Great Joy For All People

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” – Luke 2:10 NIV

So much has been introduced into the message of the gospel over the centuries that even the most spiritually mature struggle deeply with dissatisfaction, discontentment, fears of disappointing God, frustration and hopelessness. Salvation has come to be seen much like the business model of a narcotics dealer. You can get it initially for free but to keep it will cost you greatly. As a result, the years following the conversion experience for some look like an addict desperately trying to get enough to buy or earn another fix or another high. When the buzz wears off, the withdrawals symptoms of fear, anger, depression and anxiety appear and take hold.

This is not the good news that Jesus offered. That we would spend the rest of our days chasing the elusive high of our early days of salvation or earning a renewal of our membership in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The good news is that we are loved, sacrificially and unconditionally, first and foremost. Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18 NIV) and nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ our Lord (Romans 8:39 NIV). Nothing we do or neglect to do. Nothing we say of neglect to say. In this love we find rest, joy and contentment.

Yet we begin to see spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting, study and fellowship as ways to earn or sustain God’s favor. We see spiritual gifts as merit badges and a sign of His favor. How is it that so many of us can talk about God’s unmerited love for us yet still with every thought and act demonstrate that our lives are not aligned with that truth?

It is almost like the distinction I have heard in characterizations of marriage, “I love you, but I don’t really like you right now.” Have we twisted our understanding of God’s love so much to believe that despite His love for us that we must earn his liking? If you believe God loves you, do you also believe he likes you?

Over the next few weeks, as several churches are fasting, it is my desire that pastors and parishioners alike will find peace in His love, rest in His unmerited favor and satisfaction in His calling. May we no longer be crushed under the fears of disappointing, annoying, frustrating or offending the one who is full of unending love for us. May we have that mystical experience of knowing this love in the deepest part of our being.


Weapons of Our Peace-fare

Earlier this week, we looked at the “armor of God” from Ephesians 6.  During the discussion, the armor was characterized as the “weapons of our warfare.” This characterization struck me as interesting and possibly out of place as the passage nowhere uses the terms war or warfare. It does, however, use terms such as schemes, struggles and peace–at least in the NIV 1984. What this suggests to me is that this passage about armor is less about the active and open conflict with evil or Satan and more about our stability and stamina in the midst of evil and the victim of schemes and violence.

Anyone familiar with role-playing games, might be able to see that what is described can be seen as more complex than just a simple set of armor and a weapon. It can be read more like a recommended character sheet for the reader. There are the familiar armor sets of truth, righteousness, faith and salvation as well as the one-handed weapon of the Word of God. Additionally, there are character stats of strength (“be strong”), stamina (“stand firm”) and initiative (“be alert”). Lastly, there are the buffs of readiness (+ to initiative) that comes from “the gospel of peace” and fearlessness (+ to stamina).

So if we are like this character, equipped, buffed and ready to roll, what are our abilities? What are asked to do? Interestingly enough, there are two instructions for this equipped believer and they are neither aggressive or offensive. The first is to pray and the second is to keep on praying. I don’t get the impression from that passages that the reader is to take up arms and go to battle like an invading army, but to stand guard. Are we to go to battle against governments to legislate righteousness, religion or indoctrination? No. We are to pray.

In looking elsewhere in Paul’s letters and the New Testament we more instructions to pray and “live in peace” than to be confrontational. Our obligation is to act and behave as motivated by faith rather than fear. To speak truth rather than deceit. To show love rather than hate, even to our perceived and real human enemies.

Given the various descriptions of spiritual conflict in the Scriptures, perhaps we don’t actually have to “fight” against Satan but recognize the love, hope, strength and stability that we have in God. Then the lies or “attacks” of Satan become nothing more than the small sound of darts colliding uselessly against the armor of truth. In light of this truth those attacks as ineffective as hurling a stone against a battleship.

Be strong. Be alert. Be fearless.

Stand guard. Stand firm. Stand ready.

Pray and keep on praying.

The Harbinger: A Review

Upon the recommendation of a few people I know and the request of my pastor, I recently read the book The Harbinger by Jonathan Cahn. Given the specific endorsements for the book, I was surprised to find that the book was classified as fiction by the publisher. Upon reading it I discovered that the classification is entirely appropriate. The book reminds me of a cross between Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown and the National Treasure movie franchise.

Despite the obvious elements of suspense and historical fiction similar to The Three Musketeers or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the author and his endorsers make the argument that what is being described is real. The plot is real even if the characters are not. The consequence is real even if the artifacts are not. What this means is that the book must be handled differently than most other historical fiction. Additionally, the focus is primarily on American politics and economic policies, despite the religious overtones. For these reasons, I have chosen to treat this more as a political commentary than a novel or a religious/spirituality text.

The primary goal of the author appears to be the change of the reader’s perspective about public policy in regards to laws and economics. His goal is to save America from destruction or insignificance. His politics are the primary religion, though they are informed by his Christianity. You can see it in his characterizations of America, such as his statement that America is “the Israel of the New World” (p.19) in covenant with God as ancient Israel was. In this book, his primary concern is the fate of America rather than personal spirituality or the global Church.

Throughout the book, the author uses parallels to support his points. Granted, though many of the parallels and coincidences are fictional devices in the storytelling, some of the parallels he argues are fact. The fundamental parallel upon which all others rest is the notion that the Assyrian invasion of Israel in 732 B.C.E. parallels the Al Qaeda attacks against America on September 11, 2001. While he has a number of intriguing and compelling parallels (or coincidences) to follow it, this one ultimately fails and undermines the rest.

Around 732 B.C.E., the Assyrian kingdom invaded and occupied Israel. Many people were killed or captured. Territory was lost. Homes and crops were destroyed. The author states that this attack under the reign of King Pekah was the first time that a foreign army breached the walls of Israel. However, this was not the case. According to 2 Kings, Israel had previously been invaded by Assyria under King Manahem, who was able to retain the land by paying a ton of gold. Figuratively that is. The note at the bottom of the page in my Bible suggests it was as much as 34 metric tons. Prior to that, Israel had been losing land to the Arameans for almost a century, only to have gained it all back from them perhaps a decade prior to Manahem’s encounter with Assyria.

What we see when we look at ancient Israel’s own recording of history is that their context was very different from America’s in the first decade of the 21st century. There had already been a long history of military conflict over the borders of Israel and at that time Israel was obligated to pay tribute to the Assyrian king as a result of previous conflicts. Israel was not the unified Israel of the past but the northern portion who even occasionally had military conflicts with its southern brothers and sisters. Additionally, in the years leading up to the supposed “breach,” three of Israel’s kings had been assassinated by those who desired the throne.

In the decades preceding 9/11, America had not lost any territory to foreign invaders. The presidency was not established by the assassination of predecessors. The president is not paying tribute to a foreign king in order to sustain his role as vassal of that king and ruler of this territory.

The author also claims that the economic crash of 2008 parallels the year Assyria began their three-year siege of Israel that ultimately led to its destruction. However, when the story is read in context we see that King Hoshea (who became king by having King Pekah assassinated), who served as a vassal to the King of Assyria, turned to Egypt for protection from Assyria and refused to pay the tribute that was expected annually. In return for the treason and insubordination, Assyria attacked, and three years later Israel was no more. The years since 2008 have been hard for many worldwide. However, America has neither been under siege by a foreign military nor has its infrastructure or military been so compromised to suggest imminent collapse.

Despite the flaws in the author’s premise, there are also questions of his propositions. I constantly asked of the book, “What next?” Even propositions made with a false premise can be valid for entirely different reasons. There are two answers to the “What next?” question according to this book and its author. First, America and its Christians do not return to God and the nation is destroyed. Second, America repents and is not destroyed.

We can only wait and see if his first proposition is true: that the United States of America will, in the near future, be conquered by a foreign government and no longer exist. Given the errors in his premise, I doubt there is any merit to this proposition. Likewise, this first possible outcome requires no further action from the reader or the leaders. As he argues, if we simply continue as we have been then destruction is coming.

Which brings us to the second proposition, in which America returns to God. This is the one that requires action of the reader and action from America’s leaders. However, I found that the author remained a bit vague about what specifically America must do to “return to God.” He hinted at a number of conservative, evangelical talking points, such as:

  • Return instructor-led Christian prayer and Biblically-based moral and theological instruction to the public schools.
  • Return or place the Ten Commandments at any government facility, whether federal, state or local.
  • Outlaw abortion (I could not tell if that also included various forms of contraception).

Other ideas appeared to include:

  • Denouncing atheism and other religions as false (or inferior?) and possibly outlawing them as well.
  • Rejecting or outlawing pornography, profanity and homosexuality.
  • Repenting of greed, materialism, self-worship and self-obsession.

Due to his frequent mention of political and economic leaders and their responsibility for America’s guilt, the return to God can only be accomplished by the proclamations and the regulations of those leaders.  The language of the book and this proposition seem to suggest a populist takeover of American government by undeceived Christians and changing it into the theocratic state the author believes we once were.

Upon reading the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (whom the author uses as his primary sources for the book), I see a very different characterization of the “return”:

  • No longer worship Ba’al or other foreign gods.
  • Remove the unjust laws that have discriminatory impact on the poor.
  • No longer withhold justice from the poor.
  • No longer deprive the poor of their rights.
  • No longer prey upon widows.
  • No longer rob orphans.
  • No longer oppress the immigrant/foreigner, orphan or widow.
  • No longer shed “the lifeblood of the innocent poor.”
  • No longer steal, murder, commit adultery or commit perjury.

What we see consistently from the Old Testament prophets is that the return to God is marked primarily by who we worship and how we treat our poor. The author speaks frequently of who we worship but neglects to state our obligation to justice for the poor and disempowered in our nation. He does provide a token mention of it as an obligation when we are prosperous.

What I found to be the most telling portion of the story is the author’s claim that prior to 9/11, America had a perception of invulnerability. That day changed it. America felt vulnerable. He claims that over the years America has started to feel invulnerable again, but it is a lie. This, I believe, is the point of the book. The author had believed that America was invulnerable, and 9/11 shattered that belief. In his own attempt to reconcile the tragedy of 9/11, he began to understand it as the removal of God’s “hedge of protection” from America. So now, the only way to regain that invulnerability is to get that “hedge” back by returning to God.

This author is communicating to his readers what he believes will give him back that sense of invulnerability. That sense of security. It is not in the TSA or Homeland Security. It is not the War on Terror or the building of the Freedom Tower. It is in that image of one nation under the Christian god that is the most prosperous and powerful in all the world.

While I don’t know if the author will ever get that sense of invulnerability back, I do know that nations come and go, but God remains and even the Church remains. The day will come when the United States of America will be no more and something else will stand up in its place. But even in that new nation there will be Christians, whether in the majority or severely marginalized. As Christians our hope is not in America; it is in God.

Would I recommend this book to anyone? No. I feel it is misguided and misleading for many of the reasons discussed above. However, I do appreciate the author’s respect for the Scriptures, even if I disagree with his exegesis and interpretive bias. I also appreciate his desire to see this nation characterized by the virtue God has taught us to live by: love.