Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 3

In Luke 18:1-8 we have the first of a pair of parables about prayer.  In this case it is the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I am not going to talk about how to preach it, but rather think about some of the implications of the passage on us as preachers.

Here are three things that matter:

1. Prayer.  This was a parable Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not give up.  Simple enough.  We know that persistence in prayer is a biblical idea.  But for many of us, we don’t live with the pressures of survival and injustice that might nudge us to more persistent prayer.  To be honest many of us live in the top 5-10 percent of the world’s wealthiest and the danger is that our comfort undermines our awareness of our need to pray.  What’s more, as those involved in leadership and ministry we can easily let our prayer lives drift because of the constant demands on our time, ever-beeping technology, etc.  Remember Acts 6:4 – church leadership, like the apostles, is primarily about the Word and prayer.  We need to pray persistently.

2. View of God.  This matters massively.  Jesus used a totally ungodly judge to prove his point, then amplified his point with the character of God.  Sadly, though, many think God is a lot like the judge in the story, only less persuadable.  Our view of God is the most important thing that can be said about us.  And the pressures of ministry, the struggles of interpersonal conflict, or even apparently unanswered prayer can secretly sour our view of God, even while we still preach good truth on Sundays.  This parable says that your view of God really matters.

3. View of time.  Following on from point 2, many of us can easily get so caught up in the present that we lose the eschatological edge that should cut through every situation we face.  Jesus is coming back.  Through busy lives, unhelpful “baby out with bathwater” theological reactions to sensational teaching, and a lack of attention to Scripture, we can easily start to think that today is as predictable as yesterday, and that there is no radically different tomorrow to influence how we live and how we pray.  But there is a different today that comes from living in light of that tomorrow that will come when Jesus returns.  Will we remain faithful: trusting and praying for situations that seem so unjust, and looking for his coming?

There’s plenty more that could be added, please do so in the comments below!

 

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Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2b

I am thinking about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15.  Yesterday we thought about how the kingdom of God spreads by the word, bringing genuine transformation, but not to all. Here are some more thoughts for us preachers to ponder:

4. The goal in seed sowing is heart penetration. The problem with the first three soils is that the seed lacks penetration.  In human terms it looks like a non-transformed heart.  The seed by the path people are self-lovers who are not penetrated at all by the seed. The seed in soil on rock folks are self-lovers who wither spiritually as soon as testing or trial comes because they are still trying to protect self.  The seed among thorns group are attracted to Jesus, but feel the tug of cares, riches and pleasures … and these ultimately win.  None of these people have their hearts transformed.  They love self and show it in different ways.  But the seed in good soil penetrates deep.  The life is not on the surface, but comes from deep within.  That is where Christian transformation takes place.

Seed is not impressive as a projectile.  An acorn will barely dent soil as it falls on it, but if it penetrates, then from inside it can change everything!  In Italy, apparently, there is a famous grave where an acorn fell in with the famous deceased occupant.  Centuries later the great marble slab lies broken in two by the oak tree that eventually grew up.  The word of God is not very impressive as a tool for pressuring conformity from the outside, but when it gets inside a heart then watch patiently as that life is transformed!

5. Listeners should take care then how they hear.  Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to hear carefully (in Luke 8 see verses 8, 9-10, 18, 21).  In a sense the applicational burden of this parable is on our listeners rather than on us as preachers, but actually, there are several ways we can help our congregations to heed Jesus’ instruction here:

  • Be a careful listener yourself – it will show in your life and in your preaching.
  • Make it clear how important it is to hear the word of God – make sure they know you are just the messenger, but the source of the message is worthy of heartfelt attention.
  • Don’t be dull – be the most engaging and effective communicator you can be.  God’s word is worthy of our best efforts, and what a frightening thought that we could get in the way of our listeners hearing!  (Don’t be boring. Don’t be monotonous.  Don’t be laborious.  Don’t be uninteresting.  How else can I say it?)

Tomorrow I will finish the list of thoughts, but feel free to comment at any time.

 

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2

Yesterday I preached on the parable of the sower in Luke 8 (also in Matthew 13 and Mark 4).  It is probably the third most famous parable (after Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan), it is one of only a couple where Jesus explains his meaning, and it is the parable of parables because Jesus also explains why he preached in parables so much!

As before, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but some lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us as preachers.

The parable is very simple. A sower scatters seed.  Same sower, same seed, different soils.  By the path seed was trodden on and snatched away.  Thin soil on rock seed shot up and withered without root.  Among thorns seed started to grow, but got choked.  Good soil seed grew and was very fruitful.  From the perspective of a farmer wanting a crop, only the last category was successful.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. God’s kingdom spreads by the word, not the sword. I think it was Tim Keller who made the helpful observation that Jesus could have chosen other Old Testament analogies for the word of God – a hammer, a fire, etc.  But he chose a seed.  Every other kingdom that has spread has done so at the edge of the sword, killing and threatening.  Christ’s kingdom advances through the weakness of a spoken message.  Be encouraged in your preaching, you are part of that advance.

It may seem weak when you look at your preaching, and even at the results of it, but all over the world there are millions of people worshiping Jesus and being transformed day by day who began their journey by hearing a presentation of the gospel from a friend or from a preacher (and most of those presentations were probably not that impressive!)

2. God’s kingdom spreads by profound transformation, not questionable conversion.  The parable is so simple, but we may wrestle with the second and third soils.  Are the signs of life something to celebrate?  Are these people saved?  Surely we should count every one we can?  Perhaps we would do better to be astonished by the profound crop of the good soil instead of trying to count every sprout as part of the harvest.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned at talk of a hundredfold crop.  We should be stunned when a life is truly transformed.  Jesus turned the world upside down with eleven transformed disciples, plus the women in that inner circle.  He was not anxious to count the crowds who only wanted miracles or Judas Iscariot who looked like an insider but ultimately wanted money over Jesus.

3. God’s kingdom spreads, but not to all.  We should be bothered that not everyone receives the gospel message with heartfelt response.  We should be bothered for their sake.  We should be bothered for logic’s sake too – if anyone sees how good the good news is, how wonderful Jesus is, how full life to the full is, then it makes no sense to not give everything in response.  But many will  not.

CS Lewis said there are two types of people in the world – those who say thy will be done to God, and those to whom God ultimately says, thy will be done.  This parable, in part, can encourage you to press on when you are seeing more non-response than you feel you can cope with!

Tomorrow I’ll add some more thoughts.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 1b

Thinking about the parable of the two builders at the end of Luke 6, yesterday we thought about the point of the story (that wisdom is in the doing of what Jesus said), and that Jesus said when, not if.  That is, trouble to test our lives is coming.  Here are two more reflections for us:

3. We are not exempt from the “hear and do” teaching. All Christians are prone to fall short of the “do” step.  Preachers are especially prone to this error.  We can so easily think it is enough to hear, to read, to know, to understand, even to believe … but Jesus said that we need to actually do what he says.  This is true in two respects:

  • It is true as a preacher. We need to be those who hear Jesus and put into practice what Jesus preached. It is frightening to get up close to some big-name speakers and discover that their spiritual immaturity has been pandered to because of their status.  It is sad to discover some who hold positions of spiritual influence have gaping flaws in their character and would rather excuse themselves than seek to grow in those areas.
  • It is true for our preaching. What kind of sermons are we building?  It is a problem if our sermons are being built late on Saturday and early on Sunday (I know I have been guilty of this for various legitimate and less legitimate reasons!)  Even if we start several days earlier, when do we have time to do what the passage teaches?  Could it be that we read, we study, we understand, we believe, and then we preach a sermon built directly on the ground without a foundation because we have not done the doing part?  Our sermons will stand up to testing if they have first been tested “under applied conditions” in real life.

4. Let Jesus motivate you. 

  • There is motivation in the words Jesus spoke on several levels.  It is encouraging to us in those areas where we are actively obeying even though it is not easy, and we don’t see automatic fruit.  It is a warning that we all need, that disobedience may not yield instant consequences, but the house will eventually collapse if it is built on hearing only.  It is an explanation for some who find themselves picking through rubble because of past choices.  There is lots of motivation in the words Jesus spoke.
  • There is also motivation to be found in the Jesus who spoke the words.  We can drop into the passage at a parable and hear the instruction, but miss the voice that is speaking.  This is the same Jesus who was pursuing the people, inviting them to follow him, to be with him, to see who he was, to discover his love for his Father, his compassion for hurting people, and his love for his own.  Four verses at the end of Luke 6 can pack quite a punch, but the book of Luke as a whole invites us to put ourselves completely under the influence of Jesus, the one who loved us and came to seek and to save that which was lost.  Parables are not just good stories, they are stories spoken by a good person.

Next week I will offer some preacher reflections on another parable…

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 1

Yesterday I preached on the two builders parable that Jesus used to finish up the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).  It struck me that there are some helpful points for preachers in that story.  I’m not going to write about how to preach the parable, but lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us.  In fact, over the next few weeks I’ll be preaching through several of Jesus’ parables and so may try to offer some points for preachers in light of each parable.

The parable is very simple.  Two men, two houses, potentially identical in every visible respect, but different in one very significant way: the foundation.  The first man (Luke 6:48) dug down until he got to rock upon which he made the foundation.  The second man just built his house on top of the ground (Luke 6:49).  I have absolutely no building experience, and yet I know that the second man was crazy to build the way he did.  I have been living for years, and yet I do the “crazy option” with alarming regularity.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. What was the point? Just like the Sunday School song, we can easily miss the point of a very easy passage to understand.  Jesus is not pointing to himself as the rock on which we must build our lives.  That may be true truth, but it is not the truth of this passage.  The point of the story is that the wise builder is the one who hears Jesus and does what he hears. Is there an area of obedience that is missing in your life right now?

2. Jesus did not say “if” but “when” … when the flood comes, when the stream bursts against the house.  We can easily fall into a modified prosperity misunderstanding, just like the Sunday School song: the blessings will come down as the prayers go up! Nice, but not always true.  Jesus said “when.”  Jesus said that in this world we will have trouble.  As preachers we need to prepare people for the real stuff of life, and we need to live our lives with awareness that trouble will hit us too.  Will we stand firm, or will we stand in a pile of rubble when trouble hits?  That depends, according to Jesus, on our doing what he teaches.

Tomorrow I will complete the list with two more reflections.

Living in the Shadow of the Cross

I grew up in a church that had a steady weekly rhythm of three meetings. There was the Sunday morning service where communion was the main and central feature – different folks sharing thoughts, songs and prayers that generally pointed us back to Calvary. Then there were the other two meetings: one was a Gospel presentation that always seemed to be targeted at unbelievers, the other was a Bible study that was definitely for believers. These were all good meetings and I am thankful for how much I benefited from all of these as I grew up. However, there was an implicit, though unintended, contradiction in this set of meetings.

The communion time kept new believer and seasoned saint together at the foot of the cross every Sunday morning. However, the other two meetings gave the distinct impression that the cross was for unbelievers who needed to get saved, but for believers there was a Bible study that could be anywhere in the Bible … almost as if we had moved on from the cross.

As we approach Easter again this year, do we see it as a season for evangelism, or as a season for personal renewal? Hopefully both. After all, the cross is not just for conversion. In fact, if we reflect on the teaching of Scripture we will recognize that we not only come to faith at the foot of the cross, but we also become mature in its shadow.

Consider the explosive book of Galatians. Paul was deeply bothered to hear that this new group of believers were being troubled by false teachers. These imposters wanted to supplement the Gospel of God’s grace that Paul had brought to them with an apparently “more complete” teaching. What was this more complete gospel? It was one that made the Law a central feature of both conversion (circumcision) and Christian growth (law-keeping effort). Paul was desperate to save the church from this error.

At the end of chapter two he gives the main thrust of his letter from verses 15-21. Notice how he refers to justification four times, followed by references to life six times. He is concerned about both – how do sinners get justified, and how do believers then live? Galatians 2:20 is a synopsis worthy of planting in our hearts:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

His death was my death. When Jesus died I co-died with him. Now it is the resurrected life of Christ that is vibrant within me. So how do I live in this flesh? I live by looking to the one who loved me and gave himself for me – I live my life by a cross-focused faith.

Then we come to chapter three of Galatians, and the first three verses challenge our human tendency to move beyond the cross, thinking we are becoming somehow more sophisticated.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Paul describes his ministry amongst them as one of placarding the cross. His phrase “publicly portrayed as crucified” is meaning that he painted a vivid and bold picture of the death of Christ as the overwhelming focus of his ministry. He had clearly “preached Christ and him crucified” (see 1Cor.2:1-5) and they had responded to that message.

But now Paul was shocked that they felt they could move on to a more sophisticated spirituality that fixed its gaze not on the cross of Christ, but onto their own flesh-driven efforts to mature (“being perfected”). During the next couple of chapters Paul pursues his powerful contrast between the gift of the New Covenant – wherein believers have a close relationship with God by looking to Christ and receiving the Spirit – and turning back to the Old Covenant that was never intended to save, but only point them to their need of Christ. Our flesh has an infinite capacity to think we can somehow go it alone, by our own efforts.

Galatians is just one place where we see this critical tension in life. We will always be pulled away from God’s salvation and life plan towards a self-reliant alternative. We may be more familiar with the rebellion version – that fleshly tendency to indulge in sin and go it alone in the realms of temptation. But there is a religious version too – a fleshly tendency to indulge in the sin of self-reliance where we start to go it alone in the realms of self-righteousness. For example, how easily do we fall into the default “try harder” approach to life when seeking to overcome temptation, or when sensing a need for a closer walk with Christ?

God wants us to mature, to grow more and more into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Easter is a great time to be reminded that our growing to maturity is not about our venturing out into various levels of academic or experiential sophistication, nor is it about gritting our teeth and simply trying harder as we look to our own resources. True Christian growth will always be nurtured in the shadow of the cross.

Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

Is the Genealogy Really Such a Let Down?

To the first-time reader, the Old Testament can feel like a confusing collection of laws and awkward stories.  Before too long it becomes an amazing epic retelling of God’s preparation for the arrival of his Son into our world.  If you have eyes to see, then the Old Testament becomes a treasure trove of God’s presence and God’s promise.  It is certainly not about heroes of the faith, for God’s people were consistently faithless, and yet God’s faithfulness outshines their wretchedness.  Where God had every right to declare his promises null and void, instead he kept adding to the promise and moving toward the arrival of the Messiah.

Then there is a blank page.  This is it.  This is the moment in a Bible read through that should make your heart leap.  So, you arrive in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 1.  Here it is!  This is the good news!  And then you find . . . a genealogy.  Disappointing to say the least.  Surely God could have launched the New Testament with something more exciting than a list of old names?

Actually, the genealogy at the start of the New Testament is a reason to celebrate.  More than that, it gives us reason to press on in our ministry.  Here are three reasons to be thankful for the genealogy that launches our New Testaments:

1. The good news that we proclaim is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in history.  

The arrival of God the Son into our world is not announced with a “Once upon a time,” introduction as we would expect of a fantasy tale.  It is announced with a “This is the genealogy of…” that we would expect of a historical figure.  This is so important.  In the midst of our preaching and pastoral care of souls we can forget how alien the good news of Jesus actually sounds to people.  It can sound like a fairy tale that we think might offer hope in the “real world.”  But let us never forget that the Gospel is not a fairy tale, it is rooted in actual events.

The Gospel is not a mythical tale that we speak into the real world to give people a purer perspective by which to live, or a touching tale that sets an example for us to follow in our infinitely more complex experience.  The Gospel is not a suggestion for how we should live.  It is an announcement of what God has done.

Real historical figures had real flesh and blood children who gave birth to actual children, and so on.  This genealogy offers forty-two touchdown points in history as preparation to the touchdown point that transforms history.  If Jesus was merely a myth, or only an example, or somehow just a fairy tale to inspire us, then all this would be so unnecessary.  If Jesus were a fairy tale, then he need be no more than a heavenly interruption in our normal world.  Instead, he really entered right into our normal world.

It is important to note that Matthew’s genealogy is carefully crafted.  He is deliberately selecting generations in order to build a shaped list, rather than an exhaustive one.  He is also tracing a line that diverges from the line that Luke includes in his Gospel.  It is not a contradiction, after all, your genealogy could also take any number of lines down through the centuries.

Read through the genealogy and ponder your ministry.  They faced struggles and uncertainty, yet they were part of God’s great story in ways most could hardly imagine.  We too don’t see the end of our story, but we know we are part of his story.  Thank God that the Gospel is rooted not in myth, but in history.  He came into our world and now we can live and serve him in that same history.  Real people, living real lives, facing real struggles, and always part of his story!

2. The good news that we proclaim is not shaped by our culture’s needs, it is shaped by God’s promise plan.

If we were to try and write the story of a God-sized fix to our hellish plight, we would probably make it a story of an other-worldly super-hero coming to our aid.  We wouldn’t have that hero becoming one of us, and a lowly one of us at that.  We would surely not trace a line down through two millennia of dysfunctional families, men who gave their wives away, men who stole other men’s wives, women of ill-repute, and disobedient nationals humiliated by deportation.

And yet there is a shape to this genealogy.  It is a deliberate shape that Matthew introduces in verse 1 and underlines with summary sums in verse 17.  This is the Abraham to David to Exile to Jesus genealogy.  What is significant about Abraham, David and the Exile?  Surely it is not the giving wife away (twice), stealing a wife and having her husband killed, and the humiliation by deportation … surely these are not the high points of the story?  Actually, no, but as we will see in the next point, this background certainly adds a unique colour to it all.

What is significant about this shaping of the genealogy is that these are three points in history where God leaned forward and added detail to his great promise plan.  God had promised to rescue humanity from sin back in Genesis 3:15.  That promise was developed when God promised to make Abram’s name great and to bless all the families of the earth through his seed.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down.

King David was blown away by further development on that promise, that his throne would endure forever and his greater son would ascend to it in the future.  Tick, tock, the clock continued to count down.

The prophets spoke in the context of national failure, in the context of Israel’s flaws being fully revealed by the Old Covenant that the day was coming when God would establish a New Covenant that would change everything.  Tick, tock, the clock was counting down and this genealogy shows us where it ends.

Jesus.

The fulfillment of God’s great sin-conquering, life-giving, problem-solving, Satan-defeating, promise plan was Mary’s son, baby Jesus.

What an encouragement this is to us as we continue to minister two thousand years later.  It is easy to see the mess of humanity.  And it is easy to miss that God has a greater plan being worked out in his own timing.  We can trust him, we must trust him.  We have no other hope besides him.

3. The good news that we proclaim is not coloured by human success, it is coloured by God’s grace for sinners.

We could put on rose-tinted spectacles and see the good in this list.  After all, Abraham was eventually a man of faith.  David was a man after God’s own heart.  Jacob was at least productive when it came to building a nation, and Boaz was an all-around good egg.  There are others we could name in the list, people of noble character, including Ruth, not to forget Joseph and Mary, of course.  Definitely some good people, or in many cases, some good moments.

Nevertheless, the more you study the list, the more you see the sin.  This is not a list of Israel’s finest and greatest.  This is a list of ordinary people who stumbled and messed up and blew it and sinned.  This is not a bland list of empty suits – positions celebrated without recognition that it was real humanity in those roles.  This is not a list brightened by human success, but rather a list coloured in by God’s grace to fallen people.

Did Abraham, Isaac and Jacob deserve to receive God’s good promise?  Obviously not, if you read through Genesis.  Did David deserve to have his throne established over the whole world forever?  Definitely not, if his story is heard in full.  Did Israel deserve the New Covenant?  Not in a million years.

God’s grace transforms human mess.

And perhaps the greatest colour in the genealogy?  Surely it is the colour added by the unusual inclusions … Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.  Four women. Probably four foreign women.  Most importantly, four women with significant question marks over their moral purity.  Tamar dressed up as a shrine prostitute to trick her father-in-law into giving her a son.  Rahab’s name always comes with the title of her profession.  Ruth was a wonderful women, but she did get a man drunk and slip under the covers at midnight.  And Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, was involved in the greatest scandal ever seen in Israel’s royal court.  They weren’t all bad, in fact, all of them were women of faith.  But they all had that question mark hanging over them.

And that is the colour that sets up the final woman in the list – Mary.  A woman of faith.  And yet a woman with her moral purity questioned by all.  She was pregnant before her wedding.  It was a scandal, even in a sin-stained place like Nazareth.  But this was not more of the same human mess.  This was God’s answer to the human mess.

The genealogy might first appear dull, then at a closer look it seems to contain some great names, but if you keep looking you see the mess of those lives, and if God opens our eyes to see, we start to see the glorious grace of God shining through it all.

That is where this post ends, but it is where hope begins.  When God gives us eyes to see the beauty of his glorious grace shining in the mess of humanity.  The genealogy prepares us for the coming of Jesus, the Christ.  Maybe this genealogy prepares us to press on in our messy ministries too – knowing that God’s great promise plan and glorious grace has already entered our world and brought the hope we all so desperately need.

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A couple of years ago I wrote Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation – I hope you can get hold of a copy and enjoy a light biblical read on this critical subject of God’s Son becoming one of us so that we could be one with Him!  It is not just a subject to study at Christmas.  The incarnation is in the very DNA of the Christian faith.

Preaching Bigger Books in Shorter Series

Let’s say you want to preach from a bigger book, but you like the idea of shorter series – is that possible?  Here are a few suggestions:

1. Preach a shorter section – instead of feeling obligated to preach a whole book every time, why not preach a contained unit from a book for a series.  You don’t have to give equal coverage to the whole book in this particular series, you can always come back for another section another time.

2. Have a Gospel/book of the year – we had a season in our church (over a year) where we were in Mark’s Gospel, but we didn’t want to be preaching it for months on end.  We planned so that we had the Easter section at the right time of the year, but in the months before that we had covered some sections in midweek groups instead of on Sundays.  This meant that our shorter series on Sundays were more focused and could be “branded” separately to allow for renewed energy in each mini-series.  We also had breaks from Mark to spend time in other types of series and other types of biblical literature.

3. Preach a landmark tour – this is a way to preach a book without giving every verse equal attention.  You can preach the landmarks of a Bible book over the course of a few Sundays.  For example, you might preach Romans by starting in 1:16-17 to launch, and then touching down in other keys texts like 3:21-25; 5:1-8; 8:1; 12:1-2, etc.  Obviously, you will need to give some overview of the flow for this approach to work, but it allows you to zero in on the golden passages. If done well then the church will be motivated to read the whole book.  You can also supplement with midweek discussions that cover more ground, although that is only one approach to take.

4. Preach different sized chunks – this is similar to number 3, but is more intentional about covering the whole book.  You could launch a Romans series with 1:1-17, but then cover greater ground with a couple of the messages in a series covering several chapters.  For instance, you might have a message covering 1:18-3:20, then maybe one covering 3:21-5:21, etc.  You could preach an 8-week series with three or four of the messages covering three chapters and then the other four focusing in a bit more – i.e. chapter 8 on its own, or chapter 12.

Have you found other ways to run shorter series on longer books?