbor, I will destroy,” David prayed, and “no one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence” (Psalm 101:5-7). The opposite of that is someone who “speaks truth from the heart” (Psalm 15:2), someone who really cares about what's true and not just what's practical or useful or convenient or confirms what we'd already like to believe. This isn't a person who parrots whatever hoaxes come along through the tubes, but someone who does due diligence before shooting his mouth off, someone who thinks carefully before she spreads the latest gossip. God's looking to live with people who don't hem and haw when challenges come to our faith.

Fourth, the psalmists identify God's roommates as people who are men (and women) of their word – people whose commitments are more important to them than their own fleeting happiness. This kind of person will “stand by their oath even to their hurt” (Psalm 15:4). In other words, even when circumstances change, even when the pressure is on, they'll do what they said they would do. That's not to say they'll keep a promise it would be evil to keep, but they'll keep a promise it will cost them to keep. But compare that to today's world. What do you think when you hear the word “promise” preceded by the word “campaign”? “Campaign promise” – it's a joke; it's a stock description of empty words that mean nothing. Or just consider that, in twenty-first-century America, the holiest oaths you make with the words “I do” can be gotten out of more easily than just about any other contract. God doesn't tell us that keeping our promises will be easy. He warns us that it could very well hurt, could very well cost us. That's why, before we make them, we should “count the cost” (Luke 14:28). But God is looking for people who keep their promises even when it hurts them.

Fifth, the psalmists describe God's roommates on the holy hill as people who are kind and neighborly. They “do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors” (Psalm 15:3). Hurting people isn't on their agenda. When people trust them, they honor that trust. When the hotshot lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” – Where do I draw the line, when can I start reproaching instead of loving – Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who acted neighborly by risking his life, not to mention his bank account, to save someone who probably would've spat on the ground at his feet had he been conscious and in a place to do so (Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan was neighborly even at cost, so he must be a neighbor: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

God tells us not to “hate in your heart anyone of your kin” – and all humans are kin – but God also tells to “reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Leviticus 19:17). He says that in the very same breath as, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Reprove a neighbor, but don't reproach a neighbor. What's the difference? I had to really dig into that to figure out what exactly is going on here. The word for 'reprove' means to correct and convince our neighbors of the right way to go – not the way we like the most, not the way we think is socially acceptable, not a more efficient way, but the way God approves as opposed to actions God doesn't. That's 'reproving' our neighbor. But the word for 'reproach' means to scorn, disdain, or hold up to shame. Right here, God's word cuts through all our constant wrestling over what it means to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It must be possible to correct a neighbor, to persuade a neighbor, without disdaining a neighbor. And yet in modern America, the church has a popular reputation for being quickest to disdain its neighbors. Maybe they're right. Maybe we, just like everyone else, has forgotten that it's possible to reprove without reproaching. In order to avoid reproaching, we don't have to stop reproving. But it isn't just possible; it's what God insists on.

Sixth, the psalmists say that God's roommate needs to be someone generous. God's looking for people who “do not lend money at interest and do not take a bribe against the innocent” (Psalm 15:5). Paul tells us that, with however much we have, we should be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for [ourselves] the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life that is really life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19). Proverbs says that “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). And the psalmists stress that “the righteous are generous and keep on giving” (Psalm 37:21) and praise “those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). And, of course, we've talked before about John the Baptist's words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Relative to how much we have, how much God has given us, we have to admit we're not nearly as generous as we could be. We certainly aren't generous compared to how much we owe. But if we open our hearts to what God has done, the Spirit will move us to be cheerful givers as wisdom dictates.

Seventh, the psalmists require God's roommate to be humble: “A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate” (Psalm 101:5). Proverbs tells us that “haughty eyes and a proud heart – the lamp of the wicked – are sin” (Proverbs 21:4). Haughty eyes – eyes looking scornfully down on others – and an arrogant or proud heart are defining characteristics throughout the words of the prophets of empires like Assyria and Babylon, mighty nations like Moab and Tyre. For heaven's sake, don't be like Babylon! (That goes for myself as much as anyone else.) Instead, we should “seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3), so that we can live “with all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). “Humility goes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33; 18:12). “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) – not in terms of having low self-esteem, but in terms of esteeming others as God esteems them; not in terms of thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. God isn't looking to live with people who are all about themselves, who make themselves the measure of all things.

And eighth, the psalmists insist that they're describing a person who lives in solidarity with God's loyal people. They “honor those who fear the LORD” (Psalm 15:4). “I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil. … I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, so that they may live with me; whoever walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me” (Psalm 101:3-6). This kind of person shows respect and honor to those who are following God; they're pleased to see anyone live well and faithfully.

When I read these psalms, I couldn't help but think about some of the civil servants and private citizens in this nation who resolved to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) in the face of new and sometimes disturbing legal situations that would require them to do what they cannot in good conscience do as servants of God. And I thought also of all the Christians I know, friends of mine, who have been every bit as nasty and scornful toward them as any Roman with a lion on a leash. We can disagree with how a believer might choose to take a stand; we can say we'd do things differently in the circumstances; but God calls us to honor those who sincerely follow him in loving him and loving our neighbor, not to throw them under the bus.

At the same time, though, when I read these psalms, I couldn't help but think about Christians around the world, who face forms of persecution that far outstrip the comparatively mild maltreatment of practicing believers here in this country. I couldn't help but think of the many Christians fleeing their homelands as refugees, languishing in camps or living in perpetual fear of those who wield the bloody sword to extort and terrorize – our brothers and sisters who know exactly what Jesus meant when he said that “the hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so, they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2). And I couldn't help but think of all the American Christians who dismiss our suffering brothers and sisters, confessors and the kin of martyrs, as somehow being not “our own,” as somehow a lesser priority than the problems we already have within our national borders. That's not the attitude the psalmists ask us about. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Purity, devotion, integrity, honesty, fidelity, kindness, neighborliness, generosity, humility, and solidarity with the poor and with God's people – it's a tall order! In fact, it's a Christ-sized order, isn't it? Is that what we have to do in order to earn a room on God's holy hill? Well, who could do that? Thankfully, no, that's not what it's about. No, it isn't about earning anything. 'Earning', by and large, is a word foreign to the gospel, by and large. It's about answering grace. It's about looking at what God has done for us and in us, and opening ourselves more and more to his life-changing power. It's about letting him melt us down and mold us until we reflect Jesus more and more.

These are the good works we were created in Christ Jesus to do, the ones that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We are not saved by them. We are not saved by our purity; we are not saved by our honesty; we are not saved by our kindness or by generosity or by solidarity with the poor – we are not saved by them. We were saved for them. Let's not spend our days wasting away the grace God has given us, pining for a shortcut to the pearly gates. When God invited us all to his tent, invited us to celebrate redemption with him forever, he had a dress code in mind; Jesus himself told a parable of a guest evicted from the party for not being diligent in getting ready for the occasion (Matthew 22:11-13). But Jesus also will dress us in his righteousness; and though the clothes are large, if we let him, he will grow us into his full stature. Though we struggle with our imperfections and with the residue of sin, let's open ourselves to what grace wants to do in us. It's the least we can do, considering how much we owe. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:57). Amen.

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