Much of the time, we tend to understand the kings of Israel and Judah in a binary way. We read “X did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “Y did what was right in the sight of the Lord” not as summaries, but as blanket statements that accurately describe every aspect of a king’s life.
This understanding is an oversimplification in both directions. Even a rotter like Ahab believed in God, feared God, and spoke with His prophets. On the other hand, even the most righteous kings of Judah weren’t perfect.
Consider, for instance, the career of the righteous king Hezekiah. In 1 Kings 18:5, he receives the encomium, “He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” As impressive as this sounds, we must recognize that it’s where Hezekiah ended up, not where he started. Despite his opposition to idolatry, there were times in his life when he failed to trust.
This is most evident in the prophecies of Isaiah that concern the events of Hezekiah’s reign. In Isaiah 22:8-11, Isaiah says of Hezekiah, “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to Him who did it, or see Him who planned it long ago.” For all of his righteousness, Hezekiah found himself in a place where he still relied on what he could do rather than on the salvation of the Lord.
However, everything that Hezekiah could accomplish was overwhelmed in the massive Assyrian invasion of 701 BC. The Assyrians came from the north like a tidal wave, destroying everything in sight. They conquered all of Judah, including the citadel of Lachish, except for Jerusalem itself.
Jerusalem is clearly next on the hit list. Assyrian officials inform the inhabitants that they must surrender instead of being destroyed. Now, in Isaiah 37:3-4, Hezekiah says, “This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has send to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.”
There’s no more talk about armories and reservoirs and walls. Now, Hezekiah has put his trust completely in God, a trust not shared by any king before or after him. He hopes for his redemption not for his own glory, but for God’s.
Today, it’s easy for us to be early-Hezekiah-style Christians. We do the right things, but we continue to trust in ourselves. Sooner or later, that selfish trust will betray us. We will learn, like Hezekiah, that security can only be found in God. The only question is whether we will learn from his calamity or our own.
The Internet is one of the most powerful inventions in human history. If we use it to seek the Lord, it can accomplish great things for Him. Without the Internet, I certainly wouldn’t be able to blog, and I probably wouldn’t be able to write hymns. This is to say nothing, of course, of the many opportunities the online world gives us to encourage one another.
However, anything so powerful is also dangerous. Fire can warm us, but it can also consume us. So too with the Internet. Used wisely, it can be powerfully edifying. Used foolishly, it can be powerfully destructive. Let’s consider, then, the subject of spiritual wisdom and the Internet.
First, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SEE. Consider our Lord’s wise words on the subject in Matthew 6:22-23. If we look at good things, they will elevate and ennoble us. On the other hand, if we look at evil things, they will degrade and corrupt us.
This starts, of course, with pornography. I’m sure all of you have heard multiple sermons about porn, and yet I’m equally sure that it continues to be a problem in this congregation and in congregations all across the country. There are so many ill effects from porn use that I hardly know where to begin. Like most sins, it tends to be addictive. The more we use it, the less we enjoy it. It enslaves us so that we seek out viler and viler things for less and less reward. Thus, passing pleasures of porn lead us to lasting misery. Porn is also destructive of our relationships, relationships with present and future spouses, but especially our relationship with God. We may think that we have concealed our habit from others, but we have not hidden it from Him.
Porn, however, is not the only thing on the Internet that is sinful and tempts us to sin. Lying is a sin, outbursts of wrath are a sin, contentiousness is a sin, divisiveness is a sin, and there are millions of websites that promote falsehood, anger, contention, and division. Sad to say, brethren are often very open about their patronage of these sites, especially in the political realm, because their prejudices blind them to the dangers. As a rule, friends, any time we read something that confirms the best that we want to believe about our political side or confirms the worst that we want to believe about the other side, the site is probably lying! If we uncritically swallow this dangerous brew of falsehood and bitterness, it will poison us. Like porn, it will corrupt us in ways that we never would have imagined. We need to be careful what we put our eyes on.
Finally, we must BE CAREFUL WHAT WE SAY. Look here at Ephesians 4:29-30. Today, our speech is not limited to what comes out of our mouths, and our keyboards, apps, and cameras have every bit as much power to corrupt. Let’s start by considering communication that is sexually provocative. Over the past couple years, one of the big movements online has been the appearance of “Stories” apps: Facebook Stories, Instagram Stories, and their predecessor, Snapchat. The big draw for all of these things is that they allow temporary posts on the Internet. 24 hours go by, and it’s gone, so that that way the dirty picture you sent your boyfriend or the video of your drunken party won’t show up when your grandmother or a prospective employer does an Internet search on you.
I have a couple of thoughts about that. First of all, I have a nasty suspicion that all that stuff won’t stay as private as its users hope. Numbers 32:23 is still true, and sooner or later, our sin will find us out. Even if that’s not true, all the dirty photos and dirty texts are still corrupting. Even if you’re sending them to your spouse, I still worry about privacy concerns, and if you’re sending them to somebody else, you’re trying to tempt them to sin. This is not a good idea!
Speech that is lying, angry, or contentious is equally corrupting. Our society idealizes self-expression, but if our best reason for putting something online is to express ourselves, that’s a sign that we’re not behaving wisely. We’re not thinking about the effect of our words on others. We’re just looking to “tell it like it is”. Friends, that’s about like throwing hand grenades while blindfolded. The results are unpredictable, but they’re likely to be bad. The next time we’re about to click share on that inflammatory meme or pound out an angry status update, let’s reconsider. If we use our online speech instead to persuade, edify, amuse, and enlighten, we’ll all be better off.
One of the themes of the book of Daniel is faithfulness to God despite living in a foreign land. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were exiles because of the sins of their fathers, men who couldn’t manage to keep covenant with God even though they were living in the promised land. The sons, though, were put to a sterner test than their fathers. They were expected to serve faithfully despite the bad example of their ancestors, the destruction of the temple, and their removal to Babylon. They were called to remember God even when their very names were changed from names that glorified Him to names that glorified idols (Bel, Aku, Aku, and Nergal, respectively).
Astonishingly, they succeed. All four men draw a line in the sand in Daniel 1. They determine that they would rather live on vegetables and water than run the risk of defiling themselves with rich food and wine from the king’s table. In Daniel 3, Daniel’s three friends prefer to face incineration rather than worshiping the king’s image. Similarly, in Daniel 6, Daniel himself defies the king’s edict and continues to pray toward Jerusalem according to the terms of 2 Chronicles 6:36-39.
In all of these things, God blesses them. Despite their austere diet, they become fatter than their peers who gorged themselves on royal delicacies (In my book, this is evidence that eating salads doesn’t help you lose weight!). An angel rescues Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace. God closes the mouths of the lions who were supposed to devour Daniel for his illegal prayers. Though an outside observer might conclude from the destruction of Israel and Judah that God is powerless, His care for the exiles shows that He is anything but.
Today, Christians in the United States increasingly feel that they are living in exile. America has never been “a Christian nation”, at least not in a Biblical sense, but increasingly, the morality of those around us is diverging from the morality of the Bible. Millions are turning to a bizarre moral code of their own invention. The same people who sneer at us for believing in an imaginary God simultaneously believe (and insist) that somebody who has two X chromosomes can be a man. Never mind the biology; saying makes it so!
In such an environment, staying faithful to our Creator is becoming increasingly difficult. Like the exiled Jews, we face all kinds of pressure to conform. Maybe nobody is changing our names on us, but it’s certainly true that Christians who are loud in their defense of Biblical morality will get in all kinds of trouble in secular schools and workplaces.
Nonetheless, our only recourse is to continue trusting in God too. He does not promise us that serving Him will be easy or painless, but He does promise that He will not forsake us. If we remain true to Him despite provocation from the citizens of this world, He will surely bless us.
It is a warm November day in Palestine, sometime around 28 AD. The field on the upper hillside has been plowed, and a man with a basket is scattering seed. As he flings handfuls of grain across the field, some of the seeds bounce and come to rest around the margins of the field. This has been happening the same way in the same location for more than a thousand years.
On the lower hillside, stretching down toward the sea, a crowd has gathered. Many of them have come from a village around the next headland. A short way away from the shore, a small boat rocks in the water, and a man is standing in it. The crowd is watching him, and even the farmer on the hill above glances down occasionally.
The man says, “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. . .”
The Bible is for all people in all times, but we should never underestimate the extent to which its language is bound up in a particular time. For us, the language of the parables is almost a kind of sacred code. When we talk about “sowing seed,” we are certainly not talking about planting a field by hand, which few (if any) of us have ever done. We’re talking about telling others about Jesus.
2000 years ago, though, this language wasn’t rich with symbolic significance. It was flatly descriptive of everyday life in Galilee. Indeed, my suspicion is that in many of the parables, Jesus isn’t merely describing a scene with which all of His audience is familiar. He is describing something that is happening right in front of them. The lilies of the field and the ravens aren’t hypothetical constructs. They are the weeds blooming at Jesus’ feet and the birds flying over His head, right as He is talking. The parables show that long before the invention of PowerPoint, Jesus was in the speech-with-visual-aid business.
This is important for us to recognize for two reasons. First, it shows us how difficult to follow Jesus’ teaching sometimes would have been. In our church-building auditoriums 2000 years later, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about a real farmer or real seed. 2000 years ago, when Jesus may well have been literally pointing to a real farmer with real seed, it would not have been at all obvious that He was doing anything more than offering an agriculture report. We often criticize the disciples for not understanding His teaching fully, but we ought to give them credit for recognizing when there was something more to understand.
Second, making the effort to visualize Jesus’ teaching in its original location can help us to understand why it got the reaction that it did. This is perhaps most important with the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12. We know from Mark 11:27 that Jesus is teaching on the grounds of the temple. As a result, we ought to read the parable in this way: “A man planted a vineyard [Jesus gestures to the temple precincts] and put a fence around it [Jesus gestures to the temple walls] and dug a pit for the winepress [Jesus gestures to the stairways down] and built a tower [Jesus gestures to the temple itself].”
There’s a reason why the chief priests, scribes, and elders had no trouble perceiving that Jesus had told the parable against them. The setting made it obvious. Jesus’ prediction that the temple elite would be destroyed was a threat too dangerous to ignore. The parable made it clear to them that He had to go.
The gospels are not a collection of myths. They are history, and history has a setting. The more we work at incorporating the setting, the better we will understand the message.
A few days ago, I got an email from a friend of mine who recently started preaching. He had been thinking about the Botham Shem Jean shooting and wondered if it should affect his message. Is it the place of a gospel preacher to condemn social injustice and cry out for change? He felt uncomfortable with the idea but wondered if his discomfort was due to his insulated status as a white man. Here’s what I told him:
Interesting question, brother! I brought Shawn in, we talked about it, and our conclusion is that your instincts are correct. Taking a side on the political controversies of the day is dangerous for a preacher and weakens his message.
Shawn and I see several main problems with taking a stand on some politically charged current event. First, the facts are generally unclear or even disputed. It's certainly tragic that an innocent black brother in Christ was shot in his own apartment, but it's not clear to me that he was shot because he was black. Similarly, I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened in the Trayvon Martin case. If you're taking a position on any events like this, you're taking a stand on uncertain ground.
Second, preaching on such events is likely to polarize the congregation. Because they are politically charged, members are likely to have strong pre-existing opinions about them, and if you express an opposite opinion, you're likely to alienate those members. I know that there are members at many congregations who would really struggle to wrap their heads around the notion that kneeling for the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, there are members at many congregations who think it's a valid way to call attention to racial injustice and would have trouble seeing the other position. No matter which side you pick, you're going to lose.
Third, calling for social change is simply not a part of the gospel. Above all, Christ is concerned with the heart of the individual. He calls the sinner to repentance. You want to preach on racism and the responsibility of the Christian to treat everyone with love, great! You should preach lessons like that. Unity in Christ is one of the great themes of Scripture. In fact, I'm preaching a lesson on the subject on Sunday. My experience is that when I condemn racism from the pulpit, it finds favor with the whole congregation, black and white alike.
However, I question the usefulness of any sermon that is aimed at people who aren't part of the congregation. Do we live in a perfectly just society? Of course not! However, reforming society is not the work of the preacher nor the work of the church. We are supposed to change the world one soul at a time, and if racism is ever going to be defeated in this country, it is going to be defeated in the hearts of individuals. We're already working on that. Why exchange the God-endorsed strategy for one that He hasn't endorsed?
Them's our thoughts, brother! Any questions?