Tag Archives: Matthew

Wise and Innocent

A newspaper article a few weeks ago reported on a federal inquiry into the status of religious freedom in Australia (see Rebecca Urban, “Christians Under SeigeThe Australian May 6, 2017). Urban detailed several instances in which Christians have faced social pressure on account of their convictions:

A Melbourne IT specialist engaged to work on the Safe Schools program was sacked after privately expressing concerns about the contentious initiative during a staff meeting, with his employer later accusing him of “creating an unsafe work environment”. Lee Jones, a Christian who was general manager of a business at the time, had told his boss he would work on the project despite his views but was dismissed regardless. He was in a staff meeting when asked his opinion about Safe Schools. His response was that he would not want his own children to be taught some of the more controversial elements of the program…

In another case, a pub­lic servant in Victoria was given a warning for complaining about being pressured to take part in a gay pride march. The man, also a Christian, later asked to be taken off the email list of the department’s LGBTI network as he found emails “offensive by reason of his religious background”. He was issued a notice to show cause why he should not be disciplined…

An Alice Springs teacher was threatened with disciplinary action last year for expressing opposition to same-sex marriage on a Facebook forum. Despite the comments being made outside school hours, he was issued a notice to show cause. The Northern Territory Education Department has since dropped the action…

Finally, an Adelaide ­university student was suspended last year after offering to pray for a student who was stressed over her workload and later voicing his opinion about homosexuality. The student had said that he would treat a gay person kindly “but (didn’t) agree with their choice”. He was ordered to undergo “re-education” but sought legal advice and the university withdrew the allegations.

It seems that hostility toward Christian faith is increasing in our culture, and Christians would do well to be prepared to endure it. Perhaps more “progressive” Christians will not need to be so concerned, especially if they have found ways to affirm those things that progressive culture also affirms.

But what of those of us who are not so comfortable with aspects of the progressive social agenda, who perhaps even find them antithetical to Christian convictions? What are Christians to do when it is wrong to withdraw from public engagement, but threatening to so engage? What might appropriate response look like?

In this context, Jesus’ words from Matthew 10:16 provide guidance: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (NASB).

Because Jesus has sent us out, our place is indeed, “in the world,” and even among the “wolves.” Christians must not withdraw from public space and public dialogue, but their presence is to be wise and innocent. Sometimes Christian engagement in the public sphere is less than wise; at other times it is far from innocent. Wise engagement is required lest we be ravaged; innocence is necessary lest we give ground for accusation or inflame existing tensions.

Jesus’ choice of animal imagery in this text indicates something further about this engagement: the wolf and the serpent are carnivorous, seeking prey, while the sheep and the dove are not and do not. Though they have no fangs, however, the sheep and the dove are not without some defence. Both may flee when danger presents, though the sheep will also certainly lose even if it flees. I once saw a small flock of sheep react when the sheepdog entered the paddock. They stood shoulder to shoulder facing the dog, turning as it walked by keeping it always in view, always presenting its united front to the intruder. Such a strategy would hardly work against a pack of hungry wolves, however; in that case the sheep can do little more than hope that their shepherd is close at hand. The sheep is inherently vulnerable and so needs both shepherd and flock; so too perhaps, the believer in the world.

Jesus applies the serpent image to the disciple, though this is not a commission for the church to grow fangs, to hunt, to seek prey. It is to be shrewd as a serpent and innocent as a dove, the two qualities mutually conditioning. “Without innocence the keenness of the snake is crafty, a devious menace; without keenness the innocence of the dove is naïve, helpless gullibility” (Wilkins, Mattthew [NIVAC], 392). It is “tempting” to recall the Genesis 3 passage where the serpent cunningly tempted Eve with deceptive argument, drawing her away from God and his word of command and promise. Perhaps the church can similarly learn to argue shrewdly but innocently, using truthful argument to draw interlocutors toward God and the word of his grace.

“Let your speech be always with grace,” says Paul, “seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6). This, too, is good counsel. “Salty grace” suggests a winsome, though steadfast presence, one which communicates both truly and truthfully. Too much salt, of course, destroys a dish; but some salt is necessary, especially when conversation is bland or clichéd. So, too, grace is essential, especially when conversation has become polarised or hostile. To “know how you are to respond” will require a thoughtful Christianity, which suggests that believers must have thought through their convictions to such a degree that they can articulate them in interesting, rational, non-defensive, and persuasive ways. Perhaps a good dose of humour and light-heartedness will lubricate the conversation, reminding us also that the battle is Lord’s.

Further to this, however, is the life of genuine innocence and virtue in community. Unless believers inhabit communities of grace their witness will surely fall flat. Both doves and sheep flock, and corporate witness of the church’s life adds substance to its arguments. The corporate life of the community is also necessary to sustain the believer in their witness within the world. The knowledge of Christian truth-claims and the nurture of Christian convictions, the courage to stand firm under trial, and the hope that undergirds it: all these are part of the formation that occurs in the Christian community as a community of grace, theological instruction, and moral deliberation.

Above all is the wisdom and innocence of the cross as the way of the true God and so also the true disciple in the world. This is the way of intentional vulnerability:

Jesus does not say that we are to “become” sheep, but, more fundamentally, that when we go into the world in his obedience we are in fact going out “as” sheep. . . . This “sheepishness” is due to the nonviolent nature of Jesus’ work, as we learned from the Sermon on the Mount. We are not primarily fighters, we are not allowed to be haters, and we cannot even use the arsenal of invective that revolutionary movements find necessary for motivation. . . . Jesus’ cross is not an exception to the rule of discipled life; it is the rule (Frederick Bruner, Matthew, Volume 1, 472).

A Hauerwasian Advent

HauerwasAdvent is a time of preparation, a time for returning again and again, year after year, to the first things. We who think we know the story probably do not know as we ought to know it. I, for one, do not live into it as it calls to be lived into. This year I hope to return again to the first things with the help of Stanley Hauerwas, and specifically, the first two chapters of his commentary on Matthew (Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, Matthew (2006)).

“The book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” is not a modest beginning. Matthew starts by suggesting that … to rightly understand the story of this man Jesus, we must begin with God because this is God’s Messiah (23). …

Eschatology is the word that Christians use to describe this understanding of the ways things are. Eschatology indicates that the world is storied. The gospels and especially Matthew assume there is no more determinative way to understand existence than through the story found in scripture. Creation is the first movement in the story that, as we shall see spelled out in Matthew, involves the election of Israel, kingship, sin, exile, and redemption. For Matthew, indeed for all the gospels, Jesus is the “summing up” of the history of Israel so that Jew and Gentile alike can now live as God’s people. … Matthew believes that the story of Jesus is the story of a new creation (23-24).

For Matthew, Jesus has changed the world, requiring that our lives be changed if we are to live as people of the new creation. Accordingly, the gospel is not information that invites us to decide what we will take or leave. Our task is not to understand the story that Matthew tells in light of our understanding of the world. Rather, Matthew would have our understanding of the world fully transformed as the result of our reading of his gospel. Matthew writes so that we might become followers, be disciples, of Jesus. To be a Christian does not mean that we are to change the world, but rather that we must live as witnesses to the world that God has changed. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the way we live makes the change visible (25).

  An Advent Prayer

Advent God,
we journey with you,
to Bethlehem’s stable and a new-born King,
ears attuned to the song of angels,
eyes alert for Bethlehem’s star.
Forgive us, if on our journey
we are distracted by the tempting offers of this world.
Keep our hearts aflame
with the hope of Christmas,
and the promise of a Saviour.
Amen.

Read more at: http://www.faithandworship.com/prayers_Advent.htm#ixzz4RkyHGwPD
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

A Sermon on Sunday – Matthew 1:18-25

ImmanuelToday, Monica and I are in Geraldton, joining Craig and Janelle Palmer and the good folk of Geraldton Baptist Church in worship. They have asked me to preach on this passage as the congregation prepares for Christmas. Whenever I think of the virgin birth, I am reminded of the way Karl Barth spoke of it as the miracle which testifies to the mystery.

Introduction…
Do any of you remember the 1995 song One of Us by one-hit-wonderJoan Osborne?

If God had a name, what would it be              
And would you call it to his face
If you were faced with him in all his glory     
What would you ask if you had just one question

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like       
And would you want to see                                   
If seeing meant that you would have to believe                                                                               In things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets

And yeah, yeah, God is great
Yeah, yeah, God is good
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

What if God was one of us 
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus                                
Trying to make his way home
He’s trying to make his way home                  
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone                           
Except for the pope maybe in Rome

Amazing lyrics, amazing questions! If God had a name what would it be? If God had a face what would it look like? What if God was one of us? The lyrics express a spiritual hunger but no idea of where to look for food; and maybe a bit cynical about the things Christians would generally say about God’s greatness and goodness? 

Matthew 1:18-25                                                                                        
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

 All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

The Miracle
Marriage in first century Palestine had two aspects. First the betrothal and then the marriage proper. The marriages were usually arranged by parents or professional match-makers. Betrothal was a legally binding arrangement that could only be set aside by divorce. The couple were understood as husband and wife although the woman remained in her parent’s home for one more year between betrothal and marriage. After the year had expired there was a formal ceremony and the marriage was consummated. Mary’s becoming pregnant during this period exposed her to public ridicule and shame, and possibly death. It also exposed Joseph to public ridicule, shame and humiliation. If he claimed the child as his own he would suffer the loss of his reputation and community standing. Who would believe the story? The idea of a virgin conception was just a ludicrous then as it is now. (‘You might think he’s an angel sweetheart, but I want a word or two with him!’)

  • A modern possibility? The marvellous birth in 1895 of my great grand-father, Peter O’Neil…

Matthew doesn’t tell us how the Virgin Birth took place—except that it was by the Holy Spirit. Luke gives a little more detail, the angel telling Mary that ‘the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’ The Virgin Birth is a divine miracle in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Matthew tells us two things about Jesus (Yeshua = “Yahweh Saves”): What he does: You shall call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sins. Many people looked forward to national, political and economic deliverance when the Son of David came in conquering power. But Matthew shows us a much deeper human need: he comes to save us from our sins—our spiritual needs far outweigh other needs.

The Mystery
The miracle of the Virgin Birth, though wonderful, is really the secondary matter in this passage, a sign of the far greater miracle and mystery of the Incarnation—the mystery of God becoming flesh and taking his place amongst us as one of us!

You see, God has become ‘one of us.’ This is one of the major differences between Christianity and Islam. For Islam, Allah is so high and so holy it is inconceivable that he could have contact with such as us—he remains aloof, untouchable and untouched by human contamination, suffering and need. He can send angels, prophets or messengers but he cannot come. Christianity is different: God didn’t just send angels, prophets and messengers—he came!  In Jesus, God has come close. God has taken human nature and human life to himself—he has joined human nature to his own divine being. This is all of grace, all of God who is a God who stoops to take us by the hand.

In this respect, Matthew quotes from the Old Testament: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him “Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”’ If the name Jesus is descriptive of what Jesus does, Immanuel is descriptive of who Jesus is—God with us.

  • Other texts: John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3

The miracle of the Virgin Birth, then, points towards both the humanity and the deity of Jesus. He was a human person born in the normal way. He is also the eternal God who has come to us—the God-man. Jesus didn’t begin his existence at Christmas, but as eternal God, entered into time and space at Christmas. For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given… (Isaiah 9:6).

The Meaning
So many people are ‘in the dark’ about God and don’t see him clearly. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus Christ is the “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing…” That is, he is the revelation of the will, wisdom and person of God. He is God’s communication to us, both the promise and the command of God. His teaching is the instruction of God. His death is the death of God-for-us. His resurrection is the victory of God! The meaning of Christmas is first and foremost a message of amazing grace, of a God who comes near.

The second meaning of the miracle of the Virgin Birth is a new creation, the beginning of a whole new world—what we couldn’t do for ourselves, God has and is doing. Into a world of brokenness and sadness God has come by means of a supernatural birth in the power of the Holy Spirit. But what was begun there doesn’t end there: the same Spirit who hovered over Mary and brought about a miracle of new life and transformation in her can also do the same in us! You must be born again! Regardless of who you are or what you have done—you!—can be born again, can start a whole new life as part of the new world. Jesus is the answer to our deepest needs. He is God come among us in order to save us from our sins—rescue us from the deepest cause of our alienation and brokenness. When we start from the inside out we can have hope that the entirety of our life can experience the transformation he brings.

  • Philip Yancey analogy: the fish in the fish tank
  • If God had a name what would it be?
    If God had a face what would it look like?
    What if God was one of us?

A Sermon on Sundays – Matthew 13:53-58

Brown, Nathan & MelissaIt has been a pretty busy couple of weeks, so I apologise for the lack of posts. I have just had the privilege of preaching at Church at: Collective, a relatively new church plant in Hawthorn, Victoria. Although I had to suffer the indignity of going to Hawthorn (think Dockers 2014; Eagles 2015), it is a blessed church, with a wonderful sense of God’s presence in the worship and Lord’s Supper, and rich community amongst the folk there. Pastors Nathan and Melissa (pictured) and their team are providing rich and substantial ministry for the congregation and people in their district. The church has been working its way each Sunday through Matthew’s gospel, and so my appointed text was the little story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, at the end of the chapter on parables. Here is an outline of my  very first message in Melbourne…

1. Jesus Goes Home
The parables of Matthew 13 paint a vibrant picture of the coming and way of the kingdom. Its coming is inevitable, irresistible and progressive, but it is not necessarily easily. The kingdom faces resistance, opposition, and rejection.

Jesus’ reception in his hometown is surprising: those who know him best reject his ministry. In a series of seven questions bookended with “where does he get this stuff?” his friends and neighbours conclude he is no one special, perhaps even a fraud. And they were offended at him. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus has pronounced blessing upon those who are not offended with him (11:6). Why were they offended? Why did they refuse to believe? Perhaps their doubts arose when they started considering all these common-place questions, contrasting what they have heard about Jesus with the everyday “facts” of who they “knew” him to be.

2. Reasons for Doubt
a) Some people doubt because they do not have sufficient background and simply cannot believe. They need first to be inducted into the life, knowledge and tradition of the community so they are prepared by the Holy Spirit to believe;

b) Some people doubt on account of the “family” of Jesus—just like in this passage. Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

c) Some people’s doubt is experiential—unanswered prayer, difficulties of life and unmet expectations have left them wounded or disillusioned.

d) Some people’s doubts are moral: they resist the call and the claim of the kingdom.

e) Some people’s doubts are intellectual: the enigma of evil challenges their confidence in the goodness or even existence of God; or the prevalence of scientific naturalism seems to provide explanation enough of the world with the result that God is not needed.

Moments or periods of doubt are quite normal in the Christian life, and may even be the proof of an underlying faith, that in one’s hearts of hearts, one actually believes. Nonetheless doubt is a serious threat for like a wound, doubt can fester into unbelief which is a hardness of heart and a refusal to trust God. In our text tonight, that is just what has happened.

3. Revelation (Matthew 11:25-28)

Although each kind of doubt may require a different response, in each case what is most required is an experience or deeper appropriation of revelation—something easier said than done. Revelation of God is not something we control but something we receive. It is, however, something for which we might pray, both for ourselves and for others. Earlier in his gospel Matthew speaks of the revelation of God given to those who are children (Matthew 11:25-28). This text shows first, that revelation has an aspect of divine sovereignty; it also insists that whosoever will respond to Jesus’ call may come. Unbelief is not inevitable: we may come. Second, the text also shows that God remains hidden, even in his revelation. The treasure of the gospel always comes clothed in an earthen vessel (Bruner). The glory of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. When the people of Nazareth stumbled over Jesus’ apparent humanity, they were not open to receive the knowledge of his divinity.

God’s revelation, whether in Christ, Scripture or the proclamation of the church, works in a similar way: it comes clothed in the weakness of humanity. If we stumble or become offended at this human weakness, we will miss the revelation God gives of himself to us.

4. Faith
And Jesus did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief (cf. Mark 6:6). According to Frederick Bruner, “Faith is the ordinary way to Jesus’ help. When faith is not present…not much happens” (2:62). The corollary is also true: where faith is present, it just may be that we will see and experience the saving presence and power of God. Faith occurs in the hearts of those who hear the word of the kingdom, receive it gladly, and understand it. It is amongst those that the word of the kingdom brings forth fruit.

And so Jesus says, “Come.” Will you come? Will you trust? Will you trust on the authority and confidence of others who have gone before you? Will you open your heart to Christ?