Sunday, 17 January 2016

If Jesus is the answer, what's the question?

This article was, I suppose, my manifesto for many years. I preached Psalm 2 possibly more than any other text, and when I wandered away from God it was with this text ringing in my ears. It is huge, powerful, frightening, comforting, glorious and thrilling. It is also practically unknown. Now I'm back, I have gone back to it, and find it still resonates.

The phrase, 'Jesus is the answer' is a cliché of Christianity. In Brazil, there is even a denomination with this name. Unfortunately it has been noted by sharper-witted critics that the phrase can be defused with the retort, 'What's the question?' In the process they expose a shift and a sloppiness in the church.

If we could interview first century Christians and ask them to sing a song about Jesus, like as not it would have been Psalm 2, judging by the number of times the New Testament quotes it. Psalm 2 was fundamental to the apostles' thinking about Jesus, yet nowadays very few Christians would sing it or even understand how it relates to Jesus. Times have changed!
We don't know exactly when the Psalm was written. Was it a coronation Psalm? Was it written at a time of threat to national security? Whatever the original context, we know how the New Testament uses it, and that is the key I want to use to open the text.
The psalm is organised like a play in four scenes, with various speakers: the narrator (David); the rulers of the earth; the LORD in heaven, and his Son, the Messiah.

Scene 1 - verses 1-3     David Speaks
'Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?...'
David has been looking at the world, reading his paper, watching the news. He sees the activity of the nations and their rulers, and describes it as raging and plotting. And he asks, "Why? Why is the world like this?"
Verse 2 tells us. The behaviour of the people of the world can be summed up as opposition to the Lord and his anointed, his Messiah.
In verse 3 we hear the rulers of the world describing the aim of their rebellion. They want to be rid of certain bonds and cords which, as the word 'their' tells us, come from the LORD and his Anointed. According to the world leaders, God has tied them up. It is complaining language: 'God's laws are tying us down and we want shot of them!'
David has found the thread linking thought, conversation and behaviour in all cultures. He has found the principle that moves and shakes the movers and shakers of our planet. From atheists shaking their fists at God, to the overturners of morality, to the sleek religious manipulators, the preachers of false religions, the self-congratulating hypocrites who claim Christian faith - All want to overthrow God and his Messiah. And, by nature, without a drastic change, all of them means all of us.
If we could distil all the words of all the top people, we would hear one sentence: 'Let's get rid of God and his Christ'. The psalm is saying: 'If the human race gets a chance, we will murder our Creator'.
And we know it is true, because when we got a chance, we did. The rebellion came to a head in Jesus' death. The early church saw Psalm 2.1-3 fulfilled in the unlikely alliance that brought about the crucifixion. The murder of Jesus was no ghastly aberration in our basically decent behaviour: it was the logical outworking of our attitude to God ever since the fall.
And so the curtains close on the first scene. When they reopen we are in heaven.

Scene 2 - verses 4-6     The Lord Speaks
'He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision...'
And we ask - how is the LORD reacting? As the crowd storms the gates, trying to overturn his rule and dethrone his Messiah, how is he taking it? Is he hiding behind the sofa? Is he waving a white flag from the window? No - he is laughing at the rebellion.
He speaks. What does he say? 'I am sorry, but my choice of King for the world seems rather unpopular; perhaps we can discuss alternatives?' No. He says that business is as usual. 'My King has been enthroned already. He is reigning. This rebellion against me and my Christ has made no impact whatsoever - he shall reign.'
This absolute certainty clarifies the nature of God's laughter in verse 4. This verse might seem to be a problem: how can God laugh at sin? Is sin funny?
The psalm says: 'No. It isn't funny - but it is laughable'.
We have all seen a toddler throw a tantrum in public. He really loses it, fists flying, legs kicking - even attacking his dad. Dad simply picks up the child, puts him under his arm and walks out. And, without in any way condoning a sin, we... smile. Why? The toddler is so puny, his rebellion is laughable.
That is how sin is. The greatest efforts of the human race, the strongest politicians, the subtlest philosophers, the most popular 'celebrities' who shape a generation's lifestyle - all of this is a ludicrous attempt to overthrow God. The attempt is so doomed, it is hilarious. The rebellion is crazy - for the Son is reigning, and it is his voice that we hear in the third stanza.

Scene 3 ˘ verses 7-9     The Son Speaks
'I will tell of the decree:

the LORD said to me, "You are my Son..."'

The Son speaks - but what he says is to report what the Lord has said! This always reminds me of John 12:49, though I wouldnt press the echo as being a deliberate link.

This stanza is the richest in NT connections, and much could be said about it. But we can notice two simple points about the Son...
a) His absolute and universal rule, and his total destruction of the rebellion.
This psalm defines the word Christ. It is not Jesus' surname, but his job description. He is God's anointed King, who will rule all people, everywhere, forever. Specifically, he will crush the rebellion, judging every pretender to his throne with awesome power.
In other words, he is the most frightening person in the universe. This appalling revelation is not confined to Psalm 2. It connects with many other texts, not least the horror at the end of Revelation 6, where all kinds of people cry out to the mountains to fall and hide them from the face of God and from the wrath of the Lamb.
And here we see the great question that faces humanity. Where can we hide from the wrath of the Christ?. Greater than global issues of environment, war or famine, or personal issues of health, employment or housing, we all face the issue - the judgement of the Lord and his Messiah.
In other words, before we can say, 'Jesus is the answer', we need to say, 'Jesus is the question'. This is where the gospel begins - here is the clarity which has drained out of world evangelicalism over the last 150 years. Jesus is our great problem. All of us are rebels. There is a King appointed to smash our rebellion. His name is Jesus.
b) He will announce the putting down of the rebellion before he does it.
But we also need to notice the future verb here. The King who will put down the rebellion says that he will announce that fact. By God's own purpose, he tells us rebels in advance what he is going to do. By God's mercy, a warning is issued of impending doom, and it is the Rebel-Smasher himself who gives it.
What kind of enemy does that? The kind that sincerely desires the rebels to see their error for themselves, to down arms and make peace, recognising where the real authority lies, who the real King is, and living in joyful peace with him.
This is where gospel preaching begins. Before people can see that Jesus is the answer, they must see that he is the question. The will of the Lord and of his Christ is that people hear that question.

David now steps to the front of the stage to lay that question on his hearers...
Scene 4 - verses 10-12     David speaks
'Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth...'
David speaks to his own peer group - the world leaders - but, by extension, to all of us. He says to us all, 'Wise up! Think! What is the point? Why go on in your ludicrous, laughable rebellion?'

Specifically, David gives two commands:

* Serve the Lord. Obey God. Fear him. Be glad - seriously, tremblingly glad - that you have the chance to wise up, that he didn't smash us all aeons ago!
* Kiss the Son - a sign of respect and homage and recognition. Bow and say: 'You are the King, Lord Jesus, I owe you total allegiance and trust'. Anyone who has seen the Godfather movies will remember how kissing the hand is a sign of submission and of belonging - perhaps especially the chilling moment at the end of the first when Al Pacino kisses Brando's hand - in that case he had tried to get away from the crime family, but now he commits, he does obeisance, and he is accepted. The context is the moral opposite in Psalm 2, but the Mediterranean cultural reference, even with thousands of years intervening, is just the same.
Kiss the son means 'Get right with God; repent and trust in Jesus!' Stop rebelling and put things right - now!
And David gives two motives for wising up, giving up the rebellion and recognising the Son:
* If you don't, he will destroy you, and you do not know how close that destruction may be.
No one knows what a day will bring. If we are alive as rebels it is by Christ's mercy. The breath we use to say, 'There is no God, I'm going to live my way' is his gift.
And he can withdraw that gift. As recent celebrity deaths have warned us, no one can guarantee a very long life - accident and illness can take away the richest and most powerful. Every rebel life, every person who screams their hatred for God and his Christ, their atheism or immorality, every proud religious hypocrite who wants to be looked up to and admired for their decency, everyone who just gets on with life ignoring God altogether - every rebel hangs suspended over eternity, and it is Jesus who holds the rope. Be wise, or you will regret it forever.
* If you do, you will be happy and secure now, and for ever.
Where can I run, to escape the anger of the most dangerous person in the universe?
The last part of verse 12 tells us. The only place I can run to escape the wrath of the Jesus is... Jesus. Jesus is the question - and Jesus is the answer! There is complete shelter in the Lamb from the wrath of the Lamb. This is the authentic gospel.
It was my own son who pointed out that the greatest inadvertent commentary on Psalm 2 is Gimme Shelter, which happens to be my favourite Rolling Stones song.

Oh, a storm is threat'ning
My very life today
If I don't get some shelter
Oh yeah, I'm gonna fade away

Love, sister, it's just a kiss away!

How does this work? How is Jesus both problem and solution?

How can you escape from a bush fire, which is leaping forward at you before a strong wind? You can't outrun it - how can you escape death? The only way is to light a fire and let the wind drive it ahead of you - the same wind that is driving death toward you - and stand in the burnt patch. When the fire comes, it will already have consumed the patch where you are, and you will be safe.
Jesus is coming like a fire, bringing death to rebels. But the fire that he brings has already fallen in one place in this world. On Jesus himself, at the cross.
Jesus is our burnt patch. He is our shelter. For he has already borne the fire of the Lord's anger against our rebellion. And if we stand on him, we are safe.
Stand on him. Now. And you will never ever regret it.


  1. Your last paragraph reminds me of an observation I made a couple of years ago. You call it a burnt patch, I call it in the black from a phrase wildland firefighters use to describe a safe area where the fire has already burned. When you're "in the black" you're safe from being overrun by the fire because everything there has been through the fire already, all combustible fuel has been burned away. I learned this from responding with our canteen to serve our firefighters.

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  2. I was thralled to read this. Incredible literary work here. I appreciate this. While reading this I am again impacted by the power and the majesty of Jesus. His glory is second to none and I am in a position to fall down on my face before Him. I'm in Awe of Him.