In some circles that I’ve been in, even contemplation and meditation have been ways to seek identity of importance, just like being charismatic was back in the seventies…the disguises of the ego are endless. So we must make sure that, in taking on a spiritual practice, we are not just seeking moral high ground in our own eyes and the eyes of anybody else. Is meditation leading me to a new vulnerability and intimacy, or the opposite? is contemplation leading me to what John Main calls dispossession, instead of another new possession? Be careful of any I have our I am language, except the great I am that we are in God. Maybe this is one interpretation of Jesus’ advice to “pray in secret.”
Monthly Archives: December 2013
I must admit–assuming the usual caveats about Christmas being about Jesus–that the actual date of December 25th is one of the most difficult for me.
I do adore my Christ. I do love the celebrations. I love the church services, and the church family. I love the sermons I get to study, write, and pray over. I love the usual busy work that surrounds the offices leading up to Christmas. But where I struggle the most is when after these festivities, everything closes for Christmas day. Well, everything but my restless mind.
I've learned–to my discomfort–that I enjoy being busy, even if I'm not doing much in particular.
Because I am busy with my thoughts, or busy in conversation, or walking a busy street. Yet on Christmas day, I'm robbed of my busyness when every venue, outlet, and commercial expression is taken from me. It's the one day in the year I can't do anything. This is, on the surface, a classic first world problem! Yet a guy who's that stimulated by productivity will sometimes mistake productivity for faithfulness to God. And this is where I sometimes have a problem. I'm learning that they aren't the same.
Perhaps I equate being busy with being faithful because I really just want to know that what I'm doing matters to God.
The only way I can secure that is through busyness.
(Cue the sad music, and the sermon on how the gospel frees us from thinking we can secure God's love through hard work).
Yes, I know. I shouldn't think that ever. But I do. Who doesn't? And Christmas, it turns out, is the forcible action that confronts my idolatry. It does this by keeping me helpless. Silent. Not busy. There are no chores to do. No errands. There are no check-lists to keep track of, no vision to cast, and no sermon to prepare. I can't meet with anyone, because they're all with family. I can't think deeply about things, because friends and extended family punctuate every minute with the laughter of inside-jokes. There is nowhere I can go to find a “safe place,” by which I mean, work. I am unsafe. But from what? Well…myself, I suppose. My idol of productivity–of busyness.
Christmas exposes me as my own worst enemy.
And sometimes it takes the town shutting down to pull me out of my comfort zone. I'm learning that silence isn't all that bad–though it feels like it–and is even a great outlet for prayer, as counter-intuitive as that seems. But I still don't like it. Perhaps that's my problem: words (in prayer) help me feel productive; the discursive thoughts Richard Rohr often warns about in his instruction on contemplative prayer, that we mistakenly assume are meritorious to God. Rohr, in his book, A Lever and a Place to Stand, suggests “Prayer beyond words” instead (59). So I tried it. But it's increasingly uncomfortable to leave words behind, when words are all you do in life.
We have to have a slight distance from the world–we have to allow time for withdrawal from business as usual, for meditation, for prayer in what Jesus calls “our private room.” However, in order for this not to become escapism, we have to remain quite close to the world at the same, loving it, feeling its pains and its joys as our pains and our joys. ~ Richard Rohr, 2.
In other words, we must all learn to withdrawal in holy silence, yet re-engage the pressures of “productivity” when our spirit is revived; after all, we're never not supposed to be productive. The Bible simply chooses an alternative: fruitfulness.
Our lives are not supposed to be marked by busy work, but by the characteristics (the fruit) of the Spirit.
Sometimes this happens when you're busy, and sometimes it happens when you're not. After reading Rohr's line, I experienced an epiphany: God used December 25th to slow my life down enough to show me that he doesn't need me. Yet in the sermon I gave the night before, I also explain how the birth of His Son proves that he wants me (and you). Now, we're on another level.
Because while it's uncomfortable to feel unneeded; it's downright devastating to feel unwanted. But to be unneeded while knowing you're still wanted is one of the most liberating things the soul can ever know.
And on this Christmas week, I'm trying to ride the border of that mysterious truth, if only because the shutting down of Santa Barbara forced it upon my over-productive mind. And to think some people don't believe in effectual grace! Tsk tsk. That's what a busy mind will sometimes do to you. Can I share something with you, from one mad thinker to another? (One that I robbed from a local bumper sticker)…
Slow down Santa Barbara.
God's presence is worth the reflection.
Habakkuk 2:20 ~ The Lord is in His holy temple; let everyone on earth be silent in His presence.
I don’t know what others mean when they say “top 5 books,” but for me, it’s pretty straightforward:
- What I enjoyed reading most
- What impacted the way I think most
- If it uncovered a new idea for me
- If I was carried through the entire book
- I would recommend it to others
- I would read it more than once
Ok, let’s get started at the top of the list…
1. When the Church was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, by Joseph Hellerman.
Ever feel frustrated over the individualism and consumerism punctuating the American church? Ever wish your local church was more like the family you read about in the book of Acts? Do you long for revival in your city? This is the book you need to read. But brace yourself–you’re probably not impervious to Hellerman’s piercing diagnosis. Of all the books I read in 2013, this gave me the most chills, the most hope, and the most excitement for the future. But it cost me dearly.
The Trinity is simultaneously the most important Christian belief, and the most difficult to understand (one might think). Reeves delivers it simpler than vanilla, and more delicious than salted caramel. In fact, his adjectives often remind me of food, with lines like, “Such is the spreading goodness that rolls out of the very being of God” (29), or “The Father, Son and Spirit have always been in delicious harmony” (59). These simple, yet vivid descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will cause you to reel in joy, and desire to get caught up into the same.
Biblical Theology (BT) is that area of study that looks at how the entire Bible is unified by a single story. There are some BT books that show you the story or themes unfolding through the Bible in a narrative fashion. Others, like this one, show you how to interpret the story itself. Not only does Lawrence nail this topic, but he is very comprehensive, including exegesis, systematics, and other areas of Bible study that intersect with BT. He masterfully lays it all out with practical, and fascinating precision. This is a book I am constantly referencing.
If you preach, you might consider this method. Preaching without notes brings the speaker to life, allows engagement with the listeners, and forces the preacher to condense their (oft-times scattered) ideas to a single, unforgettable point. Even the days I choose to use notes–which has it’s own merits–I still reference this book for it’s helpful methods. To preach without notes, there must be a fundamental shift in the way you think about the sermon itself, and that affects how you construct one. Unlike many books on preaching, this one is as practical as you get–if you really want to preach without notes, this one will do it for you in a week.
If you like to write, blog, or even tweet, I suggest you read this book. “Why on earth would I read about something as dry and lifeless as punctuation,” you say? Because stylistic punctuation, as this book argues, is what breathes life into your sentences. You’ve never been more romanced by a semi-colon or thrilled to wield a dash than after reading this book. The best part is, Lukeman writes the book with flair and style, often using punctuation in the very way he instructs throughout the book. For example, there are nicknames for every punctuation mark; the period is the Stop Sign; the semicolon is The Bridge; the dash is The Interrupter. And of course, there is a cornucopia of classic writers to give you examples of all of these.
These are on this list, because they are game-changers, and it would be a crime to keep them off even though the ones above were my first choices.
- The Cross of Christ, by John R.W. Stott
- Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Constantine R. Campbell.
Obviously, I haven’t read every book that has ever been written, so take my list with an appropriate grain of that salt. Here’s the list I was working from.
What were your favorite reads of 2013? I’d love to hear.
Matthew 3:16-17: “After Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water. The heavens suddenly opened for Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him. And there came a voice from heaven: ‘This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him!'” (HCSB)
What beautiful elements to this paragraph! “[The Holy Spirit was] coming down on [Jesus]….[says the Father]: ‘I take delight in Him!’
Matthew is unambiguous in his mention of the Trinitarian God. He not only mentions them, but he depicts them in a wonderful dance of inclusion and delight. The Spirit is happy to descend upon the Son; the Father delights in the Son; the Son joyfully welcomes both the Spirit and the Father!
The first thing that comes to mind in this passage is the sheer girth of the coming announcement. This is not a footnote–it’s the red carpet of the cosmos, and Jesus is walking across it.
In other words, this is a BIG deal, so pay attention to what God is about to say.
God the Father says something alright. He publicly identifies Jesus’ unique Sonship. This is not sonship as we might entertain–that of genealogical descent. This is God’s “proleptic enthronement” of Jesus to the highest status, the highest office, and the highest ministry (Keener). What ministry?
There is an Old Testament parallel in Ezekiel 1:1, where the prophet “asks God to tear the heavens and come down to redeem his people” (France). What Matthew is clarifying is that this is the unique expression of who God is. In other words, don’t send a man to do what only God can do; send God to become a man.
Here’s a paraphrase of Matthew by Dale Frederick Bruner:
“If we know this, we know the most important fact in the world. ‘Here,’ God is saying in so many words, ‘in this man, is everything I want to say, reveal, and do, and everything I want people to hear, see, and believe. If you want to know anything about me, if you want to hear anything from me, if you want to please me, get together with him.'”
Jesus is the only person who can fulfill the ministry of the Father in redeeming His people.
Not only does the Father make a big deal about Jesus (Trinitarian), and crown him as the hope of the world (coronation), but he then pronounces His personal delight in Him. Now stop for a second and let that sink in. Delight. With our modern, presuppositional lens of a far-off God who doesn’t get involved in much, but still requires good behavior–the way a CEO might expect of a cashier in a distant franchise, without caring for them personally–this should blow your mind. God delights in something. Not anything, but something specifically. He delights in his Son. The Fathers love of the Son was before the world’s creation (17:24), meaning that the love shared between them did not begin at a certain point, and not exist before that–it always was. And as Michael Reeves explains, there is a certain shape to that relationship. “The Father is the lover, the Son is the beloved.”
But why does this seem to be the climactic point that the Gospel writer, Matthew, ends on? Because of its implications for those who believe in Jesus! Reeves goes on to say, “Therein lies the very goodness of the gospel: as the Father is the lover and the Son the beloved, so Christ becomes the lover and the church the beloved.”
That the Father delights in His Son means that when we are united to His Son, the Father delights in us, too! Now, this doesn’t mean we are the same as Jesus–as Matthew clearly depicts, He is the unique Son of God. It means we are sons and daughters of God by adoption (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:5; Eph 4:5), and only through union with Christ. So even if you are a murderer, an alcoholic, a tantrum-thrower, a failed entrepreneur, a recovering hypocrite, or a struggling mother–in Christ, you become the delight of God! This is the greatest story ever told, and the single most liberating truth on the planet.
The unique Son of God on a mission to find the downtrodden, and bring them into the delight He has known for all eternity.
- R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007). p.121
- Craig S. Keener. The Gospel of Matthew: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009). p.135
- Fredrick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004). p.111-112
- Michael Reeves. Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2012) p.28
The #1 mobile activity is accessing maps and directions.
I believe it. You should see a typical drive in the car with my wife and me. I’m usually the one working a maps application–of which I have plenty versions from which to choose–while she, with her photographic mind, is calling out directions on the go. She remembers details, I prefer to have them organized in Evernote, and dictated to me by Siri. She tells you to turn as the intersection is upon you, I like to know where that turn is before I even leave the house. Don’t even get me started on climate control. She like the car to resemble a sauna; I like icicles to form on the dashboard. We are so different in our approaches to driving that it’s easy to forget one thing…
We both just want to know where we’re going.
In the second part of our series, Faces of Jesus, we encounter a promise for finding directions. But rather than getting a list of turns, street names, or miles, we get…a person.
Matthew 2:6 ~ “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah: because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd My people Israel” (HCSB).
Everything you need to know about this post (or finding direction in your own life) is encapsulated in the word shepherd.
What does a shepherd do anyway?
1. They direct sheep.
Perhaps a better word is, he leads them. Check out this descriptive story from Lois Tverberg’s blog,
Judith Fain is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Durham. As part of her studies, she spends several months each year in Israel. One day while walking on a road near Bethlehem, Judith watched as three shepherds converged with their separate flocks of sheep. The three men hailed each other and then stopped to talk. While they were conversing, their sheep intermingled, melting into one big flock.
Wondering how the three shepherds would ever be able to identify their own sheep, Judith waited until the men were ready to say their goodbyes. She watched, fascinated, as each of the shepherds called out to his sheep. At the sound of their shepherd’s voice, like magic, the sheep separated again into three flocks. Apparently some things in Israel haven’t changed for thousands of years.
2. They were despised.
This is echoed in the words of Joseph, that “all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians” (Genesis 46:34). The Messiah comes as one of these, for “his rule is to be that of a shepherd. He will have no power but the power that comes from his love of the lost sheep of Israel” (Hauerwas, 39).
Jesus is the despised shepherd, who leads the lost sheep.
The verse in Matthew is a quotation of two passages in the Old Testament–the first half quotes Micah,
Micah 5:2 ~ Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me. His origin is from antiquity, from eternity (HCSB).
The second half of Matthew’s verse quotes Samuel,
2 Samuel 5:2 ~Even while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led us out to battle and brought us back. The Lord also said to you, ‘You will shepherd My people Israel and be ruler over Israel (HCSB).
You may notice a couple things. One, Matthew’s wording isn’t an exact quotation. Two, Matthew used both Old Testament passages when maybe one would have sufficed.
When Matthew quotes Micah, he alters the wording ever so slightly in a couple places; I just want to focus on one of those places. Where Micah says, “you are small among the clans of Judah,” Matthew quotes him, saying, “you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah.” So it goes from you are small to you are by no means the least. Matthew is simply inserting his theology into this Old Testament prophesy, because, having witnessed (through the Apostles) to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he knows Micah’s prophetic promise has been fulfilled. Bethlehem used to be small; it is now significant because it hosted the Ruler who’s “origin is…from eternity” (Mic 5:2).
R.T. France also observes that “the two Old Testament passages are closely related, 2 Sam 5:2 giving God’s original call to David, and Mic 5:2 taking up its language to describe the future roll of the coming Davidic king in fulfillment of his great ancestor’s achievements” (72).
At this point, let’s break from exegesis, and take in the sweeping power of the Psalmist’s poetry when he goes on about the Shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. He lets me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He renews my life; He leads me along the right paths for His name’s sake (vv.1-3)
He lets us lie down in green pastures. Check out this four minute video I found on Lois Tverberg’s blog. Then join me in the next line…
Jesus is a ruler, but he’s also a shepherd. He leads by feeding us in green pastures, by directing us when we’re lost or out of food, by protecting us from wolves. This Savior (Messiah) came out of the lowly (Bethlehem) to be lowly (Shepherd). And he comes to a world of people who just want to know where they’re going. Many are so lost in the details of figuring out the directions, that their whole lives will be spent driving in circles.
If that’s you, stop the car.
You don’t need directions–you need a Shepherd.
R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007)
We’re celebrating Advent at our church. and decided on calling the series “The Arrival.” When Christ arrives, He brings with Him the hope, love, joy, and peace characteristic of the Kingdom.
This is the first sermon of the series; it’s about hope arriving with Christ to his people, freeing them from despair. I pray it bless you on your own Advent!
Matthew’s first five chapters show the different faces of Jesus as revealed in His birth–catch up on the introduction!–so we begin with chapter 1:1-17.
Starting off with a genealogy, the introductory chapter of Matthew appears anticlimactic. No one starts off a book with an historical record! Well, no one today. But the Biblical authors did this often. If you put yourself in 1st century Jewish shoes while reading this chapter, you’ll get sucked into the drama instantaneously.
A better hero
Socio-Rhetorical scholar, Craig S. Keener, points out that “The names in the genealogy — like Judah, Ruth, David, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah — would immediately evoke for Matthew’s readers a whole range of stories they had learned about their heritage from the time of their childhood.”1 What appears tedious for contemporary readers is a type of literary device used by the author to open the eyes of the readers of his day, and to focus them, “by evoking great heroes of the past like David and Josiah, Matthew points his readers to the ultimate hero to whom all those other stories pointed.”2
In fact, genealogies usually list a person’s descendants, not ancestors (Gen 5:1; 10:1). “Matthew’s point here is profound: so much is Jesus the focal point of history that his ancestors depend on him for their meaning.”3
A better ruler
“Son of David” has messianic connotations, and is used by Matthew 17 times, more than any other book in the NT.4 The connection to David in these “boring” genealogies shows Jesus’ royalty. To see this, you have to go all the way back to Read the rest of this entry
That’s my daughter, Abby.
She has almost as many facial expressions as I do! (That’s saying something).
In the fifteen months that she’s been alive, I’ve quickly caught on to the joy of watching her grow. Because she’s so young, the changes she goes through can take place in weeks, even days. For example, one day she’s spluttering out a couple of mashed-up vowels; the next day, she’s connecting those vowels with consonants and arranging the sounds enough to articulate jibberish. I’m laughing even as I’m trying to explain this :-) But someday, she will be speaking to me in sentences far more advanced than my own. All of this is part of watching her develop. And it is my great joy to watch.
It must have been the same way for Matthew, the tax collector.
As Matthew looked back, piecing together historical facets of Jesus’ life, reliving the life of Jesus in his own writings must have thrilled him. Matthew simply spelled out what the Apostles saw and experienced (Luke 24:48). But what Matthew chose to write was a selective view into the early years of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew wanted us to know certain things about Jesus. So he listened intently to the Apostles; he arranged a story based on their objective accounts; and he emphasizing a single point: Jesus is the promised Messiah.
What’s of particular interest to me in Matthew’s Gospel are the first five chapters.
Matthew underlines Jesus’ development: His birth, life, and inauguration to ministry. And he explains certain roles that Jesus will assume as God’s promised Messiah. Now, I do not mean characteristics, such as love, or compassion. But roles, such as King, Priest, Prophet, etc.
These are the faces of Jesus according to Matthew. Of course, there are great differences between Abby’s faces and Jesus! It’s these divine differences that I want to highlight during the month of December.
This is not an Advent reading.
This is not an exhaustive list.
Some of these “faces” haven’t even been fulfilled yet.
But they are historic, prophetic descriptions by Matthew of Jesus Christ. And their purpose is to lift our hearts and minds above our personal lives to a transcendent God-man. This is timely as we approach the day we celebrate His birth.
Every week (perhaps more) I will post different faces of Jesus according to Matthew’s first five chapters. It will be explanatory, but also reflective–and personal. Please join me, and chime in if you like.
The first post will happen on Wednesday morning.
For God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:6 (HCSB)