Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Magi and God's Mission: Invitations for Outsiders/Warnings for Insiders

After the announcement by the angel to Joseph about Jesus' mission: God with us and save his people from their sins, Matthew's Gospel turns to an episode that is now so watered down that it has become pedestrian: Jesus and the visit of the Magi. 

In Christmas lore, the Magi are three kings who come bearing gifts. In the perfect nativity scene, the three kings arrive just after the shepherds and angels do on the joyous night of Jesus' birth. Yet a close reading of Matthew's Gospel demonstrates that much more is going on in the text.  In fact, there are profound missional insights in these verses including a strong warning to the community of faith. 

NIV Matthew 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." 3 When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 When 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.'" 7 Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him." 9 After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

A Birth Announcement
Unlike Luke's Gospel, Matthew does not spend any time at all on the night of Jesus' birth.  There is no manger.  There are no angels singing to the glory of God.  There is not even a solitary shepherd mentioned.  There is not even a hint that Mary and Joseph have had any visitors to see their miraculous gift from God.

It is stunning and alarming that a group of astrologers from the east breaks this silence.  The Magi were most likely from the area of modern southern Iraq. They had traveled hundreds of miles. They arrived in Jerusalem in search of a king. They asked innocently, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?”

At this point, this story becomes a study of character types. Matthew paints a strong contrast between the Magi and Herod/all Jerusalem. Some may be surprised by the latter group. Many of us miss the connection between King Herod and all Jerusalem, that is Jesus’ country(wo)men.

This contrast offers those who have ears 3 dangers to consider and 4 invitations upon which to act:

Danger One:
Being so invested in the status quo that we are unable to discern God’s work in our midst.

Change is difficult. Nonetheless, change is relentless and inevitable.  Yet we humans tend to resist change, almost instinctively. Whether it will be for the good or for the bad, we throw up walls to halt it.

Maxie Dunnam: “Most of us prefer the hell of a predictable situation rather than risk the joy of an unpredictable one.”

The Jerusalem of Jesus’ day was ruled by a tyrant, Herod. Herod was a non-Jew who had been appointed by the Romans. He was brutal and steadfastly interested only in maintaining his own rule. It is not surprising that he was disturbed by the announcement of the birth of a new king, but what about Jerusalem as a whole?  Why were they as equally disturbed as Herod?

Perhaps they were disturbed because the announcement came from outsiders. The bearers of the message were pagan astrologers from a far away land. They must have asked questions and made statements such as these:

What could they possibly know about a king of the Jews?  Wouldn’t God have let us know about such a birth first?  Everything was going well until the Magi showed up. Things were just starting to run smoothly around here. God doesn’t work among the lost, does he?

Danger Two:
Knowing the Bible so well that we stop listening to it or at least stop listening to God.

One of the deepest ironies in this text is that Herod and all Jerusalem know almost immediately where to find the long awaited King. The Magi make it to Jerusalem, the capital, but there is no new born King in Jerusalem. To answer the question of the Magi, Herod calls together all of the Jewish priests and bible scholars.  He inquires about the birthplace of the Christ, the Messiah. They immediately respond with a quotation from Micah 5:2 that prophesied the Christ’s birthplace in Bethlehem. Herod and Jerusalem do not suffer from a lack of biblical knowledge or insight.  They are lacking in its transforming power.  In contrast, the Magi without any access to Scripture recognize an anomaly in the heavens as a sign from God that a King has been born.  They act on this information.

Scripture is a gift from God, but unless it fuels personal transformation and missional action, bible reading and study can mask our true need for a vital moment by moment relationship with God.
Israel’s priests and bible scholars knew where the Christ was to be found, but did they act on this information? Why didn’t they run to Bethlehem ahead of the Magi?

There is always a danger that we substitute knowledge of the Bible for knowing the God behind the Scriptures. There is a profound warning here about substituting a relationship with the living God for mere information from a text.

Danger Three:
Being so committed to our own power and prestige that we seek to thwart actively God’s mission

Herod responds to the announcement of a new born king swiftly and decisively.  Despite recognizing the birth as the fulfillment of prophecy and despite the apparent worldwide announcement sent out by God that drew the Magi, Herod took the decision to attempt to murder the baby Jesus. Why? Because the arrival of a newborn king pointed to the end of Herod’s power and prestige.

Why do we as humans have the tendency to view the new as a threat to the old?  Why do we always take account of our own power and prestige rather than revel in the new movements of God and the new people that God is working to bring into God’s Kingdom?

The frightening side of this story is that Herod and all Jerusalem plot to eliminate this threat through violence. In essence, we find here a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death on the cross. When Jesus goes to the cross as the ultimate act of salvation for the world, it is at the bidding of the Romans and those in Jerusalem who will be shouting out, “Crucify him!”

Jesus’ call is radical. It is life changing. It calls for us to give up our own lives and follow Jesus into the world on mission. Jesus’ call is for self-denial and living as though one were already dead.  Jesus’ call to follow him is always a challenge to the status quo.  It is one in which the first become last and the last become first. The humble are lifted up and the proud made to bow low. For Herod and all Jerusalem it was too much of a risk to their own power and prestige to permit God to work outside of the system. Thus, Herod acts to thwart God’s intentions by acting to kill Jesus (Matt 2:12ff).

If the story of the Magi offers a series of warnings to insiders, it also offers profound invitations to those on the outside.

Invitation One:
Seeking to follow Jesus for the chance to experience a real life.

The story of the Magi is astonishing. Magi living hundreds of miles from Israel leave their families and their ways of life to chase the mere possibility of encountering the long-awaited King of the Jews.
What would have driven these men to go to such links to meet a king? They had to have realized through their observations of the stars that something spectacular was happening.  Moreover their God-given longing for the true God must have been stirred within them.  Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth century scientist/philosopher, said, "There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus." As I have argued elsewhere, being shaped after the image of God implies that we were created for authentic relationship with one another and with the creator.  We know this instinctively.  However, too many of us fail to act and remain unchanged. 

Jesus comes to all of us this morning and says, “Follow me.” Who among us will answer his call?  What would you give for a chance to live the life of God’s dreams?  What would it mean for you to live as the person whom God created you to be?

This text invites us to follow Jesus as the true way of experiencing the life of God’s dreams.

What do you need to give up today to embrace the life offered to us by God through Jesus?

Invitation Two:
Experiencing true joy in encountering Jesus.

After the detour in Jerusalem, the Magi follow a special star to Bethlehem.  The star stops over the place where the child was staying.  Our text says that the Magi were overjoyed over arriving at their destination. This was a joy in discovering an allusive pursuit.  As humans created in God’s image, we long for happiness.  We long to find meaning and fulfillment in life. Yet how many of us actually find it?  How often do we experience an overwhelming sense of joy in our lives? 

My children constantly remind me of the joy of living.  My daughters have always enjoy going for car rides to look at Christmas lights and decorations in the neighborhoods surrounding our home. When my children were preschoolers, there responses to a good light display were memorable. They would squeal at the top of their lungs, “LIGHTS!!!” at the first site of the display. Their faces would glow and their smiles were seemingly miles wide.

Joy like this is a gift from God.  It is a reminder of something that too many of us have lost. The Magi rediscovered their capacity for true joy when they encountered the baby Jesus.  We can too.  This text invites us to find joy

What is the source of greatest joy in your life?  What if following Jesus Christ were the only way to true joy?

Invitation Three:
Finding our true self in the surrender to and worship of Jesus.
The Magi aren't content to experience Jesus from afar. They have arrived at their destination so they approach and enter the house containing Jesus and his mother Mary.

There response is profound.  In the presence of this young child born not among the rich and powerful of the Jerusalem elite but out in the country in Bethlehem, these elites from the east bow down and worship him. The word worship is repeated three times in our passage (vv. 2, 8, and 11) and it is a significant term in Matthew's Gospel (13 uses).  Worship is the proper response to the person of Jesus in Matthew (cf. 2:2, 11; 8:2; 15:25, and 28:9, 17). It is the recognition of his person and authority. This stands in profound contrast to the actions of Herod and all Jerusalem who sought to thwart God's plans through the murder of the young king.

But the Magi do not stop with worship. They also offer the baby Jesus costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts are gestures of submission. They represent the surrender of the Magi to the Lordship of Jesus. They are ritually offering to Jesus all that they are for the use of his Kingdom. This text invites us to do the same. True life is not found in amassing power, wealth, or prestige through our own efforts.  True life is found in surrendering all that we are to Jesus.

Have you gotten to the point in your life in which you have surrendered yourself to God and moved from a life focused on self to a life focused on serving God?

Invitation Four:
Returning to our old lives to share the message.

An encounter with God is never a mere existential experience.  When God meets us, we are transformed from self-centered persons committed to self-fulfilment and gratification to an over-oriented existence as the Spirit propels us back into the world to participate fully in God’s mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth through Jesus Christ.

The Magi do not remain in Israel with the savior of the world. They offer themselves to the King and then they return to their homeland. We do not hear from these men again in the New Testament, but these unnamed Magi become the very first Christian missionaries in history. They came to pay homage to the King because they instinctively realized that Jesus was the one for whom their very beings longed. 

Having met Jesus, they return to their old lives. But this is only half of the story. They do return to their old lives but they are now living as transformed persons.  The actions of the Magi foreshadow the end of the Gospel where the Risen Jesus sends out his eleven disciples into the world to make disciples of all persons. This is the Gospel mandate.  Or as my friend Alex McManus reminds us, “The Gospel comes to us on the way to someone else.”

The Magi do not become secluded from the world. They become agents of transformation for others. This is our call as well.

How is God using you to shape the lives of others and to share the Gospel?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

For resources on preaching Scripture missionally and for establishing a missional community, I recommend the following:


Monday, November 30, 2015

Deliverance for Exile?: A Missional Reflection for Advent

In its first stanza, the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” captures the essence of the Advent season:

O Come, O Come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Advent is the season in which the Church worships in celebration of the 1st Coming of Jesus Christ and longs for His Final return.  The theme of Exile is a poignant one for this time of year.  The birth of Jesus Christ was envisioned in the 1st century as a signal to all that the massive disruption of the Babylonian Exile was truly over and that the long awaited savior from God had arrived to renew the Kingdom.  In the Bible, this teaching is most explicit in the genealogy found in Matthew 1:1-17.  A cursory reading of the genealogy reveals that in the midst of the long list of names there are four that are emphasized: Abraham, David, the exile to Babylon, and Jesus Christ.  Abraham stands at the beginning because he is the figurative father of Israel, and he was the recipient of God’s promise that all nations of the earth would be blessed through him (Genesis 12:1-3).  David is emphasized because he represents God’s ideal ruler who will extend salvation and reign over a kingdom of justice and peace.  Why is Exile mentioned?  Because the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C. effectively put an end to the Davidic Kingdom and raised questions about the viability of God’s promises.  The Jews had returned home from exile in 538 B.C. and even rebuilt their temple in 516 B.C., but as the 1st century A.D. dawned, they remained under foreign rule and were hardly living in the reality of the Old Testament promises.  They longed for a renewal of God’s mighty acts of salvation.  Although they were in their homeland, they felt as though they were still living in a spiritual exile.

Matthew’s genealogy announces that Jesus Christ (or better Jesus the Messiah) is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.  This is filled out in Matthew 1:18-25 where Jesus’ two names are described.  God will no longer be “far away” because Jesus will embody and fulfill the Scripture from Isaiah 9 by bearing the name “Emmanuel”, which means “God is with us” (Matt 1:23).  God’s people will no longer carry the sting of exile because the name Jesus means “the Lord saves [his people from their sins]” (Matt 1:21).

What are the implications for today of these Scriptures?

1) Exile remains a powerful metaphor today.
Persons around the world live with a sense of displacement and longing for a true home.  In the most extreme cases, poverty and/or war have driven persons far from their native lands in search of the possibility for a prosperous life.  Such persons often face hardships in their new countries as they seek to overcome cultural barriers without the aid of friends or extended family.  Many will never or rarely see or hear from those that they left in their homelands.  They live as strangers in a strange land.  Feelings of Exile are the plight of immigrants around the world.

Many native born citizens of the United States or other countries around the world live in a sort of self-imposed exile within their own countries for economic reasons.  For example, as the world economy changes, it is becoming common for Americans to move across the country for employment.  My own story is not unusual.  I grew up in Akron, Ohio.  I lived there for my first twenty two years, even attending the local university.  From Akron, I moved to Lexington Kentucky to attend seminary.  Then, I moved to Richmond, Virginia to pursue the PhD.  I currently reside in Orlando Florida where I teach at Asbury Theological Seminary – Florida.  I am far away from my native Midwest and my in laws are from Puerto Rico.  My closest relative is more than 800 miles away.  In our neighborhood, there are very few native Floridians.  In fact, with sixteen years in the state, I am a virtual “old-timer” in our neighborhood.  My closest neighbors are from Puerto Rico, Columbia, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, England, and New York respectively! 

Such a reality represents missional opportunities for Christians.  Reach out to those around you who are far from family during this Christmas season.  Open your home to the lonely and displaced during this season.  Embody the reality that Jesus has come to end Exile and to bring the love of God near to all who seek Him.

2) Jesus calls us home and sends us Out.
The Gospel is more than merely an announcement that Exile is over.  Salvation is truly come in Jesus.  But because salvation has come, many of our common expectations and practices are subverted.  Exile is over, but this doesn’t mean a return to a physical homeland but a commitment to life as a resident alien.  In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does represent the end of Exile and beginning of God’s long awaited age of salvation, but living as a follower of Jesus Christ means going into the world.  If Matthew’s Gospel begins with the announcement that Exile is over, it ends with the announcement of a sort of return to Exile.  In the Great Commission (Matt 28:16-20), Jesus sends his disciples to the ends of the earth to “Make disciples of all nations.”  Yet, this new mission is not a return to Exile because Jesus promises to go with his disciples to fulfill this mission. “Behold, I will be with you always” is how Matthew’s Gospel ends.  The child born Emmanuel “God with us” brings this promise to a reality in His post-resurrection state.  The Risen Lord and Savior abides with his Church in its mission.  As followers of Jesus Christ, we may find ourselves a long way from the place of our birth, but when we live our lives on mission for God, we are never far from our truest home.

1) How are you participating in God’s mission this Advent season?  To whom will you reach out?

2) In what ways does the theme of Exile connect with your life?  How can you use this connection to reach out to others who do not know God?

3) What if following Jesus Christ were the surest way to find home?

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Monday, November 16, 2015

Learning to Speak Human: Communicating Biblical Truth/Teaching for Everyone through Curriculum Writing

Over the last decade, I've written curriculum for David C. Cook, the United Methodist Publishing House and Seedbed. Teaching the deep truths of Scripture for church and the world is central to my sense of calling. As an academic, I've had to work hard to learn to communicate clearly for all audiences. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently detailed the struggles of academics to communicate to general readers. Here are some of the reminders that I use.

1) We are not writing to inform but to facilitate an engagement with the Bible to transform our readers. There is no other purpose. Write from your scholarly expertise but don’t show it off. Translate your knowledge into a pastoral tone that will help all of your readers to grow in holiness for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

(2) Think carefully and continuously about your audience. They are not scholars. They are not theologians. Many have not attended college. They are interested in the Bible, but they do not possess an introductory knowledge of its history, social context, theology, etc. We have to teach them from the ground up.

(3) Assume biblical illiteracy is the rule. It is my experience from almost 20 years of teaching that few students who attend seminary have read the Bible in its entirety. Even fewer lay people have completed one reading. This means that they do not know the stories of Israel and early church. At most they are acquainted with a few biblical psalms and then mostly through praise and worship music. They may know a few of the biblical narratives, but will not be able to connect them to a meaningful way. They do not know the historical background of the Bible. We must focus on the basics as a means of re-introducing the Scriptures to our generation.

(4) Assume theological illiteracy. All theological terms must be defined in simple terms. This does not mean dumbing down, but rather translating the message. It may also mean that we need to say less in each lesson. Focus on a couple of key theological elements rather than covering too many.

(5) Avoid using Greek or Hebrew words unless absolutely necessary. You can talk about the nuance of an English word or give a clearer translation without reference to the details of the original language. Completely avoid discussion of Greek/Hebrew syntax. Remember our audience may not understand English grammar  and syntax. They will be at a loss to follow original language discussions beyond word meanings.

(6) Avoid technical discussion of ancient rhetoric or IBS structures.
Few will understand chiasm, inclusio, etc. Explain. Explain. Explain

(7) Kill your darlings. Writers must learn to write for the audience and not for themselves or for non-audience members. Scholars are not writing for other scholars nor are other scholars looking over your shoulder. Eliminate your pet exegetical positions unless you can explain them clearly and concisely. Again we are not dumbing down; we are learning to communicate to non-specialist.

(8) Eliminate complex sentence structure.
Write short sentences. Cut out ALL unnecessary words. Say it simply. Go to, search for books by popular writers such as Rob Bell or Mark Batterson (I’m not criticizing or endorsing their thinking but only suggesting that they know how to communicate to a broad audience), and use the preview feature to read a few pages. Notice how simple the language is in terms of vocabulary and sentence structure. There is a lesson for us. Rick Warren when he wrote the mega best seller The Purpose Driven Life limited himself to sentences of less than 10 words. This is not easy. But try to write simple sentences. we can still communicate complex ideas but we must learn to help all readers to follow our thinking. 

(9) Find substitutes for all GRE/SAT level words. Simple words are better. Do not assume our readers have a high IQ or college/graduate level vocabularies. If we do so, we will lose our audience.

(10) Do not overly nuance your arguments. Yes, the biblical text is complex. Yes, there are often competing options. We are introducing a generation to the Scripture anew. We do not have to offer multiple readings of texts. Go with the option with the most evidence. There will be a lifetime of opportunity for those interested to study and explore the full complexity of biblical interpretation.

(11) When in doubt, follow the advice of Wesley:
"I design plain truth for plain people: Therefore, of set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and, as far as possible, from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scripture. I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life; and, in particular, those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in Bodies of Divinity; those modes of speaking which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but which to common people are an unknown tongue. Yet I am not assured, that I do not sometimes slide into them unawares: It is so extremely natural to imagine, that a word which is familiar to ourselves is so to all the world.” From preface to Wesley’s Standard Sermons

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Monday, November 9, 2015

Introduction to Missional Hermeneutics (Video Lectures)

I'm teaching Introduction to the Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary this semester.

As part of this course, I introduce the practice of missional hermeneutics. I'll go into much more detail in class but I've created a series of three videos that discuss the role and practice of missional hermeneutics for the church and world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Monday, November 2, 2015

Lord, May Your Extravant and Loyal Love Continue: Learning to Pray Psalm 36

Psalm 36 offers two ways of life. The way of the wicked (36:1–4) and one rooted in the love of God (36:5–9). These pathways stand in stark contrast. These contrasting portraits of life exist side–by–side in our prayer without any transition between the two. We’ve encountered the two ways in a couple of ways already during our study. Pss 1 and 146 described the ways of the righteous and the ways of the wicked. We’ve also see the voice of the psalmist through the lament psalms claiming personal innocence and connection with God. Ps 36 enriches and deepens these previous black and white modes of thinking. Ps 36 invites those who will learn to pray it to take a look inside and decide whether to align with a life rooted in self or with the expansive love of the LORD.

I have a message from God in my heart
    concerning the sinfulness of the wicked:
There is no fear of God
    before their eyes.
In their own eyes they flatter themselves
    too much to detect or hate their sin.
The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful;
    they fail to act wisely or do good.
Even on their beds they plot evil;
    they commit themselves to a sinful course
    and do not reject what is wrong.
Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
    your justice like the great deep.
    You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.
10 Continue your love to those who know you,
    your righteousness to the upright in heart.
11 May the foot of the proud not come against me,
    nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
12 See how the evildoers lie fallen—
    thrown down, not able to rise! (NIV)

Verse 1 announces that the psalmist has received a message from God. The psalmist shares the content of this message in vv. 1–4. It is a description of what drives a persons to commit sin. The vocabulary of sin and evil is rich in vv. 1–4. English translations struggle to capture the nuances. The psalmist uses just about every Hebrew word for sin available to paint a broad and jarring picture of life apart from faithfulness and love.

Verse 1b roots sin in a lack of fear or dread of God. What is lacking in the a person who embraces the way of wickedness and rebellion is a sense of one’s place in creation. We might say that the person needs a “reality check.” God does not desire us to be terrified of him. Instead, we are to show a respect and submission to God as ruler and judge of creation. The wicked live without regard for any force, person, or power outside of themselves.

Verse 2 continues the description. We find the second occurrence of “eyes.” This points to the cause of sin. The wicked justify their actions apart from any external reference point. We would call this being self-centered. The heart of sin is living out of our own thoughts, plans, will, and talents. When we set our own standards and are accountable only to ourselves, we lose the ability and self-awareness to detect our brokenness and sinful desires. When this reality manifests itself in the masses, chaos ensues as every individual act only out of self-interest rather than in a way of life shaped by a love for God and others.

Verses 3–4 focus on the mess created by unfiltered and unbridled self-will and self-centeredness. There is a loss of wise living and speaking. A sense of the common good is nowhere to be found. Their plans and intentions flow out of their selfishness. This makes it impossible for them to walk in a good pathway. If there is a choice for good or evil, they gravitate toward the way of wickedness.

If verses 1–4 paint picture of self-centered human ugliness, the portrait found in vv. 5–9 is stunning in its description of the beauty and majesty of God. There are two ways of living described in Psalm 36, but there is really no choice. Read through verses 5–9 again. The imagery is breath-taking. When we close our eyes and imagine how we would describe a good and kind God, it would be a challenge to exceed the wondrous description in these five verses.

First, the psalmist addresses God personally as “LORD” for the initial time in this psalm. The psalmist does not want us to forget that he is not talking some generic god. He is talking about the LORD.

Then, the psalmist voices four core attributes of God (vv. 5-6a): love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. The stress is on the breadth and immensity of these. The LORD possesses an immeasurable and limitless quantity of them. The God to whom we pray acts out of a loyal love that is faithful to all of God’s commitments and relationships. God always does the right thing at the right time every time. These virtues and attributes describe the world that God is bringing about through his mission. Notice the focus on relational qualities. Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice all manifest themselves in relationships between God and others. This is the exact opposite of the mode of life of the wicked. Their focus is on self; the LORD’s focus is on good of creation.

Verse 6b declares the full implication of the LORD’s love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. Our translation reads, “You, LORD, preserve both people and animals.” The word preserve is more often translated save or deliver. The LORD is a god who preserves and/or saves people and animals. God’s commitment to relational wholeness means that God cares about people and animals.

This truth is life-giving. “Unfailing love” is the same word as “love” in v. 5. This is the core dimension of the God of Scripture. It is affirmed in both Old and New Testaments that God is love (cf. Exod 34:6 and 1 John 4:16). Humanity can find true refuge and protection in the “shadow of your wings.” This is a reference to the Jerusalem temple. This does not mean that God’s protection is confined to one place. The temple is a symbol of God’s refuge that is universally available to all who know him.

Verses 8–9 emphasize the extravagant abundance available to those who seek refuge in the LORD. The vocabulary invites us to imagine that we are feasting and drinking at God’s table. The portions are endless and the very best that are available. If the portrait of wickedness is dark and pointless, the abundance of God is about life and light. The LORD is love. Life as God intends is beautiful and rich. In John 10:10 Jesus puts it this way, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The psalmist now reaches the point of decision. Up to this point, Ps 36 has described two distinct and contrasting ways of living.

Vv. 1–4 center life on decisions and whims of each individual. In the world of verses 1–4, there is a temptation to believe falsely that each man or woman can cut his or her own path through the world as he or she pleases. This is the root of idolatry and injustice. The biblical vision for authentic living flows out of a love for God, people and all creation. In other words, life moves away from self to focus on relationships. Sin and wickedness results from attempting to shape the world to serve and please us. This is what self-centeredness mean. We attempt to live as God. To work out of this framework is to work against the beautiful and just world that God desires and is working to create.

Vv. 5–9 offer a robust and stunning counter-cultural alternative to the way of the wicked. This way of life centers on the one true God–the LORD. The LORD embodies and models relational wholeness by acting in love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice. God’s mission involves saving and preserving all life. God offers all creation security in the present and for all eternity.

So the question turns to us who pray Ps 36? In what mode of living will we find our center? Is life all about us? Or does true life arise out of a dynamic relationship with the LORD of Love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice? At some level this decision is obvious. But will we consciously take this decision and align our lives with the LORD.

In verses 10–12 the psalmist models a prayer in favor of the way of the LORD of Infinite Love. Verse 10 makes the psalmist choice clear. He recognizes the LORD’s way and asks the LORD to continue to cause love and righteousness to abound for those in relationship with the LORD. In other words, he prays, “LORD, continue to be God of abundance that you revealed to me in vv. 5–9.”

This is a counter-cultural choice and remains so today. It is risky to live freely for the sake of others. To privilege a love for God and neighbor over the self-centeredness of the modern (and ancient) world puts us into a position where we can be hurt, used, or manipulated by those who choose the pathway of self-will (vv. 1–4). This is the reason that Ps 36 shifts to a pray for protection from the wicked in vv. 11–12. This is not a prayer against the world as much as it is a prayer for those who desires to live a self-giving life of love and justice in alignment with the character of God (vv. 5–9) and modeled by Jesus in the Gospels. The goal of our witness is to invite the world to experience this truest expression of human life.

© 2015 Brian D. Russell

Friday, October 30, 2015

Blessed is the One Who is Forgiven: Learning to Pray Ps 32

Ps 32 is a lament psalm that serves to teach us how to pray for forgiveness. It is the second of the traditional penitential psalms that we introduced with Ps 6 (the others are Psalms 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Psalm 32 offers profound reflection on sin and forgiveness in its two parts: vv. 1–5 and 6–11. It also includes the role of the community of faith in the process of sin, confession, and forgiveness.

Blessed is the one
    whose transgressions are forgiven,
    whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
    whose sin the Lord does not count against them
    and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
    your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
    my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you
    while you may be found;
surely the rising of the mighty waters
    will not reach them.
You are my hiding place;
    you will protect me from trouble
    and surround me with songs of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
    which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle
    or they will not come to you.
10 Many are the woes of the wicked,
    but the Lord’s unfailing love
    surrounds the one who trusts in him.
11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
    sing, all you who are upright in heart! 

Vv. 1–2 open Ps 32 with two related beatitudes. This is a psalm about being happy. This is a theme of the Psalter. We’ve seen the word “happy” in our readings of Psalm 1:1, 2:12, and 146:5. Happy means living in a state of God’s blessing.

   What is indicative of being in a state of God-given blessedness according to Psalm 32? It is the experience of the forgiveness of sin. Verses 1–2 reflect on a life of grace: the blessing of forgiveness and a life marked by faithfulness in response to God’s grace. This psalm invites its pray-ers to reflect on our lives before God and our community to be sensitive to our brokenness and bring our sins and failures to the only source of cleansing: the LORD.
   Verses 1–2 makes three statements about sin and forgiveness. The psalmist uses three different words for sin: transgression, sin, and iniquity. The psalmist also deploys three different verbs for God’s response to it: forgiven,  covered, and does not impute. The richness of the vocabulary reminds us of the seriousness of the problem. Psalm 36:1–4, which we will look at this week, likewise offers a broad description of sin. Sin is serious business. God calls us to love God and love others (including ourselves). Sin is the totality of acts and motivations that move us away from living fully as the people whom God created us to be. Sin finds its root in self-will apart from living moment–by–moment in relationship with God. It involves outright acts of rebellion and times when we miss the mark (intentional or unintentional). Broadly it also includes an attitude or will that continually intends or desires a path contrary to God’s loving ways.

   Part of the story of us all is the problem of our brokenness. Sin drags on us. It hurts us. It weighs on us in the depths of our beings. Verses 3–4 describe the psalmist’s own testimony of sin’s effects on the psalmist. Yet this psalm contains good news. God does not leave us in our struggles, alienations, and despair due to our sin. God acts to cleanse us. 

   What does it take to experience God’s cleansing? All it takes is voicing our need for God. In verse 5, the psalmist models the response of the faithful: confession and acknowledgement to God. When we recognize our faults and flaws, this opens us up for the work of God in our lives. The psalmist testifies that God has indeed forgiven him. 

   The second half of Ps 32 serves as a witness to the community about good news of forgiveness. Verse 6 opens with an exhortation to all in faithful relationship with God to continue to pray. The apostle Paul will later advise some of the earliest Christians, “Pray continually” (1 Thes 5:17). Prayer connects us with God. We abide in God through prayer. The psalter has explored prayers of praise and prayers for help. Prayers of confession remind us that we must stay in relationship with God even when we have created the mess that surrounds us.

   The faithful will find security with God. The psalmist moves from exhortation to the faithful to direct address of God. God secures the psalmist’s future despite the sins that he committed and confessed. This does not mean that the psalmist escaped any consequences. He hinted at them in verses 3–4. But our text does declare the consequences are finite in comparison with God’s infinite capacity to forgive and create a new future for the psalmist. This is good news for the psalmist and for us!

   Verses 8–9 introduces a new voice to the psalm. In these verses, someone from the community, perhaps a priest, speaks wise counsel and instruction into the psalmist’s life. This is a critical component for the psalmist as he lives into the experience of forgiveness and restoration. There were reasons for wrong behavior and actions. If the root causes of sin are not addressed, we can easily turn them into recurring patterns. As part of the experience of forgiveness that Ps 32 envisions, the community comes alongside of the forgiven psalmist to provide guidance so that the psalmist does not embody the worst characteristics of a horse or mule—a lack of understanding. The Christian faith is not a solitary adventure. God’s people exists to serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character. Our sins mute our witness to the world. As a community of faith we need each other’s support, prayers, and guidance as we seek to follow Jesus into the world on mission. Verses 8–9 invite us to listen to our community at the times of our own deep need for forgiveness.  
   Verses 10–11 bring Ps 32 to a conclusion by announcing a sure foundation for living our lives. The psalmist briefly mentions the challenges and woes of the wicked. If we choose to live in our sins, we will experience hardships. This is true for all people. But there is good news: the LORD’s committed and faithful love abides with all who trust and find true security in the LORD. When we choose the way of faith and faithfulness, we are able to live in the joy that verse 11 invites us to embody. Our rejoicing serves as a testimony to the watching world.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Longest Sentence in my New Book: What would Hemmingway or Shakespeare Say? Lol

If Hemmingway is famous for his robust and powerful prose and Shakespeare for the quotation "Brevity is the soul of wit", I wonder what they might say about this sentence that I crafted in my forthcoming book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade Books, 2015)...

Take a deep breath...

Nothing is more suffocating or potentially harmful to God’s mission than a status quo religion that is more concerned with protecting its own power base, propagating tradition in anachronistic and legalistic ways, ex­alting itself by criticizing others, or promoting ideology over relationship than it is with declaring God’s eternal “Yes” to those women and men des­perate for the Good News that God has called us to share.

I promise that most of the new book is much easier to read. I almost edited above, but decided to leave it in for fun. 

How the Psalms Understand and Deal with Human Sin: Pss 32 and 36 as Case Studies

One of the presuppositions of Scripture is that humanity is lost apart from the grace, love, and kindness of God. God’s grace and love manifest most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Messiah. Due to human sin, we all find ourselves living with the fruit of our own actions as well as the actions of others (past and present). Sin manifests itself in guilt, shame, alienation, brokenness, and injustice. God’s mission is to reverse the results of sin by creating a missional people through whom God will bless the nations (Gen 12:3, Exod 19:5–6, 1 Peter 2:9). The Risen Jesus sends us into this world. Paul summarizes the plight and possibility of our world this way: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23–24).

How do we pray as we seek to live faithfully in our lost and fallen world? Psalms 32 and 36 focus on human sin and wickedness. They address this issue from two different perspectives. Both are psalms of lament, but they have different intentions.

Psalm 32 is a lament for the forgiveness of sin. It serves a key role in the psalter by teaching us how to pray when we as God’s people act unfaithfully and find ourselves in need of God’s forgiving grace. Psalm 32 models a prayer of confession so that we can experience God’s cleansing grace anew and refocus our lives on God’s mission.

Psalm 36 is a lament about wickedness. It is similar to Ps 1 in its stark contrast of two diametrically opposed ways of making it through the world. Psalm 36:1–4 paints a dark and bleak picture of the world and humanity apart from God’s grace. It locates the cause of sin in a self-centeredness that plagues men and women. No good comes from this way of life.

In contrast, the second half of the psalm focuses on the beauty and love of the LORD. Sin, self-centeredness, and alienation do not have to be the final verdict on life. In fact, it is pointless and illogical in contrast to the lavishness of God’s grace, love, and faithfulness that is freely available to all who seek the LORD.

As we reflect carefully on these two psalms in the next two blog post, we have an opportunity to ponder sin on one hand and God’s love and grace on the other. Both are present in the world, but only God’s love will be for all eternity. At this point it is worth reflecting on this question: What would it look like for you to settle the issue of sin and begin to align yourself fully with the love and grace of the LORD?