Inconceivable:  Mario Party Shenanigans and The First Time God Lost (Ezekiel 28:11-19)

There are certain consistent laws within the world of gaming that are not written in any tech manual nor are they engraved on stone tablets hidden somewhere in Silicon Valley, but they exist nonetheless.  For example, it is a universal law that all gaming villains must have a burning need to import wooden boxes and explosive barrels and to scatter these liberally wherever they go.  It is an unwritten requirement that any keys for doors should always be placed as far as possible from the lock they open and whenever possible stuck in an incredibly difficult position to reach without risking severe pain or death.  Not sure how the enemies planned on opening that door in the future, but I suppose we all have our idiosyncrasies.

But more than any other gaming trope such as protagonist amnesia, the villain was your best friend, or that your princess is in another castle there is one constant.  One law that cannot be broken.  And that rule is that no matter how skilled you are, and no matter how well you play…. all Mario Party games hate you and will steal all your stars right before the end of the game.

I am a Mario aficionado, and I have faithfully purchased each and every Mario Party console game in the hopes that this time we will achieve balance in the Force.  When played with your family or a group of friends Mario Party is crazy fun, and well worth repeated play.  But if you are that poor, lonely soul who is attempting to play it solo or if you are trying to unlock certain features by playing against the computer AI… you are hopelessly doomed to the curse of having all of your hard work erased by one unlucky roll of the dice.

It never fails… I will set every AI player to the lowest possible difficulty setting (on the intelligence scale something between carpet fiber and taco shell) and proceed to dominate the mini games and collect star after star in my chase for the prize.  And then… it HAPPENS.

Lying before me are LITERALLY twenty safe spaces that I can happily land on and Toad will bring me cookies and milk while Yoshi gives me a deep cranial massage.  All but one numerical combination is completely and utterly safe. But nestled inconspicuously in the middle of all those pleasant, happy, non-controller throwing spaces is the one space I cannot afford to land on… the Bowser space of doom. There is literally only one roll of the dice that will land me on that terrible space, but like a moth drawn to its fatal flame my dice roll has only one number on its mind.

The dice roll of doom commences, my character gleefully marches to his destruction, Bowser stomps me into oblivion and gives me negative stars while lavishing untold riches on all of my competitors, and the cycle of Mario Party robbery perpetuates for another day.  As the rubber band nature of the game insures that once again I snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, I am left considering how my utter domination in all of the mini games and superior strategy in board movement was obliterated in one moment.  My prowess simply did not prevent me from succumbing to the inevitable… the free will of the computer AI to completely alter my happily ever after into another nightmarish loss.

Over the last several weeks we have reviewed multiple lives across numerous Scriptures and found how the Lord used each of the losses that occurred for each circumstance to serve a particular purpose. As we reach the end of this collection of thoughts on the lives of a few individuals from the “Bible Hall of Fame” throughout the centuries, let’s take a moment and recap what we have uncovered

  • Job lost his children, his finances, and his health so God could REPLACE them and establish who gives and who takes away.
  • David and his men lost their wives, children, and all of their belongings so God could RESTORE them and show His protection.
  • Ruth lost her husband and had to move away from her people and her entire way of life so God could REDEEM her and all of humanity.
  • Jacob lost his son Joseph so God could RESCUE him and his entire family in the future.
  • Abraham lost his dream and offered his son Issac as a sacrifice because the Lord REQUIRED his obedience to enact the blessing.
  • David lost his baby, his reputation, his protective blessing and several sons so God could REPROVE him.
  • Hosea lost the innocence and purity of his marriage so God could teach him and all of us RECONCILIATION.
  • Nehemiah lost his nation and his city so God could show him how to REBUILD.
  • Lazarus lost his life so God can prove He RESURRECTS.
  • Paul lost daily to his thorn in the flesh so God could demonstrate that sometimes He REFUSES, but always with a purpose.
  • John the Baptist lost his freedom and eventually his head so he could learn that God REASSURES.
  • Leah lost the love of her husband so God could REWARD her for her faithfulness.
  • John the Revelator lost everything he called home so God could RESTRAIN him long enough to receive the book of Revelation.

I have found myself reflected in each of these cases of loss at some point or another in my life, and I am enduring some of them right now. But simply relating to each of these lives and the challenges they faced is not the purpose of reviewing these circumstances. It is nice to know that others have felt the same way that we are feeling, and it is very important to learn from their stories so we can overcome these challenges positively and productively in our own lives. But to treat the Bible as a self-help book is to miss the point entirely. It is a GOD-help book, and it exists to guide us in our understanding of Him. So to dig a bit deeper it is time to dive into the final subject on our countdown… the Father Himself.
When I got to the end of this last group of studies, a picture of God as one who has endured loss, suffered pain, and is reaching out for love has emerged.   But to be honest, it almost seems sacrilegious and borderline blasphemous to consider the idea of God losing anything. I mean, He’s God right? The Creator of all things, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Lord. How can He possibly experience loss? The truth is that He was the original member of the Survivor’s Club before mankind ever came on the scene, and He has been getting hit with losses ever since. Not sure what I’m talking about? Time to explore…
In Ezekiel 28:11-19 we find the prophet Ezekiel being directed by God to take up a lamentation for the king of Tyre, but it becomes clear very quickly that this is no mere flesh and blood human that is being described here. This Scripture is pointing to the being behind the earthly king, Lucifer himself. Let’s break this down… he is described as the “seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. ” He was in Eden, the garden of God. He is described as being covered with every precious stone and his voice is described as having being “prepared for him on the day he was created”. This was a hand-crafted being of surpassing excellence, the “annointed cherub”.  Bear in mind this entire section of Scripture is defined as a lamentation. In Hebrew this word (qinah) means a dirge, a sad and melancholy song of loss that is used to mourn a death or impending doom. God is instructing Ezekiel to record this bitter melody that comes straight from the broken heart of God. His best and brightest creation, the one He designed flawlessly decided in Isaiah 14:12-14 to raise himself up and lead a rebellion against His loving Creator. And he gave the Lord no choice but to punish him and cast him out of heaven, taking one-third of his fellow angels with him on the way out.
Before Adam took his first breath, God had already lost a third of his created beings and the one he had placed in the most prominent position, the one He called “the son of the morning”. The fall of Lucifer clearly hurt, but this was only the beginning of the pain for our Lord. He created a man and a woman and placed them in a perfect world, and they too rebelled and He lost His previously untarnished relationship with His children. And because of their choices man lost authority over the planet God had given him and gave it directly to Lucifer. The Father then chose one nation to be His own special chosen people, and He lost his fellowship with them more times than I can count. And when He sent His Son down to make peace between God and man, well… He lost Him too because we crucified Him.
God’s story is one of experiencing more tragic losses than one human lifetime can possibly imagine. The losses we experience in this life actually brings us closer to understanding the nature, the character, and the very heartbeat of God more than anything else we experience. The truth is the love story of the Creator and His creation is a story filled with a whole lot of losing. He lost his angels, His first man and woman, His chosen children, His planet…. His Son. And is through our losing that something truly impactful happens: God RELATES to us. The same Jesus who wept over Lazarus, the same Father who wrote a lamentation over the loss of his angels, the same Holy Spirit who is grieved by our actions… He feels ALL of the same feelings that we do. He has been feeling them for all eternity. He understands loneliness, betrayal, heartbreak, separation… all of these and so much more. And when we experience these times in our lives our loving Father can put His arm around you and truly say, “I understand. I have been hurt the same way too”.
Realizing we serve a God who fully relates to us is the most important of all of these lessons to learn. And once we fully grasp that, we can begin to make progress on what the true plan of God is for each of us. He didn’t send His Son to save you from hell, though that is an awesome part of the benefit package. And He didn’t send Him just so He could bring you to heaven, although that’s also part of the deal. He made mankind for a RELATIONSHIP. He sent His Son to restore that relationship by reconciling the sin problem that separated us from a Holy God. Becoming “saved” is kind of like walking into a house. You are simply inside the house now, whereas you were previously outside of the house. But the reason you came in was to have fellowship with those who are inside the house, and becoming saved is just a first step towards creating a day-in, day-out growing relationship with the Lord.
He is seeking that relationship. The losses we experience help us understand Him better and grow closer to Him.  He is available right now, and He is asking us to place our trembling hands into His nail-scarred palms. He has felt your pain. He has cried your tears. He has lost in the same ways and deeper than any of us will ever know. He has been cheated on and betrayed, lied about and lied to, beaten and murdered, hated and mocked…. He understands, and He relates to everything you will ever go through. And now He is reaching out to each and every one of us, all fellow survivors in this Survivor’s Club for Losing, to give your life fully and truly to Him. Not in an abandoning, “Here you go Jesus, see what you can do with this mess” sort of way. But in the way that a husband and a wife give themselves to each other… in an active daily relationship between two hearts that grow together not only when things are good, but in the winning AND the losing.

I pray more than anything else that this helps you reassess the nature of your relationship with your Creator just as it has challenged mine. I have carried a negative view of those things I have lost and allowed myself to think of myself as a “loser” as a result. But now I see much of my pain reflected in a God who is anything but a loser.  I have found that it is not my circumstances that always need to change, but my understanding of what losing really is. And in the eco-system of the Kingdom, it takes LOSING your life to find it. It takes coming in LAST place to truly take first prize.  By the world’s definition, we have all chosen the path of losers and follow a God who not only allows this, but is an active participant in our losses.

Now while I am still personally turning the corner in my thinking on a daily basis, I am finally coming to understand that not only do these all serve a greater purpose, but they help me truly understand my Lord for maybe the first time. He is the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. And He wants to grow closer in relationship with me through my tragedies and setbacks. He aspires to be more than my Provider, even though He surely is that. And Savior is certainly in His job description, but that was not why He made me. That’s how He bought me back. He is the lover of my soul, and He longs to be that for you as well. Let your sorrow, your grief, your disappointment and your pain push you into the arms of the One who truly understands. And like those brave souls who blazed the trails before us, we can be proud to wear our Survivor’s Club badge as a true achievement as we join with Him both now and into the age to come.

Achievement Unlocked?  How to Know if You Are Marrying God for the Money (Numbers 22-25)

It’s time for a confession.  It’s a dark secret from my past that haunts me to this day, and I have tried to run from it but it is branded into me like the proverbial scarlet letter.  It brings me great shame, but I simply cannot erase this from my history… my hope is that you do not judge me when you read these words.

I was once an achievement hunter.  And no, not one of those people who tried to get all of the achievements in good games or spent extra time searching for skulls on Halo.  I had it BAD, man.  I bought and played ALL of the Burger King games.  On PURPOSE.  I played Avatar: The Burning Earth just for the easy 1000 points exploit.  I played through GUN on each difficulty level to get all of the achievements.  And to my shame, I have achievements in awful games such as Vampire Rain and Lost: Via Domus simply because of my addiction.  I intentionally bought and played terrible games and titles I wasn’t even interested in (hello hockey) just for these “achievements”, or trophies in the vernacular of our Sony friends.

I drove through the slums of gaming to gain these arbitrary measures of accomplishment, and now these are forever etched into my gamer score for all to see.  Instead of playing games I really enjoyed regardless of the reward, I spent countless hours trying to score a handful of points that at this stage of my life have absolutely no meaning or value whatsoever.  I haven’t paid attention to an “achievement unlocked” notification in years.  My gaming opportunities are so limited now I simply have no time for anything less than an experience that me and my family truly enjoy together.

While this is obviously being treated humorously, I have stumbled upon a much more serious truth that I believe warrants examination.  When I was playing these games, I wasn’t playing them for their designed purpose of enjoyable entertainment, but instead for what they could give me in the terms of gratification in my gamerscore status.  And when I consider my relationship with God a similar thought occurred to me… why do I serve God?  Simply to avoid hell?  For a ticket into heaven?  For the benefit of easing my guilty conscience and freedom from my sin burden?  Am I marrying God for His money?  Do I serve Him for the benefits, the health plan, and the pension?  Do I truly know Him and love Him for who He is?

This next man we will review as we ponder this is a very curious figure in the Old Testament, a prophet of God who seemed to be guided by two very different and conflicting priorities.  Nowhere in Scripture is the visual of a double-minded man more clearly demonstrated than in this text.  Jump with me to the book of Numbers chapter 22 as we find the prophet Balaam ready for his close-up…

King Balak, the ruler of Moab, realizes that the Israelite people who have recently escaped slavery in Egypt are now on a collision course with his nation.  Aware that he is no match for them in battle, he asks for a little over-the-counter help in the form of a curse from the local prophet Balaam.  But when Balaam goes to the Lord for His word on the situation, Jehovah is more than clear whose side he is on and refuses to give Balaam anything that would hinder the Israelite approach.

Balaam declined the king’s request, but Balak was not going down that easily.  He sent a more substantial celebrity entourage along with the promise of a lavishly rich payment, and Balaam asked his distinguished guests to stay the night so he could “see what else the Lord will tell me”.  Balaam is quite obviously torn, as he says the right thing by informing his audience that he can only say what he is given by God, but his desire for the fame and fortune that await him if he finds a way to comply with the king’s desire has him asking God if He is sure about this whole blessing Israel thing.  Beware of going back to God when he has already clearly and cleanly given an answer… as Balaam is about to find out there are consequences for pushing God for a yes when he has clearly said no.

The next morning Balaam sets out on his road trip of disobedience, packing up his donkey for the journey ahead.  But verse 22 captures the very concerning statement, “Then God’s anger was aroused because he went”.  Balaam was trying to have his cake and eat it too, and the Lord was having none of it and sent an angel to block his path.  Balaam stubbornly pressed his donkey onward despite the even more stubborn animal doing everything in its power to avoid the path that led to a sword-bearing angel and what would appear to be a fairly brutal death.  The donkey, seeing more clearly than the money hungry Balaam, finally laid down in the road and the furious prophet began beating his disobedient animal in a rage.  And then, as if this whole debacle wasn’t already absurd enough… the donkey spoke.

It’s a sad day for Balaam when his lust for money and success have blinded him to the point that a jackass can see his folly more clearly than he can.  And when the voice within this poor animal emerges Balaam isn’t even surprised.  He actually begins a conversation with the beast, as he questions the animals recent actions and the donkey replies with some fairly reasonable logic… you know, for a donkey.  And when the Lord opens Balaam’s eyes to see the angel that is blocking his path, he finally seems to see the light and realize his itinerary was not in keeping with what he had already being clearly instructed by God.

Balaam is permitted to continue on towards Moab, and I have a feeling there was pretty awkward silence between him and the donkey for the rest of the trip.  Upon his arrival King Balak begins to light into Balaam for the delay, but Balaam is a bit ornery from this whole thing and pushes right back, telling this powerful king that he is essentially powerless in this whole equation and can do nothing more than speak what he has been given.  Balak seems to sense the tension and drops his complaint, and together they proceed to their first stop with a perfect panoramic view of the people of Israel.

Now the sense of humor of God is clearly demonstrated.  After going through all of the motions of altars and burnt sacrifices to get the Lord’s attention, Balaam returns with an oracle to share.  To King Balak’s utter dismay, Balaam issues a four verse blessing on the very people Balak was paying Balaam to curse.  Talk about a bait and switch!  Furious, Balak takes Balaam to a new location where he can only see a small portion of the Jewish nation. It seems his logic was that if he can’t get them all, maybe he can get just the weak ones on the outer perimeter.  But this time Balaam returns with a SEVEN verse blessing even more substantial than the last. That seems to be counter-productive to say the least.  But Balak is not a man to stop while he is behind… no, he is going to double down until he loses the house.

Balak’s online course in real estate continues to pay off as he decides the issue must be location, location, location.  This time he takes Balaam to a wilderness outlook, where he won’t be able to see the Israelite people at all.  I suppose he figured out of sight, out of mind, out of blessing range?  Considering we have had everything from angels of death, talking donkeys, and now three different changes of venue I suppose we can’t be surprised that he is following his foolish thought process to its inevitable conclusion. He’s in too deep now.  Balaam on the other hand, he is harder to figure out.  He knows the score here, yet he continues to play along hoping that at some point something will work out and he will be able to get that elusive forbidden payday.

Attempt number three nets an additional seven verse blessing for the Jews and later in the chapter nine more verses spelling disaster for the remaining enemies they faced in the land. Balak has reached his boiling point and informs the prophet that he has had enough, and the deal was off.   Balaam seems to have come to his senses and explains to the king one final time that he is a servant of the Lord and can only speak what he is told, and they prepare to go their separate ways.  Time to wrap this one up and head to morale of the story, right?  Balaam and the donkey leap in the air and share a high-five as the scene freezes and their theme music hits?  If only we had such a happy ending.

Immediately in the next chapter, just as we see Balaam riding off into the sunset after unloading days of blessings in the people of Israel we find the Jewish people begin to commit harlotry with the women of Moab.  Yes, King Balak’s Moab, for those of you keeping track of such things.  And as they fell into sinful debauchery they began worshipping  false gods as well, giving God no choice but to punish them.  Twenty-four THOUSAND were killed in a plague sent by God for their sin.  What Balak couldn’t pay Balaam enough for, namely to curse the children of God, sin would accomplish for free.   The question is, where did this come from?  And to find that answer we have to turn all the way to Revelation 2:14 for the final twist to be revealed.

Let’s let this verse stand on its own in full quotation.  “But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.”  Whoa.  While this is clearly being written to a church in the New Testament, a light is shown on the mystery of how Balaam found a way to curse the Jews after all.  Balaam could not curse them personally, but he knew that their sin would bring a curse that would far exceed anything he could generate.  He TAUGHT Balak what they were susceptible to, Balak sent some people to lead them astray, and Balak got the curse he wanted after all.  It doesn’t say if Balaam got his payday, but I highly doubt he did any of this for free after all he went through.

So now back to us.  As I question the nature of my commitment to God, I have to genuinely ask myself if I am headed towards the path of Balaam.  Do I serve Him regardless of His blessings, or is what I gain from this relationship the primary motivation in my heart of hearts?  He is not merely a “get out of hell free card”, nor is He our Sugar Daddy to give us a mansion just over the hilltop. He is our Creator, and He yearns for a personal, one-on-one, daily relationship with each of His children. As we grow, endure, and overcome the challenges of our lives He desires to be our friend, our Father, and our primary source of comfort and sustenance.  And the only way to avoid the epic fail that is Balaam is to allow Him to redirect us when we start to drift the wrong direction and to serve Him for the RIGHT reasons in the first place.

Yes, He is rich beyond our wildest dreams, more powerful than we can comprehend, and He is serious about what is recorded in His word. But we are invited as the bride at the marriage supper of the Lamb because we have fallen in love with Him over the course of our lives here on earth. This is not one of those “arranged marriages” where we will meet Him for the first time when we get there. He is available NOW, and He is asking us to truly get to know Him and follow Him because of love, not for gain.  As Balaam shows us, following God for the benefit package and trying to use our relationship with Him for selfish gain never ends well.

As we close, a few parting thoughts.  When the Lord redirects us from something that appears to be a highly lucrative opportunity, it is not because He is issues with blessing us.  But if those blessings for us will result in potentially damaging others, in this case His chosen people, He will do everything in His power to turn you away from that path.  It is at these forks in the road that we make it clear where our loyalty lies… do we follow Him even as it leads away from fame and fortune, or do we use the gifts He has given us for selfish benefit to appease the desires of the world?  Can we cling to Him when a life of luxury is waved in our face?

The health of our relationship with God is revealed by how easily our head can be turned towards sin, and as I am left to consider if I am truly serving Him fully and for the right reasons I have to look deep into these questions for myself.  I do want to go to heaven, and in comparison hell seems like a highly undesirable plan B.  But not because of streets of gold or an excellent dental plan.  I want to spend eternity with the Creator who listens to me when I am driving in my car and need His comfort, or when I am struggling with anger or depression and need His peace.  And each day I want to build on that relationship.  I don’t want a surprise when I meet Him… I want to embrace the One who I have been having a long-distance relationship with all along.

Dead Ends: The Frustration of Invisible Boundaries, Non-Working Doors, and Immovable Objects (Revelation 1)

I am quite accustomed to walls.  They seem to have a certain load-bearing quality that is particularly useful when supporting additional structures such as ceilings and extra stories in a building.  They separate rooms quite well, and keep the outside where it belongs, namely on the other side of the wall.  All very appreciated elements for me.  But just as I appreciate the raw beauty of a waterfall in its native environment much more than I enjoy seeing one pouring through my ceiling and onto my carpet in my home, the same can be said for walls.  In their proper context they can be quite enjoyable and in the right setting life-altering (bathroom stalls, you just keep on doing what you do… there are certain things a man simply can’t “un-see”).  But when walls take that unwanted leap into a different setting, say in the middle of a street, they lose their luster very quickly and become an obstacle, a nuisance, or sometimes even an adversary.
The first time you saw one of these in a game, you probably thought you did something  wrong.  Maybe the screen turned a different color, or a sound effect gave a clearly negative reaction to your attempt to progress.  It is especially prevalent in open world games but you can find them almost anywhere.  Dead ends.  Invisible barriers that separate the player from what appears to be more to explore. Doors that seem to be unaware that they are doors and act more like walls.  They have been a component of gaming for as long as there have been video games, and as our entertainment has grown larger in scope and budget they have been camouflaged differently but they all serve the same purpose.  Restraint.

At first, these restraints were technological by nature.  Items would appear three-dimensional from a distance through clever shading techniques but reveal themselves to be flat upon closer inspection.  Areas that from a distance appear to be reachable were merely world building techniques to create a sense of scale and were never meant to be explored.  Or perhaps the developer simply ran out of time to build proper interiors so they simply closed them off to ship the game by its release date.  But despite the best of intentions, the end result remains: disappointment and the still burning desire to see what exists on the other side of the barrier.

I believe most of us find the idea of restrictions undesirable.  We live in an unprecedented age of freedom of choice, allowing us to communicate at will to people around the globe and travel tremendous distances in the shortest time spans in human history.  We want our coffee customized, our food order ready in less than a minute, and our game worlds 100% interactive.  I mean, seriously, why even put a door on the building if it can’t even open?  Why build the appearance of mountains in the distance and roads to explore if they can’t ever be accessed?  And this challenge extends to our real world, where every day we find paths that are closed off or the mirage of opportunity that dissipates upon contact.

Maybe it’s a career that you anxiously desire but despite all of the job postings nobody returns your phone calls.  Perhaps it’s a lack of education, funding, or skill set that keeps you from exploring new possibilities.  Or it could be a physical ailment or disability that keeps you on the wrong side of the window watching everyone live the life you wish you could live.  Being restrained by circumstances, especially those beyond your control is a frustrating and draining experience.  And for our survivor we turn to someone who may have written one of the most well-known and recognized books of the Bible… John the Revelator, the man who wrote the book of Revelation.

Few books have captured the attention of believers and non-believers alike the way Revelation does.  Thick with post-apocalyptic imagery and layered with deeper meanings, John’s magnum opus tells the graphic story of the end of the world and the beginning of the new age graphically and colorfully.  But John did not write this while he was on a leave of absence from work, nor did he receive this vision from God during a nice, relaxing vacation.  As the Lord has shown so many times throughout Scripture, He has a time and a place for everything and for this particular revelation He needed John’s undivided attention.

I don’t want to engage in too much church tradition here, so to the best of our abilities we will stick to the facts as they are presented.  The writer of the book identifies himself as John, and this leaves the possibility open that he could be anyone from John the Apostle to literally any other follower of Christ named John.  Which John he is becomes less important than how he identifies himself in Revelation 1:9, where he explains that he is, “a brother and companion in tribulation” and that he was on the isle of Patmos, ” for the Word of God and for the testimony of Jesus Christ”.  Church historians have established this island as a place of imprisonment, and based on what is found in this verse along with what is historically known all arrows  point to John being exiled to this prison island for his adherence to the Christian faith.

As John is about to explain, this bitter situation is going to serve a grand purpose.  But before he knew that he was about to author the definitive work on Armageddon, he was simply a man who has been stripped of his freedom and hopelessly exiled on a prison island for His faith in Christ.  At this point, many of the apostles and Christian leaders of his day had been systematically hunted down and put to death, and followers of Christ were enduring intense persecution that essentially forced them into being an underground movement.  If this truly was John the apostle writing this, then it is fairly certain that he is the last living member of the group of twelve disciples who followed Christ.  With that backdrop, it is no wonder why he would start by explaining that he is a “co-sufferer” with those that he is sending this to.  Times were tough for anyone aligning themselves with the cause of Christ, and the author is sharing his experience as he was facing an incredibly uncertain future as a guest of the state in the Patmos penal colony.

I hate to speculate on someone else’s frame of mind, so I’m just going to envision myself in this scenario.  Sequestered away from all I know, and with the looming threat of execution based on the whims of a collection of Caesars who were becoming increasingly unpredictable, this would seem like a pretty desperate situation.  With the knowledge that most of my contemporaries had already met their end I would assume it’s just a matter of time before my number is called.  It would be easy to see this as “the end”.  A holding pattern of an existence on a lonely island, with nothing left to do but convert some oxygen into carbon dioxide and call it a day.  The situation appeared hopeless, and it would be pretty hard to see this circumstance serving any sort of beneficial purpose.  Furthermore, it would be unimaginable that this prison was about to provide John with a gift that would influence all of humanity for the rest of eternity.  Hyperbole you say?  Let’s continue on…

With nothing but barriers surrounding him, John continued to faithfully serve the Lord as found in Rev 1:10.  And this faithfulness was about to be rewarded in a big way, as God literally opened up the heavens and gifted John with the largest vision ever recorded.  From seeing Christ in all His glory, to the spectacle of the four horsemen and the judgments of God being unleashed, all the way through to personally seeing heaven in all its splendor… John saw wonders beyond his ability to comprehend.  However, this was not his gift to hoard, but to SHARE.  And this sharing was going to require some time, some effort, and a heaping portion of that good ol’ fashioned elbow grease.  After literally experiencing the “End of Days” the job fell to him to write all of this down and ensure it was disseminated to all of the churches.  Have you ever written 23 chapters using scrolls and quills?  I am not even sure most of us still use the dated and antiquated form of writing that many words physically anymore now that most of our writing is done electronically.  I cannot imagine this was a small undertaking, and it had to have been incredibly time-consuming.  And depending on his situation, it is highly possible that there was not a Staples or Office Depot on the island.  Meaning any copies of this (he was instructed to at least give this to the seven churches in Asia) would ALSO have to be handwritten.  This would not be fast or easy, but it is because a prisoner in a cave sat on a rock and wrote this down that we have the book of Revelation to read, study, and use to make movies starring Nicolas Cage today.

When would John have found the time to do this if he was busy running a church, or owning his own multi-billion dollar business, or perhaps busy raising twelve kids and a flock of sheep?  The Lord set up a season of RESTRAINT for John so he could serve this incredible purpose without distraction.  John was selected and set apart specifically for this moment, and what had previously seemed to be restrictive barriers confining him to a hopeless predicament was actually yet another demonstration of the foreknowledge and planning of the Father to put his child in the perfect place at the perfect time to do what he could ONLY accomplish in this setting.

Many times I have felt the frustration of being stuck in a holding pattern, staring at what appears to be a vast expanse of opportunity that I am unable to explore because my forward progress is thwarted by unseen forces.  The Isle of Patmos experience doesn’t typically feel like the birthing ground of a fulfilled purpose.  It can seem lonely, lifeless, frustrating, scary… and when you are living there it is easy to wonder if you have been forgotten or discarded.  Sometimes restraint resembles punishment, as both tend to involve a period of confinement.  But as John’s example showed us, he was not being punished by God nor was he forgotten.  His greatest accomplishment was simply waiting for this exact time and place to align with John’s sign of faith and patience in his Master.  The Lord has been known to find creative ways to get some alone time with His children from time to time, and this may seem extreme but it was the perfect place for the revelation to be unleashed without interruption.

A critical note here that cannot be missed:  John is not found sitting in the corner drawing angry stick figures on the cave walls or throwing a pity party.  He shows the maturity of a seasoned follower of Christ who has experienced the highest of highs as well as the lowest of lows.  If this is John the apostle, he was there to see Christ raised up to heaven during the ascension but he has also stood at the foot of a cross where his naked Savior breathed his last breath during his crucifixion.  The feeling of being restrained runs absolutely counter to all of our human desires to have freedom of choice, of movement, and of autonomous action.  And when you are in this state of temporary confinement, there is a subtle but critical distinction between acceptance and actual submission.

Acceptance is good, but it does not bring the revelation.  All acceptance means is that you have reconciled the reality of your situation in your mind and are no longer in denial or open rebellion against it.  John demonstrated submission to the Master and His will by continuing to serve and worship faithfully despite his setting.  Getting tossed in the lion’s den is never the start of a good time, but it is certainly no place to have a negative attitude.  And taking a ride in the belly of a giant fish is probably quite uncomfortable, but it can also be very productive if you allow your heart to bow down to the plan of the Father.  When all paths lead to invisible walls and you feel forgotten or alone, choose to worship and serve God anyway.  It was the praise and worship of Paul and Silas that broke their chains along with the locks on the doors of all the other prisoners when they were wrongfully detained.  And as John prayed, even in his state of exile, the final book of the Bible was unraveled for him to watch and record.  Your next step forward might require a period of restraint, but it is in this place of stillness that the still, small voice of the Lord can be most easily heard.

I Trust You, But…. Destiny 2, Requesting Reassurance and The Final Days of John the Baptist (Matthew 11)

The inevitable has occurred… After months of expansions and updates Destiny is finally receiving a proper sequel in the form of Destiny 2 this September.  And with that announcement comes all the trailers, marketing, and other forms of hype to whet our appetites for more exploring, grinding, and loot gathering for our Guardian of choice.  So how awesome will this title be and can it possibly live up to the expectations?  For me, there are certain publishers and game developers that receive carte blanche from me because of their continued excellence in delivering the goods each time they release a game.  I will reserve for Bungie the right to make whatever they want without pre-judgement because they have rarely let me down. Maybe Destiny took a while to work out all of the bugs, but Destiny 2 will receive the benefit of the doubt until proven unworthy.  Nintendo has nearly unlimited goodwill built up with me, and I will gladly stand in line for whatever mad science they conjure up next.  And if Bethesda says they want to make a cart-racing game, I’ll be their huckleberry.  Sign me up.  But as much as I would like to say I trust these developers implicitly, it simply isn’t so.  For every triumphant breakthrough like Bioshock there is a much less exhilarating Bioshock 2. Sometimes you get the excellence of Metroid Prime, and other times you get the muddled mess that was Metroid Other M.

The fact is that even the very best developers release a clunker every now and then, and a lengthy run of dependability is not a guarantee that disappointment isn’t waiting around the corner.  So as gamers, we search for reassurance that a game is on track during the months and sometimes years prior to release.  We see screenshots dribble out and dissect them for proof the game will live up to the hype.  We listen intently to press conferences for the right details to validate our hopes and dreams.  And many times before making the purchase we will turn to critics and reviewers for their final say before we finally plunk down our hard-earned cash to form our own opinion.

It is natural to seek something concrete to bind your faith to when times get tough or when you are unsure about the future.  Some of the greatest people of faith found in the Word of God have had their limits tested and sought reassurance from the Lord.  But don’t take my word for it… let’s go to the man who Jesus Christ Himself called the greatest man ever born of a woman.  His name?  John the Baptist.  And underneath the camel’s hide clothing and locust diet was a beating heart just like yours and mine that reached out for reassurance when things didn’t go the way he thought they would.

John the Baptist certainly casts an interesting shadow in his short time in the New Testament.  He came out of left field (literally) preaching a message that ran counter to the organized religion of the day and despite his rustic appearance and direct style amassed a tremendous following of converts.  His church was the desert, his baptismal was an open river, and with his simple message of repentance he swung the door wide open for the ministry of Jesus to begin.  When He received the honor of baptizing the Messiah, he informed his loyal disciples that He was in fact the Christ they were looking for, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  And he showed a tremendous amount of humility by informing them that as Christ’s ministry grew his would diminish with the phrase, “He must become greater, and I must become less and less”.

It seems that John’s definition of “less and less” did not include his arrest and imprisonment by Herod, but that’s exactly where we find him in Matthew 11.  Keeping this in context, it is important to remember that in John 1:29-35 we find John the Baptist quite clearly explaining to his followers that he understood Jesus was in fact the Messiah and that when he baptized Jesus he saw the Spirit of God descend on him.  This is significant because in verse 33 he explains that he did not know Jesus was the Son of God until this specific event, which was a fulfillment of a sign he was given by the Father Himself.  In other words, God told John this is how he would identify who the Messiah was, and it happened just as predicted.

So what happened between John 1, where we find the Baptist thoroughly convinced that Jesus is the Christ, and Matthew 11, where he is not as convinced?  In Matthew 11:2 we read that John had heard about the miracles and ministry of Jesus while in prison, and his response was to send two of his loyal followers to see Jesus and ask Him a very straight-forward question, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”.  That is almost the polar opposite of what John professed in John 1:34 when he said, “I have seen and I testify this is the Chosen One”.  It has been said that prison changes a man, but I believe this goes even deeper than that and speaks to a universal truth that we all grapple with at some point in our lives.

My assumption is that if you are reading this you are a flesh-and-blood human being, but if you are currently following along in a non-corporeal state more power to you, my friend.  As physical beings we interpret all of the events that unfold in our lives through our five senses, and since these forms of interaction are also purely physical they are capable of manipulation.  For example, it is nearly impossible to enjoy a perfectly seared steak while sitting next to an open sewage system.  It would be incredibly difficult to relax and absorb a deep back massage while someone rubs jalapeño peppers on your eyes.  Consider how easy it is to deceive someone’s sense of touch when they are deprived of the ability to see as evidenced in the classic school experiments where children place their hands inside darkened boxes to guess what is inside using only touch.  The fact is conflicting stimuli wreaks havoc on our ability to process information, and the result can be falsely interpreting an excellent meal as disgusting because of the odors you are near or failing to recognize a pleasing sensation because of an opposing unpleasant feeling applied elsewhere.

In matters of faith our feelings and physical observations should be irrelevant, but as we see in John’s case there is still a battle to be fought in even the most significant prophet’s heart.  His previous experience prior to prison confirmed to him that Jesus was the One who was promised, but his prison experience had allowed him to openly question what he knew to be true only a short time prior.  We don’t know exactly how long Herod had held John in prison, but based on the duration of Christ’s earthly ministry it could have ranged from a matter of months to three years.  Wherever his stay fell within those parameters, we do know that the remaining days of his life were spent there.  I can’t speak for what John was feeling, but if it was me I have to confess that I would probably be confused and feeling a little bitter and perhaps even forgotten in that setting.  After living a life of dedication and chaste obedience as a lone voice crying out against sin, wasting away hopelessly in prison seems like a tough pill to swallow.  And after humbly passing the baton to Christ, it is hard to see John’s humility and acceptance repaid in this way.  So it really shouldn’t be so surprising that John reaches out from his broken state and holds a hand out for the reassurance that what was clearly true in the daylight is still true in the darkest night.

What does John’s question really represent?  This goes far deeper than simply asking Jesus if He is the Messiah.  This is, at its heart, a need for John’s life of sacrifice to be validated.  Think about this… John was a man sent from God with one mission.  To prepare the way of the Lord.  If Jesus was not the Christ, John had either misheard God or failed in his purpose.  He had ONE job, to prepare the Earth for the coming of the Son of God.  And if he was wrong about Jesus, then honestly he had just wasted his life.  Sitting in the cell that he would never escape from, John wasn’t only questioning Jesus but he was questioning himself.  Did I get it wrong?  Did I tell my disciples to follow you when they should have been watching for someone else?  My faith told me you were the one, but my circumstances are making it hard to know for sure and now I have to consider if my entire life’s work was in vain.
So how does Jesus respond to this potentially offensive question?  It is very important that we dissect this, because we have all either been there or will be there at various points throughout our walk.  And His response to the question of His identity as well as to whether John had been successful in his mission is, as always, quite reassuring.  Interestingly, the first words out of His mouth is for the messengers to, “Go and tell John the things you see and hear “.  And as Christ lists the very physical and tangible proofs that are a fulfillment of Scripture it is almost as if He pulls back the cloudy sky just enough to show the sun is still present behind the clouds.  He didn’t have to do that.  He could have criticized his lack of faith.  Or He could have simply ignored the challenge and rebuked the idea that He was anything less than deity.  But he cared enough to reassure John using the physical proofs of His ministry to show that He was who He said He was and the work that John had started was continuing and growing as it was intended to.

It is His last sentence to John, and what was likely the final interaction between Jesus and John on this earth that should stick with us.  Final words usually carry the most meaning, and Jesus is well aware of what the future holds for his cousin.  And knowing not only his current inner turmoil but also the path that remained to be trod Jesus simply says, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me”.  The Greek word translated here as “offended” (skandalisthe) is one Christ used quite often and is more accurately described as “being the cause of falling away”, such as when Jesus warned against your eye offending you and giving instruction to cut it out.  It is the image of being a stumbling block or something that creates a snare that would result in a fall.  So when Jesus applies this word to Himself it is an open admission that John the Baptist will continue to face the challenge of reconciling who he believes Jesus is with what is being allowed to transpire in his circumstances.

In some ways it seems like Jesus did not answer the question, at least not as directly as one would hope.  But as He did so many times throughout His ministry and still does to this day, He let who He is and what He does define Him so we can all come to our own conclusions. When asked for His name by Moses in the Old Testament He simply answered, “I am that I am”.  When asked by John if He was indeed the Messiah He let His actions do the talking without saying yes or no.  And when dealing with His disciples He pushed the question to them, “Who do men say that I am?  Who do YOU say that I am?”

In 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 we see the duality of Christ demonstrated as Paul describes the message of the cross as both a stumbling block (there’s that phrase again) and the power and wisdom of God.  How can it be both things simultaneously?  As John found out, the same Christ who was setting others free was allowing him to sit in chains.  The same message that brings liberation to those who believe delivers condemnation to those who don’t.  It is what we choose to believe that is at the heart of the situation.  Jesus did not tell John whether he should keep looking for someone else or not.  That was up to John, as it is to each of us.  He is not for the easily offended, and His message was frequently criticized as hard and difficult to accept by those who wanted Him to fit into their pre-conceived “Messiah in a Box” instruction manual, just add water from the Jordan river.  The truth is many of His followers did some of their best work while in prison or exile…. ask Joseph, Samson, Paul, or John the apostle.  And while we don’t know what John the Baptist accomplished during his dungeon days, we do know that he refused to compromise his message to the day that his head was severed from his shoulders.

As we wrap up, it becomes clear that the way God reassures us is not by granting our every desire so we can constantly feel Him there.  He allows who He is and the evidence that is ever-present around us to confirm what our heart already knows to be true even while our mind challenges it.  And just like He did with John, He reminds us that it is how we respond to the obstacles and stumbling blocks on our path that prove we truly believe in Him.  It is not for Him that we endure these challenges… He already knows who He is.  It is for US.  He couldn’t answer John’s question because it was a question John had to answer for himself.  And as believers, we will face that choice more than just at our moment of conversion.  Every time a family member is diagnosed with a terminal illness, each day that your living situation becomes more hopeless, and when that sky just won’t seem to clear up He reminds us, “Blessed are those who don’t allow this to make them take offense and fall away”.  He reaches out and reassures, not with answers we want but the answers we need right now.

Nintendo Loves Me, Nintendo Loves Me Not: The Real Desperate Housewives of the Bible (Genesis 29)

Nintendo do you love me?  Let us count the ways… you give me Legend of Zelda at the launch of your new Switch console, but I can’t get my hands on a Mario title until the nebulous “Holiday 2017” time period?  You gift me with the NES classic console I never knew I needed, but then package it with a wired controller with a 3 ft. cord?  And you return to cartridge based gaming, which is awesome, but make all my investments in both physical and digital games on the WiiU obsolete?  Launching incredible new hardware which is only available in limited quantities, making an awesome pro controller but charging a whopping eighty bucks for it… Oh Nintendo, I definitely feel like I love you more than you love me back.  Considering your third place standing in the marketplace, I would think you would be a little more thoughtful about my needs in this relationship.  To be fair you haven’t really changed that much over the years, so what should I expect really.  But who am I kidding… I can’t help falling in love with you.  Call me… when Splatoon 2 comes out I’ll be there.

When you feel like you are giving more love than you are receiving it can be incredibly difficult to sustain that relationship.  While the Nintendo reference above is meant to be tongue-in-cheek (mostly), there are few pains that match the feeling of being a loser in the game of love.  And if you are a living, breathing human being, you have probably been there more times than you care to recollect.  But you have probably not had your personal pain and shame documented to the degree that our survivor of the day has endured:  the unfortunately painful experience of being the wrong wife that Leah experienced in Genesis 29.

Leah is part of a beautiful love story…. between Jacob and his desired bride Rachel.  And her story is a third wheel story for the ages, so if you have felt or are currently enduring this pain her story is for you.  Jacob has met and fallen head over heels in love with Rachel, the youngest daughter of a schemer who is easily a match for the duplicitous Jacob.  While Jacob only has eyes for Rachel, Laban’s eyes grow wide with opportunity.  Jacob’s infatuation leads him to offer himself as an unpaid employee for SEVEN years in exchange for the hand of Rachel in marriage.  Forgoing the typical dowry for the currently unemployed Jacob fell in his favor, and for a moment he may have felt like he had made an honest deal with his uncle.

But the disingenuous apple did not fall far from the family tree, and Laban pulls one of the most devious bait-and-switch deals recorded by swapping his older daughter Leah at the altar, completely unbeknownst to the groom.  Before we get too deep in the repercussions of this act, let’s get to know Leah a little bit better since this is her story.  She pops into play in verses 16 and 17, and not in the way you would hope to be introduced.  Put simply, Leah enters the stage described as the older and less attractive of Laban’s two daughters.  We will get a deeper look at the sibling rivalry that existed here soon, but for now Leah was completely overlooked by Jacob and overshadowed by Rachel.  Her credentials for membership into the survivors club are growing by the sentence.

After seven long years it is time for the wedding, and Laban is all too happy to pay up.  The ceremony is planned, guests are invited, gifts are given, good times roll and the vows are consummated.  But whether it was the result of bad lighting or a little too much consumption of the celebratory liquid refreshments there was a small problem that revealed itself in the morning light.  Verse 25 is hilariously concise by simply stating what Jacob saw as he rolled over that morning, “It came to pass in the morning that behold, it was Leah”.  Needless to say, Jacob was not amused and he immediately approached Laban about the double-cross.  As Laban and Jacob work out a deal for Rachel that involved seven more years of service, I want to keep the camera on the unwanted bride Leah.  Her one and only wedding day was to a man who did not want her as a wife, and in the morning of her first day as Mrs. Jacob her new husband’s response to seeing her lying beside him is to run out the door to find the wife he really wanted.  Tough first day…

We don’t know how much she knew about what was going on and if she was even aware that a trick had been played on Jacob.  To be honest that interpolation isn’t entirely relevant, because whether she had awareness or not she is still a human being with the desire to be loved and wanted by her spouse… and verse 30 captures the sad but painfully obvious outcome that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Leah gets one whole week of being married to Jacob before Rachel takes over as the desired wife he was infatuated with, and life was just beginning to get complicated for all three of them.  But within the sad state of Leah’s new life there was One who saw exactly what was going on, and His eyes are the most important of all.  In verse 31 the God who sees into the hearts of all casts His gaze on poor unwanted Leah and rewards her, with Scripture recording that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb but Rachel was barren.

Children are a gift only the Lord can give, and He lavishes this gift upon Leah with four sons.  In our modern era this loses some of its significance, but in those days this was the most important gift a wife could give her husband.  They are the building blocks of what would eventually become the tribes of Israel, and in the short-term represented the expanded abilities to grow their families capabilities and fortune.  This was a game-changer in the home, granting Leah a status that Rachel and all of her beauty simply could not provide.  And through these four sons we get a wonderful insight into what Leah is feeling and thinking for the first time.  Let’s start with her firstborn, an event that no one could ever deny her.  The first child of Jacob, Reuben, was named this because in  verse 32 Leah says,” The Lord has looked at my affliction, now surely my husband will love me.”  Such a tragic sentence… how much pain is reflected in the simple hope that this birth would turn the heart of the man she sees as HER husband towards his original wife.  But we see that Leah has not lost faith in God through her ordeal… and we will continue to see her faith develop as the Lord continues to stand up on her behalf.

Did bearing her husband a child improve the relationship?  Let’s see… in verse 33 we find the birth of the second son of Israel named Simeon, with the quote from Leah, “Because the Lord has heard I am unloved He has given me a second son”.  Unfortunately, a child wasn’t the magical cure to her problem.   But we do see the seed of Leah’s faith in God growing as she moves from believing the Lord SAW her affliction in verse 32 to realizing the Lord HEARD her in verse 33.  This is significant growth and this foundation will continue to be built upon.  Her third son she names Levi, with the hope that her husband will become attached to her through this child-bearing, but it is with the birth of her fourth son that she simply says, “Now I will praise the Lord”.  The name of this son?  Judah.  As in the lion of the tribe of Judah.  The Judah who would be the head of the royal lineage that would lead to David, Solomon…. and Jesus Christ himself.

Leah stopped trying to use God’s gifts to gain favor with her earthly husband and turned her thinking towards her Heavenly Father, as she finally realized that the love story was not between her and Jacob, but between Leah and the Lord.  Once she flipped the script and shifted the focus from her pain and disappointment to finding her place in service to Him everything clicked into place.  To be clear, there is no recording of Jacob and Leah’s relationship improving and honestly no reason to believe that their marriage lived up to the hopes and dreams Leah had for it.  But in the lineage of the Christ it is Leah and her child who provided the genealogy that would save the entire planet.

Much of our pain and suffering is the result of our inability to see that there is a significance to what we endure that surpasses the disappointments we are currently facing.  When your heart’s desire is to possess the love of someone who simply won’t return it to you the way you want them to… well, that can be very difficult to accept.  But the reality is there will never be a relationship between two humans that will satisfy the longing for true love that only exists between a created being and their Creator.  Our relationships in this life are not meant to fulfill that need, nor is it fair to expect them to.  It is only through putting our full heart into pursuing Him and His will that we can achieve true fulfillment and find our place in the plan He designed just for us.  Leah was the mother of the most important son of Israel, even while she remained the undesired and less attractive wife of the man Jacob.  The losing she experienced was a critical component of her eventual victory, and because Leah stayed faithful and served the Lord’s will even in a thankless relationship every believer today can thank her for giving us the Davidic line of leaders through her son Judah and the Levitical line of priests through her son Levi.

So for all of us that were picked last for dodgeball, danced alone at prom, or are currently sitting in an empty room eating Funyuns because there isn’t anyone there to smell our breath… Leah’s story is ours.  And her heartbreak and disappointment was not something that God was blissfully unaware of.  He saw, He heard, and He rewarded.    He was not disconnected from the life challenges of a desperate housewife thousands of years ago, and He remains just as active in yours.  And just as Leah endured years of struggle and pain as child after child was placed in her husbands arms only to see her situation fail to improve, so too we must endure extended seasons and oftentimes years of losing before the purpose becomes clear.  But those years shaped Leah and grew her relationship with God, something that simply wouldn’t have occurred if her life had played out the way she had dreamed it would.  She, like each of us, had a vital role to play in the history of the human race.  Take heart… your current situation may simply be an opportunity to grow your relationship with your Savior, and if you stay strong you might just find you have the most prominent position after all.