Friday 30 March 2018

Beneath the Cross of Jesus

For this year’s Good Friday. We used to sing this in the first home church to which I belonged, but I haven’t sung it in a congregation for over 30 years. As a precocious teenager, I decided I would like this to be sung at my funeral. I think I still would. I like that it seems to tell a story. I like it as a statement of what really matters – ‘My glory all the cross’. I think I was aware even as a young lad of its somewhat sentimental tone; but, for me at least, it stays on the right side of mawkishness!

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock
Within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness,
A rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat,
And the burden of the day.

O safe and happy shelter!
O refuge tried and sweet!
O trysting-place where heaven’s love
And heaven’s justice meet!
As to the holy patriarch
That wondrous dream was given,
So seems my Saviour’s cross to me
A ladder up to heaven.

There lies, beneath its shadow,
But on the farther side,
The darkness of an awful grave
That gapes both deep and wide:
And there between us stands the cross,
Two arms outstretched to save;
Like a watchman set to guard the way
From that eternal grave.

Upon that cross of Jesus
Mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One
Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart, with tears,
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of His glorious love,
And my own worthlessness.

I take, O cross, thy shadow
For my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than
The sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by,
To know no gain nor loss:
My sinful self my only shame,
My glory all the cross.

Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane (1830-1869)

Monday 26 March 2018

Preaching by Listening to Paul

The below article has been posted on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as a supplementary piece to the resource on whole-life preaching.

Paul’s letters unfold to congregations the significance of the good news of what God has done in Jesus, and the summons to live worthy of God’s call on their lives – within the community of faith and in the face of the wider world. His letters are not sermons, clearly, but they were written as a substitute for his presence, read out loud in Christian gatherings, and so give some indication of what Paul would have said had he been present. If Paul’s letters do provide a window of sorts into his preaching, they might give us a model for our preaching ministry more generally.

What, then, do we learn from Paul about preaching?

1. We preach to a people who are being discipled by culture

Learning a certain pattern of life is inevitable. It’s not a question of whether we will or won’t be ‘discipled’ as we go about our lives, but of who or what will disciple us. Many problems in the church at Corinth, for instance, had to do with their tendency to think and act in ways that were typical of first-century Corinth. On issue after issue that Paul tackles, there was an uncritical acceptance of the values and behaviour of the society in which they lived.

Here, then, is a reminder that Christians need to be discipled for the places where they spend the majority of their time, and for the particular challenges and pressures they face there. As we take our cue from Paul, we can see the significance of preaching which seeks to nurture Christian communities – in Colchester or Cleethorpes as much as in Corinth – into the likeness of Christ.

But how do we do this?

2. We preach to remind people of the gospel of God

In his letters to different churches, Paul is able to appeal to what’s foundational in their various circumstances, taking his cue from the core events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which the Christians have been saved and brought together as one in the body of Christ. In doing so, Paul often reminds his congregations of what they already know or have previously been taught – a helpful encouragement that we don’t have to say something new every week!

Back in Corinth, the gospel is core to how Paul directs the church there. Paul calls the Corinthians to a different way of living, to rethink the norms and practices of their society in the light of the gospel. So, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul reminds them of the gospel he had preached to them as something he had himself ‘received’ and ‘passed on’. Jesus Christ crucified and risen again, ‘according to the Scriptures’, is the ‘good news’ that Paul preached, on which the Corinthians have taken their stand, and by which they are saved. Following Paul’s example, we should never be embarrassed about reminding God’s people about the gospel they already know – a gospel in which we stand, a gospel through which we are being saved.

In fact, the whole of 1 Corinthians invites us to reflect on how the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus – which stand as bookends between chapters 1 and 15 – calls us to live. Paul assesses cultural values (such as wisdom and power) in the light of the cross and resurrection, and calls the Corinthians to live out the implications of the gospel. Such an approach encourages us to preach letters like 1 Corinthians from the perspective of our missional identity and see how what Paul says shapes us in our own walk of faith, hope, and love.

But such an identity flows from our place in the bigger story of God’s work in the world, from creation to new creation.

3. We preach to draw people into a bigger story

Paul wrote letters, not stories, but his letters have ‘a narrative substructure’ – the story of God’s dealings with Israel, and with the whole of humanity, indeed with the whole creation, from the beginning of all things to the renewal of all things.

Sometimes the story bubbles to the surface of his letters so that we get a short summary of it, as in Philippians 2:5-11 or Colossians 1:15-20. Much of the time, though, it’s implicit, and Paul can allude to it, or refer to particular parts of it to make a point – Abraham here, the law there, the temple here, the wilderness wanderings there. This shows how Paul deals with issues on the ground in specific contexts not in an ad hoc way, but by appealing to the larger story of God’s dealings with his people and with the world, and the place of Christ in that plan.

It’s on this basis that Paul calls his congregations to be a part of an alternative world – the new creation God has brought about in Christ – and to a way of living that runs counter to their previous way of life and the life of the world around them. This is not to escape the world, but to enable them to live in it with integrity as followers of Jesus, as those who take their identity from Christ, bearing witness to him in word and deed, participating in God’s own mission to the world.

For reflection or discussion

1. What can we learn as preachers from what Paul is doing in:

• 1 Corinthians 10:1-13?
• Romans 8:28-39?

2. Which part or parts of the big story told in Scripture are particularly pertinent to your congregation at the moment?

Monday 19 March 2018

Lausanne Global Analysis 7, 2 (March 2018)

The latest issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, from The Lausanne Movement, is available online from here, including pdf downloads.

In the issue overview, editor David Taylor writes:

In this issue, we examine India’s water crisis and ask how Christians can be part of the solution; we consider how a global versus international organizational model can help in the unfinished task of reaching the unreached; we ask what it means to live in global integrity; and we analyse the challenges of the grace approach to Muslims and the need to balance grace with truth.

Saturday 17 March 2018

Echoes of Exodus

You know how it is, you wait for ages for one book called Echoes of Exodus to come along, and then two arrive at the same time:

Bryan D. Estelle, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing a Biblical Motif (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018).

Alastair J. Roberts and Andrew Wilson, Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption through Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).

I wanted to do some study in Exodus during 2018, and will be starting with these, both of which I’m confident, based on previous work of all three writers, will be excellent showcases of evangelical biblical theology.

There is a pdf excerpt of the one by Alastair Roberts and Andrew Wilson here. They also talk about the book in an episode of the podcast ‘Mere Fidelity’ (here), to which they are both regular contributors.

Alastair links to a recent talk of his on Exodus on his blog (here), much of which is summarised in his 10 Things You Should Know about the Exodus’.

The Asbury Journal 72, 2 (2017)

The latest issue of Asbury Journal, containing the below main articles, a set of essays honouring the legacy and teaching of Old Testament scholar John Oswalt.

The entire issue is available as a pdf here.

Bill T. Arnold
A Singular Israel in a Pluralistic World
The question of Israel’s distinctiveness in the ancient Near East was a central concern of the biblical theology movement in the mid-twentieth century. The excessive claims and overstatements of that movement were corrected later in the twentieth century. Most scholars today assume the question is settled in a consensus that Old Testament Israel was not distinctive, and was completely at home in the ancient world in every respect. This paper explores three ways in which ancient Israel was indeed at home in ancient Near Eastern culture, while also suggesting ways in which Israel’s religious convictions led to a genuinely unique profile in the ancient world.

Daniel I. Block
A Prophet Like Moses? Who or Why?
This paper examines the Hebrew understanding of Moses’ statement about a “a prophet like me” that YHWH would raise up in Deuteronomy 18:15. Here it is examined within its larger context of verses 9-22, with a comparison of the prophetic role of Moses held up against the role of diviners and fortunetellers in other regional religious traditions. The role of this scripture for a Jewish understanding of future prophets is highlighted as opposed to any messianic interpretation of the text.

Christina Bosserman
Seeing Double: An Iconographic Reading of Genesis 2-3
This paper examines the role of visual literacy in the construction of biblical narrative, by asking how visual images in the ancient Near East might have been understood by biblical writers and how these understandings (or misunderstandings) may have influenced the development of the biblical text. In particular, the issue of visual illiteracy is examined in light of Mesopotamian seals with images similar to the Garden of Eden story found in Genesis 2-3, and how these visual images might have resulted in the confusion of one or two trees in the center of the Garden.

Joseph R. Dongell
Paganism, Wesley, and the Means of Grace
John Wesley, the 18th century English reformer and father of Methodism, can be read with justification as the leader of a Christian renewal movement whose deepest underpinnings lay squarely in the Old Testament. I will identify three primary anchorages, describing the first two briefly before treating the third more extensively. To put it succinctly, I claim that Wesley cast the goal of his vision as the love commanded for God and neighbor in Deut. 6:4-5 and Lev. 19:18, identified the content of that love in terms of the Mosaic Law itself, then urged the attainment of such love through practicing the Means of Grace in a manner congruent with the theology of Malachi 3:6-12.

Nancy Erickson
Isaiah’s Model House
Isaiah’s scrutiny of idol fashioning in 44:6–20 provides a window into his understanding of image making in the ancient Near East. The prophet’s descriptions are a symptom of his shared perception, or the common cognitive environment, of the ancient world in which he lived; this includes information gathered from the discipline of biblical archaeology. Based on the cultic literary context of Isaiah 44, a nuance of the usual meaning of the Hebrew term בית , and the prophet’s larger shared environment attested by the material culture of the ancient Near East, I suggest Isaiah’s use of בית in 44:13b assumes a “model house.”

L. Daniel Hawk
A Prophet Unlike Moses: Balaam as Prophetic Intercessor
The Balaam narrative (Numbers 22:1-24:25) is fraught with textual and theological incongruity. A narrative analysis of the corpus, however, reveals the incongruities as literary devices that render Balaam as a prophetic anti-type in contrast to Moses. While both Balaam and Moses are obedient messengers who speak the words of Yhwh, their ministry as intercessors manifests vastly different understandings of Yhwh. Both figures try to change Yhwh’s mind. Balaam does so through ritual manipulation and with the idea that Yhwh can be induced to curse what Yhwh has blessed. Moses, however, directly appeals to Yhwh for mercy in response to a divine decree of destruction. The prominence and ambiguous rendering of the Balaam narrative therefore reflects its importance in assisting Israel to discern trustworthy versus untrustworthy prophets.

Michael D. Matlock
The Function of Psalmic Prayers in Chronicles: Literary-Rhetorical Method in Conversation With Ritual Theory
The content, location, and integration of each recorded and reported prayer text in the narrative of 1-2 Chronicles largely determines the forceful rhetorical functions of prayer within the narrative contexts and helps to establish early Jewish identity in the Second Temple period. The editors of the book adapt prayers to new settings and distinct needs of the faith community. Through the discourse of psalmic prayer (1 Chr 16:8-36; 16:41; 2 Chr 5:13; 6:40-42; 7:3; 7:6; and 20:21) in relationship to elements of ritual, ideas may become embodied and appropriated by the participants of these prayers.

Brian D. Russell
The Song of the Sea and the Subversion of Canaanite Myth: A Missional Reading
By means of explicit links to the Ugaritic Baal Cycle (CAT 1.1–1.6), the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1b–18) models missional engagement with the late Bronze/early Iron Age cultures in which Israel emerged, and in the process enhances Israel’s presentation of Yhwh as the true King of the cosmos. By subverting the mythic worldview of the Baal Cycle, the Song implants a new view of creation and reality into God’s people while serving as a witness to the nations of a different type of God.

Lawson G. Stone
“I’m Gonna Make You Famous”: Joshua 6:23-27
“So the LORD was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land.” (Josh 6:27)

The greatest of the Egyptian Pharaohs, Ramses II provides a dramatic foil highlighting the Old Testament presentation of the figure of Joshua, a contemporary of Ramses. The accomplishments of each gave them reason to believe their contributions would be lasting, but ultimately only one changed the world, while the other was largely forgotten except by historians and archaeologists. The fame of Ramses arose from his arrogant exercise of power, while the fame of Joshua was bestowed on him as a faithful successor of Moses in serving Yahweh.

One of the most conspicuous features of the legacy of John N. Oswalt is his biblical preaching. His ability to focus the vital life of the biblical story and juxtapose it with contemporary experience consistently challenges and delights those who hear him. This is a sermon preached at Asbury Theological Seminary October 18, 2016. I wrote this sermon thinking of my professor and mentor, who also introduced me to Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias” which he would recite from memory in class.

David L. Thompson
Yet Another Try on Job 42:6
This paper examines the final statement of Job in response to Yhwh’s speech, which is often translated as “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” This paper argues that there are problems with the translation, with the Hebrew for “relent” being used, and not the word for “repent.” It also argues from other uses of the expression “dust and ashes” that this may be a phrase used to refer to Job’s humanity. In this sense, Job agrees that he has spoken beyond his competence with Yhwh and relents regarding the weakness of his humanity, which is not a sin, or something for which repentance is necessary.

From the Archives: G. Herbert Livingston and the Archaeology of Ai

Book Reviews

Friday 16 March 2018

Mission Frontiers 40, 2 (March-April 2018)

The March-April 2018 issue of Mission Frontiers, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, contains a number of articles on the theme of ‘Movements: Learning to Cross the “Bridges of God”’.

Editor Rick Wood writes:

‘Whenever a person from a people or culture where the gospel has become indigenous seeks to go out to make disciples cross-culturally, that person is in danger of extracting new believers from their native culture, family, community and people to join a new artificial family of faith, thereby destroying the natural “bridge of God” for the gospel that this person could provide...

‘What happens if rather than extracting people from their culture, family or clan; we were to work to keep the new believer within their family to share the biblical truths they are learning with their family and other relational connections?’

Individual articles can be accessed from here, and the whole issue can be downloaded as a pdf here.

Thursday 15 March 2018

Centre for Public Christianity (March 2018)

Among other items of interest, the Centre for Public Christianity has posted a ‘Life and Faith’ podcast on ‘how Florence Nightingale, Hannah Marshman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe changed the world’, and an audio interview with Brian Rosner on ‘one of our culture’s most urgent questions: Who am I?’ (picking up the topic of hist most-recent book, on identity).

Friday 9 March 2018

Preach Magazine 14 (2018)

I had the privilege recently, on behalf of LICC, of commissioning and editing the main features for a themed issue of Preach magazine on ‘whole-life preaching’.

The Leaders of Worship and Preachers Trust who publish the magazine have kindly allowed LICC to make pdfs of the copy available online, from here (following a simple sign-up procedure).

The magazine nicely complements the online resource a few of us put together, which is available here.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

Knowing and Doing (Spring 2018)

The Spring 2018 edition of Knowing & Doing – ‘A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind’ – from the C.S. Lewis Institute is now available online (from here), and contains the following articles:

Joel Woodruff
President’s Letter – Would You Take This Job?
In this President’s Letter, C.S. Lewis Institute President Joel S. Woodruff shares highlights of the new features and layout of our quarterly Knowing & Doing publication.

Aaron Welty
The Heroics of Weakness
Aaron Welty lives an active life with cerebral palsy. While he has prayed for healing, he states that God has provided an unexpected prescription, showing that perseverance is the unexpected — and greater — miracle. In this article, Welty observes that truthfully we’re all weak in ways visible and invisible. He argues, however, that weakness can unexpectedly draw others toward a deeper understanding of who God is — and who we are as His creation — if we embrace it.

Thomas A. Tarrants
Suggestions for Spending Daily Time with God
Tom Tarrants observes that God desires an intimate, personal relationship with His children and calls us to know, love and serve Him and His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As we do so, we will experience joy and delight. One of the means by which we can grow closer to God is by setting aside time each day to quietly read and reflect on God’s Word, lift our prayers to Him, and give thanks and praise to Him for who He is and for His goodness to us. In this article, Tarrants offers helpful suggestions that will aid you in developing your daily time with God and growing to know Him better and love Him more.

Randy Newman
Amazing Graces: How Complex the Sound!
God’s free gift of salvation, based on Jesus’s atoning sacrifice on the cross, stands out as unparalleled in the world of religions. This is worth deep reflection and appreciation. It also poses a challenge in communicating this rare concept to outsiders. In this article, Randy Newman examines the reality of the grace of the gospel and offers suggestions for communicating it to people who may not know what we’re talking about.

Edward Glancy
An Encouragement to Read (or Reread) John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress
After the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the best-selling Christian book of all time, and for centuries was widely read and highly influential in evangelical households. In recent years, however, this book has been read by fewer people, in part due to its now archaic language.  In this article, Edward Glancy recommends this classic book and passes on a number of tips for reading it today.

David Glade
Poem: The Good Wine
In each issue of Knowing and Doing we include a poem as part of our desire to promote discipleship of the heart and mind. Poems stir affection, inspire devotion and stimulate emotions. No wonder the Scriptures contains so many of them! And by the way, C.S. Lewis loved poetry.

Hugh Latimer
Sermon: On Christian Love
An inspiring classic sermon from the pulpit of Hugh Latimer that we hope will be a blessing to you.

Monday 5 March 2018

C.S. Lewis on Doing All to the Glory of God

I’ve just started reading Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), by John G. Stackhouse Jr., which looks like a useful distillation of much of his earlier Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

One of the quotations in the epigraph is from a sermon C.S. Lewis preached in Autumn 1939, entitled ‘Learning in War-Time’, and it goes like this:

‘Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one’s life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things... Christianity does not exclude any of the ordinary human activities. St. Paul tells people to get on with their jobs. He even assumes that Christians may go to dinner parties, and, what is more, dinner parties given by pagans. Our Lord attends a wedding and provides miraculous wine. Under the aegis of His Church, and in the most Christian ages, learning and the arts flourish. The solution of this paradox is, of course, well known to you. “Whether ye eat or drink or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”’

Friday 2 March 2018

Preaching to Disciples

The below article, written with my friend and colleague Neil Hudson, has been posted on the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity as a supplementary piece to the resource on whole-life preaching. It is the second in a projected series of six short pieces, the first of which appears here on the LICC website, and here on this blog.

Whether as preachers or listeners, we come to the Bible as disciples of Jesus. This may sound like a truism, but is crucial to establish, since preaching is one of the major means God has provided for us to make and equip disciples for everyday life. Seeing ourselves as a gathering of disciples of Jesus affects our posture towards the preaching task.

Here’s one way of thinking about what discipleship involves:

A disciple is someone who is learning to live the way of Jesus in their context at this moment.

We’re familiar with the notion of a disciple being a student, an apprentice, or a learner of the way of Jesus. But learning the way of Jesus is always carried out in specific contexts at specific moments.

For the people in our churches, following Jesus means working out what it means to be a disciple in education, a disciple in law, a disciple in photography, a disciple in business, a disciple in healthcare. The same applies in different stages of life – a disciple as a young adult, a disciple as single person, a disciple as a husband or a mum or a grandparent, a disciple in retirement.

Being a disciple also involves learning the way of Jesus in the specific experiences we each go through in life. What does learning the way of Jesus look like when the dream job falls through? Or when one of our children is being bullied at school? Or when we feel like we have the worst boss in the world? Or when our adult son or daughter really mucks up? Or when the test results come back and things aren’t looking good?

Following Jesus isn’t something we bolt on to those things. We’re disciples of Jesus in those things, learning the way of Jesus through those things. So, when Joe, a middle-aged plumber, married with two children, who plays hockey at the weekends becomes a Christian, he doesn’t put those aspects of his life on hold. He lives out his calling to love God and serve others in those places and in those relationships.

So what does preaching look like if this is who we’re preaching for?

It will certainly involve moments when we invite people to follow the way of Jesus. But it will also require our sermons to help people see how following the way of Jesus is significant to the situation in which they currently live. We preach with an awareness that being a disciple involves ongoing learning. We preach recognising that each context offers its own specific opportunities and challenges, that we and our hearers will be learning new lessons in different stages of life.

It also means we will take seriously the fact that the Bible was not written simply as a collection of blessed thoughts for our personal comfort. Nor is it a self-help manual, a book one turns to for practical advice about the ‘good life’. Instead, we seek to understand who God is, as revealed in the Bible, see how he has worked in the past, what these patterns of activity look like, and what his plans for us might be as our own lives get caught up in his ongoing work in the world.

In all these different ways, then, church leaders and preachers are able to see the congregation as followers of Jesus who are scattered into their everyday lives, with preaching as significant in nurturing and equipping them for that, in enabling them to live out their calling in their contexts at this moment.

For further reflection or discussion

1. Think about the last few sermons you preached (or heard):

• What were the implicit assumptions being made about the congregation?
• What links, if any, were made between the Bible and the questions that people will have been facing in their frontline contexts?
• How did the sermons help people get a bigger vision of God’s purpose, or of the part they could play in God’s purposes outside the church building?
• How far did the sermons clearly see the congregation as disciples?

2. Paul writes to a young leader who he has left in charge of a church in Ephesus. The letter, 1 Timothy, sees Paul encouraging Timothy from a certain posture, and in turn guides Timothy about the posture he is to take with the church.

Read the whole letter with these questions in mind:

• What posture does Paul take towards Timothy?
• What posture does Paul want Timothy to have toward the church in Ephesus?
• What posture does Paul want the church to have toward the wider culture around them?

Thursday 1 March 2018

Journal of Missional Practice (Winter 2018)

The Winter 2018 edition was recently posted, devoted to ‘Questions of Place’, with an opening editorial by Alan Roxburgh:

Here are some excerpts from the editorial:

‘We are witnessing a resurgence of interest in questions of place – it comes in multiple forms such as rediscovering the local or understanding what Christian life has to do with presence. This is quite a significant shift in which many of us are trying to sort out what it means to be located, to have our lives shaped by the notion of neighborhood.

What, therefore, is the meaning of place for Christian life in the modern West? I’m discovering this is not as easy a question to answer as I first imagined.

‘A young, educated millennial often sees place (with its connotations of neighborhood and belonging) as something of an outmoded notion in a digital world where the geographies of modern cities and their relationships are more determined by technology and social media than by physical space.

‘I listen to many Euro-tribal Christians for whom space and place are given meaning through the lenses of “real-estate” (property to be owned, bought and sold for the purpose of maximizing one’s social and economic life) or the lenses of career development where place is a moment in time, where I happen to be somewhere, but then will be moving on to somewhere else at some point.

‘Then I realize how limited and out of tune is the Euro-tribal church’s relationship to place.

‘In this Issue of the Journal we want to invite you to join with us in listening with other Christians who are wrestling with this question of the local and place. For them this is not about new tactics to become a relevant church. It goes deeper than that.’