Oh!

20 April 2019

I’m old enough to remember when we used hymn-books in church. Most were in their umpteenth printing, and any typos that had crept into the first edition had long since been corrected. The spelling and punctuation were immaculate. Being a nit-picker by nature, I liked that.

Then churches began using overhead projectors for the words. The transparencies, written by any Tom, Dick or Harry who owned a coloured marker, displayed a horrific variety of errors. Things didn’t improve when, later on, churches moved on to data projectors. These days, I wince weekly at the glaring errors of spelling and punctuation up there on the big screen and try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. I should be focusing on the meaning of what I’m singing. But it’s hard work, like somebody telling me, ‘Never mind the crocodile in the lake; just enjoy the swim.’

One particular error annoys me: the mix-up of two words that both occur regularly in Christian songs. One is ‘Oh’, and the other is ‘O’. These are two quite different words, with different meanings and usage, but since whoever types the songs into the system rarely seems to know that, they are frequently wrong. For years, I didn’t know the difference myself, so I can’t blame you if you don’t, either. But as I’m enlightened now, I’ll share the light with you.

Let’s start with the word ‘O’. This always goes before someone’s name or a title—and nowhere else. It’s a formal style of addressing someone, usually someone of superior rank to yourself, as in the hymn, ‘O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end…’ or the song, ‘O Lord, you’ve done great things…’

The other word is ‘Oh’. This is an interjection, a word that conveys strength of feeling. It usually begins a statment of deeply-felt longing or strong passion, one where an exclamation mark at the end is appropriate. So we have the hymn, ‘Oh, how I love Jesus…!’ and ‘Oh, make me understand it, help me to take it in…!’ Or, ‘Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s worth!’

So there you have it. Oh, what a marvellous thing education is!

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After you…

14 December 2018

A phrase from Mark’s account of the resurrection of Jesus struck me today. The three women who came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body were startled to find the entrance-stone rolled back, and a young man dressed in a white robe sitting where the body had been.

He addressed the women, assuring them that Jesus had risen, and asking them to give the good news to the disciples. They were to say to them, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16:7).

What grabbed me was the phrase ‘He is going ahead of you…’

Beyond its immediate application to the disciples, it has an ongoing relevance for all of us who love andfootprints follow Jesus. Indeed, we ‘follow’ him because he is leading the way. Whatever difficulties we may be called to pass through, we are sure, looking down, to see Jesus’ footprints, because he has walked that way before us.

 

Temptations? Yes. He ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are’ (Hebrews 4:15). So he knows the pressure you are under when temptation puts the squeeze on. You and I, of course, have sometimes caved in under the pressure. But not Jesus. The verse just quoted goes on to add ‘yet he did not sin’.

Think about that. When you resist a particular temptation, it piles on the pressure even further. Jesus resisted, and kept on resisting. He never gave in at all. So imagine the enormous pressure he must have experienced. Yes, he has ‘gone ahead of you’ in all of that.

Troubles? Jesus knows all about them, too. He endured a constant stream of opposition and misunderstanding. He received death threats. He had nowhere to lay his head. He was betrayed and abandoned by even his closest friends. As you stumble through your own troubles, you will see his footprints there.

Death? That’s the big one that we all face. People everywhere are ‘held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:15).

But we who follow Jesus need not fear. His footprints are there, too. He has been down into death—caused by sufferings of the most cruel kind—and has come out victorious at the other side. His footprints go all the way through! As the ‘pioneer and perfecter of faith’, he has blazed a trail for us through this, the most daunting challenge of all.

Yes, he has gone ahead of you. All you have to do is follow, knowing his love and encouragement. And, in due course, you will find that he has stopped and turned around to face you with a smile, holding out his hands in welcome and saying, ‘Well done!’


Hollow Amens

5 December 2018

‘Come on, you folks! Do I hear an “Amen”?’

Pseudo-enthusiastic ‘amens’ from the preacher’s listeners placate — for now — his discomfort with their unresponsiveness.

amen brotherNow, it’s good that people be alert to the preaching and broadly responsive to it. But when speakers deliberately elicit a response like this, it is unhelpful, for several reasons.

For a start, a typical congregation includes a wide range of personality types. At one end of the spectrum is the excitable extrovert who starts gushing at the slightest provocation. He will ‘amen’, whether there’s something to ‘amen’ at or not. At the other is the thoughtful introvert whose natural bent is to keep her feelings — and her responses — to herself. So it’s unreasonable to expect a standard ‘Amen, brother!’ from everybody.

But there’s also a congregation’s ‘group personality’. This shows in learned behaviour moulded chiefly by the nation, race or society to which the individuals belong. In my experience, for example, Americans and Africans tend to be more vocally responsive than the British, who are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’. That’s why some American preachers I have known, who are used to a certain type of response on their home turf, are thrown by the more subdued attitude they find when they first preach in Britain. That’s when you’re likely to hear the frustrated, ‘Do I hear an “Amen”?’

A second reason this is unhelpful is that it puts the preacher’s personal need above the message he is preaching. No matter what truth he is presenting, what comes over is, ‘I’m feeling a bit of rejection at your quietness. Please meet my need for reassurance by voicing your amens!’ But the aim of preaching is surely to inform, encourage and challenge the listeners, not to boost the preacher’s self-confidence.

And thirdly, calling for a vocal response is inevitably unproductive. Yes, the preacher-pleasers will dutifully call out, ‘Amen, brother. Preach it!’ or whatever. But it’s meaningless; they are only doing it because he asked for it, not because their hearts were stirred to do it by the power of the message. Even worse, the request will cause the less pliant personalities to dig their heels in and become even less responsive. Some might even mutter, ‘Not on your life, mate!’

Years ago, in my own preaching, I came to a place of peace about congregational response. I would work hard at preparing my message. I would pray about it earnestly. Then, when I stood to deliver the word, I would trust the Holy Spirit to apply it in his own way, and I was determined not to be either elated or disappointed by the people’s response. It’s a good place to be.

If some people got watery-eyed, or said a soulful ‘Yes!’, I’d press on regardless. If others got glassy-eyed or nodded off, I wouldn’t be fazed. Of course, a bit of clear positive response is gratifying, but the last thing I want is to be dependent on it. When I’m in my seat listening to another preacher, I’m not a greatly responsive person, at least outwardly. I listen carefully. I weigh what is said. And when something hits home with me, I quietly tuck it away, to be brought out, prayed over and put into practice later.

I went to a church to preach once, years ago, and it was a bad experience. I didn’t feel comfortable. My words didn’t flow well. There was a bit of an atmosphere and, afterwards, though I stayed for the cup of tea, I couldn’t get away quickly enough. The whole sermon had felt disastrous.

A couple a years later, to my surprise I was asked back. Remembering the previous bad experience, I went with some trepidation and much prayer. I arrived quite early, so was there as the people came in. One lady spotted me and did a double-take. Then she made a bee-line for me.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘You came to preach here once before, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did,’ I replied, wriggling internally with embarrassment at the memory.

‘I’m so glad to see you,’ she went on. ‘I just want you to know that the message you brought last time was spot on for me. It was a major turning-point for the better in my life. Thank you so much!’

I learned a lesson that day: never to judge a sermon’s impact by the outward signs in the people, whether negative or positive. Do your best, and leave it to God. Yes, genuine amens are better than hollow ones, but none of them matter all that much.


Review: Reading backwards?

25 August 2018

Yes, it’s another book about Bible interpretation—hermeneutics. This one examines how the writers of the four Gospels looked at the Old Testament in a completely new way in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is:

Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2014).

rbThe four Evangelists each had a unique approach to this task, while sharing a common overall approach, which Richard Hays calls ‘figural’ interpretation. Looking at their Scriptures in the light of Jesus, the writers saw in them clear ‘figures’ or pictures of him and his work—aspects of which the original OT authors were completely unaware.

Hays gives penetrating examples from each of the Gospels and makes a solid case for his thesis. In this, he is in line with much current thinking among biblical scholars, who are moving away from what they see as a previous over-emphasis on the original meaning and what is sometimes called ‘authorial intent’. In other words, the Gospel writers would probably fail a typical seminary exam on Bible interpretation!

When Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). Too often we have taken that to mean a few isolated proof-texts. Hays shows clearly that, on the contrary, the whole OT canon is shot through with figural pointers to Jesus. The whole of it takes on a different hue in the light of him, and this is what excited the Evangelists.

The big question, of course, is whether we, today, should take the same approach to interpreting the Old Testament. Supported by the example of Paul, he concludes that we certainly should. His conclusions are another nail in the coffin of vocal right-wing evangelicals who use the OT to justify their views on, for example, today’s State of Israel and the application of prophecy to other current events. Instead, it’s all about Jesus.

This is a deep and thought-provoking book but, based as it is on an original series of lectures, it is lucid and easy to read. While it is unlikely to ever reach the best-seller list, it is, in my view, a key book in the current hermeneutical debate.

[In the quotations that follow, the numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

These lectures follow the lead of the early church fathers, Irenaeus above all, in affirming both the legitimacy of figural interpretation of Israel’s Scripture and the complementarity of the four Evangelists. (116)

The sort of figural interpretation practiced by the canonical Evangelists is not a rejection but a retrospective hermeneutical transformation of Israel’s sacred texts. (167)

Only if we embrace figural interpretation, can we make sense of the Gospel of John’s assertion that the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus Christ. (321)

There is…a significant difference between prediction and prefiguration. Figural reading need not presume that the OT authors—or the characters they narrate—were conscious of predicting or anticipating Christ. Rather, the discernment of a figural correspondence is necessarily retrospective rather than prospective… The two poles of a figure are events within “the flowing stream” of time, the correspondence can be discerned only after the second event has occurred and imparted a new pattern of significance to the first. (337)

Luke’s formulation [ch 24] suggests that testimony to Jesus is to be found “in all the Scriptures”, not just in a few isolated prooftexts. The whole story of Israel builds to its narrative climax in Jesus. That is what Jesus tries to teach them on the road. (547)

Even Jesus’ definitive peripatetic Bible study on the road to Emmaus does not produce understanding and recognition in the Emmaus disciples… The moment of recognition comes only as they sit at the table and Jesus breaks bread with them (vv. 30-32). This point, too, is significant for understanding how the Gospels teach us to read the OT. We come to understand Scripture only as we participate in the shared life of the community, enacted in meals shared at table. (564)

Mark’s way of drawing upon Scripture, like his narrative style more generally, is indirect and allusive. Mark for the most part works his narrative magic through hints and allusions, giving just enough clues to tease the reader into further exploration and reflection. (613)

Isaiah 40 prophesies the coming of the Kyrios (the Lord God) to reign, and Mark appropriates this prophecy to characterize John’s preparation of the way for the coming of Jesus. (671)

[Re Mark 6:45-52—Jesus walking on the water and making to pass by the disciples in the boat]  In Job 9 the image of God’s walking on the sea is linked with a confession of God’s mysterious transcendence of human comprehension: God’s “passing by” is a metaphor for our inability to grasp his power… Mark’s mysterious statement in Mark 6:48, read as an allusion to the Exodus theophany, suggests simultaneously that Jesus’ walking on the water is a manifestation of divine glory and that it remains indirect and beyond full comprehension— as the disciples’ uncomprehending response amply demonstrates (6:51-52).

The importance of Mark 4:21-25 as a hermeneutical directive for the Gospel as a whole can hardly be overstated. (902)

The “meaning” of Mark’s portrayal of the identity of Jesus cannot be rightly stated in flat propositional language; instead, it can be disclosed only gradually in the form of narrative, through hints and allusions that project the story of Jesus onto the background of Israel’s story. As Mark superimposes the two stories on one another, remarkable new patterns emerge, patterns that lead us into a truth too overwhelming to be approached in any other way. (934)

Matthew is far more overt than Mark in his interpretative strategies; indeed, in many passages we find him providing explicit explanations of Mark’s hints and allusions. (970)

It is as though Matthew is producing an annotated study Bible, providing notes and references that will give the uninitiated reader enough information to perform the necessary interpretation. (986)

…a ringing quotation of Deuteronomy 6:13 LXX: “The Lord your God you shall worship and him alone you shall serve” (Matt 4:9-10). Once this commandment has been forcefully set forth in the narrative, readers have little choice but to interpret Jesus’ acceptance of worship from other characters as an implicit acknowledgment of his divine identity. (1166)

If Jesus is “God with us,” then his personal presence now takes the place of the Temple where the presence of God was formerly thought to dwell. (1166)

Genesis 28: “Behold I am with you… I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Matthew 28: “Behold I am with you all the days until the end of the age.”
The parallel cries out for readers to draw an obvious christological conclusion: in the ending of Matthew, Jesus now stands in the same role occupied by the Lord God in Jacob’s dream. (1265)

Matthew highlights the worship of Jesus for one reason: he believes and proclaims that Jesus is the embodied presence of God and that to worship him is to worship YHWH— not merely an agent or a facsimile or an intermediary. If we read the story within the hermeneutical matrix of Israel’s Scripture, we can draw no other conclusion. (1330)

We come to know Jesus in Luke only as his narrative identity is enacted in and through the story. An important element of Luke’s narrative art lies in the way in which he evokes echoes of Israel’s Scripture and thereby leads readers to a complex, intertextually formed perception of his central character. This is the decisive heremeneutical clue given in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus “opens the Scriptures” to his followers. (1396)

John’s manner of alluding does not depend upon the citation of chains of words and phrases; instead it relies upon evoking images and figures from Israel’s Scripture. For example, when he writes, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up” (3:14), John is clearly alluding to the episode narrated in Numbers 21:8-9, but the only explicit verbal links between the two passages are the name “Moses” and the word “serpent”. His intertextual sensibility is more visual than auditory. (1833)

It is impossible to understand John’s Jesus apart from the story of Israel and the liturgical festivals and symbols that recall and re-present that story. (1917)

Passover symbolism is particularly pervasive in John’s Gospel, coming to a climax in the passion narrative, where Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on the day of preparation for Passover (19:14), not on Passover itself as in the Synoptic Gospels. (2016)

Even more comprehensively than the other Gospels, John understands the Old Testament as a vast matrix of symbols pointing to Jesus. In contrast to Luke’s reading of Scripture as a plotted script showing the outworking of God’s promises in time, John understands Scripture as a huge web of signifiers generated by the pretemporal eternal Logos as intimations of his truth and glory. (2109)

From the perspective of figural interpretation, it would be a hermeneutical blunder to read the Law and the Prophets as deliberately predicting events in the life of Jesus. But in light of the unfolding story of Jesus, it is both right and illuminating to read backwards and to discover in the Law and the Prophets an unexpected foreshadowing of the later story. (2141)

[Luke] shows how the mission to the Gentiles is the outworking of God’s longstanding plan for Israel as a light to the nations. (2259)

One function of the church’s canon, a diverse collection of writings, is to model a repertoire of faithful ways to receive and proclaim God’s word. Particular voices within that canon will be more or less useful in different times and places, as the church discerns the points of vital intersection between the Bible and its immediate cultural situation. (2304)

If we had to choose just one of the Gospels as a hermeneutical guide for the long haul, Luke offers the most adequate load-bearing narrative framework for the church’s reading and proclamation of Scripture. (2319)

For the Evangelists the “meaning” of the OT texts was not confined to the human author’s original historical setting or to the meaning that could have been grasped by the original readers. (2349)

The Evangelists were convinced that the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection were in fact revelatory: they disclosed the key to understanding all that had gone before. (2349)

To read Scripture well, we must bid farewell to plodding literalism and rationalism in order to embrace a complex poetic sensibility. (2364)

A Gospel-shaped hermeneutic will pay primary attention to large narrative arcs and patterns in the OT, rather than treating Scripture chiefly as a source of oracles, prooftexts, or halakhic regulations. (2364)

Because the Evangelists are so deeply immersed in Israel’s Scripture, their references and allusions to it are characteristically metaleptic in character: that is, they nudge the discerning reader to recognize and recover the context from which the intertextual references are drawn. (2394)

The more deeply we probe the Jewish and OT roots of the Gospel narratives, the more clearly we see that each of the four Evangelists, in their diverse portrayals, identifies Jesus as the embodiment of the God of Israel. (2409)

The God to whom the Gospels bear witness, the God incarnate in Jesus, is the same as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Either that is true, or it is not. If it is not, the Gospels are a delusional and pernicious distortion of Israel’s story. If it is true, then the figural literary unity of Scripture, OT and NT together, is nothing other than the climactic fruition of that one God’s self-revelation. (2440)


New broom?

12 June 2018

I’ve seen a couple of sad scenarios recently, both in workplaces. A new boss or supervisor has been appointed. They arrive, and within a week or two have managed to create chaos and upset all their underlings. The result? Bad feelings all round, soured relationships between them and their staff, and a poorer service to the folk the business serves.

broomThis happens too often, so, from the wisdom that has accumulated in my old age, I offer some advice to you if you’re about to take on a new post that carries authority.

‘A new broom sweeps clean’ says the proverb. And that’s the problem. You go into your new post determined to make your mark, to stamp your authority on the setup and to crank up the levels of progress and efficiency. You’ll sweep out the way things were done before you arrived and lay a new carpet, one with your name woven into the design in capital letters.

Well, here’s the advice: don’t do it!

Why? Because it never works out well. In the end, people are what count, and your relationship with the employees you are now in charge of needs to be kept as sweet as possible. Over the years, many of them will have helped shape the way things are being done, so if you barge in and bin it all, you are effectively saying to them, ‘You’re a bunch of visionless incompetents’—which won’t make them like you.

Far better to let the existing systems carry on for a month or two, while monitoring them carefully. Focus on getting to know the employees under you and seeing what makes them tick. Yes, some of them might be lazy and self-serving. Take note, and bide your time. But most will be decent people, keen to do a good job for the company and to enjoy their work. Note them, too, and bide your time.

In due course you will be ready to make some changes. But evolution is always better that revolution. Introduce the changes gradually and carefully. Consult first with a few trusted folk, asking them how they would view it if you were to introduce this or that change. You won’t be able to please all of them all the time, whatever you eventually do, but the fact that you have at least consulted them will weigh in your favour.

Then check your own motives. Why do you want to make big changes? Could there be just a smidgin of pride in you that says, ‘Haha! I’m the one in charge now, and I’m going to show them who’s boss’? That’s not a sound reason for changing things. Are you secretly power-hungry, getting a dark sort of satisfaction from making people dance to your tune?

Or maybe there’s a level of deep insecurity in you that craves recognition and obedience from others. If so, you will be bound to over-compensate by becoming authoritarian to a degree unwarranted by your position. And that will alienate everybody.

So, be a new broom with soft bristles. Sweep slowly and sensitively. Keep people on your side. Let them see that you consider them more important than systems and targets. And so may the company prosper! Imagine the after-work conversation between two of your employees, where one says to the other, ‘Tell you what, it’s been tons better working here since [your name] came.’


Attitude

27 May 2018

I woke this morning with a prayer from one of David’s psalms in my mind: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

Ps 51 10It was the second bit that really grabbed me—the need for ‘a right spirit’. I take ‘spirit’ here to mean ‘attitude’, so it’s a prayer that the Lord will enable me to keep my attitudes right. That’s in keeping with the Holy Spirit’s work in us to make us more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As for Part 1, sometimes I think Christians get a bit over-fixated on sin. Jesus has dealt with the root issue there, and any follower of his who takes sanctification seriously will hopefully have grooved into a way of life where sin is no longer a major thing. While I’m far from perfect, I don’t spend much time examining my inner self with a torch to see if I can find any dreadful sins lurking there, like slugs under a stone. There are better things to do, and more positive approaches to adopt.

But the dodgy attitudes of Part 2 can hang around like a bad smell when all the known sins have been swept up and binned. A ‘right spirit’ can be hard to maintain. All too easily I can have bad attitudes towards people I disagree with, people who rub me up the wrong way, people with personalities different from my own—and lots more. Spotting this ‘wrong spirit’ in my heart, and doing my best to deal with it, is a full-time job for me.

Thankfully, God is loving, gracious and kind. Every time I pray, ‘Renew a right spirit within me’, he says, ‘Will do, son. I’m not giving up on you. Thanks for asking. Between us, we’ll crack this one! Now get up, look up, and start walking again.’

Purists will point out that many versions have ‘a steadfast spirit’ instead of a ‘a right spirit’ and that that’s the gist of the Hebrew word. Fine, but I still want my attitude to be ‘right’ before I adopt it as the direction of my steadfastness. I want the painting to be finished before I frame it and hang it on the wall. So I’ll continue to pray for that ‘right spirit’ and keep a picture-hook handy.


God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!


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