Video Game Spotlight: A Hero’s Sacrifice

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

~Philippians 4:8

In the last chapter of The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction, I recognized the fact that many secular stories, movies, and games contain wonderful, virtuous elements – even if the source itself is not “Christian”.  I recently discovered one such example in a rather surprising place: the video game series of “Halo”.  I certainly would not say that these games are something I would promote for the development of Christian character in young people, since the theme of the series is violent combat (although against clearly evil, non-human threats) and some of the characters use language that is not exactly Christ-like (although this improves throughout the series).  However, despite these shortcomings, there is a shining star in the midst of these games that provides an incredible example of faithfulness, hope, patience, endurance, humility, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for those around him – even those who hate him.

The main character of the series is known as Master Chief.  Only a few know him by his real name and officer number: John 117.  This is our first glimpse of the hero behind the mask in this series.  John 1:17 in the Bible says, “ For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  The alien forces who threaten mankind in this series are known as “The Covenant”.  While we know that the old covenant under the Law of Moses could promise only death for sinful man, it was Jesus Christ who saved us by overcoming sin, death and the devil through His death and resurrection, establishing a new covenant through His blood.  Halo players quickly surmise that Master Chief is the only hope humanity has against the alien threat which promises destruction for all mankind.  When he appears on the scene, the hopeless, demoralized, embattled troops of earth know that with him, there is life and hope.

Master Chief is never once arrogant or proud, despite knowing that he is all that stands between human beings and utter extinction.  He moves steadily onward, never neglecting his duty for our sake.  In John 11:7, Jesus turns to His disciples and tells them that the time has come for him to return to Judea.  They try to prevent Him, reminding Him that His enemies are waiting there to kill Him.  But the Son of God knows that His path leads to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and nothing will stand the way of His accomplishing the mission for which He was sent.  Likewise, Master Chief is marked by a character of pressing ever onward, even when his path means certain death for himself.  No matter the cost, he will complete his mission to save humanity.

There are so many rich elements that we could connect with as Christians in this story that I suspect someone on the game’s writing staff must have been a Christian.  A new threat is introduced soon into the game, a vicious, all-consuming race of parasites known as “The Flood”.  The key to humanity’s survival from this new threat lies in a hidden place called – you guessed it – “The Ark”.

As Master Chief travels on through the series and resolves each crisis toward humanity in turn, many look to him for hope in the darkest of times, trusting him to save them as they know only he can.  However, there are those who doubt him.  In fact, there are even those who hate him.  They reject him as the hero who will save mankind and even seek to get rid of him.  His response?  He fights with all the more determination to save those who have spurned him.

For this Good Friday Video Game Spotlight, I want to present my readers with a description of a scene that I think you will recognize.  The forces of evil have gathered thickly upon a bleak hill outside a city.  It appears the battle has turned against our Hero.  As his body is lifted for all to see, his followers cry out in despair.  How can this be?  He was our only hope, the only one who could save us!  As they gaze upon his lifeless form, all courage vanishes.  Some beat the ground in hopeless rage.  Others flee in terror now that their annihilation is certain, pursued closely by the monsters who seek to devour them.  Some simply hang their heads in anguish and await the inevitable end.  From the host of evil, a triumphant tumult arises.  The Hero is defeated.

Or is he?

Click here instead if you have a few minutes and want the full experience.

In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Timothy – Being a One-Man Army

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.  Fight the good fight of the faith.  Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Timothy 6:11-12)

If you’ve ever felt like the expectations placed on you are too great, just consider Paul’s young friend Timothy.  Here we find a young warrior left with little ammunition in a battlefield surrounded by enemies.  Paul’s advice?  Fight hard!

First of all, Timothy was facing fearsome adversaries on every side.  All around him were men teaching false doctrines, promoting “godless myths” and sowing dissention and discord among the believers.  Paul commissioned Timothy as the last line of defense between God’s people and these heretics and blasphemers.

As if the spiritual threats of false teachers and hypocrites weren’t enough, Timothy must also face the many worldly assaults that are so prevalent in Ephesus: lies, murder, gossip, slander, sexual immorality, and all manner of illicit and illegal activity.  While combatting the lies and enticements of the heretics, Timothy was also supposed to stand firmly against the evils of his own secular society.

But that isn’t all.  For the sake of the Gospel and the reputation of the Church, Paul also instructs Timothy to carefully monitor and regulate the worship practices of the church in Ephesus.  He was to guide the lives of God’s people there, instructing everyone from the laity to the overseers and deacons on how to live and being accountable for their behavior and actions.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed yet?  Well, too bad.  Because we haven’t even mentioned the fact that in the middle of this battle zone, Timothy will have to grapple with his greatest enemy all the while.  The Devil will use Timothy’s own sinful nature against him, throwing every temptation at him to try and topple this young Church leader from the holy hill whereon he is making his desperate stand against the forces of darkness.  And it won’t be enough to simply avoid falling into sin and shame; Timothy will have to be a model citizen, a pillar of righteousness and worthiness.

Oh yes, and one more thing: there are a host of other social issues that need tending to in your spare time – everything from the treatment of widows to the attitudes of the wealthy in your church and community.  See to it that you take care of these problems for me, will you Tim?  That’s a good boy.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about all this makes me want to sit down and weep while banging my head against the wall.  How is one person expected to manage all this?  Despite the fact that Timothy must have known he couldn’t do all this perfectly, and most certainly didn’t, it still must have been a tremendous amount of pressure – truly, one man against the world.

The scary part is that you and I are called to exactly the same desperate scenario as young Timothy.  We are hard pressed on all sides by false teachings, worldly enticements, and our own sinful desires.  The responsibilities laid upon God’s warriors can be staggering at times as we constantly encounter those in need of spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional help.  There are certainly many times when it feels like “me against the world,” and this couldn’t be more true.  But as we look to the cross of Jesus Christ for strength to fight on and for forgiveness for our failures, we can be encouraged by this excellent promise from our Lord Himself and find peace in His Word:

“In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for the triumph of Your Son over all the adversity I face in this life!  Grant that I may face whatever struggles I am called to confront not only with strength and courage, but also with the joy that comes from knowing You are by my side as I serve You; though Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

Daniel – The Repentant Leader

“The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him” (Daniel 9:9).

Daniel is often honored as one of the greatest warriors of the faith in the Old Testament, and for good reason.  He faithfully served and honored God even under pagan rulers who were hostile to believers.  He turned the hearts of some of the most powerful leaders on earth toward God and paved the way for the Gospel to be spread quickly and received with faith even in foreign lands – think of the magi from the east and many, many others who would remember the God of Israel when the apostles spread the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection abroad.  He endured extreme tests of faith, even being cast into a den of ravenous lions, and was honored by God and angels as “one high esteemed.”

But more than anything else, Daniel deserves to be called a hero of the faith because of his keen understanding of the duty of spiritual warriors – to call sinners to repentance and salvation.  Daniel’s prayer in chapter nine is perhaps one of the most beautiful passages in the whole Bible.  Feeling the weight of sin under which God’s people are suffering, Daniel falls before God and pleads for mercy:

                “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong.  We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws.  We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name…[we] are covered with shame because we have sinned against you.  The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him…Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant…We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.  O Lord, listen!  O Lord, forgive!  O Lord, hear and act!  For your sake, O my God, do not delay…” (excerpts from Daniel 9:4-19; read the whole passage there!)

Daniel’s wonderful prayer echoes in our churches today.  In keeping with the true line of faith heroes, our pastors and leaders turn our hearts to God – not only for temporal relief, but especially for forgiveness and cleansing.  Daniel knew that earthly and eternal salvation rested with God alone, and that the merciful Lord will not ignore the pleas of those who fall before Him.  In fact, Gabriel even tells Daniel, “As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given” (Daniel 9:23).

Like Daniel, we serve God best when we cry out to Him with contrition and repentance for ourselves and on behalf of our people.  The greatest leadership we can provide is the act of ultimate humility; to confess our sins and iniquities and place ourselves in God’s merciful hands.  When we hear the promise of forgiveness and salvation through God’s Word, we can be at peace with God.  We are strengthened in faith and enabled to rise and glorify Him through works of love:

“Again the one who looked like a man touched me and gave me strength.  ‘Do not be afraid, O man highly esteemed,’ he said.  ‘Peace!  Be strong now; be strong.’” (Daniel 10:18-19)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I praise You for Your unending mercy and love for sinners like me!  Bend the hearts of all mankind to turn to You in repentance, that they may receive strength through faith unto life everlasting; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Josiah – Facing Bad News with Faithfulness

“Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God.  As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their fathers.” (2 Chronicles 34:33)

Hearing the words of our country’s top politicians lately has left many Americans yearning for a return to Godly leadership.  Unfortunately, our government officials haven’t exactly been striving for a morality that follows God’s Law.  We need to continue praying for faithful leaders who will direct this nation in the way of the Lord, asking Him to send those who will reform the evils of this land.

Josiah was the kind of king that the faithful remnant had been praying for.  Already at the age of sixteen, he had started down the path of a rock-star reformer.  2 Chronicles 34:3-7 is just a fun passage to read: Josiah the warrior-king, smashing the pagan altars and chopping down the false gods, crushing the wickedness of idolatry wherever he trod.  The God-fearing people of Judah must have wept with joy as he led the people back to the Lord and ordered that His temple be restored.  And then…they found the Book of the Law.

I’m sure Josiah had known that the people had not been doing what was right in God’s eyes, but he never imagined how utterly short they had fallen of God’s demands until now.  He tore his royal clothes and immediately sent messengers to the prophetess Huldah.  They returned shortly:

Josiah: “Well?  What did she say?”

Shaphan: “Well, my liege, we have good news and bad news…”

Josiah: “Hmm, better hit me with the bad news first.”

Shaphan: “Huldah says that all of Judah is going to be destroyed because of the wickedness of our fathers.  Jerusalem will be completely destroyed and all the people will either be killed or carried off as slaves.”

Josiah: “That’s terrible!  Well, what’s the good news?”

Shaphan: “You’re going to die, so you won’t have to see how bad everything will get.”

Imagine; Josiah had put his whole heart into reforming the kingdom and turning the people back to God, only to hear that everything he’s done will be destroyed soon and his life will be taken from him.  Most people would react to this news with anger, resentment, and despair.  How does Josiah react?  “The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord – to follow the Lord and keep his commands, regulations and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, and to obey the words of the covenant written in this book” (2 Chronicles 34:31).

Josiah doesn’t question God’s judgment.  He doesn’t curse at Him for this “unfair” pronouncement of doom.  He doesn’t even despair of all the good that has been done in Judah, but rather redoubles his efforts in leading the people with Godliness and humility.  He celebrates the Passover with joy and festivity, and leaves the people with an imprint on their hearts of God’s mercy and love before being gathered to be with Him.  Perhaps it was Josiah’s faithful example that gave the remnant the hope they would need to get through the coming ordeals of destruction and exile.

Unlike Josiah, we don’t know what the future holds for our country, our world, or even our own family.  But even if we did, and even if it looked really terrible, would that be a reason to despair?  Or would we be like Josiah, and rejoice with great gladness in all that the Lord has done and all that He’s promised yet to do?  Would we leave a Godly example for the remnant that would follow us?

I’m not sure if Josiah knew that it wouldn’t be long before those in exile would see Cyrus deliver them out of bondage and exile; and then the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, deliver them from the bondage of sin and death as well as exile from God.  But He knew that God was faithful, and he was saved from despair and despondency by his faith in God’s promises.  We cling to those promises yet today, for they are our hope and salvation, and our strength in the face of dark times.

“I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit.  You heard my plea: ‘Do not close your ears to my cry for relief.’  You came near when I called you, and you said, ‘Do not fear.’  O Lord, you took up my case; you redeemed my life.” (Lamentations 3:55-58)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, hear now the cries of our nation for leaders who will faithfully guide us in Your truth.  Forgive the many sins of our people and redeem our country, that we may be a city on a hill and light to all the nations of the world; to the glory of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Hezekiah – The Godly Leader

“Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel.  There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.  He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him; he kept the commands the Lord had given Moses.  And the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.” (2 Kings 18:5-7)

Based on the verses above, it would be easy to get the false impression that life for Hezekiah and his kingdom was a proverbial bowl of cherries.  After all, “the Lord was with him; he was successful in whatever he undertook.”  How could we expect anything less than a peaceful, prosperous golden age under such a leader?

Hezekiah certainly was successful in all that he did, and the Lord most certainly was with him.  But we sometimes define success differently than the Lord does.  Hezekiah was tried and tested constantly throughout his reign, making his faithfulness to the Lord even greater.  He was forced to deal with the consequences of his father’s sinful and rebellious actions.  His kingdom was attacked repeatedly, since in his allegiance to God alone he cast off the yoke of tribute to the surrounding kings.  Judah was plagued by severe economic woes brought on by years of corruption and heavy taxation.  The people were entrenched in pagan practices and idol worship.  And Hezekiah himself was afflicted with a terrible illness, suffering agonizing symptoms until he came to the point of almost certain death.

When we look at this portrait of Hezekiah’s life, it seems at first glance as if God really wasn’t with Hezekiah at all, but rather against him.  Why would God let such a good and faithful servant-leader suffer such things?  But the truth is there was no other king quite like Hezekiah because of the very fact that Hezekiah faced such awful tribulations and yet remained firmly rooted in his faith.  He trusted God to deliver him from each of these troubles, and God was faithful to do so.  Though tempted to “take matters into his own hands,” Hezekiah repeatedly turns to God, putting his own human wisdom aside and placing his faith in the Word of the Lord.  God faithfully saves Hezekiah time and again, bringing success and prosperity to the country,  miraculously slaying 185,000 Assyrian soldiers without a single warrior of Judah raising a weapon, and even reverting the prophesy of Isaiah by bringing life and healing to the dying king.

What greater measure of success could there be than faithfully abiding in God’s promises despite the sorest affliction?  For this, God honored Hezekiah with earthly distinction above all other kings.  We, like Hezekiah, must never fail to put our trust in God alone for our salvation as we struggle against our own doubt, despair, and unbelief.  To do so is to honor God, and He in return promises an eternal reward.

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.  I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

Prayer: Lord God, I thank You that just as you delivered Hezekiah from all his enemies, so too have You delivered me from sin, death, and the Devil, through the death and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Grant me strength to honor You by faithfully trusting in His victory throughout all of life’s trials, by His grace.  Amen.

Jehoiada – Teaching the Way of the Lord

“Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him.” (2 Kings 12:2)

Teaching and guiding the next generation of believers is a duty of profound importance that falls upon all of God’s warriors of the faith.  The little children of today will soon become the leaders of tomorrow.  If we do not equip them with God’s Word and teach them to walk in His ways, we are handing the future over to the powers of darkness, sin, and suffering.  We must provide our youth with Christian guides and mentors who will teach them God’s Law and Gospel on a personal level.

These guides – parents, teachers, pastors, sponsors, and others – are vital faith heroes.  Jehoiada the priest is an excellent example of the kind of difference a Christian guide can make in the life of one young person, and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others as well.

Jehoiada takes the young Prince Joash into his care and protection in order to preserve the house of David and the Messianic line.  For six years, Jehoiada secretly teaches Judah’s future king how to rule in a just and God-pleasing manner.  When young Joash finally ascends the throne, Jehoiada continues to serve as his spiritual leader and example: “Jehoiada then made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people that they would be the Lord’s people” (2 Kings 11:17).

As long as young King Joash has his faithful spiritual leader Jehoiada around to teach and train him in God’s will, Joash prospers by doing what is good and right in the eyes of the Lord.  Sadly, after the death of Jehoiada, Joash is left without a God-fearing instructor and quickly abandons God’s Word as his foolish love for himself takes over.

Joash’s fate is a grim prediction of what will happen when the next generation fails to receive continual guidance and spiritual support from their elders.  Godly instruction must not end after Sunday School, or with one’s Confirmation, or graduation, or any other “milestone” in their lifetime.  Scriptural guidance remains necessary throughout one’s entire lifetime.  We need to not only seek out and cling to our own guides, but also to reach out to the younger generation, teaching them God’s Word and modeling the kind of life He would have us live.

The seed of faith is planted in rich soil when we daily minister to our youth with God’s perfect Law and His redeeming Gospel.  It will grow and flourish when fed and watered consistently with Scripture.  When this is done faithfully, that seed will eventually ripen and produce a bountiful harvest of faith in God’s grace, good works by the Spirit, and zeal to pass on God’s promises to yet another generation of believers.  May God grant this miracle to each generation until He comes again in glory!

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank you for the faithful generations who have come before me and passed Your Gospel Light on to us.  Help me to diligently and persistently teach Your Word to those who will come after me, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

Moses – God’s Instrument of Leadership

“The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” (Exodus 15:2)

There are many stories and examples of reluctant heroes who went on to do great things.  They run from whatever task is given them or whatever destiny is laid upon them, thinking themselves unworthy or unable to accomplish it.  These peculiar heroes demonstrate to us that there is a warrior within each of us, waiting for God’s call to adventure.  They teach us the theme that life is not so much about who we think we are as about who God is making us into.

Moses was certainly reluctant to begin the great quest that God had planned for him.  To be a human being living under the curse of sin means to be deeply flawed, and Moses was no exception.  Despite his flaws, God turned him into one of the greatest leaders in the history of the world.

Our loving God cares not only about the “big picture” – in Moses’ case, the Israelites fleeing Egypt and settling in the Promised Land – but also about our personal, individual journey.  The Moses we see after forty years of leading the people of Israel through the wilderness is a very different man than the stubborn, unwilling individual who kept trying to weasel out of following God’s orders.  As Moses walks with God and is led by His Spirit (however reluctantly), God’s power and love change and shape him into the faithful leader and hero God meant for him to be.

Where is God leading you?  How does He intend for you to be a leader in your own life and spiritual journey?  You may not feel like leadership material, but the God who created the universe out of nothing and made the prize of His creation out of the dust of the Earth can certainly make something great out of you.  He has already transformed you from a sinful, rebellious state of spiritual death into a new creation and an heir of His heavenly kingdom.  Whatever other leadership roles God entrusts you with in this life, you can know that your most important one is, like Moses, to lead others to the Promised Land through sharing the Gospel of forgiveness and redemption.

“In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed.  In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.” (Exodus 15:13)

Prayer: Lord God, through Your servant Moses You led your people out of captivity, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.  Grant us Your Holy Spirit, that through the Gospel we may also lead those who are enslaved by sin to freedom in Your forgiveness; that we may have the strength and courage to face the wilderness of this life; and that we may come at last to the promised inheritance of eternal life, through Jesus Christ.  Amen.