Friday, September 12, 2014

The Courage to Read: Ps 1 (Part Three)



Psalm One’s vision for life is more than a self-help plan or self-empowerment. It lifts up a moment-by-moment reflection on Scripture as our roadmap for the journey of faith. A Scripture saturated and shaped life is one that prospers in advancing God’s kingdom. It offers us the security of a moment-by-moment relationship with God that empowers us to live in the now of the present as God’s hands, feet, and mouthpieces of his grace, love, and justice.

Psalm 1 ends with an assurance of the future.

5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will be destroyed. (TNIV)

A Secure Future
Evil and wickedness will not be the final word. God’s ways of righteous will stand the test of time. This is not triumphalistic in the sense of reveling in the destruction of enemies. It is a word to us in the present to bolster our courage and confidence to walk in God’s ways with Scripture as our guide. It recognizes that the way forward as God’s people is not always easy. There will be desperate times ahead. In fact, beginning with Psalm 3, we find some of the most desperate prayers imaginable as God’s people cry out to God for help as they seek to walk faithfully through the world as God’s witnesses.

God is With Us
Verse six ends with a key reminder of the agent of success and security. It is God. Scripture serves as our guide only because it grants us access to God. God is the one who secures our future and blesses our lives. The spiritual life is never a 2 + 2 = 4 proposition. It is dynamic and relational as we live and breathe and walk moment by moment with God. The way of the wicked ultimately ends because the way of wickedness and evil is purposeless and without meaning.

Psalm one’s view of life is audacious even in its presentation. The first word on the Psalm in Hebrew begins with aleph the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The last word in verse six beings with tav the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This is a poetic way of declaring that psalm one’s vision of two ways in all encompassing. Verse six reminds us that it is the God of the Exodus who is the decisive factor. As followers of Jesus, we have now experienced God’s climactic act of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as the fullest expression of God’s power to save and guarantee the future. Jesus is the living and breathing Word who calls us to follow him into the world on mission.

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testament serve as our map for this life. Psalm one reminds us that the journey to true success begins word by word and phrase by phrase as we come to Scripture expecting delight and breathing in its life giving message. This will give us the foundational roots to live as the people whom God created us to be.

How Rooted Are you?
When I first moved to Florida in 2000, there was the threat of a hurricane. It ended up being only a tropical storm by the time it reached shore, but being new to the state I listend to the news anchors and moved all loose yard items either into our garage or onto our patio. This included a number of potted plants that decorated our yard at the time.

I had just purchased three beautiful Jasmine plants that I intended to plant in our front yard. I put them on the patio for safe-keeping from the storm and went to bed. During the night, the storm weakened and amounted to nothing. It caused zero damage. My dog, McKenzie, though, decided that the jasmine looked appetizing. So when I awoke the next morning I found our patio covered with dirt and the three Jasmine plants eaten all the way down to the root ball. Only about an inch of stem remained above the root ball and the plants were strewn across our backyard.

The nursery had said the plants were guaranteed for a year but I didn’t think that the guarantee extended to damage from a crazy dog. So I simply picked up what was left of the Jasmine - the root system. Replanted it and watered it.  And know what?  It grew back and these plants look absoulutely beautiful to this day.

How is your root system?

Let’s pray:
Lord,
As we read Scripture, grant us ears to hear, minds and hearts to believe, and hands and feet to move forward in faithfully. Thank you for guiding us into the world.
In Jesus’ name: Amen

© 2014 Brian D Russell

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Courage to Read: Psalm 1 (Part Two)


Psalm 1 challenges us to muster the courage to read Scripture and ponder it deeply out of an attitude of delight. The end of this mode of life is the happy life.

Let’s listen to verses 3–4:
3 They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither-- whatever they do prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away.

Models a Constant Attentiveness to Scripture
Psalm one does not merely advocate that the blessed person will meditate on Scripture constantly. The Psalm itself models this by actually using the words of Scripture to make its point. We already pointed out that verse 2 echoes God’s words to Joshua in Joshua 1.

Verse 3 draws from multiple texts as well. Virtually every word is drawn from another OT text: Jer 17:5-8; Ezekiel 47:12, and Genesis 39:3 and 23. Like Jeremiah 17, the psalmist describes the blessed person as one planted by streams of water. Like Ezekiel 47:12, there is always fruit and the leaves do not whither. Like Joseph in Genesis 39, there is always success. We’ll say more about these in a moment, but the key is to recognize the need for the words of Scripture to permeate and shape us for our journey of faith. There will be good times as well as times of hardship. The Psalter itself with its mix of lament, praise, and thanksgiving demonstrates this. Scripture is our guide to navigating the waters of life successfully as the people whom God calls us to be.

New Matrix for Success
Ps 1 redefines success in terms of being near to God and implementing the divine
will. Success does not equate with material possessions or wealth necessarily. Success does not mean an absence of suffering for the righteous. When read in light of the texts from which it was constructed, the tree imagery of Ps 1:3 becomes a potent call to choose the way of life. Clinton McCann aptly writes, “The point of the simile is not that the righteous will not suffer, but rather that the righteous will always have in God a reliable resource to face and endure life’s worst” (“‘The Way of the Righteous’ in the Psalms”, 137).

God’s people succeed because they are rooted in Scripture. The text from Ezekiel links the waters with the waters of life flowing from the Temple. In other words, Scripture is a pipeline and conduit to God. The promise of success is success in accomplishing God’s will for the moment. Verse 2 alludes to Joshua; verse 3 alludes to Joseph. God gave each success in different circumstances. Joshua succeeded explicitly in life; Joseph succeeded and prospered from the bottom up. Genesis 39 speaks of God prospering him as a slave in Potiphar’s house and as a prisoner in Egypt. It is important for us to recognize this new matrix for success. It is living faithfully in the present moment to advance the will of God.

How Deep are Your Roots
Verses 3 and 4 challenge us with a contrasting view of life. Will we be the successful tree or simply be blown about as chaff in the wind?

The key is our root system. How deep are your roots? If our roots are strong, we can be battered by storms. We can lose all of our leaves in winter. We can experience broken limbs. But at the end of the day, we will continue to grow and prosper as long as our roots are near the streams of life giving water. This life giving water is available to us today in the Scriptures.

As we seek to follow Jesus faithfully into the world today, will you find the courage to take up the Scriptures and allow their words to shape your life and guide you to true success in accomplishing God’s work and mission in the world?

Let’s pray:
Our Loving God,
Make us as strong as oaks by empowering in us the courage to read your Word. Allow your life giving words to flow into us so that we may allow your love and justice to flow back into the world as we seek to serve as your hands, your feet and your mouthpieces in the world today.
In Jesus’ name: Amen

© 2014 Brian D. Russell

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Crafting a Missional Ethos through the Study of Scripture

The Scriptures reveal the true God and God’s mission to redeem a lost humanity and heal a fractured creation. God’s mission assumes the active involvement of God’s people in the advancement of God’s kingdom. It is crucial for local communities of faith to reposition and realign their goals and resources to engage the world with the Gospel. Scripture is our road map toward this end. Mission begins in the book of Genesis and is central to the overarching narrative of the Bible (Creation—Fall—Israel—Jesus—Church—New Creation).

Mission as Center
Followers of Jesus Christ need to rediscover God’s mission as central to the story that God desires to write through our lives. From the story of Israel through the spread of the Gospel in the New Testament and up till today, God has been working to establish a missional community in the world that would serve the Creation by embodying and reflecting God’s character to, in, and for the Creation. This community exists to testify to the world the reality of God. Too often today, however, mission exists on the periphery of communities of faith. The work of mission and evangelism can easily be handed over to a few with the “gifts” for this work or to a “missions” committee. Studying the Bible carefully will demonstrate that mission is a value for all rather than a gift for a few.

Mission and Reading Scripture
The biblical narrative envisions all of God’s people as active participants with God in God’s work in the world. When we engage the world, we will return to the Bible with a different set of questions than we would ask if we only read the Bible within the four walls of our churches. When we only read the Bible in or for the Church, we unwittingly mute the voice of Scripture because we will find ourselves only “preaching to the choir.” The Bible was inspired by a missional God who worked through human authors who were engaged in God’s work in the world. As followers of Christ, we exist in two realities—we are the Church and we live in the World. It is only when we take this dual existence seriously that we can hear God’s Word in all its fullness. The sweet spots for reading the Bible are those places where God’s work, the world, and God’s people intersect.

The Missionally Devout Life
When we read Scripture as the roadmap to mission, spiritual formation is not separated from missional engagement. A devotional life becomes more than personal spiritual growth. Instead, our devotional life empowers us to live as God’s ambassadors in the world. Reflection upon Scripture is a necessity for life. Study is a gift that we are giving to those with whom we will interact in our lives. Scripture serves as a fuel for mission rather than merely food for devotional thought. Our engagement with the world will drive us back to the Scriptures with new questions and fresh perspectives. Active participation in mission takes us out of the safety of our own communities of faith and sends us out into the uncharted seas of the world. These are places where our stock Christian answers and insider talk may be incomprehensible to those with whom we speak. It is encounters in the world that necessitate a missional reading of the text. The way forward is a passionate and rigorous return to the principal source of our knowledge of Jesus and the mission of God - the Bible. Being on mission demands that we are intimately acquainted with the Scriptures in their totality. In the Bible, we encounter the mission of God to bring salvation and wholeness to the world, and we meet humanity in all of its potential, fallenness, and ambiguity. If we learn to read the Bible in light of our missional practice, we will be more discerning in our conversations with others and learn to speak in the language of persons created in God’s image.

Transformation not Information
Last our goal in reading is transformation rather than information. We come to the Scriptures to learn how to function as God’s people in the world rather than to fill our minds with facts and propositions. Scripture shapes an ethos of expectation for God’s people in terms of their actions, holiness, and community. A missional reading engages the Scriptures with all available tools, but recognizes that interpretation is incomplete without obedience and change on the part of its hearers. The transformation demanded by Scripture is heard as a call to conversion. Followers of Jesus are called to (re)align to God’s intentions for God’s people and those outside of the faith are invited to convert to God’s intentions for humanity by becoming part of God’s people.

What do you think?

© 2014 Brian D. Russell

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Courage to Read: Reflections on Psalm 1 (Part One)




The book of Psalms ends in 150:6 with the memorable exhortation: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” This is an invitation to join the whole chorus of creation in the ongoing, vibrant praise and worship of God. Praise in the climax of the book of Psalm.


The book of Psalms serves as the prayer book for God’s missional people as we seek to live out love for God and neighbor in the service of God’s mission to bless the nations and heal creation. The Psalter ends with majestic praise and worship. As we read through the book of Psalms as a whole, we encounter not only praise, but poignant prayers of desperation as God’s people struggle with the dangers and pitfalls of life: enemies, injustice, illness, fear, and the others challenges of life that threaten to suffocate and snuff out the life of faith. We also find also find prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of trust, and hopeful declarations. The Psalter has nurtured and fed the souls of God’s people for millennia through its rich and relevant prayers and praises to God.



In the midst of these many treasures, it is easy to speed through the opening Psalm. It is only six verses. But I want to suggest that we need to hear its message as a guide to making sense of the rest of the Psalms. Psalm one is not a prayer nor is it an audacious praise. But it is foundational to all the rest of the psalms. It suggests that before authentic praise, before passionate and expectant prayer, there is a deep need to ponder.



Let’s listen to the Psalm in its entirety and then begin to unpack its power:



Psalm 1:1 Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but who delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on his law day and night. 3 They are like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither-- whatever they do prospers. 4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will be destroyed. (TNIV)



Reflections:



1) This psalm proclaims an authoritative guide to happiness. How can I make it through life happy? Some English translation have the word “blessed.” The word is better translated “Happy” here in 1:1 because Psalm 1 is talking about happy in the sense of being in a state of blessing from God. “Blessed” focuses on God as blesser. All of this begs the question: How do we live this way?



2) Recognize that the life of faith touches every moment and interaction. Look at the verbs in verse 1: walk, stand, sit. These are our options while we are awake. Psalm 1 has all of live in view.  We must be mindful of how we live. We are God’s witnesses to the world. We do not live apart from the world as God’s missional people. This is not an option. Instead, we live in the world. The Psalmist is not na├»ve to think that we can avoid the world. The psalmist has a more audacious vision. The key is to be shaped by God so that we are influencers of the world rather than persons who are influenced by the world. This is the warning of verse 1.



3) Verse 2 offers the positive virtue and practice that serves as the guide and road map to the good and happy life. Its word is simple but not simplistic. It does not offer a short series of steps to happiness or a one time seminar to receive a certification in the state of being blessed. Instead, it advocates an attitude and a habit



4) Delight and meditate. Look at verse 2: delight in the law of the LORD and meditate on it moment by moment. These are the core practices that serves as the foundation for the book of Psalm’s vision for life.



Notice that this is no mere rote or legalistic force feeding of Scripture. It is a coming to Scripture with an attitude of delight that opens us up to the feast that is there. How do we learn to delight in the Word? Pray Astonish me a anew with the riches of your word. Pray not that you become a master of Scripture but that the Scripture masters you.



Then ponder it deeply and continually. In the original Hebrew, meditate also has the connotation of speaking the text aloud. Breathe it in. Breathe it out. It is your roadmap for the journey of your life.



Psalm 1:2 echoes God’s word to Joshua in 1:7-8: Be strong and courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night…



In other words, Psalm 1 as a presupposition and foundation to the journey of faith calls us to a courageous willingness to read and ponder.



Personal/Communal Realignment

What about us?

Do we have the courage to read Scripture, breathe it in moment by moment, and breathe it out through a life of faithfulness, justice, and love as witnesses to God’s kingdom? The courage to pick up the Scriptures and read is a key step in the journey and life of faith that ends in the perpetual praise of the God who saves us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our LORD.



Prayer


Gracious God,

Embolden us today with the courage to read and receive. To breathe in your guidance and breathe it out in faithful practice and praise. Continue to astonish us anew with riches of your Word so that we may be shaped and formed into the people that you desire us to be. Unleash us to live by faith, be known by love, and serve as voices of hope for all creation. In Jesus’ name: Amen


© 2014 Brian D. Russell




Saturday, May 24, 2014

Exodus and the Mission of God


Genesis sets the stage for understanding the Bible as the story of God’s mission. The four books that follow (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) accelerate it. The book of Exodus contains three critical elements for understanding God’s work in the world and our place in it. 

Exodus as the Heart of Israel’s Gospel
The heart of Israel’s Gospel is its story of how the LORD saved his oppressed people from Egypt for the sake of God’s mission of blessing the nations. The Exodus serves as the basis for Israel’s way of life as well as the foundation for its self-understanding and hope. God forges a relationship with God’s people through his gracious actions. The life of God’s people is nothing more and nothing less than a whole hearted response to God’s grace.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21) open with the historic reminder “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod 20:2 cf Deut 5:6). Before there is law, there is God’s grace that creates and makes possible relationship.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel’s praise continually remembers God’s deliverance from Egypt. Here are a few examples from the Psalms:

“To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.
And brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.
With a mighty hand and outstretched arm His love endures forever.” (Ps 136:10-12)

“You transplanted a vine from Egypt;” (Ps 80:8)

“When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,” (Ps 114:1)

In Exodus, God liberates his people to serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character to/for/in the world. It demonstrates and proves his faithfulness and love. God’s people can trust that their present and future is secure. This is good news to be shared. It announces to the world (including Egypt) a God who desires to bless all people and nations. It is a counter-cultural reminder that the LORD is not a defender of the status quo or of only the privileged and powerful. The message of Exodus provides a profound hope for all people who long for justice. The God who created the world to be “very good” and embedded “sabbath” into the fabric of life acts in human history. God acts on behalf of justice and on behalf of his mission to bless the nations by intervening in human affairs to save the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom Egypt unjustly enslaved.

Covenant: Faithfulness in Response to Grace
The purpose of the deliverance is not simply liberation from the oppression of Egypt. It is relationship with God for the sake of the world. It is always a good for justice to prevail. But the goal of the Exodus is the freedom to serve God rather than autonomous freedom. God freed his people to unleash them for God’s mission to bless the nations. This unleashing takes place within the context of covenant. The Sinai Covenant makes up the majority of Exodus–Numbers. Exodus 19:1–Numbers 10:10 narrate and describe Israel’s stay at Sinai and the details of the covenant. This is the third covenant in the Bible after Noah’s and Abraham’s. In the Sinai covenant, God calls Israel to live as a community called to bless the nations by embodying the character of God. The Sinai materials assume the missional nature of God’s people. Israel exists as a kingdom of priests for the rest of the world, but Sinai emphasizes the creation of a holy community. God’s people can only achieve their mission of representing God to the nations by actually living in a way that reflects God’s holy character. As we will see, this involves loving God and loving others.

Relational Wholeness: God with Us
The book of Exodus reaches its highpoint in God’s presence coming to dwell in the newly constructed Tabernacle in the midst of the Israelite camp. Most gods of the ancient world lived in temples on cosmic mountains. Think of Zeus on mount Olympus or the Canaanite god Baal on mount Zaphon. The LORD is different. God chooses to dwell with his people. God abides with and leads God’s people as they move toward the Promised Land in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unlike the gods of the nations, the LORD desires to be in relationship with humanity. In the contemporary world, most of us assume that God is on our side. This was not assumption or worldview of the ancients. In the ancient world, the powerful gods sided with powerful people. If you were among the bottom 99% of the world, you lived to fear and placate the gods. The Bible offers a potent counter-narrative to this. As we’ve already seen, God created all men and all women in the image of God to reflect God’s character to the world and to care for creation. Genesis 3–11 narrated humanity’s lostness and brokenness. Beginning with Abram, God is working to reverse the tragedy of human sin and reforge the relational wholeness of Creation. The Tabernacle shows this by highlighting God’s desire to dwell with his people at the center of their community. This is profoundly good news. With God’s real presence at the center of their community, Israel becomes a missional community for the rest of the world.

Reflect:
What events or memories bring you peace and security?

Have you found a story and mission worthy of your life?

How might the story of the Exodus shape you into the person that God desires you to become?


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gift of the Sabbath


After God forms humanity and pronounces creation “very good” God rests. How many of us rest? Modern life is filled with complex and multiple demands. Yet the Bible begins by asserting that Sabbath rest is the climax of the Creation. Life is not designed to be endless toil. Even the most life affirming activities must cease for Sabbath. God’s work of creation moved the universe from emptiness (1:2) to very goodness (1:31) to Sabbath rest (2:1-3). Sabbath is God’s final gift to the creation.

Sabbath and God
God works. God rests. This establishes a key rhythm for understanding life. Ponder this: our Creator rests. This is a radically different world from the one we find today. Most of us race daily from one activity to another. We are tired. Some of us work longer hours often for less pay than previously. Others are exhausted due to weight of un/underemployment and the financial challenges that come with it.

Yet Genesis 2:1–3 offers us a portrait of abundance. God rests. Moreover God blesses this day of rest and makes it holy (2:3). This means that God has set apart a sacred space and time for rest. Profoundly, God shares this rest with us by extending Sabbath to all creation. Sabbath serves as a principle for establishing justice and good in the world. Unlike other ancient creation stories such as the Babylonian Atrahasis where humans exist merely to serve as slaves for the gods, the LORD demonstrates his ultimate goodness with the gift of Sabbath. Jesus will remind us of this reality in the New Testament: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 1:27)

Sabbath and Life
Sabbath is an integrating principle for our spiritual, personal, and social lives. It connects us with the world around us. Later in the Old Testament, God’s Sabbath will be the key commandment for linking love for God with love for neighbor. In the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17 and Deut 5:6-21), the command to honor and keep Sabbath is the longest and most detailed of the commands. It serves as the bridge between the commandments focusing on our relationship with God (no other gods, no idols, no dishonoring of God’s name) and the commandments rooted in our relating with others (honoring parents, no stealing, no murder, no adultery, no false witness, no coveting). Sabbath has all creation in view. Humanity stops its work and rests. This rest includes all of one’s family, all of one’s employees or servants, and even all of one’s animals. Sabbath is a community practice. There is no solitary sabbath in the Scripture. God rests and so does his creation.

Sabbath in the Old Testament
In the rest of the Old Testament, the sabbath pattern of six days of work and a seventh day of rest repeats and foreshadows God’s abundant future. In Exodus and Leviticus, the sabbath principle establishes protections for humanity and creation. Slavery is regulated so that slaves are released after six years of service (Exod 21:1-11). Agricultural lands receive a sabbath rest every seventh year (Exod 23:10-11). These regulations point to God’s broader vision for justice in his world. Obviously, slaves were among the most marginalized populations in the ancient world. Most slaves in the ancient Israel became slaves as a means of paying off debts in an economy lacking modern bankruptcy protection. It is profound that the Bible confronted this tragic reality directly by offering real protections for persons forced into slavery. Likewise resting fields involved more than crop rotation. The sabbath rest for the fields served to provide food for the poor and for the animal world. The book of Leviticus includes a bold vision for a once-in-a-generation economic reboot (Lev 25). After seven cycles of seven years, God expected God’s people to celebrate the year of Jubilee. In Jubilee, creditors forgave all debts, sold property returned to its original owners, and slave holders released slaves. Jubilee demonstrated God’s justice and goodness. Thus, Sabbath points to the good life. We may find ourselves is difficult circumstances and trying times, but God’s rest awaits.

Living the Sabbath Today
 Sabbath is a radical concept. We live in a 24/7 world. Sabbath challenges the busy-ness of life. What if the most profound act you could do is to be fully present and do nothing? Rest is not a means to some end; rest is the end. God moves creation from emptiness to very goodness and then rests. God doesn’t rest so that he can work. God works so that he can rest. Rest is the final word. This signals something profound about life. The meaning of life cannot simply be reduced to what we do. Work is valuable. Mission is important. Community is critical. Holiness is necessary. Yet the climax of creation is a time carved out for rest in communion with God. Think about the witness that such a bold and daring time of inaction would offer to a world trapped in endless cycles of busy-ness and the chaos of over-commitment.  Sabbath is a declaration of faith that our present and future does not depend on our actions but on God’s. As we read the Bible together, we will continue to talk about our role in God’s mission. But the challenge of Sabbath is that God rested and so must we. The Jesus who calls us to serve as a missional community also invites us to Sabbath: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28)

What does it mean that God desires you to rest? How would you need to change in order to embrace a real sabbath as a way of life?






Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Book of Acts and Models for Missional Engagement (3 reflections)


Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization or some mixture of these options.

1) The book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and god-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethopian eunuch in 8:26-40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.

2) The book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.

3) Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16-34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus not as Israel’s Messiah but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32-34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

Conclusion: Be Open to the Spirit's Leading and Experiment with Different Strategies
The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The good news of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100% conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

This blog is a sample from my 2016 book on reading Scripture missionally for the church and world: (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sabbath as Way of Life: Reading Sabbath Missionally

Too many pastors have accepted a life of “busy-ness” instead of a life of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  I teach a course on the Exegesis of Exodus at Asbury Seminary.  As part of the semester, we work through the Sabbath commandment.  At the heart of the Sabbath, is God’s command to inaction.  I am not a sabbatarian in the classic sense of the word, but I am convinced that there is an abiding missiological witness implicit in God’s commandments.  When we as followers of Jesus Christ live out the principles found in Scripture, we reflect inherently to the world something of the heart and character of God.  Biblical ethics are not merely about punishment and sin—they are about witnessing to the world of a better way of life—the life that God created humanity to live.

When it comes to Sabbath, the principle of no work that brings financial gain is crucial.  As our world becomes increasingly global, Western nations are coming into competition with rising economies in which workers routinely work 60-100 hours seven day per week schedules.  I believe that followers of Jesus Christ have the opportunity to witness to the surrounding culture that work is not the final word for humanity—rest is.  A God-given rest has been woven into the very fabric of the universe.

Yet if followers of Christ are to capture this missional moment, Christian leaders need to live radically different than many currently do.  Too many pastors allow themselves to be trapped by a never ending mountain of busyness in which at the end of the day they experience poor health, loneliness, family discord, and burn out.

How can pastors begin to experience the sort of life that God has called humanity to live?  How can pastors begin to create an ethos of health within communities of faith rather than dysfunction?

 1) Pastors must be ruthless in their quest for a balanced life.  We need to quit making excuses for obscenely busy lives.  Each of us is ultimately responsible for the decisions we make in how we choose to conduct our lives.  God has not called us into Christian service so that we can destroy our relationships with our spouses and children, have no time for meaningful relationships with friends, and ironically lose the zeal that we once had to spread the Gospel.

2) Pastors who live balanced lives will prioritize their time around their strengths.  We need to understand ourselves.  It is crucial that we learn to spend the majority of our time doing what we do best.  Christian ministry in the traditional sense puts ridiculous demands on pastors.  Read the job description of the pastor in any denominational handbook and you will be shocked by the many and various tasks that a pastor is supposed to juggle.  Smart pastors focus on their own gifts and learn to delegate the majority of other tasks to persons more capable than themselves.

3) Pastors who live balanced lives teach and promote a gift-based ministry.  The New Testament documents portray the body of Christ as an organism in which each believer plays a crucial role through the deployment of his or her gift for the sake of the mission of the whole.  Christendom has subverted the biblical witness by setting churches up as corporations in which paid professions “do ministry” on behalf of a group of spectators (usually called the “laity”) who provide only the financial resources to fuel the mission of the Church.  Pastors need to have the courage to teach the biblical model of a gift-based culture.   Pastors need to function primarily as equippers rather than laborers.  Here is a test: if the pastor has to be present for a ministry to function, the pastor has not created a gift-based culture within his or her congregation.

4) Pastors who live balanced lives train leaders rather than enable followers.  New Testament communities expect Christ followers to deploy their gifts.  It is simply inconceivable for the biblical writers that a person can profess belief in Jesus Christ and then live unchanged and unproductive lives.  21st century leaders must focus on training leaders rather than feeding sheep.

What do you think?

© 2014 Brian D. Russell

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Thursday, February 6, 2014