Since some of you were curious, I wanted to provide a quick update on how we’re doing.
We Joined the ‘Rona Club.
By way of background: In the days leading up to Christmas, I was infected with C-19 and, in the spirit of holiday generosity, shared it with my household. At first, I thought I was dealing with the onset of sinus or respiratory infection (something I’m typically prone to in winter). Then I started hearing about friends from church who were testing positive for the ‘Rona.
I went ahead and got tested a few days later (delayed due to the holiday weekend). It was unpleasant but of course bearable. In the converted trailer that was used as the testing site, they took my vitals before the test, and the nurse said, “Your blood pressure’s up a bit–are you okay?” I thought, Ma’am, I’ve been sick for 4 days, I’m about to have a swab shoved a few inches up my nose, and you’re dressed like an extra from the movie Outbreak. So I may be a little tense, yes.
After the first day of feeling mildly crummy, the symptoms hit hard and heavy on Day 2. Chest tightness and discomfort, sinus congestion, cough, sneezing, and body-crushing fatigue (the kind where you feel like every inch of your body is encased in lead, and just standing up and taking a step feels like a fall risk). A few days later, my senses of taste and smell became significantly muted, though I didn’t realize it at first. I picked up some basic flavors (sweet, spicy, salty), but anything subtle was lost on me (mint chocolate was not minty, pecan- or caramel-flavored coffee tasted like…coffee). Symptoms went up and down a bit early on–better one day, worse the next.
Funny side-note: My family took a quick roadtrip down to one of the small coastal towns nearby where we could enjoy the surf without interacting with people. On our way out, we grabbed some seafood (nothing like fried shrimp and catfish after a day at the beach), but I noticed that it was perhaps the blandest meal I’d ever had. This restaurant received rave reviews online and a rating of 4-point-something out of five! What a bummer! Almost sixty bucks for the family to eat disappointing food! Welp, while we were waiting for the food to be brought out, I got the call that my C-19 test was positive. In retrospect, we may have been too harsh on the restaurant. I didn’t realize until later that it was around that day that my tastebuds took a vacation!
My poor, pregnant wife started showing symptoms a few days after I did, and we were thankfully out-of-sync symptomatically, so I started feeling better as she was getting worse (providentially allowing us to take care of each other!). I think she had a worse time overall, as her divinely-designed body was working primarily to protect the baby, so she didn’t kick the virus as quickly as I did.
Now, a few weeks out, I’m only dealing with some lingering chest tightness related to Covid (along with the typical winter-allergy blaaaahhhs). My household has fully recovered. We are supremely thankful to God for what turned out to be a relatively minor bout–no ER trips, no hospital stays, no major complications. For us (and I emphasize *for us*), it was about equivalent with our round of influenza last February, at least in terms of short-term effects. I suspect this shortness of breath and chest pressure may stick around for a while, if the reports I’m hearing are indicative of the normal long-term effects of the virus.
But at least I can smell my coffee now. And it smells goooood.
So that’s the personal update, for all of you who may have been concerned.
Extrapolating My Experience to Make Public Health Policy Recommendations.
Just kidding. I’m not going to do that. That’d be idiotic.
Having been tangentially-connected to the medical industry for as long as I have, I know enough to know that while you can make some very broad generalizations with enough experience/data, any single person’s experience is still a unique combination of personal history and contributing or confounding factors. It’s unwise to try to make broad applications from a single data point.
In other words, if you and anyone in your immediate circle have gotten the ‘Rona, you’re (at best) an expert on that particular medical experience, but not much beyond it. It would be an overreach to say, “It was no big deal for me, so it’s no big deal for anyone.” It’s also an overreach to say, “It was a really big deal for me, so it’s gonna be a really big deal for everyone.”
With those caveats in place: the big difference in my experience between the flu and C-19 is that ‘Rona is slower to reveal itself and has longer-lasting effects. I’m sure there will be longitudinal studies published years from now looking at the long-term impacts of this disease. But describing it as “basically the flu,” as far as I can tell, is reductive and unwise.
That’s not to say that the total shutdowns of whole segments of society were warranted, much less effective. But just like a person’s individual C-19 experience, the confounding factors are myriad when it comes to the effectiveness of the social lockdown efforts.
Truth be told, I suspect the lockdowns may have done more long-term harm than good, but I also recognize that Covid-19 is just a different disease that influenza, and the slow emergence of symptoms makes it harder to rely on the “just self-quarantine if you feel sick” approach. (I know there are recent “studies” about whether or not asymptomatic transmission is a thing, but the research is REALLY early, so maybe don’t jump right on that yet.)
(And I’m not going to get into the quagmire of dissecting the political and sociological complexities of lockdowns, the outright hypocrisy of political leaders who violate their own mandates, or the decisions made after months of anecdotal data that still seem to be fear-based or power-based instead of evidence-based. That’s a whole ‘nother headache for another day.)
In other words, I don’t know what the answer is for how best to prevent Covid-19. Odds are, unless you’re an epidemiologist or virologist, you probably don’t either. (Frankly, I’m not sure any one member of those lauded professions knows “the answer.”) We’re all trying to figure out the best way to approach how to stay healthy, how to keep our loved ones healthy, and how to keep our communities healthy (medically, financially, and sociologically).
My Actual Recommendation.
What I can recommend, as a bit of generally-applied common sense: Be kind.And I don’t say that in the blithe, kumbayah way that corporate social media brand managers and Insta-influencers do.
When I say, “Be kind,” what I really mean is, “Don’t be a jerk.”
Don’t be a jerk to people who disagree with you. Don’t be dismissive and sarcastic to people who may not have done as much research as you have. Don’t be aggressive and caustic toward people who *have* thought through these issues and have come to a different conclusion than you did. And when you encounter people who have decided to be a jerk about any of the issues surrounding Covid-19, make the decision not to be a jerk back.
If you’re a disciple of Jesus, there’s no wiggle-room on this issue. From our brother Paul:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Ephesians 4:25-32 (ESV)
Each of us should examine the facts (as best as we can ascertain them) about the disease and treatments, make decisions for ourselves and our families based on those facts, and then hold those positions with peaceable and gentle confidence until and unless we find compelling evidence and true arguments to change them. But in all of that calculus, it doesn’t benefit any of us to act like an obnoxious jerk to the people around us.
Because jerkiness is even more virulent and contagious than the ‘Rona. And it can hang around a LOT longer than a few weeks.
Feel free to discuss and react, but know that my “don’t be a jerk” policy extends to the comment box. For real. I’m not in the mood to countenance foolishness today. Thanks.
I was struck by a thought during a night of fitful, fretful worrying.
It wasn’t a new insight, or a brilliant observation–just an old truth that sometimes needs to be reapplied to my anxious mind.
As I lay in bed, tossing, turning, fretting over the tightness of my chest, the shallow breathing of my wife, the shadows obscuring my daughters across the hall through our two open doors, the creaks and groans of the house, and all the other things outside of my finite control, the question flashed like lightning in my head:
Is He good?
Of course, He is, I thought. God is good.I’d never say otherwise.
Is He kind?
Yes, He’s kind. He is the very definition of kind.
Do you trust Him to keep His promise to do good to you and your family?
I paused. He promised that He would work all things to bring about my good.He has never broken His promises, because God does not lie.
Can He keep His promises?
There’s nothing He can’t do. He does all He pleases.
Then why do you worry?
That’s the rub, isn’t it. I worry and fret over things I can’t control, because (at least momentarily) I am tempted to doubt that God is good, that God is kind, that God is omnipotent. I’m tempted to disbelieve that He will keep His promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.
My sinful fretting is a feeble attempt to control the uncontrollable because (at least in that moment) I don’t really trust the One who is all-powerful.
The force of my will cannot heal illness or control the actions of any who would wish us harm. The strength of my worry cannot extend my life by even one hour.
But I serve a God who heals the sick, who turns the heart of man this way or that, who has the number of my days written in His book.
What’s more, this God that I serve? He loves me. He knows me. He cares for me. Because He is kind. He is good. And he is trustworthy.
Sometimes, I just need to remind myself what is true, and ask my soul why it’s so downcast.
The end of December is usually a time of reflection on the past year—and after this year, many of us are perhaps a little skittish at the prospect. I have to admit, I have enjoyed and shared several “2020 is terrible” jokes and memes over the last several months. But a few weeks back, I was reminded of a verse I had memorized as a child:
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
As I meditated on this verse, I was reminded that not only did the Lord make “this day,” but He indeed made this week, and month, and even this year. The Bible teaches that the Lord is sovereign over all of human history, seeing the end from the beginning, and nothing takes place outside of His will and divine plan. What’s more, for those of us who are in Christ, all things—ALL things—work together for our good, to shape us into the image of our Savior (Rom. 8:28-30). If all of this is true, then even a year like 2020, checkered as it seems with challenges and even disappointments, has played out as our Lord ordained it to.
This certainly does not mean that it was an easy year. In no way am I minimizing the hardship that 2020 has brought with it. In the last 12 months, most of us have known loss of one sort or another. Many of us have lost family members in death, faced difficult medical diagnoses, struggled with job loss or financial hardship, and wrestled with family conflict.
However, dear friends, the fact remains: this is the year that the Lord has made. And while this year has brought its particular challenges, it has also contained particular blessings.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a few things I’m thankful for that happened during 2020.
My wife and I found out we are expecting our third little girl in early 2021, and couldn’t be happier.
I began working from home back in March and have been able to enjoy being with my family every day in a way I didn’t get to in previous years. As a result, my bond with my wife and daughters seems stronger than ever.
The number of readers on this little blog of mine have exploded this year, and as a result, I started my first “affiliate link” partnership with the kind folks over at Monk Manual, which has provided some extra income for our household.
God has opened other areas of provision that have come at just the right time to take care of unexpected bills.
Our church merged with a sister church a few weeks before the initial “shutdown” happened, and somehow we’ve emerged from this difficult season as a stronger body.
In addition to serving as an elder in my home church, I’ve had several opportunities to preach at other area churches while their pastors were away or had retired/relocated.
While it’s easy to be dour along with the rest of our culture at this “horrible year,” I would challenge you (and myself) to change how we think about and speak about the past year. Though the world would say there is little to consider good about 2020, that’s just not true. Despite it all, God has indeed been good to us—we just need to take the time to see it.
The Choice to Rejoice
Psalm 118:24 affirms that the Lord has made this day, and then follows with the exhortation, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This is one of those reminders in Scripture that joy is not only a gift of God and a fruit of the Spirit, but it is also a choice. The psalmist calls to the faithful and encourages them to make the choice to rejoice and be glad in this day of the Lord’s making.
While this verse is written within a specific context (which we will examine shortly), it’s worthwhile to pause and consider: Are there times when I can make the decision to rejoice, in spite of my circumstances? Again, this does not imply a “Pollyanna” sort of naïve blindness to the difficulties of life. Scripture reminds us that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He is sympathetic with our weakness and our suffering.
Yet Paul also reminds us (from a Roman prison cell) in Philippians 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord always—again, I will say, rejoice”! There don’t seem to be any exceptions in that word “always.” Rather, Paul gives—and repeats—this command. If these are commands from the Lord (and they are), then we will be enabled to obey them by the strength the Lord provides. Indeed, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh. 8:10). We can call on the Holy Spirit to help us obey this command and rejoice in what the Lord has done, no matter what circumstances we face.
Thus, when we consider this year that the Lord has made, friends, we can and should choose joy. By the grace of God, we should fight to rejoice and be glad in it. Why? Because the Lord made it, and He has used it and is using it for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
“His Steadfast Love Endures Forever”
One of the ways we can move toward joy is by recounting how the Lord has been faithful (as we just did earlier). This is clear in the first 18 verses of Psalm 118. The psalmist calls on God’s people to confess together the steadfast love of the Lord, and then recounts specific incidents in which God has shown Himself gracious.
The Lord is a rescuer (v. 5-6), a helper (v. 7), a refuge (v. 8-9), and our victory (v. 10-12). He will keep us from stumbling (v. 13), be our salvation (v. 14), and do valiantly for us (v. 15-16). Even in His discipline of us, He does not give us over to death (v. 18).
In verse 19, the psalmist asks the Lord to “open the gates of righteousness,” and this begins not only the section in which our key verse is found, but it points us to the greatest good that the Lord bestows on His people—a good that we have been celebrating in this Christmas season.
The fact is, there is nothing coming from us that is innately righteous. “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). On our own merits, even at our best, the “gates of righteousness” should be slammed shut in our faces. And yet, God has made a way for us to enter these righteous gates, through the work of His son Jesus, our Redeemer.
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Do you recognize the language of verses 22-23?
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:22-23)
This passage would later be quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21 and Peter in I Peter 2—both describing the ministry of Jesus the Messiah! He was the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” for those who would not believe, but the rock of salvation for all who would call on His name!
If you keep reading in Psalm 118, you’ll also find these words in verse 26: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” These were the very words spoken by the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the end of His ministry.
Then, verse 27: “The Lord is God, and He made His light to shine upon us.” Or perhaps, as John would put it in his gospel: “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Psalm 118 ultimately points forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, the Deliverer who would bless His people and bring them joy and success, a living demonstration of the steadfast love of God. And the coming of that Messiah would be “the day that the Lord has made,” a day worthy of rejoicing!
And what happened when that day arrived? John again tells us: “…light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil…” (John 3:19). Jesus the Messiah stepped into human history, a miracle baby in a manger in a small village. He lived the perfect life of righteousness that God’s Law demands of mankind. He taught the true words of God, did miracles, healed disease, cast out demons, and brought light into our darkness. And the response of the people was to slander Him falsely and deliver Him up for torture and execution.
But even that day was the day that the Lord had made, for it was only through that dark day that our redemption would be accomplished! Because Jesus our Savior was crucified in the place of ruined sinners, He became our vicarious substitute, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath and justice against sin, so that we who believe in Him might be declared righteous before God, one day entering the righteous gates of the New Jerusalem, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne” (as the hymn goes).
The deliverance of God was made manifest on the darkest of days, a day we call “Good” Friday, because that unfathomable suffering brought us cleansing. It brought us hope. It brought us joy.
The suffering of our Savior was the day of our deliverance. Let us also rejoice and be glad in that day!
Look Back in Gratitude, Look Forward In Hope
The year 2020 is coming to a close, friends. Admittedly, it did not follow any of our plans or hopes for what would transpire. But nevertheless, this was the year that the Lord has made. Let us choose to rejoice and be glad in it—glad in what the Lord has done among us, glad in what the Lord has taught us, glad in how the Lord has shown Himself always faithful, and glad in the knowledge that we have hope because the Lord ordained the darkest of days 2000 years ago as the day of our salvation, for all who repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
Happy New Year! Be blessed this day, and rejoice, my friends! Rejoice!
[I meant to get this posted last week ahead of Christmas day, but I think it still applies. So, here’s something to mull over as we enter the new year.]
The Christmas story has deep roots in the Old Testament. The “seed” of the Woman, Eve, whom God promised would crush the work of the Serpent, was promised to come through the lineage of Abraham the patriarch and David the king. The promised descendant would be Himself a King forever, with an eternal inheritance. Through the house of Abraham and the lineage of David, the glory of God would be proclaimed to all the earth, and all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This “seed,” this king, would be God’s messiah, His anointed one.
And so, prophet after prophet, century after century, the people of God waited for this sign, this Seed, to be revealed, bringing their deliverance with Him. Curiously, the last prophecy by the last prophet of the Old Testament wasn’t about the Messiah, but about His herald, a forerunner who would prepare the way for Him. After the prophet Malachi’s last word, there was silence for 4 centuries. No new word from the Lord. No new proclamations to the people of Israel. Just waiting.
My friend Edhiel, a native Spanish-speaker, made a beautiful observation after lunch one time:
“There is something beautiful about how you describe a pregnant woman in English. You say she’s ‘expecting.’ In Spanish, we don’t use that word in this way. But I just love that idea of expecting. The husband and wife prepare a place for the child, pick out the name and the colors of the room and the toys and everything. They are looking forward to when the baby arrives…That’s how I want to be with the next year. My expectations are high that I will grow closer to God and know more of His goodness. That’s how I want to live.”
Isn’t that awesome? The idea of “expecting.” And it reminded me of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful followers of Yahweh. Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, and his wife was also of the priestly tribe. Luke’s account described them as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” By all accounts, you would assume this faithful couple to be blessed and highly favored by God.
And yet, God had decided, in His purposes, not to give them children. Remember, this is a day in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, and to be childless was to bear the reproach of the community (and perhaps, some thought, the curse of God). In such a time and culture in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, Zechariah and Elizabeth had none. A faithful minister, a faithful wife, an empty home, a barren womb. And though this disappointment could easily become bitterness–and for a time, it may have, we don’t know–what Scripture records is that Zechariah and Elizabeth remained steadfast, even as the years passed and the idea of ever having children became a lost cause.
Even when they had passed their child-bearing years and still had no offspring, this faithful couple continued to trust God. Then, one day, as Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that his prayer has been answered.
Which prayer of Zechariah’s was the angel referring to? Deliverance from Rome? The coming of the Messiah? A child (which at this point was practically an impossibility)? The answer turned out to be all three.
Days of Elijah
Consider the message of Gabriel to the past-his-fathering-prime Zechariah:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
Gabriel’s announcement is first that Zechariah and Elizabeth will finally have a child, a son on whom God’s favor and Spirit will rest. The angel includes an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6, the last prophecy given to God’s people before the four-century silence–a prophecy of “Elijah the prophet” being sent ahead of his Lord to prepare the way for Him.
The expectations of a faithful minister and his wife–for their Savior, for their deliverance, for their own household–all bound up in this unexpected birth announcement. The announcement of the “second Elijah” meant that the promises of God for the redemption of man were finally coming to fruition, and the faithful couple with an empty crib were going to be part of that story.
Today, it’s not hard to find people making promises on God’s behalf, tossing out “prophetic words” over the coming year like so many Mardi Gras beads. We should be extremely careful not to put words in God’s mouth, or assign promises to Him that He has not made to us directly.
But I wanted to bring up this part of the Christmas story to encourage you that God is faithful to keep His promises to you. They may not come to pass in the way we expect or the timing we desire, but He is always faithful and He is always on time. The past year has been challenging in numerous ways, but through it all, God has still remained faithful. If you are a follower of Jesus, I hope you can see that and hold on to that truth.
If you do not follow Jesus, then I invite you to think about your life: what, if anything, has been sure and certain this year? In what do you have your hope? Because I’m here to tell you that trusting in anything outside of Jesus Christ is like building a house on so many fistfuls of sand that slip away with a gust of wind. If you do not “build your house” on the firm foundation of Jesus and His words, the final storm of God’s judgment will come and blow and beat upon your house, and great will be the fall of it. Your only hope, your only peace, can be found by turning away from your sin and selfish rebellion and trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice to give you peace and right standing with God.
This is a promise you can know for certain God will keep: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is the promise of Christmas! The baby in the manger one day became the Savior on the cross, dying like a criminal in the place of sinners like you and me, to rescue us from the wrath and judgment we deserve for our sin and offering us forgiveness and grace, and then rising from the dead in victory over death itself. If we turn to Jesus in humility and repentance, He will in no way cast us out. We can be redeemed, made new, born again with a living hope and the promise of eternal life in Heaven with Jesus.
For all who know Jesus, who have tasted this forgiveness and mercy, it should have been a merry Christmas indeed, and we can look forward to a happy, joyful, blessed new year!
Grace and peace to all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!
Sorry for the unexpected radio silence. December has included a few curveballs, but I definitely wanted to get in here before the end of the year and log my annual reading list!
It’s curious to me that in a year where I had more free time due to a change in work habits and less time in transit, I didn’t seem to read as much. Honestly, I really struggled to read much at all during the middle part of the year. It just seemed easier to vege out and watch movies or TV (or my recent addiction: video game playthroughs on Youtube… don’t judge me).
Nevertheless, I was able to complete 26 books this year (thanks in part to a prolific and comics-filled December!), and most of them were pretty short reads (fewer than 300 pages). If you’re looking for something quick to burn through, you might like some of these:
The Whole Christ – Sinclair Ferguson
A Great and Glorious Game – A. Bartlett Giamatti
The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa
The Prayer That Turns the World Upside Down – Al Mohler
Budgeting for a Healthy Church – Jamie Dunlop
State of the Union – Nick Hornby (novella)
Susie – Ray Rhodes, Jr.
The Final Days of Jesus – Andreas Kostenberger
Reset – David Murray
re:raptured – Bartels/Kluck
5 Minutes in Church History – Steve Nichols
re:raptured again – Kluck/Bartels
Church Elders – Jeramie Rinne
The ONE Thing – Gary Keller
We Cannot Be Silent – Al Mohler
A Way With Words – Dan Darling
Leadership Strategies and Tactics – Jocko Willink
Superman Smashes the Klan – Gene Luen Yang / Gurihiru
American Carnage – Tim Alberta
The End of October – Lawrence Wright
Daredevil: The Man without Fear – Frank Miller / John Romita Jr.
Batman: White Knight – Sean Gordon Murphy
Live Not By Lies – Rod Dreher
Superman: The Man of Steel (vol. 1) – John Byrne / Marv Wolfman / Jerry Oroway / Dick Giordano
Daredevil: Yellow – Jeph Loeb / Tim Sale
Daredevil: Born Again – Frank Miller / David Mazzucchelli
It’s been a weird year, and my reading has been a bit less rigorous as a result (for example, 7 of my last 10 titles are graphic novels and/or trade paperbacks of comic-book runs). But here are 4 books that I thought were excellent and certainly worth your time:
The Whole Christ, by Sinclair Ferguson — As I mentioned during #Booktober, Ferguson’s study of the Marrow Controversy was both theologically challenging and soul-stirring. The volume will be referenced fondly by theologians for decades to come. A perfect blend of pastoral and theological prose.
American Carnage, by Tim Alberta — Tim Alberta’s meticulously researched analysis of the Republican Party in the decade leading up to the Trump presidency was both insightful and frustrating. It’s hard to argue that many of the trends he described and warnings he gave have played out in the last few months. While it seems clear Alberta is pretty critical of the GOP in general, his analysis is spot-on and shouldn’t be discounted.
Susie, by Ray Rhodes, Jr. — I adored this biographical look at Susannah Spurgeon, the perservering and long-suffering helpmeet of the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. Rhodes does a masterful job balancing the focus between Susie’s life as the wife of the era’s most important theologian and as a woman with a long-lasting and meaningful ministry of her own. Rhodes has a follow-up coming out in February, and I’m eagerly looking forward to more like this.
Live Not By Lies, by Rod Dreher — I noted on Twitter a week or so ago that the ideas and themes of this book “rang in my head and my heart like a struck bell.” Dreher sounds the call for Christians to stand against a culture that believes and perpetuates lies, and he gives several examples from Christian dissidents under Soviet rule to describe how we can resist “soft totalitarianism” by choosing to reject lies and live in truth. This book is a must-read, and I look forward to working through it again sometime in the coming year. There was a lot to glean from these pages.
There’s my list. What’s yours? Did you have a favorite read from 2020? I’d love to hear about it. Comment below!
Happy Friday, friends! Here’s a quick round-up of things I’ve been reading and enjoying lately, for your weekend clicks.
As a father of small children who has the privilege of working from home, interruptions are a regular part of life. This reminder from Scott Hubbard to slow down is an important balance to my typical reading about being more productive.
Also from Art of Manliness: a very helpful post about how to choose a biography to read, which considers how the writing of biographies has changed over time. Good points to consider here.
It’s end-of-the-year book list season, so here are some lists from Tim Challies, Russell Moore, Trevin Wax, Darryl Dash, and Jared Wilson. While I don’t necessarily recommend all the books they do, one way to sift through these lists is to look for which books come up repeatedly. That’s usually a good indicator of a book that’s well worth your time.
Hey friends! You know, they say that if you want to be a successful blogger, you should write engaging posts that serve your readers. And believe it or not, I do try to keep that in mind, but sometimes I just want to write something for me. These posts on the recent Twilight Zone seasons have definitely been one of those “selfish content” series, based on readership stats, but I don’t want to leave the miniseries hanging without closure, so today I’ll finish up my brief discussion of Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019).
As noted previously, the premise descriptions will be mostly spoiler-free, but my thoughts/response will not be. Let’s do this thing!
Episode 2.06 – “8”
The Premise: Members of a scientific research team in the Antarctic collect a biological specimen that proves far more intelligent than any of them anticipated–and underestimating it will prove disastrous.
The Payoff: To be honest, this one fell flat for me, but I’m not sure it had much of a chance. I watched it during my lunch break (making lunch and trying to get an episode of TV in while my wife and kids were at the park), so I was a bit distracted and rushed. On top of that, the “twist” (not that there really was one) was spoiled for me by accident on an episode of Tom Elliot’s Twilight Zone Podcast, in which some viewer feedback mentioned the reveal (derisively), so I knew going in what was going to happen. But even without those factors impacting my viewing experience, there really wasn’t much to this episode. Essentially, the crew of a science outpost finds a hyper-intelligent octopus that immediately figures out how to kill several of the scientists, use computers, and get smarter? Ehhhh. When your pitch is, “it’s like The Thing, but instead of a monster/alien, it’s an octopus,” I’m not sure it should have been green-lit. I enjoyed Joel McHale in a “non-Joel-McHale” role, and the creep factor (and unexpected gross-out factor) was fairly effective in spite of the premise. But in the end, I just didn’t care that much. I should have gone back and rewatched this with the subtitles on, because I feel like there may have been a lot of details in the dialogue that I just missed in my distracted state. Even so–an octopus?
Episode 2.07 – “A Human Face”
The Premise: An alien creature arrives at the home of a grieving couple, taking the form of their dead teenaged daughter. The couple faces a difficult question: not “Is this actually our daughter?” but rather, “Does it matter if it isn’t?”
The Payoff: I really wanted to enjoy this episode, and appreciated most of it in retrospect…right up until the ending. (Seems to be a recurring theme with this rebooted series.) The performances were gripping, and the idea of an alien using telepathy/empathic abilities to impersonate a dead loved one is horrifying. What made it all the more disturbing is that the alien acknowledged that it wasn’t really the couple’s daughter back from the dead, but still spoke “in her voice” to mess with the couple’s minds, and it worked. The set-up is great, the CGI was TV-okay, and the progressing of the plot/dialogue was intriguing. At the point when you realize that the mother is so desperate to have more time with her lost girl that she’s willing to pretend that this alien creature *is* her, the horror becomes heart-breaking.
But then the whole thing shifts–why? Because the alien, WHO HAD ADMITTED IT WAS SENT TO EARTH TO PACIFY THE POPULACE AND PREPARE FOR AN INVASION, suddenly changes its mind because it experiences the love that the parents had for their daughter. And when the couple and their “doppel-daughter” walk outside, you see that every house on the block has a simliar “happy family” walking outside together. So–hang on… So, you’re telling me that in every one of these houses, these alien drones designed to manipulate emotions to suppress the populace all had the same epiphany? I kept waiting for it to be a trick–the final manipulation, convincing the humans that it was “won over by love” only to trap them with their own belief that love conquers all. But then Peele’s closing narration says the alien was “conquered itself by humanity. It will go on laboring now under a yoke of its own design.” And that’s it. The alien invasion force was fully thwarted by the power of love. Come on, y’all. This was a great premise and a really effective narrative progression that was killed stone dead by an unbearably sentimental conclusion. I’m the kind of guy who enjoys sentimentality, but it’s got to make sense. And in this particular episode of The Twilight Zone, that ending feels like a cop-out.
Episode 2.08 – “A Small Town”
The Premise: A grieving widower discovers that making changes to a scale model of his small town can bring those changes to life in the real world, and he must decide how he wants to wield such power.
The Payoff: On the other hand, here’s an episode where the sentimentality works. While this one isn’t ostensibly a “holiday episode,” it has the vibe of a softer TZ classics like “Night of the Meek.” Some TZ episodes are morality plays that punish characters for their fatal flaws, while others are sweeter and more pleasant in their storytelling. “A Small Town” manages to be a bit of both, with passable results. The main character, Jason, is still grieving the death of his wife, the mayor of a small mountain town, when a local pastor gives Jason a job and a place to live to help him get back on his feet. In the attic of the rectory, Jason discovers a perfect scale model of his town, and then finds that changes he makes in the model are reflected in real life. While his wife’s replacement as mayor (played by David Krumholz as more smarmy than menacing) is dismissive of his constituents’ requests for improved public works, Jason uses the model to make those changes and improve life for his fellow citizens. Once the mayor starts taking credit for the good work being done, Jason uses the model to get even with the opportunistic and egotistical public servant–smashing his car or scaring him with a “giant” tarantula.
The climax of the episode–the antagonist discovers the existence of the “magic gizmo” and monologues about how he will use it for selfish purposes–is almost too cliched to bear, and in the end, the breaking of the table and the resulting chaos in town seemed to be resolved a bit too easily. I was hoping for more meat on the bone (for example, the breaking of the model table could have resulted in catastrophic damage, showing the Jason’s increasingly selfish use of the model was being punished by the Zone’s justice). But I think I was expecting this episode to be a bit more like that first kind of story I mentioned. Instead, the no-good mayor was shown to be a selfish jerk and the town turns him out, and Jason is presumably given credit for the good he did and how he engendered goodwill and community spirit among his neighbors. And that’s fine. This isn’t a story you’d go back to repeatedly, but the premise is a little fun, even if it seems like a missed opportunity.
Episode 2.09 – “Try, Try”
The Premise: Claudia has a chance encounter with a charismatic, romantic stranger named Marc, and as they spend the day together, he always seems to know the perfect thing to say or do. There’s a reason for that…
The Payoff: I saw a description online (I believe) that this episode is like if Bill Murray’s character from “Groundhog Day” were actually a sociopath. I don’t think I can sum it up much better than that. The first act of this story gives us Claudia’s meet-cute with the enigmatic Marc, who seems to know the perfect comment or compliment to pique Claudia’s interest or make her smile. As they spend the day together, Marc starts making little side comments that confuse Claudia but tip the audience off to the fact that he’s not what he seems. Finally, the shoe drops and he admits that he’s lived this day over and over so many times that he’s essentially perfected his “first date” with Claudia (and has frequently ended up in her bed). Claudia is understandably unsettled, but Marc persists, arguing that he knows her better than she knows herself and they’re perfect for each other. (Also, the name “Marc” is a lie to gain her trust. No big deal, right?) He has begun to feel godlike in his omniscience, to the point that he may be able to do whatever he wants to her and it won’t matter because the next day she’ll vanish like a dream.
Oh man, was this episode a creep fest! While it very clearly falls in the same vein as Season 1’s “Not All Men” and to some extent the S2 premiere, “Meet in the Middle,” it more effectively captures the message of those episodes without seeming as preachy (mostly): men who presume upon women can easily become predatory, and that kind of behavior can escalate dangerously. In the climax of the episode, when Marc essentially tells Claudia that he might just assault and/or murder her for his own amusement, since she’s “not real” to him, he embodies a real-world evil and a type of guy that tragically does exist in our culture. And the reason this portrayal is so horrific is because Topher Grace is just stellar in the role. He has a natural boyish charm that is disarming and unthreatening, but he can also turn on the menace in an instant, and that juxtaposition is exactly what makes this character so disturbing.
My only beef with the episode (brace yourselves for a shock) is the resolution. Claudia gets her “yass queen” combat moment (meh), which thankfully was a bit more believable since Grace isn’t physically imposing so the power differential was a bit more balanced. Her promise that she’ll kick his tail in any future iteration of the day (so he’d better not try that again) rings a bit hollow since there’s really nothing stopping him from doing all the things he threatened to do–because he’s still that same wicked guy, just now with more advanced warning. The fact that this momentary comeuppance somehow cows him into never attempting this evil again seems to indicate a shocking naivete about human nature on the writer’s part. The final sequence also demonstrates that Marc’s initial assumption that he was always saving her from being hit by a bus was presumptive (she’s fine, she doesn’t need you, man! *snaps*) and he is now locked in a TZ time loop, doomed to relive the day. That’s his punishment…except it’s not, really. Yes, being stuck in the timeloop is bad, but I don’t know if it’s bad enough. Not for him. Now, a time-loop in which his wickedness results in suffering? That might be interesting, though that may drift a bit too close to the classic episode, “Shadow Play.”
All in all, this was one of the strongest episodes of the season, with knockout performances (no pun intended) by the leads.
Episode 2.10 – “You Might Also Like”
The Premise: Janet Warren is on the waiting list to receive “The Egg,” the amazing device that will make all of her dreams come true and take away her pain. But when she notices inexplicable happenings around her, as well as out-of-character and irrational behavior by her friends and neighbors, she has second thoughts about picking up this life-changing device.
The Payoff: Oh man, where to begin with this one. The visual style, cinematography, and editing were almost too clever–like when film school students are trying really, really hard to evoke the right visual cues and film history references, and you feel as if they’re sitting next to you during the episode, watching you watch it and saying, “did you see that? did you get what I was going for?” The conceits of constant commercial interruptions, fourth-wall lampshading, and extremely mannered acting were jarring, and I sat through the whole episode with a half-smile on my face and my head cocked to one side like Nipper, repeatedly mumbling, “What…is…happening?” It was a similar feeling I had when watching the Season 1 finale, “Blurryman”–but taken to the extreme.
So our story is about Janet Warren, a housewife who is having repeated black-outs, hears unexplained sounds, has dreams she can’t understand, and is hoping that The Egg will solve all of her problems. I nearly called it the “Amazon Egg” just now because the anti-consumerism theme is basically presented in flashing neon during the entire episode. And it’s not like this messaging is anything new, at least from the outset. For most of the episode, you don’t even see the Egg, but it takes on a mythical persona, like the famed Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that dreams are made of.” Once Janet starts questioning if that’s the case, things get real crazy. How crazy?
The Kanamits from “To Serve Man” show up, but in a new and more allegedly-humorous incarnation. (Ooooh, we made a pronouns joke, aren’t we hip!) Technically, as some pointed out online, it must be an alternate timeline version, since they are unknown to humanity at this point. And to be fair, pulling out one of the most iconic alien characters from the classic series is a bold move, Cotton, but I’m just not sure how it plays out for them. Especially when Janet (should she have been named Karen?) essentially asks to speak to the alien hive mind’s manager, and they concede? What?
Janet speaks to the female Kanamit in charge who admits, yes, it’s aliens who are behind The Egg. (Feel free to make an Elon Musk joke to yourself.) They are baffled and distrustful of humanity’s penchant for independent thought. They have studied human television for years, and realized the way to entrap humanity was through its commercialism and desire to buy happiness. And oh, by the way, The Egg is literally that–an alien egg that will hatch a carnivorous Kanamit piranha-baby. (The slow-mo “misting” of Janet’s friend just out of frame is a shocking sequence that effectively horrifies without showing actual violence.) So does Janet decide to stand up against the alien menace and tear the whole thing down? No, because Janet is broken. She had lost her unborn child years before and feels a gaping wound there. She is struggling to cope with this on her own. (Her husband and other child aren’t seen anywhere in the episode other than a framed photo–no explanation given.) So Janet decides to take The Egg home, knowing it will kill her, because she’ll at least get to hold it for a little while. Sorry, again…what? While I recognize the deep heartbreak of miscarriage (we have some experience there in our family), this just doesn’t make sense.
The final shot of this episode is bonkers, with flying saucers hovering over a town descending into madness. I should amend what I said previously: the bold visual style is over-the-top but it WORKS.
This episode…I don’t know. It works, sort of, but the bold leaps it takes only stick the landing sporadically. Ending a season in which I’ve noted that the show’s writing has often played it safe, this one really came out of left field, and that alone should get some credit. It was a daring and exuberant semi-failure, which also makes it a middling success.
So, what did I think of Season 2 as a whole?
In my final comments on Season 1, I talked about how the show struggled with thematic subtlety, and that the “message” episodes were a bit too ham-fisted and surface-level to be enjoyed. At the start of this season, it felt like the showrunners were trying to play it a bit too safe, in terms of themes. I think that’s still the case on the whole for Season 2. However, looking back, I think Season 2 was perhaps just a bit more effective at subtle themes and messages. They were still there to be sure–the recurring “arrogant, selfish, toxic man” trope came up in 4 episodes: “Try, Try,” “The Who of You,” “Meet in the Middle,” and to a small degree (no pun intended) in “A Small Town.” There was also a recurring theme (noted by the showrunners in pre-season press) of misdirection, people and situations not being what they appear at first. That idea is present in every episode of this season, and ties the stories together nicely. On the other hand, the weakness of the season is that too few of the episodes were willing to do something bold and unexpected, the way that “Among the Untrodden” or “You May Also Like” managed to do so.
If the theme from “Blurryman” was that you can still tell good “campfire” stories that contain social messages without lampshading them, Season 2 of The Twilight Zone (2019) has demonstrated that playing it too safe results in a satisfying but average show. Nevertheless, despite some frustrating writing decisions throughout the run (and cheap/easy resolutions), this season was still fun to watch, and I’ll be back for Season 3. There were just a few times when it felt like the potential for great work was within reach, but the show came up a bit short.
Here’s how I’d rank Season 2’s episodes, from my least favorite of the season to my most favorite:
10. “8” 9. “Ovation” 8. “Downtime” 7. “A Small Town” 6. “A Human Face” 5. “You Might Also Like” 4. “Meet in the Middle” 3. “Among the Untrodden” 2. “Try, Try” 1. “The Who of You”
That’s all I’ve got for today. Perhaps sometime before the next season premieres, I’ll pick this blog miniseries up again and give you my recommendations for top-ten classic TZ episodes. Until then, thanks for taking a walk with me through another dimension!
Did you watch any of this season of The Twilight Zone? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
I got a little backed up on my posting, so today, let’s just knock out some of my “Friday Feed” backlog, huh? Here are a bunch of links I’ve been compiling over the last few months that I’ve been meaning to serve up for your weekend edu-tainment and encouragement. I think they’re pretty neat. Hope you do, too!
Kevin DeYoung considers the question of preaching without notes. As a recently-converted “manuscript guy,” I can see both sides of the issue. Personally, I’m going to stick to manuscripting and just work on my delivery when I have the opportunity.
I found this Tim Challies article from August in my link folder, and my heart just ached for him anew. (For those who don’t know, the Challies’ son Nick, whom Tim mentions dropping off at school in the post, died suddenly a month ago of an undiagnosed heart condition [if memory serves].) If you haven’t read Tim Challies’ blog before, or haven’t read it lately, take some time to read through the posts related to Nick’s death. The reason I suggest this isn’t morbid curiosity or tacky onlooking, but to point you to Tim’s living example of how a rock-solid conviction of Biblical truth is an undeniable comfort and aid in even the darkest valleys of suffering. I can’t imagine what Tim and Aileen are going through–I shudder to even attempt such a mental exercise. But when I see them fighting tooth-and-claw to hold onto hope in the midst of such a tragedy, I can’t help but praise God for His mercy and comfort in our times of greatest need.
That’s all I have at the moment. Have a great weekend, my friends. See you back here next week!
The following is the text of a sermon I had the privilege to preach at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX on November 22nd of this year. Even though it’s a bit late for the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope it blesses you anyway. Thanks.
When I started thinking about what I wanted to study and preach on this week, I couldn’t help but think about the upcoming holiday: no, not the A&M-LSU game. Thanksgiving.
Now, I’ll admit, folks: normally, in my family, we start our Christmas holiday decorations and celebration on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, but we’ve had our tree and lights up for over a week already (partly because my 3 year old is OBSESSED with Christmas lights). It seemed appropriate in a challenging year to spend some extra time celebrating the coming of Jesus to dwell among us. But I recognize that doing so gives short shrift to Thanksgiving, so I started thinking about what passages might be appropriate for the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
And for some reason (the providence of God, ultimately), I landed on Luke 18. If you’ve looked at the passage already, you know that this is…not exactly what you’d call a “Thanksgiving” passage—and I agree, it’s a bit of a stretch. But I think it’s what I needed to hear, so I suspect some of you may benefit as well.
Today, we’re looking at the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. And it’s a story that has something to teach us about how we should—or rather, how we should NOT—give thanks.
Here’s the big idea we will consider this morning: True thanksgiving – true Christian thanksgiving – begins with a recognition that, if we are in Christ, we havenot gotten what we deserve for our sin, but have instead gotten what we do not deserve. We deserved judgment, but received mercy. We earned wrath, but were given grace. True thanksgiving from the heart is fueled by this fundamental reality.
Let’s look at the text: Luke 18-9-14. I’ll read it in its entirety and then we’ll take a look at it verse by verse.
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke describes this story as a parable (the stories that Jesus told that taught spiritual truths using symbols and veiled language that could only be discerned by those given “eyes and ears” to do so). But this is less of a parable and more of a straightforward (if likely fictitious) description of 2 mindsets or approaches to worship.
Setting the Scene (v. 9-10)
Notice from the very beginning that Luke clues us in on EXACTLY what Jesus is doing here. This isn’t like some of Jesus’ other parables or stories where he has to decode for us what He means. He is speaking plainly, and both we and his original hearers knew what he was getting at. If anything, what Luke gives us here is a peek into the hearts of the hearers more than the point of the parable. Notice that he describes these people 2 ways: “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and “treated others with contempt.” As we will see, these two traits are connected, with one often flowing into the other. While there are other applications to be made with this parable, Jesus’ primary target audience thought they were as holy as they needed to be, and that somehow God owed something to them for their good works.
Jesus sets the scene in verse 10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” They went up to the temple because the temple in Jerusalem was built on a hill. That’s why we see some psalms are called Songs of Ascent—they were literally sung by pilgrims who travelled to Jerusalem to ascend the temple mount for yearly sacrifices and feasts of worship. So these 2 men went up to the temple.
They went up to pray because it was at the Temple where they believed their prayers would be heard. In I Kings 8:27-30, when Solomon dedicated his temple to God on this spot, he prayed that it would be a place where God’s name and heart will rest, so that His servants may come to this place to pray and he would hear and forgive them. God responded in the next chapter (9:1-3) that His eyes and heart would be there for all time. In Isaiah 56:7, the Lord says, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” So it was at the temple that faithful Jews believed God would be most attentive to their cries.
Consider our two characters: the Pharisee and the tax collector. While we in later generations have been trained to eye pharisees with distrust, and to use the term as an insult, remember that, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the theological elite—the trusted theologians, preachers, teachers, highly respected in their community. Contrast them with the tax collectors—Jews who have colluded with their Roman oppressors and collect taxes on their behalf to fund their military war machine. Tax collectors routinely extorted money from their fellow Jews (beyond the already oppressive taxes) and grew rich off the grift. They were held in contempt in their day, the lowest form of scum, because they defied the Mosaic commands against extorting and oppressing their countrymen. Jesus often used social contrasts like this to shock or surprise his audience, in order to reveal truth. Here was no exception, and it would do us good to consider this contrast with fresh eyes. On the one hand, a revered spiritual father and pillar of the community—on the other, a low-life who was distrusted and avoided because he was known (or at least assumed) to take advantage of his poor neighbors to fill his pockets.
But when they open their mouths, everything changes. And it’s here were Jesus shows us the dangers of the wrong kind of thanksgiving.
First, we see the danger of treating others with contempt.
1) Beware Treating Others with Contempt (v. 11)
Notice the Pharisee’s posture: “standing by himself.” Standing was a common prayer posture in that culture, but the implication here was that this man was standing apart from others, not one of the crowd of worshippers. He set himself apart physically—presumably to be seen and/or heard more clearly. Jesus warns about this in the Sermon on the Mount:
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.”
Some translations even word verse 11 as such: the Pharisee “while standing, prayed to himself” (which may be more of an editorial comment than a straightforward translation!).
Listen to the opening words of this Pharisee’s prayer (a prayer in which we hear the word “God” used one time and the word “I” used 5 times, by the way): “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”
The Pharisee “thanks” God by bragging about who he is not—and lists off a handful of notorious sins and sinners (including the tax collector who he likely passed by on his way to the front of the room!). The Pharisee prides himself on not being guilty of gross, scandalous, public sins—yet he doesn’t mention any of what Jerry Bridges called “the respectable sins” like anger, lust, jealousy, greed, or pride. But Scripture is clear that these sins are no more acceptable than others in terms of God’s holiness. Just a few chapters earlier, we see this, in Luke 16:
“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things [Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager], and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
While Pharisees were careful to keep a holy external appearance, that holiness sometimes didn’t penetrate to their hearts. This is why Jesus also said in the Sermon on the Mount that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Something more than external piety is needed.
The Pharisee had no awareness of his own sin and unworthiness. He judged himself against the worst sins of others—and in a sense used the known (or assumed) sins of those around him to make himself feel even more holy by comparison. It’s almost as if he were glad they were so bad, because it made him look all the better.
The Apostle Paul sternly warns against such judgments in Romans 2:1-5:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
We should pause in this moment and examine ourselves: have we been guilty of this? Perhaps we have said in our hearts, “God, I thank you that I’m not like this pastor fallen into disgrace, or like that politician surrounded by scandal. I thank you that I am not like those people on Facebook or these people on Twitter. I thank you that I’m wise enough to vote the right way and have the sensible position about pressing social issues and political topics, unlike those with whom I disagree who are being led around by the nose and haven’t thought things through properly.”
The scary thing about this first part of the pharisee’s prayer is that he *is* like those notorious sinners—he’s just as prone to fall into temptation and a snare. And so am I. And so are you. It is only the grace of God that we do not destroy ourselves in our sin.
But let’s keep looking at the pharisee’s speech (I hate to call it a prayer!). Next we see that we should beware trusting in our own righteousness.
2) Beware trusting in your own righteousness. (v. 12)
The Pharisee follows up his favorable self-comparisons by giving evidence of his personal piety: “I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” On the surface, these are laudable actions—actions that go beyond even what the Mosaic law required. The only mandatory fasting day was the yearly Day of Atonement, and the tithe was mainly intended to be from crops/income in order to provide the material needs of the Levites and care for the poor and sojourners. So on the surface, what the Pharisee says should be met with praise. You did pious works; good for you.
But Jesus is never satisfied with mere ritual or surface-level obedience. Again, from His Sermon on the Mount, He says that giving to the needy should be done in secret, and that fasting should be a private act of worship between you and God. Why? Matthew 6:1 says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” That’s the problem with the Pharisee’s prayer. He’s bragging about his piety in order to be seen by others—and worse than that, in order to be acknowledged by God. He’s listing off his religious practices as if to remind God how good he is, while at the same time dismissing the sin that may yet be in his heart. That’s why in Luke 11, Jesus pronounced woe upon Pharisees who “tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
What a contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapter of Luke, in which he states that obedient servants of God should be satisfied that they have simply done their duty!
Such self-confidence also misses the point that our good works fall so immeasurably short of God’s standard—Jesus said we must be perfect! And of course, in our fallen state we cannot be perfect, which is precisely the point. We need a righteousness outside of ourselves, because all our best works are stained by sin. That’s the whole message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—we will never, ever, ever be good enough to earn or maintain our place before God. We have all broken His law and disobeyed His commandments, and we deserve punishment for our offenses against a holy God. But because God is gracious, He sent Jesus to live the perfect life we couldn’t live ourselves, completely fulfilling all of God’s commands and the demands of the Law, and then dying in the place of sinners, to become “sin” for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. The perfect record of Jesus is transferred to sinners who turn to him in repentance, and all of their guilt is put on Jesus, who pays for it all with his precious blood.
If you’re hearing this and you know that you are guilty before God but you have been trying to do good works to make up for it or wash away your stains, listen to me closely: you can’t clean yourself. You can’t pay for your own sin. There’s nothing you can do to take away your shame and guilt. But there’s something that can be done for you. What can wash away your sin? Nothing…but the blood of Jesus.
Let’s turn our attention away from the preening Pharisee to the downcast tax collector in verse 13.
3) Be Humble before the Mercy of God (v. 13)
What a contrast we find here.
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
Note the difference in posture: The tax collector stands afar off—not in an area of prominence, possibly trying to avoid other people who are there in the temple court. His hands are not upraised, and his face is not lifted. Perhaps this is an unspoken recognition that he knows he does not have “clean hands” before God. Psalm 24 says, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”
The tax collector cannot bring himself to look upward to heaven in the normal posture of prayer, but keeps his eyes on the ground, beating his chest in an outward sign of deep sorrow. He prays a prayer of just 7 words (even fewer in the original Greek) but those seven words are powerful and are weighted with importance: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Charles Spurgeon quoted another unnamed pastor who said this prayer is a “holy telegram”—condensed and compact with no unnecessary words. In our hours of desperation, sorrow, and exhaustion, all of the flowery language is stripped away and the cry of our heart is laid bare in its simplest form. And this is the type of cry that we see throughout the gospels would stir the heart of the savior. Jesus seems to have a particular care for tax collectors and outcasts, because those are the type of people he came to rescue: the sick, not the well; sinners, not the righteous.
What does this simple seven-word prayer of the tax collector show us about his faith? Seven key truths:
He knows who God is—perhaps an artifact from his upbringing or just the gracious reminders of God throughout his life that kept the reality of the Judge of all the earth in his mind.
He believes God answers prayer—if not, he wouldn’t be praying.
He recognizes that he must answer to this God for his actions—the tax collector calls on the one to whom he knows he must give an account.
He believes this God is merciful—otherwise a plea for mercy would be pointless.
He believes this God is even merciful to sinners—God does not just show favor to the righteous but to the unrighteous who call out to him.
He confesses that he himself is a sinner who needs God’s mercy—unlike the pharisee, the tax collector has no illusions about his standing before God.
He recognizes that the mercy of God is his only hope for dealing with his sin—in his state of despair, he turns to God in faith, asking for clemency. He doesn’t try to bargain or impress. He doesn’t claim pious deeds as his access to God. He brings only his need and his faith that God will respond.
There is no indication of how the tax collector came under such conviction, but the fruit of the conviction is plain in his demeanor and his prayer.
Do you need to pray this kind of prayer today? You’ve been trying to earn God’s approval with pious activity. You’ve been trying in your own efforts to improve yourself, to be a good person, in the foolish hope that such labors will balance out the ledger in your favor. If that’s you this morning, you need to stop what you’re doing and just come to God in faith. As the old hymn says, “nothing in my hands I bring / simply to the cross I cling.” You’ve got nothing to bring to God. All your best works are infected with sin, until you are given a new heart and new desires and the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit to work in and through you to do God’s will.
If you need to call out to God in mercy this morning, you’d be in good company. Prayers for mercy are shared throughout the Old Testament, as God’s people call out to Him in faith, asking for His patience, His forgiveness, and His help in times of distress. In Psalm 79, the psalmist Asaph writes, “Do not remember against us our former iniquities; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and atone for our sins, for your name’s sake!”
In Daniel 9, Daniel prayed on behalf of his people:
“O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us. Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.”
Notice in both of those examples that the person praying is not telling God how good they are and how much they deserve. They recognize they have nothing to offer and that God’s mercy and forgiveness aren’t owed to them. They also call out that God’s mercy comes from His nature and the point of it is ultimately that it gives Him glory to be merciful to us, and that mercy is for our good as well.
So how does God respond to these 2 prayers? Jesus says the humble tax collector went home justified, rather than the pharisee.
This word “justified” is important. It carries a legal designation of “not guilty”—but there’s more to it than that. The tax collector wasn’t just forgiven of his sins, though he was. He wasn’t just shown mercy—the judgment he deserved being withheld. He was declared righteous before God. To get the full weight of that, we need the rest of the New Testament to flesh out its implications—this parable wasn’t intended to provide us a full theology of justification. But we see pretty clearly in this story a contrast of works-based righteousness versus a righteousness that is received by grace through faith in the God who shows mercy on those who call to Him in repentance.
Paul expounds on these monumental truths in his letters to the Romans and Galatians, among others. That’s why he writes in Romans 3:
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
And in Romans 8:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of theSpirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
And in Galatians 2:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
I don’t mean to beat this point home more than that, but I think too often we run past this and risk taking it for granted, especially if we have been in the church for a long time. If you are a Christian here this morning, I have to ask you: Have you forgotten what you’ve been saved from? Have you forgotten what that means? If you have repented of your sin and put your full hope and trust in Jesus’ work on the cross, then you are forgiven—declared not guilty—and even declared righteous before God, wrapped in the spotless white robes of Christ. And that’s not even to begin describing the benefits of adoption into God’s family, the inheritance of the saints, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gradual and inevitable work of that Spirit in sanctifying us to make us like Jesus, and the countless benefits and beauties of knowing God as Father!
Christians, do you remember these precious truths? Do you dwell on them in your thoughts? Do you treasure them away in your heart? Because if you do, you will respond with true and lasting thanksgiving!
Let’s consider Jesus’ summation of the story as we close this morning: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The tragedy of this parable is that the Pharisee is so blind to his sinful pride that he goes into the temple and, rather than being forgiven of his sin, heaps more sin and more judgment upon himself, before going away oblivious, thinking he had done his pious duty. The very Law that should have brought him to a place of recognition that he could never stand on his own works before a holy God became a tool that he used to justify himself in comparison to others. And on the last day, when Jesus Christ judges the living and the dead, those who walk in the way of this pharisee will be brought low, while those who humble themselves before the Lord Jesus will be lifted up.
Consider Paul’s words from Romans 10:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [his fellow Jews] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
If you have received this salvation, then let this Thanksgiving week be a week in which you remember that what you have to be thankful for goes so much deeper than the good gifts of physical provision and the gift of family. Let your thanksgiving well up from a recognition and remembrance of how much you deserve the wrath of God, and how much mercy you have been shown in Christ Jesus.
And let us all heed the warning of Jesus’ parable and humble ourselves before the Lord, so that He may lift us up. If you stand guilty in your sin, call out to him for mercy, in repentance and faith, and He will cleanse you of all unrighteousness, and declare you not-guilty before Him. If you do that, I suspect this Thanksgiving will be a truly joyous one for you as well.