The “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ

The great poet Samuel Coleridge wrote a poem entitled The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In the poem a ship is being followed by an Albatross, one of the great birds of the sea with a wingspan of up to twelve feet. They live on remote islands in the Pacific Ocean.   In the ancient world it was widely regarded as a good omen for a ship to be followed by an Albatross. However, in Coleridge’s classic poem one of the sailors Albatrozshoots the Albatross with a crossbow and kills it, bringing sure doom to the voyage. The sailor who shot the bird is made to wear the dead Albatross around his neck. This is where we get the common saying that someone is wearing guilt or shame “like an albatross around their neck.”

It is a helpful image because sometimes we do fall into the trap of thinking that God has laid an albatross of guilt around our neck.  He is somehow “against” us.   He is forcing us to carry some huge burden.  Perhaps we have a mental picture of an angry God who is just waiting for us to slip up so that he can say “I gotcha.”  We often live under a cloud of internal condemnation and carry the weight of guilt and fear like an albatross around our neck.  However, the Apostle Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 1:20 that all the promises of God are “yes” in Jesus Christ.  God is for us.  Brothers and sisters, God is for you!  He stands with you this day and His word for you is always “yes.”

So, you may ask, what about all the times when God (or God’s Word) says “No” to us.  Isn’t that the “No” of God?   It is precisely here that we have to listen to God’s “no” more carefully.  When God says “No” we must always listen carefully to the hidden “yes” behind every NO of God.  In other words, God only says “No” because He is standing with us and longs for our deepest joy in fellowship with him and others.  Most of what we want God to say “yes” to are things which bring isolation  and destruction to us.  God does not say “no” to crush our joy.  He says “No” because that is the deeper “yes” to our greater joy.

You may feel like you have “shot the albatross” in your life.  You have killed the very thing which was to bring you a blessing and now you must bear that guilt and carry that shame for the rest of your life.  But, today, hear the Yes of God in Jesus Christ.  In Jesus Christ, every sin has been paid for; every closed door flung wide open; every empty table filled with his abundance; every grave prepared for resurrection; every demon cast into the swine and sent over the hill; every broken wall has been rebuilt; every crushed dream has been renewed; every crooked way has been made straight; every sunset of despair has been turned into a sunrise of hope!  It is true that we do not yet see all of this.  We still await the final consummation. But, in Jesus Christ it is already breaking in!   Satan is being crushed under our feet.  The joy of the gospel is breaking upon us. The dead albatross is rising from our neck and taking flight to, once again, bring a blessing, not a curse.  Today, may you hear afresh the “Yes” of God in Jesus Christ.

Going to Church when You are in Despair

I was praying through Psalm 142 yesterday and was struck by how alien such a prayer is to the forms and structures of modern Christian worship. Psalm 142 is not a particularly unusual Psalm but is one of a whole class of Psalms which are known as laments. The whole Psalm emerges out of a sense of despair in the life of the Psalmist. Phrases such as, “I am in desperate need,” and “rescue me from those who pursue me,” and “set me free from my prison,” are all found in the anguish which is known as Psalm 142. The verse which really jumped out at me was the end of verse 4 when he says, “I have no refuge, no one cares for my life.” Some of the older translations say, “I have no sanctuary.” It reminded me that most churches once called the most sacred place where we corporately worship the “sanctuary.” It was, to put it plainly, “a place of refuge.” It was a place you fled to for mercy, grace and consolation when you were caught in despair like Pilgrim’s “slough of despond.”

Today, the word, “sanctuary,” is out of vogue. We now call these sacred places, “worship centers” or “celebration centers.” We must, of course, always be happy in these spaces. We may sing and clap and shout or at least watch those on the “stage” sing and shout and clap. But, if we are ready to burst into tears and weep over our sins or cry out in despair over a situation which has us hemmed in on every side, this just might not be the time or place. I heard someone tell me recently that they just “couldn’t go to church” the previous Sunday because they were “feeling so depressed.” Hmmm.

Maybe there’s something going on here. Certainly, Psalm 142 would enter a typical contemporary service like that strange cousin who shows up at family gatherings and is greeted with a forced smile and and the obligatory handshake but inside we quietly regard him as kind of “weird.” Psalm 142 really has no place in a “celebration center.” So, alas, Psalm 142 is left out in the cold along with the Apostles’ Creed and prayers of repentance, because they weren’t “contemporary” or “seeker sensitive” enough.

I often wonder about the sustainability of any Christian movement which gives the appearance that Christianity began three weeks ago. I wonder why we rob ourselves of so many “means of grace” in the “contemporary Christian scene.” I wonder if I was 20 years old again and I walked into one of these services if I would ever have become a Christian, or even taken the whole thing seriously.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many times when I clap my hands and shout with joy in the presence of the living God. That’s part of worship, too. Psalm 150 is also in the Psalms. But, we need to provide space and time for those Psalm 142 moments as well. Brothers and sisters, don’t ever lose your confidence in the power of the gospel. We don’t have to “dress it up” to make it palatable to contemporary people. We don’t have to “downplay” the tough, difficult road of discipleship. We don’t have to cherry pick the Psalms or other parts of Scripture in public worship so that everyone “stays positive.” These are all bad instincts. Let the gospel tell its own full story. It is messy, nuanced and demanding. It’s not always “tweetable.” It’s not always fun. But, praise God, it’s always true.