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    Entries in Advent (12)


    The Matthean Narrative and the Birth of Christ :: Letting the Text Determine Us

    Photo by Pradeep Javedar

    As I prepared to teach on Wednesday evening last week, I spent time with the insights of Stanley Hauerwas in Matthew, a Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible. My text that evening was Matthew 1:18-25. I wanted our students to focus on the story of Jesus' birth, without sentimentalizing the story. I focused on two key ideas. First, I wanted to share that in Jesus, we believe that God came to us in the flesh. Christians refer to this as the doctrine of the incarnation. Second, I wanted our students to see that the coming of Christ is a sign of God's loving care for us. As the angel told Joseph, the child was to be named Jesus, for he would "save his people from their sins." Even though we may face trouble, we are not without a deliverer. I did not cite Hauerwas in my talk, though some of his ideas stood in the background. I'd like to share some of what I learned.

    First, Hauerwas's commentary is unique in approach, for he takes certain assumptions to the reading of the text, foremost that Matthew means what he says and intends for his telling of the Jesus story to transform us. Hauerwas writes that we should read Matthew in a way that is determinative for us, naming realities we are invited to enter. Matthew presents Jesus in a way that gives witness to God's redemption of our world as an accomplished fact, and invites us to enter this reality as disciples of Jesus. Hauerwas states:

    For Matthew, Jesus has changed the world, requiring that our lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. Accordingly, the gospel is not information that invites us to decide what we will take or leave. Our task is not to understand the story that Matthew tells in light of our understanding of the world. Rather, Matthew would have our understanding of the world fully transformed as a result of our reading of his gospel. Matthew writes so that we might become followers, be disciples, of Jesus. To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes that change visible. (25)

    Second, as an extension of this idea, Hauerwas believes that the church itself, and those persons who make up the collective, constitute a way of being in the world that makes the change God has enacted--the kingdom life--visible, tangible, and powerfully compelling. Hauerwas continues:

    A theological reading of Matthew...reaffirms that the church be an alternative politics to the politics of the world. . . this commentary is guided by the presumption that the church is the politics that determines how Matthew is to be read. That politics, moreover, is one that presumes, as the gospel of Matthew presumes, that the whole life of Jesus is to be understood as determinative for the life of the church. (29-30)

    To clarify, Hauerwas refuses to allow our reading of the birth narrative and the story of Jesus' death and resurrection as told in Matthew to squeeze out the middle years.  Notice, he says "the whole life of Jesus is to be determinative for the life of the church." Hauerwas notes that the birth narrative lends itself toward sentimentality (we know this all too well), and our focus on the cross and resurrection, though justified, leads us to wrongfully assume that the gospel of and about Jesus is solely about our deliverance from hell and our future hope of life eternal in heaven (stated differently, we in the West often employ a theology that is individualistic). A focus on "the whole life" leads us back to the teachings of Jesus, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, and the significance of Jesus' healing, reconciliation, and restoration ministry, the application of which in the present leads us to a greater focus on ecclesiology (or community) and sanctification (or personal holiness). This does not mean that the significance of the incarnation is lost, nor the reality of the atonement minimized. Rather, they are magnified when seen through a wider lens, properly contextualized in a way that equips the church to live more fully in to the calling to "go and make disciples of all nations."

    Matthew's narrative is meant to determine us. We do not go to the text seeking to determine what is insightful or inspiring. Rather, we read Matthew's story as those invited to a new way of seeing through Matthew's way of saying. As we learn to tell the story Matthew tells, and come to the recognition that Matthew's story is, in fact, true, our vision is reformed, and our lives are transformed in accordance with the change God has already accomplished in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We take on a new being; we are made a "new creation." Matthew invites us in to this story in a direct and forthright address. Hauerwas writes:

    Matthew does not try to prepare us for the story of Mary by providing a transition from the genealogies to the story of Mary's pregnancy. Rather, he tells us in a straightforward, if not blunt, manner that 'the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.' Again we see that Matthew does not assume it is his task to make God's work intelligible to us, but rather his task is to show us how we can live in light of Jesus' conception and birth. (35)

    Lastly, I'll close with one more insight from Hauerwas--something I have pondered for several years. In Matthew 1:21, Joseph is told in a dream that the child to be born of Mary will, "save his people from their sins." Though we may be tempted to read this verse cosmically rather than first in its particularity, Joseph certainly understood the angel to mean the people of Israel, for it is through Israel that God had promised to bring about the salvation of the world. And if Christians today are to live most fully as the people of God, we must never forget this very fact. Hauerwas states:

    [W]hen Christians lose the significance of Mary in the economy of salvation we also risk losing our relation with the people of Israel. Jesus is born of a Jewish mother. His flesh is Jewish flesh. To be sure Jewish flesh is human, but Christians dare not forget that the flesh that is 'very man' is particularly the flesh of Mary. Matthew will not let us forget that the one born of Mary is he who has come to free Israel from its sins. Jesus is very God and very man, but that formula does not mean we can ever forget that the God he is, and the man he is, is the same God that has promised to be faithful to the people of Israel. (36)

    The nations have been engrafted in to a history, the history of God's salvation. May we be humbled by this fact, living in light of 1 Peter 2:10: "Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy."


    Preparing for Christmas :: Two Sources for Advent Devotional Readings

    Photo by himbeerbel

    I think everyone knows that the Christmas season is hijacked by commercialism and consumerism each year, but why should we be surprised? Everyone wants to get in on a good thing. But let's not allow the competing interests to crowd out the true significance of the season. Let's use this as an opportunity to grow.

    Each Advent, Christians have the opportunity to slow down, reflect, act with intention, and deepen their faith. One way to do that is through devotional readings. I recommend choosing one set of readings, and follow along faithfully for the season. If you miss a day, just skip ahead and pick it back up. Focus your energy, go deep, and give your soul room to digest the readings. Then, put the truths you encounter in practice.

    Now, two opportunities.

    First, Bible Gateway has released their list of Advent and Christmas devotions. You can sign up for a variety of newsletters here, topically themed. You can read selections from Scripture that tell the Christmas story, devotional writings based on favorite hymns, or receive links to audio recordings from The Voice Bible.

    As a second option, you might want to follow along with my church community as we move through the Advent season. Members of our congregation will generate short reflections on Scripture, and on Saturdays we will provide ideas for family activities. Follow our blog or subscribe to receive the readings via email.

    You may be aware of another option, and if so I encourage you to share in the comments. Whatever you choose, stay faithful, read carefully, and grow in Christ.


    Christmas is Coming! How's a Book Give Away Sound?

    With Advent upon us and Christmas fast approaching, I'm glad to announce that my friends at IVP have supplied three copies of Patty Kirk's The Gospel of Christmas: Reflections for Advent, a book sure to warm your heart and focus your mind on the miracle that is the incarnation.

    To be eligible to win, here's how to play:

    • Announce this give away on Twitter. Be sure to mention me: @bsimpson.
    • Share this post on Facebook. Make sure you leave a comment below saying you did. I'll take your word for it.
    • Like my Facebook page, say hello on my wall, and state that you'd like to be entered for the drawing.
    • Comment on this thread, and share your favorite Christmas memory.

    So very easy.

    And for each step you take, that's one more entry in to the hopper, increasing your chances to win. Deadline will be Friday at 1:00 p.m. At that time, I'll email the three winners, wait for mailing addresses, and if replies are quick, I'll have them on the way by Friday afternoon.

    Everyone loves free. So share the free with your friends, invite them to stop by the blog, and take the steps needed to be eligible for the drawing.

    Merry Christmas, every one.


    Book Review :: Adam Hamilton's The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem

    A few weeks ago I provided a review of Mike Slaughter's Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, an Advent title from Abingdon Press that should help congregations prepare for the celebration of Christmas.  Adam Hamilton's The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem is likewise an Advent title, based loosely on a series of sermons given at Church of the Resurrection in 2010.  In this short book, Hamilton focuses on the life of Mary, helping us to see with clarity the magnitude of her life in light of her faithful response to God's calling as the one who would bear the Christ in her womb, mother him, mourn his death at Calvary, and eventually be found among the disciples at Pentecost.  Mary has been a bugaboo for Protestants, so Hamilton's treatment is refreshing and helpful for non-Catholics who have not heard enough about the mother of Jesus via sermon or in Sunday school lessons.

    This isn't to say that Mary has not been present in Protestant tellings, nor that she has not been important.  But it seems to me that her life has been reflected upon too seldom, for there are so many other things taking place at the birth of Jesus demanding our attention.  Herod, threatened by the prospect of the birth of another king, orders the murder of a host of children.  Intellectuals from the east have come from afar to visit Jesus as a child.  Joseph, according to Matthew's account, has struggled with the news of Mary's pregnancy, and must be assured by way of a dream that the marriage is right.  Shepherds, according to Luke, have been summoned to the place of Jesus's birth by a host of angels, and depart amazed, sharing all they have heard and seen with others.  Also in Luke, it is Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who in old age has conceived a child who will go before Jesus.  His name will be called John.

    Amidst all this commotion, Mary is mostly quiet, submissive, and open to God's will.  With the exception of the Magnificat, found in Luke's gospel, her remarks are mostly brief, and the editorial descriptions of her and her inner dispositions are sparse.  Mary responds to the Lord's messenger in faith, is obedient to her calling, and though never forgotten, does little to bring the spotlight solely upon herself.  It's as though her life is meant to point beyond herself, to the One who has called her, who has endowed her with the responsibility of bringing in to the world the one who will be Messiah.  She seems to understand that she is not the centerpiece of the narrative.  She is not the pivot upon which history turns.  But without her, the story is not complete.  Jesus has a particularity.  He has a mother.  He was born a Jew.  And we need to learn from whence Jesus comes.  We need to learn from Mary.

    Rev. Hamilton thus beckons Mary forth.  He says, "Mary, let us look at your life, and learn from it."  And he does so by carefully tending to the biblical text, utilizing biblical scholarship in a clear and helpful manner, and finally, adds a pastoral touch that makes these narratives relatable and applicable, illuminating ways these texts might inform the life of a faithful person through the use of examples from his ministry, as well as through the use of short, written prayers that concretize a lesson, such as learning to listen to God like Mary did to the angel, serving as a messenger like the shepherds, or finding a Mary and Elizabeth in your life.  

    Rev. Hamilton also takes care to distinguish between Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant teachings concerning Mary, addressing issues like the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception (most outside the Catholic tradition think this refers to Jesus--it does not, rather, it refers to the belief that Mary was conceived without sin).  Hamilton is also careful to address the debate among conservative and liberal scholars on the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus, arguing that both Matthew and Luke sought "to be clear that the biological reality of Mary's pregnancy was made possible by the direct action of God."  

    In addition to these doctrinal concerns, Hamilton addresses historical questions, tracing Mary's steps from the announcement of the angel to the birth of Christ.  In doing so, Hamilton tackles simple but elucidating questions, such as the path Joseph and Mary may have taken when traveling to Bethlehem, and the nature of the dwelling Mary and Joseph occupied during Jesus's birth, as well as the cultural and religious reasons why they may have been in a stable, instead of in the home of a relative.

    I have read a number of Rev. Hamilton's books, and this might be the one that I have enjoyed the most.  It is warm, pastoral, and focused primarily on getting the story straight.  Hamilton wants us to know Mary--who she was, where she has been, and the relevance she has for us today.

    I would suggest this book as an Advent study, or for a study of the life of Mary.  It is a good resource for small groups and other fellowships that can foster discussion, evoke reflection, and challenge the reader to greater faithfulness to the God who called forth Mary to bear the Christ, and who also calls us forth as witnesses, as heralds, as servants.

    Disclaimer: In accordance with federal guidelines, I must disclose this book was received in exchange for a review.


    The Advent Project :: A Recap

    This Advent I did something many preachers and teachers do every year--I reflected on the lectionary and composed my thoughts.  I took it up as a challenge and as a way to stimulate my thinking about what it is that we celebrate in Christmas.  I found myself deeply struck by a few things, most notably the beauty and coherence of the biblical narrative.  Each week I tried to carefully find the thread which tied together the appointed readings.  Each week I found it to be the same--Jesus.  Of course, this shouldn't come as a shock.  We are to "offer Christ," after all.

    Below are links to the six messages I composed for Advent.  

    In addition, friends and family members responded to this project by joining with me in giving money to Living Water International.  I set a goal of $500 to help provide clean water for people around the world.  As it now stands, we raised $535, and soon Molly and I will add to that amount by making a year end gift.  Woohoo!  Thanks to all who participated!