Sunday, September 27, 2015

On the Holy Hill

Last week, as we gathered together, the darkness of our sin just made the light of God's grace in Jesus Christ shine all the brighter. We learned that the gospel isn't a crutch; the gospel is the power of resurrection. Jesus stepped into our bankruptcy, our barrenness, and made a dead desert bloom with life! And that calls for gratitude and service. See, we're “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). All these incredible blessings – we can't even imagine how great they really are. We have no idea just how much we owe. When we really consider God's grace, what should we do? So “should we sin because we aren't under law but under grace? By no means” (Romans 6:15)! Not a snowball's chance down under! Being free from the law doesn't mean lawlessness; it means obedience to love. Being free from the law means gratitude that leaps and soars before the law can even open its mouth to bark an order to hop. “Teach [us], Lord, on earth to show, / by [our] love, how much [we] owe” – but what does that look like?

The Hebrew singers asked the question a different way. They thought about what questions a priest should ask at the gates of the temple, God's house, up on Mount Zion, the holy hill, to symbolize meeting with God on his turf on his terms. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). In the new covenant, though Jesus Christ we've all “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem,” filled with “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23). The psalmists want to know, who gets to live there? Or in other words, what kind of person would God pick for a roommate?

In the three psalms we read, I count eight general requirements, eight things that God is looking for us to do with the grace he's given us. First of all, he calls for purity of hearts, eyes, and hands. From their heart, God's roommates must speak the truth (Psalm 15:2). Even standing on the hill needs “pure hearts” (Psalm 24:4). Jesus himself said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Christ's earthly half-brother James, the first leader of the Jerusalem church, observed that conflicts within the church come from “your cravings that are at war within you,” arising from covetousness for some desired thing – maybe wielding power over others, maybe maintaining the power or respect we already have, and when we don't get these things, we “engage in disputes and conflicts” (James 4:1-2). But we'd have all we really need if we'd just anchor our desires on God instead of ourselves, if we'd just quell those inner cravings: “You ask and don't receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). The solution is to “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8). The opposite of being double-minded, being filled with these warring cravings, is a pure heart. A pure heart isn't divided in its commitment; a pure heart isn't chasing after one shiny thing after another. A pure heart is settled on God so sweetly that we don't need to covet, because everything else pales next to the Maker of heaven and earth. And how can we get that purer heart? Because Jesus Christ is “a great priest over the house of God,” and by abandoning our coveted yearnings and cravings at the foot of the cross, he takes our hearts and makes them “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Hebrews 10:21-22).

And with a pure heart, then it isn't as hard to have pure eyes: “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base” (Psalm 101:3), prays the psalmist, much like Job “made a covenant with [his] eyes” not to look lustfully at someone or something that didn't belong to him (Job 31:1). In our media-saturated world, we're constantly bombarded with visual stimuli; we're awash in temptations, in images of things that are base. The first thing we think of is defiling our eyes with an all-too-lingering glance at images designed to stimulate the desires meant to lead to fulfillment in marriage. And let me tell you, even in seminary, I met plenty of future pastors and church leaders – men and women alike – who all struggled a great deal with living up to the psalmist's pledge. But there are plenty of other base things we can set before our eyes. Christians across the world are astonished at how enthusiastically Americans love to watch images of simulated violence, for example. And I wonder if some of the commercial attitudes we see all around us – relentless greed, a consumerist mindset – well, those are pretty base themselves. Why do we continue to willingly set consumerism – advertisement, advertisement, advertisement – always before our eyes?

Pure heart, pure eyes... and then the psalmist asks us to have “clean hands” (Psalm 24:4). In David's victory song, when he was rescued from Saul's hot pursuit, David said that God had “rewarded me” in accordance with “the cleanness of my hands in his sight” (Psalm 18:20, 24). Along with the double-minded purifying their hearts, James calls on sinners to cleanse their hands (James 4:8), to not dirty them in sinful actions. To what use do we put our hands, our bodies? Are they serving obedience to God, or are they stirring the muck of sin? God isn't looking for a roommate who tracks mud all over the carpet, who leaves grimy fingerprints on the curtains and countertops. God's looking for people with good spiritual hygiene, from the heart all the way to the hands. That's an answer to grace.

Second, the psalmists describe people “who walk blamelessly, and do what is right” (Psalm 15:2), those who are willing to seriously “study the way that is blameless” (Psalm 101:2). More than just having hands and feet that aren't bathed in the sewers, God wants us to be actively engaged in doing good. It isn't enough to just withdraw from the world. God sends us into the world (John 17:18). It isn't enough to talk the talk; “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). We have to walk the walk. Clean hands are meant for honest labor. God “loves righteous deeds” (Psalm 11:7). “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works,” James said (James 2:18). So “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17). “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and to good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). We encourage one another.

And what's more, the psalmists speak of people who “do not lift up their souls to what is false” (Psalm 24:4). Three other times, the psalms talk about lifting up our souls, and to whom are we supposed to lift them up? “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; O my God, in you I trust” (Psalm 25:1-2). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means to anchor our trust there, look for our safety and protection there. “Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul” (Psalm 143:8). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means to accept practical instruction, to open ourselves to be conformed to him, her, or it. “Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Psalm 86:4). Lifting up our soul to someone or something means looking there for a source of gladness. Seeking safety, seeking wisdom, seeking gladness – that's the story of the human race. Just about everything in history could probably be boiled down to one of those three things. And the sad story is, we'll look just about anywhere for them – we'll lift up our souls to any caller we find on the street – except the relentless God who made our souls in the first place. Constantly we lift up our souls to what is false. But the psalms tell us thrice over to lift up our souls only to the God of Truth. God's looking for people ready to lift up our souls to him, and only him, as a living sacrifice, as a holy offering (Romans 12:1) – seeking safety, wisdom, and joy in God, and not in any of our self-made idols – you know, our flags, our passports, our pensions, our media, our celebrities, our entertainments, our freedoms, our power to choose our own path – our idols.

Third, the psalmists advocate integrity and honesty: “I will walk with integrity of heart within my house” (Psalm 101:2). Integrity of heart means to be all of who you are, all of the time – to not put on one mask in church, a different mask at home, yet another mask at work or at school. Integrity was a defining characteristic of Job: God himself said that, in spite of all Satan's attacks, Job “still persists in his integrity” (Job 2:3), which is what exasperated Job's own wife, who wanted him to die and get it over with (Job 2:9). In spite of it all, Job refused to bend, refused to turn, refused to give lip-service to what he didn't believe: “Far be it from me to say that you are right; until I die, I will not put away my integrity from me” (Job 27:5). So God held Job up as an example because Job was the same person in public and in private, the same person in prosperity and under pressure. Job had a transparent chest: you could see his heart as plainly as if he wore it on the outside. He gave everyone a clear look at the view of him that God saw, because Job lived with honesty and integrity, maintaining his balance and his posture. “Better to be poor and walk in integrity than to be crooked in one's ways even though rich” (Proverbs 28:6). That's what Job was committed to; that's what these psalmists say that God is looking for.

There's a link between integrity and honesty there. Living in God's presence means having nothing to do with lying or with slander. After all, what does Revelation say? “As for … all liars, their place will be in the lake that...” – well, it's not where you'd want to go for a swim (Revelation 21:8). A lifestyle of lying isn't the narrow path that leads to the narrow gate into the kingdom. What's left are people who “do not slander with their tongue” (Psalm 15:3), people who “do not swear deceitfully” (Psalm 24:4) – “one who secretly slanders a neighbor, I will destroy,” David prayed, and “no one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence” (Psalm 101:5-7). The opposite of that is someone who “speaks truth from the heart” (Psalm 15:2), someone who really cares about what's true and not just what's practical or useful or convenient or confirms what we'd already like to believe. This isn't a person who parrots whatever hoaxes come along through the tubes, but someone who does due diligence before shooting his mouth off, someone who thinks carefully before she spreads the latest gossip. God's looking to live with people who don't hem and haw when challenges come to our faith.

Fourth, the psalmists identify God's roommates as people who are men (and women) of their word – people whose commitments are more important to them than their own fleeting happiness. This kind of person will “stand by their oath even to their hurt” (Psalm 15:4). In other words, even when circumstances change, even when the pressure is on, they'll do what they said they would do. That's not to say they'll keep a promise it would be evil to keep, but they'll keep a promise it will cost them to keep. But compare that to today's world. What do you think when you hear the word “promise” preceded by the word “campaign”? “Campaign promise” – it's a joke; it's a stock description of empty words that mean nothing. Or just consider that, in twenty-first-century America, the holiest oaths you make with the words “I do” can be gotten out of more easily than just about any other contract. God doesn't tell us that keeping our promises will be easy. He warns us that it could very well hurt, could very well cost us. That's why, before we make them, we should “count the cost” (Luke 14:28). But God is looking for people who keep their promises even when it hurts them.

Fifth, the psalmists describe God's roommates on the holy hill as people who are kind and neighborly. They “do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors” (Psalm 15:3). Hurting people isn't on their agenda. When people trust them, they honor that trust. When the hotshot lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” – Where do I draw the line, when can I start reproaching instead of loving – Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who acted neighborly by risking his life, not to mention his bank account, to save someone who probably would've spat on the ground at his feet had he been conscious and in a place to do so (Luke 10:25-37). The Samaritan was neighborly even at cost, so he must be a neighbor: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

God tells us not to “hate in your heart anyone of your kin” – and all humans are kin – but God also tells to “reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself” (Leviticus 19:17). He says that in the very same breath as, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Reprove a neighbor, but don't reproach a neighbor. What's the difference? I had to really dig into that to figure out what exactly is going on here. The word for 'reprove' means to correct and convince our neighbors of the right way to go – not the way we like the most, not the way we think is socially acceptable, not a more efficient way, but the way God approves as opposed to actions God doesn't. That's 'reproving' our neighbor. But the word for 'reproach' means to scorn, disdain, or hold up to shame. Right here, God's word cuts through all our constant wrestling over what it means to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). It must be possible to correct a neighbor, to persuade a neighbor, without disdaining a neighbor. And yet in modern America, the church has a popular reputation for being quickest to disdain its neighbors. Maybe they're right. Maybe we, just like everyone else, has forgotten that it's possible to reprove without reproaching. In order to avoid reproaching, we don't have to stop reproving. But it isn't just possible; it's what God insists on.

Sixth, the psalmists say that God's roommate needs to be someone generous. God's looking for people who “do not lend money at interest and do not take a bribe against the innocent” (Psalm 15:5). Paul tells us that, with however much we have, we should be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for [ourselves] the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life that is really life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19). Proverbs says that “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9). And the psalmists stress that “the righteous are generous and keep on giving” (Psalm 37:21) and praise “those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (Psalm 112:5). And, of course, we've talked before about John the Baptist's words: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Relative to how much we have, how much God has given us, we have to admit we're not nearly as generous as we could be. We certainly aren't generous compared to how much we owe. But if we open our hearts to what God has done, the Spirit will move us to be cheerful givers as wisdom dictates.

Seventh, the psalmists require God's roommate to be humble: “A haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not tolerate” (Psalm 101:5). Proverbs tells us that “haughty eyes and a proud heart – the lamp of the wicked – are sin” (Proverbs 21:4). Haughty eyes – eyes looking scornfully down on others – and an arrogant or proud heart are defining characteristics throughout the words of the prophets of empires like Assyria and Babylon, mighty nations like Moab and Tyre. For heaven's sake, don't be like Babylon! (That goes for myself as much as anyone else.) Instead, we should “seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3), so that we can live “with all humility and gentleness” (Ephesians 4:2). “Humility goes before honor” (Proverbs 15:33; 18:12). “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3) – not in terms of having low self-esteem, but in terms of esteeming others as God esteems them; not in terms of thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. God isn't looking to live with people who are all about themselves, who make themselves the measure of all things.

And eighth, the psalmists insist that they're describing a person who lives in solidarity with God's loyal people. They “honor those who fear the LORD” (Psalm 15:4). “I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. Perverseness of heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil. … I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, so that they may live with me; whoever walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me” (Psalm 101:3-6). This kind of person shows respect and honor to those who are following God; they're pleased to see anyone live well and faithfully.

When I read these psalms, I couldn't help but think about some of the civil servants and private citizens in this nation who resolved to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) in the face of new and sometimes disturbing legal situations that would require them to do what they cannot in good conscience do as servants of God. And I thought also of all the Christians I know, friends of mine, who have been every bit as nasty and scornful toward them as any Roman with a lion on a leash. We can disagree with how a believer might choose to take a stand; we can say we'd do things differently in the circumstances; but God calls us to honor those who sincerely follow him in loving him and loving our neighbor, not to throw them under the bus.

At the same time, though, when I read these psalms, I couldn't help but think about Christians around the world, who face forms of persecution that far outstrip the comparatively mild maltreatment of practicing believers here in this country. I couldn't help but think of the many Christians fleeing their homelands as refugees, languishing in camps or living in perpetual fear of those who wield the bloody sword to extort and terrorize – our brothers and sisters who know exactly what Jesus meant when he said that “the hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so, they are offering worship to God” (John 16:2). And I couldn't help but think of all the American Christians who dismiss our suffering brothers and sisters, confessors and the kin of martyrs, as somehow being not “our own,” as somehow a lesser priority than the problems we already have within our national borders. That's not the attitude the psalmists ask us about. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).

Purity, devotion, integrity, honesty, fidelity, kindness, neighborliness, generosity, humility, and solidarity with the poor and with God's people – it's a tall order! In fact, it's a Christ-sized order, isn't it? Is that what we have to do in order to earn a room on God's holy hill? Well, who could do that? Thankfully, no, that's not what it's about. No, it isn't about earning anything. 'Earning', by and large, is a word foreign to the gospel, by and large. It's about answering grace. It's about looking at what God has done for us and in us, and opening ourselves more and more to his life-changing power. It's about letting him melt us down and mold us until we reflect Jesus more and more.

These are the good works we were created in Christ Jesus to do, the ones that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We are not saved by them. We are not saved by our purity; we are not saved by our honesty; we are not saved by our kindness or by generosity or by solidarity with the poor – we are not saved by them. We were saved for them. Let's not spend our days wasting away the grace God has given us, pining for a shortcut to the pearly gates. When God invited us all to his tent, invited us to celebrate redemption with him forever, he had a dress code in mind; Jesus himself told a parable of a guest evicted from the party for not being diligent in getting ready for the occasion (Matthew 22:11-13). But Jesus also will dress us in his righteousness; and though the clothes are large, if we let him, he will grow us into his full stature. Though we struggle with our imperfections and with the residue of sin, let's open ourselves to what grace wants to do in us. It's the least we can do, considering how much we owe. “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:57). Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How Much We Owe

Maybe you've heard it before – people saying that Christianity is just a crutch. What they mean is that belief in God and in his promises is just a defense mechanism; that people like us are just too soft and weak-minded to face the harshness of reality, and so we fabricate a fantasy to help us get by. Karl Marx famously called it “the opiate of the masses,” something to drug people into a false consciousness and keep them from facing the reality of their oppression. Ted Turner once said that “Christianity is a religion for losers,” though he later changed his mind somewhat. Sigmund Freud called it a form of wish-fulfillment for the loving protection of a Father who isn't there, saying that these are “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest, and most urgent wishes of mankind.” Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and later governor, called it “a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”  Are they right?  Is Christianity just a crutch? I don't think that's true at all. For one, it ignores all the reasons supporting the Christian faith – the powerful case that God exists; the impossibility of explaining the rise and spread of Christianity without the death and resurrection of Jesus; the unparalleled beauty of the gospel. But they miss something else.  They miss the real depths of our need.

See, we have a problem. We live in a universe that's been wrenched out of place. The entirety of the creation we know and love is broken, pulled from its orbit and going down in flames, coming apart at the seams. Ever since God handed us the keys and we threw away the owner's manual and crashed it, the creation's been a moral wreck. It's a world full of opposition and conflict, a world where even the ground is cursed because of us: “In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). This whole place, from top to bottom, is cursed because of us. It misses the mark – and that's what sin means. If you want to know why bad things happen, why there's suffering and death and tragedy, why the news is what it is, look no further – what else would you expect? It's only the mercy of God that restrains every day from being one continual and unmitigated tragedy.

What's more, from birth onward, each and every one of us is socially and legally enmeshed in sin. The very structure of our societies are built on sin. Everywhere you look, sin, sin, sin. The world outside of God's covenants, the Gentile world, the world of the nations, is defined by this trait above all others: people “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). We have no excuse, no defense – we refuse to honor God, we refuse to give him thanks, our minds are darkened, we lust for idols, we barter away God's glory for a cheap knock-off (Romans 1:20-23). And even inside God's covenants, the world is no better than that, because it's filled with hypocrisy and law-breaking (Romans 2:21-24). The truth is that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (Romans 3:9). There's not a society on earth, not one way of life, not one culture, that doesn't pin us down like Gulliver on his travels, strapping us to sin and ensnaring us in it. Sin is our inheritance, our cultural legacy.

And what's more, we are each and every one of us corrupt. Our desires are hardwired to seek out the lowest common denominator. Serious reflection shows that “the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of [our] hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Jeremiah writes that “the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9). People “loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). How, after all, do the Scriptures summarize us?

There is no one who is righteous; no, not one. There is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one. Their throats are opened graves; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of vipers is under their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace is not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Romans 3:10-18)

That sounds extreme, but as we heard last week, that's “the natural pathology of the human heart.” And yet we trick ourselves into thinking that the Fall is something less than this.  We trick ourselves.  And because we trick ourselves, we react with confusion at the news whenever it reports unspeakable acts of malice and depravity. We say to ourselves, “I can't understand how someone could do these things. What's this world coming to?”  You've heard it.  You've probably said it; I know I have.  Russell Moore wrote, “We can wring our hands that the world is going to hell, but then we ought to remember that the world did not start going to hell at Stonewall or Woodstock but at Eden.” It's no mystery how a corrupt person in a cursed world could do the things in the news cycle. The real mystery is how anyone doesn't do them.

Look around you: people sin all the times – sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes with big, flashy neon signs. And in every act of sin, whether subtle or gross, we ratify Adam's apostasy – we raise our hand in support of his decision to willfully defy God's commandment, to set himself (and ourselves in him) up as an authority independent of God and capable of revising the world through his own wisdom and his own desires. When we sin, we throw our support behind his unapologetic rebellion, knowing all its consequences – from Cain on down. And so understandably, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). And sin doesn't stop – it just increases and increases, never satisfied, always consuming us as a parasite.

This sin doesn't just hinder us. It doesn't make us merely morally lame, it doesn't just weaken us, it doesn't make us a bit forgetful. “You were dead in your trespasses and sins … following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3). Not slowed down, not even hobbled or crippled – dead. And each of us is hopelessly lost in debt – the national debt doesn't even come close to touching it – all the debt for all the sin we've done and the sin we've supported, the weight of Adam's fall and its consequences, falls on us. Every man, woman, and child born under the sun is hopelessly abandoned to bankruptcy and doomed to destruction.  To say that's bad news is an understatement the understatement of the millennium.

But those three great letters but... enter Jesus. “God so loved the world” – yes, God is filled with love for the world that hates him, the world that denies him, the world that takes up arms in rebellion against him, the world that curses him and fills itself with violence and injustice just to spite him – “God loved that world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him” – whoever trusts him and flees from the world's hopelessness into his outstretched arms – “should not perish” as we deserve, but instead “have eternal life” (John 3:16). Were any words ever so sweet? Were any words so delicious, like a honeycomb in the mouth?

See, God could easily have sent Jesus into the world to tear it apart in judgment, to set it on fire with blazing wrath, to quash our rebellion with more-than-lethal force. God could have sent his Son into the world to condemn us. Looking around at each other, looking outside the church walls, looking into our hearts and what they've been made by sin, we can find no reason to think that there's any other way this is going to play out. But listen to this: “God didn't send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but those three great letters again but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17)! We need a Savior, and the Son came to do some saving!

We were and are powerless to save ourselves, and powerless to save each other. We have no strength, we dare not boast in our power – though we often do. We pretend we can fix sin through our brilliant technology or through our social engineering. We imagine we can build utopia atop a graveyard – and then we're surprised when the world is shredded by bigger and bigger and bigger wars, and when the evils we stifle burst out in new and unexpected places. The whole history of modernity is a game of Whack-a-Mole with relentless evil, but we continually delude ourselves into thinking we've won. The truth is, we're helpless. But those three letters but “while we were still helpless, at just the right time Christ died..." for the good? for the wonderful? for the deserving? for the worthy?  No.  "At just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6), for us.

Can you believe it? “God shows his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners" - not after, not later, "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The hero sacrifices himself to redeem the villains! God bends down from heaven and dies for God-haters of every stripe! He stepped into our filth, the filth of all our sin and our debt – “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). We had a debt we couldn't pay; he paid a debt he didn't owe. We were “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:20), bound by its heavy chains; but “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and don't submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). He shed his precious blood on the cross, and “sin stains are lost in its life-giving flow,” able to free us from our “passion and pride” and free us from “the burden of sin”!

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9)! And we don't need to work for it – as if we ever could (Ephesians 2:9)!  Our salvation isn't the result of our works; our works are what sealed us under wrath in the first place! But instead, we're “saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8), blessed by the sheer gift of God – and all we have to do is trust, all we have to do is look, fix our eyes on the Son of Man as he's lifted up, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). He was lifted up to bear God's wrath so that we could have life instead, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

We were children of that same wrath, we were doomed to destruction. We were dead in our trespasses and our sins. We were slaves to sin; we were caught up in its power. We were completely and totally helpless and hopeless. But Jesus Christ became our hope he became my hope, and he became your hope! “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20)! He did more than just free us. He did more than just snatch us from the fire. He blessed us; he gave us reconciliation through his death and salvation through his risen life and, above all, the ability to not despair in our sin but instead to “rejoice in God” (Romans 5:10-11).

Coming as the embodiment of his Father's rich mercy, coming out of pure love, “even when we were dead in our trespasses,” he “made us alive together with Christ,” saving us by his grace, “and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7). And we actually “have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Not just an escape from fire, but an ascent to glory and fellowship with God, being made members of his own household (Ephesians 2:19)! He actually reserves us thrones in heaven, making kings and priests out of what once was a hopeless wreck of wickedness. That's the power of grace.

We once owed a debt we couldn't pay. But  “Jesus paid it all; all to him we owe; sin had left a crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.”  And he blessed us anew. Now we don't have the harsh burden of debt, but we do have one obligation: our gratitude and our service. That's what it means when we were “created in Christ Jesus,” not by good works, “for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Walking in gratitude is the only natural response to what Jesus has done. His “streams of mercy, never ceasing, / call for songs of loudest praise.” We're daily constrained to be the greatest debtor to grace. And yet the one and only thing we owe is love, “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). That's the only debt; that's the character of all we owe: love, which reigns above all virtues and binds them together because it's the very heart of God. But now, to what extent to we owe love? What's the upper limit of the gratitude we should express? Well, now I'll tell you – or, rather, I won't.  See, “eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor the heart of man imagined...” (1 Corinthians 2:9).  That is how much we owe.

So is Christianity a crutch, like some say? No, Christianity is not a crutch.  The gospel is not a crutch. And thank God! A crutch is so much less than we need! We weren't just weak; we were dead and doomed! The world is littered with crutches – money, fame, power, respect, family, work, possessions, anything we rely on, even our own vaunted independence and our pretenses of strength, our claims to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But a bootstrap is a crutch.  A crutch can't give a cadaver motion. A crutch can't pay a debt that outweighs the earth. The crutch can't shine light into the darkness. And yet the world is full of crutches, and it's time we stopped relying on them and turned to something stronger.

The gospel is no crutch. The gospel is resurrection! The gospel is life from the dead; the gospel is the only hope; the gospel is new creation! So often, we're focused on all we need to do, all we need to change. But sometimes, we just need to be reminded to open our eyes to the beauty of what God has done, to the infinite blessings he crafts all around us but especially in us through Jesus. We just need to rediscover why we “live daily his praises to sing.” Resurrection, and the sure hope of attaining to the glory of God and never missing the mark again, is the only possible measure of the holy mystery of how much we owe. So “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57)!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Terror in the Land: A Sermon Remembering September 11

Five thousand, one hundred fifteen times, the earth spun on her tilted axis – night and day, day and night. Five thousand, one hundred fifteen days ago, I remember where I was. Most of the day is hazy – most of my memories are – but one flicker is anchored in my mind. I was an eighth-grader at Ephrata Middle School. In my English class, we'd been working on an assortment of creative writing exercises. A portion of our class time had been set aside to mill about the room, describing our ideas to one another, sharing feedback with each other. And I remember standing by the wall and overhearing two of my classmates talking. I only caught a snippet of conversation, but I heard a reference to an airplane flying into the World Trade Center. The first thought I had was, “What an oddly specific idea.” I could only assume, after all, that it was a plot point in the story one of my classmates was writing. It wasn't until later in the day when the truth had become clear and the announcement was made: This was no mere notion, no string of words on a page. An enigmatic, bone-chilling tragedy was unfolding as we hung, stunned, on every bit of news as it came through. I don't recall anything else about that day, other than the feeling that everything was changing, that some new and darker era had barged onto the scene. But I remember where I was when I first heard what I'd only understand in retrospect. And I'd bet that just about everyone in this sanctuary this morning remembers where they were that day... 5,115 days ago.

On that day, I think it's safe to say that we all wondered three things. First, who would do this? Why would anyone want to rain death down on three thousand people who'd never done a thing to hurt them? It wasn't long before we learned the who. Not many of us had even a flicker of recognition the first time we heard the name Osama Bin Laden. Born into the lap of luxury as the son of a Saudi Arabian billionaire, tutored at an elite prep school after his father's death in a plane crash, he went on to college at King Abdulaziz University, where he attended lectures by radical professor Abdullah Azzam. In 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Azzam declared war against them to be a religious duty worldwide, and he – now expelled from his university position – went to the Pakistani border to organize an armed resistance against the Communists. And who better to finance the project than a multi-millionaire former student? By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan and Azzam was assassinated in a car bomb, Bin Laden – now more militant than Azzam himself – was left with power and influence over a network of militants riding high on their self-proclaimed victory. He named the network after his training camp – just “the Base,” al-Qaeda.

That answers the who, but to this day we struggle to understand the why. After returning home from Afghanistan, Bin Laden offered to use his militants to protect Saudi Arabia from Iraq, which had just invaded Kuwait. The Saudi king turned him down and invited American troops to deploy there for the Gulf War. Bin Laden was furious, convinced that American soldiers in the Arabian Peninsula would defile the holy sites there. He decried America for supposedly invading Muslim territory, for the impact of our economic sanctions, for supporting Israel, and for spreading liberty and democracy, which he viewed as a pagan religion. And he justified targeting American civilians by claiming all Americans are culpable for whatever stance we let our elected government take and whatever we fund with our taxes. He vowed to never let us feel safety again until we surrendered to his demands. And so he sent his men with their final instructions – and we all know what they did. But beneath all the particular motives, John MacArthur said it best the next Sunday:

Man is by nature a killer. … That's why wars happen: because people want things, and somebody stands in the way. … Whether you kill on a small scale or you kill on a large scale, the wicked hearts of passionate people who will not be denied their pleasure, kill to get it. That is the natural pathology of the human heart.

Ultimately, the only explanation for September 11th is that Bin Laden and his men imitated their “father, the devil,” that they “chose to do [their] father's desires: he was a murderer from the beginning,” and “the father of lies” (John 8:44). It's easy to see Satan's handiwork in the smoke and the rubble; it has his character written all over it in big print. But our second question is a yet thornier one: Where is God in all this? Why did he let it happen? It's a large question, the perennial complaint of tragedy and inhumanity: “How long, O LORD?” (Psalm 79:5). “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (Lamentations 5:20). “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). The question comes unbidden to our hearts and lips in the face of such unearthly malice. It's a bigger question than we can explore this morning. On that day, Jeremiah spoke for us: “My eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the LORD from heaven looks down and sees” (Lamentations 3:49-50).

Elie Weisel, a young Jewish man in one of the concentration camps, once was forced to march past an equally horrible scene: the slow and merciless execution of a small boy. Behind him, a man lamented out loud, “Where is God now?” Where is God in all of this? From within the depths of his soul, Weisel heard a voice utter the only answer that fits: “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows.” Where was God on September 11th? He was in the towers as they fell. He was in the smoke and the rubble. At a memorial service five years on, Timothy Keller, pastor of a large Manhattan church less than three miles from the World Trade Center site, remarked that “on the cross, we sufferers finally see, to our shock, that God now knows what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack.” Where else would we look first to find Jesus than there, standing in our suffering, weeping our tears and bearing our pain? He's a LORD who doesn't stand far off.

But we also saw God in the light that shone all the brighter for the darkness and ash and smoke. We saw God's love when people dropped their differences and worked together as one nation, when people risked life and limb to snatch as many from the rubble as they could, as brave men derailed Flight 93 from the path the hijackers wanted. We see God now as we unite in remembrance and in prayer, as we reach out tenderly to bind up the brokenhearted and pledge our lives to the Prince of Peace.

And that brings us to our third question: As Americans and as Christians, what do we do now? Difficult as it is, the history since that fateful day has reminded us of two things not do now. The first is to give way to hatred, the thirst for revenge, for retaliation, to make others suffer the way we've suffered. It's a difficult pitfall to avoid, because it seems so close to a yearning for justice to be meted out. Sometimes we aren't satisfied just to pray, “O LORD, you God of vengeance, you God of vengeance, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; give to the proud what they deserve” (Psalm 94:1-2). That's a prayer for justice. Equally raw, equally passionate, perhaps more vengeful, is the prayer: “Pay them back for their deeds, O LORD, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the LORD's heavens!” (Lamentations 3:64-66).

The crucial difference between justice and revenge is, can we be content to see it resolved on the cross of a Jesus who died between terrorists in a terrorist's place? Do we have the mind of Jesus Christ: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)? Or do we have the mind of Lamech: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me; if Cain is avenged sevenfold, Lamech will be avenged seventy-seven fold” (Genesis 4:23-24)? The day after the terrorists attacked, Pope John Paul II gave a general address closing with six requests he offered up to God in prayer. His third prayer was “for the leaders of nations, so that they will not allow themselves to be guided by hatred and the spirit of retaliation, but may do everything possible to prevent new hatred and death, by bringing forth works of peace.”

The second thing not to do is to let them achieve their goals. They wanted to spread fear. They wanted to disrupt our lives, to break our spirits, to make us cower and panic and hide. On the surface, it looks like they failed. I hope that we've lived up to Billy Graham's pledge that “the spirit of this nation will not be defeated by their twisted and diabolical schemes.” But we have to admit that we've at times become a nation obsessed with maintaining security, with protecting ourselves from danger. And the same mentality is present in the church. At times, we'd rather remain safe in our enclosed bubbles, keeping the world at arm's length. We'd rather sneer at the sinner, build walls and watchtowers, and tell the refugee there's no room at the inn – even though this is We Welcome Refugees Sunday, a day to remember the gospel's demand to imitate the God who “protects those who take refuge in him” (Nahum 1:7), “a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress” (Isaiah 25:4), the God who himself came to earth and was carried into Egypt as a child refugee from Herod's violence (Matthew 2:14-15), the God who commands, “Let the outcasts … settle among you; be a refuge to them from the destroyer” (Isaiah 16:4).

Before anything else, the main ingredient of a Christian react to terrorism is to refuse to be terrified. Chronic fearfulness is actually a defining mark of a nation that doesn't know God: “The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, and they shall flee as one flees from the sword, and they shall fall though no one pursues” (Leviticus 26:36). But the opposite of terror isn't complacency. It isn't closing our eyes, pretending that the world is other than what it is. No, the opposite of terror is trust – not trust in those who hate us, not trust in our allies, not trust in our politicians and diplomats, not trust in our economy or in our culture, not even trust in our armed forces – “do not put your trust in princes, in mortals in whom there is no help” (Psalm 146:3) – but first and foremost trust in “my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:2). We don't have to pretend the world is other than what it is, because we know that there is more than what the world is. God calls us to “not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flieth by day” (Psalm 91:5). He invites us to “fear no evil,” even in the darkest valley, when he's there with us (Psalm 23:4).

In the hours after the planes struck the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the leadership team of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis gathered to plan a new roof banner for their church. And the banner was to read: “Christ, When All Is Shaking.” I love that! When all is shaking, Jesus Christ is our rock – so “don't fear what they fear, and don't be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:14-15). Their pastor John Piper made it very clear: “Christian hope is not to escape slaughter. Christian hope is not to be kept off the hijacked plane or out of the collapsing building.” But Christian hope is found in the promises of God that, through any trials and tribulations, God will make “every created thing serve our everlasting joy in God.” Even if every day were September 11th, God asks us not to be afraid of any plane any malicious creature turns into an arrow, nor the terror they plan under cover of darkness. We serve “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers,” with Israel and Palestine, America and al-Qaeda, all “made subject to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).

Second, eschewing terror and trusting in God, we need to recognize the fate of “all who spread terror in the land.” The prophet Ezekiel uses that phrase over and over again in the course of his lament over Pharaoh's fate. He, like Bin Laden – ancient Egypt, like al-Qaeda – saw himself as “a lion among the nations,” but Ezekiel saw him as something lower, a “dragon in the seas,” who thrashes about but, in the big picture of things, only manages to befoul the streams (Ezekiel 32:2). God threatens to “throw [his] net over” this supposedly mighty terrorist, to fling him down on the open field, exposed and put to shame (Ezekiel 32:3-4), reducing him to a spectacle and a warning for all those who'd even think about spreading terror: “I will make many peoples appalled at you; their kings shall shudder because of you” (Ezekiel 32:10). “The face of the Lord is against those who do evil” (1 Peter 3:12).

In the end, this threat will be put down in the same grave where they sought to send others, and the same fate awaits all their imitators: “All who had spread terror in the land of the living are slain, fallen by the sword” (Ezekiel 32:23). “All who had spread terror in the land of the living went down uncircumcised to the earth below; they bear their shame with those who go down to the pit” (Ezekiel 32:24). Short of repentance, short of justice being resolved at Christ's open cross, that's what waits for any militants who in their day “had terrorized the land of the living” (Ezekiel 32:27). Knowing what waits for them, whether sooner or later, it's obvious to us that “it's better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17).

Third, if we refuse to be frightened, that opens up new ways of reacting. We don't have to rage, though we pray passionately for God's justice: “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Revelation 6:10). We don't have to react the way al-Qaeda reacts, with hatred and violence and terror, retaliating to compete with them in raining down death from the skies. Live in a way, react to terrorism and to the tragedies of life, in a way that provokes your neighbors to “demand an accounting for the hope that is in you,” to insist that you explain why you behave like you've found a new way to be human – and that's what we have, when we “sanctify Christ as Lord” in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).

But we should react with “gentleness and respect,” with holiness and a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:16). Sadly, we in America haven't always displayed those four traits when any Middle Eastern news comes across the media channels. In the weeks and years following the attacks, far too many innocent people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent were assaulted or harassed by people seeking an outlet for their violent anger. Two days ago, on the fourteenth anniversary of the attacks, a storm passed through Saudi Arabia and toppled a crane into the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, right before Friday prayers; at least 107 were killed, over 230 injured as of the latest tallies. It's a tragedy, but some Americans – not all, not even most, but some, even professing believers – crowed about it being 'karma' or 'payback' – never mind that those hurt weren't part of al-Qaeda – or, more commonly, just viewed the event with cold apathy.

Sadly, that sort of response reflects Bin Laden's way of looking at the world, not Christ's, who said things like, “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” (Luke 13:4), and, “Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). See, the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) – you, me, the 107 who died in Mecca on Friday, the nearly three thousand who died when the towers fell, and all who spread terror in the land of the living – God wants us to repent, not to perish. And God urges us to live lives of mercy “so that, when you are maligned, those” – like al-Qaeda – “who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16).

Some will be ashamed for what they've done. Sadly, many others won't. To believe their own rhetoric, many may have sought by painstaking measures to snuff out their humanity, to efface their conscience. Those who serve “the murderer from the beginning” will boast what no human was ever created to boast: “We love death more than you love life.” If ever Satan had a catchphrase, that's the one. Peter offers an invitation to “those who love life and desire to see good days” (1 Peter 3:10), but how can you communicate God's joy to someone consumed in devoting himself to death, someone who treats life with disdain? But the 'life' we love isn't just the physical continuation of our existence. Any coward can be devoted to that. Chesterton once related the story of a soldier whose papers listed his religion as that of a “Methusalehite” – the man explained to the registrar that his highest religious principle was “to live as long as he could.” When Peter speaks of loving life, he doesn't mean being a Methusalehite. The life we're called to choose and love is to flourish in God's creation by loving and following him, being shaped after his character.

See, our life isn't found in what we can buy, or in what we can achieve, or in avenging ourselves on those who do us wrong. That vengeance mentality is what fuels “spreading terror in the land”: they hurt us, we'll hurt them; they scare us, we'll scare them. No, real life is found in God – we can no more live without him than without air, water, food, or love. Real life is the kingdom. Real life is being filled with the presence of Jesus: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51). Real life is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” – “do this, and you will live,” Jesus said (Luke 10:27-28). The solution to terror is to debunk their slogan with our action: to love life, the kind of life Christ brings, more than they love death.

In the years since that day, as terror tactics have proliferated and as domestic outbursts pop up in the nations of Europe and even the states of America, many in the Western world continually point to the events of September 11th as proof positive that “religion” is evil, that “religion” produces hatred, that “religion” excuses and promotes violence and terror. The late atheist propagandist Christopher Hitchens set the bar, crying that “religion has been an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred” and summarizing al-Qaeda with the words, “Once again, religion had poisoned everything.” His fellow atheist Richard Dawkins, writing a year earlier, remarked that “the take-home message is that we should blame religion itself,” since “only religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people.”

But don't fall for it: it's a rhetorical trick meant to smear the gospel with guilt by association – an association fabricated in the eyes of the blind, just by classing al-Qaeda and the message of Jesus under the convenient umbrella of “religion” – which is like grouping Josef Mengele, Kermit Gosnell, and Hippocrates together to invalidate medicine. Al-Qaeda exemplifies “zeal without knowledge” (cf. Romans 10:2), but the gospel is about knowing Jesus Christ, the eternal Reason of God, and following him by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6:8). Al-Qaeda and its offshoots hail as martyrs those who kill for their god's cause, seeking the world's subjugation. The gospel hails as martyrs those who triumph over death with love, seeking the world's salvation – conquering, not with sword or bomb, but “by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). Al-Qaeda promises paradise through murder – and they lie. Jesus offers paradise through humble faith – and he is the Truth, and “his faithfulness is a shield” (Psalm 91:4).

Al-Qaeda insists that God doesn't love unbelievers, and that anyone who diverges from their views even a hair's breadth is an unbeliever. The gospel tells us that God loved the unbelieving world so much that he sent his precious Son to die for her redemption (John 3:16). Al-Qaeda says that they'll wage war against unbelievers until all disagreement ends and the only religion that rules supreme is the unbending law of their god. The gospel says that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Al-Qaeda says, “Detonate thy enemy,” but Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Al-Qaeda teaches its recruits to show no compassion. The gospel's recruits follow a Son of Man with holes in his hands, feet, and side to prove him a “God Most Merciful, Most Compassionate” indeed. Al-Qaeda's brand of religion exalts men of war who live by the sword – and die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). The gospel births a kingdom without swords and a church that follows God's Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ. In Peter Leithart's words:

It is the community of the Suffering Servant that, in union with the Servant, bears insults, rejection, hatred, beatings, attacks, and assaults, entrusting itself to the one who judges justly. Filled with the fire of the Spirit, the church is to preach God's fiery, furious words against the violent. The church is to stand apart from the clashes of the nations..., refusing to choose among varieties of violence. The church is to be a shield between the violent and their victims. The church is to hold out hope of an absolute peace, and to be the sacrament of the holy mountain where “they neither hurt nor destroy.” The church is a community of martyrs, suffering the violence of the world, swallowing death in dying with Christ. ... Jesus erects his strange city, filled with his own Spirit to carry on his zealous conquest of violence – a suffering city, called to love enemies and lay down its life for the life of the world.

Or, in the words of an earlier Peter: “Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing. … Seek peace and pursue it, for the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. … Do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord” (1 Peter 3:9, 11-12, 14-15). Amen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Out of His Mind? A Sermon on Mark 3:6-35

When we left off last week, the Pharisees were having a pretty bad time – trying desperately to trap Jesus, to find some way to outsmart Jesus, but for some reason they never quite managed to be wittier than an omniscient God. Can't imagine where they went wrong in that plan. The Pharisees, shamed by their repeated failures to set this Jesus fellow straight (as they saw it), promptly went out and found Herod's supporters – usually the enemies of the Pharisees – and began to scheme how to bring Jesus down, how to kill him (Mark 3:6). Mark says that they did this “immediately,” perhaps meaning the very same day – remember, it's the sabbath. Jesus had already asked the Pharisees which is allowed on the sabbath, to save a soul or to execute someone, to heal or to harm. The Pharisees were silent in words when that question was asked, but here they answer in their deeds: they side with killing on the sabbath, and unlike healing and saving, that really is unlawful. The Pharisees, for all their good talk about being Law-abiding citizens, here expose their true colors: their hatred for Jesus outshines their supposed love for the Law. The Pharisees willing to twist and violate that holy Law if it helps them fight Jesus.

If the Pharisees really loved God's Law, if they acted consistently with their stated mission to bring the kingdom by teaching all Israel to keep that Law, they would never even think of planning murder, especially not on the sabbath. And they'd certainly never make common cause with the Herodians, men loyal to a king who makes a continual mockery of God's Law. The Pharisees are prepared at this point to throw away all they claim to stand for, every bit of progress they think they've made – even by their own theology, they will sell their own souls just to destroy Jesus. All that pretty talk about loving the Law is unmasked in this one verse as nothing but the self-serving thirst for power, a power Jesus threatens to take away from them.

Today as well, professed love of the law can be a pretense to pressure modern-day disciples into violating their Spirit-formed conscience. It's true in America, it was true in Galilee, it was true in Rome. During those sporadic local persecutions, Christians were often arrested. Christians were charged with disrupting the social order. Christians were put on trial as atheists – people who didn't accept or honor the gods who were vital to keeping Rome's engines humming. The Romans didn't really care if people happened to like Jesus too – even some pagan emperors had statues of Jesus alongside all their other gods – but to subvert the empire, to cling to a johnny-come-lately superstition, to blaspheme the great Roman gods, to forsake all for the sake of just one? “Unthinkable! Obscene! Down with the Christians!,” they'd cry. “Don't those Christians know their associations are against the law? And who knows what those Christians really do when they get together? No one knows – it's probably something horrible and indecent, or so goes the word on the street. So when Christians go on trial, all these judges want is to restore order, to get some little gesture that these crazed Jesus freaks really do know how to play nicely with others – some signal that these Christians won't mess things up for everyone by making the gods turn their back on Rome. Well, it's the law, after all, don't you know? Most Christians then refused to follow that law: they just will not make a sacrifice to those pretenders of Mount Olympus.

Now, some of these judges are kind. The judges want to prove their tolerance, their willingness to accommodate the Christians' ill-informed but tender consciences: “You don't have to sacrifice to the gods of Olympus, that's fine, that's okay. We can reach the same goal if you will just sacrifice to Caesar. Well, Caesar obviously exists, you can't deny that; Caesar obviously blesses you, Caesar gives you peace. And we won't even ask you to sacrifice a chicken or a lamb or a goat to Caesar! Just do the smallest sacrifice possible – a single pinch of incense – and be on your merry way. We are not out to be unreasonable to you Christians; all we ask is that you just follow the law.” That's all they insist on – isn't that so friendly, isn't that so accommodating? The early church didn't think so. Our ancestors in the faith said no: a pinch of incense may be small, but it is still idolatry, and idolatry of any scale is totally contrary to a just and sanctified heart. Were these Christians out of their minds to refuse an escape so easy? Well, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said:

I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

That's from Dr. King's letter from his jail in Birmingham, Alabama. A demand for a pinch of incense to Caesar is an unjust law, like the traditions of the Pharisees that obstruct the way of kingdom business. But Christians aren't wrestling with Romans; Christians are not wrestling with Democrats or Republicans, Israelis or Palestinians, Iranians or North Koreans, nor with any who ask for just a pinch of incense. They're all just people – people made in the image of God, people who need to repent of their sin but who can be saved by grace through faith just the same as we've all been.

And the very same thing is true of the scribes and Pharisees we meet in the Gospel of Mark. They may try their best to set themselves up as Jesus' enemies, they may force Jesus to compete publicly with them for the attention and allegiance of the crowds, but Jesus is not at war with the Pharisees. Jesus loves Phil the Pharisee, Jesus loves Sam the Scribe, Jesus loves that fox Herod Antipas, and Jesus loves the half-hearted, self-seeking crowds who come from all over (Mark 3:7-8), who risk crushing him to try to get just a touch of his power (Mark 3:9-10). Jesus has every intention of dying for them all. Jesus' fight is “not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12).

The Gospel of Mark is wonderful at reminding us that the good news of the kingdom is not about beating up on the Romans. The kingdom's not about squelching secularists, the kingdom is not about vindicating our rights, the kingdom is not about dethroning Herod, and the kingdom is not even about one-upping the scribes and the Pharisees. The kingdom is about fishing. The kingdom is about growing. The kingdom's victories are not against the Pharisees; they're against demons and all of Satan's pompous schemes. Little skirmishes can happen here and there, but the kingdom is about a tide of relentless freedom, setting the captives free, casting down the dark forces that undergird the mere human expressions of wickedness. For Mark, that is the activity that shows the kingdom in action. And so in this scene, in his fight against the devil, Jesus again forces the issue: You have to make a decision, you have to make up your mind: Who is Jesus? What is he all about? The great author C. S. Lewis famously said that, confronted with Jesus' claims, there are only three conceivable options:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

He did not intend to. No, indeed – he did not intend to. In the scenes Mark gives us here, we with the crowds watch as people align themselves behind one of the three options. Jesus' own family – his brothers like James, Joseph, Judah, and Simon, his mother Mary, maybe his sisters as well – they all fear he's surely gone “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). They think that the Jesus they've watched grow up is a madman, a lunatic, that something has come unhinged in his psyche, and he's embarrassing the whole family. They want to “shut him up for a fool.” They want to deprogram him, to quarantine him 'til he gets a grip on himself and calms down, maybe goes back to carpentry and the occasional good word in Nazareth's synagogue, reverts to a normal life and normal job instead of all this “kingdom” business he won't stop talking about. That's what the family's after.

Jesus' closest followers, meanwhile, hold fast to their conviction that he is who he says he is, even if he hasn't said much outright yet, preferring to keep those cards up his sleeve. After all, it does no good to proclaim himself as “Messiah” and “Son of God” if everyone jumps to the wrong conclusions when they hear those words. He doesn't want the crowds look at him through the lens of what they expect a messiah or a divine son should be; Jesus insists that we look at the idea of a messiah and divine son through the window his life is into the heart of God (Mark 3:11-12). You can't know what it means to be God's Son until you see the crown of thorns on his head. You don't know what “Messiah” means until you spell it with a cross and nails and the shedding of blood. That's why he tells the demons to stop talking about him (Mark 3:12).

His family label him a madman, his followers creep toward seeing him as Master, but then there are the scribes, denouncing Jesus as a magician. They can't deny what Jesus does; all they can do is put their own twisted spin on what it means. Clearly, Jesus is an exorcist: he tosses demons out left and right. He claims he does it by God's Spirit. They say he does it at Satan's own behest. After all, plenty of ancient magicians would try to leverage spirits against each other, invoking a medium one to trounce a little one, calling on a big one to evict a medium one. Where Jesus says miracle, they say magic. Jesus says he works for God; the scribes say he's an agent of the Lord of the Flies, not the LORD of Hosts (Mark 3:22). And Mark didn't make up this accusation: ancient Jewish traditions actually preserve claims that Jesus used sorcery to try to seduce Israel to idolatry. That really is what the scribes tried telling people.

But Jesus pokes a lot of holes in their case, you see. The very idea of magicians pitting spirits against each other has credence only if you think it's a tactic, a feint, a strategic retreat. But you cannot explain Jesus away that way. Unlike all the other Jewish exorcists, he's doing major damage to Satan's work; he's setting entire villages and cities free from every unclean spirit found in them. Jesus is taking hell by storm! That's no devilish ploy; that's serious kingdom business. Either there's mutiny in the demon ranks, or Jesus really is the victory of God. If Satan's kingdom is broken apart, if his reign is in tatters, celebrate! That means the kingdom's on its way, because Satan's end has come (Mark 3:24-26)! Jesus is ahead of schedule in binding Satan, tying him up, to plunder his house and carry captives like you and me free (Mark 3:27). And that's exactly what God would do, as the prophet Isaiah said: “Can the prey be taken from the mighty, or the captives of a tyrant be rescued? But thus saith the LORD: Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant rescued; for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children (Isaiah 49:24-25).

What the scribes dismiss and reduce to just another run-of-the-mill exorcist is actually God bringing his salvation to earth! God himself pledged to fight those who fight against his people – not the Romans, not the scribes and Pharisees, but against all the might of “the Prince of Darkness grim.” King Jesus is launching God's head-on assault against Satan's empire, knocking the “strong man” flat on his back, and rescuing the devil's captives. He doesn't get his authority from Satan, like the scribes say. He has authority over Satan, the one dark spirit no magician would ever dare think to conquer. In Jesus, there is liberty of soul. Don't let the “strong man” trick you into thinking you're still his! Jesus has plundered his house.

This is a serious issue. It's so serious that Jesus chooses this moment to unveil one of the most perplexing things he ever said: “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). Harsh... Harsh! Or that's how it seems to us. The church has often debated what exactly it means to blaspheme – to slander – the Holy Spirit. Some might fear that any doubt a Christian has could be blaspheming the Spirit. Some might worry that anyone who falls away from the faith, or even backslides, has committed this sin. Some cultists might say that anyone who doesn't recognize such-and-such a modern prophet or teacher is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. A few years ago, an ill-informed atheist group sponsored what they called the Blasphemy Challenge: they got angry and immature people to tape themselves denouncing the Holy Spirit and then posting the videos online – to no particular end other than parading their ignorance, and annoying the faithful, and claiming that there's no point in anyone sharing the gospel with them now, they're too far gone, so just leave them alone. Ridiculous. These verses have caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people.

Luke does something different with the idea of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, but for Mark, it's important to see this sin is not something a Christian does. It's what the scribes and Pharisees do when they look at Jesus and call him demon-possessed, when they say that Jesus has an unclean spirit he's working by (Mark 3:30). It's a specific kind of rejection of the gospel. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to see the Spirit's kingdom-bringing work and then to resort to any means necessary to deny that the kingdom's come. It means standing firm against Jesus all the way to the end, even while staring the power of God right in the face. It means seeing the open door and choosing to stay in the cage, convincing yourself it's all a trick because you want it to be a trick. The Pharisees taught that the Spirit left when the Old Testament prophets finished their work, and the Spirit wouldn't be back 'til the kingdom came. Since the Pharisees “know” the kingdom just can't be here, and they “know” Jesus can't be powered by God's Spirit – well, they smell something rotten in Galilee. Not because it's there, but because that's what they want to perceive.

Even knowing that, it's still tempting to think of this as a scary passage. But we have to read it against its background in the Jewish culture of the time. See, most Jewish groups had lists of sins that couldn't be forgiven. Many said that it was very hard, if not totally impossible, to be forgiven any intentional sin done in defiance of God's Law. Others said that it could be forgiven, with atonement and repentance; but if you left the Jewish community, that would cut you off from the nation, and so the sacrifices couldn't reach you to make your repentance work, leaving you permanently in the lurch.

Jesus wants us to know that it doesn't work like that. There is not some big list of sins that can cut us off from God's grace. Any sin, any blasphemy, can and will be forgiven. The worst thing you've ever done – that can be completely and totally forgiven. The worst thing ever done against you – that can be completely and totally forgiven. All the deeds of Jeffrey Dahmer, all the deeds of Hitler, yes, all the deeds of Bin Laden, would be potentially forgivable. And so, praise God, all the deeds of Jonathan Brown, and all the deeds of all of you – no matter how deliberate they were, no matter how many their number, no matter how repetitious, all can be forgiven. No matter how many times we backslide, no matter how many times we try to break away from the church, no matter how many times we fall away – Mark suggests that there's always hope. Just like Eden's freedom, there's only one red line; and that's to see the kingdom burst forth in the Spirit's power and then mock it as demonic. That is a hard point to reach. Reach that point, and what's left to convince you to change your tune? But if you don't let your heart get that hard, there is always, always, always hope! Even plenty of Pharisees followed Jesus in the end (Acts 15:5).

Now, on the heels of his challenge to the scribes, we meet Jesus' family again, standing outside the door (Mark 3:31). It's no social visit – it's obvious from the text, they're here to drag Jesus back to Nazareth. They don't think he's evil, just unbalanced and in need of a psych hold. They aren't guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, just the Son – and Jesus says he'll forgive that gladly (Luke 12:10). But these brothers, mother, sisters – they think he's out of his mind, and they want to set him straight. Contrast this with the disciples gathered around him! Jesus doesn't define his family by bloodline or hometown; Jesus defines his real family by a shared conviction, a common commitment to “the will of God” (Mark 3:33-35) – for Mark, that means following the footsteps of Jesus all the way to the cross. That's open for anyone willing to do the will of God – yes, even us – but Mark has a special focus now on the Twelve.

So why did Jesus choose the Twelve? Twelve apostles point back to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is giving his people a new start, creating them all over again. He's refounding Israel through them, which is why the twelve apostles will judge the twelve tribes (Matthew 19:28). He calls them to a mountain (Mark 3:13). And note that Jesus is not one of the Twelve; he stands on the mountain, he stands outside and above them, in the role of Israel's LORD God. He calls them to be apostles – messengers, ambassadors of the kingdom, ambassadors of this new Israel he's making. And their first and foremost purpose is... what? “To be with him” (Mark 3:14) – just to “abide in him always,” just to spend time in his presence. So often in life, we think that our main purpose is to do – do this, do that, do big things, be active, make the most of every moment. We define ourselves by our jobs, by how hard-working we are, how much time we volunteer, how many meals we serve. But before all that doing comes just being with him, learning from him, growing spiritually just because we know and behold him with the eye of faith. Spend time in his presence daily! It was a good enough prescription for the apostles; I think we can benefit from it, too.

Second, Jesus called the apostles to do what their name suggests: “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (Mark 3:14). Because they'd been with him, because they'd spent time with him, they could go out and do what he does: preach the good news of the kingdom. He equips his church “to spread the light.” We spend time with Jesus here, hopefully we spend time with Jesus at home, but do we really define ourselves as sent-people? Are we conscious of ourselves as a church on a mission? Ask yourself: how, in the last month, have we proclaimed the good news of the kingdom? Are we living as sent proclaimers?

And third, Jesus called the apostles “to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:15). That part might catch us by surprise, but the whole chapter is saturated in this theme. If the apostles are going to share in what Jesus preaches, they're going to strap on the armor of God and go on the offense against the darkness (Ephesians 6:11-13). Now, we may not be called to go hunt demons in every nook and cranny, but we are called to be on our guard, ready to do the deeds of the light and not the deeds of darkness, seeing and resisting and overcome evil in Jesus' name. When we start talking like that, society's first reaction may be, “You're out of your minds!” Even our family members might call us crazy (or worse) for seriously following Jesus like that. But I'll tell you, if he was not out of his mind, then we are not out of our minds either. Our first family is not the one we were born into; it's not one we created by marriage; it's not one we birthed or raised. Our first family is those who do the will of God, those who hear and believe and obey the good news, those devoted to God's kingdom, even – especially – when our king hangs from nails under a dark and dreary sky and invites us to take our place at his right or his left. Is that being out of our minds? Or is Jesus really the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)? Who is this Jesus – is he crazy, or is God's kingdom breaking through? You decide who and what you will say he is, you choose how to react to him, you decide whether you think any other so-called god merits a pinch of incense – but I will tell you this: “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:15).