Thursday, December 29, 2016

Growth Through Questions (Conversations with Scripture)

“The quality of your life is the quality of your questions.” -- Anthony Robbins

The courage to ask questions is the pathway to deep insight and growth. Children instinctively understand this. One of the first signs of intellectual development in a toddler is when she begins to question her surroundings. “What is that, daddy?” is the easy question for a parent, but the more difficult “Why?” is never far behind.

A series of maxims greeted visitors to the ancient Delphic oracle in Greece. The most famous reads, “Know yourself.” This is an exhortation to shift from the external to the internal. To grow we must move beyond the expectations and explanations of others. We must engage in a search for truth driven by a thirst from within rather than from a desire for conformity to externals or approval from others.

The harder questions begin when we ponder our feelings and thoughts. What am I feeling? What am I thinking about right now? How can I quiet my racing mind? Will the dull ache that I feel inside ever go away? When we ask such questions, we become observers of our lives. We are no longer mere participants along for the ride.

Most of us gain a certain level of mastery of our external world as we grow. We learn to drive. We earn diplomas and degrees. We start careers. We marry and begin to raise families. We are able to navigate career and culture easily. We are comfortable in our spiritual lives. In essence, we become competent at the givens and whats of life.

But at some point, we hit a wall and realize that we’ve lost the plot. For many of us it takes a crisis moment: poor health, the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, a financial crisis, or disillusionment with our faith. These are times when we long for meaning and fulfillment over easy answers and the typical road maps for life and faith. At such times, we may turn to Scripture afresh.

People often describe the Bible as an answer book. This is certainly true, but we must take care not to reduce it to an answer book such as one we’d find in the back of a high school math text. As we live, we discover that life is messier and blurrier than a straightforward math equation. Rarely is the answer we seek simply the solution 2 + 2 = 4. When we face complexity, questions tend to be more helpful than simple answers.

In fact, Scripture is full of questions. Often these questions take us further down the rabbit hole than any answer would.

Here are some examples:

The serpent asks Eve and Adam, “Did God really say…? (Gen 3:1).

God asks the first humans, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9).

Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen 4:9).

Moses asks God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring out the Israelites?” (Exod 3:11) and “What is your name?” (3:13).

The psalmist asks, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me? (Ps 22:1).

God asks Jonah, “Is your anger a good thing?” (Jonah 4:4).

A lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

The Philippians jailer asks Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

In each case, the careful reader gains insight and wisdom by reflecting on the question and then reading to see if and how answers emerge through textual conversation. These Scriptural examples suggest that questions are part of an authentic relationship with God. God does not demand that seekers become unthinking “yes men” or “yes women.” There is a give and take to faith. God desires to ask us penetrating questions to aid us in transformation, but we also are free to challenge God and ask questions of our own.

In the end, reading Scripture is about asking questions. Our questions serve to open our hearts and minds to the questions that the Bible desires to ask each of us. Any question may be brought to the text, but ultimately the Bible desires to confront us with the reality of God’s claims on our lives. It intends to raise questions for us to ponder. 

Here are some that I’ve sensed when I’ve spent time in the Scriptures:

Do I trust that God has my best interests at heart?

How does the Bible invite me to live differently than I currently am?

What kind of person do I need to become to live out the truth I am reading?

As you open the Scriptures with new questions, try using this prayer from the early Church leader Origen (c. 185–c. 254):
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

Friday, December 23, 2016

What's In a Name?: Reflection on Matt 1:18–25 for Advent and Christmas

Names are important. Modern parents to be spend significant time selecting just the right name for their unborn children. Dozens of “Baby Name” books are available for purchase. Moms and dads can scan through thousands of names to find the perfect one for their son or daughter. Some families carry on longstanding traditions of naming the firstborn after the father; others name a child after a favorite aunt or uncle. Whether they name the child in honor of a beloved relative or after a famous person, they do so in the hope that the child will embody the best qualities of his or her eponymous predecessor.

 In Matthew 1:18–25, we read about the naming of Jesus. Let us ponder this passage to experience its power this year:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
 Our Scripture text recounts the naming of Jesus. In previous verses, Matthew has offered a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to Israel's history. In particular, Jesus is called Son of Abraham, Son of David, and Messiah (Christ). Abraham was the fountainhead of God’s people. The LORD had called Abraham to serve as the father of a new people through whom all peoples would be blessed.[i] The LORD had raised up David to serve as the earthly ruler of God’s kingdom.[ii] To call a person “Messiah” was tantamount to declaring that the era of the fulfillment of God’s promises was at hand. All of these titles would have resonated deeply with the people of Jesus' day. They would have raised expectations and reestablished hope of a new and dramatic work of God.
  Yet our text does not burst forth in a birth announcement complete with trumpet rolls and fireworks. The birth of the Messiah will mark the beginning of the most important life in the history of the eternity. But it is not one marked with fanfare. There will be no headlines in the newspapers. It will not occur in the center of political and religious power in Jerusalem. Instead it will occur under the shadow of scandal. Moreover the familiar names of Jesus and Emmanuel will offer us a glimpse of the essence of Jesus’ life and mission.
A Scandalous Beginning? 
Given Jesus’ pedigree as son of Abraham and son of David, it seems inconceivable that God in his wisdom would send his son to be born under questionable circumstances. At least it does to those schooled in the wisdom of the world. The world values tidiness, symbolism, and appearances. If Jesus were running for political office, his opponent would be running negative ads against him reminding everyone of his possible illegitimate birth. But God does not play by the rules of the powerful and the rich. In fact, God tends to work from the outside and backsides of life to bring about his salvation. If we reexamine Jesus’ ancestors, it is remarkable that his family tree includes four other named women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Urriah [Bathsheba]).[iii] This inclusion of women in a male-dominated genealogy is unusual in its self, but these four women were all involved in unseemly or at least unusual relationships. Tamar tricked her father-in-law Jacob into having sex with her in order to have a son; Rahab was a Canaanite and perhaps a prostitute in Jericho; Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite; and Bathsheba was involved in an adulterous relationship with David.  Yet, God worked through these women and these unusual circumstances to advance the line of people through whom Jesus would be born.
So it should come as no surprise that Jesus the Messiah was born to a woman who was a virgin. However, Joseph her fiancé was no dolt. He knew how a woman became pregnant. He must have been feeling both betrayed and humiliated. He could have demanded a public accounting for her indiscretion. But our text describes him as “a righteous man.” Joseph was a person who actively lived a life of integrity and wholeness before God. He sought to value and serve God and others above his own rights and prerogatives. Thus, Joseph made the decision to end his engagement to Mary, but to do so in such a way as to not draw attention to Mary’s supposed immorality.

   At this point, God appears to Joseph in a dream. This is not God’s first appearance in the story. The narrator has already informed the reader that Mary is pregnant due to divine action through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Now Joseph learns the truth and when he wakes up he takes Mary for his wife. This remarkable story illustrates the reality that God can work through the messiness of human life and how the faithfulness of God’s people can help God advance his mission.
Two Names
In our culture, Christmas has become a secular holiday. This is epitomized by the tradition of decorating homes with lights. How often today do we see heavily decorated yards filled with images of Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus, the Grinch, reindeer, and other holiday décor? Yet often in the middle of these displays, one finds a plastic baby Jesus lying in a manger. The baby Jesus becomes an alien add on to the Christmas holiday. He is far separated from the Crucified and Risen Lord of the Church. In the 2006 comedy, Talledega Nights, Will Farrell’s character Ricky Bobby offers grace over meals in which he consistently prays to “Lord Baby Jesus.”[iv] When challenged by his wife to acknowledge that Jesus grew up, he replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus the best.”

But in his presentation of Jesus, Matthew forces us to reflect on his adult life from the beginning. The central focus in our text is the naming of the child because this is no ordinary baby. It is in the naming of Jesus that Matthew forces us to confront the power and potential of Jesus’ life and work.
He will Save his people from their Sins
The Lord reveals to Joseph in the dream two names for the child that capture and epitomize the boy’s life and mission. First, the Lord orders Joseph to name the child “Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua. It literally means, “The Lord saves.” Just as Joshua embodied this name as he led God’s people into the promised land of Canaan. Jesus will inaugurate a new era of salvation. Yet notice that the salvation that Jesus will bring involves salvation from their sins. Since this is the goal, it is profound to observe that Jesus fulfills his name by dying on the cross. Years down the road, on the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Lord’s supper with his disciples saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[v] In other words, Matthew is announcing from the beginning of his story that the focus of Jesus’ life will be bringing salvation from sins by means of Jesus’ death on a cross.

Who will be the beneficiary of this salvation? Our text says, “his people.” This begs a crucial question for us: Who are his people? Jesus’ ministry will subvert any attempt to define narrowly “his people.” Jesus intentionally breaks down religious and cultural boundaries by healing the sick, interacting with women, and even extending salvation to gentiles. By the end of the Gospel, he sends out his disciples to engage “all nations” with the Gospel message.[vi]
Emmanuel: God is with Us
Matthew adds a footnote to the name, Jesus. He reminds the reader that Jesus’ birth brings to fulfillment an ancient prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son. Isaiah had foreseen the child being given the name, Emmanuel. Emmanuel means, “God is with us.” Profoundly this second name for Jesus sounds a critical theme for understanding the mission of Jesus. It is more than an affirmation of God’s presence in Jesus during his earthly life. If the name Jesus points to the cross where Jesus saved “his people from their sins”, then Emmanuel affirms the on-going presence of the Resurrected Jesus in the life of his people.

For disciples of Jesus, this is critical. We are not merely persons who admire a life well lived by attempting to emulate Jesus’ life. Instead, Emmanuel is a promise that God will be eternally present with his people through the person of the Risen Jesus. Most profoundly Jesus promises to accompany his people as they spread across the globe to fulfill Jesus’ final command to make disciples of all nations. Matthew’s Gospel ends with this promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[vii]
Jesus fully embodies his names. But what about us? Each of us has been given a name by our parents. But in Christ, God has granted each of us a new names—Christian, child of God, son or daughter of God. Jesus came to deliver us from our sins and to lead us into the world with good news to share. In this season as the world awaits the light of Christ, will we follow him?

[i]Genesis 12:3b
[ii]2 Sam 7; Ps 2
[iii]Matt 1:1-17
[v]Matt 26:27-28
[vi]Matt 28:19-20
[vii]Matt 28:20b

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Community of the Desperate: A Reflection on Luke 2:1–20 for Christmas Eve/Day

A Community of the Desperate
"It was the most fun that I have ever had in ministry.  We were a community of the desperate."  Those were the initial words that rolled off of the tongue of church planter and pastor Eric while he was recalling fondly the early years of a church that he and his wife Kim founded in Maine back in the 1990s.  Eric and Kim were in their mid-twenties and fresh out of seminary.  They moved to Bangor, Maine to establish a new congregation without knowing a single person in the city.  They worked feverishly to make contacts and foster relationships with all whom they encountered.  To this day, Eric and Kim remain awestruck and joyful in their description of the persons who first expressed interest in this fledgling church.  They did not attract the movers and shakers nor did they reach the beautiful and the self-assured.  Instead, the core members of this congregation consisted of recent transplants to the area, several persons struggling with addictions, some ex-convicts, and many who for a variety of reasons were simply struggling to make their way through the world.  What did these persons have in common?  To put it simply: They were desperate for the very things that the Gospel alone can truly deliver - they were desperate for God.  Moreover they were precisely the types of persons whom Jesus himself impacted powerfully during his earthly ministry.  Jesus' earthly life models the creation of a community of the desperate -- persons hungry and desperate for God whom God can then transform and deploy back into the world to love and serve others.  Luke's birth narrative provides for us the earliest hints that this will in fact be the focus of Jesus' ministry and should be the focus of our own lives as followers of Jesus.

Our Scripture lesson on this Holy Day (Luke 2:1–20) is so familiar that it is easy to miss its subtle and subversive message.  The text recounts the Christmas story of a census, the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, Jesus' birth in a manger, and the arrival of angels and shepherds to celebrate the event.  Yet, it is in these well-known details that we find the true power of the story.  For in them, we discover God's intentions to create a community of the desperate through whom God will reach out in love to the world.

Let's hear Luke's words again:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

A Tale of Two Cities
Luke skillfully opens his report of Jesus' birth by setting it in a specific time and space.  The reference to Caesar Augustus serves as much more than a chronological marker.  Rather it sets up a conflict between two kings and two kingdoms.  Augustus was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all Emperors who ever reigned over Rome.  Caesar bore all of the rights and prerogatives of power and influence.  His reach extended even to the small and insignificant province of Judea.  There our Scripture lesson opens with a trip by Joseph and Mary from the town of Nazareth to their ancestral city of Bethlehem in order to register according to a decree from Augustus. 

While in Bethlehem, Mary goes into labor and gives birth in a manger because there was no room in the inn.  A king is born that night in Bethlehem, but this King will lay aside all of the trappings of power and live his life armed only with faith, hope, and love.  Furthermore, Jesus' humble birth in a manger emphasizes God's care for the lowly.  The King of kings and Lord of lords is not born into wealth or power; he was not found in Rome; but rather he lay asleep in a manger.  What kind of king is this?  If Jesus were born today, where would we find him?

A Surprising Announcement
The scene shifts to the regions around Bethlehem in which shepherds were out with their flocks (verse 8).  Perhaps these were the same areas once patrolled by Israel's first shepherd-King, David.  Shepherds in Jesus' day were not numbered among the rich or powerful.  They were peasants at the bottom of the status ladder. Yet, these were the persons to whom Jesus' birth is first announced. God did not come looking for the proud, the important, or the powerful; he came to those in need.  Jesus came to those desperate for the sort of life that comes only by living for God.  Jesus came looking for those desiring a better life, a life lived for a value greater than their own good.

The shepherds were terrified at the appearance of an angel (verse 9), but their terror soon turned to awe, wonder, and joy at the announcement.  The angel tells the shepherds to be full of joy because of the good news of Jesus' birth.  Moreover, note that verse 10 declares that the birth of Jesus will be a source of joy "for all the people."  Jesus' birth and the salvation that he will bring has the potential to reach and touch everyone!

What does the angel announce?  In verse 11, Gabriel declares the place of the birth to be "the city of David."  The angel also gives titles to the child: Savior, Messiah, and Lord.
"Savior" was a title worn by the Roman Emperor, but Luke boldly declares the Jesus is the savior.  What an audacious and surprising claim!  In this distant corner of Roman influence is born one much greater than even Caesar Augustus.  Yet, he does not bear the trappings of his rank – the baby Jesus identifies with the weak and lowly.

"Messiah" implies that Jesus is Israel's long awaited Davidic King and deliverer.  "Lord" is the title used typically of God.  By declaring Jesus as "Lord", the angel is saying that Jesus is the one in whom God is working to bring forth salvation.  In verse 12, the shepherds receive a sign. This sign coincides with the description of Jesus' birth earlier in the passage.

Verses 13-14 describe the worship and celebration of "a multitude of the heavenly host."  Worship is the proper response to the miraculous work of God.  Verse 14 contains the familiar words of the angels.  Note carefully however that modern translations such as NRSV or NJB differs from the old King James' "...and on earth peace, good will toward men."  The NRSV correctly translates the best Greek manuscripts “on earth peace among those whom he favors.”  These words carry a powerful message.  They proclaim worship and glory to "God in the highest heaven."  God is worthy of honor and acclamation for his work.  Additionally, on account of the arrival of Jesus, "peace" is available for humanity, those most in need of God.  This peace of God refers to God’s desire for justice, restoration, hope, and wholeness.  Think about who received this message: lowly shepherds out in the field.  Yet, these were precisely the persons whom Jesus came to save.

Whom does God favor?  The contrast between the powerful and lowly continues here.  The announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angels does not occur in the presence of the Roman power brokers, business tycoons, or other influential elites.  The announcement of Jesus' birth came to the community of the desperate.  But God’s work does not stop with a mere announcement.  The announcement becomes a mission.

A Mission to Live

How do the shepherds respond to the birth announcement and the worship of the angels?  An experience of God’s grace is never an end in itself.  If it is authentically from God, it will always push us outside of ourselves and point to others.  The lowly shepherds become this new king’s first ambassadors. 

The shepherds head directly for Bethlehem to see things for themselves.  The authentication of the events with their own eyes causes them to proclaim the words of the angels to those who are present (verse 17).  This leads to amazement by "all who heard it" (verse 18).  Perhaps the "all" refers to those staying in the actual inn that night.  Mary, who already knows the truth about Jesus (1:1-76), simply reflects on the wondrous events around the birth of her son, Jesus (verse 19).  The shepherds then return to their flocks worshiping and praising God (verse 20).  The actions of the shepherds are significant.  They receive the good news about Jesus, and they are transformed from lowly shepherds to heralds and ambassadors of God's good news.  This is the call to all of us who know and believe the story of Jesus.  We who have experience outpourings of grace must become witnesses to the world of this fact.

A core value of Christianity is hope.  Too often we make hope a mere insider value.  In other words, Christians have hope because we put our trust in God.  This is certainly true but it is not radical enough.  Hope is also to serve as a value offered to outsiders. Christians are to be known to the world not simply as persons of hope, but more profoundly as persons who inspire others, especially those outside the Christian community, to have hope as well.  This is the true witness of Jesus' birth - that a community of the desperate becomes the source of hope for the world.

How will you be a beacon of hope for someone today?  Who represent the desperate in your circle of family, friends, and acquaintances?  

© 2016 Brian D. Russell  

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy

 Deuteronomy offers a vision for God’s people for living out God’s holy love faithfully as a witness to the nations. The book of Deuteronomy serves a dual focus. It uses Israel’s past as a warning against disobedience. But it simultaneously invites the present generation to a life of faithful obedience as the means to enjoying life with God. The LORD liberated God’s people from Egypt as a means of freeing them to serve the LORD as God’s holy people.

The name Deuteronomy comes from the Greek translation of 17:18 meaning “second Law.” There is a core section of legal materials (5:6–21 and 12:1–26:19), but the overall shape of Deuteronomy conforms more with the Hebrew name for the book “These are the words.” More than any other part of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy is primarily speech. Moses the central human character in Genesis–Deuteronomy offers a series of addresses crafted to shape the present generation for God’s mission. The situation imagined in Deuteronomy finds God’s people Israel in Moab on the eastern banks of the Jordan river poised for a movement into the Promised Land. Moses will not accompany God’s people, but he delivers a speech to galvanize God’s people for the mission ahead. The Instruction of Moses will define the character of God’s people and provide authoritative guidance for living the liberated life.

Deuteronomy’s Wesleyan vision of God’s people as a holy people is compelling. 

First, Deuteronomy envisions a dynamic relationship between God and God’s people.  The pattern is this: God acts graciously acts for Israel and God’s people respond by living faithfully. God loves God’s people (7:8). God’s gracious love delivered Israel from Egypt and now stands ready to make good on God’s earlier promises of land to Israel ancestors. Deuteronomy understands the relationship between God and God’s people in covenantal terms. In the Old Testament, covenant is the means of formalizing the relationship. Deuteronomy offers a covenant reaffirmation by God’s people as they prepare to enter into the Promised Land (Deut 30:15–20). 

Second, love serves as the defining center of God’s people’s relationship with the LORD. The Shema or Great Commandment (Deut 6:4–5) calls for a whole person response of love to the reality of the LORD as the unique one and only God for God’s people. 

Third, Deuteronomy helps to shape a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification as having a fully devoted heart toward God. Deuteronomy introduces the phrase “circumcision of the heart” to our vocabulary (10:16, 30:6). This command flows from Deuteronomy’s focus on love as the motivation of God’s people in response to God’s love . Whole hearted devotion is rooted in the commandment against idolatry and articulated positively in Great Commandment. The allegiance to the LORD as the “one and only” involves turning from all other gods or temptations in order to serve and love only the LORD. 
Reading Deuteronomy helps us to recognize that Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection involves both our will and the work of God in freeing us from all prior allegiances to live fully as God’s people. 

Fourth, faithfulness in relationship is understood in terms of action. God’s people respond to God’s grace with love, fear, obedience, service, by walking in God’s ways, by clinging to the LORD, and by keeping the commandments (Deut 10:12–13, 20). 

Last, Deuteronomy presents the life of holy love as the good life. God’s people will enjoy secure life in the land by carefully living out the Scriptural revelation given through Moses. The exhortation “Choose life” (30:19) summarizes the choice between faithfulness and unfaithfulness as a decision for good. Likewise it signals God’s good intentions for God’s people as they live as his witnesses in the world.

Outline of the book of Deuteronomy

I. 1:1–4:43 Israel’s Past
A. 1:1–5 These are the Words
B. 1:6–46 Failure to Possess the Land
C.  The LORD’s Recent Victories (2:1–3:29)
D. 4:1–43 Exhortation to Faithfulness

II. 4:44–11:32 The Heart of Faithfulness
A. The Instruction of Moses (4:44–49)
B. The Ten Commandments (5:1–33)
C. Israel’s One True Love (6:1–25)
D. The False Gods of Faithlessness (7:1–
E. Loving Commitment (11:1–32)

III. 12:1–28:68 Core Covenantal Commitments
A. Worship as One Holy People (12:1–28)
B. Organizing God's Holy People (12:29–17:13)
C. Leaders Under the Instruction (17:14–18:22)
D. Practicing Justice as God’s Holy People (19:1–25:19)
E. Celebrating the Land as One Holy People (26:1–19)
F. The Blessings and Curses (27:1–28:68)

IV.  29:1–32:52 Choosing Life through Covenant Faithfulness
A. Warnings Against Disobedience (29:1–29)
B. Agenda for Restoration and Renewal (30:1–14)
C. The Call to Choose Life by Aligning Fully with the LORD (30:15–20)
D. Preparing for Moses’ Departure (31:1–29)
E. The Song of Moses 31:30–32:52

V.  33:1–34:12 Final Blessings and the Death of Moses
A. The Blessing of Moses (33:1–29)
B. The Death of Moses (34:1–12)

Select Bibliography
Brueggemann, Walter. Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Deuteronomy. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.

McBride, S. Dean, Jr. “Polity of the Covenant People: The Book of Deuteronomy” Interpretation 41 (1987): 229–44.

Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching). Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.

Moberly, R. W. L. Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Olson, Dennis T. Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994. (Out of print) Reprinted: Deuteronomy and the Death of Moses: A Theological Reading. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Invitation to Awaken Your Humanity

I am convinced that we must reflect on God’s original plans for humanity in order to understand the work that God accomplishes through Jesus the Messiah on behalf of us all. At minimum, salvation is God’s actions to restore humanity to His original designs for women and men. This essay will reflect on several biblical texts beginning with Genesis 1:26-31:

NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

This text is profound. It focuses on the purpose of humanity. This passage affirms that every single human being has been created in the image of God (Latin: imago dei). Yet, most attempts at explaining it make the mistake of trying to interpret ontologically the meaning of the image of God – in other words, most try to explain the essence of humanity. This text however is more interested in the function and purpose of humanity. Below I will explore briefly two movements in this text and end with some theological reflection in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.

1) Humanity as the Pinnacle of God’s Creative Work
Creation reaches its climax in God’s crafting of women and men in His image. There are a number of clues that point to this. First, more verses are devoted to the making of people than to any other part of Creation in 1:1–2:3. Second, “let us” language suggest the care and deliberation of God in the forging of humanity in God’s image. Why the use of the plural plural? The most likely explanation is that “let us” is either a plural of majesty (God is so awesome that He speaks as a “We”) or it is God addressing the heavenly court. Regardless, this language clearly raises the importance of this section. Third, God appoints humanity as stewards. No other creature or created thing exercises authority over humanity. Instead, humanity is to reign over creation as God’s stewards or regents. Last, in 1:31 God offers a final evaluation of his creative activity. Days 1 to 5 were reckoned “good.” Now with the creation of humanity, God elevates his self-evaluation to “very good.”

All of these data suggest that the creation of humanity is the climactic event of God’s creative activity. All that remains for God to do at the conclusion of Day Six is rest (2:1-3).

2) Humanity as the Visible Representatives of the Creator God

A missional focus is implicit in humanity’s creation in the image of God.

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word tselem is translated as image. It refers to that which is visible. In other words, imago dei points to humanity as representatives of God in Creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating visible representations of God is prohibited. In such places, tselem translates as "idol." Yet, in Genesis 1, God created people to serve as a visible image of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. We may read this as a missional mandate: God created people to be reflections of the Creator God

Humanity stands before the rest of Creation as a witness to the God who fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of Creation, humans were born for a purpose. This mission was to represent the character of God before the rest of Creation.

As a result of being forged in the image of God, humans fulfill a key role for God. God created humanity to rule over creation. In our day, we have twisted this vocation into an excuse for abusing the earth and devaluing our fellow creatures. Genesis does indeed grant a high place to humanity, but this has to be understood in light of a representational authority. Humanity does rule for its own sake or prerogatives. Humanity exercises dominion over creation on behalf of God. The actions of people are to mirror those of God. 

Humanity’s mission is to reflect God’s character and prerogatives in its exercise of authority. We don’t act for ourselves, but for God and for others. We love others including enemies and the created world as an outflow of our love for God. An authority rooted in love is the only dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Genesis 2:15 confirms this reality, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (italics added). We may even call this dominion through servanthood.

The Apostle Paul will make a similar connection between creation and mission in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the same context in which Paul describes those in Christ as part of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), he uses the language of diplomacy in stating that as part of the new creation, “so we are God’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20).

There are two elements present in this missional function: holiness and community. Genesis 1 assumes that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two means. Humanity represents God to the World by reflecting God’s character. This is the essence of holiness. Related to this is the reality that God did not create a solitary human creature, but differentiated humanity into its two sexes – male and female. Humanity thus was created to live in genuine community with one another.

We may summarize humanity’s role as God’s visible representatives to Creation with three words:

Mission (Connect) – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and Creation  

Holiness (Reflect)  – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character  

Community (Relate) – humanity lives in authentic and intimate community as part of its reflection of God’s character in fulfillment of God’s mission

Every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. Thus all people have intrinsic value and worth. 

Everyone has amazing potential. The problem is that we tend to turn away from God and seek our own way.

3) Jesus as the Fullest Reflection of Our True Humanity
Jesus came to deliver humanity from the darkness of sin. Post–Genesis 3, the persistence and pervasiveness of human sinfulness alienates us from God and ruptures creation itself. 
 In response to sin, Jesus came to live the only truly human life. He perfectly enacted and fulfilled the mission of God. Jesus, the Word, took on our flesh and made known to humanity the truth and reality of God:

NIV John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.

Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for humanity to live out God’s original purposes. By reconciling us to God and filling us with the Holy Spirit, Jesus awakens humanity to God’s creational purposes and unleashed his people to live the life that God created them to live.

God created us to serve a profound role. Humanity is the jewel of God’s creation. God has created each person to serve in God’s mission. As such, humanity lives to connect the reality of God to Creation by reflecting God’s character corporately in community and individually as persons created in God’s image.

We must not read these functions as static or attempt to straight jacket every human being into some clone or ideal. If God is endlessly creative, why should we attempt to “standardize” humanity? Are not we in the Church often guilty of producing “followers of Jesus” who are too often closer to being protégés or a Mini-Me than true reflections of Jesus? If God created every human being with a distinct set of fingerprints, why would we ever want to limit the creativity and skill set of followers of Jesus? It is time for the Church to call people to discover their true humanity in Jesus Christ. It is time for us to Awaken humanity.

What if following Jesus Christ truly was the means of awakening all of your potential to live as the person you were created to be?

© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised 12/2016)

For more on reading Scripture missionally, check out my latest book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On Gratitude: Dear Kittens #15

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained through my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)

 Dear Kittens,

“Gratitude not attitude.” You may remember this phrase. I used it to remind you to say, “Thank you.” As I’ve gotten older, I now realize that gratitude is not important it is indispensable.

Embracing gratitude has helped to transform my life and taught me to find joy even in the most difficult moments. Learning to say “Thank you” every day empowers us to discover happiness and peace in all circumstances.

Ponder some of my favorite quotations about gratitude. The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
 The contemporary mystic and spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle wrote, “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”

The 20th century monk and theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us - and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.”

All of these quotations capture the deep magic of saying, “Thank you.” Gratitude turns our attention outward. When we express gratitude, we shift our thoughts away from our selves, our needs, our concerns, our complaints, and our worries. Gratitude releases us to focus for a few moments on the good in our lives. Gratitude enables us to reset our thoughts on the abundance in our world rather than the challenges. There is always something for which to be thankful. Even on days when it seems as though the world is crashing in on us, we can still express gratitude for each breath that we take and for each beating of our heart.

Gratitude is the pathway to the door leading to the life of God’s dreams. Gratitude is critical for receiving each day as the gift that it is. When we say, “Thank you,” we are able to receive God’s gifts for us. To live out of gratitude enables each day to be a surprise. Instead of living out of entitlement or demand, we experience the good things in our lives as a gift.

Gratitude opens us up to living in the present moment. When we are grateful, we are content. Contentment allows us to be free from both past and future. We don’t have to feel cheated about events in the past. Nor do we have to worry about the details of tomorrow. We simply experience the new day as a gift and receive it with thanksgiving.

 Kittens, let me share two of my daily practices with you. I encourage you to try them. First, most mornings I prepare for the new day by praying and meditating. As soon as I finish, I write down five people or things for which I am thankful. I keep these lists in my journal. I try not to repeat myself, but I must admit that I often write that I’m thankful for my kittens! Second, before I fall asleep, I reflect on as many things from the day for which I’m thankful. This resets the mind and helps me to sleep better.

Embrace gratitude, Kittens. It will reset your life for the good.

Grateful for the chance to write you these notes each week,

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Letter to my Daughters on Elections and Love (Dear Kittens #34)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained through my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen. I wrote this one in the aftermath of the election this week and after observing the reactions of both sides to Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton)

Dear Kittens,

The Presidential election of 2016 was a difficult one. TOC has voted in every election since 1988 and this one threw me for a loop. Since this is your first election that you’ve been old enough to observe and given its divisiveness during the campaign and in the days following, I wanted to share some reflections on how we should think and act about it.

The great Methodist leader John Wesley lived during challenging times too. Revolutions were stirring in the colonies that became the United States as well as in France. Moreover, the inequalities and divisions within England itself were stark and easily inflamed. Wesley sought to promote the Gospel of Jesus as the true hope of the world and to transform the world through the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Yet Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to participate in civic life and this included voting. Here is his advice. This is an actual entry from his journal on Oct 6, 1774:

"I met those of our [methodist groups] who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side."

This is good and simple wisdom. I don’t think that there are too many bribes involved in voting these days (Wesley’s #1), but his #2 and #3 are critical for modeling a good witness in the world.

In essence, they invite us to de-personalize politics. Too often our leaders on both sides resort to emotional appeals and personal attacks to win. Unfortunately, this type of persuasion works. This does not make it admirable or virtuousness. It is always easy to use labels: “leftie” “racist” “communist” “right wing nut job” “radical” “homophobe” etc. Labels attempt to dehumanize others and cast shame. Our country right now has elements on both sides who cannot sympathize with or even relate to persons on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wesley emphasized the need to refuse to participate in the demonization or even speaking ill of those who disagree with us politically.

So how do we live well kittens and work for good especially during bitter seasons of divisive political debates and elections?

(1) Remember that absolute security comes only from God. No political party or ideology (even if its your personal favorite) can ever guarantee the future. Our hope is in God.

(2) There is not one god of the blue states and a separate god of the red states. God loves Clinton and all her supporters. God loves Trump and all his supporters. God is one and God is Lord of all peoples and nations. God loves everyone regardless of their vote or ideology, and God desires each persons best.

(3) We need to become better listeners of one another. The Gospel can unite us, but only if we reach out and build relationships with persons who think differently than us. Build a diverse group of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you don’t know anyone who voted for the opposite candidate, you need to expand your social circles. TOC has friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I have my own opinions, but these will never come between my friendships or my mission to reach others with the love of God.

(4) Be a bridge builder and uniter. No one ever gets what they want 100% of the time. We must learn to win and lose with grace and dignity. Seasons of change come and go. Always be ready to extend your hand in peace and compromise over common ground.

The future is better than you think, Kittens. I’m looking forward to it. As Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Live by faith, be known by love, serve as voices of hope:

If you'd like to read other "Dear Kittens" notes as they are published, send me an email to brian.russell9113 @ gmail .com

Friday, October 28, 2016

Finding True Security: Reading Psalm 46–48 (Part One)

 Psalms 46–48 form a trio of psalms that envision a secure foundation for the life of faith. They focus us as God’s people on the key relationship that guarantees our future. Each psalm serves as a praise to the LORD as the true king of the earth.
Let's begin with Psalm 46:

46 God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Psalm 46:1 opens with a bold confession. Our God is an ever-present refuge in times of trouble. Chew on that for a few minutes. God is not wishy-washy. God is not only a god of the good times. The psalmist reminds us that God is dependable and present even in crisis moments when all seems lost. 

Verses 2–3 draw out the full implications of God-given security. We can lay aside our deepest fears. We all fear something. The psalmist however refuses to fear even the undoing of creation. Verses 2–3 describe a scenario in which creation (earth, mountains, sea, and waters) disintegrates. He pictures the catastrophic end of the world. The psalmist proclaims that with God there is always a future no matter what comes. That is true security.

The psalm takes a dramatic shift in verses 4–7. Its focus turns to the security and calm of God’s city: Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Zion represented the center of God’s kingdom. In Jerusalem stood the two pillars of God’s presence: the Davidic King or Messiah and the Temple where the glory of the LORD inhabited. Jerusalem was the city of the Great King who reigned through his Messiah and whom the people worshipped in the Temple. These verses describe peace in the midst of the chaos and uproar of the nations. The kingdoms of this world may threaten and practice violent injustice, but the true King serves as a fortress for his people who find refuge in him.

So what does the refuge of God mean for God’s people in a world of chaos and insecurity? This is an important question for us in the 21st century as our world is no less chaotic than it was in the psalmist’s day.

In verses 8–11, God speaks directly to creation including all of the raging nations. It is a portrait of the future kingdom of God when God makes all things new. These verses invite everyone including the raging nations to come and catch a glimpse of God’s abundant and peaceful future. Verse ten brings Ps 46 to a memorable climax with its call to stillness in the midst of the chaos of the present. There is a way to peace and security. It is not war. It is not manifestations of power and rage. Peace and security come from knowing and experiencing God as the exalted Lord and true King. The LORD is our refuge. We can live faithfully as his hands, feet, and mouthpieces in the world because the LORD has secured the future. 

Key Observation: Calmness and security are found in relationship with the true King of Creation—The LORD

Reflect on your deepest fears. How does Psalm 46 invite you to overcome them?

How often do you take time to quite your mind and reflect on the greatness of God? Where in your present life can you create 5-10 minutes to create a daily practice?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

I regularly read leadership and personal development literature as a means of increasing my capacity in my current role as Dean and Associate provost as well as for my coaching business. I consider Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (St. Martin's Press, 2016) to be one of the Top ten books on leading well that I've read. I recommend it to administrators, business leaders, coaches, pastors, and anyone who desires to lead a team more effectively and productively.

Willink and Babin are retired U.S. Navy Seals who served multiple tours during the Iraqi conflict. They now serve as consultants to businesses and leaders. Extreme Ownership focuses on lessons that they learned while leading combat units in Task Unit Bruiser in the difficult and dangerous fight against insurgents in Ramadi. Extreme Ownership is a compelling read because it illustrates critical leadership principles by showing how they were learned (often the hard way) on the battlefield. 

In each chapter, Willink and Babin narrate personal incidents from their combat experiences in Iraq. They then break down the lesson into an easy to understand and apply principle. Last they illustrate how the principle can be applied in today's business environments.

This is not a book on warfare. Their battle stories are not gory and have been sanitized for a non-military audience without losing the seriousness of the situation described. This raised the poignancy of the teaching offered by Willink and Babin. They are not theorists but practitioners of the art of leading and they did it when their lives as well as those of their men were at stake.

Extreme Ownership unfolds in three movements: 

Part One: Winning the War Within

The title Extreme Ownership comes from the main principle advocated in the book of the absolute necessity of the leader taking 100% responsibility for what happens under his or her watch. They mean 100%. No excuses. No blaming. Ever. 

In their view, there are no bad teams but only bad leaders (chapter two). The leader is responsible for setting the tone for the team and explaining the mission to each member.

This begins with the leader's belief (chapter three). We are not ready to lead until we have focused on the "why" of the mission. If we are taking orders from someone above us, we must own the why so that we can pass it on to those whom we lead. As I leader, I must be "all in" if I expect my team to follow me.

Leaders must also check their egos (chapter four).

Part Two: Laws of Combat
In chapter five, the authors teach the principle of "cover and move." To be effective, teams must work together. This includes how one team within an organization relates to other teams. Conflict often occurs because teams within the same company compete against one another instead of focusing attention on winning.

Warfare is chaotic. So is life and business.  We cannot plan for every contingency. The key is to create actionable and simple plans and strategies that the entire organization can understand and implement (chapter six).

When under pressure, leaders must learn to prioritize and execute (chapter seven). Focus the team on one key activity at a time.

Empower others to lead smaller groups through decentralized leadership (chapter eight). No one can effectively lead more than 10 people. Communicate down the organization using simple plans and communicate clearly and concisely so that all are on the same page.

Part Three: Sustaining Victory 

Planning is critical to achieving victory (chapter 9). All organizations need to create a template for creating clear, compelling, and effective plans to advance the mission.

In the most efficient organizations, leadership flows up and down the chain of command (chapter 10). Each member of the team learns to lead up and down the flow chart by practicing extreme ownership at each level.

In warfare, uncertainty is a given. On the battlefield, there is never enough information. There is a balance between decisiveness and uncertainty (chapter 11). Knowing when to act and when to wait can be a matter of life and death.

Last, discipline equals freedom (chapter 12). Success in mission is not easy. It takes discipline to grow into the leaders that our world needs. It is often a dance between extremes (pp. 277-78): 

"confident but not cocky; courageous but not foolhardy; competitive but a gracious loser; attentive to details but not obsessed by them; strong but have endurance; a leader and a follower; humble not passive; aggressive not overbearing; quiet not silent; calm but not robotic...; close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team...;able to execute extreme ownership, while exercising decentralized command."

Great book. Inspiring. Insightful. I'll read it again. Consider picking up a copy. You'll be glad you did. So will your team!

To learn more about Jocko Willink check out his interview with Tim Ferris.