Long, Long Shadows and A Light


Sin never stops where you think it will. 

Your repeated anger leads to latent bitterness which leads to relationship-destroying gossip.  

Your pornography-viewing leads to unmarital sex which leads to one parent raising a child in isolation which leads to crippling resentment.  

Unchecked sin always spreads, and kills where it does.  Like cancer.  

But one of the beautiful mercies of God is that He has given us a community where sin and its scars can be dealt with.  

The church.  


Churches are little cities of imperfect people, people who have been miraculously remade and who, by the grace of a very real and very compassionate God, continually confess and continually turn from the sins they still commit.  They know who they were (spiritually dead evil people), they know who they are (spiritually alive people being slowly made more and more like Jesus), and they know who God is (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who love to save sinners).  And because of these 3 things, these little collections of Gospel people are able to bring wicked and broken and scared and angry humans into their midst and minister to them.  Serve them.  Help to stop the bleeding in their lives.  

The world is home to all stripes of sinners who are in different stages of the pain or disarray or death that sin brings along as its trail.  And there is no one else who can get to the root of the chaos or who can apply supernatural salve to the wounds of all this sin like the church can.  She has been given the Good News that can heal and can save people from their evils, and from the evils that were committed against them.  She can rescue them from the worst of the violence and the trouble and the affliction of this world.  

Which is great, because this is not Mayberry.  This is a world of adultery and ulterior motives and hearts who will cast those they love aside for pleasure or power.  This is a world where sin has left some long, long shadows.  Sons deserted by their fathers, marriages in flames because of selfishness, grown men and women who don’t know how to be men or women.  And there in the heart of this world stands the church, giving the hope and the truth and the life that only she can give.  

This world needs her.  The single mothers and the heroin addicts and the workaholics and the shallowest of womanizers need her.  She is a city on a hill.  

She is where they can come for possibility.  For hope.  For adoption into a forever family.  She is where they can sojourn for all of the things that only Jesus can hand over.  

For everyone trapped in what sin has spoiled, churches are households of transforming mercy.  They are families of forgiveness.  They are little peoples of honest confession and honest love and honest Gospel.  

This is a world of long shadows.  Because sin never stops where it whispers it will.   Sin never keeps that promise.  

But the God of the Cross has given a light that can beat those shadows back.  His church holds that light in her hands, for any and all to come see.  

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A 30 Second Plea

  
John the Baptist was willing to be jailed for telling King Herod that he should not be committing adultery with his brother’s wife.  Shemaiah the prophet had the boldness to tell king Rehoboam about his folly even though there were 180,000 soldiers standing behind the man.  

Christian, do not mortgage your integrity or spiritual authority by whitewashing the evils of an earthly king.  If you alter your standard of wickedness because of a political leaning, because this time the perpetrator is on your political team, then you’ve revealed which king you’re really worshiping at the moment.  And it isn’t the One in Heaven.  

The world needs more John the Baptists.  Because the world needs more repentance.  

Heaven help us if we ever defend Herod’s adultery because we like his tax plan.  

A Hypothetical Conversation and a Real Sodom

  
“I can’t believe what he did!”

Let’s say the conversation starts that way.  

“I mean, seriously, I cannot believe it!”  The man goes on to tell me about the way his co-worker went behind his back and spread a pretty harmful lie about him.  He makes clear that this isn’t the first time it’s happened.  No, I hear, this guy has been pulling this two-faced garbage since the day he got to the company.  And let’s say that it’s at this point that I really register the rage, the wrath on my friend’s face and in his voice.  He feels he’s been wronged.  He feels that an injustice has been done.  And, for argument’s sake, let’s say that a thought enters my mind as I hear him say, “Man, I want to see that guy fired.”  Buddy, I can tell you want to see more than that happen to him.  You want something bad to befall this guy, and you want to be there to watch it happen.  And laugh.  

And then, you know, for the sake of discussion here, merely discussion, let’s theorize that I get a cold, prickly stab in the conscience as I realize that I’ve had that same desire before.  

Okay.  Skip ahead a week.  My friend and I are talking about my faith.  He’s a pal, but he likes to rib me and give me a jokingly hard time about the Bible and church and Christianity (although he sometimes gets eerily silent when I bring up Jesus Himself, but let’s leave that for another hypothetical day).  “I just don’t get,” he says, sardonic glint in his eye as he pours his coffee, “how you can worship a God who would kill people.”

Yikes.  This is usually where my heart rate spikes.  Tread carefully, I think.  First things first:  I have to figure out what he’s referring to.  “What do you mean?”

“All of it, man.  The Bible.  Sodom and Gomorrah.  All that stuff.”  

All right, I realize here that I don’t have the time necessary to explain to him that “the Bible” is a lot more than Sodom and Gomorrah.  I look at my watch, or if this hypothetical story takes place after 2009, my phone, and I realize we have about 10 minutes.  Pulse quickening, palms sweating, and no Gatorade in sight, I forge ahead nervously.  

And right before I speak, it hits me.

“Hey, man, remember when you were so mad last week…”

  

“I have paid attention and listened, but they have not spoken rightly; no man relents of his evil, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle.”

God, in Jeremiah 8:6

My make-believe friend has a real problem.  He views his own desire for revenge as justice, and God’s desire for justice as revenge.  He gives in (in his heart, if not out loud) to his desire to see someone who wronged him in pain, but he thinks it is somehow petty for God to judge sin.  He thinks it’s wrong for God to see willful and unrepentant traitors reap what they’ve sown.  My fictional buddy sees sins against himself as a high crime, but sins against the good Creator as something that should be let off.   

Everyone with a beating heart has desired justice at some point.  When cut off by a smug driver, when mocked by an arrogant and nasty fellow student, when deeply and intentionally wounded by a family member you trusted, you will feel a desire for the wrong to be righted.  For fairness.  For recompense.  For right to win, and to be shown to the offender as right.  For a Judge to stop everything, step in, grab the one who mistreated you, and say, “What do you think you were doing?  Time to pay the piper, pal.”

The reason, I think, we feel this most acutely when the offended party is us and not so much when the one trespassed against is the perfect, sinless, beautiful King and Creator, is that we love ourselves more than God.  We want our glory and fame more than His.  We are, to borrow from C.S. Lewis, adjectives trying desperately to be nouns.   

When the men of Sodom wanted to rape the angels who came to rescue Lot, they were sinning against the God who made each of them to worship and enjoy Him forever.  They were trading the love of the Father, the One who knit each of them together, for lust and attempted rape.  When the people of Canaan worshiped Baals and stars and statues, they were following the long human path away from the perfect, all-satisfying Creator, enslaving themselves to created things.  And when I spent a good portion of my life chasing down meaning and identity in popularity and human affection and drunkenness rather than in the God of Jesus Christ, I was turning my back on my good Maker.  

There’s a reason why God so often refers to the sins of His people as adultery in the Bible.  Our sins are violations of His love for us.  And of His rightful claim on our hearts. 

The injustice we feel when someone wrongs us?  It’s a small taste of the reality of what sin really is.  All sin is first and foremost an injustice against someone far better than ourselves.  That overwhelming sense of unfairness we get when we’re hurt is a faint shadow of what our evils are to the perfect God who authored us.  

So one more hypothetical.  

Let’s picture someone far more innocent than my friend or me.  Someone who really didn’t deserve anything bad to happen to him.  Someone bolder and better than either of us have ever been.  More sacrificial and honest and clean-hearted.  Someone of flawless integrity and righteous motives.  

Let’s picture this beautiful, sweet, selfless, courageous individual being violated, but not by gossip at work or being double-crossed by a colleague.  By being sold and tortured and mocked and murdered.

That is what sin did at Jesus’ Cross.  

They blindfolded God, the only truly innocent One, and then they smacked and slapped Him while sarcastically telling Him to prophesy.  They spat on their Maker, whipped Him, and gambled for His clothing.  

Our sin finds its most accurate, most awful rendering at the Cross of Jesus Christ.  That’s what we’ve each done to God.  

And yet, rather than giving us what we truly deserve, that God offers to forgive us of all our hatreds of Him, and of all our chasing after false gods.  He opens His arms to adulterers and murderers.  

Do you see the problem with my friend’s thinking ?  We are guilty sinners who stand in front of other guilty sinners and demand that they get what’s coming to them.

In contrast, God is an innocent King who offers to save them from what’s coming to them.  
This Creator is so gracious that He is willing to die for the creatures who disdained and disowned Him.  

“Yeah?”  My friend looks at me.  “I was mad last week.  What’s that got to do with this?”  The glint in his eye is gone; there’s a sliver of tension, now.  Boy, I could probably use that Gatorade at this point.  

“Well,” I say, trying to be measured and careful in my tone, “I think if you or I were in charge, there would be a million Sodoms, and for all the wrong reasons.”  This is probably where I’d try to swallow, but my mouth’d be dry.  “And I think there’d be 0 Crosses.”

We think of our desire for vengeance as an innocent call for justice.  And we think of God’s administering of justice as petty, thoughtless vengeance.  We think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of our Creator.  And as a result we’re baffled by the wrong thing.  

You see, the stunning part is not the wrath.  It’s the rescue.  

It’s not shocking there was a Sodom.  It’s shocking there’s a Cross. 

As far as doors go, Heaven’s is far more surprising than Hell’s.  

I’ll Be Found Out

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And so will you.

Every secret sin, every careless word, every greed and hatred and unfought lust; each human being will have to give an account to God. You know that web site that got hacked recently? The one where people (mostly men, it turned out) paid to have (or flirt with the idea of having) affairs? I’ve heard a couple of tragic stories about it, and Monday night night I read one Christian leader’s public confession of having browsed it once. And something he said made me think: Nothing I do will stay hidden.

I haven’t done what he did. But what about secret hatreds I’ve nursed? Grudges I’ve held? Faithless fears, idolatry of television or food or other physical pleasures, prayerlessness and bitterness and hypocrisy? What about my selfish fits of impatience or anger? Do I think those will always just stay in the quiet dark?

I am grateful God has kept me from great and destructive sin like the earthquake that is adultery, but before I get too glib and judgmental when I’m reading a confession like the one I read Monday, I should pause and remember the blood the perfect Son of God shed for my petty professional jealousies and thoughtlessness toward my wife and kids.

You know, the stuff I did yesterday.

So what is the hope, the Good News? You know I’m a broken and still-rebellious man; what do I do? And more importantly for you, what do you do?

All the sins are coming to the light someday, guys. So what do we do?

What is the hope for all the sexually immoral, covetous, backslidden, cowardly, deceitful little hypocrites and failures? What do we do on the day we’re crushed by the weight of what we’ve done or who we’ve been? What solace is there on the morning after you self-destruct? For the man who wants to repent of his adultery or the woman who’s realized how toxic her gossip has been or the young guy who wants to stop getting drunk but doesn’t feel like he has the will to stop?

Well, here’s what I got: The Good News is that your worst sins being brought to the light doesn’t have to be the end. It isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you, and it doesn’t have to be the last word on your life.

Do me a favor: Picture a man who loved and followed Jesus, then made his life a disgrace through a very public sin. Throughout the world news of his moral failure gets carried to believers and unbelievers alike, to this day. The folly of it all gets repeated over and over, how he thought he was above committing that sort of sin and how he said so to anyone who’d listen and then how he stumbled hard into a shameful spotlight. It’s retold with crystal clarity all over the world.

Okay, now my flesh would say that that is the end of the man. The part of me who forgets the heart of the Gospel, who forgets that terrible, wicked people can be rescued by a loving Father by grace through faith in His Son, would think, Tsk, tsk, what a shame. What was he thinking? Thankfully, I haven’t done that, as I sipped from a big, tall glass of pride.

But my flesh doesn’t call the shots. So that wasn’t the end of his story.

This brokenhearted and greatly humbled sinner named Simon Peter, whose public cowardice the night of the Crucifixion is still told pretty much everywhere there’s a church and at least one Bible, was held in His loving Father’s hands. He was forgiven by his Great Shepherd.

At the same Supper where Jesus told Simon Peter in advance that he’d deny Him, He also said this:

“Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

I want you picture that part, too. Picture the Son of God looking into this man’s eyes and knowing what he was going to do. Picture him looking square at this man and knowing his hypocrisy and his sin, and then telling him, “I have not forgotten you. I will not forsake you. I have prayed and interceded for you. And now when you turn back to me again, when you repent and receive the blood that gives grace and kills shame, strengthen your brothers, here. They’ll need to know what you’ll have found out: That I forgive to the uttermost.”

So, tell me: Have you screwed up your life? Are you afraid of what will come out someday? Know that you’ve sinned against God? I have Good News for you, and I have Good News for me, too: The Kingdom of God is made up of some formerly wicked, slimy sinners. People who blasphemed the Son before being reborn and who dishonored Him after. People who fought with their sins and their flesh but who often lost. It’s filled with Peters and Sauls and Davids. You see, the banquet feast in Jesus’ Kingdom has a pretty simple entrance policy: The ones who trust in their own righteousness don’t get in, and the ones who turn to the Savior in faith do.

I’m going to be found out, guys. And so are you. All our sins are going to be public someday, like Peter’s. There won’t be anything that stays hidden.

But there will be all kinds of stuff that gets washed away.

If we have been born of God, we have been brought out of the darkness through the kindness and love of the Father of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to fear like unbelievers. We can have confidence in the blood of our Jesus. We can grieve our sin and repent of it and then have peace because we know and have been known by God. We don’t have to fear the light, because we’re not children of darkness. For us, the light is good. It’s sunlight and forgiveness and the end of winter and knowing our Abba as we’ve been known. For us, it’s the beginning of the last good day. The one that never ends.

If we have been born of God, we don’t have to fear the light of the Gospel of Jesus. It’s our only hope.

And it cleans and saves to the uttermost.

3 Lessons From the Major Prophets

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Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel

1) God is in control.

God decided how long His people would be exiled (Jeremiah declared it to them, from God, to be 70 years).

God put it into the mind of the new Persian king Cyrus to send the Jews back.

Isaiah and Jeremiah say that God sends disaster and that a man’s steps are set by the Lord. No, God is not the Author of sin. And He does not do evil. But just like Peter in the book of Acts said that God predestined the Crucifixion, the worst sin ever committed, these prophets make it clear that every second of the Exile and every wicked ruler who came against the people of God was planned out by God.

That is good news.

More appropriately, it is a part of the Good News.

God planned for Adam’s sin, set apart the prophets who foretold the Savior before they were even born (see Jeremiah 1), predestined the Crucifixion, was pleased to crush Jesus for our sake, and has already told us that that Jesus will defeat all evil and death and place the universe under God the Father.

From Genesis 3 in the very beginning of the Bible to 1 Corinthians 15 towards the end and straight on through to the last pages of Revelation, God’s Word says He runs history.

Put another way, if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ then you’ve been saved by the God who decided how big the Persian Empire would be and decided how long Alexander the Great would live.

That God knows you by name and adopted you in Christ Jesus.

2) Idolatry = Adultery.

Jeremiah states this in his prophetic book, but Ezekiel, coming a few decades later, really hammers it home.

Ezekiel writes that it was essentially like the people of God paid other men to help them break their covenant wedding vows to God.

That’s idolatry.

That is what worshiping something other than the God who made you and wants your heart is. If you know the living God, and have been made a part of His beloved Bride, then loving anything more than Him is gross, crass unfaithfulness. It’s cheating on your Redeemer.

Paul Tripp often points this out: Every human is always worshiping something. Human beings are born worshipers. And we worship whatever we think will most satisfy us.

Whatever has your heart, whatever controls your behavior and desires, that’s what you’re bending your knee to. That’s what you’re sacrificing to at the high places in your soul. That’s what you’re singing worship songs to and praising and giving glory to.

TV? Losing weight? Being popular? Being successful in your career? Getting noticed? Fame? Your girlfriend? Your kids?

When we seek ultimate meaning, ultimate satisfaction in anything but the Father, Son, and Spirit, we’re either cheating on the God we know or running further away from the God we don’t.

3) God is more faithful than you are.

Hallelujah, brothers and sisters.

I was a train wreck like the prophet Hosea’s wife, Gomer. She loved boyfriends and romance more than her husband and more than God, and she chased dead end feelings all the way (I can only assume) to her grave.

That was me. I drank myself stupid out of boredom and cowardice, loved short physical pleasure more than eternal spiritual happiness, and rebelled against the living and loving God.

But then He reached out and touched me. Adopted me. Showed me mercy. Like the filthy undeserving tax collector, Zacchaeus, like the persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus, and like every Christian who’s ever lived, God gave me the promise and the Covenant and the mercy and the grace that not a single molecule in me deserved.

At the end of Ezekiel 16, after describing Israel’s unfaithfulness, God says this through His prophet:

“For thus says the Lord God: I will deal with you as you have done, you who have despised the oath in breaking the covenant, yet I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish for you an everlasting covenant. Then you will remember your ways and be ashamed when you take your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you. I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God.”

If salvation depended on us no one would be saved. If it was our promise-keeping or covenant-keeping that got us into God’s family (or was the ultimate cause in keeping us in the family), then it’d be hopeless. God says in Isaiah that He has a people who did not seek Him.

Amen. That’s us. This story, this salvation, this Kingdom, this Gospel is about His faithfulness and glory and goodness.

For His sovereignty, his love for us despite our idolatry, and His faithfulness God gets the credit. He’s the One worth speaking about, testifying to, reading and singing of, and worshiping.

And these prophets knew that in their hearts, and in their frail and embattled old bones.