“You shall not make for yourself an idol”

If you were asked to come up with a list of the top ten instructions for how to get the most out of life, I doubt that any of us would think to include in the list Do not make for yourself an idol

We would not think to include such a prohibition because it seems so trivial—so unimportant—to us.  We understand laws against murder and stealing.  Our courts are filled with cases pertaining to these crimes.  But when was the last time you heard about a court case against someone for making an idol?

Why, then, do we find this particular command in God’s Top Ten list of Commandments?

Interestingly, in his commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, Dr. Peter C. Craigie remarks, “It has been noted that the giving of this commandment was ‘perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened.’”

Craigie makes this comment not on the basis of the trivial nature of idols but because of the widespread popularity of idols among the peoples surrounding the nation is Israel.  In every home and in every field, idols would be found.  That’s how the people lived.  They made idols; they bought idols; they bowed down to idols; they prayed through idols; and they worshiped the gods who were represented by the idols.  Bowing down to idols was as natural to the people of that day and place as was eating and sleeping.

But there are two primary problems with idols:

#1: Any representation of God diminishes God by reducing our understanding of God to whatever is depicted in that particular representation.

Ironically, while Moses was up on the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people who remained in the camp at the base of the mountain melted their jewelry and constructed a golden calf.  It could be argued that the people meant the golden calf to be a compliment to God.  After all, they had just come out of Egypt where the great Egyptian goddess Hathor was depicted as a cow.  She was referred to as the mother to Horus, the god of the sky, and as mother to Ra, the sun god.  Other times she was referred to as the wife of Horus and the mother of Pharaoh.  It could be that they intended to liken the God who rescued them from slavery to the great goddess of Egypt who was over Pharaoh and who gave birth to them as the new nation of Israel.  But Hathor was also the goddess of music and dance, and goddess of the Celebration of Drunkenness, and the goddess of love and fertility, which may explain why their celebration of the golden calf seems to have quickly devolved into a drunken orgy.  While creating an image of God that exulted God’s prominence and power, they neglected God’s holiness, and while creating an image of God that perceived God’s fertility, they abandoned God’s self-discipline.

The commandment not to make an idol is a call to us not to shrink God in any way but to keep our eyes open to the fullness of who God is.  That’s why Scripture offers such a rich variety of names and descriptions of God.  God is described as Lord Almighty and as our Loving Father; as Judge and as a Mother Hen who would hold us gently under her wing; as the Lion of Judah and as the sacrificial Lamb; as Righteous and as Merciful; as Protector and as our Wonderful Counselor; as a Whirlwind and as our Comforter; as Creator and Shepherd and Savior. 

#2: When we diminish worship to bowing down to idols, we diminish what it truly means to worship God.

God wants far more for us in worship than simply bowing down to an image.  God wants us to follow him so that we will join with God in the work God is doing on earth. 

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw write, “In the South, we have a saying: You are the spittin’ image of someone.  Folks still speculate over how exactly the phrase originated, but I’ve heard it put like this: It’s shorthand for ‘spirit and image.’  Spittin’ image.  It means more than just that you look like that person.  It goes beyond just appearance to include character and temperament.  It means that you remind people of that person.  You have their charisma.  You do the same things they did.  In the truest sense, Christians are to be the spittin’ image of Jesus in the world.  We are to be the things he was.  We are to preach the things he preached and live the way he lived…. We are to remind the world of Jesus.

The greatest reason why we are not to make an image of God out of stone or a block of wood or anything like that is that God wants to build his image in us.  When we follow God closely, God’s image gets shaped in us.  That’s where God wants his image to be shaped.

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“All my springs are in you”

Psalm 87 delights in the city of Jerusalem, for the city of Jerusalem is the place where God’s temple resided.  It is the place where people came to worship God and to have their sins forgiven.  You could say that all of God’s goodness toward his people flowed forth to them from Jerusalem.

Psalm 87 concludes with a particularly moving line: “Singers and dancers alike say, ‘All my springs are in you.’”

Those who led Israel in worship announced that the springs which nourish and refresh our lives flow forth from the place where we meet God.

Jonathan Hill remarks, “The beauty of a spring is that it brings life to everything near it.  It waters the landscape and gives vegetation an opportunity to thrive.  It brings cool refreshing water to those who come and drink from its pool.  And, if a spring is big enough, it does more than water those that are close.  It turns into a stream and wanders down the landscape to water those far from its initial offering.  It sends water cascading down the hillside in a waterfall to those below.”

When we meet with God—when we come before God in worship—we come to the spring that nourishes and refreshes our lives.  But it doesn’t stop there.  When we meet God, the spring that fills us flows through us to bring love and hope and goodness to those who may still be far from the spring’s initial offering. 

In The Way to Love, Anthony DeMello writes, “Take a look at a rose.  Is it possible for the rose to say, ‘I’ll offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people’?  Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds it rays from a wicked person who seeks to walk in its light?  It could do that only by ceasing to be a lamp.  And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature—even to the one who seeks to cut it down.  This is the first quality of compassion—its indiscriminate character.”

By the very nature of meeting with God, the Spring that fill us splashes out of us to refresh others.

“You shall have no other gods before me”

God gave to Moses a set of ten commandments by which people are meant to live.  The first of these commandments is: You shall have no other gods before me.

Why does God consider this to be the first rule by which we are to live?  Why is it so important for us to keep this command?

Perhaps a story shared by Craig Brian Larson will shed some light on the importance of this command.  Larson writes, “As a kid, I saw a movie in which some shipwrecked men are left drifting aimlessly on the ocean in a lifeboat.  As the days pass under the scorching sun, their rations of food and fresh water give out.  The men grow deliriously thirsty.  One night, while the others are asleep, one man ignores all previous warnings and gulps down some salt water.  He quickly dies.  Ocean water contains seven times more salt than the human body can safely ingest.  Drinking it, a person dehydrates because the kidneys demand extra water to flush the overload of salt.  The more salt water someone drinks, the thirstier he gets.  While drinking salt water, he actually dies of thirst.”

Salt water is like false water to a thirsty person. 

Our world is filled with false gods—things that call out for our attention and allegiance, that promise to make us happy but only let us down, leaving us deliriously thirsty for the contentment that the gods of this world cannot provide. 

Bertrand Russell summed it up well.  He remarked, “The center of me is always and eternally a terrible pain—a curious wild pain—a searching for something beyond what the world contains.”

The first commandment tells us to have no other gods before the true God because God is loath to see us suffer deliriously of thirst from trying to satisfy our souls with false gods.  God knows that we need relationship with the true God as much as we need blood running through our veins.

Imagine a person who has lost much blood in a car accident being rushed to the hospital.  The doctor in the emergency room calls for an I.V. to be inserting into the person’s arm, but since they do not have a lot of available blood of this person’s particular blood type, the doctor orders that the I.V. be hooked up to a can of Tomato Juice.  After all, the Tomato Juice looks like blood and is more readily available.

No!  A doctor would never do that because a doctor knows we need blood rather than Tomato Juice running through our veins.  Anything less than blood will kill us. 

God has designed our souls in such a way that we live in relationship with the true God.  If anything less than God fills our souls, we will end up deliriously thirsty for the real thing

In the comedy film Cool Runnings, John Candy plays the part of a former American gold medalist who becomes the coach of the Jamaican bobsledding team as they prepare for competition in the winter Olympics.  The Jamaican athletes grow to like the American coach and affectionately call him “Sled-god.”  That name is telling.

Later in the movie, the coach’s dark history comes out.  After having already won a gold medal, in a subsequent Olympic meet he tried for a second gold medal by cheating, by illegally weighting his sled to gain an unfair advantage.  One of the Jamaican bobsledders could not understand why anyone who had already won a gold medal would cheat.  Nervously, Candy admitted, “I had to win…. I learned something.  If you are not happy without a gold medal, you won’t be happy with it.”

Sledding had become his god, and such a god could not satisfy his deepest hunger.

God tells us to have no other gods before him because no other god brings lasting contentment.

Tephillah

The heart of Psalm 86 is prayer.  Indeed, Psalm 86 is one of five psalms in Scripture specifically tiled a Tephillah—or Prayer.  The psalm begins with expressions of deep longing for personal and deep connection with God:

  • “Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me” (Verse 1)
  • “To you do I cry all day long” (Verse 3)
  • “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Verse 4)
  • “Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication” (Verse 6)
  • “In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me” (Verse 7)

The psalmist longs to connect intimately with God.  But there is something further we need to understand about the Tephillah—or Prayer—of Psalm 86.

Rabbi Nathan Diament explains, “The English word prayer is derived from the Latin term for prayer, which literally means ‘to beg.’  Begging God to fulfill our needs and desires…is not tephillah.  Tephillah is derived from the Hebrew word pileil, which means to judge, and the act of engaging in tephillah is…to judge or to analyze oneself.  Self-evaluation and begging are very different enterprises with the former being a much more arduous, intellectual and constructive activity.  Authentic Jewish prayer requires one to take a long, hard and honest look at himself in the shadow of God’s Presence where nothing can be hidden or denied.  Have I been living up to my potential?  Have I used the gifts that God has given me properly?  Are there things that should be more important to me or less important to me?  Haphazardly begging for whatever we want is, quite frankly, spoiled, childish behavior.  But through sincere self-examination we will hopefully be able to discern between that which we want and that which we need, and truly have our priorities in order as we stand before God.” 

In Psalm 86, the longing for deep personal connection with God is not toward the goal simply of begging God for what the psalmist wants.  Instead, when we read Psalm 86, we are invited to evaluate ourselves before God to determine who we are in relationship with God and to determine what we most deeply need from God.  Thus we come to verses 11-13: “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.  I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever.  For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.” 

A bit of prose is reported to have been found in the pocket of an unknown soldier who seems to have been practicing a tephillah form of prayer:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.  I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do great things.  I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for riches that I might be happy.  I was given poverty that I might be wise.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.  I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.  I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for but everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am among all men most richly blessed.

Jesus: The Resurrection and the Life

A painting by Moritz Reitzsch called “Checkmate” hung in the Louvre Art Museum until it was sold by Christie’s in 1999. The painting depicts two chess players, engaged in a tense match, gambling upon the game for the highest of stakes.  One of the players is Satan, who appears arrogantly confident, for it looks as though his victory is certain.  Deep anguish is painted into the face of the other player, for it looks like he has lost, and if he loses the game, Satan gets his soul.

According to a report in the Columbia Chess Chronicle in 1888, a chess champion named Paul Morphy visited the museum once and looked at the painting long and hard, bothered by Satan’s haughty expression and the young man’s forlorn countenance.  As he studied the board, Morphy was suddenly elated to discover that the title was incorrect.  It was not checkmate!  The young man’s king had one move left, which would result in him winning the game.  There, in the Louvre, Morphy shouted out, “All is not lost; the king still has a move.”

The scene was similar near the tomb of Jesus’ friend Lazarus in Bethany in John 11.  Grief was painted on the faces of Lazarus’ sister and friends.  In tears, Mary said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  But all was not lost.  The King still had a move.  Jesus declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”  And Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  And Lazarus came forth from the tomb, brought back from the dead.

And the scene was similar outside the walls of Jerusalem on Good Friday.  As Jesus hung upon the cross, deep anguish was painted on the faces of those who loved him.  Satan gloated.  As Jesus gasped his last breath, it looked as though Satan had won.  But all was not lost.  The King still had a move.  That move was revealed on Resurrection morning when Jesus burst forth from the grave.

Because Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, death is not the final word, for Resurrection and Life overcome death.  Fulton Sheen put it this way: “The Lord of Life himself descended to taste death and to conquer it by resurrection from the dead.  He thereby overcame death at its most devilish and destructive.  The worst thing evil can do is to kill Divine Life; having done that, and having been defeated in the moment of its greatest show of strength, it never could be victorious again.”

In another art gallery, a man gazed intently at a picture of Christ hanging lifelessly on the Cross.  Tears trickled down the man’s cheeks as he contemplated the pain Jesus suffered.  Beside the man stood a young girl, looking at the same painting.  The tearful man asked the girl, “Do you know who that is in the picture?”

“Sure,” the girl replied.  That’s Jesus.  He died for our sins.  I learned that in Sunday school.”

A short time later, the man walked away from the picture.  He hadn’t gone far when he felt a tug on his coat.  “Say, Mister,” the young girl said, “I want you to know that you don’t need to cry.  Jesus came alive again!”

The Cross: Where Righteousness and Peace Kiss Each Other

I am deeply moved by a couple of verses in Psalm 85.

In verse 7, the psalmist prays, “Show us your steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation.” 

Where does God show steadfast love most deeply?  On Good Friday, as God in Jesus gave his life for us. 

Where does God grant us salvation?  On Good Friday, as God in Jesus took away the consequence of our sin and reconciled us to God.

Brennan Manning shares, “The moment I knelt down my mind was filled with the image of a three-year-old boy playing on the rug in his living room.  Off in the corner his mother sat on the floor…knitting.  Suddenly she dropped her work and beckoned to him.  He toddled over and climbed up on her lap.  She smiled down at him and asked softly, ‘How much do you love me?’  He extended his tiny arms as far as they would go and exclaimed, ‘This much I love you.’  In an instant, it was thirty-some years later; the little boy in the fullness of manhood hung nailed to a crossbeam.  His mother looked up and said, ‘How much do you love me?’  His arms were stretched out to the ends of the universe.  ‘This much I love you.’  And he died.”

Verse 10 (in Psalm 85) declares, “Steadfast love and truth will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” 

It is at the cross where the truth of our sin meets the steadfast love of God.  They do not avoid each other.  They come together, and when grace meets truth, sin is not overlooked or sugarcoated but resolved and pardoned. 

It is at the cross where righteousness (God’s absolute disdain for sin that injures and destroys others and ourselves) kisses peace (reconciliation with God that brings serenity to our souls).  For at the cross, God in Jesus took upon himself the consequence of our sin, dying for us in order to accomplish our forgiveness.

Bob Benson writes a piece of prose entitled “Just Wood”:

Isn’t it strange that we should glorify the cross, put it in our churches, wear it on our lapels and around our necks—

That we should sing about it and that it should become a symbol of faith and inspiration—

The cross—a dark, dirty, excruciating way of legalized killing in the name of justice.

 Had the Romans chosen to hang or behead, or mutilate or shoot, would we sing of the precious old rope?

Isn’t it moving that His love could transform the long-ago counterpart of electric chairs and gas chambers into a symbol of faith and devotion?

But then love changes everything it touches: it makes heavy burdens light, long hours short, ordinary faces beautiful.

It makes houses into homes, picnics into banquets, wilted daisies into bouquets.

It makes God into sacrifice, and sinners into saints.

And if He could take a cross and fashion it like He fashioned wood in His earthly father’s carpenter shop into a depiction of deepest love,

Doesn’t it make you wonder what He might be able to do with you if you yielded to His love?

Jesus: The True Vine

As Jesus and his disciples walked from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane on the night he was betrayed and arrested, they walked past the temple.  Mounted on the exterior wall of the temple was a huge representation of a vine and branches and clusters of grapes made of gold.  Some of the grapes on the temple wall were as tall as Jesus or any of his disciples.  Many wealthy individuals in Judea took pride in having paid for one of the grapes or even for an entire cluster of grapes.  As they walk past this golden depiction of a fruitful grape vine, Jesus says to them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15:1), and he says to them, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit; because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

According to Jesus’ words in John 15:1-8, our fruitfulness in life depends on three things: Our ongoing, intimate connection to Jesus, his lifting us up, and his pruning of us.

Ongoing, intimate connection: In verse 4, Jesus states, “Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”    

Learning to abide in a new environment can be challenging.  I discovered this truth as a young child.  The first years of my life were spent learning how to abide on dry land.  I learned to crawl, then to walk, and eventually to run.  But one thing was consistent: There was always something solid beneath me that I could plant myself on, that would hold me up.  When I started taking swimming lesson, I discovered quickly the problem with water: It isn’t solid.  It didn’t hold me up.  When I put my feet down in the water, they kept going down…and I kept going down.  The second thing I learned quickly is that when you do down under water you can’t breathe.  That new world at the deep end of a swimming pool was very uncomfortable to me, and I did not make an easy adjustment to “abiding” in water.  I clung desperately to the old world by clinging to the edge of the pool.  I was not willing to let go of that edge and simply immerse myself in a foreign world of water.

Eventually, though, I learned various ways of kicking, and I learned what to do with my arms, and I learned how to breathe without taking in massive amounts of water.  Over time, I learned how to make myself at home in the water.  With practice and with time, we can learn to abide in Christ, but we need to practicing living his way rather than clinging to old ways of living.

Jesus’ lifting us up: In verses 2-3 Jesus says, “He lifts up every branch in me that bears no fruit.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” 

The Greek word airo, in verse 2, often translated as “removes,” is best translated as “lifts up,” as it is translated in Matthew 14:20 when describing 12 baskets of leftovers picked up after Jesus fed a multitude, and as it is translated in Matthew 27:32 when describing Simon of Cyrene lifting up Jesus’ cross.  In his book Secrets of the Vine, Bruce Wilkinson tells of what he learned from a conversation with a northern California grape grower: “‘New branches have a natural tendency to trail down and grow along the ground,’ he explained.  ‘But they don’t bear fruit down there.  When branches grow along the ground, the leaves get coated in dust.  When it rains, they get muddy and mildewed.  The branch becomes sick and useless.’

“‘What do you do?’ I asked.  ‘Cut it off and throw it away?’

“‘Oh no!’ he exclaimed.  ‘The branch is much too valuable for that.  We go through the vineyard with a bucket of water looking for those branches.  We lift them up and wash them off.’  He demonstrated for me with dark, callused hands.  ‘Then we wrap them around the trellis or tie them up.  Pretty soon they’re thriving.’  As he talked, I could picture Jesus’ own hand motions when he taught in the vineyard that night.  He was showing how the Father makes sure his crop comes in full and sweet.  When the branches fall into the dirt, God doesn’t throw them away or abandon them.  He lifts them up, cleans them off, and helps them flourish again.”

Jesus’ pruning: In verse 2, Jesus says, “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Pruning is the process of cutting limbs from a plant that keep it healthy and productive.  Sometimes we become aware of a problem area in our lives, and we ask God to cut it out of us.  But God sees into our souls better than we see ourselves, and God determines what all needs to be cut out of us.  Roger Palms writes, “If you open your life to God, he won’t stop with one unsightly branch; he knows what attractive is, and he intends to make us beautiful.  Don’t try to tell him, ‘This is the only problem branch,’ because he’s likely to say, ‘That’s minor.  The bigger problem is this branch over here.’  The decision for each of us to make is not what will I have God trim out of my life; rather, the decision is whether I will allow God to make me as fruitful as he alone can, because only he understand fruitfulness.  Once we open the garden gate and invite the vinedresser in, nothing is going to stay the same.”

Worship: A Sanctuary and a Refreshment

Psalm 84 begins like a love song, reminding me of Soul and Inspiration by the Righteous Brothers:

         You’re my soul and my heart’s inspiration.

         You’re all I’ve got to get me by.

         You’re my soul and my heart’s inspiration.

         Without you, baby, what good am I?

Or of I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner:

         I wanna know what love is;

         I want you to show me.

         I want to know what love is;

         I know you can show me.

The difference between these love songs and Psalm 84 is that the object of the psalmist’s desire is God, and the way the psalmist expects to embrace that love is in the place of worship:

         How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!

         My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;

         My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.

As Psalm 84 continues, the psalmist paints two beautiful pictures of what we can hope to find in the place of worship: Sanctuary and Refreshment.

The picture of sanctuary is presented in verses 3-4:

         Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,

         Where she may lay her young at your altar. O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.

         Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Selah

So much happens in life to displace us, dislodge us, and disturb us. We encounter so many troubles that tear away at our feelings of security and wellbeing. But the psalmist finds the place of worship to be the place of sanctuary. 

Catherine Marshall tells the story of a king who offered a prize to the artist who would paint the best picture of peace. Many artists submitted their efforts. The king looked at all the pictures, but there were only two that captured his interest, and he had to choose between them. One picture was of a calm lake. The lake was a perfect mirror for peaceful towering mountains. Overhead was a blue sky with fluffy white clouds. All who saw this picture thought it was a perfect expression of peace.

The other picture had mountains as well, but these mountains were rugged and bare. Above was an angry sky, from which rain fell and in which lightning played. Down the side of the mountain tumbled a foaming waterfall. This did not look peaceful at all. But when the king looked closely, he saw behind the waterfall a tiny bush, growing in a crack in the rock. In the bush, a mother bird had built her nest. There, in the midst of the rush of angry water, sat the mother bird on her nest—in perfect peace.

The king awarded the prize to the second picture explaining, “Because peace does not always mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace means to be in the midst of all those things, and still be calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.”

Psalm 84 tells us that we can find such peace in the sanctuary of worship.

The picture of refreshment is offered in verses 5-7:

         Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

         As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

         They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion.

There was no actual “Valley of Baca” in Israel. The “Valley of Baca” was a symbolic term, meaning the “Valley of Weeping” or the “Valley of Tears.” The psalmist was portraying what it is like for us when we muddle our way through times of deep sorrow and difficulty. We feel drained and depleted. If it gets bad enough, we feel that we cannot go on. We despair and give up. In the midst of such a desert, the psalmist offers an oasis. Psalm 84 tells us that for the person struggling through the “Valley of Tears,” turning aside to the place of worship is like finding springs of water or finding pools provided by the early rain. Nancy Spiegelberg once wrote, “Lord, I crawled across the barrenness to You with my empty cup, uncertain but asking any small drop of refreshment. If only I had known You better, I’d have come running with a bucket” (Decision magazine, November, 1974). Psalm 84 invites us to come running to the place of worship with a bucket to take in God’s refreshment.

Thus, the psalm concludes,

         For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.

         I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.

         For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor.

         No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.

         O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trust in you.

Jesus: The Way, Truth & Life

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples that he was going to his father’s house to prepare a room for them.  Jesus concluded his remarks about this house by telling his disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”  But Thomas was confused by this.  For three years Thomas had walked the roads of Palestine with Jesus.  They had traveled through Galilee, Judea and even Samaria together.  That had walked from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem.  But not once had Jesus taken them to the house he described in John 14:1-3.  Thomas doesn’t know where it is, so he asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?” 

Thomas asks Jesus to spell out for him a set of directions.  But Jesus answers Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

“I am the way”: Jesus did not give to Thomas a set of directions.  They would have been useless.  He didn’t give Thomas a map.  He gave to Thomas a person—himself.  He didn’t tell Thomas how to get there.  He told who would get him there. 

Jesus’ identification of himself as “the way” is significant.  If Jesus had given Thomas a set of directions, we could conclude that the key to the Christian life would have to do with finding out where to go and what to do.  The Christian life would then have to do with charts and formulas.  But by telling Thomas, “I am the way,” Jesus is making it clear that the key to the Christian life has to do with the relationship we are growing with Jesus Christ.

Where do you want to get to in the Christian life?  Do you want to get to the peace of Jesus Christ, the joy of the Holy Spirit, the strength of God?  Jesus does not give you a set of directions for how to get there.  He invites you to himself.  These qualities do not grow in us as a result of following any particular plan; they grow in us as a result of a deepening relationship with the One who is “the way.”

“I am…the truth”:  William Barclay comments, “There is one all-important thing about moral truth.  A man’s character does not really affect his teaching of geometry or astronomy or Latin verbs.  But if a person proposes to teach moral truth, his character makes all the difference in the world.  An adulterer who teaches the necessity of purity, a grasping person who teaches the value of generosity, a domineering person who teaches the beauty of humility, an irascible creature who teaches the beauty of serenity, an embittered person who teaches the beauty of love, is bound to be ineffective.  Moral truth cannot be conveyed solely in words; it must be conveyed in example.”

Jesus sets himself forward as the living example of integrity and of the fullness of life.  By declaring himself “the truth,” he is telling us, in essence: “Do you want to know how to live with integrity?  Look to me.  Come to me.  Follow in my ways.” 

“I am…the life”: Before the Second World War, a grave in Germany had been sealed with a granite slab and bound with strong chains.  To make a statement about the permanence of death, an atheist had inscribed upon the slab this message: “Not to be opened throughout eternity.”  But, somehow, a little acorn had fallen into a crack, and its outer shell had ‘died.’  Years later, everyone who passed by could see a great oak tree growing up out of that crack, having broken apart the granite slab.  The arrogant words upon the slab still declared, “Not to be opened throughout eternity,” but a ‘resurrected’ acorn had proven it wrong. 

Jesus is “the life.”  He is the one who gave himself unto death in order to overcome for us the power of the grave.  When we come to Jesus, we come to life, and the conclusion of our residency on this earth is not actually the end of life, but the beginning of deeper and fuller life in heaven.  The final earthly words of John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace were, “I am still in the land of the dying; I shall be in the land of the living soon!”

A Psalm in Silence

Psalm 83 is written amidst deep distress.  Verses 6-8 present a scene in which the surrounding nations have hemmed Israel in, conspiring against her.  The psalmist fears their attack and the devastation that would follow.  Thus the psalm begins with a plea, “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God!”

Reflecting on the anguish of Psalm 83, D.P. Myers writes, “I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life when I felt the same way.  With a major problem pressing down upon me, I looked around to friends and companions but found no real respite from my troubles.  My sleep, which is often a familiar escape, became troubled as the pressure caused me to wake, realizing I had no safe place to go for sanctuary.  I think this is why Asaph begins Psalm 83 with a plea that God does not stay silent.  For at this time, the people looked at their present circumstances and saw their promised land crumbling and being dismantled piece by piece, they looked to their past and saw the depravity that had taken hold of their land, and they looked to their future and all they could find was silence.  They…longed to hear God’s voice once again.  They longed…to be held safely in the arms of one who has everything under control.”

Have you ever found yourself in a similar predicament?  Have you ever cried out to God in desperation but found, in return, silence? 

In such silence it feels like our soul is suffocating.  But perhaps our experience of silence is not as much an indicator of God’s absence as it is an opportunity for God’s teaching.

In an article entitled “All the Right Moves” in Fast Company (May 1999), chess master Bruce Pandolfini shared, “My lessons consist of a lot of silence.  I listen to other teachers, and they’re always talking…. I let my students think.  If I do ask a question [‘why are you making that move?’] and I don’t get the right answer, I’ll rephrase the question—and wait.  I never give the answer.  Most of us really don’t appreciate the power of silence.  Some of the most effective communication—between student and teacher, between master players—takes place during silent periods.”

Perhaps some of the richest communication between God and us takes place when it seems to us that God is silent.  Indeed, verse 9 suggests that while the psalmist struggled with the silence of God, his mind recalled how God used Gideon and just 300 soldiers with trumpets and torches to rout the armies of the Midianites and Amalekites who had been “along the valley as thick as locusts” (Judges 7) and how God used Deborah to achieve victory over the army of Sisera and Jabin (Judges 4).  The psalmist’s soul begins to settle into the confidence that the God who protected them in the past will continue to protect them.  Thus, the psalm, that begins in despondency over God’s silence, concludes with confidence: “Let them know that you alone, whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.”