Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2009 Reading Plan

Well, a new year is upon us. And this year, I've decided to do something I hardly ever do - use a Bible reading plan. In years past, I've just largely read whatever I felt like reading. When I had plenty of time, it worked out well enough, and I generally got through the entire Bible at least once a year (several times through many books). But as my life has gotten busier (i.e. I got married and a real job), the "no plan" plan has proven to be grossly deficient. Some parts of the Bible have gotten short shrift, particularly the major OT prophets. So this year, it's time to get serious, and stick to a plan.

I looked at some different plans, and didn't really like the way a lot of them looked. So I decided to create one of my own, a bit more flexible than the "read these particular chapters on these particular days" plans. I decided to just divide the different books up by month, trying to get a blend of genres in each month (history, prophecy, etc), and just finishing those books by the end of the month. Psalms was split up into 12 sections of 12-13 each.

January: Genesis, Psalms 38-50, Hosea, 1 Corinthians, Song of Solomon

February: Exodus, Job, Psalms 13-25

March: Leviticus, Psalms 1-12, Isaiah

April: Numbers, 2 Corinthians, Psalms 126-137, Matthew, Joel, Colossians, Jonah

May: Deuteronomy, Psalms 88-100, Hebrews, Ecclesiastes, Amos, Daniel, Galatians

June: Joshua, Mark, Psalms 26-37, Jeremiah

July: Judges, Psalms 63-75, Obadiah, Ephesians, Proverbs, Ruth, 1 and 2Thessalonians, Lamentations, Micah, Philemon, Jude

August: 1 and 2 Samuel, Psalms 138-150, Revelation, 1 and 2 Peter

September: 1 and 2 Kings, Psalms 51-62, Ezekiel

October: 1 and 2 Chronicles, Psalms 101-112, John

November: Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Acts, Psalms 76-87, Zechariah, Philippians, 1 Timothy, Haggai

December: Luke, Psalms 113-125, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Malachi, 2 Timothy, Titus, James, 1 and 2 and 3 John

Now, this is just a plan. I do reserve the right to change the order of books, but the goal is to stay ahead of the chapter pace. This comes out to about 98 chapters per month, and that's frontloaded a bit, so that December only has 69 chapters of reading. Since late November and December are big travel times, the goal is to stay ahead of pace so I'm not trying to cram 150 chapters in at the end.

Astute readers may notice something missing from the list. I don't have Romans in there anywhere. Why's that? I've decided that Romans is going to be my focal book for the year. The goal going forward is to pick at least one book (two or more if they're short ones, like the Johannine epistles) and study it thoroughly for the year. Read it many times, read commentaries, write some bloggage about it, memorize it, that sort of thing. This year will be Romans, and we'll see how that goes. So it's not included in the rest of the plan; I'll be reading it at least once a month on top of the other reading. Like everything, this is subject to change based on how it goes; I could move on to a different book after six months, stick with Romans the whole year, or even go into next year with it. We'll see.

So, anyone else have a plan? How are you going to dive into the Bible this year?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Schwarzenegger and the Emergent Church

Hey, did you know we just had some elections? If so, you probably heard that the Republicans got smoked. Lost the presidency, bigger deficit in the House, and thiiiiis close to not even having the theoretical threat of a filibuster in the Senate. One of the main questions that naturally arises is: where do they go from here?

The governor of California, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger, had some comments on this during an interview with Brian Kilmeade. (Unfortunately, the clips I could find online didn't have him saying it, only Kilmeade relaying the quote. It's part 2 of the interview, during the closing 30 seconds or so.) The Terminator says that for the Republicans to return to power, "they should move away from some of their core principles, those conservative principles, and start spending on programs Americans want." I find this response fascinating because of how it relates to current (and historical) ideas in the church. But before getting to that, there are at least two problems I see with it.

First, as many have pointed out, his prescription is largely how the Republicans got into this problem in the first place. This would be more than a post of its own (I'm sure there are a few books detailing it), but suffice to say that the mere existence of the term RINO (Republican In Name Only) shows much of the problem. These guys speak the conservative message to get elected, then govern like liberals. Unconscionably high spending is but one symptom. They just nominated the most "moderate" Republican in decades and he got destroyed. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, I don't think that becoming more liberal in a country that is largely conservative is a recipe for success.

But there's an even more fundamental problem with this idea. You would hope that these guys are conservatives because they believe that the conservative worldview is the best way to govern. They believe that these principles are the best thing for the nation, for the states, for the individual people living under that authority. They are convinced that if these principles are enacted, the country will benefit; if liberal policies are enacted, the country and its people will suffer.

Given that, here is a rough paraphrase of Ahnold's vision. "You believe that conservative principles are the best way to govern the country - best for the nation, best for the people. But you may have a better shot of getting elected if you abandon those principles. So you should intentionally do what you believe to be detrimental to the nation and harmful to people, so that you can have more power."

Am I the only one who has a problem with this? How could someone even think about doing such a thing in good conscience? If one truly holds that his view is beneficial and the opposing view is harmful, how ghastly must he be to change positions just to get into power? What Ah-nold is suggesting as the future for Republicans is utterly reprehensible (at least, it is for the actual conservatives in the party - for the RINO's it'd actually be a refreshing bout of honesty).

To see just how ridiculous this is, take one of the pet liberal causes and suggest the same thing. Think back to 2000, when the Republicans have just won the presidency and clean majorities in both houses. The Democrats were no doubt searching for ideas to get back into power. Imagine someone suggested in all seriousness: "You know, we believe that a woman has a fundamental right to abortion without restriction or negotiation. But the R's oppose abortion, and they're kicking our butts. So maybe we should switch sides on this issue, oppose abortion, and maybe then we'll win more elections." Is it even possible to imagine this conversation happening? Would it not be absurd for them to take a core value and speak/work/govern in opposition to it in order to win elections? Yet here is a prominent Republican, suggesting in all seriousness that this is not only a viable option, but their only choice. Unfortunately, there's no sign he was joking (and based on the way he's governed, he's quite serious).

In the political arena, this idea is an absolute joke. How could someone even think of abandoning core principles like that in order to be more popular or powerful? If someone could even consider this, would it not show that he doesn't really believe that position and/or doesn't consider it very important? Or if he does really believe it, and believes it to be highly significant, yet is willing to oppose it for personal gain, how utterly despicable would that person be?

But enough about politics. Hopefully it's obvious why such an idea - abandoning core principles to have better "success" - is either ridiculous or reprehensible in the political arena. But how about in the church? Would the foolishness/wickedness not be exponentially greater, since the issues at stake are of eternal significance?

And yet, this is a constant refrain within the church today. The culture is postmodern, we are told, and so the church must embrace postmodernism. People don't like truth claims, so we need to stop saying the Bible is true. People are offended by talk of sin and hell, so we need to stop talking about them. They don't want doctrine, so we need to forget about that and just tell stories (from which they can make their own meaning). We need to stop preaching the gospel and just meet their felt needs. People don't like hearing about the exclusivity of Christ, so we need to pretend all paths lead to God. And if we do these things, our churches will be full and we'll have all kinds of influence!

This nonsense is coming most strongly today from the emerg* camp - Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt, etc - who claim we need to abandon Christianity and embrace postmodernism (or a pomo/Christian syncretism). A century ago the claim was that the church needed to embrace modernism. Before that... It seems there's no worldview so anti-Christian that the church hasn't been told - by well-meaning individuals, no doubt - that it must abandon the gospel and embrace the unbiblical teaching. If it insists on the gospel, the church will fade into irrelevance. But if we just stop insisting on Biblical truth and embrace the current prevailing worldview/fad, well, the church will really be strong and be able to reach a lot of people!

So here's the question I have for them. Let's just say we do create the perfect Christian/postmodern blend they want, and we reach a lot of people with it. What exactly are we reaching them with? Because it sure isn't the gospel. And if the gospel is true, abandoning it to "reach" them just leaves them in their sin and under God's wrath. So what, exactly, is the point of doing so?

Logically, there are only three possible reasons someone would suggest setting aside the gospel in this manner.
(1) They don't believe the gospel is true. This is no doubt the case for some if not all of them. For instance, it's really hard to believe that Brian McLaren actually believes pretty much any part of the gospel, let alone the whole thing. Of course, given the pomo view of truth, it's tough to say that any of the emerg*s actually believe anything.
(2) They don't believe it's important. I guess it's possible that someone believes the gospel, but just doesn't think it's significant enough to be beyond compromise. I'm not sure how someone could actually believe the gospel - that we are sinners facing God's wrath, who can only be reconciled to God by embracing the life, sacrifice, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf, resulting in a life of increasing holiness and faithful endurance to the end even in the face of persecution, and that all who reject the Son and persist in rebellion face eternal conscious torment in hell, but those who through God's grace embrace the Son receive eternal joy with God in heaven - then decide that it's not really all that important, and we can negotiate it away for a good enough offer. The position I guess exists logically, although I would suggest that anyone who would fit here really fits #1.
(3) They are more concerned with personal gain/power. In this position, someone is convinced that the gospel is true, that it's the only hope for people about to be on the receiving end of God's eternal wrath - but they would rather have a full church or sell some books or something. The wickedness of this position is unspeakable.

The idea that the church needs to embrace the latest cultural trend, even though it means abandoning the gospel, is presented by many as the loving way. But upon even cursory analysis, it's obvious that it's either a total lack of faith in the gospel, or an utterly wicked decision to grab personal status at the cost of their souls. There is absolutely nothing loving about abandoning or compromising the gospel. At best it's a sign that the person doing so is still lost in their own sin; at worst it's a sign that they're both lost and really hate people with unspeakable hate. When politicians talk about doing this, it's ridiculous. When people ostensibly representing the church do so, it's a reprehensible evil.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Relevance - How Utterly Irrelevant

Those of you who don't read Al Mohler's blog really need to. Just go subscribe right now. It's OK, I freely admit that everything he writes is better than this stuff. Go subscribe, then maybe come back.

Back? OK, good. The most recent entry there is describes the outrage directed at The Obama because of a truly despicable act - he invited Rick Warren to pray at his coronation. The horror! Turns out the anger is primarily from gay groups, who despise Warren because he has the audacity to be a pastor who believes what the Bible says regarding many things, including homosexuality. It seems nothing is more infuriating to them than an actual, practicing Christian.

Now, what's really interesting to me is that this "controversy" is surrounding Rick Warren. Because he's also been criticized, often quite harshly, by the more conservative (i.e. Biblical) Christian camp. Warren is the face of evangelicalism to reprobate world, their idea of how far someone can actually follow that Christian stuff without going too far (at least not very often). At the same time, to Biblically-faithful evangelicals, Warren is the face of the compromise camp, those who are so "seeker-sensitive" they take the edge off the gospel and make it more palatable to the unsaved.

The idea is to make the message more 'appealing' to sinful ears; the basics of the gospel are there in a sense, but with plenty of padding on the rough parts and some candy thrown on top. One of the main buzzwords you hear from that group is relevant - how can we make the gospel relevant to the unsaved around us? How can we keep the church relevant? How can we provide relevant help to the felt needs (another buzzword) they have? Warren has made quite a name for himself leading the relevance movement and soft-selling the gospel for years - and as Mohler pointed out, all that relevant goodwill amounts to less than a hill of beans as soon as he takes a stance on sin. The gospel of relevance, the gospel of being liked by the world, the gospel of having the world think you're cool and with it and not so bad after all - as soon as you take an actual fully-Biblical stance on one of someone's pet sins, all that relevance and coolness and he's-not-so-bad-after-all-ness goes right out the window.

So that's the first problem with the gospel of relevance. To those still in full rebellion against God, the gospel is the most offensive message imaginable. "For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life" (2 Cor 2:15-16). If your ministry is based on getting people to like you, and hoping that because of how much they like you they'll just naturally embrace the gospel, you are sadly, horribly mistaken. When you finally get to the gospel - or as in this case, even in the same ballpark - your likability is gone. Either you will offend them to the core at some point, or you perpetually compromise the message to make sure that doesn't happen.

The second, funnier issue with trying to be relevant comes from attempts to dress up the gospel in pop culture (often with justification found from a terrible point-missing reference to Acts 17). You know what I'm talking about - looking for 'creative' ways to 'witness' through showing that we Christians can do the pop culture just the same as everyone else. The problem with this approach is perhaps best explained by (warning: pop-culture reference) Abraham Simpson: "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me." As the culture continually changes, attempts to make the gospel "cool" inevitably end up... Well, I suppose the best way to explain it is to just show some examples. Take a few minutes and look through the Graveyard of Relevance. Then when you're done laughing, take a few minutes to think how ridiculous that "The Day the Earth Stood Still" Jesus-y T-shirt is going to look in a few years (as if it doesn't look ridiculous already).

But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fundamental problem with attempts to make the gospel 'relevant'. Namely, what could ever possibly be more relevant than the gospel? What 'felt need' could ever be more urgent than the need to be reconciled to the sovereign creator and lord of the universe? What felt need is stronger than the need to be forgiven and made righteous? What could ever be more relevant than a message that applies urgently to every person who has ever been and ever will be?

The entire idea of 'relevance' is at its core a lack of faith. Trying to make the gospel relevant says you don't believe God when he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), or maybe you think we're really not all that bad and won't be judged, or maybe that Jesus isn't really for everyone. Or for some, you don't believe that the gospel is powerful enough on its own, and we need to help it along by dressing it up in cultural trends. The Word of God - which, mind you, only created the entire universe out of nothing - apparently needs help from a Billy Idol song or a Ben Affleck movie if it's ever going to reach people. Right.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Phil Johnson on Ray Boltz

If he ever read this, I'm sure Phil would be a bit surprised to find out he had even written about Ray Boltz. And he didn't directly, really. What he did write just happened to shed a lot of light on a Boltz-related article, and since I happened to read them consecutively, it seemed like Phil was writing a response.

The Boltz article came with a strong recommendation from Justin Taylor, and it certainly is not without its merits. For those who aren't familiar with the situation, Ray Boltz was a prominent Christian singer back in the day, who has recently left his faith and family to pursue a homosexual relationship. This article was written by a leader with Exodus International, a ministry that works with people struggling to break free from same-sex attraction and homosexuality, to reflect on and issue a challenge based on something from Boltz's story that stood out to him.

Briefly, the issue that he addressed is the tendency of churches/Christians to over-react to revelations of homosexual temptation and/or sin. That is, this type of sin/struggle can often be treated much more harshly than others, even other sexual or marital sins or temptations. Even though the Bible speaks in equally harsh terms about things like adultery and divorce, people who confess to adulterous temptations, pornographic addiction, and even extra-marital affairs may find their church more willing to work with them to overcome these temptations or restore from these sins than those who come forward about similar-but-homosexual sins. The implicit challenge is to treat the sins/temptations equally - to use the same measures of grace and discipline to help the man struggling with same-sex attraction as we would the man struggling with lust, etc. We need to be just as serious about other sins such as fornication and divorce. More positively, we need to present the full Biblical picture of marriage in all its glory, such that all supposed alternatives are clearly seen to be utterly inadequate imitators (for example, see John Piper and Frank Turk do just that).

The Problem

So that was all good and challenging to think through. There was something in there, though, that just didn't sit right at all. It comes through strongest in this passage:

So, as much as I sympathize with a Church that grieves the lost perception of a
cultural hero, I sympathize all the more with a man who has been forced to
struggle in secret for decades by the very community he served.
In one of his
initial statements concerning his "coming out," Ray mentioned trying to overcome
his same-sex struggle by reading books on the issue. Books — that's all he felt
he had. I know there are many other people the world over who only have that
much to turn to, at least for now. Exodus hears from people every day asking for
help that we are simply too small to provide. And that's just the people who
struggle with this unpopular issue.

OK, so to summarize. There are people such as Ray Boltz who are struggling with same-sex attraction. They want to come forward to their churches, their small groups, their friends, and get the help they need to overcome the temptation. But they think that the reaction will be bad, so they keep it secret (or at most go to people who don't know them well enough to really help, like Exodus) and choose to fight it on their own. Some like Boltz tire of fighting and give in, even like Boltz becoming enthusiastic homosexuals. And this is supposed to be a problem with the church. Hmmmm. I see a few problems with this notion.

First, obviously, is that the reaction is assumed. There's simply no way to know how Boltz's church or close friends would have reacted to his struggles (remember that at first it was just temptation, not even sin) because he never gave them the chance. He (apparently) assumed they would react unbiblically harshly, and decided to fight it half-heartedly on his own. (Any time one chooses to fight sin solo, and refuses to enlist the support, prayers, and wisdom of fellow believers, it's a half-hearted fight at best.) It may very well be that the people who he should have confided in would have reacted as close to perfectly as possible - full of grace and wisdom, offering accountability and discipline as needed, etc. But Boltz (and the many others the article mentions) will never know because they never try, and yet these churches are blamed for their hypothetical reactions. This... isn't right.

The second problem is that it ignores a basic truth about confession: it's never easy no matter what. For example, I've been part of several small groups that have dealt incredibly well with confessions of ugly sins and terrible struggles. I've seen the way they've responded in as Biblically-faithful a manner as possible, and have no reason to doubt that they'd be any less able to handle my confessions of struggles and sins. And yet, it's really, really hard to come forward with these issues. Why? Because confession is hard. It has nothing to do with fear of abusive over-reaction. It has everything to do with not wanting to face the legitimate consequences. I don't want to admit that I have this struggle. I'm ashamed to admit that I've given into that sin. I don't want to go through the process of discipline and restoration, to have these guys knowing that I'm weak in this area and asking about it every week. Even expecting them to react properly, I don't want to come forward with my struggles because I don't want to face the reality and proper consequences.

It's not a matter of abuse; it's a matter of my own pride and desire for comfort. There's no reason to believe that those who struggle with same-sex attraction, or who have given in to homosexuality, are any different. Yes, for them there is almost certainly a higher likelihood of improperly harsh unbiblical treatment. But let's not pretend that if there was no possibility of such overreaction, they would all be incredibly willing to confess their struggles and get the help they need to overcome it. The fact is, many would be content to "fight" in secret, just as many others "fight" against lust, greed, dishonesty, hypocrisy, and myriad other sins, too proud to let anyone know of their struggle, and ultimately willing to give in to that sin rather than humbly confess and ask for help. And when we do give into that sin, would it not be ridiculous to blame the small group or church that we never asked for help?

How Phil Johnson Wrote About Ray Boltz Without Knowing It

So that was weighing on my mind when I flipped to the next article on my Google Reader list: The Devil Made Me Do It by Phil Johnson over at TeamPyro. In it, Phil describes an incident on a trip he took to India a while ago, when a young man asked him for help in dealing with a Satanic attack. When asked to describe the attacks, the man described the fights he had with his mother, how their violently adversarial relationship negatively affected other areas of his life. But more explanation was necessary:
I first asked him what made him think this problem was uniquely Satanic. As he described it to me, it sounded much more like raw carnal
pride on both his part and his mother's. They were constantly saying unkind and
unloving things to one another. He admitted that he purposely did things he knew
would annoy her. He spoke disrespectfully to her. He said he just couldn't stand
her and didn't like being around her.

It sounded like youthful rebellion on his part, more than a satanic attack.
So I said, "It sounds to me like you're just behaving in a fleshly way. I think
you need to look into your own heart for the culprit, rather than blaming the
devil and outside influences."

But he insisted that I just didn't understand the issue. It must
be Satanic, he said, because the nature of his conflict with his mother was so
powerful—and living with her was like living with the devil.

Alrighty then. So the guy was basically just acting like a typical rebellious youth. But he was convinced that it wasn't his own rebellion; it must be Satan making him act that way. He was not responsible for his actions here, nuh-uh. It was all because of Satan. This is obviously nothing more than an evasion of his own responsibility, and Phil offers a response that cuts right through that utterly lame excuse:
I told him first of all, that regardless of Satan's involvement in his struggle,
the root sin causing his problems was fleshly, carnal pride. I also reminded him
that when he sinned with his tongue, he was sinning deliberately of his own
accord, so he couldn't escape his own responsibility by blaming Satan for the
turmoil in his household.

And from there, he lays out a Biblical case showing that even when demonic influence is granted, the responsibility for the sin always falls directly on the man who commits it. That there is no sin Satan can force us to commit, but that it is always willful complicity on our part. That it is our responsibility to resist, and when we give in, it's no excuse that we were tempted, because the temptation just appeals to the evil already in us (James 1:14-15). Satan may stir things up, but the sin is already in us waiting to burst forth, and we have no one else to blame when we embrace it. Phil summarizes:
We'd all like to believe that our struggle with sin involves only external
enemies. We're willing to say that Satan is to blame for our sin. We're even
willing to blame the world—as long as it's an external cause. As long as we
don't have to take the blame on ourselves.

But even our struggle with the world is a struggle that is fomented by
inordinate desires that emanate from within ourselves, because "All that is in
the world [is] the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of
life" (1 John 2:15). Those are sinful tendencies that come from within us. We
ourselves are to blame when inordinate worldly affections crowd out what should
be a pure love for God and the things of God. Neither the world nor the devil
could ever take advantage of us if our own flesh did not cooperate.

So About Ray Boltz...

I hope the connection I see between the two articles is fairly obvious. In the second article, you have a man trying to blame his sin on Satan. If only Satan wasn't making me act this way, things would be perfect. I would never act like that on my own. It's not me. No, it's Satan. My sin - well, it isn't even sin really, it's a demonic attack. Not my fault.

In the first article, you have a seeming attempt to shift the blame for Ray Boltz's sin (as well as untold others) to their churches and friends. If only that church had reacted better... no wait. If only he had imagined that the church would have reacted better, he surely would have come forth with his struggle. And if he had thought their hypothetical reaction would be better, and confessed his struggle and sought help, he likely would have been able to overcome it. So his sin isn't entirely his fault - it's because his church didn' act better in his imagination. If only his church was hypothetically better, he wouldn't have sinned this way. So his sin, it's not entirely his fault either.

On one hand, the devil made me do it. On the other hand, my church made me do it. And actually in Boltz's case, he's even using the intellectually bankrupt "God made me do it" excuse: "If this is the way God made me, then this is the way I’m going to live." Which brings these cases even closer together, actually. The Indian fellow didn't sin; he was just under Satanic attack. Boltz isn't sinning; he's just living the way God made him.

But of course, these are far from unique cases of blame-shifting. Consider this classic example from Aaron. The setting: God has just delivered Israel from Egypt through repeated unquestionable miracles. He's led them towards the Promised Land, and along the way they stop at Mount Sinai, where Moses meets with God to receive the terms of the covenant. While Moses is meeting with God atop the mountain, the people apparently forget all they've seen (and are still seeing!) and ask for idols, which Aaron is more than happy to make in the form of a golden calf. When Moses comes down and confronts Aaron, just imagine the hubris necessary to concoct this excuse: "So I said to them, 'Let any who have gold take it off.' So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf." In other words, it's not my fault - the fire did it!

But even that pales in comparison to the most insane example. This comes from Genesis 3, man's very first sin. God had given Adam and Eve everything they could ever need, and just asked for simple faith - that they trust God to tell what is right and wrong. Instead, they rebelled and wanted to be their own judge of right and wrong, to be self-determining instead of faithfully trusting their creator and provider, and they dove head-first into sin (the term "fall" can be a wee bit misleading, as if it was an accident). When God confronted them about their choice, Adam shoots back the most ridiculous accusation imaginable: The man said, "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate." Wow. It's not my fault; it's all because of her. And really, you gave her to me, so it's actually all your fault, God!

And sadly, we all participate in the same blame-shifting today. We come up with every excuse imaginable for every sin. It's because I learned it from my father. It's because my church didn't support me enough. It's because of Satan. It's how God made me, so what can I do? It's the influence of my culture. It's just because she's too hot, and how could I be expected to resist?

In the end, none of these excuses hold the slightest bit of water. And it does nobody any good to pretend that any of these rationalizations excuse the sin. Dealing with sin and temptation is hard enough when it's confronted honestly; allowing someone to hide behind an excuse is not helpful at all. And if it helps them fall more thoroughly into sin, it's actually just cruel.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Illinois Politics, Makin' Us Proud!

Whoo! Illinois, baby!

The news broke today that our illustrious governor, Rod Blagojevich, was arrested in a corruption investigation. This was surprising news - surprising that it took this long. When I first moved to Chicago over two years ago, the very first day there was a news report about the governor being investigated for corruption. In the meantime, there have been other high-profile arrests and convictions for people very close to Blogo, and it seemed like every couple weeks new details broke about an investigation into an "unnamed public official" who could only have been the governor. So yeah, Blogo getting arrested for corruption - it's news along the lines of "water is wet" and "the sun rises in the east". All this story needs now is the typical "This isn't the Rod Blagojevich I thought I knew" speech from Th'Obama for some closure.

I realize this may be surprising to those who don't know the history of Illinois politics in general and Chicago in particular, but the government here is a truly spectacular blend of corruption and incompetence. Consider what the local political stories have been in just the past few weeks:

1) Our illustrious governor Blagojevich and truly wonderful senator Durbin [/sarcasm] leading the charge for President Bush to commute the sentence of former governor George Ryan. Why is Ryan in jail? Corruption, of course. What got him caught was an investigation into the sale of commercial driving licenses - as secretary of state, he sold them to trucking companies so they could distribute them to whomever they pleased. When one of the illegal truckers caused an accident that killed a family, the trail eventually was traced to then-governor Ryan (uncovering a lot of other stuff along the way, of course).

So Blogo has been pushing for him to be pardoned - not in any way hoping to set a precedent of leniency for corrupt governors, of course. Durbin, of course, once famously on the Senate floor accused American soldiers of being worse than Nazis, Stalin-era Communists, and the Khmer Rouge based on the unsubstantiated accusations (since shown to be entirely false) of terrorists. So naturally, when a governor has been shown beyond any doubt to be guilty of incredible corruption that actually killed, he pushes for extreme leniency (Ryan has served less than 15% of his sentence). Gotta have priorities, I guess.

2) The Cook County budget fiasco. Cook County recently raised sales taxes to the highest in the country - over 11% in some parts, over 10% everywhere. This was because of a massive budget shortfall, and in their infinite wisdom they decided that raising taxes again was the best way to make ends meet in a slowing economy. In other words, all the foresight of a goldfish. Anyway, the tax hike was supposed to raise around $460m that they needed. Their calculations assumed that spending habits would not change at all - again, total brilliance - so obviously they fell short, but still brought in an extra $380m or so, at the cost of driving off some business long-term. Stupid trade, but whatever.

Anyway, now comes the news that the $380m they raised is not just $80m short of the goal. Oh, no. It seems there were major mistakes in the budget, and they actually are still short by another $400m or so. Mistakes like, using numbers from the wrong years, or getting the police and parks departments mixed up, that sort of thing. Basic data entry errors. So many errors that they don't actually know how much money they need - they just know they don't have nearly enough, so we need to raise taxes or costs of other services again. So many errors that they won't even release a copy of this year's budget (!), because it wouldn't make sense. Just give us money and don't ask where it's going. Also, never mind that the people doing the budget are close friends relatives of Todd Stroger, the head of the county board. Nope, no nepotism here. And in no way was all that money wasted or spent illegally - which of course can easily be shown once the accounting gets corrected, which will never happen. This is so bold it should be unbelievable. Unfortunately, it's basically par for the course.

Obviously, a few months ago there was also the Tony Rezko scandal. For those who don't know, which will include most anyone who got election news from mainstream media, the short version is that Rezko is a Chicago-based businessman who made a fortune in real estate and used it to buy politicians. He was recently convicted on corruption and extortion charges in a trial in which an unnamed public official was prominently featured (today's news takes the probability of it being Blogo from about 98% to 99.999%). Basically this guy (along with the co-defendant who flipped, Stuart Levine) was buying favors from anyone he could get ahold of. In a completely unrelated incident, he was involved in a real estate deal with a then-unknown Chicago politician who got the better end by hundreds of thousands of dollars, contributed bunches to this fledgling politician's campaigns at the beginning of his career, and then that politician directed millions of public funds to Rezko's projects. But fortunately, there was nothing there worth investigating, or our diligent media surely would have been all over that.

So anyway, back to Blogo. What's stunning obviously isn't that a Chicago politician is corrupt. It's hard to find one that isn't. What's amazing about these reports is how bold he was about it. Blatantly selling the remainder of The Obama's senate term to the highest bidder - including taking offers over the phone - is about as brazen as you can get, especially since he had to know how closely this process would be watched, and with so many suspicions surrounding him already. The issue that really gets me is the extortion of the children's hospital. Basically, the state had money allocated to the hospital, and the governor let them know that he would block payment until the hospital's CEO gave him $50k. That's just wicked beyond words.

So what's the point of all this? It's a grim reminder of the reality of politics. Putting our hope in these guys is a losing proposition. When Christians misplace their faith, and view the party or a politician as savior or curer of the world's ills, it's foolish beyond description. The government - any government - is a means of common grace to help restrain evil. When it functions well, it can be great. But all earthly governments are subject to corruption and folly, because all are made of foolish, corrupt people.

But this further shows just how wicked we are. It would be nice to think that Blagojevich is an extreme case of human corruption, that we're mostly good and he just somehow hopped on the evil train. The reality is, we are all capable of his actions - or worse - if given the opportunity. If not for the grace of God - including common grace that acts to restrain such evil - the world would be utterly unlivable due to our wickedness. Those of us in Christ have only the grace of God to thank for making us alive and bringing about righteousness in us. And those not in Christ still have the grace of God to thank for not letting them do all the evil that is in their hearts. Let's take some time to thank God that openly, brazenly corrupt leaders like Blagojevich are still the exception rather than the rule.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thanksgiving - a Time for Repentance?

I came across this bit from comedian Louis CK. It's pretty funny, which means Dane Cook will probably steal it for his next album.

That bit was rather convicting, actually. It's truly amazing how fast I can start to take for granted things that should amaze me. The example of flight delays really hits home, because I had a stretch recently where ten consecutive flights were delayed. I remember one time in particular when I had a job in the Dallas area, which always makes for a long day as it is. The flight there got delayed, so I was feeling a time crunch on the job, then I got back to the airport in time, only to find out that the return flight was getting delayed repeatedly. I wound up not getting back to Chicago until almost midnight, and started to complain about it.

And then it hit me - even with delays and all sorts of 'problems', I was able to go to Dallas, do a days' work, and get home to Chicago all in one day! What did I have to complain about, exactly? Oh, it wasn't as convenient as I had planned. Big deal. It's utterly amazing what I was able to get done that day - throughout 99% of human history, that roundtrip would've taken months or years, and I was able to do it in hours. And yet I was ungrateful for the wonder of flight, and all the other gifts God has given us that made such a thing possible. Instead of acknowledging God's incredible grace in letting us have such things, I was acting as if it was owed to me, and someone owed me an apology for the inconvenience.

We have a word for people who act like this: ingrate. We all know what it's like to see someone get a gift, something they don't deserve, and treat it with contempt. Few things are more loathsome than a person who takes such blessings for granted, acts like he's owed them, or complains that they're not good enough. And yet, that's exactly what I found myself doing.

Which brings me to Thanksgiving, and the point of this post. We are justifiably angry when someone is ungrateful to us, and hopefully we all try to properly show thanks to others. How much more should we thank God for all the innumerable blessings He gives us? If ingratitude towards another person is despicable, how much moreso is it despicable towards God? And yet, how many of God's blessings do we take for granted every day, as if he somehow owes us, and we even complain if his gifts aren't up to our standards!

I've been slowly reading the book Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges. It's about the sins that act like they're not all that bad - while it's easy (and right) to condemn adultery, how many even notice or question sins like selfishness or anxiety? Did you even know anxiety was a sin? So the book is about "confronting the sins we tolerate", and it's amazingly convicting. Get it, go through it, and take your time digesting it.

Oh, one of the chapters is on "Unthankfulness". That's the tie in.

So anyway, this Thanksgiving, remember to give thanks. For everything. And don't just do it for one day, but make it as normal as breathing. Because when you look at what we get compared to what we deserve, there's nothing that's not entirely owing to grace.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Church, Politics, and the Sins of Jeroboam

A few weeks ago, the woman and I joined about 170 of our closest friends on a trip to Israel. We left the day after the election, so obviously politics was a fairly prominent topic at the time. I had been thinking about politics quite a bit, specifically the role we as Christians should play - when political alliances are advisable and when they lead to compromise, how much energy should we divert to legislative efforts, etc. On this topic, I highly recommend the politics series at TeamPyro, particularly the posts by the great Phil Johnson. In fact, your time would probably be better spent reading those than reading this.

For those who are for some reason still with me, there were a few sites we visited in Israel that really shed some light on this issue. The first of these was at the far northern edge of Israel at the ancient city of Dan.

The site pictured here is the remains of the temple erected by Jeroboam. Many more pictures of this site are available at this here Facebook album. I found this to be one of the most moving places we visited, a place where history I'd read so much about really came alive. This is the site where Jeroboam built a temple and put in a golden calf (which has been found), and led Israel to worship it. This false worship became such an institutionalized sin for Israel that every king that followed until they were destroyed by Assyria had an indictment like this against him: "He did not depart all his days from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin." In fact, in explaining why God brought Assyria to destroy Israel, this is how the author summarizes the three hundred years or so of the northern kingdom:

When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the LORD and made them commit great sin. The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, until the LORD removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day. (2 Kings 17:21-23)

In other words, the Jeroboam's sin was pretty spectacular. Jeroboam was the first king of the northern kingdom, and every single king after him led Israel in the same sin. And it was bad enough sin that God deemed it worth destroying the kingdom and scattering the tribes among the nations. What was his sin, and why was it so offensive to God? And how did he get the idea to do it?

The Background

To see what this is all about, a very brief history lesson is in order. Israel had settled in the Promised Land, and wanted a king. The first king was Saul, a man who would be the world's choice, man's choice. God rejected him, and annointed one after his own heart: David. As David was a godly king, God made a covenant with him, to establish his kingdom forever. David's son Solomon followed him, and started out as a wise and wonderful king, including building a magnificent temple to God in Jerusalem. But Solomon married a bunch of foreign women who each had their own gods, and Solomon sinned in allowing them to worship these false gods, and even joining them in it. After enjoying peace for most of his reign, Solomon then began to face adversaries God raised up for him as punishment for his wandering. One of these adversaries was Jeroboam the son of Nebat. The prophet Ahijah was sent to Jeroboam with this message from God:

"Take for yourself ten pieces, for thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, 'Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and will give you ten tribes (but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did. Nevertheless, I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand, but I will make him ruler all the days of his life, for the sake of David my servant whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes. But I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand and will give it to you, ten tribes. Yet to his son I will give one tribe, that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name. And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel. And if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you. And I will afflict the offspring of David because of this, but not forever.'"

So God promised to divide the kingdom, leaving part with David's descendants, but giving part to Jeroboam. Solomon tried to have Jeroboam killed, but he fled to Egypt, returning to Israel when Solomon died and stirring up the people. When Solomon's idiot son Rehoboam infuriated the people for no good reason, they rebelled and set Jeroboam over them as king (1 Kings 12).

The Fatal Decision

Jeroboam was in a great place. He was newly appointed king of Israel, and he had a clear word from God as to what he should do, and very clear promise of blessing if he did it. He had been told very explicitly why he had been given the kingdom - that Solomon had let his heart wander from God and to false gods. And he was told in no uncertain terms that if he just followed God, he would be blessed and his kingdom would be established forever. Follow God = very good, turn from God = very, very bad.

So what is the very first thing he does as king? Knowing that God will bless him beyond imagination if he worships him fully, and just tore the kingdom from Solomon (like five minutes ago!) because he worshipped other gods, what does Jeroboam decide to do? Let's see:

And Jeroboam said in his heart, "Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah." So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings. (1 Kings 12:26-33)

Egads. Knowing full well that he only has the kingdom because the previous administration had allowed idol worship, the first thing Jeroboam does is make two golden calves and tell the people to worship them! He set one at Bethel (near the southern boundary of his kingdom) and the other at Dan (in the far north, continuing Dan's awful history of idol worship (see Judges 18)) so his nation would be bounded by idols. He even used the same words as Aaron when he made the golden calf - excuse me, when they threw the gold in the fire and the calf just came out! - when Moses was out of sight for a few days after performing amazing miracles to deliver Israel from Egypt (Exodus 32). The sin is obviously totally faithless, but it's still shocking to see how brazen Jeroboam was with it.

Notice what else Jeroboam did. He didn't just make idols and tell the people to worship them. He set up his own priesthood, including people from all tribes, not just Levites. Our tour guide is in the line of possible priests, and when discussing this part of the story, he got the most animated we ever saw him. This part - making non-Levites to be priests - was amazingly offensive to him, and it would have been a gross insult to God as well. Further, he established his own feast, on the 15th day of the 8th month. This was meant to imitate the God-ordained feasts of passover (15th day of 1st month) and/or the feast of booths (15th of the 7th). He set up an entire religion that imitated the true faith, but was intentionally off in the important points. Doing this was gross sin, and it's what he will always be remembered for.

So What Does This Have To Do With Politics?

I started off by saying this blatant sin was very illuminating regarding mixing the church and politics. How? Let's look again briefly at why Jeroboam did what he did.

And Jeroboam said in his heart, "Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah."

What was it that drove Jeroboam to commit this grave sin, to spurn the clear command and unimaginably great promise of God, and to doom his nation to destruction and exile? Politics! Specifically, it was fear of losing his own power and influence (and life!) that led him to despise God and intentionally, spectacularly sin.

Jeroboam was extremely short-sighted and faithless in this regard, and it led to extreme wickedness. He knew God had given him this kingdom because of Solomon's idolatry, and that obedience would bring tremendous blessing. But he evidently didn't believe what God had clearly told him. Instead, he looked at the short-term immediate future, and did the calculations from a godless worldview.

He knew that his people would continue to go to Jerusalem - in Rehoboam's kingdom - to worship God. Jews were required to go there annually (possibly thrice a year) to celebrate a feast and offer sacrifices, and being in a different kingdom didn't grant an exception. He thought with all his secular reasoning that if his people kept going to Jerusalem to worship God, they would be drawn back to Rehoboam's kingdom and turn on him. He was afraid that as people truly worshipped God, his own power would weaken, and eventually he'd be killed. So wrongly believing himself to be faced with the choice between his own power and the gospel, he chose his own power. He intentionally abandoned the gospel and set up a false religion - but one that intenionally mirrored the true gospel, of course - in order to prevent people from worshipping God, because he wickedly believed that their true faith would damage him personally.

So What Does That Have To Do With Us Today?

But this doesn't happen today, of course. Nobody is making golden calves and telling us to worship them instead of God in order to enhance their own power. Or do they?

See, one of the things which came out frequently during the runup to the election, especially during the Pyro series on politics and Dan Phillips' excellent political reporting at his blog, is just how hard it is to find someone who forms political alliances without sacrificing the gospel. Phil Johnson especially has made this challenge repeatedly - name one person today who is successfully both faithfully proclaiming the gospel and leading a political effort - and the silence has been deafening. The counter examples, of those who intentionally compromise the gospel to advance a political agenda, are numerous. To name a few from both sides of the aisle:
  • When James Dobson raises tons of money for "ministry", and spends every last dime of it on politicking, and goes years without proclaiming the full gospel in print, interview, his daily radio show, etc (beyond an ecumenical "you need Jesus" that even Mormons can affirm), it has shades of Jeroboam.
  • When the many conservative evangelical groups working for good causes like eliminating abortion or honoring marriage refrain from proclaiming the gospel because it would offend the Catholics, Mormons, and secular people in their coalition, it shows a lack of faith reminiscent of the son of Nebat.
  • When Tony Campolo promote a horribly insufficient view of scripture (and even promote a naive, uncritical interpretation of that) in order to make it sound like the Bible promotes the liberal social agenda, and thereby intentionally hides the true gospel behind the pale imitation of the social gospel, he might as well just make a golden calf.
  • When people like Jim Wallis volunteer to be useful idiots for the left, pretending to speak as Biblical Christians while merely parroting the DNC talking points, they fill the role of the non-Levitical priests.
  • When Brian MacLaren - you know what, MacLaren's such a heretic, I don't even know where to begin. At this point he's not even making a pretense anymore, and is a wolf in wolf's clothing. It's like he's trying to see how blatant he can get and still be considered a "Christian".

When people try to mix the gospel with their political ideology, the gospel is always what is compromised. We are called to work for the good of our city, and to be good citizens (Christians should be the best citizens out there), to pray for our leaders and pay taxes and all that. And if called, certainly no Christian should shy away from political office. But in politics, as in all of life, if forced to make a choice between faithfulness to the gospel and success, we must always choose the gospel. Jeroboam faced this choice and chose tragedy, and so many today sadly follow in his footsteps.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dumbest Song Lyrics Ever?

I'm still jetlagged, and I've been working like crazy the last couple days. So instead of something worthwhile, you get this.

What are the worst song lyrics ever? While there are many possibilities, the dumbest I've heard in a long time come from a commercial for I quote:

Should'a gone to free credit report dot com
I could've seen this comin' at me like an atom bomb

This bothers me. I guess it's because this is a commercial that airs constantly, which is annoying enough. But beyond that, this line does not help sell the product at all, rendering the annoyance to be completely absent of any conceivable benefit.

Consider: what if their claims are all completely correct, and using this service will allow you to see credit problems coming like an atom bomb. What good does that do you? Suppose you one day are out in the backyard and you look up, only to see an atom bomb coming. What, praytell, are you supposed to do with this knowledge? How exactly is seeing the atom bomb coming going to save you? What good will it do besides putting you into a full-scale panic? Oh great, the atom bomb's coming, so let's stop it. No? Well, let's scream a bunch, 'coz we're gonna die. Is this the service they're offering - it's too late to stop these things, but we'll let you know they're coming so you can be prepared to die? Umm, that's great, thanks. but I think I'll pass.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Grand Re-Re-Re-Launch of the Blog

So a few months ago I decided to start trying to blog again. Two posts in, it fizzled out. Well, let's try this again. The wife and I just got back from Israel, and I've got a lot to talk about. I do intend to finish the Luke 15 series, but it'll be worked into some of these other posts. I'll also be posting pics mainly on Facebook; I may just link to the albums instead of re-posting everything here. For now, here's a look at the first character in the central parable of Luke 15: the prodigal son.

And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

This first part talks about the utter depths of depravity the son fell into. Remembering the background that led Jesus to tell these parables (sinners coming to Jesus in repentance, the Pharisees resenting it), it's obvious who this represents: the repentant tax collectors and sinners. Jesus describes this son in a way that would paint him in about the most wicked way possible. Consider:

  • He asked for his inheritance when his father was still alive. In other words, "Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me money." Lovely chap, no?
  • He immediately sold whatever land he'd received. Compare this attitude to, say, Naboth in 1 Kings 21. In Israel the land of inheritance was to be greatly esteemed; the law had very detailed rules about how it could be sold and how it must be returned to the original family eventually. For him to sell it off so quickly (and probably for a very low price) shows how much he despised his father (who represents Jesus).
  • He fled to a far country. In other words, to live among Gentiles. Not only despising his father and family, but his entire Jewish heritage.
  • What he had, he wasted on wild, sinful living.
  • When he was broke and in severe desperation from the famine, he went to work for one of the Gentiles (possibly a "friend" he made while wasting his money). The guy obviously wanted nothing to do with him, and gave him the lowest of low jobs, most likely as an insult. He put him in charge of feeding pigs, a task so menial almost anyone could do it, and one that would keep him far, far away. You don't tend to keep the pigs very close if your nose is at all functional.
  • Did I mention he was a Jew who now lived and worked among pigs?
  • He was so desperate, he wanted the pods from the seeds the pigs ate. Now, remembering it's a famine, it's not like the pigs were eating high-quality food. They were probably eating stuff that wasn't edible for humans, and this guy was hoping for the scrap from it.

It'd be tough to get any lower, no? This is what makes his repentance and his father's acceptance so spectacular. But more on that later. For now, I want to say what has really hit me about this part recently. For years, it's been very easy for me to visualize this parable using my brother as the younger son. He's certainly got a record which closely approximates this son. So when reading through this story and visualizing a horrible sinner coming to repentance, it's been very easy to think about him and some of the things he's done, and what it would look like if he ever truly repented.

Which is, of course, to miss the point. See, the description here is not of the worst of sinners. It's a description of every single one of us. If you're in Christ, the prodigal son is you. The prodigal son is me. It's not like he's an uber-sinner that only a few, like the tax collectors and prostitutes of Luke 15, can relate to. No, if you are human, a child of Adam, you are every bit as depraved as this son. The only question is, have you been brought to your senses and returned home? Or are you content to die in the pig pen?

When I read about this son now, I pray that I will no longer visualize someone else. It's about me. I am the one who despised Jesus, who fled from his love as fast as I could and embraced sin wholeheartedly until I was on the verge of death. And I must never forget how amazing it is that he made me alive, and brought me to repentance, and brought me home.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Lost Sheep and Coins

Since I'm sitting at the mechanic's awaiting repairs, it seems like a good enough time to do some more blogging. And there was much rejoicing (yay!). Last time we looked at the setting of Luke 15, that many people were coming to Jesus, repenting of their sin, and turning to faith in God. The religious leaders, so overjoyed at seeing desperately lost sinners embracing the hope of the gospel, declared a feast throughout the land to proclaim the goodness of God and celebrate his grace. Er, no, that's not right. They actually hated what they were seeing, and started slandering the Lord in an attempt to discredit his ministry. Instead of being overjoyed at the sight of sinners repenting, they were resentful, spiteful, and even jealous. After all, they had worked their whole lives to show how good they were, while these sinners had been... well, openly sinning for so long. Yet Jesus, obviously a man of God, looked past the Pharisees (or even spoke to their condemnation) to bless the 'sinners' who simply repented. How unfair!

Jesus overhears their grumblings, and decides to make a decisive statement showing the full extent of their evil and folly. And he decides to do it by telling a series of parables which illustrate the way God treats repentant sinners - and highlights the wickedness of the Pharisaical response. Today we'll look briefly at the first two, before diving into the last in greater detail later.

So he told them this parable: "What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

First up, a lost sheep. This parable is pretty straightforward: a shepherd loses a sheep, not an unusual occurrence seeing as how sheep are spectacularly stupid creatures. This would be a pretty clear illustration for the listeners, some of whom would be shepherds, and the others would at least be familiar with the profession. They would no doubt know what you do when a sheep gets separated from the herd: it will never find its way back on its own, so you leave the herd someplace safe and go find it. And when you do find it, you celebrate.

The lesson is obvious. If this is what you would do for something as insignificant as a single sheep out of a herd, and nobody would think it the least bit odd, how much more will God rejoice when something as valuable as one of his lost children is recovered?

One thing in this parable that often gives people problems is the mention of "ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." Who is Jesus talking about here? From the context, it's clear he's talking about the Pharisees and scribes. But were they really righteous? Of course not, and this is shown very clearly later. At this point in the discourse, Jesus is saying it as a rhetorical device, and possibly sarcastically - they clearly thought of themselves as righteous, and saw no need for their own repentance, so Jesus for the moment takes their assumption and uses it against them. We see him doing the same thing in Matthew 9:10-13, where they complain about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus responds that since they're apparently well, they don't need a doctor, but these sick people do. Again, Jesus is simply pointing out that, according to their view of things, they have no need for repentance or mercy, so why should they be surprised when he spends time calling those who do need it?

Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.

The second parable makes the point even more clearly. In this parable, the woman is most likely a widow, and all the money she has left is ten coins. Losing one coin - 10% of her entire net worth - is it conceivable that she wouldn't search for it like crazy? And when she finds it, how ecstatic must she be? Nobody would begrudge her for having tremendous joy and sharing that joy with others - she had lost something of tremendous value to her and found it again! How much more should we expect there to be joy when a lost sinner repents and returns to God?

And how wicked must a person be who would see this woman celebrating finding her lost coin, and instead of being happy for her, ridicules her for her joy, or hurls insults at her? Yet this is exactly what the Pharisees were doing with Jesus, who openly celebrated when sinners came to faith. And so in these two short parables, the Pharisees were shown to be thoroughly illogical, and utterly wicked as well.

Next time: we look at possibly the most famous parable (one so famous, people who have no idea what it's about refer to it all the time!), the Prodigal Son. Until then, a few questions for thought. What is your reaction when you see someone truly repent and come to faith? When you hear of thriving ministry at a different church - are you jealous more than you're joyful? Perhaps most importantly, do you remember that you were once the lost sheep or the lost coin, completely hopeless of ever returning to God? Have you forgotten that you once needed to repent every bit as much as the worst tax collector or sinner Jesus ever encountered? If you've come to faith, do you remember that, but for the grace of God, you'd still be lost and helpless, or have you started to think of yourself as if you were never lost and never needed to repent like "those people" do?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Divine 2x4

Do you ever get the feeling that God is trying to subtly get your attention on something by smacking you across the face with a divine two by four? Those times when the same topic comes up several times in rapid succession, and you get the feeling that maybe there's something God wants you to learn right now, and you can't move on until you do? Several weeks ago, my awesome hot wife and I were talking Bible, and somehow it got to Luke 15. That week I had an out-of-town job, and while waiting at the airport as my return flight kept getting pushed back, I went into a bookstore and started reading John MacArthur's A Tale of Two Sons, and exposition of Luke 15. That weekend we went to church to discover that the sermon was on Luke 15. So brilliant man that I am, I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, there was something in there I needed to get hammered into my skull.

And that seems like a good place to kick off this shiny new blog, while it still has that new-blog smell.

Turn with me in your Bibles or interwebs to Luke 15. Jesus has been in public ministry "preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people", proclaiming the message "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mat. 4:23, 17). His message is one of repentance, forgiveness, and a call to radical discipleship. Contrary to the Pharisaical message that we are accepted by God on the basis of our good obedience (and the "sinners" are in such debt they might as well give up), Jesus was preaching the gospel - that we are all unworthy sinners, but in his incredible grace God has provided forgiveness, demanding repentance from our sin and embrace of the Son.

So we see that the "tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to him". 'Sinners' refers to your general low-lifes; your drunks, prostitutes, and the like. Tax collectors were so low, they aspired to someday be considered sinners. These were the people who sold out their Jewish heritage and aligned themselves with the foreign conquerors, who used the threat of Roman force to extort money from their neighbors. They weren't exactly the most popular folk in Israel. And these were the people who, more than any other, were clamoring to get near to Jesus.

Now why would that be? Perhaps they had been so beaten down by the Pharisees and the reigning religious paradigm that they had given up hope. They knew they were such wretched sinners that they could never make themselves acceptable to God. So when Jesus came preaching the gospel, it gave them hope. Hope that they could be forgiven, accepted by God not of their own accord, but out of God's grace and mercy. For those who had been convicted of the depth of their sin (and make no mistake, there were plenty of tax collectors and sinners who could self-justify and couldn't care less about being forgiven, just as there are today), the gospel was the power of God unto salvation. The hope of forgiveness brought repentance and a joyful embrace of the Son. And when the religious leaders saw all these sinners, the lowest of the low, repenting of their sin and returning to God with such joy and enthusiasm, their response was...


Uh, yeah. Resentment. The Pharisees looked on this outpouring of grace, the forgiveness of sinners, the repentance of tax collectors, and they couldn't have been angrier. They began to grumble and complain, and try to discredit Jesus and his ministry. So Jesus told a series of three parables aimed at showing how ludicrous and evil their way of thinking was, each with the themes of loss, recovery, and joy. The final one, the Prodigal Son, adds another element: the resentful self-righteous brother. Next time, we'll look at the first two parables to see what Jesus has to say about heaven's reaction to the repentant sinner.