Tuesday, January 8, 2013

How far is the east from the west?

Our pastor preached an Epiphany sermon last week which he titled "Arise, Shine, your  Light has come."  The main take away for me initially was the encouragement to live intentionally to make the light of Christ known.  Throughout the day, I was filled with wonder and gratitude as I thought more about the details of the sermon, how they relate to life, and a song by Casting Crowns that "happened" to play on the car radio.

We sang the song "We three Kings"in the service ~ you know, "westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to Thy perfect light." In the context of the message, he talked about various texts that inform us about moving to the east or west.  You can listen by clicking the link above for the specifics, but in short form, if you go east, you move away from the presence of God.  West indicates a return.  So "westward leading" isn't just telling us a direction for direction's sake...it is loaded with the biblical imagery of being brought back from exile; of being guided back into the presence of God.  Such hope is uncontainable!  Such joy has to be sung about! 

He also talked about the two places in scripture where gold, frankincense and myrrh are found together: the temple and in Solomon's wedding cart.  They're found in the place of worship (God's presence), and in the vehicle used by Solomon to bring his bride up from the wilderness.  Think about it.  No wonder these are the gifts that were laid before the Christ child.  He is the Greater Solomon who came to bring His bride up from the wilderness.  He is Emmanuel, God with us.  Westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to Thy perfect light indeed.  From the east, from exile...westward leading back into God's presence, His mercy, His light, His love.

Now carry that imagery into daily living.  Like Jonah, we all to often flee to the east.  We need His deliverance.  There wasn't a lick Jonah could do to rescue himself.  And when we find ourselves drowning and crying out, we are as hopeless in ourselves as he was though the billowing waves we face may be more figurative than literal.  But we are not hopeless in Christ.  Will we humble ourselves at the foot of His cross?  Will we see our own daily need for His abounding mercy?  And will we not then extend that mercy to other sinners who, just like us, need His deliverance?  Sometimes we forget our own need for mercy and we become proud, self-righteous, stubborn fools.  Luke 18:9-14 speaks pointedly to this:

Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men — extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.'  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!'  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

This is the message God has mercifully been teaching me the past few months.  He has taught me this before, but I needed it again because I had moved eastward, becoming puffed up in knowledge like a good Pharisee and sure of my own goodness.  Ha!  He has been showing me the planks in my eyes and stripping me of my damnable self-righteousness and pride.  He has been showing me how keenly aware I had become of the shortcomings of others.  And though it is true others fall short (we are all sinners), it isn't my place to exalt myself over anyone else...my place is to bend my knee in worship and thanksgiving to the One who is rich in mercy.  From that place I can encourage others to worship  Him too, living lives of joyful obedience and thanksgiving.  Well I moved east from that place and He sent me into the exile of what I'll call a personal black hole in October and November.  Throughout advent, He has been guiding me westward and now there is no place I would rather be than at the foot of His cross, beating my breast and saying "God, be merciful to me a sinner!"

I know this post is getting long, but I have to tell you about the Casting Crown song.  I had heard this song before, but this time it struck me more profoundly because of the sermon I had heard earlier in the day.  The whole song seemed more powerful, but this line in particular moved me to tears: "You know just how far the east is from the west, from one scarred hand to another."  It is based on the passage from Psalm 103:

11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust. 

People, no matter how far east, no matter how far away from the presence of God we've tried to go, those nail scarred hands deliver all who put their faith in Him and He mercifully carries us west into His presence.  He is the Greater Solomon who has placed us in His wedding cart and is bringing us back from the wilderness.  He is Emmanuel (God with us), and He has reconciled us to Himself.  And every day, we can again rejoice that He has shown us just how far the east is from the west.