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    Entries in Advent (11)


    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.


    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!


    Advent Project: Christmas Day

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    If you would like an mp3 version sent to you via email, leave a comment below and include your email address in the form provided.

    Beautiful Feet

    .: Scripture Readings (Text NRSV, Audio NRSV) :.

    Isaiah 52:7-10

    52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."

    52:8 Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.

    52:9 Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.

    52:10 The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God. 

    Psalm 98

    98:1 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.

    98:2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.

    98:3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

    98:4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

    98:5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.

    98:6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD.

    98:7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.

    98:8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy

    98:9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

    Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12)

    1:1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,

    1:2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

    1:3 He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

    1:4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

    1:5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, "You are my Son; today I have begotten you"? Or again, "I will be his Father, and he will be my Son"?

    1:6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, "Let all God's angels worship him."

    1:7 Of the angels he says, "He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire."

    1:8 But of the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.

    1:9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."

    1:10 And, "In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands;

    1:11 they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing;

    1:12 like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end."

    John 1:1-14

    1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

    1:2 He was in the beginning with God.

    1:3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being

    1:4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

    1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

    1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

    1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

    1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

    1:9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

    1:10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

    1:11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.

    1:12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,

    1:13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

    1:14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.

     .: Theological Reflection :.

    The Loss of Fellowship

    I was reading on the web the other day a news report about Christmas Eve services, and how such gatherings had resulted in the closing of churches on Christmas Day.  The reporter remarked on how churches across the denominational spectrum--Catholics and Protestants of all stripes--had opted for services on the Eve of the date designated for the celebration of Jesus’ birth rather than the day itself.  In the evaluation of the reporter, this was regarded as a triumph of family over faith, and while that is obviously false, considering many churches encourage families to incorporate a retelling of the birth of Jesus in to their holiday traditions, there is something to be said for the fact that on Christmas Day a number of church buildings will be vacant, with the doors locked and the lights dim.

    We live at a time in which church attendance is not considered a critical part of the spiritual life by many, which is likely part of the reason why we do not gather on Christmas Day.  This has been noted by many cultural observers.  Growing animosity towards “the church” in the United States has left many to choose a spirituality of the self--a religion of one’s own making, if not a preference for no religion at all.  Even those who choose to designate themselves as “irreligious” remark that they are still “spiritual” people, they simply choose to reject the dogmas of Christianity or any other religious tradition and replace them with their own beliefs, many of which have been cherry-picked from a variety of worldviews, regardless of whether those beliefs have any coherency when considered together or whether or not those beliefs, when considered as a system, rest on a sound philosophical foundation.  I’ve encountered many people, Christian or otherwise, who go through life this way, failing to analyze and take an account of what they believe and why, and if their beliefs make sense.

    Why do I begin with this bit of sad news here on Christmas Day, a day of great joy and celebration?  I begin here because when we fail to gather together as Christians, we lose.  We lose because we are unable to hear the stories of Scripture, told to us as they are today by Andrew, Bobbie, Wendy, and Scott.  We lose because we are unable to sing the great anthems of the faith.  We lose because we are not able to encourage and love one another in a real, physical space, and remind one another that there is a God who watches over us all and has given us his great love.  On Christmas Day, we should gather not just with our families, but with our true family, as Jesus described it, those who hear the Word of God and do it.

    An Invitation to Vision-Adjustment

    I say this knowing that if you are listening to this message, you are doing so as a solitary individual, or at least I assume so.  This podcast series falls into the trappings of technology in that it allows the hearer to be able to consume information apart from a face to face human connection.  You are set apart from a larger community which can hold you accountable to these words, or, better, to help you rise to them.  But in crafting this series, I met with a number of people face-to-face, and as they read Scripture we were able to discuss the meanings behind the texts as well as the joys and challenges of life.  I’m trusting that you can do the same.  I’m trusting that whoever you are, wherever you are, you can gather people around you who will help you live the words of Scripture.  Or, you can set out to find a community of people already striving to do so, and join them.  Having at least a curiosity about Jesus, you can choose to go be among his people, and join them on the adventure of following after Christ.

    As you join in with a body of Christians, perhaps you’ll be reminded of our gospel reading for this Christmas day.  

    Our reading from John is a remarkable passage of Scripture.  Commonly read at Christmas, this text is meant to remind us that Jesus, the Word written of by John, being the light of the world, has come to show us the way.  By “receiving him,” as is written in verse 12, by believing in his name, he gives us the power to become children of God.  And as God, by grace, incorporates us into his family, we are given the task to point others to the light of Christ.  Perhaps you’ll find a body of people who, as they live life together, will give witness to the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  And in doing so, perhaps you’ll have your vision adjusted.  You’ll begin to see the church, and the world, a bit differently.  You’ll begin to realize that the church has helped to preserve ancient wisdom, and we need people like you to come and be a part of our life together so that perhaps we can remember just a bit better.  

    We can remember why it matters that we as the church proclaim that Jesus, before he was born in Bethlehem, existed as the pre-incarnate-Word, and is the one through whom all things were made.  We can remember why it matters that we believe Jesus has stepped forth into the darkness as a great light, and therefore that no matter how dire our situation, hope has come.  We can remember that in Jesus we find the full measure of both grace and truth, and thus as his people we must not only have compassion, but also the boldness to speak what is right.

    An Invitation to Theology and Doctrine

    What I’m speaking of, here, of course, is not only biblical, but theological.  As we read John 1, we not only consider what the text says, we consider what it means, and then we consider how we are to then live.  But in order for us to be our best, you’ll have to take up this task as well--the task of theology.

    At this point, you’re probably thinking, “But I don’t know much about the Bible, or about what the church believes!  How am I supposed to undertake the task of theology?  I’m no theologian!”  

    This question reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon.  In this particular strip, Peppermint Patty is leaning against a tree, her arms folded across her stomach and her legs crossed.  She is obviously enjoying her summer vacation.  Suddenly her best friend, Marcie, arrives on the scene.

    “I signed up for a summer reading program at the library,” Marcie announces.

    Although startled by this ominous turn of events, Peppermint Patty keeps her cool.  She responds matter-of-factly, “God didn’t make the summer for you to sit in the library, Marcie.”

    Peppermint Patty’s statement hits the mark, for Marcie quickly joins her friend, saying, “You know more about theology than I thought, sir.”

    The reality is that you know more about theology than you think you do.  You know more about the Bible than you think you do.  But the challenge is, that as a theologian, you must begin to think carefully and to think well concerning the words you say about God.  Our speech matters.  We need to be both deep and true.

    The other night, when I sat down with Wendy to record our reading from Hebrews 1, I was blown away by the eloquence of speech demonstrated by the preacher.  I was also struck as to how the preacher makes reference to eight Old Testament passages of Scripture, and demonstrates how each of these, in perhaps unexpected ways, points to Jesus.  When Wendy was finished, I said, “Nobody talks like that anymore.”  I didn’t mean that to say that I thought that what I had heard was inaccessible--lofty language no one can understand--but in the sense that what I heard was deeply theological and tightly woven, and how I long for more people to know the Christian tradition in this way so that we might demonstrate greater depth.  To recite but one portion:

    “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.  He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

    Jesus, the one through who all things were created, the heir of all things, the one who sustains all things by his word, purified us from sin, sits at the right hand of God, “the Majesty on high,” and has superiority to the angels.  Jesus, the exact imprint of God’s very being, the reflection of God’s glory.

    Translated loosely, when we look at Jesus, we see what God is like, and we can trust him, because he has power over all things, and he, through his sacrifice, has made us right with God.  I’m willing to bet that some of those things you already knew, and some you’re now thinking of in a new way.  And I’m willing to bet that over time, by God’s grace, you will come to understand all of these things more deeply.  As a result, you’ll be a better theologian.

    An Invitation to Witness

    Now that you’ve been invited to join in with a fellowship of believers during a time when people opt out, now that you’ve been invited to have your vision corrected by Jesus, the light of the world who shines in the darkness, and challenged to consider your world and the church a little different, and now that you’ve been invited to grow as a theologian, I invite you to be a witness.

    Isaiah writes, “ How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."  Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.  Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.  The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

    You are invited this Christmas Day to be a herald, one who runs delivering a message of good, one who announces peace and salvation.  You are invited to do so not only with your words, but with your very life.  You are invited to do so not only in doing good works, but in joining with others following Jesus seeking to accomplish an even greater good.  As Isaiah announced the coming salvation of those in exile, you are called to lead others on the journey towards the salvation of God that has come, and who carries us away from our sin and self-destruction.  You are invited to lead others into a relationship with Jesus, or perhaps take up his cross yourself.  As you walk, announcing the good news along the way, with your cross on your shoulder, you’ll come to have beautiful feet.  The Bible says so.

    Let this Christmas Day, this celebration of Jesus’ birth, be the beginning of a commitment to live life following after him more deeply, more truthfully.  Let it be a challenge.

    May you, this Christmas Day, choose to be a witness, a herald, that a child has been born unto us 2000 years ago in a small hamlet through whom God has redeemed all things, and that as we look forward to his coming again, we work to implement the victory he has already accomplished on his cross.  Amen.