With this episode, we’re going to continue our journey through the major sections of the Great Story. We pick it up at the end of Moses’ story and overview the continuation of the overall narrative through the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament.
This episode if brought to us by the letter “C”:
Cycle of broken humanity
Crying for a king
Chaos of power (in the Northern Kingdom)
Continuation of David’s line (in the Southern Kingdom)
Constructing the past
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With this episode, we’re going to begin wandering through the major sections of the Great Story. Up first is the beginning of the Story in the ancient, mysterious narrative of the first five books known by many names such as “The Books of Moses,” “The Law,” “The Torah,” and “The Pentateuch.” In these ancient texts, we’re going to identify the problem and the prophetic plan through a person who becomes a people.
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Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Luke 6:9 (NIV)
Religion loves rules.
When I was a young man I, for a short time, found myself living among a conservative, legalistic, religious Christians. I stop short of calling them Jesus’ followers because I eventually came to realize that they were the spiritual descendants of the religious leaders who, for two chapters now, have been keeping their critical, judgemental, condemning eyes on Jesus. Their motivation is to catch Jesus doing something wrong so that they can dismiss Him, judge Him, and condemn Him. In doing so, they can feel righteous about ignoring Jesus’ teaching and proud of leading others to do the same.
Religion loves rules.
In Jesus’ day, there was no better example of religious rule-keeping than the Sabbath. The Sabbath was established at the very beginning, right after creation:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Genesis 2:2 (NIV)
This was a long time before God gave the Top Ten through Moses (Sabbath made it to #4 on the Top Ten commandments list).
Sabbath simply means a prescribed time of rest. It’s a day-off, a time-out, a quiet time, and it’s all about R&R, recharging, and being refreshed. Sabbath began as a spiritual principle God exemplified for all of humanity. After six days of work, everyone could use a little break from the daily grind, even God. It’s good for your body, mind, and spirit.
The problem with humanity, of course, is that we struggle with principles. They are so, well, gray…
“What does ‘rest’ mean exactly? I need that defined.And ‘work’ too. Is feeding my cat work? What about taking out the trash with my baby’s stinky diaper? And, speaking of stinky, what about having to watch the stinkin’ Packers game with my in-laws (that always feels like a lot of work)?”
“We’re supposed to labor for six days and rest on the seventh? What if I work weekends?”
“By ‘work,’ are we talking gainful employment here? What if I’m currently unemployed?”
“You tell me how in the world I’m supposed to rest from being a mother. There is no rest from these rug rats and their incessant demands!”
Along life’s journey, I’ve come to observe that humanity is given to rule-making in almost every area of life. Government institutions become bureaucracies with libraries dedicated to tracking all of the laws, codes, rules, and regulations. In fact, according to LegalZoom, if you’re driving through certain rural parts of Pennsylvania you are legally required to stop every mile and shoot off a flare to mark your position. In North Dakota, it’s unlawful to buy beer and pretzels at the same time. Women in Florida are forbidden by law to fall asleep under a hair-dryer.
Another example is how the notion of taxing citizens to pay for Government services has resulted in the 74,608 page U.S. Tax Code.
When it comes to religion, we humans do the same things. Well-intentioned religious institutions start with a spiritual principle about getting some much-needed rest and end up with an endless list of rules which, eventually, require a lot of work to keep straight and follow. This is where things stood in the days when Jesus was teaching in today’s chapter. Breaking the “sabbath” rules was something that Jesus and His followers were accused of doing repeatedly.
In today’s chapter, the Sabbath police were following Jesus around just waiting for Him to break one of the rules. That’s the other thing about religious and social rule-keeping, it typically ends up with some kind of group who police the masses. Of course, Jesus knew they were there.
Jesus asks, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” The answer, of course, goes back to the principle of rest that was the heart of Sabbath in the beginning. The tome of sabbath rules, sub-rules, and clarifications had both perverted the principle intent (keeping the Sabbath became work) and allowed the perpetuation of evil (people refused to help out a neighbor in an emergency in order not to be caught by the Sabbath police).
So, Jesus healed a man’s paralyzed hand in front of the crowd on the Sabbath.
Let good rule!
The religious rule-keepers immediately went into judge, jury, and executioner mode.
There’s something grossly wrong with this picture, and that was what Jesus was trying to get people to see and understand for themselves.
My time among the legalistic Christians didn’t last very long. All of the silly rules about clothes, hair, shoes, music, and fraternization were more than I could take. I did, however, make a number of worthwhile observations and I learned a lot of very valuable lessons. I came to understand that legalism keeps people imprisoned to rules, codes, and regulations while keeping them from developing the spiritual maturity and self-discipline necessary to develop Godly wisdom.
This morning I find myself reminded that doing a good thing for someone else should never be against the rules.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Romans 12:1 (NIV)
To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.
“Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”
“Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”
“Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.
“You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.”
“But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”
“Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”
The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.
Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:
Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
Cling to what is good.
Devote yourself to loving others.
Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
Share what you have with anyone in need.
Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.
“In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part:your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people, not at all meaning the people of this world... 1 Corinthians 5:10 (NIV)
There once was a Christian man, raised in a Christian family. From his infancy he attended a Christian church and then was placed in Christian school where he had many Christian friends. He listened exclusively to Christian music on the Christian music station and read Christian novels from the Christian publisher that he purchased from the Christian book store. During high school he involved himself with Christian athletes and in his senior year he attended the Christian prom with his Christian girlfriend. After graduating from Christian high school, the young man attended a Christian college. He went on several Christian missions to the third world and interned at two different Christian organizations. He met a good Christian girl from a Christian family, and he married her. After graduating from the Christian college, the man returned to his hometown to start a Christian business, listed in the local Christian business directory, and joined a Christian men’s group to help him raise his Christian family. And, it started all over again.
“Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.”
If I was the enemy of Light, and I wanted to keep the Light from penetrating the darkness, I would simply convince the Light bearers that “holiness” was totally dependent on keeping their Light hidden under an overturned bucket of social, cultural, and familial exclusivity. Then, I would sprinkle in the notion that those in darkness will either be 1) somehow attracted to their little circle of exclusivity under the bucket or 2) deserving of the hopeless, eternal darkness outside.
[The man of lawlessness] will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 2 Thessalonians 2:4 (NIV)
Yesterday, as I was getting ready, I had the Cohen brothers’ classic movie, The Big Lebowski, playing in the background. It’s become one of my all time favorites movies. What most people don’t realize is that The Big Lebowski is basically a classic 1940s film noir detective story set in the early 1980s with an unlikely stoner named The Dude unwittingly placed in the role of the protagonist detective.
I grew up watching a lot classic films and the hard-boiled detective movies (e.g. Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade) of the film noir genre were among my favorites. In The Big Lebowski you have all the classic detective movie motifs: the old millionaire, the millionaire’s daughter with whom the protagonist falls in love, blackmail, rabbit trails, crime lords, a secondary detective, and the protagonist detective getting “slipped a Mickey” (drugged with a drink).
I’ve observed that most people watch films in a vacuum, as though each film sort of stands alone. The reality is that all good stories and films borrow themes and motifs from one another. All of my favorite epics, for examples, have the overarching theme of good versus evil. Usually an epic story is about an ancient struggle coming to a climax. There’s always a prophecy woven into the storyline, as well. In Harry Potter there is the prophecy Harry retrieves from the Ministry of Magic. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe there is the prophecy and deep magic of the stone table. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn is led to take the Paths of the Dead because of the “words of Malbeth the Seer.”
I say it fairly regularly: “All good stories are a reflection of the Great Story.” Our stories reflect our own humanity. Deeper still, I believe that human history is a Great Story being told across the ages. I believe that evil exists and there is a very real struggle between good versus evil. I believe in the prophetic.
Along my life journey I’ve experienced the prophetic. I have found it to be both mysterious and messy and therefore quickly dismissed by many. I have come to believe that tragedy lies on either side of the tension between two possible errors: Dismissing the prophetic altogether or drowning too deeply in the mystery. I’ve always tried to hold the tension between the two.
In the early years of the Jesus movement there were many prophecies given concerning where the plot line of the Great Story was going. This led to many arguments and mistaken assumptions. In today’s chapter, Paul is addressing some mistaken assumptions in today’s chapter. Without drowning too deeply in the specifics, I find myself being reminded of two things.
First, there is evil, and evil opposes good. Jesus was very aware of the evil opposing Him. He knew that His coming was prophesied (He proclaimed Isaiah’s prophetic word in His first sermon). He cast out demons throughout His ministry. He knew He was being tempted by the evil one to abandon His sacrificial mission. We don’t like to think too much about the reality of evil, but it exists.
Second, evil cannot create but, instead, it always counterfeits. Tolkien clearly picked up this theme in his epic stories. Orcs were counterfeits made in opposition to elves. Trolls were counterfeits made in opposition to ents. Paul says there is prophesied a counterfeit messiah to come whom he calls the Man of Lawlessness. The Greek term he uses is anthropos (man, mankind, humanity; as in anthropology the study of humanity) anamos (opposition, lawless, wicked; from which we get the English word animosity). Paul explains that it has been prophesied that this counterfeit messiah will come before Jesus’ return in a climax to this Great Story.
In the quiet this morning I find myself pondering all of these mysteries. I don’t want to get lost in them, but neither do I want to dismiss them. Again, I find myself trying to hold the tension. I believe my life journey is part of the Great Story. How it fits and weaves into the larger plot lines is a mystery to me. I’m just trying to stick to the path appointed for me, to follow the steps I’m led, to do the good God calls me to do, and to be shrewd as a serpent and gentle as a dove, aware of both the evil and the good around me.
Or, as Jeffrey Lebowski would put it: “The Dude Abides.”
The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another. When the men of Judah came to the place that overlooks the desert and looked toward the vast army, they saw only dead bodies lying on the ground; no one had escaped. 2 Chronicles 20:23-34 (NIV)
In our modern, twenty-first century enlightened world we rarely talk about the nature of evil. I find that, even among those who are followers of Jesus, there is a reticence to even think of the concept of evil. Jesus quite regularly referenced evil. The word or variation is used seven times in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Over the years Wendy and I have noticed a theme among epic stories regarding the nature of evil: evil eventually destroys itself from within. Sometimes, left to itself, evil naturally implodes. Tolkien used this device multiple times in his stories and it came to mind this morning as I read today’s chapter. As Merry and Pippin are captives of the Orcs it is an internal fight between factions of Orcs and Grishnakh’s lust that ultimately allow for their escape. Likewise, as Frodo and Sam attempt steal their way into Mordor through the stronghold of Cirith Ungol, a massive fight between two companies of Orcs destroy one another and allow the Hobbits to escape.
In today’s chapter we find a similar story from Judah’s history. A coalition of enemy armies are gathered to march against Judah and Jerusalem. King Jehoshaphat assembles all the people to seek the Lord. They pray, they fast, they humble themselves. God speaks through the prophet that the battle belongs to God and He will deliver. The people respond in praise. The coalition of enemy armies turn on each other and destroy one another so that when the army of Judah arrives, they find a field of dead bodies.
This morning in the quiet as I mull these things over I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ admonishment about the two mistakes one can make about the exploration of evil. One, he said, is to ignore it. The second is to get too deep and take it too seriously. The people of Judah didn’t ignore the threat facing them but focused their energies on seeking after God, trusting, and following. Before the threat could become a battle, the evil had imploded within. I never want to be naive, ignorant, or blind to the reality of evil that exists in our world. Neither do I want to give into fear or be overwhelmed by it:
This is what the Lord says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.
So all the officials and people who entered into this covenant agreed that they would free their male and female slaves and no longer hold them in bondage. They agreed, and set them free.But afterward they changed their minds and took back the slaves they had freed and enslaved them again. Jeremiah 34:10-11 (NIV)
I found today’s chapter in the anthology of the ancient prophet Jeremiah’s messages particularly fascinating. It is a series of messages given during the very time that Jerusalem, the capital city of the ancient nation of Judah, was besieged by the armies of Babylon. Judah’s King Zedekiah had issued a proclamation that all Hebrew slaves (in other words, the people of Judah had enslaved their own people) should be emancipated. After initially abiding by King Z’s emancipation proclamation, the slave owners reversed course, rounded up their former slaves, and returned the slaves to their chains.
In his book exploring the nature of evil, M. Scott Peck describes evil people as “pathologically attached to the status quo of their personalities” while “unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity.” I thought of those descriptors this morning as I read about the Hebrew slave owners who initially choose to appear obedient and upright in following the King’s edict, but then quickly put their own slaves back in shackles and maintained the status quo of the evil of slavery. The Hebrew people, whose ancestors had been freed from slavery in Egypt, had in effect become their Egyptian masters. While maintaining the appearance of being “God’s people” they were unable to see that they had become the very evil from which their own people had been delivered.
This morning in the quiet I’ve been doing a bit of my own gut-check. Somehow I’m sensing that it’s too easy to wag my self-righteous, 21st century fingers at the ancient Hebrew slave owners. Where in my own life do I make effort to keep up appearances of goodness while simultaneously maintaining a destructive status quo in my behaviors and relationships? Ugh.
I may be able to look back and see that have made spiritual progress on this life journey, but I can still look inside, then look ahead, and see how far I have to go. And with that, my spirit whispers an ancient prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Note to my readers:As much I’d like to think that slavery has been outlawed and eradicated by our enlightened society, reading a few stories from groups such as International Justice Mission (an organization Wendy and I support) are a reminder that the evil of slavery addressed in Jeremiah’s ancient message is very much alive in the world we live in today. One practical way to make a tangible difference for good is to make a donation to IJM’s efforts or any one of many similar organizations. Peace.
“What about the evils of the crusades?” “What about the Church’s silence during the Holocaust?” “What about the Spanish Inquisition?” “What about the Salem witch trials?”
As a follower of Jesus, one of the more frustrating experiences is being placed by others in the position of being called upon to answer for the awful things that have been said or done in the name of Jesus whether it be in this generation or throughout history. The reality is that I cannot excuse nor be an apologist for those who are determined to twist the teachings of Christ for evil, selfish or self-righteous purposes. I can, however, stand up and speak out if I see such things happening around me. Which is exactly what Paul was doing in today’s chapter.
Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth is a testament to the fact that even the first generation of believers were not immune to people using religion for selfish ends. Paul calls these religious con men out and urges the believers in Corinth to see the difference between the slick talking charlatans who were trying to line their own pockets and Paul who didn’t have con-man charisma but had always acted out of sincere love for the Corinthians.
This morning I’m reminded of the reality that wherever you find God you will find evil marring, twisting and thwarting the things of God. Even Jesus was betrayed by one of His inner circle. It is true that we can, throughout history, find those who did terrible things in the name of Jesus (including the institutional church). It is equally true that we can find incredible stories of followers of Jesus in those same periods of history who were living examples of Jesus’ teachings. During the bloodbath of the crusades Francis of Assisi was actively working toward peace and understanding with Islam. While the institutional Church remained silent about Nazi Germany, there were many like the Ten Boom family who gave their lives to protect Jewish people from the Holocaust.
Like Paul, I can only call out evil when I see it. “People of the Lie” will always be with us, as they always have been. I must confront their falseness when I am aware of it. I am responsible for my own thoughts, words, relationships and actions. And so I begin a new day as one simple wayfarer walking my own path and doing my best to obey Jesus’ command to love.
“I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian— brother will fight against brother, neighbor against neighbor, city against city, kingdom against kingdom.” Isaiah 19:2 (NIV)
‘Yes, they quarreled, seemingly,’ said Sam. ‘There must have been a couple of hundred of the dirty creatures in this place. A bit of a tall order for Sam Gamgee, as you might say. But they’ve done all the killing of themselves.’
The Lord of the Rings, Book 6, Chapter 1
Evil falls prey to its own nature. That’s one of the themes that Tolkien threaded through his epic stories. Left to its own devices, evil implodes from its self-seeking appetites:
Several characters relented from killing Gollum and Gandalf even believed that Gollum had a part to play in the fate of the ring. Gollum’s insatiable lust for the One Ring was what ultimately saved Frodo and everyone else, while destroying both the Ring and himself.
In the Tower of Cirith Ungol Sam is able to find Frodo and rescue him because all of the orcs fought and destroyed each other. (see quoted passage above)
The orcs who took Merry and Pippin quarrel over their captives and their quarrel is leveraged by the hobbits to plot their escape.
Gandalf refuses to kill either Saruman or Wormtongue. In the end, Wormtongue finishes Saruman off himself.
I thought about this theme in Tolkien’s stories, and its caused me to think about my responses and reactions to evil that I encounter around me and in others. As a young man I was far more given to the notion of swift and final justice of any perpetrator of evil. The further I get in my journey the more I’ve come to appreciate that life is not always as simply black and white.
Even God, through the word of the prophets, makes it clear that sometimes the agents of evil unwittingly serve the greater design of the Great Story. In Isaiah’s prophetic messages to the nations in the past few chapters there has been a recurring theme of Israel’s enemies accomplishing God’s larger purposes. And, sometimes implodes and devours itself.
“Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement,” Gandalf says to Frodo regarding Gollum’s deserving justice. “For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
This morning I’m thinking about grand themes of good and evil, of mercy and justice. I would love for things to always be simple in the story telling and to avoid the messiness of the mystery. I would especially appreciate it as I apply these themes to my own life and relationships. Yet, my life journey has taught me that things are rarely that simple. The truth is that I would have quickly dispatched Gollum and considered it a just end, but then how would the larger epic have ended?
I’m left, as I am so often am, praying for wisdom and discernment. I’m trying harder than ever to suppress my natural eagerness to deal out judgement. I’m trying harder than ever to increase love in tangible ways.