Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Synoptic Head-Scratcher

Our mid-week lesson at Riverview this week was on Mark 5.21-43, in which Jesus heals the woman with the issue of blood and raises Jairus' daughter from death.  After our usual lesson time in the adult group, we usually open it up for comments and questions regarding what we just studied.  This week a member of the group made an observation that perplexed me at the time, and continues to do so.

The Mark account of these miracles begins with Jairus as having approached Jesus on behalf of his ailing daughter who will die without the divine intervention of Jesus.  After Jesus agrees to go and see Jairus' daughter, he is "interrupted" by the woman with the issue of blood.  Jesus takes the time to heal this woman, and it is then revealed by those in the ruler's household that Jesus' services are no longer needed, as his daughter has died in the meantime.  Jesus continues his journey anyway, and raises Jairus' daughter from death.  It's a remarkable account of his power, authority, and compassion.

The perplexing bit comes in that Matthew's parallel account of these same miracles, the chronology of events is just a little bit different (the chronology of Luke's parallel account agrees with Mark's).  You can read Mark's account here, Matthew's here, and Luke's here.  

The discrepancy between Matthew and Mark (and also Luke) is the order of the interactions between Jairus and Jesus, and the woman and Jesus.  In Mark's account, Jairus makes an initial contact with Jesus, in which it appears his daughter is still alive and he needs Jesus' help in order to keep her that way.  After this initial interaction, the woman with the issue of blood is healed.  Then Jesus and Jairus receive word that in the meantime the girl has passed away.  Jesus continues to her house anyway, and raises her from the dead.  Matthew's account, however, has a different order of events: he reports that the first interaction between Jesus and Jairus is when it is revealed that his daughter is dead, and then the woman with the issue of blood is healed, and then Jesus continues on to do what he had started to do: raise a girl from death.  If we put the events of these narratives into a flow chart it would look like this, moving from left to right (click to enlarge):

As you can see, there's a discrepancy between the order of events and communication between Matthew and Mark (and Luke, which has the identical order as Mark).  Does Jesus learn that Jairus' daughter has died before or after he heals the woman with the issue of blood?  This morning I shared the conundrum with my fellow pastors and we each set to checking our commentaries to find a scholarly explanation, but to no avail.  In fact, between the three of us, we checked more than a half dozen commentaries but this discrepancy was not noted in any of them (other than one commentary whose author asserted the possibility that the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the raising of Jairus' daughter were two unique situations and were only crammed together in the gospel accounts at a later date, but this interpretation is unlikely at best, for a variety of reasons that I won't go into here).  So without any scholarly support, we came up with two possible reasons why there is a difference in chronology between Matthew's and Mark's accounts of these miracles.

1. It is possible and even likely that Matthew wasn't concerned with chronology in his recounting of these miracles.  He simply wanted to get the story out there in as few words as possible.  The exact order in which Who said What wasn't important to him.  What was important was that he told the story of these two miracles, and relayed how they proved his Lordship and status as the Messiah (which is the ultimate goal of Matthew's gospel).  He wanted to communicate the facts: A girl died; Jesus went to raise her from death; in the process, he healed a woman with an issue of blood; then he raised the girl from death.  That's it.  

2. A second possibility is that the language used by Mark and Luke refer to the state of death in meaning but are translated literally as indicating that she was still suffering from the illness that presumably caused her death.  For example, in Mark 5.23 Jairus says, "My little daughter is at the point of death.  Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live."  What is Jairus saying in this statement?  Is he saying that his daughter is very sick?  Is he saying that she only has 6 months?  Is he saying that her condition is "moment to moment," meaning that she could die at any second?  Is he saying that she's "as good as dead"?  Or, is it possible that he is communicating that she is already dead?  Also note that Jairus says that he needs Jesus to do something in order for his daughter to "live."  Could it be that in Mark 5.23 Jairus is declaring to Jesus that his daughter is dead?  If so, then it accords well with Matthew 9.18.  (Note: a similar interpretation can be made of Jairus' statement as it is recorded in Luke if one examines the grammar of the Greek.)  The problem with this interpretation is that if Jairus is declaring her as being dead in Mark 5.23, then why do people from his household come to tell him in Mark 5.35 that she has died and not to trouble the Teacher any further?

Of these two possibilities, I'll appeal to Occam's Razor in leading me to go with the former as an explanation for the discrepancy between Matthew's and Mark's accounts of these miracles.  That is, I believe that Matthew was simply concerned with communicating the facts of the story, rather than recreating a precise chronology.  It should be further noted that this discrepancy does not at all call the reliability of the Bible into question, as I have raised two worthy explanations as to why the difference exists.  When we think about context and the author's purpose in writing, most difficulties in the text can be reasonably explained.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Fully God, Fully Human 12 Year-Old

Luke 2 offers us an extremely unique glimpse into the life of Jesus that is not found in any of the other gospels.  Both Matthew and Luke offer infancy narratives, and of course, all four gospels talk about Jesus’ life as an adult.  But only the gospel of Luke says anything at all about Jesus as a young boy, and that information is contained in the last 12 verses of Luke 2. 

These verses can show us a lot about what Jesus was like as a 12 year old boy, and they certainly show us that even at a young age he was clear as to the purpose of his mission: to be doing everything the Father told him to do.  As believers, we can and should follow the example of 12-year-old Jesus and take seriously the call upon our lives to “be about our Father’s business,” and to not allow other competing desires draw us away from that call.  Listen to the sermon on this passage here

But at the same time, the boyhood narrative of Jesus in Luke 2 raises some interesting – and perhaps hard to answer – questions.  The purpose of this blog post is to ask and hopefully answer two of those questions. 

1. Was Jesus disobedient to his parents?
The whole narrative described in Luke 2.41-52 is set up by Jesus and his parents being in Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.  After the celebration is over, his family packs up and begins to go home, but after a time they realize their son is not with them.  They end up having to go back to Jerusalem and look for him for three days. 

Now, any parent who has had small children know what it’s like to – even momentarily – lose track of your child.  It can be a scary few seconds to not know where your young child is and what has happened to them.  But that’s usually all it is – a few seconds – because we are usually able to locate the missing child quickly and determine that they are safe and unharmed.  This was not the case for Mary and Joseph, however.  They called Jesus’ name over and over to no response.  They checked with friends and family members, but no one had seen him.  They searched all over the city of Jerusalem to no avail.  Finally, they find him in the temple, dialoguing with the rabbis about deep theological subjects.

And it goes without saying that when they do finally find the boy Jesus, they are relieved – but also angry.  “Son, why have you treated us so?” asked his mother.  “Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”  The implication of these questions asked by Mary is that Jesus is in the wrong for doing what he has done by staying behind in Jerusalem to wax theological with the local rabbis.  The implication here is that Jesus has sinned against his mother and father. 

But how can that be?  Doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus was perfect in everything – that he never sinned?  After all, that’s also why the Bible says that his eventual self-sacrifice was sufficient – because he was perfect.  But how can he be perfect if he violated the fifth commandment and did not honor his mother and his father? 

We can say with certainty that Jesus did not sin against his parents by remaining behind in Jerusalem to engage with the rabbis, and the reason for this comes from a proper understanding of his life’s mission.  When Mary and Joseph expressed anger that Jesus had remained in Jerusalem, he responds to their feelings with surprise, saying to them, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  In other words, Jesus is saying, “Where else would I be?” as though this were something that Mary and Joseph should have known about him.  The most important thing that Jesus (or you or I, for that matter) could ever be doing is to do what the Father wants him to do.  This trumps all other obligations, commitments, and relationships.  But at the same time, it does not give us license to be rude or discourteous to others or to treat them badly.  Since the Bible tells us that Jesus was indeed perfect in all his actions throughout his life, we must therefore conclude that in this instance Jesus’ obedience to the mission the Father gave him was his primary obligation, and that, by being obedient to his heavenly Father, he was not subsequently disobedient  to his earthly parents.  In fact, to disregard his heavenly mission by not staying in Jerusalem but to instead leave with his parents would have been sinful, since his primary obligation is obedience to God.

2. What did Jesus know as a child?  Was he omniscient?  Did he learn just like everyone else?
Luke 2.46-47 states: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  Moreover, verse 52 says that over time Jesus “grew in wisdom.”  These verses seem to imply that the boy Jesus was with the rabbis and dialoguing with them on theological topics as a student would with a teacher.  The main form of Jewish instruction in the first century was structured in a question/answer format.  In other words, teachers and students asked questions of one another and then formulated answers to the questions using scripture, theology, and wisdom as their foundation.  But why would Jesus need to ask questions and think through the answers if he were the all-knowing God?  If he is learning from rabbis at the temple, then doesn’t that mean that he is not omniscient? 

These verses present to us one of the dichotomies of the Incarnation that seek to understand how the all-knowing God can become limited in his knowledge, or how the ever-present God limits himself to space and time in the form of a human body.  In a mysterious way that we will never understand this side of heaven, God the Son self-concealed the full extent of his power and understanding when he came in human form (see, for example, Mark 13.32). 

For example, Jesus didn’t emerge from the womb with the ability to walk, talk, and use the bathroom for himself.  He had to learn those things, because although he was fully God, he was also fully human.  To have those abilities as a result of his divine nature would undercut his humanity.  Again, this interplay between the divine and the material is one that we will never fully be able to grasp.  I would also imagine that as a human being, he would likewise learn about circumstances that brought about pain or discomfort (such as when a child puts a hand on a hot stove, he or she has learned that stoves are hot and not to be touched). 

So then, what was there for Jesus to “learn” from the rabbis at the temple?  Apparently not much, as it seems that his expressed understanding of theological matters was off the charts (hence Luke 2.46-47).  I imagine that the questions he asked the rabbis at this time were very similar to those he asked the religious leaders in passages like Matthew 21.23-27, and 22.41-46, etc.  The boy Jesus probably was asking questions that no one was able to answer. 

So did Jesus learn?  Was he omniscient, even as a 12 year-old?  What we can say for sure is that Jesus was as knowledgeable as a 12 year-old fully God, fully human person could be.  Did he have to learn things?  Yes.  He had to learn what a fully God, fully human person would have to learn.  What were those things?  I have no idea! 

What we can say for certain is this: even at 12 years old, Jesus had a clear knowledge of his mission and purpose in life, which was to be about his Father’s business, and he conducted himself in a way that demonstrated that he was committed to his mission.  This should be our focus as well. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Risen: A Movie Review

A year or two ago, my wife, my two sisters, and my brother-in-law all went to see the movie Noah.  I was excited to see the movie, as it looked exciting and dramatic and its subject matter was derived from the Bible.  I left the movie utterly disappointed, mostly because I thought the story recorded in the Bible was more interesting than the one they cooked up for the movie (the same is true, but even more so, for the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings).  There were some parts of the movie that I liked, and some that I thought were artful and beneficial ways of telling the story.  But overall, the big biblical epics that Hollywood has produced have been, in my opinion, less than satisfying mostly because they have diverged from the biblical text to such a large degree.

Making a Christian movie that is simultaneously good and faithful to the biblical text is a difficult task, however, and I'm usually willing to give most Christian movies a lot of leeway in that regard.  Unfortunately, it usually seems that most Christian movies can't be both good and biblical - usually it seems that they are either one or the other: they are very biblical (but not what you'd call a good movie - here I defer to the cheeseball factor), or they are good and have a high production value, but are not at all biblical (see: Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings for example).

Today, I saw a movie that broke the Christian-Movie-Mold, and was both a fantastic movie and was, for the most part, very faithful to the biblical text. (See the trailer for the movie here.)

I was one of a movie theater full of pastors who was invited to a pre-screening of the movie Risen.  I plan to give a full synopsis of the film, so if you don't want to spoil the story for yourself, you'll want to stop reading soon (I'll give you a warning before I get into the actual story).  But suffice it to say, the movie was very good.  It was very biblical, very well done, and a great story (with an almost non-existent cheeseball factor).  I highly recommend it.  It would be good for most people to see, although it is rated PG-13, and for good reason.  There is a violent battle scene at the beginning of the film, and many people are stabbed.  Immediately following the initial violence is the scene of the crucifixion, which is also a bit rough, but is in no way comparable to the level of violence and gore of The Passion of the Christ.  The crucifixion scene in Risen is far less gory and violent in comparison.  After these two opening scenes, there is very little violence to speak of in the rest of the film,  although the story revolves around a search for the (supposedly) dead body of Jesus, so there are several corpses shown as the search goes on, and some of the corpses are somewhat gruesome in appearance.  As far as language is concerned, there are no coarse words used throughout the film.

The two films I mentioned earlier - Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings - both used the Bible as a starting place for their stories, and then added all kinds of extra stories and events to the biblical accounts, presumably to make the stories more interesting and/or dramatic.  The cost of doing this, however, is the sacrifice of the actual biblical text and the story contained therein.  To me, this did not help the stories in either movie, and in fact, detracted from my appreciation of them.  The genius of Risen is that it brings a completely unique story to the table - that of a search for the supposedly dead body of Jesus amidst rumors of his resurrection - and somehow remains very close to the biblical texts.  The balance struck between biblical text and fictional story was, to me, masterful.  I had a few quibbles here and there (see below), but they were exceptionally minor.

Now, with that being said, on to a synopsis of the movie (so if you don't want it spoiled, now is the time to stop reading).

The movie opens with a group of Roman soldiers in the midst of a battle with a group of presumably Jewish Zealots, led by none other than the recently-released Barabbas.  The movie presumes Barabbas as a member of the Zealots (a Jewish group that allegedly used what are akin to acts of terror against the Romans for their occupation of Israel).  Clavius, a Roman Tribune, is in command of the troops, who ultimately capture Barabbas after the brief battle, whom Clavius immediately executes.  Before his execution, Barabbas tells Clavius that "When the Messiah comes, Rome will be nothing!"  Clavius, of course, is unconvinced and quickly dispatches Barabbas.

Upon his return to the praetorium (Pilate's base of operations), Clavius is sent to "end" a crucifixion already in progress by breaking the legs of the crucified.  Clavius doesn't realize it, but this is the crucifixion of Jesus.  Like a dutiful soldier, Clavius goes to the crucifixion and puts an end to it, without giving it a second thought.  But before the bodies are taken down from the crosses, Joseph of Arimathea arrives with a document that allows him to claim the body of Jesus and bury him in his own tomb.

By the end of the day, the Sanhedrin has visited Pilate and asked him to seal the tomb and put guards outside of it, for fear that Jesus' disciples will steal his body and thereby create a resurrection myth which will only serve to rile up the people.  Pilate begrudgingly agrees with their reasoning and he instructs Clavius to see to it, which he does.  The tomb is sealed with a stone that requires seven men to roll it into place.  Furthermore, the stone is bound with rope and sealed with a tamper-proof wax seal, and two men are left to guard the tomb.  Here the film is somewhat unrealistic (although it's not a big deal), as the Bible says that Pilate set "a guard of soldiers" over the tomb (see Matthew 27.65).  This number almost certainly would have been more than two - probably more like a dozen.  After all, what good would two soldiers do if a mob of angry, riled up followers came in the middle of the night to steal the body?  So the notion that only two soldiers were left to guard the tomb is almost certainly wrong.  But again, this is a minor detail and does not upset the story at all, in my opinion.

On the third day after the death of Jesus - you guessed it - the stone is found to be rolled away, the seal broken, and the tomb empty.  Clavius inspects the tomb and discovers the "Shroud of Turin" among the grave clothes (Note: this, to me, is the biggest cheeseball moment in the movie, but it was very easy to overlook).  The Jewish leaders are in a panic, as they are certain that this will create an uprising, and Pilate is inclined to agree.  Therefore, in order to quell any kind of uprising and to squash the rumors that Jesus had risen from the dead, he tasks Clavius with the job of finding the mortified body of the Nazarene, and to do whatever he has to do in order to accomplish this task.  Clavius reluctantly agrees to the assignment, although he seems to find it rather a troublesome, irksome task.

The first people he tracks down in his investigation are the two guards who were at the tomb.  But the guards have been given temporary sanctuary by the Jewish leaders, as the leaders have bribed them to tell a certain story, and in so doing have guaranteed their safety, as they would have certainly come under punishment from their superiors for having allowed the body to be "removed."  One solider whom Clavius interrogates gives him the rehearsed lines that the Jewish leaders have told him to say, but Clavius isn't buying it - he knows that something is up.  He orders all bodies who have expired within the last week to be exhumed and examined - especially those who have been crucified - and all those who have stated publicly that Jesus has risen from the dead to be arrested and interrogated.

From here, the movie takes on a "Law & Order" feel, as Clavius begins to interrogate those who claim that Jesus has risen from the dead.  But in all of his interrogations, he has yet to question an actual disciple of Jesus.  They are all in hiding, and most of the people he talks to are tight-lipped about revealing their location.  Finally, he bribes a man who gives up the location of Bartholomew, whom Clavius quickly locates and arrests (Note: there is a small cheeseball factor with the character of Bartholomew, as he seems to be something of a hippie, but again, this is easy to overlook).  Also in this process, Clavius discovers that a woman named Mary Magdalene has been saying that Jesus has risen.  Clavius goes to the barracks and asks some of the common soldiers if any of them know who Mary Magdalene is, which many of them do, implying that they have visited her because she is a prostitute.  While this is definitely the prevailing opinion of Mary Magdalene's profession in Christendom, there is actually no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  Nevertheless, the story presumes that she was, and so Clavius is able to identify and locate her because many of his soldiers have presumably taken advantage of her services.  She is likewise arrested and interrogated by Clavius, and she challenges him to accept the truth that Jesus truly has risen from the grave.

Finally, Clavius is tipped off to the location of the rest of Jesus' disciples, and he and several other Romans storm a village, searching from house to house.  Clavius is told that the disciples are in an upper room of a specific building, so he ascends the stairs and dramatically pushes open the door with the tip of his sword, ready for battle.  What he finds are all 11 disciples, with a twelfth man in their midst.  He immediately recognizes the twelfth man as the same one whose crucifixion he oversaw several days previous.  He is stunned by this sight, and calls off his men, preventing them from seeing what he has seen.  He tells them to return to base, and he stays with the disciples and Jesus.  In a moment, however, Jesus vanishes, and Mary remembers that he told her to tell the disciples to meet him on a mountain in Galilee.  (Note: here there is a mashup of biblical texts, particularly Matthew 28.10, Luke 24.36-49, and John 20.19-29.  This mashup is a bit confusing, and probably would have been better left out, but again, it does not hinder the story much at all, nor the overall faithfulness of the movie to scripture, at least in my opinion.)

Clavius is so astounded by the fact that the corpse he had been looking for is actually alive and well (and bearing the marks of the manner of his death) that he goes with the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee on the mountain.  In doing so, he deserts from his military obligations and becomes himself the subject of pursuit of the Roman army.  So with centurions hot on his trail, he flees with the disciples, who make a daring escape from a Roman pursuit.  Once in Galilee, Clavius and the disciples find themselves on the seashore with no one there waiting for them.  They don't know what else to do, so they decide to go fishing, making way for the account of John 21.1-14. (Note: there is an extra-biblical scene depicted immediately after the narrative of John 21.1-14 in which Jesus heals a man with a horrible skin condition.  Clavius is talking with Bartholomew, who reveals that Jesus had told the disciples many times that he would die and rise again, but they didn't really believe him.  "Then why did you follow him?" Clavius asks.  And then Jesus heals the man with the horrible skin condition, and Bartholomew says, "That's why."  While this healing isn't recorded in scripture, I found its use in the story to be dramatic and adding to the conversation between Clavius and Bartholomew.)

That night, Clavius has a heart-to-heart conversation with Jesus, in which he admits to Jesus that "I was there, at your death."  "I know," Jesus responds.  "I helped," Clavius confesses.  "I know," Jesus replies.  This is as close to the message of the gospel as the film gets.  It does a superb job of faithfully, biblically recounting the historical events of the resurrection and thereafter, but does not go into detail about why Jesus' death had to occur in God's plan of redemption, and the significance of his resurrection.  While some might find this to be disappointing - and I would agree with them in some regard - again, I do not think this was necessarily the aim of the movie, and so it does not detract from it.  Rather, the aim of the movie was to document and accentuate the resurrection as an historical event - which it more than succeeds in doing.

Early the next morning, the disciples awake to discover that Jesus is yet again not among their number.  They look off in the distance and see him just as the sun is beginning to rise.  They run to him, and he says, "I am going to prepare a place for you.  And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria, and to the end of the earth." (Note: this dialogue is a mashup of John 14.3 and Acts 1.8, which again, I do not find to be detrimental to the movie).  After this brief dialogue, Jesus dramatically ascends into heaven.

While the other disciples begin to part ways in order to complete the mission that Jesus has given them, Clavius also goes his own way, although he knows that he cannot go back to Rome and continue his life there because he has been changed by Jesus.  The film closes as he sets out on his own journey.

Roll credits.  Two other final notes:

1. I have found that in most depictions of Jesus on film, it is difficult to give an accurate portrayal without a significant cheeseball factor.  The actor portraying Jesus in Risen in my opinion, overcomes this common difficulty.  He is able to portray Jesus in a way that is sincere and not overly mushy or squishy.  Also, the actor chosen to play Jesus is probably the most ethnically accurate actor ever chosen to portray Jesus on film.  He is a man who appears to be of middle-eastern descent, with olive-colored skin and black hair.  This, to me, was refreshing.  The actors portraying Jesus' disciples are of similar ethnicity.

2. I think it is similarly difficult to portray the relationship between Jesus and his disciples on film.  After all, you have a plutonic relationship between Jesus and 11 men.  Portraying that relationship - again without being squishy, or depicting Jesus and his disciples as "bros" - is challenging.  Again, this film overcomes that challenge, in my opinion - particularly the relationship between Peter and Jesus.

So there you have it.  Hopefully this review was worth the hour of time it took me to write it!  It's a great film and I heartily recommend it to you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Baseball

It's been no secret on this site that I am a huge baseball fan.  I love the sport.  I played it when I was a kid, and I continue to follow the local nine into my adulthood.  I particularly enjoy listening to baseball games on the radio (which, as it happens, is the only way for me to have access to baseball games, since I don't have cable television).  Today in my Facebook feed the Minnesota Twins posted the above image, noting that Santana's number equaled the amount of days until opening day, and I got excited.  I can't wait for another year of baseball.  Aside from my general excitement about baseball, it seems as though the sport has come up in my life in a few ways over the past week or so, so I thought I'd put fingers to keyboard to keep track of them for posterity.

1. Last week I called the commissioner of the local city baseball league and asked him if there was still time to sign up my son to play baseball this summer (sign ups were in early January - oops).  He said there was, and I should meet him at the local community center to get signed up.  The commissioner of the league also happens to be my coach from my 1993 team, when I played for the White Sox.  I enjoyed getting together with him again - and he even remembered me!  It was fun to see him, and I'm excited that Jamie will get to play in a league that he's running, since he's a great guy and was a great coach for me.  He really helped me grow as a player.  I especially remember one time when I was in a slump (which was odd for me, as I was - in my own humble opinion - the best hitter on the team), he made me practice bunting.  He wouldn't allow me to swing the bat, but just hold it out there to make contact with the ball.  It was incredibly humbling and I felt like such a loser just having to practice bunting instead of swinging away.  But he knew what he was doing, and it got me out of my slump.  If I could go back and relive a year of my life, it would be that year, and it would be for the purpose of playing on that team again.

2. I read an article just today that Challies linked to that gave 10 reasons why parents should have their kids play city ball rather than traveling ball.  Based on my experience as a player when I was a kid, and a bit in high school, and now as a parent, I think he's absolutely right.  City ball is where kids can grow for their love of the game and actually have fun instead of having to perform or to work to the extent that the game isn't fun anymore.  Before my fabled 1993 season I tried out for the West St. Paul traveling team.  I didn't make the cut, and I was told after that there was some discrepancy that was due to the fact that I wanted to play baseball in West St. Paul but actually lived in St. Paul.  Anyway, I was cut from the traveling team and relegated to a city team.  This was the best thing that could have possibly happened to me, for several reasons, some of which I've described in point 1 above.  But also, the city team I played for that year was absolutely phenomenal.  It was coached by John Pelano (the aforementioned current commissioner of the West St. Paul league) and was made up of (presumably) all of the kids that didn't make the traveling team.  For whatever reason, we were an unstoppable force.  We annihilated every other city team.  Coach Pelano even entered our city team into traveling league tournaments around the Twin Cities (this was not part of the city league program, but we were so good that he shopped us around to traveling tournaments), and we won every single game.  We were undefeated in city league play and even in the traveling tournaments.  In hindsight, I'm grateful that I didn't make the traveling team.  If I had, I almost certainly wouldn't have had as good a year as I had with the White Sox.  I hope my son will have a similar experience some time in his childhood.

3. Last week I started reading listening to the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis.  A movie of the same title was later released.  I realize I'm extremely late to the game when it comes to this book and its subject matter, but I just happened across a copy of the audio book, and I figured that it's about baseball so I would probably enjoy it.  I saw the movie when it came out too.  If you're not aware, the book is about making baseball decisions via an "objective" standard such as statistics rather than on impressions of talent, and how this process played out in the Oakland A's baseball club in the early 2000's.  It's a fascinating read, although I have to admit that I am not totally sold on the idea of saber metrics as being a reliable method for managing baseball teams (in fact, I'm not convinced that an "objective" method for managing baseball teams is even possible, as so much of the game is psychological - even though I know there are many who disagree with that).  I'm also aware that I'm very late to the party when it comes to this discussion, but who cares.  For one, I don't see the formula developed by Billy Bean as having paid off in the long run.  The A's still aren't that great, and haven't been.  And many of the players that Bean drafted as a result of his formulas haven't panned out - not even by a long shot.  I'm sure there are counters to these arguments, and I'd be interested to know them.  Sure, there are some benefits to using saber metrics (such as infield/outfield shifts), but I can't see operating the whole game by them.  There's just too much psychological unpredictability, and that's part of what makes baseball so unique and such a great game.

4. Finally, related to the item above, is this interesting article I read a few weeks ago.  It talks about the decline of the use of pitch-outs, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks in major league baseball, arguing that, statistically speaking, none of these things is worth doing in the long run - that is, they serve no advantageous purpose to a baseball team.  I read the article, and I understand the statistics, but it seems to me that the statistics fail to take into account (in the case of pitch-outs) the psychological affect it has on the runner: perhaps he's less inclined to run if he knows a pitch-out is possible.  There's only so much statistics can do and predict.  Baseball is a very psychological game (consider, for example, the incredible "mind game" played by the pitcher and the batter over each pitch.)  Also, if teams begin to not us the pitch-out, sacrifice bunt, and intentional walk, soon nobody will sue them, and then using them would become sort of a "trick play," catching the offense/defense off guard, thereby creating an advantage (such as the famous "Eephus Pitch" - it's ridiculous, but nobody expects it, so it works!)  My prediction: pitch-outs, sacrifice bunts, and intentional walks will always be a part of the game even if they aren't statistically advantageous.  They're still part of the incredible mind game that is baseball.

Bring on opening day!

Questions @ RBC

NOTE: This post originally appeared at my blog site at  
Each week we encourage people at Riverview to engage the scripture and sermon by submitting questions via or on the blue slip.  The sermon this week was on Luke 2.22-40.  Listen to the sermon here.  Questions and answers from this week are below.  
What does verse 23 mean: “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”?  Is this for Jews only?  Are Gentiles are included?
This command for the first male to “open the womb” to be dedicated to the Lord is one that God gave to his people in the book of Exodus.  “Consecrate to me all the firstborn.  Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast is mine.” (Ex. 13.2, 12, Num. 18.15-16, etc.)  This practice acknowledged God’s sovereignty, ownership, and provision in the lives of his people.  It is not clear what this consecration entailed, and it seems as though it meant different things for different people.  What is clear, is that this consecration specifically set aside the firstborn male to the Lord’s service in some way, shape, or form.  How that played out, however, differed from person to person.  This command was given only to God’s people in the Old Testament who were living in covenant relationship with him (to the Jews – not Gentiles) and applied only to them.  The dedication of the baby Jesus to the Lord is significant because he – unlike all other babies born before him – will be on a mission to completely fulfill the will of the Father for his life.  He will be dedicated to the Lord in a way that only he is able to be dedicated to the Lord as the Son of God.
We at Riverview practice infant dedication of both boys and girls – and not just the firstborn.  In this dedication, parents commit themselves to raising their children in the fear and instruction of the Lord to the best of their ability, and the rest of the church commits to supporting the parents in this endeavor.  While this is a different practice that what was commanded for Israel, it is a significant commitment and one that we take seriously, both as parents and as a body.
Why does it say that Zechariah was “waiting for the consolation of Israel”?  Is this referring to Jesus?
Luke 2.25 says “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”  In a general way, this refers to Simeon’s expectation that God would keep his promises to his people – particularly to save and deliver them spiritually (see Genesis 12.3 for the promise which Simeon undoubtedly had in mind as he was waiting for the “consolation of Israel”).  So as the text says that he was waiting for the consolation of Israel, it is most likely that he has a general idea of God being faithful in view, rather than a specific person.  At the same time, we look with hindsight that informs us that Jesus was indeed the “consolation of Israel,” but Simeon was probably thinking more generally – he was generally looking forward to God keeping his promises.  Christians should have this same general attitude toward God’s promises today, and particularly to the second coming of Christ.  We are looking for consolation – the fulfillment of the promise that Christ will return.
Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will be “a sign that is opposed.”  What does that mean?
As he tells Mary that Jesus will be “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…” he also tells her that Jesus will be “a sign that is opposed.”  This phrase is more literally interpreted as “a sign that is spoken against.”  In other words, Jesus will be a sign of God, and people will speak against him.  They will actively oppose him in everything he does.  Jesus is a sign from God – a sign of his love, mercy, goodness, justice, and righteousness – and people will hate him for being that sign from God.  So they will speak and act against him.  Of course, in Jesus’ case, this opposition led to his death.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Free to Forgive

There are many verses in the Bible that command Christians to forgive one another.  Jesus himself emphasized the importance of interpersonal forgiveness in order to restore relationships and demonstrate the spirit of Christ to one another (see, for example, Matthew 6.14-15, Luke 6.37, Matthew 18.21-22, Mark 11.25, etc.).  Moreover, the New Testament is full of commands to members of the early church to be characterized by a spirit of forgiveness.  But perhaps the most important verse in the entire Bible when it comes to forgiveness is Hebrews 9.22: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”  While this verse does not command forgiveness in any particular context, nor does it expound on the peace and wonder of having been forgiven, it is foundational when it comes to our own thinking on forgiveness.

Hebrews 9.22 reveals to us that in order for there to be forgiveness of sins, something else has to happen: blood has to be spilled.  In the Old Testament, God’s people achieved temporary forgiveness through the shedding of the blood of animals.  In order for them to be forgiven by God, something had to die as a penalty for their sins.  New Testament believers find themselves in a similar situation.  They likewise have sinned against God and need to be forgiven, and as it was with Old Testament believers, blood still needs to be shed in order to obtain forgiveness.  Except in the case of New Testament believers, the blood that is spilled is not the blood of animals, but the blood of the Son of God himself.  He sacrifices himself; he sheds his own blood; he receives the punishment for sin that is required in order for forgiveness to be possible.  And so, Christians rest in the security of the forgiveness of their sins because atonement has been made through Christ – the perfect God-man sacrifice.  And his atonement is made permanent because he is alive eternally.

This is the glorious truth of Hebrews 9.22: blood has been shed and we can be forgiven on account of that shed blood.  But this is not the end of the implications of this reality.  Additionally, Hebrews 9.22 explains the means by which we as believers can forgive one another, thereby fulfilling the commands of Jesus and the apostles. 

Usually when we are offended, our first response is to desire vindication – revenge.  This is a natural inclination.  After all, Hebrews 9.22 says that in order for there to be forgiveness, blood has to be spilled – there has to be some kind of justice served for the wrong that has been done.  So when we are wronged, we want to get the person back as good as they got us before we consider things to be even between us.  Forgive someone who has wronged me?  Not until I level the playing field; not until they get what’s coming to them.  Then, once we’re even, then I can forgive.  The glorious truth of the gospel, however, is that blood has already been shed so we don’t need to exact vengeance or seek justice when we are wronged.  Rather, we can and should simply forgive because justice has already been satisfied through the cross. 

For example, when my wife sins against me, my natural inclination is to get her back in some way – to make her pay for how she has wronged me.  Whether I use harsh words, lose my temper, or just avoid her and give her the silent treatment, what I am doing is punishing her for her sin against me.  I want her to feel bad because she has made me feel bad.  The cross, however, instructs us that her sin is already paid for.  God has forgiven her for the sin that she committed against me.  So any punishment I inflict on her not only implies that the punishment that Jesus suffered for her sin wasn’t enough (it implies that I need to give her a bit more), but it completely forgets the reality that instead of being bound to justice, I am free to forgive.  Blood has been spilled – Jesus’ blood – and so forgiveness is possible.  I am free to forgive her because her sin has already been paid for – justice has already been satisfied – when Jesus suffered for her sin on the cross.  Therefore it is not necessary for me to exact justice from her in order to give her forgiveness, and in fact, to demand more punishment for sin that was already paid for by Jesus on the cross would be sinful and wrong, and incredibly short-sighted.  The question now becomes: since justice has been satisfied on the cross, why wouldn’t I forgive?  It is in this sense that the justice-satisfying sacrifice of Christ on the cross gives us the freedom to forgive. 

If you think about it, the Christian freedom to forgive is an utterly counter-cultural, revolutionary thing.  Think of how strange the command to “turn the other cheek” sounds on its face.  “But Jesus, that guy slapped me!  I need to get him back!”  Jesus’ response: “No you don’t.  His sin has already been paid for.  Blood has been spilled.  So now, you are free to forgive.” 

And this is why the unity of the church is a witness to the unbelieving world: not only can we forgive those who have wronged us, but we desire to forgive because Christ has forgiven us through his shed blood, and we forgive others through that same blood.