Wednesday, March 28, 2012


In my Bible study class last night one of the things we studied and discussed was Jesus’ trial before Pilate.  I wrote a bit about this in my most recent post but I have another thought tonight from a little bit farther on in the text.

John 19:1 says,

“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.”

While the biblical text in this and the succeeding verses discusses the treatment Jesus received there is no mention that Jesus made any kind of response.  Similarly, the accounts of Jesus’ trial in Matthew, Mark and Luke are quiet concerning any response that Jesus may have made there.  And none of the other Gospels describe anything as violent as the flogging that John reports in his account.

If we accept that the lack of any biblical record of Jesus’ response means that he was silent as he was being flogged then the next question is “Why was he silent?” 

For many people Jesus was silent in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53:3-7, which says,

“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”

I can agree with the idea that silence during his physical punishment fulfills the scripture prophecy, but in trying to answer the question of “Why?” we need to go deeper.

Jesus torture and death are for the punishment of sin.  Jesus is bearing on himself my sin, and the sin of all who believe in him. 

My wife and I have one child at home, a pre-schooler who when asked why she does one thing or another almost automatically answers, “I don’t know.”

Sometimes she really doesn’t know, or perhaps she doesn’t know quite how to express her reason, if she could think about it in those terms.  But other times she does know and “I don’t know” is an attempt to escape responsibility and any consequences that may come from her actions. 

When I sin it is because I choose to act in ways that are contrary to those ways laid out by God as being good and God-honoring.  I usually don’t think about it in those terms but that is what the real truth is.  If God were to ask, “Brad, why did you sin?” any “I don’t know” on my part would just be a lie.  It would be piling another sin on top of the first one.  There really is no defense for the actions, for the thoughts, that I make that are outside of God’s good rules and boundaries. 

And that is why Jesus is silent in John as he is flogged and crucified.  He is bearing my sin in the honest way before God that I cannot.  He is bearing it silently, knowing that as a sinner before God there is no excuse.  Sin cannot exist in the presence of a God that is not just loving, but also holy, righteous and just.  And neither can there be an excuse for sin. 

As we continue to move through Lent, Good Friday is a little more than one week away.  I invite you to take some time and ponder your place before God, a place made possible by the finished work of Christ, a work that reached its culmination on the cross, in the painful and perfect sacrifice of Jesus, given for me, and given for you.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What is truth?

This past Wednesday, in our church’s Lenten worshipservice, we heard John 18:28-19:16, which is John’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. 

If you are unfamiliar with this part of the Bible here is the setting:  Jesus has been arrested by the Jewish leaders, who want to have him put to death. The Roman rulers of the Jews are the only ones who can authorize and carry out execution, so Jesus has been brought to Pilate for what we would call today a bench trial.  Evidence is presented before a judge, who decides guilt or innocence on his own authority.  The charges are weak and the evidence is scant but the Jewish leaders are persistent.  In exploring the possibility that Jesus may consider himself a king, which would be a punishable offense, Jesus and Pilate have this exchange in verses 36 through 38:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

It was my privilege to read these verses to the congregation during our worship service.  I have heard this passage aloud, and read it silently, many times and I often wonder how Pilate spoke the final phrase, “What is truth?”  Did he just say it plainly?  Did he place special emphasis on one of the three words?  Was there an element of sarcasm in his voice?  Superiority?  Despair?  Weariness? 

Being a Roman governor, ruling a far-off and fairly insignificant province of the empire, all of these options seem equally possible to me.  The Bible doesn’t give us any other clues about Pilate and his particular worldview.

From our place in history, looking back over the full revelation of God’s redemptive plan for his people and the world, we see something that Pilate does not.  We see that truth is not a “thing,” not something to be sought by asking “what?” 

Truth is a person.  The question for Pilate, and for us, is really “Who is truth?” 

John has already answered our question earlier in his Gospel, in chapter 14, writing in verse 6,

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Jesus is the Truth in the sense that he, and he alone, provides reconciliation between sinful humans and a holy God.  Without the work of God done in Jesus there is no redemption. 

Pilate may have viewed this life as all there is.  There are certainly many people living today who hold the same view. 

Through the testimony of the Bible we who have faith in God through Jesus believe that there is more, much more, than the circumstances we live in day-to-day.  And it is in Jesus that every word and action of God is made true. 

Writing to the church at Colossae, Paul said,

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

If you know God’s peace through Jesus, thank him. 

If you don’t know Jesus then these may be the words through which God is drawing you to himself. 

Truth is not a thing, but a person, a Person with a Name.  Truth is Jesus.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Word of God for the People of God - Book review

The second-to-last section of the Gospel of John is a discussion between Jesus and Peter.  They have a bit of back-and-forth conversation, with Jesus asking Peter if he, Peter, loves him, to which Peter offers a heartfelt, “You know that I love you.”  This exchange happens three times, with Jesus’ response to Peter’s affirmation of love being, “Feed my lambs,” “Tend my sheep,” and “Feed my sheep.”  One of the things happening here is that Jesus is highlighting the importance of the task being given to Peter of providing ongoing care for Jesus disciples. 

The task of “feeding God’s sheep” remains among the primary responsibilities of those in pastoral ministry today, and the food that God has given for the task is his word, as contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible.  In The Word of God for the People of God: an entryway to the theological interpretation of scripture, J. Todd Billings provides those who would teach and preach God’s word with an understanding of their own particular entry-point as they open their Bible and he gives them some things to be mindful of as they study, so that they can bring the fullest possible understanding to those in their care.

(Disclaimer: I studied systematic theology with Prof. Billings, where he taught several of the concepts he writes of in this book.)

Billings is well aware of the many different ways people approach the Bible, recognizing that the point of entry often shapes what is found and how it is used.  The goal of his book is “to introduce readers to the practice of interpreting Scripture in the context of the triune activity of God, the God who uses Scripture to reshape the church into Christ’s image by the Spirit’s power.” (xiii)  He believes that Scripture should be approached in an integrated manner in order to best hear and follow “God’s powerful and transforming word…a word that is not under our control.”  Ministry leaders are not called to read the Bible as “religious managers or religious customer service agents.  They are called to read the Bible as disciples of Jesus Christ.” (xvii)  To which I respond with a hearty “Amen!”

In six chapters Billings explores basic issues to understanding one’s entry point to the Bible.  Chapter one considers the importance of reading scripture as part of the essential task of theology, i.e. “Faith seeking understanding.”  Chapter two gives an overview of the place of historical and biblical criticism in reading scripture carefully. Chapter three addresses basic questions regarding the nature of scripture and its source.  Chapter four considers the importance of understanding one’s own context as they study scripture, while chapter five highlights the importance of looking back to see what other students throughout church history have gleaned from the same texts being studied today.  And chapter six concludes with a consideration of the interpretation of scripture within the practice of Christian faith, with one eye on the essential role of a Trinitarian outlook to the expression of faith. 

This book is filled, from beginning to end, with valuable wisdom for the biblical student, teacher and preacher.  It is written for an audience that has a working familiarity with the vocabulary of theological studies but the points that Billings articulates can, and should, all be developed for teaching within congregations. 

One example has to do with how we understand scripture to be received.  One of the decisions we make concerning scripture, which is critical in how we read and apply it, is its source.  “Either revelation is grounded in inherent, universal human capacities or in the particularity of God’s action with Israel and in Jesus Christ.” (74, italics authors)  We may or may not consciously consider these questions but our answers to them give powerful shape to what we receive from scripture.

With the first option we may view Scripture as something that was written by a diverse group of people and collected by another group of people, each imposing their own particular biases on their task.  As we read it from this point we are free to take and keep what we want and to discard that which we feel is no longer relevant.

But if we take the second option then we recognize that while what we have received as Scripture may have come through human hands, it is inspired by a divine source.  In receiving revelation this way “Christians enter into a world that they did not create.” (80)  As a result of Scripture coming from God’s particular action, “Believers in Jesus Christ do not “own” the truth as much as they are owned by the one who is the truth.” (82)  To borrow from Robert Frost, our decision regarding the source of revelation of Scripture “makes all the difference.”

A theme that runs through the entire book is the work of the Trinity in the reading of Scripture and the living of Christian faith.  That may seem to be a “no-brainer,” given that virtually all orthodox Christians in the world believe in the triune nature of God, beliefs that are clearly stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, as well as the confessional statements of many denominations and individual congregations.  But in practice we often worship and serve a somewhat generic God and/or Jesus, paying little heed to the person of the Spirit or the intimate interconnectedness of Father, Son and Spirit in every activity that God is involved in.  In the final chapter Billings emphasizes that anything less than Trinitarian reading and practice will leave large holes in what we know of God and the ways in which we serve him.

Billings does an excellent job of advocating for a heightened articulation of the Trinity as we read, teach and preach the word of God, saying, “The Bible is the instrument of the triune God to shape believers into the image of Christ, in word and deed, by the power of the Spirit, transforming a sinful and alienated people into children of a loving Father.” (199)  In The Word of God for the People of God Billings graciously invites and guides all Christians into a rich and transforming encounter with God’s word, to God’s eternal glory.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Supreme Sacrifice Day? Really??

Supreme Sacrifice Day?  Really??

At the start of March I received an email that had a calendar attached to it.  The email was related to cultural diversity and the calendar had listings of various “holidays,” noting something particular and unique for each day of the month.  Some days even had two events for that day.

The calendar had some things that might have been expected, such as the Jewish festival of Purim, on the 8th, Girl Scout Day, on the 12th, the date of their 100th birthday, and of course, St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th.

There were also much lesser known, to me, days, such as Multiple Personality Day on the 5th and Something on a Stick day on the 28th.  Minnesotans know that any day commemorating food on a stick should only fall during the state fair.

Now normally I wouldn’t even open something like this cultural holiday calendar but I believe that doing so on this occasion was an example of God’s hand at work in my life, and I pray that what the thoughts I write in the remainder of this blog are pleasing in his sight and bring glory to his name.

As I looked over the calendar March18th jumped out at me, for it was labeled Supreme Sacrifice Day.  A label like that is something that captures this particular Christian’s attention.  So I clicked on the link and read these words:
“Supreme Sacrifice Day recognizes the ultimate sacrifice made by some for the good of others. History is filled with examples of people who offered the supreme sacrifice for other people.
We offer these examples:
  • Jesus Christ gave the supreme sacrifice when he died on the cross for us.
  • Soldiers in battle gave their lives to protect our freedom, our way of life, and to keep us safe.
  • Fireman and police officers have given their lives in the line of duty, while saving and/or protecting people.
  • More often than you think, a young man or a young women caught up in a love triangle, gave up the chase for the sake of their loved one.
  • The list goes on and on and on.
Today is a day to reflect and offer thanks and appreciation to those who made the supreme sacrifice for us.”
And my response on reading that began, “Supreme Sacrifice Day? Really??”

Prior to opening this calendar I had never heard of Supreme Sacrifice Day, so I did a little bit of looking online.  And I didn’t learn much.

Virtually every entry I found for this Day had the exact information I cited in italics above, word-for-word.  When I looked more specifically to learn its origins, I came up empty.  So we have a specially designated day which “exists,” although with absolutely no information on whom created it or how it came to be.  And while it may be a ‘Day’ it is such a minor one in the pantheon of holidays that not even Hallmark has a card for it.

In the description for Supreme Sacrifice Day we are given a general definition followed by several examples, all of which, to my eye, are portrayed as relatively equal. 

I will agree that what I would classify as the supreme sacrifice is basically as stated, i.e. “the ultimate sacrifice made by some for the good of others.”  To be more specific I believe that the “supreme sacrifice” one can make for another is the giving of one’s life.  There is nothing else that a person could possess that would even come close in value to surrender for someone else than their life.

Many of us can think of examples where we might consider such an act.  As a parent I would throw myself in front of a car to save my child.  As a husband I would donate the last drop of my blood to save my wife. 

I agree that the examples above of someone in the military, law enforcement or fire-fighting giving of their life for someone else, someone whom they don’t even know, is an unparalleled sacrifice.  While my military service was in peacetime and I did not have to wrestle personally with that possibility, my son served one tour in Iraq with a Marine battalion.  As I prayed during the time he was overseas I recalled reading from the Marine magazine, Leatherneck, when my cousin was a Marine, which had an entire section in each issue devoted to telling the stories of Marines in Viet Nam making the supreme sacrifice for their fellow Marines.

To give one’s life for another is truly the greatest thing a person can surrender, and I think the examples I’ve outlined above demonstrate that.  In John 15:13 Jesus says,

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Jesus speaks these words in his final teaching with his disciples before his arrest.  And while he teaches them something important about devotion and self-sacrifice he also points our vision towards himself and the unfolding of the final day of his life.

We can talk about the “supreme sacrifice” but I believe that in all of history there is only one “Supreme Sacrifice,” the act of Jesus giving up his life on the cross, a sacrificial act of love for his people.

In John 10 Jesus uses the metaphor of the Good Shepherd to prepare his disciples for what was to come, saying in verses 11 – 18:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

The sacrifice of Jesus is unique in several respects, particularly in that it is a sacrifice that didn’t save a human life for a period of time, but in that through his sacrifice those human lives that are touched by it are touched eternally.  Though their human life will one day end they know in Jesus the promise of resurrection to an eternal life with God.

In a way, the folly of Supreme Sacrifice Day has the ability to open our eyes to something that is perfect and true, the unique and defining moment in history from Good Friday to Easter. 

Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, let go of his life so that those who call on his name in faith would know the resurrection with him to eternal life that Easter foreshadows.

Here is a link to a version of the hymn What Wondrous Love is This.  I invite you to listen to its testimony of God’s profound love and ponder in your heart how God might be calling you towards him.  May you know God’s deep and abiding love in your soul, now and forever.

My friend, Mike Manning, has also written about Supreme Sacrifice Day on his blog, to be posted on Monday, March 19th.  Click this link to read his perspective.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Captivated by God’s glory

I’m currently reading a book by one of my seminary professors, J. Todd Billings, called The Word of God for the People of God.  It is a book that I’m enjoying quite a lot and I’ll post a review to my blog when I finish it.

One of the things that Billings discusses is that in our reading of scripture we make must make certain theological decisions.  We may consider certain things deliberately and make a conscious choice or we may make our choices through less deliberate and intentional processes, but we make them nonetheless. 

One of these decisions that must be made has to do with how we believe that God is made known in the world.  Billings claims that our options are either that God is revealed in a universal way that is accessible to all people or that God is made known through his particular action in ancient Israel and Jesus Christ. (75)

In the discussion that explains the either/or decision of our knowledge of God he wrote something that just jumped off the page and grabbed me.

“As Jonathan Edwards elegantly argues, if you claim to know God but you are not drawn to worship and delight in God’s beauty, then you know that you have not encountered God.”(79)

I think that what Billings is claiming here, by way of Jonathan Edwards, is that when we have truly encountered God, the living God whom the Bible teaches spoke creation into being, we will be drawn to him above all things.  The strongest of our desires, the deepest of our yearnings, will be those that seek to know God, to love God, and to praise God. 

The idea that I should be “drawn to worship and delight in God’s beauty” both excites and convicts me.  I do love God deeply but I don’t think that it always comes out so well in the time I spend with other people.  My passion for God is sometimes a ways under the surface, rather than shining like a light on a hill

When I went out to run this morning the roads were wet from some rain last night.  The sky was overcast and while some people may have found it to be a bit dreary I thought that there was a certain beauty present, particularly as winter is giving way to spring.

When I turned to come home, facing east, the clouds began to break and the sun came out.  The sun shone brightly in the sky and it also reflected bright light off of the wet pavement.  I quickly found myself wishing I had my sunglasses.  And I also found myself pondering God’s glory.

If we look into the sun we will soon find that it is overpowering to our eyes.  Very quickly, in a matter of seconds, we must turn our eyes away.  God’s glory is something that is brighter than any amount of sunlight, but it is a brightness that I am certain we will not only seek but delight in when that time comes when we are eternally in the very presence of God in heaven.  His glory is something that we will never want to turn away from. 

Sometimes I take things in, and retain them better, through music.  First melodies, and then the lyrics, embed themselves in my mind, where they just keep on “playing.”  I don’t run with a radio or headphones but often find a song repeating itself over and over and over as I take step after step. 

Here is a link to what I think is a particularly beautiful version of Be Thou My Vision, an old and wonderful song which came to mind as I ran this morning.  It paints a picture of the claim of Jonathan Edwards, that in our encounter with God we are captivated by his beauty and glory, joyfully seeking and loving him before all things.

May the desire for God be our deepest and strongest desire, and may it grow each and every day. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

John 14, part 3

A week ago I gave a lecture for my local Bible study on John 14.  In this third, and concluding, post of the series I want to share the things I learned from John 14 and taught to the class.  (Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.)

If you have missed the first two parts, or to review for those of you who have read them, John 14 is the beginning of Jesus’ farewell to his disciples.  They are gathered in the Upper Room and have shared a meal, shared in the Lord’s Supper and experienced the foot-washing.  Judas has left the group, putting in place the process of Jesus’ betrayal.  Chapters 14, 15 and 16 make up Jesus’ final teaching session for those who have walked so closely with him for three years.   

The broad theme I believe is present in chapter 14 is that it was Jesus intent to prepare his disciples for the time when he would be absent from them by giving them a firm sense of hope and assurance in their future.  He wanted to give the disciples a perspective that looked beyond the present and cast their vision on eternity.  And I believe that this same intent is true for us as we read and study John 14. 

Chapter 14 briefly considers Jesus’ teaching on six different topics.  In Part 1, I talked about Heaven and God, the Father.  In Part 2, I reviewed Prayer and the Holy Spirit.   In the last part of the chapter Jesus talks about the Father’s love and God’s peace.  He then closes with an enigmatic, but meaningful phrase.

In verses 19 through 24 Jesus talks about the love that God, the Father, has for the disciples.  Verse 21 says,

Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.

Despite the way it may sound here, I don’t believe that Jesus is teaching that the presence of God’s love in their lives is dependent on their keeping the commandments.  Instead, Jesus is teaching them that God’s love is present to them because they love Jesus.

The disciples grew up and lived in a culture where there was a precisely calculated system of sacrifice and atonement in order for one to experience forgiveness by God.  But even with the performance of the sacrifices I don’t think that a Jew would claim to know God personally, or to experience God’s love intimately.

But in these verses Jesus is teaching a radical truth.  He is teaching them that God’s love is known personally by them in the very presence of Jesus.

We can take great comfort in this too, because we can’t possibly be perfect in living within God’s commandments.  The radical truth is that God loves us nonetheless.  He has promised to love us no matter what the circumstances of our lives may be. 
There may be times when God seems distant, and in my experience these are times when the distance has been due to my own bad choices in relation to godly living.  And the misery I may know at these times is actually God’s merciful action towards me, driving me back to him, where in repentance I clearly know his presence and love.

The last thing that Jesus assures his disciples of, in verses 25 through 31, is that they will experience God’s peace.  In verse 27 he says,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Throughout chapter 14 Jesus has been preparing his disciples for the time when he will no longer be with them, a time that he knows is very close.  But while he will be physically absent he wants to assure them that they will know peace, a deep and true peace.  The world’s peace is transient and imperfect but the disciples will know God’s peace, which is perfect.

God’s peace is something that they are hearing about in the Upper Room but that they won’t be able to really grasp until he is gone and they are living without him.  It is a peace in which they will have no reason to be troubled or to have fear. 

The disciples will experience persecution, but they won’t experience it on their own.  They will have the Holy Spirit and the deep comfort of God’s peace.  IN the presence of persecution they will have full faith in God’s promises. 

In the book of Acts we see something of the violent persecution of the church by Saul.  But later, writing as Paul, he tells the church at Philippi that God’s peace is one that surpasses all understanding.    

We, too, will know times of struggle.  Physical struggle.  Emotional struggle.  Spiritual struggle.  Struggles that can take us to our breaking point.  But we can go through those struggles knowing that in each and every circumstance of life we have the promise of God’s peace. 

Jesus has given his disciples assurance of God’s promises and hope for their future.  It may not have been fully known in the short-term but it is certainly true in the long-term, when they cast their vision on eternity.

And eternity is where we should cast our vision as well.  John 1:4 says,

“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

We will certainly see and know periods of darkness but God’s light, in Jesus, has already overcome darkness and shines eternally.

John 14 ends with the phrase “Rise, let us go from here.”  The curious thing is that there is no action that follows the phrase, as chapter 15 begins with Jesus continuing to talk, something that lasts through chapter 17.

This phrase is something that biblical scholars have differing views on, with some believing it to have been added in error, while others completely ignore it.

Because my lecture was only on chapter 14 I believed that it was of significance for our study, because it reminds us that the reason we study God’s word is not merely to learn it more deeply, but to live by it in the world.

We were gathered in a Bible study and were fed on God’s word.  And being nourished we were then sent out by him to serve him faithfully and to make his glory known through acts large and small in the places we live our daily lives.  In our homes.  In our places of work.  Through our recreational activities.  Through the seemingly chance encounters that occur each day. 

And this is true each and every time we draw from God’s word.

So let us rise, and go from here, out into the world, making the glory of God known wherever we are.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fespredigten: Twenty Festival Sermons – A review

One of the websites that I frequent is  It is a place where readers and books connect.  You can create an online catalog of your books, read book reviews, connect with people who read things similar to yourself, and do who-knows-all-what-else related to books. 

One feature that they have that I take part in is called Early Reviewers.  Each month there is a list of books that are available, free, in exchange for writing and posting a review of the book.  There are often quite a few books to choose from, fifty or more, and from a variety of genres, although the overwhelming number of them are fiction.  And people like free books!  There are often ten times as many people requesting each book than there are copies available for review.

Early Reviewers doesn’t usually have any big names available.  Nothing by anyone you would automatically expect to be on a best seller list.  The books available for review are supplied by publishers as they attempt to build publicity for their authors. 

And that is how I, a Protestant Christian of the Reformed persuasion, possessing a seminary degree and having done some preaching, acquired a copy of Festpredigten, a collection of twenty sermons preached in Germany by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Rosenberg, from 1897 to 1902.

I requested this book for several reasons.  One is that I am a bit of a geek for reading sermons.  I like to read what others have learned and taught as they have dug into God’s word, and to consider how their preaching can shape my own.  Secondly, roughly two-thirds of the Bible has its roots in Hebrew scripture and I was curious as to how a preacher from the Jewish tradition would study and apply God’s word to their own congregation.  I wanted to see what similarities and differences were present in the art of preaching between one example of a Jewish preacher and my own understanding of preaching.    

Festpredigten was originally written and published in German and has been recently translated in to English.  It contains twenty sermons, all of which were preached for festivals, or special occasions in the Jewish liturgical year.  Eighteen of the twenty sermons are for Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Pesach (Passover).

Rosenberg’s method was to begin with a short piece of Biblical text, then draw out one theme from the text and apply it to the contemporary situation.  He doesn’t clearly state it but his sermons show that he believes the Biblical text continues to speak vibrantly to his own time.  His translator, Fred Gottlieb (who is also Rosenberg’s grandson), writes in his introduction, “The preacher tries valiantly to have his people carry some of this holiness with them into their everyday lives.  These sermons reveal the intense love of the preacher for his flock, as he makes it clear that even those attending synagogue once a year on Yom Kippur are part and parcel of the Jewish people.” (xv)

I agree that the task of preaching is to touch God’s people deeply with his word, and that the preacher should strive to do this to the best of their ability each time they step into the pulpit.  The primary religious holidays are excellent opportunities to speak of God to people who may otherwise rarely attend worship.

One thought Rosenberg expressed, in a sermon from 1898, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is “if you will not accustom your children to sacrifice on the altar of our religion, they will one day bring offerings on other altars, whose incense will not be sweet smelling either to you or to God.” (16)  This is really the essence of idolatry, placing something other than God in the place that is rightly his alone.

While Rosenberg’s preaching shows a deep love for his congregation I found that his content was often lacking.  That may be, in part, because I come from a different faith tradition altogether.  In some cases I may be reading his preaching too literally.  I also believe that the “point” of all preaching should in some way proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which would clearly not be the intent of Rosenberg.  And I do believe that occasions that draw the otherwise absent into a place of worship, such as holidays, weddings and funerals, are particularly well-suited to point towards God in preaching, rather than providing some sort of moral lesson.

As an example, as he moves towards the conclusion of one sermon, he says, “If you, dear parents, wish the best for your children, teach them early on to lead a modest life, even when you can afford to give them material pleasures.” (42)  As a parent myself I believe that the best thing I can teach my children is to love God, with all their heart, in all the circumstances of life.  While I can admire the intent to encourage people to live modestly, when life gets hard, as it will, and often in painful and disorienting ways, our bedrock is on God, who is unchanging in all his attributes, remaining fully God even as our world falls apart.  I am sure that some of Rosenberg’s hearers would live into the horror of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, when perhaps the only thing that they could be certain of was that the God who spoke creation into existence was still their God.  Rosenberg does know the unchanging nature of God, saying in a Passover sermon, “Our devotion to God has remained firm, whether a loving sun smiled upon us from blue skies, or we lived in the shadow of the valley of death.” (67)  I just don’t think that in these twenty samples from his preaching career that he makes the most of his opportunities to preach the depth of God’s love for his people.

So what I take from this collection to shape my own identity as a preacher is the deeply personal love that the preacher can have for those to whom he is being used as God’s messenger.  History knows many great and powerful preachers, some leading large congregations and some spending many quiet years amid a small group of God’s faithful.  Perhaps the best thing that Rosenberg teaches in these sermons is the preacher’s faithfulness in bringing a word from God to his people, week after week, year after year, leaving the final results in the hands of God.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

John 14, part 2

In the first post of this series I shared some thoughts I had on John 14 from a lecture I gave on that chapter at a local Bible study.  To briefly review, the setting of chapter 14 is in the Upper Room.  Jesus has shared a meal with his disciples.  There has been the foot-washing and the Lord’s Supper.  Given that no Gospel includes both of those activities we don’t know in which order they happened.  Judas has left the group to arrange Jesus’ betrayal.  The remaining disciples are receiving their final teaching from him, a teaching that includes this chapter, along with chapters 15 and 16.

For the purposes of my lecture I found six key teachings collected under the broader intent of Jesus to provide his disciples with assurance and a firm hope in their future as he prepared them to go on without him. In the first post I talked about Heaven and God, the Father.  Today I’ll discuss the next two points, and the series will conclude with a final post on the two remaining points and a thought on how the entire chapter calls us to serve God today.

After teaching about God the Father Jesus then moves to a brief discussion of prayer in verses 12 through 15.  Broadly speaking, prayer is conversation with God.  We speak with God and God speaks with us.  I think that many of us are better at speaking to God than listening to what he may have to say to us.  A teacher I have learned a great deal from has often equated prayer with breathing, because as constant breathing is necessary to sustain life, constant prayer is also needed to sustain spiritual life.  Perhaps this is why in writing to the Thessalonians Paul encouraged them to “pray without ceasing.”

In the three years Jesus has spent with his disciples he has given them a model of a prayer-filled life.  They have seen him give thanks to God as he has done miracles, such as feeding the five thousand.  The disciples have seen him go off by himself to pray.  Jesus has also given them a model of prayer in the form of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now Jesus teaches the disciples something about the power contained in prayer.  In verse 13 he says,

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”

I believe there are two things to be mindful about prayer within this verse.  The first has to do with the idea of asking “in my name.”  I don’t believe that Jesus is teaching that our prayers have to be structured in a specific manner, containing the phrase “in Jesus name I/we pray,” as if that was an incantation or formula that makes the prayer acceptable before God.

To pray in Jesus’ name does mean that we have to have the mind of Jesus as we pray, i.e. that in making our requests to God they should be the types of things that Jesus would ask of God.

As an example, I could pray that God would make me prosperous in my work.  And while that may seem like a good thing to pray for I have serious doubts that it is the type of thing God would want us to ask of him, or that Jesus would pray to the Father for.  A better example would be that God would lead me to use whatever prosperity I experience in my work to serve him well.  This latter example combines both parts of Jesus’ teaching, that the prayers are the kinds of things Jesus would pray for and that God is glorified through their fulfillment.

One thing Jesus doesn’t talk about is the connection between our prayers and when they maybe fulfilled.  It could be that our prayers are for things we would consider to be very appropriate, such as that someone dear to us would come into a saving relationship with God.  And while we ardently pray for such things we have to be mindful that our knowledge is always incomplete.  Our prayer, as heartfelt and sincere as it may be, may not be a part of God’s greater purposes and plan.  I think the best thing we can do at such times is to remain faithful in our prayers and to leave the results in God’s hands.

In verses 15 through 18 Jesus assures the disciples that even though he will be absent they will not be left alone.  In verses 16 and 17 he says,

“And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”

Jesus tells his disciples that, through the Father, he will provide an eternal presence to be with them. 

In the ESV the word “Helper” is used.  The NIV translates this as “Counselor” and other translations use “Advocate.”  We know this presence more clearly as the Holy Spirit.  The word that John uses in the Greek doesn’t translate easily, hence the variations, but it does clearly teach us that one the purposes of the third person of the Trinity sustain us in God’s truth. 

The world may tell them, and us, that Jesus is an ordinary man.  The world may say that Jesus was a good teacher.  The word may say that in death Jesus was a misguided martyr.

The disciples are learning a different truth about Jesus.  They are learning that Jesus is God, alive in the world and alive in them, for the purpose of bringing a people into eternal fellowship with him. 

And there are the same truths that we need to be reminded of again today.  God has touched us and healed us.  God is with us, and we will never be the same.  Thanks be to God.     

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 2, 2012

John 14, part 1

John 14, part 1

This week I had the privilege of giving a lecture on John 14 for the local class of Community Bible Study (CBS).  CBS is a non-denominational Bible study with this goal:

“To make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in our communities through caring, in-depth Bible study, available to all.”

Our class meets weekly, roughly following the calendar for the school year.  After a short devotional time we spend time in small groups, discussing a lesson that we have studied during the previous week.  Then we gather as a class to hear a lecture on the week’s Bible passage.  And as we leave we receive a written commentary on that same passage, along with questions to consider as we study the passage for the next week.

My history with CBS goes back about 10 years.  I started in 2001 and for three years I was a member of a small group.  Then for 5 years I was a small group leader.  The leaders met together once a week as their own small group and those years in leadership were a time of much growth for me spiritually.  Not only did we review the week’s lesson but we also spent time in devotion and prayer.  As a part of the leadership I took advantage of the opportunity to lead the devotional time for our leader’s group study, and also about once a year I led the devotional time for the larger class.

I took two years off from CBS when we adopted Kat and this year I was able to return.  We are studying the Gospel of John.  There was a need for someone to substitute for the regular lead teacher and provide a lecture on John 14.  I was asked to do so and now want to share, over several posts, some of the things that I think that are going on in that chapter and the meaning they have for us today.

The setting of John 14 is in the Upper Room.  It is after the disciples have shared a meal and instituted what we now know as the Lord’s Supper in the accounts of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and after the foot-washing of John’s Gospel.  It is after Judas has been identified as Jesus’ betrayer, and he has left the room.

This is the time of Jesus last teaching opportunity with the disciples as a group, a teaching that is spread out over chapters 14, 15 and 16.  Soon he will be leaving his disciples and the “teaching” that will occur then will be as they witness his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.  This chapter has 31 verses and includes many verses and ideas that are very familiar to many Christians.  A preacher can draw deeply from the material here and one pastor whose work I admire, James Montgomery Boice, preached 17 sermons as he worked his way through the chapter.

I was provided with about 20 minutes for my lecture, so I gave an overview of what I felt to be six key ideas in the chapter, all of them collected around the theme that Jesus primary purpose is to prepare his disciples for his departure by giving them hope and assurance for their future, both in the short-term and eternally.

The first thing Jesus talks about, in verses 1 through 6, is heaven.  Jesus doesn’t tell them specifically what heaven will look like.  He doesn’t given them visual images.  He does tell them that in order for them to go to heaven that he will have to leave them and go there first to “prepare a place,” saying in verse 3,

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

Jesus gives the disciples assurance that heaven exists, that he will prepare a place for them there, and that he will return to take them there.  And that seems to be all that Jesus thinks the disciples need to know about heaven.

The Bible gives us other images of heaven, particularly in Revelation, and I love those descriptions, particularly the images of vast multitudes of people engaged in worship of God.  But the relatively sparse information found in John 14 is really enough.  Heaven exists, God prepares our place, and one day God will take us there. 

The chapter then shifts to the topic of God the Father, in verses 7 through 11.  While the disciples, particularly Philip, take Jesus’ talk of God the Father very literally, and ask to be able to see him, Jesus tells them something radically different.  He tells his disciples that his identity and the identity of the Father are intertwined.  In verses 10 and 11 he says,

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” 

All the things Jesus has said and done are not on his authority as a human, or as the Son of Man, but are because he and the Father are ‘in each other,’ or as he said earlier in John 10:30,

“I and the Father are one.”

When I think about the culture that Jesus and his disciples lived I imagine that this claim of unity with the Father must have shocked their senses.  They lived in a culture where the very name of God was considered too holy to speak aloud or write.  It was only made known in their worship through allusion.  They knew the circumstances where the word “Adonai” was being used because the more correct name for God, “Yahweh,” was too holy, too sacred, to even speak.  For them to speak the name of God was considered a violation of the commandment to “Not take the name of the Lord God in vain.”

Yet here they were, in the very presence of one who bore that most holy name in his own person.  The name that was too holy to speak was in a body and speaking to them.  And he speaks to us today.

And because he speaks to us we can know his presence and his love as deeply as the disciples who walked with him for three years.  Like the disciples we feast with him at his table, in the Lord’s Supper.  And as with his first disciples, we who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, our Lord and Savior, have the same assurance that he is who he says he is and that one day he will carry us to the place he has already prepared for us, our eternal home with him.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.