God continues to generously pour out understanding about the essentiality of generosity, but we have to stop sometime. Perhaps this isn’t my final post on the topic, but it’s still a conclusion.
Most of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.
In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.
Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:
In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.
In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).
Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!
Not Ritual but Righteousness
Rituals do not
Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?
Not Regulation but Relationship
We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.
What’s wrong with that? Well…
- It’s straight-up legalism.
- It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would be exceedingly stressful!
- It misses the whole point.
The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.
When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.
Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.
We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.
We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.
Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?
God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.
Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27
As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.
Later in James,
You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24
Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.
right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others
When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.
Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.
For us adults, it’s easy to breeze through the spiritual side of Christmas. After all, you memorized half of Luke 2 that one year for the Christmas pageant at church. At other times, especially if the holiday marks a milestone (first Christmas after your wedding, first with a baby, first without an important person), you latch onto the emotional apron strings of holiday tradition such that you start crying when they flip the switch for the star hanging above the manger during the pageant at church.
The fact that the story and the traditions are so familiar shouldn’t stop us from examining them again. During different Christmas seasons of my adult life, the Lord has brought different personalities to the forefront of the Christmas story. As I ponder that person’s experience, He shows me more of Himself: His love, His sovereignty, His grace. Over the next few weeks, let’s take a look at some of those people and see what fresh thing God has for us.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
Both Elizabeth and her husband were righteous in the sight of God (1:6). Luke went so far as to call them blameless. And yet they had no children.
Imagine how many times they asked God for a baby, how often they cried.
Imagine how hard they tried in those first years.
Imagine the regular visits to family gatherings where their siblings had children…then grandchildren.
With early marriages and no reliable birth control, most women had many children. Having no children was disgraceful. It meant something was wrong with you, God was punishing you, or you were rarely intimate with your husband for some reason.
I lived in a place with a similar mindset (yes, in the 21st century). I watched young women pray desperately, take medicine, visit witchdoctors, and try everything possible to get pregnant. The pressure from their in-laws was suffocating; they faced divorce if they didn’t produce a child—preferably a boy. The loving husband wouldn’t divorce his wife; he would simply take a second one. (To be fair, there were a few exceptional husbands.) I learned how to read the disappointment on these women’s faces every month. Some even got physically sick. After a couple of years, the shame became almost tangible. That’s very similar to what Elizabeth experienced.
They asked “Why?” from
a place of faith.
Don’t discount this part of Elizabeth’s story just because you haven’t struggled with fertility issues. My point is that we all suffer, often secretly, and that God expects many of us to wade through that suffering for a long time before He answers. Did Elizabeth and Zechariah try to put on a happy face? Did they pretend everything was okay? I don’t know. I do know they didn’t turn away from God. Maybe they asked, “Why?” but they asked from a place of faith, not judgment or selfishness. I can imagine that they leaned on Scripture like Psalm 119:75-76 ESV, I know, O Lord, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. Let your steadfast love comfort me according to your promise to your servant.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were very old (1:7). I think they had given up on having children, releasing that prayer. Have you ever given up on praying for something only to have your prayer answered years later? God always hears. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (1 John 5:14). How and when God responds is up to Him—and the possibilities are innumerable!—but He does hear. Look at what the angel says to Zechariah: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard” (1:13), and remember James 5:16, The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
When it comes to God, don’t take His silence to mean he is ignoring you or refusing you. Perhaps the time isn’t right. Perhaps He has a better alternative. Perhaps He’s waiting for you to learn something or be obedient in a certain matter or come to a certain place in your spiritual walk. Perhaps…well, you get the picture. God has given us many lines of encouragement for those times—verses like Psalm 27:14, Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord. Know that when God asks us to wait, it’s worth it.
His Will is worth the wait.
Elizabeth joined an all-star line-up of barren women: Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Hannah… In every situation, the long-awaited child grew up to be important in the story of God’s people. Same thing here. The angel says as much right there in the temple with Zechariah: “He will be great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15). Think about the same kind of sufferings (1 Peter 5:9) or the cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Perseverance, endurance, patience…these things are easier in groups. Like a roof doesn’t stand on one pillar, sharing our burden with others will help all of us to wait patiently. There are stories in the Bible to encourage you and stories in the lives of your Christian family to do the same.
As usual, we’re only getting started on all the Lord has for us just in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth! The remainder of Luke 1 reveals much more about their character, their story, and God’s sovereignty. If there’s something that’s significant to you about these two, please share it in the comments below.