Celebrity Suicides: Exhuming Judas Iscariot and A Matter of Spiritual Warfare (Matthew 12:43-45, Matthew 27)

For all readers, this column will not feature any of the gaming news and anecdotes that typically permeate my posts.  This is a very serious and important subject that I feel compelled to write on, and to do it proper justice I will be treating this subject matter with the respect it and those who have been affected by these events deserve.  We will return to our regularly scheduled gaming output next week.

If you have paid attention to any of the recent news headlines, you have probably heard of some of the celebrity suicides that have occurred over the last few months.  To be frank, I am having a very hard time understanding and processing these actions.  These were successful, talented, financially secure individuals who appeared to have all of the things most of us fight for and strive to achieve in life.  Additionally, these individuals had the means and ability to procure solutions to their problems that many of us do not… their status and financial capabilities provided them access to the best doctors, counselors, and both legal and illegal medication that money can buy.  So why suicide, and why hanging of all methods?  This brings back some very bitter pains that I still possess around losing Robin Williams to the battles that we weren’t even aware he was fighting.

I am neither a doctor nor a psychiatrist… I am just a guy who works in the video game industry with too much Bible learning to ignore the parallels I have found in the Scriptures.  So rather than attempt a post-mortem diagnosis on the possible motivating factors on each of these individuals choices to end their lives that I am truly not qualified to make, I would rather find some answers in the Bible by uncovering the truth behind the most infamous suicide recorded… the suicidal death by hanging of Judas Iscariot.

On the surface there may not seem to be any parallels to the fallen disciple and those who have famously chosen a similar exit strategy from this planet, but we are going to dig deeper into the man who both followed and eventually betrayed Jesus and try to find the connection between their similar methods of passing.  To understand where Judas’s life ends, we must trace his path throughout his story.  Judas was chosen specifically by Jesus Christ to be part of his group of twelve dedicated followers.  Judas was even given a prominent position within the group as the treasurer, in charge of all of the finances of the ministry.  Of all the hundreds of people who desired to follow Christ, Judas was of the elect twelve who received this special gift.  And then he was endowed with the trust of the Creator to watch over his personal bank account.  On the surface, it appears that Judas was given both prominence and power and was in the close circle of the most famous man on the planet.  All good things.  So what went wrong?

Entire books and movies have been written attempting to explain the frame of mind of Judas.  Some paint him as a manipulative shyster who only sought to become rich and famous from his association with Jesus.  Others see him more sympathetically, crediting him with the motive of being a freedom fighter who was attempting to thrust Jesus onto the throne of Israel by force.  But for this to be a faithful and balanced approach to his rise and fall we will stick strictly to what is documented in the Bible and draw out conclusions from there.  We know that Judas had his own demons, because in John 12 we are told that Judas was embezzling money from the ministry’s funds.  But in Luke 22 we get the clearest picture of what occurred immediately prior to the most infamous betrayal in history as Scripture records these frightening words… “Then Satan entered into Judas Iscariot”.

From there we know the rest… he is promised a reward of thirty pieces of silver for his act, he leads the soldiers to the garden where Christ was praying, and Jesus is arrested.  But in Matthew 27 it appears that he has a change of heart, albeit too late to stop the wheels he had set in motion.

“Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”  And they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!”  Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.”

We are going to unpack this a little bit before going further.  Let’s roll all the way back to the impetus for these actions, when the lord of darkness literally entered into the body of Judas and led him to an action he would soon regret.  Demonic possession is referred to often in Scripture, but for Satan himself to get involved is exceptionally rare.  How did Judas get to this point?  Matthew 12:43-45 holds the answer, as Jesus enlightens us on how spiritual activity works.

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.

Judas had allowed demonic access to his body through his sin of stealing from the groups moneybag. While he may have experienced victory over this sin at various points as he travelled with Jesus, he was little more than an open invitation for Satanic possession as long as he allowed this sin to linger and kept the space in his heart that is reserved for God empty.  This is why so many people, such as the celebrities who inspired this column, are unable to outrun their demons.  They can do everything in their power to get cleaned up, clear their minds, receive expensive treatments in rehab and summon all of their willpower to stay on the right course.  But all that does is leave an empty room waiting to be occupied, and when the evil spirit returns it brings additional dark forces that plunge the individual into an even deeper darkness.

The sad truth is it is possible to be physically surrounded by Jesus and His followers and still endure demonic oppression.  No amount of human efforts, no matter how genuine, can hold back the forces of hell.  And when Judas was finally faced with the true ramifications of his actions, he could not deal with the regret.  He attempted to cleanse himself of the pain by giving back the money he received, but it did not clear his conscience.  And sadly, unable to live with the knowledge of what he had done and oppressed by the demons who were bent on destroying him, he attempted to silence them all by inflicting the death penalty on himself for the crimes he could not forgive and the thoughts he could not escape.

It is Satan who has the mission statement to steal, kill and destroy.  If is an unnatural act for a person to intentionally cut off the flow of air to their body.  As a matter of fact, the body actively fights against this through its own mechanisms as it is built for self-preservation.  It takes an exceptional spiritual darkness to convince a person to reject their body’s natural inclination to live and silence this once and for all.  And sadly, more people struggle with this each and every day then we are aware of.  They just aren’t famous enough to make headlines, but their tragic battle is identical even if the demons who oppress them are unique.

So what is the answer to this dilemma?  Judas followed several of the “steps” that most of us would consider leads to a positive outcome.  He acknowledged his mistake and took ownership of it, he expressed true remorse and a desire to repay, and he understood the consequences of his choices and how they affected others.  From the world’s perspective that would appear to be progress in therapy, so why did all of this progress end at the knot of a rope?  And the answer is found in our previous text… he may have cleaned house emotionally, but his demons returned with ferocity and in greater number and his end result was that of a tragic suicide.

You may be surprised to know that Judas was not all that different from one other disciple who we also know all to well.  And this disciple had previously allowed satanic influence into him as well, but his path took a remarkably different turn from where Judas ended up.  His name?  Simon Peter, the man who launched the New Testament church on the strength of one Divinely inspired sermon.  So how did these two disciples battle similar demons and end up in such different places?

Maybe you are surprised to hear that Peter and Judas had much in common.  In Matthew 16:23 Jesus delivered a stinging rebuke to Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan”.  Combining this with Christ’s proclamation in Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus informs Peter that Satan has asked to sift him like wheat, and we see that Satan had some plans for Peter as well. And the same night that Judas betrayed the Lord once, Peter denied Him THREE times.  So why do we find one running hopelessly to the end of a rope and the other running hopefully to the empty tomb of Christ?  And this is where we circle all the way back to Mark 3, which is a parallel passage to Matthew 12, for our answer.

As Jesus was casting out demons, He was accused by some of being in league with Satan.  His response?

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.”

This is our final answer to the problem.  We are described in Matthew 12 as a home or place of residence that demons will inhabit if left unoccupied.  But JESUS identifies himself as the stronger man who can BIND the demons and drive them out of their abode.  The simple answer is it is only JESUS who can kick the demons that harass us to the curb permanently.  No rehab plan, no twelve step program, and no amount of counseling has the power to evict Satan.  And no amount of success, fortune, or fame can silence these demons.  Only Christ, the stronger man, can reclaim possession of our mind and body and restore us to spiritual and mental health.  Peter ran to Christ and allowed His Lord to fill him.  Judas ran off alone and allowed his demons to consume him.  Jesus is the only solution.

As I wrap up, I acknowledge that I have struggled with demonic oppression many times throughout my life, culminating in depression and dark thoughts that would envelop me if I was left without my Savior.  The enemy bears down on all of us in different ways, some more obvious than others, but we are all under attack nonetheless.  There should be no shame in acknowledging that it feels like the enemy is sifting us like wheat… it is what he does.  And he attacks both the young and the old, the Christian and the unbeliever, the strong and the weak without impunity.  We do not have a choice of whether or not we will be engaged in battle.  We simply choose which direction we run… to Christ or to our own solution.  If we choose to allow Christ to reclaim our turf we can send our enemies running off for one more day.  There is permanent deliverance for demonic oppression and possession, and a permanent victory has already been purchased for all believers. But make no mistake, they will never stop coming for you.  That is why it’s called spiritual warfare.   It is up to us, each and every day, to choose to allow Jesus to occupy the throne room in our heart so that no one else, demon, devil or otherwise can move in.

 

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Comic-Con 2017: The Empire Always Strikes Back (1 Peter 5:8, Eph. 6:10-13)

What E3 is to gamers, Comic-con is to the worlds of cinema, television, comics and so much more.  Fans of virtually any form of media worldwide have descended on San Diego in hopes to meet their favorite actor (for a healthy fee), purchase unique collectibles that you will never find anywhere else (unless you want to take out a second mortgage and find them on eBay later), and be the first to observe new unreleased footage on their favorite franchises (as long as you pinky swear not to record any of it).  And few franchises have built more interest at this point than Star Wars and the highly anticipated second release of the newest trilogy in this storied franchise, The Last Jedi.  Details on the plot have been incredibly scarce, and as we eagerly await this critical second entry in one of the highest-grossing movie series in the world I can’t help but wax nostalgic on the ORIGINAL second entry in the universe that is Star Wars… the classic, the unmatched, the perfect middle chapter that is The Empire Strikes Back.

 

A long time ago in a cinema far, far away, well before there was the silliness of Gungans, midichlorians, and petulant wanna-be teenage Jedi (looking at YOU Anakin), there was the original Star Wars trilogy.  And if taken out of the context of the greater Star Wars universe and simply measured on their individual cinematic achievements, one would be hard-pressed to argue against the excellence of the space opera that is episode IV or the masterpiece that is episode V, the Empire Strikes Back.  Episode IV, A New Hope, really checks all the boxes of what a great stand-alone sci-fi epic should include.  It has a fully completed story arc, complete with a hero’s journey for each of the film’s lead characters as Leia completes her mission to use the stolen plans to destroy the Death Star, Han gains a modicum of redemption by choosing to stay and fight, and Luke fulfills his destiny by completing his trench run and firing the kill shot.  As the curtain falls we get a satisfying shot of all of our heroes receiving medals as they toast their victory, and with the Star Wars fanfare theme blasting through the speakers it would be easy to see this as a nice, neat ending all tied up with a bow.

I mean, we just saw all but one of their enemies vanquished, the space station has been obliterated, and the Rebels won, right?  Party at the Organa’s house!  And if the story ended there, we would be basking in the glow from C3-PO’s newly shined gold armor while Leia teaches Chewie how to dance.  But that final frame of a furious Darth Vader spinning in an out of control TIE fighter was a cruel reminder that the danger was not past, and it returns with a vengeance in the next chapter.  After their glorious and hard-fought victory, we find our Rebel friends still in hiding and the true scope of their adversaries fully coming into view as the opening crawl unveils the opening scene of Empire.

The disappointment of the Death Star destruction was little more than a setback for the Empire, and for the first time we get a full view of what the Rebels are truly up against.  As the monstrous AT-AT walkers thundered across the movie screen in the Empire Strikes Back, I remember feeling a sense of hopelessness as a child as the reality of the enemy forces finally began to set in.  There was SO many more of them than I had thought.  They had more in their arsenal than just a floating space station of doom.  And they were not going to be denied… not today anyway.

From the debut of the infamous “Imperial March” theme to our first views of the Emperor and everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Boba Fett, the Empire Strikes Back is almost 100% dominated by the villains.  They overrun the rebel base, capture and freeze Han, chop off Luke’s dueling hand… I mean for goodness sake C3-PO was literally chopped into pieces and spent the rest of the movie dragged around in a bag.  As the credits rolled on this one I felt the complete opposite feeling I had from the end of a New Hope.  Everything seemed to be coming up Dark Side, and our battered and damaged heroes were a far cry from the fresh-faced victors shining their medals as Chewie roared his approval just a short time before.

It’s a feeling that is all too familiar for me, I’m afraid.  Maybe you have been there too.  Every time it seems like I am progressing in an area that I typically struggle in, I find another Death Star is being built right around the corner.  I taste victory in an area of personal need only to find that the entire enemy armada is about to unleash hell on my previously secure position and send me running for the hills.  My episode IV snaps into episode V without even the benefit of the medal ceremony, and I am left wondering “What Just Happened?” Why did the epic victory from yesterday turn so quickly into “abandon ship” today?  Am I doomed to forever endure the futile dance of one Death Star forward and two Death Stars back?

Do you feel the same way sometimes?  You get the alternator replaced on your car and then the starter goes out.  You feel like you have made significant headway on repairing a broken relationship only to see all your progress whither under a new firestorm.  Or maybe you are like me and you believe you have a certain arena of battle in your life licked only to see it return with a vengeance to your horror and disappointment.  1 Peter 5:8 spells out our struggle in no uncertain terms, stating “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.”  The evil empire is on a constant prowl, requiring neither sustenance nor sleep.  While we rest, recuperate, and prepare to walk in victory our adversaries are actively building the next Death Star and formulating ever more elaborate plans to trip us up.  They have had millennia to perfect their approach, and much like the Rebel Alliance we are hopelessly outnumbered, outgunned, and capable of hit-and-run guerilla warfare at best if left to our own devices.

Ephesians 6:12 may provide the clearest picture of our predicament, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  This word “wrestle” in the Greek means exactly what it implies… a constant exhausting battle between two competitors with the goal of wearing down the opponent into a state of submission.  While Christ has indeed purchased our victory with finality over the devil and his minions, we still have a daily war to fight with enemy forces described as the “rulers of the darkness of this age”.

These “rulers” are here to do more than make a shopping cart scratch the paint on your car door… these are not just impish tricksters with plans to merely annoy you.  These are beings of immense intelligence and power with an infrastructure designed to tear every believer apart methodically and with finality.   They are playing for keeps, and while we should never fear our enemy we would do well to understand that there is a reason this is called spiritual WARFARE.  They may have already lost the war, but that has only served to make them more determined to make us earn our victories each and every day.  Like the infamous quote from Obi-Wan Kenobi in reference to the sand people in Episode Four, after each defeat we can be rest assured that “they will be back, and in greater  numbers”.  This is a Biblical principle,  as Christ gave as an example in Luke 11:24-26 when a defeated evil spirit returned to its old stomping grounds with SEVEN spirits even more wicked than itself in order to regain victory over the previously delivered man in question.

So what do we do?  If each step we take simply puts a larger bullseye from hell on our back, it is tempting to back off to at least reduce the escalation of hostilities.  And that is exactly what the enemy wants, to make us so fearful of the consequences of obeying God that we choose to simply carve out a meek peaceful existence in Dagobah as Yoda did.  Far from the conflict, hidden from the danger but also from those who need our help, simply existing in a swamp of our own choosing.  The truth is Christianity is not merely a belief system, it is a call to arms.  The only response to the steady onslaught of the forces of hell is to pick up the weapons of our warfare that Paul described in the rest of Ephesians 6 and join the battle, understanding that we will be engaged in this conflict until the day the Lord calls us home.  We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied by the relentless forces of evil or be intimidated by the knowledge that the evil Empire will only raise their game each and every time we take one of their strongholds.  And while our enemy is strong and numerous, the truth is that only one-third of the angelic host defected and joined satan in his rebellion.  Two-thirds remain on our side, and I call that a pretty definitive majority.

I wish I could tell you that becoming a believer is a non-stop dance from victory to victory in which you only touch the ground long enough to take a fresh leap into the stratosphere.  The truth is that the followers of Jesus such as Paul and Peter were consistently harassed, falsely accused, arrested, beaten, attacked, plotted against, and according to most historians eventually murdered for their persistence in the faith.  Most of the New Testament was written from prison cells.  We should not have an expectation that our path will be easier or more comfortable, and each time we enjoy a victory we can be rest assured the enemy will not be taking it lying down.  When the seven sons of Sceva attempted an exorcism in Acts 19 the evil spirit answered them saying, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?”  Paul was so well-known by the hounds of hell that his name was on their most wanted list.  But rather than allow that knowledge to intimidate us, like John in 1 John 4:4 we can say with confidence that greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.

 

We do not have to live life reeling from the continual pummeling worried about where the next hit will come from.  That’s what our enemy wants, for us to live paralyzed by fear.  We can and MUST choose to fight back, and take down a Death Star each time the enemy raises its ugly head by refusing to back off or even take one step back.  We have been called to take down the strongholds of the enemy, and in Revelation 12:11 Scripture states that we overcame him (meaning the devil) by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony.  Or in simpler terms, claim daily the victory that Christ’s sacrifice has provided us and refuse to remain silent.  Your testimony IS your weapon.  If you were saved from an addiction, wield that weapon of deliverance against your enemy and use it to bring others to Christ.  If you have struggled with a particular darkness, thrust it into the light and allow your struggle to bring strength to others.

 

The devil wants us to suffer in silence, ashamed by our battles and afraid to admit our pain.  But when we choose to wave our deliverance like a victory flag and proudly proclaim that even in our imperfect state we are all children of the King dedicated following Christ we refuse to wear the cloak of shame that the enemy wants us to hide under and bring our light out into the open.  The world does not need to see perfect Christians (because there are none), but honest ones.  And when they see that we are open about our struggles and our failures they will want to know how we cope.  All of the drugs, the booze, the sex, the entertainment, the money, the power, the success… none of these are working for any of them.  They are looking for something more, and that is the one thing we have.  And when they see that REAL thing, the only thing that is capable of taking down a Death Star, they will BELIEVE.  So what if you were a dirty smuggler before you joined the alliance, or if maybe Vader is your father.  You can still be a hero for our side, and encourage others to join the fight and choose Christ.  Bulls-eyeing womp rats was only your training for your Death Star trench run my friend…

I’ve Got Two Tickets to Paradise: Uncharted, Thieves, and Gritty Salvation (Luke 23)

As gamers, we know how we like our scoundrels. The classic archetype of a suave, sarcastic, debonair con-man has been portrayed with excellence on screen by actors such as Harrison Ford in his iconic role as smuggler extraordinaire Han Solo, Nathan Fillion in his turn as the renegade captain of the Firefly, or more recently by Chris Pratt in his Star-Lord persona as he guards the galaxy. A thief we can root for in spite of their roguish behavior, they typically conceal a heart of gold behind their gruff exterior and while their actions may be occasionally deplorable we can’t help but to root for them to swoop in and save the day at the last second.
Nathan Drake embodies all of these while still managing to be his own man, and that’s saying a lot. While you can certainly find dashes and sprinkles of how each of these characters and so many more have influenced his persona, look, and approach there is no denying that he is a unique figure in the gaming landscape. And over the course of his hero journey in four console games, one handheld game, and a pending cinematic treatment he has lived up to both the best and the worst of what a treasure-seeking ne’er-do-well would do… he steals our hearts while simultaneously convincing us that we wanted him to do it. Well played, Mr. Drake… well played.
A clever con is typically most appreciated when the thief is taking from an “undeserving” source. From the morally ambiguous Robin Hood syndrome to the slightly more villainous approach of Captain Cold, many of our favorite “thief” characters earn points for their brashness in sticking it to the man even as they are clearly breaking the law. But truth be told, few of them get to ride off into the sunset with a happy ending. Sometimes it is their insatiable greed that proves to be their undoing, other times it is a sacrificial choice to save others and die as the hero that completes their path. But few have had as much of an impact as the thief we will discuss today…
He could have been nothing more than a footnote. In several texts he is just the background window dressing to a much more engrossing drama playing out on center stage. He doesn’t even get the dignity of a name, credited as nothing more than criminal #2. You could write him out as simply a fulfillment to prophecy, as Mark 15:28 does when it briefly mentions that Christ was crucified between two robbers to bring to pass the prophecy that Christ was “numbered with the transgressors”. But Luke digs a bit deeper in his account revealing that while this thief was unwittingly assisting Jesus in fulfilling His destiny by crossing one more prophecy off the checklist, good ol’ nameless faceless Criminal #2 was about to carve out his own destiny as well.
As Jesus was hanging from the cross, the sadistic crowd around Him began taunting and mocking Him with cruelty. They challenged Him to show His power and prove His divinity by coming off the cross, failing to understand that it was His power on display that was keeping Him there. And in an odd twist, one of the criminals joined in the heckling and told Jesus that if He was truly the Christ to come down and bring the two thieves with Him. So strange, that even as he is dying this criminal joins the wrong crowd one last time and echoes their hate, as if that might have some positive outcome on his situation. Isn’t it funny that it is often the people who are just as challenged and damaged as we are that still choose to use the last ebbs of their remaining strength to throw a few more rocks at us before they fall to the same fate we both share. The poor tear down the poor, the addicts insult other more unfortunate addicts, and sadly just like this thief many people barrel on unrepentantly to their final destination with both middle fingers pointed in the air at a God who literally died to save them just a few feet away.
Matthew and Mark each record that both criminals jeered Jesus from their equivalent positions on the cross, and it is possible for a time the second thief joined in. But in Luke 23:40 we see a whole new drama play out as he gathers himself for one final discourse, and three sentences that would change his path forever:
But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said to Jesus, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
Let’s dig into each of these three statements by the condemned thief and see how this led him to his ticket to paradise. This may mess with your “salvation theology” a little bit, and if it does I suppose you will have to take your grievances up with Jesus since He issued the ticket. But contained in these three sentences is the key to what true salvation looks like… bloody, gritty, and life-altering.

First, the thief makes a public statement of his belief in God. This was not passively whispered in his mind, but was delivered as a direct verbal rebuke to his tag team partner in condemnation as he clearly and vocally states his position on Jesus. Next, he acknowledges his sins and understands that he is receiving a fitting punishment for his crimes against both man and God. And finally, he demonstrates his understanding that salvation can only be found in Christ by confessing that He is the sinless King who alone has the authority over who receives eternal life. In those few short sentences, the thief earned a ticket to paradise courtesy of Christ’s personal invite from His blood-stained hand.
It’s a great salvation story that demonstrates how easy it is for someone to choose to be saved, but I want to move in a little deeper than that. Into something a little more personal. In a Roman crucifixion it was customary that the offenses of the guilty were written out and nailed above their head, ostensibly to act as a very visceral deterrent to those who may consider committing those same crimes. This is why they nailed the “King of the Jews” statement over the head of Christ, because he was found guilty of insurrection. If the Roman soldiers followed protocol, the criminal offenses above the two thieves was also posted above their heads as they received their punishment. This would mean that although our good friend thief #2 has received the most important pardon any human can ever receive, his crimes were still posted over his head as a shaming reminder to all those who walked by.
So let me ask you something. What is still posted over your head? You may be saved and have truly received Christ’s forgiveness, but if you are like me there may still be some offenses that remain nailed to your cross as painful reminders of the mistakes you have made. Maybe you have not let that sign come down because you know you are guilty and you struggle with removing it as a result. Or perhaps others refuse to take the sign down and continue to point out your past failures even as you try your best to start over. Either way I want to encourage you with something extraordinary… at the moment that Christ chose to grant entry to heaven to this condemned criminal it no longer mattered what his rap sheet contained. His sign and all it contained was no longer able to define him. He was granted eternal life with Christ, and now he is forever remembered as the penitent thief who stuck up for Jesus when it appeared He had nothing left to give in exchange.
Whatever has been hung over your head, I am asking you right now to tear it off your cross and throw it away. Your sign now simply reads “Paid In Full” and is signed by the nail-scarred hand of Jesus Himself. You are not who you were, even if you are still not yet all that you will become. If others still laugh and point at the sign that lists your former failures, remind yourself that Christ never asked the thief what sins he had committed before offering him pardon. He simply offered him eternal life for his confession. Of course you are guilty of sins… we all are. Innocent people don’t need forgiveness, only the guilty do. So rip that sign down along with the nails that were holding it in place over your head, damaging your witness and making you feel dirty and unworthy. Join the thief from the cross, the adulterous woman, the greedy tax collector, the demon-possessed man, and all of the rest of us sinners who Jesus took time out to save.
Salvation is not a fashion parade down the catwalk full of the Hollywood elite while paparazzi snap photos with light bulbs flashing everywhere. It’s a victory party in which the red carpet we walk on is drenched in blood and covered with tears. It’s for all of us damaged and broken sinners who chose to fall on His grace and realize He loves us in spite of our record. We can all celebrate that despite our lengthy history of poor choices He has chosen US. True salvation is a gritty experience in which dirty sinners are washed clean through the bloody and violent execution of our Savior. And now we can replace that laundry list of sins over our heads with “Forgiven by the King of the Jews”. See you in paradise!

How to Know if Your Metal Gear is Solid: The Choice We All Make (2 Samuel 6)

I can remember the scene vividly… I was standing in front of the glass display cabinets at Target staring at my video game choices and trying to make a decision that may very well have changed the course of my life.  On one hand, there was this game with an interesting sounding name and a slick-looking cover that many of my friends told me would be all the awesomeness I could handle.  It’s name?  Syphon Filter.  It’s entirely possible you have never heard of it since this was way back in the PlayStation One days, but at the time it was a bit of a big deal.  And in the next showcase over sat a game that I knew nothing about, with a nondescript simple white cover bearing red letters that simply read, “Metal Gear Solid”.  As I was torn between the two choices I decided to try the interactive demo conveniently located in the store to make my final choice.  As fate would have it, Metal Gear Solid was available in the unit for a trial and I launched into it with reckless abandon.

It was not love at first sight.  The unique nature of the controls of this Japanese developed game meant that the button I would typically use to confirm something (X) was reversed with a different button (O).  This was critically reflected in my gameplay as I would see an enemy guard and attempt to attack him, but when I pressed the button that in most games would be used for an attack my character would lay down in front of the guard and crawl on his belly instead.  Believe it or not, this was not as fatal to the guard as I had hoped it would be.  As I valiantly attempted to crouch and crawl my adversary to death,  I died embarrassingly multiple times as those who were walking by stopped their shopping to watch my pitiful efforts.  It was not the best of times.  I can imagine the patrolling guards in the game talking to each other during their next coffee break… “Man, this guy had the drop on me and could have totally choked me out, but then he just started crawling around on the ground in front of me. It got pretty weird and uncomfortable.  Then he put a cardboard box over himself and tried to climb into the back of a truck.  What could I do?  I put him out of his misery… what a poor misguided soul.”

Believe it or not, my initial failures did not deter me from making the correct purchase that day.  I kept playing that demo until I finally taught myself the controller inputs and was able to sneak, crawl, and knock guards unconscious with ease.  And once I had finally turned the corner and achieved a modicum of success I realized that this was the game for me.  Sure, Syphon Filter looked like a pile of big dumb fun that I would be able to excel in and have a good time with, but the challenge of Metal Gear drew me in and all these years later it has still never let go.  Nestled comfortably next to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Super Tecmo Bowl in my personal top games of all time list, the original MGS complete with all of its over-the-top characters and one of the most compelling protagonists in all of gaming is still etched into my memory as one of my seminal gaming experiences.

The choice between these two titles was not necessarily an earth-shaking decision, but it is certainly reflective of choices we make each and every day.  My temptation was to lean into a genre I was familiar with and fully capable of achieving success on without too much difficulty, or to choose the path that was more challenging and demanding.  This second choice involved a good bit more embarrassment and struggle,  but also carried with it a much richer reward at the end.  And as the subject of our study will find out, it is the less traveled path of obedience to God that may seem less flashy and more constricting that is the only path we should consider.  The consequences of mission failure on this one turned out to be much higher.

In 2 Samuel 6 we find King David in pretty high spirits.  He has just claimed the unified throne of Israel after a tough period of civil war, and immediately after that he scores a military victory and conquers the city of Jerusalem, making it his new capital by defeating the Jebusites who occupied it.  Not enough?  After these two major wins in his column, he faces down his old adversaries, the Philistine army, who immediately amassed their forces to test the new king only to taste a massive defeat as David and his forces routed them twice and sent them back home in shame.  What an epic trifecta…  after years of struggling, running, hiding, and barely surviving David finally reaps the rewards from his season of suffering by gaining his promised crown, taking the city that would house his throne and carry his name, and defeating his life-long enemies.  Life was finally looking good for King David, and in celebration of all the promises of God that had finally come true David decided this was the perfect time to return the ark of God to prominence by bringing it home to Jerusalem.

The ark had been nestled away in the home of a man named Abinadab, where it had been stored after its capture and subsequent relinquishment by the Philistines many years prior.  The ark of God (also referred to as the ark of the covenant) had its origins back in Moses’s day, in which it occupied a consecrated place as the centerpiece of the tabernacle of God where the nation would come to serve and worship the Lord.  The ark was placed in the most sacred area of the tabernacle named the “holy of holies”, and it was so special that only the high priest himself was permitted to enter the area where the ark was contained.  And through a crazy series of events this physical token of God’s covenant with the nation of Israel was about to leave it’s private resting place and become reacquainted with the well-meaning but ill-advised people on the other side of that covenant.  It would be an entrance that nobody would ever forget.

David setup an epic celebration to provide this momentous occasion with the pomp and circumstance it deserved.  Over thirty thousand people all turned out to attend this invitation-only soirée, and live music was provided by none other than the shepherd king himself.  The music was happening, everyone was singing and shouting, and the parade was rolling.  There was only one small problem.  See, God had some pretty particular rules regarding the care and transport of the ark.  He designed it specifically with large rings in all four corners so it could be carried via two long poles by four men, each holding one end of one pole that was threaded through the rings.  And these could not simply be any random person… only the Levites, the tribe of the priesthood were permitted to interact with this sacred object which contained the original tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and the rod of Aaron the first high priest.

David did not appear to have performed the requisite background reading that would have informed him of the rules and requirements of the transportation of the ark, or at least he did not bother himself with following them.  Whether he deliberately disobeyed God’s command or simply permitted his excitement and enthusiasm to over-shadow the protocols, the result remains the same.  By choosing to have two men lead the ark on a cart rather than have the Levites carry it on poles per the requirement, he created a situation in which a disaster could strike, and boy, did it strike.  As the oxen were pulling the cart one of them stumbled and caused the ark to tip.  One of the men guiding the cart reached out to steady the ark and prevent it from falling, but upon placing his hand on the sacred ark of the covenant the man fell down dead.  Now that will end your party real quick.  The parade came to an immediate halt and the ark was remanded to the nearest local residence while David processed what just went down.

So now to the questions that deal with us.  We all have areas of our life that the Lord has called us to obedience in… our “ark” or “cross” to carry.  But how we carry it is just as important as choosing to carry it.  David chose the easy path, making the oxen do the heavy lifting to pull an ark that was meant to be shouldered by the people of God.  He neglected to provide the proper environment for the successful transfer of the ark and opted to do it his way, dong the right job but using the wrong people and the wrong tools to do it the wrong way.  His intentions were good, and his passion for God was undeniable. But he did not read God’s Word and realize that loving God is not something that can be done with ignorance of God’s will.

Like the rich young ruler in Mark 10 who came to Jesus with an honest desire to achieve eternal life, we are all presented with a choice.  And like my gaming choice at the beginning of this study, one path will typically require an extended period of struggle, sacrifice, and change.  The easier path is low risk but also low reward, and in the case of the rich young ruler he opted for the “Syphon Filter path” because the answer he received from Christ was more than he was willing to pay.  In his case, his “ark” to carry was to sell all that he had, give it to the poor, and come follow Jesus.  He was offered eternal life in exchange for the temporary life he currently possessed.  Sadly, he balked at the cost.

Interestingly, he was the only documented person that Jesus made this specific command to.  We each have different arks to carry and unique crosses to bear.  That’s why we can’t compare our Christian walk or the sacrifices we must make to anyone else’s path.  When the demoniac man in Mark 5 asked specifically to leave everything behind and follow Christ,  Jesus informed him that was not his ark.  He was instructed to go back home and minister to those from his hometown about his deliverance.  Your ark is different from mine, but we both have one.  And there is only one way to carry it… by following God’s individual plan for each of us as well as obeying the written Word of God as His instructions for our lives.

King David setup one more ark delivery attempt, and this time he followed the instructions of the Lord to the letter.  And because of his obedience the ark was safely brought to Jerusalem without any fatalities this time, which is really the optimal mortality rate if you are operating an ark delivery service. As Scripture says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof is death”.  There are serious and potentially fatal consequences for disobedience, even when we are attempting to do the will of God.  As we wrap up, I would like to leave you with the positive image of David dancing along the road to Jerusalem as the ark is CARRIED, not pulled, to its resting place in the City of David.  His heart was right with God and his method of service aligned with God’s will as defined in the Word of God… both of these are equally important in serving the Lord.  The easiest path is rarely the correct one, and obedience may be less convenient but it is walking this path that leads to the both rewards in the present as well as in eternity.