(A Message by Jon Trott at Jesus People USA Evangelical Covenant Church)
O Lord, remember in David’s favor all the hardships he endured; how he swore to the Lord and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, “I will not enter my house or get into my bed; 4 I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” (NRSV, Psalm 132:1 – 5)
These first verses of our Psalm of Ascent today – an ascent I suggest we might call “the rising circle” — remind us of David’s faithfulness. David – a man who manifestly was quite unfaithful at times to the point of adultery, murder, and not a few other blatant seasons of rebellion against the Lord. But he is also called a man after God’s own heart.
Are we after God’s own heart?
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The Rising Circle
How far we’ve come.
How long the journey’s been.
The path is rising upward
And yet it circles back again.
I’m still the same young man
Filled with fire and self-will
Worn face and greying hair
But a child’s laughter still
All the wisdom of my mind
And the wounds within my heart
Are gathered up and hidden
In the secrets where they start
Like a child and like a lover
Turning upward and around
My Parent and beloved
In Christ the circle’s found.
– Jon Trott / August 2013
– + –
I am haunted by love and by death. God, it seems to me, must exist for one reason more than any other. And that is because love exists. If love is, love must be stronger than death, because if love is not stronger than death, love is despair in disguise.
Love is relationship, the bringing together of two or more lives into a communion of mutual experience and understanding. Love creates in its participants a desire to serve one another, to know one another, to adore one another. Adoration is, we know, a form of worship. And so it is that the old English wedding vow between wife and husband, “with my body I thee worship,” speaks to an even deeper knowing than the physical, a deeper blending of the two into one heart, one mind, one purpose, one life – the life of servanthood to not only one another but to Love Himself.
Obedience is not the province of the lover when first in love. As a new groom, I didn’t have to try to love Carol. As a new Christian, I didn’t have to try to love God. Loving came to me the way electricity comes when one flicks the light switch; I don’t know where that electricity is being generated, I don’t particularly care, the light of first love is simply there and I naively think it always will be.
No, obedience is not what we know when we first love. Obedience is what we learn when we are tired of loving, begin to glance behind at what might have been instead of what is. Obedience is having every desire, every physical, mental, spiritual urge within oneself cry out “This way! This way!” and, upon hearing one’s beloved whisper to the contrary, turns the other way instead. Like the old civil rights song puts it, “Put your hand to the plow and hold on… hold on!”
The primary signifier of obedience is that it often hurts. Maybe not a lot, but there is a pang of denial – self denial. That’s the fancy way of saying that in order to obey, I must say No! to my self and Yes! to someone else. Say, and do! Sometimes it is a bit like physical exercise – a discipline that makes us sweat but also can bring a sort of joy with it. Other times, it is more like getting a tooth pulled. Without Novocain. And sometimes it involves wood and nails. (There’s a secret here, though – it at other times can quickly lead to worshipful ecstasy!)
And so we begin the journey. We are in love. We commit to the beloved all we have, all we are, and (as Glenn’s song puts it) all that we will ever be. And then we live happily ever after!
Except, of course, we don’t.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book the title of which I so like I’ve tattooed it on my shoulder. “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” Compare that with our Eugene Peterson book, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” Both describe something that, if we are honest, not one of us here can claim to have accomplished.
None of us is fully obedient to the heart of Love – that is, to Jesus Christ and his words in Scripture, in the mouths of our fellow Christians, and in our own consciences and hearts. None of us. “You mean… even at Jesus People USA?” Ha. Maybe ESPECIALLY at Jesus People USA.
The theological tangle here – and it is not small – is that love and obedience walk together. We see Christians down through the ages emphasize one, then the other. Legalism one moment, ungodly license the next. Any balance seems merely to be a brief blip we pass by on our way to one or other of the extremes.
My own journey has been one where I find myself learning something in a revelatory moment and then having to live it out – and doing so badly. Then around we go and I find yet another new understanding, a resting place refreshing to my heart and my mind. Again, I try to walk that out…. Prayerfully, hopefully, transparently with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet I fail again!
My dearling and I watch old black and white movies. The other night, the musical “Grand Hotel” was on. Boring. Yet I found myself highly intrigued with a couple amazing camera shots from high up in the hotel down through its center, which was arranged in a giant set of circles, one silvery railing per each floor. The image took over my imagination. I suddenly saw in those circles a picture of what obedience – at least in my case – really looks like.
Could it be that as I repeat this pattern of learn-obey-fail-learn-obey-fail, the circle I’m traveling is in fact an upward spiral, a sort of slow and very gently slanting slope toward greater obedience? After many years, I can report that I am always learning something more, a new way, to see my duty to the One I love.
Can I tell you why I want to obey him? Where do I begin? He personifies Love, perfect in kindness, compassion, and long-suffering. What did he suffer, and just as importantly, what does he still suffer at my hands and the hands of all of us who say we love him yet so often fail? And what does he suffer at the hands of those who hate him, who in their own misery and despair also hate other human beings created in the holy image of God? What does he suffer for those who would love him if they had the faith to do so, but whose doubt imprisons their heart?
This God-man who demands – yes, demands – my love and obedience is so easily rejected. He is a man of sorrows, Isaiah writes, and acquainted with grief. He is the Perfect God-Man who in the Garden of Eden prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” You want obedience? THAT is obedience…. Obedience not just of act but of even the inmost heart.
In that same passage is to me one of the most painful moments of all Jesus’ ministry. He says three times to the disciples variations of this: “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” Think about it. God’s Son is so alone at that moment, so agonized of spirit. All he wants is his companions to be near him, awake and aware enough to in some small sense share in his agony. He sweats blood – literally. And they? They sleep.
Do we love Jesus? That’s the real question behind obedience. Sure, we will fail. I will fail before this day is over to love Jesus as I ought, to love others – you – as I ought. But obedience isn’t about getting a perfect score on a test; it is about having Christ’s own character worked within me. It is about embracing my identity as his child… and out of love for Him yearning to get as close to Him as I possibly can! Obedience is a way to do that, I’d say perhaps the primary way. Obedience in love.
You see, disobedience does not immediately separate me from Christ. He is not only near me, His Spirit is within me, and ready to aid me in regaining the path and continuing in His Way. Does a Father reject a disobedient child? No. He gently tries to draw the child closer to him, to bring peace of heart to that child. God is not the equivalent of a teenager with a magnifying glass over an ant hill, randomly choosing which ones of us to fry with the Law’s concentrated burning perfection.
God’s love is hungry for us, desires us, will go to any lengths to win us and keep us. But he will not violate our own tiny sovereignty over our own wills. It remains with us whether we will love the Savior or not, be saved by his love or not, be obedient to his love. He alone is worthy of our love and thus our obedience.
I will end with Jesus’ own words, which to me have always been an oasis in the desert of my own heart: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”