Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Horror of "IF"; the Impossible Covenant

     You know what I'm talking about... usually in English, and in retrospect, the "if" is followed by "only".  Lev. 26 (and its repetition to the new generation in Deut. 28) uses language and assumptions we use everyday.  Our car is in the shop, and to procure a rental, a man patiently explained to me all the "ifs" of his company:  if I cause damage to the car, I'm liable.  If I bring it back with the gauge on E, I pay an even more ridiculous price for gas.  And so on... as a quick personal note,  I have been waiting to write this for some time;  if there is a passage in Lev. with greater applicability and transparency than ch. 26, please let me know!
     The "if"s in our everyday lives are useful and good (I'm sure the car rental company would agree!);  they provide an invaluable deterrent to our selfishness, and force us to weigh the consequences of misbehavior.  At first glance however, the conditions of Lev. 26 do the same thing;  they make a common-sense, causal link between behavior and consequences.  I believe God has hardwired every person with the insight that good behavior should be rewarded, and misbehavior punished (Rom 2:15).  Thus, the provisions of the Old Covenant, when given to the people of Israel, were not rejected, but immediately, heartily affirmed (Ex 19:8, 24:3). 
"Locked on to slumbering consciences!"
     So all's well and good!  The world makes sense to us when we are young, and when toy thieves, bullies on the playground, and all those awful people are arrested, tried and convicted (in the court of parental correction!), we have a deep-seated sense of vindication, relief and of justice done for the good of all.  But then sometimes, just sometimes, things start to get confusing:  we start to make choices that make perfect sense to us, but others see as wrong!  When Mom said "No cookies!", surely she meant "No [more than a couple] cookies!", right?  "Play nice with your friends" undoubtedly includes the exception clause:  "unless they're mean to you!".  So the best thing that can happen, but rarely does at those tender ages, is the divine targeting of our hearts by the dawning realization that hits with the force of a bomb....  we're the bad kids.  We're the thieves, the bullies and the ones who are frequently looking at our father's shoes (because we're bent over his knees!). 
     But that's not what usually happens, and didn't with Israel:  they looked at God's Law and thought it was a great idea, for everyone else... God certainly wouldn't need all those dire threatenings with them personally, but it sure would come in handy for all the Sabbath-breakers, blasphemers, and idol-worshippers!  And slowly, throughout the course of the Old Testament, we're led to the unmistakeable conclusion that God really did mean all of Israel in Lev. 26 and Deut. 28:  even the best, most godly individuals' lives are marred by ugly adulteries, murders, ungrateful bitterness and idolatry.  So for Israel as a nation, for every people, tribe and tongue, for all of us, the "if"s of the curses of disobedience are really "when"s;  these chapters are not only a constitution for one nation, but a prophecy of our inescapable depravity.  So the careful reader finds:  "And when all these things come upon you..." (Deut. 30:1).  This is why one man I know, when he reads the O.T., does this:  "And the people of Israel (insert my name here) did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals." (Jdg 2:11).  
     So why would God give us a covenant, a law we can't hope, on our best day, to keep?  How... mean!  But the bitter medicine of our sin doesn't go down easy:  most of us are willfully blind to our culpability before God.  We need a simple, finger-pointing standard that we can't escape...

An unwelcome sight?
"Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.  For I know how rebellious and stubborn you are. Behold, even today while I am yet alive with you, you have been rebellious against the LORD. How much more after my death!" (Deut. 31:26-27)
     What in the world can we do in a nation that is frantically removing every objective moral code ?  Set them back up!  We must patiently, carefully, and above all, meekly put God's unchanging moral law before ourselves, our families, our coworkers, and everyone we can reach.  The tragedy of our national biblical ignorance is that we must convict people, using the Law before they understand and value the gospel.  As Martin Luther puts it: 

               “Be a sinner and sin boldly!”

                                because only sinners see their need for a Savior (Mt 9:13).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Top-down or bottom-up?

      Due to the flood of energy and passion (which is good and wholesome!) over the upcoming election in my circle of believing siblings, I hope you can stomach one more post on politics.  I don't want to repeat myself , but I did want to address one point that seems to have a great deal of sway and potency:  Is it a duty of the Church collectively, and/or Christians individually, to reform society through politics (specifically through our vote), to be "salt and light"?  If so, how?
Ever feel like this guy?
     It can be very disheartening to view our country and surroundings through biblical eyes... what can we hope to accomplish?  So I hope my first point is a relief:  Societal change is not the primary duty of the Church or Christians.  Our first priority, always, forever, until Jesus returns, is the preaching of the gospel.  That vital point made, I think I could classify the reform of society as a secondary calling of believers.  So yes to our first question... here's the sticky part, open to wide disagreement:  How do we "engage the culture"?
     I fear the unspoken assumption, largely held unconsciously, in many Christians is that if we (meaning the "moral majority", generally, conservative Christians, specifically) have control, in the White House, the House and the Senate, the Supreme Court, and in our various local arenas, we can "make a difference" in our society.  So a vote cast toward that objective, taking and holding control, is progress, and that which impedes it is, at best, a waste, and at worst, just darn evil.  We could call this a "top-down" approach to political involvement.
     There has been plenty of times when this goal (political dominance for Christian ideals) was achieved;  the problem is the darkest stains on the name of Christ grew out of that mindset and those "golden ages":  the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, etc.  So I think it's safe to say that the top-down approach has been tried, with the most disastrous of results.
     In contrast, I believe Christ would have us start at the bottom;  look what He did:  instead of going for the Pharisees, religious elite, and the politically powerful, His target audience, the focus of most of His ministry, was comprised of fishermen, Roman conspirators (tax collectors), and criminals (so, the dregs of society!).  Instead of attempting to influence the movers and shakers and win them over, He declaimed against their evil ways, their false hopes of self-righteousness, and stayed true to what was central in His message, even if it cost Him popularity and followers (Jn 6:66).  Obviously, Jesus had bigger fish on His plate than social change (like bearing the wrath of God in our place!), but after Pentecost, we see the disciples following the same pattern:  aiming at the individual heart first, which can be changed only by the work of God, and then allowing the fruit of those conversions to change the visible Church first (Acts 2:44-47), and then the society to the degree God wills/allows.  This is why Paul says:
"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth."  (1 Cor 1:26)
     So the logic of affecting our society from the bottom up means seeing the vote we cast as part of a bigger picture;  we vote primarily as a witness to our friends, families, and neighbors, to display the radical change that God makes in the hearts and minds of all who follow His Son.  The impact on those in our immediate vicinity of not just our vote, but our whole Christian outlook, is the first goal;  the actual election of the leaders God blesses (or curses) our country with comes second.
"With all these Christians, how will we meet our quota?"
    True Christianity has had incredible effects in some times and places:  during the 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings, the flood of true conversions had drastic effects on the society, and in Ireland after a revival in 1859, the police had no crimes to solve!  During the rest of history, however, the Church has less visible effect;  why?  I believe many factors can come into play:  God's sovereign plan for each nation, His merciful common grace, and last, but not least, the number of true believers at that time and place.  America has been greatly blessed in the first 2 categories, even in recent years, but not so in the third.  So let's not forget:  often those deemed praiseworthy by Christ are not the strong and numerous, but the few and faithful (Rev 2:8, 3:7).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Slavery part 2...

     So our question is "How can we profitably and accurately apply Lev. 25's legislation on slavery in Israel for today?"   As mentioned previously, I'm working through John MacArthur's "Slave" weekly with a brother, and at our last meeting I had mentioned the verses in Lev. as a great starting point for understanding slavery.  So of course, this week those same verses were referenced in our chapter in "Slave" and my partner had to ask me if I was cheating and reading ahead!  I replied no, that my personal study (and thus my writing) and our study beautifully coincided.  All to say, I am more excited than ever to share all this online with you.
     So to recap our established points, in ascending order of importance:  1)  all Americans are negatively biased concerning slavery;  2)  slavery had beneficial effects for the poor in Israel; and 3)  God uses slavery to describe our covenant relationship to Him.  It makes sense to me to deal and apply these points as we live and serve God today.

A statue still standing today in Zanzibar
     1)  I was writing my last post at work (I often have free time there; a fringe benefit of bus driving!), and a Christian coworker greeted me and asked what the good word was.  I replied "Slavery!" and after a short pause (which is understandable), he said "Yes, we are God's servants."  I said 'slave', and he heard 'servant'.  Does this happen with you, as you listen to sermons, read Scripture, and/or even as you pray?  I know it does with me;  one piercing side effect of my study recently was the mental admission that I had not escaped the values of our day, that I could not consider slavery without the images of men and women from Africa in chains, being sold on a wooden podium.  I especially have trouble with the analogy of people as property (Lev. 25:45);  all my life, that perspective has been demonized and countered with the doctrine that people can't be owned, that we are born free and endowed (by our Creator? depends on who you talk to...) with rights that can never be taken away.  It's been said that the most effective lie is the one that's mostly true;  what Americans believe about slavery certainly classifies as mostly true.   But exactly what must be corrected falls under point 3, so if you can hold on just a bit longer...
You know who I'm talking about...
     2)  My study partner had a fascinating idea, and I got his permission to publish it...  Can you imagine a study where the homeless are asked about the prospect of being fed, clothed, housed, and given free medical care, if only they would sell themselves to their benefactor and do his bidding?  I would guess that maybe 3% of those asked would seriously consider such an arrangement;  this is due to the simple truth that what's called poverty today is nowhere near the biblical definition (and thus the true definition!) of poverty.  If someone has a cellphone, cable TV, and/or money for beer and cigarettes, they would be thought rich in biblical times, and especially ironic is the relationship in our country between poverty and obesity: " they go together like a horse and carriage" (you gotta see the pics in that second article!).  So in America today, there is no incentive, no benefit, and above all, no need to humble oneself and serve someone else;  we are so tremendously rich (which can be a curse:  Ps 73:17, 92:7) that even our poor would be thought rich in most other countries.  Christians must work extra hard to transcend our milieu, and see God's grace through legislated slavery in O.T. Israel.
     3)  So what's not true about our cultural abhorrence for slavery?  While it is morally dangerous (to say the least!) for most people to own other people, there is one Person (or three Persons, if you're a nitpicker like me!) who has every right to do so:  God.  So not only by His creation of us, but through His mighty work to save us, believers, then and now, are slaves of God.  It is one of the gravest errors of our American brand of Christianity to retort to O.T. truth, "but we're a New Testament church!"  We are owned by God, bought by Him (I Cor 6:19-20) and we are His property (or "possession";  Tit 2:14, I Pet 2:9).  He says "jump!" and it is our highest honor to reply "how high?"  There is a direct, one-to-one correlation to Israel's bond with God and ours.  Be honest:  have you ever thought of God as your Owner?  If so, props to you;  if you're like me however, you're fighting the implications of it all.  But that's exactly how the apostles described themselves, over and over again (Php 1:1, Jam 1:1, Rev 1:1).  So to rehash what we said last time:  unfettered spiritual independence is simply not an option.  Either you belong to God, or what Elijah said of Ahab is true of you:  "I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD." (1 Ki 21:20).  The vast majority of our countrymen, even those who claim to follow Christ, claim also to be free, which is another way to describe the deification of ourselves, the most contemporary of false gods.  The only proper, true and useful claim, both for our sanctification and exemplifying the best effects of the gospel, for believers today is to be wholly dedicated to the pleasure of Another, to set our entire being in orbit around His command and revealed will.  Only then can our lost neighbors see their own slavery, and desire the freedom of Christ, the freedom to be enslaved to God:
"So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."  (Jn 8:36)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

     Have you ever considered the order of the above endowments in our Constitution?  That's right... they're in order of importance!  Happiness takes a back seat to liberty, and liberty isn't much use if you're dead.  So keep that order in mind;  to give a sketchy road map for our journey today (and probably tomorrow), I'd like to explore our prejudices about slavery, God's use of slavery and its beneficial effects, and its applicability to us today.
     I recently wrote about my FNA (Friendly Neighborhood Atheist) and a video he sent me, 10 questions that every intelligent Christian must answer (I replied to him that I was flattered he considered me intelligent!); question # 5 was "Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible?";  around the 5:07 mark.  Their answer was predictable: because the Bible was written by mean, ruthless men who were motivated to justify their extortionist sadism.  Materialist presuppositions aside, this is a great example of blind cultural exportation that the modern world (especially America!) is famous for:  our preferences, methods and even our values are right, and all who differ from them are backward, brutal savages.  Am I being too harsh?  Just try this:  the next time you're in mixed company, use the word "slave" or "slavery" in a favorable context and watch the revulsion and disgust rise on your audience's faces.  There are still a few things that Americans can be counted on to condemn: Hitler, child molesters, and people that condone and practice slavery are all evil, and will be the sole inhabitants of hell (if it exists).
     So am I saying viewing people as property and treating them worse than animals (especially our pampered pets!) is justifiable?  No, what I'm saying is that we all must beware of our prejudices, the unconscious ones above all.  The most dangerous mindset for anyone is one of perceived neutrality, that you possess the fabled tabula rasa ("blank slate") and you alone can exercise wise judgment over people in vastly different cultural situations than your own.
     Our texts are these:  "For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves."  "For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants.  They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (Lev 25:42, 55)

"You are a slave..."
     Now, the first thought of the average reader upon seeing the word "servant" is "Sure, God's the boss, and we are supposed to do what He says";  but let's look at the context... God is spelling out the restrictions on Jews keeping their fellow Hebrews as slaves (vss. 35-46).  An hopelessly indebted Israelite could sell himself (and his family, I think) as payment for his debt, but he could not be compelled to do so; and when the Jubilee year rolled around, the family would be set free.  This is almost identical to the provision on the land we explored last time;  no Israelite could be permanently kept as a slave, and our texts explain why:  the whole nation, corporately and individually, already were slaves to God.  Chew on that in your modern, liberated, Western mind for a while:  no Bill of Rights, no Emancipation Proclamation, no correction of segregation through civil rights... the ideal social structure God put in place for Israel was national slavery to Himself.  Why would a loving God do such a thing?  Because it's good for us!  We are burdened already in a permanent state of bondage, as Morpheus says:  "[The truth is] That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch." (The Matrix, 1999).  If we could escape a malevolent computer system, or similarly free ourselves, that would be relatively simple;  but we are slaves to sin (Rom 6:16), and utterly powerless to save ourselves and others.  No man can serve 2 masters (sound familiar?), and so it is an incomparable blessing when a benevolent Person with unlimited resources "redeems" us (lit. 'to buy out of bondage'), and takes us into His own service.  As proof of His mercy and goodwill, the Israelites were not to "rule over him (their fellow Hebrews) ruthlessly", but to view their countrymen as charges, put into their care to guard and benefit.
No handouts here!
    This is another secret collectivist (or Communist, pick your poison!) concept in the Bible... that in the covenant community, personal property exists and is to used for the collective good.  Slaves definitely qualified as property in Israel (Lev 25:45), but from the perspective of our own slavery to God, how are we to handle what (and whom) He gives us?  According to His character, to His revealed will and therefore consequentially, in the best interests of the people involved.  The social reality was that the folks slipping off the lowest rungs of poverty did not hold cardboard signs on freeway offramps... they starved to death.  Hebrew masters were to act in their brothers' best interests, to feed and clothe them until the Jubilee, when God would legally restore them to their inheritance.  And the recipients of such generosity were not enabled to sit on the couch, thumbing the remote while they collected their "entitlements";  the indentured worked for their daily bread (2 Thes 3:10). 
     All well and good, but what about foreign slaves?  Lev 25:44-46 can be easily misunderstood and have been famously used by slave traders and owners in the 17th-19th centuries to support their practices.  But again, there is a huge discontinuity here, not just in time, but in reality.  A man typically became a slave in the ancient world when he ran up an immense debt and would again be in danger of malnutrition, if not death;  if, in the course of his service, he could settle the debt, the man would then be freed.  Usually, there was not a group of people permanently designated slaves due to their ethnicity (conquest could be an exception).  And we must not forget the civic aspect to the Mosaic Law:  there are provisions in the Pentateuch, perfectly suited for and unique to ancient Israel (Num 15:38, Deut 22:11, etc.).  So God could and did legislate and limit the use of practices already in place in Israel (Deut 24:1ff);  we must not foolishly equate this to unqualified endorsement.
     How can we today apply and learn from our text's teaching on slavery?  Stay tuned...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Israel, the first Communist country?

    No word in 20th century America is so laden with distaste and ire as "communism" (the word that's likely replaced it in 21st century America is "intolerance").  When we hear it, we think of soldiers goosestepping next to ICBMs in countries that squash individual rights, independent thought and that esteem the Bible very little.  But let's do a word study before getting to our text in Leviticus, in an attempt to regain some objectivity.
This is a pumpkin carving, believe it or not!
     The big idea behind communism is collective priority:  the concept that individuals exist to serve the group to which they belong.  As a wise man once said, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few... or the one." (Spock, Star Trek II).  Of course, this concept is in direct opposition to the bedrock principle of our founding fathers:  individualism, or the group (i.e. the government) exists to safeguard the rights of the individual.  While there are elements of both of these concepts in America today (just ask someone on 'Social' Security), at the moment, the influence of individualism still outguns the sway of collectivism, and "communism" is still a dirty word.
     So how would you react if you found communist elements in the Bible, specifically the Mosaic Law?  This is the first verse I'm thinking of:
"The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is Mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with Me." (Lev. 25:23)
     So God declares that in Israel, no individual owned land in actuality, but kept and used in stewardship for its true Owner, the Almighty.  Wait a sec... doesn't God know about private property?  What about the Fourth Amendment?  Do we have to drag God in front of the Supreme Court, and declare His Law unconstitutional?  I wax sarcastic to illustrate how the "rights" we claim in America may or may not be such in God's sight.  Let's look at the context:  Lev. 25 describes the extent and effects of the Jubilee, the 50th year, or the 7th Sabbath year.  In regards to land, any transaction would only be in effect until the Jubilee;  this would limit the value;  the seller would be selling the use of the land for growing crops.  At the Jubilee, the land would return to the family to whom God granted it after the Conquest.  The only way to circumvent this law was to resort to murder (I Ki 21:1ff).
     Try to suspend your horror at the restriction on the "right" to buy and sell property, and think about the effects of this ancient legislation:  in any society, there is an inexorable tendency of the rich to get richer, and the poor to get poorer.  We live in a country with a sizable middle class, but you must realize our situation is the anomaly:  during the Middle Ages in Europe, the gap was extreme, with something like 97% of folks constantly starving, and the 3% leeching obscene wealth and comfort from their labor.  So what effect would returning land every 50 years have?  It would 'redistribute' (again, a dirty word in some circles) wealth from those who made wise investments, were frugal, or won the lottery to those who fell into economic disaster, intentionally or otherwise.  In a society without food stamps, Social Security or Obamacare, this periodic law hit the reset button for those with no other financial options.  The ancient world was not a "land of opportunity", where you could file for unemployment, declare bankruptcy or refinance your home... it was a grim, brutal place where often a good year didn't mean extravagant Christmas presents, but merely ensured that you wouldn't starve to death.
     So in ancient Israel, the land return at Jubilee was a divinely perfect solution to curb our insatiable greed and our use of others as our personal doormats in our quest for riches.  The sense of covenant community in Israel (and the Church today, not America!) was to be such that those blessed with wealth knew they have what they have only to bless the have-nots.  This is exactly what we see in the first Christians (Acts 2:44).  Whether that's labelled communism or something else, feel free to make your own judgment.  Next, we'll look at another life-saving institution in ancient Israel, a relationship extensively used metaphorically in Scripture, and essential to understanding our standing with God... slavery.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Silly Atheist! Truth is for Christians!

     In case the title doesn't make sense, think of that Trix cereal commercial with the "silly rabbit";  I have a great post in the works about Israel and communism (stay tuned!), but this interaction was so memorable I had to share it...
     I was studying when the Friendly Neighborhood Atheist (FNA henceforth) came over and we got to talking;  this guy has a Catholic background, is fairly intelligent and loves to quote Hitchens and Dawkins, so some of his objections are interesting and thought-provoking, but others (as you'll soon see) are laughable.  We've spent hours over the years debating and posing challenges to each other, and I do pray regularly for the regeneration that only can truly change his mind.  I have been faithful to proclaim the gospel to him, so my hands are clean of his blood (Ezk 3:18).
"Wow, that's a toughie!"
     So this day the proof of atheism given to me was truly incredible:  FNA halted our joking to pose this irreconcilable quandary that proves the Bible is false, and that every intelligent, rational person must reject its backward religion.  He said, "So how many folks were on the ark?  8?  So linguistically speaking, there's no possible way all our languages came from just 8 people with one language;  there had to be many groups that developed separate languages!"  I looked at him dumbfounded for a second before asking "You've never heard of the Tower of Babel?"  As patiently as possible, I turned to Gen 11 and read him the narrative there, the one that perfectly explains how the descendants of just 4 couples could have spawned a great variety of different languages.  I finished and looked at him.  He looked at me.  I asked, "Doesn't that perfectly explain things?"  He refused to concede, but the point of this sad-but-true story is to never underestimate the biblical illiteracy of our countrymen.  Since 97% of America couldn't tell you the difference between Judah and Judas, we must patiently and carefully educate our friends, coworkers, and families as to what the Bible actually says, in contrast to what the History Channel says it says.
 "Behold, the days are coming," declares the Lord GOD, "when I will send a famine on the land-- not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD."  (Amos 8:11; just for you, Jesse!)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Christians a minority in America? Hallelujah!

     No, I'm not being facetious, or trying to stir up trouble... I honestly believe that this AP story by Rachel Zoll really is good news.  Here's why...
     As sinful creatures from the moment the doctor slaps our backside, our primary problem is not a lack of religion, or religious feeling.  Our monumental hangup is our continual creation of and affiliation with false religion.  God has seen fit to leave the indelible stamp of His reality on us by our fundamental makeup as religious beings:  all over the world, in the entire history of the world, 99.999% (not an actual scientific figure!) of folks have claimed some organized religion, and those who have disdained a church cling to a profession of being "spiritual", if not religious.  Even atheism in its truest sense is the deification of man;  hence, "the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols." (John Calvin).
     Let's start with what is still the most accurate source of religious polling and statistics:  the Lord Jesus Christ: 
"We're not the 'moral majority'?"
"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." (Mt 7-13-14)     "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Mt 22:14)
Terms like "many" and "few" are not as catchy and quantifiable as percentages, but we can be sure if Jesus thought we needed an exact figure, He would have given us one.  (Martin Luther famously estimated the percentage of converted folks to unconverted was 1 in 1,000, or .01%.)  The points I believe we can glean might be depressing at first, but then a relief: 

1.  We're not supposed to convert everybody.  If you look at the most godly, dedicated, passionate proclaimers of the truth in Scripture, often by statistical standards, they are the biggest failures.  Men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were not the Billy Grahams of their time (more on Billy Graham later!);  instead they were faithful in the face of almost complete rejection and did not fail to proclaim the whole counsel of God.

2.  If God providentially sees fit to lessen the number of "goats in sheep's clothing" in our country, we must praise Him for His grace.  Let's be honest:  since there has never been a "Christian majority" in America (remember what Jesus said!), unconverted phonies with a transparent profession merely heap up scorn and disgrace on the name of Jesus Christ.  I can't count the number of polls I have seen that present the claims of 71% of Americans to true religion alongside the 68% of Americans who cheat on their taxes, or the 78% who don't believe in hell, or the 84% who attend church twice a year, if at all (again, not the actual figures, but they can't be far off!).   Jesus had a word for such people:  hypocrites (Mt 23:13, 15, 23).  Isn't that what church discipline is all about, removing those who have disqualified themselves from claiming Jesus?  Can we be shocked if we won't love people through Mt 18, then Jesus will pick up the slack (and remove people Himself)?  So God be praised, we are now officially a minority hypocrite nation!

3.  This relates to #2, but might help with another facet of this:  the last 2 sentences of our article quotes John Green, a specialist in religion and politics at the University of Akron, "Part of what's going on here is that the stigma associated with not being part of any religious community has declined... In some parts of the country, there is a stigma.  But overall, it's not the way it used to be."  In other words, the people who in times past would be careful to go through the motions and keep up the external appearance of religion simply don't care anymore;  the general consensus of our society is that one can be good without God.  What this dismal reality creates is the opportunity for genuine believers and followers of Christ to "shine like the brightness of the sky above... like the stars forever and ever" (Dan 12:3).  The contrast between God-given faith and unbelief has never been more stark... will you be a Jeremiah?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Caleb the Courageous

    I was brushing up on Joshua 14 for a bible study (with a partner who never showed... you know who you are!), and was struck by the figure of Caleb.  As I pondered him, I was forced to add him to the short list of Biblical figures about which nothing negative is said (aside from our sinless Saviour).  Joseph is the first:  unjustly persecuted by his brothers, stalwart in personal purity, and merciful when given the opportunity to revenge.  Then Daniel is famous for his dedication to God at the age when most of us were "sowing our wild oats", his fearlessness before a pagan emperor, and his quiet refusal to give what is God's to Caesar (his prayers).  I thought the list ended there, but as I read Joshua 14, I had to look at the background for the chapter, back to the first time he's mentioned in Scripture:
"But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it....  And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, "The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land.  If the LORD delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.  Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them."  Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones... "  (Num 13:30, 14:6-10)
I bet Caleb could have used this guy!
    So to recap, the vast majority of the men sent to spy out the land come to a consensus, and it's Caleb who steps up to correct them.  Not Joshua, the hand-picked successor to Moses (if you read into the repeated divine exhortations in Dt 31:7, Josh 1:6, 7, 9, and even the people's words in Josh 1:18, it's not hard to conclude that Josh was a bit timid!), Caleb is the one to stare down the 10 guys and tell them to shut up, to repeat God's promises and to take Him at His word, and expect everyone else to do the same.  Then the angry mob is infected with the simpering fear and unbelief of the 10, and Caleb faces them down (without riot police at his back, only Joshua!) and tells them to buck up!  As the passage makes clear, that didn't go over so well, and it's only the direct manifestation of the Lord's Presence that defuses the situation (for Caleb and company;  Moses has to plead God to spare the people!).
     Fast forward to Joshua 14:  45 long years later, Caleb has seen everyone he knew die because of that fateful day.  His parents, brothers and sister, the other 10 spies, everyone his age has fallen in the heat of the wilderness, by plague, snakebite, and even being swallowed alive by an earthquake (I bet that was fun!).  Is Caleb sad and lonely, a bitter old man? Think again...
"Then the people of Judah came to Joshua at Gilgal. And Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite said to him, "You know what the LORD said to Moses the man of God in Kadesh-barnea concerning you and me.  I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh-barnea to spy out the land, and I brought him word again as it was in my heart.  But my brothers who went up with me made the heart of the people melt; yet I wholly followed the LORD my God.  And Moses swore on that day, saying, 'Surely the land on which your foot has trodden shall be an inheritance for you and your children forever, because you have wholly followed the LORD my God.'  And now, behold, the LORD has kept me alive, just as he said, these forty-five years since the time that the LORD spoke this word to Moses, while Israel walked in the wilderness. And now, behold, I am this day eighty-five years old.  I am still as strong today as I was in the day that Moses sent me; my strength now is as my strength was then, for war and for going and coming.  So now give me this hill country of which the LORD spoke on that day, for you heard on that day how the Anakim were there, with great fortified cities. It may be that the LORD will be with me, and I shall drive them out just as the LORD said."  (Josh 14:6-12)
"I'll knock out those giants with one punch!"
     Caleb is the healthiest 85 year old ever (better than Jack Lelane!), and 45 years of taking God at His word was just the warmup act for this guy;  Caleb asks for the land with the biggest, nastiest defenders (Goliath's forefathers!) in the biggest, nastiest fortresses, because he knows if God is with him, who can be against him?  Did you catch what tribe this Jewish Arnold Schwarznegger is from?  That's right... Judah!  Who else in the Bible is from Judah?.... hmmm, lemme think... Oh yeah, there was another guy from Judah who wholly followed the Lord, who stared down disobedient and unbelieving mobs, who faithfully took God at His word through His whole life, and near the end, when others would be expecting an easy retirement, who persevered to battle the most deadly foes, until all were put down under His feet.  That's why we so desperately need the whole counsel of God, the 39 books that are so often mistaken for filler or entertaining Sunday School stories for kids... the Old Testament shows us Christ!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Why do bad things happen to bad people?

     Our title question is a bit silly, isn't it?  "Ummm... because they're bad!"  So it makes perfect sense to us that there is an equivalency between a person's actions and their fortune/misfortune, so that "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap".  How do we go wrong from there?
     Our main text today is one of the few (less than 5, I think) narrative passages in Leviticus, 24:11-16,23:
"And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel: and this son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp; And the Israelite woman's son blasphemed the name of the LORD, and cursed. And they brought him unto Moses: (and his mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan:)  And they put him in prison, that the mind of the LORD might be shown unto them. And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,  Bring forth him that has cursed outside the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.  And you shall speak unto the children of Israel, saying, Whosoever curses his God shall bear his sin.  And he that blasphemes the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemes the name of the LORD, shall be put to death... And Moses spake to the children of Israel, that they should bring forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stone him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses."
     To properly frame the error we want to highlight today, yesterday my niece asked me our title question in the way most people do:  "Why do bad things happen to good people?"  Our text today brought me back to my answer then:  there are 2 assumptions possible behind our question, 2 perspectives: a biblical one and an unbiblical one.  Let's do the latter first, and apply it to our passage...
     This man, half Egyptian by birth, could have been thought by his family, friends, coworkers, etc. a real stand up guy.  He could have been polite and friendly, and helped little old ladies across the oxcart path.  He could have been considered moral and upright in almost all of the laws given to Israel.  If so, was it really so bad if he let a naughty word slip out?  We can even try to recreate the most heroic scenario possible for our text:  I bet those 2 guys were fighting because the 2nd guy (not the half Egyptian) insulted the 1st's mother, and while defending her honor, the 1st guy was kicked between the legs by the 2nd; and so, surprised by this low blow and in horrible pain, the half Egyptian's guard was totally down and just like Ralphie in that Christmas movie, the forbidden word(s) came out almost of their own accord!
     I belabor the point for this reason:  this is the mental process of every person on earth when trying to justify our sin.  We play up our perceived virtues and downplay our faults, and in the final analysis, we are good people, who deserve good things from God.  The only problem with this irresistible fixation is that it's completely contrary to the teaching of the Bible.
     The Biblical perspective is much more straightforward and much more depressing:  there's only been one good Person in the history of the world, and you're not Him.  Neither was this half-Egyptian guy good:  even if our more-than-slightly-riduculous scenario was factual, his "noble" actions were motivated by self-righteousness and moral superiority, just like the Pharisees Jesus decried so harshly.  And so the climactic sin of his life, blasphemy, really was that bad... he really did deserve the death penalty.  Just like us:  we are a people who curse like sailors;  we see them on TV, in movies, and even the Musak at the grocery store has songs that have to be censored.  The Lord's name is not holy to us... we profane it with its 3 letter abbreviation (o.m...) a billion times a day.  Instead of slandering God by questioning His law, we must thank Him continually He doesn't destroy us:
"He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities." (Ps 103:10)