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.