Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Secrets and Stresses: Matthew 6

In Summary:

Still working through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to the passages containing instruction on works of righteousness, forgiveness, and worry. Matthew 6:1 provides the introduction as Jesus warns His hearers not to practice righteousness for the sake of being seen by a human audience.

He then proceeds to provide a few examples of “works of righteousness” for the audience. The ones given are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting though I think we can see the pattern set for all spiritual disciplines. Forgiveness is bundled with these disciplines as if it is central to spiritual life: restoring relationships with others is vital in demonstrating and living the restored relationship with God. (Note that dealing with deep, harmful sins like abuse or adultery is the subject of a much more detailed post than this is. Forgiveness and its practical outworking need more than I will give here, but suffice it to say it’s not that simple.)

Jesus then goes on to explain where His followers should be storing their treasures. More than that, He explains why they should store treasure in heaven rather than on earth: your heart, your loves, they follow your treasure. This leads to the clear command that one cannot serve the One True God and the gods of personal wealth (mammon.)

In Focus:

The last section of the chapter focuses on shunning anxiety. Jesus reminds His followers that His Father takes care of birds and flowers, and therefore can be trusted with us. Further, human worry is ineffective. No man’s worry can extend his life, and each day has enough to fill it. The chief end of man is to glorify God, and this is done by seeking first the Kingdom of God, not man’s needs.

This pairs with the undercurrent of this chapter. Starting with verse 1, Jesus has stressed the secret nature of discipleship. By this, He has not meant that His disciples should blend perfectly with the world. Rather, He has placed the importance on the worship of the Father for the Father’s approval, not man’s notice. The secretive nature is not to hide one’s spiritual life but to expose it in the right direction.

Consider this pictured in plants and their phototropism: a plant is not turning its back on the shadowed side of the yard. It is growing toward the light, and anyone who looks can see it. Spiritual disciplines are oriented toward the Father: others should see the effects though the efforts are not theirs to note.

In Practice:

Practically, this works out in a few ways. First, finish the connection between secret devotion and worries about material issues. If we are seeking the Kingdom above all else, then we will participate in the practices of the Kingdom, like prayer, compassion, and self-denial, even while we live in hostile territory. These form the link in our lives to our true home, and when we fix on home, we worry less about the surrounding circumstances.

I think, personally, back to a time my freshman year of college where my knee was hurt, I was tired, I was lonely. And I was going home for Christmas. It was a long day on the road to a place I had never been (my parents moved out of state my first semester,) but I somehow knew that I just needed to get home. Fixed on home, the stresses of the road were diminished and the pain a little more bearable.

Second, remember that we are being watched for our devotion. A person’s prayer life can be so secret that none are aware of it—and this could be bad. After all, prayer is part of our confession that we are neither in this alone nor capable of handling this alone.

Third, practice the life of giving. Giving to those in need, whether they need the day’s bread or the year’s forgiveness. This is part of an active faith, one that recognizes that we are agents of a Kingdom that is unknown to many, and misunderstood by most.

In Nerdiness:

Briefly, for the nerds:

1. Where does the Lord’s Prayer end? With “deliver us”? Or with “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory?” Great question for someone with a textual criticism background. While the scholars might disagree, when we pray this way together in church, we keep the traditional wording that includes the doxology of “Yours is the Kingdom…”

2. There is something to be said, and learned, regarding the plural/singular shifts in this chapter, especially on the prayer sections. I think one key is that Jesus is separating the private life of prayer from the gathered life of prayer—when we are together we are more tempted to pray to impress the crowd; when we are alone, there is no crowd.

3. In the Lord’s Prayer, is it deliver us from “evil” or “the evil one?” It’s a substantive use of the adjective for evil, meaning that it’s not immediately clear from grammar. I think it should be “evil,” with a reminder that this a request, not a promise.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Sermon Recap for February 21

It looks like I forgot to post the recaps from last week. So, here are two batches of sermons.

February 21 Morning: A Box, Not a God 1 Samuel 4


February 21 Evening: Job, Exodus, and a few others


February 14 Morning 1 Samuel 3 (audio)

February 14 Evening (audio)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Book: The Body Under the Bridge

And we’re back. With a bang and with a book. It’s been one of those months, but hopefully regular posting will resume soon. In the interest of “Full Disclosure,” this is supposed to be a review book that I received free for doing the review. I lost the free one, so I bought a replacement. I don’t know if that makes this a free book review or a bought book review.

Murder, mayhem, and mishaps? Prior to The Body under the Bridge, I had only heard Father Gilbert’s name in reference to audio dramas, but I had not looked into them. So, I have no background on the characters outside of the blurb. One can easily figure, though, that Father Gilbert left Scotland Yard with a desire for peace and, perhaps, atonement. Not to become a crime-solving vicar.

What is there to like here? First, the plot is compelling. Who committed what crimes? What bodies are here just because, and are not actually victims? McCusker has woven a good tale here, with a hint of unpredictability. It had what I like in a mystery—the ending that you did not quite see coming, but then on second read you can find the clues.

Second, the content is spiritual, including the idea of demonic/angelic/spirits in conflict and involved in the actions of this world. While this leads to a few moments that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I like a good scare. And I like it when the difference between good and evil is clear. McCusker does that well.

Third, the characters are mostly enjoyable. I found the age-old nobility/working-man conflict a bit normal and predictable, but perhaps that is because it is all too common. The same with the development vs. preservation arguments. However, the book reminds enjoyable.

As to overall enjoyment? I enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s a good tale, especially for the winter when the nights are long.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sermon Recap for February 7

Morning Sermon: 1 Samuel 1 (audio)

Evening Sermon (audio)


First principle: reading narrative for truth. Relevant practices: read the whole passage. Look for what happens. Look at actions. Look at what God clearly does and does not do--just because something occurs or even "works out" does not mean it meets with God's approval.

Second principle: extended patience with the providence of God. God is not to be hurried.

     Sub principle: The rivals for your attention will demand and demean you while you wait. (Peinnah)

     Sub principle: Human comfort is sometimes not enough (Elkanah)

Third principle: Prayer is between you and God--take your burdens there. DO NOT SHARE A PRAYER REQUEST TO PEOPLE YOU WANT TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS. PRAY, THEN ASK THEM FOR HELP. Seriously. If you're in a room full of auto mechanics and your car needs help, don't ask them to pray when you want them to help. Ask them to help.

     Sub principle: and stop using "prayer request" as a cover for gossip or complaint. You don't really want me to pray that your back doesn't hurt when you sit for an hour in church, you really just want shorter sermons...but by making it a "prayer request," you manipulate others into listening.

Fourth principle: Expect devotion to look wrong. And to get weak embrace from those whose hearts are cold.

Fifth principle: Follow through--every good and perfect gift is from above, and should be used for the glory of God.


Sixth principle: Surrender joyfully--2:1

Seventh principle: Keep up the encouragement 2:18-20

What do we make of these principles?

That we must serve the God who authors the story of our lives, just as Hannah did.

That we must see beyond the appearances of people to the heart of their suffering.

That ordinary people doing small acts of devotion and obedience change the world.

Friday, February 5, 2016

No Heart: Deuteronomy 29

In Summary:

Deuteronomy 29 turns from a general retelling of the covenant (note the similarity of Deuteronomy 29:1 and Deuteronomy 1:1) to the last words of Moses before his death. Prior to this point, Moses has presented the covenant between Israel and God according to the typical treaties between sovereigns and subjects of the time.

These next chapters take more of a personal turn, as Moses reminds the people what has happened under his leadership. We see, as final words should be, reminders of critical moments and very direct warnings about the future.

For example, Deuteronomy 29:5 reminds us of Deuteronomy 8:4, that the shoes and clothes of the Israelites did not wear out during their wanderings. The next verse, 29:6, highlights that the Israelites have not eaten bread for the last 40 years. This connects back to chapter 8 as well, and we see again the importance of context. “Man does not live by bread alone” was not merely a thought. It was the life of the Israelites. They lived by the Word of God, given in as manna in the desert.

In Focus:

Moses gives us a tragic statement in Deuteronomy 29:4, and it pairs with Deuteronomy 29:19 as a warning about the hearts of the people. As you read through this section, recognize the problem at stake. The people have not developed their own love for God or His ways at this point.

All of God’s work in their lives, and yet their hearts are closed. Their eyes do not see, their ears do not hear the truth of who God is. Now, there are a couple of ways to read this. Some will see this as the fact that without the Holy Spirit quickening the hearts of people, they have no hope of understanding and worshiping the One True God. Others will see it as evidence of the hardness of the people, that even with every action of God around them, they chose not to see.

I’ll not resolve that here, except that I think this is a both/and, not an either/or. The power of God is necessary to see the work of God, yet people still choose to ignore what should be clear. That comes out plainly in Romans 1. How, exactly, the sovereignty of God is true while human free responsibility is also true is the work of books, not a blog post.

What we see here is the Israelites as responsible for their failure to worship, even while acknowledging that it takes a heart from God to develop a heart for God.

In Practice:

We should, then, lay back and do nothing, hoping God fixes us?


We should: 1. Look at the world around us. Start with the explanation that an all-powerful, all-loving God is involved in life.

2: Center our worship on Him for who He is. We see who He is by His actions, just like our actions reveal our character, but we need to put our focus on the right place. We love God for who He is. We see that by what He does. Don’t worship God that God feeds you. Worship God for His compassion that He shows by feeding you.

3. Pass on the covenant. This chapter resounds with the concern that future generations will abandon the Lord God, thinking that they had it all together. Pass on the covenant by demonstrating, daily, your own dependence on God. Too many of us want the veneer of self-sufficiency to show more than the framework of faith—peel it back, let your needs and the One who supplies them be evident.

In Nerdiness:

Let’s get nerdy: 1: Take a look at the parallel passages, including how Deuteronomy 29:2 parallels with Deuteronomy 5:1. Oh, and note that the Hebrew texts tend to put our 29:1 as the last verse in 28, and start this chapter at 29:2. And call it 29:1.

Moses gives another rehash of history here, including the recent defeats of Sihon and Og.

No bread, no wine, no “fermented drink” (possibly the fortified beer of the labor forces of Ancient Egypt). Does this mean that the Israelites had no yeast? If you look at the Passover, they were to get all of the leaven out of the house to celebrate it. Now we see that, for nearly 4 decades, they have had no yeast-based products. Since yeast is a living thing, is it possible that the conditions of the Exodus and Wanderings kept them from having any useful yeast?

And then the symbolism of yeast/leaven for impurity makes this theologically curious…

Book: Ashes to Ashes

It's time to return to Bampton for the further adventures of Master Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon and Bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbot. The "medieval medical murder mystery" section in the library isn't particularly big, but as long as Mel Starr's series is there, it's big enough.

Ashes to Ashes is the eighth entry in this series. Once again, we find a mysterious body and Master Hugh is called upon to determine who, what, when, where, and how the evil deed took place. His travels take him to the nearby village of Kencott and the local politics there. 

As always, Starr takes his readers into a medieval world that requires a glossary at the beginning, a map after that, and an historical note at the end. The book is written in a first-person style, so whatever Master Hugh does not know, we readers do not know.

Since this is the eighth novel in a series, the reader would be better served to start earlier in the series. Once you know a bit of the background of Hugh, his marriage to Katie, and his standing in the medieval world, this story flows well. We are given a glimpse into the life of an English village and the difficulties that life brings.

Master Hugh generally describes the cultural and economic situations as they were. He provides some commentary on the injustice of life, generally as discontent without solution. He also establishes some distaste for the religious practices of the day without knowing how to separate those from his devotion to the "Lord Christ." On a personal note, I miss the inclusion of John Wycliffe, who has been absent since the earlier books--apparently, he's just still in London. This doesn't harm Ashes to Ashes, I'd just like to see him back.

The writing style is challenging at times, as Starr uses words from the medieval era seamlessly. One would be wise to thumb through that glossary, especially for dates and festivals, every now and then before progressing to the next chapter.

(Free book in exchange for the review)

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

History Repeats: Matthew 5

In Summary:
The Sermon on the Mount begins with Matthew 5. That tells us we have a lot of ground to cover, and one post may not be enough for it. For that matter, I have a couple of complete books on the shelf about the Sermon on the Mount. There is so much here that is worth considering, and we’re going to hit it in one blog post. In doing so, let us look at the Sermon on the Mount as just that: a sermon. What are some keys to understanding a sermon?
First, consider the audience. The audience, according to verse 1, are those who are disciples of Jesus. In this case, we are likely looking at a larger group than the Twelve Apostles. That opening verse gives us enough of a context for the audience: they are people from the area that have been in the “crowd” which watched and listened to Jesus, and they wanted to know more. They wanted to know more enough to separate from the crowd and go up on the mountain to hear from Jesus.
Second, consider the preacher. In this case, the Preacher is Jesus Himself. We see the Lord of the Universe, the Author of all Scripture, teaching the principles of living in His Kingdom. This is not like listening to me preach, where mistakes are possible (or even likely). There will be no errors in this sermon. There will be no suppositions or estimations, no doubts about authorial intent. It will be preached right. It may not be listened to right, but it will be preached right.
Third, consider the text. This is where the Author of Scripture gets to do what you should never allow any other preacher to do. He does not have one particular Biblical text to preach from. Although He does end up using some Old Testament quotations (like Matthew 5:21 quotes Exodus 20:13,) overall it is new material. Jesus gets a pass on this—and on quoting Himself—because HE’S JESUS.
Fourth, consider the theme. The theme of the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 5 through Matthew 7, is living in the Kingdom of God. Take it apart however you would like to, and you will find the Kingdom of God underneath it all. Who is blessed in the Kingdom? What does it take to enter the Kingdom? How do subjects of the Kingdom relate to the world around them? How do they relate to each other?
Fifth, consider the application. For this, we will put the first imperative into focus. As you read the rest of the sermon, see what Jesus is commanding, and see what Jesus is stating as factual. For example, the Beatitudes are not commands to be anything, but statements of fact about those who face those challenges or embrace those character traits. We can see that as a gentle way of commanding, but there is a difference between that and the clear command to “Let your light shine” in Matthew 5:16.
In Focus:
In focus, I want to look at the command in Matthew 5:12. Jesus commands His disciples to “Rejoice and be glad” when they are persecuted. After all, if you are persecuted for righteousness, your reward in heaven is great. And the prophets were treated that way, so it is a long-standing reality. The world, even the religious world, does not have much patience with those who live out righteousness and proclaim it plainly.
Note, especially, that Jesus connects the persecution of His disciples to the history of persecution suffered by the prophets. If we had the Old Testament only, we might think that the prophets had a pretty good life, except for Jeremiah and Elijah. (Jonah’s problems are his own fault!) Yet when we reach into the wider book of history, we find that the prophets did not fare so well with the people at large. The details take on legendary status, but it is enough to note that Jesus validates the historical reality that the prophets faced oppression.
In Practice:
Then, He points out to us that oppression and persecution should be no surprise to His followers. After all, history reveals not only the work of God but the patterns of human behavior. And human behavior is not friendly to those who speak unpopular truths. The reality is that the church should be so different from the world that the world sees us as intruders, invaders, or threats. The only positive way this does not happen is if we win the world to Christ. Which we have not done.
Unfortunately, we have fallen into the negative side: we are too mushy to be a threat. We are not intruders or invaders, but consumers and cohabitators. Rather than embracing truth and then rejoicing in rejection, we embrace the world and then wonder why we have no joy.
History, though, is a beast of a thing. It will repeat itself, not because we did not learn from it but because human nature does not change. We, as God’s people, are heirs to the legacy of the prophets. We are heirs to the truth-telling, weird-living responsibility of proclaiming the Living God. And we are heirs to the trouble that came upon them.
In this, we should rejoice. Because our reward is greater than anything this world can hold.

In Nerdiness:
I’ll be a brief nerd. 1: Luke 6 contains a parallel passage called the Sermon on the Plain. I think it’s a different event. Others, including many good scholars, hold otherwise.
2: Be aware of the intensity of using contrast in teaching. Every one of the “you have heard it said…but I say…”, Jesus is not just building on to the expectations of the Kingdom. He’s correcting the teachers of the time who always anchored their teaching in what others had said. Further, we see that the heart of the person is more relevant than the actions. That does not justify bad actions—a lust-free affair is still adultery; anger-less murder is still murder. It does show what is key to growing in Christ. The inside of us, our thoughts and motivations, matters because that drives our actions.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Sermon Recap for January 31

Here’s the sermon from yesterday morning!

January 31 AM: John 6

We’ll take a detour from John for February and start on 1 Samuel.

Book: Worship in an Age of Anxiety

  This week, I'm wrapping up reading J. Michael Jordan's Worship in an Age of Anxiety . This isn't an assigned review, but a boo...