Love with No Strings Attached: 1 John 4:7-12

This is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on July 31,2016.  You can listen here.

Our summer sermon series has centered on the topic of ‘Incarnational Living’. Pastor Brent Rood kicked off the series talking about what this sort of living means for the Christian. Phil Higley followed with a message from James on social compassion and that true religion is to look after the widow and the orphan.

What is the incarnation? Karl Barth writes in ‘Dogmatics in Outline’: “The nativity mystery ‘conceived from the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary’, means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace. The miracle of the existence of Jesus , his ‘climbing down of God’ is: Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary! Here is a human being, the Virgin Mary, and as he comes from God, Jesus comes also from this human being. Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”

Therefore, ‘Incarnational Living’ for us Christians who want to imitate Jesus’ spirit of going and genuinely living among our neighbors showing social compassion, being a representative of the holy gospel and, what we are going to think about today, loving with no strings attached or unconditional love.

Please turn to 1 John 4:7-12.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another . No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’

Background: The writer of 1 John was a part of a Johannine community that existed around the ancient city of Ephesus. There were two major camps at play within this early Christian community based on the teaching and witness of John. There were Jewish-Christians who had expressed a commitment to Jesus but also felt a loyalty to Judasim- to the Law. They may have felt it difficult to accept the Messiahship of Jesus. The second group were Hellenistic Christians who had emerged from a pagan religious background and were influenced by Hellenistic ideas of salvation or Gnosticism (an early rival of Biblical Christianity). This group would have found it hard to accept the full humanity of Jesus.

The gospel of John was written first and was the last gospel written. Then these letters of John were written. The theology contained in these Johannine gospel and epistle is heavily Christological as you have probably noticed as you have read through them.

This community of Christians took care of one another even while being massively persecuted. One will also notice the focus on having correct doctrine but also the importance of unity. John also persuasively addresses the vitalness of Jesus’ unity with God and with us and finally, the importance of righteousness and love in a believer’s life.

With doctrinal errors and persecution all around, one of John’s primary emphasis’s here is love.

Let’s look at our passage today verse by verse:

Say:

Verse 7 and 8: ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.’

A straight forward command for believers in this community to love one another with unconditional love. John is saying that the demand for believers to love each other is grounded in the nature and character of who God is. God is the source of all unconditional love.

Verse 9: ‘In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into he world so that we might live through Him.’

God sent Jesus to die for our sins on the cross as an ultimate demonstration of His unfailing and unconditional love. Not only is that true but we can also live through Christ which perhaps indicates the simultaneous purpose of God sending Christ and also the result.

Verse 10: ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.’

God initiates unconditional love while we were sinners and far from Him. He demonstrated His love by sending Jesus to be a propitiation meaning the wrath or judgment or justice that we deserved and that was coming for us, was diverted and placed upon Jesus on the cross.

Verse 11: ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.’

Again, John communicates that the source of love is God. God is also our inspiration to love and also our empowerment.

Verse 12: ‘No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.’

We obviously have not physically seen God but when we love- unconditionally- God’s unmistakeable presence is known by both parties. Because of the power of Christ and the work of His Holy Spirit, God can show up in community, friendships, and relationships when agape love is sincere and genuine.

Let’ s dig deeper to explore what this passage means.

Mean:

Going back to the start of the passage in verse 7 and 8 and 9, John is clearly making the connection with the expression of unconditional (agape) love having its source in God. The Greeks treated love and its expressions, with language, a little clearer then we do. I could say, ‘I love pizza’ because I do. I could also say, ‘I love Michelle’. Now, hopefully those sayings mean two drastically different things although I’m using the same word. The Greeks had different words for love which makes it clearer to us.

***Eros- The Greek word for love means ‘sexual passion’.

***Philia- This Greek word for love refers to friendship or brotherly love or sisterhood love.

***Storge- This Greek word refers to love, affection between parents and children. Also can refer to someone’s love of their country or their favorite sports team.

***Agape- The type of Greek love that means ‘unconditional love’. Love with no strings attached. Thomas Aquinas defined this as to ‘will the good of another.’
Agape is the word that John is using here throughout this passage. God is love. The author and Creator of this sacred expression. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:13 ‘So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ a passage I’m sure that most of us are familiar with. Faith and hope are important virtues. They are vital but the supreme value is love. Jesus summed up the entire law and will of God simply saying ‘Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.’ All throughout Scripture, God reveals His love and faithful saints strive to embody this love as representatives of God’s kingdom.

In the John passage, if there is not evidence that we are striving to love one another, care for one another, hold each other in high esteem, and sacrifice for one another- all of the different values that show love- then we cannot claim to know God or to be born again (or John’s phrase here: born of God). We would have missed the central value and expression of God’s holy Gospel. Having love in our soul’s for the community of believers and the world is the primary evidence of someone having genuine faith in Jesus.

John uses the word ‘manifest’ in us regarding love. He sent His Son so that we can live through Him. Live here is almost certainly in reference to reversing the charted course of spiritual death. Christ is the way to live and see the effects of the Fall reversed. In the Greek, live is in the aorist tense and is ingressive which indicates this is the beginning of an ongoing process. Live, however, may also speak toward a purpose or goal in life. Something to live for. We finished up he book of Ecclesiastes not too long ago which dealt with existential dread, purpose, what matters in life. Well, John is giving us a big goal and target here in 1 John. Love one another as this practically flows from the work of Jesus in our lives.

John continues. We did not love God first. He loved us first and sent Jesus as the propitiation for our sins. Daniel Akin states in ‘The New American Commentary’: ‘This marvelous act was prompted not by man’s love for God but God’s love for man, so that ‘the sending of God’s Son was both the revelation of His love and indeed the very essence of love itself. It is not our love that is primary, but God’s free, uncaused and spontaneous. All our love is but a reflection of his and a response to it. The origin of love lies beyond human effort and initiative. Left to ourselves, we would not love Him. We would hate Him and oppose Him. It took His boundless, sacrificial love to break our hearts of stone and bring us to Himself.’ God shows His love through propitiation.

I explained about propitiation before. This is a crucial belief and element of Christianity because it simultaneously shows God’s love and His justice. Unfortunately today (and certainly during times of the past) this idea is under attack even from professing Christian theologians. Brian McClaren, and others on the progressive end (in the emergent village) in his book ‘A Generous Orthodoxy’ and some of his writings in blogs questions penal/ substitutionary atonement which goes along with the idea of propitiation. Christ taking the penalty for our sins is a core issue of the gospel. It also is an issue of justice. We cry out for justice and for wrongs to be made right. That is a core aspect of Christ’s death on the cross. It is an empowerment for us to love as God has loved us. Christ’s death is also a legal declaration of Christ taking upon Himself our sins (diverting God’s justice) and moving us to being justified in God’s sight which is essentially most of Paul’s argument in the book of Romans. This is crucial to the Christian faith, as John is mentioning in this passage, God is demonstrating His love for us through this sacrifice and is directly using this event to empower us to love God, to love our community and to love others.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. God went this far to demonstrate, if His love was this powerful, this all encompassing, this life changing, than we ought to strive to love others in the same way- with no strings attached.

Thesis: When we choose to love as God does, we will experience pain and suffering. This is what is involved with the highest form of love. Do we love the people in our lives sacrificially in this manner.

Matter: The challenge for us is that we live in a world/ culture that often only ‘loves’ based upon what we can do for them. This is love with strings attached. I’m probably dating myself here and I don’t really know why this song popped into my head while writing this sermon but let’s go for it: 1986. Janet Jackson. Song: ‘What Have You Done For Me Lately?’

‘Used to be a time when you would pamper me

Used to brag about it all the time

You’re friends seem to think you are so peachy keen

But my friends say neglect is on your mind

Who’s right?

What have you done for me lately?

Used to go to dinner almost every night

Dancin til I thought I’d lose my breath

I never ask for more than I deserve

You know it’s the truth

You seem to think you’re God’s gift to this earth

I’m telling you no way

What have you done for me lately?’

I actually filled with cheesy pop songs this morning. ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes has these lyrics:

‘You can’t hurry love/ no, you just have to wait/ she said that love don’t come easy/ it’s a game of give and take.’ The view of love as a give and take. A back and forth. In other words, political. If we keep a list of all these things that we do for somebody else and then argue that we are owed something in return, is that sacrificial love? No, it’s not.

Seeing this definition of love from John is crucial because we live in a world that is upside down from how things are supposed to be. The notion of love in a highly materialistic culture has become vapid, shallow, and meaningless.

Struggle: Our culture often preaches in direct ways and many subtle ways that we love people based upon what they do for us. Having somebody on our arm that gives us a higher status or more popularity in the eyes of society. Loving someone exclusively because of an upper class lifestyle they can provide. In other words, I have this long list of demands and if someone doesn’t meet all or most of them, they are out.

The musician Derek Webb sings hauntingly, ‘I love what I can control….so I don’t love very much.’ And if our loves in society cannot be predicted by us or micromanaged, do we actually love? Do we love when things are risky or even more severely in American culture, when we are inconvenienced? If we are rattled from our comfort, shaken from our preconceived notions, then are we actually going to take the effort to love?

Since our society has gone off the rails in practicing a sacrificial kind of love and has replaced it with a self-interested and self-absorbed love, it may be helpful to further define the love that John is talking about in our epistle today. One of my friends actually had a great definition of love and he probably got this from a book somewhere but he defines love like this: ‘Love is a learned response to commitment that is tested by time.’ Deep. I like that this acknowledges love as a commitment, first and foremost, but also that love is something that grows. We learn more and more as we respond to commitment and are tested by the trials of time.

Last week, Jimmy Mallory while introducing AJS, defined love as seeking the highest good for someone for the longest period of time. This resonated with me too. I may not always know what is good for me and might desire things that are bad for me. That is the strength of having Michelle, Naomi, my parents and community in my life. If love is here, than we are all seeking the greatest good for one another according to the will of Jesus.

When we think of love, we mostly probably are thinking in the context of marriage or a romantic relationship and it certainly applies there. In dealing with the challenges of marriage, any couple has to practice sacrificial love and an empathy to actively listen and understand where the other person is coming from during a storm or trial within the relationship.

But John’s unconditional love here in this epistle doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. This also applies to friendships and our community and our society. John is actually talking about this very thing in the passage we are looking at today. We are to love one another within our community and this is paired with Jesus’ charge that summed up the law was to unconditionally love our neighbors. Do we love people within our community based upon what they can do for us? Do we love the people who annoy us or cause us problems and how do we love them? In our community, do we love people with different political beliefs than us?

Being the church at Seed, we need to practice this sacrificial love as we strive to be a light for Christ and pursue justice in our little corner of the world. John, Paul and other Biblical authors assign love as the highest value, the preeminent category of being connected with Jesus and living the Christian life.

We struggle with sacrificial love in our society because hate is all around us in the world in both overt ways and in more subtle ways. We see all kinds of examples of hate based upon someone hurting us or hurting our family. Where I work, there is a personality that is, shall we say, difficult to deal with. I’m quite positive that everyone in the office has struggled with hating this person including myself. This is a type of personality that will go through all the work that someone is doing up to and including even going through one’s garbage. Now, this is annoying but I have nothing to hide so I take the ultimate position of ‘if this person wants to waste their time and life doing this, well, have at it.’ When she does find something incriminating on someone in the office or something someone has done wrong, it is an immediate reporting of the incident to the boss. As you can imagine, this ruffles feathers constantly and creates a great deal of toxicity. The thing that makes me mad though and struggle with agape love is not necessarily her wrath or accusatory nature (even for things which are blown way out of proportion) it is the irrationality of even trying to have a conversation about what happened and what the facts are. That is what makes me want to give up and not have a conversation and say, ‘whatever?!?’ It takes a strong connection with God, prayer and trying to see the world as Christ does in order to unconditionally love people like this. It is an ongoing struggle in my life.

Outside of work environments or the communities that we are a part of, we also see what the lack of love does to our culture at large. When we do not love our neighbors by not listening and not being empathetic, we cannot claim that we are living incarnationally. On a societal level, when we see communities of people who have actively been hated, experienced rampant injustice often with no recourse, we see the fractures, fault lines and devastating fallout of what comes out of that.

In our news, which I’m sure we all have seen these past few years, are these disturbing videos of brutality and violence happening to our brothers and sisters in the African-American community. And now we have seen police officers targeted for simply doing their jobs. This is not just a problem. It is a nightmare of epic portions. Our media seems to want to divide people up- we are either for or against cops -OR- for or against protestors (most of which are absolutely peaceful). The media and certain personalities further try and divide by seemingly making it impossible to be against unwarranted violence and brutality against e African American community and against violence toward police officers. Can’t we be horrified by both?!?

The crux of this issue though is a sickness in the soul. We live in a society that in many respects is drinking from a poisoned well on race relations. Sin and hatred are certainly an individual thing but the matter can also be societal. If Christians know a few things, one of those things is that we can hang a law on the wall, civil rights acts and voting rights acts, but a law hanging on a wall does not necessarily change people’s hearts. A law does not change a fallen soul.

History is an informer of the present. Oppression, brutality and violence being perpetuated against a community of citizens (image bearers of God) creates these fractures in our culture. Broken community. Divisions. Hatred.

Roughly 250 years of slavery. About 77 years of Jim Crow laws. Segregation. Separation. History informs our present circumstance. Horrific violence against people didn’t just start with the advent of cameras on cell phones. It has been going on for a long time.

I used to dismiss a lot of these issues regarding race. I would think to myself that people are way over exaggerating situations that happen or I would think that horrible situations that we see in the news are just outliers. In some of my worst thoughts, I would say that, ‘well, this community has these certain issues and they bring this upon themselves.’   By thinking those things, I have had to repent and I was wrong,

I was not loving sacrificially or incarnationally. When friends or acquaintances or others are telling me that there is something really wrong going on and I stick my head in the sand and ignore it, I can’t claim to love them.

Tim Keller, on Twitter a couple weeks back, tweeted out this: ‘The opposite of love is not anger (or for our purposes hate), it’s indifference.’ I don’t care. Apathy. To have our brothers and sisters in the African-American community tell us that there our problems that they face and for us to ignore that call is indifference and therefore, not agape love.

I will never know what it is like to be a black man in America but the closest I can get is to listen to somebody who has that experience and does know what it is like. Listening carefully and thereby being Incarnational, is aspiring to this high form of love that John is calling us too.

Cornel West, a sometimes controversial figure, had a brilliant tweet a few weeks back which said: ‘Interrogate your hidden assumptions’. What do we really believe in the core of our souls?    What are our reactions to people even people different then us? Do we have irrational reactions? What is the motivating force behind why we think of people the way that we do?

Hope: The motivating force for the Christian should be a connection to the gospel of Jesus, the very source of sacrificial love so that we in turn can love this way. John says elsewhere in his epistle that if we do not love our brothers or sisters, we walk in darkness. A genuine sign that we know God is to love. Regarding the recent issues in our society, there is not much politicians can do. They cannot hire an army of bureaucrats to walk around, peering into the souls of everyone looking for racists or haters. The only cure for hate is by being transformed by Jesus, experiencing his demonstration of love as he died for our sins and being empowered to live toward others in this matter.

Whether there are issues in society, at work with difficult personalities or in a marriage that is struggling, God moves us to love unconditionally. We cannot love like this on our own because this kind of love is exclusive to God. We human beings, including myself, will always struggle to love with strings attached. With the help of God’s Spirit, we can attain a higher level.

There is so much going on in our world right now. People may be afraid of politics stuff, coups in other countries, violence in our own society, instability in our world. The world is always a scary place. Most of us are not worth hundreds of millions of dollars or billions. We don’t have positions of strategic influence in political leadership so what can we do?

We can love everyone in our life with this love that John talks about. Your spouse, your kids, your friends, your church community, your neighbors and co-workers. We can raise our children with the values of agape love and exhort them to see the world as Jesus does. It’s our own, small corner of the world here but we can be impactful with the help of God.

 

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Flee from Immorality: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

I preached this sermon on April 2, 2017 at Seed Church.  You can listen here.

Intro:

How many of you are 1990s children and grew up in this area listening to Kube93? Remember the song by ‘Salt N Pepa’ that is titled ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’? I’m dating myself a little bit but that is exactly what we are going to do this morning.

Jimmy Mallory did a sermon two weeks ago about sexual immorality defiling the church at Corinth which is 1 Corinthians 5. One specific incident involved a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife which I asked Jimmy about further after the message that most scholars agree that this was probably a woman who was the man’s stepmother. Pastor Brent Rood spoke last week about lawsuits against believers from other believers and how people should try and resolve disputes inside the church rather than through secular courts. Now, Paul comes back around to the sexual immorality issue in chapter 6:12-20.

Background on Corinth:

Corinth being the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia was a port city. It was on a narrow strip of land that connected Peloponnesus with the Greek mainland. There were ports all around. The ancient city was built on a trapezium shaped terrace at the foot of a large rocky hill known as the acrocorinth. The hill rose 1886 feet above sea level.

Obviously being a port city with many shipping ports around, lots and lots of different kinds of people would come through. People having been out at sea for awhile would come into one of the ports near Corinth.

Now, here is the relevant part to what we are talking about today. There was a big temple in Corinth dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite. Corinth was renowned in the area for their worship of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. At the top of the almost 2,000 foot hill was a temple dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite. This was a temple with a lot of money. Sea captains and other crew were notorious for coming into Corinth and blowing their money at this temple. Historians will note that wealthy Greeks would purchase slaves and donate these slaves to the temple as a religious offering. An estimated 1000 prostitutes would be working out of this temple including women and young boys. It wouldn’t just be sea captains and crew members climbing the steps on that hill but married men in that culture as well.

Given that this was the culture in ancient Corinth, this was the context that Paul was writing too and challenging.

Verse 12: ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say- but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’- but I will not be mastered by anything.

Paul more than likely is quoting people within the Corinth congregation saying, ‘I have a right to do anything’. However, not everything may be beneficial to the Christian and their faith in God. Paul is big on Christian liberty however Christian liberty does not mean I should do whatever I want. Sound kind of familiar to Paul’s other writings? (Should I sin so that grace may increase?). The last part of the verse touches on a familiar teaching of Paul’s. He consistently exhorts people to self-control all throughout his epistles and here he gives a warning that anything (even things that are good) can become masters to us where we are not fully in control and are serving something that we have fashioned as an idol in our lives. We would be at the service of a thing in our lives rather than being in control and rejoicing in the thing or gift that God has given us.

Verse 13: You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.

Here the Corinthians were getting clever. They are trying to justify their sexual immorality by making an analogy with food. Food is physical and eating and digestion are biological.   Normal. There is nothing really special about eating. We need food for our bodies and it is great when we get to eat food that tastes good. The Corinthians were trying to make a similarity here with sexuality. Sex, many of them argued, is just a physical, biological act that feels good. Eating food feels good so what is the big deal about us sleeping around? There may have also been a philosophical dualism here rooted in Gnosticism. Remember that Gnosticism, an early rival of Christianity, believed as one of its core tenants that material reality is evil. Spirit is the element that is pure. The Corinthians, by believing this, could make a connection between eating and sex. Both are physical acts and therefore are rooted in evil materialism that God would destroy so what is the big deal about partaking?

Paul counters by introducing the idea that our physical material bodies, though they will fade away and be destroyed, belong to the Lord and are for the Lord. He rejects the notion that what we do with our bodies is unimportant.

Verse 14: By His power God raised the Lord from the dead, and He will raise us also. Paul goes for the big argument in illustrating God’s care for the body. God physically rose Christ from the grave. Paul says we will be raised so he fully embraces the idea that God has a high regard for the body. Since God has a high regard for the body, there is a sacredness and spiritual component to the physical act of sex.

Verse 15: Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ Himself? Shall I take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! He Furthers his argument here that there is a spiritual component to the act of sex and takes it even further. We are all a part of the body of Christ with different talents, gifts and abilities. Being that we are intrinsically linked to Christ, if we commit sexual immorality, we are joining Christ to a prostitute. Extremely strong analogy from Paul. The Greek for ‘never’ is also very strong. This word could also be translated: may it never be so.

Verse 16: Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’

Paul continues to build on his strong prohibition against immorality. He rhetorically argues against uniting Christ with a prostitute and now references the very beginning of humanity and the Scriptures in Genesis 2:24 where Adam and Eve are joined together as one flesh. Obviously here, Paul is using this as a warning. One does not to be joined together with a prostitute where they would become one flesh. So the flow of his argument is we join Christ’s body to that of a prostitute and then we ourselves become ‘one flesh’ with a prostitute.

Verse 17: But whoever is united with the Lord is one with Him in spirit.

If we are believers and thereby following Christ, it should make sexual immorality unthinkable because, as Paul is saying here, we are aligned with God’s spirit and we are one with God. That fact should change our thinking and philosophy about sexuality. Also, Gnostics again would have believed that the material world is evil and spiritual world is pure. Look at what Paul is doing again in this flow of the argument. He is saying what we do physically is linked to our spirituality in an inseparable way and that we can be one with God’s spirit which he Corinth crowd would have heard as, ‘oh, I don’t need to escape this material world to obtain a spiritual purity. I can have that right now through Jesus and His Spirit.

Verse 18: Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.

Flee! Runaway from. Be honest with yourself about temptation and do not go near. Paul references other sins here. If you kill somebody, that is outside of your body. If you steal from somebody, that is outside your body. Sexuality is the most intimate thing we can do with another person. Therefore, Paul is highlighting and exhorting against sexual immorality because of the seriousness of the sin.

Verse 19-20: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

According to Israel, God’s Spirit dwelt in a physical temple. The holy of holies. This is where the high priests could go to hear from God. Post cross and post resurrection, at Pentecost and like a mighty wind, the Spirit descended upon all believers in Jesus. Anyone who claims Jesus as Lord has the Holy Spirit within them. Our bodies are temples for God’s Spirit. A radical idea here and one that helps us to really take seriously the boundaries that God has laid in regard to sexuality.

Transition: Of course, it is not easy to think and behave sexually the way that God in Scripture asks us too. Most of us have strong sexual desires and that is the way God made us. In a society that is post-Sigmund Freud, philosophies in society regarding how to think about sexuality are incredibly numerous and diverse.

Matter:

In a lot of messages I have heard on sexual immorality around the church in general usually involve a lament about how our culture is turning into Sodom and Gomorrah. A speaker will talk about a time in the past where people upheld Christian virtues about sex and there wasn’t this rampant hook-up culture and glorification of casual sex or sex outside of marriage. It is safe to say that a time like this never existed. People have been having sex out of wedlock, committing adultery or other sexual sins since the fall. We heard messages during the Ecclesiastes series that we did here at Seed revolving around ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ and the ‘folly of believing in the good ole days.’ No such thing. We have not been different from the Corinth church really.

What has changed in our culture is perhaps people’s outward thinking about sexual mores. Since the sexual revolution, people are more open and honest about having different views then the (what we will say) traditional viewpoints of sexuality that came from Scripture, the Puritans and other religious groups. So it is not like the activity has changed but cultural attitudes toward the activity have. Many people, especially in our culture, have the ‘no judgment’ attitude toward sexuality.

I ran across an article in Time Magazine which described the changing mores of society beginning with the sexual revolution in 1964 or thereabouts: ‘…a nation awash in sex: in its pop music and on the Broadway stage, in the literature of writers like Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, and the look- but-don’t-touch boudoir of the Playboy Club, which had opened four years earlier. ‘Greeks who have grown up with the memory of Aphrodite can only gape at the American goddess, silken and semi nude, in a million advertisements,’ the magazine declared. But of greatest concern was the ‘revolution of (social) mores’ the article described, which meant that sexual morality, once fixed and overbearing, was now ‘private and relative’- a matter of individual interpretation. Sex was no longer a source of consternation but a cause for celebration; its presence not what made a person morally suspect, it rather its absence…’. And therefore no judgment upon people’s choice in lifestyles. People became more open and honest regarding things they did in private that they used to be more hush-hush about.

Fast forward to our society and it is almost a rite-of-passage for older teens and college students to participate in hookup culture. Pornography is more assessable than ever on the worldwide web. People can easily have sexual experiences by themselves with a computer screen in our day and age.

In thinking about the way our society approaches sexuality and how we actively think about sexuality, I thought of the book ‘Bowling Alone’ by Robert Putnam. Putnam is a political scientist and dabbles in sociology and he teaches at Harvard. In this book, he talks about how in American society we have come increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors and even our democratic structures. Yes, he wrote this in 2000. He talks about how lonely, isolated and alienated many people feel.

Why do I bring this up when discussing sexuality? Because sex is the most intimate thing that you can do with another person. A lot of people today are participating in a hook-up culture where there is no relationship. It is a one-night stand or sexuality that is outside of even loving or being committed to someone in any way. With pornography being so easily viewed, a lot of people are opting to have sexual experiences alone in front of their computers and outside of any relationship.

When we look outside of America to Japan, there is something troubling going on in relationships within their culture. One of the saddest articles I have ever read was from ‘The Guardian’ in October 2013. Japan has a very low birth rate these days. The article was about an increasing amount of young people who felt like relationships were not worth it. Too troubling. They can’t be bothered. So young people in Japan are expressing their sexuality with virtual reality girlfriends or anime porn. Disconnected, alienated from meaningful commitments or human love.

Why do I bring all this up? Because across our world, many people do not know how to think about sex. When I say that, it is almost like a joke right? Post-Freud in our society, anything can become an innuendo. Who wants to philosophize about sex? Most want to indulge in sex.

It is safe to say that our world’s relationship to sexuality is messed up. The church is not immune. We are a part of his world and influenced by the world. Sexuality is all around us everywhere. How do we flee immorality as Paul asked us too? How do we think in a godly way about sexuality as Paul lays out in this passage rhetorically?

The Apostle Paul is giving us a way to think about sex in this passage and exhorting us to behave in a godly way.

Thesis: Paul mentions the importance of remembering that sex, as God created it with the first two human beings (Adam and Eve), is about oneness in a marriage relationship. He upholds that our bodies are temples that belong to God and we are not our own. Therefore, we need to flee any sexual immorality that tempts us.

Struggle:

We struggle to apply this teaching because like the Corinthians, we forget about the sacredness of sex. We can be influenced by the world in thinking that sex is just biological. That it is just a good feeling caused by neurochemicals which flood many areas of our brain during sex. However, the Christian view of sex is so much more than that. If our bodies are temples that belong to God and then we get married, bodies that become one with our spouse during that physical expression, how do we hold this in our hearts and minds while navigating a world where there is sex all around and not only that but ungodly expressions of sexuality? As Jimmy mentioned in his sermon a couple weeks back, Christians risk becoming antiquated or old fashioned or laughably out of date regarding our views of sex. This is inevitable.

Those of you who are single, it is especially difficult. These days, when we are dating, people just assume that you are sleeping with the person you are dating and you really want to, let’s be honest. 95% of people, per a USA Today survey, have pre-marital sex. Obviously a vast majority. The message from our culture is that if you are not married, you should have sex. Why not? You don’t know when you are going to meet your spouse so why not engage with something that feels good and can connect you to someone else?

Adultery is generally more looked down upon in our culture but there is an increasing acceptance of it. There are couples that talk about open marriages and I ran across an article in Vox this week that’s premise was being more understanding about leaders (especially politicians) who are unfaithful because they are away from home a lot. Staying sexually monogamous is viewed by some in our culture as being unrealistic.

With our culture going this way, how should we as the church think about sexuality? Is God a cosmic killjoy? Keeping us from pleasure and happiness telling us ‘don’t do it!’ ‘Don’t do it!’? We really struggle with fleeing immorality as Paul asks us too and we think these thoughts in our minds. We want to feel good. Why would God deny us that?

During this series on 1 Corinthians, Brent has mentioned that he is picking on liberal license a lot because usually he rails on legalistic conservatism. I thought today I would rail on both because what is better than making everybody mad, right? The thinking on both sides regarding sexuality strays from Biblical teaching.

On one side, we have how the conservative legalists treat sexual immorality and those who fail to flee it. How sexual immorality is treated here is somewhat like a weapon to induce shame and guilt on people with no inclusion of the gospel. The church, not Seed, but the Evangelical church in general has often been very bad on this point. I became a Christian as a teenager and I remember the abstinence until marriage talks that I would hear from different speakers. Often these teachers, who meant well, would talk about if one had sex before they were married then they were ‘damaged goods’? The implication being that one’s marriage would not be top-notch or might be horribly effected because a partner was not a virgin when they entered the marriage relationship. So people have felt perpetually ashamed and carry around guilt and all of this could very negatively affect a marriage with a person viewing themselves as dirty or damaged goods. That, of course, is a lie. There is no gospel there. There is no grace. And many times, those of us who are hardcore in the camp of repeatedly pointing out how others are not fleeing sexual immorality are not exactly feeling immorality ourselves, right? Jesus said in the sermon on the mount that if someone lusts after a person that is not their spouse, they have committed adultery in their hearts. That makes everyone guilty. We are all in need of grace.

Now, having picked on the conservative side, let’s come over to the liberal side. Many on the liberal side like to fashion themselves as ‘non-judgmental’ toward people’s sexual activities. Live and let live is an attitude that people have. Rules or boundaries seem to constraining but here is the thing….everybody has boundaries. We could find the most liberal person in Seattle and they would believe that something is sexually immoral according to their own view of morality related to sex. For instance, hopefully they would view an adult having sex with a child as being evil. I hope we all do. That is a boundary for sexuality. People who think polygamy is a bad idea, well, that is a boundary. These days, we hear a lot of reporting on college campuses about defining ‘consent’ and many people argue if someone is completely drunk, they cannot give consent and if a person slept with them in that state, it would be rape. That is a boundary. That is a moral. So we all have boundaries. It is just a matter of where we draw the line.

Gospel:

This brings us back around to Paul. The apostle asks us to have a sacred view of sexuality as Christians. He references Genesis 2:24 in this passage. The two, in marriage, shall become one flesh. The two are one. Their bodies belong to one another in marriage. Paul says that a sexual sin committed is one that rattles us because it is a sin against our own body. Not only that, it is akin to joining the body of Christ with a prostitute. Again, this is extreme language. Why is Paul, in God’s inspired Word, so hardcore about this?

Think about your identity as a child of God, a person God loves. You are absolutely unique in DNA, personality, things you like to do, etc from any other person that has ever existed. Your spouse has the same status. They are also unique and different in all those ways. When you two come together, in marriage, what you have is original from every other couple. Your way of being physically intimate and expressing that love, however you like to do that and don’t tell me, is original and special compared to any other couple. For those of you who are single, when you get married in the future, you will have something uniquely special as well.

Why does Paul charge us to flee sexual immorality? Because the goal is to protect that special thing that you have with your husband or wife or if you are single, what you will have someday. This involves Christians thinking deeper about sex than the average person in the culture and recognizing the spiritual aspect of it.

We as Christians are not hedonists seeking to maximize our own pleasure for ourselves. Our bodies belong to God as Paul writes here. We are not our own. However, if we are within that marriage relationship that God created for sexual expression, enjoy. Remember that the grace of Jesus can cover over any past sin. There is no guilt, no shame and so, those of us with pasts, we can move forward ideally having great marriages and a close knit relationship as we embrace the gospel of Jesus.

The world can be a crazy place. Horrible things are in the news headlines all the time. Work can be stressful. Dealing with other people, not so easy. The ideal for marriage and for physical love is that this is a sanctuary for you and your spouse away from the madness that is the world. Knowing this should spur us on, with God’s help to protecting the exclusivity of our relationship and being vigilant about that.

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Flee from Idolatry: 1 Corinthians 10:1-22

The following sermon I preached at Seed Church on June 4, 2017.  You can listen here.

Background on Corinthian religion:

 The Corinthians in their society had many different idols or gods they worshipped. The temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was atop the Acrocorinth which I spoke about in my message on sexual immorality. Of fame also in Corinth was Poseidon ruler of the sea which makes sense because of the shipping culture in Corinth and that it was a Mecca for trade and sea vessels going in and out of the region. Poseidon was also the maker of earthquakes which were common in that region.

There were numerous other temples for Apollo, Hermes, Venus-Fortuna, Isis, and a monument (the pantheon) to ‘all the other gods’.

The worship of idols was a prominent part of civic and social life. Sacrificing animals and offering up food often occurred at weddings, funerals, banquets, and public festivals so in other words, idolatry was an integral part of this culture.

The Apostle Paul speaks into this culture asking the Corinth church via letter to flee from idolatry.

Verses 1 through 5- I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

 Paul is mentioning the Exodus account here, how Israel crossed the Red Sea after being freed from the Pharoah and were led by God by means of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Israelites, as God’s people, were all together and having a spiritual experience while following God together. The Israelites were baptized into Moses per Paul and here, Paul is setting up a connection between these early Christians in the Corinth church and ancient Israelites. They were all following and trusting the same God. Moses was a prophet who taught the ancient Israelites about faith in God. Christ was God in human flesh that revealed God the Father to Jews and Gentiles alike.

The reference to the rock is where Moses struck a rock and water came out as the Israelites were wandering in the desert. This happened in Exodus 17:6 and Numbers 20:11. So the physical nourishing at the Israelites found was not just physical but spiritual as Paul says Christ was there with them just as He was with the Corinth believers.

Paul mentions they were overthrown in the wilderness. The Israelites had idols with them. Idols that they had made and were carrying with them even as God was providing manna from heaven and water from the rock. Of course, a famous episode of idolatry occurred with the shaping of the golden calf while Moses was meeting with God on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments.

Verses 6 through 8- Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty three thousand fell in a single day.

 Paul brings up the wanderings of Israel in the desert and their worship of idolaters as an instructive warning to the Corinth church. The charge is to not engage in idolatry even when idols were all around the Corinth culture and embedded in their way of life.

The quoted phrase in this verse, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play’ is explained by Simon Kistemaker in his commentary, ‘This quotation Paul has taken verbatim from the Septuagint translation of Exodus 32:6. The passage gives us a vignette: a feast was often followed by games of one kind or other. Such commonly accepted practices were normally above criticism. But in pagan rites, people ate and drank to honor an idol who represented a god. The dances that followed the meal often degenerated into debauchery. Hence the Greek verb paizein, which I have translated ‘to play’ can have a negative connotation and mean ‘to sin sexually’.

It makes sense that this leads into Paul’s next instruction which is to avoid practicing sexual immorality (yet another command against sexual immorality to the Corinth church). I won’t dig into this too much as we have already had messages on sexual immorality, marriage and singleness preached in the past couple of months.

Then Paul references 23,000 which fell in one day because of this sin. Paul is referencing an account in Numbers 25:9 which actually mentions that 24,000 died. This is a slight textual variant (discrepancy) but the point is not an exact number. This is a ballpark of how many people died because of Israel’s sin against God.

Verses 9 through 11- We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

 Another reference to the history of Israel in Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites were overconfident after defeating the King of Arad. They were impatient, blasphemed God, turned nasty on Moses, and desired water and food. Poisonous snakes came into their camp as a sign of the judgment of God.

There are references to the ‘destroyer’ in Exodus 12:23; 2 Samuel 24:16; and 1 Chronicles 21:15. Probably in reference to an angel bringing God’s judgment.

These episodes that Paul is recounting serve as examples and warnings. His ‘end of the ages’ reference probably means that believers in God have entered the final point of history.

Verses 12 through 13- Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he falls. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability but with the temptation He will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

 The instruction to take heed less we fall is important because Paul has just shown how the people of God fell numerous times throughout their history. Therefore, any of us can fall into temptation and sin. None of us is invincible. Paul gives hope that God will never tempt us beyond what we can handle and will provide a way of escape. The two sins mentioned in context here are idolatry and sexual immorality but it is a fair reading of the text to recognize this as referring to any sin struggle a believer may go through. God is faithful and empowers us to conquer the temptations that come our way.

Verse 14 and 15- Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

Paul is instructing the Corinth Christians to flee from idolatry. This is similar to the passage I preached on before in 1 Corinthians 6:18 where Paul charges to ‘flee immorality’. Same word is used here and applied to idolatry.

The apostle says he speaks to sensible people but this can also be translated ‘wise’. Paul had once ridiculed the Corinthians wisdom in chapter 4:10 but here he encourages the wise. These wise are the people who work to fulfill the will of the Lord. In contrast, the foolish rely on their own thought and insight. Paul asks the wise to judge and be discerning regarding what he says about idolatry.

Why do people need to be wise and discerning? Because there is tension within the task of fleeing idolatry. In chapter 8, Paul had shown his anti-legalism stance with the food sacrificed to idols issue. Arguing that idols do not exist and there is only one God, Paul says it is OK to eat food sacrificed to idols so long as someone is not a weaker brother or sister and tempted to sin.

So Paul is anti-legalism but he also here announces a tension: flee from idolatry! How do these go together? We will explore that a little bit more this morning.

Verse 16 and 17- The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

By bringing up communion or the Eucharist (meaning ‘I give thanks’), Paul is rhetorically beginning to contrast what it means to have communion with Christ and to have a participation in His body. Jesus famously instituted the bread and the cup in the upper room, with his disciples, before His crucifixion. He declared, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’ He also broke the bread for His body. (Luke 22:19-20). The new covenant was instituted.

This sacred expression of what it means to be in Christ and to share with the rest of the Body of Christ (believers in Jesus) is tainted and polluted by idolatry and by Christians chasing after phony idols for spiritual satisfaction rather than keeping Christ at the core of their being.

Remember, a big question we have to engage is: why we’re Corinthian idols a big deal? What did they get out of their allegiance to idols? As we already talked about, in virtually all areas of their civic life idols were involved and this was to attempt and connect them to a larger spiritual reality by currying favor with the gods.

Paul has addressed these idols as fake and counterfeits. People should seek to be connected to Jesus to find their meaning in life and have an authentic spiritual connection. Food sacrificed to idols will get you nothing except maybe a satisfied stomach. Joining with other believers in communion and that is remembering Christ’s broken body and poured out blood connects a community of believers to the true God who loves them.

Verse 18 and 19- Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the alter? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?

 The Corinthians and we are asked to consider Israel’s sin of idolatry with the golden calf. They are being asked to see the vast difference between festivities in the dining room of a pagan temple versus participating in the Lord’s Supper with other believers.

Priests and Levites of Israel who serve at the alter as well as people who partake believe that sacrifices made to the true God would involve having fellowship with him while eating with other believers.

Paul again dismiss idols as fake gods and essentially worthless for attaining a solid spirituality and for all important community.

Verse 20, 21, and 22- No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?

Paul is powerfully stating here that not only is the worship of idols vain and empty but he also sees a demonic presence behind the idols. This is other example where Scripture is drawing a very sharp line. To the Corinthians, Paul is saying that they cannot be going to festivals and other social engagements where the whole purpose is to sacrifice to an idol and also be involved in coming to communion with the saints. We cannot partake at the table of the Lord while entertaining demonic lies.

Paul rhetorically asks do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? The Decalogue introduces the idea of God being a jealous God (Exodus 20:5 and Deut 5:9). The first two commandments are about having no other gods and not making graven images or idols. Obviously, we are not stronger than God and need to rely on Him as we seek His truth regarding idols in our culture.

Matter:

Before we get into why this is such an important issue in our culture, we should define idolatry. Idolatry is simply what we worship. Where do our strongest affections lie and how does this impact our connection to the true God? What do we spend a good time thinking about and what do we spend a lot of money on may be indicators of what forms our idolatry takes. What do we run to during hard times for comfort or to try and forget the hard times?

Tim Keller writes in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power and the Only Hope that matters’ this: ‘When anything in life is an absolute requirement for your happiness and self-worth, it is essentially an ‘idol,’ something you are actually worshipping. When such a thing is threatened, your anger is absolute. Your anger is actually the way the idol keeps you in its service, in its chains. Therefore if you find that, despite all the efforts to forgive, your anger and bitterness cannot subside, you may need to look deeper and ask, ‘What am I defending? What is so important that I cannot live without?’ It may be that, until some inordinate desire is identified and confronted, you will not be able to master your anger.’

What are some of the idols of our culture? In the Corinth culture, they had many gods and big events of life (weddings, funerals, banquets, etc) were all centered around service to an idol. People made idols and bowed down to them. In our society, I’m sure we do have people that bow down to graven images around but people’s struggles with idolatry are more complicated for us and maybe not always as cut and dry as to whether you are going to a feast done in the name and service of Poseidon.

I was thinking about how an instruction such as fleeing from idolatry would apply to us, Americans in the 21st century. What are these things we worship? What captures a great deal of our time? Lots of those things may be good things so how do we know when a good thing has become a bad thing or a distracting thing?

I have brought up this saying before in another message, I think. People around us here in the Pacific Northwest like to say, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’ There is a tremendous hunger for spirituality in our society and perhaps a seeking of general spiritual experience but there is also so much brokenness, fracturing, anger and division in our culture. Could it be that the brokenness and emptiness is the result of pursing a counterfeit spirituality or idols at the expense of pursuing a genuine and transformative encounter with Christ?

I ran across an article in the ‘New Yorker’ which had a very interesting quote from the current defense secretary, General Mattis. I’ll quote the section of the article that contains his quote: ‘When I asked what worried him most in his new position, I expected him to say ISIS or Russia or the defense budget. Instead, he said, ‘The lack of political unity in America. The lack of a fundamental friendliness. It seems like an awful lot of people in America and around the world feel spiritually and personally alienated, whether it be from organized religion or from local community school districts or from their governments.’

I was surprised by this that the defense secretary rather than being concerned with other country’s missile launching capacity or nuclear arsenal or a radicalized religious death cult slaughtering people in the Middle East. Instead, one of the things he is concerned about is people being spiritually alienated and personally alienated from organized religion which would be a spiritual commitment to God but also a community.

Our culture pursues idols that we have fashioned and we chase after them seeking a spiritual fulfillment. Things may seem promising at first. We may feel spiritually satisfied but eventually we may wind up like the Israelites that Paul describes…spiritually desolate after wandering in the desert with our own religious inventions. All the while, the true God is trying to get our attention.

Thesis: Fleeing from idolatry in our lives will give us the opportunity to find an ultimate meaning in Jesus.

Struggle:

We struggle to flee idolatry because sometimes in our culture it is hard to recognize when an idol has grabbed ahold of our soul. As I brought up before, I would assume all of us are not in the habit of physically making idols and then worshipping them. That means that our idols can be much more subtle. Indeed, idols can be good things that we elevate in our lives to unhealthy places. The Christian cliche that I have heard before is that an idol is a good thing that becomes a god thing. We can’t stop at bumper sticker sloganeering though. We have to break down this struggle we have with idolatry. How does this look in our culture?

People often say that we idolize ourselves. A lot of us, including me, have our own social media pages and we act as our own public relations firms choosing to show the rest of the digital world whatever we would like to show. Now, I’ll give my disclaimer:   Not anything wrong with being on social media and having fun with it. However, it is probably not deep enough to say that we all may struggle out here in the west with self idolatry. Indeed, if that is true, how do we go about idolizing ourselves?

David Fairchild, who is a pastor here in Seattle, tweeted out the other day: ‘You can often find your idols by tracing your schedule & bank statement. Money & time is how we worship most naturally.’ This seems to be the starting place for thinking about and rooting idols out of our life. Our society is very time-oriented and also very materialistic. From the time we are young, we are bombarded with advertisements that we will not be complete in life until we have a certain product. We are told we will not be accepted or noticed unless we look a certain way. We will not be considered intelligent or successful unless we become rich and make more money than most other people.

‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’ is not the best of movies but it contains a very interesting scene between Josh Brolin who plays a wealthy Wall Street tycoon and an up and coming protege played by Shia Lebeof. Lebeouf while recognizing the Brolin’s characters vast wealth asks him what his number is to get out of the game. How much would Brolin’s character need to make in order to retire, feel satisfied that he had been incredibly successful? Is that number $100 million, $500 million or a billion dollars? Brolin looks at Lebeouf and says, ‘The number is more.’

Being in a materialistic culture, the messages that we need more and more are constantly speaking out to us. In our minds, we struggle with contentment because we buy into this illusion that we constantly need more. This idol grips our soul.

Speaking of social media, I asked some of you on Facebook for idols in American culture and I wanted to read a few of these that you wrote:

Tony Mangefeste said, ‘Pizza.’ I think I heard that the elders are drawing up excommunication papers for that one. Well, in all seriousness, food can be an idol.

Chelsea August said ‘youth as in a culture obsessed with being young.’ Yes, and people long for a fountain of youth for this reason. Our society often discards people who aren’t young anymore so some of us get caught up in spending crazy amounts of time or maybe money on surgery even to try and look young.

Tanis Trapp said, ‘Comfort/ Security…which looks like the pursuit of amassing and spending money, pursuit of healthy/attractive/ everlasting bodies, avoidance of any conflict or pain or self-denial, self-medicating with drugs, alcohol, porn, prescription drugs, etc. We want to feel good and happy all the time.’

Ceci Mangefeste said, ‘Knowledge.’

I think we all have a good grasp on idols that our culture worships. It is one thing for me to think about our culture and say, ‘Yeah, here is where we have things totally wrong and all these people are lost and doing spirituality wrong’ but it is quite another to realize that since I grew up in this culture and this society, many if not all of these idols constantly vie for my attention and my heart. Most of these things are good but they can rise to the level of a consuming distraction. Of things that dethrone Christ in our lives and put something else on the throne.

I don’t like getting older and going bald. I do like my beard though but that may be another idol.

I not only want to feel good and happy all the time, I think I’m entitled to it. And the worst comes from self-righteous. When I think of, in my own head, all I have done for God I can suddenly feel like God owes me things for my sacrifices. I deserve a predictable and easy life. But the thing is, life is vastly unpredictable and I have no idea what is around the corner.

Knowledge. I’m obsessed with knowing things. I want to know most things in the world. I listen to podcasts, audio books and read. I ride the train to work and read on the train. I want to know how to respond in any situation and on any topic. But you know what, maybe it’s perfectly OK to say sometimes, ‘I don’t know’ and not be afraid of it.

Furthermore, rather than filling my head with information, maybe I need to be quieter more. As a matter of fact, for all of us especially myself. We lead these busy, schedule filled up lives and one of the biggest signs that we have an idol problem is we can’t get quiet time for ourselves for even 10-15 minutes a day. We’re going back to the basics here: Bible study and prayer and meditating on God or His Word. This spiritual discipline is crucial for rooting out idols in our hearts. Plus it is healthy for your brain. Science interchanges prayer and meditation all the time in studies and the studies conclude that the discipline is good for your brain. This involves being quiet and focusing your mind on prayer or a verse or an attribute of God. We should do this without our smart phones anywhere near us.

Speaking of phones, another idol. Smart phones are great and revolutionary but how much of your life do they take up? How distracted do we get looking at our phones? How much life do we miss because we are looking down at our phones rather than talking with each other or being aware in our surroundings or we are looking down at our phones as our kids grow up. Again, phones are a good thing, I like Facebook and Twitter and all of that but maybe we need to add a discipline for ourselves (whatever that is) to limit our usage per day.

Gospel:

The entire purpose of rooting out idols in our lives, whatever they may be, is to make sure we are worshipping and pursuing something that has lasting significance. Our culture is broken. There are all kinds of spiritual pursuits and passions out there that are counterfeits. Something that looks enticing, that looks like it can give our lives more meaning or bring us joy often ends in staggering disappointment.

We don’t like talking about death in our culture but you know what, it is an enemy and it is coming for all of us. The reason why we should contemplate this more than we do is because thinking about death provides perspective that is vital. What matters after we are gone? What happens to your material possessions? Some of mine may go to Naomi and Reuben and they may sell them in a garage sale or those possessions may end up in a landfill somewhere. All these things that I can amass over my life dropped right into a garbage dump.   My smart phone will be there. The cars I drove reduced to scrap metal. The house I live in, bulldozed down to make whatever new housing they have in the future. The reason why we think about death in this way is to gain perspective on what matters.

Why be consumed with all this stuff with death stalking us steadily when we can be fully connected to the guy who beat death? We as Christians should know this with every fiber of our being. Jesus is our Creator. Jesus rose from the grave. We believe this. We sing about this. We read about this. Yet, we still keep getting wrapped up in this idolatry. I need more stuff. I need more money. I demand comfort. I demand ease. And these things may never come.

The antidote of taking us out of our culture’s vapid and shallow spirituality is the gospel of Jesus. Not only as a revolutionary perspective beyond the materialism or the marginalization of people that we deem do not have much to offer us, but also as an empowering force that calls us to be citizens of a different kingdom. Let’s flee from these idols and latch on to Christ.

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Death and Resurrection: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

**The following is a sermon transcript for a message I preached at Seed Church on October 15, 2017.  You can listen here.

Safe to say that in our American culture, we do not like to deal with the topic of death.  We are really into our materialism and pursuit of pleasure. Distractions are a big part of our lives especially our phones nowadays. Being bombarded with advertising our entire lives that tell us we will be complete with a certain new gadget, that we will have a hole in our lives until we have another possession or that we will have members of the opposite sex around us if we drink a certain beer.

Fumbling around for purpose and meaning in our society, we put o thinking about the inevitable.  Dr. Lawrence Samuel, in an article entitled ‘Death, American Style’, published by Psychology Today writes: ‘Americans’ fear and loathing of death poses major consequences for the future; the fact that our life spans have been dramatically extended over the last century does not make the impending arrival of death any easier. In fact, many if not most of us are dreading the day this most unwelcome guest will knock on our doors, as our youth-oriented society casts death as a threatening foe or adversary. With the biggest generation in history already in or rapidly hurtling toward its sixties, America is on the brink of becoming a death-oriented society, I contend, something that we are not at all prepared for. Baby boomers are especially unready for this day; their individual and collective deaths may become one of the most important chapters in American history. Already a topic few people like to talk about, death is especially alien to a generation priding themselves on thinking and acting young regardless of their age.’ But really any generation in our culture has this fear. Our worship of youth self-evident.

You are all probably not morbid like me but have you ever thought about how many dierent ways you can die in a day? A car accident. Hit by a bus. A disturbing diagnosis from a doctor.

It’s amazing that in American society, we spend so much eort dierentiating ourselves from others. We have our class system- rich, poor and middle class in which we make judgments about people’s character or morality. Look at the person next to you. Maybe this is someone you know very well: a spouse, a good friend, a child or maybe it is an acquaintance or someone that you don’t know very well. And when you look at this person, if you know them at least a little bit, consider all the ways they are dierent from you. Their dierent personality, maybe they are a person of a dierent race or gender, maybe they have completely dierent hobbies.

In spite of all these dierences, these dierent lives we lead and the dierent things that we are into, we all have this in common. The grave. The grave is waiting for us all. An enemy that will defeat us all in the end. No wonder as we approach Halloween that one of our pop culture characters is the grim reaper. A foe that will not be beat that stalks us. One day, we will be overtaken.

Do you remember your first experience with death? I was 7 years old. My dad had called us from Oklahoma where he had gone down because his dad- my grandpa (Art Lester)- was sick with lung cancer. Dad called to say that grandpa had passed away and that he was moving grandma up to Kent where we lived. I didn’t know my grandpa super well being all of 7 but obviously dicult as a kid to realize that someone would not be there anymore.

A year later, I would get an even deeper introduction. My grandma on my mom’s side was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Being 8 years old, this was explained to me as a terrible disease that would cause grandma to forget everything and eventually for her brain to forget vital functions.

Fast forward about 3 years, I’m 11 or 12 and we get a phone call at our house in Kent. Grandpa had called extremely upset because he could not get grandma to go to bed. She was sitting in a recliner in their living room and kept declaring him to be a stranger. This was 10pm at night and mom decided she wanted to go out there and was going to go alone but I declared, ‘I’m going to come with you.”  So we drove out to the Yelm area, way far south of Seattle and arrived to this scene.  Sure enough. Grandma was still seated in the living room recliner. Grandpa was beside himself. Mom ordered me to go to bed rather quickly as it was late and also, I don’t know if they wanted me to hear the ensuing conversation. I did anyway as it was a short hallway down to the guest bedroom from the living room.

The conversation revolved around having to put my grandma in a home and selling their home that he had largely built himself. My grandpa wept. I had never heard him cry before. He was a truck driver, a member of Teamsters and a guy who taught me the love of the outdoors. I remember as a kid wishing I could take this pain away but obviously I could not. Death was coming for people I loved. It had already showed up in a way through this disease robbing my grandma of the memories of their own story, the romance, the raising 5 kids together. All of it was gone. My grandpa was a stranger to her.

Being 11 or 12 years old, one’s thinking is obviously not too sophisticated yet but I still think about these memories and what happened. Years later I saw a movie that struck me. Now, this movie is nothing like my grandparents story but the theme I connected with in what Alzheimer’s did to my grandparents. The movie is ‘About Schmidt’ and maybe some of you have seen it. Jack Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt who is about to retire from an insurance job. A young guy is already going to be taking his place. So he retires and soon his long time wife dies but then he discovers his wife was having an aair with one of his good friends. To top it all o, his daughter is engaged to be married to this furniture salesmen whom he hates. His entire life has unraveled creating an existential crisis in this man’s life. He has a monologue toward the end of the movie, one of my favorites of all time:

Death is approaching for Warren Schmidt but we are not just talking anymore about physical death are we? We are talking about a spiritual death. One devoid of meaning, purpose or hope. Schmidt’s soul is dead. Sometimes, it may take someone a long time to realize that truth. Death is a constant in this fallen world. 7 billion people exist on planet earth today. Did you know there are more people who exist today then who have existed in all of human history (say up to the year 1900)? Of all the dierent cultures, languages, races and everything else that made all these people unique, they all faced he grave and were overcome by it.

Except for this one time with this one Guy…

Background: In the Old Testament was there a conception of resurrection? From  Genesis to Malachi, discussion on resurrection or an afterlife seems severely limited to non-existent. However, there are scholars that argue that Judaism did have a belief in resurrection generally. Jon Levenson is one of those scholars. He wrote a book called ‘Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel’ where he sets out to argue that resurrection had been a common and general belief of Israel’s since the very beginning not just in Daniel chapter 12 which appears to be talking about the apocalypse and resurrection at the end of that time.

Fast forward to Jesus time and a lot of us are familiar with the dierent Jewish groups around Israel under the Roman occupation. The Pharisees believed in resurrection at the end of time after the apocalypse. The Sadduccees, asked on their gospel conversations with Christ denied the resurrection or any resurrection. The Essenes (who many believe authored and copied the Dead Sea scrolls) believed in the immortality of the soul and that they would receive their souls back after death. The Zealots were a more radical political branch of the Pharisees who, of course, wanted to throw the Romans out of the Holy Land by force. They most likely would have shared the Pharisees views of resurrection.

Now, being that we are in Corinth and remember that Corinth was a shipping port so lots and lots of dierent kinds of people would be coming in and out. A diverse crop of people all the time. So the Corinth church had Jewish people who had become Christians or maybe were somewhere along the spectrum of becoming Christians.

The city and therefore the church also had a lot of Greeks. Greeks had been highly influenced at that time by platonic dualism. Plato taught that the physical body was an imperfect copy of an ideal form that existed spiritually. Plato’s philosophy taught that our soul or spirits existed prior to our life on earth. Our physical bodies were mortal. Therefore, at death, people would be freed from there physical bodies which the Greeks at Corinth thought would be a good thing. Now we know why the Corinth church had a tough time accepting the bodily and physical resurrection of Jesus.

One of the main points Paul is making here is the centrality of the resurrection to the gospel and a key component of that is a historic and bodily resurrection.

Let’s dive into what Paul has to say and his apologetic.

15:1- “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand,”

Paul says he makes known the gospel and by this he is not saying he is unveiling the good news for the first time. He reminds the Corinthians they have already received Jesus as Lord and Savior. The language with “received” indicates that it was a decisive act. The overall verse actually strongly implies a gentle rebuke as the Corinthians had received the gospel but were not appreciating it. Paul describes them as standing in the gospel so they had a fundamental grasp of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for them even without maybe a complete understanding.

15:2- “and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”

The people of Corinth are described as saved in verse 2 if they hold fast to the word which Paul had preached to them. ‘Saved’ is present continuous. This is describing their status before God having salvation but this is also a continuing act of redemption that God is working on in their lives. The ‘if’ here is tricky. This is a conditional statement that seems to suggest that someone is saved if they continue to hold to that gospel that was preached. All of this bound to ignite the age old Calvinist and Arminian debate. Can someone lose their salvation? This is not the only place Paul uses the word ‘if’ in relation to salvation. Colossians 1:22-23 is another place and this is the same author as Romans. Rather than rehashing this old debate, let’s have a truce. Let’s bring everyone together. Here is the thing. If you are a Calvinist or you favor Jacobus Arminius, in regard to eternal security, both perspectives agree on the end game. Calvinists would say that a person was never really saved and therefore is lost and needs the gospel. An Arminian will say that a person has lost their salvation and is lost and needs the gospel. So, both scenarios…the person in question needs the gospel. Let’s have a truce.

15:3- “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,”

Paul was the missionary who delivered the gospel to the Corinth Church. Acts 18 has information about Paul’s work in Corinth on his missionary journey. The apostle emphasizes this is not his message. It is not something he made up but something that he is passing on that is of extreme importance. He proclaims: Christ died for our sins. What is implied in this verse is an atoning sacrifice. For the wrongs we have committed against God, Jesus being sinless took those wrongs upon Himself so that we could be reconciled to a Holy God and be forgiven. People say that God’s love and God’s justice meet at the cross. There are people today who are critics of Christ dying for sins. Some thinkers even go so far as to declare this to be divine child abuse. This perspective fundamentally misunderstands the historic Christian position of Jesus being God. God chose incarnation by His own choice. Also, the doctrine of the Trinity illuminates our understanding more of Jesus being a member of the godhead and His relationship to the other persons. Can an innocent, sinless man take upon sins he did not commit? This is a tougher question but ultimately God makes the rules. A big part of how we see God working in the Scriptures is that he interacts with different human cultures and ideas. The idea of an animal without blemish being offered as a sacrifice for sins was the Old Testament sacrificial system. For sins that are committed, there must be justice. We all want justice when someone is wronged. Christ’s death was Him taking justice for us. Paul also writes in Romans 5:8, ‘God demonstrated His own love for us while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ This was literally a huge demonstration of God’s unconditional love for all of us. ‘According to the Scriptures’ Paul is beginning his apologetic. He does not reference any Old Testament Scriptures specifically but he is arguing that Christ’s death was foretold. Obviously, this gives his teaching a huge weight as he is stating that what he is teaching about Jesus had its origins in inspired Scripture. Many commentators think that he could have been thinking about Isaiah 53.

15:4- “that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,”

Paul emphasizes that Christ was buried so he is saying Christ was really dead. They took him off the cross and sealed him in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimethea. He was buried in this tomb for 3 days and then He was risen. He conquered death.  Commentator Simon Kistemaker writes about the Greek in this verse: ‘The Greek uses the past tense to describe a single action in the past for Jesus’ death and burial. But for the verb to be raised the Greek has the perfect tense to indicate an action that occurred in the past but has lasting relevance for the present. That is, Jesus was raised from the dead and continues his life in the resurrected state.’ Paul again says this was according to the Scriptures. Like the previous verse, he adds the weight of Scripture backing up these truths. He is declaring in this way how vitally important both of the previous verses are. He again does not reference an Old Testament verse that specifically talks about Christ’s resurrection. Given the disciples stunned reactions to the death of Christ, it would be hard to imagine that they anticipated this. There are references to the ‘third day’ in Hosea 6:2 with God raising Israel on the third day. There is also Jonah in the belly of the whale for three days. Isaiah also prophesies a resurrection in Isaiah 53:10-12. Notice the similarities in verse 3-4 and both verses ending in ‘according to the Scriptures’. This was likely a very early Christian creed that establishes to foundational ideas and claims of Christianity we hold to today: the death of Christ for sins and the resurrection.

15:5- ‘and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.’

In verse 5, Paul moves into his apologetic. He describes the appearances of Christ to others including Cephas (Paul’s name for Peter/ Cephas is Peter in Aramaic). Then he mentions that Christ appeared to the 12 disciples in the upper room. Jesus, of course, appeared first to the women going to the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome and the two men on the road to Emmaus.

15:6- ‘Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.’

Paul continues the apologetic. He says that Christ appeared to over 500 brothers post resurrection. There is actually nothing in the gospels or Acts to collaborate this figure. The closest is the meeting of 120 people in Acts 1:15 who gathered to appoint a successor to Judah’s Iscariot. The main point is: Paul is declaring this to potential skeptics or those curious to find out that they at believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  This verse is Paul stating that some of these witnesses are alive and someone could go and talk with them or correspond with them. These are those who remain. The ones who have fallen asleep are those who have died. The phrase is a euphemism for someone passing away.

15:7- ‘Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.’

James is probably the half brother of Jesus who was a recognized leader in the church so Paul is maybe name dropping here to bolster his apologetics case for the resurrection. The Corinth church would have heard about James and maybe many had met him. Christ then appeared to all the apostles. Could be another reference to the Twelve as the definition of apostle is a person who was appointed by Jesus himself and witnessed Jesus’ resurrection.

15:8- ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’

According to Paul, Jesus made his last post resurrection appearance to Paul on the road to Damascus. This was a unique revelation from the Lord which changed Paul’s life as he was a killer of Christians- a zealous Jew who was rounding believers in Christ up. This was an incredibly dramatic change. ‘As one untimely born’ is an unusual phrase in Greek and in a negative connotation it could mean an untimely stillbirth or an aborted fetus. Paul is probably just contrasting himself against the other apostles as he was not an original member of the Twelve.

15:9- ‘For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’

Paul feels unworthy and gives a little bit of his background and testimony. Relentlessly, he persecuted the church of God. Consider the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 as to which Paul was present and endorsing the act.

15:10- ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.’

Seeing his life as being a testimony of the grace of God, Paul declares that ‘I am what I am’ and God’s grace had not been in vain. Indeed, Paul wrote most of the inspired New Testament and his missionary journeys reached thousands for Christ and established churches in the Middle East, Asia Minor and going up into the southern part of Europe. Indeed, he did a lot of laboring on behalf of the gospel.

15:11- ‘Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.’

Paul or other apostle proclaimed the gospel and the believers in the church (in this case Corinth) believed.

Let’s recap the flow of Paul’s argument here. He declares that the church in Corinth had the gospel but perhaps we’re missing a complete understanding. The incomplete understanding was apparently confusion surrounding the resurrection. Greek philosophy may have led many of the Corinthians to think that Jesus had risen as a spirit or a ghost. Paul rigorously defends a bodily resurrection of Jesus. The apostle makes the case for a re-animated corpse that happened in real time and history. The death of Christ for sins and His resurrection are listed in what may again very well be an early creed which lists these things as central to the gospel and thereby key to life transformation. A key element in beating sin and death (both physical and spiritual).

Thesis: Christ’s resurrection is not merely inspirational but is an empowering force of the gospel that helps us to see and act as redemptive agents with Jesus.

Once you see, you cannot unsee. Sure, people can try to ignore what they have seen or bury it or try and run from it but if you have seen the conquering force of the resurrected Christ in your life, this is the engine of the gospel that brings significant life change.

Look at Paul. A killer of Christians. He bragged in Philippians 3 that he was circumcised on the 8th day of the nation of Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, as to the law, a Pharisee as to zeal a persecutor of the church as to righteousness found in he law, blameless. This was the most religious guy you could ever meet in your life.

And something happens on that road to Damascus. A resurrected Savior speaks to him via a light from heaven in Acts 9 that flashed all around him. ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ An encounter with the resurrected Christ changed Paul because of what he saw on the road to Damascus.

Once you see, you can’t unsee.

The disciples had witnessed the crucifixion and death of Christ and were hiding out in the upper room. Scared for their lives, these tax collectors and fishermen and other common guys, expected Romans to bust in at any moment and arrest them. What happened to them? They went from scared to proclaiming Jesus to some of the very men who crucified Christ in Acts 2. Seeing the risen Savior completely changed the game.

Once you see, you can’t unsee.

Author Philip Yancey explains the significance of the resurrection and how that impacted the mentality of the apostles:

‘There are two ways to look at human history, I have concluded. One way is to focus on the wars and violence, the squalor, the pain and tragedy and death. From such a point of view, Easter seems like a fairy tale exception, a stunning contradiction in the name of God. That gives some solace, although I confess that when my friends died, grief was so overpowering that any hope in an afterlife seemed somehow thin and insubstantial. There is another way to look at the world. If I take Easter as the starting point, the one incontrovertible fact about how God treats those whom He loves, then human history becomes the contradiction and Easter a preview of ultimate reality. Hope then flows like lava beneath the crust of life. This, perhaps, describes the change in he disciples perspective as they sat in locked rooms discussing the incomprehensible events of Easter Sunday. In one sense nothing had changed: Rome still occupied Palestine, religious authorities still had a bounty on their heads, death and evil still reigned outside. Gradually, however, the shock of recognition gave way to a long slow undertow of joy. If God could do that…’

Seeing the resurrection and thereby seeing things upside down from the rest of the world causes a significant change of thought in the life of the disciple and their community.

Yet it is not just about seeing. The resurrection itself is not just a worldview and it is not just inspirational. The resurrection of Christ is an empowering of the individual and the church. Christ rising from the dead is the engine of the gospel. That is why Paul is aggressively defending this historical event to the Corinth church and why he insists on sharing the truth that this was a bodily resurrection, a reanimated corpse. This was the piece that the Corinth church was missing in receiving the gospel from Paul.

The resurrection empowers us within the kingdom of God when we have made Jesus our Lord and Savior. We start to see and act differently.

-We become concerned about the poor, downtrodden, widows, orphans because these are the kingdom values that Jesus taught.

-We begin to see all races and both men and women as children of God. The resurrection has us look forward to the day when believers in Jesus from all nations and races will be together in God’s kingdom.

-We begin to see that God through the resurrection is redeeming everything. Not just people but creation as well.

-We are confronted by the sin in our souls: addictions, hatred and we repent. Jesus’s resurrection put the sin curse in Genesis 3 in reverse. Everything is being reconciled back to him. Sin and death, our enemies- the very things that kept us from God and from righteousness have been defeated.

Even this being the case, the world is still enshrouded in darkness. The resurrection, as we can see did, did not end sin and death in the world but now there is this light shining in a vast abyss of darkness and Christ has empowered us to join His kingdom to help shine the light in this world with the event of his resurrection.

There are some who say in this world that I can be my own light. A recognition that the world is dark but a thought that by someone’s individual spirituality they can be a light. Let me comment on this point of view.  If you are a part of the darkness, you cannot be a light if we have participated in expanding the darkness. We need somebody from outside the system to be the light and then we join with them as they help us to expand the light and bring the light into this world. Jesus is that person who came.

If you have received Jesus as Lord and Savior, do not let the resurrection become something that is dry and stale. A dusty old doctrine like Calvinism or Arminianism. The resurrection is everything. Christ’s work here gives us the foundation to have hope and meaning in this chaotic world.

Some of you here may have never believed or taken Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I urge you to do so and believe in God raising him from the dead.

 

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Make America Read Again: Way Behind Edition

Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to hit my reading goal for the year.  Nevertheless, I still plug away.

The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap by Matt Taibbi

This book by Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi seems appropriate for our age a decade beyond the massive financial meltdown of Wall Street saw people lose their homes and retirement savings among other financial calamities.  The focus of Taibbi’s book though is less on the instruments of destruction that paved the way for the Great Recession and more on how a growing wealth gap in America enacts a completely different justice system for the rich and poor.  When we factor in race to that equation, the result is something even more lopsided in our court system.

Frankly, this book is infuriating and it is supposed to be.

As a columnist, Taibbi can be occasionally knee-jerk liberal reactionary to my taste.  The same style and tone is found in “The Divide” but it is a testament to Taibbi how heavily sourced this work is and how much is based on his actual eyewitness accounts in courtrooms as well as interviews with citizens who have found themselves on the wrong end of the law (by a lot of his telling, for dubious reasons).

Taibbi, of course, discusses the financial meltdown, offers evidence of massive amounts of mortgage fraud and tax evasion from top players at banks and other mortgage industry businesses and…hardly anyone went to jail.  Taibbi actually poured through public records where rampant fraud and other crimes by the wealthy are hiding in plain sight.  No prosecutions and little confrontation.  The author’s ire is often turned toward President Barack Obama and attorney general Eric Holder for being too chicken to go after the Wall Street buccaneers who devastated our economy and society.

A reader also gets a street-level inside look at New York City’s “stop and frisk” law which gave law enforcement tools to stop anyone and frisk them seemingly for any reason.  As one can imagine with little effort, this law disproportionately affected African-American citizens as well as Hispanics at very high levels.  Taibbi recounts cases of police officers planting drugs on people so they could arrest them.  The people affected by this law, often times being poor, would not have access to good lawyers and would, most of the time, cop a plea to a judge rather than plead innocent (and they may well be innocent) because this was the path of least resistance in our system.

“The Divide” takes a hard look at our immigration laws and immigration court system to reveal how much of a mess that whole system is as well.

One of the main takeaways from this book is the cultural assumption about rich and poor that Taibbi paints.  The rich are viewed as the moral upstanding citizens in the eyes of the law and being poor is criminalized in and of itself.

I took in the audio book of “The Divide” which was probably good because I could see myself with a physical copy throwing it up against my wall in anger and frustration related to the topics and themes.  The book gets under your skin and yet, on this topic, you wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Twenty-six billion dollars of fraud: no felony cases. But when the stakes are in the hundreds of dollars, we kick in 26,000 doors a year, in just one county.”

“Our prison population, in fact, is now the biggest in the history of human civilization. There are more people in the United States either on parole or in jail today (around 6 million total) than there ever were at any time in Stalin’s gulags. For what it’s worth, there are also more black men in jail right now than there were in slavery at its peak.”

“It’s become a cliché by now, but since 2008, no high-ranking executive from any financial institution has gone to jail, not one, for any of the systemic crimes that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth. Even now, after JPMorgan Chase agreed to a settlement north of $13 billion for a variety of offenses and the financial press threw itself up in arms over the government’s supposedly aggressive new approach to regulating Wall Street, the basic principle held true: Nobody went to jail. Not one person.”

“More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not.”

“Unquestionably, however, something else is at work, something that cuts deeper into the American psyche. We have a profound hatred of the weak and the poor, and a corresponding groveling terror before the rich and successful, and we’re building a bureaucracy to match those feelings.”

“We’re creating a dystopia, where the mania of the state isn’t secrecy or censorship but unfairness. Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty, our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process. Winners get rich and get off. Losers go broke and go to jail. It isn’t just that some clever crook on Wall Street can steal a billion dollars and never see the inside of a courtroom; it’s that, plus the fact that some black teenager a few miles away can go to jail just for standing on a street corner, that makes the whole picture complete.”

Did Jesus Exist?  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth by Bart D. Ehrman 

This is the third book I have read by Bart D. Ehrman, an agnostic who is a chair of he religious studies department at the University of North Carolina.  Like ‘Jesus Interrupted’ and ‘God’s Problem’, ‘Did Jesus Exist?’ is meant for a wide audience.  Ehrman is a scholar and has written collegiate textbooks but switched gears in 2005 when he published ‘Misquoting Jesus’ for a wider audience and became a New York Times bestselling author.

While he has drawn the ire of many Evangelicals and other Christians for his critical takes on the New Testament, he has particularly annoyed me with ‘Jesus Interrupted’ where he presented contradictions in the gospel as discrepancies that, at least in my view, are easy to explain as non-contradictions.  In other words, he greatly over-exaggerates his case.

‘Did Jesus Exist?’ might be viewed as an attempt at bridge building to the Evangelical world.  The main point of the book is proving the existence of Jesus of Nazareth using historical methods that include the gospels.  Ehrman aggressively defends Jesus as a historical figure against mythicists who believe that Jesus is fictional having been conceived from other deity stories or the cult of mithra.  Dispatching various books by mythicists convincing, Ehrman dives into historical methods that determine who Jesus was and what He did.

Now, before Christians get an overwhelming sense of ‘what the hell’ here, Ehrman is still an agnostic and he rejects the miracles in the New Testament.  Valuable to Christians in this work though is obtaining an understanding of how secular historians dialogue and debate about which accounts likely happened in history which is often based on how many independent sources could collaborate an account and how similar they may be in their descriptions.  Ehrman reminds his readers that there are at least 7 different independent accounts of Jesus existing- indeed a staggering collection of records for a homeless Jewish peasant who lived in Palestine 2,000 years ago.  The evidence, as Ehrman goes in to, even goes beyond that.

As a Christian who believes in he inspiration of the gospel accounts and thereby the miracles, I do not share Ehrman’s worldview but I do think his work here is good to have a working knowledge about and to dialogue upon.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Most televangelists, popular Christian preacher icons, and heads of those corporations that we call megachurches share an unreflective modern view of Jesus–that he translates easily and almost automatically into a modern idiom. The fact is, however, that Jesus was not a person of the twenty-first century who spoke the language of contemporary Christian America (or England or Germany or anywhere else). Jesus was inescapably and ineluctably a Jew living in first-century Palestine. He was not like us, and if we make him like us we transform the historical Jesus into a creature that we have invented for ourselves and for our own purposes.”

“Jesus would not recognize himself in the preaching of most of his followers today. He knew nothing of our world. He was not a capitalist. He did not believe in free enterprise. He did not support the acquisition of wealth or the good things in life. He did not believe in massive education. He had never heard of democracy. He had nothing to do with going to church on Sunday. He knew nothing of social security, food stamps, welfare, American exceptionalism, unemployment numbers, or immigration. He had no views on tax reform, health care (apart from wanting to heal leprosy), or the welfare state. So far as we know, he expressed no opinion on the ethical issues that plague us today: abortion and reproductive rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, or bombing Iraq. His world was not ours, his concerns were not ours, and–most striking of all–his beliefs were not ours.”

“One of Jesus’s characteristic teachings is that there will be a massive reversal of fortunes when the end comes. Those who are rich and powerful now will be humbled then; those who are lowly and oppressed now will then be exalted. The apocalyptic logic of this view is clear: it is only by siding with the forces of evil that people in power have succeeded in this life; and by siding with God other people have been persecuted and rendered powerless.”

God Country by Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw

So refreshing to go from my non-fiction reading to a very good graphic novel published by Image Comics.  “God Country” is a story written by Donny Cates and had a lot of the artwork done by Geoff Shaw.  The books looks amazing and the story is a compelling read.

We find ourselves in rural eastern Texas where Roy is caring for his family which includes his aging father.  The father is Emmett Quinlan whose mind is rattled by Alzheimers.  He will occasionally have violent outbursts which causes a problem for his grandchildren and also the local police.  When a tornado ravages through town, a new Emmett emerges with a sword (Valofax) which restores his mind and turns him into a badass.   Of course, there are other gods who are looking for the sword and obtaining its powers.

This story does what good comic books do.  A lot of comics seem to be a rehashing of elements of Greek mythology- the interaction of gods and human beings.  This story keeps things personal and grounded.  We find clashes of gods here for sure but the center of the story is about a family dealing with a beloved family member suffering from a horrible disease.  As a matter of fact, the tornadoes and gods from other words that come to battle can be interpreted as metaphors of the difficult and painful journey of a family dealing with a crushing disease afflicting their loved one.

My maternal grandma died of Alzheimers disease so much of this felt pretty personal to me.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

 

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Mother!- Reviewing Darren Aronofsky’s Latest

In the most recent Darren Aronofsky film, the audience may find itself becoming more empathetic to the wrath of God.  “Mother!” is a head trip of a movie that is contained to a singular house but reaches for grand metaphysical truth.  A story that is an environmental parable at heart but also well-versed in theology as it explores the nature of God.  An explosive indictment of humanity that centrally revolves around the toxicity in which domineering men treat women and abuse them.  The boiling anger all around the edges of this picture simmers at first until it builds into a mighty crescendo of rape, debauchery, theft and extreme violence.  By the time the fiery apocalypse comes around at the conclusion, a fate that is hinted at from the very first frames of the film, the viewers may well have made their moral peace with this decisive act of judgment.

With these characteristics, “Mother!” probably will be the most controversial film of 2017.  This conclusion will not just be limited to the thematic elements (though considerable) but also to whether or not the movie is good art.  Rex Reed of the New York Observer for instance called Darren Aronofsky a “wack job” and ripped into the film: “But nothing he’s (Aronofsky) done before to poison the ozone layer prepared me for mother!, an exercise in torture and hysteria so over the top that I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh out loud. Stealing ideas from Polanski, Fellini and Kubrick, he’s jerrybuilt an absurd Freudian nightmare that is more wet dream than bad dream, with the subtlety of a chainsaw.  This delusional freak show is two hours of pretentious twaddle that tackles religion, paranoia, lust, rebellion, and a thirst for blood in a circus of grotesque debauchery to prove that being a woman requires emotional sacrifice and physical agony at the cost of everything else in life, including life itself.”  Some other reviews are not kind either but the movie (at posting of this blog) sits at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes with 201 positive reviews.

I bring up this negative critique as a warning that a good number of you reading this will probably hate this movie.  I understand that as I would not characterize this as a movie I *liked* either.  More like appreciated or found thought-provoking in the way that I could not stop thinking about it for days after watching.  Probably a mistake to view this around Christmas time though.

Anyways, “Mother!” is set in a single house that is completely surrounded by a field and trees.  There are no discernable driveways or paths leading up to the house.  In this remote and simple setting live characters identified as Him (Javier Bardem) and Mother (Jennifer Lawrence).  An Eden. The main characters are remodeling this remote home- creating if you will.  Him is a once famous writer whose passion for authorship is waning.

One night there is a knock on the door at this remote house and we are introduced to Man (Ed Harris).  Man has a story and loves Him’s work so Him offers to let him stay the night. The next day, Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives.  Mother is hesitant to let these people stay in the house, her conscience offering a stern warning.  From this premise, as seemingly minor as it is, builds an entire cauldron of swirling destruction.

Aronofsky is playing here with creation, fall and apocalypse and then re-creation.  He has also constructed a rather poignant environmental cautionary tale.  To achieve his themes, Aronofsky (who also wrote the screenplay) uses familiar Biblical texts as allegories and metaphors.  It is clear that Man and Woman are stand ins for Adam and Eve.  After these guests overstay their welcome, warring brothers arrive (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) and there is a murder.  Just like Cain and Abel.

So who are Him and Mother?  Well, one interpretation could have this couple be a sort of Trinitarian stand in for the Divine.  MAJOR SPOILERS AFTER THIS:  Him is a Creator and an Author.  Later, He becomes a Father.  Mother is perhaps a conscience or a spirit and later in the film, she conceives a male child (Jesus was “conceived” by the Holy Spirit- Luke 1:35).  The word “Spirit” in the Hebrew Bible is a feminine article.  “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2)  Mother remarks to Woman early in the film that she is desiring to build a paradise.

The arrival of houseguests do not stop with Man, Woman and the two warring brothers.  Soon a steady stream of humanity is arriving and with these masses, all the vileness that comes with the human condition (interpreted here by Aronofsky).

Mother is grief stricken, massively overwhelmed, and wants all of these people out of her house.  She is also pregnant and gives birth to a baby boy.  Wanting to shield the baby from the masses of humanity, she and Him lock themselves in an upstairs room.  However, Him wants to share the child with the masses against Mother’s wishes.  The crowd of people get their hands on the baby and begin passing the crying child around.  In what becomes the epitome of the disturbing and horrific nature of this story, the baby boy is murdered in a sacrifice and the crowd starts eating his flesh.  Sound familiar?  END MAJOR SPOILER SECTION.

While Aronofsky was going for an allusion to the Trinity that doesn’t mean that everything necessarily fits according to the common ancient theology.  The writer/ director is borrowing ideas from the doctrine in order to move his thematic goals forward.  The most obvious interpretation of the Jennifer Lawrence character is that she represents Mother Nature herself.

Another sub-theme revolves around Lawrence’s feminine character.  In his past movie “Black Swan”, Aronofsky crafted a film that used the famous ballet piece, “Swan Lake” to illustrate a feminist message (at least one interpretation but there is a lot going on in that movie).  Culture imposes and demands that women fit into a particular mold and unfairly judges accordingly.  These unattainable demands to perform in a specific way drove Natalie Portman’s character (Nina Sayers) into mental illness.  In “Mother!”, men look to violate women and exercise dominion over them.  In the film, the men grope and grab at Mother feeling entitled to her body.  Obviously, this runs analogous to the larger theme of humanity feeling entitled over Mother Nature. Seizing and taking without any regard to sacredness, respect or responsibility.

Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique have shot this film like a horror movie.  Much of the camerawork is close-ups on the performers themselves.  This style creates a claustrophobic sensation that is used in horror pictures because the audience cannot see a boogeyman jump out from the edges of the frame.  The great tension that people feel while watching “Mother!” is something or someone could jump out at any time.  However, rather then a sadistic slasher, a monster, a boogeyman or other supernatural force the antagonist and source of horror in this movie is humanity itself.

One read of Aronofsky’s career from his first film, “Pi” to “Mother!” is he enjoys triggering people.  His stories are strong thematically and he has passionate rebukes to offer to our culture (especially see “Requiem for a Dream” and “Black Swan”).  He offers no apologies for his tendency to smash the audience in the face with his messaging and to incorporate scenes which push the boundaries of shock.  With “Mother!” he continues his trend of pulling no punches with a furious degree of escalation.

*Other Aronofsky movies I have reviewed:  Noah

**Another review on “Mother!” that I found compelling by Alissa Wilkinson.

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Christmas: A Night of Joy and Darkness

In my life, I cannot think of a time when Christmas did not bring me a deep happiness.  I was incredibly fortunate with no family stresses and other drama during the Yuletide season.   Growing up, my mom used to put out a green calendar with little pouches at the very beginning of December.  Those pouches held a candy a day- the countdown to the celebration.  As a kid, this might as well have been torture as I wanted Christmas to come immediately.  The anticipation of this mid-winter day was more than half the wonder.

My neighborhood friends and I believed in Santa Claus as young kids.  One time, we had a debate about whether Santa was real or if our parents had something to do with those mysterious gifts on Christmas morning, under the tree, in different wrapping paper then the other presents.  I forget who won that debate.

As a kid, the presents were certainly exciting but so was the wonder of believing in a mythical being like Santa Claus and flying reindeer.  These elements as well as having family and friends around contributed to the presence of happiness.  Upon my conversion to Christianity in my teenage years, I started thinking about Christmas in a deeper way revolving the birth of Jesus and the reason while we celebrate as a society (not that I had been unaware of the true meaning before).  The presents were still nice and I was thankful for what people gave to me but the extraordinary truth that this day communicated to the whole world as well as sharing the time with families and friends became of paramount importance.

Every winter, I try to wrap my head around a God that is transcendent to all the reality that we know and don’t know becoming a helpless baby.  I fail every time.  Having two kids myself, I have thought that the Divine was once an infant like my daughter and son.  A member of the Holy Trinity partook in the slow human development (at least slower then other mammals comparatively) of taking a baby to childhood and to adulthood.

Like I mentioned before, I’m fortunate because Christmas brings me a sense of happiness and therefore, an opportunity to contemplate these things.  That is not the case for many people and families who may be overwhelmed by the loss of a family member or friend who is no longer there around the table or the families that fight or are broken up.  Many are lonely around Christmas as well because for whatever reason, they are unable to get home.  An aspect that may interrupt all of our celebrations is the expectations that culture places on us and the stress that attacks us with those expectations.  Crowded malls. The “perfect” gift.  Decorations.

Though we don’t like to consider the fact, there is a dark element to Christmas.  In our current society, consumerism has brought us much of this darkness (I’ve written before about black Friday here).  American materialism becomes the big blinding philosophy, the supreme idol, that obscures the things in life that have deeper or lasting value.

The dark element of Christmas is not only in the sadness that many people try to hide in order to not interrupt the seasonal cheer of others but also in the original story itself.  An out-of-wedlock pregnancy (how many people in that day would believe a virgin birth story?).  A despotic King who felt threatened so he ordered the execution of male children under two years of age (Matthew 2:16-18).  A poor family unable to stay in a guest room so their new baby was laid in a manger.

The God of the universe, a member of the Holy Trinity, being born as an infant in a terrifying world.  One where His people were oppressed and occupied by Rome.  One where the lowly and impoverished were harassed by self-righteous zealots.  Imagine the news of this young Christmas family being pregnant out of wedlock and how that would translate to many of the religious leaders of that day.

The first Christmas would have had a range of emotions for Mary and Joseph like it does for many today.  Bewilderment in the sense of not knowing what is going on or how these circumstances are possible.  Fear at the responsibility of taking care of the Son of God. Terror at the news of a tyrant murdering male children.  Loneliness as they were having Jesus away from their home.  Joy upon seeing their newborn baby birthed into the world in Bethlehem.  Perhaps a hope with messages delivered by angels that a Savior was being born into the world.

Many still discuss Jesus today like my friends and I debated Santa Claus.  There is little doubt that Jesus existed in history and, as recorded in the gospels, made stunning claims about himself.  The awe and wonder that I felt in believing in Santa Claus as a young kid can be recaptured by the Divine wrapped in swaddling clothes while lying in a manger in Bethlehem.  A real life event that encapsulates the spectrum of feelings that people may feel on this day.

Joy intermingled with the darkness and pain of the world.  As true today as it was for the inaugural Christmas.

 

 

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