Abraham

Some of the Best People Are Not Christians

Some of the Best People Are Not Christians

Some of the best people I know are not Christians. Many of them are followers of other religions, some of them are non-religious, and a few of them are atheists. They’re the kind of friends who always have my back. They’re gracious to me when I mess up. I couldn’t ask for better neighbors. 

Attaching a Résumé to Our Prayers

Attaching a Résumé to Our Prayers

Our children learn the Sunday School song, “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” But we would do well to teach them to sing, “Father Abraham had many sins, and many sins had father Abraham.” For though he was a patriarch and prophet, Abraham also left behind a legacy of deceit.

Meet the Righteous Man Who Couldn't Do Anything Right

Let me tell you about a man who never met a challenge he didn’t fail. At least in the stories about him, he has a bad habit of making the wrong decision. Warn him about a cliff, and he’ll fall off it. Show him a snake, and he’ll get bit. His life is a painful series of unfortunate events. And because of that, I can’t help but feel a kinship with him. Those of you who’ve always chosen wisely, who’ve kept to the straight and narrow, probably won’t appreciate his story, so you can go on about your business. Everyone else, meet our friend, and fellow failure, Lot. Lot’s first mistake was his zip code. His home was on the corner of Wicked and Sinful in the city of Sodom. No one forced him to move there. He made the decision quite willfully. When he and Abraham needed to split up because there was strife between their herdsmen, Uncle Abraham gave him first dibs. Lot surveyed the land, saw that the acreage around Sodom was “like the garden of the Lord,” so he chose to sink roots there. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence. The only problem was the other side of that fence was Sodom, where his neighbors were “wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord,” (Gen 13:13). Mistake #1.

Things went to pot quickly. After Lot settled there, the rulers of the city decided they weren’t going to pay their overlords any more. So these overlords took the city behind the woodshed and gave them a thrashing. They took all the goods of Sodom, all their food supply, and—wouldn’t you know it—they took Lot and his family, too. Abraham came to the rescue. He defeated the attackers, brought back all the spoils of war, along with the citizens of Sodom who’d been kidnapped, including Lot. After all this happened, you would think Lot might consider relocating. But, no, he stayed in Sodom. And things got still worse.

While our friend was sitting at the city gate one evening, two travelers showed up. He insisted they join him and his family for dinner and spend the evening in his home. In the middle of the night, the men of the city surrounded Lot’s house and demanded he bring out the two visitors so they could have sex with them. Lot begins well enough. He says, “Please, my brothers, do not act wickedly,” (19:7). But he’s not finished. Lot has an alternative in mind. “Look,” he says, “I have two daughters who’ve never had sex with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof,” (19:8). Yes, you read that right. Lot is offering his two virgin daughters to a rape-hungry mob. Thankfully, the two visitors (who were actually angels) save the day. They blind the would-be rapists. They warn Lot that God is about to reduce the city to ashes. And in the morning, they lead the family out of the city to safety. So to Lot’s growing resume we can now add: utter failure as a father.

But we’re not done yet. Let’s put the icing on the cake. Lot’s wife didn’t make it far out of Sodom. Against the express warning of the angels, she paused and stared back at the city as it was being destroyed. The fire and brimstone overtook her and she became the well-known “pillar of salt.” All that remained were Lot and his two girls. But these daughters, whom Lot had offered up for rape, turn the tables on their father. They pull out the wineskin, get dad drunk as a skunk and have sex with him, one girl one night and the other the next. And both end up pregnant. Lot becomes both father and grandfather to two baby boys.

Knowing all this about Lot, it probably comes as quite a shock when, of all adjectives, Peter chooses to put “righteous” in front of Lot’s name—not once, not twice, but three times. He says that God “rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard),” (2 Peter 2:7-8). You might be wondering if Peter was reading the same stories from Genesis that we are. Lot, righteous? Really? You mean the foolish Lot who chose to live in Sodom? The heartless Lot who almost got his two daughters gang-raped? The drunk Lot who had incestuous relations with these same two daughters? That’s the Lot you’re calling “righteous,” Peter?

There’s more to Lot than meets the eye. There’s always more to a believer than meets the eye. And that’s why, as I said earlier, I feel a certain kinship with him. No, I’ve never done what Lot has done, but those who know a little about my life know that my bio is full of foolish choices, moral failures, and shameful conduct. And perhaps yours is, too. Most of us have wandered from the straight and narrow at one time or another; some of us have fallen off the map altogether. Some of Lot’s decisions disgust me, but I’d bet that if Lot knew our stories, he’d find plenty worthy of condemnation as well. As it turns out, all finger-pointing amongst sinners is in vain. Every transgressor just happens to screw up a little differently than you do.

Yet along comes Peter and calls us righteous. Lot, me, you—all of us who, by faith, have a borrowed righteousness. It belongs to Jesus but he lets us have it. We wear his clothes. We are covered in his goodness. It’s a righteousness with no gaps. In it the heavenly Father easily mistakes you for Jesus. Actually, he sees you as nothing but his son. That’s how completely covered you are. Like Jacob received the blessing of his father by dressing in the clothes of his older brother, so we are robed in the garments of our elder brother, Christ, and thus receive the inheritance of the Father.

There’s more to Lot than meets the eye, as there’s more to us than meets the eye. But what ultimately matters is what meets the eye of God. When he sees us, he sees the child whom he loves. He sees one who is deeply troubled by the evil in the world. He sees one whose life is not one long string of failures but an unbroken chain of obedience. For when God sees Lot, and when he sees us, what meets his eye is the one who meets us at the cross, folds us into himself, and cloaks us with a compassion that envelops all of who we are.

The Story of Sodom Is About Much More than Homosexuality

A quick scan of any map will reveal towns all around the US with biblical place names. There’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and Bethany, Oklahoma and Goshen, Indiana—just to name a few. But you’ll find no Sodom, Arizona or Gomorrah, Tennessee. Towns totally annihilated by God don’t make for popular namesakes. No community wants that kind of backstory. But what exactly is the backstory—the full backstory—of Sodom and Gomorrah? What prompted such judgment against them? Contrary to what you’ll hear in most sermons, the issue in Sodom was much more than homosexuality. It is deeper and more pervasive. The root cause of their razing was rejection of the God who is mercy.

We often forget that before God destroyed these cities, he had saved them. They were the recipients of divine mercy. When foreign armies sacked their cities, God sent Abraham to rescue them (Genesis 14). He pursued these armies with a small force of men, defeated them, and brought back all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah, along with his nephew Lot and the other citizens who had been taken captive. The patriarch gave everything back to the king of Sodom and demanded nothing in return for himself. In Abraham’s own words, he wouldn’t keep “a thread or a sandal thong or anything else” that belong to Sodom’s king, lest that ruler say he had made Abraham rich (Gen 14:23). Though “the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinners against the Lord,” (13:13), nevertheless he acted graciously toward them in the person and work of his chosen servant.

So what went wrong? What happened in the intervening years between their deliverance by Abraham and the announcement of their impending destruction? The same thing that has happened over and over throughout the history of humanity. The merciful actions of God towards undeserving sinners were forgotten. Like Nineveh, which repented when it heard the preaching of Jonah, but later slipped right back into evil and was eventually destroyed; like Jerusalem, which seesawed between repenting and rebelling until it too was finally ravaged by the Romans; so Sodom and Gomorrah, one-time beneficiaries of divine deliverance, treated that gift as trash until finally their cities were reduces to smoldering ashes.

In the rest of the Scriptures, Sodom and Gomorrah became emblematic of cities, nations, and indeed a world that steadfastly refuses to believe in the God of mercy and truth and justice, and instead follow their own hearts. Isaiah calls the hearers of his day the “rulers of Sodom” and the “people of Gomorrah” (1:10). Why? Because, while going hog wild in outward religiosity, their hands were soaked in blood. He told them, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless; defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (1:17). Through Jeremiah too, God says that his people have become to him “like Sodom, and her inhabitants like Gomorrah,” (23:14). Why? Because the prophets of Jerusalem were committing adultery and walking in falsehood. Not only did they do nothing to stop evil; they actively encouraged it. Ezekiel too chastises the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel for acting like Sodom. Through this prophet, God says, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister, Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food, and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy. Thus they were haughty and committed abominations before me. Therefore, I removed them when I saw it,” (16:49-50).

On the night before Sodom was destroyed, the men of the city, young and old, attempted to gang-rape the angels (disguised as men) who were guests in Lot's home (Gen 19:4-5). But this attempted violence, as horrific as it was, was an outgrowth of a more pervasive evil within. The ultimate source of sin in Sodom, Gomorrah, Nineveh, Jerusalem, and every other city, is the ultimate source of sin in our hearts: we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We reject the God who is love itself, and instead set up idols of pleasure or power or falsehood in the shrines of our hearts. And from there, as from a poisoned spring, flow forth all the tributaries of evil in our lives and in the world.

Our more serious problem is not sins but sin itself. The problem is not what we do but who we are. We are not sinners because we sin; we are sinners and therefore we sin. This was as true for the Sodomites as for the San Antonians or the New Yorkers.

That’s why God does not merely fix us, as if we’re an old junker that just needs an overhaul. We don’t need to be fixed; we need to be recreated. What we need is to come to an end, to fall headfirst into a grave flooded with water, drown in that dark pool, and rise again to newness of life in Christ. The Father remakes us in the waters of baptism to bear the image and likeness of Jesus, who makes all things new. He removes our hearts of Sodom to give us a heart of Zion—a heart pumped full of the atoning blood of Jesus. Far from condemning us, he declares us innocent, for his Son has already become the guilty one in our place. In the eyes of God, you are pure, beautiful, loved, welcomed, perfect, for he sees every inch of you through the prism of Christ. In Christ, you are not a failure, a felon, or a freak, but a friend of God. In Christ, you are not dirty or depraved for you have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been made new. Your past does not define you; your sins do not define you; Christ does.

The story of Sodom is about much more than homosexuality. It is ultimately about the God of mercy—the God who is your Father in Jesus Christ. The Father who rescues you as he rescued Lot. The Father who makes you saints. The Father who is patient, forgiving, and loving to all, for all have been reconciled to him in the cross of Jesus Christ.

When God Drags His Feet

They are the only couple in the Bible who laugh at God. Abraham first and later his wife, Sarah. And who could blame them, for the scenario is hilarious. They wait a quarter of a century for God to make good on his promise to give them a child. It seems a comedy in the making, for Abraham is seventy five years old and Sarah sixty five when he first makes the promise. People that old don’t buy Pampers. But there stood God, saying, “Oh, but you will.” So they wait. And they wait. For twenty five years these aging lovebirds do their lovemaking but no babymaking. The final time God assures them that they’ll have a son, Abraham falls on his face and laughs (Gen 17:17) and Sarah, later, giggles like a schoolgirl (18:12). Quite fittingly, therefore, when their baby boy is born the next year, they name him, “Laughter.” Or as we know him, Isaac. I’m glad Abraham and Sarah could laugh. I think most of us wouldn’t have found this scenario all that funny. In fact, when we wait on God to make good on his promises, even for a few weeks or months, we don’t laugh. We hurt. We murmur. Often we get mad at God for dragging his feet.

It is perhaps no surprise that one of the most common questions in the Psalms is, “O Lord, how long….?” Now there’s a prayer we can say Amen to.

O Lord, how long until you take away the cancer that’s attacking my body? O Lord, how long will I get turned away from every company I apply to? O Lord, how long will my child be in and out of rehab? O Lord, how long will my husband and I languish in this dying marriage? O Lord, how long will your drag your feet while our souls are sinking in despair?

For most of us, waiting on God is not funny at all. It makes us wonder if he cares. If he has forgotten us. In our darkest hours, many even wonder if the atheists are right, if our prayers are nothing more than sick words vomited into an empty heaven.

Here is the truth: God is there. God does care. Heaven is not empty but full of a God who thinks of nothing but you night and day. As Isaiah says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you,” (49:15). God does indeed remember, but his remembering is unique. It has one ultimate goal: to join you, body and soul, to the body and soul of Jesus Christ.

Every time we pray, “O Lord, how long?” the answer is always the same: “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” (Col 3:3). You may object, “But that’s no answer!” Oh, but it is. It is a true answer, and it is the best answer.

God doesn’t give us a timetable; he gives us his Son. And for him we don’t have to wait a single second. You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. It’s already accomplished. The Father plunged you into the water wet with Jesus. In that water you joined Christ on the cross. There your old life bled away. And there your new life began as Jesus carried you in his body out of the grave on Easter. Your life is hidden the way a heart and lungs and bones and blood are hidden inside a person, for you are the body of Christ. You are hidden in him and hidden with him in the Father. And if you’re that far into God, there’s no getting you out.

So will the Father answer your specific “How long?” prayers? Of course he will. He who asks, receives; he who seeks, finds; she who knocks, the door will be opened to her. The God who goes so far as to count your tears and keep them in a bottle (Ps 56:8) is certainly not going to ignore your pleas for mercy. But as you await the answer to those prayers, know that your prayers have already have been answered in Christ. Your life, your heartaches, your tears and disappointments—they are all hidden with Christ in God, too. He takes them all in when he takes you into himself.

The ways of God are hilarious. So outlandish, so crazy, so foolish that sometimes the only thing we can do is laugh. There we were, dead, and now in Christ we live. There we were, thinking there’s no way we’ll ever conceive hope again, and now hope grows within us like Isaac in Sarah’s womb. It’s funny, the weird ways of God. He’s always full of surprises, for there’s nothing more surprising in this world than a love that knows no bounds, no timetables, but that knows you and holds you tight.

Sometimes the best Amen sounds like laughter.

On Mount Moriah You Can See the Whole Bible

A snake strikes up a conversation with a naked woman. A donkey chews out a cursing preacher on his back for whipping him. Ravens fly breakfast and dinner to a hungry prophet. All sorts of weird things happen in the Bible. But it’s not just with animals. A sea unzips its surface and bodybags a whole army of Egyptians. Rivers give a round of applause. Cypress trees and cedars mock defeated Babylon. All of creation has a part to play in the great saga of salvation. Let me tell you about one of those characters in this saga. It’s not a snake or a bird or a sea. It’s a mountain. I bet it’s a story you haven’t heard before. And I bet it’s one you’ll never forget.

There’s a young man, ropes around his wrists, and stretched out atop firewood that’s been arranged on a makeshift altar. There’s a father, standing above him, the hilt of a knife clasped in his hand, the blade lifted high. “Take your son,” God had told Abraham, “your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” That’s where they are. On Moriah. The place where the father is to sacrifice his son. Yet he doesn’t. A split second before the knife plummets, an angel stops Abraham. In the stead of his son, the father offers a ram caught in a nearby thicket as a burnt offering. Here is where the story begins. On Mt. Moriah, God provides a substitute to die in Isaac’s place.

Fast-forward a few centuries. In the latter years of his reign, David has incensed the Lord by commanding a census be taken of all Israel. Catastrophic casualties follow as a plague steamrolls through the land. Finally a skyscraping angel unsheathes his sword over Jerusalem. David hurries up Moriah, to a threshing floor owned by a local farmer. He buys the plot of ground and the oxen used for threshing. He builds an altar, kills the beasts, and flames fall from the sky upon the altar to consume their bodies. The plague stops, the angel sheathes his sword, Zion is saved. On Mt. Moriah, God provides oxen to die in order that his people might be spared.

The son of David, wise Solomon, built the temple of the Lord on this exact spot (2 Chron 3:1). On this mountain where the promised son, Isaac, had been spared by the sacrifice of a ram in his stead. On this mountain where Jerusalem was spared by the sacrifice of oxen in their stead. On this mountain, Moriah, the house of God was erected and the massive altar set up. Here, year after year, morning and evening, the blood of cattle, sheep, goats, and birds was spilled. Their bodies reduced to ashes. Until the time appointed, these beasts died in the stead of God’s people. They bore the guilt of sinners. Onto their heads was transferred the sin of the congregation. And through their blood shed and bodies burnt, the Lord provided cleansing and forgiveness to his people. On Mt. Moriah, God provided sacrifice after sacrifice in order that his people might be spared.

But the story of Moriah was far from over. For these three stories are but the pre-story to why this mountain is so important. For what Abraham and David and Solomon did not do, could not do, a greater one did.

Jesus wrote the last chapter of Moriah. He made this mountain his own. He climbed Mt. Moriah, to enter his Father’s house, time and again. He taught on this mountain. He turned over the tables of the money-changers like a madman on this mountain. On Moriah, he declared, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” He spend the last week of his life on this mountain. And he brought this mountain’s story to its peak.

Jesus was not killed in Bethlehem as a baby, or in Galilee or Samaria as an adult. He couldn’t be, for it was necessary for him to die in Jerusalem, where Moriah is. He is the promised Seed of Abraham, the new and better Isaac. He is the promised Son of David, the new and better Solomon. He is the tabernacle and temple of God. And he is the Son who is not spared, but given up for us all. At his death, the angels outside Eden sheathe their swords and welcome us back into the paradise of God. He is the lamb of God, upon the altar of the cross, who transforms Golgotha into Moriah. He is the substitute, by whose sacrifice we are not just spared, but welcomed into the life and family of the Father.

When Abraham offered a ram in the stead of Isaac, he called the name of this place Yahweh-Yireh, meaning, “The LORD will provide,” as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”

Indeed, it will. And it was. God provided his Son. And in that Son, we receive everything.

When Focus on the Family Becomes Idolatry

“He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37

She is never mentioned in Genesis 22. God is, Abraham is, Isaac is, but Sarah is missing from the story. Did she know that God had decided to test her husband? Was she aware that this testing was the sacrifice of their one and only son? When she kissed Isaac goodbye for this odd journey to the land of Moriah, did she have any notion that God had commanded her husband to lay their son atop an altar, sink a knife into his heart, and burn his body to ashes? We don’t know what Sarah knew.

We do know that, after the story is over, after Abraham passes the test, after Isaac is spared when the blade is in midair, that Sarah dies. Jewish tradition sees no coincidence in the fact that her passing in Genesis 23 follows immediately after her son’s near-sacrifice in Genesis 22. When it says, “Sarah died…and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,” (23:2), it means that Abraham went from Mount Moriah to mourn for her. These traditions suggest that, when this mother heard of what was to take place on that mountain, assuming as she did that Isaac would in fact be sacrificed, she cried out and breathed her last. Her son was her life, therefore, his death was her death.

“Children are a gift of the Lord,” the Psalmist sings. Oh, indeed, they are. A parent’s heart is inextricably bound to the heart of his child. We can understand why, according to Jewish tradition, this mother died upon hearing of the assumed death of her boy. Likewise, we can hear the depth of agony seeping through the cracks in David’s broken heart as he cries out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I think I speak for most mothers and fathers when I say that my greatest fear is the death of one of my children.

This parent-to-child love makes it all the harder to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday: “He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37. It is certainly fitting that Jesus immediately adds, “He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” These words do indeed feel like a heavy cross to bear.

But what does it mean to love someone or something more than we love Jesus? It means that they who were formed as a gift we transform into a god. You see, idols are not mere blocks of wood or stone before whom pagans kneel; idols are beloved things, beloved people, whom we fear or love or trust more than God. We are all, at heart, idolaters, for we are prone to turn presents from heaven into the presence of divinity on earth. We break no commandment more than the first, “You shall have no other gods.” In fact, every law we break is also a breaking of the first, for if our hearts truly and wholly belonged to the Lord, we would keep the whole law. Because we do not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, all things become opportunities for sin, including the gifts of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. Focus on the family can easily devolve into a mis-focus of gifts as gods.

We do not love these gifts less by loving Jesus more. Quite the contrary. The deeper our love for God, the deeper also shall be our love for our children. Love is the embodiment of a life lived in and for another. Love toward children or parents or spouses goes idolatrously wrong not when we love them too much, but when we love them too little. For how can love be true love when it stands against the God who is love itself? How can I say I love my child when I make him into an idol? How can I say I love my wife when I love her more than I love God? No, I am not loving too much when I’m committing idolatry; I’m loving too little, for it is the selfish, self-loving side of me that compels me toward the transformation of gifts into gods.

That is why my life constantly returns, indeed revolves around, the man from Nazareth who hangs between heaven and earth, painting the world white by bleeding wounds. There, in that dying God, I find not only the very incarnation of love, but forgiveness for all my self-love. In that God all my gods die. In Him I die. And as I lose my life, and His love finds me, I gain life in His giving love. I have no other gods besides Jesus Christ, because He is God of gods, Lord of lords, who deepens my love for Himself by pouring His love into me. And that love of Christ flows from me to others: to my children, to my wife, even to my enemies.

I will never be worthy of Christ, but Christ has counted me worthy by loving me even unto death, even death on a cross. "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing," (Revelation 5:12). Worthy is this Isaac, who carried His own wood to the mountaintop, where He was not spared but given up for us all, that all in Him might become the chosen sons of the Father. Worthy is He, and worthy are we in Him, to receive life and forgiveness and salvation and honor and heaven and blessing, now and forever, and unto ages of ages.