Episode 28: Accidents, Not Punishments

Sermon text here

This week’s song: With Peace Like A River (It Is Well) by the Loverlies

I suspect that some may consider it inappropriate or insensitive to read this sermon, in light of the recent tragedies that have been in the news, both the senseless shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and the little boy who was tragically killed on what should have been a dream vacation, to visit Disney World, by an alligator.  Even now as I write this, the news has just broken that Anton Yelchin, the young actor who played Pavel Chekov in the newest Star Trek movies, was killed as the result of what appears to be some kind of auto accident.  Wait, you might say, for healing to happen before reading this sermon.

I disagree.  I cannot think of a more appropriate time for this to be brought to the forefront.  After all, as I hope was made clear in the course of reading the sermon, Charles Spurgeon did not wait until all was calm and death could be viewed dispassionately to preach this topic.  In the weeks prior to his preaching it, not one but two terrible railway accidents had claimed many lives very suddenly.  And of course, as this was in 1861, across the ocean a terrible war was just starting to begin, one that would claim countless lives and spill much blood.  Yet we can’t look at this and just point directly from Sin A to Punishment B so simply.  Death is judgment for sin—but it is a judgment upon us all, because sin is an infection in this world and death is the only method by which it is expunged.

But as Christians, we cannot let ourselves be so haughty as to look at the suffering and pain and loss occurring in a place like Orlando and say “Well, they were engaged in sin, so we can call it judgment and move on.”  No, we are not able to because we must walk and speak in such a manner that is consistent with the message of the Gospel of Christ.  The truth is that just as easily as that man brought his weapons to a gay nightclub, he just as easily could have brought them to a mall, or to a city street, or to a church.  In fact, I suspect very much that I would not have to search very long before finding a story of churchgoers elsewhere slain in a similarly senseless manner.

I think there is a danger in reading the passage being preached on and thinking that Jesus is being callous about the deaths of the people being mentioned, whether those killed by Pilate’s men or those killed by the tower.  No, I think it is very clear that Jesus saw death very seriously, not as some sort of fake thing that didn’t matter, but as a horrible effect of sin upon the world.  He stood at the tomb of Lazarus, His friend and disciple, and wept with the mourners—and this was even knowing that He was about to bring Lazarus back to life!  No, Jesus was very direct in His response to the questioners because He did not want them to start thinking that they had any kind of superiority to them, or to make them turn aside from seeing their own sin compared to the righteousness of God, to instead compare it to the sin of others.  Jesus has great compassion on suffering, and yet He does not stop at healing it or at sympathizing.  He calls the sufferers to come to Him, to follow Him, and…to pursue more suffering in this world.  Not like some kind of monastic self-flagellation, but rather to follow after Him, to give ourselves up for the sake of others, to love others as ourselves and God above all, and to remember that this world is one that will eventually end, to give way to one that never will.

This is getting a bit long but I will encourage you, if you have the patience, to take a look at the series of blog posts I have put up over the last week, as I have attempted to address the particular questions and objections that have come up in the aftermath of the Orlando shootings.  Most importantly, I want to use even this horrible incident to point everyone to what matters most of all, to the cross and to the empty tomb.  If you are a Christian and you are in a position to minister to a suffering person, let that knowledge that Jesus calls us to empathize with the hurting drive you to dig deep in obedience.  If you are a Christian who is suffering, let the fact that Christ has passed through this road before us and now sits in glory encourage you even in your darkest hours.  And if you are one who hurts and cries out but do not know Jesus, I encourage you, do not waste a moment.  Stop holding on to things that will not last, stop clinging to the weight that drags you down in the deep farther, and look to Jesus and love Him.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

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Hard questions part 4: His creation, His love

Now we get to what I consider the real heart of the matter.  It’s also the part most likely to upset and offend, because it is going to involve directly naming and confronting sinfulness.  However,  at the bottom of it, it involves the question of what makes humanity valuable, what reason anyone would have to believe that humans have an inherent value more than simply the sum of our parts.  So let’s get right to the question that’s been thrown out by many to Christians:

How can you say that you are praying for the victims and that you love them, when you condemn them and say they are in sin?

To answer this question, we need to look at the very foundation of the Christian faith and worldview, and we need to go back to the very beginning.  Well, a few days after the beginning:

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Hard questions part 3: Thus sayeth the LORD

All right, let’s get this out of the way right now:

Does the Bible say that Christians are supposed to kill homosexuals?

No, it doesn’t.

Okay, okay, calm down.  There is quite a bit to say on this because I want to make sure I handle the Scripture rightly on this.  Once again, for a subject commonly engaged with a great deal of emotion and where personal experience is valued over transcendent truth, I desire to take it out of that and into the realm of the testimony of the text.

Homosexuality is forbidden in the Mosaic law, in Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”  Leviticus 20:13 gives the punishment for this act: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”  But again, as mentioned above with regards to Qur’anic commands to execute homosexuals, this is not a command given to all people anywhere to carry out as they wish.  This is given to the people of Israel, within the framework of the Mosaic law, to be carried out in that legal system.

That system, of course, does not exist any longer in the sense of the ancient nation of Israel.  There is a country called Israel that occupies roughly the same area geographically, but they do not hold themselves under this law.  But what about Christians?  How do we regard these passages?

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Hard questions part 2: What makes a murderer?

I want to start with a couple questions relating to the shooter himself, and his reported faith as a Muslim.  I want to address the issue of what it is that drives anyone, at the root, to such a depraved act.  I also want to talk about what it means for us as we look at our Muslim neighbors and try to understand what they really believe, and how they can live as Muslims and stand opposed to violence like this.

Firstly: What kind of man could do something so horrible to people who have never hurt him?  How can someone commit such an unrepentantly evil act, with so little regard for human life?  Even without the issue of radical Islamic terrorism, such an inhuman act is repulsive to consider.

The answer to the first ties into my answer for the last.  Somewhere in his mind, this man began to see others as less human than himself.  Though he laid claim to a religious identity that made him a creature alongside every other man, in his mind and by his actions he set himself up as the true arbiter of morality.  The picture we are getting of him is becoming broader and stranger with each passing hour.  But the bottom line is that he placed himself above others, he decided that he was fit to carry out judgment against them by his own reckoning, and ended the lives of people who posed no threat to him.  Furthermore, he did it in the name of two organizations that preach the radical message of Salafi Islam, or what is called wahhabism in the West.

The shooter claimed to be a Muslim–was he really Muslim?  Do all Muslims have to act like the shooter?

A discussion of the divisions within Islam is not a simple one and probably not possible within a blog post like this.  I would highly recommend James White’s book What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Qur’an for an excellent discussion of foundational Muslim beliefs, but most fundamentally: the organizations that the shooter claimed allegiance to both represent, as I mentioned, an ultra-conservative division within the Sunni denomination of Islam.  Sunnis are the largest branch of Islam, representing over 90% of Muslims in the world.  The Shi’a branch represents the next largest slice, but only at about 5% of Muslims.  The rest is made up of smaller sects like the Ahmadiyya, Sufi, and Druze, among many others.

It is hard to make a simple pronouncement like “he wasn’t a Muslim” because of this action, since there is so much divisions within the religion itself on that subject.  The differences between a Sunni and a Shi’ite is not like the difference between, say, a Baptist and a Presbyterian.  It’s more like the difference between a Baptist and a Roman Catholic: there are fundamental differences that, when you see how deep they run, reveal that they are different religions at their root.

The problem is that the Qur’an is not written with a singular, consistent message.  There are major inconsistencies between early and later surahs, or chapters.  Muhammad moved from being a minority prophet preaching tawhid, or the oneness of God, in the face of polytheistic paganism, to a majority prophet commanding the Muslim armies.  So it’s possible to claim the name of Islam and live at peace in the West (as many do) by resting on certain surahs, while another can claim the name of Islam and march under the ISIS flag.  There is simply no consistent message within the Qur’an to point to from the outside for such a thing.

This is not to say that individual Muslims cannot have a consistent way of living.  But the problem is simply that it’s difficult to ascertain a consistent definition beyond the basics of belief that Allah is God and is one God alone, and belief that Muhammad is his prophet.  So if you want to ask “Was he really a Muslim”, the answer is…it’s not as simple as some want to make it.  He claimed to believe the tenets of the faith, yet it is becoming very clear he did not live consistently with them.

Photo credit: earthnews.in

Indian Muslims shout slogans during a protest against ISIS, an Islamic State group, and the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris, in the eastern Indian city of Bhubaneswar, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. Multiple attacks across Paris last Friday night left more than one hundred dead and many more injured. (AP Photo/Biswaranjan Rout)

As to, do Muslims have to do this to be Muslims?  That plays into the question of consistency again, and I would say the answer is clearly no.  There are many Muslims in the West who are able to live, work, and thrive alongside non-Muslims not as secret sleeper agents as some of the more fevered among us imagine, but simply as fellow Americans.  There are also Muslims here who have fallen into the sway of radicals, and unfortunately we have seen the result of this once again.  As Dr. White pointed out on yesterday’s Dividing Line, one can certainly look at the Qur’an and find passages that require the killing of homosexuals, yet those are also intended to be carried out within some sort of system of justice, with a trial and witnesses, not by one assailant carrying out his own brand of justice.  So one could certainly hold the belief that what the Qur’an commands regarding homosexuals is true, without believing that the response to this is picking up a gun and murdering others.

I am planning in the next couple of weeks to have a guest on the podcast to discuss Islam from the perspective of missionary work in an Islamic framework.  I hope to be able to discuss all this and more in greater detail then.  Until then I highly recommend getting Dr. White’s book and reading it.

In the next part we turn to the question of what the Bible says about the subject of homosexuality.

Hard questions part 1: When evil strikes

My wife came up to me yesterday and asked me, “Does the Bible say we should kill gay people?”  I was rather taken aback, since this subject doesn’t exactly come up on a regular basis.  But as we discussed the issue, about what Scripture says and what a Christian response to an evil act like the Orlando nightclub shooting looks like, the discussion turned more to the responses she had seen on Facebook.  And there are many understandable ones: What kind of person does something like this?  How can we hope to stop this from happening again?  Then there are ones that ask very pointed questions of Islam, as the shooter was a claimed adherent of Islam and, according to police, called 911 before or during the shooting and pledged allegiance to both ISIS and al Qaeda.  Then there were some responses that involved Christians, both from the Christian side (such as “How should we be serving these people in their time of pain and loss?”) and from the secular side (most pointedly, “How can you say you love these people and pray for them when you say they are living in sin and condemned to hell?”)

I think these all deserve discussion from a Christian point of view.  Most especially, they deserve discussion because when those around us experience pain and suffering, we should be ready to engage with them meaningfully–not with a pat answer and phony Christianese sunshine, but with the only real answer that matters, the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope it provides even in the darkest moments.  I don’t intend to make this “the definitive Christian response” but I want to do my best to answer questions I know many of my friends have.  I highly recommend listening to Dr. Albert Mohler’s excellent Briefing podcast episode from yesterday, as he calmly yet lovingly discusses some of the specifics from this issue.  The Gospel Coalition also has some excellent posts, including one by Nabeel Qureshi, who converted from the Ahmadiyya denomination of Islam and is now a Christian apologist working with Ravi Zacharias’ ministry.

I’ll be putting up several posts over the next couple of days.  I want to let this series of posts stand as a place to discuss the questions, responses, and frustrations of many, both Christian and not.  I may update it as time goes on.  Please feel free to post your own thoughts and anything you would like to see addressed in the comments below.  I do moderate for spam and trolling, but I will never turn away honest and heartfelt questions and disagreement.

I want to divide this up into sections, beginning with the subject of the shooting itself and branching out to broader issues.  For example:

  • What kind of man could do something so horrible to people who have never hurt him?
  • The shooter claimed to be a Muslim–was he really Muslim?  Do all Muslims have to act like the shooter? 
  • Does the Bible say we are supposed to kill homosexuals?
  • How can you say that you are praying for the victims and that you love them, when you condemn them and say they are in sin?

This is my prayerful and thoughtful attempt to bring a meaningful gospel response to a horrific and wicked act.  I hope my readers can recognize this, and are willing to engage in that spirit.

Read on…