Friday, October 18, 2013

Listening to God's Word

photo credit: <a href="">Findo</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

A wonderful quote from Mark Galli at Christianity Today:
Whenever the Bible is read, a hush should come over us. We should be inching toward the edge of our seats, leaning forward, turning our best ear toward the speaker, fearful we'll miss a single word—the deeds and words and character of Almighty and Merciful God are being revealed! In a world of suffering and pain, of doubt and despair, of questions about the meaning and purpose of existence, we are about to hear of God's glory, forgiveness, mercy and love, of his intention for the world, of his promise to make it all good in the end, of the way to join his people, of the means to abide with him forever! And there we sit, tapping our feet, mentally telling the preacher to get on with it.
photo credit: Findo via photopin cc 

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

QOTD - C.S. Lewis on "The Crude Monosyllable"

From the wonderful compilation of C.S. Lewis essays entitled The Weight of Glory:
I spoke just now of fiddling while Rome burns. But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled while on the brink of hell. You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven or hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.
C.S. Lewis. "Learning in War-Time." The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. HarperCollins: New York, 2001. Page 48.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Reclaiming the Gift

Have you ever stopped to seriously consider the question: "What is a gift?" The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "gift" this way: a thing given willingly to someone without payment. I think that's a pretty good definition, but probably not for the reasons employed by the editors of the The New Oxford American Dictionary.

How should gifts be viewed by Christians? Have you ever thought much about that? I think we need to reform our understanding of what a gift is, because our culture's definition of "gift" is, in actuality, nothing like the dictionary definition and undermines the very thing Christmas is about - the stunning incarnational wonder of the gospel.

In our society, gift giving at Christmas is generally viewed through the lens of social obligation. We each have a carefully crafted list of recipients. Then we create sublists of gift ideas for each recipient. These sublists contain things we hope our recipients will enjoy. Alongside each entry on the sublist, in invisible ink, is our anxiety estimate. We rate each idea not only in terms of how much we think the recipient will enjoy the gift, but we also take note of how much anxiety each idea gives us, should that particular gift idea be received poorly by the recipient. Ultimately, what we choose as a gift for a particular recipient will hopefully maximize the enjoyment of the recipient, while minimizing our perceived anxiety should the gift, for whatever reason, be rejected.

We are, of course, able to judge whether a gift recipient has enjoyed our selection almost instantly based on verbal and nonverbal cues which are, frankly, impossible to conceal. How we formulate our gracious, socially acceptable gift rejection cues will have to wait for another blog post.

In my view, we have largely lost the meaning of the word "gift" in our culture. We actually kill off the wonder of giving gifts because we have become a people consumed with meeting all of the social norms and requirements for a proper "gift exchange." Note that "gift exchange" is a contradiction in terms, at least if you accept the dictionary definition of gift that I cited earlier.

As a result, Christmas can become an insufferable pot of anxiety. We spend weeks worrying about making others happy (which are really worries about making ourselves happy). In fact, gift giving has become, as everything has in contemporary culture, ultimately about “me.” The exchange of gifts has taken on attributes of the contract - both parties must benefit. And that's the opposite of what it means to actually give a gift, because a gift is given without regard to mutual beneficence.

This point was made apparent to me in a recent Wall Street Journal article "The Science Behind Gifting." That word "science" in the headline is a giveaway. The premise of the article is that gift giving can be reduced into measurable categories regarding our perception of the recipient's satisfaction with our gift, as well as our own feelings of warmth and closeness with the recipient. In short, "gifting" as science makes it about the giver rather than the receiver!

This explains why we are always at a loss, and feel guilty, whenever we receive an actual gift. Real gifts give us the heebie jeebies because we are stuck in the only model too many people know - the gift exchange. When we receive an actual gift, what is our response? Part of it is usually spot on: Heck, I didn't deserve this! You shouldn't have! Amen! That's why it's a gift! But then what happens right after that? Guilt drives us back to the model we know ("But, I didn't get you anything"), which gets us plotting a quick response that will somehow get us square with the one who so audaciously broke the social conventions of the gift exchange.

Isn't this an exhausting way to live? How can we ever recover the wonder and joy associated with gifts that are given the way the dictionary, and the Bible, describes?

There is only one way to reclaim our understanding of a gift, and it is cruciform. Christian, you have received the perfect gift (the Father), by the perfect purchaser (the crucifixion of the Son), by means of the perfect giver (the Holy Spirit). We are the utterly undeserving recipients who can in no way reciprocate. The wonder of the incarnational gift of God is that we are cornered and left with only one possible response - joyous praise and worship.

Gospel means good news, and here it is: The utterly unworthy and undeserving have received the perfect gift, God, from God, for the glory of God. Once you understand and believe that, then your own giving will be freed from slavery to social duty and pride, and your receiving will be freed from guilt and inadequacy. Doesn't that sound like more fun than the treadmill of the exchange?
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:23-25 ESV)

Friday, September 07, 2012

"Houses Are for Occupancy"

From: The Unhappy Hipster
At First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota, I've been preaching through the gospel of Matthew. The sermon text this week is Matthew 12:38-50. Here are verses 43:45 (Jesus is speaking):
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
About these verses, scholar and commentator Dale Bruner writes:
Empty, neutral, externally Christianized people sooner or later find their little passions - from civic clubs to sports, from politics to parlor games - insufficiently fulfilling. For our own good, therefore, Jesus summons us to 'Fill the house!' to join the church and to take her worship services seriously, to appropriate our filling by the Holy Spirit given to us in Christian baptism, and to become Jesus' disciples in the world of our work. For our empty, swept, tidy houses will be filled sooner or later by something, because houses are for occupancy.*
Emphasis added.

The question for the week: With what will you be fulfilled?

[Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1: The Christbook, 579.]

Monday, July 02, 2012

"All Concepts of Reality that Ignore Jesus Christ Are Abstractions"

In his terrific biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas quotes from Bonhoeffer's Ethics:
In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world. The place where the questions about the reality of God and about the reality of the world are answered at the same time is characterized solely by the name: Jesus Christ. God and the world are enclosed in this name ... we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.
Jesus is Lord over all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jesus in the Infrequented Text

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. - Luke 24:25-27 ESV

The church I serve has a Sunday morning class called "Bible 101." I launched the class soon after my arrival with the initial objective of reading through and discussing the first five books of the bible, called the Pentateuch. So far, this intrepid group has studied the entirety of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. Three years into the class, we have now made it almost all the way through Numbers.

One of the things I try to do in the class is to demonstrate how these texts fit into the overall flow of salvation history. A paraphrased St. Augustine put it this way, "The New Testament is in the Old Testament contained, while the Old Testament is in the New Testament explained." I've taken this approach because of Jesus' critical teaching in Luke 24, where he explains to his disciples how the entire Old Testament is about him.

Every now and then, however, I need to be reminded of this truth, especially when examining infrequently studied texts.

Last Sunday was a case in point. The group studied Numbers 30, a chapter containing the law regarding oaths made to God. Remember the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers 30? Me neither.

Basically, the structure of the chapter is like this: Men are prohibited from making vows and then backing out of them when the underlying circumstances behind the vow change. The rules for women differ because they are understood to be under the authority of a head-of-household. For example, in the case of a never-married woman, her father has the right to cancel her vow if he so chooses. If a woman marries, this ability to cancel her vow becomes her husband's responsibility. Numbers 30 also gives instructions about vows to folks in other situations. An example would be cases where a woman is divorced or widowed and no longer attached to a head-of-household.

I walked the class through the text, and the biblical structure of the household. One of the things I pointed out is that women get the better deal in this chapter because, unlike the men, it is possible for them to get out of unwise, rash oaths made to God.  Having made this observation, which I thought was very astute, I asked if there were any questions. One of the participants then raised her hand and asked, "So what does this text tell us about Jesus?"

My immediate response was two-fold. First, I was thrilled that she asked the question, because it showed me that she had thoroughly learned that Jesus was serious in Luke 24 about everything in the OT pointing to him. My second response was one of dismay. How come I hadn't asked myself that question before showing up to teach that morning?

After giving it some thought I gave what I hope is an answer faithful to the story of salvation.  I remembered that the church is the bride of Christ and Jesus has the authority to loose and bind all things related to His Bride. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus not only fulfilled all of God's vows to His people, but also that he bore the full iniquity of every rash vow we have made with God and have broken due to our sinful forgetfulness and neglect. Jesus perfectly fulfilled Numbers 30 on Calvary.

Remember that Jesus is in every text. In some cases, we may not see Him, especially in those infrequently considered texts that we gloss over because we erroneously believe them to be superfluous or unimportant. But He's in those texts, too. We should not be fooled into thinking otherwise because of our inability to see properly.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prayer Is the Mother of Mission

Praying for divine appointments by Chris Yarzab
Praying for Divine Appointments, by Chris Yarzab
Dale Bruner gives some convicting words on prayer as mission:
A creeping death sweeps over the mission of many churches in our time because, quite simply, prayer meetings have ceased.And beneath the death of prayer, at a deeper level, lies the death of a real belief that only Jesus literally saves people. Faith in Christ as sole savior has precipitously declined in mainline churches. But such faith is the mother of prayer, and prayer is the mother of mission.
From volume one of Bruner's Matthew: A Commentary, commenting on Matthew 9:35-10:4. Emphasis in the original.