December 23, 2011

The Advent of Love

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 21, 2011.

Christmas is a time when our thoughts turn easily to love. We think of those we love as we prepare for family gatherings and purchase gifts. Christmas is also a time when we think a little more carefully about God's love for us demonstrated in the sending of Jesus at his birth in Bethlehem. The truth of God's love revealed through Jesus has been on my mind as I've read several times through the stories of his birth in the gospels this Advent season. As I read these stories once again, though, I was struck that the word "love" doesn't appear in them. In recounting the stories of Jesus' birth, the gospel writers never describe that event in terms of God's love. So, that got me to thinking: Where do you turn in the Bible when you need help thinking about the revelation of God's love in the advent of Christ?

It wasn’t long before I remembered 1 John 4:9, "God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him." On the surface, this verse may not look like a Christmas verse. Remember, though, that Christmas is about the coming of Christ, and this is a verse about the coming of Christ. In fact, any verse that talks about God's purposes in sending Jesus to be with us and offer himself for us is a Christmas text, because those verses are about the coming of Christ.

So what does 1 John 4:9 tell us? It tells us simply and beautifully that God sent Jesus, his only Son, as an expression of his love. God sent Jesus so that we could experience his love in a way that no one had ever experienced it before. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, he was not like any other baby. He was the unique expression of the Father's love for us. Jesus came to fill the world with the love of God, and after the birth of Christ, love could never again be reduced to an abstract concept. With the birth of Mary's baby, love had come, and love had a human face.

But that's not all. This verse not only explains that the coming of Jesus is the revelation of God's love, it also tells us about God's purpose in that expression of love. And that purpose is to give life. Christ came so that we might have life through him. You don't have to look far to see that the world is lost in a sea of darkness and death. Just watch the evening news. Jesus came to infuse this tired world with the life of God. He came to take what was broken and restore it. He came to take what was dead and dying and give it life. And that's good news. That's the good news of Christmas.

As Christmas morning arrives, my hope and prayer for you is that you experience God's love and life in a way that you never have before. May the Christ, who is the perfect expression of the Father's love, make his presence known to you and fill you with his life this Advent season.

December 21, 2011

The Advent of Joy

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 14, 2011.

Have you ever been to that place? You know the one, the place where you are willing to do what you know you have to do but you are not excited about it. You know the task at hand, but you are not eager to face the challenges. So, you approach it with hesitation, timidity, and perhaps a little fear. You want to be joyful, because you know it's the right thing to do, but all too often, the right thing is the hard thing. I bet you've been there before.

Mary of Nazareth certainly had. After being visited by a messenger from God who told her that she would miraculously conceive a child who would be God's Messiah and the world's true king, Mary was committed to the plan. Remember her words: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word." Mary may have dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, but she never dreamed it would be like this. She may have hoped that one of her sons would be the Christ, but she didn't expect it to endanger her life or cause her the shame of the whispers and sideways glances, having become pregnant before she was married. Mary was certainly committed, but the Christmas narratives give us no initial indication that she was joyful about it. At least, not yet.

Instead of celebrating, Mary ran away. She went to the home of her relative Elizabeth, where Mary would spend the first three months of her pregnancy. The journey to Elizabeth's home would have likely taken about nine days on foot, a journey she probably made with a caravan. You can imagine the thoughts that swirled through her mind during those nine days. What will I do? What will I tell my parents? What will I tell Joseph? Who will believe me? Why is God putting me through this? Mary must have thought Elizabeth would understand. She must have thought there was no one else to whom she could turn.

When Mary entered Elizabeth's home, and before Mary could even tell Elizabeth about her unusual circumstances, Elizabeth knew and greeted Mary with excitement and reminded her that God keeps his word and that he can be trusted. Only after this do we read that Mary rejoiced. Only then did joy come to her heart.

I think there's a lesson to be learned there. When focused on her challenging and adverse circumstances, there is no indication that Mary was experiencing God's joy. In fact, the text suggests that she fled looking for a safe haven. It was only when Mary's attention was drawn to the consistency of God's character that joy returned. We need to learn what Mary had to learn: the source of our joy is never in our circumstances; it's always in God's character. Circumstances change; God remains the same. Life happens; God is consistent. Challenges and adversity will come; God is faithful and true. Joy comes in knowing the character of God, not in trying to navigate life on our own.

Perhaps you are in one of those places this Christmas season. Perhaps you are feeling the tension between what must be done and the challenge of doing it. My prayer for you is that your attention will be drawn to God's character and that you will be reminded that he is trustworthy. Perhaps this knowledge will be for you the advent of joy.

December 20, 2011

Are you ready?

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on December 7, 2011.

Advent is a season of preparation. As we celebrate the coming of Christ as the child of Mary, we also prepare ourselves for the day when he will come again. So, the Advent season is not merely about waiting passively for something to happen to us; it is an active preparation for the coming of God in Christ. This invites the question: what are we doing to prepare ourselves to receive the Christ?

We can find some help with this question in the familiar story of Mary. You remember the story; don't you? Mary was a young girl, engaged to a young man named Joseph. She was from a small and unimportant town called Nazareth. One day she was visited by a heavenly messenger named Gabriel, and his message was exceptional, strange, and even somewhat scary. The messenger told Mary that she would be the mother of a very unique child. Indeed, his conception and birth would be nothing short of miraculous. And God would make him a great king, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.

With all the joy and celebration that surrounds the Christmas story, it is easy to forget what a shocking and scary message this would have been for Mary.  We seldom realize that she was probably only 13 or 14 years old, the typical age for a Jewish girl to be married. And we often forget that, in first century Jewish world, becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a crime punishable by death. Even if her life was spared, she would live with the shameful looks and hurtful jokes of those who lived in Nazareth. Here she was, barely an adolescent, and this messenger from God brought news that could endanger her life and result in public shame.

In light of these things, Mary's response to Gabriel is nothing short of stunning. What did she say? Only this, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Even though it would be costly for her, Mary was already actively preparing for the coming of Christ. And she made preparation by offering herself completely and totally to God for his plan and his purposes.

With that in mind, we are left with the question of whether we are making ready to receive Christ. What are we doing to prepare for his coming? We would be wise to follow Mary's example and give ourselves fully to God and to his purposes. Allow me to invite you to do just that and to use Mary's prayer as a tool. Every day between now and Christmas, will you pray Mary's prayer: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." When you rise in the morning and before you go to bed at night, pray these words to God. Perhaps, if we do this, we will be increasingly ready to see God at work in a variety of ways, and perhaps we will be more ready to be involved in that work. Imagine what it might be like if our whole community prayed this prayer together throughout the month of December. Imagine what God might do through us and in this place. Just imagine. Are you ready?

December 12, 2011

Evangelicals Favor Nukes?

The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) has issued a critique of a document released by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) expressing concerns about nuclear armament and proliferation. The critique laments the loss of insight and the so-called leftward slide of the NAE not only because it has denounced things like alleged systematic torture but now also appears to be increasingly in favor of reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. The subject line of the IRD e-mail linking to this critique read: "Evangelicals for Nuclear Disarmament?" The question mark at the end suggests that the IRD finds it a strange curiosity that evangelicals would find nuclear disarmament desirable, an odd and curious suggestion from my point of view.

As with so many issues, the IRD once again seems to think evangelical Christianity has basically the same values as conservative American politics, but this matter of nuclear proliferation seems to illustrate the problem with that presupposition more clearly than some other issues. Evangelicals are typically identified by having a high Christology that affirms the full deity and full humanity of Jesus, believing in the full trustworthiness of scripture, and emphasizing the cruciality of the gospel in conversion. What is it about these basic tenets of evangelicalism that necessitates an affirmation of the value and necessity of nuclear weapons and a rejection of favoring nuclear disarmament? One wonders what the Prince of Peace thinks of the presupposition that his gospel commits his people to affirming the value of weapons capable of ending the lives of myriads of people and destroying the lives of countless others, of whom all are not only made in his image but objects of his sacrificial love.

I am reminded of the time that the sons of thunder thought it might be a good idea to call down fire from heaven to consume some Samaritans who would not receive Jesus (Luke 9:54). Their Lord and ours rebuked them indicating that, in his kingdom, we don't do things that way.

December 7, 2011

Inerrancy and Interpretation: The Licona Controversy

It is unfortunate indeed when members of the same team set their sights on one another. It is all the more tragic when the team on which they all play is evangelical Christianity. You have heard it said that, "a house divided against itself cannot stand," and misguided potshots certainly undermine the coherence of the larger whole. These reflections refer to the recent and volatile criticisms aimed at Michael Licona by Albert Mohler and Norman Geisler with regard to Licona's interpretation of Matthew 27:52-53 in his magisterial defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

The details of the controversy are available in other places; so I'll simply sum up the core issue. In his massive book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona devoted a few paragraphs to Matthew 27:52-53, which says that at the time of Jesus' death, "many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many." Licona suggests that this passage is apocalyptic "special effects" rather than historical detail (552). In response to Licona's interpretation of the passage, Norman Geisler, a prominent evangelical apologist, sent two open letters to Licona (1, 2) charging him with dehistoricizing the text, thus violating biblical inerrancy, and called upon him to recant his interpretation of the passage in question. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, followed Geisler calling Licona's argument "shocking and disastrous." Licona responded to these criticisms by affirming his commitment to inerrancy and stating his willingness to revise that portion of his argument in a future edition of the book, though he did not satisfy his critics by recanting.

One disturbing aspect of Mohler's and Geisler's criticisms is that they are not acknowledging that Licona understands his interpretation to comport with the truthfulness of scripture. The issue here is not one of inerrancy. The issue is about how we interpret and understand what the Bible is actually saying. Everyone involved in this debate knows that meaning depends on genre and authorial intent. So, the question is not whether Matthew was telling the truth. The question is whether he was intending to communicate apocalyptic symbolism or historical detail. If Licona is right, and Matthew is exhibiting a bit of apocalyptic flair in order to make a certain point, then Mohler and Geisler are guilty of not taking the text on its own terms. Instead, they are reading their presuppositions into the text, which subverts the truthfulness and authority of the text. Inerrancy is not incompatible with symbolism. Licona is not rejecting the literal truth of the text. Indeed, if Matthew is intending to communicate in apocalyptic poeticism, then the text is literally symbolic, and Mohler and Geisler have themselves missed the literal meaning of the text. Is it true and literal history or true and literal symbolism? That is the question on which this debate should turn.

Further, the charge that Licona is dehistoricizing the text is unfounded. Before a text can be dehistoricized, it must be shown that the author intended the text to be read as history. Licona is suggesting that Matthew did not intend the text to be taken as historical fact. Thus, he is not technically dehistoricizing this passage. Instead, he is suggesting that the genre of the text is something other than history, namely apocalyptic, and is interpreting it through the lens of what he takes to be the author's intent. This does not conflict with grammatico-historical exegesis, as Mohler suggests; it is grammatico-historical exegesis, which takes into account genre, literary form, various textual devices, and the use of similar concepts and ideas in other relevant primary source literature.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that Mohler and Geisler are not arguing for the inerrancy of the text but for the inerrancy of their own particular interpretation of the text. They have mistakenly granted to their understanding of scripture a quality held only by scripture itself, namely authoritative truthfulness. Their interpretation may be right; but it could just as well be wrong. And the same is true for Licona.

At the end of the day, the issue here is not inerrancy but interpretation, not history but hermeneutics. The truly sad thing is that Licona's contribution to evangelical theology is being overshadowed by this silly and misguided controversy. More so, Licona has had negative professional repercussions as a result of all this. I hope that Mohler and Geisler will withdraw their mistaken attacks, apologize for their ill-founded criticisms, and respectfully agree to disagree with Licona with regard to the interpretation of this text.

UPDATE: Here's a link to Licona's response to Geisler entiteld "When the Saints Go Marching In (Matthew 27:52-53): Historicity, Apocalyptic, Symbol, and Biblical Inerrancy." This paper was given at the 2011 meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society.
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N.B. This is not to say that all criticism is out of line within the larger evangelical tent (or any tent, for that matter). It is simply to say that such criticism should be fair and charitable. One can be fair, charitable, and level strong criticism all at the same time. I've attempted to hold all of these qualities in balance in this post (and others), even as I'm arguing that the criticisms of Mohler and Geisler are unfair and ill-founded.

UPDATE: Inerrancy and Interpretation (2): More on the Licona Controversy

Hope Is with Us

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on November 30, 2011.

I love Christmas! I love it for so many different reasons. I love singing my favorite Christmas carols in church every Sunday. I love all the special gatherings and events, the decorations, the meals, the giving, and everything else that goes with Christmas. I look forward to Christmas months before it ever arrives, and I'll bet some of you do, too.

I especially love Christmas because it marks a special season in the church year. That season is Advent, which is observed in churches around the world during the four weeks preceding Christmas. The word "advent" comes from a Latin word that means "to come." The time of preparation during the weeks preceding Christmas is about getting ready for the coming of Christ, not only as the babe born in Bethlehem but also as the king who will one day come to fulfill his kingdom of love, justice, and hope. One of the ways the Church observes advent is by lighting special candles, which are placed together in an Advent wreath. Each candle represents an Advent theme; the first candle represents hope. We lit the candle of hope this past Sunday, because hope is at the heart of everything Advent is about.

We learn about the extraordinary events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the opening chapters of Matthew's gospel, and one key element comes when we are told that Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, which means, "God with us." What a stunning statement: God is with us! The almighty creator who reigns in holiness and majesty is with us, and he comes to be with us through Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary. Matthew doesn't say it outright, but the entire narrative of Jesus' birth carries tones of hope. Hope has come because God has not abandoned us; indeed, he has come looking for us, not for what we can do for him, but because he simply wants to be with us. It's almost too good to be true.

The idea of God with us doesn't show up a lot in Matthew's gospel, but it does show up in two very important places. We've already looked at one of them in the first chapter of the gospel; the other comes at the very end. After being raised from the dead, and commissioning his followers to disciple the nations, Jesus declares, "I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Did you catch that? This idea of someone being "with us" bookends the whole gospel, except there is one significant change. God with us at the beginning of the gospel has become Jesus with us by the end. That is the good news of Christmas. In the person of Jesus Christ, the only God is personally and uniquely present with us. And because Jesus is with us, hope is with us.

My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will experience the presence of God in Christ in a unique and surprising way. I pray that your hope is renewed as you come to a deeper knowledge of the Christ child who is also the resurrected Lord of the cosmos and Savior of all who have faith in him. He is our hope, and he is with us. Thanks be to God.
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December 6, 2011

Advent Evangelism

It's Christmas time. So, I've been spending a fair bit of time reading the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. As I was taking a look at Luke's account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds near Bethlehem, something occurred to me that before had not. Take a look at Luke 2:17. After the sheep herders go to see the child spoken of by the angels, Luke says that "they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child." After they heard the good news about the birth of Jesus, and after they encountered him just as they had been told, their response was to begin spreading the news. They told others what they had heard and seen. I didn't expect to find the evangelistic imperative in the birth narratives, but the more I think about it, the more it makes a great deal of sense. Evangelism is at the heart of Advent. A couple of things in this text jump out at me.

First, the shepherds didn't mess with the message. They are said to have made known that which was said to them. They are courriers for the message, not the authors of the message. Likewise, when we engage in the ministry of evangelism, we are courriers of the message. We are not responsible for altering the gospel; we must simply share what we have heard. Indeed, if we were to alter the good news, it would no longer be the good news; it would be some other news. Like those shepherds, we must make known what we've heard.

Second, Luke reports that all who heard their message were filled with wondrous awe. This reminds us that Jesus is not boring. He comes into the world as the God-man on a rescue mission. He comes with good news for the poor and the marginalized. He comes to offer new life and abundant life. He comes to make new creation. He comes to make his blessing known. And if we are to be faithful, then we should tell the story in a way that evokes amazement, wonder, and awe. If we don't, we may not have the story straight.

The birth of Christ the Savior is good news. And we see in the shepherds that an appropriate response to receiving that news is to spread that news. We may not always think of it this way, but Advent should motivate among us a passionate evangelistic zeal that evokes a response of amazement from those who hear.

December 5, 2011

Did Paul Write Letters or Speeches?

The study of Paul's letters in light of classical rhetoric has gained a significant foothold in the larger field of New Testament studies. Nevertheless, the analysis of the Pauline letters on the basis of Greco-Roman rhetoric remains somewhat controversial and continues to be criticized in a variety of ways. One of those criticisms declares that classical rhetoric is a method for writing and evaluating ancient speeches, and, since Paul wrote letters, the suggestion that the canons of classical rhetoric should be used to analyze his writings is simply a category mistake, a barking up the wrong tree. Paul's letters should be studied as letters, it is said, not as speeches. This, of course, raises the question: What exactly did Paul write? Letters or speeches?

Several points should be made here. First, Paul's letters are remarkably dissimilar from typical letters in the ancient world. They don't look much like the other letters of his day. For example, Paul's letters tend to be a good bit longer than other epistles from the Greco-Roman world. This might suggest that while the documents that bear Paul's name were certainly addressed and delivered as letters, there may be something else going on as well.

Second, given this dissimilarity between Paul's writings and other letters of the period, there are limits to what can be done when his letters are analyzed on the basis of ancient epistolary convention. The beginnings and endings of Paul's writings can be compared to other ancient epistles, but little is to be gained beyond that.

Third, we know that Paul's writings were delivered to the various churches to be read aloud when the congregation assembled. Thus, when the original hearers first encountered the Pauline documents, they encountered them as speeches. When added to the evidence considered above, it is entirely plausible to suggest that Paul's writings are certainly much more than letters. They are really manuscripts of speeches made in the presence of the addressees, speeches that Paul might have made himself were he present with the assembled congregation.

If Paul's letters are indeed speech manuscripts, then the study of Paul's letters in light of Greco-Roman oratorical standards is warranted. The letters are persuasive documents that were read like speeches; we should study them as such. Despite the ongoing criticism from some quarters of Pauline studies, rhetorical criticism is worth the time and attention of students of the apostle. Given the many rhetorical studies of Paul available, the question remains: where do we go from here? 

December 1, 2011

I want to share my faith, but I'm not sure how

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on September 14, 2011.

It can be very difficult to talk to other people about our faith in Jesus. There are a variety of reasons for this. We know something happened to us when we came to believe in him, but we're not quite sure how to describe it. We may really want to share our faith, but the thought of it scares us to death. Life is so busy. We work; we have family; we have things that must be done. And, after all, how often do we run into people that don't have some church or religious affiliation? I can come up with excuses to avoid sharing my faith all day long, and I bet you can too. And, as a result of those excuses, there was a time in my life when I rarely had evangelistic conversations with people. Here are a few simple ideas that have helped me become increasingly faithful in sharing my faith.

The first one is this: think about what you might say ahead of time. Take some time to sit down and write out your testimony on paper. Think through it. What changed about your life after you came into a new and living relationship with Jesus Christ? Write these things down and commit them to memory. When you come to the point of your conversion, be sure to explain what it means that Christ died for your sins. This is the key element where God promises his power will show up in your story. It is also helpful to memorize a some key passages of scripture. John 3:16-18 and Romans 10:9 are clear and concise summaries of what God wants to do in the lives of every person that he has made.

Another idea is to think of a few people that may not have a church or may not know Christ, and begin to pray for them, asking God to provide an opportunity for you to talk to them about faith in Jesus. Sometimes we overlook those who are nearest to us. So take some time to simply think through some people you already know, and look for opportunities to talk to them about the gospel.

The last thing is intentionality. What do I mean by that? To borrow the slogan of a well-known athletic clothing manufacturer, just do it. This is really the big one for me. When I realize it's been far too long since I've talked to someone about Jesus, then I just have to make myself get out and go talk to people. I've discovered that it's really quite fun. I've met all sorts of interesting people and have had some great conversations about Jesus. And let me tell you, there is little in life more exciting than being there when someone meets Jesus for the first time. The Bible says that the angels rejoice when that happens; you will too.

At the end of the day, sharing the good news with people is really just a matter of following Jesus. He is the one who told his followers to teach the nations to obey everything he commanded. And helping people find faith in Christ is the first step in learning to obey him. My prayer is that these reflections will help you to become an increasingly faithful follower of Christ as you share with others what he has done for you.
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