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No Dabbling Here


Hebrews 2:9

Psalm 119:103     Song of Solomon 2:3           John 8:51


(“O Taste and See…”)   The judge in the wine-producing contest evaluates the work of different vintners by sipping a few drops — only a few drops — of each vintner’s wine. The judge passes only the smallest amount over his taste buds, certain that he has sniffed and sipped just enough to get the flavour.The weight-conscious guest at the dinner party knows that it would be impolite, an insult to the host, to eat nothing of the dessert the host has spent hours preparing. Yet weight-conscious as she is, she knows that to eat all the dessert she’s been served would undo her diet on the spot. Therefore she eats just enough to get the flavour of the dessert. The tiniest taste will do.Not so in scripture. To taste, for our Hebrew foreparents, customarily means to eat or drink something in a large quantity; to eat or drink something so amply as to know the fullest flavour of it. To taste, in scripture, is to know every dimension of the flavour, to know what the wine tastes like when the bottle is newly opened and also after the wine has been allowed to “breathe”; to know what roast beef tastes like on an empty stomach and what meringue tastes like on an almost-full stomach; to know what steamed lobster tastes like in a restaurant and what it tastes like at the beach. To taste, in scripture, is to eat or drink something down so amply as to absorb every aspect of the flavour in every conceivable situation.

To taste, in scripture, means even something more. It means to drink something down so thoroughly, so completely, as to drink it all up. In a peculiar English idiom we say to the child hesitating over her milk at the dinner table, “Now drink it all down.” Once she has drunk all of her milk we say she has now drunk it all up — meaning, there’s none left over.

When the psalmist cries, “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8), he has in mind all the biblical meanings of “taste”. The psalmist knows that only as we “taste” in the Hebrew sense are we ever going to “see”. Those who merely sniff and sip never “see”; those who are content to sniff and sip around God never come to “see that the Lord is good.” Only those who taste (drink down so as to gain the fullest flavour of), and only those who drink down so as to drink up (soak themselves in all that’s before them); only such people ever come to “see” — that is, know incontrovertibly, know without argument or prop, know with the immediacy and assurance of seeing anything with their eyes — only these people come to have stamped on them indelibly the conviction born of experience that the Lord is good.

How good is he? Good in what sense? Good to what end?


I: — The writer of the book of Hebrews declares that Jesus Christ has “tasted death for everyone.” (Heb.2:9) To say that our Lord has “tasted” death is to say that there is no dimension to death that he doesn’t know first-hand, know intimately. He knows what only the dying themselves can ever know of the feeling of isolation, of moving into something where others may nod sympathetically but can’t follow. He knows the emotional anguish of mourning one’s own death, as well as the contentment at the end. He knows the assault on one’s dignity that death so often is. He knows the hardship on one’s nearest and dearest that death visits upon survivors. (Didn’t he make special provision for his mother?)

Not only has our Lord tasted death so as to know every aspect of it; he has tasted it too in the sense of drinking it all down so as to drink it all up. Nothing remains of it to hurt us his followers, much less terrify us.

Jesus startled hearers in the days of his earthly ministry when he announced, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” (John 8:52) Bystanders thought the remark presumptuous and Jesus himself ridiculous. Yet our Lord was both sane and profound. He hadn’t said, “Whoever keeps my word will never be subject to biological cessation.” That would have been ridiculous. He had said, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” He meant that what he has tasted — drunk up, in fact — his disciples will never have to know. What won’t we have to know? We shall never have to taste that death which is the Father’s just judgement on sin, that death which is estrangement from God, that death which is the most horrible spiritual vacuum.

There are two factors in our never having to taste such bitterness: one, he, our Lord, has drunk it down so as to drink it all up, leaving nothing to acidify us; two, we are to “keep his word” — i.e., we are to have all of him dwelling in all of us. We are to have him — everything we know of him — penetrating, altering everything we know of ourselves. He has tasted death on our behalf; we are to welcome him and his truth. The end of it all is that our coming biological cessation is nothing more than a momentary interruption, a minor nuisance, a short-lived “time-out” — but with no power to work in us all that scripture means by “death”. Our Lord has tasted it; we now keep his word; for us, therefore, death has been rendered inconsequential.

Freud insisted that no one could contemplate her own death; no one could face — genuinely face — the prospect of her own dissolution, her own demise, so fearsome is it. But if Jesus Christ has tasted death for us; if we do keep his word, abide in him as he abides in us, then I maintain we can contemplate our inescapable death without having to fall into denial or sublimation or projection or any of the defence mechanisms we customarily deploy in the face of overwhelming threat.

At the same time, apart from Jesus Christ we do have something to fear. The unguarded speech we overhear every day tells us that people are aware, deep down, that apart from Jesus Christ they have something to fear. Recently I heard yet another radio talk show on the subject of AIDS. The interviewee was speaking at length when the interviewer, thinking he had to say something, interjected, “And all of these people with AIDS are going to die.” Those with AIDS are going to die? Only they? Everyone is going to die, with or without AIDS, infected or squeaky clean.

Think again of everyday speech. We say, “Physicians are important; they save lives.” Now I think physicians are important. They are important for many reasons, not the least of which is pain-reduction; but they aren’t important because they save lives. No physician has ever saved one single person’s life. No physician has ever prevented someone from dying, finally. One of the things that physicians do is postpone dying; they postpone it; they don’t prevent it.

The fact that people speak as they do in everyday speech merely tells us that our society has not yet grasped the gospel: only Jesus Christ has tasted death for us, and only as we live in him can we contradict Freud and know that our coming biological cessation is but a minor nuisance that doesn’t even bear on our life in our Lord.

Contrast how our society speaks with how my late friend, Ronald Ward, used to speak. Ward (former professor of New Testament Studies at Wycliffe College , University of Toronto — and the godliest man I ever met) and his wife spent the wartime years in Britain . Their neighbourhood was bombed in an air raid. Homes were levelled all around them, or at least badly damaged. Their home wasn’t hit directly but it did suffer from nearby blasts. When the “all clear” sounded and they made a pot of tea, Ward was about to drink his cup of tea when he noticed a speck of plaster dust floating in it. Normally he would have “fussed” it out with his napkin. Yet in the wake of their having survived the air raid, the speck of plaster dust was nothing. Whereupon he gulped his tea, dust speck included. “This”, said Ward, “is what Paul means in 1st Corinthians when he tells us that death has been swallowed up, ‘gulped’, in Christ’s victory.”

Jesus Christ has tasted death so as to drink it all down, swallow it all up — all to the end that we, his people, shall never have to taste death ourselves.


II: — The psalmist cries, “How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth.” (Ps. 119:103) “Word” here is Hebrew shorthand for “commandment”, “command”, “direction”, “teaching”, “claim”, “shape”, “guidance”, “instruction”, “pattern”; in short, “word” means “the behaviour that befits and characterizes God’s people.” God’s “words” taken together describe the pattern that God ordains for those who aspire to godly living. All of this, says the psalmist, is sweet to his taste.

Once again, when the psalmist says the command of God is sweet to his taste he doesn’t mean he’s taken a little nibble of it and said, “Rather sweet, you know.” He hasn’t flirted with discipleship and the faithful obedience required of discipleship and said, following his flirtation, “It’s all right, but I shouldn’t want any more of it lest I appear extreme.” To say that he has tasted the command of God is to say there is no aspect to the will of God and the way of God and the law of God that he doesn’t relish; there is no dimension to the command of God and the instruction of God that he doesn’t want to consume wholly and digest thoroughly and have it strengthen him utterly and enlighten him pervasively.

The psalmist certainly knows what malnutrition looks like. Malnourished people are weak, listless, pallid, dull. Spiritual malnutrition exhibits comparable spiritual symptoms. The psalmist sees it all around him. Still, spiritual malnutrition is the one thing the psalmist himself is never going to have — just because the claim of God upon him everywhere in life is sweet. He relishes it, and has found it sweet just because he has tasted it, immersed himself in it so thoroughly that it now saturates him.

The psalmist was born 1000 years before the advent of Jesus. You and I were born 2000 years after the advent of Jesus. This fact doesn’t affect truth but it does affect vocabulary. What the psalmist called “the words of God” the apostle Paul calls “the mind of Christ.” God’s will for us, God’s way with us, God’s pattern for us; all of this is gathered up in the one expression, “the mind of Christ.” We are to taste this, and having tasted it, know that it is sweeter than honey.

What constitutes the mind of Christ, the pattern after which our faithful discipleship is to be patterned?

Jesus was bent not on pleasing himself, but on obeying his father and

loving his neighbour, his neighbour being any human being, however

repugnant, who was suffering for any reason.

Jesus was humble, lowly, in the midst of those who boasted and bragged

and strutted.

Jesus was a faithful witness to the truth, even though faithfulness to

the truth cost him everything in a world that prefers falsehood.

Jesus was patient under undeserved insult.

Jesus was uncompromising in his denunciation of sin.

Jesus was instant and constant in prayer.

Jesus denied himself repeatedly in order to minister to others.

Jesus found his joy and blessedness in everyday, glad obedience to his

Father in heaven.

All of this is gathered up in “the mind of Christ”. And this is what the psalmist knew, even though his vocabulary for it was different. Still, the psalmist, like his spiritual descendants today, knew that obedience is joy and blessedness when our obedience is thorough and consistent, persistent and uncompromising; when, in a word, we don’t sip or nibble or sniff but rather taste the command and claim of God.


III: — Lastly, the woman speaking in that biblical love poem known as “The Song of Solomon”; this woman says of her beloved, “Compared to other men, the man I love, the man who loves me, is like a lily among brambles; he’s like an apple tree among the trees of the wood…his fruit is sweet to my taste.” (Song of Solomon 2:3 NRSV) Then she adds, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention for me was love.”

The Song of Solomon is a love poem replete with eroticism. The church has often been embarrassed by this eroticism (I’m not) and has tried to tell us that the Song of Solomon is really about Christ’s love for his people. It isn’t. Neither is it about our love for God. It’s about a creaturely gift, a creaturely good: romantic love. And such romantic love, says the woman in the poem, she has tasted.

To taste love isn’t to love a little bit; to taste love isn’t to “try it out”; to taste love isn’t to mouth the tiniest morsel. To taste love is to plunge ourselves into love, bathe in it, inhale it, guzzle it, drink it down so thoroughly that we can’t imagine there being any love left over and going to waste. To do this is to learn with the unnamed woman that love is sweet.

The Song of Solomon happens to speak of one creaturely good, romantic love. By extension, however, we can speak of other creaturely goods: movies, drama, poetry, fiction, sport, bird watching, opera, dancing, gardening, kite flying, music, sailing. There is a sweetness in all of these, a delight so deep as to be too deep for words, given to those who taste but not given to those who dabble. Then dabble we won’t and taste we must.

“But doesn’t such ‘tasting’ suggest we might be in danger of overdoing it, of going overboard, of tasting creaturely goods so much as to forget to taste and see that the Lord is good?” On the contrary, just because we have already tasted and seen that the Lord is good we shall not confuse a creaturely good with that pre-eminent good which is God himself; just because we have already tasted and seen that God is good we won’t confuse a creaturely gift with that pre-eminent gift which is, as Paul reminds us, “eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 6:23 ) Just because I know who God is I don’t expect my wife to be God, don’t even expect her to be super-human, don’t expect her to be any more than wife. And yet, just because she is God’s gift to me, Maureen is ever so sweet to my taste! Creaturely goods are seen in proper perspective when our gaze is first fixed upon him who has given them to us. As we taste him — and see that he is good; as we taste his claim upon us — and find discipleship sweeter than ever we imagined; it is then that we are free to forswear dabbling and immerse ourselves in creaturely gifts, only to find them sweet as well.

It all begins with a man exclaiming, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” It ends with a woman saying of her beloved, “His fruit is sweet to my taste.”

Victor Shepherd

April 2007