A sermon series on the book of Judges? Really?

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This Sunday at Riverview we're going to start a 17 week sermon series through the book of Judges.  Judges is the seventh book of the Bible, and records the time after the nation of Israel inherits the Promised Land.  Unfortunately, it's not a very happy story, and the book of Judges contains some of the most brutally violent, bloody, and depraved texts in all of scripture.  It's definitely not a book for the squeamish or the faint of heart.  

Then why do a sermon series on the book of Judges?  In fact, why preach from any of the Old Testament (OT) books at all?  Isn't the OT just about the nation of Israel and a bunch of outdated laws that don't apply to us anymore?  Shouldn't we be focusing instead on Jesus and his work through the gospel, and how New Testament (NT) churches lived out their faith and walked with Jesus?  Wouldn't that be more relevant for us today?  

Such questions are not uncommon, and their prevalence can be clearly seen simply by looking at how often churches teach and/or preach from OT books compared to how often they teach and/or preach from NT books.  While in seminary, Pastor Richard did a study on the prevalence and frequency of preaching from OT done in many large, American churches.  Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly), many churches do not regularly preach or teach on the Old Testament at all.  Of those surveyed who actually did preach on OT books, just 5-15% of sermons came OT texts.  That statistic is perhaps startling when you consider that the OT comprises 75% of the entire Bible!

At Riverview, we endeavor to preach through the Bible verse by verse, line by line, chapter by chapter, book by book.  And we don't make an exception for OT books or NT books.  In fact, as we plan out our sermon series for the year, we try to schedule half of the sermons from OT books (such as historical books, prophetic books, or wisdom books), and half of the sermons from NT books (such as gospels, letters, etc.).  

We don't think that the OT is outdated or irrelevant to Christians today.  Quite the opposite.  We believe that the Bible contains one unified message, and that the whole book is telling one singular story: the redemption of a fallen creation through Jesus Christ for the glory of God.  You can find this theme in the pages of Exodus, Ruth, Psalms, Luke, Romans, Galatians, James, Revelation, and every other book in the Bible.  God doesn't change.  He didn't start one story in the OT and then begin a different one in the NT. All of history - and all of the Bible - is pointing us to his redemption through Jesus Christ.

More importantly, Jesus himself said that the OT all pointed to him and to God's purpose in the cross.  In Luke 24 the resurrected Jesus meets two disciples on the road, but they don't recognize him.  They tell him all about the recent events in Jerusalem (the crucifixion and resurrection), and how they were astounded by these events.  Jesus essentially asks them why they were astounded, since the scriptures (the Old Testament) all pointed to those things happening.  "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures [the Old Testament] the things concerning himself."  In other words, Jesus showed these to guys how the whole OT pointed to him. 

Even in the blood-stained pages of the book of Judges we can see the theme of the gospel running throughout.  We see the depth of our sin and the terrible consequences it engenders, and we see our desperate need for a Savior from the sin that entangles us.  We see a God of grace who, time after time, comes to the aid of his people even though they have done nothing to earn his favor.  We see a covenant God of faithfulness who will not abandon his people; no matter how far they fall from him, he will always draw them back to himself.  We see broken, imperfect people who humble themselves before a holy God and are used for his purposes.  All of these things are part of God's story, God's message, and God's invitation to all people to be a part of his kingdom.  And we find all of these things in the Old Testament.  The God of the OT is the same God of the NT, and his message is the same in both testaments.  

I'm looking forward to finding Jesus in the book of Judges over the next few months at Riverview, and I invite you to join us.  As part of this study, we invite you to read through the difficult pages of the book of Judges with us.  Each Thursday, on our Facebook page, we'll be linking to the text for the upcoming week's sermon.  We invite you to read with us so we can all encounter God together in his word each week.  

Baseball, Ice Cream, and Hope

This summer it has been my privilege to coach my son's 9-10 year old little league baseball team. It's been a long and rough season for the West St. Paul A's, as we started the season 0-14.  Problems at the plate and in the field have plagued our team, but our players have been improving as the season goes along, which is really the most important thing.  But wins have been hard to come by for our team.  

A couple of weeks ago we played our regularly scheduled game, and something strange happened: we took the lead in the first inning.  After the inning was over, we were ahead 3-2.  And then the next inning came and we added on to that lead.  By the last inning of the game, the score was 13-4 in our favor.  As the coach I was excited because I really wanted our team to get a taste of victory, and to be able to celebrate a job well done together, and to finally be able to say that we won a game.  

I had previously told our team that at the time of our first win, I would buy them all ice cream from the snack bar located at the ballpark.  So during this game, before the last inning, I called my wife over to the dugout and told her to get ready to buy the treats for our team at the conclusion of the game.  "But don't buy them yet," I said.  "I don't know yet if we're going to win."  The other team had not yet completed their last turn at bat.  I hoped we were going to win, but I just couldn't be sure.  We had had leads in games before, but the other teams came back and beat us.  Could we hold on to this lead and secure the victory?  I didn't know, but I hoped so. 

Then the opposing team came up for their last at-bats.  They scored a run.  Then another.  Then another.  But finally, we were able to shut them down and came away with the win, 13-7.  Now that our victory was certain, I looked over at my wife and gave her the signal to go buy the ice cream!  There were smiles all around.  

When the Bible talks about hope it does not talk about it in the way that I hoped for our team to win that game.  My hope for winning was uncertain - it was a possibility, but it was never guaranteed.  The Bible talks about hope in a very different way: biblical hope is a confident and eager expectation of something certain.  

The foundation for biblical hope is not founded on the skill of little league baseball players or the law of averages, but the character and nature of God.  If I hope that our baseball team will win the season tournament at the end of the summer, my hope will be founded on the ability of the players to win baseball games (which has not been a firm foundation thus far!).  Or, think about that promotion at work that you are hoping to get.  What is the foundation of your hope?  The approval of your boss, or your sales numbers, or your seniority level, or whatever.  When it comes down to it, those are all very shaky foundations upon which to place your hope. 

Biblical hope is founded on the character and nature of God.  God is always faithful to his promises, and he will always do what is right.  As Christians, we look into the future with hope that is founded upon who God has said he is in his word, and what he has said he will do.  This means that when we are in trouble and hope that God will deliver us, our hope is very secure because God has promised to deliver us, and he is always faithful.  Or if we are unjustly treated we hope that the wrong will be made right, and our hope is very secure because God is a God of justice.  

Psalm 43.5 says, "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?  Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God."  As the author of these words thinks about the problems in his life, he knows that there is no reason for his soul to be down cast, or for him to suffer inner turmoil if his hope indeed is in God.  Because hope in the one, true, faithful God of the Bible is not "iffy."  It's not a gamble; it's not a 50/50 chance.  Instead, it's a sure thing, because that's the kind of God that God is.  He is a God who keeps his promises and does what he says he is going to do.  

It would have been foolish of me to buy the ice cream treats for our team before the game was even played, because my hope of winning would be based on their ability and effort.  But living and walking in hope in God being true to his promises is not foolish - in fact, it's wise and prudent, because God never slumbers nor sleeps.  There is nothing that will keep him from keeping his promises to his people.  We can know that we are hoping in God when our lives begin to take on the characteristics of someone who is looking forward to a future "payoff" of God's faithfulness with eager and confident expectation, whether that happens in this life or the next.  The question is, what should my life look like if I am living with an eager and confident expectation for God to be faithful to his promises?  This is what it means to hope in God, and to live a life that is characterized by hope.  

Death Is the Ultimate Form of Healing

When I was a teenager in high school I had an unofficial spiritual mentor named Al.  Although I had grown up in the church, I was a baby Christian at the time, and Al was a fount of biblical wisdom that I quickly latched on to.  Al even spent some of his time in an informal discipleship group with myself and a few other teenage boys, talking about science, God, the Bible, and anything else we wanted to talk about.  Al was a retired biology teacher at Henry Sibley High School, so the conversations of the group often turned to matters of science and faith, particularly within Al's discipline of biology.  

Once, during a discussion on biology, Al said something that has stuck with me ever since.  We were talking about the human body and its ability to heal itself and be healed by medicine, but then Al said, "Death is the ultimate form of healing."  To be honest, this statement perplexed me initially, as the notion that the physical process of death could be considered a form of healing was completely foreign to me at the time.  When I thought of healing, I thought of a person getting better, or recovering from an illness or injury through time and medicine.  And when I thought of death I thought of disease or injury so severe that it caused the body to cease its functions, and that medicine had failed.  To me, death seemed like the exact opposite of healing.  

But as I've considered Al's words over the years and have continued to study the Bible, it has become apparent to me that Al's words can only be understood and appreciated from a Christian worldview.  The Bible teaches that Jesus has defeated death, and that Christians who are trusting in Jesus will inherit eternal life at the time of their physical death.  In heaven there is no pain, no disease, no injury, and no death.  Those things exist on earth, but not in heaven.  On earth we are plagued by illness and disease, injuries and weak bodies that are susceptible to germs and bacteria.  In heaven, none of those things exist.  When a believer goes to heaven, all of those earthly afflictions that plague our bodies are instantly healed through physical death.

There are many biological and medical conditions that can plague our bodies on earth, for which there is no cure.  Speaking personally, I have a skin condition that I've been told will linger on for the duration of my natural life.  There is no cure.  But some day, when I die, I will be healed of this condition, and the means by which I will be healed will be my death.  My death will result in my ultimate healing.  Similarly, my dad has lived with the effects of polio since he was seven years old.  At his death he will be healed of his affliction.  He doesn't want to die, necessarily, but I know that he is looking forward to this healing.  

Just this last week, a 98 year old saint and member of Riverview passed on to be with God in heaven.  For years she had been struggling with the effects of living in a 90+ year old body, and she was tired and ready to go to heaven, so she had been praying for that to happen.  A couple weeks ago, however, she fell and broke her pelvis, and was put in hospice care, suffering from severe pain every day.  She continued to pray that God would heal her - by allowing her to die.  And God did.  God healed her of her pain by taking her to be with him, where there is no such thing as old age and the complications that come with it, and there is no such injury as a broken pelvis.

In Psalm 40 David describes himself as having fallen into the "pit of destruction" and a "miry bog." (Psalm 40.2)  He's not speaking literally here, but rather that the circumstances of his life are like living neck-deep in a slimy swamp.  He asks God to help him, and as he awaits God's deliverance, he considers truth about God's mercy, love, and faithfulness.  He says, "As for you, O Lord, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me!" (Psalm 40.11)

When we think of our physical healing, I think it's safe to say that we don't often think of being healed through death.  We tend to think that God's unrestrained mercy and steadfast love and faithfulness will manifest itself in our lives through the restoration of our physical bodies.  We think of God using doctors and medicine to restore our bodies to their original health before we became ill, and indeed, this is often the case.  It seems evident that David expected God to deliver him from his physical circumstances and restore his body and condition to the way it was before he suffered this affliction that tossed him into the "pit of destruction."  And if and when we are restored to a healthy physical disposition, then we declare that God's mercy has indeed been unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness have preserved us.  

The error we make in this thinking, however, is that God would be any less merciful or loving or faithful if he healed us of our afflictions through death.  In fact, as my mentor Al implied, God's mercy, love, and faithfulness are most fully realized in death, when a believer is removed from this life and is joined with Jesus in paradise.  God does indeed use the process of physical death to heal us of our afflictions, and healing through death is a good thing.  

But then, why seek physical healing?  If death is such a wondrous release, why not just speed along the process and take my own life?  Just a couple of years ago, Brittany Maynard gained widespread attention for her assertion that she would end her own life if and when the circumstances surrounding her cancer became too difficult to live with.  She fulfilled her plans, and took her own life as a means of ending the pain and suffering she was experiencing.  The act of taking one's life, however, is not a result of a Christian or biblical worldview.  We do not have power over life and death and healing. Only God does.  Only God gets to make those kinds of decisions.  Even when we suffer, we trust that God knows what is best in matters of healing, life, and death.  We have no authority to take our own lives.  Only God has the power and authority to give life, and only God has the authority to take it away.  We must not presume to be God and take life.  

This way of thinking should help us to reframe the way we think about death, especially when a Christian dies who has been suffering from an illness or unpleasant circumstances.  In the example of my 98 year-old friend who passed away this week, her death brings sadness, but also much relief and joy that she has been healed of her pain.  When we find ourselves in the "pit of destruction," we remember that God's mercy toward us will be unrestrained, and that his steadfast love and faithfulness will ever preserve us.  And we pray that God will restore our bodies to a good physical condition in the here and now.  But if he does not, we await and long for his unrestrained mercy to us at the time of our death, trusting that God will give us the exact kind of healing that we need. 

Just a couple of years after I left high school, my mentor Al was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away shortly thereafter, forever healed of the cancer that afflicted his body.  He was pulled up out of the pit of destruction once and for all.  In his death, the Lord's mercy was fully unrestrained, and his steadfast love and faithfulness was proved in its most full way.  

Working Towards 1 Thessalonians 3.12

Earlier this year my wife and I attended a “Dinner for 8” where she and I and six others sat down for a meal together.  Over the course of the meal I learned a lot about people whom I had really only known superficially before.  As part of the evening, our hosts had devised several probing questions for each of us to answer and share with one another, such as “What is one thing about you that nobody knows?” and “What is the most challenging thing about walking with God?”  We then got to discuss these questions and learn about one another. 

For instance, I had no idea that one of the people at our group was related to one of the baseball players featured in the movie “Field of Dreams.”  Another had almost died in a parasailing accident, and still another by being accidentally crushed by a refrigerator!  When it came to my turn, the people in my group were surprised to learn that I had attended a concert much earlier in life and been deemed the “best dancer” and was given a prize (I still don’t understand why that’s so surprising).  When it came to the question about challenges with walking with God, we discussed how living in America—the land of opportunity and freedom—can sometimes be a challenge to our spiritual walk.  It was a wonderful evening, and the two hours that we spent there went by in a flash. 

In 1 Thessalonians 3.12 Paul prays that the Thessalonian believers would “increase and abound in love for one another and for all…”  It has become very apparent to me that it is difficult to grow in love for my fellow believers if I don’t really know them that well, or if my only involvement in their lives is limited to a “How ya doing?” on Sunday mornings.  It's challenging to build significant relationships within the body if interaction takes place only on Sunday mornings.  In order to “increase and abound in love” for other people, I need to get to know them. 

Thankfully, Riverview has two very specific opportunities for us to be able to do just that.  A first round of Dinners for 8 was held earlier this year, and another round will be held this summer.  A group of eight people get together for a meal just to hang out and eat together.  Each group has a host who volunteers their home for the meal location, and the host provides the main dish and tells the other group members what to bring to share.  Groups are randomly selected, and the whole process is a lot of fun.  I highly recommend you consider joining a group.  Simply register through our church website to be included. 

A second opportunity to get to know your friends and family at Riverview is by attending our “Family Nights in the Park.”  Several Wednesday evenings this summer we’ll meet together for a potluck meal at 5:30 PM at Lorraine Park in South St. Paul.  It’s a perfect opportunity to sit down, relax, enjoy a great meal, and just get to know other people who are following Jesus.  I promise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn, and blessed as you “increase and abound in love for one another, and for all.”

 

Politics and the Pulpit

Last week President Trump signed an executive order on "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."  This order, among other things, states that the Trump Administration will not enforce the Johnson Amendment that forbids non-profit organizations from endorsing political parties and candidates.  In short, churches and pastors now have the legal freedom to endorse a political candidate in local, state, and national elections (although this Order does not guarantee that they will not be prosecuted for doing so in the future - see here).  Joe Carter has written a very helpful piece that explains in more detail what is accomplished by this Executive Order.  

Although this Order gives churches and pastors the freedom to become more visibly and publicly involved in the process of political campaigns, as a pastor, I have no intention of endorsing a political candidate or backing a particular party as part of my ministry, and nor will Riverview Baptist Church do so as a non-profit entity.  There are at least three very clear reasons why: 

1. It might be a stumbling block.
We live in a polarized political world where most people are clearly on one side of an issue or the other, and support either this candidate or the other, and never between the two shall meet.  In other words, everyone has their opinion and is sticking to it - no matter what.  It would seem unwise to me, then, when in the position to be a minister of the gospel, that I would cloud that message with an endorsement of a political candidate.  Such an endorsement may hinder someone who disagrees with my candidate of preference from hearing the message that I really want to declare: the gospel.  In other words, if I endorse a republican candidate from the pulpit, it's going to be hard for democrats to hear the gospel, and vice versa.  If there will be a stumbling block in front of a person, it will be the word of God, not the pastor's political persuasions.  I don't want to put any stumbling block of my own creation that does not come from the Bible in front of a person who needs to hear the greatest news ever given.  For this reason, I will gladly sacrifice my right to endorse a candidate from the pulpit.  

2. The marriage between the church and politics has largely left the church weak and ineffective.
In my opinion, much of the present weakness in the American church is the result of its close association with political parties.  Far too many Christians have put their hope in the government for their salvation, believing that elected officials have the power to enact biblical change.  This is not true, nor is it the role that God intends for government to perform.  Additionally, far too many Christians have abdicated the work that the Bible clearly calls the church to accomplish, and has left that work up to the government.  The church has given up much of its authority to the government, and has looked to government programs to achieve change instead of the gospel, leaving it weak and ineffective.  The results of this marriage have been tragic.  Since the church has abdicated its work to the government, many of America's 300,000+ protestant churches have become entertainment centers that focus on life-enhancement rather than the gospel.  The endorsement of political candidates from the pulpit would only further this weakness.

3. The church is a divine entity created by God - not a political party. 
The church is distinct from all other institutions in the history of the world.  We are the called-out-ones; the disparate band of sinners redeemed by a great Savior.  We come from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, political persuasions, and every other qualifier imaginable.  We are to partner with God in his mission to bring the gospel to every corner of the earth.  In this process we are to call all people to repentance and faith - from the lowliest peasant to the highest king or president.  We are to call all politicians and political parties to repentance - not to get into bed with the party we prefer and call the other one to repentance.  To endorse a candidate or party would muddy the waters of knowing what the church is and its purpose in the world.  

All of this being said, the church is still bound by God to address topics and issues that are often political in nature in our culture.  We will still talk about moral issues, and we will do our best to speak clearly where the Bible speaks clearly.  The influence of the gospel permeates all areas of life - including our engagement with politics.  But make no mistake: we don't speak about these issues and take the stances we do because of an allegiance to a political party, but to God.  We are ambassadors of God's kingdom, not ambassadors for the kingdoms of the democrat and republican parties.  We will endorse the King of kings, and no one else.  

As Christians who follow King Jesus, we understand that there are times when we may be called to sacrifice our earthly rights for the sake of the gospel.  I, for one, feel that sacrificing the right to endorse a political candidate for the sake of the gospel is a good one to make.