Monday, May 30, 2011

A Shocking New Beginning

The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: ... Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 
(Matthew 1:1, 18, NASB)

We hear the Nativity story every Christmas, but it's so easy to let it go right through our ears and miss touching our hearts and minds. One of the benefits of beginning my current study of Matthew in the middle of the year is that I am immediately thrust into "the Christmas story" months away from its traditional telling. Somehow, that has helped me hear it in new ways.

What has stood out most to me in Matthew 1 is how shocking this story is. Matthew doesn't waste any time with his intended Jewish Christian audience. Instead, he immediately sets the groundwork that he is going to write to them about an important beginning ... indeed, a shocking new beginning.

There is little doubt Matthew wrote primarily to a Jewish Christian audience. The book addresses Old Testament law, scribal tradition, and Jesus' controversies with Jewish leaders in a way no other gospel does. Written decades after Christ's ascension, the Gospel came into a context where there was much conflict between traditional Jewish practices, "Judaizers" who sought to bring the law into the grace-life of the church, and Christians (both Jew and Gentile) who were confused. The church was emerging from being assumed to be a "sect" of Judaism to being recognized as a distinct religion. To help the church understand both its similarities to, and differences from, the Judaism of the day Matthew penned his Gospel - the Gospel of Jesus and His message of the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew's initial words lay the groundwork that what he is talking about is truly something new. The word we translate "genealogy" is, in Greek, "Genesis" ... the title of the first book of the Bible in the Greek version of the Old Testament which was the most widely used version of the time. Interestingly the word we translate as "birth" in verse 18 (see both words underlined above) is also Genesis. This simply can't be coincidental ... writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew says, essentially ... "Let me tell you a story about a man named Jesus ... here's how it all began. Let's go back, way back, to some names you know really well - David and Abraham."

If that isn't enough to get you excited about reading genealogy and a familiar birth story, then add this shocking news: Jesus was born of a virgin but descended from a line that included a woman who pretended to be a prostitute (Tamar); an actual prostitute (Rahab); a convert to the God of Israel from the enemy Moab (Ruth); and a woman with whom David committed adultery (Bathsheba, the "wife of Urriah"). Oh, and at least two of these were definitely Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth) while the other two were likely Gentiles (Tamar was probably Canaanite based on her city of origin; while Bathsheba was married to a Hittite and likely a Hittite herself).

Understanding a little about the nature of genealogies in Jewish culture only adds to the shock of these verses to traditional expectations of the Messiah; the Archaeological Study Bible notes that "In societies organized around kinship, genealogies...serve as public records that document history, establish identity, and/or legitimize office. the key to legitimacy and identity is a direct, irrefutable familial tie with the past." Matthew's purpose -- tying Jesus clearly to David and Abraham -- is thoroughly accomplished, yet weaves together the shocking news that the Messiah's lineage was not "pure" ... but He was. Born of a virgin, He came to redeem all mankind (Jew and Gentile alike) -- including those who could relate a lot more to Tamar and Rahab than to Mary.

The shock is completed when the angel explains the name Joseph is to call Jesus: (21) "She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins."

"From their sins." The Messiah would be, first and foremost, a spiritual Savior. This didn't fit the Jewish mind seeking a political redeemer from Rome. But for a young Jewish Christian church who was finding its identity in the middle of the first-century Roman Empire, Matthew's "new beginning" must have been filled with hope. Yes, Rome was persecuting Christians. Yes, many in the Jewish community weren't accepting this message, this Gospel. Yes, the church was filled with redeemed sinners -- as Paul wrote to Corinth, "such were some of you", after a long list of sins. And yet here is Matthew reminding them that Jesus brought a new beginning. A new way of viewing the Messiah. A new way of relating to God. A new understanding of the kingdom of heaven. A new presence of God.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Holding Tightly

"The eternal God is a dwelling place, And underneath are the everlasting arms;" 
Deuteronomy 33:27a

The stories out of our area the past week have been tragic and inspiring.

A major tornado hit Joplin, MO and a very strong tornado hit tiny Deering, AR. In both cases, our town was threatened by tornadoes that didn't hit, but the winds here made me realize just how amazingly powerful the nearby tornado winds must have been. In both those towns, stories emerged of parents desperately hanging onto children to save their lives. In one case, a nurse grabbed a 4-year-old at a hospital as he was being sucked into the tornado's vacuum pull. In two other cases, moms died while shielding their children who miraculously survived.

Today, driving back from a visit to a family member in the hospital, I was listening to the radio and the song "Never Let Go" came on (video and lyrics below). Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the reality of what it means that God is holding on to me through all the storms of life. That He never lets go. While I certainly hold onto Him for dear life, like those children in the tornados, I will never, ever have the strength to be the one whose grip remains certain. My hands are too tiny, my strongest grasp far too weak and easily pulled away by the suction of the storms that come my way. But He is holding on to me. His grip is perfect. He will never let go. He covers me with His protective, shielding arms of love ... hands strong enough to keep me from leaving His grasp, shoulders big enough for me to cry on, and arms to catch me when I fall. Always,always with the reminder that when He died for me on the cross, He was protecting me from the biggest storm of all.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I'm caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won't turn back
I know you are near

And I will fear no evil

For my God is with me
And if my God is with me
Whom then shall I fear?
Whom then shall I fear?


Oh no, You never let go
Through the calm and through the storm
Oh no, You never let go
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me

And I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on

A glorious light beyond all compare
And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
We'll live to know You here on the earth


Yes, I can see a light that is coming for the heart that holds on

And there will be an end to these troubles
But until that day comes
Still I will praise You, still I will praise You

Thursday, May 26, 2011


May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV)

Hope is a powerful word.

Without understanding why, humans are drawn to that which inspires hope. As Alexander Pope saw it:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
 (in An Essay on Man)
Pope certainly hit upon one big reason for our hope: there is within us something that looks heavenward. Poet Robert Browning identified it as that which causes us to aim just a little higher than we can achieve: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?" (Andrea del Sarto). Solomon called it "eternity in man's heart" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And what a hope heaven brings - what an assurance we have in Christ!

But I'm surely not alone when I want to hope for something different in the here and now. We've all faced circumstances that we hope will pass quickly: tight finances; challenges at work; a sick child or spouse. We've seen realities that we earnestly hope will change: trafficking; abuse; neglect of the elderly; devaluing of life at all levels; greed; poverty; injustice. Many of you live and work in settings just to make that kind of difference in the here and now.

Faced with a series of circumstances and realities, I needed to know that God's hope wasn't relegated to a future heaven only. Without diminishing the hope of heaven one single iota, I wanted - needed - to know whether there is a Biblical foundation for earthly hope as well. I was inclined to believe so; after all, the Psalmist penned: "I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living." (Psalm 27:13). Indeed, like you I've faced times when I needed to know that God didn't just want to change my future, He wanted to change my day.

God didn't let me down. He led me to Scripture after Scripture about Hope - not only our eternal hope, but hope that impacts the here and now. He taught me about a hope that is closely linked to faith. Biblical hope isn't wishful thinking. The word means "a favorable and confident expectation" (Vines). It's a hope that does not disappoint, because He is the God of hope. As I pored over the verses about hope, especially those I've included below, I came to see a hope that is produced by character-shaping experiences. It's a hope that is closely linked to the love of God that is continually poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit. It's a hope that comes with the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, a hope that is sustained by the Word of God which He gave to encourage me to continue to hope. I came to realize profoundly that hope ultimately brings glory to God-whether He calms the storm or calms me in it, hope has shown up and I can praise Him.

Hope isn't ambiguous - our hope is in God alone, through Christ alone, and by the power of His Spirit alone. But when His Spirit floods our hearts with His love and His hope shows up, He can empower us to have hope whatever the circumstances. And as we pray and seek His Word, He might lead us to be part of bringing hope into the world - a hope that points them heavenward even as it brings His will on earth, as it is in heaven.

Keep hoping.

(Romans 4:18) In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be."

(Romans 5:2-5 ESV) (2) Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (3) More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, (4) and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, (5) and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

(Romans 12:12) Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

(Romans 15:4) For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13, ESV)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Albert Pujols, More than the Game by Scott Lamb.

Albert Pujols has never been shy about his faith. In fact, he's one of the most vocal Christians in Major League Baseball. So when I picked up Pujols: More than the Game I knew that it would heavily emphasize the slugger's spiritual life. What I didn't realize is that it would also be a pretty good baseball story as well.

From Pujols’ upbringing in the Dominican Republic, to his conversion to Christianity, his baseball talent was obvious. For Pujols it was a process to learn that God gave that talent to him, and to find out what he was supposed to do with it. There were mistakes along the way – a fractured relationship with a scout was one of the learning experiences along the way. Consistently, though, Pujols’ hard work and determination kept him striving to improve, both on the field and off. Pujols depicts a man who remains a team player even while consistently striving for his personal best in every area of life.

Part biography, part inspirational, part sports drama, Pujols doesn't ignore the tough questions. Performance enhancing drugs, contract negotiations - authors Scott Lamb and Tim Ellsworth address them all. Pujols doesn't come across looking like a saint, but he definitely looks like a hero - someone you can be proud to have your kids admire, stand in line for autographs, and emulate. That’s okay, because he’s not claiming perfection and ultimately he is deflecting that attention to the One that gave him the talent in the first place.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”