Monday, December 18, 2017

Joy to the World

In Matthew 2 and Luke 2 we read about two groups of men who were invited to visit the newborn Jesus after his birth: the Wise Men from Matthew 2, and the Shepherds from Luke 2.  Both groups of men learned of the birth place of Jesus and visited his family in Bethlehem, and both groups of men left that encounter overflowing with joy.  In the sermon I preached this week, we learned that the source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not that they got to cuddle a cute baby Jesus, but rather that God was true to his word.  The Wise Men "rejoiced exceedingly with great joy" when the star came to rest over the town of Bethlehem because it was evidence that God was faithful to his promise to send the Messiah, and that he would be born in Bethlehem.  And the Shepherds came away from their encounter with Jesus "glorifying and praise God for all they had seen and heard," because everything they had seen and heard happened exactly the way that God said it would happen.

The source of the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds was not anything external, but rather the certain reality that God is true to his word.  When they discovered and believed this truth, all they could do was overflow with joy.

Let's face it: the Christmas season can be difficult.  On the one hand, our culture tells us to be happy and joyful, and to enjoy our friends and family and food and gifts.  But on the other hand, those times and seasons that are supposed to be happy and joyous occasions can be stressful and frustrating, and can be times when we feel our pain and suffering most deeply.  Some people weep through the Christmas season because it is the first time that they have spent the holiday without a loved one who has passed away.  It's hard to have the joy of Christmas when you're grieving loss.  Others wonder how they can have any joy in their lives when they don't agree on anything with their spouse, and they're not even close to seeing eye to eye.  Parents wonder where the joy of Christmas is when their children have wandered so far from their family and so far from God that it seems like they'll never return.  It's common for these supposedly joyful seasons of the year to instead magnify all the things in our lives that aren't going the way we'd like them to.

But like the Wise Men and the Shepherds, our joy in life should not be determined by external circumstances.  This is not to diminish the difficult things that happen in our lives, but rather to declare that the difficult things - and even the positive things - that happen in our lives cannot determine our joy.  The reason for this is that the external circumstances of our lives change.  Marriages do fall apart; families do crumble; unexpected health diagnoses do come; your body will break down over time.  So if your joy is based on the condition of your marriage or your family or your health, then prepare to live in despair.  If your joy in life is derived from circumstances, then prepare to ride a torturous rollercoaster because circumstances change, and sometimes life is downright miserable.  Sure, sometimes things go well, but give it time.

Rather than finding our joy in the circumstances of our lives, we should take our cue from the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and find our ultimate satisfaction in the faithfulness of God.  I don't mean to trivialize any of the deep and difficult troubles that you experience, but even in light of those difficulties we need to remember that God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because you are grieving the fresh loss of a loved one, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you can't rejoice this Christmas because your family is in shambles or because your marriage is falling apart or because your children are wayward, you can rejoice because God's word is true.

If you don't know what to do in your specific situation, you should rejoice that God does, and whatever he says about it is right and true.

If you don't feel like you have the strength to make it, you should rejoice in the fact that God does, and that he has promised to give you his own strength, and his promises are always kept.

If you don't feel like you could cry anymore than you have this Christmas, you should rejoice that God's word says that he is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit, and his word is true.

Those who trust in the Lord have a joy that is not derived from circumstances, but from an unshakable, indestructible trust that God's word is true.  No matter what comes down the pike in your life, you can "rejoice exceedingly with great joy" because you know that God's word is true; he is faithful to his promises.  That was the joy of the Wise Men and the Shepherds, and let that be your joy this Christmas and beyond: God is faithful; his word is true.

And the wonderful thing about Christmas is that it reminds us that anyone can have this kind of joy in their lives.  When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he said, "Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people."  The good news of the faithfulness of God is for all people.  Anyone can come to God and experience the joy of his faithfulness.  Through repentance and faith in Christ you can have the joy of knowing for certain that your sins are forgiven and that the punishment your sins deserved was taken by Jesus on the cross.  God has promised to do this for anyone who will call out to him in repentance and faith, and if you will trust in him, you too will find that God's word is true, and that will lead to your joy.  No matter what debilitating circumstances you're in at this very moment, even if your suffering is self-inflicted, this joy is for you.

It's easy to get lost in all of the cares and concerns of life and be overwhelmed by our circumstances.  It's easy to take God's faithfulness for granted.  It's easy to have an entitlement mentality when it comes to God's faithfulness to his promises.  Don't have that mentality.  Instead, allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the glorious truth that God is faithful, and that he will do what he has said he will do: he will be with you, he will strengthen you, he will provide for you, and he will help you.  That's who he is, in truth.  Let that truth wash over you, and then respond like a shepherd: glorify and praise God for all that you have seen and heard.

Joy to the world!  The Lord is come!  Let earth receive her King!  Let ev'ry heart prepare him room, and heav'n and nature sing!

Friday, December 15, 2017

2017 Books

Over my my other blog at the church website, I recently posted my top 10 books of the year that challenged me spiritually.  Of course, I read other books this year that didn't necessarily challenge me spiritually but that I found enjoyable.  I figured I'd do a second top 10 list here.  Some books appear on both lists, but there's a good amount of diversity.  This is a list of the 10 (and a half - more on that in a minute) books I found most enjoyable or most appreciated this year.  Click on the thumbnails to find the books on Amazon.

10.5 - Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel.  The first book on this list doesn't count as a full book (hence, it's #10.5) because it's very short - actually it's only a booklet.  This is an important book.  It was recommended to me just last month, and since it's very short it's very easy to read.  The book(let) is important because most people find themselves too short on time.  And being a pastor, I know firsthand that when people are short on time, the first thing they usually sacrifice is church involvement.  It doesn't have to be that way, though.  And in fact, as this book explains, you don't even have to be short on time at all.  You need to learn to budget and use the time God has given you wisely and well.  This very short book will help you do that.

10. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.  When the school year began, my son started reading this book for school.  He loved it, and he recommended that I read it too, so I did.  He kept telling me that it had an unbelievable ending, and it does.  It seems that fiction I read and really enjoy tends to be young adult fiction (go figure).  One of the things I liked about this book was what seemed, to me at least, to be the old fashioned style of writing and dialogue used.  It doesn't shy away from difficult vocabulary.  And although the setting of the book is modern times, it almost feels like it was written 50 years ago.  It's a fun, low-key adventure story (by the way, I'm currently reading through the second installment in this series, and enjoying it).

9. Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi.  We go from the young adult fiction of the entry above, to the horror of a mass murder scene by the infamous and now deceased Charles Manson.  This book was recommended to me by a Facebook friend about how circumstantial evidence is worthwhile evidence and can be used to form conclusions.  That's definitely the case with this book.  The book details the murders of the so-called "Manson Family" and the court case that sent most of them to jail for life.  This book is not for the faint of heart, as it does describe the mass-murders that took place at the end of the 60's, but the process of walking through the trial and hearing how the evidence was presented is fascinating. (Reader beware: this book obviously contains depictions of graphic violence, murder, and contains foul language.)

8. Lucky Bastard by Joe Buck.  Let me start by apologizing for the title, which was, in fact, enough to scare me away from this book for a long time.  It turns out that the title is actually very descriptive of Joe Buck's life.  And like it or not (I, for one, do not), Joe Buck is a mainstay in professional sports, especially Major League Baseball, if for no other reason than that he rides the coattails of his now deceased and legendary father, Jack Buck.  I don't really like Joe Buck.  I think his play-by-play announcing style - especially for baseball - is awful.  As I listen to him, it is obvious to me that he is calling the game in such a way so as to set himself up for a really catchy or observant statement when a big play develops.  It's ridiculous (plus, he's obviously biased for big market teams like the Yankees and Red Sox).  Anyway, none of that has anything to do with the book.  The book tells his story, all the way from being born out of wedlock - the result of an adulterous affair his father had with another woman - to the advancement he received in baseball announcing due to, well, luck.  As I implied earlier, I hesitated to read this book mostly because of the vulgar title, and also because it was Joe Buck's life story.  But I was actually taken in by his descriptions of growing up around the game of baseball, and what it's like to be an announcer. (For some reason, I have a deep fascination with play-by-play baseball announcing.  Most of my childhood baseball memories are narrated in my mind by Herb Carneal and John Gordon.)  If you like baseball - and even if, like me, you don't like Joe Buck very much - you'll enjoy this book. (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and irreverent humor.)

7. The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan.  This book was recommended by a somewhat high profile preacher that I follow on Facebook.  The book is the memoir of Andrew Klavan, who was born and raised a secular Jew.  The book details the account of his spiritual journey and ultimate awakening to the truth of the gospel.  It's a fantastic journey to see how God can intersect the life of anyone he chooses, no matter their circumstances or surroundings, and tear down the most prideful of hearts.  Plus, Klavan is a great writer and narrator, if you decide to get the audiobook.  I definitely had some theological and practical differences with Klavan along the way, but his story is encouraging and a worthwhile read.  

6. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  The Kingdom of Speech is perhaps the most interesting book I read in 2017.  It argues against the evolutionary hypothesis as a legitimate explanation of the origin of life, and it does so in a fascinating and entertaining way.  The basic premise of the book is that evolution cannot account for the creation of human speech.  A layman's look at the field of linguistics simply yet comprehensively demonstrates that the gift of speech could not have evolved.  Plus, it's a rather short read.  (Reader beware: there is some brief foul language.)

5. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  This book has been on a lot of Top 10 lists across the internet, and created quite a buzz earlier in the year.  It's a gripping true story about a young boy's growth into adulthood in "hillbilly" culture and turbulent relationships he has along the way with his parents, grandparents, and his culture in general.  At times the tale is tragic, and at times, funny.  The book is almost too complex to describe here.  Although not written from a Christian perspective, you will be challenged to think long, hard, and biblically about poverty, justice, social classes and stigmas, human nature, personal responsibility, sin, family relationships, and a host of other issues.  (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and depictions of drug and alcohol abuse.)

4. Dodge City by Tom Clavin.  I am fascinated by the old west, whether in book, movie, or TV form (I think my favorite fill of all time is "3:10 to Yuma").  Dodge City tells the story of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, the two lawmen who attempted to tame the "wickedest town in the American west."  It was fascinating to be able to separate the fact from legend when it came to Earp, and to learn more about Masterson - someone whom I knew virtually nothing about before the reading of the book.  Much to my delight, the book also contained biographic information about Doc Holliday and even an historical recounting of the gunfight at the OK Corral.  There is a ton of historical information in this book that I ate up, and you will too if you're even remotely interested in the old west. (Reader beware: this historical book contains descriptions of violence, gunfights, prostitution, and other morally suspect activities that were common parts of early American life.)

3. Silence by Shusaku Endo.  Although written in the mid-20th century, earlier this year a movie of the same title was released, and I began to learn about the story of Silence.  I did not see the movie, however, but instead decided to read the novel.  Considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, I found it very interesting, very engaging, and a good look at suffering for Christ, albeit from a Roman Catholic perspective.  The novel tells the story of a 16th century young Portuguese priest who goes on a missionary journey to Japan to see the oppression that Catholic missionaries and Japanese Christians have suffered at the hands of Japanese persecutors.  What he finds is the barbaric treatment of priests and Japanese Christians, and even suffers the same himself.  The title of the novel is derived from the central question of the story: "If God can see the evil that happens, why does he remain silent?"  Unfortunately, Endo offers no answer to the question, and perhaps there is not one from the Catholic perspective.  We do have answers, however, and that's what I found frustrating about this book: I wanted to shout out to the characters and encourage them with truth as they struggle with the difficult questions of life.  This book caused me to think a lot, however, which is what good books do.  (Reader beware: this book contains mild depictions of torture and violence.)

2. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton.  Also written in the mid-20th century is this biography of Martin Luther.  2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and so it seemed appropriate to me to read about the principle figure of the Reformation.  Bainton's biography was recommended to me as the standard of Luther biographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martin Luther is a complicated character, and it was an enjoyable and educational process to read more about the man's life, ministry, and role in history and western culture.  As Bainton correctly asserts in the book, Luther remains one of the top-five culture-shaping characters in all of human history.  (Here I Stand is available in the Riverview Library)

1. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.  The Wingfeather Saga is yet another young adult fiction entry on this list and is, I think, the best thing I read all year.  To be fair, this is not just one book, but a series of four books, and I was taken in by each one.  So much so that as soon as I finished the books on my own, I began reading them from the beginning to my children.  Currently, we're working our way through the fourth book.  The books tell the story of one family - the Wingfeathers - and particularly the children: Janner, Kalmar, and Leelee, and the adventures they have as they discover their true identities and the implications it has for the world in which they live as they battle against the Fangs of Dang and their master, Gnag the Nameless.  An appreciation for fantasy literature is certainly helpful, but definitely not required.  There are fascinating and excellent examples of good biblical character traits in these books, including heroism, sacrifice, courage, bravery, and countless other noble and biblical virtues.  And Peterson brilliantly creates a whole new world filled with unique creatures and challenges.   It's a great series for kids, and especially for boys, with perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read in a series of novels.  The series begins slowly in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and continues with North! Or Be Eaten and then becomes mysterious with Monster in the Hollows and concludes fantastically with The Warden and the Wolf King.  Don't let the fact that this series is young adult fiction discourage you from reading it.  I can't recommend this series highly enough for children and adults alike.  (The Wingfeather Saga is available in the Riverview Library.)

Monday, December 11, 2017

Magnify God, Not Your Problems

During the Christmas season we often focus on Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, and the many things that they did in order to prepare for the birth of their divine son.  In many ways, our idea of what they went through is probably inaccurate.  For example, we often think of them traveling to Bethlehem on their own, when in reality, they were most likely with a large group of family members.  And when we conceptualize Jesus' birth, the picture we get in our minds is one of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable, surrounded by animals.  This is almost certainly not the way it happened.  In ancient cultures, fathers had almost nothing to do with the actual birth of a baby.  Instead, midwives carried the mother along through the labor and actual birth.  In our modern context, we simply know of a mother and father going to a hospital for a few days, and then coming home with a baby.  But in first century Israel, it was a process that usually involved the whole extended family and a team of midwives.

I think another thing we misunderstand about the birth of Jesus is the social and cultural implications there would have been for Mary.  After all, she was most likely a teenager when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And not only that, but she was also betrothed (engaged) to Joseph.  An unexpected pregnancy no doubt brought suspicion of unfaithfulness on Mary's part.  For example, upon learning of her pregnancy, Joseph assumed that she had been unfaithful to him and became pregnant outside of their betrothal, so Joseph actually decided to divorce (annul the engagement) Mary.  If this would have happened, Mary would have found herself an unmarried teenage mother on the verge of destitution and poverty, and probably starvation. In first-century Israel, women relied upon men for their provision and even their daily food and shelter.  Without Joseph, Mary and her baby would almost certainly be doomed to die.

No doubt these potential difficulties were going through Mary's mind when Gabriel told her that she would miraculously conceive in spite of her virginity.  There must have certainly been flashes of fear, doubt, and uncertainty going through her mind.  After all, she had no idea how Joseph would respond to her unexpected pregnancy, no less the news that it was immaculately conceived.  And Mary likewise had no idea what the social and cultural response to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be.  Put simply, from all natural indicators, Mary appeared to be staring down the barrel of a very difficult time in her life.

But the fascinating and wonderful thing about Mary is that she does not focus on what could happen as a result of this unexpected pregnancy, but instead she focuses on the faithfulness of what God had done in the past.  Rather than magnify the many uncertain circumstances of her life that could lead to difficulty and even pain and suffering, instead she chooses to magnify the faithfulness of God.  In so doing, she gives us a wonderful example for how we should respond to difficult circumstances in life.

Have you ever looked into a microscope?  I have, but probably not since sophomore year biology in high school.  But if you're familiar with the concept, you'll be able to follow what Mary wants to teach us.  When something is magnified it becomes bigger in appearance.  A microscope "blows up" an image so we can see it larger and in more detail.  The tiny features that were hidden before become obvious and apparent.

Mary's remedy for dealing with the potential problems in her life brought about by her circumstances is to magnify (or "blow up") the truth about God in her mind.  She says in Luke 1.46-47 "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."  Here Mary makes a conscious decision to focus intentionally on truth about God, and to put that truth into practice in her life by believing it and acting upon it.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, we looked at five truths about God that Mary "magnified" instead of magnifying her problems in life.  I'd like to focus on just two of those truths now.

1. First, Mary magnifies the truth that God watches over his people.  In Luke 1.48 Mary says, "...for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant."  God is a God who looks upon and sees his people, and when he looks, he sees them through eyes of compassion.  Sometimes the image that we have of God is that he is sitting up on his throne in heaven, watching us, just waiting for us to mess up and make a mistake.  But this is not at all how God watches over his children.  Instead, he watches over them with eyes of tenderness and compassion (1 Peter 3.12).  He knows where his children are and what is going on in their lives, and he responds to their prayers.  You and I can't even see what's going on in the other room next to us (without a window), but God can.  He can see in every corner of the earth at all times, and that included Mary and her potential problems brought about by this unexpected pregnancy.

Mary also says that not only is God watching, but he is watching here even though she is in not a very important person.  Mary was from the town of Nazareth, which was known at the time as something of a ghetto.  It wasn't a city that had a lot of culture, and the people from Nazareth had a bad reputation of being low-class individuals (John 1.46).  But that didn't matter.  No matter where Mary came from or who she was - even if she was a nobody - God was watching, and he knew exactly what was going on in her life and what she needed.

The same is true for you.  God sees you.  He knows exactly what is happening in your life, and he knows exactly how it's going to play out.  He knows exactly what you need to get through your challenges, and he is faithful to give you what you ask for in prayer.  And he knows all of this because he is watching.  When life gets difficult, as it has the tendency to do, don't magnify your problems.  Instead, magnify the truth that God sees you and he is watching you with eyes of compassion.  Blow this truth up in your mind, and believe it, and then act on it.

2. Second, Mary magnifies the truth that "He who is mighty has done great things for me."  That's what Mary says in Luke 1.49.  One of the biggest temptations that we face when life is difficult is to forget all that God has done in the past.  We can get so caught up in the moment and the difficulty of our circumstances that we can become shortsighted.  It's easy to let the discomfort of "the now" to cloud our memory of all the great things God has done for us in the past.

Scripture teaches that the gift God has given us to fight for faith in the present is remembering what he has done in the past: "I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds" (Psalm 77.10-12).  The remedy for getting caught up in the present difficulty of life is to remember that "he who is mighty has done great things for me."  It's magnifying what God has done rather than magnifying the present discomfort.

This is what Mary must have been saying to herself: "You know, things are pretty hard for me right now, but I can take comfort because he who is mighty has done great things for me.  And if he has done great things in the pasty, he will again in the future."  That, my friends, is hope.  Instead of magnifying your present difficulty, magnify the truth of the mighty things God has done in the past.  That knowledge should give you hope for today, tomorrow, and any time in the future.

Let's be frank: when troubles come, it is very easy to get caught up in the nagging questions about how and why we ever ended up in such a difficult spot in the first place.  It's easy to find ourselves questioning God and even being angry or feeling sorry for ourselves.  It is in those times that we must resist the temptation to magnify our problems, and instead magnify what we know to be true about God: that he looks upon his children and knows their suffering, and that he is faithful to keep his promises.  Make your faith in those promises big, and your problems will begin to seem much smaller.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Fullness of Time

Have you ever wondered why Jesus came 2,000 years ago instead of some more recent time in history?  Why didn't God wait to send his Son after the invention of the printing press?  Imagine how easy it would have been to print his words on a press rather than copying them by hand.  Or, why didn't Jesus come some time after the advent of the internet, or after smart phones became common?  Imagine if we could take videos of Jesus' sermons on our smartphones, or document his miracles on video and share them on our Facebook pages.  Wouldn't that have been more efficient (and convincing to unbelievers) than having Jesus come during a time when there weren't even still images or newspapers to spread the word?  In a lot of ways, it seems like Jesus came into the world too early.

But rather than coming too early, the Bible says that Jesus came at just the right time.  Galatians 4.4 says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law..."  What this verse is saying is that God had predetermined a date that Jesus would come into the world to solve the sin problem.  No, the date almost certainly was not December 25, 0 B.C., but there indeed was a date that God had determined would be perfect.  And when that perfect date arrived ("when the fullness of time had come"), God sent his Son into the world.  It was exactly at just the right time, right according to schedule.  God didn't make a mistake by sending Jesus 2,000 years before the 21st century.  It was the perfect time for him to come.

2,000 years ago, for the first time in history, the known world was unified and enjoyed relative peace under the "Pax Romana," or the peace of Rome.  The Roman empire had gone out to virtually every known inhabited nation and had built roads that centralized commerce and communication.  For the first time in human history, messengers could travel by road safely, and sea travel had advanced to the point that it was common and relatively safe.  As Jesus' disciples would take the message of his life and death across the world, they would use these new roads by land and sea to bring their news.  And since Rome ruled the known world, there were no impenetrable borders or places that were off limits to the gospel.

Moreover, since Rome ruled most of the known world, their language also dominated almost every culture.  Practically everyone spoke the predominant language of the time: Greek - a language that is more articulate than even modern English.  This made it easy for essentially all people of the known world to hear and understand the message of the gospel.  No Bible translators were necessary because, in addition to their native languages, almost the whole world knew Greek.

God foresaw this time in human history, and he determined that this was the perfect time into which he would send his Son to solve the sin problem, once and for all.

But from our perspective, the time doesn't seem so right.  Forget about the Roman roads and dangerous sea voyages - we have air travel!  We can fly to the other side of the word in relative safety with the message of the gospel in less than a day.  And for all for he technological and cultural advancements initiated by the Roman empire, the 21st century and all of the technological advancements that we alluded to earlier (smart phones, the internet, television, etc.) would be much more ideal time for the message of Jesus to spread to the whole world.  Wouldn't it?

No, not really, for at least three reasons:

1. Technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete over time.  We think of the technology of the Roman empire as irrelevant and obsolete because we have made amazing advancements over the past centuries.  But at the time, the ancient advancements mentioned earlier were cutting edge.  Similarly, the cutting edge technology we have today will be irrelevant and obsolete 100 years from now (if not sooner).  If Jesus came today, in 100 years people would be lamenting that he came to early, given the technological advancements that will have been made in the next 100 years.  If we judge the appropriate time for Jesus' advent according to humanity's technological advancement, then no matter when Jesus comes, it will have been too early, because technology will always be better at some later date.

2. Additionally, regardless of whatever means there are to propagate the message of the gospel - and no matter how convincing you can make it or how widely you can spread it - people will always find reasons to not believe.  For instance, if Jesus were performing miracles on the earth today and those miracles were captured with a smart phone camera, providing video evidence of his divinity, someone would find a reason to doubt that the video was genuine.  They'd say the footage was doctored, or that the testimony of the witnesses was unreliable.  People will find any number of reasons not to believe the truth.  Furthermore, no matter how clear the evidence might be, it is very possible for two distinct people to examine the same evidence and come away with different conclusions.

Jesus came 2,000 years ago and proved his divinity in a variety of ways.  And despite the witnesses and the wide reports of his power, people did not believe.  They looked the evidence square in the face and refused to believe.  The same thing would happen if a video of Jesus' miracles was the most-viewed video on Facebook.  Technological advancement does not produce faith.  Only God can do that.  Moreover, the scriptures testify to the faithfulness of God's word and the accounts therein that testify to the divinity of Jesus and to the veracity of the story of his life, death, and resurrection, yet people refuse to believe it.  If they don't believe the Bible, why would they believe a Facebook video?

3. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who dies and goes to hell.  In hell, he asks Abraham, who is in heaven, to resurrect a poor man named Lazarus who had also died, so that Lazarus may go and preach to the rich man's brothers so that they might not suffer a similar fate.  The rich man is convinced that if a dead man goes and preaches to them, then his brothers will surely believe such a miraculous sign.  But Abraham says that the rich man's brothers already have Moses and the prophets preaching to them from God's word, and if they won't believe Moses and the prophets, then they wouldn't believe even a dead man who came back to life.  The same is true of our world today: if people won't believe Moses and the prophets, they also wouldn't believe a miracle caught on camera.  Jesus came when he came.  His life, death, and resurrection were meticulously recorded and preserved to serve as a testimony to all people who came after him about what he has done.  This testimony is enough.  It is sufficient.

The bottom line is that God knew the exact right time to send Jesus into the world, and that's when he came.  God had been waiting thousands of years for the right time to come, and it came roughly 2,000 years ago.  At Christmas we celebrate not only that Jesus came into the world, but also God's perfect timing in sending the Savior.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Digging Deeper: Only Three Kinds of Christians

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12.1-3 kicks off the story of a rescue mission that is initiated by God himself.  Through Abraham and his descendants, God promised to send One who would repair the breech created by man's willful sin against God and thereby bless "all the families of the earth."  God's rescue mission would be an all-encompassing, world-wide mission.  God would send his Son into the world to live a perfect life, die a perfect death, and then defeat death through his resurrection.

And then, in the last book of the Bible, Revelation 7.9-10 shows us a future time which has not yet come to pass, in which people from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" are "standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"  Clearly, God's world-wide rescue mission is destined for success.

Although the Bible tells us that God's world-wide rescue mission is indeed destined to be successful, it is not yet complete.  We have not yet reached the Revelation 7 reality of people from every corner of the earth worshipping the Lamb because there are people of the earth who are still yet unreached.  In his wisdom, God has chosen people to be the vehicle by which this blessing to the nations and all the families of the earth would be spread.  God doesn't just snap his fingers and cause all people of the world to come to him for salvation.  He could, but he doesn't.  Instead, he uses his people to bring the blessing of Christ to the nations.  A tremendous blessing has been give to the nations, and God calls each one of us to be his ambassadors and to bring that good news to all the families of the earth.

The question is, what are you doing to be a part of God's world-wide rescue mission?

John Piper has famously said, "There are only three kinds of Christians: those who send, those who go, and those who are disobedient."  God has called you to be either a goer or a sender - or both.

Those Who Send
At Riverview, we value the work of international missions and missionaries - people who have dedicated their lives to going to other lands to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the families of the earth so that they might hear and be blessed.  So we partner with several missions organizations and missionaries to do this work.  Just last week, Bible translators Steve and Carol Jean Gallagher reported that they recently celebrated the five year anniversary of the translation of the scriptures into the Bariai language of the people of Papua New Guinea.  Before their translation work, God's word did not exist in their language.  As recently as last week, Steve and Carol Jean ran out of Bibles to give to people who requested them.  God has a plan to bless the Bariai people, and it is our privilege to partner with Steve and Carol Jean to bring this blessing to them.  Our part in God's blessing of the nations has been realized by sending people - from our own church - to the nations to declare the good news of Jesus Christ.  In fact, Riverview has been privileged to send out several missionaries from our doors overseas, even to places where Christ has never been named.

Those Who Go
But the work of God is not limited to international missions.  There are many here in our own nation who do not know God, who are still at odds with him, and who need to be blessed through the gospel.  Every eight weeks a team of faithful people from Riverview travel to the Dakota County Jail to minister to the inmates there.  The gospel is declared faithfully and clearly, as our own people go to be ambassadors of Jesus even in our own community.  To be one who goes, you don't necessarily need to go overseas.  You simply need to go across the street.

This is the call of every follower of Jesus: to send others to the nations by equipping and resourcing them for the task ahead, and to go into our own communities - our own families, even - to preach the good news of the gospel.  God has a desire to bless the people living in the deepest, darkest jungles where Christ has never been named, and he also wants to bless the people in your social sphere, living in 21st century modern America.  And he has called you to bring his blessing to the nations, across your street, into your community, into your workplace, into your school, and into your family.  This is what Christians do.  They act as agents of God right where they are, and by extension through sending others in their stead.

Those Who Are Disobedient
This is God's mission, but he has called us to be a part of it.  To not participate is to be disobedient.  Your job is to figure out how you will be obedient to partner with God in his world-wide rescue mission.  Maybe you can't go overseas, but you can send others with your resources.  Or maybe you can't go overseas, but you can go across the street.

Which Kind Are You?
As we come upon the Christmas season, we remember the most significant part of God's rescue mission: the sending of his Son into the world to save sinners.  As you reflect on that marvelous miracle, reflect also on how God is calling you to be a part of what he is doing in the world.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Digging Deeper: The Toilet Bowl of the Bible

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

Some commentators have described Judges 19 as the "toilet bowl of the Bible."  While that may seem to you to be a rather crass description, it is accurate in the sense that the events described therein are utterly disgusting and vile: gang rape, murder, and mutilation are only the tip of the iceberg of depravity described in Judges 19.  

So then, why is it in the Bible at all?  As you can probably guess, many critics of the Bible believe that Judges 19 essentially disqualifies the entire Bible from believability.  Why does God allow these horrible actions to transpire?  Does he approve of this?  Why didn't he stop it?  Why should we believe and follow him if he allows something like this to happen?  How are we to understand Judges 19 and the brutality it describes? 

Over the years there have been several attempts to answer these questions and to either justify God or the characters in the story.  This has been particularly evident in more modern biblical scholarship, as some have interpreted this text from a feminist point of view, and also from a pro-homosexual viewpoint.  For instance, the feminist readings of Judges 19 have focused on the plight of the women in the story, and condemned the patriarchal society in which the events unfolded (and by implication and even explicit statement, God himself).  Homosexual readings of Judges 19 have determined that the primary sin of the men of Gibeah was not homosexuality, per se, but was instead a lack of hospitality towards strangers.  Each of these readings, however, force modern (and subjective and personal) sensibilities onto the text.  Instead, as interpreters, it is our job to remove as much of ourselves as possible when we interpret the text, and let it speak for itself.  We should not feel it necessary to attempt to justify God or anyone else as we read the Bible, and we should be very hesitant to force our own personal, cultural, or societal sensibilities onto the text - even when our sensibilities are righteous and good.

One of the most important things we need to remember when reading scripture - and especially hard parts like Judges 19 - is the genre of the literature we are reading.  The book of Judges is an historical narrative, and so the author of the book writes as a dutiful historian: just the facts, with very little - if any - personal commentary.  This is particularly true of the book of Judges.  Throughout its pages, you will find very few moral judgments made by the author.  That is, the author very rarely ever pauses to interject his own feelings about the morality of a given scenario.  For instance, when Samson marries a Philistine woman, the author does not say that it was the wrong thing to do - even though it was.  Later, when Samson visits a prostitute, he is not condemned by the author - even though he could have been.  The reason for this is that the author's primary purpose is to relay historical facts, and not necessarily to comment on the morality of a given situation.  We know, however, that the morality of the book of Judges is in the gutter because we know God.  We allow our knowledge of scripture and the character and nature of God interpret the events of the book of Judges.  Not what we think is right or wrong, but what God thinks is right and wrong.  

This is also true of Judges 19, and more generally, of Judges 17-21.  These chapters are filled with historical events of a dubious moral nature and, for the most part, the author remains silent about the morality of the events he describes.  For instance, there are only two moral judgments made by the author (that I can find, at least).  First, he calls the men of the town of Gibeah "worthless fellows."  Second, he says that the moral and spiritual climate of Israel at the time was one that could be characterized by the reality that "there was no king in Israel..."  Both earlier and later in this book, the moral and spiritual climate of Israel is more succinctly described as "everyone did what was right in their own eyes."  Aside from these somewhat abstract moral judgments, the author's main purpose is to record and communicate historical facts.  Most moral judgments that we make regarding the events described in this book come from outside of the actual text.  And as we've seen, we need to be careful about forcing our own sensibilities onto the text.  

Since the author is writing an historical account, we also need to remember that neither the human author - nor the spiritual author - necessarily condone what is being described.  We often make the mistake of thinking that God approves of the history that is recorded in the Bible.  In many cases, he does not.  Although the events are recorded for us to read, that doesn't mean that God approves of what unfolded.  We also should remember that just because the Bible records historical events, that doesn't mean that we should seek to duplicate or recreate those historical events.  History is history - not a direct command for us to obey.  Think of reading a history text book when you were in high school: you didn't interpret your history text book as being a direct command for your to follow or an event for you to recreate for yourself.  History describes things that have happened in the past - it doesn't prescribe things that should happen in the present or future.  The same is true of the Bible: it records history, and sometimes that history is brutal, unforgiving, and even barbaric.  

Then how should we read difficult texts like Judges 19?  We should read it for what it is: an historical narrative about a group of people at the depths of their depravity, doing wicked, vile, and evil things.  And we can make those judgments because we the rest of the testimony of scripture: we know that the character and nature of God is contrary to the events described in Judges 19.  God did not approve of it, nor desire for it to happen.  

But also, we know from the rest of scripture that even though mankind is at his most depraved in Judges 19, he has not moved so far away from God as to be unredeemable.  Yes, the events of this chapter are horrific and demand our condemnation and swift justice and punishment.  Indeed, God will see that justice is done for the nameless concubine who is horrifically raped, murdered, and mutilated.  Justice will be served for those responsible, either through an eternity of punishment in hell, or through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.  Judges 19 is a picture of just how sinful we all truly are.  No, you may have never committed acts like those described in this chapter, but you certainly have fallen - and far - from God's grace, perhaps through murder of the heart by hating your brothers, or perhaps through sexually violating someone in the secret thoughts of your heart and mind.  Nevertheless, you are not too far away to be redeemed.  The scandal of grace - and the message of the book of Judges - is that God can even redeem rapists and murderers - even you.  

Monday, October 30, 2017

Digging Deeper: What Do We Do With Samson?

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

Samson: childhood Sunday School hero, strongman, womanizer, sleaze ball, Judge of Israel, avenger, warrior, fornicator, Nazarite.  The list of descriptors for the man whose story we read about in Judges 13-16 could go on and on.  One thing is for sure: Samson was a man whose life was a big hot mess, and almost always not in a good way.

So what do we do with Samson?  Many have undertaken the difficult task of attempting to find some kind of redeeming element in the story of Samson, but any way you look at it, the guy's life was a shambles of disobedience, apathy, and selfishness.  It's hard to find something redeemable about someone so scummy.  Is there anything about this guy that is worthy of admiration or emulation?  No.  At least not from the account of him that we read about in Judges.

The answer changes, however, when we read Hebrews 11.32-34: "And what more shall I say?  For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight."

It's interesting: when you read the account of Samson's life in Judges 13-16, the author never commends any of Samson's actions as being faithful.  That is, the author never explicitly says that Samson performed any of his mighty deeds because of his faith.  In fact, the opposite is true: the overwhelming circumstantial evidence of Samson's actions points us to the conclusion that he instead performed his mighty deeds out of selfish ambition field by sinful desire.  The author of Hebrews, however, reveals that Samson's mighty deeds were, in fact, fueled by faith.  Although these faith-fueled deeds are not at the exclusion of all of the rotten things he did too.

For instance, of the qualifiers that are listed in Hebrews 11.32-34, Samson fits at least five of them.  In Samson's story we read about him 1) stopping the mouth of lions; 2) escaping the edge of the sword; 3) being made strong out of weakness; 4) becoming mighty in war; and 5) putting foreign armies to flight.  All of these, the author of Hebrews implies, Samson did with resolute faith in God, albeit with significant personal failings mixed in along the way.  Nevertheless, Samson was a man of faith.

It took faith for Samson to believe that God would give him the strength to overpower the lion; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would allow him to escape from the many enemies that wanted to kill him; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him strong in spite of his physical weakness; it took faith for Samson to believe that God would make him mighty in war, and faith to believe that God would use him to put the foreign army of the Philistines to flight.  Samson knew - at least at some level - that it was God who was empowering him and working through him to achieve God's purposes.

It is also true, however, that nearly all of the great things Samson did and victories he won were born out of the sins of pride and selfishness.  As I've stated previously, praise God that he can even work through our impure motives and desires - and even our sin - in order to achieve his purposes.  Even Samson's major-league-level bungling of every situation he was in couldn't stop God from achieving his intended ends.

So what do we do with Samson?  How does such a rotten guy end up being mentioned in the "Hall of Fame of Faith" (Hebrews 11)?  The answer is, as I've said before, there's no such thing as "Bible Heroes."  Everyone that we read about in scripture - including those mentioned in Hebrews 11 - were depraved sinners, saved by grace.  And if we will see them as such, God's grace in their lives will be all the more magnified.

Moreover, we need to understand that faith is a gift of God and does not come from us, but from him.  As such, God can do anything he wants with our faith, regardless of how large or small we might deem it to be.  As linear human beings, we have a tendency to gauge or categorize or evaluate the size of "faith" based on some man-centered objective.  God's categorization of faith, however, works on a different plane that we will never understand.  To us, Samson's faith appears small because he was such a lout during his life.  But what did Jesus say?  "If you have faith like a grain of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you'" (Matt. 17.20).  From our perspective, Samson's faith was small - smaller even than "a grain of mustard seed."  From God's perspective, however, Samson's faith was just the right size to accomplish what God wanted to accomplish.

To this extent, we can aspire to have a faith like Samson: that in the day when I am attacked by a lion, I will believe that God will give me the power to stop his mouth.  And if and when I am called on to put "foreign armies to flight," I will believe that God will make me "strong out of weakness."  This is what Samson believed, and this is what God did.

At the same time, we can and should aspire to avoid the mistakes that Samson made.  He serves us as an example of the damage that can be done when we are only looking to fulfill our own desires and serve our sinful passions - even in the midst of actively believing God.

What do we do with Samson?  We take the good and leave out the bad; eat the meat and spit out the bones; see the great things that he did in faith, and mourn the incredible damage caused by his sin; aspire to believe God like Samson, and desire to master the sin that he didn't.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Semper Reformanda

On October 31, 2017, the Protestant Church will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg church.  This event is commonly marked in history as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, although the seeds of the Reformation were planted years before.  Nevertheless, we intend to mark this momentous occasion at Riverview with a celebration this coming Tuesday, October 31 from 6:00-7:30 with our "Reformation Celebration."

While many great reforms were made to the church as a part of the Reformation, the most commonly known are the "Five Solas of the Reformation," Latin phrases that succinctly delineate the doctrine of salvation: Sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria.  Translated into English these phrases state that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, according to scripture alone, for the glory of God alone.

Another Latin phrase that came from the Reformation is: "Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda."  Translated to English, this means, "The church reformed, always reforming."  When we think about the Reformation, we tend to think of historical events, such as Luther nailing his 95 Theses, or historical people, such as Luther and Calvin and Zwingli and many others.  But the spirit of the Reformation, I think, is encapsulated nicely in this latin phrase: Semper reformanda.

Semper Reformanda ("always reforming") reminds us that reformation is not an historical event - it is a continual process that never ends.  That is, we always need reformation.  The need for us to reform our thinking by submitting to the authority of the word of God and living and serving in God's grace is one that is continuous for Christians.  Indeed, we will be "reforming" until the day we die.

Our continual need for reformation has been brought to bear recently by way of a Christianity Today article, in which a Pew Research study recently revealed that 52% (!) of American Protestants believe that faith in God and good deeds are necessary for entrance into heaven.  52% also believe that scripture alone is not enough to know God - one must also have the traditions and teachings of the church.  Across the ocean in Europe (the birthplace of the Reformation), the numbers are similar amongst European Protestants.  For many protestants across the globe, the Reformation (and distinctly Protestant) doctrines of sola fide (faith alone) and sola scripture (scripture alone) have gone by the wayside

Not only do these percentages (and many more listed in the CT article) reveal that the majority of Protestants have no grasp on their Protestant heritage and history, but even more concerning is that these statistics reveal that the majority of Protestants have fallen into wrong thinking about the Bible and the gospel.  If 52% of American Protestants believe that faith and good deeds are necessary for salvation, then 52% of American Protestants aren't believing the biblical gospel.

Put simply, the majority of Protestants in America and Europe have stopped reforming.

As Christians, we are in a daily battle against the flesh and against spiritual forces to sin, doubt, and rethink our relationship with God through Christ.  We try to add to what he has done by keeping a tally of our good works, hoping that we can earn God's favor.  Or we are tempted to listen to spiritual gurus (or even pastors), or other man-centered spiritual wisdom as our authority on spiritual matters, instead of the Bible.  Our daily battle against these temptations to continually submit ourselves to the authority of scripture and rest in God's grace through faith - not through any merit of our own - is at the heart of semper reformanda.

We need to continually reform our thinking to know that we are saved by God's grace, and not by works.  We need to continually reform our thinking to know that salvation comes through faith, and not through any other means.  We need to continually reform our thinking to hold that faith in Christ is the only way of salvation.  We need to continually reform our submission to God's word as the only authority in all matters of life.  We need to continually reform our belief that God alone is sovereign, and that his glory is the chief end of man.

If and when we stop reforming, we fall into error.  If and when we stop reforming, we will be believing something less than the biblical gospel.

The battle for a pure and biblical faith and Christian life is a continuing one.  Although the Protestant Reformation is recognized to have started on October 31, 1517, it is not over.  We must continue to always reform our thinking, our churches, and our faith to come into line with what scripture teaches.  The moment we stop reforming, we begin to fall away from the truth of God's word and the biblical gospel.

Although we are celebrating an historical event on October 31, we are also celebrating the Reformation that is happening today in our churches and in our hearts, as we continue to submit ourselves to God and his word.

"Semper reformanda.  Soli Deo gloria."

Monday, October 23, 2017

Digging Deeper: Stop Wasting Time

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  

The story of Samson is tragic.  As we've gone through his story, recorded in Judges 13-16, we've seen that he has done things according to his own desires, or, as Samson says what "is right in my eyes."  Needless death, revenge, womanizing, betrayal, and more are all part of Samson's story.  But perhaps the most tragic and telling verse of Samson's story is Judges 15.20: "And he judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years."

Samson never knew a single day of his life apart from Philistine oppression.  The Philistines had occupied Israelite land before Samson's birth, and their occupation continued even after his death.  Samson is the only leader of Israel in the book of Judges who did not release his people from the oppression of their enemies.  Even louts like Barak, Gideon, and even Jephthah (!) took up arms to follow God's lead and bring their people out from under the oppression of their enemies.  Samson, however, was too busy serving his own desires to be bothered to organize his people under the banner of God.  Never had a man with more God-given potential achieved so little.

In spite of Samson's disregard for God's program, God still used him to strike several blows against the Philistines' oppression and occupation of Israel (see, for example, 14.19, 15.4, 8, 15, etc.).  But the sad reality is that God worked in spite of Samson, rather than through his willing obedience.  At the end of Samson's brief life, Israel was still in the same predicament as when it began.

This is not to say that Samson's life was meaningless, and that God couldn't work through him.  Before Samson was born, God told his parents that he would use Samson to "begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines" (Judges 13.5, emphasis mine).  Israel wouldn't be free from Philistine influence until the time of king David.  Indeed, however, God did use Samson to begin to free his people from the Philistines.  But imagine what Samson could have done if he hadn't wasted his time pursuing his own desires!  Imagine what Samson could have done if he had dedicated himself to holiness and obedience instead of doing what was right in his own eyes.  Instead of investing his time and efforts into God's overarching purpose for his life, Samson invested his time and efforts into his own purpose for his life.

I cringe when I think about how much time I spend on frivolous pursuits that pique my interest: things that are not essential to my well-being; things that are not eternal or meaningful (Facebook, anyone?); things that are here today and gone tomorrow; things that seem enjoyable in the moment; things that I wish I hadn't done; things that are innocuous and only serve to fill/waste time.  If you do the math, you spend about 1/3 of your life sleeping.  I wonder how much of my life is spent doing pointless or even sinful things.  I shudder to think.

There's a cliche story about how, after your death, your tombstone will record the date of your birth and the date of your death.  And in between those two dates there is a dash - a mark that symbolizes everything that happened between those two dates.  That dash symbol is the story of your life.  Everything you've ever done will be characterized by that dash.  The dash that characterizes Samson's life does indeed include a few instances where God used him to help his people.  But the list could have been longer.  When people saw the date of Samson's death on his tombstone, they no doubt compared it to the date of the end of the Philistine oppression and remembered, sadly, that Samson's death came long before.  Samson wasted his time.  Even though he was set apart for the service of the Lord before he was even born (Judges 13.5), he never saw even a fraction of the potential of his special status as a Nazirite.

When we read that Samson "judged Israel in the days of the Philistines twenty years," it's a warning to us to get busy while the getting is good.  When we read Samson's story, it's an encouragement to us to not waste the time that we have here on frivolous and selfish pursuits; it's an encouragement to us to use the things that God has given to us for his plans and purposes in this world; it's an encouragement to us not to take the gifts and talents God has given to us for granted.

God has a purpose that he is working out in this world - a grand, universe-sized plan that is constantly unfolding, second by second.  It is the high calling and privilege of every Christian to be a part of what God is doing in the world.  God will still use us for his purposes even if we aren't willing, and even if we're too self-absorbed to get with his program, but I certainly don't want that to be the story of my "dash."  To an extent, Samson's legacy is as a man whom God gifted greatly, but who squandered those gifts on temporal - and even sinful - pleasures and pursuits.  I want my legacy to be the opposite: that I used everything that God has given me for his glory; that I partnered with God in what he is doing in the world so that his name might be known throughout the ends of the earth; that I used my very brief time on earth well; that I used the gifts God had given me to the utmost.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

No Such Thing As Bible Heroes

When I was a kid I went to Sunday School and learned all about the heroes of the Bible.  People like David, Moses, Gideon, Samson, and many others, and all of the amazing things they did through the power of God were brought to life through flannel graph.  I marveled with childish wonder at the strength of Samson, the deadly accuracy of David, and the strategy of Gideon.

The first time I ever read through the Bible cover-to-cover I was around 20 years old.  I remember being shocked that many of the "heroes" I had learned about as a kid weren't really very heroic.  In fact, most of they seemed like downright scumbags!  The picture I had learned about them in Sunday School as a kid was very incomplete.  Yes, Samson was physically strong, but he was also a womanizer, liar, and a vengeful jerk.  Sure, Gideon trusted the Lord and took on more than a hundred thousand Midianites with just 300 men, but he was also narcissistic and bloodthirsty and bent on revenge.  And yes, David did defeat the giant Goliath, vanquish the Philistines, and lead Israel into its golden age, but his personal life was a shambles, consisting of womanizing, adultery, lies, and murder.  

Why was I ever taught that these guys were heroes?  It's no wonder that some people who, like myself, grew up in the church and learned all their Bible stories became disenchanted with the Bible after having read it as adults.  All of those men and women we were told were heroes and who were worthy of emulation seem to be anything but.  In my opinion, the people whom God used in the Bible are decidedly not heroes.  A quick look at the accounts of their lives easily disqualifies them from heroic status.  

The problem is that, in trying to find human heroes throughout the pages of scripture, we have inadvertently overlooked the one true Hero of the Bible, the only One worthy of admiration or emulation: God.  God is the hero of the Bible.  The Bible shows us no other hero but Him.  All of the other characters in the story of the Bible are broken, flawed, damaged, sinful human beings who are empowered by God to perform heroic deeds in spite of their very significant personal moral failings.  If we look to the Bible for human heroes, we won't find many, because human heroes will always have flaws.  But that's not the point of the Bible.  The point of the Bible is to focus our attention on the only Hero who is worthy of praise.   

One of the amazing things about the Bible is its transparency.  "History is written by the victors," as the saying goes, and usually the victors write their history in such a way as to magnify their own strength, courage, power, and glory.  This is not the case when it comes to the Bible, however.  In almost every instance of the Bible's portrayal of a person whom God used for his purposes, you not only get a sense of their God-empowered courageous actions, but also of their significant personal shortcomings.  The Bible bares all when it comes to its heroes: their glorious victories, and their most depraved failings.  

But this reality should not cause us to despair that all of our childhood Sunday School heroes are frauds.  Instead, this reality should serve to magnify God's amazing grace, and leave us in awe and wonder that God can even extend his saving grace and use the scumbags recorded in the pages of scripture for his purposes.  

Think about it: Samson was a man who was only concerned with his own selfish desires.  This led him to womanizing and the loss of innocent life.  But God extended his grace to him, and even used him in the process of delivering the Israelites from their oppressors.  What kind of God does such a thing for such a lowlife as Samson?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  Or consider Gideon: fueled by bloodlust and a sinful desire for revenge, he went on a rampage and ultimately led his people away from God by creating a false object of worship.  What kind of God could reach down and rescue such a wayward individual?  Only a truly heroic God could do such a thing.  And think about David: his power and lust led him from woman to woman, until he ultimately murdered a woman's husband so he could have her for himself, and then he tried to cover the whole thing up.  Certainly only the most amazing of grace could come into his sleazy, murderous heart and deliver him from such sin.  Finally, think about Jephthah, whom God raised up to deliver Israel from their oppressors, but who was also the barbaric thug that convinced himself that sacrificing his own daughter was the right thing to do.  The kind of grace that is required for his redemption is no doubt inconceivable to the human mind.  

No, there is no such thing as a Bible hero, and that's a good thing.  Because if there were, they wouldn't need grace.  Thank God that all of the people we read about in the Bible are failures.  Thank God that all of them have debilitating character flaws.  Because it is in the contrast between their failures and God's kindness towards them that his grace is most magnified.  In other words, because our Bible "heroes" were such louts, we can more clearly see the true Hero who rescued them through his amazing grace.  

So don't become disillusioned when you read about the failings of the people recorded in scripture, and don't try to fool yourself into thinking that they weren't actually as bad as they were.  These were first class losers.  But don't forget, they're just acting like sinful people, just like the rest of us.  It just so happens that their failings are different than yours and mine, but we are all on the same level when it comes to our need for grace.  

Unfortunately, we sometimes try to sugar-coat the characters of the Bible, especially when we teach their stories to our kids.  We shouldn't.  Instead, we should know them in the fullness of all of their magnificently sinful failures.  Because when we realize who the heroes of the Bible aren't, we'll know who the true Hero is.  The more we can know their (and our own) sin, the more we will know and appreciate God's amazing grace that saves them (and us).  

Monday, October 9, 2017

Digging Deeper: Daughters and Donkeys

Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  

The biblical concept of holiness is one that is being lost among American Christians, much to our detriment and shame.  Holiness speaks to an "other" quality.  For example, God is holy.  That means that he is utterly unlike anyone or anything else.  He is in a class all his own.  He is perfectly good and righteous, he is completely all-powerful, and his wisdom is unsearchable.  And we could go on and on talking about the ways that God is holy by listing his many attributes and counting all of the ways that he is completely "other."

Since God is holy, he calls his people to be holy as well (Leviticus 11.44-45, 1 Peter 1.16).  That is, God calls his people to be different, to be set apart from the rest - to be "other."  In the Old Testament, in order to make his people set apart or holy, God gave them several laws that they were to obey to show the world that they were different and that they were in a covenant with the true and living God.  In other words, Israel was to stand out from all the other peoples of the earth because of how they lived their relationship with the true God, and the purpose was for all the world to see that they were different - that they were holy like their God was holy.  If a foreign nation interacted with Israel, they could tell that Israel was different simply by the way they lived their lives.  Their holiness (their "otherness") was apparent by how they thought, lived, ate, acted, worshipped, and so on.

The opposite of holiness is what we'll call "worldliness:" an identification with and similarity to the world.  In the Old Testament, God's people - who had been called out, separated, and made holy through their covenant relationship with God - began to forsake holiness when they compromised the requirements of their relationship with God and began to think, look, and act like the world.  The more they looked like the world, the less holy they were.  In other words, the more they looked just like everyone else, the less they looked like God, and the less they fulfilled their duty of being a representative of God to the nations.

This temptation to conform to the world and to not be "other" is one of the main problems of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges.  They seem to have compromised on everything, from worship, to culture, even to the very foods they ate.  Rather than being a people who have been separated for God, they were quickly turning into a people who looked, thought, acted, and lived just like everyone else - even pagans who worshiped false gods.  The focus of the sermon this past Sunday was to show how this was evident in the lives of Samson and both of his parents, and to warn us from following down the same path.  But there is even more evidence of Israel's tendency toward a lack of holiness that took place before the time of Samson.  Israel had been sliding down the slippery slope of worldliness for generations.  Indeed, as early as the time of Gideon we can begin to see that Israel doesn't look very different from all the other nations they're living with.  They're even worshipping the same gods as the pagan nations, and forsaking their cultural traditions and religious laws and ceremonies that had previously set them apart.

At the end of Judges 12 we read about three of Israel's judges who ruled over Israel and, unfortunately, didn't do much to bring Israel back to the holiness that God called them to.  Ibizan, Elon, and Abdon all judged Israel for a period of years.  There's not much known about these guys, and you probably didn't learn about them through a flannel-graph story in Sunday School when you were a kid.

When it comes to Elon, all we know about him is that he was of the tribe of Zebulun, that he judged Israel 10 years, and that he "died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun" (Judges 12.11-12).  But with Ibzan and Abdon, there are some subtle clues in the text that show us that these two judges weren't too concerned about being "other," but instead were quite content with blending in with the rest of the world.

Since the time of Gideon, it seems that Israel's judges were not necessarily content with just holding the office of "Judge."  Rather, they wanted to be king.  Gideon lived as a king with a harem and had 70 sons by at least 14 women.  That is not how "common" people lived.  Rather, that was the lifestyle of a king.  His son, Abimilech (which means "Son of the King") also wanted to be king, and murdered his 70 brothers to eliminate any competing claims to the throne.  After him, Jephthah agreed to fight for Israel only if he could be its "head" (i.e. "king").  Ibzan and Abdon wanted the same.  They didn't want to be just a "Judge" and represent God's justice and righteousness to their people.  They wanted a bigger piece of the pie.  The whole pie, in fact.  They wanted to be king.

How do we know that?  Daughters and donkeys.

First, Judges 12.9 says that Ibzan "had thirty sons, and thirty daughters..."  Like Gideon, Ibzan had lots of kids.  And to have lots of kids you need, well, lots of wives.  And the only people who had lots of wives in those days were kings - at least supposed kings.  And, like Gideon, this may have even included a harem with concubines.  And in order to feed all of these mouths (wives and children), a person in Ibzan's position would have to have a healthy stream of resources coming in.  Only a king could have those kinds of resources.  Ibzan could have stood out and been holy by judging over his people with humility and justice and righteousness.  But instead he wanted power, so he gathered up as many wives as he could find and had as many children as he could - 60 in total.

Furthermore, when it came time for his children to be married, Ibzan went "outside" of his people.  That is, he gave his daughters in marriage to foreigners, and he brought in foreign women for his sons to marry.  It's not going to be easy to be separate and different from the rest of the world when you're bringing the rest of the world in for your children to put down roots and raise a family with.

Similarly, Abdon disregarded the call to be different and instead went the way of the world.  We know this because "He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys..." (Judges 12.14)  Not only did Abdon follow in Ibzan's footsteps of having lots of children with lots of wives (just like all of the pagan kings), but his sons and grandsons also rode on donkeys.  In the ancient near-east, it was common for kings and nobility to ride on the backs of donkeys for their main mode of transportation. Abdon wouldn't let his travel in just any fashion.  They were sons of the king, after all.  They "deserved" to ride on donkeys.  And the kicker is that they rode on donkeys - just like all the rest of the pagans who lived around them.

God called Ibzan and Abdon to be different, to be set apart from the rest, to be "other."  But when it came down to it, they looked just like the pagans.  You couldn't even tell that they were part of God's people.

Unfortunately, even the church has fallen prey to the temptation to be like the world.  Many churches try to emulate the music, dress, speech, and multiple other aspects of the world all for the sake of being "relevant."  In a very real sense, the modern American church has ceased to be "other."  How do our gatherings differentiate us from the world?  How does the way that we interact with people at home, school, and work differentiate us from everyone else?

Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, and like Ibzan and Abdon, and all the rest of the Judges, God has called us to be holy - to stand out from all the rest because we are like him.  No, we don't live under the Old Covenant as part of the nation of Israel, so we don't follow the laws that they did, or hold the same culture or traditions.  Instead, Christians are called to stand out and be "other" by following the way of Jesus: by obeying God and his word in all things, by loving our enemies, by reaching out to sinners, by helping the poor and sick and hungry.  Jesus has given us the perfect example of what it looks like to be "other."  By emulating his life and death we will surely stand out from the rest of the world.

God wanted Ibzan and Abdon to be different.  He didn't want them to go the same way that all of the other pagan kings of their time were going.  He didn't want them to ride donkeys.  It's not that there was anything inherently sinful about riding a donkey, but he called his people to be different, to be other, to be holy.  God calls you to be different, to be other, to be holy.

There is a tradition in Major League Baseball that when a pitcher takes the field, it is bad luck to step on the foul line.  Every pitcher who takes the field makes a point of stepping over the foul line so as not to incur the bad luck that such an action brings.  In his autobiography, Dave Dravecky, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants said that every time he took the field as a pitcher, he made sure that instead of stepping over the foul line, he mashed it with his foot.  He wanted to be different.  wanted to be "other."  He wanted to make a statement that he didn't believe in luck.  Sure, it was just a little thing, a minor statement in the grand scheme of things, but it set him apart.

Even the "little things" of holiness are important, and serve to set God's people apart in the way of Jesus from the rest of the world.  And it makes a difference.  We don't strive for holiness for its own sake, but we strive to be different because our God is different, and we want to be like him.  We want the world to see him through us, through our holiness.

So even if you can have 60 sons and daughters, don't.  God doesn't want you to.  Be different.  And even if your sons and grandsons can ride on donkeys, don't.  God doesn't want them to.  Be different. Be holy.