Archive for the ‘NT Wright’ Category
I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.
The Kingdom of God
Sermon Text: Matthew 13
One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.
So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?
But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.
We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.
But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.
And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.
And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?
It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.
And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.
Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.
And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.
Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)
In his book Simply Jesus, professor Tom Wright lays out for his readers his case that the Bible is, ultimately, a book about Jesus.
“So if, as the Jewish people believed, they were the key element in God’s global rescue operation, it was doubly frustrating, doubly puzzling, and doubly challenging that the Jews’ own national life had itself been in such a mess for so long. By the time Jesus went about Galilee telling people that God was now in charge, it was close to six hundred years since Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the greatest superpower of the time. And though many of the Jews had come back from exile in Babylon and had even rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, they knew things weren’t right yet. One pagan nation after another took charge, ruling the Middle East in its own way.”
In particular, the Jewish people believe that the Temple was where their God was supposed to live. The Temple was the place on earth where ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ actually met. They saw ‘heaven’ as God’s space and ‘earth’ as our space, the created order as we know it, and they believed that the Temple was the one spot on earth where the two overlapped. But the Temple seemed empty. God hadn’t come back.
So where did the hope come from? How on earth do you sustain hope over more than half a millennium, while you’re watching one regime after another come and go, some promising better things, but all letting you down in the end? How can you go on believing, from generation to generation, that one day God will come and take charge?
Answer: you tell the story, you sing the songs, and you keep celebrating God’s victory, even though it keeps on not happening….This is the story of the Exodus…This is the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last….When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, chapter 6)
He makes similar, and yet somewhat concluding comments, in another book How God Became King:
That is to say, when Jesus died on the cross he was winning the victory over ‘the rulers and authorities’ who have carved up this world in their own violent and destructive way. The establishment of God’s kingdom means the dethroning of the world’s kingdoms, not in order to replace them with another one of basically the same sort (one that makes its way through superior force of arms), but in order to replace it with one whose power is the power of the servant and whose strength is in the strength of love.
…Jesus, after all, has come to Jerusalem and found the Temple no longer the place where heaven and earth do business, but the place where mammon and violence are reigning unchecked, colluding with Caesar’s rule. Jesus himself, the evangelists are saying, is now the place where heaven and earth come together, and the events in which this happens supremely is the crucifixion itself. The cross is to be the victory of the ‘son of man,’ the Messiah, over the monsters; the victory of God’s kingdom over the world’s kingdoms; the victory of God himself over all the powers, human and suprahuman, that have all usurped God’s rule over the world. Theocracy, genuine Israel-style theocracy, will occur only when the other ‘lords’ have been overthrown.—205-206
So we live in a world much like the world of the Israelites: Fractured, chaotic, rising powers and falling powers, messiah’s everywhere, promises for luxury, means to ends, terrorists, power, influence, intrigue, Hollywood, and celebrity. There’s also the constant bombardment of sin and the war against the flesh.
The church often does its best to imitate and mirror the world and so we do silly things like publicly declare our political affinities on Facebook and Twitter. And we rant (self?) righteously about the influx of Syrian refugees because clearly Jesus told us to be more careful about our own safety than about who we love. And we are, of course, concerned about salvation—our own, to be sure.
This is the world. And this is the church. We keep trying to wrangle power unto ourselves or sell ourselves to the ones we think offer us the best chance of being safe or whom we think we will share their power with us so we can continue to be the church and American. We do this because for some strange reason we have allowed ourselves to think that being an American is more important than being a Jesus follower. We think loving the right people is more important than loving all people. We think as long as I am blessed I can be thankful. We, even the church, keep pointing to the American Dream and American Government as the solution to the world’s woes.
The Bible steadfastly points to Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord, the King as the solution. It’s not without significance that while the world points to everything but Jesus as the fix to what ails us, Jesus continually said: I. Am. The way.
And for the apostles, writes Scot McKnight, “it was all about King Jesus.”
So, Thanksgiving. This is what I was asked to speak about today because we are approaching that time of the year when we make a point to be thankful. It is that time when we, Americans, gather together with family and friends and enjoy the fruit of our labor and the company of our people.
It’s also the time when we will forget about what really makes us human because we will spend some time the day after Thanksgiving being thankful for nothing except that which is green and or plastic.
But I digress. I want this sermon to be uplifting to you and I’d like to answer a specific question: for what can we, the church, be thankful? Or maybe I should phrase it this way: What can I say to you this morning that will sustain your hope and enable you to give thanksgiving in the midst of all that we see in our world—all the violence, hate, death perpetuated as it is by the leaders of this world.
If you pay any attention to things at all then you know full well that the world is not quite happy right now. There’s a lot of grumbling and complaining and fighting and war and terror and politics and disease and confusion and tumult and chaos. Everybody is fighting something or someone somewhere. It’s all very disheartening.
Everyone is seeking power.
I see nation rising up against nation. I see brothers rising up against sisters. I see children rebelling against their parents. I see Republican Americans rising up against Democrat Americans. I see one Christian denomination rising up against another Christian denomination. It’s all very disheartening.
It’s all very stupid. Especially when the church imitates it.
Author: N.T. Wright
I am typically disinclined to give an N.T.Wright book a poor review. I'm not going to start doing so here. That's not to say I have no criticisms; I do. But I really have a difficult time understanding why so many folks get their pants in a wad when it comes to Wright's work.
Every now and again an author comes along on our planet who understands that deep inside the human heart there is a profound emptiness–an emptiness that cannot and will not ever be filled by the things this world has to offer or withhold. What I think N.T. Wright does is points his readers in the direction where that emptiness, that intellectual, spiritual, psychological void, can be filled. But he doesn't do so in the way of so many other authors–where Jesus is a mere helper who teaches folks how to be a good American. Many theologians are just that: therapists or counselors. That is, they have an eye for the great God of the universe, but very little idea of how that great God has effectively taken back this world. Oh, yes, God is sovereign, they say, but only in some sort of strange and controlling way that most folks can scarcely relate to or understand. Thus the stories of the Gospels, the Old Testament, Acts, and the Epistles are merely the stories a good counselor might tell a patient: here's how to pray, here's how to be compassionate, here's how to have a good marriage, or here's what Jesus said about conservative (or liberal!) American politics.
Wright will have none of that. His is the voice not of a counselor or therapist who sics Jesus on a would be patient who is having a bad day or a bad year or a bad life. N.T. Wright is the voice of the prophet crying out in the wilderness: here is your King! So the subtitle, a 'new vision,' is not entirely accurate because what Wright is really doing is pointing us back to what has always been there but what has been covered over by so much encrustation and (wrong) theology in the 2,000 or so years since Jesus walked among us. If Wright is doing anything he is chiseling away the barnacles that have been built up around the Scripture–barnacles I suppose that may have at one time been designed to protect the Bible but that in more recent years have been thickened over in order to protect a theological and/or political system from scrutiny. It is this action of Wright that I suspect lends many folks to label him a theological liberal. To wit:
We have reduced the Kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale. Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself. (5)
This is the point in a nutshell. And sermons that do little more than teach me how to be a good Christian or worse a good American (complete with the requisite 'special worship services' on significant holidays) do nothing for me. I want to hear about Jesus and what he has and is doing to upbraid the world and bring about his rule and reign. This is why I read N.T. Wright over and over and over again. He shows me Jesus. "We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!" (5) And so right he is.
Wright has a way of making God understandable, but certainly not palatable in the 'I'm now comfortable with this God' kind of way, to everyone and I don't really care if you are reading his lofty theologies or if you are reading his 'made for the popular reader' books. He challenges readers at every step of their presuppositions. He confounds them at every point of their preconceptions. He unravels every blanket of theological safety they believe they have wrapped themselves up into. He does this in such a way that, you might not believe me unless you read it, neither political (or theological) conservatives nor liberals come out unscathed. And, frankly, this is so because Jesus spared no such pain to anyone either. Jesus is the King. God is taking back the world. Get on board or get left behind, but there is nothing anyone can do to stop Jesus from being King and, in Wright's words, 'setting things to rights.'
Simply Jesus is another of Wright's books that does so much the same. He places Jesus firmly in the context of his culture and is quite content to interpret the New Testament within that context. And let me be frank: that's exactly where Jesus ought to be interpreted. Preachers spend far, far too much time trying making Jesus 'relevant.' I say leave Jesus in the first century, understand what his words and actions meant then and there, and then figure out how that works out in words and actions in our own time and place. But here's the key: Jesus' words and actions really have one meaning and purpose. Preachers around about our times have made Jesus far too predictable. "Blessed are those who can see this, who can spot what's going on, who are prepared to go with Jesus rather than with the princelings of the earth, even though what Jesus wasn't what they had expected" (84).
The only quibble I have with Wright, in general (and as it particularly pertains to Simply Jesus), is his take on the event of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent war afterwards. I fully understand that, ultimately, our battle is against the satan. Yes! (See pp 126ff.) With this I find no disagreement. I have no doubt that the satan uses people and powers to his/her own end. Yes! But he writes, "It is the battle against the satan himself. And, though the satan no doubt uses Rome, uses Herod, uses even the chief priests themselves, Jesus keeps his eye on the fact that the satan is not identified with any of these, and that to make such an identification is already to give up, and so to lose the real battle" (126). But Wright appears to mitigate human responsibility when he says such things. Maybe I'm not reading closely enough; maybe I'm reading too closely. I'm not sure.
That is, I'm not sure how to understand Wright when he accuses (!) the U.S. government in power during 9/11 (a conservative government, to be sure; yet a government that passed bi-partisan legislation authorizing the sword) and fails to see what those who might otherwise be labeled 'enemies' did to provoke the U.S. government (and many nations around the world besides, including his own!) He is fond of Romans 8; not so fond of Romans 13. I think this is bothersome. He is fond of criticizing the United States (and not so subtly George W. Bush) but eschews criticism of other governments who were also involved in action against those who attacked the U.S.A on September 11, 2001. Here I think Wright is unable to make the correct theological connection and fails to understand the difference between a secular government charged with responsibility to protect its citizens (Romans 13 and elsewhere) and an ecclesial authority not authorized to use the sword ('put your sword away', Jesus said to Peter).
In my opinion, Wright makes a serious error here. Yes, war is bad. Yes, we should avoid it. But the truth is this: in international politics, in global politics, the ethics of the kingdom of God are not always so neat and tidy or evenly applied or understood or appreciated or cared for. Ask one of the folks who flew an airplane into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 if he cares a lick about what Jesus said about war, turning the other cheek, and loving your enemies. I'm not sure what the answer is; I'm not sure Wright's ongoing criticism of the United States government (he rarely says anything about the current government of Barack Obama) is wholly justified. I do know this: the radicals who continue to kill (women, children), main, murder, and provoke wars in the name of God are not the same as those folks who take up the sword to defend women, children, the weak, and others whose daily goal is simply to live life. Is it fair to apply a biblical standard of ethics (loving enemies, turning the other cheek, etc.) to a secular government?
The reality of this life is this: sometimes evil does have a face. Sometimes evil is more than an invisible being or force. Sometimes evil does have a name and we do well to name it as such. I'm not suggesting I have all this worked out, and at times (like when Jesus looked at Peter and commanded Satan to get behind) I am stretched too thin to wholly justify my position. What I am suggesting is that Wright's position at this point is weak and, in my opinion, mitigates human culpability. Suggesting there are no evil people really fails to understand the full workings of evil and the evil one in this world.
I can go on and on telling you how important this book, along with any other by Wright, is. I could tell you that Wright is at his best when he is engaging the text and tying together all the threads he is remarkably twisted from so much ancient history and text. I could tell you of his masterful understanding and application of Daniel, Isaiah, and Zechariah. I could tell you about his superior interpretation of the historical events from the time of Jesus. But to what end? Those who have read Wright already know and those who haven't will not be disappointed.
I have read enough of Wright's work to see and know that a lot of what is in this book is repetitive. How God Became King is a similar, and in my opinion, superior book by Wright. His monumental Jesus and the Victory of God is a much expanded and academic version of Simply Jesus that may appeal to more detail oriented readers. Simply Jesus kind of distills a lot of what is written in the academic volumes to a more popular level; it is no less potent.
The person who knows Jesus will appreciate very much Wright's work to interpret Jesus within his own context. The historical details Wright brings to our attention, the cultural phenomena of the time, the complexities of would be messiahs, revolutionaries, and temple authorities, and the sophistication and intrigue of secular politics are all woven together nicely and interpreted brilliantly to help the reader see that God's plan has always been the same: to reclaim the earth for himself through his appointed Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man, the Son of God.
And God wins.
4/5 stars (because he has written better versions of these thoughts elsewhere and it gets repetitive, and because I struggle with his interpretation of evil and his seeming inability to distinguish the role of a secular government in protecting innocent people from the forces of evil at play in this world.)
Title: Surprised by Scripture
Author: NT Wright
Anyone who has read any of my book reviews knows that NT Wright typically gets rave reviews from me–both as a lover of literature and as a Christian who loves Wright's theological perspective. Fact is, I can scarcely ever find anything in his books with which I disagree.
With this book, that changed just a little because I found much of what he wrote to be provocative and challenging to some long held theological ideas I have held. Letting go of long-held ideas isn't easy; being challenged at an intellectual level is sometimes discouraging. If we are not careful, we can label those who challenge us as abrasive or mean. He doesn't hold back, challenging all those sacred-cows current Christians have championed as 'thou shalt not violate orthodoxy in these matters' kind of doctrines. Sad truth is that entire ministries have been built around some of these sacred-cows in recent years–trumpeting theological perspectives that are important, yes, but often exist to the exclusion of a more comprehensive narrative, or to the exclusion of the Person to whom they point. It's kind of like the way a lot of books are put together in today's Evangelical publishing houses: authors find a single verse that supports an idea and then scratch around other tangential passages to find more support and then, voila!, a book is born. And all the while these authors pay very little, if any, attention to the meta-narrative of Scripture.
Yet this is precisely what NT Wright refuses to do in his writing. Taking a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' approach to the sacred-cows and theological pillars of current incarnation of the church, he plows through each subject by constantly reminding of us what Scripture says, and not just what a verse says. What I mean to say is that the meta-narrative is always in his view when he writes. It matters not the subject matter: Wright always has 66 books in his vision when he is writing about even the smallest word, sentence, paragraph, or book of the Bible. And so it is with Surprised by Scripture. There's not a subject he touches that isn't somehow connected to the larger context of the Bible, of the story of God coming down to rescue broken and sinful humanity in Jesus and the project begun at Jesus' resurrection to rebuild this earth and it's people.
This is what I simultaneously love and hate about NT Wright's books. On the one hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so I know that he is not trying to hoodwink me or convince me of some specious theology that is born out of a reaction to some perceived threat or otherwise. Many authors/preachers are good at this and it is reflected in the lack of depth in their work. On the other hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so he is constantly challenging my presuppositions about Scripture and God and what God is doing, or has done, in Jesus. That is terrifically threatening and makes me constantly uncomfortable. It ought to be so with all authors who dare speak on matters of faith. It ought to be so with all preachers: comforting the afflicted; afflicting the comfortable.
Surprised by Scripture made me clench my teeth more than any other of Wright's books precisely at this point. Yet I think this is exactly what happens when you take the bulk of Wright's heavy theologies and filter them down to the every day church. And if we do, and if we are honest, we simply must admit that we have gotten a lot of it just plain wrong. We might also go along with admitting that many of the ministries that are build around some of these wrongs are also, sadly, beside the point. Taking the example of the creation stories, for example, we might say something like: It's important that God made the universe; it's not so much important how he did it. But we might go further and say: It's important that God made the universe, and it's tremendously important that all throughout the Scripture the authors affirm that God is going to remake & recreate the universe. We can go even further: It's important that God made the universe, sustains the universe; that the authors reaffirm this frequently; that the authors reaffirm frequently that God will renew, recreate, remake the universe; that God has already begun to do this in Jesus and will bring it to fruition at some point. One way of saying this ignores the big picture; one way affirms it.
Well, we cannot prove creation in any ex nihilo sense of creation. We can surmise. We can guess. We might ask: Is it a mountain upon which I am willing to die? But what we can do is point to the Resurrection of Jesus (chapter 3) as a point in history where God's breaking in and stirring up the pot of recreative materials that can actually be demonstrated. The point, of course, is that we Christians get all frustrated because we have tied ourselves to the posts of things that are not quite as important as some other things–or because we feel compelled to prove something about Jesus that doesn't need proving because we think that if we don't the whole world of faithism will die. But we are to be found in Jesus, loving Jesus, loving people. Seems to me that everything else is so much frosting.
If we are more willing to die for a doctrine than we are for a person then we have utterly missed the point. I suspect at times this is Wright's point.
The only real gripe I have with this book is Wright's points about politics–especially American politics. He seems very sensitive to the way American politicians do things–especially as it relates to events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the ongoing drama of how 'we' deal with terrorist organizations. He says he's no pacifist; I believe him. But he seems to forget that the 'war on terror' although led mainly by the USA was, in fact, a coalition of nations who decided enough was enough. I disagree with his subtle criticisms of then president Bush (although he never mentions him by name) and the manner of response to the actions of evil people. I think this is even more pertinent now as we see our current president simply doing nothing against terrorist threats, beheadings of women and children, and the systematic destruction of churches and christians in the Middle East.
The problem with Wright's critique of American political processes is that he gives us no viable alternatives. He thinks American democracy is worse than his British Socialism. He thinks that we should be voices in the wilderness hammering out our prophecies against politicians and governments, and perhaps we should, but he doesn't tell us with what or with whom we are to replace them. Should we go back to Medieval Feudalism? Should we revert to the monarchy we escaped from? Should we adopt Sharia? Perhaps we should let Anarchy rule and go back to the time of Judges when 'everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes'? My point is, it's fine to criticize the way we do things in America if in fact you have a superior alternative. I simply do not see in any of Wright's books a superior alternative to the representative republic in which I happen to live. And if I may add one last point, for as much as I love Wright, for as much as I think he is dead on in keeping the narrative vision alive and in front, I think he is dead wrong when it comes to his critique of the United States. Dr Wright has indeed benefited greatly from the freedoms we enjoy here in America–not least of which is freedom to say what he wants, write what he wants, and criticize who he wants and then return back to the safety of Great Britain. I think it is disingenuous to say on page 112 that 'Western politicians knew perfectly well that al Qaeda was a danger…' and then criticize the reaction to September 11, 2001 as a 'knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out.'
This is a case where the president at the time was damned for doing and would have been damned for not doing (when in fact nearly everyone in government at the time supported the idea of taking action). Frankly, I think Wright's critique beginning on page 112 and ending somewhere on page 114 is wrong (as I think much of his criticism of the American political system is wrong). Perhaps if the British government, who had suffered worse before the USA on September 11, had done something we wouldn't have had to act in the way we did or at all. Fact is, however, no one was doing anything about rampant terrorism until our president took action–and if that's true, then who is to say his actions were merely 'knee-jerk, unthinking, and immature'? It's easy to shift blame which is what Wright does here. His government did nothing about it so when ours did it was, somehow, wrong. And this is all beside the point that our president was acting as the president of a sovereign nation–humanists, atheists, christians, Jews, Gentiles, etc. All of us. He was not acting on behalf of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or professor's chair; he was acting on behalf of the people he swore to protect.
All that being said, I enjoyed the challenge the book afforded. I especially found the last chapter to be one of the best chapters I have read in a long time on the subject of hope. It also goes without saying that Wright is his typical exegetical genius. He brings fresh insights to the Scripture and challenges our presuppositions in a host of ways. I think he would be the first to tell you he doesn't have all the answers to all the problems we face, but in my opinion, he has laser vision on where we should start looking.
Author: NT Wright
Publisher:Westminister John Knox Press
Pages: (e-book) 162
[I want to make life easier for you, and I don't want the federal government knocking on your door in the middle of the evening asking why you are reading a book review that didn't inform you that the author of said review received a free copy of the book being reviewed in exchange for a review on his blog, so there you go; you have been told. Now you are safe.]
The thing I appreciate the most about NT Wright's work is that he knows full well how to keep the focus on a text as a whole. In other words, even though this devotional focuses on specific passages of the Gospel of Matthew, what we call pericopes, Wright has an amazing ability to keep all of these stories of Jesus focused in on the one particular and important point he believes Matthew is making: "From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king" (64). And Wright does this over and over and over again in this book–which makes the book easy to read, easy to understand, and makes Matthew's Gospel come to life because we are thus able to avoid all sorts of hermeneutical chicanes that other writers place before us when they write devotionals or commentaries.
He manages to keep our eyes focused on this central theme of Matthew's Gospel from start to finish. It guides all of his exegetical and devotional purposes. It strengthens his application of the passages he addresses–because the application is always around the same theme. It gives laser-sharp clarity and accuracy to sections of Scripture that might otherwise be unclear to the reader. It unclutters the cluttered up theology that other authors have given to us when they try to read Matthew (or Mark, or Luke, or John) as if he were making a point about a theological system developed hundreds or thousands of years after his writing of the Gospel (Matthew was writing about Jesus!) To be sure, Matthew probably had some theological purpose in writing; however, I seriously doubt it is anything other than what NT Wright has told us in this (and many others beside) book.
From start to finish, Matthew's story is about the strange way in which Jesus became king. The first two chapters make it clear that he is the king from the line of David, at whose birth Gentile sages come to worship. The closing scene of the gospel makes it clear that with his resurrection and ascension Jesus has now 'come in his kingdom': 'all authority in heaven and on earth', he says, 'has been given to me.' Our problem in the modern world has been that we have taken it for granted that Jesus is not, in any sense, currently 'king of the world.' (It certainly doesn't look like it, we tell ourselves.) So we have assumed that he must have been talking about something else. Something that didn't happen. (64)
This is exactly why I love reading the work of NT Wright. The passages that cause other bible scholars to turn hermeneutical somersaults in order to interpret them, fit cohesively and coherently in Wright's framework of 'this is how Jesus became king.' Furthermore, this is demonstrably so throughout the course of all his writing, not just in this small offering.
Moreover, he's not content to merely leave us wondering, staring up at the sky like Jesus' dazed and confused disciples as it were, what to do with this information. If Jesus is king, and Wright's contention is that he is king, king indeed, then this has profound implications for the church and should more than superficially alter the way we live, and move, and have our being in this world: "What should the church be doing today that would make people realize that 'heaven' is actually in charge here and now?" (8) He continues:
The whole gospel, once more, is written in order to give the answer to that. Again, it's an answer many people today have not begun to think about. Ask yourself this question: how did Jesus come to this point of being king? The answer is obvious. He didn't do it in the way the disciples expected, in the way the crowds wanted, in the way which the chief priests and Pilate assumed he would behave. He didn't follow the normal human path to power, pushing and shoving his way forward, fighting and killing until his position was established. He came as the Servant, the one who took people's infirmities and diseases on to himself, the one who suffered insults and mocking and torture and death. He was obedient, throughout his life, to a different vision of power, a different sort of kingdom-dream. And his resurrection not only show that he was right. It established his kingdom, his type of kingdom, once and for all. (148)
So if heaven is in charge now (Wright continually brings us back to the so-called 'Lord's Prayer' where Jesus teaches us to pray, 'your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven'), what are we doing? Believing? Teaching? Waiting for? Praying? "And what we most want–the strange phenomenon of which prayer itself is a supreme example!–is that his kingdom should come and his will be done on earth as in heaven. When we pray, we pray for that goal but we also pray within that promise" (18). These devotionals, knit together around the central square of Jesus is King here and now, continually redirect our attention back to that central square–one cannot go far in this book without encountering this theme. It's like when Jesus' family comes looking for him and he is seated in the center with people all around himself: he is the center (Mark 3:31-35). And it is to this center (see also Revelation 4) that Wright continually redirects our vision, our focus.
Another important feature of this short book is the manner in which Wright integrated Psalms into the weekly readings. Wright's book A Case for the Psalms (see my review here) was a great book too, but the sort of devotional writing we get in Lent for Everyone is, in my opinion, superior and for precisely the reason I mention above: he continually brings us back to the idea of Jesus being the King and heaven being in charge here and now. (Wright specifically addresses all or parts of Psalms 32, 121, 95, 23, 130 and 31.) Frankly, I cannot speak or write more enthusiastically about the work of NT Wright. The depths he is able to sound in such a short space is, in my opinion, simply profound. Every page leaves me wanting.
A final note about style is that at the end of each day's reading, there is a short prayer, 1-3 lines, and directly linked to the reading just accomplished. These are short prayers, but helpful in that they, again, give a laser sharp focus to the main objective of Matthew's Gospel.
I will close on this note. I have read many commentaries, devotionals, and theologies in my short time on earth. Most of their authors are content to break apart the literary unit of the book being examined and comment, verse by verse, on the text, and tell the reader what each word means in each verse as if the author (be it Matthew or Mark or Paul or whoever) sat down and merely collected a bunch of tales and pasted them together on a papyrus without any sense of what makes good literature. Rarely, and I mean this sincerely, rarely do the commentaries approach the text as a whole, as a complete unit of literature that serves its own purpose and stands alone, if at the same time as part of a larger story, in that purpose. That's what makes Wright's work different and better. He never forgets that we are reading literature, a different type of literature, but literature nonetheless. And he continually reminds us that good authors write with, usually, a singular purpose. Matthew is no different.
Matthew is Matthew. Mark and Luke and John are important, occasionally reference is made to them, and they are necessary as a part of the Gospel story. But Matthew is Matthew and that is enough. Matthew has his own story to tell and he tells it well enough without having to rely on other Gospels to 'fill in missing parts.' There are no missing parts in Matthew. NT Wright's ability to bear all that in mind, from front to back, makes me come back to his work over and over again. I think you will too.
Title: The Case for the Psalms
Author: N. T. Wright (Unofficial)
NT Wright: Amazon Page
Publisher: Harper Collins; HarperOne
Page Count: 200
There are many preachers and theologians I admire to the point of buying anything they write and listening to anything they preach. Among them are Eugene Peterson, D.A. Carson, Frederick Buechner, David Wells, Tim Keller, and Eddie Vedder. I am, however, especially fond of N.T. Wright.
When I was in Bible college and especially after I started preaching in the church, there were always aspects of the Bible that bothered me: things didn't make chronological sense, this verse seemed to contradict that verse, and so on. Then one day I finally figured out that N.T. Wright was not the same person as H.N. Wright and I started reading. And I haven't stopped. His theology simply makes sense to me of all those verses I couldn't reconcile with one another and all those contradictory things are no longer contradictory. And while I still have several volumes I need to read, I have read a great deal of Wright's work and listened to countles lectures/sermons he has preached.
When I was given an amazon.com gift card for a Christmas gift, I knew some new N.T. Wright would soon be in my hands. The Case for the Psalms: Why They are Essential was the first volume I read (currently I'm reading How God Became King and after that will be Scripture and the Authority of God.)
The Case for the Psalms is a small volume–an aspect that sort of bothered me–but it is a Wright's call for the church to return to the Hebrews Psalter. I agree. I think there is not enough use of the Psalms in the worship (except for a rather shallow use) or in the church in general. Jesus taught us the value–a terrible word–of the Psalms when he uttered in prayer Psalm 22 while was being crucified. Why don't we pray the Psalms in the church? Maybe we are afraid of the language of the psalmists who pray prayers about God destroying enemies and bashing the heads of babies against rocks. Maybe the Psalms are too personal for us in the West.
How does a Christian, not least a modern Christian who values our developed Western democracy, pray these lines? (44)
There is a reason the Psalms use this language–and worse–in prayer to God. It validates our experience, it confirms our pathos, and justifies our wailing, gut-wrenching pleas to God: is there anything we can say to God that is offensive when offered in the context of prayer?
That is why this book is not so much an invitation to study the Psalms–though that, too, is an immensely worthwhile exercise–but to pray and live the Psalms. (22)
The Psalms seem to think not, and if we do not have words of our own to express our deepest anger, grief, pain, or joy we have the Psalms. What better place can we go to find words to offer back to God?
Another important aspect of Wright's thoughts is that the Psalms are more than mere words on paper. The Psalms are transformative–when practiced continuously, carefully, and predictably, the Psalms change us:
And the Psalms are there to enable people not only to become aware of this possible change but actually to help bring it about. (158)
It is a matter for all of us to take seriously. I have begun this very thing: reading 5 Psalms per day, in order, throughout the day instead of all at one sitting.
Finally, as with everything Wright puts on paper or into the air, the Psalms are about showing us Jesus:
Here is the challenge for those who take the New Testament seriously: trying singing those Psalms christologically, thinking of Jesus as their ultimate fulfillment. See how they sound, what they do, hwere they take you. (110)
The book fits nicely with Wright's theology of God becoming king. In fact, it is an invitation for the reader of the Psalms, the pray-er of the Psalms, the singer of the Psalms to get in sync with God in space, time, and matter. The Psalms teach us how to 'offer ourselves as living sacrifices' (Romans 12). The Psalms teach us to number our days.
The aspect of this book that I enjoyed the most was the last chapter where Wright makes a connection between the Psalms and his life. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about his life and the things that have shaped him. Yet what I found is that he always tied his life to Scripture. Wright lets down the curtain for a minute or two and allows us to see his humanity–that side of him that has been shaped by Scripture, not just the side of him who has made understanding Scripture his life.
I actualy found myself doing this just yesterday when we found ourselves 'trapped' in the house due to frighteningly cold temperatures and a power outage. I had been reading through Psalms 8 through 12 during the day and shortly after the power went out, I found myself reading Psalm 11: "In the Lord I can take refuge" (v 1). It was cold. It was getting colder. The house was empty because my wife and sons had gone to warm houses. It was dark. Yet 'in the Lord I could take refuge.' It was a lot of comfort during a short period of physical discomfort ot hear those words at just the right time.
It made me wonder how many times I had missed hearing God's voice in other difficult, disastrous, or discomfitting times.
Only a couple of things bothered me about the book itself. One, I wish the book had been larger and longer. I read it in a day and wish it had taken me two. It felt rushed. Two, I wish the section dividers had been more than a mere double-space. Some headings would have made the text flow and connect better.
I rate this book 5/5 stars simply because if it did nothing else, it gave me the courage to start reading the Psalms all over again. And to pray them too. Which means I have started learning how to talk to the Father again.
I published the manuscript for this sermon last night. This sermon is about 28 minutes long. I am preaching from Mark 5:1-43. You can see from the manuscript version of this sermon that I am trying to work out what it means to be involved in the re-creation of the heavens and the earth now. What does it mean to live the resurrection life now? What is the church doing now to promote the advance of the Kingdom of God, God’s rule, God’s reign begun in the Resurrection of Jesus? I am here not providing concrete answers as much as I am looking in a direction, trying to understand how the church is involved in what Jesus says in Revelation 21: “Behold, I am making all things news.” That is, I don’t have all the answers and probably conclude with more questions than answers. Nevertheless, I am learning and thinking in that direction. Perhaps you might listen and help me understand a little more of what God is doing in your life and in the world. –jerrry
Listen here: The Advancing Kingdom of God.
Or use the inline player below.
Other download options are available at archive.org.
Soli Deo Gloria!
This is the manuscript of my sermon for tomorrow (June 22, 2008). It is based on Mark 5:1-42. Obvsiously, I have not dealt with every single issue in this chapter. Instead, I have highlighted a single aspect, namely, that Jesus did what others could not: Restored a mind, healed a woman’s suffering, raised a dead child to life. –jerry
The Kingdom Advances
1They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. 2When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. 3This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. 4For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.
6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. 7He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Swear to God that you won’t torture me!” 8For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you evil spirit!”
9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” 10And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.
11A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. 12The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” 13He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.
14Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened. 15When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 16Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. 17Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.
18As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
21When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. 22Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet 23and pleaded earnestly with him, “My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.” 24So Jesus went with him.
A large crowd followed and pressed around him. 25And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. 26She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. 27When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” 29Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.
30At once Jesus realized that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who touched my clothes?”
31″You see the people crowding against you,” his disciples answered, “and yet you can ask, ‘Who touched me?’ ”
32But Jesus kept looking around to see who had done it. 33Then the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell at his feet and, trembling with fear, told him the whole truth. 34He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
35While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. “Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?”
36Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”
37He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. 38When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. 39He went in and said to them, “Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep.” 40But they laughed at him.
After he put them all out, he took the child’s father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” ).
42Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. 43He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat.
It should come as no surprise to you that this past week I finished reading another book. This book, Surprised by Hope, by Tom Wright is a fascinating examination of the biblical evidence for what it means to live the Resurrection life. I really wasn’t prepared for what I read, the conclusions he drew, and how they would affect my understanding of the Gospel life. Thus, I read:
But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the Gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit is to build for the Kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly to be thrown into the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. ( 208 )
And when I did I suddenly thought to myself: what I do in the Lord is not in vain. But I further thought: There is a lot more to this ‘go and make disciples’ than merely going and getting people to check off a checklist or recite a creed. Then I also thought: Everything that I do can be approached from the point of the Resurrection of Jesus; the firstfruits of the new heavens and the new earth. Then I thought, if all this is true—and I believe it is—then I have missed the boat in a lot of areas of my faith. God’s Kingdom is breaking in and breaking out. Jesus said in Revelation 21, “Behold I am making all things new.”
This means Jesus is currently about the business of fixing all the stuff that is currently broken, stuff that we have invariable had a sincere part in breaking. And yet, as Wright properly points out time and time again, our prayer, the one Jesus taught us is this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth…” If we have had a significant, almost exclusive role in the breaking of what God created, then through Jesus and because of His resurrection, we have a significant role in the fixing of it too. So our author continues:
Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s re-creation of his wonderful world, which began with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.” (208-209)
I have to say, this is mind-boggling, revolutionary stuff.
There are three inter-connected stories in Mark chapter 5. We have first the story of a man possessed by Legion, a horde of demons. We have second the story of a woman who had a issue with bleeding for 12 years. And we have third the story of a man whose daughter was dying and by the time we reach the end—she is dead. These are very real people, with very real problems.
The first thing I noticed about these stories is that there is an element of mystery in all three. In other words, these are three hopeless cases. The man possessed by demons was bound hand and foot in chains and shackles and what does it say: “no one could bind him any more…” and also “No one was strong enough to subdue him.” This man was out of control. He was in a hopeless situation, a hopeless condition. He didn’t just have one problem, he had a legion of problems. He was confined to the tombs which suggests to me that he was, for all intents and purposes, dead already. No one can help him; there’s nothing we can do.
The bleeding woman was not much different. She had a condition for 12 years—a bleeding issue. It obviously caused her a great deal of pain, perhaps it also caused her a certain social stigma as well. Such things were not so freely discussed in that culture as they are in ours. But again, what does it say about her situation: “She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.” No one could do anything for her.
The story of the man, Jairus, is, again, not different. Here is a man who is in a hopeless situation. We don’t know why his daughter was dying or from what. We just know that she was. Presumably this man too had spent some time with doctors as I don’t think he wouldn’t provide care for this girl. And when Jesus gets to the house, and the girl is dead, then no one could do anything for her. What does it say, “”Your daughter is dead,” they said. “Why bother the teacher any more?” Translation: There is nothing anyone can do.
Three stories; hopeless all. There was nothing anyone could do. To alleviate living hell. Hellish living. Or death. Nothing. Human power had exhausted itself. It was pointless.
It seems at times that all our efforts are in vain, but maybe not.
We probably do the same, don’t we? I mean there are ill people all over the place. There are demon-possessed people all around. There are dying people everywhere. What do we humans do: More jails. More pills. More therapy. More doctors. More cemeteries. More asylums. These things are touted as solutions to problems that have causes much deeper than the mere physical manifestations of pain, erratic behavior and death. But these aren’t solutions. They are merely ways of ignoring the problem, they are ways of not treating symptoms not diseases, they are ways of silencing the demons but not driving them out.
These ideas don’t dig deep enough.
Does the church have anything to say about these situations? I think we do.
Jesus comes along and at the end of the story: “When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid.”
Jesus comes along and at the end of the story: “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.”
Jesus comes along and at the end of the story: “He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!” ). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished.”
Here what we see is the advance of the kingdom: Jesus accomplishes what we cannot. Jesus will accomplish all that we hope for.
You see these were not just healings in and of themselves. The miracles were not ends in themselves. They were signs that pointed in the direction of something different. They were signs that pointed to a cure, a solution. They were signs that demonstrated the breaking in of the Kingdom of God a place where and a time when there will be no more people possessed by demons, there will be no more issues with blood, there will be no more death. But perhaps even more significant than that is this: It will also be a time when there is no more need for chains to bind people. It will be a time when there will be no more need for doctors. It will be a time when there will be no more need for resurrection.
Still, I don’t think that is enough. If these things are signs of the advancing Kingdom of God, and if we pray, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ then what are we doing to advance the kingdom on earth? Are we waiting for God to move mountains? Are we waiting on God to return? Are we shapers and formers and advancers of the kingdom or are we, as I heard so eloquently put yesterday, polishing the brass while the ship sinks? You see, if God means to re-create the heavens and the earth, and all our work is not in vain, then what are we doing now to advance the kingdom, to promote justice, to drive out demons, to heal the sick, to raise the dead?
And I do not mean in any mean metaphorical way. What are we doing now, as resurrected people who will not go to heaven, but will inhabit the new earth, in new bodies? What are we doing now?
To put it another way, we live somewhere between the end of Acts and the closing scene of Revelation. If we want to understand Scripture and to find it doing its proper work in and through us, we must learn to read and understand it in the light of that overall story…As we do this—as groups, churches, and individuals—we must allow the power of God’s promised future to have its way with us. As we read the Gospels, we must remind ourselves again and again—because the pull of prevailing Western culture is so strong that if we don’t it will suck us back down into dualism—that this is the story of how God’s kingdom was established on earth as in heaven in and through the work of Jesus, fulfilling Israel’s great story, defeating the power of evil, and launching God’s new world. (281)