Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Setting A Table

Recently, I happened to open my Bible to one of the most famous Psalms: the twenty-third. The line that jumped out at me was verse 5, "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies . . ."  The literal translation for "table" is "spread." I like how Eugene Peterson translated it in The Message as, "You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. . ."

What this conjures in my mind is the image of Downton Abbey where they are served those grand feasts regularly. And as anyone who's ever seen Downton Abbey knows, these banquets are not just thrown together. They are well thought out, planned and prepared for. These are an occasion.

It also presents Jesus in the role of a servant. He is serving us a feast in the midst of our desert and in the presence of those who wish ill of us. This verse shows how hospitality is a trait of God. And He is preparing this feast just for us. Unlike Downton Abbey, there is only one guest: us. God honors us with a feast in a place of desolation, in a place where death's shadow looms. A feast for one. Imagine that. Picture in your mind the most delicious foods all prepared for you and you alone. 

Is this not a beautiful image of grace? Of His love for us? Of His tenderness towards us?  
It's not just stop and rest, it is not just Him providing, it is God telling us, "Even in the midst of your troubles, I give you this time of joy and feasting." In Judaism this is called hakhnasat orchim ("bringing in the stranger") or gemilut hasadim ("giving of loving kindness"). The Hagadah even commands, "Whosoever is in need, come and eat." This is what Jesus is doing. And like hosts are commanded to do, he will make his guest feel comfortable and at home. All the guest is expected to do is show gratitude.

During biblical times, to share a meal with someone was more than just sharing food, it was sharing life. It is an intimate act of friendship. Think of how many were drawn in to the love of Jesus simply by his sharing a meal with them. Why? Because they understood that he was offering himself, communion with him, fellowship with him. Through meals he brought in tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. It was his way of loving the alienated, the lost, the broken, and the hurting. This is what he is doing in this verse of the 23rd Psalm. He is showing us his love and care as he tends to us with a banquet. The creator of the universe serves us at his table. This time he is not feeding 5,000. No, he is feeding just us. And as he does so our enemies look on. They watch on as he provides provisions and comforts. "My child," he says, "this is all for you." 

As if all of this is not enough, Jesus anoints our head with oil. In Arabic, they translate it as "aromatic ointments." These were used during this time at great feasts to honor the guests. Our Savior is honoring us? He serves and honors us?

In this one Psalm, Jesus has gone from being our shepherd to our host and servant. Is it any wonder then that this Psalm ends with the words:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

In the midst of our troubles, our wilderness, Jesus will do more than just provide. He will love us until our cups runneth over. He has graciously received us and is offering us the table of fellowship. He is giving us consolation and joy, blessedness in our time of want, comfort in our time of fear, safety in the presence of our enemies. Jesus like his Jewish ancestors at the Passover Seder is telling us, "Let all who are hard-pressed come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share this Passover sacrifice."  

All of this is for our benefit. All we need is offer our gratitude. Like the example rabbinic sage Shim'on Ben Zoma gave of  how a good guest is to respond, we should simply say, "Look how much this householder has done for me! He has brought me so much meat, such fine expensive food! How many cakes has he set before me! And all that he has done, he has done just for my benefit."

This is our Savior. This is our God. This is his love for us. He simply wants us to enjoy the feast.

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