Recently, I came across a post on Facebook from Buddhist Humor that advised, in keeping with the holiday mood:
Forget the past-you cannot change it. Forget the future-you cannot predict it. Forget the present- I didn’t get you one!
The beginning of the New Year often opens up the the question of how new the new year really is. Is the new year merely a date in the calendar that doesn’t carry with it any real newness? This is especially crucial because so many of us experience the carry-over of unresolved issues and consequences of the previous year, and even that of previous years. By what compelling reason would we believe that 2016 should be really new, if there is no new substance in our lives that can generate new things? Where is the “substance of things hoped for”?
And it is this pun-intended view in the joke from Buddhist Humor, that when all is said and done, we have no present, no “purchase”, no new substance to begin with to build upon in the new year. Only recyclings of the past year, including the continuing reverberations of previous sins and mistakes.
Psalm 85 – The Staggeringly Good News
That is why Psalm 85, and the whole biblical witness, is such staggeringly good news. The psalm begins with the decisive disjuncture between our sin, our past and the future and present that God has for us. In fact, our path is determined not by our past but by God’s righteousness:
“Righteousness shall go before Him; and set us in the way of His steps.” (v13).
In other words, the year ahead need not be predetermined by the overhang of last year’s wrongs, but by the gracious act of God setting us “in the way of His steps”. Instead of being left alone to to the consequences of our past, God has a year ahead that is touched by the sense of being accompanied. How?
In the first 3 verses of Psalm 85, we see that God had pardoned all the sins of Israel, forgiving their iniquity, pardoning all their sin and turning from His hot anger. We are not able to ascertain any particular historical event that is being referred to, but can safely say that the psalmist sees this reference as paradigmatic of the pardon without which Israel cannot exist. This radical forgiveness and restoration of favor was fully realized in Christ. whose finished work on the cross avails for us today. If any person be in Christ, she is a new creation. All things are passed away. Behold all things are new.
Like ticking time bombs, our past sins and unresolved issues follow us into the new year. They subvert our future and diminish our powers in the present. We all live under a sentence of death. As sheep, we are appointed to Sheol. Death is our shepherd. The portrayal of life as a sort of death march in modern literature is accurate. There is no lasting hope for the new year. That’s what makes the work of Christ so amazing. It was He who laid down His body upon the bomb and covered our sins. This is what it means by the pardon, the atonement in v.3. He has turned his anger upon Himself and absorbed it all, making Himself the object of His righteous wrath.
This wrath is not some arbitrary character trait of punctilious peevishness in God, but a function of His love and delight in us, so much so that we matter infinitely to Him. That is, His wrath is not a balancing counterpoint to His indulgent love, but essential to his love because we matter to Him. This is contrary to postmodern ethics that seek to absolve ourselves of guilt by abrogating sacredness from the body – so that it doesn’t matter what you do to your body, as long as what you engage in is consensual. When we dismiss the sacred from the discussion, love does not win. It becomes desacralized.
But the amazing thing about God’s love at Calvary is that in confronting how much it matters, Christ bore our guilt upon Himself, the horror of His suffering standing in direct proportion to the fact that we matter! Therefore, our past has been absorbed by Christ, and as a consequence, we can experience everything as new. Truly new.
Personalizing the Good News
Yet everything we’ve spoken about up to now is not merely an abstract generalization. The truth (Heb. ‘emet) is not fully Truth until it’s realized and personalized “by us”, as John would put it. So in the next 4 verses (vs.4-7) the psalmist speaks as if the nation still lives under the overhang of past sins. So he strains under the burden of impending calamity and oppression.
“Wilt Thou be angry with us forever?” How long more must we endure this before change happens? The cry for revival rises up from the depths of crushing burdens.
And herein lies the turning point. At the precipice of all our tomorrows the psalmist says,
“I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for He will speak peace unto His people, and to His saints” (v8)
And this is where the juncture lies. The psalmist is not content to live in the comfort of a once-spoken promise. He has to hear God speaking his word in real time, in this time. And it is the same with us. We too must hear the Lord speak His word of peace to us-not just to know things in principle and promise, but to have it spoken in real time to our spirits, so that conviction rises in us. The word must step out of eternity and enter into our time. It must be heard.
This point cannot be overemphasized. We have to have the word spoken by the Spirit, or administered unto us. Not just cognitively gotten at. Even though the psalmist has the narrative of God’s past saving acts, that information is not the same thing as hearing God actually speak. So he listens and waits for the word that will re-order his insides, activate faith, open up a path through the impossible waters, and make all things new.
All truth has to be embodied truth. It has to be administered by the Spirit unto us. Until that happens, it is external to us. True nevertheless, but unrealized. It is in this state that we wait on God to speak. It is when He speaks personally to us that His word brings life to us, and not merely information.
Coming up… in part 2 of the post, waiting on the word, changing dimensions, cultivating faithfulness