This has made an appearance on my blog before, but Opening Day deserves a few traditions. So here we go again.
I have always been a big sports fan. I got that from my dad, saw it in my grandfathers, and found it in all my friends. Now I’m passing it on to my sons. Chicago-born, I’ve been a lifelong Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Sox fan. The rest of the extended DeYoung clan roots for the Cubs, but my dad had the good sense to switch loyalties with the Go-Go Sox of ’59, and now I’ll be a Sox fan for life. Likely my boys will be too, though they’ve grown up exclusively in Michigan and never lived a day in Illinois. I feel for them, taking the same road I did: living in Michigan and rooting for Chicago. I hated the Bad Boys, and my sons are learning to be righteously annoyed with the Tigers. Enmity is unspiritual in the rest of life, but not in sports. It’s a sign of respect reserved for perennial powerhouses. Nobody hates the Jacksonville Jaguars.
This week marks the beginning of baseball, for 150 years, our national pastime. Football may be the king of revenue and ratings, March Madness may be the most enjoyable three weeks of sports, the NHL may be the obsession north of the border, and the NBA may have bigger star power, but there is still no sport in this country better than baseball. I will never forget the ’85 Bears or MJ and the Bulls during the 90s. It’s been fun to watch the Blackhawks succeed in the last few seasons, and the longer I live in East Lansing the more I bleed green and white. But if I had just one sporting event to watch in person sometime in my life it would be a World Series game with the White Sox. Preferably a Game Seven winner, but I don’t want to be picky.
I know the many knocks on baseball: The games are too slow. The season is too long. The contracts are too big. I know about steroids and strike-shortened seasons. I know the players chew and spit and adjust themselves too much. I know every pitcher except for Mark Buerhle takes too much time in between pitches. I know that purists hate the DH rule and almost everyone hates the Yankees. I understand if baseball is not your thing. You don’t have to like our national pastime.
But you should.
I’ve taken my older kids to basketball games and football games–terrific experiences. But it’s not like your first baseball game: the wide open and immaculately kept spaces of green, the sharp diamond perfectly groomed, the organ bellowing out a kitschy tune. People sing the national anthem louder at baseball games. The hot dogs are better too. At most parks you can find seats cheap enough for families. And when you’re there, you’ll see an old man sitting by himself with a scorecard, just like he’s done for 40 years.
Baseball is unique in the pantheon of professional American sports. It’s the only one where time doesn’t end your game. It’s the only one where offense and defense are totally compartmentalized. And it’s the only sport that actually works on radio. Have you ever tried listening to football on the radio. It’s better than nothing, but you can’t picture the action. You only get updates as the action unfolds. It’s the same with basketball and hockey. There’s a lot of energy, but it’s too much to see in your head. Baseball, on the other hand, is the perfect sport for radio. It’s slow and it’s routine. You can picture a backdoor slider in your head. You know what a sharp single to right looks like. You can see the ball sailing deep into center field in a way you could never see a run up the middle on radio.
I love football, but I love baseball more because it’s football’s complete opposite. It’s pastoral instead of militant. You can get your first chance at 27, instead of being finished at 26. Every game doesn’t matter. The season stretches across three seasons instead of just one. Its pace is deliberate. The drama is subtle. The celebrations are understated. In football, every play is punctuated with some choreographed gesticulation. In baseball, the players honor the shortstop’s diving catch by throwing the ball to each other.
Baseball is the only sport where the players are not only doing things normal people can’t do nearly as well, they’re doing things normal people can’t do at all. I can make a basket. I can throw and catch a football. I can kick a soccer ball. I can’t hit a major league fast ball (let alone a filthy curve). Baseball is more like real life where you fail more than you succeed. Two made shots a night in basketball means your terrible. Two hits per night in baseball makes you a legend.
Baseball has the best stats, the best trading cards, the best box scores, and the best announcers. Of the four major sports in America it’s the one with the smallest gap between the best teams and the worst teams. It’s the one where the regular season matters most. It’s the one sport that has the best season of the year all to itself. They’re not called the Boys of Summer for nothing.
Baseball lends itself to the best sports writing and the best sports movies. It has the richest history and the most romantic mythology. It’s the only sport that allows the fans the pleasure of seeing the umpires publicly berated. It has the most prestigious hall of fame. It has the most grueling minor leagues, where you can chase your dreams for ten years after school if you are willing to ride the bus. It has the best stadiums, where the dimensions are always different and the speed of the grass and the size of the foul territory determines the type of team you build.
More than any other sport, baseball is a companion. That’s why fans grow to love their announcers. For the past few years, I’ve listened to the majority of Sox games over the summer. I don’t often listen or watch an entire game, and I certainly can’t catch all 162 of them. But if I’m driving or mowing the lawn , paying the bills, or puttzing around the house, I’ll find a way to tune in. And if they lose, it’s no big deal. It’s not like the college football playoff is on the line every game. The Sox can lose five in a row or stink up the place for two months and still end up on top. It’s a long season. It’s a slow season. It’s a game of strategy and finely-honed skill more than brute force and raw athleticism. It’s everything fans aren’t supposed to want in their sports anymore.
Which makes it just perfect.
Almost everyone has flown on a plane before. So you’ve all sat through those opening instructions from the flight attendants about what to do in the event of an emergency. They say the same thing on every flight, every day, on every airline. And every day, on every flight, on every airline, almost no one pays attention to the message. I’ve flown several times in the past couple months and I can’t recall seeing anyone looking at the flight attendants or giving one second of thought to what they were talking about. No one pays attention to these instructions.
Why? For a few reasons I think. For starters, the flight attendants look bored out of their skulls. There is nothing in their demeanor to suggest they are very interested in what is coming over the loud speakers. The way they drop the little seat belt down and pull on the strings for the oxygen mask don’t exactly scream passion and interest.
Second, almost everyone on the plane has been on a plane before. They’ve heard about the seat cushion as a floatation device and putting on your mask before assisting others. They know they should follow posted placards and that the nearest exit may behind you. Nothing new is ever said. The flight attendants never say, “Your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device, an oxygen mask will drop in front of you, and on this flight only your headrest turns into a parachute and the back of your seat becomes a rocket!” There’s nothing new, nothing exciting, so we don’t pay attention.
Mostly, we don’t pay attention because we don’t think it matters. We don’t really anticipate the plane crashing. And in the unlikely event that the plane does go down, we figure someone will tell us what to do. If not, we reckon we’ll be able to figure it out on our own.
It seems to me this whole experience of listening to flight attendants is eerily similar to church for many of us.
1. We have someone preaching to us who is pretty bored with the whole thing.
2. We’ve been to church and figure we’ve heard all the same stuff before. So why listen?
3. We don’t think we’ll really need to use anything we hear in church. And if we do, we’ll figure it out before the end comes.
So we don’t pay attention. We hear the gospel a hundred times and we don’t think anything of it. We celebrate dozens of Good Fridays and it never makes a difference. Jesus, cross, death, resurrection–it’s all just noise in the background of our lives as we try to get our seats to recline and open the tiny bag of peanuts. No one is listening.
But listen to Hebrews 2:1-4.
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
This is one of five warning passages in Hebrews. These five passages are not teaching that genuine Christians can lose their salvation. What they are teaching is that some people with an external connection to Christianity will not in the end by saved. And further, these passages suggest that those who are saved at the end, will be saved by means of these warning. These passages are danger signs that keep the elect persevering to the end.
“We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard”-that’s the warning. Sit up straight. Put your feet on the floor. Shut your yap. And listen up. “Pay attention church people! You are in danger of drifting away.” Hebrews 6:19 says the promise of God is “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” So we’ve got warnings to the drifters and promises to those who are anchored.
There are a lot of ways to lose your spot on the river of faith. One way is to let yourself move away to another location. The waters get choppy and rough, so you take your boat somewhere else. That happens with the gospel. We ditch Christianity because life gets hard. We drift away because of suffering. Hebrews 10 says “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometime being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes partners with those so treated.” And then verse 35 says, “Do not throw away your confidence.” In other words, “You used to be so firm in your faith. But then you got cancer, or someone didn’t like you because you believed the Bible, or you started having troubles with your kids. Something hard came into your life and it made you question your faith. You started to wonder if there was any point in being a Christian. Was it worth the cost?” you thought to yourself. So you compromised. You gave in. You pulled up anchor and let your boat float away.”
Or sometimes we look for another spot on the river because it seems it more enjoyable. When you first got interested in Christianity it was new and exciting. It gave purpose and order to your life. You liked the fellowship and the people. But then you found out how you were supposed to change. You learned that God, because he loves you, didn’t want you to have be a sexaholic, a workaholic, an alcoholic. You realized that following Jesus meant you couldn’t live any which you pleased. You belonged to God, and the God of the Bible is not an anything goes kind of God. So, unlike Moses, you decided to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin (Heb. 11:25). You decided to drop your anchor in a sexier port. As a result, even though you call yourself a Christian and you may go to a church once in awhile, you are not in the place you once were. Not by a long shot. You’ve drifted away.
But there’s an even easier way to leave the faith. You don’t have to pick up and move somewhere else because of suffering or the allure of sin. You can just drift. If you row your little boat out in the Mississippi River and take a nap for two hours, when you wake up you will not be in the same place. Without an anchor, you will have floated away with the current. That’s what happens in life. Hebrews 6:11 says “We desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish…”
Most church people drift away from God not because they meant to, but because they got busy, they got lazy, they got distracted, they had kids, they got a mortgage, a few illnesses came, then some bills, then the in-laws visited for a week, then the mini-van broke down, and before you knew what was happening the seed of the word of God had been choked out by the worries of life.
That’s the way it happens for many people. They never dropped anchor, and so they simply floated away when the currents got strong. They used to pray. They used to be interested in the Bible. They used to talk to God. They used go to church. They never woke up and decided “Today I’m going to stop being a Christian. They just drifted. That’s why Hebrews 10:24 says “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Some of the Hebrews had checked out, stopped going to church, just floated away from the whole thing.
So what can we do to stop from drifting? Verse one tells us. “We must pay much closer attention to what we have heard.” We must keep a close eye on the gospel.
First, we must notice that it is a reliable message. Both of those words are important, reliable and message. The gospel is not the same as asking Jesus into your heart. The gospel is not a program for becoming a better you. The gospel is not a series of ethical commands. The gospel is not an experience of generic spirituality. The gospel is the good news that God so loved the world that he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to fulfill the law, to suffer as a man, and to die on the cross, bearing the penalty for sin the we deserved, and being raised on the third day that we might be declared innocent and righteous before God. The gospel is a message.
And it is reliable. Eyewitnesses saw it and passed it on to others who in turn told others. The story of the gospel took place out in the open for all to see. This was no secret, mystery religion. These things did not happen in a cave somewhere. The miracles of Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit testified publicly that Jesus was not just another Rabbi or another prophet or another teacher, but he was, in fact, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
We must pay attention to this reliable message, lest we mistake false gospels for the real gospel, and end up believing in the Jesus of good causes, or the Jesus of good coffee, or the Jesus of good examples, or life coach Jesus, or greeting card Jesus, or prosperity Jesus, or positive thinking Jesus, instead of Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried for the sin of the world.
The other think we should notice is that this reliable message is the message about a great salvation. I think many church people drift from God because he seems so ordinary. They float away from the gospel because it strikes them as dreadfully boring. They give up on the Christian faith because, like the flight attendant instructions, it seems lifeless, passionless, inconsequential. But Hebrews tells us we have a great salvation.
It’s a great salvation because it saves us from a great wrath. The argument in verse 2 is from the lesser to the greater. If the message declared by angels, if the law of Moses given by angelic intermediaries proved to be reliable and disobedience to that law meant punishment, how much more will we face God’s wrath if we reject a greater message about someone greater than Moses declared to us by one greater than angels? Parents don’t let their kids get away with disobedience, your employer doesn’t turn a blind eye when you break company policy, the government will not let you go free when you break their laws, so why should we expect God to let us escape untouched if we neglect such a great salvation.
Jesus is Greater
We must pay closer attention to this message. The Devil doesn’t want you to see the details. He wants you to believe that God is the one Being in the universe who doesn’t care about justice. But it is not so. We will not escape if we neglect this message. But praise God there is deliverance from great wrath in this gospel message. And just as importantly, there is in this message of great salvation a great Savior.
The whole book of Hebrews is an extended argument for the superiority of Jesus Christ.
The prophets revealed God to the people, but Jesus Christ was the revelation of God himself.
The angels were sent from God to be his ministering servants, but Jesus Christ was loved by God as his only begotten Son.
The old covenant taught Israel the way to God, the truth of the law, and the life of holiness, but Jesus Christ instituted a new covenant in his blood that he himself might be the way, the truth, and the life for us.
The tabernacle made with human hands symbolized God’s presence among his people, but Jesus Christ, uncreated, made without human hands, was God among his people.
The kingdom in ages past shook the mountain at Sinai, but Jesus Christ promises a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
The High Priest from Aaron’s line offered sacrifices for himself year and year, day after day, but Jesus Christ, our sinless High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, has made a sacrifice once for all, never to be repeated.
The blood of bulls and goats was shed morning and evening, century after century, for the remission of sins, but Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, shed his own blood for the sins of the world, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, but Jesus Christ has been faithful over God’s house as a son.
Joshua led the people into the promised land, but Jesus Christ alone can give you Sabbath rest.
Abraham was a great man of faith, but Jesus Christ is the guarantor of all that Abraham had faith in.
All these saints and all these things were pointing the way to Jesus Christ, our great Prophet, Priest, and King, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2).
We must pay much closer attention to the gospel, to Jesus, and to the cross, lest by an imperceptible current we drift away. Heaven never tires of the cross, and neither should we. The saints in glory never grow weary of the singing the old, old story: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Do not let Good Friday pass you by like a set of airline instructions. Fix your eyes on the cross. Not as the place to show us our worth, but to show us the weight of our sin. Not as the pace where Jesus simply felt our pain, but where he bore our penalty. Not as the place where God overturned divine justice, but where God in mercy fulfilled his justice. Not as the place where love died, but where love reigned supreme. Pay careful attention to the cross. Here we see a great salvation, delivering us from a great wrath, revealing to us a great Savior who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, that by his stripes we might be healed.
Excellent insights and, unfortunately, prescient words from David S. Crawford writing in Humanum in 2012 on same-sex unions and two versions of tolerance:
This last point concerning the legal value of moral disapproval of a majority suggests another theme in the courts’ reasoning–the sharp distinction between public reason and private morality. The claim of the traditional arguments’ irrationality is of course made in a civil and legal context. The courts emphasize repeatedly that they are only addressing “civil marriage,” that is to say, marriage insofar as it is a juridical creature of state legislation. This limitation allows them to say that they are not mandating a moral position, but only making a judgment about what the law requires. “Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code” is a claim piously repeated by the courts. The Goodridge court appears at least to acknowledge the legitimacy of citizens’ deeply help convictions on both sides of the “gay marriage” issue. The implication would seem to be, then, that the issue of “gay marriage” transects two distinct domains–the public and the private–and that, if the traditional arguments are not civilly or legally rational, they may be rational — and therefore morally sustainable — in contexts other than civil or legal one, where broader religious and moral starting points are relevant and may be decisive.
The courts seem, therefore, to offer a kind of settlement of the issue, by means of the distinction between the public and the private. But this “settlement” trades on an ambiguity in the idea of “tolerance.” The ostensibly non-moral notion of tolerance proffered by the courts would treat the concept as merely legal one. It would have us suppose that tolerance means government neutrality to two positions, a neutrality that would leave in place a kind of modus vivendi between irreconcilable worldviews. The question then is whether tolerance can really be thought of in this way, or whether it does not slide into another sense of tolerance, one which is thoroughly moral. This latter would see tolerance not as an agreement to disagree for practical and political reasons, but as signifying an imperative for the acceptance of diverse views and ways as equally valid.
This second version of tolerance, then, offers a standard for judgement concerning the proper disposition one has toward all others within society. Anyone who does not accept this moral standard sets himself beyond the pale of legitimate public discourse. Where this happens, a given private position might be politically and legally “tolerated” on a conditional basis due to prudential considerations, such as preserving countervailing principles of autonomy (e.g. “religious freedom”) or the undesirability of intruding too overtly in domestic or ecclesial matters. This second version would nevertheless seek gradually to instill tolerance as a personal and public virtue, one that would dictate a moral and finally anthropological position regarding questions such as that of “gay marriage.” It would seek to inculcate not only a begrudging acceptance of the de facto presence of an opposing worldview, but the actual embrace of the new idea of marriage–that “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriage are essentially and morally equivalent and should be accepted as such.
If the courts at times speak as though they have the “merely” legal notion of tolerance in mind, in reality of course they have the second, and necessarily so. This is because tolerance in the first sense can only be an illusion in issues that involve beliefs about vital human matters. These matters that necessarily involve our deepest convictions about what humanity is. Disagreement on such points cannot help but touch on the foundations of culture and society. In a moment we will see that an anthropological shift is underway. But, for now, if the arguments against “gay marriage” are publically irrational, that must necessarily mean that they are also publically bigoted. But bigoted public arguments are in fact immoral public arguments, and this means that the private position will always be at least publically immoral. But can there be a position that is publically immoral and yet privately moral? If issues such as “gay marriage” necessarily imply a certain conception of society, then rejection of the conception will appear to be antisocial, uncivil. And so it turns out that the concept of “tolerance” is in fact a demand of conformity in moral and anthropological belief.
In short, the tolerance that really is proffered is provisional and contingent, tailored to accommodate what is conceived as a significant but shrinking segment of society that holds a publically unacceptable private bigotry. Where over time it emerges that this bigotry has not in fact disappeared, more aggressive measures will be needed, which will include more explicit legal and educational components, as well as simple ostracism.
The reason many corporations, members of the media, and ten thousands angry tweeters do not feel the need to examine the arguments for religious freedom is because they don’t think any rational arguments can be made in this instance. Traditional views about marriage are so 1990’s and so obviously immoral that anyone holding such views today does not deserve our respect, let alone any whiff of legal protection. We should not expect our ideas to be debated fairly when it has already been concluded that there are no ideas to consider, only bigotry to suppress. As I’ve said before, why argue about dogma when stigma will do?
This is part of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.
These sober lyrics, set to a somber tune, make for an ideal Lenten hymn. The opening line draws from Isaiah 53:4 and its description of the Messianic Suffering Servant: “We considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” In verse two, we are forced to consider the depth of Christ’s passion, his groaning, his betrayal, his insults, and his unmatched grief. The deepest stroke that pierced him, however, was the stroke that divine justice gave.
Sometimes we hear the cross described as a symbol of how precious we were to God. This is true, so long as we understand that we were not some diamond in the rough that irresistibly drew God to us. The cross certainly shows us the depth of God’s love, but is a love wholly undeserved. For the cross, verse three reminds us, displays the true nature of sin and human guilt. Verse four elegantly summarizes the hope of the gospel: “Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on him their hope have built.”
Thomas Kelly (1769-1855) wrote more than 750 hymns, including this one in 1804. Kelly planned to be a lawyer but after his conversion the Irishman decided to enter the ministry. He was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1792, but later became a “dissenting” minister.
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted, see him dying on the tree!
‘Tis the Christ by man rejected; yes, my soul, ’tis he, ’tis he!
‘Tis the long expected Prophet, David’s son, yet David’s Lord;
by his Son God now has spoken: ’tis the true and faithful Word.
Tell me ye who hear him groaning, was there ever grief like his?
Friends thro’ fear his cause disowning, foes insulting his distress;
many hands were raised to wound him, none would interpose to save;
but the deepest stroke that pierced him was the stroke that Justice gave.
Ye who think of sin by lightly nor suppose the evil great
here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed, see who bears the awful load;
’tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed, Son of Man and Son of God.
Here we have a firm foundation, here the refuge of the lost;
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation, his the name of which we boast.
Lamb of God, for sinners wounded, sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded who on him their hope have built.
Here’s hoping your special services this week go better than this one. Skip ahead to 1:20 for the action…
I had read John 1 hundreds of times before. But this time I got stuck on verse 8: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
“Huh,” I thought, sitting up straight and staring at nothing in particular for a minute or two, “that’s a word I need to hear as a pastor.” More than that, it’s a word I need to hear as a Christian. Here’s John the Baptist–pretty important guy, wildly popular prophet, forerunner of the Messiah, just about the greatest person ever born of a woman (Mt. 11:11). And when the Holy Spirit takes a moment to introduce him in John’s prologue, He wants to make clear: John the Baptist was not the light.
Hey pastor, have you forgotten that this whole church thing isn’t about you? Have I forgotten that it’s not about the size of my church, the number of compliments I receive, or the reach of some nebulous social media platform? I am not the light. Never have been. Praise God, I don’t have to be.
Hey mom, do you remember whose perfect example your kids need to see? It’s not yours. It’s Christ’s. Do you remember who alone can save their souls? Same deal.
Hey ministry entrepreneur, have you forgotten what really matters? It’s not what you can build. If you know how to be a ministry success without bearing witness to Christ, rethink your definition of success.
Hey missionary, have you lost sight of why you left home in the first place? You didn’t choose this life for the weather or the traffic. You knew you were not promised great results. You just wanted to bear witness to the light where there was too much darkness.
Hey social justice crusader, do you know that it doesn’t depend on you? That city, that slum, that injustice–they won’t be helped by sacrifice alone. They need to know the sacrifice that only a Savior can provide.
At first John 1:8 stung a bit. A healthy sting. I didn’t get into the ministry for me. I became a pastor because I felt the word of God like a fire in my bones. I chose this path because, on my best days, I love Christ and love his people. But for all of us, our best days are not our only days. We can be tempted to self-pity, tempted to prided, tempted to impatience, tempted to think we are the point instead of just pointers. So yeah, a good kind of sting.
But then I thought, what good news we have in this little verse. What good news for pastors and presidents and moms and missionaries and elders and deacons and teachers and teenagers. What good news for anyone who loves Jesus and feels like their spiritual wattage is a bit dimmer than they’d like.
You don’t have to bear the burdens of the planet, just bear witness to the one who can.
You don’t have die for the sins of the world, just introduce people to the one who has.
You are not the light.
Ouch, and hallelujah!