The Promise of Peace: Christmas in the Wake of Tragedy

When I began preparing my sermon for last Sunday on the topic of Christmas and the promise of peace, I didn’t know I would deliver it only days after what was undoubtedly one of the most wicked and satanic acts of evil to occur in my lifetime. Like many pastors, I felt the weighty responsibility to step into the pulpit and lead the people of God in reflecting biblically on the tragedy that took place on December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. Little sense can be made of such events that bring us face to face with the gross reality and horror of such grievous sin. But the scriptures do speak to these heartbreaking circumstances, and they speak of sympathy, faith, and hope. They speak of a day when the promise of peace will be fully realized. 

The team at Seedbed.com was kind enough to publish the sermon in its entirety, which can be found at this link. Perhaps this sermon will be a comfort to some of you.

Three Keys to Reading Revelation in the Church

To say the book of Revelation intimidates many readers of Christian Scripture is probably an understatement. The difficulty of understanding its ancient Jewish apocalyptic symbolism and imagery is only compounded by the complexity of its structure. Beyond the challenges of the text itself, there are almost as many different interpretations of John’s Apocalypse as there are interpreters. We want to understand this important book of scripture, but it’s difficult to sort through which guides and commentaries are more helpful and which are less. How are we to overcome all these roadblocks to reading Revelation? Where do we begin if we are interested in leading a Bible study or preaching a series of sermons on this dense book? Well, there is good news. It is possible to hear what Revelation says to the church in both the ancient and the modern world. 

Click through to read the rest of this article at Seedbed for three tips to get you started reading Revelation in your local church.

Advent and the Reality of the Kingdom

I’m preaching a series of four sermons on Luke 1-2 this Advent that focus on four promises that are kept in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. This past Sunday’s sermon was on “The Promise of a King”. 

And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).

The Old Testament is full of promises that God would one day send a special king. From the blessing of Jacob in Genesis 49 that, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,” (10) to the word of the Lord to David in 2 Samuel 7, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (12-13). Also well-known is Isaiah 9:7, “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” 
When we come to Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, we tend to focus on the nature of Jesus’ virginal conception. That is certainly there, and there are several good reasons that we should take it be historically accurate. But in the text itself, the nature of Jesus’ conception functions secondarily in relation to the angel’s message that Mary’s baby will reign over the house of Jacob and sit on David’s throne. That is, when we ask the question: what is the major thing Luke wants us to hear in the angel’s message to Mary? The answer is that all the promises of God to raise up a king to rule in wisdom and righteousness over Israel and the nations are kept and answered with a resounding “Yes!” in birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
We commonly refer to Jesus as “Lord” and “King”, and we often speak in terms of his kingdom. However, I wonder how much we spiritualize the reign of Christ in such a way that we make it out to be rather less real, less relevant to the real issues in life. I fear that far too often we look to the governing authorities, the kings of this world, to deal with the real, external, and visible problems (like poverty and the economy) and turn to Jesus for sentimental comfort with internal and invisible matters. We want King Jesus to be lord of our lives, but we don’t expect him to say much (or anything) about how the powers actually run the world.
But when I read Luke I am struck by the reality of the kingdom. After Mary goes to stay with Elizabeth, she celebrates that God has kept his promise by overturning the power structures of the world: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (1:52). This theme continues into Acts (Luke’s second volume) where we read of Jesus’ ascent to the throne of heaven, an image of his kingly authority if ever there was one. The opponents of the first Christians certainly perceived that early Christian proclamation posed a threat to the power of the Roman Empire. In Acts 17:7, the believers in Thessalonica are accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And at the end of Acts Paul is in Rome, the capital city, waiting to declare the gospel of King Jesus to Caesar himself. If there is anything Luke wants us to understand, it is that the kingdom of God in the reign of Jesus Christ is as real, indeed more real, than any governing authority in the present age.
One thing that makes it difficult for us to remember the reality of Jesus’ reign is that it is not marked by the typical things we associate with rule and authority. The kingdom of Jesus is not characterized by any palace nor capitol building. The advance of this kingdom is not made visible by missiles and tanks. Nor is it marked by national boundary. Instead, it is marked by the increasing obedience of the people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. And it is all the more real for it. 
Advent calls upon us to catch a fresh vision of the reign of Christ over all the nations. Christ is not merely responsible for reigning over “spiritual” matters while the governing authorities handle the real business of running the world. He claims lordship over every affair, and every authority is responsible to reign and govern  as stewards of the world that Christ claims his own. The responsibility of the people of God is to be constantly, if not frustratingly, reminding the world that the resurrected Jesus is King of the world. The task is not easy. It will be rejected as exclusivistic and derided as impractical. But it is our task, nevertheless, to disciple the nations by teaching them to obey King Jesus. Advent insists that nothing less will do. 

RBL Review: Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Flemming)

My review of Dean Flemming’s commentary on Philippians in the Review of Biblical Literature is now available online. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean earlier this year at the Wesleyan Theological Society and seeing him again at Society of Biblical Literature. I was excited to hear about the kinds of projects he is working on and look forward to his forthcoming work. 
This commentary on Philippians will be extremely beneficial to pastors and students in the Wesleyan-Methodist tradition. And interested readers in other traditions will find it useful in gaining a better understanding of the biblical basis for key elements of Wesleyan theology, the doctrine of Christian Perfection not least. There aren’t a lot of commentaries out there that take an explicitly “Wesleyan” perspective. And as winner of the 2012 Smith/Wynkoop Book Award, this one is certainly worth your time. Here’s an excerpt from the review that highlights the value of this commentary for the Wesleyan tradition: 

Another important issue for Flemming’s Wesleyan approach is Paul’s self-description as one of the “perfect”  (τέλειος) in 3:15. He rejects the common suggestion that Paul is speaking ironically and argues instead that the apostle has in mind the adoption of the mind of Christ. Flemming expresses his dissatisfaction with the common translation of this term with the English “mature,” which falls short of the comprehensive wholeness that Paul has in mind, a sentiment shared by this reviewer. Drawing on the writings of John Wesley, who is  well-known for his doctrine of Christian  perfection, Flemming argues for an understanding of perfection that is not static and absolute but dynamic and relative and that corresponds to Paul’s insistence on describing the present experience of some Christians in terms of perfection. This portion of the commentary is immensely valuable for its articulation of a Wesleyan distinctive that is faithful to Pauline thought and that needs to be discovered afresh among present-day Wesleyans.

Read the whole review here.

Incarnating the Righteousness of God: Richard Hays on a Controverted Phrase

The meaning of the apostle Paul’s phrase “the righteousness of God” (Gk. δικαιοσυνη θεου) has been the subject of much controversy in recent years. Does it refer to justification? To God’s own attribute of righteousness? God’s covenant faithfulness? His saving righteousness, perhaps? One verse from Paul that, for various reasons, complicates the discussion is 2 Corinthians 5:21. Here’s the distinguished Richard Hays on that passage:
The eschatological transformation of the community explains Paul’s extraordinary affirmation that the purpose of God’s reconciling work in Christ is “that we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). He does not say “that we might know about the righteousness of God,” nor “that we might believe in the righteousness of God,” nor even “that we might receive the righteousness of God.” Instead, the church is to become the righteousness of God: where the church embodies in its life together the world-reconciling love of Jesus Christ, the new creation is manifest. The church incarnates the the righteousness of God.
This is from Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament (1996), p. 24. Thoughts?

Review: The Lost World of Genesis One (John H. Walton)

The lines of the creation-evolution debate are boldly and firmly drawn and few plausible arguments have been made that carve a promising path forward. But with The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Kindle edition), John H. Walton provides just such an argument. Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, Walton’s evangelical credentials are substantial. In this book, he offers a reading of Genesis 1 that aims to take seriously both the trustworthiness of scripture and the original intention of the biblical author yet does not commit him to the view that the universe was created some 6,000 or so years ago.
The thesis of the book is that Genesis 1 is not (nor was it ever intended to be) an account of the material origins of the universe. Instead, he argues, it was intended to be an account of the functional origins of the universe. That is, Genesis 1 is not about how or when God made the stuff of creation but about the function God intends for the created order. 
This distinction will be very challenging for modern minds to grasp, if only because the notion of creation has primarily to do with the creation of materials. Walton argues, however, that ancient near eastern people understood the concept of creation in a very different way; namely, they thought of creation in terms of its God intended function. This is not to deny that God made all things or that he made all things out of nothing. No ancient Hebrew would deny that. It is simply to say that Genesis 1 is not about the creation of the material world. And, Walton insists, an ancient Hebrew reader would never have thought it was. 
So, what does it mean that Genesis 1 is about the creation of the functional origins of the cosmos? Walton argues that the creation narrative in Genesis 1 was intended to be an account of how God established the functions of his cosmic temple. That means that God intended the creation, which he had already made at a previous and undisclosed time, to be his own personal dwelling place, his own temple. And the events on the six days of creation are his work to establish the functions proper to that sacred dwelling place, not least the climactic moment when those who bear the divine image are placed within the temple. 
The reason this book is so important is simple: if Walton is right, then Genesis 1 makes absolutely no comment on the present day creation-evolution debate. Evolution is about the material origins of the universe; according to Walton, Genesis 1 is about the functional origins of the universe. To suggest that Genesis 1 provides an alternative account of the material origins of the universe against evolutionary theory is simply to make a category mistake. Genesis and science are making statements about two altogether different matters. Walton’s contribution is to give us a serious and literal reading of Genesis that does not contradict modern science.
Throughout this book, Walton insists that he is firmly committed to the truthfulness of Genesis 1 and the original intent of its author. Unfortunately, I suspect many committed to a young earth may write Walton off as compromising scripture for the sake of science. To do so, however, will be a failure to take seriously the argument he is advancing. Indeed it is Walton’s obvious love for scripture and his conviction that it speaks truly that led him to produce this interpretation that values so highly the authorial intent of the Bible. One may argue with his exegesis, but no one should suggest that he is not taking the text of scripture seriously.
Quite the page turner, this book is compelling both devotionally and academically. And if you are one of the many who struggles because you hold a high view of scripture and yet find many theories of modern science compelling, then this is the book you have been waiting for. You won’t be able to put it down.

Review: Preach: Theology Meets Practice (Dever & Gilbert)

Books on preaching abound. And those of us who make a regular practice of reading such books must sift through the available volumes to decide which ones merit our attention and which do not. Full of homiletic wisdom and insight, Preach: Theology Meets Practice, co-authored by Mark Dever and Greg Gilbert, most assuredly falls in the former category.
The subtitle of the book is reflected in its three-part division: Part One: Theology, Part Two: Practice, and Part Three: Sermon Transcripts. Recognizing that the monologue sermon is scandalous in a culture saturated with images, Part One is a carefully composed and rigorous defense of Christian preaching. The argument is grounded in the basic observation that the God of the Bible is a speaking God. His word gives life to his people, and, as a result, his people are in desperate need of hearing his word. As the proclamation and explanation of the word of God, faithful preaching is, therefore, a necessity for the life and health of the people of God. Anyone interested in why Christians have, for centuries, engaged in and sat under preaching will find this part of the book valuable. And it is not written for pastors exclusively. Lay persons interested in what is supposed to be happening when your pastor preaches week after week will also enjoy and appreciate this part of the book. 
Taking up the topic of “Practice”, Part Two includes chapters on what to preach (5), sermon preparation (6), structure (7), delivery (8) and review (9). I found this part of the book especially helpful, and have modified the way I prepare sermons as a result of reading it. I also particularly appreciated the section on application and have incorporated elements of the authors’ method into my own work. 
Part Two would have been stronger had the topics of chapters six and seven been reversed. The discussion in chapter seven, which briefly introduced the parts of the sermon and their functions, would have led nicely into chapter six, which discussed the process of moving from biblical text to finished sermon. With the way these chapters are ordered in the published version of the book, the reader is instructed on how to prepare each part of the sermon before actually being introduced to the nature and function of those parts. This is no reason to pass over this valuable book. Simply know that chapter six will make more sense once you’ve read chapter seven; or, perhaps, simply read them in reverse order.
Part Three models the weekly sermon review process (introduced in chap. 9) in which each of the authors participate on Sunday evenings after they’ve preached. Two sermon transcripts are included, one from each author, along with comments, both charitable and critical, and feedback from the other. This final part of the book helpfully illustrates much of what has been taught in the first two parts. And, given that most preachers do not engage in a weekly review of their homiletic work, this section should prove interesting and instructive to many. Regular affirmative and corrective sermon review could go a long way in improving much of our preaching. 
This book is not just for preachers. Those who listen to preaching will better understand its necessity and importance. Those who do preach will learn and grow as practitioners of their homiletic craft. This is my new favorite book on preaching, and I am happy to commend  it to you.