Late last week, word came that more than 50 people had been killed at a wedding party in Istanbul when a suicide bomber walked into the party and blew himself up. In a nation that is always on high alert because it has seen so many of these types of terrible attacks, how did a terrorist slip into this party unnoticed? Officials estimate that the suicide bomber in question was between 12 and 14 years old. In other words, no one noticed the bomber at the party because this bomber was, in relative terms, a baby – a child. And children are harmless – or so we think.
Exploiting kids to kill its enemies has been a longstanding and and cynically promoted strategy of ISIS. Reporting for USA Today, Oren Dorell, citing the expertise of Mia Bloom, a researcher at Georgia State, explains:
In the initial seduction phase, Islamic State fighters roll into a village or neighborhood, hold Quran recitation contests, give out candy and toys, and gently expose children to the group. This part often involves ice cream…
“To desensitize them to violence, they’re shown videos of beheadings, attend a live beheading,” Bloom said.
Then the children participate in beheadings, by handing out knives or leading prisoners to their deaths, she said. The gradual process is similar to that used by a pedophile who lures a child into sex, “slowly breaking down the boundaries, making something unnatural seem normal,” she said.
In another article that appeared in USA Today last year, Zeina Karam explains how ISIS teaches kids to behead their victims:
More than 120 boys were each given a doll and a sword and told, cut off its head.
A 14-year-old who was among the boys, all abducted from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, said he couldn’t cut it right. He chopped once, twice, three times.
“Then they taught me how to hold the sword, and they told me how to hit. They told me it was the head of the infidels,” the boy, renamed Yahya by his Islamic State captors, told the Associated Press last week in northern Iraq, where he fled after escaping the Islamic State training camp.
All of this is ghastly, of course. The thought of children being trained to commit brutal acts of murder feels utterly unthinkable to us. But why?
Scripture is clear that all people, from the moment of our births, are sinful. To cite King David’s famous words: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). So that a child could or would commit a sinful act should not be particularly surprising to us. Little kids commit all kinds of sins – everything from lying to defying to hoarding – all the time. But the thought of a child committing murder seems different.
Theologically, the thought of a child committing murder seems different because, at the same time all people are born sinners, we are also born as bearers of the image of God. In other words, at the same time we all have sinful inclinations, we also have a righteous Creator who has endowed us with a moral compass. When this moral compass is violated, guilt ensues, for we cannot fully escape the mark of our Creator.
God’s mark proves to be particularly poignant when it comes to the sin of murder. This is why God’s image is specifically invoked against the taking of a life: “I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind” (Genesis 9:5-6). To watch one person kill another person is so completely incongruous with who God has created us to be, it cannot help but startle us.
In a human, then, there are two tugs – one that is of sin and the other that is of righteousness. And these war against each other. ISIS has fanned into a giant, roaring flame the inclination to sin in the lives of little children. This is sadly possible to do because of humanity’s sinful state, but it will not escape the judgment of God. In the words of Jesus:
Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. (Luke 17:1-2)
Christ does not take kindly to those who intentionally and systematically lead children into sin. After all, He made them in His image and He cares for them out of His love. May His little ones be saved from those who would harm them.
 Oren Dorell, “Here’s how the Islamic State turns children into terrorists,” USA Today (8.23.2016).
 Zeina Karam, “Islamic State camp has kids beheading dolls with swords,” USA Today (7.21.2015).
In our household, I am the one who usually gives our kids their baths. And last week, while I had them both in the bath one evening, my daughter decided it would be fun to start hitting her daddy – playfully, but strangely forcefully – while my son was fussing loudly in his infant tub because he had just filled his diaper.
Ah, the perils of parenting. Yes, it is tiring. Yes, it can be dizzying and overwhelming. Yes, it is ridiculously time consuming. And yes, I am very much aware – and a bit fearful – that, as my kids grow older and begin to assert their independence in sometimes dangerous and derelict ways, parenting can also grow to be heartbreaking. And yet, parenting is nevertheless wonderful. I would not trade my vocation as a father any more than I would trade my vocation as a husband or my identity as a child of God.
As it turns out, however, not everyone feels the same way I do.
A revealing article appeared in the National Post last month featuring Calum and Tina Marsh, a married couple who is repulsed by the idea of having children. In fact, “repulsed” is probably too weak a word to describe their loathing. Calum, the author of this piece, writes:
A few weeks ago one of my oldest and closest friends told me that she planned to have children. Or rather she mentioned it, almost in passing, with the idle nonchalance of a remark about the midday heat: she planned to have children – and she planned to have them soon. I was dumbfounded. Children? Those fleshy barnacles of snot and mutiny? Those extortionate burdens? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you. And not – I rashly assumed – for anyone else in my peer group. That my friend could want a child seemed to me unthinkable. It was as if she’d said she planned to invade Poland.
It used to be a given that, barring some radically extenuating circumstance, having children was considered to be a generally natural outcome of marriage. But according to Mr. Marsh, children are nothing short of “extortionate burdens” and “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors.” Wow. What kind of trouble could any child possibly cause to earn such an awful reputation? Mr. Marsh explains:
I value my lifestyle, and I like having the means to maintain it. I value my free time. I’d like to re-read the complete works of Shakespeare, and get around to tackling Proust; I’m keen to learn Latin and modern dance; I wouldn’t mind visiting Locarno, Ankara and Bucharest. I also enjoy the freedom from responsibility childlessness affords me.
Let me try to sum up Mr. Marsh’s explanation as to why he does not want to have children and why he thinks they are “shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors” in two words: he’s selfish. In other words, Mr. Marsh has things he wants to do, money he wants to spend, and places he wants to go, and kids would throw a wrench into his plans and desires. For Mr. Marsh, the most important thing in life is, well, Mr. Marsh. Mr. Marsh is extolling selfishness, not as a vice, but as a virtue – a posture toward yourself that allows you to enjoy life more fully.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are good reasons why a couple may not have children. Sometimes, it is a heartbreaking medical condition that prevents a couple from having children, even when the couple may desire them. Other times, a couple may not have the means to provide for a child. In certain instances, foregoing the raising of children may even serve a spiritual purpose. Both the apostle Paul and Jesus Himself did not marry and did not raise children because of particular calls God had placed on their lives. There are plenty of good reasons not to have children. Mr. Marsh, however, does not provide us with any of these reasons. He simply wants to live his life for himself unencumbered by anyone who would ask much of anything from him.
One of the paradoxical principles of Christianity is that it is selflessness – not selfishness – that leads to a fulfilling life. Indeed, this is the very pattern of the cross. Christ emptied Himself in His death for us so that we could be called, coincidentally enough, His children (Galatians 3:26), and through that emptiness was exalted to the Father’s right hand as One equal to God (Philippians 2:6-11).
The apostle Paul is clear that Christ’s way of emptying Himself should be reflected in our lives as well:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3-5)
Children offer a unique opportunity to practice ruthless selflessness because they demand so much more than a passing act of a service – giving a donation here, or joining a relief effort for a couple of days there. They demand that one places his own priorities aside daily for the sake of someone else. This is not an easy way to live, but it is a good way to live. Indeed, one of the more troubling questions raised in my mind by Mr. Marsh’s article was this: if Mr. Marsh doesn’t want kids because they are an inconvenience to and an inhibitor of his preferred lifestyle, how would Mr. Marsh react if Mrs. Marsh were to become an inconvenience and a drag on his dreams? Selfishness, you see, has a funny way not only of preventing relationships – like the relationship you could have with a son or daughter – but of destroying the relationships you already have.
Mr. Marsh concludes his article by saying:
I can’t begin to imagine the burden not only of time and money but of authority and influence – of being accountable for a human life. It’s lunacy that so many people are comfortable with it.
I have news for Mr. Marsh: no parent is ever comfortable with being responsible for his child’s life. Just ask any parent who has reached over to his daughter’s basinet in the middle of the night and put his hand on her chest just to make sure she was still breathing. Being comfortable isn’t the point when you’re raising children. Loving and caring for a life that God has given you is. And that’s a privilege I’ll take over comfort any day.
 Calum Marsh, “‘Children? Those shrieking, dribbling, bawling horrors? Not for me, thank you’: Why fatherhood is not for everyone and shouldn’t have to be,” National Post (7.15.2016).
Last week, as I was going for my morning run, listening to music, a song with this lyric started playing on my Pandora station:
I still hate religion. Why you think I’m a Christian?
I’ve heard this distinction between religion and Christianity used before used by pastors, pew sitters, and Christian artists alike. This Christian artist explained the distinction between religion and Christianity as he continued:
The peace between God’s been broke for my sinning.
Religion is man using his good deeds tryin’ to close the distance.
But we could never reach Him,
Only Jesus came to get His men.
Religion, according to this artist’s definition, is people trying to reach God by their works. Christianity, on the other hand, is God reaching people in Christ.
Now, it is most certainly true that trying to reach God by means of your own works – regardless of your religious affiliation – is a futile effort. And it is true that the hallmark of the Christian faith is that rather than waiting for us to reach up to Him, God has reached down to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Still, exegetically, this kind of distinction between religion and Christianity troubles me because religion is not so widely panned in the Bible like it is in this song. If you ask the brother of Jesus what he thinks of religion, he will tell you:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)
If you ask the apostle Paul about the importance of religion, he will explain:
If a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. (1 Timothy 5:4)
In both instances, religion is cast in a positive light. Religion, at least according to Scripture, is not always bad.
But my concern with the distinction often drawn between religion and Christianity is not only exegetical. It is also missional.
If a non-believer asks a Christian whether or not he is religious and he responds by saying something like, “No, I’m not religious; I’m a Christian,” he is really doing little more than pulling a bait and switch in his witness. Here’s why.
For most people, the word “religion” carries with it particular connotations. People who attend worship services are religious. People who read holy books are religious. People who pray regularly are religious. And Christians do – or at least should be doing – all these things. So for a Christian to claim that he is not religious sounds like little more than a verbal sleight of hand to an unbeliever. To say that you are not religious because you are a Christian probably sounds to someone who is not a Christian like a distinction without much of a difference.
Rather than quibbling over whether or not Christianity is a religion, perhaps it’s time for us to explain to people who are not religious why we are religious in the way that we are. After all, Christianity, even as a religion, is utterly unique. Most other religions are generally concerned with making people better by means of their own efforts. Christianity, by distinction, is concerned with making people righteous by the merits of Christ’s death and resurrection. The difference in Christianity is not found in whether or not it can be classified as a religion. The difference in Christianity is found in what it confesses about God and His Son, Jesus Christ. This is what we ought to be emphasizing.
Allow me to offer one additional thought on the uniqueness of Christianity. Jesus was clear that people would know who His followers were not because of some semantic game that distinguishes Christianity from religion, but because of their love (John 13:35). Unfortunately, whether they are called “religious” or “Christian,” people who claim to follow Jesus are not always known for their love. They’re known for their self-righteousness. They’re known for their hypocrisy. They’re known for their raging fury at our secularized culture. If this is what believers in Christ are known for, it matters little whether people think we are “religious” or “Christian.” People’s opinion of us, no matter which word is used, will remain negative.
In some instances, a person’s opinion of Christianity may be negative simply because he doesn’t like Christ and His teaching. Jesus Himself taught us to expect hatred from others when He said to His disciples, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first” (John 15:18). Sometimes, we are hated through no fault of our own. But let’s do everything we can to ensure that a person’s opinion of Christianity is negative because of Christ and not because we are acting foolishly, selfishly, arrogantly, and sinfully. Let’s do everything we can to instead be known for our love. Because then, whether people think of us as “religious” or “Christian,” they will ultimately move past us altogether and look to Christ Himself. And that’s the goal. He’s the goal.
The goal is not a game with words. The goal is to point people to the Word.
Humility is hard. If you don’t believe me, just consider whether you became reflexively defensive the last time someone questioned one of your beliefs, decisions, or values. Consider whether you asked yourself, without anxiousness or annoyance, “What can I learn from this person? How can I love them rather than seeking to justify myself before them?” More often than not, we are far quicker to defend ourselves than we are to humble ourselves. We are far quicker to protect our pride than we are to sacrifice our egos.
Jesus was never proud. Instead, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)! Indeed, one of my favorite lessons from Jesus in humility comes in when He is invited to a party at the home of a prominent Pharisee. When Jesus notices that, at dinner, the party guests are all clamoring to grab the best seats at the table, He says:
When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Luke 14:8-11)
Jesus uses a dinner table to illustrate just how deeply pride has sunk its roots into the human heart. Even at the dinner table, we’ll position ourselves closest to those we perceive as most important so others will perceive us as more important.
Author Michelle Fields tells an interesting story about the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. In Great Britain, the country from which President Jefferson emigrated, formal dinners were always hosted around rectangular tables. But as president, Jefferson always insisted on hosting his dinners around round tables. Fields explains his logic:
He didn’t like the rectangular tables used at royal functions, which would seat guests according to their rank and status. Jefferson figured that, at a round table, no one could sit at the head and no one could mistake him for a king. He believed that “when brought together in society, all are perfectly equal, whether foreign or domestic, titled or untitled, in or out of office.”
President Jefferson did not want people clamoring for places of pride around the dinner table. So he rounded his tables.
Part of the reason pride is so cunning is that it’s not just those who clamor for a high seat at the table who can fall prey to pride, it’s even those who willingly take a low seat at the table in an act of self-debasement who can struggle with pride. Why? Because both of an arrogant view of one’s self that takes a high seat and a pitiable view of one’s self that takes a low seat are focused on the self. They are both fundamentally narcissistic, which is the very definition of what it means to be proud.
Humility is focused not on the self, but on God and on others. As C.S. Lewis explains it, “Humility…turns [a] man’s attention away from self to [God], and to the man’s neighbours.” Thus, humility is interested neither in a position of honor at a table nor in a position of debasement at a table because it is too concerned with everyone else around the table. Humility doesn’t care where it sits as long as it can serve others.
What rectangle tables do you have in your life that need to be rounded? Where do you clamor for a seat, whether that seat be high or low, at your job, in your church, in your home, or in your self-perception? Rather than worrying about which seat should be your seat, humility invites you to look at people in other seats – and love them.
France is under assault. Less than two weeks after 84 people were killed in Nice when a terrorist drove a large van at high speeds through a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day, word comes that an 85-year-old priest, Rev. Jacques Hamel, had his throat slit in front of his congregation in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray as he was concluding a Tuesday morning Mass last week. ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, though there is no evidence that the attackers had been been able to make contact with the radical group. In response to the killing, French President François Hollande remarked, “We must realize that the terrorists will not give up until we stop them.” But stopping them is proving more difficult than anyone imagined. It turns out that, in this attack, one of the killers was wearing and electronic tag that tracked his motions because he was under house arrest after he attempted to travel to Syria in 2015. But his tracking device did nothing to thwart his murderous rampage.
France, of course, is gripped by fear. ISIS and its sympathizers seem intent on starting nothing less than a holy war. And managing an effective military and police defense seems next to impossible. This is why it is important that, as Christians, we remember that even though physical defenses can fail us, we have a spiritual defense that is sure. The apostle Paul writes:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10, 13-17)
Paul’s famous words speak of the spiritual defense we have against every kind of evil attack. Against lies, we buckle a belt of truth. Against wickedness, we stand with the breastplate of righteousness. Against violence, we charge forth with the gospel of peace. Against faithlessness, we take up the shield of faith. And against the devil’s attempts to speak condemnation over us, we wear a helmet of salvation and wield the sword of God’s Word. We are impressively outfitted.
But Paul is not yet done. He continues:
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:18-20)
Even though the NIV translates Paul’s words here as a new sentence, the Greek syntax of this passage lends itself toward being one, long run-on sentence that begins in verse 17 when Paul calls on us to take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. In this way, then, Paul’s words in verses 18 through 20 tell us how we are to wield the weapons he outlines in verses 14 through 17. We are to wield them prayerfully. When we fight against evil, we are not to do so angrily or bitterly or pridefully, but prayerfully.
Granted, fighting against evil’s attacks prayerfully will not always appear to be effective. Look at Paul! The very man who is extolling the prayerful use of the weapons of God notes that he is “in chains” (verse 20). He is being persecuted for his faith and his persecutors appear to have the upper hand. But Paul knows things are not always as they appear. Just like Christ when He was crucified, a person who appears to be a victim can ultimately prove to be the victor. Indeed, one of the fascinating things about the Christian’s posture toward martyrdom is that although it is not to be sought, it is also not necessarily always to be fought. The apostle Peter, who himself was eventually martyred for the faith, wrote, “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:16). Peter says a Christian can find joy even in things as ghastly as suffering and death. When a Christian fights, therefore, he fights more for the truth of Christ than he does against his own suffering and death.
None of this is to say that the death of Father Hamel is anything less than tragic. Prayers for his family, his friends, and the parish at which he served are certainly in order. What happened last week was evil. And Father Hamel’s voice is now added to the voices under Revelation’s altar that cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until You judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” (Revelation 6:10)? The cry of Father Hamel’s blood will not fall on deaf ears. When Christ returns, there will be a reckoning for his unjust death.
Shortly after last week’s events in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a friend of mine posted a quote from the great Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” This is most certainly true. This gentle, aged priest, though he no longer leads in a parish, is now ruling “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6).
And for that, even as I am sorrowful, I am thankful.
 Adam Nossiter, Alissa J. Rubin and Benoît Morrene, “ISIS Says Its ‘Soldiers’ Attacked Church in France, Killing Priest,” The New York Times (7.26.2016).
A week ago, the church body of which I am a part, the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, held its triennial convention. As with every denomination, mine has its share of disagreements and squabbles, many of which were on display at this convention. At issue was everything from the way ecclesiastical supervision is practiced when a pastor is accused of teaching falsely to whether certain congregations can continue to be served in Word and Sacrament ministry by someone who is not an ordained pastor.
As I listened to these debates, I was reminded of how the earliest Lutherans dealt with differences among themselves and with other Christian bodies.
The Augsburg Confession is a statement of confessional standards for Lutherans worldwide. In it, differences with the Roman Catholic Church, as well as with other nascent Protestant bodies, are outlined. But before the drafters of the Augsburg Confession enumerated their differences with other Christians, they began with some points of agreement. They opened their confession with a restatement of the three ecumenical creeds of the Church – the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. This was intentional, for the confessors wanted all those who read the Augsburg Confession to understand that its drafters did not stand outside the historic Christian faith; they stood squarely and solidly in it. From there, the confessors went on to elaborate on their agreement with the historic Christian teaching on the nature of God:
Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true. It is to be believed without doubt. God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness…Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The confessors began their confession of faith with a point on which all Christians could agree. Indeed, when the Roman Catholic Church responded to the Augsburg Confession, for all the things over which they registered their disagreement, when it came to the Lutherans’ confession of the Trinity, the Catholics wrote simply, “This is to be accepted.”
The confessors, of course, did not only speak of where they agreed with Rome. They had plenty to say about where they disagreed. But where they began, I believe, is informative for us as we seek to address disagreements among ourselves. Celebrating our agreements first is often the best way to find resolutions to our disagreements later.
One of the things I have long appreciated about the American Evangelical movement of the last several decades is that it has been able to engage many different church bodies – from Lutherans to Methodists to Presbyterians to Baptists to non-denominational congregations – by appealing to what these bodies share in common while still being honest about where they differ. The National Association of Evangelicals, for instance, espouses a Statement of Faith that has broad resonance with nearly any confessional, Christ-centered, Bible-based church body. Its statement of faith includes a recognition of the Bible as God’s Word, the two natures in Christ, the return of Christ, and the necessity of the Spirit’s work in an individual’s salvation. In crafting confessional statements like these, the Evangelical movement has been able to highlight and celebrate just how much Christians across the world hold in common.
My church body can sometimes – and sometimes unfairly – be known more for where it disagrees with itself rather than being known for what it confesses together with a unified voice. We can sometimes be thought of more as sectarian than as confessional. This is why when disagreements do arise among us and become hot, as they inevitably will, I pray that we would return to and remind ourselves of all that we hold in common, for there is a lot. I also pray that, as Lutheran Christians, we would seek to find places where we can work together with other Christians on the basis of what we share even as we continue to rigorously and truthfully litigate our differences. Indeed, one of the highlights of this past convention was an address from Ryan T. Anderson, a Catholic intellectual, on the challenges Christians face with regard to human sexuality and religious liberty. It was a joy to see people from two theological traditions that are generally at odds with each other in Lutheranism and Catholicism come together to think through some of the important ethical and philosophical issues of our day.
Why do I so adamantly pray that we would be known for our unity rather than for our division? Because this, finally, is not a prayer that originated with me. It originated with Jesus. And to pray for anything less would be to crucify other Christians for their differences with us rather than to extol Christ crucified for us (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). To pray for anything less would be to diminish, or even to deny, the amazing unity that Christ has given His Church.
Again, do not misunderstand me: I am not saying that we should never tend to and seek to reconcile differences, but I am saying that we should be intentionally and continually thankful for where Christ has given us unity in spite of ourselves. And He has given us plenty.
Let’s not neglect that gift.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of a tree about which God had said, “You must not eat…for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). By Genesis 4, death has already had its way as Cain kills his brother Abel.
That didn’t take long.
The grim efficiency of death has loomed large over these past few days. First, word came from Nice, France last Thursday that 84 people had been killed when a terrorist drove a large, white paneled truck at high speeds into a crowd of revelers who were celebrating Bastille Day. Then, on Saturday, we learned that around 290 people were killed in a failed coup against the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has now arrested over 6,000 people and has vowed to root out what he calls the “virus” that is plaguing his country. Then, yesterday, tragedy hit Baton Rouge as three police officers were killed and three others were injured when a sniper ambushed and shot at the officers who had responded to a report of trouble near the Hammond Aire Plaza shopping center.
Three stories of death in nearly as many days. And these come on the heels of another week before this last week that was also packed with three stories stories of death from Saint Paul, from Dallas, and, again, from Baton Rouge. Yes, death is grimly efficient.
These are terrible times. There was a time when weeks like these – with so many major stories of unrest and death – were nearly unthinkable. But in the summer of 2016, weeks like these are becoming all too predictable. Indeed, I can sometimes struggle with how to process all of these types of tragedies precisely because there are so many of these types of tragedies.
In processing this week’s worth of carnage, I would point to what I have already pointed to in the past. After the tragedies in Baton Rouge, Saint Paul, and Dallas, I pointed people to the importance of being empathetic with those who grieve, of receiving Christ’s peace in the midst of unrest, and, most importantly, of remembering that death does not have the last word. Christ does.
As I look back on this week of tragedies, all of these reminders still hold. And yet, I wish I didn’t have to remind people of these reminders – again.
Even though I feel a little overwhelmed by so much death in such a short period of time, I am not particularly surprised by it. After all, death, as Genesis 3 and 4 teach us, is indeed grimly efficient. It works fast and it works tenaciously. And it has no intention of giving up on its prey.
What is most striking to me about Abel’s death in Genesis 4 is that even though God condemned Adam and Eve to death because of their transgression against His command, it was their son, Abel, who first suffered under the fruit of their sin. It who their son, who, ostensibly, did nothing particularly wrong who dies. Indeed, the reason Abel’s brother Cain kills him is because he did something right. He made an offering that was pleasing to God. Cain became jealous of that offering and murdered him.
The first death in history, then, was that of an apparently innocent person. This is why, when God finds out what Cain has done to his brother, He is furious and asks Cain, “What have you done?” which, interestingly, is the same question God asks Eve when she eats from His forbidden fruit. God continues by answering His own question: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).
Ever since that moment, the blood that cries out to God has been getting deeper and deeper as death has been spreading farther and wider. Nice, Turkey, and Baton Rouge have now added their blood to Abel’s.
Finally, there is only one way to stem the flow of death and blood. The preacher of Hebrews explains:
You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:23-24)
Just like Abel, there was a man who was not only ostensibly innocent, He was actually innocent. Just like Abel, this was a man who did what was pleasing in God’s sight. And just like Abel, this was a man who had His blood spilled by those who were jealous of Him. But Jesus’ blood, the preacher of Hebrews says, is better than Abel’s blood. Why? Because Jesus’ blood did what Abel’s blood could not. Instead of just crying out, as did Abel’s blood, Jesus’ blood saved us. By His blood, Jesus solved the problem of Abel’s blood…and Nice’s blood…and Turkey’s blood…and Baton Rouge’s blood. For by His blood, Jesus said to death’s grim efficiency: “Your reign will end. My blood will overtake all the blood that cries with a blood that can save all.”
In a week that has seen far too much blood and far too many tears, Jesus’ blood is the blood that we need. For Jesus’ blood is the only blood that doesn’t wound our souls as we mourn loss; it mends our souls as we yearn for salvation.