Quiet Assurance

I’m using my “read through the Bible in a year” schedule to select passages on which to preach each Sunday. I’ve been trying to rotate between the three sections – Psalms, Old Testament, and New Testament. So far this year has been mostly bouncing between the Old and New Testament readings, but I have a bunch of passages to preach from the Psalms in the second half of the year (my reading schedule calls for a reading of the Psalms twice each year.) This Sunday, however, the Psalm reading won out.

I will be preaching specifically on Psalm 46. Notice how this Psalm ends –

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Ps. 46:10-11, ESV)

Have you ever noticed with what a quiet calm so many of the biblical writers faced their greatest fears and calamities? Now, to be sure there are many passages which speak of anxiety and concern. But, just off the top of my head these other passages came to mind as I was thinking about Psalm 46 –

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Such faith, such calmness, such beautiful literature!

We are truly living in unsettled times – our culture, our morality, our very democracy is being shaken to its roots. What can we do – to whom and to where do we turn?

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

I have to honestly admit a sense of fear about the future. I fear for my daughter, and for the generation her generation will raise. When our government tells us that men have to be allowed into women’s restrooms, when high school girls have to sue the state of Connecticut in order to be allowed to compete in track events without the presence of male competitors, when presidential candidates openly promote abortion until the very moment of birth – and when a presidential candidate shamelessly promotes his marriage to his “husband,” I have to ask, “Where will it stop?” And, how did we get to this point anyway?

I think I was born without an optimism bone, or muscle. I am Captain Pessimism. Maybe Admiral Pessimism might be more accurate. So, in days like today, in times like these, I really need to hear these passages from the Psalms and Habakkuk.

I think I’m going to be preaching to myself this Sunday. All others are welcome to eavesdrop, if you wish.

What Has Theology to do With Baseball; or Baseball With Theology?

Although I am starting with baseball, please read to the end if you are wondering about the theology part.

In a bizarre, other-worldly sequence of events, I find myself paying far more attention to the Houston Astros (*Asterisks*) cheating scandal than I ever pay to the regular season in baseball. I am what you might call a September-October kind of fan, perhaps a little more if my beloved Dodgers are playing for something serious in the fall. Otherwise, baseball is just white noise to me. This year is totally different. Due to this cheating scandal I am absorbed with trashcans, buzzers, tattoos, center-field cameras and the unbelievable numbers of ways in which you can apologize by blaming everyone around you and never, ever, really even coming close to an apology.

This scandal has riled my emotions for two primary reasons, and probably a whole host of secondary reasons. First, far more than cheating by pumping yourself full of steroids, this scheme by the Astros to steal games affects the integrity of the game itself. It is one thing to steal a home run record, it is something entirely different to literally change the outcome of an entire season. Let’s be honest – unless every ball park had the exact same dimensions, a home run record is quaint at best. To compare the cavernous  old Yankee Stadium with the tiny (relatively speaking) Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron played for so many years is just nuts. Also, the height of the pitching mounds changed through the years, the consistency of the baseballs has varied greatly, so, once again, let’s be honest. The only records that really mean something are those where players from different generations can compete on a level playing field, pardon the pun. (Stolen bases comes to mind – the distances between the base paths has never changed).

The second reason why this scandal has so infuriated me (and I mean heart palpitating, hands shaking, wanting to scream kind of infuriation) is that it significantly affected players’ careers and earning potential. I think of Yu Darvish. He was traded after the 2017 World Series and I was eternally grateful. I felt like he almost single handedly surrendered the 2017 World Series to the Astros. Well, now I have to wonder. And, the Chicago Cubs have publicly stated that with his performance in the ’17 series his market value dropped considerably. What could he have earned if he had been a part of the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers? What about Clayton Kershaw, who dominated in the regular season, yet looked like a little leaguer pitching in Houston? What about the pitchers whose ERA ballooned because of the banging trashcans in Houston and were sent down to the minors never to be heard from again? Or who lost bargaining power because of a disastrous outing or two in Houston? What about Aaron Judge, who lost the MVP voting to Jose Altuve, one of the dirtiest of the Houston players? (More on Altuve later). This is what just really chaps my hide about this entire thing. The cheating scheme may not have physically injured someone, but in terms of career damage and financial damage, the results are despicable.

I could add the lack of a sincere apology – but that is to get ahead of myself.

The Astro organization has bent over backwards trying to contain the damage. The only problem is that every time someone from the organization opens their mouth, the damage gets worse. A number of weeks ago Jose Altuve and some other player were almost gleeful that the cheating scandal was behind them – and, they won the World Series so get over it. Then, the owner had to chime in. Yes, they broke the rules, but it never impacted the game. Wait, he never said it never impacted the game, except that he said that very thing not more than 40 seconds earlier. Well, it might have impacted the game, and it might not, you never know, and by the way, we won the World Series so get over it. The players chimed in – yeah, we’re sorry (not), but the cheating never changed the outcome of a game, and we won the World Series so get over it. The utter arrogance of the team is beyond belief.

Apologists have come out and tried to get certain players either completely or partially exonerated. “It was only a few players, “x” player only had “x %” of his pitches identified, blah, blah, blah.” The whole team is dirty. Correa is dirty. Altuve is especially dirty, whether he had a tattoo or not. Verlander is dirty, he of the “I hate cheating in any form or fashion” reputation. Bregman is dirty. The whole stinking team is dirty, and their attempts to wash their dirty laundry in public is repugnant, to be honest.

Oh, and let’s not forget the two guys at the top who are the dirtiest – the owner of the Astros and the commissioner of major league baseball. The commissioner gave the owner a full pardon and whitewash, and the owner has hidden his guilt behind that pardon. Major league players are furious at the Astros, and what is really telling, they are furious at the commissioner because he did absolutely nothing to the players. He could have easily vacated the 2017 World Series title (a serious argument could be made that, even if the Astros did not cheat in the series, their very presence was obtained by fraudulent means, therefore nullifying the final results.) He could have banned the current team from participating in the 2020 postseason. He had a number of options and wiffed on all of them. The players are furious. The fans even more so. I can only imagine how those well behaved fans in the Bronx are going to gently and kindly welcome the *Asterisks* every time they visit New York.

Okay – enough of the scandal – gotta get my blood pressure down. What does all of this have to do with theology? I’m glad you asked.

Our God has so arranged our physical and emotional nature that the concept of fairness is a powerful inborn trait. Doubt me? Just hover near a group of toddlers playing around each other. It doesn’t take very long at all before one or more will scream loudly, “That’s not fair!” Where is this learned, where is this taught? I would argue it is buried deep within us, and whether we admit it or not, we hate it when we are aggrieved and we are mindful of when we are guilty and unpunished.

Balderdash and poppycock, you say? Not so fast, I retort. How many times have you done something wrong, only to have it swept under the rug and then you actually feel worse than if you had been held honestly and equitably accountable? When we do something wrong and are not held accountable two issues are communicated – one, that we ourselves are not important enough to be corrected so that our behavior can improve, and two, the issue at hand was obviously not important so whatever we did to violate the law or command should never have been in place to begin with. In other words, there is a double whammy – we are not valuable enough to be corrected and loved, and the violation was of such inconsequence that it meant nothing to begin with. When those issues are combined in a situation of significant enough size, the ultimate results can be debilitating.

As I said, I think this is something God put deep within each of us, whether we have ever put words to it or not.

This is where confession, repentance, punishment, and forgiveness are so critical – theological issues to be sure!! If there is no confession, no honest and complete grasping of a wrong committed, there can be no path forward. Repentance would be the promise of a lifestyle that denounces and rejects the violation under discussion. There must be some form of punishment and an equal level of forgiveness and restitution. “Justice” without mercy is cruel; “mercy” without justice creates anarchy. God demands both justice and mercy.

I think the two stories of Kings Saul and David are illustrative here (1 Samuel 15, 2 Samuel 11-12). Both violated God’s commandments. You could even argue that David’s sin was far worse than Saul’s. Both gave what appeared to be strikingly similar confessions. Yet, Saul was utterly rejected and eventually died with his sons on Mt. Gilboa, while David lived a long life, forgiven by God and blessed to see a child of an adulterous relationship anointed king. What was the difference?

While the text does not make this crystal clear, David’s confession and repentance must have been sincere, and Saul’s must have been spurious and contrived. In other words, Saul apologized because he was caught and had to in order that he could continue to be king (we won the World Series, so get over it), and David felt genuine sorrow and, at least in some measure, revealed a “new and contrite spirit.” Note that both kings were punished! There can be no forgiveness without adequate restitution. God did not sweep David’s sin away as if neither he nor the sin really mattered. David mattered to God, Uriah mattered to God, Bathsheba mattered to God, and for David to experience restoration he had to feel the whip of punishment, so to speak. The difference between the kings is that genuine David was restored, while fake Saul was rejected.

So, what can baseball fans learn from Saul and David? One, apologies have to be sincere and complete. I have yet to hear one Astros player apologize to any single team or player for cheating. They are mighty sorry they broke the rules, but, hey, they won the World Series so get over it. I want to hear apologies to the New York Yankees, the teams that came in behind the Astros when the playoffs rolled around, I want to hear an specific apology to Aaron Judge, I want to hear a specific apology to Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw and to every fan who mistakenly thought that the Astros won all those games with nothing but pure talent. Second, I want to see some legitimate punishment. I want the commissioner to publicly say that there is no way for certain to know that the 2017 World Series was won legitimately. It may have been – and the Astros may have legitimately won the right to compete in the Series. But we do not know that, and we cannot know that because the entire process has been called into question by the systemic cheating plan the Astros used. The 2017 World Series title needs to be vacated – not given to the Yankees or the Dodgers – just simply vacated and the reason why published loud and long. I want the Astros to be banned from the post season in 2020. I want them to play this season for nothing – because their cheating stole at least one season from some other teams and I want them to know what playing for futility feels like. And I want the commissioner to get to the bottom of the entirety of the cheating scandal, and if any other team was guilty then they have to be equally punished – and that includes my beloved Dodgers!! Believe me, as angry as I am now, if it is revealed that the Dodgers cheated as much or more than the Astros I will go positively apoplectic.

And, finally, if the first two items can be achieved, then we need to move on and strive to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. If the apologies are sincere, and the punishment appropriate and measured, then restitution must be equally broad and complete. No bean balls, no spiking the second baseman, no throwing beer on the right fielder. Just play ball.

You see, theology matters, even in the grassy diamond of the baseball field. What does God require of sports teams? How about justice, mercy, and a humble presence before God? (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24)

Words Have Consequences!

From my “Undeniable Truths for Theological Reflection” (#10)

Attitudes and beliefs have consequences. Words, used to express those attitudes and beliefs, have equal consequences. Words chosen to convey spiritual concepts have eternal consequences.

Since long before the election in 2016 we have been regaled with Donald Trump’s mean spirited and very often blatantly racist words, primarily through his “Tweets,” short pithy little statements uploaded to the social media platform Twitter. Mostly these have just been food for his ultra-right wing base, and fodder for his enemies. Christians who understand the seriousness of even any careless word have recoiled from such statements, but, up until Saturday, these outbursts have been viewed as the rantings of a demagogue, someone who is more bluster and bloviating than substantial.

That all changed on Saturday, August 3. That was the day someone took some racist words and transformed them into racial terrorism.

While it is still far too early in the investigation to know everything for certain, there are some facts that I believe are incontrovertible: Trump has said/tweeted some unconscionable statements regarding immigration and the racial makeup of many of those immigrants, the shooter in El Paso targeted persons of a specific race and nationality, and (this point is still being confirmed) the shooter has written a “manifesto” in which he speaks approvingly of Trump and his racially twinged statements.

It’s not impossible to connect these dots.

Do I think Trump intended his words to have this effect? Absolutely not! Do I think Trump is a racist? Probably, just like 99% of the current House of Representatives and Senators. But, mostly, I think Trump sees people in terms of green, red, and black. That is, if you can further Trump’s personal agenda (raising money, erasing debt or furthering his narcissistic agenda) he likes you, regardless of your race or gender. If you cannot do any of those three things, you are useless to him, regardless of your race or gender. Also, mostly I think Trump is just a fool – in the biblical sense. He does not believe in God (at least, the God of the Bible) and he thinks he can solve all of his problems with his own intellect. That is the biblical definition of a fool.

Do I think racist statements, regardless of how innocuous they are made, can have the kind of result that we saw on Saturday? Absolutely. Our nation is becoming more hateful, more racially divided, more prone to racial violence with each passing year. In one sense, what happened on Saturday, August 3 was inevitable. And, let us be clear about something else – the long road that ended in El Paso was promoted by the election of Barack Obama. Obama saw every event during his two terms of office in relation to race. Trump was NOT the first racist to be elected to the office of president. I’m pretty sure every one of the presidents has been racist to some degree or another – some quite blatant. To suggest that Trump is the first to be afflicted with this sin, or that Republican presidents are racist and Democrat presidents are not, is beyond preposterous.

Trump and his political minions are trying effusively to distance Trump from the shooting in El Paso. I’m sorry, but that ship sailed from the harbor a long time ago. In my mind there is just one thing Trump should, even can, do to extricate himself from this tragedy – confess that his language has been horribly offensive and exploitive, and apologize to the races and nationalities that he has targeted. He will not do that, of course, and it would just be a beginning, but it would be a good start.

Every individual who has spoken in a public setting has said things he/she did not mean or later regretted. I am certainly in that list of offensive speakers. It is not that we intentionally set out to offend – but our mouths are not always connected to our brains, and even when they are, sometimes our brains are not connected to our consciences. We sin with our mouths, let us be honest and confess that proclivity. But, I stand by my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection number 10 with all of my being. Words have consequences. Words that relate to theological truths have eternal consequences.

Let us be so diligent, so careful, so painstaking in the choice of our words, that we never have to apologize for denigrating the value of another human being simply based on the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, or the language that they speak.

By our words we will be justified, and by our words we will be condemned. (Mt. 12:37)

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!

A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.