The Goat that Went Away

A scapegoat is a powerful symbol.

In the Bible it comes from Leviticus 16. On the day of atonement the Lord told Aaron to take “two goats and set them before the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for [the scapegoat],” at least that’s how the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible translate it. The ESV translates it as “the other lot for Azazel,” unsure of the exact meaning, suggesting maybe it is the name of a place.

Yet the note of commentary in the ESVSB says:

The traditional explanation is that Azazel (Hb. ‘aza’zel) is a compound word, combining “goat” (Hb. ‘ez) with “going away” (Hb. ’azel): the word would then mean “goat that goes away” (hence the conventional “scapegoat”).

The word is used in Leviticus 16:8, 10, and 26.

As I said, the image is powerful. It is a goat, it is a goat that gets sent away into the wilderness, and it is a goat that gets sent away into the wildness carrying the sins of the people. Of the two goats, one is sacrificed and the blood covers the sins. The other goat, the scapegoat, symbolically removes sins. They are taken away.

Cultures seek scapegoats. Whole books are written to explain the motives and the methods. But none of them are effective. Jesus is. He is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The apostle John also wrote, “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins” (1 John 3:5).

Jesus died so that we might reign with Him (see 2 Timothy 2:12, Revelation 20:6). Who died and made us kings? Actually, Jesus did, and we’ll reign with Him.

And there we’ll find our home

Our life before the throne

We’ll honour Him in perfect song

Where we belong

He’ll wipe each tear-stained eye

As thirst and hunger die

The Lamb becomes our Shepherd King

We’ll reign with Him
(“There Is a Higher Throne” verse 2)

The Spirit of AntiChristmas

Christmas is seven days closer than it was last Lord’s Day. I don’t really care if your shopping is done, or close, or not. I do care if your soul, and body, are in harmony.

We believe that God, in Christ, came in the flesh. This has been debated since Jesus’ birth, and it was an issue the apostles addressed unequivocally even in the first century.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and is now in the world already. (1 John 4:2-3)

It was so important that John repeated it in his second letter.

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7)

To deny the truth that Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh” makes one an antichrist. As we are the church assembled for worship in the name of Jesus, I do not suspect there are many among us who deny the teaching. But I do suspect that we may deny the doctrine in our behavior. Let us call it AntiChristmas.

You believe that God took on a body, rubbed elbows with smelly men, ate untasty or cold meals, dealt with unappreciative people. It’s all true plus some. So what do you do when people are late, or make you late, or keep you from doing what you want, or get in your way? Do you want Christmas without getting tired? Then perhaps you want to celebrate the idea of incarnation and not the incarnation itself. This is the spirit of AntiChristmas, and it should be forsaken.

To Judge or Not To Judge

In chapter 4 of 1 Corinthians Paul told the believers that he didn’t judge himself (4:3). In chapter 11 he told them to “examine” themselves, and that “if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged” (11:28, 31). Well, to judge or not to judge, which is it?

The two passages address different problems. In chapter 4 the issue concerned the faithfulness of a preacher, in chapter 11 the issue concurred the worthiness of a communion participant. The first involves evaluating a man’s work on the Lord’s building, the latter involves evaluating a man’s sitting at the Lord’s table. It’s not the same situation.

Yet both passages aim at the heart. What is the heart of the steward? What is the heart of the eater? The heart determines if the steward is trust-worthy, the heart determines if the eater is table-worthy.

Which gets back to the question, why did Paul say he didn’t judge himself but that they should judge themselves?

The answer is that his service spoke for itself and he left the final accounting up to God. Likewise, their selfishness spoke for itself and they were not taking God into account. Paul was obeying as best he knew, and he also knew that a deep, introspective dive still wouldn’t get him to the bottom. But the Corinthians were serving themselves first at the excuse of the hungry and were humiliating others in the body (11:21-22). They needed to wait for one another (11:33), and the reason Paul exhorted them to self-examination in context is because they were acting oblivious to their obvious problem.

So are you despising a brother or sister at this table? You should do some judging, it’s not a hard case to decide. But if you are confessed up, having already humbly examined yourself before the Word, then eat and drink and look forward to your communion with the Lord until He returns.

Twenty-Four Whole Days

One of the most important jobs of a pastor is to tell the flock things that they already know. He must remind them of God’s truths regularly. A disciple is a learner, and sometimes we need to learn things again, to learn afresh. Equipping the saints for the work of ministry means furnishing them with staple/basic supplies, not just surprises.

It is also true that we cannot be reminded about everything always. I have a growing list of verses and thoughts that I wish I could keep in the front of my mind every moment. That’s not how God made us to work. So we need reminders that are placed strategically.

The month of December is strategic in that it has twenty-four whole days before the 25th, the day that has been recognized as the day of Jesus’ birth for many centuries. I don’t believe Jesus was born on 12/25/00; I don’t think any of those three numbers work. And I don’t have to in order to see it as a strategic time to remember, and remind my people, that God came in the flesh.

Emmanuel means, “God with us.” John said, “The Word become flesh and dwelt among us.” This is what we mean by the word incarnate: enfleshed. So I want to consider implications of the phrase “in the flesh” these advent Sundays.

As glorious as the idea is that the eternal, almighty Maker of heaven and earth became a man, as joyful and celebratory as this season can be, it is because when Jesus came in the flesh He came “in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Romans 8:3). He didn’t just do it because He had always wanted to visit in person, but because He had to partake of the same things as “the children…in flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14) in order to destroy the sinful flesh.

However we plan to celebrate advent and Christmas, let us remember that He came to bid our fleshly envy, strife, and quarrels cease.

The Lesser of All Things

It is quite a thing for Paul to say that “all things” are ours (1 Corinthians 3:21, 22). It is quite a thing for the psalmist to say, “When my anxious thoughts are many, how Your comforts cheer my soul” (Psalm 94:19). What happens when we consider all the comforts God has given to us in Christ?

Consider these four questions in Romans 8.

  • If God is for us, who can be against us? (verse 31)
  • Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? (verse 33)
  • Who is it to condemn? (verse 34)
  • Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? (verse 35)

Among the many consolations that are ours, we have certainty of security in righteousness and fellowship with God. There is no enemy who can successfully accuse us or judge us. There is no wedge that can be driven between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus. There can be those who try, but they cannot conquer.

So Paul makes the argument from the greater to the lesser.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him gracious give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

As amazing as it is that “all things” are ours, the all things are the lesser. We have been given God’s Son. He is ours and we are His. The Father’s sending and the Son’s sacrificing are the source of everything for us. “What then shall we say to these things?” What then shall we eat and drink to these things?

More Hope for Fools

It’s one thing to live with zero desire to be respected and it’s another thing to live dishonorably and demand to be respected. Some people are hard to steer, others are hard to motivate, and still others are both yet they love to give advice.

The common denominator, and it is the lowest one, is of persons who are deceiving themselves. They think they are wise, but they may be the only ones who don’t know the truth.

These sorts of fools use proverbs but they are useless, like a lame lan’s legs. They get assignments but they hurt those who send them or hire them. They do the same painful, sickening things over and over, like a dog that returns to his vomit.

Solomon once took eleven verses to talk about how bad a fool is, only to follow it by saying: “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

The issue of self-deception is explicitly bad in James 1:22-24. There is a religious person, a person who hangs out with church people and even one who listens to God’s Word, but who cheats himself from the blessing of obedience.

The word “deceive” comes from the idea of catching or ensnaring. To deceive someone else is to try to gain an advantage over them, to deceive oneself is to make-believe something that isn’t true. The only advantage of deceiving oneself is to not have do deal with uncomfortable reality. There’s more hope for fools than deniers.

Without the Stickers

This is a week to kick up your #blessed game a couple turkey legs.

All lawful feasts are Christian feasts. That’s because unbelievers always feast for wrong or at best deficient reasons. They feast because they like food, which is fine, but Who made them to like food and Who provided it for them? They feast because they like family, or they like the nostalgic idea of family, but how can they know what a family is for?

Christians know the Father and His Son. Christians have God’s Spirit who turns the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. Christians know that farmers do a lot of work and that no farmer has ever made a potato or a pumpkin or a turkey grow on his own. God gives growth. God gives us all these gifts, food and family and forks and plates and tables and chairs and wine and pie.

I am not exhorting you to post a picture with the appropriate hashtag for every gift; you don’t have the mental bandwidth (even if you have an unlimited data plan) and it would be annoying and it’s not a biblical, conscience-binding law. It is biblical law to “give thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). Maybe you could imagine that you had a oversized roll of #blessed stickers, and you could put one on everything you see this week that reminds you of Your Father’s kindness. Would that cause others to see something different in your Thanksgiving feast? Can you act in such a way that they would see the same difference but without the stickers?

Against Raising Our Kids to Be Pornographers and Prostitutes

When I first started to think that God was calling me to be a pastor I was still in high school. And I did not want to be a youth pastor. One reason for that was because it seemed, based on my friendship with my youth pastor at the time, that the person who got to talk to the parents of the youth had a more strategic position.

My exhortation to confession today is loosely connected to the sermon text about how our work will be revealed (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 which is aimed at church leaders), and more specifically directed to parents of our junior high and high school and college age young people based on some things I’ve observed about our kids.

I want to start by saying that I am against raising our kids to be pornographers or prostitutes. I assume that we are all in agreement about that, and I wanted to take my initial step where the common ground was secure.

So we can and do agree that certain ends of our kids’ sexuality are no good. That’s good because the godless parts of our culture are in a tailspin of confusion and inconsistent condemnation over sexual corruption. They don’t know what they’re doing. But I want us to consider, do we?

We don’t want our kids to grow up and be prostitutes, but how much perversity are we willing to tolerate for them? We may not like thinking of it in those terms, but what are we thinking when we let them watch it, or mimic parts of it? Would we be okay with their promiscuity as long as it’s heterosexual? No? Then why in the world do we let them play around with transient relationships? Why do we let them practice being slaves to their feelings, because (when it’s not awful) it’s cute? Or because we don’t want to face the wrath of their feelings against us?

When it comes to parental purposes, it seems that we are either not thinking or, worse, our purpose is to avoid an imagined puritanical prudishness that causes too much cultural embarrassment. We have a plan, and that is to let them have fun and have crushes and not have to control their fleshliness too much beyond not getting pregnant.

Shouldn’t the purpose be for purity, in parts and hearts? We should want our kids to get married and be fruitful and multiply, and we are not taking that seriously enough. Parents, our work is on display.

We Love His Handouts

November is National Adoption Month and last Sunday was Orphan Sunday.

Adoption has been national news the last couple weeks, though, because the draft of the national budget proposed cutting what is called the Adoption Tax Credit. Since 1997 it’s been Federal law that qualified expenses in the adoption process up to a certain amount could be reimbursed by the government as a tax credit, which is even “better” than a tax deduction. The predominately Republican Congress cut the ATC from their budget drafts for this cycle sending every conservative, adoption-loving person I saw online into a conniption. “How in the world could they do this?”

It seems that all our campaigning/complaining has “worked” and, as of a few days ago, the ATC is back in the budget. So what I say next may be moot in more than one way. And while I may get stuck in the rhetorical mud, here goes. Whose responsibility is it to pay for adoption? The government?

I like adoption. I love adoption, our adoption by our heavenly Father and also enacted by earthly fathers. Our family adopted. We’ve talked about adopting again. We’ve given money to support other families who’ve adopted. We started and had a non-profit organization to raise money for adoption for a while. I attend adoption ministry meetings and orphan care summits on an ongoing rotation. Our church gives monthly support to a local adoption lawyer as well as an orphanage in India. I’ve preached about adoption in our church and for other churches, and will continue to do so. And I am opposed to the Adoption Tax Credit in particular and to the government’s financial responsibility to reimburse adoption expenses in general.

“But,” someone says, “the cost of adoption is too high for most interested families. We need this credit.” But, I say, shouldn’t we work to get the government to stop charging so much money for the adoption process in the first place? And certainly we would desire that the government not prohibit Christians and churches or non-profit groups from coordinating giving, sort of an adoption Kickstarter or GoFundMe. One family who gives willingly to another family that desires to adopt is great, and more personal, and Christian. And we would all have more money to do so if all our taxes weren’t so high. As it is now, every little fussy group wants to make sure the State gives them “their money (back)” for “their important thing” so we keep feeding big government and ceding them control.

There are layers to the problem, including how much it costs lawyers to get their education so that they can get government approval to bill clients for filling out the piles of government paperwork. There are other problems in the national budget, including the report that funding for Planned Parenthood remained even when the Adoption Tax Credit was cut. That is broken and wrong.

But nearer to the heart of the problem is the fact that Christians would rather have the government take care of the cost. And Christians prefer to depend on the government because we are selfish. This is yet another reason why we need to celebrate weekly communion because it is potent by God’s grace to raise our thankfulness rather than raise our expectations of what other people need to do for us. It reminds us of our Lord who came to serve not to be served. As Christians take that seriously, even things like the national budget (and federal programs and elimination of federal programs) would eventually, inevitably change. There is no reason for it to change right now because Uncle Sam knows that we love his handouts.

Give Me a Break

We are a people who love breaks. We love lunch break, coffee break, Christmas break, summer break. We want others to give us a break. Maybe the most masterful ad campaign of the modern era is “You deserve a break today.”

We live in a time when we can take breaks and (because enough other people haven’t) expect that there will still be food at the store in the wintertime. God has blessed our economy enough that we don’t feel the squeeze too badly, and we can relax more often with less consequences than our grandparents could. This is not an exhortation against vacations, but against faulty expectations.

Jesus asked His disciples,

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? (Luke 17:7–9)

If this sounds unjust to our ears, it may be because we forget our place. We want to say, “I would never treat someone like that.” But such a response shows that we’ve imagined ourselves in the wrong position. Jesus continued,

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)

We are the servants not the master. We are not working for our salvation, we work because He saved us. The Lord does give us occasional breaks so that we can rest, and that is so we can get back to the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly labor He has for us to do. So as a friend of mine likes to say, Get after it!