Pastor Joel's Top 10 Books of 2017

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Around this time of year, many "Top 10" lists are published, recapping the best of the best of the previous year.  My favorite version of these lists is a top 10 list of books.  Several authors, bloggers, writers, and preachers and pastors release such lists, and I confess that I get almost all of my reading material for the coming year from such lists.  Not to be outdone, I figured I'd produce my own Top 10 list of books that I read that were influential in my thinking, or challenged me in some way, or that I simply enjoyed.  This isn't the first time I've produced a list like this (click here for my favorite books from 2016).  While in this post I'll be focusing on books that enhanced my spiritual walk, I'll be making a more diverse list over on my personal blog.  

Before checking out my list below, there are a few things you should be aware of:

1. My favorite genre of literature is biography, memoir, history, and other non-fiction.  This is ironic, considering that the top books on this year's and last year's list were both fiction!  But my main "go-to" literature is definitely non-fiction.  The good fiction I pick up is usually coincidental or unintentional.  

2. Some of these books are included in Riverview's library.  I'll note their inclusion when appropriate.  Otherwise, you can click on the thumbnail of each book to find it on Amazon.  

3. I realize that not all of these books (actually, I don't think any of them) were published in 2017.  But nevertheless, it was 2017 by the time I got around to reading them.  So although this is a list of some of my favorite books of 2017, the "2017" qualifier only refers to when I actually read them.

4. I don't have a lot of time to read.  I'm a busy guy with a full time job, a marriage to nurture, and two young kids to raise.  I don't have a lot of extra time.  For this reason, before I pick up a book, I do a bit of research into what I'm about to read.  If I am going to spend my time reading, I want to make it count.  So I don't usually just pick up a random book and start reading.  I read intentionally.

10. Do More Better by Tim Challies. As a busy pastor, I'm constantly filling my time with tasks, visits, correspondence, studying, reading, and other things.  My schedule can get pretty busy.  Tim Challies has a strong interest in productivity, and he has done some good writing about it here.  The best part of this book is its practicality.  You will gain several good and reliable and actionable pieces of advice about how to be more efficient and productive in your daily work, and from a Christian perspective.  

9. Tyranny of the Urgent by Charles E. Hummel.  Earlier this year I was at a meeting for a board that I sit on, and one of the other board members used the phrase "the tyranny of the urgent."  I told him that was an interesting phrase and asked him if he came up with it himself.  He said that he did not, and that it was actually the title of a very short book that I should read as soon as possible.  In fact, he said, "Stop what you're doing right now, and order it on Amazon."  I did.  It was very good.  And very short.  If you don't have time to read Do More Better, then read Tyranny of the Urgent.  It will take you through a very brief biblical analysis of how we budget and use our time as Christians, and how we can do better.  

8. Dispatches from the Front by Tim Keesee.  In my regular reading I try to keep an eye on what it is like to be a Christian in other parts of the world.  It is far too common for us to be insulated and think that the fullness of the Christian experience is found in whatever it looks like in our own context.  I want to know what it is like to be a Christian in other parts of the world.  I was first introduced to the Dispatches from the Front series through Tim Challies' website.  Tim Keesee has an interesting job.  He travels the world and visits Christians and produces a video series of these visits to the "hard places" of the world where Christianity sometimes struggles and sometimes thrives.  The videos present an in depth look at the church in these hard places and some of the circumstances that make them such.  The videos are extremely well done (and available in Riverview's library).  I'm glad to say that the book is also well done, and Keesee is a good writer.  It's always good to get a different perspective on what it is like to be a Christian in other parts of the world.  

7. They Say We Are Infidels by Mindy Belz.  What's it like to be a Christian in the Middle East?  That's the question this book answers by giving real-life, first-hand accounts of Iraqi Christians and how they survive and suffer and even thrive in an environment that is extremely hostile toward them.  Mindy Belz uses her journalistic expertise to befriend and report on how Christians live in not only the "hard places," but the hardest places.  

6. The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan.  This book was recommended by a somewhat high profile preacher that I follow on Facebook.  The book is the memoir of Andrew Klavan, who was born and raised a secular Jew.  The book details the account of his spiritual journey and ultimate awakening to the truth of the gospel.  It's a fantastic journey to see how God can intersect the life of anyone he chooses, no matter their circumstances or surroundings, and tear down the most prideful of hearts.  Plus, Klavan is a great writer and narrator, if you decide to get the audiobook.  I definitely had some theological and practical differences with Klavan along the way, but his story is encouraging and a worthwhile read.  

5. The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe.  The Kingdom of Speech is perhaps the most interesting book I read in 2017.  It argues against the evolutionary hypothesis as a legitimate explanation of the origin of life, and it does so in a fascinating and entertaining way.  The basic premise of the book is that evolution cannot account for the creation of human speech.  A layman's look at the field of linguistics simply yet comprehensively demonstrates that the gift of speech could not have evolved.  Plus, it's a rather short read.  (Reader beware: there is some brief foul language.)

4. Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.  This book has been on a lot of Top 10 lists across the internet, and created quite a buzz earlier in the year.  It's a gripping true story about a young boy's growth into adulthood in "hillbilly" culture and turbulent relationships he has along the way with his parents, grandparents, and his culture in general.  At times the tale is tragic, and at times, funny.  The book is almost too complex to describe here.  Although not written from a Christian perspective, you will be challenged to think long, hard, and biblically about poverty, justice, social classes and stigmas, human nature, personal responsibility, sin, family relationships, and a host of other issues.  (Reader beware: this book contains plenty of foul language and depictions of drug and alcohol abuse.)

3. Silence by Shusaku Endo.  Although written in the mid-20th century, earlier this year a movie of the same title was released, and I began to learn about the story of Silence.  I did not see the movie, however, but instead decided to read the novel.  Considered to be one of the best novels of the 20th century, I found it very interesting, very engaging, and a good look at suffering for Christ, albeit from a Roman Catholic perspective.  The novel tells the story of a 16th century young Portuguese priest who goes on a missionary journey to Japan to see the oppression that Catholic missionaries and Japanese Christians have suffered at the hands of Japanese persecutors.  What he finds is the barbaric treatment of priests and Japanese Christians, and even suffers the same himself.  The title of the novel is derived from the central question of the story: "If God can see the evil that happens, why does he remain silent?"  Unfortunately, Endo offers no answer to the question, and perhaps there is not one from the Catholic perspective.  We do have answers, however, and that's what I found frustrating about this book: I wanted to shout out to the characters and encourage them with truth as they struggle with the difficult questions of life.  This book caused me to think a lot, however, which is what good books do.  (Reader beware: this book contains mild depictions of torture and violence.)

2. Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton.  Also written in the mid-20th century is this biography of Martin Luther.  2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and so it seemed appropriate to me to read about the principle figure of the Reformation.  Bainton's biography was recommended to me as the standard of Luther biographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Martin Luther is a complicated character, and it was an enjoyable and educational process to read more about the man's life, ministry, and role in history and western culture.  As Bainton correctly asserts in the book, Luther remains one of the top-five culture-shaping characters in all of human history.  (Here I Stand is available in the Riverview Library)

1. The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson.  For some reason, it seems that the majority of fiction I consume and really enjoy is young adult fiction.  Go figure.  The Wingfeather Saga is no exception, and in fact, is notable in that it was, I think, the best thing I read all year.  To be fair, this is not just one book, but a series of four books, and I was taken in by each one.  So much so that as soon as I finished the books on my own, I began reading them from the beginning to my children.  Currently, we're working our way through the fourth book.  The books tell the story of one family - the Wingfeathers - and particularly the children: Janner, Kalmar, and Leelee, and the adventures they have as they discover their true identities and the implications it has for the world in which they live as they battle against the Fangs of Dang and their master, Gnag the Nameless.  An appreciation for fantasy literature is certainly helpful, but definitely not required.  There are fascinating and excellent examples of good biblical character traits in these books, including heroism, sacrifice, courage, bravery, and countless other noble and biblical virtues.  And Peterson brilliantly creates a whole new world filled with unique creatures and challenges.   It's a great series for kids, and especially for boys, with perhaps one of the best endings I've ever read in a series of novels.  The series begins slowly in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and continues with North! Or Be Eaten and then becomes mysterious with Monster in the Hollows and concludes fantastically with The Warden and the Wolf King.  Don't let the fact that this series is young adult fiction discourage you from reading it.  I can't recommend this series highly enough for children and adults alike.  (The Wingfeather Saga is available in the Riverview Library.)

 

Magnify God, Not Your Problems

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During the Christmas season we often focus on Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, and the many things that they did in order to prepare for the birth of their divine son.  In many ways, our idea of what they went through is probably inaccurate.  For example, we often think of them traveling to Bethlehem on their own, when in reality, they were most likely with a large group of family members.  And when we conceptualize Jesus' birth, the picture we get in our minds is one of Mary and Joseph alone in a stable, surrounded by animals.  This is almost certainly not the way it happened.  In ancient cultures, fathers had almost nothing to do with the actual birth of a baby.  Instead, midwives carried the mother along through the labor and actual birth.  In our modern context, we simply know of a mother and father going to a hospital for a few days, and then coming home with a baby.  But in first century Israel, it was a process that usually involved the whole extended family and a team of midwives. 

I think another thing we misunderstand about the birth of Jesus is the social and cultural implications there would have been for Mary.  After all, she was most likely a teenager when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she would be the mother of Jesus.  And not only that, but she was also betrothed (engaged) to Joseph.  An unexpected pregnancy no doubt brought suspicion of unfaithfulness on Mary's part.  For example, upon learning of her pregnancy, Joseph assumed that she had been unfaithful to him and became pregnant outside of their betrothal, so Joseph actually decided to divorce (annul the engagement) Mary.  If this would have happened, Mary would have found herself an unmarried teenage mother on the verge of destitution and poverty, and probably starvation. In first-century Israel, women relied upon men for their provision and even their daily food and shelter.  Without Joseph, Mary and her baby would almost certainly be doomed to die. 

No doubt these potential difficulties were going through Mary's mind when Gabriel told her that she would miraculously conceive in spite of her virginity.  There must have certainly been flashes of fear, doubt, and uncertainty going through her mind.  After all, she had no idea how Joseph would respond to her unexpected pregnancy, no less the news that it was immaculately conceived.  And Mary likewise had no idea what the social and cultural response to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be.  Put simply, from all natural indicators, Mary appeared to be staring down the barrel of a very difficult time in her life. 

But the fascinating and wonderful thing about Mary is that she does not focus on what could happen as a result of this unexpected pregnancy, but instead she focuses on the faithfulness of what God had done in the past.  Rather than magnify the many uncertain circumstances of her life that could lead to difficulty and even pain and suffering, instead she chooses to magnify the faithfulness of God.  In so doing, she gives us a wonderful example for how we should respond to difficult circumstances in life. 

Have you ever looked into a microscope?  I have, but probably not since sophomore year biology in high school.  But if you're familiar with the concept, you'll be able to follow what Mary wants to teach us.  When something is magnified it becomes bigger in appearance.  A microscope "blows up" an image so we can see it larger and in more detail.  The tiny features that were hidden before become obvious and apparent. 

Mary's remedy for dealing with the potential problems in her life brought about by her circumstances is to magnify (or "blow up") the truth about God in her mind.  She says in Luke 1.46-47 "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."  Here Mary makes a conscious decision to focus intentionally on truth about God, and to put that truth into practice in her life by believing it and acting upon it.  In the sermon I preached this past Sunday, we looked at five truths about God that Mary "magnified" instead of magnifying her problems in life.  I'd like to focus on just two of those truths now. 

1. First, Mary magnifies the truth that God watches over his people.  In Luke 1.48 Mary says, "...for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant."  God is a God who looks upon and sees his people, and when he looks, he sees them through eyes of compassion.  Sometimes the image that we have of God is that he is sitting up on his throne in heaven, watching us, just waiting for us to mess up and make a mistake.  But this is not at all how God watches over his children.  Instead, he watches over them with eyes of tenderness and compassion (1 Peter 3.12).  He knows where his children are and what is going on in their lives, and he responds to their prayers.  You and I can't even see what's going on in the other room next to us (without a window), but God can.  He can see in every corner of the earth at all times, and that included Mary and her potential problems brought about by this unexpected pregnancy. 

Mary also says that not only is God watching, but he is watching here even though she is in not a very important person.  Mary was from the town of Nazareth, which was known at the time as something of a ghetto.  It wasn't a city that had a lot of culture, and the people from Nazareth had a bad reputation of being low-class individuals (John 1.46).  But that didn't matter.  No matter where Mary came from or who she was - even if she was a nobody - God was watching, and he knew exactly what was going on in her life and what she needed. 

The same is true for you.  God sees you.  He knows exactly what is happening in your life, and he knows exactly how it's going to play out.  He knows exactly what you need to get through your challenges, and he is faithful to give you what you ask for in prayer.  And he knows all of this because he is watching.  When life gets difficult, as it has the tendency to do, don't magnify your problems.  Instead, magnify the truth that God sees you and he is watching you with eyes of compassion.  Blow this truth up in your mind, and believe it, and then act on it. 

2. Second, Mary magnifies the truth that "He who is mighty has done great things for me."  That's what Mary says in Luke 1.49.  One of the biggest temptations that we face when life is difficult is to forget all that God has done in the past.  We can get so caught up in the moment and the difficulty of our circumstances that we can become shortsighted.  It's easy to let the discomfort of "the now" to cloud our memory of all the great things God has done for us in the past. 

Scripture teaches that the gift God has given us to fight for faith in the present is remembering what he has done in the past: "I will appeal to this to the years of the right hand of the Most High.  I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.  I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds" (Psalm 77.10-12).  The remedy for getting caught up in the present difficulty of life is to remember that "he who is mighty has done great things for me."  It's magnifying what God has done rather than magnifying the present discomfort. 

This is what Mary must have been saying to herself: "You know, things are pretty hard for me right now, but I can take comfort because he who is mighty has done great things for me.  And if he has done great things in the pasty, he will again in the future."  That, my friends, is hope.  Instead of magnifying your present difficulty, magnify the truth of the mighty things God has done in the past.  That knowledge should give you hope for today, tomorrow, and any time in the future. 

Let's be frank: when troubles come, it is very easy to get caught up in the nagging questions about how and why we ever ended up in such a difficult spot in the first place.  It's easy to find ourselves questioning God and even being angry or feeling sorry for ourselves.  It is in those times that we must resist the temptation to magnify our problems, and instead magnify what we know to be true about God: that he looks upon his children and knows their suffering, and that he is faithful to keep his promises.  Make your faith in those promises big, and your problems will begin to seem much smaller.

The Fullness of Time

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Have you ever wondered why Jesus came 2,000 years ago instead of some more recent time in history?  Why didn't God wait to send his Son after the invention of the printing press?  Imagine how easy it would have been to print his words on a press rather than copying them by hand.  Or, why didn't Jesus come some time after the advent of the internet, or after smart phones became common?  Imagine if we could take videos of Jesus' sermons on our smartphones, or document his miracles on video and share them on our Facebook pages.  Wouldn't that have been more efficient (and convincing to unbelievers) than having Jesus come during a time when there weren't even still images or newspapers to spread the word?  In a lot of ways, it seems like Jesus came into the world too early. 

But rather than coming too early, the Bible says that Jesus came at just the right time.  Galatians 4.4 says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law..."  What this verse is saying is that God had predetermined a date that Jesus would come into the world to solve the sin problem.  No, the date almost certainly was not December 25, 0 B.C., but there indeed was a date that God had determined would be perfect.  And when that perfect date arrived ("when the fullness of time had come"), God sent his Son into the world.  It was exactly at just the right time, right according to schedule.  God didn't make a mistake by sending Jesus 2,000 years before the 21st century.  It was the perfect time for him to come. 

2,000 years ago, for the first time in history, the known world was unified and enjoyed relative peace under the "Pax Romana," or the peace of Rome.  The Roman empire had gone out to virtually every known inhabited nation and had built roads that centralized commerce and communication.  For the first time in human history, messengers could travel by road safely, and sea travel had advanced to the point that it was common and relatively safe.  As Jesus' disciples would take the message of his life and death across the world, they would use these new roads by land and sea to bring their news.  And since Rome ruled the known world, there were no impenetrable borders or places that were off limits to the gospel. 

Moreover, since Rome ruled most of the known world, their language also dominated almost every culture.  Practically everyone spoke the predominant language of the time: Greek - a language that is more articulate than even modern English.  This made it easy for essentially all people of the known world to hear and understand the message of the gospel.  No Bible translators were necessary because, in addition to their native languages, almost the whole world knew Greek. 

God foresaw this time in human history, and he determined that this was the perfect time into which he would send his Son to solve the sin problem, once and for all. 

But from our perspective, the time doesn't seem so right.  Forget about the Roman roads and dangerous sea voyages - we have air travel!  We can fly to the other side of the word in relative safety with the message of the gospel in less than a day.  And for all for he technological and cultural advancements initiated by the Roman empire, the 21st century and all of the technological advancements that we alluded to earlier (smart phones, the internet, television, etc.) would be much more ideal time for the message of Jesus to spread to the whole world.  Wouldn't it? 

No, not really, for at least three reasons:

1. Technology becomes irrelevant and obsolete over time.  We think of the technology of the Roman empire as irrelevant and obsolete because we have made amazing advancements over the past centuries.  But at the time, the ancient advancements mentioned earlier were cutting edge.  Similarly, the cutting edge technology we have today will be irrelevant and obsolete 100 years from now (if not sooner).  If Jesus came today, in 100 years people would be lamenting that he came to early, given the technological advancements that will have been made in the next 100 years.  If we judge the appropriate time for Jesus' advent according to humanity's technological advancement, then no matter when Jesus comes, it will have been too early, because technology will always be better at some later date. 

2. Additionally, regardless of whatever means there are to propagate the message of the gospel - and no matter how convincing you can make it or how widely you can spread it - people will always find reasons to not believe.  For instance, if Jesus were performing miracles on the earth today and those miracles were captured with a smart phone camera, providing video evidence of his divinity, someone would find a reason to doubt that the video was genuine.  They'd say the footage was doctored, or that the testimony of the witnesses was unreliable.  People will find any number of reasons not to believe the truth.  Furthermore, no matter how clear the evidence might be, it is very possible for two distinct people to examine the same evidence and come away with different conclusions. 

Jesus came 2,000 years ago and proved his divinity in a variety of ways.  And despite the witnesses and the wide reports of his power, people did not believe.  They looked the evidence square in the face and refused to believe.  The same thing would happen if a video of Jesus' miracles was the most-viewed video on Facebook.  Technological advancement does not produce faith.  Only God can do that.  Moreover, the scriptures testify to the faithfulness of God's word and the accounts therein that testify to the divinity of Jesus and to the veracity of the story of his life, death, and resurrection, yet people refuse to believe it.  If they don't believe the Bible, why would they believe a Facebook video? 

3. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a story about a rich man who dies and goes to hell.  In hell, he asks Abraham, who is in heaven, to resurrect a poor man named Lazarus who had also died, so that Lazarus may go and preach to the rich man's brothers so that they might not suffer a similar fate.  The rich man is convinced that if a dead man goes and preaches to them, then his brothers will surely believe such a miraculous sign.  But Abraham says that the rich man's brothers already have Moses and the prophets preaching to them from God's word, and if they won't believe Moses and the prophets, then they wouldn't believe even a dead man who came back to life.  The same is true of our world today: if people won't believe Moses and the prophets, they also wouldn't believe a miracle caught on camera.  Jesus came when he came.  His life, death, and resurrection were meticulously recorded and preserved to serve as a testimony to all people who came after him about what he has done.  This testimony is enough.  It is sufficient. 

The bottom line is that God knew the exact right time to send Jesus into the world, and that's when he came.  God had been waiting thousands of years for the right time to come, and it came roughly 2,000 years ago.  At Christmas we celebrate not only that Jesus came into the world, but also God's perfect timing in sending the Savior.

Digging Deeper: Only 3 Kinds of Christians

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Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

In the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12.1-3 kicks off the story of a rescue mission that is initiated by God himself.  Through Abraham and his descendants, God promised to send One who would repair the breech created by man's willful sin against God and thereby bless "all the families of the earth."  God's rescue mission would be an all-encompassing, world-wide mission.  God would send his Son into the world to live a perfect life, die a perfect death, and then defeat death through his resurrection. 

And then, in the last book of the Bible, Revelation 7.9-10 shows us a future time which has not yet come to pass, in which people from "every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" are "standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, 'Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"  Clearly, God's world-wide rescue mission is destined for success. 

Although the Bible tells us that God's world-wide rescue mission is indeed destined to be successful, it is not yet complete.  We have not yet reached the Revelation 7 reality of people from every corner of the earth worshipping the Lamb because there are people of the earth who are still yet unreached.  In his wisdom, God has chosen people to be the vehicle by which this blessing to the nations and all the families of the earth would be spread.  God doesn't just snap his fingers and cause all people of the world to come to him for salvation.  He could, but he doesn't.  Instead, he uses his people to bring the blessing of Christ to the nations.  A tremendous blessing has been give to the nations, and God calls each one of us to be his ambassadors and to bring that good news to all the families of the earth. 

The question is, what are you doing to be a part of God's world-wide rescue mission?

John Piper has famously said, "There are only three kinds of Christians: those who send, those who go, and those who are disobedient."  God has called you to be either a goer or a sender - or both. 

Those Who Send
At Riverview, we value the work of international missions and missionaries - people who have dedicated their lives to going to other lands to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to all the families of the earth so that they might hear and be blessed.  So we partner with several missions organizations and missionaries to do this work.  Just last week, Bible translators Steve and Carol Jean Gallagher reported that they recently celebrated the five year anniversary of the translation of the scriptures into the Bariai language of the people of Papua New Guinea.  Before their translation work, God's word did not exist in their language.  As recently as last week, Steve and Carol Jean ran out of Bibles to give to people who requested them.  God has a plan to bless the Bariai people, and it is our privilege to partner with Steve and Carol Jean to bring this blessing to them.  Our part in God's blessing of the nations has been realized by sending people - from our own church - to the nations to declare the good news of Jesus Christ.  In fact, Riverview has been privileged to send out several missionaries from our doors overseas, even to places where Christ has never been named. 

Those Who Go
But the work of God is not limited to international missions.  There are many here in our own nation who do not know God, who are still at odds with him, and who need to be blessed through the gospel.  Every eight weeks a team of faithful people from Riverview travel to the Dakota County Jail to minister to the inmates there.  The gospel is declared faithfully and clearly, as our own people go to be ambassadors of Jesus even in our own community.  To be one who goes, you don't necessarily need to go overseas.  You simply need to go across the street. 

This is the call of every follower of Jesus: to send others to the nations by equipping and resourcing them for the task ahead, and to go into our own communities - our own families, even - to preach the good news of the gospel.  God has a desire to bless the people living in the deepest, darkest jungles where Christ has never been named, and he also wants to bless the people in your social sphere, living in 21st century modern America.  And he has called you to bring his blessing to the nations, across your street, into your community, into your workplace, into your school, and into your family.  This is what Christians do.  They act as agents of God right where they are, and by extension through sending others in their stead. 

Those Who Are Disobedient
This is God's mission, but he has called us to be a part of it.  To not participate is to be disobedient.  Your job is to figure out how you will be obedient to partner with God in his world-wide rescue mission.  Maybe you can't go overseas, but you can send others with your resources.  Or maybe you can't go overseas, but you can go across the street. 

Which Kind Are You?
As we come upon the Christmas season, we remember the most significant part of God's rescue mission: the sending of his Son into the world to save sinners.  As you reflect on that marvelous miracle, reflect also on how God is calling you to be a part of what he is doing in the world.

Digging Deeper: The Toilet Bowl of the Bible

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Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.

Some commentators have described Judges 19 as the "toilet bowl of the Bible."  While that may seem to you to be a rather crass description, it is accurate in the sense that the events described therein are utterly disgusting and vile: gang rape, murder, and mutilation are only the tip of the iceberg of depravity described in Judges 19.  

So then, why is it in the Bible at all?  As you can probably guess, many critics of the Bible believe that Judges 19 essentially disqualifies the entire Bible from believability.  Why does God allow these horrible actions to transpire?  Does he approve of this?  Why didn't he stop it?  Why should we believe and follow him if he allows something like this to happen?  How are we to understand Judges 19 and the brutality it describes? 

Over the years there have been several attempts to answer these questions and to either justify God or the characters in the story.  This has been particularly evident in more modern biblical scholarship, as some have interpreted this text from a feminist point of view, and also from a pro-homosexual viewpoint.  For instance, the feminist readings of Judges 19 have focused on the plight of the women in the story, and condemned the patriarchal society in which the events unfolded (and by implication and even explicit statement, God himself).  Homosexual readings of Judges 19 have determined that the primary sin of the men of Gibeah was not homosexuality, per se, but was instead a lack of hospitality towards strangers.  Each of these readings, however, force modern (and subjective and personal) sensibilities onto the text.  Instead, as interpreters, it is our job to remove as much of ourselves as possible when we interpret the text, and let it speak for itself.  We should not feel it necessary to attempt to justify God or anyone else as we read the Bible, and we should be very hesitant to force our own personal, cultural, or societal sensibilities onto the text - even when our sensibilities are righteous and good.

One of the most important things we need to remember when reading scripture - and especially hard parts like Judges 19 - is the genre of the literature we are reading.  The book of Judges is an historical narrative, and so the author of the book writes as a dutiful historian: just the facts, with very little - if any - personal commentary.  This is particularly true of the book of Judges.  Throughout its pages, you will find very few moral judgments made by the author.  That is, the author very rarely ever pauses to interject his own feelings about the morality of a given scenario.  For instance, when Samson marries a Philistine woman, the author does not say that it was the wrong thing to do - even though it was.  Later, when Samson visits a prostitute, he is not condemned by the author - even though he could have been.  The reason for this is that the author's primary purpose is to relay historical facts, and not necessarily to comment on the morality of a given situation.  We know, however, that the morality of the book of Judges is in the gutter because we know God.  We allow our knowledge of scripture and the character and nature of God interpret the events of the book of Judges.  Not what we think is right or wrong, but what God thinks is right and wrong.  

This is also true of Judges 19, and more generally, of Judges 17-21.  These chapters are filled with historical events of a dubious moral nature and, for the most part, the author remains silent about the morality of the events he describes.  For instance, there are only two moral judgments made by the author (that I can find, at least).  First, he calls the men of the town of Gibeah "worthless fellows."  Second, he says that the moral and spiritual climate of Israel at the time was one that could be characterized by the reality that "there was no king in Israel..."  Both earlier and later in this book, the moral and spiritual climate of Israel is more succinctly described as "everyone did what was right in their own eyes."  Aside from these somewhat abstract moral judgments, the author's main purpose is to record and communicate historical facts.  Most moral judgments that we make regarding the events described in this book come from outside of the actual text.  And as we've seen, we need to be careful about forcing our own sensibilities onto the text.  

Since the author is writing an historical account, we also need to remember that neither the human author - nor the spiritual author - necessarily condone what is being described.  We often make the mistake of thinking that God approves of the history that is recorded in the Bible.  In many cases, he does not.  Although the events are recorded for us to read, that doesn't mean that God approves of what unfolded.  We also should remember that just because the Bible records historical events, that doesn't mean that we should seek to duplicate or recreate those historical events.  History is history - not a direct command for us to obey.  Think of reading a history text book when you were in high school: you didn't interpret your history text book as being a direct command for your to follow or an event for you to recreate for yourself.  History describes things that have happened in the past - it doesn't prescribe things that should happen in the present or future.  The same is true of the Bible: it records history, and sometimes that history is brutal, unforgiving, and even barbaric.  

Then how should we read difficult texts like Judges 19?  We should read it for what it is: an historical narrative about a group of people at the depths of their depravity, doing wicked, vile, and evil things.  And we can make those judgments because we the rest of the testimony of scripture: we know that the character and nature of God is contrary to the events described in Judges 19.  God did not approve of it, nor desire for it to happen.  

But also, we know from the rest of scripture that even though mankind is at his most depraved in Judges 19, he has not moved so far away from God as to be unredeemable.  Yes, the events of this chapter are horrific and demand our condemnation and swift justice and punishment.  Indeed, God will see that justice is done for the nameless concubine who is horrifically raped, murdered, and mutilated.  Justice will be served for those responsible, either through an eternity of punishment in hell, or through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ.  Judges 19 is a picture of just how sinful we all truly are.  No, you may have never committed acts like those described in this chapter, but you certainly have fallen - and far - from God's grace, perhaps through murder of the heart by hating your brothers, or perhaps through sexually violating someone in the secret thoughts of your heart and mind.  Nevertheless, you are not too far away to be redeemed.  The scandal of grace - and the message of the book of Judges - is that God can even redeem rapists and murderers - even you.