Saturday, 30 June 2007

May I never lose the wonder....

In a week where this sentiment has been my prayer, Thankyou Music are offering a free download of a wonderful new song, 'The Wonder of the Cross' by Vicky Beeching as sheet music and in mp3.

Go and download it now.

Pray for UCCF North West trip to Moldova

For over a decade UCCF staff, Relay Workers and students have headed out to Moldova for the annual 'English and Bible Camp', run by the Moldovan equivalent of UCCF, CSC. This year, I'm unable to attend (being only three weeks into married life) but I wonder if you wouldn't mind saying a prayer for the trip, which leaves today. The photo us of me and some Moldovan students from last year's trip.

The trip will last three weeks. It will take over 24 hours for the team to travel to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. They'll get together today in Birmingham and then fly out to Bucharest in Romania early tomorrow morning. They'll then face the joy of an overnight sleeper train into Moldova! Pray for safe travel for the team.

Then, from Monday until Saturday, the team will have an orientation week in Moldova, preparing for the camp. As part of this, the team will get to know each other, find out a bit more about Moldovan culture, have some Romanian lessons, learn about God's plan for evangelism and prepare Bible studies from Luke's Gospel. It's an intense and often quite stretching time. Pray that it's a significant and fruitful week spiritually, and that all team members get to know and love Jesus more through the studies in Luke.

The focus of the trip is the English and Bible Camp, that will run from 8th-17th July. This year, 58 Moldovans are expected, two-thirds of them not Christian. Most of them will have read little or nothing from the Bible. The team's job is to teach English classes and to lead the Bible studies for everyone. I found the camp exhausting and very tough, emotionally and physically, but loads of fun! Pray for good relationships across languages, plenty of fun, strength and stamina, and clear gospel teaching. Pray that Christians grow in love for Jesus, and non-Christians repent and believe the good news as they meet Jesus in Luke's Gospel.

After the camp, British students stay in a Moldovan student's family home (a brilliant highlight of the trip). There's then a debrief period ... and long journey home to Britain with plenty of sleep!

Pray for the team: Huw, Cathy and Rachel (team leaders); Olivia, Flick, Ebek, Jo, Becky, Judith, Jess, Philip & Jeremy (students).

Friday, 29 June 2007

A puzzle

I'm currently putting together in my head a more substantial posting about Jesus and the kingdom, but here's a puzzle I've come across as I've been working through Matthew's Gospel - why the long section and great detail about the execution of John the Baptist (in 14:1-12)? How does this emphasis help Matthew's agenda in writing his gospel?

The question perhaps becomes more pointed when we bring Mark's account into play. In the 'tabloid gospel', where it seems space is rarely dedicated to details that are unimportant to the theological account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, a relatively vast section is dedicated to the beheading of John the Baptist (6:14-29).

Here are a few thoughts that I've had, but I'm still puzzled and would like to hear what others think.

My first reflection was that (in Matthew's Gospel at least, and it's on this Gospel I'll focus), the account of John's beheading follows Jesus' rejection in Nazareth (see 13:53-58). Jesus is the 'prophet without honour in his home town'. John is another prophet who is rejected. I'd wondered whether this was an allusion drawn upon in parable of the tenants in 21:33-46. However I now think this can be ruled out because John's beheading is clearly by Gentiles, whereas the parable focuses on Jewish rejection.

I then wondered if this section links together the preceding chapters, which focus on the nature of the kingdom (especially chapter 13) in the face of increasing Jewish hostility to Jesus, and a section which perhaps focuses more on the effect of Jesus' mission on the Gentiles. The faith of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) in the face of the Pharisees' legalistic emphasis on righteousness is noticeable and it's probable that the feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39) was in Gentile territory. Peter's confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God is certainly in a Gentile town dedicated to Caesar, Caesarea Philippi. I still think that this idea still might have some merit.

My most recent thought is that the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus are tightly linked in Matthew's Gospel. Clearly, Jesus is greater than John, but they have the same message - 'Repent for the kingdom of God is near' - in 3:2 and 4:17. Both are opposed by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Now could it be that the pattern continuing? Is John's unjust execution at the hands of the Gentiles prefiguring Jesus' own similar death (20:19)? After all, whilst John had perhaps expected the Messianic kingdom to immediately be established, Jesus reminds him that although the kingdom is advancing, it will never come without opposition (see 11:11-13). Is this why Jesus' reaction to the news of John's execution is to withdraw by boat to a private place, where he can process this more and pray upon it as he reflects on his own future suffering and death?

As I say, this remains something of a puzzle, and I'd love to hear other thoughts, as I'm keen to understand more of Matthew's mind and to discover more about the Christ I worship and follow.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

More on the Transfiguration

Since jotting down a few thoughts on Jesus' Transfiguration, I've come across some articles written by Stephen Williams and published in Themelios in 2002 in two parts, available online here and here.

I'd commend them to read, but my favourite part of the two articles is a quote from A. Michael Ramsay. Beautifully, he said that the Transfiguration '... stands as a gateway to the saving events of the gospel, and is a mirror in which the Christian mystery is seen in its unity. Here we perceive that the living and the dead are one in Christ, that the old covenant and the new are inseparable, that the Cross and the glory are of one, that the age to come is already here, that our human nature has a destiny of glory, that in Christ the final word is uttered and in him alone the Father is well pleased. Here the diverse elements in the theology of the New Testament meet.'

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Convictions for Christian ministry

Yesterday I completed my final 'mentoring' Bible study of the year, as I finished studying the book of 2 Timothy with Andy and Steve, two first year CU leaders at Lancaster University. I love the book of 2 Timothy - such emotional words from Paul, and such brilliant convictions to hold for authentic Christian serve. 2 Timothy 3-4 have been really important chapters for me as I have served in Lancashire adn Cumbria over the past couple of years. Below is a talk I gave to CU leaders last November, which I looked over as I prepared yesterday's study. It owes a lot to a talk I heard from Don Carson at the European Leadership Forum.

Well let me add my own welcome to today’s CU Leaders’ Day. It’s so encouraging to see you here. It’s good for us to be able to encourage each other and to think about CU leadership in the middle of what I know for many of you has been a very busy term. I know that some of you have seen incredible things happen this term – some of you have seen your CUs step forward in evangelism and witnessing on campus, some of you have seen people become Christians over the past few weeks. It was great to hear of a guy who started professing as a Christian in Preston on Monday. Some of you have seen CU members take real steps forward in godliness as they have let the gospel loose in their lives.

For others it’s been a really difficult term so far. You’ve put in the hours and it seems that no-one has noticed, or they’ve just been ungrateful. Perhaps you had big plans for this term, and they’ve not quite come to fruition. Your own personal evangelism has been really hard. You’ve been discouraged as other Christians seem to be fighting less against sin in their Christian walk. You are discouraged as you look at your own life and your own struggles with sin.

For the majority of us here, I suspect that it’s both of the above. This shouldn’t really surprise us as whenever we read about gospel ministry we read that it is a mixture of these two things – real joys and real frustrations and sorrows. And so, as we start this morning, I thought it would be really good for us to think about authentic gospel ministry in more detail. It’s perhaps particularly appropriate at this point of the year, as I know from my own personal experience that this is a tough point of the term. It’s already been a hard couple of months since the highs of Forum and Freshers’ Weeks, and it still seems like a long slog to come. It all just seems so tiring and not really that worth it. And the temptation is to ease off – to let Jesus slip down our list of priorities, or to quietly divorce ourselves from our CU responsibilities, or in our tiredness to become bitter. We need the reminder not to give up.

Slacking off was something that obviously had crossed Timothy’s mind. In 1:7-8, Paul says this to Timothy: ‘For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner.’ The situation is this. Timothy is a leader – not at Ephesus University Christian Union, but as a church leader. His predicament, although not identical to anything that anyone here faces, might be familiar to some. He’s finding things really hard. Paul – his mentor – is not around. More than that, he’s in prison and faces execution. And people about Timothy – Christians included – are saying that Paul is a joke. They are saying that identifying with Paul shows just how weak and stupid Timothy is. They are personally hostile to Timothy. More than that, some members of Timothy’s congregation have also turned to false teaching. We read about that in 2:17-18. Finally, it seems that the congregation is also being persecuted by those from outside of the church community too – this is probably what Paul is alluding to in 3:11. All in all, it’s a difficult situation for Timothy, our young leader. And so, despite having been around with and discipled by Paul for years and years, he’s thinking that he faces an impossible task. He’s thinking about giving up, just as Demas had, as we read about in 4:10.

And so when we come to 2 Timothy 3-4, we come to two very precious chapters of Scripture. Because here, Paul, the ageing apostle, probably writing his last letter to Timothy before being executed, passes on to Timothy the convictions he’s going to need to keep going. And these are convictions that we need to hear if we are to keep living radically as Christians, to keep leading our CUs with gospel radicalness. Otherwise, we’ll just want to blend in with those around us, or even worse, we’ll give up, thinking that gospel ministry is an impossible task.

Hold few illusions about the world [3:1-13]

The first thing that Paul says we’re going to need to remember is that we should hold few illusions about the world. 3:1-13 are scary verses. Paul says – verse 1 – that we’re living in the last days. In the Bible, this is the name given to the era between the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Jesus’ second coming and return in judgement. And the period is called the ‘last days’ because the Old Testament makes it very clear that the penultimate date of redemption history is the giving of the Spirit. And that’s been and gone. And so, if you like, in God’s diary, the next big date is Jesus’ return and judgement of the world. And you can read more about that in Joel 2 in the future.

The point is this. The devil, though defeated in principle, is still outraged and violently active. Although the end is secure – death really is dead, love really has won, and Christ really has conquered – the devil is doing his very best to wreak havoc in our world before he is condemned forever. We really do live in a spiritual battle. Sometimes when we think about the devil and about spiritual battle, we think about supernatural occurrences. And around the world these do happen. But, far more often, and far more sneakily and subtly, the devil works to disarm the church. And this is both through persecution external to the Christian community, and false teaching and tension within the Christian community.

Paul describes both here. Verses 1-9 describe the sort of false teachers that it appears were within the church in Ephesus. Notice how many of these words focus on self – so we have – verse 2 – they are ‘lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud’; but they are also socially destructive in their behaviour – ‘abusive, disobedient to their parents’. They disrespect authority. They treat others without grace – ‘ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving’. They treat others nastily, as we read, they are ‘slanderous, without self-control’. They are also ‘brutal, not lovers of the good’ – literally, Paul says they are ‘unlovers of good’. Their fundamental attitude problem is then described: ‘treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’.

And what does Paul say it all boils down to? Verse 5 – they have ‘a form of godliness but [deny] its power.’ For them, godliness is just an outward thing; it’s just a veneer and has absolutely no power to transform lives. And what’s the really scary thing here? It’s this: Paul is describing people within the Christian community. He’s describing people who would have described themselves as Christians. They were probably even Christian leaders. Yet, still they are described in this way.

The history of the Christian church has been littered with Christian leaders who have been set up on moral pedestals, only for them to come crashing down. Some of those people have shown short-term moral slips; they have fallen and found themselves in situations of which they are truly repentant. Yet, Paul says, there are others within the Christian community who deliberately are in it for themselves and care little or nothing for the gospel. And do you see Paul’s command to them? ‘Have nothing to do with them.’

Paul isn’t saying that Christian leaders have to be perfect. If I’m honest, I know that some of the words in these verses describe me, and I’m sure there are words there that would describe you. If we obeyed this completely rigidly, we’d have to excommunicate ourselves! But this is not quite what Paul is saying. What he is saying is this: genuine Christianity will show itself in conduct. An increasingly godly person attests the reality of the gospel in their life. The gospel is powerful. When it is genuinely at work, it will change people. In the false teachers, it clearly isn’t at work. In fact, as we read on, we see that they prey on the vulnerable (verses 6-7), and that they have depraved minds.

Why is Paul so strong in his wording here? I think it’s because he knows what we can be like as leaders. He knows that being in positions of authority can lead to the abuse of the position that we have been called to. And so he’s implicitly calling us to check our motives. How are our hearts? Do we strive after genuine godliness or are we more bothered about outward show? Do our lives attest to the power of the gospel at work, or are they simply made up of veneer? Check yourselves, says Paul, otherwise you might shipwreck your faith. A bad motive at work now when it comes to fruition might lead to something far worse. If that’s you, repent. Spend time asking God to forgive you and to purge you of bad motives.

Not only is there a danger of disruption from within the church, but also externally as well. Paul knew all about this. In verse 11, he reminds Timothy of the persecution he received at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. You can read about that in Acts 16. Paul was flogged and left for dead, simply for preaching the gospel. And whilst that’s unlikely to happen on any of our campuses, we do see genuine persecution. I know that many of the people here today have seen genuinely hostile reactions to the gospel. We shouldn’t be surprised.

Paul finishes this section with verses 12-13, which are two of the most sobering verses in the whole Bible: ‘In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.’ Everyone who wants to live a godly live in Christ Jesus WILL BE persecuted. We WILL BE. If we’re not now, we will be in the future. And with all of this, there’s the temptation to think that we must be doing something wrong. We see hostile reactions to gospel events that we put on, from non-Christians, and sometimes even from Christians. We think we must be doing something wrong. Well, that’s not necessarily the case. Because we live in a spiritual battle. The devil is sneaky. He will try anything to stop us doing gospel work. But knowing his schemes helps us to spot them. And so this is Paul’s first instruction to Timothy: hold few illusions about the world; we really do live in a spiritual battle.

Hold on to the Bible [3:14-17]

We can read something like 2 Timothy 3:1-13 and think, well then, why do we bother? We feel so ill-equipped and so small and so scared. It seems like we’re facing a losing battle.

But then … But then Paul chimes in with these famous words about the Bible:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

What a great tonic these words are! Don’t just hold few illusions about the world, but hold onto the Bible says Paul. We do live in a spiritual battle, but the Bible is well able to cut through these spiritual dimensions and right to a person’s heart. It’s through the Bible that the Spirit transforms people. We live in a spiritual battle in these last days, and it seems such hard work, but we have the Bible! And notice what Paul says the Bible does through the power of the Spirit: ‘it’s able to make you wise for salvation!’ Hallelujah! It’s able to tell us what we need to know in order to be saved. It’s there to help us trust in Jesus.

But also, notice that it’s useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. What an encouragement this must have been to Timothy, as he is reminded of the Bible’s power. Timothy is serving a church in Ephesus that is in an utter mess, and Timothy must have felt powerless. But Paul reminds him: no, you are not alone – you have the Bible, and with the Spirit that is powerful to change people. Do they need teaching? Let the Bible do it! Do they need rebuking? Again, trust the Bible! And the same applies for correcting and training in righteousness. In fact, if we want people to be equipped for any good work at all, the Bible has it covered.

This is a good reminder for us in CU leadership. Often people don’t behave as we want them to. We get frustrated. Why don’t they seem to share the same passion for the lost? Why aren’t they bothered about sin? Why are they so half-hearted about things? Well hear the encouragement. Keep teaching the Bible, because through God’s Holy Spirit, the Bible will teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness. There’s no situation that the Spirit can’t change as the Bible is taught, there’s no heart too hard. Sometimes I think about an individual’s hard heart and the God of the Universe. God is well able to change a heart as his Bible is taught. We can count on it.

All of this means that, as CU leaders, we’re going to privilege the teaching of the Bible highly. It means we’ll commit to reading the Bible ourselves, so that we’re taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness. It means that we’re not just going to fill up our CU calendars with anyone we can get to speak at short notice or just the speakers who tell the most jokes, but we’re going to try and get the very best Bible teachers in, so that God’s Word can be faithfully taught and radically set loose in our lives. It means that, as small group leaders, we’ll put in the hours to prayerfully get our heads around the passage. And it also means that we’re going to trust the Bible to do its work. Often the temptation is, particularly before mission weeks, which we’ll be thinking about a bit more this afternoon to rely on other things to whip people up. A guilt trip perhaps, or an emotionally passionate speech to frenzy people for mission week. But do you see what Paul says? Teach the Bible and trust the Bible to do its work. That is the only way in which people will be changed at their core. Hold onto the Bible.

Hold the Bible out to others [4:1-8]

Related to this, Paul tells Timothy to hold the Bible out to others. This is 4:1-8. Hold the Bible out to others. And I want us particularly to think about verse 5: ‘But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.’

I guess Timothy could have given any good reason for his church not to be doing evangelism at their stage in history. The church was in a mess, there was false teaching within and a lot of tension. Timothy himself wasn’t exactly the most popular person as he taught the church there. Yet Paul says: ‘do the work of an evangelist.’ This is quite amazing, isn’t it? Paul is saying: don’t let evangelism drop off of your list of priorities, even though there are all sorts of problems within the church.

Perhaps we need to hear this too. When the chips are down, it’s really easy to evangelism to completely drop off of the radar. It seems that we’ve got enough fires to fight first before getting out and sharing the gospel with non-Christians. But Paul knows exactly what situation Timothy is facing, and yet says: do the work of an evangelist. I think it’s sometimes easy to think, well, we’ll just get all of the other issues in CU sorted and then we can focus on doing some evangelism. Well, let me say this. If you wait for that time, you’ll be waiting for ever! You’ll never do any evangelism!

Instead, says Paul – verse 2 – preach the Word in season and out of season; when the gospel is popular and when it is not; when the CU is flavour of the month with the SU and when it is not; when the CU are really excited about doing gospel outreach and when they are not. Why? Because it doesn’t depend on us! Because God’s Word is powerful in itself. And just to underline the point, Paul tells Timothy to correct, rebuke and encourage – the very things he’s just said the Bible does! Keep going. Keep proclaiming, because even when you are feeling at your very weakest, the Spirit is able to use God’s Word to change hearts. Again, it’s this conviction that keeps us going.

Pretty much all of you here have heard recently about a guy in CU history called Norman Grubb, who in 1923 went around all of the rooms in his hall and shared the gospel with the undergraduates there. It was the beginning of UCCF: The Christian Unions. Well, now let me add the name of Howard Guinness. He was a medical student in London in the 1920s, who was challenged when he heard Norman Grubb speak about the lack of CUs in Canada. He shared this with his CU, who between them sold their bicycles and camera equipment in order to pay for Norman Grubb to have a one-way ticket to Canada, to set up the CU movement there. And that’s precisely what he did – he spent a few days on each campus, did some evangelism, put the Christians together, founded a CU and then he moved on. That’s how the CU movement started in Canada. And he then went on to start the CU movements afterwards in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and several other countries! If you’d like to read more about the growth of the CU movement around the world, I’d highly recommend this book ‘From Cambridge to the World’. You’ll see that CUs have had a truly global impact.

Anyway, the point is this. What spurred people like Norman Grubb to share the gospel with those on their corridors? What spurred Howard Guinness to cross continents for the gospel? I can tell you, it’s not because they thought they were great. Read sections of their diaries, and you’ll see, far from it. Most of the time they were petrified. Yet they had a sure confidence that God works as his word is proclaimed, as his gospel is preached. It’s that which changes hearts. And this conviction keeps us going. Regardless of the situation, God’s word can speak into it. It’s why we have CU mission weeks. It’s why during mission weeks we’re not just wanting to be nice. We want people to know that Christians are not freaks, but the main thing is that we want the gospel proclaimed. Because we’re never going to change the situation, but God’s Word can. Hold out God’s word to others.

Hold the future at the front of your mind [4:1, 8, 14, 18]

Paul’s final instruction to the Timothy doesn’t come so much as a block of text, but as a theme that runs throughout the whole letter. It’s a theme that we also see in the verses here, and it’s this: hold the future at the front of your mind.

I want you to imagine that you go into university or college on Monday, and you have been sent an email in error. It was supposed to be a confidential email sent only to university authorities, but somehow you’ve been copied in. And, to your amazement, it says that all of the people on your course are going to be automatically awarded firsts, regardless of how well you do in your coursework and exams. They’re going to be awarded by the university because they’d like to draw attention to the high quality students that they have attracted. Now, I know this is pretty far fetched, but how would you respond to that? How would you spend your time? I know that, if it was me, I’d kick back and enjoy myself knowing that a first was coming my way.

Similarly, the future always affects how we behave now. If we know something is coming, then we behave accordingly. And Paul speaks of the future regularly, because he knows that it should affect our behaviour now. Have a look a chapter 4, and you’ll see that Paul mentions it very regularly: verse 1 – ‘In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge’; verse 8 – ‘Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day…’; verse 14 – ‘Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done’; and, finally, verse 18: ‘The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.’ Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying this: live in the light of eternity.

It’s so easy to lose our eternal perspective. It’s very easy to get caught up in the here and the now. And, as CU leaders, if we do this then we’ll probably slip into one of two traps. One of them is that we’ll just get so caught up by the here and now that we never do anything with eternity in sight. I know myself that it’s very easy to get caught up with the trappings – with room bookings and socials and emails and meetings and the rest – that, even though the CU has been set up with eternity in mind, that we never do anything with eternal consequence. And the CU just becomes a social club. Or the other danger is this: we know that evangelism should be a priority, but we’ve forgotten about eternity and we’re only bothered about results in the short term. We’re only bothered about packed meetings and looking good on campus. In both cases, we’ve forgotten about eternity.

One of the most helpful verses I’ve found here is 1 Corinthians 3:13, where Paul says that judgement day will test the quality of a person’s work. It’s at judgement where we’ll see the eternal value of our work. And so let’s work for things that will last for eternity. It’s so easy to get caught up with projects, but let’s commit ourselves to people – to investing the gospel into the lives of Christians and non-Christians, praying that God will transform it and give eternal value.

Sometimes eternity is not popular. Living for eternity means that we’re going to find ourselves in messy situations where, if judgement did not exist and there was no eternal perspective, we’d be completely wasting our time. But let’s commit to keeping eternity in view – let’s commit to not letting our CUs or small groups just get subsumed with ‘stuff’, and let’s not fall into doing evangelism for just the here and now. Let’s keep eternity in view.

Paul wrote to Timothy because Timothy was under pressure to give up, to slack off. We’re going to face the same pressure. It’s part of living in a society that has very different priorities and focus. And so let’s remember those things Paul reminded Timothy: hold few illusions about the world; hold onto the Bible; hold the Bible out to others and hold the future at the front of your mind. If we hold onto these things, by grace, we won’t give up or lose heart.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Taking Foucault to church

In a couple of previous postings (here and here) I started a mini series reviewing James Smith's book Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church. This final entry examines what Smith has to say about the writings of Michel Foucault.

Of the three cultural theorists in questions, it's perhaps Foucault whose work I am most familiar with. As someone who was a geography undergraduate, Foucault's work is more overtly spatial than much other sociological writing (see, for instance, in his work on prisons in Discipline and Punish). In particular, his methodology - known as 'archaeology' - where he traces through how a particular thing or phenomenon has been viewed through different historical epochs, is something that has been enthusiastically embraced by many social sciences.

I guess the other thing to add is that, in some ways, I've never felt quite so concerned about the ramifications of Foucault's work to my Christian belief. Sure, there were challenges as an undergraduate - particularly in being told that Biblical condemnation of certain practices reflected only the culture it was written in (rather than wrong for all humans in all places in all periods of history). This argument leads to a kind of moral relativism, which is obviously incompatible with a Biblical worldview. But, overall, I'd always felt more resourced to tackle some of these ideas head on than the more subtle arguments coming through language and semiotics.

Anyhow, in his book, James Smith tackles the subject of discipline, which is familiar in many of Foucault's writings. Foucault argued that society and institutions are designed to give vision to certain people, forcing others to behave in certain ways. Foucault's famous example is Jeremy Bentham's 'panopticon' prison design, whereby the prisoner cannot see any other fellow prisoner, and yet knows that the eyes of the prison guard could be upon them at any one time. Britain's obsession with CCTV is perhaps the same - we change our behaviour because we know that at any given time, we could be being watched. This is the very idea of surveillance.

It's within this framework that Foucault assembles his theories of knowledge. Foucault throws out the idea that truth is somehow innocent - instead, certain ideas and biases and prejudices are combined in order to control others as we would like. Like the architecture of the panopticon, Foucault claims that we assemble ideas as 'truth' in order to make people behave in a certain way. And so we come to Foucault's famous slogan - 'power is knowledge' - as Smith puts it, 'at the root of our most cherished and central institutions ... is a network of power relations.' Power and knowledge are inextricably linked, in order to make people conform in certain behaviours.

And so, linked to this is the idea of a deep 'hermeneutic of suspicion' - we can now consider no truth to be innocent. As Smith puts it, 'what might be claimed as obvious or self-evident is, in fact, covertly motivated by other interests - the interest of power.' And so different historical eras have had different 'truths' because certain people have wanted to have power over others in some way. Foucault's picture of society is a disturbing one - one of control and domination - and his message rings through: be suspicious of all.

Taking Foucault to church

Smith's main contribution here is a reflection on the nature of power. In the main part, he is happy to go along with Foucault's description of society and its institutions, and the web of power relations within. But he is unhappy to take the negative Foucauldian of power. This longer quote is, I think, helpful:

Should we accept this negative view of power? Is power all bad? Specifically, can Christians share in this devaluation of power and discipline as inherently evil? Can we who claim to be disciples - who are called and predestined to be conformed to the likeness of the Son (Romans 8:29) - be opposed to discipline and formation as such? Can we who are called to be subject to the Lord of life really agree with the liberal Enlightenment notion of the autonomous self? Are we not above all called to subject ourselves to the Domine and conform to his image? Of course, we are called not to conform to the patterns of 'this world' (Romans 12:2) or to our previous evil desires (1 Peter 1:14), but that is a call not to nonconformity as such but rather to an alternative conformity through a counterformation in Christ, a transformation and renewal directed toward conformity to his image. In fact, by appropriating the Enlightenment notion of negative freedom and participating in its nonconformist resistance to discipline (and hence a resistance to the classical spiritual disciplines), Christians are being conformed to the patterns of this world (contra Romans 12:2).

This seems, to me, to be a wonderful insight. Another sentence from Smith, 'what constitutes the proper end, or telos, of human formation depends on the ultimate story we tell of what human beings are and what they are called to be.' In other words, Christians must absolutely refute the view that power is all bad: the Spirit's power at work in us, for instance, is wonderful - he frees us from our sin and makes us more like Jesus, the perfect human being and the only one since Adam to experience living as humans were created to live (ie in perfect relationship with God). Power is positive if it is used for positive ends - and living the life we were created to live is the greatest of these.

Smith makes a couple suggestions for how Foucault's work ought to work itself out in the world. Firstly, we the church should recognise the process of disciplinary formation in society - unveiled we can be aware of those processes that would make us behave as those with power want (particularly to be capitalist animals) and then diagnose the correct Christian response. We need to realise that this process runs counter to what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.

Smith then says that we must come up with our own disciplines 'that will counteract the formation of MTV and television commercials'. Smith goes on that 'we would do well to recover the tradition of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting, meditation, simplicity and so on as a means of shaping our souls through the rituals of the body.' I guess this is where I think James Smith sells himself a bit short. He's right in quoting Romans 12:2 ... but spiritual disciplines themselves cannot transform. What is needed is to 'be transformed by the renewal of your mind' (ESV). Smith does speak about the need for grace to change - but this comes powerfully through the work of the Spirit as he transforms us by the Word. The greatest way of being transformed in a culture which screams out anything but Jesus is Lord is the Spirit's transforming power through the Word.

In particular, it would seem to me that teaching on God's design for humans is going to be necessary if we are to crave the Spirit's power in transforming us to be like Jesus. I remember the first time when someone told me that Jesus was the only person who has ever lived who was truly human. Jesus is the only one who lived as he was created. A Christian view of freedom (the view of John 8:31-32) that we are free when we live as we were created (rather than the more 'democratic' view of choosing A or B) will be vital. Christians and non-Christians alike need to see the beauty in God's blueprint for humanity in order to want the Spirit's power for change.

A couple of final things
In closing, I want to add a couple of points. Firstly, as I hope you've seen, I've tried to give an accurate and fair review of this book. I think, overall, it's a great and helpful read. However, the book's reviewers (on the back cover) are nearly all emerging church leaders, including Brian McLaren, Robert Webber and Carl Raschke. Why is it that the emerging church seems so happy to engage with the postmodern mindset, where others - which I think are often set upon more Scriptural convictions - seem slow to do so? Must we choose between a grouping of churches that probably unhelpfully panders to the postmodern mindset and between the rest that seem completely unwilling to do so at all? (Or is that a caricature?)

To finish, I want to draw attention to something that James Smith doesn't examine at all, and that's addressing Foucault's hermeneutic of suspicion. I remember giving a talk about a year ago at the height of the Da Vinci Code hype: now there's a postmodern idea - 'trust no-one!' In this talk, I addressed the natural suspicion that we have of truth - 'why do they want me to believe this?!' It seems to me that the way in which we counter the suspicion that people have of the gospel is authenticity - to share our lives with others. I remember asking those present in the talk to question the motives of the Christians that brought them - 'Why do you think they want you to become a Christian?' Christian authenticity - sharing our lives as well as the gospel - is a key way in which we can demonstrate that we are not trying to have power over others, but that we long for them to come to the truth, because we love them and long for Jesus' glory. Now there's two motives that in eternity won't be questioned.

Monday, 25 June 2007

Billy McCurrie tells of how he became a Christian

I've always appreciated hearing from Billy McCurrie, minister of Aughton Park Baptist Church in Ormskirk. Rev McCurrie is a former Ulster Volunteer Force terrorist who dramatically became a Christian during his time in the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. As I've heard him tell his story before, I've been reminded of God's abounding grace that can change any heart, even a heart as bitter as Billy's.

Rev. McCurrie has just been confirmed as a speaker for a lunchbar at Lancaster University next term where he'll be speaking on Why God forgives terrorists like me. As a preview, you can hear him telling his story on YouTube (NB video quality is poor for the first few seconds):

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The soundtrack of my life

Yesterday was spent going through the music collections that belong to Linda and me. It was quite time consuming work sorting through - finding boxes and CDs that match and finding those which now duplicate (one of the pleasant side-effects of being married).

As I sorted, I came up with what I think I might have if I had a soundtrack that represented my life. It's an assortment of music that I really like and stuff that has nostalgic value. I've not included any Christian music - it would be too hard. See what you reckon anyway:

* Champagne Supernova (Oasis) - The first band I adored were Oasis. I'd been into other bands before, but Oasis were the first group whose every move I tracked. Morning Glory was an album I listened to more than any other in my teenage years, and the final track is an absolute masterpiece. Worryingly, I was listening to it in the car a few months back and one student described Oasis as 'retro' - what's that about?
* It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over (Lenny Kravitz) - a happy piece of pop with a very cool riff. And it reminds me of my Year 6 school disco!
* Bittersweet Symphony (The Verve) - Another school album. I remember smuggling in a walkman and my copy of Urban Hymns into a maths lesson. This track was always my favourite. I love the strings and how the song is layered to a climax capturing the simultaneous joy and helplessness that Richard Ashworth felt as he reflected on his life situation.
* Chain Reaction (Diana Ross & the BeeGees) - OK, I know that this is completely cheesy, but it's a brilliant piece of dance music. No wedding reception is complete without it. I mean it! I told Linda that I wouldn't consider us to be married if we didn't have it at our reception (fortunately we did).
* You Do Something To Me (Paul Weller) - Stanley Road is surely one of the classic albums of the last quarter of the 20th Century. This track has so much emotion it bleeds.
* The Sea (Morcheeba) - This track is truly chilled! A brilliant song to unwind to, and if like me you love the sea, it's an oasis of calm in a busy day.
* In Pursuit of Happiness (The Divine Comedy) - If I think about the Divine Comedy, I think about my first year at university. It was a happy time. I love the 6/8 rhythm on this and the pretentious orchestral arrangement gives a wonderful representation of what it feels like to first be in love.
* Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (Michael Jackson) - Quite simply the best piece of disco music ever written.
* Feeling Good (Nina Simone) - One of the greatest regrets I have is turning down tickets to see Nina Simone a few years ago. It turned out to be one of her last concerts before she died. An amazing musician, an amazing voice. This track shows off both of those talents in all their clarity.
* Do It All Over Again (Spiritualised) - A band I got into in Bristol in a big way. This track's almost hyponotic and got some brilliant vocal harmonies.
* Rose Rouge (St Germain) - French acid jazz at its best!
* At the River (Groove Armada) - Somehow I've ended up with three Groove Armada albums. I don't like loads of dance music but their stuff is better than most. This track has lots of happy memories associated with it.
* All At Sea (Jamie Cullum) - A claim to fame that I have is that I saw Jamie Cullum play in Bath before he was famous. I bought my copy of Pointless Nostalgic from the man himself.... Since then I've followed his career closely. There's several tracks of his I like but All At Sea gets the pick; partly because it's a poetic gem capturing the depths of loneliness, and partly it makes the accordion sound cool, which is no mean feat.
* Empty at the End (Electric Soft Parade) - I was introduced to Electric Soft Parade soon after I arrived in Lancaster and got pretty much immediately hooked. This track is a bit cheesy but has a cool distorted bass line and I love the fact that each time you think the refrain is coming they make you hold on for four more bars!
* Woman (John Lennon) - I don't actually much like John Lennon, but there aren't too many songs about saying sorry for hurting the people you love the most, and this is a good one. I happened to listen to it on the day I proposed!
* That's Life (Frank Sinatra) - I like to think that I got into swing before it was cool. Frank Sinatra was in my life a good couple of years before Robbie Williams popularised swing with Swing When You're Winning. The hammond organ is an awesome instrument and that's what gives this Frank tune the nod over the others.
* In My Place (Coldplay) - The greatest gig I have been to was Coldplay at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton. This track pumped the whole stadium. I'll never forget it.
* Song for Lovers (Wolfman featuring Pete Doherty) - I first heard this track on Jonathan Ross' radio show a couple of years ago. Pete Doherty perhaps commands more emotion in his voice than any other singer I know. He's an absolute genius. This track is about the break-up of two people that still love each other - it's beautiful.
* The More I See You (Chris Montez) - I love this little track. We had it as the first dance at our wedding reception. I'm well into this sort of music anyway and I love its sentiment: love which keeps on growing as a person gets to know their lover better. I hope that's true of our marriage.

"This is my Son...."

The UCCF North West team had a really stimulating team day at the beginning of the week with Simon Austen from St John's and St Peter's Church in Carlisle. He spoke on the importance of proclamation in evangelism, and most of his time was spent showing how the proclamation of the gospel is a fulfilment of Jesus' ministry in Luke 24 and Acts 1.

However, Simon also spent time unpacking the core of the gospel from Romans 1:1-6. I was particularly fascinated by his treatment of verse 4: '... and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God, by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.'

The idea that Jesus was the Son of God, of course, was not something that was alien to him before his death and resurrection. Time and again throughout the gospels we see Jesus recognised to be the 'Christ' - 'the Anointed One', the 'Son of David' or the 'Son of God' (terms which, within Jewish thinking are fairly interchangeable - coming as they do from the OT expectations of Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7, amongst other places). As I've been reading through Matthew's Gospel I've been struck by the way in which those who do the recognising are perhaps those we'd least expect to make the connection - including a Gentile centurion (8:8-9), two blind men (9:27) and a Canaanite woman (15:22, amazing within the context of Judges 1:30-33). Meanwhile, those who we'd most expect to recognise the Christ - the religious teachers who spend their lives with the noses in the very Scriptures that testify about Jesus - reject him: the Pharisees (9:3, 11, 34; 12:14, 24), the teachers of the law (15:1-2, 12) and the Saduccees (16:1). Even John the Baptist, the great prophet, has a wobble (11:2).

Within this context then, it's interesting to note the points at which God declares Jesus to be his Son, the Messiah. They are in chapter 3, as Jesus begins his public ministry, and at the Transfiguration (in chapter 17). It's surely no coincidence that it's at the Transfiguration that God the Father reiterates his declaration of Jesus' Sonship and the imperative, 'Listen to him!' In Jesus' ministry, Jesus has just spoken of how he will be a suffering Messiah (16:20-21) - an idea abhorrent to Jewish ears (16:22). How the disciples needed to hear the words of God the Father's endorsement of his Son, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!' (17:5).

And so then, back in Romans 1, why does Paul say that it's only through his resurrection that Jesus is declared with power to be Son of God? Simon's helpful pointer was that it's through Christ's resurrection that he's shown with power to the Son of God. In other words, it's not only that he's declared to be Son of God, but also shown to be Lord - something of which the disciples got only a taster at the Transfiguration. It's through his resurrection and ascension to the Father's right hand that Jesus is shown to be the Lord of the Universe, God's appointed Ruler and Judge. And so Paul's summary of the gospel is seen in a new depth: Jesus Christ our Lord - Jesus is both Christ - Messiah - and also risen Lord and heir of the Universe (a formula also used by Peter in the climax of his sermon at Pentecost - see Acts 2:38).

What a reminder of the core of the gospel that those four words - 'Jesus Christ our Lord' form! What a reminder that the gospel is foremostly not about seeing needs met or about humans at all, but about the one worthy of praise, honour and worship as Christ and Lord! How amazing that this very same, God-given message is also the salvation for everyone who believes!

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Love: the fountainhead, spring and ocean

I have carried on my study through Matthew's Gospel in recent weeks. It has been wonderful and I've been struck again by the tenderness of Jesus as he comes to rescue sinners. It's been thrilling to hear him proclaim and model the coming of the Kingdom.

Alongside this, I took John Piper's recent book What Jesus Demands from the World with me on honeymoon. Piper has collected together all of the commands and imperatives of Jesus' teachings from throughout the four gospels and assembled them together. What I love about this book is the way in which Jesus' heartbeat for his ministry, for his Father's glory and for the lost thumps through loud and clear, as does his hatred for hypocrisy and external legalism.

I was particularly moved by the chapters on love. Piper homes in on one of Jesus' most famous commands: 'Love your neighbour as yourself'. Each of the parts of this short sentence are then considered: 'love', 'your neighbour' and 'as yourself'. By the end of the chapter on 'as yourself' I think I saw in a new way the radical love that Jesus calls those in the Kingdom to show. What an incredible reminder for someone who had been married just a few days!

Perhaps the one thing that I'll remember above all is the way in which Piper draws attention to the similarities and differences between Matthew 7:12 ('So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets') and Matthew 22:37-40 (where Jesus speaks of the greatest commandments - loving God and loving your neighbour - and where he adds, 'On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets'). Piper explains the difference in this way:

'[In Matthew 7:12] Jesus said that the Law and the Prophets lead to and find expression in love. But here in Matthew 22:40 Jesus is saying the reverse: love leads to and finds expression in the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets are hanging on - depending on - something before them, namely, God's passion that this world, this history of humankind, be a world of love to God and radical, other-oriented love to each other.'

I find this amazing! In other words, the purpose of the Old Testament - the Law and the Prophets - is fulfilled when people love their neighbour as they love themselves: love is the anticipated response to God's Old Testament word. Matthew 7:12 makes that clear. However, the whole Old Testament was giving - it hangs upon - God's very desire that his people love him with all their heart, soul and mind and because he longs for people to love their neighbours as themselves! Piper puts it this way:

'I believe that it would not be too much to say that all of creation and all the work of redemption, including the work of Christ as our suffering, dying, and rising Redeemer, and all of history, hang on these two great purposes: that humans love God with all their heart, and that from the overflow of that love we love each other. Which means that love is the origin (Matthew 22:40) and the goal (Matthew 7:12) of the Law and the Prophets. It is the beginning and the end of why God inspired the Bible. It's the fountainhead and spring at the one end and the shoreless ocean at the other end of the river of redemptive history - remembered and promised in the Word of God.'

As I say, what a well-timed wake-up call to one entering into marriage - what a brilliant reminder of Jesus' demand for sacrificial love as I get used to putting my wife before me in everything. But also what a reminder for those of us who would describe ourselves as Evangelicals, as those who have a high view of Scripture. Evangelical Christians are so often caricatured as bigoted and graceless - in my view often wrongly, but sometimes with an element of truth. Piper's exposition of these verses in Matthew remind us that a high view of Scripture is not a replacement or a substitute for the sacrificial love embodied and exemplified for us in Christ. Indeed, a high view of Scripture should, as Piper shows, drive us with a new seriousness and commitment (with the Spirit's help of course) to a deep sacrificial giving of ourselves for our neighbours in whatever way we can. I, for one, pray that God will take away my all-too-selfish nature and help me to do so.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Home again

After a couple of weeks away at Relay 3, wedding, honeymoon and then a couple of residential team days with the UCCF North West team, I'm back at my desk in Lancaster.

Here are a few things I didn't know when I last wrote on this blog (ordered in date of discovery!):

1. The book of Proverbs is much less dry and full of many more things to discover than I had previously thought (thanks Mo).
2. Trying to get your Relay Workers from your region to lie down in a 'NW' shape is surprisingly hard, surprisingly time-consuming and unsurprisingly not that worth it.
3. A wedding rehearsal is far more stressful than an actual wedding ceremony!
4. Wedding days need to be about ten times longer than they actually are if you are to have a hope of speaking to anything like half of those who attend them.
5. It's wonderful having all of your friends and family from all parts of life together in one place.
6. Dublin has more than six hundred churches and nearly one thousand pubs.
7. The Chester Beatty Papyrus, one of the oldest fragments of NT Scripture and kept in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, is so vast that most of it has yet to be catalogued.
8. Gaelich hhas farh thoo mhany shilenth 'h'sh.
9. The Blackpool area actually looks quite beautiful from the air.
10. Stephen Harbage is perhaps the only person in the world who is as competitive as me at the esteemed game of 'spoons'.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Looking back, looking forward

Three years, eight months and four days ago I met Emma Brewster and a group of other people at Cribbs Causeway just outside of Bristol. It was a day that changed my life. It was the day on which I started on a discipleship scheme for graduates run by UCCF called 'Relay'.

I've been thinking lately about all that I learned under God during my year on Relay. There were loads of things. One of the first that springs to mind is the power of the gospel to change lives. Sure, I knew this in theory before my year on Relay, but by the end of the year I knew it in practice too. Likewise, I'll be grateful for ever in having the opportunity to study through Romans 1-8 with David (my supervising Staff Worker) and Richard (a fellow Relay Worker), which deepened by understanding of the grip and extent of the gospel.

But, above all, the lesson which I learned through Relay was what it means to stand in grace. By God's grace, I am a very different person to the one that stood waiting for my life to my first Relay conference three and a half years ago. Then, I would have been someone who oscillated between legalism - thinking that I could somehow better my standing with God through my actions - and a form of licence, where I didn't really think that sin mattered that much. I will always thank God for using Relay to teach me how grace blows both legalism and licence out of the water. I fight sin because I hate it and God's way of living really is best. I used to be very judgemental of other Christians. Grace teaches me to show patience and grace to others, because I have myself been shown immeasurable grace and patience and kindness.

I guess I've got quite reflective about all of this because tomorrow I leave for my last ever Relay conference. On finishing as a Relay Worker, I ended up becoming a Staff Worker with UCCF and, to my surprise, found myself on the Relay team. I have had the delight of attending nine Relay conferences - three as a Relay Worker and six on Relay staff. This week will mark by tenth conference. It feels a bit like the end of an era as my immediate connection with the Relay programme ceases. I am so thankful for the past three and a half years. I'm grateful for the genuinely godly people that have been placed in my path. And as a Staff Worker, through God's goodness, the Relay conferences I've attended (and supervision of Chris, Sarah, Jon and Laura) have ensured that I've not been allowed to forget the lessons I started to learn as a Relay Worker.

Things become all the more poignant because this will be my final blog entry before I get married next Saturday, the day after 'Relay 3' finishes. My Relay commitment will then have finished, but nothing has changed. In fact, I am perhaps more aware than ever of the need for God's future grace in my life as I begin to face up to my commitments and responsibilities before God as a husband. More than ever I am needing to remind myself: You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. Thanks Andy, thanks Maurice, to God be the glory.

Grace abounding, strong and true That makes me long to be like you, That turns me from my selfish pride To love the cross on which you died. Grace unending all my days; You'll give me strength to run this race And when my years on earth are true The praise will all belong to you.

From 'Grace Unmeasured' by Bob Kauflin, available for free download here.

... all this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet ...

What did Matthew understand by Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah?

He certainly believed that Jesus fulfilled the prophetic words of the Old Testament, a quick look at Matthew chapters 1-2 alone confirms that. But what has struck me this week is the varied ways in which Matthew seems to apply Old Testament prophecies to Christ. Below are some examples of how Matthew saw that the early part of Jesus' life was the fulfilment of OT prophecy.

Matthew 1:20-23

20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

Bishop Tom Wright suggests that there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw Isaiah 7:14, which he quotes here, as being something that would be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. Isaiah's prophecy certainly originally referred to events that took place some 800 years before Christ, with the birth of Mahershalalhashbaz, Isaiah's son. Matthew evidently saw in the name 'Immanuel' and in the theme of a special child (in Isaiah 7-12) the foreshadowing of a greater fulfilment in Christ.

Matthew 2:3-6

3When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. 5"In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:

6" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.'"

A fairly standard use of prophecy - a specific prediction about the future from Micah 5:2 about where the Messiah was to be born. However, it is worth noticing that Matthew also weaves in 2 Samuel 5:2, on which Micah's prophecy was seemingly based. Again, Matthew is drawing attention to the kingship of Christ.

Matthew 2:13-15

13When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." 14So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."

A curious prophecy, as it seems Matthew has taken Hosea out of context! Hosea 11:1, which is cited here, looks back to the exodus where God's 'son' (see Exodus 4:23), Israel, was called out of Egypt. It seems that Matthew is using the return of Jesus from exile in Egypt to point to part of Jesus' future role and vocation as the true Israel, who succeeded in being a 'son' where the people of Israel failed (see especially Matthew 4:1-11).

Matthew 2:16-18

16When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:
18"A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more."

This next quotation provides a prophetic backdrop to Herod's slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem, and is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Chapter 31 is one of the chapters in Jeremiah's prophecy about the renewal of the covenant, whereby Israel is finally brought back from exile. Rachel was the mother of Joseph, who in turn was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh. Ephraim and Manasseh were the northern tribes that had gone into exile in Assyria. In Jeremiah's prophecy, Rachel's weeping stands for the grief of Israel. In Jeremiah 31, this weeping is answered by the Lord's prophecy of restoration.

How does this apply to the slaughter in Bethlehem? The best explanation I have found that Rachel was buried near Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19) - she weeps again for her people. However, Matthew's citation Jeremiah 31 gives the hint that there is more to come: rescue is on the way, and there will be deliverance even when things seem bleak and hopeless.

Matthew 2:21-23

21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."

This prophetic fulfilment is perhaps the most curious of all, since 'He will be called a Nazarene' is not a line in the Old Testament at all. Consulting the commentaries, it seems that several explanations have been put forward to attempt to explain this. However, for me, the key to understanding this verse is that fact that Matthew says that this was the word of the prophets (i.e. plural). Given what we know about first Century Jewish contempt for those from Nazareth (see John 1:46, for instance), could it be that Matthew is saying that Jesus' Nazarene upbringing is a fulfilment of Scripture that prophesied that the Messiah would be despised and rejected (see, for instance, Isaiah 53?).

What I find really interesting about all of this is that Matthew saw that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament at a whole series of levels. He saw that Christ fulfilled specific prophecies, but he also saw that Christ fulfilled the whole story of the Old Testament, a story of the nation of Israel and its history. He also saw that Christ fulfilled more of the ideas about the Messiah that are sketched but not drawn into specific prophecies. He saw Christ as a greater rescuer than the rescues that God had performed for his people in the Old Testament. This is instructive for us: we impoverish ourselves if we see Christ's coming as only a fulfilment of the more famous predictions of the OT: the whole thing points forward to Christ and his fulfilment (see Matthew 5:17-20).

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Matthew 1:1-17: Jesus' Genealogy

I have spent most of the last couple of days ill with a headache, fever and stomach ache (and I don't think it's just 'man-flu'!) It's been pretty miserable, but in my more lucid moments I've enjoyed continuing to work my way again through Matthew's Gospel.

As it happens, Dave Bish has also been blogging on Jesus' genealogy. My most recent study in Matthew caused me to read through an old sermon I gave last summer. Matthew certainly believed that Jesus was the Christ, and both the son of Abraham and the son of David. I'd appreciate your comments....

‘Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.’

‘When Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.’

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife …’

As you’ve probably worked out, these are the famous opening lines of three novels, one by JK Rowling, one by JRR Tolkien, and the other by Jane Austen. And all three demonstrate how important an arresting start is if you want to hook your readers. A BBC competition recently asked people to send in the opening line that they would have if they were to write a novel. The winner was this: ‘I cannot write, not even letters to friends, but I want to write my story as much for you to read it as for me to understand it.’

We know a riveting opening is important if we want our readers to read on. And then we come to the opening salvo from Matthew’s Gospel that we just read. It hardly seems like a gripping start! And we perhaps give Matthew half an excuse as he’s not writing a novel, but a historical account of Jesus’ life. But it’s only half an excuse, because his dusty introduction just seems to reinforce our suspicions about the Bible. We read something like this, and it just seems so old-fashioned and archaic, so out of date and out of touch, so odd. And we know that historical detail is sometimes appropriate for a biography but, we ask, what popular biography would begin this way, with a family tree? Couldn’t Matthew have just dived straight in with the account of Jesus’ birth, and tucked this away in the small print at the end, perhaps in an appendix?

But, what we’re going to see this morning is that Matthew’s genealogy would have been such an arresting start to his first-Century Jewish readership that it would have completely knocked the stuffing out of them.

In Jewish culture, like many cultures around the world today, genealogies played a more important role than they do in Western European culture. In British culture, the only time that your ‘family tree’ comes into play at all really is if you’ve traced yours, itself just is a popular and light hobby. Ancestors can sometimes be a bit embarrassing, but that’s all really. There’s a story about an American family who were keen to trace the story of their family tree, and they hired a genealogist to do the research. Unfortunately he uncovered the truth about Great Uncle Zachary. Zachary had been convicted of murder, held on Death Row, and in the end executed by electric chair. The family were a bit snooty and ‘over-respectable’. So they asked the genealogist to tweak that bit of the entry to conceal the truth. This is what he came up with: ‘Great Uncle Zachary worked for the department of justice for a number of years, after which he was given a chair in applied electronics at a well-known government institution. He became quite attached to it, held there by very strong ties until eventually he died. His death came as quite a shock.’

But in Jewish culture, genealogies were far more important than here; as your ancestors were thought to say something about where you had come from. And if you look, you can see that Matthew has carefully arranged Jesus’ genealogy, as we see in verse 17: ‘Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.’ It echoes verse 1, at the beginning of the genealogy: ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ So Matthew has arranged Jesus’ family tree carefully, and put it into three sections; a drama in three acts, if you like. And we’ll see that actually Matthew was right not to dive straight in with Jesus’ birth, as Jesus’ birth isn’t the beginning of the story, and his arrival didn’t come as a surprise. And as we begin to understand the point Matthew is making here, we’ll begin to understand why Matthew was so excited about Jesus.

Act 1: Jesus: The Son of Abraham

The first act covers verses 2-6, and corresponds to Jesus’ claims that Jesus is the ‘son of Abraham’, as we read in verse 1. Now if you were a 1st Century Jew, you’d know who Abraham was. Abraham was considered the founding father of Judaism. But here Matthew calls Jesus the ‘son of Abraham’ - drawing explicit attention to the fact that Jesus is a descendent of Abraham - as he reflects on one of the promises made by God to Abraham that we can read about in the Old Testament of the Bible.

Abraham lived some two thousand years before Jesus. In fact, as many of you will know, Abraham wasn’t always called Abraham. He was originally called ‘Abram’, which meant ‘exalted father’ – but had his name changed by God to ‘Abraham’ – which means ‘father of many people’. Do you remember the amazing promise that God made to him? God said this, ‘I will bless surely you and make your descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendents will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

Did you notice the promises there? For a start, God told Abraham that he would have many descendents. That may not sound particularly amazing to you, but we read that when the promise was made, Abraham was 90 and his wife Sarah, couldn’t have children and was also a pensioner – far too old!

But did you notice that there’s still more to God’s promise? ‘Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.’ Somehow, through Abraham’s offspring, God would bless the whole world. The one true God, the Creator, the God of the Universe, will bless the world through Abraham’s offspring. Every single person. I guess that Abraham wouldn’t have quite known how that promise would work out. After all, it’s no easy thing to do something of bless just one person, or one family, let alone the whole world! Think about it: if you wandered down to Southend sea-front and just wanted to bless all of the people there, you’d have to make a lot of effort. Let alone blessing the whole town, or the whole country. Yet God promises Abraham that somehow he will bless the whole world through his offspring.

Back in Matthew 1, verses 2-6 show how this promise to Abraham began to get worked out in Israelite history. As you’ll know, supernaturally, Abraham’s old wife Sarah gave birth in old age to a son called Isaac, and we read about him next in the genealogy: ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac’. And we can read on as Abraham’s descendents grew in number: ‘Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.’

Several hundred years pass between the time that the promise is made to Abraham and the time that David is born. By this time, Abraham has thousands of descendents and they were all living together in a country, Israel. So far, God has kept his promises. But can we really say that the promise of blessing has occurred through Abraham’s offspring? We see hints of it in the genealogy – from nowhere Matthew includes Tamar, Rahab and Ruth; three women, none of whom were Jewish, they weren’t descended of Abraham – but there’s certainly no sign of Abraham’s offspring blessing the whole world.

As the Old Testament story progresses, we see this promise become sharper: it will be one of Abraham’s descendents – a particular person – who will benefit the world. And so when we read in Matthew’s account that Jesus Christ is the son of Abraham, we should begin to get a tinge of excitement, because Matthew is saying this: we’ve been waiting for this descendent of Abraham through whom God is going to bless the world – and guess what, he’s arrived!

Act 2: The Son of David

The second of our three acts is covered by the second half of verse 6 to verse 11. All of the people mentioned in this part of genealogy are kings. All of their reigns are recorded in the Old Testament. Of these the greatest King was a man named David. David ruled over the ‘Golden Age’ of Israel’s history: it was a period when the country was prosperous, there were military victories and the people generally lived in a way respectful that God was their ultimate ruler. David himself was a wise king, and a good king.

In 2 Samuel 7, of the key chapters in the Old Testament, which I’ve put down on your handout, God made a promise with his king, David. In some ways this promise is similar to the promise that God made with Abraham. However, this time the promise is seen to be even bigger and even better than before. Let’s read these verses together: ‘When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’

Now there’s two levels of meaning to this here. On the one hand it’s referring to David’s son Solomon - he is the one going to build the temple [verse 13], and he is the one who will be punished when he messes up. But the promises also seem to point even beyond Solomon, don’t they? We see God promising that the kingdom he has established will be established forever. And this promise became associated with a particular person, a particular king. It was an incredible promise.

See, one of the problems with leaders is that they change so often. So often you have a good leader – but then they die or are voted out. British history, like the history of so many other countries in the world, is peppered with occasions when a good king reigns, only to be followed by a really bad one. So for instance, the relatively a good king, Richard I, Richard the Lionheart, was followed by a bad king, called King John.

And so it’s amazing, isn’t it, when God promises David that somehow there’s going to be this good King, whose kingdom will last forever. More than that, from elsewhere in the Old Testament, we read that this King’s reign will have positive consequences for all of the people in his kingdom. And God promises that this special king will win a victory that will bring peace. I don’t know, but I guess that none of us has ever lived in a war-zone – it must be terrifying. We see the horror of war on our television screens all too often. But this king will bring peace, once and for all. Peace in the world seems impossible to us. We’ve seen this week that top diplomats and the United Nations can’t seem to bring peace across the world, not even in the Middle East alone. But God promises that there will be one King who will reign perfectly, and who will have a fantastic victory that will bring peace.

The closest that Israel got to this King was David, but the genealogy records that even David slipped up. Back in Matthew 1, we read in verse 6: “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife.” You may know the story: King David was up on the top of the roof of his palace, and saw a married woman called Bathsheba showering naked. Well, as King what did David do? He ordered the married woman to come up to his palace, where he slept with her. And then in order to avoid having her husband Uriah around, David sent him away to fight on the front line of a battle, where he knew Uriah would be killed. David conveniently arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle. Even good King David fell well short. Adultery, murder and lies – all from King David.

Sadly, that sets the tone for what follows, in verse 7: ‘Solomon, the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.’

As we go through the names of the kings, as each name comes up we’re supposed to be asking: Is this person really going to be the great King, the Son of David? And if you know your Israelite history, you’ll know that will each one, they are far from perfect. There are one or two bright points along the way: Solomon started well, and there are sometimes better kings than some like Hezekiah or Josiah. But each of them in some way is flawed. They’re not the great King, the amazing descendent of David that has been promised. There are also some awful kings. Manasseh, son of Hezekiah the good king, could have taught Stalin and Hitler a thing or two about shedding innocent blood. And yet, there he is in the genealogy, the ancestry of Jesus Christ. And so as we read through, we have to say with each King, “No, no, this one’s a dud.” Solomon - no, Rehoboam - no, Abijah - no, Asa – no, no, no, no! They all failed in one way or another – some spectacularly.

So after each line, we’re still left looking for someone, somewhere. A King, a descendent of David who won’t fail. And he hasn’t come by the end of Act 2. As the Old Testament progressed, we learn more and more about this mysterious figure, this amazing King whose rule will last forever. We learn so much about this person, that he became known as ‘the Messiah’; this means ‘the Special One’ – a person who has been set apart to rule on God’s behalf. But he still hasn’t arrived.

Act 3: Hope in a situation of desperation

And so we enter Act 3, which is recorded in verses 12-16. And as this Act opens, the situation is grim. In fact the block of names starts with Israel’s ‘Golden Age’ over: the country is past its best, it is in decline. In fact, the nation is in exile in Babylon, in modern day Iraq. See in 587BC, the armies of Babylon dragged the Jews in chains back to their capital having destroyed Jerusalem. This event, known as ‘the exile’, is of massive importance to the Bible writers. And Matthew here definitely agrees with that – we can see that in his structure, he emphasises the exile. Why is it so important to him? The answer is: because effectively the exile was the point at which any hope of a future earthly kingdom got snuffed out.

I wonder if you like making models. I remember when I was a child I was quite enthusiastic about making models – actually my enthusiasm outweighed my ability. I went through a phase of making all sorts of models – aeroplanes, houses, cars. And you need to know that in the Old Testament, God used the people of Israel as a kind of model. The people of Israel acted as a kind of model to represent reality: the Kingdom of Israel was a small scale representation of what it is to live as God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Kingdom of Israel was a group of people who God’s model of what living in God’s Kingdom looked like.

But that wasn’t the full thing. God’s plan was always so much bigger. The model wasn’t the genuine article – and so it comes as little surprise when in judgment (in the exile) God effectively scrapped the model. That is what the people would have concluded whilst in exile – the model is done: the country no longer exists, the capital city has been trashed, including the religious buildings. There was no King, no country, no earthly future. And whilst it’s true that a handful of Israelites like Ezra and Nehemiah trickled back to Jerusalem to do some rebuilding, it didn’t really amount to very much. And from this point on the country of Israel got squeezed on all sides by successive empires: Persia, Greece, Rome. The model had been scrapped.

And we see this in the genealogy in verses 12 onwards, because whilst Jesus’ ancestors from David to Jeconiah were all kings, then the line of kings stopped. The promises made to Abraham and David became increasingly foreign to the situation – they looked increasingly less likely to be fulfilled. And so in verse 12 we read that ‘Jeconiah the king was the father of Shealtiel’ who was … king? No – he was just a man who returned from the exile. Then we read ‘Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel’ - and he became king, right? No again: he ruled as a puppet governor of Judah under the authority of Darius the Mede. Zerubbabel is the father of Abiud, and of course we all know who he was, don’t we…? Well, erm, actually nobody knows who Abiud was, or anything about him. And all of the rest are nobodies. We don’t know anything about them. Matthew can’t have got anything about them from the history books, he can only have dug them out of the back issues of the birth and death columns of at a library – every single name gives is unknown, and gives the impression that the hope is fading. God’s promises look less likely to be worked out with each generation. And we’re meant to feel the weight of those names one after another – each one as unpronounceable and unheard of as the next: ‘Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob.’ None of them were significant. None of them were kings. The situation looks hopeless.

But also if you’ve understood Matthew’s structure to Jesus’ genealogy, what should also happen as we read this names is our anticipation should build as we sense another section ending; which we find when we finally get to verse 16: ‘… and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.’

We can easily miss the point here. Matthew is saying that Jesus is the Christ! Sometimes we get so used to hearing the name ‘Jesus Christ’ we miss the shock here. But Matthew isn’t saying that Christ was Jesus’ surname. No: he’s making a much bigger point! Do you remember I said that the Special King became known as the ‘Messiah’ in the Hebrew language? And what is the translation of Messiah into Greek, the language Matthew was writing in? Christ. Matthew is saying this: Jesus is legally Joseph’s adopted son, and he is the child of Mary … but he’s the Christ, the Messiah, the Special King God had promised. And so Matthew is making a massive claim: remember how God said he’d always come and provide the perfect King who’d win a victory and bring peace? Remember that? We’ll now he’s come: Jesus is the Christ!

And so when Matthew says in verse 1: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham”, he’s making a massive claim. Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is the great King who will bring a victory for his people that will bring peace. Above all, Matthew is saying this: we’ve been waiting for this descendent of David, a King who is going to win a victory and bring peace forever – and guess what, he’s arrived!

I guess to a Jewish audience, this genealogy must have been incredible - certainly not the dusty thing it looks at a first glance. And we should realise the significance here too as we draw out the implications of this genealogy. Matthew is saying that Jesus is the climax of the whole of the Old Testament. The whole of it points forward to him. In fact, in 5:17 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to say that he has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets - it all points to him. For me, as a Christian, this is an amazing thing when I catch myself thinking: is Jesus really God? Can his death on the cross really save me? And I then start thinking about the ways in which Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament in an incredible way, not just in terms of the prophesies made about him, but also in terms of the whole storyline, of the one true God drawing together a people for himself into his kingdom. It’s through King Jesus, and through his life, death and resurrection that the Old Testament makes sense. So a genealogy like this should give us confidence that Jesus really is the Christ, he really is God’s king, and he really is fulfilling all that God is doing in the world.

I think a second implication of this genealogy is one that speaks about God: it shows that he is not aloof, as we perhaps sometimes think, but that incredibly he has intervened in the world. God has not remained distant to us, but has intervened to act. He has helped us in a way that we could not help ourselves. I read earlier in the week of another time when the situation in the Middle East was dangerously unstable, and Henry Kissinger, then US Foreign Secretary was flying round and round from country to country to try to sort out the problems. But he had to shrug his shoulders in despair. And this is what he said at that point: “There can’t be an international crisis next week. My diary is already full.”

It was one of those rare acknowledgements by a politician of their own limitations. Because, of course, human leaders are never ultimately able to resolve the intractable human situation. When the chips really are down, we can’t look to other people – they are themselves part of the problem. And this genealogy reminds us we cannot secure our planet’s salvation, or even our personal salvation [I wonder if that’s something that somebody here needs to be reminded of today: there’s no way I, personally, can mend my situation before God by trying hard to please Him]. But the genealogy does provide an answer in the person of Jesus Christ. You see, as we read on in Matthew’s Gospel, we see that, through Jesus, a wonderful new start is open to us all, not because of anything we can do ourselves, but because of what God did when he intervened and busted into history in the person of Jesus Christ. God hasn’t stayed far off, but has given us King Jesus, who has won the victory over sin and death and allowed us to enter his incredible kingdom.

Finally, before I close, let’s notice just one final thing. Notice the kind of person that Matthew includes in Jesus’ family tree. I spoke earlier of how some people try to edit their family trees in order to keep unsavoury-type people out of their families. But one quick look at Jesus’ family tree is that it is obvious that this is something Matthew doesn’t do: in fact, if anything he tries to include these people. And so we see mentioned people like: Tamar (verse 3) – a woman so desperate for children she conned her father-in-law to have sex with her; Rahab (verse 5) – a prostitute, and Manasseh (verse 10) – a mass murderer.

The point is this: God worked his plans out deliberately so that even unsavoury characters like this might be part of his great King’s family; perhaps even people like you. There might be people here today who feel beyond the pale – just too bad for God – if that’s you, then know this: God wants you to be part of his plans too. In fact whoever you are – man or woman, whatever you’re like, good or bad – God wants you to know that Jesus is for all of you. It’s something his genealogy hints at. It’s a reminder that Jesus’ message is for people like you and me. And this is why, although Matthew’s genealogy might not at first seem to match the opening sentences of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, it does in fact tell us of the greatest story ever told.