Tag Archives: Sin

Jesus Goes “All In”; Seals Deal

Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
Matthew 23:32 (NIV)

There are times when focusing on one chapter each day risks losing continuity of the story that is important for the sake of context. Today is one of those days.

When we left yesterday’s chapter, Jesus had been teaching in the public courts of the Temple in Jerusalem during His final, climactic week of earthly life. The leaders of the institutional Hebrew religion had sent waves of envoys to test Jesus with hot political and religious questions of their day. They wanted to get a sound byte they could use to discredit Jesus, who was a threat to their power and religious racket. Jesus deftly answered each question then went on the offensive and stumped them with a question of their own.

This is a high stakes game being played between Jesus and the religious leadership. They want Jesus dead and out of the way so that they can carry on with their lives of localized power and greedy luxury. Jesus knows this, and having successfully played the cards in His hand He now doubles down and goes all in.

Jesus turns to His listeners and begins to publicly criticize the leaders of religion, and many of them are standing there listening. He acknowledges their systemic authority and tells His followers to honor that authority while refusing to follow their example. Jesus then turns to face the religious leaders and goes off.

Today’s chapter records the most intense and scathing rant Jesus ever offered. It is angry, pointed and provocative. What is essential to understand is that Jesus’ harshest words and most scathing criticisms were aimed at the most conservative, upstanding, strict rule-following religious people.

Jesus repeatedly called them names: hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, brood of vipers, sons of hell. He condemned them for their hypocrisy, their judgmental ways, and the selective ways they used God’s rules to make themselves look good and justify their poor treatment of the marginalized. These religious power brokers had already said they wanted Jesus dead, now with every word and every public criticism Jesus is upping the ante and forcing them to see His call and go all in against Him.

Jesus knows it.

At the end of Jesus’ rant He reminds the religious leaders that it was their predecessors who had killed God’s prophets in earlier centuries. It was the High Priests and religious keepers of the Temple who had violently silenced the ancient prophets. Now Jesus ends His tirade by saying, “Go ahead, finish what they started.” 

Jesus was not a victim. Jesus was on a mission. He was pushing buttons. He was driving the action.

This morning I’m meditating on the Jesus who forgave the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. I’m remembering that Jesus broke all social, cultural, racial and religious barriers of His day when He conversed with a Samaritan woman while she drew water from a well. I’m recalling that Jesus healed the son  of detested Roman officer and healed the child of a despised and “heathen” Gentile. It comes to mind this morning that Jesus hung out with “sinful” Tax Collectors and their worldly, sinful friends at loud parties where who-knows-what sinful things were going on.

I often encounter the misperception that Jesus is all about condemnation of sin and sinners. The record shows, however, that Jesus showed incredible mercy, tolerance and forgiveness to those we would terms sinners. Jesus reserved anger, judgment, and condemnation for “good” religious people who used religion to condemn sinners and make themselves look good.

Hope and Despair in a House of Cards

So justice is far from us,
    and righteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
    for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows.
Isaiah 59:9 (NIV)

Wendy and I have been watching the acclaimed Netflix series House of Cards over the past year or so. Last night we finished the third season. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are amazing actors. The story is compelling and the plot has some incredible twists that have caught me completely off guard. (FYI: There is some very graphic content, for those who desire to avoid it.)

Over the past couple of episodes Wendy and I have both felt the heaviness that comes when you find yourself mired in dark, depressing storylines. Even Shakespeare’s Hamlet gets depressing by the end of the play; The stage littered with the senseless dead. Last night Wendy and I began to analyze and unpack what in the series had brought us to feel this with House of Cards.

As we began to analyze the characters in the show, it struck us that, across almost 40 episodes the writers had not given us one redemptive character. In fact, on multiple occasions the main characters toy with redemption, play on the edges of doing the right thing, only to be sucked back into the tangled web of greed, lust, power and deceit. In the world of House of Cards, goodness equals weakness. Trying to do the right thing makes you a victim or a fool. It is, admittedly, a bleak vision of our political class.

I contrast this with stories of real people I know and have met. They are stories of individuals who were mired in the types of dark places embodied by House of Cards. In these stories, however, a mysterious mixture of personal courage and divine grace led people to turn from dark places to be enveloped in Light. Greed gave way to generosity. Lust gave way to love. Humility replaced pride. The forsaken found forgiveness.

I found it a bit of synchronicity that in today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah spins a poetic description of those lost in the darkness. Isaiah describes those entangled and entrapped in the consequences of their own wrong motives, and perpetually poor choices. Living in those places, as I can personally recall, does feel like a house of cards. You live in constant fear that the whole thing will fall apart, and it eventually does.

As with the stories I recall this morning, redemption comes at the end of Isaiah’s poetic vision. The Redeemer arrives in a eucatastrophic moment. With the Redeemer comes repentance, Spirit, presence, and peace. Darkness gives way to Light. Those are stories to which I am drawn. Nevertheless, I think I’ll stick with House of Cards for season four. I’m not one to give up hope on redemption.

Hedge of Protection

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
Isaiah 5:5 (NRSV)

One of the more fascinating aspects of our recent vacation on the island of Kauai was being introduced to the wild chickens that roam the entire island. Feral chickens are literally everywhere on the island. It’s a rather humorous thing to see, though it’s not so funny when they all start crowing together in the wee hours before dawn!

As Wendy and I walked along the ocean to the coffee shop in Kapa’a we noticed one property which we regularly passed. It was surrounded by a chain-link fence, which was a rather rare sight in those neighborhoods. We both assumed that it was, in part, to reduce the wild chickens from running free on the property, but the numerous “No Trespassing” signs made it clear that the fence was also about keeping tourists from cutting through the yard on their way to town.

In today’s chapter, the prophet Isaiah gives a word picture in which the people of God were a beloved vineyard intended to provide God with ripe fruit for his good pleasure. Around the vineyard was a hedge, the ancient version of a fence, which provided protection to vineyard. When the the vineyard produced wild grape, the hedge was removed. Protection was lifted and the vineyard was exposed to  be raided. It was a prophetic warning. Jerusalem was eventually ransacked by the Babylonians.

Wendy and I often debate our present day concerns between government surveillance protecting our safety and infringing on our right to privacy. Wendy’s argument is always, “If I’m not doing anything wrong I have nothing to worry about.” That’s similar to what Isaiah was getting at. Consistently doing the right thing is like having a fence of protection around myself. I have less worries and anxieties. It’s when I willfully do the wrong things that I expose myself to all sorts of chaos.

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featured image: walkingf via flickr

Over and Over and Over and Over and Over

In recent months I’ve been reading articles about the release of the script of J.K. Rowling’s production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. There is a certain amount of frustration among fans who purchased what they thought was a book, only to find that it is actually the script of the stage play. Of course, a novel and a script are two very different things. They both tell a story, but in very different ways. A script requires something more of you as a reader. The author gives you the characters words, but you have to use your imagination to fill in more of the blanks. It’s understandable that many are experiencing frustration with it.

Along my journey I’ve come to understand that there is a similar frustration among those who undertake the reading of God’s Message from Genesis through Revelation. It’s not a novel. It’s not a script. It’s a compilation of writings (and different types of writing) authored across a large section of history. The content is not categorized chronologically but by author and the type of writing. It tells a story, but in a very different way than the way we are used to reading stories. It requires something of me as a reader to connect the dots and see the larger picture.

Even as I wade into the writings of Isaiah, it’s important for me as a reader to understand that I’m reading a smaller compilation of Isaiah’s prophetic poetry. I have to step back and look at the larger picture. I have to connect the dots. I have to see the patterns.

One of the patterns that emerges in prophetic writing is the repeated, cyclical themes of sin, judgement, deliverance, and redemption. I can see it already in the first few chapters:

The people rebel against God:

I reared children and brought them up,
    but they have rebelled against me.
Isaiah 1:2

The consequences of rebellion are God’s judgement and punishment:

Your men shall fall by the sword
    and your warriors in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
    ravaged, she shall sit upon the ground.;
Isaiah 2:25-26

When the people repent of their ways, God delivers:

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.
Isaiah 4:2

Ultimately, God redeems and restores in glorious ways:

 Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over its places of assembly a cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night. Indeed over all the glory there will be a canopy. It will serve as a pavilion, a shade by day from the heat, and a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.
Isaiah 4:5-6

This repetition happens over and over and over and over and over and over again. In the compilation of Isaiah’s writings this pattern can be seen on a macro level (Chapters 1-39 are much heavier on judgement; Chapters 40-66 are much heavier on deliverance and redemption). The pattern can also be seen on a micro-level within a chapter or a few verses. The theme is repeated continually.

This morning I’m thinking about the cyclical, repetitive nature of my own behaviors. No matter how hard I try, I sometimes do or say things that are just wrong or inappropriate. When that happens, things don’t go so well. Relationships are strained or broken. Sometimes I suffer from the consequences of those inappropriate words or actions. I feel guilty. I am guilty. I repent, turning to Jesus whose sacrifice for me on the cross affords forgiveness, mercy, and grace in spite of my repetitive bullheadedness and boneheadedness. Redeemed, not by what I’ve done, but what God has done for me, I humbly and gratefully continue to let go of what is behind and press on to love others as Jesus loved me.

Over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over….again.

The Scapegoat

 Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Leviticus 16:21-22

It was a gorgeous summer evening last night. Wendy and I headed to Des Moines as the guest of some fellow Cubs fans for a game between the Iowa Cubs and the Oklahoma City Dodgers. It was one of those nights for our boys of summer. They gave up five runs in the first and then couldn’t manage to get more than a couple of hits the rest of the evening.

As the evening wore on and our defeat became more certain, our section began to find raucous reasons to celebrate little victories. Our friends and ball park neighbors began swapping Cub stories. At some point the conversation turned to the tragic event for all Cubs fans in this generation: the Bartman ball. It was the National League Championship Series and our Cubs were just a few innings away from their first World Series since 1945. A fly ball to left might have been caught by the left fielder but a Cubs fan reached out to catch the ball and the fielder’s attempt at the put out was thwarted. The left fielder went ballistic and cussed out the fan. The crowd turned on the fan as the Florida Marlins scored several runs which turned into a run of victories and the Cubs hopes for a World Series were, once again, tragically thwarted.

The fan in question became the center of ridicule for a nation of Cubs fans. A life-long Cubs fan himself, he was blamed for the team’s tragic end. He had to be escorted from the game and eventually moved away from the region.

In 2011, an ESPN documentary entitle Catching Hell took a long hard look at the incident as a classic example of “scapegoating” in the world of sports. The word “scapegoating” and its legacy come from today’s chapter in Leviticus 16. In the ancient Hebrew sacrificial system, once a year the High Priest would metaphorically place all of the sins of the nation on one goat. That goat was then taken to a barren place in the wilderness and released. The word picture was that the sins, guilt and blame of many was placed on one to be carried away in banishment.

Scapegoating happens in every level of societal systems. There are plenty of examples in the world of sports, and it isn’t just about sports. Children become the scapegoats in families, ceaselessly blamed for everything bad that happens within the system A spouse can be scapegoated within marriage. An employer or employee can become a scapegoat for business woes. A political figure can be scapegoated for the woes of a city, a state, or the nation. It is at the core of fallen humanity. We seek to blame someone else for the ills we experience.

Over a decade later, our discussion of the Bartman ball took on a more civilized and objective tone last night. It wasn’t right. If the left fielder had been strong enough to shrug off the interference and casually return to his position, the game and the season may have ended differently. The discussion turned inward. One of our party admitted that, had they been present, they would very likely have been swept into the sentiment of the crowd. Truth is, we all would.

This morning I’m thinking about my own penchant for scapegoating. I’m pondering ways in which I focus blame on others for painful circumstances in my own life. It’s not fun to admit, but it is, universally, a very human thing to do. Perhaps that’s why God sought to make it part of the Hebrew sacrificial system. We need to be reminded regularly. We need more than a scapegoat. We need a savior. God would address that too…

The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

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featured image from Hartwig HKD via Flickr

 

 

The Spiritual Balk Rule

Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.
Leviticus 10:1-2 (NRSV)

The opening of today’s chapter is a pretty harsh “good morning” as I begin my day reading with sleep weary eyes. These two sons of Aaron screwed up on the incense portion of the whole sacrificial system. They broke the balk rule of the Levitical code. The penalty? Immediate death by fire.

Yikes!

I often say that one of the important things about the journey through God’s Message is that, over time, you begin to connect dots throughout the Great Story. In this case, the first dot goes back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve commit a balk with the forbidden fruit, it starts a chain reaction. Sin, that penchant for willfully doing what we know we shouldn’t while willfully choosing not to do things we know we should, enters the human equation. And, a holy God can’t abide sin. So it is announced right at the beginning, that the penalty for all spiritual balks is death. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden. The Great Story is about humanity’s wayfaring journey to get back Home.

Along this journey, there are other scattered dots to be connected. They are like waypoints hearkening back to Adam and Eve’s original balk, and reminding us that God’s spiritual balk rule does not change. Nada and Abihu are actually not the only ones:

  • Cane’s offering was not pleasing to the Lord. He is cursed and eventually dies.
  • Hophni and Phineas treated God’s offering with contempt, and died.
  • A man name Uzzah reached his hand out to steady the Ark of the Covenant. He touched it, and died.
  • Ananias and Sapphira lied about he and his wife’s offering to the Lord, and died.

These waypoints remind us that God’s spiritual balk rule is foundational to the Great Story. It doesn’t change over time. The penalty of sin is death. Forgiveness and redemption require that the penalty for the spiritual balk rule must be satisfied. In the days of Leviticus the remedy was a labyrinth of sacrifices and offerings. Ultimately, it would be God who would send Jesus to be the sacrificial lamb to pay the ultimate penalty for all of our balks, once for all.

Liars and Lunatics

“If it is the anointed priest who sins…”
“If the whole congregation of Israel errs…”
“When a ruler sins…”
“If anyone of the ordinary people among you sins…”
Leviticus 4:3a, 13a, 22a, 27a

The other day a friend bemoaned that the Presidential race in the United States leaves us to choose between a “liar” and a “lunatic.” It took me a moment to think through which label fit which candidate best. I decided that they were interchangeable.

As a young man I spent a few years as pastor of a small, rural congregation. One day after Vacation Bible School one of the teachers came to tell me about the lesson on sin she’d given to her class. One of her young charges raised her hand and asked, “Does Pastor Tom sin?”

Yes,” the teacher replied, “he does.”

The girl thought hard for a moment, then asked, “What does he do?”

Oh, dear child. You don’t want to know.

It is human nature to hold our leaders in high regard and to expect more out of them than humanly possible. People are people. Call it whatever you want: human frailty, human nature, fatal flaws,  or imperfection. God’s Message calls in sin. The bottom line is the same. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do. We all fail to do things we know we should do. We all fall short of perfection.

In today’s chapter we continue to learn about the ancient sacrificial system that was designed as a temporary spiritual Band-Aid for humanity’s moral shortcomings. What struck me was that it begins by addressing the priest, who is the highest human spiritual leader in the system. How fascinating that one whom we’d expect to be the most good and spiritual person on the list is given first mention and the longest spiritual prescription. God knows that, despite the faith of little girls in VBS, spiritual leaders are just as flawed as anyone else.

The chapter goes to mention the nation, the civil rulers, and ends with talking about ordinary every day humans. In other words, every level of society both in the civil and religious camps had a prescribed sacrifice for atoning for their own human failings. People are people. We all fall short.

Today I’m thinking about my own failings. I’m thinking of my own need for forgiveness, mercy and grace. I’m also thinking of “liars” and “lunatics” who run for President, and pastor churches, and run businesses, and parent children, and work on the line, and go to school, and teach at those schools, and police our streets, and serve in the armed forces, and play professional sports, and live in the spotlight of fame, and live in poverty.

This morning, an ancient mantra of Jesus’ followers is playing on “repeat” in my soul….

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, grant us your peace