Archive for December, 2015

978-1-63146-516-1Me and a friend have been working our way through some pretty good books. I'm just a little more ahead of him, but he is plowing his way through slowly and making some amazing discoveries in the works of Scott McKnight and NT Wright among others. We have both had our theological worlds shredded–and for the better!–but we always kept coming back to the same question: how does this 'reign of Jesus'/'kingdom of God'/'Jesus is King' stuff play out in every day church/christian life?

That is really the question any theology needs to answer, in my opinion. I think NT Wright is brilliant theologically and Scott McKnight is spot on when it comes to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel. But I think even they would admit that if their theology has no practical legs, it's not worth all that much when it comes to the church. This is why, in my opinion, their work is so refreshing: it has legs, and arms, and hands, and so much more. It's not just for the head or even the heart. It's for those who work. This is the problem I have found with my own tradition's theology for so long. It limits itself to a mere 'join the club' type of rhetoric. It appeals to the head, sometimes the heart, but rarely to the appendages. Too much it focuses on getting 'saved' without really understanding or knowing what that means.

This is where Michael Frost's book Surprise the World has picked up what was lacking in my own understanding and in a few short pages provided a shell to enhance the framework and platform built by McKnight and others. I am not saying McKnight or Wright are devoid of practicality, so don't misunderstand my point. Nor am I saying that Frost is devoid of the framework or platform. I simply haven't read enough of Frost to know at this point. In short: I like this book. A lot.

I like this book because Frost, who has heretofore been unknown to me, bridges the small gap that I think exists between a robust Kingdom theology and a robust 'here's how Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places' practicality. This is not to say that these other two are devoid of practicality. Not at all. It's just that in this book by Frost one is able to see the platform and the framework upon which he is constructing his ideas. His near constant use of the phrase 'God's reign and rule' to under gird these 5 habits is what captured and held my attention. Here is a christianity that is finally getting out of itself. This is no mere book about habits to make you a better you. This is a book about getting out of you and into Jesus–it's about bringing his rule and reign to bear on this world in meaningful, Kingdom driven, Christlike ways. It's about having a solid reason to be a missionary every day instead of the mere 'hey, it's time to get saved and join the club' kind of rhetoric that we typically hear from our pulpits.

He is focusing primarily on 'mission' in the book and the way we go about bringing God's reign and rule to bear on this earth. He writes, "Mission is not primarily concerned with church growth. It is primarily concerned with the reign and rule of the Triune God." (21) It is this idea that permeates the book and supports his ideas. I love it! "Mission is both the announcement and the demonstration of the reign of God through Christ" (21). He couldn't be more correct and in this I begin to make the connection between the 'drowning' and the 'breathing.' I will spare you my thoughts on missionary work, but suffice it to say that perhaps a new model is needed in some parts of the world.

The only part of the book that kind of bothers me is the habit of 'listening.' It's not that I think listening to the Holy Spirit is a bad idea. Far from it. But this idea of 'centering prayer'…I'm just not sure about because, frankly, it sounds weird. Prayer is prayer. I get that he clears up any confusion that it might be confused with Eastern meditation. That's good. But for all the emphasis he places on being in tune with Scripture and Jesus I found this chapter/habit to be lacking. Prayer is prayer. Silence is silence. I think it's quite OK to be quiet during prayer and let the Holy Spirit pray for us. 'Centering prayer', frankly, bothers me precisely because of the imagery that it brings to mind. I'm sure the Bible even talks about meditating day and night on the Scripture, but again I think this is something different from what Frost is suggesting. I'm willing to be wrong on this point, but right now I remain unconvinced. Maybe I'm bothered by calling it 'centering prayer.' Maybe not. I simply do not see, in the Scripture, and overwhelming call for Christians to engage in this sort of prayer life. That's my opinion.

The other habits, though, are spot on in my judgment: blessing, eating, learning, and being sent. I especially love the part of learning about Jesus. We simply do not do enough of this because we are too concerned about getting people to say a 'sinner's prayer' or getting them baptized or whatever. Let's slow down and learn from and of the Master. 

I have minor quibbles with the way he interprets some Scripture. For example, is take on 1 Corinthians 11:23-28, is a bit strange, but it doesn't necessarily impede what he is saying. Sometimes his language is a bit awkward. For example, I don't know what it means to 'craft a blessing' (38) but I'm not willing to build a mountain of protest against it. I simply think that blessings are often more random and spontaneous than planned or 'crafted.' Other times, I found his writing to be quite breathtaking. For example, when talking about reconciliation between God and humans being at the heart of Christ's work on the cross, he draws the obvious conclusion that such reconciliation between warring people should be a core expression of God's reign and rule (87). To this I offer a hardy Amen. I suppose more Christians need to hear this–especially some who call themselves 'conservative' and yet go out of their way to wish death upon anyone who wants to see peace with those who practice Islam and upon those who practice Islam.

It is such 'conservative' Christians who have turned me off completely to the conservative movement in the church. We should pray for peace, pray for our enemies, and feed those who wish to bring us harm–as evidence that Jesus rules and reigns in our own lives too. We have a long way to go in our understanding of Jesus and the church if there is a single person among us who wishes death to another human being simply because they wish death upon us. Jesus did not call us to hate those who hate us, but to bless them. We do not promote the reign and rule of God through force or violence or aggression or through inflamed rhetoric, but only through a loving embrace, a hardy meal, and through the imitation of Jesus.

Jesus healed the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf–and even raised the dead–as evidence of God's kingdom coming in glory. Therefore, it should be reasonable to suggest that wholeness, the healing of broken people, is primary evidence of that reign today. (92)

This is a short and yet remarkable book. I am always glad when the Lord brings to me a book like this and I am even happier when I can write a positive review to share with my friends. I highly recommend this book. To be sure, Frost is recommending that we make these five habits (BELLS) more than mere habits. "I want you to make a habit of them. I want you to inculcate these habits as a central rhythm of your life…Missional effectiveness grows exponentially the longer we embrace these habits and the deeper we go with them" (99). It's hard to disagree.

I want to say exercise caution, but I also want to say to live under His rule and reign with reckless abandon. The simplest acts of blessing and grace can be missionary work. This book helps the reader see that even in the seemingly small acts of blessing God works mightily. You do not need to be trained in preaching or missions to be a missionary. You need to be willing to be a blessing to all, feed anyone and everyone, pray with all kinds of prayers, learn about our Master, and get sent into the world.

5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Surprise the World (Amazon, $4.99, paperback); (Tyndale, $4.99, paperback)
  • Author: Michael Frost
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: Michael Frost
  • Academic Webpage: Michael Frost
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: NavPress
  • Pages: 125
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my fair and unbiased review.

Read: Matthew 12; Exodus; 1 Kings 1-11

In his short little book simply titled Following Jesus, NT Wright waltzes through several New Testament books and explores their main themes and ideas. Among the books explored is the Gospel according to Matthew. Of Matthew he writes:

Matthew's whole gospel is, in fact, a Coronation Anthem. And the only sensible reason for going to church and hearing Matthew read is so that we can learn how to join in.

But who is being crowned King? Matthew gives him two names, and explains them both. He is to be called 'Jesus', which means 'YHWH saves'–because, says Matthew (1.21), he will save his people from their sins. That is, he will deliver his people from their exile, which was the punishment for their sin. He will be the King who will go down into exile with his people and lead them up and out the other side. And the real exile is not the Babylonian one. It is the satanic exile of sin and death.

The second name is 'Emmanuel', which means 'God with us' (1.23). Matthew has drawn together the two threads of Jewish expectation. First, God will save his people from their sins; yes, and he'll do it through the King, Jesus. Second, God himself will come and dwell with his people. Yes, says Matthew; he'll do that, too, through the King, Jesus. This book celebrates the coronation of the saviour, the God-with-us-King. (25)

Well, that's a wonderfully beautiful way of saying it. I've said it with several more words, to be sure, and so has Matthew. But Matthew is building his Gospel brick by brick (if I may change the metaphor) and will not be satisfied until he laws the final brick, the capstone to the entire edifice: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime there's a lot of ground to cover. This is where we meet chapter 12 of Matthew. And it is overwhelming.

One thought, governing two aspects of Israelite history, bookends this chapter and thus defines for us everything going on in the middle. First, in verse 6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." This must have absolutely sent shock waves through the community. People just didn't talk about the temple that way, but Jesus did. I think perhaps he wanted them to keep the temple in perspective or maybe he wanted them to think about the temple in a new way–not so much as a place, but as a person in whom all that the temple offered was reserved and unleashed.

I suppose we are kind of that way with our own buildings now too. And the sad, sad reality is that in our modernish ways we tend to invest a lot more of our time and resources in our properties than we do in our people. And maybe Jesus was making a similar judgment about the people of that generation. The key is found in what he says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. In other words, I care far more about people than I do about your rituals. They never escaped that trap. I wonder if the church of now will? Jesus said this. Jesus said that mercy is more important than ritual.

This is a message the church has yet to hear.

There's so much kingdom talk in this chapter. One thing that stands out is that now the agitation and aggression towards Jesus is heating up. Now the Pharisees are openly plotting to 'destroy' him. Now they are actively thinking that Jesus is a mere agent of the devil. Jesus keeps on going. He will continue to be a man of healing and hope. He will continue to be merciful to all who desire mercy. I guess Jesus' thinking is that the more people line up against him, the more merciful he will be. I mean seriously: how depraved does one have to be to plot against someone who heals another person? Yet that's what they did. Jesus heals, and he's in league with the devil. Jesus heals, and he's a threat to the power structures and must be destroyed. Jesus lets his people eat, and he's little more than the leader of a sinful band of degenerates.

No one says such things about the church. I suspect that's because we don't do these kinds of things that arouse the suspicions of others.

The chapter ends much as it began, in verse 42: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." Solomon, man of wisdom and wives, was indeed a great king. He wasn't as great as his father, but he was special. Now Jesus says that even Solomon is eclipsed by Jesus.

Jesus is greater than the temple. He's greater than Solomon. He's greater than sacrifice; he's greater than wisdom. And he will keep pressing on doing good to people and preaching the kingdom of God.

You have to admire Jesus…even though 'admire' is a poorly chosen word. Something greater. And? This something greater says that what really matters is mercy. Jesus, the King, Emmanuel, the Son of Man, says that what matters for his disciples, for those who would follow is this: mercy.

NT Wright concludes his chapter on Matthew in Following Jesus with these words, "In the kingdom of the Son of Man, the power that counts is the power of love. It is the rule of Emmanuel, God-with-us." (31) Jesus says he is building a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers around himself. He is the center which holds us together and how does he hold us together? Mercy, love. And what is he saying to us? Be merciful. Love.

This is the something greater: the teaching, embodied in Jesus, that what matters here and now is mercy, not sacrifice.

Go and be merciful.

41hQn3x9RmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One day I was scrolling through my twitter feed and this person I follow posted a link to this book. The link said the book was free. I wrote to the person who posted it, never heard back, waited a few days and downloaded the free Kindle version of this book.

Turns out the book is only roughly 70 pages. Turns out the book is little more than a diatribe against Christians who choose to use instruments in worship services. Turns out this was not worth the 2 hours it took me to read it. So my review will be brief.

If you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who use instruments in worship, this book is not for you. There is nothing in this book that will persuade you to believe the way the author does. He exegesis of certain passages of Scripture supposedly refuting the use of instruments in worship is specious at best an legalistic at worst. It's a fairly typical diatribe by an 'old school' member of the a capella church of Christ. He spouts the same line of reasoning those familiar with the debate have heard ad infinitum.

I try to read everything with an open mind and this book was no different. But really the subtitle of the book tells the reader all they need to know about the direction the book will go: Examining Excuses for Instrumental Music in Worship. Really. Use of the word 'excuses' tells the reader this is not a friendly book. And it's not. We who choose to use instruments do not need 'excuses.' We have chosen to worship God the way we have chosen and we will not be judged by anyone for doing so.

On the other hand, if you are a Christian and you have chosen to worship alongside Christians who prefer no musical instruments in worship, then this book might be for you. In truth, though, you will not likely find anything new in the book that you haven't already heard from those who espouse this point of view. You will likely agree, say a few 'amens', and give the book to your friends. But let's seriously stop with the absurd exegetical nonsense that these 'ideas' are found in the Scripture. It's a choice we are permitted to make, not a command (or, more likely, a lack of command) we are required to obey.

I might be inclined to acknowledge some of his points as valid if it weren't for the rather condescending and judgmental way that the points are made. To be sure, others far more astute than I have done the hard work of refuting the arguments put forth in the book, so I'm not going to bother. This is a book review, and my review is that this is not a very good book. Some of the arguments are fallacious, some of the exegesis is specious, and there are quite a number of typos. (If you want me to list them, please feel free to email me.)

What is really sad is that many of the leaders in the Churches of Christ (a capella) and Christian Churches have worked very hard in recent years to bridge these gaps. It is sad, to me, that the christians of this world continue to make the church of Jesus Messiah so unappealing to the world at large. It is sad that some are so bound to a form of legalism that they effectively cut off fellowship with others or judge them in error. I simply cannot imagine trying to live up to that standard of 'christianity.' Books like this go a long, long way towards opening wounds that should never be opened and causing grief and frustration for those who would seek Messiah.

And they go a long way towards preventing Christian fellowship among brothers and sisters which I am certain the devil delights in daily.

I cannot say anything positive about this book. It's simply not the kind of book that seeks to reconcile or bring healing to the church. It's the kind of book that seeks to perpetuate open wounds and create more. This is unfortunate. It might do to remind ourselves that every good and perfect gift comes from God. It might do well to remind ourselves that what really matters when it comes to Christianity is Jesus. It might do well to remind ourselves that perhaps the reason why the churches 'back then' didn't talk about musical instruments is that a) a lot of the instruments we use didn't exist and b) if they did the churches probably couldn't afford them and c) if they could afford them they were too busy spending money on widows, orphans, and the poor.

There are far greater things for the church to worry about right now than whether or not we use mechanical instruments in worship. It might be time to let this sacred cow die and get on with them. But I doubt there are enough people in the church to make this happen.

1/5 Stars

In case you don't want to open your book, here's Matthew 11. I have only a couple of thoughts today.

After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. 15 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:

17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
    and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
    and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades.[e] For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

____________________

It's an old cliche by now, but what if the things Jesus said about himself are true? I say that in the sense that they are true but with the idea that, of course, there are people who do question these things and others who dismiss Jesus as out of his mind altogether. Nevertheless, the things he says in here are, on the surface, outrageous to most of our minds. In our pluralistic world, overrun by the notion that all religion is created equal, essentially worshiping the same god, and that all paths lead equally to the same eventual outcome, it is difficult to make the sort of statements that Jesus made and be taken seriously by anyone.

Look what he says about itself.

All things have been handed over to me by the Father. Well, back in the early chapters, the devil tried to do this. And at the end of the book, Jesus again says all authority is his. We like to claim authority for ourselves. Politicians are really good at it. We think we have the right to dictate the outcomes and the parameters of religious experience and what some generically call 'salvation.' But Jesus is saying that only he has the authority to make such claims. All is a fairly exclusive and limiting word in this context.

Then he says that no one knows the Father except the Son. And that it is the Son's prerogative to reveal the Father to anyone he chooses. Well, this sort of stamps on the feet of the crowd that wants to be nice to everyone and declare all religious experiences are equal opportunity stairways to the Father. I know it's the modern thing to do, you know, being nice to everyone about their peculiar religious expressions and experiences. Jesus is making some fairly stiff claims here about himself and about God. I can see how people might be offended.

He says some other things too about rest, and yokes, and labor, and burdens. He says some awkward things about John the Baptizer and some of the kings of earth ('reed shaken' being a reference to a Herod). He said some strange things about Sodom–things we would dare not say. He said some things about the fickle generation he was among–and none of us are so willing to call today's generations what they are: fickle and temperamental, mere infants, unrepentant. You see all these things Jesus is saying are not mean. They are honest evaluations of the sort of people he was ministering to.

He has words for kings. He has words for would be disciples. He has words for the current generation. He has words for the unrepentant cities–we won't dare pronounced such sweeping judgments on the cities of this earth, will we? He has words for those who have ears and will hear. And to all of these people he pronounces a beatitude: Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

So as you read through this eleventh chapter, what do you think about Jesus? Are you offended? Are your ears attuned to his words? Are you ready to take up his burden or the burden of the world? Many folks, even many so-called Christians, are offended at the words of Jesus, his words of exclusivity. We don't want to offend or give offense or hurt someones feelings. But Jesus said these things, he invented them, and we can either accept them or reject. Being offended is a cop out.

Don't be the fickle crown, wavering back and forth between a dirge and a delight. Choose Jesus. That's all.

032661I know that the popular thing to do when getting free books in exchange for reviews is to write a wildly favorable review that causes readers to swoon and books sales to accelerate. Every time I write a review for one of these publishers, and the review happens to be negative, I sit on my hands to avoid biting my nails while I wait for their email informing me I'm no longer a member of the club. I have to be especially careful when writing reviews of books written by so-called celebrity pastors.

Whatever.

I didn't like this book. I'm not sorry about that. I found it very difficult to engage Smith's writing style and I don't think he's particularly funny. I found it very difficult to understand his use of Scripture (I mean, if you are going to put at the beginning of each chapter that we ought to read such and such a Scripture, the I think the author ought to deal with the entire passage of Scripture, in context.) And frankly, I am tired to death of the 40 day metaphor. It is time-worn, boring, and just a little ridiculous at this point in the history of Americanized Christianity.

Each chapter, as noted, has a reference to a passage of Scripture the reader is to read, a few pages of 'devotional' material, and some questions for reflection at the end of each chapter. There are, surprise, 40 chapters. There is nothing coherent about the selections of Scripture that author wants us to read. I'm not about to speculate as to why he chose them; it's a chicken and egg kind of thing: did he write the devotionals to fit the Scripture or choose the Scripture to fit the devotionals? I'm just not sure. But the problem with such a motley collection of Scripture is that they can be made to say anything we want and fit any context we want. This is the main problem with many of these types of books.

What I am anxious for is an author who has the nerve to write a devotional that travels through an entire book of the Bible and whose devotionals consistently hammer home the point the Scripture is hammering home. But that's not how devotionals are written; that's how commentaries are written. And we certainly wouldn't want anyone to mistake a private, 40 day devotional, for a hardy, stout commentary. I will continue to belabor this point in my book reviews because I am convinced it is a massive misuse of Scripture's intended purpose and that it does not strengthen the church but, in fact, weakens it. The Biblical authors wrote cohesive books that pointed to Jesus. Not short, pithy passages that helped us navigate through the trials of America.

At some point, someone has to listen.

Another significant problem I had is this. I'll grant you that Smith has 300 some thousand  Twitter followers. That's great. That doesn't mean that any of us actually know him (I'm not one of them.) I'm not going to bother noting all the times a chapter began like this: "I…". A few will suffice to make the point:

  • I have a reaction when dogs approach me. (4)
  • I like Disney songs. (5)
  • I'm glad I'm no longer single. (6)
  • The other night I was up late. (12)
  • I'm fairly certain, after intense biblical research, that math is from the devil. (17)
  • When I was nineteen… (22)
  • I recently discovered the glorious phenomenon known as emoji. (28)

And so on and so forth.

I'm a little concerned about someone whose only experience seems to be with himself. I'm a little more concerned with someone who feels that the rest of us need to know about it in order to have the Word of God make sense to us. I do not mean that in jest at all. A serious question: why would I, as a reader, want to know so much about Judah Smith, a preacher I will never talk to, never meet, and whose life as a celebrity pastor contradicts everything that seems to me to make sense about the Jesus we are called to follow? Why so much 'I'? Truth? It's a little arrogant to think I am that interested.

Finally, I'm a little concerned with the overall intent of the book which is stated on the first page of the introduction to the book: "I hope these devotional thoughts and Scripture readings inspire you to live the fullest, most complete life possible. That's what God wants for you, and I believe he will show you how to do that as you learn to focus on him" (vii). How does he know that this is what God wants for me? And where is the Scriptural justification for making such a statement? Is it in John's Gospel, chapter 10? And if that is true, wouldn't it be better time spent reading the Gospel instead of this book? It's a shallow idea, to be sure.

I hate to say it, but I simply did not enjoy the book. It may be helpful or a good read for someone, it wasn't for me. Everyone seems to have an idea about what we need as Christians, but very few are pointing us in the right direction. I'm not sure this book lives up to that standard either. I agree that God's love is at times illogical, but I also think that God's love is profoundly logical. It does make sense even if it doesn't make sense. Because, Jesus.

It would have made better sense if he had written 40 days of meditations about Jesus instead of 40 days of meditations about himself. Jesus helps me understand God's love; this book did not.

1/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Life is_____. Forty-Day Experience (Amazon, $12.13, paperback)
  • Author: Judah Smith
  • On the Web:
  • On Twitter: Judah Smith
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson
  • Pages: 232
  • Year: 2015
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book via the Thomas Nelson BookLook Bloggers book review program.

Smile 1I was contacted by the author of the Smile & Succeed for Teens and asked if I would be willing to read and review the book on my blog. I agreed and several or a few days later I received a small packet in the mail from the author which included the book, a bookmark, a nice thank you card from the author, and a small promotional packet. It was all very nicely organized and put together. It made a good impression on me from the start.

I mention that I was contacted by the author because, frankly, this is not the sort of book I normally read and review. It's in a genre that I do not tend to gravitate towards, but I decided to go ahead and give it a whirl because a) I have teenage sons, b) who work in retain, and c) need to learn how to smile more.

It took only a day or so to read (it took me much longer to write the review, sadly) because it is not a particularly dense book. The book is illustrated nicely throughout which makes the reading speed along and provides some opportunities to learn a concept visually. I appreciated this and I think it will make the book a little more accessible to teen readers–the prospective and intended audience.

There are seven total chapters in the book dealing with topics related mostly to customer service and people skills. Key to the entire scheme is that people need to smile more and frequently. I remember hearing a lot of these ideas when I worked in retail. Such advice like smile when talking on the phone and making good eye contact are fairly standard protocols and not really unique. Nevertheless, for the beginner in any customer service related environment, these starter keys are going to be essential because they are simply things one mostly 'learns' through trial and error. Most training in the world of retail goes something like: here's what we do/sell, go out and do/sell it. Most training, at least in my retail experience, had little to do with how to actually carry yourself on the job. There was not a lot of emphasis, when I worked in retail (except when one fouled up and had to be corrected by 'the manager'), on the more personal side of customer service: patience, smiling, professionalism, etc. We were just always told 'the customer is always right' which is, to be sure, a crock of something but I suspect it was the best way our managers knew how to tell us to be nice to everyone even when they were so clearly wrong. It was also a way of saying, 'Neither your personal integrity matters nor that of the customer. Just find a way to get that dollar from their wallet into our cash register.'

This is probably why I do not work in retail. Be that as it may.

Other aspects of the book are fairly standard life skills regardless of whether you are working in retail or the sanitation department: be courteous, shake hands, look people in the eyes, say please and thank you, listen to people when they speak, and so on. These things are called common courtesy and I suspect that many of us–adults included–could stand a refresher course in these things. So, arming a teen with these helpful courtesies before we look at them and say 'Go get a job' might prove to make the world a happier place and retail a more pleasant experience for everyone–especially since our retail world is littered with teenagers working their first job.

I think this is a book that would be helpful to teenagers who are getting started in the world of employment but the really they are not the key. The key will be getting the word out to parents who might purchase this book for their child(ren) or employing people who work with teens to buy the book and give it to young people who would benefit from it. I should also point out, in case it hasn't figured out, this isn't just a book for teens or for kids who are working in the retail market. There is a lot in this book that will benefit humans in general. If this book gets into the hands of teens, I think the style and format will appeal to them because it's easy reading and the reading blocks are short. The print is a larger size which makes the pages go by rather quickly.

The book also contains 'Wired Tips' which are short, pithy attention grabbing truthy kind of sayings. There are a lot of bullet point lists which may appeal to those with short attention spans. There are also quotes from important people that usually have something to do with the content of the chapter. At the end of the book readers can find the notes from the book, a series of helpful service organizations that one may wish to be involved with on a volunteer basis, and a fairly substantial index (given the size of the book). The cover is appealing and eye catching and notes that the author has won some awards in his life. Finally, as mentioned above, the book is heavily illustrated which will appeal to those who, again, have different learning styles or short attention spans.

I'll be passing my reader's copy along to my own sons simply because I am hopeful they will start smiling more and perhaps find some helpful information they can use for their daily walk. I recommend the book. There's nothing inherently deep or earth shattering about the information contained inside. The author has done a fine job of putting his experience into a practical, hands-on, common sense way of dealing with people in virtually any walk of life. We all need to know how to smile more often and how to be courteous to other people.

PS-This book may also appeal to special education teachers who are working with students who are so-called 'higher functioning.' Teaching students who will be eligible to work among the general population to practice these common courtesies may prove worthy of our time especially since, in my experience, many such students start out working in general retail settings.

4.5/5 Stars

Important Book & Author Things

  • Where to purchase Smile & Succeed for Teens (Amazon $9.95, paperback)
  • Author: Kirt Manecke
  • On the Web: Smile the Book
  • On Twitter:
  • Academic Webpage:
  • Editor:
  • Publisher: Solid Press, LLC
  • Pages: 131
  • Year: 2014
  • Audience:
  • Reading Level: High School
  • Disclaimer: I was provided a free copy of this book by the author in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. 

Eugene Peterson wrote, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, "Jesus' imagery, to be followed soon by his sacrifice, is totally counter to our culture of more, more. Could Jesus have made it any clearer? We don't become more, we become less. Instead of grasping more tightly to whatever we value, we let it all go: 'He who loses his life will save it.' 'Blessed are the poor in spirit' is another way Jesus said it." (102)

This tenth chapter of Matthew continues to expound upon this cost of following Jesus that Jesus began outlining in the 5th chapter. I'm not convinced that in the church here in America we give sufficient though to what it means to follow Jesus. I really don't. Often times, it's a matter of being baptized or catechized or initiated–the church is like another club we join with a set schedule and dues. That's not what the church is nor is it what Jesus said it would be like.

Even now, here in America, we are beginning to feel the crunch of a lot of things. A lot of the things we are feeling are trickling down and having an impact on the church. Jesus called it! Jesus said that discipleship is not a walk in the park or a trip to Wal-Mart. Let's be honest: the church in America hasn't had it rough. At all. It's not persecution when people call you names or when they disagree with you over evolution or climate change. Let's be frank, can we? We have it made as Christians here in America.

But maybe we are starting to feel the tables turn a little. Maybe the economic woes have affected Christians and churches? Maybe the constant threat of terrorism affects us too. Maybe job insecurity is another factor? But you know what? None of this is persecution of the church. None of this is persecution of Christians.

Jesus did speak to his disciples, the original twelve, and gave them a hint of what it might be like to belong to him, to follow him, and to be with him. I'm not sure how far we want to apply these things to our lives as Jesus followers here in America or even in this 21st century. Maybe the things Jesus said in the tenth chapter of Matthew were only intended for those original twelve? Whatever the case may be, Jesus sent them out, gave them clear instructions, and give them a clear indication of what they were going to face along the way.

He promises they will be provided for. Sounds fair enough. It may not always be a piece of pie with whip cream, but they will get along. It sounds boring and wrong for an American to say this, but I wonder how many American Christians would still be Christians if 'getting along' were the sum total of their daily existence? Our motto is typically something like, 'We need to get ahead.' Jesus said in the sixth chapter, pray for daily; pursue the path of righteousness; don't worry about what you need for each day. Our problem in America is often that we think material blessings are blessings. To an extent, we are 'persecuted' with too much. Ask yourself, can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to simply 'get along' each day with what he provides?

He promises there will be persecution. Yep. Sheep among wolves, serpents among the innocent and all that. Devious children who will kill you for a quarter. Immoral judges. Constantly on the run to this place or that place. We are told we will be no better than Jesus. Ask yourself, are you better than Jesus? Do you suffer with the righteous? Do you pursue justice? Have you been called the satan yet? Has something you have done been called the work of the devil? Can you be a faithful Christian if Jesus asks you to suffer for righteousness? If we are the sort of people who think that we will escape all this, ask yourself this: when secular America finally collapses under the weight of its own hubris and immorality, do you think that the church will be spared? Judgment begins with the house of the Lord. Are you prepared to be faithful?

He promises an opportunity for testimony and proclamation. I suspect, however, that we may not very much like the opportunities provided for us. Where will you be when Jesus asks you to testify? Where will you be when he asks you to acknowledge him before men? Where will your heart be when the time comes to confess with your mouth what you claim to believe in your heart? Are you prepared not just to confess some random, generic God but specifically the Jesus who makes exclusive and divine claims to being the only way to life? It's a tall order. You may have to reject your family. You may have to reject your children. You may lose your children or parents or siblings because of it. Are you prepared?

Are you prepared to take up your cross?

Are you prepared to lose your life?

The upside down culture of the Kingdom of God–the very one that Jesus told them to proclaim: 'And proclaim as you go, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is at hand' (7)–is about such things as losing to gain; dying to live; starving to eat; being poor to be rich; being called the devil in order to oppose him; revealing the hidden and hiding the revealed; giving away your last cup of water in order to receive a reward you cannot hold; proclaiming not peace, but war? Are you prepared to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons? Are you prepared to live hand to mouth? Are you prepared to be uncomfortable? Are you prepared to beg for a place to lay your head or a mouthful of food? Maybe Jesus didn't mean we would do all this, but where does it say he didn't? The upside down nature of this kingdom is this: what the world values, Jesus does not. And yet everything matters–even our hair.

I cannot help what is written. I can only talk about what is there. And what is there in the tenth chapter of Matthew is scary stuff. Just ask yourself: Is this what you signed up for? Or were you hoping to skate by? Are you prepared to die in order to live? It's upside down. I know. But there it is.

Where are you?

Let. Life. Go.

I'm still thinking about chapter 8 to an extent–that Jesus we follow who mixes and mingles and heals people that we typically reject. Jesus didn't consider himself better than them–which is exactly how we tend to think of most people. We tend to stick with our own because it's comfortable for us. I'm not necessarily saying that is wrong, but I'm not necessarily saying that is correct either. What I am saying is that if we are followers of Jesus then we need to give serious consideration to how we imitate him in the relationships we create and nurture.

It's not easy. There are people in this world we are naturally offended by and people who are naturally repulsive to us. In some ways, too, we will be repulsive to some people. It's OK. I have learned, and to a large degree, I am still learning, that I don't think the Lord expects that we will 'like' every person we meet. I think this is one of the reasons why there are so many personalities available in this world. It means there is someone for everyone. Yes. There are people I will be naturally drawn to; there are people you will be naturally drawn to. And in this, all people can be reached with the good news.

Luckily for us, this Jesus is different. In chapter 9, Jesus continues to rub shoulders with people that others looked down upon–in particular the tax collector named Matthew. Here's something for you to think about for a minute or two….who makes you uncomfortable? Who is out of your comfort zone? Who gives you the creeps? Who are the outcasts that Jesus would hang around that the world might otherwise reject?

So, then, on to some other thoughts. Jesus talks a lot in this chapter, but it's not like he's giving us a big long discourse as he did in chapters 5-7. His thoughts are memorable one liners that challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom of the day. I think he offers those same challenges to us as well. In other words, these things Jesus says are spoken to us as directly as they were spoken to those who would be his followers then.

First, notice that Jesus says, 'Your sins are forgiven' to a man who is paralyzed. I would think the more pressing matter would be the man's paralysis, but Jesus first addresses his spiritual condition as if one were somehow related to the other. The astonishing thing is, however, that Jesus mentions forgiveness at all. Indeed, as they reply, who can forgive sins but God alone? This is Jesus at his realistic best. Think about it, what other major religion in this entire world begins, continues, or ends with the leader of that religion addressing sin? Seriously? The very fact that Jesus addresses sin in a person's life indicates something about the nature of his being here. I think it says more about his purpose than it does about his nature (although, let's not take away from his nature).

Second, notice that Jesus says, 'Go and learn what this mean, I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' I can't tell you how much I love this statement because Jesus is claiming it for himself. Notice the 'I' in the sentence. Notice the 'I' in what follows: 'I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.' This means there is hope for us all. Jesus didn't come to earth and say, 'I'm interested mostly in all the folks who have it right.' No. He came and said, 'I came for all the people who are completely wrecked by life, by sin, by anything that wrecks life and humanity.' I love this because it means that I, too, am worthy to be called by Jesus precisely because I'm unworthy of Jesus.

Third, notice that Jesus says, 'But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.' Jesus, in other words, brought something new. He brought a new forgiveness–administered and received through himself. He brought new calling–because any wreck of life can be called to follow Jesus. He brought new reasons to fast and pray–centered around himself and his presence. Jesus brings new things to humans and gives us new reasons to do this things we do. I saw this thing the other day where someone was pointing out that all the traditions surrounding Christmas actually have their roots in pagan festivals and suchlike. The meme ended by saying something absurd like 'you don't have to believe in Jesus to celebrate and enjoy the season.' Well, that's ridiculous. What Jesus did was inspire his people to take all those pagan holidays and infuse them with new meaning and new hope.

Jesus makes all things new and that's what makes Jesus amazing.

He said some other things too. He healed a woman of a bleeding issue and raised a young girl to life. He said, 'your faith has made you well.' He then healed a couple of men from their blindness. Then he drove a demon from a many who couldn't talk. And at this point we hear other voices. The crowds marveled and said, 'Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel.' And we too are amazed at all that goes on in the chapter: the healing, the forgiveness, the claims, the miracles of many sorts.

Yet there are still other voices who are no so impressed with Jesus' words, but instead seem to be a bit sour: 'It is by the prince of demons he casts out demons.' Maybe we are being forced to decide how we will respond to the things we see Jesus do and the things we hear Jesus say. How anyone can see these things and hear these things and see nothing but the work of the satan is beyond me. How? Where does that sort of energy come from that can see a dead girl raised and consider it a matter of the work of the devil? Does the devil do this kind of work? Does he heal? Does he show compassion? Does he set the world straight and undo the things he himself brought about to the world?

Here's the kicker. The last thing Jesus says in this chapter, the last thing he does, the last thing he sees. He sees people just like those who would attribute his work to the satan and he has compassion on them because they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. Again, this is the Jesus who says, 'Pray to the Lord of the harvest for workers.' Do you hear that? Even after these people basically say that Jesus is doing the work of the satan he still has compassion on them, he still wants them in his fold, he still wants them.

He still wants us.

He still wants us.

The eight chapter of Matthew, close on the heels of the Sermon on the Mount, is a spectacular introduction to the Jesus we follow. What is probably most amazing is the variety of people that Jesus meets along the way after he came down from teaching.

This is probably significant. It probably means something amazing that Jesus said all that he said about what his followers look like (in chapters 5-7) and then goes on to demonstrate those things in his own life in the chapters that follow. What is compelling about this eight chapter is that Jesus makes it plain that his work, the work we see on display in chapter 8, is a matter of the kingdom. Look what he says: "I tell you, many will come from the east and the west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." This is encouraging as the context indicates Jesus was about the business of healing the servant of a Roman Centurion.

So, then, look at the sort of things that happen in chapter 8.

The first thing that is different about this Kingdom is that Jesus touches people; lepers to be precise. It's an unheard of thing. This is one sort of person Jesus stretches out his hand to touch. And when he does, Jesus doesn't become unclean. Who are the 'unclean' people in our culture that Jesus would likely reach out and touch? Go, then, be his hands.

Next, notice that this kingdom also has room for the oppressors among us. Roman Centurions were probably not well known for their likability. They worked for the enemy, the oppressor, the hated Romans. Yet Jesus says this enemy as more of a shot at the feast of Abraham than does some who are natural born sons of the kingdom. That's a strange thought, isn't it? It makes me wonder who the enemies are in our culture. Can you identify them? If you can, go and be Jesus' welcoming committee.

Then go on in the story….Jesus also touched his mother-in-law's hand and healed her…he healed those oppressed by demons–a large population among our own culture I am sure. Notice Jesus: he heals by touch, he heals from a distance, he heals by a word…he heals anyone who asks and everyone who comes to him with a need. He carries our sickness and weakness–he sort of takes it into himself and in himself disease has no triumph. But he also makes something else clear to his would-be disciples: this is no easy row to hoe.

Discipleship, as explained in chapters 5-7, has a cost. Here in chapter 8 he lays out some of that cost.

You have to be prepared to live on the run. There's no settling down. There's no staying put. If you are going to follow Jesus, be prepared to live like Jesus.

You have to be prepared to prioritize like Jesus. Jesus said we have to think about what matters and there may simply be times when the priorities of this life are no longer priorities. We have to discern what matters most when we follow Jesus. It's hard. I know it is, but Jesus doesn't seem to mince words.

And finally….we need to seriously consider who he is and 'what sort of man' he is. Who is this that even the winds and the waves obey? Are we prepared to follow a man who touches lepers? Are we prepared to follow a man who heals the enemy? Are we prepared to follow a man who takes our disease into himself? Are we prepared to follow a man who has no place to rest and who tells us that the dead will bury their own? Are we prepared to follow a man who can calm winds and waves?

We need to ask that: are we prepared to follow a man who calms winds and waves? The same man who orders disease to leave and sickness to vanish is the same man who commands the winds and waves.

And the last story….are we prepared to follow a man who sacrifices an entire community's economy for the sake of two men who were held captive by demons? Evidently the people of the Gadarenes did not: they begged Jesus to leave them. At least they were honest. They were not yet ready to follow a man who did all this sort of stuff.

Are we? This is the Jesus we follow and this is what marks his kingdom. Are we prepared to follow that kind of King? Are we prepared to touch and talk to and meet the sort of people Jesus did?

If not, then maybe we are not quite ready to follow him just yet.

Read: Matthew 7; Revelation 7; Genesis 12; Ephesians

I had a short, interesting 'conversation' with someone on Twitter tonight. I'd like to tell you he was a thoughtful fellow, but after one exchange he unfollowed me. Luckily for me, the conversation was picked up by another person who thoughtfully engaged me for more than a few tweets and we became sort of friends.

The original tweet, written by a self-described 'author and campus pastor' (whatever that means) went like this: "Proximity breeds compassion. If u don't understand people of a different skin color ask yourself if your friends and church are all the same." Well, I took exception to this tweet because it's based on a profoundly ignorant and unnecessary premise that a person's lack of understanding is necessarily due to a person's associations or, put more negatively, if a person has all the same color friends at play or at church then one probably doesn't understand people whose skin color is different. Ugh. I'm not sure a person can possibly be more ignorant about race relations than this person.

And what's worse is his follow up to my response. He wrote: You're going to be miserable in heaven. Look around: you live in a multiethnic world. My point was ways to understand others.

Clearly. Maybe instead of approaching things negatively he should have said: If you don't understand people of a different skin color go hang out with some of them. But instead, he chose judgment which is not very Jesus-like.

So, because I don't spend my evenings and weekends with people whose skin color is different from mine, I'm going to be bored in heaven. Even though Jesus will be there and I'll be fellowship with people of all sorts of backgrounds…I'll be 'miserable.' Somehow I doubt it.

Anyhow…what about 'race' relationships? I wonder if the best way to forge relationships, compassion, and understanding is to force a relationship where one does not exist? I wonder if that's what Jesus had in mind when he created the multi-ethnic church of Israelites and Gentiles, men and women, black and white, and so on and so forth? Or maybe the people Jesus wants me to understand are the people that I happen across each and every day of my life? I'm thinking of the little children in my classroom–disabled children, black, white, male, and female. Or maybe he was thinking of the white folks my wife and I ran into at a restaurant this evening? Or maybe it was the black men I used to work with many years ago in a small shop? Or maybe it was the black women I went to graduate school with? Or maybe it was the African man that I hosted in my house for dinner and conversation about 2 months ago? Or maybe it was math teacher who happened to be from Iran?

You see my point is this: I don't think Jesus requires us to force anything as far a relationships are concerned. Why would he? He was fairly consistent about his commands for us: Love people. Love people whoever they are, wherever they are, and whatever skin color they are. Love people. If you don't understand people of a different skin color, don't ask questions, love them. Go and love them. Or, better, whenever 'they' happen across your path, love them. If 'they' are laying in a ditch, love them. If 'they' ask for your cloak, give them your tunic as well. The point is that the Christian is defined by his/her love for other people–and it makes no difference who that person is.

If you have to force something, you really need to ask if it is love. If it isn't love, you really need to ask yourself if you are of Messiah.

And this works both ways, my friends because guess what? In all likelihood my pasty white Ohio winter skin is different from your skin color too.

Really it's that simple. Or, here in the seventh chapter of Matthew he says it this way: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Do you see that? Do you hear it? Jesus is saying something like this: Along life's way you are going to come across a lot of people. They might be black; they might be white. They might be an Israelite; they might be a Samaritan. They might be purple; they might be pink. They might be a man; they might be a woman. But it doesn't matter who you come across if you belong to Jesus, treat all people with the dignity and love you hope to be treated with by others. Jesus isn't saying we have to go out of our way to force relationships because what he is saying is that if you are a Kingdom person you won't have to force relationships. You won't have to because you will already be in a relationship built upon a foundation of love. Relationships will happen naturally and easily. We can simply move from place to place, from person to person, without fear or awkwardness, loving them all as Jesus calls us to do.

So here's a final point. I don't think Jesus is saying we have to go crazy in this life trying to understand every single person and every single ethnic identity. In some cases, this will be virtually impossible. On the other hand, what he is saying is this: don't do the world like the satan, don't do the world like Herod, but instead go and be kingdom people. When you are a kingdom person your life will be markedly different and people will notice as much without you having to actually announce it. So go! Be my disciples and be marked by your pursuit of the kingdom of righteousness, be marked by your love for your enemies, be marked by your willingness to do more than is asked of you, be marked your prayers for those who persecute you, be marked by your inconspicuous love for others, and be marked by being willing to do for others (love) what you would have them do for you (love).

Do you see? Jesus called us to be different and when we are different…things will be different. We will love people without them having to call attention to their skin color and without us having to announce that we love them. A few months back, a man from Liberia, Africa came to my house. He sat at my table. I served him a bodacious Mexican cuisine that my wife and I prepared. Afterwards he sat in my living room and I served him a cup of hot tea. We talked about Liberia. We talked about his work. We talked about Jesus. When it was done, we prayed together.

We were like old friends who were meeting again for the first time–two friends who had no past, but certainly shared a future. He loved me and accepted my hospitality. I loved him and shared with him whatever he asked for. But you know what? It makes no difference because at the end of the day, he didn't eat with a white man from the USA and I didn't eat with a black man from Liberia. Two disciples of Jesus sat, ate, shared, enjoyed fellowship, and loved each other. And that was enough. I'm certain that in heaven, I won't be miserable because it will be just like that day: unforced, unrehearsed, pure love in Messiah.

Because #love.

Because #Jesus.

Read: Matthew 6

Let's be short today. Maybe.

Matthew six is a chapter that has been abused and misused by preachers throughout the ages. And by pew-sitters too. I'll be honest when I say that it is not a terribly complicated passage of Scripture to understand, but it's not necessarily easy to understand either. It's one of those passages that can be taken to extremes one way or the other. Or it can be ignored altogether.

I think Jesus assumes that Kingdom people will be practitioners of certain things like alms giving, prayer, and fasting. I don't think Jesus ever thought that these things were a mere means to an end–whatever end that might be in our minds. I do find it interesting, though, that we get a clue as to the point of these things when we read the so-called Lord's Prayer. Part of that prayer goes like this, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." This goes along well with the themes we have already seen in the first several chapters: we are not about getting our own way, by our own means, in our time. We, like Jesus, are about doing God's things, God's way, and with God's methods.

Praying for God's kingdom is saying we are happy and content with the things of God, the means of God, and the ends of God. It means we are willing to put aside our own ways and means and ends because we see and believe in something quite a lot different than ourselves.

So I wondered…maybe the point of giving of alms and the fasting similar to that of prayer? Maybe we fast in order to hasten the kingdom. Maybe we give alms to others as a way of announcing the Kingdom. And we don't have to pray a lot at all–in the sense of saying a whole bunch of words: your Kingdom come, your will be done. What else need we say?

Here's where it gets really exciting–when we pray for his kingdom and will to be done–in our lives. When we do so, we need not worry about all that much. Jesus says at the end of this chapter: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. You hear it? He's saying the same thing: Your will be done, your kingdom come. Is this the content of our prayer life? Is this the purpose of our fasting life? Is this why we give? Are we practicing these things in order to hasten the kingdom's arrival?

I've been paying attention lately to the goings on in the world. There's a lot of worrying going on, and fear, and worry, and emotional output, and worry, and fear. Lately it seems like a lot of christians are being driven by fear and worry–which is an over concern for things over which we have no control. There is clamoring for more guns and more control and more violence. There's a lot rhetoric being bandied about by christians who think that we ought to act an behave in much the same way as the general population. We ought to exercise our constitutional rights and bear arms and kill people or wish and hope that others do the killing for us.

This is not a kingdom way of thinking. This is a satanic way of thinking, a Herod way of thinking. Herod uses the sword, and the satan says bow down before me. Yet neither of these are the quiet, unassuming way of hiding in a prayer closet asking for God simply to bring his will to bear on this earth. People who live in anxiety and fear are those who tend to think that God is not going to do anything. And you know what? He might decide to remain silent for a while. That's OK. Our responsibility is very simple: keep on praying, day in, day out, for God's will to be done on this earth.

Then go and live in faith that he will do so. Our simple life then becomes one free of anxiety, free of fear, and free of the need to resort to the ways of the satan or Herod to get things done. Let go and let God do what God is going to do in his time. Don't seek your own life or your own comfort. Seek first the Kingdom of God. His will.

That's all.

Read: Matthew 5; Galatians 5; Exodus

At its very core, Advent is a time to think about the first coming of Messiah and, perhaps, to telescope that thinking into the future and his Second Revelation. When we take the time to pause and think about the Advent of our Lord, we are pausing to note that God's will was to undo this present darkness and replace it with light. Yet we also pause to understand that He was determined and willful that it would not be accomplished in the way or with the means by which the world gets things done.

So we read Matthew. Early on Matthew tells his readers that a certain king was on some throne and his name was Herod. This king got all worked up because a baby had been born who was also a king. This bothered Herod a great deal so he went out of his way to protect his position of power. He called for secret meetings with the wise men, he lied to them, maybe he threatened them, and then, when he saw that he was making no progress–two years down the road–he took the sword in hand and slaughtered children.

Because when you are a king and your power is threatened, it's always best to slaughter the innocent as a reminder of who really holds power. That's how the world gets things done. God did not accomplish things that way.

I read this tweet from someone I follow on Twitter. I don't know the guy from Adam, but I follow him and this could be the only tweet of his I have ever read. He wrote:

Advent reminds us salvation comes differently than we expect. Not a warrior wielding a sword to show off his military power, but as a baby. 5:03 PM – 29 Nov 2015

I think that so perfectly captures the point of Advent. And it was the Advent of Jesus–not Herod. Herod shows us exactly how the world does things. God shows us another way.

We are reminded, then, that God does things differently and as such he calls you and me, his followers, to do things differently, to be different. Thus prepared we arrive at Matthew 5 where Jesus blows the lid off of conventional wisdom by showing anyone who wants to follow him exactly the ways in which they will be different from the world.

Some people read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and think that perhaps it is a checklist we have to follow in order to be good Jesus people. But that's not quite what I take away from this sermon at all. Rather I think the point of the sermon is to mark Jesus' followers as different from the world. We are going to fail at most of these things he says, but that shouldn't stop us from being different, or from walking a different path, or, and here's the kicker, not doing things the way the satan or the Herod did things.

So our ambition is not the same as the world. We are content with our own poverty if that is what Messiah calls us to. We are merciful people, because we know the world isn't merciful. We are about peace! How many Christians do I see all over Facebook and Twitter continually calling for the death of people of Islam? That is not the Jesus way. That is not how the Lord accomplishes things.

As a Jesus follower, my heart is breaking for the world. I see people being raised in an ideology where their only hope is in killing or being killed. I see people being raised to believe that the only way to stem the tide of violence is to increase our own violent output–and to encourage our young men, and now women, to bear the burden of knowing they have killed another human being. I see other Jesus followers following the masses and making calls for death, deportation, and/or destruction of human life. Our enemy is not flesh and blood. I see Lord. Seated high and exalted. His will shall not be thwarted and I, as a follower of Jesus, will in no way promote the violence towards others that they would bear against me.

Jesus called his followers to be different, and told them not to follow the ways of the satan to accomplish His goals. If we are no different from those who wish to kill us, what's the point of following Jesus?

But we often forget these things. We forget that we are to be differently angry, if we are to be angry at all. Our hearts should reign in peace and forgiveness. Our hearts and eyes are to be pure. Our marriages are to be differently organized–but we find ways to justify our divorces in the church, don't we? We really do. It's really quite a problem in the church that our marriages are no different from the marriages of the world. So he goes on…

I find it simply amazing that in the fifth chapter of Matthew, Jesus focuses so much energy and attention on how we get along with others. We should be merciful, peacemakers, we should be salt and light, we should not be angry people or lustful people. We should treat our spouses differently. Ours is not the path of revenge and retaliation but of grace and peace: Turn the other cheek, do not resist the one who is evil, be kind, generous, and forgiving.

And lastly, in chapter 5, Jesus tells his followers that they are to treat their enemies differently. It's a hard thing he asks us to do, he commands us to do: don't think your own sins are any better than the sins of others. That's typically why we love ourselves and not our enemies. Jesus is very explicit, very clear on this point: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

That, my friends, is revolutionary. That is how you and I can be different in this world. Jesus pulled no punches when he said it and it probably shocked his listeners that day. I suspect few can actually do it, but there it is. The only weapon that Christians ought to be calling for right now against those who wish to kill is love and prayer. The world will call for weapons. The world will call for deportation. The world will call for blood and cheer when it flows. Those who follow Jesus must not do these things. We must be different. It may well cost us. Yep. No doubt about it. Yet in no way must we, Jesus' followers, disgrace his name by calling for more violence and bloodshed.

That's not His way. That's the satan's way. That's Herod's way. That's not our way.

We must not forget these things.

Read: Matthew 4; Daniel 7; Isaiah 52-53; Romans 10

"Nowhere in scripture is it set out more clearly that the kingdom of the one true God stands over against the kingdoms of the world, judging them, calling them to account, condemning them, and vindicating God's people" than in the Book of Daniel. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, 158)

After Jesus is baptized, he goes out into the 'wilderness to be tempted by the devil' (4:1). Jesus stands his ground by remembering Scripture. This is probably something I suppose we all ought to do instead of relying on all the tricks and methods that modern pulpiteers created and package and encourage us to practice. But I digress.

But maybe I do not. You see, here's what I see. I see Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry going about with the Word of God on his lips, in his mouth, rolling off his tongue to whoever would listen and perhaps to some who would not listen willingly. I'm sure the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness was not happy to hear the word of God thrown into his face. Remember when he tempted Adam and Eve? They too hurled Scripture back to the devil, but something went wrong and they gave in to the temptation to sin anyhow.

I wonder how Jesus succeeded where they failed? I wonder if anyone of us noticed that Jesus succeeded where they failed? That third temptation always bowls me over too, "Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, 'All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.'" (4:8-9). Then we note, again flashing forward to the end of the book, that Jesus gets these kingdoms anyhow doesn't he? All authority in heaven and earth, he says, has been given to Me.

Let me get back to that part where Jesus quotes Scripture because this is the part that I find most instructional. Jesus knew the Scripture. He quoted Scripture. In my mind, then, I think what Jesus is saying is that this battle he was fighting against the temptations of the devil was theological. It was about far more than simply not doing something that the devil thought would be sinful or otherwise. It was about honoring the Lord God who gave the Scripture in the first place. Jesus, in quoting the Scripture in the face of temptation, is not just 'warding off the devil.' No. He's honoring God first in his life and trusting that it is God's order of things that matters and that the devil's order of things matters not.

Like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael: We know our God will protect us, but even if he doesn't, know this: we will not bow down and worship your idol.

But we do not live like that, mostly. I know my own tendency is to not trust the Word of God first–even though I know it fairly well. I'm often like Adam and Eve: I quote it well and then rush right into the devil's hands. Ultimately, Jesus trusted God and was not about to usurp God's place for his own pleasure which is exactly what Adam and Eve. Trusting God's Word means, I think, trusting that the devil will leave on his own when he sees that we mean to practice what we are quoting back to him. It doesn't mean he will not be back later; he will. But it does mean for now there is a victory found not in winning, but in trusting God.

Jesus trusted that God's Word was sufficient. It was this very paradigm of ministry and preaching that Jesus practiced. We see it from the very beginning: in battles with the enemy, he trusted the Word of God. When preaching the kingdom of God, he spoke the word of God (4:17). When he went teaching throughout Galilee, 'proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom', he preached the Word of God (4:23). His preaching of the Kingdom and healing of people in cooperation with his preaching told us what the Kingdom is about: It's about God's Word finally being fulfilled among the people.

There's nothing fancy about it. No special techniques involved. He simply went about doing the things that the Word taught: resisting temptation, preaching the kingdom, healing the broken people of the world. Jesus is telling us: this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.

What's that mean for us at Advent in 2015? It means that maybe Jesus ought to be our paradigm for doing the work of ministry. But even more important that that, is, I think, what Jesus thinks the Kingdom of God is about. First, those who belong to it will, inevitably, face the same obstructions that Jesus faced from the satan. We will be tempted to think that the kingdom is about his ideas instead of God's ideas. We must resist him with the word of God and constantly remind ourselves or be reminded, what God's kingdom looks like–a Scriptural picture. The kingdom is shaped by God's word, not by our vision of it.

Second, the Kingdom of God will reach into unlikely places in this world. Jesus began his Kingdom preaching in 'Galilee of the Gentiles'…something terribly dangerous. It is a dangerous thing to announce to our congregations that it is imperative that we take the kingdom into places people consider unlikely. This might mean that we are sharing the Gospel, too, with unlikely people. At Advent, how unlikely was it that God himself came down and tabernacled among us? Yeah. That's the kind of unlikely I'm talking about.

Third, the Kingdom of God partners with unlikely people to get into the hearts and hands of people. We think more highly of ourselves than we ought. We think some people simply cannot be partners with Jesus. But this is the key: we are not calling people to follow me, or you, or the church, or the religion. Jesus called people unto himself: "Follow me!" he said. The key of our kingdom message is that we are inviting people to follow Jesus. Nothing else. Jesus called strange people, fishermen. Who calls fishermen to the climactic act of God in his world? Jesus. Who calls people like you and me? Jesus. We should try not to think so highly of ourselves.

Fourth, the Kingdom of God reaches into the lives of broken people in this world. Jesus did two things. He proclaimed; he healed. This is the essence of the kingdom: bringing new life to the broken people of this world. And Jesus' fame spread throughout all Syria. I see a lot of 'ministries' who do a lot of stuff, but the only people who gain any fame are those miracle workers. It's not Jesus. Here, it was Jesus whose fame spread. In our Kingdom preaching, the only one who should be noticed, or gain fame, or be exalted is Jesus.

In our kingdom work, whatever we do, we do it for the fame of Jesus. Always. Only. Jesus.

Read: Matthew 3; Psalm 2; Isaiah 42; Genesis 22; 1 Peter 1:1-12

It is quite impossible for me to overstate how important it is for us to see the big picture in the Bible. We are so accustomed to reading the Bible to find either how to be saved (in some way that we usually get to retain our American identity and be Christians) or as a great search for how to live a successful happy life. 

But the big picture is not limited to a few verses here or there that tell us some magical formula for how to join the 'safe and happy' club. Scott McKnight sums up brilliant the point: "The messianic, lordly, and kingly confession of Jesus is not incidental to the Bible. It is the point of the Bible, and the gospel is the good news that Jesus is that Messiah, that Lord, and that King." (The King Jesus Gospel, 141).

This 'big picture', though, is, again, not confined to the New Testament. It is the message that was heralded for years in the Old Testament. Listen to Peter's words: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicated when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories" (1 Peter 1:10-11). The OT prophets were struggling to understand Jesus, to point to Jesus, to announce the coming kingdom which was in Jesus. Periodically we get glimpses, glimmers. Only in the New Testament do we get the full taste.

There's an old saying that floats around the church and goes like this: The Old Testament is the New Testament concealed; the New Testament is the Old Testament revealed. It's kind of corny, but it is no less true: the Old Testament was telling its way to the New Testament. Matthew says from Abraham to David to Jesus and all points in between (Matthew 1). Matthew 3 points out for us an even greater connection because he says that the prophets also pointed to John as 'the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.' John was heralding the announcement that what the prophets had been pointing to was now beginning to happen.

The Kingdom was coming, the King had arrived, it was time. And there was only one direction he was pointing: Jesus.

I'm sure when Isaiah said that he was talking about YHWH, but now here is the New Testament saying that John announced Jesus. And when John announced a Kingdom that was coming, he was also point to Jesus. Whatever else might be said, our eyes are being trained here to look away from Herod (chapter 2), to look away from John (3:11-12), to look away from a certain ancestral connection (3:7-10), and to look directly to Jesus. Of Jesus, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." This, interestingly enough, is the same sort of language used in Psalm 2, a royal Psalm, when a King was ascending to the throne.

John cuts through it all too when he announces Jesus. John announces a Kingdom and points to Jesus. John baptized with water, but pointed to the greater baptism of the Holy Spirit which would be brought about by Jesus. John called people to repent, but pointed to Jesus as the final arbiter of righteousness. John was a voice in the wilderness who prepared the way, but deferred to a greater voice from heaven that announced Jesus as the Son. John came as a messenger, Jesus came as Messiah.

Advent is a time to think about this arrival. John announced a lot to the people:

    1. The coming wrath (v 7)

    2. The coming kingdom (v 2)

    3. The coming Lord (v 3)

    4. The coming Spirit (v 11)

    5. The coming King (v 17)

We too are heralds. We too have an announcement to make to people about this King, and this Kingdom. We too have something to say about the Holy Spirit. We too have something to say about the coming of the Lord to visit this planet. Now as we prepare through Advent for this announcement at Christmas time, we pause to allow the Lord to teach us words to say. We are mere 'voices.' We are no more worthy to untie Jesus sandals than John was. Yet we have a message to proclaim. We may not always know exactly when to say it; we may be in a wilderness too. All John knew was that he was a voice pointing not to baptism, ancestry, or his own good looks. John's message was Jesus.

The message is simple and complex, but the essence of it is what I wrote above, what is concealed in the Old Testament, and what is revealed in the New Testament: The King has come, the Kingdom is here, the Spirit is available, the Lord has visited us, and only in Him will we avoid the wrath.

During Advent we allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts to receive the one who visited us all over again and we prepare for his soon arrival again, here, among us. We will not miss him when he arrives and we hope others will not either. So herald his coming! Announce his arrival! Prepare the way of the Lord!

John's message was Jesus, should ours be anything less?