The Shepherd-King

It is almost time for Micah’s annual mention.  For a seven-chapter book, Micah probably does not get as much attention as his book deserves.  He was a contemporary of Isaiah and his writings overlap nicely with his more renowned prophetic colleague.

Micah’s seven chapters begin with a bang, end with a symphony of God’s goodness, and progress through three cycles of justice and hope.  He spoke of justice because his society, and its leadership, were dangerously unjust.  He spoke of hope because that is how God’s heart of kindness manifests itself to sinning humans.  And throughout this little prophetic book, with a powerful prophetic punch, Micah keeps pointing to God’s good Shepherd-King.

The first cycle of justice and hope takes the reader through chapters 1 and 2.  Micah begins with a powerful theophany to launch the book – a description of God stepping into the world and everything melting before him.  The overwhelming impression is that we must take God seriously.  This thought continues as Micah lays out how this awesome God judges sin.  He judges the sin of not taking Him seriously, not taking His people seriously, and not taking His truth seriously.  And after two chapters of divine justice, we are uplifted by two verses of divine hope.  God will gather his people with the heart of a shepherd, and he will lead his people with the strength of a king (2:12-13).

The reference to God as the leader moves Micah into his second cycle of justice and hope in chapters 3-5.  Again, he begins by condemning the injustices of his society, focusing now on the leadership who abuse their position, proclamation, and privilege.  Micah was surrounded by corrupt speakers who spoke according to their paycheck.  Micah, in contrast, was filled with the power of the Spirit of God to speak against the sins of his society (see Micah 3:8). Almost three millennia separate Micah’s culture from ours, but the similarities only demonstrate the consistency of human fallenness.  We cannot expect human leaders to be all we need, and we should not be surprised when human leaders are profoundly corrupted.  What we need is God’s good leadership.

This thought is developed in the hope section, now not just two verses, but rather two chapters long!  Micah paints a glorious picture of a future golden age.  Opinions differ as to when that age fits into the timeline of history and eternity. Still, it reveals God’s desire as He leads: He plans to unite peoples, to transform them by His teaching, to reconcile them to end their fighting and to love the weak and broken.  While the immediate future looked bleak, with a prophecy of exile in Babylon to assure them of God’s longer-term trustworthiness, Micah then comes to chapter 5.

If what we need is God’s good leadership, then who will be God’s good leader?  God promised His eternal ruler to the little town of Bethlehem.  Micah 5:2 is quoted every Christmas as King Herod tries to work out where a new king would be born.  But we should keep going beyond that one verse.  A couple of verses later, we get some description of this coming King.  He would be a strong shepherd, strengthened by God.  He would bring global security (something never achieved in our world even up to today).  And He would be their peace.  Back in Micah 3:5, we read about false teachers offering a message of peace only if they are paid for it, but this coming Shepherd-King will bring genuine peace to the world!

Micah’s third and final cycle of justice and hope stretches through chapters 6 and 7.  Again he returns to the corruption of the city and its leadership.  God had only required that they do justice (in their dealings with one another), reflecting the loyal kindness of God’s heart, and do so in humble dependence upon God.  (Micah 6:8 is the other verse that gets a mention now and then!)  But the leaders, and the people, lived out a non-Micah 6:8 kind of lifestyle that was worthy of God’s discipline.  The whole of that society seemed rotten to the core, but Micah, in contrast, looked to the Lord and waited for his saving God to hear him (see Micah 7:7).

Micah’s first cycle urges us to take God seriously.  The second cycle encourages us to see our need for God’s good leadership.  This final cycle underlines that our hope is in a God who is faithful to His promises.  As justice yields the stage to hope, Micah calls for God to “Shepherd your people . . . as in the days of old.”  He looks back to how God shepherded his people out of Egypt and in the wilderness (see Micah 7:14-17).

Micah began with a bang as the awesome God stepped in and mountains melted like wax.  But now, he ends with a symphony celebrating God’s goodness.  We live in cultures that are often as unjust as in Micah’s day.  We live with national leadership that is often as corrupt as those that Micah renounced.  We also live in a sinful world that deserves divine justice, so we need to look up for the divine hope – hope promised long ago, hope that broke in that first Christmas in the person of Jesus, and hope that can see us through whatever still lies ahead.  So, as 2021 draws to a close, let’s allow Micah’s climactic symphony of God’s goodness to resonate in our hearts and lives:

18   Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity

and passing over transgression

for the remnant of his inheritance?

He does not retain his anger forever,

because he delights in steadfast love.

19   He will again have compassion on us;

he will tread our iniquities underfoot.

You will cast all our sins

into the depths of the sea.

20   You will show faithfulness to Jacob

and steadfast love to Abraham,

as you have sworn to our fathers

from the days of old.

Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation is a great read in the build-up to Christmas. 24 short chapters make for a healthy heart preparation during the days of Advent. To get your copy in Europe click here, or in the USA click here.

Don’t Preach a Christmassy Christmas

It is easy to preach Christmas in a Christmassy way. You know, quaint and familiar cliches that smell a lot like an other-worldly fairy tale. It will have beautiful scenes and an eclectic array of two-dimensional characters. And our listeners will guess where the message is going: kindness to others, unity amidst division, celestial sentiments of goodwill and a few references to eating too much.

The first Christmas was no fairy tale. So we should not preach Christmas to satisfy the nostalgic yearnings of a weary public. Nor should we sprint past the stable to get to a post-Christmas presentation of the Gospel in order to satisfy the more robust preaching critics from pew four.

The birth of Jesus occurred in a context of great confusion and tension. Jesus entered this world to change things. And if we can enter that world, we might better grasp the hope for our world today.

Just think of all that swirled for the characters that first Christmas:

The shepherds were social outcasts who received one of the greatest visions in human history. They were stunned. And they needed the angel to stir them to leave their sheep and dare to follow up on the heavenly announcement. If the angel hadn’t deliberately mentioned the manger, and therefore, the poor surroundings of the newborn king, they would have probably stayed in the fields impressed by their vision.

The Magi were trusting in obscure information passed down to them and what they saw in the night sky. Prophecies from foreign documents, long and dangerous travel, no guarantee of fruit from their journey. We can only imagine how bizarre it must have seemed to them (as well as how bizarre they felt as they arrived at their destination!)

Mary and Joseph got their life-changing information from Gabriel – it was truly momentous news, but so much was left unsaid. What would they say to others? How would they explain this? Would they even be able to live in their home town? How would family react? Who would trust Joseph’s word in business now? Lots of questions about the little stuff of real life.

But as they all lived that first Christmas, God did give them what they needed. They heard or discovered God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s timing, God’s plan to deliver people from their sins, even what God would look like if he came in human flesh to be with us!

As we preach Christmas this Christmas, let’s not sound too Christmassy. Instead, let’s invite people back into that world, so that they can discover how Jesus came into our world, for real people, with real issues, real fears, real doubts, and real questions. Let’s stand next to an unnamed shepherd or Joseph, not knowing what the next years will bring, but knowing that God has cared enough to do something about it! Life was complex before 2020. They didn’t used to live two-dimensional cartoon lives. Preach the real Christmas, and give real hope, this Christmas.

Christmas Wonder

One of the greatest dangers we face in ministry is losing the wonder of what we speak about. The demands of ministry are always high, and this year, maybe even higher. There are the expectations of people, the burden of creativity (only two pairs of Gospel chapters to preach from!), the pastoral concerns that don’t lessen in the dark days of December, extra responsibilities and expectations at home, and so on. How easy it is to lose the wonder of Christmas!

I don’t want to try to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all this Christmas. I just want to suggest that we do. What will it take? Time with family – proper time? Extra guarded time alone with God? Is there music that triggers your awe at the Incarnation? Or a good book? Whatever it takes.

As we head into this unusual Christmas season, there are definitely pressures building on us. Let’s look to be captured by the grace of God as he chose to step into our messy world. Let’s look to be gripped by the hope held out in the Christmas story for a dark hurting world full of sinners – sinners ruled by sinners, threatened by death, worried about issues local and global (true then as it is true now!) Let’s look to be stirred afresh by the history-hinge of the Incarnation.

Ponder the first Christmas in all its gritty reality. Ponder the Incarnation in all its theological wonder. Ponder the questions raised for the first characters as they watched it unfold. Ponder the answers given to any willing to probe the truths of biblical revelation. Ponder the journey Jesus took from Bethlehem to the Cross. Ponder the everlasting nature of Christ taking on flesh. Ponder the hope that we have of seeing him one day for ourselves. Ponder. Ignite the wonder. Whatever it takes.

Preparing Christmas Sermons or Advent Reading?

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I just realized that Advent is fast approaching and you may well be starting to think about Christmas preaching (or Advent reading with family).  Can I make an overt promotion of Pleased to Dwell for this purpose?

1. As an Advent Read – With 24 short chapters, Pleased to Dwell, works really well as a pre-Christmas read for an individual or a family.  Engaging and high energy, the sense of anticipation builds toward the Christmas narratives and their implications for us.  I know some churches are using it as a church-wide pre-Christmas resource too.

2. For Advent Sermon Prep – There are at least four sermon series ideas developed in Pleased to Dwell.  Obviously there are the two infancy narrative sections (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2) developed in some detail, but still easily accessible.  Then there is the Old Testament section, perhaps offering a series on the coming Prophet, Priest and King.  The book also have a New Testament section with chapters some of the key epistle references to the coming of Christ (typically this would be for a preacher who feels the need for something other than infancy narratives and prophecies for a Christmas series!)

To purchase Pleased to Dwell, there are links on here for purchasing in the UK, and here for purchasing in the USA/Canada.  (If you wanted to get a volume discount here in the UK, please contact me via the comments and I will get in touch – I won’t post your comment.)

Christmas Preaching 1: Familiar Passages

I am in the process of preparing six messages for the Christmas season.  Perhaps you are also preaching in the coming weeks of advent.  Here are some thoughts that may be helpful:

1. There’s nothing wrong with familiar passages.  It is tempting to think that we have to be always innovating, always creative, always somewhere surprising.  Don’t.  Just as children will repeatedly ask for the same bedtime story, and adults will revisit the same movie of choice, so churchgoers are fine with a Christmas message at Christmas.  Sometimes in trying to be clever we simply fail to connect.  Don’t hesitate to preach a Matthew or Luke birth narrative!

2. Preach the writer’s emphasis, not a Christmas card.  Anywhere in the Gospels it is possible to be drawn from the emphasis of the text to the event itself.  If you are preaching Matthew for several weeks, great, preach Matthew.  If Luke, preach Luke.  Whether it is a series or an individual message, be sure to look closely and see what the writer is emphasizing in each narrative.

3. Familiar passages deserve to be offered fresh.  Don’t take my first comment as an excuse to be a stale preacher.  There’s no need to simply dust off an old message and give it again without first revisiting it.  Whenever we preach God’s Word we should stand and preach as those who have a fresh passion for what God is communicating there.  There’s no excuse for a cold heart or stale content.

4. Fresh doesn’t have to mean innovative or weird.  Now all this talk of fresh could lead us down a windy path into strange ideas.  There is plenty in each text that is very much there, so we don’t need to superimpose our own clever and innovative “five facts about struggling against capitalism from the angel’s visit to Zechariah.”  Equally, we don’t have to preach dressed as a sheep in order to offer something fresh.

5. Be careful when fresh includes disagreeing with tradition.  You may find that looking closely at the text and studying the culture of that time actually causes you to question some stable assumptions (see what I did there?)  Was there a stable?  Where was Jesus born?  When did the Magi arrive?  How did the star thing work?  Think carefully about throwing a hand grenade into peoples’ traditions.  There is a place, and a tone, for correcting errant thinking, but tread carefully.

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The Wonder of Christmas

One of the great occupational hazards of ministry is that we can so easily lose the wonder of what we are dealing with.  With the demands of the schedule, the expectations of people, the burden of creativity in a season that comes every twelfth month (but is only fully reported in two gospels), the ongoing reality of messy lives (people still get in trouble, marriages still fail, loneliness still bites, folks still sin), and so on, we can easily lose the wonder of Christmas.

In this post I don’t want to prescribe how to keep the wonder of it all, I just want to suggest we do.  Whatever it takes.  Perhaps time with family.  Perhaps some extra guarded time alone with God.  Perhaps a special treat carol concert. Perhaps a brief journey to a sentimental place.  Perhaps read one of those booklets the church is offering to visitors over Christmas.  Whatever it takes.

Let us make sure that we don’t go through Christmas feeling the pressure and the burden of it all, without also renewing the wonder in our hearts.  Let us be captured by the grace of God that He would step into this world.  Let us be gripped by the hope inherent in the Christmas story for a world of sinners – for Christ came into the world to save sinners!  Let us be stirred afresh by the history-changing event of the incarnation.  Ponder the first Christmas, ponder the reality of the incarnation, ponder the journey from Bethlehem to Calvary, ponder the everlasting nature of the incarnation.  Ponder.  Ignite the wonder again.  Whatever it takes.