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