From the Days of John the Baptist

One of my many delusions growing up was that I was an athlete. I don’t mean just that I wanted to be good at sports. I mean that, when I entered high school at that awkward stage of self-construction and self-declaration, I wanted “athlete” to be the most important part of my identity. I wanted to be recognized and accepted by other athletes in my school, to sit at their table. I suppose there were worse things to aspire to and worse groups to belong to, but every group has its down side; and the worst side of the athletes in my school tended to emerge whenever one person, a kid I’ll call Sammy, walked past.

Today, Sammy would be referred to as a “special needs student.” He received individualized services and instruction because of his intellectual challenges and emotional impairments. But many of the athletes in my school used different, less-refined words to describe Sammy and his classmates, who were sometimes the victims of verbal and even physical abuse because they were relatively weak and helpless.  Sammy in particular was entirely innocent and vulnerable, a child in a teenager’s body.

Like all of us, Sammy craved attention. And like me, he especially craved the acceptance of the athletes. Unfortunately, he would do anything for the biggest, toughest football players. And what they wanted him to do was to eat food out of trash cans, so that they could be grossed out together and have a good laugh at his expense. He obliged them every chance he got.

The first time I saw them do that to Sammy, I was nauseated, horrified. But I didn’t try to stop them. What could I do? I was a freshman. I didn’t want to get beaten up. And besides, I wanted to belong. So I convinced myself that the best way to help Sammy would be to earn a place at the athletes’ table, and then I’d be able to intervene without fear and maybe even change the group’s attitudes and actions. In the meantime, the abuse continued. I never joined in and I never laughed; I felt sorry for Sammy and told myself that I would never do anything to hurt him. What I didn’t understand at the time was that, by remaining silent, I was participating and I was hurting him. I was better at rationalizing than I was at basketball:  “In order to make a difference, I have to belong,” I said to myself. So I did what I needed to do in order to partake of the power of the group, and that meant not challenging the abuses perpetrated by the group.

But the scriptures teach us to behave otherwise. For example, John the Baptist deliberately chose not to belong, rejecting the powerful, priestly status he was born to (Luke 1:5-17) and choosing instead to live in the wilderness, to challenge the abuses perpetrated by the powerful, and to champion the cause of the weak and the vulnerable (Luke 3:1-20). It’s interesting to note that John would rather go to the desert, to prison, and to his death speaking the prophetic truth than remain comfortable, and comfortably silent, within the abusive political and religious system of his day.

Like John, Paul and Barnabas also preserved their prophetic voices by rejecting earthly religious and political power. I’m thinking especially of the healing of the lame man in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18). As Luke describes it, the scene resembles nothing so much as a modern political convention, with Paul and Barnabas being hailed as all-powerful saviors. The enthusiastic crowd identified the two men at the top of the ticket as incarnations of Zeus and Hermes, thus conferring on them enormous political clout; had they played along, any command of theirs would have been obeyed instantly, at least for a season. Imagine the good they might have done. But the apostles refused the party’s nomination and seem not to have even considered that occupying such powerful positions might have opened doors for the exercise of more godly influence among their confused constituents.

Instead, at the mere suggestion that they might be heaven-sent, they tore their clothing, signifying both that the nomination was blasphemous and, in light of their poverty, that they would rather have nothing, not even the clothes on their backs, than be accorded such power.  Then they rushed into the crowd, not to shake hands and kiss babies, but to stop the people from making sacrifices for them and to try to convince all those well-meaning but misguided people to reject the political and religious system they were trapped in.

Because of their forceful rejection of earthly power and influence and their determination not to blur the boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the religious and political systems of earth, Paul and Barnabas were able to continue to speak prophetically to both religious and political leaders in Jesus’ name, including even, in Paul’s case, the emperor. By risking their lives to reject earthly political power, they were following the example not only of John the Baptist but also of Jesus, himself, who fiercely protected and preserved his own prophetic calling and voice by refusing every offer of earthly authority.

For example, just before beginning his public ministry, Jesus faced the terrible temptation of worldwide, political sovereignty (Luke 4:5-7). Imagine what good the Son of God could have done had he accepted the enemy’s offer of authority over all the kingdoms of the world. He knew, however, as did the tempter, that any attempt to blend the Kingdom of God with the nations of the earth would have transformed his influence from prophetic wine into political water. Jesus rejected the offer in the strongest terms—and he would have to do so again and again, for his people firmly (but wrongly) believed that their Messiah would lead an earthly army and sit on a worldly throne.

As a case in point, consider that, after feeding the five thousand, Jesus had to escape from the multitude who “were about to come and take him by force to make him king” (John 6:15). These well-fed people were feverish in their belief that their earthly nation was destined to be the Kingdom of God on earth and that earthly force could bring it about. They had certainly chosen the right King—it’s the Kingdom they got wrong, in terms of its boundaries, its timing, and its relationship to violence. They failed to understand that the Kingdom in question is not from this world (John 18:36), and that the King they were trying to force to use force was the Prince of Peace. As he explained to Pilate, “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting” (John 18:36). The clear implication here is that the citizens of Christ’s kingdom do not use worldly force to oust enemies (Roman or otherwise) or to establish, preserve, and extend that kingdom. He who taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10) also commanded us to put our swords away (Matthew 26:52).  He who warned us that “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Matthew 11:25) also urged us, by both precept and example, to lay down earthly weapons, earthly power, earthly rights, and earthly lives and to know, not the things that make for violence, but the things that make for peace (Luke 19:41-42).

 Like John the Baptist before him and like Paul and Barnabas after him, Jesus preferred death to wielding political power. And like so many true prophets before and after him, it was his refusal to “belong,” his rejection of the political warfare of the strong against the weak that incited the visible and invisible powers of earth to violence. Jesus preserved his prophetic ability to challenge and defeat those powers by speaking the truth in love and by suffering the earthly consequences (Colossians 2:15).

All of this makes me think about Sammy and about the ways in which my desire to belong among the powerful tricked me into self-preserving silence, coerced me into looking the other way, fooled me into believing the old lie that, in order to do some good, you have to accept some evil. The prophet Daniel never believed that lie, even as he and his three friends were forced to live and work within the governmental systems of ancient Babylon. Had I followed their example, I would have resisted; I would have spoken up, even if speaking up meant losing power, or worse. In spite of grave political and personal danger, they refused to be bullied into eating from the king’s idolatrous trash can (Daniel 1:8-13) or threatened into worshiping the golden statue erected at the ugly intersection of earthly force and religious devotion (Daniel 3:8-18). They risked their lives and preserved their prophetic voices, which continue to challenge and to warn the powers of earth even today.

Unlike Daniel and his friends, unlike John the Baptist, unlike Paul and Barnabas, and unlike the Lord Jesus, I chose personal advancement and security instead of prophetic courage. I learned later that this has been the Church’s problem since Constantine, when the Bride of Christ accepted a Christian emperor’s offer of a seat at the table of political power. Suddenly, the temptation to use all, available, earthly force overwhelmed the clear call to rely on weapons that are not of earth (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). By choosing to exercise political and military might in service of an earthly empire, and by choosing to accept in return that empire’s offer of earthly security, rights, and rewards, the Church silenced its own prophetic voice.

I am not arguing that Christians should not be involved in politics. Indeed, if we obey our prophetic calling and follow the example of all the prophets, we will have a profound, political impact, not by serving the interests of the politically powerful, but by challenging those with earthly power to remember that “the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals” (Dan. 4:25) and to care for the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger (see, for example, Isaiah 3:14-15; Amos 2:6-7; Micah 2:1-2; Malachi 3:5; Luke 3:10-13). However, if we seek to advance Christ’s Kingdom through the use of physical or political force, if we speak for earthly political entities and movements instead of speaking to them in Jesus’ name, and if we seek to protect ourselves at the expense of the poor and the weak, we will silence our prophetic influence.

I wish I could say that my failure to speak for Sammy has been my only failure in this regard. It has not. Until very recently, I thought it right to choose a side in the political wars and to use my voice and my vote to assail the abuses of the other side, while ignoring or, at least, downplaying the abuses perpetrated by the people I shared a table with—abuses sometimes perpetrated in Jesus’ name. I aim to do better. I know that I am only one and that my voice is small. But I want to use my voice as Jesus used his. So I refuse the world’s invitation to be silent and to look the other way when the weak are being bullied by the strong. I reject it in the name of the King, the Prince of Peace.

 

 

Daniel and Harry

I don’t really enjoy it when people are angry at me, and it’s never my goal to make people mad. But as a teacher, part of my job is to introduce others to ideas and concepts that they might never have heard of before. What’s more, I often have to involve them in experiences that they might find uncomfortable or intimidating. And when we human beings are confronted by what feels awfully strange or difficult, fear can take over. But it isn’t socially acceptable to admit that we are afraid, so instead of expressing our fear, we often disguise it as anger.

Unfortunately, as a Christian professor at a so-called “secular” university, I could tell many stories about angry Christian students I have known, students whose “righteous indignation” turned out, in retrospect, to be fear in disguise.

One such student stands out in my memory. I’ll call her Amy. She was my student in a course that focused on some of the theories readers may use to interpret texts of all kinds. In her defense, some of those theories have names that many Christians fear. As a class, we delved into Marxist theory, feminist theory, and psychoanalytic theory, to name a few. Prior to the semester, most of the students knew at least a little about such theories, but only one or two really knew them well, and nobody knew how to apply them to literary texts. Beginning on the first night and then throughout the course, I assured the students that our goal was not to “believe” all of these theories, but to know them well enough to use the tools they provide, to be acquainted with their strengths and weaknesses, to understand them, and to argue thoughtfully against them when appropriate.

As the semester went on, I could sense Amy’s increasing frustration with the material and perhaps with me. I found out later that a former student of mine had told her that I was a Christian, too; so Amy was surprised that I was not “bringing Christianity in” to the theories we were learning and discussing as a class. At mid-term, she seemed almost completely withdrawn. She was polite to me and to her classmates and assured me that she was ok; but she seemed increasingly unwilling to engage with the subject matter. Occasionally, she appeared to be deeply angry.

Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. She raised her hand, and when I called on her to speak, she was trembling. Nearly shouting, she said, “I don’t see why I have to understand and respect all of these theories, when the theory that’s most important to me, my Christianity, is ignored and disrespected at this school and in this society.” I almost interrupted her at that point to say, “Amy, are we really persecuted here? Persecuted the way Christians are persecuted in so many other places in this world? And when we are mistreated or misunderstood, shouldn’t we try to remember that that’s what Jesus told us to expect everywhere he sends us? Here, we have to earn a hearing by listening respectfully. Here, we often have to practice turning the other cheek” (Luke 21:17; John 15:18-21; Matt. 5:38-40)—but I let her continue. Her classmates were silent, watching both of us.

She went on, “I’m in another class right now where the professor is trying to force me to read Harry Potter, a book that is totally contrary to my beliefs! Why should I have to read something so offensive to me and my faith?” I could tell now that she had nothing more to say, but she was still shaking, staring at me, waiting for me to respond. Here’s what I said, as gently as I could:

“Have you read it?” The color drained from her face.

Almost whispering, she replied, “What?”

“Amy, have you read Harry Potter?”

She shook her head, and her eyes widened.

I continued, “Amy, how do you know that Harry Potter is contrary to your beliefs if you haven’t read it? And if it really is contrary to your beliefs, how will you argue against it if you don’t investigate it? Isn’t that what people do with your beliefs—hating your faith without understanding it, fearing it without looking into it, basing their conclusions on what other people have told them, pushing away even what might be good for them?”

Like all of us when we are frightened, Amy had simply closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see what she was afraid of. Perhaps she thought that, by pushing Harry Potter away, she was imitating Daniel, who when faced with King Nebuchadnezzar’s life-or-death command, refused to defile himself with the king’s idolatrous food (Dan. 1). If so, she had forgotten that, although Daniel firmly rejected the food and drink of his pagan captors, he also willingly mastered “the literature and the language of the Chaldeans” (Dan. 1:4)—and those Chaldeans were actual, real-life sorcerers, flesh and blood conjurers, not characters in a fictitious tale, like Voldemort.  Evidently, Daniel had been taken captive only by the Babylonians, not by fear.

Daniel’s example helps us to understand one of Paul’s very important commands. When Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8), he is not warning us to close our eyes, to run away, or to ignore every aspect of human culture that hasn’t yet submitted to Jesus’ lordship. How will we ever obey Paul’s command to “see to it” if our eyes are closed by fear? Someone had convinced Amy to fear Harry Potter, as if reading the book would summon some dark power to take her captive, so she shut her eyes and shoved the book away. Paul didn’t live that way. Neither did Daniel. Because they knew the One True God, they weren’t afraid to live and work among people who served false gods; they weren’t afraid to know the literature and the languages, the histories and the traditions of the people they had been called to love and serve. Knowing what their cultures believed about life and death, about history and science, about literature and art and religion allowed them to speak prophetically to common people and royalty alike.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that all we need is academic knowledge or that “education is the only answer” to all the problems in the world and in the Church. If it were, Christians wouldn’t hate others, health professionals wouldn’t smoke, university professors wouldn’t encourage undergraduates to violently disrupt free speech, and well-schooled politicians wouldn’t lie, condemn the innocent to death or prey on the poor (Is. 3:15).

My point is that Jesus has sent us into all the world to preach the gospel—and he doesn’t want us to be terrified of the world he’s sending us into. We’re never going to reach the world or influence its cultures if we close our eyes and our minds. The good news is that God wants to give his people “knowledge and skill in every aspect of literature and wisdom” (Dan. 1:17). So memorizing Greek poetry (Acts 17:28) didn’t make Paul a pagan; and mastering the literature and language of the Chaldeans didn’t turn Daniel into an idolatrous sorcerer.

As Amy told me after the semester had ended, reading Harry Potter didn’t turn her into a witch, either. That is no surprise. The “witchcraft” in Harry Potter is fantasy impossible to imitate (invisible train platforms, potions that make people look like other people, bottles in which memories can be stored in liquid/gaseous form for later viewing). Witchcraft isn’t even the center of the series. The war of good against evil is. More than any other work of fiction I have ever read, the Harry Potter series helped me see and feel how terrible evil can be, what becomes of those who choose to follow the prince of darkness, and how to overcome evil with good through self-sacrificial love and brotherly unity. Although the books were written primarily for young people, adults are highly likely to enjoy and profit from reading the series. In fact, I would recommend that parents read the books with their children, especially the later books in the series, where the dangers of following evil are particularly pronounced.

But my goal isn’t to get you and your kids to dive into Harry Potter. I know it isn’t for everybody. In my view, the writing is outstanding, the stories are complex, fascinating, and entertaining, and the “magic” they contain is at least as inoffensive and impossible to imitate as Gandalf’s staff, Bilbo’s ring, and Lucy’s wardrobe (bits of “wizardry” that many Christians have found perfectly harmless). Perhaps you will decide that Harry is not for you or your children. But please don’t let knee-jerk fear close your eyes. Don’t shun (or teach your children to fear) the study of history, biology, world languages, medicine, psychology, economics, world religions, poetry or any other vital aspect of the cultures we have been called to because they contain some things you don’t agree with. Let’s not ignore or violently expel the people we’ve been called to love, the cultures we’ve been called to serve, the knowledge we’ve been called to learn. Who knows? We might even learn something that builds us up in our faith! Of course we must be careful. But that means keeping our eyes open.

Poisoned Minds: Campus Violence and a Fearful Church

The stuffed zucchini was excellent. So good, in fact, that I polished off one helping and asked my host for more. It wasn’t until a couple of hours later that I discovered that I had been (accidentally) poisoned. I don’t have to tell you how I found out. All of us know how a poisoned stomach reacts. When the emergency room doctor asked me the next morning what the zucchini had been stuffed with, I told him I wasn’t sure. “Well, I’m sure,” he replied. “It was stuffed with salmonella.” Knowing the name of the culprit didn’t help much. The pounding headache, the stabbing stomach cramps, the, well, you know.

The thing about a poisoned stomach is that it expels absolutely everything, whether it be yet another helping of problematic zucchini, a sip of water, or even the antidote that could save the patient. The recent, violent demonstrations on university campuses indicate that poisoned minds work the same way. I’ll return to those troubling, current events in a moment, but first I’d like to take you to the scene of a similarly violent demonstration in the ancient world because it provides such a perfect picture of the results of mental poisoning.

Acts 14 shows us Paul and Barnabas preaching the gospel in Iconium, and quite successfully, too, because “a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers” (v. 1). Not everybody believed, though, and some of those unbelievers “stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers” (v. 2). After that, the mentally-tainted residents refused to swallow any more of the gospel message, repelling the apostles with violent threats (v. 5-6). Later, those same Iconian poisoners contaminated the minds of the residents of Lystra and Derbe, where the resulting expulsion turned not only violent, but deadly, as the outraged citizens stoned Paul and dragged his apparently lifeless body out of the city (v. 19).

This terrible story reveals that, like a poisoned stomach, a poisoned mind rejects even what might be good for it. What happened in Iconium and Listra is very like what has been happening on some modern college campuses, where students and professors resort to organized and, sometimes, even violent protest to prevent the free expression of views they find offensive. The University of California, Berkeley—one of our nation’s most prestigious public institutions—has been in the news recently because of violent demonstrations that prevented an appearance by an ultra-conservative speaker, and because of threats of further violence that prevented another conservative voice from being heard on campus.

I am not suggesting that the ideas of Milo Yiannopoulos or Anne Coulter have anything to do with the gospel Paul preached, or that I agree with their positions, or that university students should meekly swallow such ideas. I am suggesting that it might do those students some good to let their ideological adversaries speak, to listen respectfully to their words (even if they find those words offensive and disrespectful) and then, if they disagree with the speakers, to engage in both public and private arguments and action to counter those offensive ideas.  In my view, violent threats and demonstrations designed to silence and expel ideological adversaries are lamentable symptoms that, instead of being educated, at least some minds have been poisoned on such campuses. Perhaps you would agree.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that only “secular” academies have swallowed the poison. Recently, Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS), under pressure from students and alumni, withdrew a promised award from a well-known, conservative pastor. To the Seminary’s credit, although Rev. Keller did not receive the award he had been promised, he did receive an invitation to speak; and although there were organized protests and teach-ins prior to his talk, the students and professors didn’t resort to violence.

I know that some of my more conservative readers might not see much difference between UC-Berkeley and Princeton Theological Seminary–both are, admittedly, quite liberal. But some more obviously and even proudly conservative, Christian institutions are also displaying the troubling symptoms of mental poisoning, resorting to force to expel “the opposition.” Consider, for example, the tendency observed in some Christian schools, churches and ministries to fire dedicated employees who, although they are faithful Christians, espouse political views that their conservative employers do not agree with. In addition, consider that the president of Liberty University, a bastion of Christian conservatism, publicly encourages students to carry weapons in their dorms, in their classrooms, and in Jesus’ name. Liberty is spending millions of dollars to build an on-campus shooting range and practice facility in part so that its students will be ready to resort to violence to defend their lives, their friends, their faith, and their rights if attacked by violent persecutors.

I could tell equally disturbing, though perhaps less evidently violent, stories about professors on conservative Christian campuses who have been censored or even forced out of their teaching jobs because of their opinions about non-essential doctrinal issues. Others have been expelled or, at least, restricted because in their teaching of particular academic subject matter, they do not adhere to an extremely narrow reading of the Bible and its relationship to, say, science. Of course, Christian professors who question or challenge prevailing, academic and political orthodoxy at public universities may be in similar danger. It seems to me that our generation has forgotten what a waste of time and money it is to go to a college or university, Christian or public, where all you will be exposed to is what you already think, know, and believe, where you will be taught to fear opposing ideas and perhaps even violently attack and expel people who espouse them.

Which brings us back to Acts 14, a terribly violent chapter. For me, the best part about it is that it is followed by Acts 15, the chapter in which the Early Church was faced with deeply divided views regarding how to unify a rapidly expanding Christian community made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Some said that, because Jesus is the promised, Jewish Messiah, all Gentile converts must observe the Law of Moses, including circumcision and the dietary restrictions. Others said no, that no one (Jew or Gentile) enters into the Messiah’s family except by grace, having been purchased by Jesus’s blood, and that forcing Gentiles to observe the Law of Moses would be tantamount to declaring the cross ineffective and unnecessary. So, what did the Early Church do when confronted by these strongly held, potentially divisive opinions? They came together to debate. To listen to one another. To hear one another out. To air their disagreements in an atmosphere charged with both passion (each speaker thought he was right) and love (everyone listened respectfully to everybody else). This is how true unity comes about. It doesn’t happen when we ignore one another’s differences of opinions, when we punish, shun or silence those who have views different from our own, when we simply decide not to talk about it, or when we wrongly conclude that unity and uniformity are the same thing.

Paul tells us that “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and he urges us all to share that uncontaminated mind in perfect unity (Phil.  2:2). If the mind of Jesus is indeed in us (Phil. 2:5), then we will together, in unified fashion, follow Jesus’ example of humble and obedient self-sacrifice (Phil. 2:6-8); and we will join together in worshipful surrender to his sovereignty and his lordship (Phil. 2:9-11). And we will also understand that such deep unity leaves room for loving disagreement (Phil. 3:15; Rom. 14:1-12), calling and allowing us to be patient with one another, to stop fighting against one another, and to help one another work out our differences gently, lovingly, and peacefully (Phil 4:1-5).

Those who truly have the mind of Christ and who follow his example should not fear opposing viewpoints or violently attack and expel ideological and political opponents; nor should they call for holy war against potentially violent persecutors. As in Acts 14, such aggressions are symptoms of a poisoned mind. And, as in Acts 15, the antidote is coming together, striving for unity in and around Christ himself, speaking the truth as we see it in love, and listening for what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us, even from the mouths of those on the other side of the argument.

The Pillar and Support of the Truth

Fake News. Alternative Facts. Which is it this time? The most powerful people in our country tell us that the news media routinely invent and publish bold-faced lies. The most respected journalists in the nation reply that our elected officials are hiding the truth and telling self-serving, imaginary tales. If it all weren’t so deadly serious, I would say that it feels as if we’re in the middle of a junior high cafeteria food fight. For me, the worst part is that there are Christians on both sides of the table, smearing each other with rotten produce, gouging one another with plastic forks, each side “defending” its chosen party and politicians, each side “attacking” the so-called enemy.

But as I wrote in an earlier entry in this blog (http://www.arimathean.com/2017/03/hand-to-hand-combat/), we are not supposed to be fighting each other. We are brothers. We are family. We are not to belong to or fight for either political side in this shameful, messy war. That’s not why we’re here. That’s not who we are.

Well, then, who are we? Where are we supposed to stand when all of these accusations are flying around? Whom are we supposed to believe when everyone is accusing everyone else of lying, when it’s so hard to tell what’s true, when we sense, down deep, that both sides are probably lying to us, at least some of the time? Thankfully, Paul tells us exactly where to stand and what to do in this world of flying lies. Instead of opposing one another, we are to stand together as citizens of a single, united Kingdom, members of one family, the “household of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). This is our mission, and we have to get it right for two very important reasons.

First, the Lord Jesus warned us that “any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and a house divided against itself falls” (Luke 11:17). There is no reason to believe that our Christian household, the Church, is exempt from this dire warning. If we maintain and deepen the present divisions, we will not survive. The great threat to the survival of the Church is internal, inside the house, not outside. If we fall, it won’t be because of some other religion’s ascendance or the efforts of “godless politicians.” It will be because we opposed one another, because we accepted division as normal, even desirable.

Second, if we don’t begin to support the truth together—instead of supporting the lies and half-truths concocted by both the Left and the Right—we will never carry out the Great Commission. We have been called to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15), and this mission depends on our unity. On the night before he died, Jesus underscored the importance of our love for one another (John 13:35) and prayed that we would not be divided (John 17: 21). And he repeatedly connected our unity to our sanctification “in the truth” (John 17:17, 19). Remember, to be sanctified means to be set apart for God’s purposes: we are to be set apart from lies, set apart from the Right, set apart from the Left, living and working together in unity to support the truth.

I don’t mean that we shouldn’t be involved in politics.  After all, our mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus, and that gospel is political, through and through.  The message of the gospel is that Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, is Lord of all. As N. T. Wright has frequently argued, the gospel challenges every pretender to power, declaring that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, that Jesus is Lord and the political parties are not, that Jesus is Lord and I am not. To be saved is to acknowledge and surrender to his Lordship. This is the gospel we are to take to all of creation, the heart of our message, the core of our mission.

Isaiah emphasizes the political nature of this mission when he prophesies that the Messiah “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1). It seems to me that justice is what we all want, Christians on the Right and Christians on the Left. We want everyone, rich and poor, weak and strong, male and female, immigrant and native-born, to be treated fairly. We want the innocent to be protected and the guilty to be punished. We hunger for the justice that the Messiah brings forth. And how he do it? Isaiah tells us that the Messiah brings forth justice “faithfully” (Isaiah 42:3), using a Hebrew word that means “truth.” That is, by telling and exalting the truth, by exposing and defeating all lies, Jesus, the Messiah, will see to it that justice is done. He is himself the truth (John 14:6), and he came to inaugurate a just Kingdom that is based on and bears witness to the truth (John 18:37).

That’s where the Church comes in. Jesus has entrusted to us his mission of bringing justice to the nations, commissioning us to implement his victory against unjust powers, to live and to speak truly and justly while surrounded by lies and injustice. The same Spirit that was poured out on Jesus to bring justice to the nations (Isaiah 42:1) has been breathed into us, and now we are His body, the people newly created and called to exhibit and extend God’s justice in our daily lives, circumstances, and communities. The Messiah is indeed bringing forth justice to the nations, to all of creation—and he is doing so through his Church.

This mission is both crucial and complicated. It often seems impossible to know what the truth is; it can be awfully hard to determine what justice means in particular circumstances.  So I want to suggest a simple first step that we can all take together. Since justice depends on truth, let’s all pray earnestly that the God of truth (Psalm 31:5) will expose all lies and all liars. In other words, instead of working and praying against one another (or against this or that political party), I am suggesting that we seek justice together by praying, with one voice, that Almighty God will unearth and overturn every lie and every liar in the political system, in the news, and even in the Church. Let’s pray that all the truth comes out—including uncomfortable or unwelcome truths—so that justice may be done. And, as God drags each lie into the light, let’s speak the truth in love and act in unity against every injustice, whatever the source. In this way, we will be fulfilling our mission as the united pillar and support of the truth; and we will ensure that our own house doesn’t come crashing down around us.

I Am Waiting

I am waiting. I’ve been treasuring certain very personal promises in my heart for years, for decades in some cases, and I’m still waiting for their fulfillment. As a husband and father, I’m also waiting with the people I love for the fulfillment of promises they have received. I’m not sure which is harder: waiting for something I long for in the solitude of my own heart or waiting and hoping on behalf of a son or a daughter. I guess we all know what it is to wait, like Abraham and Sarah waited for Isaac, like the youthful David waited for the beginning of his kingship, like all of Israel waited for the Messiah.

Psalm 25 can teach us a lot about the process of waiting. In verse 3, David affirms his confidence in God’s faithfulness when he writes, “Indeed, none of those who wait for You will be ashamed,” even though the process might be long, even though we might have to “wait all the day” (v. 5). We don’t know what David was waiting for, but we do know that he tasted the same bitterness that we taste when we have to wait a long time for God to come through. Look at verses 16-18: “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. The troubles of my heart are enlarged; bring me out of my distresses. Look upon my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.” Does that sound familiar to you? It does to me. And it’s comforting to know that David also had to pass through long, difficult periods of waiting for God to fulfill His promises. But Psalm 25 brings us more than comfort. It also teaches us what to do while we’re waiting. Consider the following:

  • In verse 8, we see that, while he is waiting, David worships God, saying, “Good and upright is the Lord.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m feeling lonely and afflicted, when the answer I’m waiting for is delayed, I don’t find it all that easy to worship God and to declare him “good and upright.” At such times, it’s much easier to complain about God and to question His character, His faithfulness. David, however, while he was waiting, and in spite of his personal struggles, openly declared the goodness, the uprightness, the justness of God.
  • That same verse (8) shows us that, in addition to worshiping God, David kept seeking and following the way of God. That is, deep in his heart, David had determined to make progress in his journey toward and with God while he was waiting for God to keep His promises. In fact, says David, because God is good and upright, He instructs sinners in the way, showing them the path they should choose. In other words, although we don’t yet have the fulfillment of the promise, we do have a path to follow. Many times, we don’t worship God or declare His goodness unless and until He fulfills His promise to us; but David worships God before the fulfillment of the promise because he understands that the path God has already given us to walk on will lead us closer to God—and he also understands that, if we reject that path, we’ll never receive the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. In this way, David underscores the importance of continuing to follow and obey God while we wait, making progress toward Him, and learning what He’s trying to teach us along the way. Because when a promise from God seems to be delayed, it is because there is hidden within the delay a vital lesson (something God wants us to learn) and a crucial destination (a new place God is calling us toward).
  • But if we are going to learn everything that God is trying to teach us on this long road, we have to work on our character, because delays are designed to develop and cleanse our character. And my character needs some work. I find it way easier to despair than to learn, easier to get angry than to change my attitude. I also find it easier to look for a convenient escape route or short cut than to keep on following the painful path of waiting. My pride wants to assert itself, to make all the decisions. But David says that God “leads the humble in justice” (v. 9) and that “He teaches the humble His way” (v. 9). The humble are those who fight to receive, not to reject, the lesson; the humble are those who bear the burden of delay without complaint, rejecting every shortcut, refusing to try to fulfill the promise themselves (the way Abraham did when he took Hagar as a wife, trying to make God’s promise come true in his own time and in his own strength).
  • Although the way of waiting might be long and difficult, the path of God’s delay is paved with “mercy and truth” (v. 10). Maybe we don’t feel much mercy when we have to wait so long for a response, but even God’s “delays” are bathed in what is best for us. Similarly, it might seem to us that God has lied to us when He hasn’t yet done what He said He would do, but even the path of His delayed promises is strewn with truth. In fact, it’s our emotions that deceive us, telling us that God is not good, hinting that God has lied to us. If we follow our feelings instead of His path of mercy and truth, we’ll miss the blessings, both those hidden in the delay and those waiting for us at God’s chosen destination.
  • David assures us that those who keep following God are going to enjoy the deep well-being of God, and that their descendants will possess a beautiful inheritance (v. 13). But even such lofty, future rewards are not David’s primary motivation; instead, he is after a more immediate prize, something that those who are waiting can enjoy throughout their long journey: the “secret of the Lord” (v. 14), the intimate presence of God, Himself. Look at the verbs in verses 13 and 14: verse 13 focuses on future prosperity, well-being, and inheritance; but verse 14 focuses on the present, declaring that if we fear and follow God while we’re waiting for the fulfillment of His promise, we can know His intimate presence here and now. That’s why David says, “My eyes are continually toward the Lord, for He will pluck my feet out of the net” (v. 15). When we fix our eyes on what we are expecting God to do for us in the future, we place our feet in the enemy’s net. Think of Abraham, taking his eyes off of God and yearning so desperately for his promised son that he veered from God’s path of mercy and truth. Think of Israel who, searching so devotedly for the Messiah, took their eyes off of God and, as a result, rejected the Messiah they had been waiting for when He finally came to them (John 1:11; Psalm 118:22). Instead of searching everywhere for the fulfillment of God’s promise, we need to fix our eyes on the faithful One who is walking beside us. Although we have not yet seen what we yearn to see, we can enter and enjoy God’s intimate presence, walking all the way with the God who made, and who will keep, His promise.

So we are still waiting, we are still walking, and the road is long. But we don’t have to walk alone. The One we’re waiting for is already with us. So, while we’re waiting, we can worship Him; we can follow Him; we can obey Him; we can trust Him; and we can enjoy Him, especially when the road is long. The Lord Jesus has told us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). And that is a promise we don’t have to wait for.

Hand-to-Hand Combat

I like being a professor because it gives me so many opportunities to speak learnedly about things I know nothing about. Take self-defense, for instance. One of the things I “know” about self-defense is that balance is essential:  when you’re fighting someone, it’s really important to have a stable, strong base and to try to move your opponent off of his. In fact, one of your most important weapons is your opponent’s momentum. For example, if he’s moving toward you, you can use his forward momentum against him by pushing/pulling/moving him off-balance, to get him off his feet, to send him flying.

This principle of physical, hand-to-hand combat applies in our battle against spiritual enemies as well. Paul writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Balance is crucial in our struggle against these enemies, because if they find us leaning too far one way or the other, they know how to use our own weight and momentum against us, how to knock us off our feet. In David’s day, a warrior who lost his balance was often dead before he hit the ground. That’s why David thanks God for giving him feet like the feet of a deer navigating a steep, rocky path in the mountains, where balance is hard to find and maintain (Ps. 18:33; cf. 2 Sam. 22:34; Hab. 3:19; Ps. 40:2; Ps. 118:13). When David writes, “because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Ps. 16:8), part of what he is saying is, “God will prevent my enemy from pushing me off-balance, from moving me in any direction I shouldn’t go in.”  Usually, when I hear Christians talk about being “opposed by the enemy,” they seem to mean that their adversary is trying to impede their progress in a particular direction. That may certainly be the case. But it is just as likely that, if the enemy cannot stop you from moving in a particular direction, he is only too happy to push you farther in that direction than you ought to go, to get you off-balance, to make you slip, stumble, and fall.

 No one who is off-balance can expect to win a fight against a merciless, experienced, mortal enemy. This statement applies not only to individual Christians but also to the Church at large. The tumultuous and painful political season we are presently passing through has shed light on certain, potentially deadly imbalances in the Church in the United States, and on the enemies we are facing.  In fighting the good fight, we seem to have lost our sense of equilibrium. Some members and groups within the Church have moved strategically and obediently to the right, and the enemy has taken advantage of that movement and pushed those people and those movements off-balance, too far to the right, so far to the right that they sometimes seem, for example, to have contempt for the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, and the stranger. Other individuals and groups within the Church have moved strategically and obediently to the left, only to be pushed off-balance, too far to the left, so far to the left that they sometimes seem, for example, to care nothing for the unborn or for balanced, biblical holiness.

So we find ourselves divided, with part of the Church leaning dangerously to the right and another leaning precipitously to the left. But we are supposed to be one Church, united (John 17:11), standing together on the rock that is Christ Jesus (1 Cor 10:4). Paul says that, as the single Church of the Lord Jesus, we have been given “the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left” (2 Cor 6:7). Let me state clearly that these weapons God has granted us are not earthly, flesh-destroying, human-harming weapons (2 Cor 10:4). No. On the right and the left, we hold spiritual weapons designed to be used together, in concert, in unity, to tear down the invisible strongholds that seek to ruin lives and to destroy the human race.

However, it seems to me that Christians on the right are using the weapons God has given them to attack their brothers and sisters on the left, and that Christians on the left are using the weapons God has given them to attack their brothers and sisters on the right. Instead of fighting the enemy from a balanced stance, using the weapons we have been given on both the right and on the left to tear down strongholds and to prophetically criticize, challenge, and correct injustice together in Jesus’ name, we engage in hand-to-hand combat with ourselves, the right hand gashing the left, the left hand slashing the right. All the enemy needs to do is give us a gentle shove, and off we go, flying off the rock, some falling to the left, some to the right. He uses our momentum against us. He uses our weapons against us. He uses our disunity, our extreme right-ness, our extreme left-ness against us.

When Joshua was about to enter into warfare in the Land of Promise, God commanded him to be careful to obey “all the law,” not just part, and He warned him not to “turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (Joshua 1:8). I think that we have been misled to believe that, if the Church is going to have any successful influence in the political realm, we need to turn hard either toward the right or toward the left, to “get behind” a particular party. But our job is not to win elections. It is to speak for Christ against unjust earthly powers on both the right and the left. It is to fight Christ’s invisible enemies. It is to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly, together, with God (Mic. 6:8).

Imagine with me, for a moment, two brothers, both with swords drawn, standing together on a tall, narrow rock, one on the right and one on the left. Now, imagine that these two brothers are under attack and that ten of their mortal enemies are just beneath them, trying to climb to them, trying to kill them, to stab them, to push one or both of them off of the rock. Let me ask you: how would those brothers treat one another? Would they not defend one another? Would they not cling to one another with one hand while wielding the sword with the other? Would they not, if need be, drag each other away from the jagged edge into the more stable, defensible center of the rock? Can you imagine that they would turn on one another? That they would stab one another and push one another away? Wouldn’t they do everything possible to unite and fight together against their common enemies, left and right?

 

Deceptive Food

Proverbs 23 begins with a rather shocking image. As the curtain rises, we see a guest seated at the dining table of a ruler, observing the many delicacies prepared by his host, and putting a sharp knife to his own throat (v. 2). Solomon tells us why this guest must restrain himself so forcefully:  the apparently delicious food that covers the table is “deceptive” (v. 3). Whoever eats it won’t be satisfied. Instead, they will vomit up what they have eaten, because what looks like desirable nourishment contains an invisible poison. Evidently, when we’re hungry, when we have to decide whether to eat something or not, it’s important not to trust our eyes.

This lesson isn’t limited to food, because the host in Proverbs 23 also invites his guest to drink freely (v. 7), offering to quench his thirst with refreshing, sparkling wine. Solomon’s advice, however, is not only, “Don’t drink it!” but also “Do not [even] look at the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup” (v. 31). Like the deceptive food, that cup full of wine appears to be the perfect answer to a genuine need—but even though it “goes down smoothly” (v. 31) when we drink it, the cup filled by the lying ruler contains a poison that bites like a savage serpent (v.33). If we let our eyes lead us to drink the deceptively desirable wine, says Solomon, we will end up confused, perverted, seasick, beaten (v. 33-35).

This lesson about what to look at and how to see extends beyond food and drink. For example, Solomon commands us not to turn our eyes toward financial gain because, as soon as our “eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven” (v. 5). Money fools us because its wings are invisible to us until it suddenly flies away, dashing all our hopes. Like deceptive delicacies and venomous wine, riches cry out for our attention and our gaze, but they will never satisfy.

Indeed, “human eyes are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20), so Solomon also warns us not to fix our gaze on “the adulteress” (v. 27)—that is, not to look with longing upon any person to whom we are not married. Pursuing that person (or allowing ourselves to be pursued) might appear to be deeply satisfying, but our eyes are easily fooled, failing to see, until it’s too late, the “deep pit” and the “narrow well” (v. 27) that swallow those who seek sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. But wait a minute: if you’re congratulating yourself just now because you’ve never committed adultery, remember the words of Jesus: all it takes to commit adultery is to look with desire (Matt. 5:28), either with your natural eyes or your mind’s eyes. Welcome to this paragraph. Sit down with me here beside this narrow well.

 Better yet, let’s sit together with the thirsty Samaritan woman (John 4:1-40) who wants to drink water from the well dug by the deceitful Jacob (v. 6), a woman looking for satisfaction in adultery (v. 18). What Jesus says to her, He says also to us: “’Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’” (v. 13-14). Unlike the poisonous, sparkling wine we see in Proverbs 23, the drink that Jesus offers us heals us constantly, sustains us permanently, and provides us eternal life. The question the Holy Spirit asks each of us is, “Which cup do you choose?”

According to Solomon, we answer that question not so much with our words as with our eyes. The cup we gaze at is the cup we will drink from. In the same way, we decide with our eyes whether we will devour deceptive, sickening food, or whether we will  partake of Jesus Himself, “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Similarly, with our eyes we choose either earthly riches that fly away from us, or Jesus, the Sun of righteousness who uses His wings to fly toward us in order to bring us healing (Malachi 4:2). Which will we look to?

We see this question and this warning throughout the Scriptures. When the ruler of this world set deceptively beautiful food before Adam and Eve, they chose to follow their eyes toward death; but Jesus refused the enemy’s bread (Luke 4:3-4) and lives forever. When Samson followed his eyes to Delilah, the enemy gouged out Samson’s eyes (Judges 16); but when Potiphar’s wife “cast her eyes on Joseph” (Gen. 39:7), Joseph fled from her and ended up seeing exactly how to save the whole world.

Every day, some ruler offers us deceptive food. We see it when we turn on the television, when we surf the Internet, when we just happen to keep bumping into that attractive person. That’s when we must turn our eyes away and put a knife to our own throats. As Hebrews 12:1 urges us, let’s fix our eyes instead on the only true ruler, the Lord Jesus, Who is Himself the bread of life.

Receiving the Queen

When “the queen of the South. . .came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon” (Luke 11:31, II Chronicles 9:1-12), she didn’t come alone or empty handed. According to II Chronicles 9:1, she brought with her “a very great retinue and camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones.” Quite a gift—and she needed all those servants and all those camels to carry it all the way to Jerusalem from what is now Ethiopia. According to verse 9, the queen brought Solomon between four and five tons of gold and mountains of spices so rare that “there were no such spices,” which suggests that the gift brought surprise and delight, even shock. From the queen of the South, Solomon received gifts of surpassing value that he didn’t even know existed, gifts this wise man didn’t even know enough to want—until he received them.

Imagining the size and scope of the gift makes me wonder if Solomon thought twice about agreeing to accept it. After all, receiving the queen’s great gift meant welcoming, accepting, and caring for all the baggage that came with it—all those hungry, weary servants, all those thirsty beasts of burden. Somebody would have to haul, store, and guard all that gold. Somebody would have to figure out where and how to preserve all those spices. Somebody would have to house all those servants and feed and water all those camels. Expensive gifts usually come with extensive baggage, and Solomon understood that, in order to receive something priceless, he would have to pay a price. The gift was beyond compare, so Solomon was willing to accept the accompanying baggage, too. How wise of King Solomon. How foolish we are in our relationships when we let a giver’s baggage keep us from receiving a priceless gift.

It’s important to note that Solomon valued the person who had given him the gift more than he valued the gift itself. He didn’t just receive what the queen had to offer; he received the queen, herself. According to verse 2, Solomon spent time with her, listening to her and answering all her questions. He didn’t just run off to enjoy the new spices and count the gold he had just been given. He valued the giver and his relationship with her more than he valued her gift. His first priority was to pay attention to her, to communicate with her. He didn’t prioritize what she could give him; he put her first, before anything he could possibly receive from her. He recognized the costliness of her journey and the generosity of her gift, and in turn he gave her the gift of relationship and of friendship, the gift of his time, the gift of his patience. He hid nothing from her. He held nothing back. He opened his ears to listen to her, he opened his mind to understand her, he opened his mouth to speak to her, he opened his home to welcome her and all her baggage. He knew that receiving the queen’s gift would mean prioritizing the queen, herself, not her gifts. How wise of King Solomon. How foolish of us to seek a person’s gift and ignore or neglect the gifted person.

I’m especially interested in verse 12, which tells us that “King Solomon granted the queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, well beyond what she had brought to the king.” In other words, Solomon understood that receiving the queen’s gift meant not keeping score, not keeping track of who had given what. The wise king didn’t play the game that so many of us play in giving and receiving in our relationships, trying to figure out how to get others to give more, trying to gain and maintain an advantage. The writer tells us that Solomon gave the queen everything she asked for, and that he gave her more than she had given him (v. 12). Solomon’s wisdom told him to receive the great gift in spite of the great baggage that came along with it—and Solomon’s wisdom also told him that it is better to give than to receive. How wise of King Solomon. How foolish of us to keep score.

Solomon’s response to the queen’s gift challenges me and makes me think about how I receive the great gifts I’ve been given in my marriage, in my family, in my friendships, even the gift of life itself. Every great gift comes with lots of baggage—that’s why there’s no such thing as a tiny diaper bag. But Solomon was so focused on the worth of the giver and the generosity of the gift that he accepted the baggage without hesitation. That’s how my wife has always treated me. Is that how I receive her? Do I prioritize her? Do I open myself to her? Am I patient with her? Am I focused on what she has to give me, or am I listening to her, communicating with her, and giving her everything she asks for? Our families, friends, and fellow church-goers are laden with gifts, and with baggage, too. Do we accept them? Do we prioritize our relationships with them? Do we seek to give them what they desire? Or are we just after what they can give us?

As in everything, Jesus is our example. We travel to Him in long, weary caravans containing both our priceless gifts and our troublesome baggage. We give him all we have, and in return He welcomes us, prioritizes us, spends time with us, and gives us far more than we could ever hope to give to Him–including the great gift of life itself. As He has loved us, we are also to love one another (John 13:34), baggage and all.

Every Valley

The Bible isn’t always easy to understand, but sometimes we make it a lot harder than it really is. One way to make a verse or a passage hard to understand is to remove it from its context and to study it as though it had nothing to do with the verses surrounding it. Said another way, when we’re trying to understand a passage in the Bible, part of our job is to search the surrounding verses for clues as to what’s going on. I was reminded of the importance of context this morning as I read Luke 3:1-14, the passage in which Luke introduces us to the ministry and message of John the Baptist. If we’re going to understand what God is trying to tell us in this passage, we have to pay attention to the context.

Luke spends the first three verses telling us when and where John’s public ministry began. But then he does a surprising thing: he leaps back through hundreds of years of prophetic history and states that John the Baptist is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (v. 4-6).

As I read, I found myself trying to figure out the connection between John the Baptist and all these drastic, permanent changes that Isaiah promises. After all, we know that we’re not supposed to take those verses literally. John may have been a literal voice in the wilderness, but mountains didn’t come crashing down around his listeners, and the Jordan valley was still a valley when he got done preaching. So, then, what is God saying to us about mountains, hills, valleys and roads? How do we know what He’s trying to get us to see? We find the answer in the scriptural context Luke provides.

Let’s talk first about the filling of valleys and the leveling of mountains and hills. Have a look at verses 10-11: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’” Part of the point here is that there are many people in the world who have no coat at all, no means of sheltering themselves from the cold and the rain; by comparison, if you have two coats, you’re living on an economic mountain. What should you do? Give one of your coats to someone who has none. Likewise, many people, including infants and children, are starving all around the world, even in the supposedly affluent West. By comparison, if you have food to eat, you’re living on top of a nutritional hill. What should you do? Give some of your food to people who don’t have enough to eat. Lower the mountains. Fill the valleys.

This can be hard to hear. We’re supposed to be good stewards, and it doesn’t seem wise to give so generously. Isn’t John a little out of balance here? If we start filling in all those valleys, won’t we be in danger of rewarding some people who don’t deserve to be helped? One major problem with that kind of thinking is the underlying, often unconscious, always prideful assumption that we have resources because we deserve them; we often forget that we have what we have only because God is generous (I Cor. 4:7; James 1:17). In addition, Jesus is quite clear about how to respond to “undeserving” people. For example, in Matthew 5:39-42, He tells us what to do if an evildoer tries to take away your coat: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (see also Luke 6:27-31). Remember, in context, the person doing the suing here is an evildoer, an enemy, somebody who by definition doesn’t deserve the coat he’s trying to steal from you in a court of law.  But Jesus says, “Give him your cloak, too.” All of Jesus’ hearers knew who the undeserving thief was in the story. He was talking about the rich. Poor people had no place in court, no attorneys to represent them. Most of them couldn’t even read. The poor weren’t suing anybody. The people who sued other people to get what they wanted were the rich—and what those rich people were trying to get through supposedly legal means was the covering that the “undeserving poor” needed to survive. Said another way, the rich were using their legal and economic power to increase the height of their own mountains and hills, digging deeper and deeper valleys for the poor.

Which takes us back to Luke 3. What can Isaiah and Luke have meant by saying that, when the Lord comes, “the crooked shall be made straight” (Luke 3:5)? The context provides the answer when we read that “even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you’” (v. 12-13). In those days, nothing was more crooked than the system that allowed tax collectors to get rich by assessing (and pocketing) more tax than the people actually owed. Thus, the tax collectors took advantage of a system that was bent in their favor and used their political power to line their own pockets by stealing from relatively powerless people. John the Baptist warns them to straighten things out, to stop living crooked lives, to refuse to use political advantage to keep the poor down, and to change the system for good.

And what about Isaiah’s prophecy that “the rough ways [shall be] made smooth” (v. 5)? We find the answer in verse 14 when some “soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’” In other words, stop throwing your weight around. Stop using rough behavior, threats of violence, physical force and intimidation to get what you want. Don’t use military power or physical force to take advantage of people (and peoples) who are weaker than you are.

It’s important to note that both Isaiah and John the Baptist connect the coming of the Messiah with lasting change in our behavior toward the poor and the weak. There’s nothing temporary about these images of falling mountains and rising valleys. A mountain, once leveled, stays leveled. A filled-up valley isn’t a valley anymore. In other words, God is both announcing and calling for permanent change in our behavior, in how we treat one another, in how we care for the poor and the weak. And He is calling for permanent change in the systems that cause and perpetuate injustice. Such lasting, visible generosity and justice will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that, when the Messiah comes, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). What matters here, says John, is the visible fruit of repentant lives (v. 9; cf. John 15:8).

In context, John’s message is actually quite clear: getting ready for the coming of the Messiah means using the power and resources God has given us to level economic and political inequities, filling up what is lacking in the lives of those who have less than we do, straightening out corrupt political and economic systems that benefit the strong and harm the weak. It’s about generosity. It’s about justice. What I do, how I act, how I treat the poor and the powerless—that’s the context in which people hear whatever words I say (or write) about Jesus. I want His salvation to be seen, not just heard.

Jesus and the Terrorist

Just about everybody reading this already knows that Jesus gave His life in exchange for ours. We sinned. He paid the penalty. We rebelled. He received the punishment. We are guilty. He is innocent. He suffered. We go free. All of us. The whole world. Paul writes that, “just as one man’s [Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom. 5:18). John adds that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I Jn. 2:2).

But sometimes, talking about the whole world in general permits us to escape the highly individualized focus of God. It isn’t just “everybody” that Jesus gave His life for; He did it for you, for me, for our neighbor, for the person who hates us. People with individual lives, people with faces, with families, with names. I was reminded of this truth in particular this morning because my daily reading included Mark 15:6-20, and I was struck by the very personal nature of the exchange recorded there. In the moment, it wasn’t “everybody” that Jesus changed places with. And it wasn’t a “nobody.” It was a particular someone, a person, an individual with a name: Barabbas. And it just so happens that Barabbas was a bloody terrorist. Mark tells us that Barabbas belonged to a group of rebels who had committed murder in an insurrection. There was no question about the horror of his crime, no uncertainty about the depth of his guilt. Barabbas had carried out a violent, surprise attack on an unsuspecting victim. He had overpowered someone and murdered him in cold blood. And now Barabbas was in jail. But not for long. Because Jesus took his place.

It’s a very bloody business. Barabbas had shed the blood of others, and in response, Jesus shed His own blood for Barabbas. Barabbas’s victim didn’t deserve to die, at least not that way; Barabbas attacked him and murdered him. And that means that Barabbas did deserve to die. But Jesus intervened. Here’s what I think God was up to: in Barabbas’s mind, the enemy was the state, and in the mind of the state and the law-abiding community, Barabbas was the enemy. But God knows that the real enemies of the human race and of human civilization are not human, “for our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Jesus knew that in order to set the terrorist free, He had to destroy the real enemy. And that enemy was not an ideology, a religion, a political persuasion, or a group of human terrorists. It was the power behind the ideology, the darkness behind the politics, the invisible evil cloaked in religious systems, the “mastermind” behind the human strategists. And to destroy that dark power bent on destroying us all, Jesus had to sacrifice His own life for the terrorist, and for us all.

Yes, for us all. Because the name “Barabbas” means “son of the father.” You see, there were two people representing us all in that Middle Eastern jail: Barabbas the terrorist, who represents every child of God who has ever rebelled against Him, and Jesus, who in taking the place of the bloody terrorist, took the place and bore the punishment of every “child of the Father.” And when Jesus “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. . . God also highly exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-10).

Every knee. Every tongue. Visible and invisible. At present, the world is still full of rebellious sons and daughters, full of unbowed knees, full of people committing murder in insurrections, full of people fighting wars of ideology, politics, and religion, even raging against the One Who took their place. But when God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted Him above every name, He said to Him, “Sit at My right hand until I make your enemies Your footstool” (Ps. 110:1). And what does that process look like? How are we who profess to follow Jesus supposed to respond even to the misguided, guilty terrorist bound by powers beyond his understanding?

By assaulting the powers behind the terror and the forces behind the terrorist, by overcoming evil with good, by remembering that even when flesh is torn and blood is spilled, our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, not against political, ideological, or religious systems. One day, all of Jesus’ enemies will be a footstool for His feet. If we are truly His friends and His children, already bowed before Him, we must follow His example and respond as He responded—even to Barabbas.

Asking God for the Body of Jesus

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