DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

Ordinary People and Loyal Love (Ruth)

If I asked you what 2007 was like, I'm sure that I would get a lot of answers, but a couple of answers would probably stand out.

Some of you would probably say that 2007 has been a hard year. I know what some of you have been through this year. It reminds me of the year that Windsor Castle caught on fire and some royal couples split. The Queen called it an annus horribilis. Most of us would just say "horrible year" but it sounds much better in Latin. For some of you it's been that kind of year.

Some of you wouldn't say it's been particularly hard, but it has been uneventful. Nothing spectacular happened. Most of life is rather ordinary, and for some of you it may have been one of those really ordinary years.

It's easy to think that hard or ordinary years are a waste of time. It's easy to think that nothing much of value takes place when we are going through hard or mundane times.

I want to invite you to look at a fascinating story today that's all about ordinary people going through hard times. If you had asked the people in this story if God was at work in their lives, they probably would have said no. But if we understand this story, we'll come to realize that God is often at work when we don't even know it, often preparing to do his greatest work as we just go about our lives not even aware that he's at work all around us.

So if you have your Bibles with you, please look with me at what someone has called one of the greatest masterpieces of narrative art in the Bible: the book of Ruth.

Hard and Ordinary

There are a few things we need to understand as we start this story.

The first thing we need to understand is what things were like at this time. Verse 1 says, "In the days when the judges ruled..." If you were with us this fall in our study through the book of Judges, you know that these were not good times. We looked at Judges and got more and more depressed about what was going on. Israel was at a low point. They abandoned God, lived like all the other nations, and made a mess of things. God kept rescuing them, but they kept on rebelling and things got worse and worse. It was a time of apostasy, degradation, and oppression, a time of rape, incest, and famine. So the story we're about to read was set in very bad times.

In the first chapter we're introduced to Naomi and Ruth. It's important to understand what they were up against. We read in verse 1 that there's a famine in the land. Things get so bad that Naomi and her husband Elimekek have to move to survive. Today, if the economy tanks in Toronto, it's not a huge deal to move to Calgary or Vancouver. But back then moving is a big deal. All the hopes and dreams of Israel were tied to the land. Not only that, but Israelites had a very troubled relationship with Moabites. This would be a big deal. Strike one. But it gets worse.

Elimekek and Naomi have two sons, and both of them marry Moabite women. Strike two. It was extremely important for Israelites not to marry from other nations, not because of racial reasons but because the other nations worshiped other gods. God had said:

Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

But then comes the worst news of all. Naomi's husband dies, and that's hard but she still has her two sons. But then in verse 5 we read that Naomi's two sons also die. She came to Moab with a husband and two sons, and now all she's left with are two daughters-in-law from a pagan nation. Strike three.

Naomi has lost everything. If any of us lost our entire family it would be devastating, but it still wouldn't be as bad as what Naomi was facing. In Naomi's day to be a widow meant that you had nothing - no property, no income. You were completely vulnerable, but you could get by if you had children. But Naomi had no surviving children, nobody to support her. On top of that she's old and won't be able to just pick up and remarry.

It would be like us losing not only our families but our jobs, our savings, our pension fund, and our hope. She's completely exposed. She's experienced famine, premature death, and she has no descendants. Naomi, by the way, is a name that means pleasant. We read in verse 20 that she doesn't want to be called by her name anymore. She says:

Don't call me Naomi," she told them. "Call me Mara [bitter] because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The LORD has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me." (Ruth 1:20-21)

As we get to the end of chapter 1, everything is bad.

So: the times are awful, and we have a woman here who has lost everything. But there's one other thing I want you to notice about this story. There are no miracles in this story, no dreams, no angelic visitations. You and I should be able to relate to this story because it is only about ordinary people living mundane - actually, hard - lives. You wonder what God could bring out of a situation like this?

Loyal Love

What happens in this story as Naomi is at her lowest should be encouraging to us. There's a word in Hebrew that is actually my favorite Hebrew word - hesed, which is sometimes translated as kindness or lovingkindness. It's about a graciousness and loyalty that goes beyond all duty, and it's usually shown to somebody who is in need, someone who is experiencing hardship. It's a covenant term that wraps up all the positive qualities of God - covenant faithfulness, mercy, grace, kindness. You can translate hesed as loyal love.

It's something that I see almost every week - I've seen it just this past week, in fact, among ordinary people who are part of Richview. This story shows us what God can do through ordinary people who show loyal love to those around them.

First, Ruth shows this hesed loyal love to her mother-in-law Naomi. When Naomi decides to return back to Israel, she knows the best thing to do is to leave her daughters-in-law behind. There would be no future for them in Israel - Moabite women would not be welcome. Naomi could not support them. They would be much better off staying in Moab and remarrying. Naomi has nothing to offer them. One of her daughters-in-law takes Naomi's advice and leaves. But the other one, Ruth, boldly decides to stay with Naomi. She says words that have become famous:

Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)

Don't miss what's happening here. One commentator writes:

Ruth stands alone; she possesses nothing. No God has called her; no deity has promised her blessing; no human being has come to her aid. She lives and chooses without a support group and she knows that the fruit of her decision may well be the emptiness of rejection, indeed of death. Consequently, not even Abraham's leap of faith surpasses this decision of Ruth's. And there is more. Not only has Ruth broken with family, country and faith, but she has also reversed sexual allegiance. A young woman has committed herself to the life of an old woman rather than to the search for a husband....One female has chosen another female in a world where life depends upon men. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel. (Word Biblical Commentary)

With no realistic hope of anything good coming out of it, Ruth shows hesed loyal love and casts her lot with Naomi no matter what happens. What will God do with hesed love in a Moabite woman with nothing going for her except that loyal love?

Then we experience another case of hesed love. In those days, the poor and destitute were allowed to pick up the scraps of grain the harvesters had left over. This was allowed, but it would have been risky for Ruth. As a Moabite and as a widow, she could not count on the goodwill of the locals, so she had to find someone who would show her kindness and allow her to do this.

In chapter 2 verse 3 we read that Ruth just happens to pick a field belonging to a man who is very kind. From her perspective, she just chanced upon this field. But it was the field not only of a good and kind man, but he was also a close relative, someone who, it turns out later, can legally buy back the land that belonged to Naomi's family that had been sold. It just so happens!

This man, Boaz, against all odds, institutes the first workplace non-harassment policy in history to protect Ruth, invites her to glean freely behind the harvesters, which would allow her to get more grain. He also authorizes her to drink water from the jars the harvesters had filled. You need to understand that in that culture women normally drew water for men, and foreigners were made to draw water for the Israelites. For Israelite men to draw water for a Moabite woman was extraordinary. He even makes arrangements for the workers to "accidentally" drop some stalks for her to pick up. She ends up with about 30 pounds of grain, an unusual amount for one day's gleaning, all because of the hesed loyal love of Boaz to this Moabite woman with nothing. Naomi even says in verse 20, ""The LORD bless him!...He has not stopped showing his kindness [hesed] to the living and the dead."

Finally, there's the loyal love of Naomi to her daughter-in-law Ruth. In chapter 3, Naomi hatches a plot for that could lead to Ruth marrying Boaz, who can provide for the entire family because he has the legal right to buy back the ancestral land because he is a close relative. Ruth actually goes further and proposes marriage to Boaz. In those days it was shocking for a woman - especially a Moabite woman - to propose marriage to an Israelite man. But that's what happens, because Naomi wants Ruth to be provided for and to have a home. Unbelievably, when Ruth proposes, Boaz says yes. Not only does he say yes but he says:

"The LORD bless you, my daughter," he replied. "This kindness [hesed] is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don't be afraid. I will do for you all you ask." (Ruth 3:10-11)

There are no miracles here. There is only, at a time that was morally corrupt, hesed loyal love shown between ordinary people.

As the story comes to a close, Boaz overcomes the one remaining obstacle to marrying Ruth. He dissuades a closer relative from exercising his right to buy Naomi's ancestral land. He then marries her, and they have a son. Naomi, who came back empty, now has an heir, someone to provide for her in her old age. But even better, the son that was born to Ruth and Boaz becomes grandfather of the greatest king to rule over Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures, King David.

When we finished the book of Judges, we felt like things were a complete mess. God raised up deliverers and performed miracles, but nothing good seemed to happen. How could God bring anything good out of the time of the Judges? God did bring something good out of the time of the Judges, but it wasn't through miracles. It was through the simple hesed loyal love shown by and to ordinary people, even unlikely people. God does some of his best work through ordinary people who show loyal love to those around him.

But there's more. Ruth and Boaz had a son, and their son became grandfather to the greatest king of the Hebrew Scriptures, King David. But their son also became ancestor of the greatest king to rule ever, the king whose birth we celebrated this past week, Jesus. So we find the names of Boaz and Ruth in Matthew 1, which gives the family tree of Jesus. It was through the hesed love shown among ordinary people that God raised up the savior of the entire world.

Ordinary Lives Today

I asked you what kind of year 2007 had been for you. I guessed that a lot of you would say that it's been ordinary, maybe hard. For a lot of us it may look that God has been absent from our lives.

Ruth is a book for people who live ordinary, uneventful lives, maybe even hard lives. Ruth reminds us that God is doing ten thousand things even when he appears to be absent. This is a book for people who look around and see ordinariness and mundaneness. It reminds us that God is at work in ordinary lives among ordinary people as we show loyal love to the people he has placed around us.

Imagine the surprise when Naomi and Ruth discover that God not only rescued them out of emptiness but used them against all odds to send us his Son. Maybe one day we'll be surprised too as we discover what God has been doing in our ordinary lives as we show hesed love to those he has placed around us.

Father, thank you for the way that you work behind the scenes. You are the one who is doing ten thousand things in our lives even when you appear to be absent. Thank you that you are the one who takes emptiness and fills it. You are the one who renews and sustains life. You are the one who takes an impoverished widow her Moabite daughter-in-law, and who through their ordinary lives and their hesed love you establish a royal line that brings the world not only King David, but also the King of all kings.

I pray that we would look to Jesus this morning. I pray that you would allow us to see that he indeed is the reigning King, the one whose birth we celebrate, the one whose return we long for. And as we complete one year and begin another, may we see that you are at work in our ordinary lives as we show hesed loyal love to the ordinary people you have placed around us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.

How to Know if You Understand Christmas (2 Corinthians 8:1-15)

This morning I'd like to take a few minutes with you to look at how you can know if you really understand Christmas.

The fact that you're here in church a couple of days before Christmas probably means that you understand the facts about Christmas. Most of us know a lot of the Christmas story found in the Bible: that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and she had a son before she ever had intimate relations with a man; that angels appeared to various people to tell them about the significance of this birth; that eastern astrologers came to pay homage to this baby born in a feeding trough. But just because you know the facts of Christmas doesn't mean that you really understand Christmas.

If you don't consider yourself to be someone who understands or buys into this, then that's okay. But it's not fair to give you this test, even though I'd love for you to listen because what I'm about to describe is what you should expect of people who follow Jesus Christ. So I invite you to listen and to think about it and consider if what I'm going to say makes sense if you believe what Christians say about the Christmas story. You can even hold us accountable.

I want to talk very briefly about a simple test that we can all give ourselves to see if we understand Christmas. It's found in the passage that we just read in 2 Corinthians 8. Let me give you the test, and then explain where I got it from.

Here's the simple test: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor.

Let me say that again: You know you understand Christmas if it motivates you to give generously to the poor. If you understand Christmas, you will be generous with the poor. If you aren't generous with the poor, it shows that you don't understand Christmas at all.

That's a pretty audacious statement to make. Let me give you a bit of background. The church that Paul writes to, the church in Corinth, was a relatively wealthy church in a world in which a lot of people didn't have very much. When Paul wrote this letter, there was really no such thing as a middle class. Just over 1 out of every 10 people lived well. 70% of the population in the Mediterranean at that time was at or below the subsistence level - most of them below. When Paul wrote this letter, "dirt poor" was not just a saying. Most of the people in that day were literally dirt poor. One writer who lived around this time described it this way: "Toiling and moiling from morning till night, doubled over their tasks, they merely eke out a bare existence."

When Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, there was a special need among the Christians in Jerusalem. We don't know why. It could have been a result of persecution or bad harvests. All we know is that things were in bad shape, and the church in Jerusalem needed help.

So Paul faced the same situation that we face today. We are, in a lot of ways, like the Corinthians. We may not feel like it, but we are the "have's". For whatever reason, we live in a country where there is lots of opportunity, and we have a lot compared to the rest of the world.

Paul was trying to raise money to help, just like we're trying to do for the water project. Others are in need. In Paul's day, the need was for money to help with food. Today, the need we're focusing on the need for water for the 1.1 billion people who don't have any clean water. If you took the number of people who are in this building right now and multiplied it by 200, that is the number of people who are going to die today from water born diseases.

How do you raise money among the relatively rich to help those who have next to nothing? It's interesting what Paul doesn't do.

He doesn't once mention money. In this entire passage he doesn't use any of the Greek words for money. It's unbelievable. Money isn't the issue.

He doesn't whip up human sympathy for a project. Nothing wrong with talking about the suffering of people as a way to highlight a need, but he doesn't do that.

He doesn't make people feel guilty that they have money that others need.

And lastly, he doesn't encourage them to give so that they'll gain social prestige or get anything out of giving.

Here's what he does. He reminds them of God's grace. He says that if they really understand God's grace, then generosity is the necessary outcome. Christian giving is more than a display of compassion. It's more than a readiness to help those in distress, as good as that is. Christian giving is always a response to God's grace, demonstrated in the Christmas story. If we understand, really understand, the Christmas story, we'll respond with generosity to those in need. If we aren't generous to those in need, it shows that we don't understand Christmas at all.

Just a few highlights from this passage. In the first 7 verses, Paul describes a group of churches that did get it. They were the churches of Macedonia, that included Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea. You know what's interesting about these churches? Verse 2 says that they were experiencing a severe trial and extreme poverty. These churches weren't generous because they had a lot. They were generous and gave beyond their abilities and beyond expectation, and actually pleaded with Paul for the privilege of giving, because of "overflowing joy". They didn't just give money; verse 5 says that they gave "themselves first of all to the Lord," and this resulted in generosity.

What causes a group of poor people to plead for the privilege of giving beyond what is reasonable or expected to help other people? There's only one expectation: they understood God's grace.

Then in verses 8 to 15 Paul turns to the relatively rich Corinthians and says, "Isn't it about time that you completed your collection to help the poor in Jerusalem?" But he doesn't appeal, as I said, to sympathy, or to guilt, or to prestige. He doesn't even mention money. What he does mention is Christmas, because he knows that if you really understand Christmas, then radical generosity is the necessary outcome.

Read verses 8-9:

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

What will make us generous? Verse 9 tells us: really getting Christmas. When we really understand that the Lord Jesus Christ gave up the riches and glory and honor that was his in heaven, gave all of that up, and came to earth and lived poorly, humbly, and died shamefully for our sakes; when we grasp that the pre-existing Lord of glory became poor by choosing to accept our earthly life; when we really understand Christmas, how could we not follow his example and be generous? If Christ gave up that much for us, how could we not give up mere money to help others in need?

J. B. Phillips tells the story of a young angel being shown the splendors and glories of the universes by a senior and experienced angel. The little angel was beginning to be tired and a little bored.

He had been shown whirling galaxies and blazing suns, infinite distances in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space, and to his mind there seemed to be an awful lot of it all. Finally he was shown the galaxy of which our planetary system is but a small part. As the two of them drew near to the star which we call our sun and to its circling planets, the senior angel pointed to a small and rather insignificant sphere turning very slowly on its axis. It looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball to the little angel, whose mind was filled with the size and glory of what he had seen.

"I want you to watch that one particularly," said the senior angel, pointing with his finger.

"Well, it looks very small and rather dirty to me," said the little angel. "What's special about that one?"

"That," replied his senior solemnly, "is the Visited Planet."

"Visited?" said the little one. "you don't mean visited by

Relational Giving (2 Corinthians 5:11-21)

We're in this series called The Advent Conspiracy. We are one of over a thousand churches working to recover the scandal of Christmas by entering the Christmas story and asking the question, "How can we worship Jesus more?" We've been talking about some of the themes like:

  • spending less so that we make room to say yes to Jesus in our lives
  • giving more - giving relational gifts, because God gave us a relational gift - his own Son
  • loving all - believing that with the money we save by giving relationally and resisting the empire we can, in turn, re-distribute the money we saved to the least of these in the world

Next week we're taking an offering with the money from celebrating Christmas differently. All of this money is going to go to Living Water International. They're going to use this money to help some of the 1.1 billion people live without clean drinking water in this world. But this isn't an extra thing we want to tag onto an already stressful Christmas. The idea isn't to buy all the gifts you'd normally buy and then drop a little extra in the offering as well. Instead, we want to celebrate Christmas entirely differently and enter into the story of Christ coming to this world.

There's a new movie out by Morgan Spurlock, the guy who directed and starred in Super Size Me, called What Would Jesus Buy? In the movie they did some interviews. In one of the interviews, a woman admitted to applying for all kinds of credit cards behind her husband's back. They interviewed her husband and he said, "No, we don't have any credit cards." She had all the credit cards maxed out when they arrived in the mail for Christmas. What she said was, "My kids are going to have all of these things because I never got them and because I love them that much."

There's another story of a man who went out when the Playstation 2 came out that Christmas. There was a mad rush to get them, and someone pulled out a gun and shot him. He had two Playstation 2s, bullet wounds. Someone got down to help him out. As he lay there he tried to pull the credit card out of his wallet as he said, "Go buy these for me."

We hear these stories and think that it's crazy, and it is. Something pure and universal like parental love somehow at Christmas gets reduced to loving enough to go into debt or even to take a bullet to buy our kids stuff. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors who came up with the idea of Advent Conspiracy, says, "This thing called love that you can't put a price-tag on has been reduced so that you can." (Rick McKinley).

Entering the Christmas story means that we stand back a little and ask, "Is that the story that we're invited to enter this Christmas?" Ultimately, Christmas is not about the gifts that we buy for each other. Christmas is about a relational gift.

At Christmas we celebrate that out of all the things that God could have given us, God gave us the most costly gift - something so valuable you can't put it on a price-tag. God gave us himself. As we enter this story, we have to ask ourselves, "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?"

We just read a passage written by the apostle Paul in which Paul explains the essence of the gift that we have been given. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:18, "All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ."

Reconciling is when someone does something between enemies so that they become friends again. Jesus came as a person which is in itself a relational gift, but he also came to restore the relationship between us and God. He restored the ultimate relationship and he did so by coming himself at Christmas as a person, as one of us.

There's a movie called The Straight Story. It's about a 73-year-old man who has a broken relationship with his brother, Lyle. They haven't seen or spoken to each other in over 10 years. One day Alvin learns that Lyle has had a stroke, and he determines to visit him and make things right.

Alvin hitches a makeshift trailer to his 1966 John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out on a 500-mile trip. He camps out in fields and backyards made available by hospitable people he meets along the way. Slowly but surely, Alvin perseveres and reaches his brother.

He steers his riding mower down a dirt road and finds a run-down wooden shack. Alvin climbs off the mower, shuffles slowly toward the house, and calls out, "Lyle! Lyle!" There is no response. The look on Alvin's face shows his fear: perhaps he's too late. Maybe Lyle has died in the six weeks since he began his journey.

After a lengthy pause, a voice from inside the shack calls, "Alvin? Alvin?" Lyle appears at the front door holding onto a walker. He invites Alvin to come onto the porch, where they silently sit. Alvin nervously looks at his brother, while Lyle studies the riding mower and makeshift trailer. Eventually Lyle says, "You came all this way on that just to see me?"

Alvin's smiles with tears in his eyes and says, "Yep!"

That is like the Christmas story. We were enemies of God. There is nothing that we could do. We were dead. Then we look at the manger, which was a feeding trough for animals, and see the baby who is the Son of God and say, "You came all this way for what?"

We then look at the cross, in which that same God-man died for all, and we realize the extent of what God has done to reconcile us to himself.

This is the ultimate relational gift. Because of our sin, we were enemies of God. We could do nothing about it. All the religion in the world couldn't help. God took the initiative and sent Jesus - Immanuel, which means God With Us, so that we are no longer enemies with God.

The question I want to ask is: how do you celebrate the fact that God has given us the ultimate relational gift? There is something strange, isn't there, in celebrating God's relational gift by going into debt to buy stuff that we won't even remember in six months

World Vision did a study in the United Kingdom. The study found that Britons waste over $4.5 billion every year on unwanted Christmas presents, and almost a third of them wind up being sold online after the festive season. We're buying all this stuff that ends up on eBay. The study also showed that more than a quarter of Britons cannot remember what anyone bought them for Christmas last year.

Is there a better way to celebrate the ultimate relational gift?

Paul says so. In 2 Corinthians 5:18 and 19 he says that God has given us both the ministry and the message of reconciliation. Our job, in other words, is to be relational gift givers as well, bringing people back to God. It's like, Paul says, God is making his appeal through us: "Be reconciled to God" (2 Corinthians 5:20). Because we have received the ultimate relational gift, our whole lives become relational gifts to others. Because Jesus given us a relational gift, we have become relational gift-givers.

Our job, in other words, is to share this relational gift of Jesus Christ with everyone, to let them know that God has taken action by sending his Son to reconcile humanity to himself.

A little earlier I asked "How will it look as we follow the example of Jesus and give something more valuable than stuff? How will it look if we follow Jesus' example and give the gift of relationship this Christmas?" What would it look like if Christ-followers in the thousand churches that are part of the Advent Conspiracy said, "We may shop and give gifts this year, but we're not buying into the hype. We're not going in debt and we're not putting a price-tag on love." What if we shopped and gave relational gifts that echo and express the ultimate relational gift that God gave to us?

In your bulletin there's a list of relational gift ideas. I think it's interesting, by the way, that the theme of relational giving is summed up in two words: "Give more." Giving relationally involves spending less money, but it means giving more, not less. It means giving of yourself rather than just giving junk. The purpose isn't the gift itself. The purpose is the giving of yourself to others, especially as you love others in Jesus' name.

The ultimate purpose in all of this is to worship more. We want to enter the Christmas story and worship more by spending less, giving more by giving relationally, and loving all, including the least of these, because Jesus says that by loving the least of these we are loving and serving him.

You may be thinking of all the bad things that happen if we give relational gifts to each other in just over a week. You can picture my kids opening the gift that I've crocheted for them. But listen to this audio clip from Clark Blakeman, who describes what relational giving meant to his family last year.

[audio clip]

Let me give you a couple of other examples of relational gifts. A granddaughter bought an $8 package of coffee to be shared with her grandmother, so the grandmother could share with her stories of her life and growing up. Another example was a father, who instead of giving his son an X-Box, gave him a baseball glove and pledged to spend more time playing catch with him. We do this because we worship a God who gave us a relational gift. God gave us His son. This is an incredible opportunity to reclaim the heart of what matters most as we learn together to give gifts of meaning instead of simple material gifts.

Clark talked about having the awkward conversations with his family at the beginning of the Advent season last year. I encourage you to do the same this week. Let's work together as families to say how can we check out of some of the craziness of Christmas so that we really enter the Christmas story this year and spend less, give more, and love all because we want to worship the one who has given us the ultimate relational gift. Let's pray.

Father, prepare our hearts for what you want to do through us. Thank you for giving us the ultimate relational gift. Thank you for sending your Son. I pray that you would make us relational gift givers who most of all offer the message of reconciliation to others, but who also give of ourselves this Christmas to celebrate the one who gave himself. In Jesus' name. Amen.

A Clash of Kingdoms (Matthew 2:1-18)

If you've been with us recently on Sundays, you know that we've been looking at an important but rather depressing book of the Bible. Last week we looked at one of the most disturbing stories in all of Scripture. You have this sense that you're glad it's over.

After the service somebody came up to me and asked, "What are you preaching on next week? I hope it's going to be a bit lighter than this." I thought for a minute and realized that we're talking about Herod's slaughter of the children two and younger in Jerusalem. I promise you it will get lighter, just not this week.

N.T. Wright, a prominent bishop in the church of England and one of the top theologians in the world, was preaching at a big Christmas service, and a well-known historian attended. This historian was well-known for his skepticism towards Christianity, but his family had persuaded him to attend the service.

Afterwards, this historian approached N.T. Wright with a big smile. "I've finally worked out why people like Christmas," he said.

"Really?" said Bishop Wright. "Do tell me."

"A baby threatens no one," the historian said, "so the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all."

That historian may not have read the Christmas story of the Bible. At the heart of the Christmas story is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village of young children to try to get rid of him. He is most definitely a threat to the kingdoms of this world, kingdoms that are in direct competition with his reign.

The passage we read today presents us with a conflict that becomes a major theme in the life of Jesus. It's a theme that continues today.

On one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus. What is possibly threatening about a baby? What is threatening is that even a baby is a threat when that baby is a king who will possibly dethrone the reigning powers. When a baby is born who is a rightful heir to the throne, and the person on the throne is a poser, then it makes sense for the illegitimate monarch to be threatened.

King Herod was such a ruler. Herod, otherwise known as Herod the Great, had overcome all kinds of competition and obstacles to become king of Judea. He was famous for his building projects including the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was absolutely stunning, as well as theaters, amphitheaters, monuments, pagan altars, and fortresses. If you go to Israel today, you can still see remnants of what he built.

Some people think that he was one of the richest men to ever have lived. Although he had faced many threats to his power, we was able to overcome them all because he was both ruthless and powerful.

Why would a man who accomplished so much be threatened by a baby? There was a problem with Herod - actually a number of problems. Although Herod considered himself to be Jewish, he was not a descendant of Jacob; he was a descendant of Esau, or an Edomite. God had told Jacob in Genesis 35:10, "Your name is Jacob, but you will no longer be called Jacob: your name will be Israel." But Isaac, Esau's father, predicted that Esau's descendants would serve Jacob's (Genesis 27:40). The Israelites in Herod's day did not believe that Herod had any right to the throne in Israel because they did not consider him to be Jewish. In 40 BC, someone took the throne away from Herod, and Herod asked Rome to help him. So he was elected "King of the Jews" by the Roman Senate, took back the throne, and consolidated his reign for another 34 years.

So when ancient astrologers show up from the east - the east, by the way, was where Herod was most exposed to foreign threats, and these astrologers were connected to power - when these astrologers show up and announce that a king of the Jews has been born, Herod has every reason to be threatened.

There are lots of theories about what exactly the astrologers saw. Barth mentioned to me last week the work of one astrologer. Evidently they can go back using computers now and recreate the arrangements of the planets on any given date. Supposedly in astrology that day Aries was a symbol of Judea, and Jupiter was and is connected with royalty. Ancient astrologers believed that a new king would be born when the moon passed in front of Jupiter. This would signal the birth of a great new king in Judea. On April 17, 6 BC, Jupiter was eclipsed in the east. A Roman astrologer described the conditions of that day as befitting the birth of a "divine and immortal" person.

This seems to make a lot of sense. No matter if you and I buy into this theory, something like this happened. Well-connected astrologers saw something that made them believe that an important king had been born in Judea. We read the results in verse 3: "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him."

You don't want a man like Herod disturbed! He had no problem killing anyone - friend, family, or foe - to keep his grip on power. He had executed dozens of people who had been threats, including his wife, three sons, mother-in-law, and uncle.

We read that all Jerusalem was troubled with Herod. Why were they troubled? For sure they knew what happened when Herod got disturbed. When Herod was unhappy, everyone was unhappy. But I think it was probably more than that. You're talking about people in positions of power in Jerusalem, religious leaders who had aligned themselves with Herod. If his power base was threatened, so was theirs. They knew they were all in trouble if a rightful king had been born, the true king of the Jews.

You see, Christmas is about an extraordinary king who poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. The baby Jesus is a threat.

And this is a theme that continues all throughout the gospels, including this one. You have the blind and the lame and the powerless people coming to Jesus, but the powerful elite indignant. You have the most powerful religious leaders of his day condemning Jesus of blasphemy. In Luke we read that Herod's son, who took over part of his father's territory, ridiculed and mocked Jesus before his death. Jesus has always been a king who is a threat to the ruling kingdoms of this world.

That's true even today. About a year ago, a group of pastors got together. They actually began talking about how much they hate being pastors at Christmas.

You would think that a season that's all about one of the greatest theological truths - that God became flesh in what is called the incarnation - means that Christmas would be a great time to pastor. But the pastors had a sense of competing with stress, thoughts about the mall, what people hadn't bought yet, and how much debt they're going into for this great truth called the incarnation.

There's a stream of passion, consumerism and chaos that is contradictory to the message of the Gospels. Rick McKinley, one of the pastors in the group, observes, "There is a point where you want to just throw up your hands and say, 'Let's quit talking about Christmas from the Bible. Let's just talk about spend more. Let's cancel church for the Christmas season.' That probably would be easier for people. Then you realize that's stupid."

The pastors began to conspire together to enter the story of Christmas: not just teach about it and sing about it, but enter it. They thought: When Christ came to earth, he came as king. It threatened the king at the time and his empire. Although Christ comes in weakness, there is a true threat in this baby. He is subversive. He is a threat to the kingdoms and the powers that be in this world.

They began to ask if Jesus was still a threat to the powers of this world, and they began to realize that there is a rival kingdom to Jesus, but it's a kingdom that we often get sucked into.

When we worship at Christmas, we often bless the kingdom, and buy into consumerism and chaos. This seems contradictory to the Christmas story. While we are not living under Herod's reign, there is another empire of consumerism and materialism that threatens our faithfulness to Jesus. Jesus brought with him such an extraordinary kingdom that is counter-culture to the kingdoms of this world.

Part of saying "yes" to Jesus means that we say "no" to over-consumption. We say "no" to these things so we can create space to say "yes" to Jesus and His reign in our lives. We want to live as subjects of the extraordinary king who is a threat, because there is a baby who is a king and who is a threat to the powers that claim to hold power in our lives. There is still a clash of kingdoms going on today.

So on one hand you have the empire that is threatened by Jesus, and the empire striking back. Sorry, couldn't resist. But on the other hand you have those who recognize this king's reign and accept Jesus as king. In verse 11 we read that these eastern astronomers came to the house, bowed down, and worshiped Jesus. They paid him homage, and presented him with the most valuable, transportable, and marketable items of the day, items that were ideal for sustaining Mary and Joseph in another country as refuges as would happen after these events.

Who would expect astrologers to be the ones to pay homage to Jesus? The most unlikely people became subjects in this rival kingdom - something that is still true today. It's always the most unlikely people.

I know what you are thinking. You may be thinking, "Are you going to tell me that if I buy gifts at Christmas that I'm just like Herod?" No, that's not what I'm going to tell you. If I did that I would be guilty of a new type of legalism. There are lots of people who don't give gifts at Christmas who are under Herod's rule, and I'm sure there are lots of people who give gifts who properly worship Christ at Christmas.

What I am going to tell you is this: a king has come, and that king is a threat not just to Herod thousands of years ago. Actually, what Herod faced is what every person who encounters Jesus Christ eventually faces. He is a threat. Our kingdoms may not be as big or as impressive as Herod's, but every person here - me included - has stuff they are trying to protect. They're good things, like family, accomplishments, relationships, position. These are good things, but we have this tendency to make them ultimate things. And when we make them ultimate things, they then clash with the kingdom of God, the kingdom that was proclaimed when the baby king was born in Bethlehem.

We are all Herod, trying to desperately hold on to good things. But here's the thing. Historians tell us that as these events took place, Herod was dying a painful death. The historian Josephus wrote that Herod's final illness was excruciating. Within three years of Jesus' birth, Herod was dead. The crazy thing is that Herod was desperately trying to hold on to a kingdom that wasn't his to keep anyways.

The question that we face this Christmas is that as we understand that a king has been born, and that this king, because of who he is, can ask anything of us - what is threatening about that? Where do you go, "I'll follow Jesus, but I need to protect that." In other words, what good things have you made ultimate things?

The real question this Christmas is whether you will lay aside your idols, your kingdom that won't last anyway, and worship the child who was born whose kingdom will last forever.

And by the way, could it be that the way that we answer this question will also change our buying and spending habits and the way that we celebrate the arrival of that king? How do we live every area of our lives in light one of the greatest events in history - the arrival of God in human form as king? That's the question that this story leaves us to wrestle with.

By the way, there is no way to give up our kingdoms unless we're captivated by a better kingdom. In the 1800s a Scottish preacher wrote a paper called "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection." He made the point that the only way to get rid of something that your heart loves, that you must have, is to have that affection expelled by an even greater affection. Have you ever wanted something until an even better model comes along? All of a sudden you can't be bothered with what, a day ago, you used to have. This also works spiritually. The only way you can be free of the love of your own little kingdom is to become captivated by the love of an even greater kingdom. The love of God's kingdom has expulsive power. Only when you give yourself to a better king will you be free from becoming a Herod, desperately holding on to what we can't keep anyway.

The only way we'll be able to give up our kingdoms and worship the true king is if we are captivated by the beauty of that king - the One announced by angels and stars, worshiped by shepherds and astrologers, loved by the powerless but hated by the powerful, crucified and rejected, and yet bearing our sins, risen again and reigning at God's right hand. When we really see him, that will change everything about how we live and who we worship.

Let's pray.

Father, our prayer is that you would let us see Jesus. We confess that we are like Herod naturally. We don't have kingdoms like his, but we naturally see Jesus as a threat and we want to hold on out of fear of what we will have to give up.

But this Christmas let us see Jesus. And let us worship him. May we truly experience the power of Jesus coming to this world, and may that free us from all competing kingships. May that change the way we celebrate even Christmas.

Let us survey the king lying in the manger. Let us survey the wondrous cross. And may it change how we worship this Christmas. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Where Did Things Go Wrong? (Judges 19-21)

Any father here who has a daughter understands that no matter what happens, that daughter will always be your little girl. The other thing you know if you have a daughter is that no guy will ever be good enough for her. My apologies to the men out there, but that's just life. That's the way it always has been and always will be.

So you'll understand that when my daughter came back home, I was glad. Oh, I was sad that her marriage had come to an end. It actually wasn't really even a marriage. She was a concubine. You don't have concubines in my day, but back then concubines were really like wives without all the privileges. I know what you're thinking: "Wives have privileges? When did this start?" But believe me, you wouldn't have wanted to be a concubine. They had it even worse. So when my little girl returned back home, I was sad for all that she had been through, but I was also really, really glad to see her.

I wish I could say that my daughter was completely innocent. The truth is that she had done some things I'm not proud of. But if you knew her husband, well he had his issues too.

But anyway. My little girl was back with me for four months. Then one day I looked out and saw her husband show up. He had a servant and two donkeys with him. I didn't know what to think at first. Maybe it was the look on his face, or the fact that he had come all that way to get his concubine back. It could have been the tears I had seen my girl shed. But for some reason, as much as I hated to see my daughter go, I was glad to see her life come together. Again, those of you who are fathers will understand. Although no guy is good enough, and you want to tell that no-good son-in-law a thing or two, you really do want your daughter to be happy. So I saw him and welcomed him in.

He came. We ate and we talked. One day turned into two, and two days turned into three, three days turned into four. I knew the time was coming when my girl would be gone, but I tried to delay it as much as I could. On the fifth day, again, he got up to leave. I stalled, and the day dragged on. But near the end of the day I could persuade my son-in-law no longer. He saddled his donkeys, took my daughter, and they were off. I didn't realize it at the time, but that would be the last time I saw my little girl.

They left, and they headed toward the city of Jerusalem. Not such a good plan. Jerusalem was only nine or ten kilometers from where I lived, but it's not the kind of place you want to spend the night. It was a foreign city, and you never know if you're going to be safe or welcome among people who aren't your own kind. So, they kept on going another nine or ten kilometers until they arrived at Gibeah, a Benjamite city, where they should have been safe. Thus began one of the worst night you could ever imagine, one of the saddest stories that could ever be told.

My daughter, her husband, and the servants went to the city square, just inside the gate, where they couldn't be missed. There were no hotels in my day, but hospitality was a big deal. If you saw someone in the square with no place to stay, it was only common courtesy that you invite them back to your place.

But they waited. People passed by them and took a good look, but nobody invited them to their house. They kept waiting and started to get a little concerned. Eventually this old man came back from working the fields, and he invited them back. He washed their feet, fed the donkeys, and provided everything that they needed. It took a while, but at least somebody came through.

I can barely talk about what happened next.

Everyone was enjoying themselves, relaxing after a day of travel, when they heard a noise outside. I don't know if you've ever heard what a mob sounds like, but if you have, you can picture what they heard. There was some banging on the door, and some shouting. They had seen my daughter and her husband all right. "Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him!" they yelled.

Their host would have none of that. He went outside and tried to handle the situation. He rebuked them. You won't understand this, but his honor was at stake. He had a duty to his male guest, by son-in-law. He had obligations.

I can't justify or excuse what happened next. He was so concerned about protecting my son-in-law that he offered his own daughter and mine to the angry mob. "Look!" he said. "Here they are. Use them as you wish. But just don't touch this man."

They wouldn't listen. The crowd got louder. The noise was too much. It looked like they were going to come crashing through the door at any moment. So eventually my son-in-law took things into his own hands. He took his concubine, my daughter, opened the door, and threw her out into the mob. I can't tell you what they did to her. I will never forgive him for throwing my girl to the mob, nor will I forgive those who did these terrible things to my daughter.

You know what really gets me? My son-in-law slept through that night. In the morning he got up and found my girl on the doorstep. She's lying there, and he says, "Get up, let's go" like nothing happened. She didn't answer. So he picks her up, puts her on his donkey, and goes home. I don't even know if she's dead at this point. But when he gets home he takes a knife and mutilates my girl's body, and sends pieces of her body to all the areas of Israel.

I'm not one to make wild accusations, but I'd like to know: was she dead at this point? Is my son-in-law guilty of murder, or did he only - "only" - desecrate the corpse of my little girl? I'm not mad at him for issuing the call to all of Israel to wake them up from their lethargy. Oh, that had to be done. But I can't accept that this man, to whom I gave my daughter, whom I had just fed and entertained in my house, could do this to my girl. As far as I'm concerned, he's responsible for my girl's death. I don't know who killed her - it could have been the mob of people - but as far as I'm concerned, he didn't have to give her to the mob. He certainly didn't have to hack her body in pieces.

You know, Sodom is the low point in the Scriptures. You can't get much lower than Sodom. You may remember the story of Sodom. It's pretty similar to what happened to my girl. But at least that time angels intervened and saved Lot and his family. There would be no salvation this time. Sodom is as low as it gets, but we - the people of Israel - had become Sodom. We could not possibly sink any lower.

I just have to say: nothing like this has ever happened before in Israel. I don't know if anything worse has happened since. This is about as bad as it could possibly get.

Well, there's more. When everyone received the part of my daughter's body, it shocked them as it should have. They all came together. If I take pride in anything, it's that what happened to my daughter brought people together like no judge ever could. I'll give my girl that. Her life counted for something.

They all came together and they realized that this wasn't right. Gibeah had to answer for what they had done. So all of Israel assembled an army; they set up supply lines and got ready for battle. Israel had its battles, but never before had they come together with such unity, not against an enemy nation, but against one of its own cities.

They went to the tribe of Benjamin, and sent out the message that the men of Gibeah had to be punished for what they had done. Unbelievably, the Benjamites refused to hand them over. Unbelievable. So Israel lined up four hundred thousand swordsmen against Benjamin's almost twenty-seven thousand, and went to battle. Battle one: Benjamin won, and we lost twenty-two thousand. Battle two: Benjamin won, and we lost eighteen thousand. Battle three: Israel won. All but six hundred Benjamites were killed. Finally we had won. Justice had been served on the men who committed this horrible crime against my daughter.

You'd think that we would have been happy to finally be rid of the problem. But how can you be happy when you have been fighting against your own people? An entire tribe had been all but wiped out. So Israel gathered again. They came up with these elaborate plans to snatch unwilling wives so that the tribe of Benjamin could be repopulated by these six hundred Benjamites that escaped. There was more bloodshed. As a father, I have to feel for the fathers of the daughters who were snatched away and given to the Benjamites as wives. But you see, everyone was doing what looked right to them. We didn't need a king to lead us into evil. We were capable of finding it ourselves. We had no king; we were just doing whatever appeared to be right in our own eyes.

I guess I have to ask: Where did things go so wrong? Moses had said that we were supposed to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. The LORD had promised to bless us, so that we would lend to other nations and rule over them, but they would not rule over us. Moses had said, "And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth" (Deuteronomy 28:1).

I ask you, where did things go wrong? Was it when we didn't take the land that the LORD had promised us? Was it when we, little by little, adopted the customs of the people around us, so that eventually we became just like them?

Where did we go wrong? How did we get to the point where we became our own worst enemy? How did we get to the point where we - God's own people - had become rotten to the core? It was the Canaanites out there that were the problem. It was the Canaanites within our own hearts. We had become the problem.

Where exactly did things go so wrong? Was it the paganism of Gideon, the self-centeredness of Samson, the cowardice of Barak? Was it when we decided that we could be the judges of what is right or wrong in our own eyes?

How did it get to the point in which we don't show hospitality to our own people, where gang rapes take place, where a Levite throws his concubine to a mob, where we can wipe out an entire tribe?

I don't know the answer to these questions, but I know that Moses laid out a path for us that would lead to blessing, and for God to set us as a light to the nations so that he could show his glory, but it's a path we didn't take. We took a different path, and it didn't look so bad at the time, but look where it took us. Look where it took us.

I don't know what the answer is either. We need help. Will God save us from what we've become? It's almost like God himself would have to come down to earth as a man to save us. Nothing else has worked. We need a Savior.

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The Book of Judges ends on a depressing note. Everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes. God's people have become rotten to the core. They had sunk to the level of Sodom, which, in the Bible, is as low as you can go.

Scholars believe that this last story happened earlier than some of the other stories we have read. So why was this story placed last? Because the author wanted to make a point: When God's people wander from him, the consequences don't look bad immediately. But if God's people persist in rebellion, this is where it leads. The consequences are worse than we could imagine.

But there's also a note of hope. Despite the great evil described within Judges, God had not forgotten his people. Slowly - through Samuel, David, the prophets, and ultimately Jesus, God's light began to penetrate that darkness. The darkness could not extinguish the light that God sent into the world. The prophet Isaiah wrote:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shined...
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:2,6)

At the end of Judges, the tribe of Benjamin was almost wiped out. Centuries later, a descendant of this almost-lost tribe, Saul of Tarsus, became the premier interpreter of the good news of Jesus Christ.

When we disobey God, the consequences are far worse than we could imagine. But God is faithful in keeping his promises. God has not abandoned his people. He has sent us a Savior to save his people from their sins.