The Good-er Samaritan

So a lawyer puts Jesus to the test and asks, “How can I get eternal life?” And Jesus says, “Well, what does the Law Book say?” And the lawyer says, ” Love God and love my neighbor.” And Jesus says, “Then obey the law and you’ll get sentenced to life.”

But this lawyer’s suddenly not into jokes. Now he’s feeling a little guilt. So he sets out to justify himself. “Oh yah? Well, then who’s my neighbor?” So Jesus tells him a parable.

It’s one we all know. A man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and a bunch of robbers attack him, strip him, beat him up and leave him half dead.

So a Priest, a Levite and a filthy Samaritan are traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho and they come across a half-dead robbery victim. Which one stops to help?

The Samaritan. No joke. Why? Because he was more into obeying the law than the Priest and the Levite? The Priest and Levite could probably find some legal technicality that would excuse them from helping this guy out. Maybe the traffic directions changed there and they had to switch lanes. Maybe the robbery victim was right under a “No Parking on Shoulder” sign. The point is that like the lawyer, the religious ones of that day were masters at justifying their own sin by using the law to disobey The Law. This is what legalism does almost every single time.

Legalists set up lesser man-made rules and regulations and false interpretations of God’s good and perfect and righteous rules and then justify their disregard of God’s Law by pointing to their adherence to their own laws.

I grew up in a cult so I know a legalist when I see one. And I’ve never seen these tendencies on display so clearly as I have in the past year. In fact, if that robbery had happened today I think the response would have been even more extreme.

The religious leaders of our day wouldn’t have just passed by on the other side. They would have shamed the Samaritan for putting himself at risk of another robbery thus perpetuating the spread of more and more robberies. Then they would have made laws forbidding travel between Jerusalem and Jericho so as to prevent these robberies from occurring. Then they would have forbidden travel altogether because in reality robberies could happen anywhere. Then they would all insist we spray our selves with some horrid chemical called “Robber Repellant” to keep potential robbers at bay. And we might as well shut down the economy so there’s nothing for the robbers to steal. And all of this would be under the guise of “loving our neighbor.”

Meanwhile the actual victim of the robbery dies alone in isolation without friends and without hope.

Notice when Jesus wanted to give a description of what loving your neighbor looked like, he chose a stranger caring for and meeting the needs of one who was suffering. He didn’t choose some armed guard patrolling the road protecting travelers from potential harm. Harm happens. As does sickness and poverty and affliction of every kind. Until sin is extinguished from this earth the suffering smolders on. Love cares for those in the midst of the suffering. Power seeks to control the nature and distribution of it.

God’s good and perfect and righteous Law says to care for the sick and visit the widows and invite one another in and sing praises to His name, old men and children TOGETHER. That’s loving your neighbor. Legalism disregards God’s Law and instead props up lesser laws to redefine what loving your neighbor looks like, namely, close your doors, cover your face, and stay as far away as possible from your neighbor, especially the sick and the elderly. And don’t sing. ESPECIALLY not together.

In other words if you want to love your neighbor, pass by on the other side. That’s the new, improved, good-er Samaritan of our day.

About That Star.

I have a lot of regrets as a parent. One thing I’ve never regretted though, is making the extra effort to experience things first hand rather than passively watching them on a screen as we are so trained to do today. They even want us to passively watch church on a screen! The advent of TV and internet has brought us a lot of things. But one thing it has taken away is real first-hand experience in God’s created world. Just like church on a screen is no substitute for the real thing, neither is observing the heavens that Psalm 19 describes as declaring the glory of God. Packing the kids up in the middle of the night to drive to the top of Hawaii’s highest mountain, Mauna Kea, just so we could see it cast it’s pyramid shaped shadow over the ocean as the sun rose over the Pacific– totally worth it. Driving out to the Kona airport to wait in line so the NASA folks could let us see the Venus transit of the sun through their fancy telescopes– totally worth it. Pulling everyone out of bed in the pre-dawn hours to wander sleepily out onto the golf course just to watch the ISS pass overhead– totally worth it. And yes, packing up our dinner and driving down the road to watch the last-seen-in-1226-conjunction-of-Jupiter-and-Saturn last night was also totally worth it.

Was this occurrence the reappearing of the “Christmas Star” followed by the Magi in Matthew 2 as some suggest? I don’t know. Does it’s appearing still declare a whole lot about the glory of God? Absolutely. You can’t look at the red striations of Jupiter as it’s flanked by 4 visible moons or Saturn all dressed up in her hoops through a telescope like we did and not see the glory of God. Unless you’re lying. But even without a telescope there’s still a lot to learn about His glory. Consider the following:

What looks like a tiny dot is actually 2 giant gas planets. The first and largest is Jupiter, about 318 times the size of Earth and nearly 500 million miles away from us. Saturn is another 450 million miles beyond Jupiter. Yet last night they looked like they were bumping right into each other!

And then we have that average sized star known as the Sun setting in the bottom right corner of the same picture. It’s a mere 91 million miles away from us but about 1.3 million times larger. And that’s just our little cul-de-sac in the sprawling cosmic metropolis of the Milky Way.

The distance from our sun to it’s nearest celestial neighbor, a binary star known as Alpha Centauri, is 25 trillion miles, or 4.2 light years. There are about 100-400 billion such stars in our galaxy which is 100,000 light-years across. The nearest galaxy to ours is the Andromeda Galaxy at a whopping 2.5 million light-years away. As far as astronomers can guess there are some 2 Trillion such galaxies in the known universe, which according to their calculations is expanding at about 50 miles per second.

Now let’s zoom way down into the visible matter composing a mere 5% of the universe. Most of that is empty space, too. In fact if you take one of the most common elements, the hydrogen atom, you’d find that besides the proton, neutrons, and electrons you’d have about 99.9999999999996% of practically nothing. To put the amount of space in an atom in perspective, if a hydrogen atom were the size of the earth, the proton at its center would be about 600 feet across.

So the question is: what’s stopping the whole thing from flying apart?

Answer: Jesus

I saw a manger scene recently where the baby Jesus was gripping Mary’s index finger the way we all love infants to do. Pretty profound considering He was in fact at that moment holding together every single atom that made up, not just Mary’s finger, but the rest of her as well. Truly the entire universe was in His infant grasp.

Just listen how Colossians 1:15-20 puts Christ’s incarnation and role in all of creation into a doxology,

“HE is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and IN HIM ALL THINGS HOLD TOGETHER. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”

May those words be in your heart and on your tongue next time you step outside and look up at the night sky or feel the grasp of a newborn babe.

Advent How-To’s and Hot Tips

Thanksgiving is going to be over (Thanksgiving–the holiday, not thanksgiving–the act) in a blink and Advent will be in our sights. Here are some tips for making this a tradition that sticks.

Zeroth tip. The most important tip that comes before all the others is to subscribe to my “Come, Lord Jesus” blog. During the month of December (and only then) daily Advent posts will magically appear in your email and will include everything you need for your celebration (except the snacks). 

  1. Don’t make Advent an add-on to an already busy holiday schedule. Make it a replacement. If you’re already in the habit of having daily family devotions, put them on hold and do the Advent celebration instead. Substitute celebrating Advent for a 1/2 hour of screen time. Scale back on the more stressful elements of the season (you know what those are for your family) and focus on something of lasting value.
  2. Prepare. If you’re doing the trinkets in the envelopes or jars or whatever, get them all ready by the weekend prior to Advent. If you’re doing the coloring pages from the “What’s In Those Jars” page print them out and bind them or put them in a folder. Make sure you have a plan in place for taking turns opening the envelopes, lighting the candles in the jars, blowing the candles out, reading the passages etc… to avoid unnecessary squabbles. 
  3. Download the songs from the “Advent Music” page links onto a playlist. If you’re planning on singing the hymns/carols together print out song sheets for each family member. I’ve included a page number from Hymns of Grace for most of them and they can be downloaded for 25 cents a song straight from that website
  4. Stock a secret Advent “pantry” with treats to serve each day. We have a simple treat (cookies or popcorn and hot chocolate or a candy cane etc…) set out on the table before we even start so the kids can enjoy it as soon as we’re done with the song and reading. We also play the day’s selection from Handel’s Messiah while they’re having their treats.
  5. Invite your friends and neighbors to join in. We usually do this on the 4 Advent Sundays but it also happens spontaneously at other times. This has been one of our favorite parts of this tradition. Neighbors that would never be open to reading the Bible and singing a hymn are suddenly willing to participate during the holidays. We even had my professors from the Philosophy department at a secular university join us for our Advent celebrations while I was still in school. 
  6. Take Advent on the road. If you’re traveling during the holidays, the daily blog posts have all the music and scripture links included so all you need is your phone. You can even hit the audio icon in the upper left hand corner of the ESV scripture reading links and it will read the passages to you! The coloring books and special Advent road treats can make this a truly memorable time.
  7. Remember Advent isn’t just about Christ’s first coming. It’s about His second coming. It’s a time to prepare our own hearts and the hearts of our children for that great and awesome day. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!