Who Do You Think You Are?

What are you willing to do in the service of what you are convinced is the truth, for the noble cause that dominates your thoughts?

D.W. Criswell writes,

“The desire to prove what you intuitively or instinctively believe is so strong yet so insidious. In scientific research there is the phenomena of confirmation bias, where in some cases scientists alter data or just misinterpret their scientific results in order to prove or confirm what they believe. For years it has been debated whether the geneticist Gregory Mendel faked or modified his data, since it is too perfect to believe that he accurately collected and recorded the data. The prominent geneticist Daniel Fairbanks with others extensively analyzed the issue and came to the conclusion in the book ‘Ending the Mendel-Fisher Controversy’ that Mendel suffered from conformation bias, he probably adjusted his data to make it look better since he was convinced his ideas were right. So the compulsion to prove your beliefs is a universal behavior.”

It happens in all walks of life. There are Christians who are so convinced of the reliability of scripture and its inerrancy that they are not careful to make certain that an archeological “discovery” or “story” are true before sharing them on social media. They don’t think about whether they are spreading lies or misinformation: if it helps the cause of Christ and leads unbelievers to accept the Gospel message then what else matters? There are people who will push narratives that match their political leanings just because it trashes their opponents or makes their side look good, without finding out if it is really so. There are commentators and pundits for any number of fine causes who will push a narrative even though they know it may be a lie just because it helps the right side win and crushes their dangerous, unhinged opponents.

In the final Harry Potter novel, one finds Dumbledore and Grindelwald as young men being caught up in an ideology that would oppress and potentially harm people. But it would be for the “greater good” and they would be doing it for all the right reasons.

History is littered with organizations and individuals who did reprehensible things because they believed their cause was that important. They were certain that their truth would win out, and if they needed to shade it with a lie, the greater good, the ultimate reward, the danger inherent in the situation, made it necessary and acceptable. Like Dolores Umbridge who was willing to use the Cruciatus curse on Harry Potter in order to find out where Dumbledore was hiding, because protecting the Ministry of Magic from being overthrown was that important.

On the other hand: in episode 19 of season six of Star Trek Deep Space Nine we get an interesting episode entitled “In the Pale Moonlight.” In an attempt to goad the Romulans into war with the Dominion, the Deep Space Nine commander Benjamin Sisko enlists the former Cardasian spy named Elim Garak to help him create false evidence of a Dominion plot to invade Romulus in order to get the Romulans to join the war with the Federation against the Domnion.

On Garak’s request, Sisko secures the release of a forger named Grathon Tolar from a Klingon prison. Then, in order to obtain an authentic Cardassian secure data rod, he is forced to trade a large quantity of bio-mimetic gel, a rare, dangerous, and highly regulated material. Dr. Bashir strongly objects, and relents only when Sisko orders him unequivocally; providing the doctor with the orders in writing, the doctor still vows to lodge a formal complaint. Matters are complicated when Tolar stabs Quark in an altercation while drunk. To keep Tolar out of trouble, he bribes Quark and convinces Odo to drop the matter. At this point, Sisko recognizes the legal and ethical compromises he is making but presses on knowing it is for the greater good.

Tolar creates a holographic record of a Dominion meeting between Damar and Weyoun discussing plans involving the invasion of the Romulan Empire. Meanwhile, on Garak’s advice, Sisko invites Vreenak, an influential Romulan senator, to Deep Space Nine in secret. Sisko shows Vreenak the recording and gives him the data rod, but the senator discovers the forgery and departs, furious and vowing to expose the deception. As Sisko faces the possibility that his actions may actually force the Romulans to join with the Dominion once Vreenak returns to the Empire, he learns that Vreenak’s ship has exploded, killing all on board.

Sisko angrily confronts Garak, who admits he planted the bomb on Vreenak’s ship just in case the forgery didn’t work. Garak also admits he killed the forger Tolar in order to keep his work secret. Garak maintains that when the Romulans scan the wreckage of the senator’s ship and find the rod, any imperfections will be attributed to damage from the explosion, and thus the recording will implicate the Dominion as planned. Garak asserts that Sisko included him in the plan to do the things that Sisko was unwilling to do himself. Garak also states that Sisko can ease his conscience with the knowledge that the Alpha Quadrant has been saved, and all it cost was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet officer.

Subsequently, the Romulans join with the Federation and declare war against the Dominion, quickly striking at nearby Dominion outposts.

At the end of the episode, as he’s recounting all these events in his journal, Sisko admits that Garak was right about a guilty conscience being a small price to pay. He admits that he can, in fact, live with his decision. And then he erases his journal.

What lies, what crimes, what evil would one be willing to commit in order to defeat the Nazis? Can we really fault Sisko for his choices? Wasn’t the greater good worth the moral turpitude?

In the first place, you’d better be damned sure you’re actually fighting the Nazis.

Existential evil on that level is rather rare. Oh, sure, we’re always certain that our political or religious opponents are “just like the Nazis.”

You might not want to go there.

Dolores Umbridge stands as a fictional example of how wrong you can be. So does the non-fictional woman in the news this week who called the police because “an African American man is threatening me” when he complained about her dog being off its leash.

The world is full of well-intentioned, but horribly deluded people who committed horrific crimes, or just did the “stupid” because they were absolutely convinced of things that simply weren’t so.

On balance, it seems best to not give into the temptation to think that “the ends justify the means.”

But that doesn’t mean we should focus our attention on always trying to do “the right thing.”

That focus on “the right thing” is in fact what leads us astray and makes us justify the ultimately unjustifiable. Wanting to do what’s right is what too often paradoxically leads to doing what’s evil. Remember, knowing “good and evil” was forbidden to humanity by God at our beginning. Eating from that tree was a huge mistake.

Instead, our focus must be on what it was supposed to be from the beginning. The new commandment, which is actually a very old one: love one another.

Jesus made it very clear: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we focus on that, instead of on “what’s right” it will keep us from harming others for “the greater good.”

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Saying the Unsayable

Do you have freedom of speech? Do you have freedom of the press? Of course you do. In the United States you can say, write or print anything you want. No one from the government is going to show up at your door and drag you off to jail. No secret police will show up in the dead of night and make you disappear.

But there are still consequences to what you write or say. It has been and always will be that way. So, you have to decide: is what I say true? Is what I say kind? What sort of reaction do I think I’ll get? Is it worth the potential fallout? Am I willing to lose friends? Am I willing to lose my job? Am I willing to be an outcast? Because there are things you can say or write that will alter your life on a personal level for good or ill forever.

Just talk to the people who have gotten in trouble for an old tweet or Facebook posting.

Or public figures who said or did or wrote something twenty years ago that no one thought twice about, but today they have to try to apologize for it and will lose everything anyhow.

Of course, we can debate whether it is right that people should be cancelled or get in trouble for their words. But it has always been this way. The right of free speech and freedom of the press is just about absolute for an American citizen, and well it should be. But that right only protects you from the government. It doesn’t protect you from your neighbors. Our friends, our colleagues, the twitter trolls, the pundits, and Karens of the world are not so limited—and never have been. If you start cheering for USC when you’re a student at UCLA, you should not be surprised at the pushback. Because freedom of expression goes both ways. You can say or write anything you want. But so can the people around you. And they will. Oh, they will.

Welcome to the real world. Say anything you want. Someone is going to answer you and you won’t necessarily like it. That’s what freedom means.

You can tell someone to shut up. And they don’t have to listen to you. They might start yelling. You can write anything you want, but no one has to publish it, and no one has to read it, and no one has to accept it. And people don’t have to be respectful.

Jesus, of course, operated in a world that lacked the basic human rights that we take for granted as Americans. In the world Jesus walked in, you could be arrested for your words. And so it was doubly dangerous for Jesus to say and do what he was doing. It wasn’t just social opprobrium that he had to worry about.

Notice that his family thought he was nuts and came to get him and take him away in Mark 3:20-21:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Jesus was willing to get in trouble with his family and lose their support; he was willing to let them think he was crazy. Jesus was willing to lose followers. We saw that in John 6:66 when some stopped following because of what he said about drinking his blood:

“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”

Jesus was willing to suffer the consequences from the religious authorities and the Roman government. He was willing to accept the repercussions even from his family, his friends, and his most ardent admirers. He made the choice that what he had to say, the reason he had come to Earth in the first place, mattered more than anything else.

Many Christians were then willing to suffer at the hands of the religious authorities and the Roman government. Spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ was of greater importance than personal safety or approval. They were willing to suffer the consequences for their words. There are Christians today who suffer the same extreme outcomes for their faith.

We Americans live in a place where we do not fear such deadly effects. The ramifications of our free speaking and writing, the penalties we might suffer for our words, are less dire, though still potentially painful.

Every time we use our words, we must make a decision about whether their costs are worth the price.

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Love Your Neighbor

“Do to others as you’d have them do to you” Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew 7:12.

He then says that that phrase sums up the Bible. The rest of the Bible exists to illustrate and explain that, in the hope that we won’t misunderstand it. But that central point, to love, is still mostly missed, explained away, or just ignored because it is inconvenient and because it is uncomfortable, and because hating is much more natural.

Jesus makes a contrast between who and what he is all about, and who and what the religious establishment is all about in John 10:1-21. Consider the context: Jesus healed a man born blind. Rather than celebrate it, they focused on whether it was okay to do it on the day it happened.

Another way of looking at the contrast is to consider Jesus’ words to his disciples when John and James got their mother to ask him to put them in charge when Jesus came into his kingdom.Jesus upended their world view on so many levels with his response. And the implications for all our relationships, all our social structures is fascinating. But it all grows out of the One Verse, the Great Commandment, to love our neighbor.

“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Matthew 20:25-28)

How the church organizes itself must be in line with this. How our families work together, must be in line with this. To submit, to serve: it is what Jesus did. He came not to rule but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Time after time, from the washing of feet incident (John 13), to what Paul says in Philippians 2: that Jesus did not try to hold on to the perks of being God, but gave it up and became nothing, became a servant, to die for us.

The urge to make people do and say and act the way you want them—because it is good for them, because it is right—is the beginning of destruction. Like a gentle snowfall on the mountain slopes, it brings an avalanche. The thought may arise that if someone even disagrees with me on what I hold dear, on what is obviously the only reasonable way to think, then that makes them not just wrong but evil. Obviously evil. Because I am right and what I do and what I say and how I act is good. Therefore, any opposition to me by definition is evil. And it is okay to hate evil. Therefore I can hate you because you are evil. And therefore you are no longer my neighbor. And therefore the commandment to love my neighbor does not apply to you. I do not have to do to you what you would do to me. I can kill you.

If you un-neighbor those you disagree with, you are, in the name of doing what is right, in the name of opposing evil, becoming the very evil you abhor.

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Thoughts and Prayers

Psalm 23 tells us:

 Even though I walk

through the darkest valley, 

I will fear no evil,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff,

they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

This is a description of life.  We live in a world where darkness can decide to take up a weapon and attack strangers in a school, in a mall, in a church, in a park, in a movie theater.  And there is nothing that can be done to stop it. We are all going to die some day. We don’t know when.  We don’t know where.  We don’t know how.  And there isn’t a thing we can do about it.  Life is beyond our control.

Politicians and pundits will disparage the offering of “thoughts and prayers” after a tragedy as meaningless drivel that accomplishes nothing.  At first glance it is hard to deny that the peddlers of outrage have a point. After all, James wrote:

 “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  (James 2:15-17)

But we miss the caveat inherent in James’ words.  James’ assumption is that we have the ability to solve the problem before us if we would only act.  Taking care of feeding and clothing someone huddling at our feet is well within our wheelhouse.  But resurrecting the dead?  Preventing mayhem?  Stopping crime?  Ending bloodshed?  Perhaps not.

The Bible also warns us against putting our trust in rulers, relying on other people, or even trusting in ourselves. 

Instead, we are encouraged to rely on God.

In the time of Samuel, God condemned the Israelites for asking for a king. God told Samuel that their request was a rejection of God.  He argued that it was no different than when they had  replaced Him with idols.  It was just more of the same.  Relying upon a human leader for salvation is no different than relying on any other false god.  And that sort of trust is doomed to disappoint in the end.

I cannot prevent criminals from hurting people. I cannot bring back the dead.  I cannot restore sight to the blind.  I cannot make the deaf hear.  I cannot make the lame walk.  I cannot so much as cure the common cold. About all I can do is bore you to death and help you catch up on your sleep. How am I supposed to solve mass shootings, end starvation, or bring peace to the world?

If I can’t solve those existential problems, why would I imagine some politician yelling at me and demanding my vote is going to be any more successful than I would be? Since when has any politician done what they say they are going to do?  How are they better than me?  How are they better than anybody else? Why would I put my trust in them?

And then I return to thinking about prayers.  And you know what?  The book of Revelation speaks directly to that issue. 

The point of the book of Revelation is that the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of God.  And how will it happen?  Because we choose the right politicians? Is there even such a thing as a right politician? 

What did Jesus say?  Three times in the book of Revelation we see the prayers of all God’s people being poured out on the kingdom of the world.  And they are remarkably powerful and effective. More effective and powerful than the rulers of an empire.

And James also had something to say about prayers, too, after that part about words being meaningless when it comes to filling empty bellies (not unlike the ravings of political hacks).  In James 5:15-16 he wrote that prayer is not, in fact, empty and meaningless:

“And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

You want to change the world?  We all do.  The church can do that.  Not by using the weapons of the world.  Not through joining the rage mongering of politicians who really only care about getting elected.  Instead, by prayer: because God is real and God can intervene in our world. Prayer is not just meaningless pleasantries blowing in the wind. Our prayers are not just feel good vibes. 

We can change the world through our prayers and through our proclamation of the Good News that Jesus Christ has come, that he gave himself for our sins, that he rose again, and that he is coming back:

Comfort, comfort my people,

says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and proclaim to her

that her hard service has been completed,

that her sin has been paid for,

that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

And then Isaiah went on:

A voice of one calling:

“In the wilderness prepare

the way for the Lord;

make straight in the desert

a highway for our God. b

Every valley shall be raised up,

every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and all people will see it together.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,

and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,

go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem, r

lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid;

say to the towns of Judah,

“Here is your God!”

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,

and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him,

and his recompense accompanies him.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:3-11)

We must not underestimate the power of prayer and the proclamation of the Good News to transform a life.  A single transformed life has endless repercussions. 

Jesus is the answer to the world’s problems.  We’d do well to remember that and to take it seriously. 

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The Kingdom of Heaven

The seventeenth century philosopher and theologian Gottfried Leibniz argued that if God is good, loving, and powerful, then this must be the best possible world, because what other kind of world would such a deity create? 

The problem, of course, is that we can imagine a better world.   One of the common clichés people mutter at us in our times of grief when a loved one passes on is, “well, she’s in a better place now.”

So, if there is such a better place, such a better world, then why is there this one and why do we have to be in it, if God loves us so much?

If the Kingdom of Heaven is better than here and now, then how can this possibly be the best of all possible worlds?  And if this isn’t the best of all possible worlds, then what does that tell us about God?


What if the Kingdom of Heaven can come about only because of this world?  That is, what if the Kingdom of Heaven requires this world in order to come into existence?  What if, in fact, this world creates the Kingdom of Heaven, so that the Kingdom of Heaven is a consequence of this world?  

The Kingdom of Heaven would then grow from this world and would not entirely—or even at all—be separate from this world.

Some may object to this for various reasons, but ask yourself, what is the Kingdom of Heaven? 

The short answer: it is God’s people.  It is the church.  It is the Bride of Christ.  Therefore, this world is necessary for the Kingdom of Heaven to exist, because it is the people of God living in this world who are and who become that Kingdom.  This then is the best of all possible worlds, since it is the only world that can create or become the better world of the Kingdom—which is paradoxical unless you realize that the Kingdom is co-existent with this current world: the Kingdom, in a very real sense, is now.

Jesus explained it very clearly:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

When we ask, “is this the best of all possible worlds?” we must recognize that this world includes the Kingdom of Heaven in seed form at the very least. 

Ask yourself this when you peer at Jesus sleeping in the manger, “is this baby the best of all possible human beings?”  The baby is no less the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the World, than the resurrected Lord.  One could say that this world is the baby to the adult that is the Kingdom of Heaven.

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Coming Like a Thief

In Revelation 16:8-15 the plagues continue against the Evil Empire. The fourth plague was the sun scorching people and causing them “to curse the name of God who had control over these plagues.” Despite correctly identifying the source of their suffering, the passage explains that they still refused to repent and glorify God.

When God brought the plagues against Egypt, we hear time after time what phrase? That the pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he would not let the people go.

Whatever horrible thing came upon the Egyptians, the reaction, nine times out of ten, was the same: no change in behavior. Instead, there was only rage that such an awful thing that had happened.

Kind of like most of us, most of the time when we get caught doing something we ought not to have done.

When we were kids and our moms found us with our hands in the cookie jar, how often were we really remorseful? Mostly we were just mad that we got caught. If we get pulled over for speeding, are we remorseful about the speeding?

Probably not.

We’re just hosed that we got caught and have to pay a fine and do traffic school. And while we might drive slower, more carefully for a bit afterward, it certainly doesn’t have much impact on our attitude or behavior in the long term, and what little effect it does have is only because we don’t want to get stuck with that expense again.

This is our nature. It’s not so much that we feel bad for doing something, just that we feel bad when we get in trouble for it and especially we feel bad for the consequences that come from getting caught. A lot of our so-called guilty feelings are just our discomfort and shame that people have found out what awful thing we did. If we never get caught, do we ever feel bad?

One of the ways you can tell if you—or someone else for that matter—are actually, genuinely repenting: you aren’t mad that you were caught, you are instead desperate in your wish to undo what happened, to fix it, to do anything that is requested of you to make it right. You’re not just going through the motions: you actually have a “change of heart.” It is a remarkably rare gift. Mostly we see the “I’m mad because you caught me stealing the cookies,” as with these people here in Revelation in today’s passage, or back in the Old Testament with Esau who was simply mad at his brother Jacob. Esau wasn’t the least upset over his attitude, that he had despised his birthright and cared so little for it that he was willing to exchange it for a bowl of stew. Pharaoh wasn’t bothered by disobeying God’s request; he was only mad about whatever discomfort he was experiencing.

But occasionally in the Bible we get to witness genuine repentance. For instance, we see it with David in the Old Testament, and we recognize it in Paul in the New Testament; Paul was never the same after his experience on the Road to Damascus. The direction and course of his life were radically different.

When we contemplate the destruction caused by the plagues here in Revelation, we should understand their purpose. God is simply attempting to get those who have been persecuting Christians to repent, to change their minds, to alter the trajectory of their lives.

An obvious way to get people to stop persecuting you is to simply kill them, obviously. And there is an emotional satisfaction in that. And some people want to see the plagues against the Evil Empire as that and nothing else.

But the better way to solve the problem of persecution is the way God is doing it in the Bible: he wants to get the one doing harm to stop harming, not by destroying them, but by getting them to change. That’s what God is always trying to do: he wants not just to save us from our tormenters, but also to also rescue our tormenters. If he can save our tormenters, he also saves us. The one who is persecuting us needs saving just as much as we do, and if God can save him or her, he rescues not just us, but them as well.

That’s a much better, far more satisfying outcome than just making their faces melt off their skulls.

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Sharing the Faith

Jesus told us “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But he didn’t tell us how to do it.

In the rest of the book of Acts we discover more than one way to share our faith. The good news we offer always stays the same, but the techniques are all over the place. You just never know.

My mom is very shy and introverted, but she didn’t let that keep her from sharing her faith. When I was in junior high, she bought hundreds and hundreds of copies of the Gospel of John, went through the phone book to get addresses, and then mailed them out with the thought “God’s word won’t return void.”

Maybe that’s where I got the idea to stuff tracts into all the lockers in my junior high one lunch hour. The principal was furious and yelled threats over the intercom that afternoon—which of course only increased how much people talked about the tracts, about the gospel, and about Jesus.

At 14, I didn’t know what I was doing.

I still didn’t know much when I was 18 and 19 and went to Israel twice to work on a kibbutz so I could share the gospel with Israelis as a short-term missionary. All I did there was plant seeds with the Israelis and with all the other volunteer workers from all over the world who were there. It wasn’t just Israelis who heard the gospel message.

The older I get, the less I think I know what I’m doing.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s favorite verse was 2 Chronicles 20:12 “Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” We know in part and only see through a mirror darkly, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. Not knowing the answers, not knowing what to do is part of the human condition. Proverbs 3:5-6 warns us against depending upon on our own understanding, encouraging us instead to trust God.

So I accept that I don’t know much. As desperately as I want to fix problems, I have to accept that there are some problems I just can’t fix. I can’t cure illness, and I can’t bring the dead back to life. I’m not even so good with plumbing.

We get mocked for offering “thoughts and prayers,” and sometimes rightly so according to the apostle James (see James 2:14-17). We Christians certainly don’t have all the answers to all the world’s problems. We don’t even have all the questions.

But what we do have is the simple message that Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, was happy to give. He was once asked to share the most profound thought he’d ever had. So he began softly singing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

We don’t need an answer to every question. We don’t need to know very much. It’s enough that we can tell our neighbors that Jesus loves us. And there’s a nearly infinite number of ways we can do that.

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What Changes

Phariseeism is quite old; it is the default setting for the human race.  We love to disparage those who don’t agree with us.

One common format for this old Phariseeism: “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you believe that” or “you can’t claim to be a Christian and then practice that” or “you can’t possibly be a Christian if you vote that way” or “support that politician” or “participate in that activity” or “frequent that business” or “agree with that individual.”

We live in a time where people are convicted over minor infractions and tossed away with abandon.  If someone says, thinks, or does something that the in-group decides is reprehensible, not only are they vilified, they are boycotted, and they are turned into an unperson who can never, ever be forgiven. 

It’s like living in a high school that can never end.  You say something that someone dislikes or takes the wrong way on Twitter or Facebook and you will lose your job, your career, and your standing in the public arena.  You’ll never get invited to the prom.  You will never be forgiven no matter what you say, no matter what amends you attempt to make, no matter how you walk back your words. 

Love, mercy and forgiveness no longer play much role, except as platitudes.  The Pharisees are in charge and they want to see some punishment; they want to have endless power, and they demand that everyone bow to their way of thinking, and living, and being for now and ever more. 

The legalism that is inherent in the way the world works is fundamentally about power and diametrically opposed to Christianity.  And because we live in this world, Christians are easily infected by it.  Look at the power of worldliness in Colossians 2:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings.Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:16-23)

It is a mistake for the church to concern itself with joining those who wish to pass laws to prohibit evil things.  Making more rules is an ineffective approach to solving problems.  Passing a law against annoying behavior does not mean that the behavior will stop. My wife tells me to stop chewing with my mouth open.  Over and over again.  Her reminding me of the rules doesn’t stop me.  People still speed, still steal, still murder. All a law does is create the possibility of rendering punishment.  Prohibiting the ingestion of various substances does not keep people from imbibing.  Prohibiting behaviors does not stop behaviors.  Fear of my wife getting annoyed does not seem to be enough to make me keep my mouth shut.

The only way to solve bad actions is through a transformation of the human heart.  This genuine change is what the church can accomplish through the power of the Good News.  Through the power of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit enters people and they are made into something new and different.  You cannot have God living inside of you without that having a profound impact on your choices and lifestyle.  We wage war against the darkness, not by using the weapons of the world, but by using the sword of the Spirit.  God can fix what otherwise cannot be repaired.  God changes lives that all the laws in the world never will.

Even then, because we are dealing with human beings, they will still misbehave.  Misbehavior cannot be ended this side of eternity.

Remember these “elemental spiritual forces of this world” that saddle us with rules are our enemy.  In contrast, the people of this world are never our enemy; they are fellow-sufferers and victims.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)

Our struggle, as the struggle of the people to whom the Book of Revelation was written, is ultimately the same: it is against the necessary evil.

Recall who runs the necessary evil: the one who offered the necessary evil to Jesus if he would only worship him:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)

And so John writes against those in Revelation who are worshipping that necessary evil that wants to keep us living in an eternal high school. In the time of John, it was personified in the Roman Empire, which required the literal worship of the Caesar.  All right-thinking Romans would gladly acknowledge him with their sacrifices and proclaim “Caesar is lord.” 

Christians then and now must affirm that no, only Jesus is Lord.  Never Caesar. And only Jesus can change lives. Caesar can go to Hell.

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Be Warm and Filled

Uttering the words “be warm and filled” provides no warmth against freezing conditions nor food for empty stomachs. The apostle James writes that faith leads to action. If it is real faith, there will be practical consequences. Faith is not the expression of kind, well-meaning words or good intentions.

In Deuteronomy 6:8-9 we read the following regarding God’s words:

“Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

Some do this quite literally. They roll up tiny scrolls and seal them inside little boxes that they attach to the side of the doorframes on their homes. Then they strap similarly filled boxes to their hands and foreheads. Which of course misses entirely the metaphorical point: the word of God is supposed to fill our minds and be lived out in our actions.

But too many Christians are satisfied by merely distributing Jesus tchotchke around their homes. And while there is nothing wrong with having Bible verses framed on our walls, or having inspiring sayings embroidered on our towels, there is more to living out our faith than generating memes on Facebook or guilting people into reposting them to prove they really love the Lord.

Inspiring words will not put food in our bellies. Saying “be warmed and filled” does nothing to solve any actual problems. Good intentions do not end hunger. Warm words do not make a good blanket. Marching, petitioning, waving signs in the air, “coming together” in solidarity, #IBELIEVE, changing our Facebook picture and adding a ribbon to it: you haven’t actually done anything at all! You’ve heard it said “the pen is mightier than the sword” but when it comes to actually stabbing your assailant, I think the sword will do a better job of it.

Last week we ended with the phrase in Revelation 13:10 “this calls for patient endurance and faithfulness.” In the face of persecution, in the face of living out what Jesus promised, that “in this life you will have trouble” how do we embrace the second part of what Jesus said “I have overcome the world?” How do we live that sort of life? How do we embody “patient endurance and faithfulness?” How do we overcome?

By putting God’s words in our minds and then choosing to act them out with our hands.

When you have no money and the rent is due, how do you face that? How do you focus on God when your loved one is sick and in the hospital? How do you have faith when the Gestapo is at your door? How do you keep believing when ISIS has come to cut off your head?

You have to decide, with each moment, each choice, at each turning point, in the middle of each crisis to remember God and to rely on God. And how does God help us? Mostly by using the people around us.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart 
and lean not on your own understanding; 
in all your ways submit to him, 
and he will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

It isn’t easy. Ever. It is hard. Always. And it is ongoing. And you may be scared. And you may not have things turn out as you’d like. You may lose it all. You may die.

What good are the Bible verses in frames on your wall then? What good is “I love you” when your heart is broken? And yet, from the thought, follows the action. Saying “be warmed and filled” is fine. We need polite words, good words, encouraging words, kind words. Telling people you love them, care about them, and will pray for them is good. But if it is in your power to do something, then shut up and do something. When you see someone hungry, give them food. When someone is lonely, spend time with them. When someone is fallen, pick them up.

Okay, so maybe it is easy; just messy sometimes, and inconvenient, and sometimes it costs something. Talk is cheap. Solutions are costly.

So. Choose you this day who you will serve. Consider Isaiah’s reaction:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” 
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

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The Great Revolt

I believe Revelation 13:1-10 is set during the time of the Jewish Revolt, between 66 and 70 AD, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and more significantly, according to the ancient historian Josephus, the death of 1.1 million of God’s people, followed by the survivors being enslaved or scattered across the Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians increased exponentially. Things were very bad for God’s people when John was writing the book of Revelation.

So, what is the point of this Sunday’s passage?

We are not promised a rose garden. Those who preach “health, wealth, prosperity” are at best misguided and mistaken; at worst, they are just lying to you in order to separate you from your money. Captivity, death—those are not healthy or wealthy for you. The devil is seeking whom he might devour: that is, the world, ruled by the devil, is not our friend. We are here to share the Good News and to rescue people from the evil one. If we happen to live comfortably, that’s a great blessing, but not guaranteed. What Jesus guaranteed was this: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

We must have patient endurance: in the midst of trouble, disappointment, setbacks, horror. This is what is required of suffering. This past week hundreds of Christians died, murdered in their churches across Sri Lanke. Every week, around the world, Christians die for their faith; every week, Christians lose jobs, education, houses, church buildings and freedom for their faith. Whatever we preach, teach, believe, it must be as true for us in our privileged and prosperous life as members of a prosperous, tolerant nation, as it is for those dying for their faith, and those living in the midst of hunger and poverty in crushing oppression and heavy persecution.

We must never forget that remarkably, the church continued to grow, to gain more followers, to expand even in the midst of suffering and poverty; it has ever been so. As people saw Christians die in the arenas, some of them, many of them, decided they wanted to become Christians, too. Not so they could die, but so that they could have that which made Christians able to accept death when it couldn’t be avoided: the hope, the certainty of resurrection and everlasting life. Because the reality is: we are all going to die. Our friends and family, our coworkers and neighbors, the people we do business with and meet in the public square all want to be able to face the inevitability of death with hope, with peace, and with understanding. That’s something Christians have to offer, regardless of when or how death comes; and that’s what those who saw Christians die recognized and wanted desperately. We have the Good News of love, forgiveness, freedom and everlasting life. That’s what everyone wants, rich or poor, no matter where they happen to reside.

Sometimes I think that I could be more effective, do a better job as a Christian, do better work, if I had less stress, less worry, less anxiety, less trouble, fewer problems. If I never had any plumbing to do ever again; if the Dodgers never lost a game ever again, if I always had plenty of money, why, think how effective and dynamic a relaxed and happy me could be!

None of us live in that kind of world. God did not call us to live lives in paradise today (assuming you’re still on the green side of the grass). He called us to live lives here and now, in the world as it really is, not in the world we wish for. He called us to bear witness to, and to join in the sufferings of Christ in the midst of trial and tribulation—and so he promised us we would have trouble in this world, but he also promised us that he has overcome the world. In this world, in the shadows of dark reality, we celebrate each Sunday that Jesus overcame sin, death, and the grave. Our suffering will never exceed those three things. Jesus overcame all three horrors, and so, in him, can we.

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