Thursday, December 24, 2020

America: The New Rome

We have been looking at loss and suffering--very germaine topics in today's world.  Let's look at America for a moment. 

One argument against Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah is peace did not come to the world when He arrived nor when He left.  

People still went to war, committed atrocities and destroyed everything in their path.  

People persecuted each other and always found some group to blame for their woe, leading to all sorts of terrible behavior.

People's attitudes towards God, each other, the planet and morality have waxed and waned, with some problems being solved while others were created.

So, what difference did it make that Jesus came?

Well, look at America right now.  God has been removed from every corner of public life. The songs played in stores at Christmas time are entirely secular, with an occasional carol thrown in, but that is quite rare.  (If I hear "Last Christmas" or "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" one more time, I may not be responsible for my actions. Insert smiling emoji here.) We protested having the Ten Commandments removed from a park in Boise several years ago.  Boise, Idaho, is not exactly a haven for liberal thought, and yet the monument was taken out.

Back when my kids were little, about 30 years go, the city I lived in, in northern California, passed an ordinance that prohibited the singing of any carols that mentioned "Jesus" in them.  When one kindergartener asked to sing "Silent Night," the music teacher retorted that it was "illegal."  I am not making this up--I was sitting in my daughter's class that day and watched this woman silence a little girl's request. 

I was born in 1960.  AD, not BC.  I went to school in California, where, at Christmas time, we played with dreidels, sang "Hanukkah, O Hanukkah," had a Christmas tree in the class room, ate Christmas cookies and learned how to sing "Silent Night, Holy Night" in German. 

God was an unseen presence in our country, where going to church was important, not swearing was equally as important and being kind was expected of everyone.  Did everyone follow Christian morality and its values?  Of course not.  But God was still there, looking out for us.  Maybe a kind of divine Policeman, who expected us to be good whenever and wherever we could.

My dad was a virulent racist and one angry hombre.  My mom was an alcoholic.  My brother was a sneaky violent young man, who got involved in drugs at a very young age, so no, we were not the Cleaver family, and Father didn't always know best.  We stopped going to church when we were very young.  But God was still there, in the culture, in the larger picture, even if my parents didn't reflect knowing Him in their daily lives.

When I was little, we celebrated the birth of Jesus and sang Christmas carols about Bethlehem, three kings and a little baby in our home and in our culture.  

Yet over the decades, God has been marginalized a little more every year.  Usually diversity, not favoring any religion or not wanting to offend others has been the reason, and so nativities, monuments and overt references to God have gone the way of the buffalo.  

If Christianity is mentioned now, it's usually in disparaging terms--anti-this or that, or responsible for all societal ills.

So, look at America now, with God having been removed from the culture: Angry protestors take to streets to burn, kill and destroy.  Lawlessness in the new law, and the police are told to stand down.  Respect?  Nah--that's just an old Aretha Franklin song.  Name-calling, false accusations, half-truths and constant bashing of certain groups is an everyday occurrence now.  Now even our election process, our democracy, is in jeopardy.  Wow.

I have watched God be removed from public over the last 50 years, and our society has not improved.  In fact, it's far worse.

Jesus came to bring a light to a dark empire, where blood sports, infanticide, child marriage and homosexuality, infidelity, and slavery were part of the everyday way of doing life.  

Without Jesus and what He brought--a value of loving God, ourselves and our neighbor, darkness would still be our everyday, every decade, every millennium.  

I am watching America return to a pre-Christian place, a kind of new Roman empire. We need Jesus to come and bring His light into our lives even more than ever, into our culture, into our leaders, whether in church or in the public sphere. 

A society where the self is god is going to be ugly, for the self is ugly.  Jesus brought us hope for a new self, one where God's love and law is written on the heart.

America is standing at the crossroads.  We can either rock around the Christmas tree, or follow the star to a Baby whose life will change ours. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

On the Brink of Loss

I grew up during the Cold War.  The US and the former Soviet Union were engaged in a deadly dance of what was called "brinksmanship."  How close could we get to an all-out nuclear war?  Could we pull back from the brink in time?  Then you add the policy of MAD--Mutual Assured Destruction.  So, the idea went, if we did not pull back in time, and we went to war, we would bomb each other so effectively, that there would be no winning.  Both countries would be refuse dumps.  If anyone did survive, the world would be enveloped in a perpetual nuclear winter and to quote REM: "It's the end of the world as we know it."

Was it that very idea of a war with no winners and a decimated planet that kept us perched on the brink, not venturing out because the cost was too high?  We were humbled by Trinity, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Russia's "Tsar Bomba" with a projected yield of 100 megatons.  100 megatons.  If that doesn't keep you from getting too bellicose with your enemy, nothing will.  

So, despite the threat of nuclear war, I grew up in a world where the possibility existed but didn't happen, because the outcome was just too horrendous.  

The prospect of what humans had created actually made us stop and think that deployment was a death warrant writ large for humanity.  

So when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, I breathed a sigh of relief along with the rest of the world.  As a little kid, I heard my mom tell of a TV repairman who came to our house and told her that he and his wife had made it "over the wall."  I didn't comprehend what that meant as a six-year-old, but as an adult, the wall tumbling down, like a modern Jericho, meant we were done living on the brink.

But I have seen another kind of war--a war again with brinkmanship.  How close can we come to sharing the gospel without driving the person away?  In other words, we don't actually go to war over someone's soul--we just lure them into church with a culturally relevant service, with a worship team's musical effort duplicating a rock concert and a pastor that is hip, up to date and tells stories and makes jokes.  We will talk about Jesus more as a Life Coach--someone who wants you to live your best life.  

Don't talk about the yucky bits--hell, eternity apart from God and how Jesus had to die to secure our salvation.  The early church talked about His death, burial and resurrection--for that was earth- and heaven-shaking news.  But I have sat in enough churches that are seeker-friendly and in their effort to keep people coming back, the gospel is preached, but the overall message is filled with lots of funny stories, props and video clips, to soften that hard label of "sinner." 

So, this brinksmanship of not offending the culture but trying to preach Jesus but don't drive people away but people need Jesus but if they don't come back they won't get saved but don't emphasize hell and maybe put away the offensive cross from the front of the church but sing songs with concert lighting and smoke machines to create an experience but keep the message light and make people feel welcomed but avoid those hard-hitting Biblical passages get it.

But having been on the brink for a while, we see a lot of churches and a lot of Christians who are focused on themselves.  I knew I was in trouble in a previous church when we changed the name from "worship service" (focus on God) to "Sunday experience" (focus on self).  The pastoral staff was sincere, but every Sunday, we stood on the brink.  Yes, Jesus was preached but we never said or did anything that would make anyone feel that the gospel was confrontational.  The main campus pastor even used a stuffed bear up on an altar to discuss what a sacrifice was.  I think.  I was so horrified at the lack of sensitivity to the sacred I really don't remember.  

So, standing on the brink of just enough Christianity to call ourselves Christians reminds me of what Jesus confronted when He began His ministry.  

He was appalled at what the religious leaders had done to His Father's faith.  The Law was drowned in minutiae of how little a person could get away with and still be obedient.  The leaders had cozied up with the Romans so they could operate the Temple with little to no interference.  The people were  burdened with no hope or consolation from the faith in the One True God, because the leaders misrepresented what God demanded of His people.  

Their brinksmanship led the leaders to crucify the very Servant that Isaiah extolled in order to keep the Romans at bay:  

"But some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. “What are we going to do?” they asked each other. “This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. [Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead] If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”

Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” (John 11:46-50)

The leaders' policy of brinksmanship prevailed a while until 70 AD, when everything the leaders thought was important was destroyed by the very people they had sought to accommodate all those years before.

We dodged the bullet of an all-out nuclear exchange.

The Jews did not dodge the bullet of the Roman empire's fury.

We have stood on the brink for a long time now, accommodating the culture under the pretext of making Christianity relevant.  What do we have now?  Churches that are branded, packaged, streamed and extol rockstar pastors who get people in and keep 'em in--that bigger is blessed and pleasing to God.  Right?

Who, on the other side, is playing the part of the Soviet Union, as it were.  It's an increasingly hostile culture in America towards Christians and their "intolerant" views on Biblical teachings.  The litmus test on whether or not a church person (pastor, singer, teacher) will be acceptable is their position on homosexuality and transgender issues.  If we are vague enough or accommodating enough, we get to go on talk shows, as if that is the highest achievement we can have as modern American Christians.  Woe to someone who stands on the Word without compromise, as Jesus did.

He paid dearly for His intransigence against the prevailing culture of His day as to what was acceptable. 

We are to be messengers, upholding the Word of God with no apologies or back pedaling.  But we are not willing to pay the cost.  Hence, we continue to stand on the brink of truth of the gospel. 

The culture glares at us from the other side.  

The Jewish leadership sadly found out that you cannot sustain accommodation with the values of the world.  At some point, the culture will demand that Christians choose.

I don't know what the bullet that is coming will be, but I don't think we will dodge it. 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Redemption's Operation

I am sure that everyone, in one way or another, is suffering.  I am positing that this planet is a war zone, and like all war zones, suffering is all too common, and kindness is shown far too infrequently, given the magnitude of the suffering.  

"The Diameter of the Bomb" captures how suffering afflicts not just those nearest an event but how it ripples out and touches more and more people.  The poem is by Yehuda Amichai, a modern Israeli poet.

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

Isn't that we reaction we all have, as the pain rolls out and we suffer more and more, that God is either outside the circle of our suffering or perhaps He doesn't even exist?  Circles are measurable--their diameters--yet suffering defies basic geometry and having made the circle so big, is it possible that even God cannot be in it or is beyond it?

God cannot be measured; if He is defies space and time in His majesty, how can He be unaware of what we are going through in space and time? 

I used the analogy of the D-Day invasion that God did leave the eternal courts of heaven, and stepped into space and time.  He wrapped Himself in flesh and blood, narrowing His circle down to one human being: a poor carpenter's son from Nazareth.  

His birth was both celebrated and condemned.  From the East, three kings appeared at the door of a humble house with gifts fit only for a king.  Another king, in a jealous rage, ordered his men to appear at the door of every house in Bethlehem, and search out all baby boys.  The streets under that star were filled with wailing and that star was reflected in small pools of blood.

That Baby's entrance into this war zone was marked by the murder of innocent children.  His cousin would be executed years later; His followers would be executed themselves.  He, too, would fall under the murderous gaze of the authorities, and would die a hideous death.  

You step onto the shores of planet Earth and you step into sin, atrocity and death.  Sin is well fortified here, just as the Germans were on the beaches of Normandy.  The beaches were lined with German embankments and the Allies were mowed down on what became known as The Longest Day.  As these soldiers disembarked, they knew that they would most likely die.  Yet, they stepped off those landing crafts anyway.  10,000 did die.  But they kept coming, moving up the beach and coming down out of the sky behind enemy lines. 

That is what Good does.  It steps off the landing craft and goes into the chaos with only one goal: victory.  Evil cannot be partially conquered; it must be utterly removed.  Good keeps on coming despite whatever Evil throws at it.  

Jesus knew that redeeming this sin-zone, war-zone planet would be costly.  The destruction is so widespread that no one escapes it--Jesus included.  Evil's fortifications were everywhere, starting with the murder of those Bethlehem boys.  

Jesus' healing ministry put Hell on notice that such evil had an expiration date.  Demons throwing children into the fire, women selling their bodies, disfigured lepers, sons lying in coffins, daughters dying on cots in poor homes, greedy tax collectors, corrupt religious leaders, decadent kings, amoral governors, rapacious insurrectionists--all were present on God's "D-Day"--the Son landed and He would fight to the end to bring about a final conquering of sin and death.

But Jesus didn't direct this redemption operation from a bunker far away from the battle lines.  He Himself was on the front lines: He drove out demons;  He forgave broken women; He raised those sons and daughters from death; He enlisted tax collectors; He decried corrupt religious leaders; He stood in front of kings and governors; His life was swapped for an insurrectionist and He died a criminal's death, having personally committed no crime. 

Our suffering results in loss--of friends, family, children, peace of mind and security.  We are appalled at just how far the enemy reaches into our lives and into our circle.  

Jesus experienced loss, over and over again.  Having sacrificed Himself to paid the wages of humanity's sin and having risen from the dead, He now truly knows what it means to suffer as a human being.  

Knowing how evil operates on this planet--without cessation and without mercy--He stepped on the shores of our Normandy anyway.  He knew He would die.  His Father told Him so as He bid heaven good-bye.  His Torah told Him: sacrificial death is required to reconcile a sinful people to Almighty God. Isaiah told Him: The Suffering Servant would be so disfigured by sin's fury that we would not even recognize Him.

But He came anyway.

This, for me, puts suffering into perspective.  I will not blame God--that is tantamount to blaming the Allies for World War II, not Hitler and his evil minions.

I will not say God ordained the evil or allowed it--that is tantamount of saying the Allies watched and allowed Hitler free rein, and while they could have stopped him at anytime, they did not. (Yes, I know.  The failure of the US to respond earlier to Hitler proved to be catastrophic--the US could have intervened much earlier but because of the isolationism resulting from World War I, it stayed out only until Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Yes, I know: The US provided the Allies with war materiel before we actually stepped in, but our overwhelming manpower could have made a difference earlier on--a kind of manpower blitzkrieg back on the Nazis before they became so entrenched.)

Don't we have contempt for nations that stand by and do nothing, when evil is released and those nations that could intervene do not?  Why then do we ascribe that same callous lack of intervention to God, all in name of His sovereignty?   

Jesus' mission, to rescue us from sin and death, tells us that our planet needed rescue from those very things:

  • "He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us his very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds." (Titus 2:14)
  • When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

    'Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?'

    The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (1 Cor. 15:54-58)

I highlighted that last portion to encourage us in these days where suffering seems relentless and loss abounds.   

We have Suffering Servant who stands beside us, and says, "Yes. I know.  I suffered deeply while I was here.  I overcame.  So shall you, because I did and I now live in you."

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