Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Follow the Evidence

In the sermon for this week we examined how we are to respond to the word of God by looking at Zechariah’s response to God’s message for him, found in Luke 1.5-25.  In sum, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and announces that he will be having a son – fulfilling his prayer of many years – and that this son will be great in the eyes of the Lord, and that God will use him as an instrumental part of his plan of redemption for the whole world by having him prepare the hearts of the people for God’s Messiah.  Zechariah’s response to this wonderful news was: “Prove it to me.”  Listen to this week’s sermon here to find out why this was the wrong response.  
In effect, Zechariah was telling God that the evidence he had already provided wasn’t good enough, and that he needed more.  Skeptics of Christianity fall into this trap all the time, as they reject the evidence of God’s word and demand some kind of miraculous display before they will espouse belief. People often  will say they would believe if God would appear to them and show himself, implying that the first time God did this through Christ wasn’t good enough.  God must do more in order for me to believe, in order for me to obey.  The problem is, how much proof will be enough?  
Sometimes Bible-believing Christians fall into this trap as well. They know what God’s word says; they know the commands and instructions; they know what they must do to be obedient; but instead of following through and acting on what they know, they demand more proof.  In my experience, Christians often mask this unbelief as “waiting for the Spirit’s leading.”  Rather than simply obeying what they read in the Bible! Many Christians are waiting for a spiritual nudge, or divinely ordered “right” circumstances, or a sense of peace before they will move forward in obedience.  To me, this is the same as demanding more evidence – more proof – that God actually means what he says.  
Think of it like this: God supplied proof to Zechariah that his word was true, in that he sent an angel to deliver the message.  What could be better proof than receiving the word of God directly from the mouth of an angel?  But this wasn’t enough for Zechariah, so he asked God to prove it again.  Similarly, God has supplied Christians with proof that he has spoken: the Bible.  This should be all the evidence we need to motivate our obedience to his word.  But instead of acting on what the word says, we look for more proof that the word is true; we wait on the Spirit to give us that special sense of direction or contentment then we will obey what the Bible already says to do.  God has already told us what to do.  If we wait for the Spirit to confirm what he has said through a special feeling, isn’t that the same as asking God for more proof?
For instance, I have talked to many, many people who have a desire to share their faith with others, and who readily affirm that God has commanded them to do so in his word, and they have a sincere desire to be obedient to that command.  But at the same time, these people also feel that they need to wait for the Spirit to lead them into the conversation, or the “right time,” or to create the exact right circumstances for this faith-sharing encounter with their friend to take place.  Regardless of the reality that interpreting signs and feelings from the Spirit is a completely subjective matter that is open to wide interpretation, I think this misses the point of trusting God at his word.  
God has told us what to do in the Bible, and we should be about the business of doing it.  Don’t be like Zechariah – don’t ask for more proof of what God has already told you in his word.  To do so would be to falter in unbelief, like Zechariah.  Instead, take God at his word, and just do something.  
There’s another important lesson that we learn from the story of Zechariah.  When Zechariah asks for more evidence that God’s word is true, God grants it to him.  After Zechariah asks Gabriel for more proof, he’s struck mute, and stays that way for close to a year.  Do you think that extra measure of proof convinced him that God’s word was true?  I bet it did.  So maybe the extra measure of evidence you’re looking for won’t be very comfortable. It’s always better to believe God at his word – the first time – and then to move forward and get busy with the work of obedience.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Who's Right: Matthew or Luke?

For the past two weeks at Riverview we have examined the genealogical records presented in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Both genealogies serve to prove to the reader that Jesus is indeed qualified to bear the title of Messiah and be the representative Savior of all those who will trust in him.  You can listen to the sermon on the genealogy in Matthew here, and the genealogy in Luke here.  
It doesn’t take a very close reading, however, before one realizes that the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are quite different at points.  Some skeptics would use this as evidence that the Bible is contradictory, saying that the gospel authors can’t even agree on the members of Jesus’ own family.  Such a conclusion is very flawed, however, as there are numerous ways to resolve discrepancies of genealogical origin, and there have been several theories proposed by scholars and researchers that propose ways of reconciling these differences, all of which are possible.  These theories should negate almost any objection a skeptic of scripture has regarding the differences in Matthew and Luke’s genealogical data of Jesus.  In what follows I will briefly outline three possible reasons for the differences in the genealogies, and explain why the differences do not present a problem for those who believe the Bible.
1. First, the genealogical records can differ simply because of the way we communicate lineage in written discourse.  For instance, you could say that I am the “son of” my great-great grandfather, John Detlefsen, born in 1847.  I am not his direct son, but I am his “son” in a broader sense, in that I come from his line.  It could be that Matthew and Luke are focusing on different “sons” of Abraham (and Adam, in Luke’s case), and so they mention different names from different generations of Jesus’ genealogy.  This kind of selective genealogy was, and is, common in genealogical records.  This is probably the best explanation for the differences between Matthew and Luke’s genealogical records.
2. Closely related to the explanation above is that it is possible that, in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew’s desire was to report Jesus’ direct lineage.  In other words, Matthew literally wanted to show Joseph’s (Jesus’ earthly father) direct line to Abraham.  This would mean that Matthew’s lineage of Jesus literally included Jesus’ direct (earthly) father, grandfather, great-grandfather and so on.  It is also possible that Luke’s purpose in his genealogy of Jesus is to communicate Jesus’ royal line.  This would mean that Luke is more concerned with noting Jesus’ ancestors who are official representatives of the throne of David.  Thus, Luke’s genealogy of Jesus represents his royal heritage, whereas Matthew’s represents his familial heritage.  Careful readers will note that Luke and Matthew even have different names listed for the man representing Jesus’ grandfather.  This explanation quickly resolves the apparent contradiction: the name listed in Matthew’s genealogy is Jesus’ actual grandfather, whereas the name listed in Luke’s genealogy is Jesus’ “royal” grandfather.  
3. A third option is entirely unrelated to the previous two, and asserts that the genealogy found in Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage, whereas the genealogy in Luke traces Mary’s.  This explanation would account for the differences between the two genealogies.  While unprecedented, I find this to be a very possible and realistic interpretation of Luke’s genealogy.  In first century Jewish culture, it would have been unheard of for a woman’s genealogical records to be officially recorded, as it was a patriarchal culture that centered mostly around the actions and lives of males.  However, one of Luke’s main points in his gospel is that this new kingdom that Jesus is building is a kingdom of equality between genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and so on.  In fact, Luke’s gospel records some very counter-cultural interactions between Jesus and women (see Luke 8.1-3, for example).  It is therefore not too much of a stretch to think that Luke is furthering this kingdom ideal to include the genealogy of Mary in his report of Jesus’ life and ministry.  Furthermore, Luke notes in his introduction that he has used eyewitnesses to formulate his account of Jesus life, and many scholars agree that most of the material in chapters 1-2 probably came from an interview that Luke conducted with Mary herself (Luke 1.2).  Thus, it is not unreasonable to presume that part of the information Luke gleaned from Mary was a detailed record of her lineage.  
On this side of heaven we will never know with certainty why the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are different.  In answering the question of which one is accurate, we can affirm that they both are, although we can’t definitively say how.  But we can be confident that there is a good reason for the differences, and a reason that does not call their (or the Bible’s) accuracy into question.  The three theories I listed here are only some of the dozen or so possibilities for the differences between the genealogies in the gospels.  Even in light of their differences, we can have confidence that they communicate the entrance of the Savior into the world and accurately express the continuation of God’s plan of redemption for all creation.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Peculiar Public Interest

I've been blogging here and there, on a semi-regular basis (with several month or even year gaps between posts sometimes!) since 2008.  Five years ago today, I wrote a post on this blog called "Hamstring the Horses and Burn the Chariots."  Little did I know when I wrote that post that, of the 507 published posts on my blog, it would become far and away the most popular and most viewed post that I'd write.  It's a comparatively short post, and not necessarily deep, but I suppose it is interesting - at least interesting enough to me for me to have written it.

That post has received more than 2,100 unique views since I wrote it (small potatoes for most blogs, but significant for mine).  In November alone the post was viewed 132 times.  The second most-viewed post I've written comes in at 831 total unique views, so the difference in views is significant.  How do people find this post on my blog?  It turns out that a lot of them have Googled a question about the text in Joshua that relays God's command to Joshua to hamstring the horses and burn the chariots of the opposing armies that Israel will face.  For instance, at least 129 people have clicked over to my post because they've Googled a question about those verses, with the search terms "hamstring a horse," "hamstring horses," and "hamstring horses in Bible" being the most frequently used.  Apparently people find God's commands to hamstring the horses and burn the chariots of Israel's enemies rather peculiar.

I've preached on this text before as well, and when I did I received a few comments from people at my church about how they cringe at the thought of hamstringing horses, as this seems to be a barbaric practice, at best.  Apparently a reader thought so as well, and commented on the original post: "...this method of hamstringing is nothing but torcher [sic].  If they were to take the time to hamstring these animals it would have been just as easy to kill them and put them out of their misery.  You can't even begin to realize the agony these animals endured."  I don't doubt that it was very unpleasant for the horses.  But regardless of how we feel about the animals, we need to realize the point of the command God gave: trust in me, not in horses.

Kind of neat, and a good reminder for me to continue not trusting in horses and chariots.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Thanksgiving Conversation

This week’s sermon at Riverview was a bit different than usual, as it featured a fictional Thanksgiving meal and conversation between a nameless character and David, King of Israel.  The foundation for their conversation is Psalm 92.  You can listen to the sermon here, or you can read the transcript below.  
May your Thanksgiving conversation be filled with remembrances of God’s grace and goodness, and may you come to know that it is good to give thanks to the Lord.
I’m going to ask you to imagine that it is Thanksgiving Day, and your whole family is gathered around the table for the Thanksgiving feast.  But in addition to your family, you’ve also invited king David to your home for Thanksgiving.  Yes, that king David – the one from the Bible – the one who fought Goliath – the one who ruled over Israel – the one who wrote the psalms.  All the food is prepared, and everyone is ready to begin diving into the many delicacies laid before you at the table.
But before you eat, you ask your guest of honor to pray a prayer of Thanksgiving over the meal.  He agrees, and he prays thus: 
“It is good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.  For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.  How great are your works, O Lord!  Your thoughts are very deep!  The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this: that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever; but you, O Lord, are on high forever.  For behold, your enemies O Lord, for behold your enemies shall perish; all evildoers shall be scattered.  But you have exalted my horn like that of the wild ox; you have poured over me fresh oil.  My eyes have seen the downfall of my enemies; my ears have heard the doom of my evil assailants.  The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.  They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.  They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green, to declare that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.  Amen.”
Everyone around the table confusedly echoes a faint “Amen,” after David concludes his prayer.  You sit down, having expected the usual prayer of “Lord, thank you for this food and your many blessings,” but instead you got a psalm!
Everyone begins to pass the food to one another and heap it onto their plates and begins to eat, including you and your guest, David.  
But you interject: “David, I couldn’t help noticing some things about your prayer just now.  For instance, you said that it is good to give thanks to the Lord.  What do you mean by that?  What do you mean by ‘good’?”
David has a somewhat perplexed look on his face, but quickly responds, “I mean it is right to give thanks to the Lord.  After all, look at what he’s done!  Everything we have comes from God.  How could we not thank him?  Even the little blessings that we don’t even notice are from him.  And it is right to thank him for them.  For instance, I once knew a man who, for financial reasons, had to move into a one-room apartment with 8 other people.  After a time, he goes to a Jewish priest and complains: “Life is unbearable.  There are nine of us living in one room.  What can I do?”  The priest answers, “Take your goat into the room with you.”  The man was incredulous, but the priest insists: “Do as I say and come back in a week.”  A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before.  “We cannot stand it,” he tells the priest.  “The goat is filthy.”  The priest then tells him, “Go home and let the goat out, and come back in a week.”  A radiant man returns to the priest a week later, exclaiming, “Life is beautiful.  We enjoy ever minute now that there is no goat – only the nine of us.”  
You chuckle quietly, but David’s point is made.  Even though it’s almost cliché, you realize David is right that we take for granted God’s many blessings – even the little things.  And it would be wrong to not thank him for them.  
“But there’s more to it than that,” David continues.  “You see, you cannot thank God for your blessings without first thanking God for being the kind of God who gives blessings.  That’s what I mean when I say that it is good to give thanks to the Lord.  It is the right thing to do, because he is so good.  Anything less than complete acknowledgement of who is and what he does would be wrong.”
“Ok,” you respond.  “That makes sense.”
But David’s not done.  “When I think about all that God has done for me in so many ways, the only natural response I can have is to be glad.  If I truly realize all that he has done, it seems to me that the right response is to break out in song!”
There’s an awkward silence, and part of you thinks David is about to start singing.  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he continues, “When something or someone makes you glad, the only natural and right response is to be thankful.  When I think about all that God has done for me, that is how I feel.  And that is why it is good and right for me to give thanks to the Lord.”
You spear a piece of turkey with your fork and dip it in some gravy and pop it into your mouth.  Using somewhat bad manners, you ask David while chewing your food: “Like what?  What has God done?  Why is he so deserving of thanks?”  You understand the concept, but part of you wants to press David for some specific examples.  
David clears his own food from his mouth with a big swallow of milk.  He wipes his face with his napkin and says, “Everything.  Pick something.  God has done it, and he deserves praise for it.” 
David pauses to take another bite of turkey, and you do the same.  You chew your food for a few seconds, thinking about what David has just said.  It makes sense.  If God truly is who he has said he is, and if he has done what he has said he has done, then it is right – it is just, even – to give him thanks.  Because there is something about who God is and what he has done that simply requires praise – that requires thanksgiving.  In fact, if what God has done and said is true, then it seems like it would almost be a form of cosmic treason to not give him thanks – it would be an injustice.  
Then David breaks into your thoughts by saying, “But more specifically, God deserves praise because everything he does is right and just and fair.  For all people.  Everyone gets what they deserve.  Everyone is treated fairly.  There is no evil person who goes unpunished, and no righteous person who is not rewarded.  God is completely just and right in all that he does in the world, and in all that happens.”
“Whoa, I have to stop you there,” you say.  “David, apparently you haven’t heard that just last week 129 people in Paris who were minding their own business were murdered by terrorists.  So how is God just?  Where is the justice for those people?  How is that fair?  How is it fair that 129 people were removed from this earth in the blink of an eye?  How can you say that God is just when things like that happen in the world?”
As the words leave your lips you almost immediately regret saying them.  Here is this man, a guest at your table, and you feel like you’ve just taken all the air out of what he has been saying.  To fill the awkward silence, you fill your mouth with some mashed potatoes.  
David pauses a moment, then says, “Yes, that is hard to understand.  And if we only look with our physical eyes and hear with our human ears, the world does indeed seem to be a place of injustice.  So in order to understand things like terrorist attacks and how God can remain a God of justice, we need to use spiritual eyes and ears.”
David looks at you expectantly, as if he expects you to either agree with him or respond to his statement.  Instead, all you can manage is “Uh, what?”
“It’s like this,” David says.  “In my life, there have been many times when it has seemed like wicked people always get their way.  They’re successful in all they do, they hurt people and get away with it, they cheat, they lie, they steal, and no one ever calls them to account.  For example, I once had a crazy man named Saul chase me all around the countryside trying to kill me, for no reason other than that he was jealous of me.  What did I do to deserve his hatred?  Nothing.  And when I see how the wicked seem to sprout and grow like grass and do whatever they want, and how they can seemingly get away with whatever they want – and when that makes me angry, I am only seeing it with my human eyes.  I need to look at them with spiritual eyes.”
“OK,” you say, confused: “Then what do they look like through your ‘magical spiritual eyes?’”
“They’re not ‘magical spiritual eyes,’” David responds.  “Instead, they’re eyes that allow me to see and know what God does to maintain justice.  You said that 129 people were killed in Paris last week.  Those who committed that crime will not get away with it.  Even if they took the coward’s way out and killed themselves so as to never face a human court, they will face God’s court.  And they will not get away with it.  There is no such thing as a perfect crime in God’s system.  Because God is a God of justice.  He will see that justice is satisfied.  That’s what it means to look at the world through spiritual eyes: to know that God is in control, and he will see that justice is served, either in this life or the next.  And those who are wicked will be doomed to destruction forever.  But God will reign on high forever.  When all is said and done, all of God’s enemies will perish.  Because he is a God of justice.”
David pauses to put some fresh butter on a warm dinner roll, and you’re grateful for the time to process what he has just said.  
After thinking for a few moments, and as David begins to eat his freshly buttered roll, you say, “So David, you’re saying that no matter what happens on earth – whether something is just or unjust to us – that God will always make it right in the end?”
“Yes.  And that, my friend, is reason to praise God.  There will be a reckoning.  There will be a judgment.  And God will always be found to be fair and right in all that he does.”
“Huh,” you remark.  “Well, then let me run this by you: last week there was a shooting in Minneapolis.  A police officer killed a man, and people are saying that it was racially motivated, and that white police officers are targeting members of the black community.  And they’re saying justice is not served.  What do we do with that?”
David shrugs his shoulders.  “I do not know, nor can I know,” he says.  “I wasn’t there.  I don’t know the facts of what happened, nor can I see into the heart of either man.  But here’s what I do know: God knows.  And God will do what is right.  Even when something seems to us to be a travesty of justice, it will not be so forever.  God is a God of justice, and there won’t be any wool pulled over his eyes.”
You understand what he is saying, but you want to probe further.  But before you can, David begins to speak again.
“Do you know what this means?” he asks.  “This means that you will never have to be worried that evil will win.  It means that you never have to concern yourself with vengeance or getting even.  God says, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay.’  He will see that justice is done.  It is our job to trust him.  And that, my friend, is good news.  That is news for which you should give God thanks.”
As you listen to what he says, you understand it, but something about it just doesn’t sit right with you.  Perhaps you don’t have those spiritual eyes he was talking about.  
“OK then,” you say, “If God is just, then what does he do with people who don’t know right from wrong?”
“What do you mean?” David asks.
“I mean people who, for whatever reason, can’t know the difference between right and wrong.  Maybe they have an intellectual disability, or maybe they have a mental illness, and this prohibits them from doing what is right, or maybe even from knowing who God is in the first place.  There are certainly people with mental disabilities who simply can’t even understand that God exists.  What does God do with them?”
David sits quietly for a moment, thinking.  When he opens his mouth, he speaks quietly: “I do not know how God will judge people who can’t understand him because their mind will not allow it.  But I do know this: whatever God does with those people will be right and good, because that’s the kind of God that God is.  The kind that always does the right thing, and the kind that always does the good thing.  Again, my friend, that kind of God is the kind that deserves our thanks.”
By this time, the main portion of the meal is over, and the plates and dishes are being cleared away.  Soon the pumpkin pie is being served, with an immense dollop of whipped cream on top.  
As David takes his first bite of pie, he says, “Now, my friend, you have asked me about terrorist attacks, police shootings, and people who are not able to understand God because their mind will not allow them to.  So now let me put a question to you.”
“Go ahead,” you say.
“If everything I’ve been saying about God is true – and that he will always do what is right, and that he will always punish evil and reward righteousness, what will he do with you?”
“What do you mean?” you ask, suddenly getting nervous.  
“Well, it seems to me that the news that God is just is both good news and bad news for you.  On the one hand it is good news in that you can know that God will always have the last word and the final say, and that wicked men will not go unpunished.  On the other hand, it seems to me that it is bad news for you that God is just, because his justice applies to you as well.  If God is just, then he must punish your sin too.  He must hold you accountable for what you have done.  If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be just!”
You are suddenly very uncomfortable and the pie in your mouth begins to taste bad.  “What are you trying to say?” you ask, quietly.  
“I’m saying that if you are a sinful person, then you must one day face God’s justice.  What will it be like for you on that day?”
A mild anger flares up inside you.  “David, listen, with all due respect, I invited you to my house for Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re telling me that I’m going to be judged by God for my sin.  Don’t you think that’s a bit…I don’t know…rude?”
“No offense intended, my friend,” David says quickly, putting his hands up in the air.  “I simply know that I myself have been an evil man.  I have been the wicked man who has flourished.  I was a king, after all, and I could have anything I wanted.  And let me tell you, I had anything I wanted.  Money, women, possessions.  There were times when I was the wicked man who prospered.  There were times when I was the one who lied, cheated, stole, and even killed.  And no one could touch me for any of it.  I could get away scot-free.  But I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not get away from God, because God is a God of justice.  He would hold me accountable.  And the thought of his justice terrified me.  It caused me to turn from my sin and to put my trust in him.  And now, I don’t have to fear his justice.  Another reason to give God thanks!”
“Wait, wait, wait,” you say.  “All this time you’ve been going on and on about how God is a God of justice, and he always does what is right, and now you’re telling me that you’re an evil man who deserves justice, but God doesn’t give it to you.  How is that just?  Apparently God isn’t as concerned with justice as you said he was.”
David smiles, and you get the impression that there is some detail that he left out that is crucial to his story.  “You’re right,” he says.  “It would not be just for God to leave me unpunished for all I’ve done.  And the list of my sins is long – so long that I am not able to stand under its weight.”
He pauses, as though remembering something, and smiles again.  You nervously take another bite of pie.  
“But let me tell you what is even more scandalous,” he says.”  “Not only did I not receive judgment for my sin, but God has blessed me and sustained me, and given me all sorts of good things that I do not deserve.”
“So you’ve done all sorts of bad things, but received all kinds of good things from God?  Yeah, that sounds real just,” you say, half incredulously and half spitefully.
“Just hear me out,” David says.  “I deserved to be punished.  I deserved to be judged.  But instead of giving me what I deserved, God gave me what I didn’t deserve: grace.  Instead of bringing me down low, God raised me up.  Instead of taking my life for my sin, God enriched it with his grace.  Instead of snuffing out my life, God has sustained it.  And so with the life that God has given me, I can declare that the Lord is upright.  He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”
“But David,” you interject, “you haven’t dealt with the reality that what you’re describing isn’t just.  You’ve been saying throughout our whole conversation about how God loves justice and is always just.  But what you’re describing about your life isn’t just.  If you’ve done all of these horrible things, you deserve do be punished.  But you haven’t been.  How do you reconcile that?”
“On my own, I cannot,” David says.  “Like I said before, God’s justice is good news and bad news.  It means God always does what is right, and we should thank him for that.  But it also means that he must judge my sin, because I am a sinner!  But God made a way for justice to be satisfied that doesn’t end in my destruction.”
“What?” you ask.  “How?  How can God punish your sin but not punish you?”
David looks down into his lap, contemplative and quiet.  “God promised my forefathers to send us a deliverer.  And through this deliverer all nations on the earth would be blessed.   And this deliverer would repair the breech between man and God because of their sin.  This deliverer would live a perfect life.  And for his perfection, God would give him the crown of righteousness – the reward for a person who is perfect.  But that crown was not to be his.  Because he would volunteer to instead take the sin of those who would trust in him upon himself.  And then, as the consequence of their sin – so that justice might be satisfied – God would punish him, and the payment for their sin would be born by him.  So he would go through death, for them.  And then, in the greatest exchange that would ever be, in all history, he would give them his righteousness.  So now when God seeks to satisfy his justice, it would be poured out on him – the punishment would be paid.  And as God seeks to reward the righteous, he would reward those who have the righteousness of the deliverer.”  As David says all of this, his head remains bowed, his eyes staring into his lap.
“OK, I get it,” you say.  “It’s the great exchange: the deliverer gets our sin, and we get his righteousness when we trust in him, and God’s justice is satisfied by punishing him instead of us.  But there’s still one thing that doesn’t make sense.  How is it fair that this deliverer is punished for my sin – especially if he never did anything to deserve it?  That, to me, seems to be the most cosmic injustice – a man punished for things he never did.”
David’s eyes are still on his hands, folded together in his lap.  “It would be an injustice, yes, if a man were forced into such a position.  But the deliverer is not forced into this position.  Instead, he volunteers.”
“What?” you say.  “Why would anyone volunteer for that?  Why would someone volunteer to be punished for things he never did?”
“Nobody would volunteer for that,” David responds, quietly.  “Unless he were motivated by a kind of love that is other-worldly – a love that is divine – a love that you and I can’t even begin to comprehend.  And the deliverer is motivated by that kind of love, because he is not just a man, but he is also God himself.  And he loves his people so much that he is willing to be killed for their sins.  And he is willing to give them the righteousness that he earned.  But it could be no other way.  If he were to not come, then all men would be lost in their sin.  All men would be doomed to destruction.  But he has come.  And so I sit before you today: a condemned sinner, saved by grace through this deliverer, and found not guilty.  All because God is a God of justice.”
David lifts his eyes and connects with yours, but you turn from his gaze, as it seems he’s staring into your soul.  He goes on, and you look sheepishly off into the corner.
“And now,” he says, the intensity of his voice rising, “I can have confidence in this life.  I don’t have to live in fear of a vengeful God any longer.  Because the deliverer has paid the price of my sin.  Now all I know is grace.  Now I can approach God with confidence.  I no longer call him my enemy, but instead I call him my friend – my rock!”
You turn your gaze back to David and your eyes connect.  At this moment, nothing else seems to matter: the meal, the holiday, the pumpkin pie – all of it is of no importance.
David says, “Do you see now how this is good news?  Do you see now why it is good – it is right – to give thanks to the Lord?  To sing praises to the name of the Most High?  To declare his steadfast love in the morning, and his faithfulness by night?  Do you now see why I have been made glad by his work, and why, at the work of his hands, I sing for joy?”

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Church, the Government, and Syrian Refugees

Over the past few days there has been much discussion in the news and on social media as to what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees that have fled their war-torn region in hopes of a better life.  The issue is complicated by the reality that the country from which they are fleeing is full of terrorists, and it is quite possible (and even likely) that there are terrorists disguised as refugees who are using this opportunity to infiltrate other nations for the purposes of enacting violence and harm against their citizens. 
Some in the U.S. have insisted that we must not, under any circumstances, allow these refugees into our country for the reason described above.  To that end, several states have insisted that they will not harbor any refugees, while others have declared that they will indeed welcome them.  Others have said that to disallow a space for Syrian refugees betrays a severe lack of compassion for those in need.  Minnesota’s governor, Mark Dayton, much to the chagrin of his opponents, recently declared that our state would gladly welcome refugees seeking shelter and a better life.
As has become so common in our day and age with social and political issues, the question of whether or not to accept refugees from Syria has become a social media firestorm, in which the sides are black and white with no room for gray, and all those who disagree with the “correct” view are labeled bigots or heartless idiots.  Leaving aside the fact that social media has denigrated our overall ability to talk about issues seriously, it behooves us to think biblically and Christianly about this issue, as it has many biblical implications.  And indeed, there have been many from the Christian sphere who have done a good job doing just that (for instance, I would commend to you Kevin DeYoung’s article on this subject), and I appreciate their guidance in my own thinking on this issue.   At the same time, however, there is disagreement even in the Christian community on this issue.  So as we seek to form an opinion, let’s allow grace to drive our discussions with one another. 
To me, the issue of whether or not the United States should accept Syrian refugees  comes down to the answer to three questions: What is the role of the government?  What is the role of the church? and Who is my neighbor?  Allow me to take a shot at providing some answers.
What is the role of the government?
God has created the government to fulfill a specific purpose and to accomplish certain tasks.  Biblically (and constitutionally) speaking, government’s primary role is to protect its citizens through the enforcement of laws (Romans 13.3-4).  If the U.S. government is to allow Syrian refugees into our country, its primary concern in doing so must be the preservation and protection of American citizens – not Syrians.  While some may argue that the government should feel compassion for Syrian refugees, this is, frankly, putting the cart before the horse.   The U.S. government should primarily feel compassion for U.S. citizens, and express that compassion by doing everything in their power to keep them safe.  If the government receives Syrian refugees, they should only do so if they are certain that doing so will not bring an undo threat to the safety of American citizens. 
What is the role of the church?
The church’s role in the world is primarily to preach and declare the gospel of Jesus Christ.  One of the ways we express this message is to minister to people in who are in distress, who are displaced, who are in need, and so on.  This is a distinctly Christian mission, and it belongs to the church – not the government.  It is not the government’s job to provide charity to those in need.  The church can and should minister to Syrian refugees in the event that they are allowed into the U.S.  God cares about how his people treat and care for aliens and sojourners.  We are obligated to God and his word to be faithful ministers of the gospel to them. 
Who is my neighbor?
In the online Christian discussions surrounding this issue, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25-37) is frequently cited, and used as evidence for why we should allow Syrian refugees into our country: because the refugees are expressing real needs, and we are able to meet those needs.  While I applaud the desire to let scripture guide us in our thinking, I believe the application of this parable to this situation falls short and over-reaches. 
For example, by insisting that Syrian refugees are our neighbors, and therefore we should minister to them like the good Samaritan, we fail to acknowledge that we literally have neighbors that already live right next door who we are called to love also. If there are Syrian terrorists masquerading as refugees (as it appears there are), and we invite and welcome them into our country, we are putting our geographical neighbors (those who live next door) at risk.  To do so would not be loving to our current neighbors.  It is a false dichotomy to pit the needs of our Syrian refugee neighbors against the needs of our physical and geographical neighbors.  (Furthermore, it could be argued that the parable of the Good Samaritan is primarily speaking to our interactions with our physical neighbors – those located near us, geographically speaking – than those interactions with international neighbors across the world.)  If we are able to determine that no undue danger will come to our current physical neighbors by bringing Syrian refugees into this country, then we absolutely should bring them in. Then those refugees will become our physical and geographical neighbors, and then we can and should minister to them as we would anyone else. 
Worshipping the idols of fear and self-preservation
There are some Christians who have brought up the reality that we should not let fear of bodily injury or a desire for self-preservation dictate our obedience to scripture and dissuade us from ministering to those in need.  I whole-heartedly agree.  However, I would follow my statement of agreement with the assertion that we shouldn’t have to be afraid if the government is doing its job to keep its citizens safe.  If the government is fulfilling its God-given role of protecting us, we are free to minister those who have been displaced and are distressed.  Nothing would please me more than to be able to allow Syrian refugees into our country so they can know its freedoms and benefit from our society, and also to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But we cannot do so at the expense of the physical and bodily safety of our citizens. We cannot lose sight of our obligation to love our current neighbors by advocating for their safety.
How now shall we live?
In response to these principles, let us pray that the government will fulfill its God-ordained role of keeping people safe and doing everything they can to minimize potential violence.  And let us simultaneously pray for more opportunities to be ministers of the gospel – to Syrian refugees and to all other peoples of the world.   

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Let's Keep Christ out of (Cultural) Christmas

There has been an incredible amount of backlash in the last few days about these ridiculous
Starbucks coffee cups: Christians have attacked Starbucks for waging a war on Christmas, secularists have belittled Christians for attacking Starbucks, other Christians have attacked Christians for waging a war on Starbucks, and Christians have attacked the secularists who are attacking the Christians for attacking Starbucks.  It has turned into a convoluted mess, and most people on social media (Christian or otherwise) have ironically become a part of what they have been decrying. 

The whole notion of a “war on Christmas” seems to be a yearly phenomenon, but this year it’s gotten an early start.  Retailers are accused of waging war on Christmas by removing religious or even seasonal images and wording from their packaging and marketing, and people get offended because the words “Merry Christmas” have become politically incorrect.  And so people – many of whom are Christians – become offended and are convinced that there is a war on Christmas.  Well, there is.  And the sooner the culture can “win the war on Christmas” the better, as far as I’m concerned. 

After all, what does the culture’s representation of Christmas have to do with the actual purpose of the Christmas holiday?  Nothing that I can see.  Then why do we want one of the most holy of Christian holidays to be recognized and celebrated by a culture that only uses it as a marketing gimmick?  News flash: the only reason why Starbucks designs its cups the way they do is because they believe it will sell coffee.  The only reason any retailer markets and packages their wares the way they do is because they believe it will lead to sales.  If Starbucks thought they could sell more coffee by using cups that had manger scenes on them, that’s what they would do.  Secular Christmas is about marketing.  And if companies can cash in on your cultural ideas of Christmas, that’s what they’ll do.  

Think I’m exaggerating?  Think about it: two cups of coffee stand before you: one that is plain red with the Starbucks logo; the other is red with a full manger scene, including Mary, Joseph, animals, wise men, angels, and everything else.  Which cup do you reach for?  Why?  Could it be that you choose the manger cup because you identify with it?  If retailers can figure out what drives your purchasing habits, they’ll take advantage of it.  Do we want to participate in the process of Christ being lowered to nothing more than a marketing gimmick? 

And why would we want Christ to be associated with the secular culture’s idea of Christmas?  After all, the culture’s idea of Christmas is replete with themes of materialism and idolatry.  And we want to keep Christ IN the culture’s idea of Christmas?  No thanks.  Take him away from all of that, and good riddance.  And a note to Starbucks and other retailers: if you can strip Jesus out of your marketing and packaging, that would be great.  The culture’s idea of Christmas should be secular, because the culture is full of secularists.  Yes, take Christ out of the culture’s idea of Christmas.  The more we can focus on Christ without being distracted by materialism and idolatry, the better. 

Come, behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He, the theme of heaven’s praises,
Robed in frail humanity

What does that have to do with Starbucks coffee cups?