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Matthew & Luke: A Tale of Two Christmases

In most nativity sets, we blend the various Christmas stories together in one big, happy créche–shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, manger, and the rest. And rightly so. Each character adds a different flavor to the rich celebration of the coming of the Christ Child. Even the extras that crowd the scene like the ox and donkey, although not mentioned in the Christmas stories, can bring extra theological depth for those who have eyes to see.

However, sometimes in all the Advent amalgamation, we can overlook the distinct Christmas narratives that Matthew and Luke are telling. If you have read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, then you know how much of the content overlaps in their books. However, when it comes to the first two chapters of each Gospel–when it comes to the way they narrate Christmas–they couldn’t be more different.

Has it ever struck you how different the Christmas stories are in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

In fact, considering how much of their stories do align, only specific intentionality can explain how differently they recount the Advent of the Christ. When you set their two accounts side by side, it becomes clear that each is making volitional, contrasting editorial choices. Consider these for a start:

  • In Luke, Caesar Augustus looms large in the background (Luke 2:1).
  • In Matthew, King Herod acts in the foreground (Matthew 2:1-ff).
  • Luke’s Gospel is told from Mary’s perspective and treats her as the main protagonist.
  • Matthews’s Gospel is told from Joseph’s perspective and treats him as the main protagonist.
  • In Luke, an angel appears to Mary before conception (Luke 1:30-31).
  • In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph after conception (Matthew 1:20).
  • In Luke, the angel tells Mary “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
  • In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:21,25).
  • Luke’s Gospel features “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13).
  • Matthew’s Gospel features a solitary star (Matthew 2:1-ff).
  • Luke’s birth announcement is brought by angels to the shepherds of the flock in Bethlehem (Luke 2:8).
  • Matthew’s birth announcement is brought by magi to the false shepherds of God’s people in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:4).
  • Luke’s birth announcement brings peace on earth (Luke 2:14).
  • Matthew’s birth announcement brings trouble to all Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3).
  • In Luke’s telling, the shepherds instruct one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem…” (Luke 2:15).
  • In Matthew’s version, King Herod sends the magi “to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child…'” (Matthew 2:8).
  • In Luke, Hebrew shepherds “in the same region…out in the field” find the child (Luke 2:8,16)
  • In Matthew, Gentile “magi from the east” find the child (Matthew 2:1,11)
  • In Luke’s account, shepherds visit baby Jesus (Luke 2:16)
  • In Matthew’s account, baby Jesus is the shepherd (Matthew 2:6)
  • At Luke’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with singing (Luke 2:13,20).
  • At Matthew’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with weeping (Matthew 2:18).
  • In Luke, we find spiritual treasures: “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
  • In Matthew, we find earthly treasures: “Opening their treasures, [the wise men] offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
  • In Luke’s narrative, Mary and child enter the Temple to worship the Lord (Luke 2:22,27).
  • In Matthew’s narrative, the magi enter the house, see the child and Mary, and worship him (Matthew 2:11).
  • Luke’s holy family travels to the Temple (Luke 2:22).
  • Matthew’s holy family escapes to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).
  • Luke recounts the circumcision and Passover redemption of the male infant Christ (Luke 2:21,23,27).
  • Matthew recounts the cutting off of all the male infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).

The two Christmas narratives finally converge at the ends of their second chapters:

  • Luke 2:39, 51–“they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth…And he went down with them and came to Nazareth”
  • Matthew 2:23–“And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth…”

From this point on, Matthew and Luke largely walk hand-in-hand through the rest of the story of Christ’s baptism, ministry, teaching, miracles, arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

This leaves us with a question: Why? When authors take intentionally divergent paths as they recount the same historical event, they do it for a purpose. Particularly, we are talking about the opening chapters of the book. These chapters play a huge role in shaping the way we read the entire rest of the story–setting our expectations, creating categories for interpretation, introducing characters, themes, and motifs, and creating a narrative arc that will be closed in a unique way at the conclusion of each book, respectively.

It’s a tale of two Christmases. What unique perspective is Matthew seeking to communicate with his particular Christmas narrative? What stage is Luke setting with the way he relates the events of the Advent?

We could spend an entire book exploring this question. Certainly, Matthew and Luke show us that the events of Christ’s life can be read, understood, and interpreted in multiple ways. The contrast between their Christmas narratives cannot be accidental. There are marks of pointed, intentional, editorial distinctions in each. Although Matthew and Luke have a ton of overlapping content and follow a very similar timeline of events, their contrasting Advent accounts invite us to see these events through two different lenses. Matthew and Luke are seeking to provide complementary readings, not contradictory–much like the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.

The purposes for Matthew’s version of Christmas vs. Luke’s version come to light only as we continue to read the rest of each book. Theology planted in seed form in Matthew’s Christmas and Luke’s Christmas begins to blossom and bear fruit as each gospel writer tells the rest of his tale.

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“We Three Kings”: How Many Wise Men Were There Really?

It’s another Advent season, and another round of articles poised to rob us of our Christmas joy. This is not one of those articles. Sufjan Stevens encourages us to embrace the inner Christmas unicorn each December. It’s a time of imagination, celebration, and mirth.

So, as we come to the traditional Christmas carol “We Three Kings”, I’m not going to point at Matthew 2 and say, “See? it doesn’t actually say how many magi there were” (which is technically correct). No, in the spirit of Christmas let’s expand our imagination. Let me show you that it is perfectly fitting with Matthew’s overarching narrative to sing “we three kings” (or three magi or three wise men, take your pick).

Everything Begins in Genesis.

I’ve found that if you want to get to the bottom of anything in Scripture, you’re going to find it Genesis:

“And the LORD appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth…” (Genesis 18:1-2)

It’s quite a bizarre visitation: The Lord comes to Abraham in the form of three men. Abraham scrambled to put together a suitable meal for these three. As they ate, the Lord delivered good news: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10). After Sarah was caught eavesdropping—and scoffing at the prospect of pregnancy at her elderly age—the three men asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son” (18:14).

However, Abraham’s hospitality was only a pit-stop along a more foreboding journey: “Then the men set out from there, and they looked down toward Sodom…Then the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave, I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know’” (18:16,20). The visitation of these three men was good news for Abraham: his promised offspring was to be born. It was also fearful judgment soon to come upon Sodom.

In the ensuing chapter, angels visited Abraham’s relative Lot in Sodom and helped his family escape certain death: “Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city” (Genesis 19:15). That very day, “The Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”

Matthew’s Christmas narrative dovetails with Genesis 18 and 19 in many ways. His story also begins with the proclamation of an impossible conception (to Joseph about Mary), one that will bring the visitation of the Lord: “They shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” In the next chapter, wise men come to Jerusalem—whose inhabitants claim “We have Abraham as our father” (Matt. 3:9)—declaring the birth of the King of the Jews. The city rightly acknowledges this as the promised offspring of Abraham: the Christ Child.

Interestingly, the three men of Genesis 18 never returned in physical form to see the child of Abraham. As Matthew’s wise men enter the house and see “the child with Mary his mother,” he could be presenting the final fulfillment of the promise made all they way back in Genesis: “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son” (18:10).

After the departure of the magi, angels warn of impending wrath, just like Lot and his family who escaped Sodom: “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt!” (Matt. 2:13). It’s undeniable that the narrative arc of the magi feels very similar to the visit of those three men proclaiming the birth of Isaac—and the destruction of Sodom—in Genesis.

Sodom: A Perpetual Symbol

The destruction of Sodom is used time and again by prophets of Scripture as a symbol of impending judgment. When Moses warns the people of the curses of the Law, he tells them that disobedience to the Lord will result in a similar rain of fire:

“The whole land [will be] burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in his anger and wrath—all the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’” (Deuteronomy 29:23-24)

Even more pertinent to the visitation of our wise men, Isaiah begins his book by representing Jerusalem as the metaphorical Sodom:

“Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” (Isaiah 1:10-11)

Ezekiel also compares the sins of Judah’s capital city to those of wicked Sodom:

“Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations…As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done…you have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed.” (Ezekiel 16:2,48,51)

Jeremiah, also:

“But in the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing…all of them have become like Sodom to me, and its inhabitants like Gomorrah” (Jeremiah 23:14)

This symbolic comparison between Jerusalem and Sodom did not cease in the New Testament. In fact, John the Revelator calls Jerusalem “the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified” (Rev. 11:8).

As we set the visitation of the three men beside the visitation of the magi, we see a foreshadowing of the fate of Jerusalem. Like the three men who visited Sodom to search out its sins, the arrival of the wise men in Jerusalem revealed the wickedness of the city. The city was under the dominion of a murderous king, and the chief priests and scribes took counsel together with Herod “against the Lord and against his Christ” (Psalm 2:2, Matt. 2:4). In a thick retelling of events, Matthew evokes the visit of the three men as an ominous foreboding of Jerusalem’s destruction.

The City that Sealed Its Fate.

If you remember the story of Sodom, the men of the city gathered in a mob by night and tried to assault their visitors. Seeking to do their worst, the city proved deserving of the burning wrath of God. In a similar way, the city of Jerusalem seals its own fate as it abused and murdered Immanuel.

It’s no accident that Matthew’s narrative only visits Jerusalem twice: once at the beginning of the book and a second time at the end–coinciding with the birth and death of the Christ. When gentile magi entered the city gates seeking “the King of the Jews” in chapter 2, “Herod the king…was troubled and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). When gentile Galileans entered the city gates proclaiming “Hosanna to the Son of David!” in chapter 21, “the whole city was stirred up” (Matt. 21:10). At his birth, they sought to kill Immanuel. At his death, Jerusalem succeeded.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus used Sodom to symbolize the judgment that would fall on the city that rejects him: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt. 10:15). When the city of Jerusalem would not recognize Jesus at his triumphal entry (“Who is this?” Matt. 21:10), he entered the temple and overturned their tables. He then pronounced woes upon the city (Matt. 23:37-39), and encouraged his disciples to flee from Jerusalem on the coming day of wrath (Matt. 24:15-35).

In the end, the city of Jerusalem proved even more wicked than Sodom. When the got their hands on the city’s visitor, they cried out, “Let him be crucified!” Mocking him and crying out, “Hail! King of the Jews!”, they spit on him and beat him. Hanging him publicly on a cross as though taunting God himself, “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews’” (Matthew 27:37).

Three Kings: A Warning

At Christmas time, we normally like to think of peace and white snow and doves and silly nutcrackers. However, the visitation of the magi forebodes judgment for all those who refuse to acknowledge the Christ in his coming. When we visualize three men coming from far away to survey Jerusalem, we are choosing to see how Matthew’s story lays out the justified wrath of God against a wicked city. Indeed, the symbolic Sodom shows us what awaits all of those who scoff at the advent of the Messiah.

This Christmas, celebrate the goodness of God, the joy of the season, and eat Christmas cookies and cocoa. However, as we ponder the visit of “We Three Kings,” let us remember that Immanuel, God with us, spells salvation for his people but judgment for his enemies.

(Adoration of the Magi by Giotto)

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Why Did Paul Winter in Nicopolis?

I’m in a wintry mood this morning. Christmas is just around the corner. Perhaps you are stuck inside looking at the snow falling, or maybe you live in South Carolina–like me–and are watching cold rain. You clutch your mug nice and warm in your hand, and a perfectly normal thought enters your mind, “I wonder what the apostle Paul did in the winter?”

We all have these kinds of thoughts on the regular, am I right?

Well, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you are in for a treat. A nice, warm from the oven wintry surprise from Paul’s letter to Titus. As he ends his epistle, Paul gives Titus instructions regarding a network of people he is organizing and sending throughout the Roman Empire:

“When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.” (Titus 3:12-15)

Now, many of these characters are familiar if you have read Acts, but I was particularly intrigued by the location Paul mentions. In my Greek text I circled “Nicopolis” with the note where? in order to come back and figure out if there was any particular significance to that location.

And oh boy, was there ever.

Have you heard of the Battle of Actium? No? Maybe? A little foggy?

The year is 31 B.C. In the previous decade, Octavian, Mark Antony, and Marcus Lepidus formed the Triumvirate, each ruling portions of the Roman Republic while seeking to squash other rivals.

During that time, Mark Antony–officially married to Octavian’s sister Octavia–had begun a public affair with Cleopatra of Alexandria. After disappointing military efforts in Parthia, Antony beguiled and arrested the Armenian king, parading him in chains back to Alexandria in a sham display of  victory. At the conclusion of this celebration, Antony and Cleopatra bestowed upon their children lands that did not belong to them–but to the Roman Republic and Parthia.

This was particularly inflammatory because the majority of the lands were bequeathed to Caesarion, a child Cleopatra claimed to have conceived with Julius Caesar. Antony declared Caesarion the rightful son of Caesar, giving him the title “King of kings”. Octavian took obvious offense, being the legally adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar.

Lorenzo A. Castro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This created an irreconcilable breach, which led to September 2, 31 B.C.–the battle of Actium. In this naval conflict, the battleships of Octavian clashed with Mark Antony’s fleet off the coast of Italy. Using smaller, more maneuverable ships, Octavian dealt a decisive blow to Antony and Cleopatra’s armada by sea. On land, Octavian’s general Titus Statilius Taurus forced Antony’s troops into total surrender.

This battle was the turning point in Roman history. After his victory, the senate bestowed upon Octavian the title we all know him by: Caesar Augustus. Rome was no longer a republic but an empire ruled by a king.

Three years later, Caesar returned to the shores of Italy opposite Actium and founded a city to memorialize his momentous victory. He named it Nicopolis–“Victory City”. Roman historian Suetonius writes,

“To extend the fame of his victory at Actium and perpetuate his memory, he founded a city called Nicopolis near Actium, and provided for the celebration of games there every five years; enlarged the ancient temple of [his patron god] Apollo…”

It is in this Nicopolis–the monument city to Caesar Augustus’ strategic victory and newly minted dynasty–that Paul planned to winter (Titus 3:12).

Herein lies the irony: from Caesar’s Victory City, Paul was strategically organizing the spread of the Kingdom of the eternally victorious Christ. He summoned Titus–who shares his name with Caesar’s famous general at the Battle of Actium–to Nicopolis. He commissioned Apollos–no longer speedily working for Caesar but as servant of Jesus Christ. While Paul “[waited] for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13), he labored under the certain belief that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Revelation 11:15).

9 Classics to Add to Your 2020 Reading List

As you put together your good intentions for 2020, consider adding some classics to your reading list. I know what you are thinking: But weren’t these books written to be read by whiny high school students and no one else? Whether you were forced to read some of these in school or not, I think you will be surprised by how much you actually enjoy these books as an adult. Give one or two of them a try this year. They’re classics for a reason!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A boy and a runaway slave make the journey of a lifetime in search for freedom only to discover in the end the whole thing was pointless. Or was it? Huck Finn is an American odyssey: the tale of an impossible friendship forged on the River searching desperately for a safe harbor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre has everything: gothic castles, fiery bedposts, creepy laughter, and emo moments in the woods. All alone in a man’s world, Jane wrestles with her value as woman. To find herself, she must navigate the temptations to follow her heart, caution be damned, with Mr. Rochester or to follow her head and quench all passion with St. John. And BONUS: Something strange is lurking in the attic.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

You’ll be laughing with every turn of the page as Austen’s frivolity comes to life. The deft author’s dry wit cracks and snarls under a thin veneer of British gentility. What makes for a good marriage? Every character seems to have an opinion, but what does the author–herself unmarried—believe? And what about you?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

A heartbreaking and inspiring tale of an American hero. Unlike the at times melodramatic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this is a plain-faced portrait of Southern slavery from a man who experienced it. Douglass’s accounts answer questions from detractors that still linger today: If slavery was so bad, why didn’t more slaves run away? Why didn’t slaves speak out about poor conditions? Weren’t bad slave masters the outliers? A black man escapes a world bent on degrading his nature, and it begins with learning the A, B, C.

The Aeneid by Virgil

Set sail with Aeneas and a few survivors as they escape the burned rubble of Troy in search of a new home. Sure, it’s a propaganda piece advocating for the legitimacy of Caesar’s power in Rome, but it’s got a whole lot more gore and action than any thriller you’ll see in theaters! Plus, you will feel like a smarty-pants reading it.

1984 by George Orwell

Everyone is putting all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing Portals and Amazon Echo Dots in every room of their homes. Fake news, redacted stories, and doctored bylines threaten to rewrite history every second. Sound like 2019? Nope. It’s 1984, and your world is about to end. Two protagonists hunger for human connection in a digitized police state. Can they find love before it’s too late?

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

What if I strung together every thought my three year-old daughter said aloud and turned it into a novel? Welcome to the addled mind of Holden Caulfield, whose ambling narrative reads much like the Facebook comments section. You want to look away, but for some reason…you just have to know what he’s going to say next. This past year may have you asking, has the world gone mad? To steal a line from JAY-Z, Salinger turns the question on its head: “But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane…”

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Bunyan’s novel is a triumph of early English literature and a book that should be read by all Christians of all stripes. This allegory illuminates theological truths and puts in concrete form the feelings, thoughts, and groanings of believers who are walking the pilgrim way. Whether read for enjoyment, devotional meditation, or as a part of family worship, Pilgrim’s Progress will remind you that on this journey of faith you are not alone.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Who’m I kidding? There’s no way I’m going to convince you to read this one. It’s your loss!

Where to Turn in a World of Competing Narratives

I was reading Psalm 73 this morning, and Asaph reminded me of Reason #372 why it is so important to be in church on Sunday mornings. He begins his Psalm bewildered by the conflict of what he believes to be true in his heart and what seems to be true in the culture:

Truly God is good to Israel,

to those who are pure in heart. 

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,

my steps had nearly slipped. 

For I was envious of the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Psalm 73:1-3

While Asaph knows in the depth of his soul that God is good to the pure in heart, everything around him seems to proclaim–from the magazine racks and the news and the movies and the workplace and Netflix and Facebook and politics–a contradictory truth: “The wicked prosper.”

For they have no pangs until death;

their bodies are fat and sleek.

They are not in trouble as others are;

they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 

Therefore pride is their necklace;

violence covers them as a garment.

Their eyes swell out through fatness;

their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice;

loftily they threaten oppression. 

They set their mouths against the heavens,

and their tongue struts through the earth. 

Psalm 73:4-9

The horrifying story unfolding before Asaph’s eyes seems so true, and it threatens to dethrone the truth hidden in his own heart. What are we to do when the narratives playing out in society are a direct affront to our Christian faith? We are surrounded by conflicting stories; how do we keep our feet from stumbling into false narratives? Asaph shows us the way.

Postmodernism and False Narratives.

I remember the first time I encountered the word postmodernism. I was in high school in the early 2000s, and Christians were certain postmodernism was going to be the downfall of society. At the time, postmodern thought in my limited understanding boiled down to one basic tenet: Truth is relative. It was a dangerous truth claim to be sure.

What I realize now is how I failed to comprehend the point of a postmodern perspective. Postmodernism was descriptive before it was prescriptive. The mantra, “Truth is relative,” was not necessarily the way postmoderns wanted the world to be; it was simply the way the world already operated.

Postmodernism aimed to be apocalyptic. Much like the book of Revelation, it sought to remove the masks and reveal the power struggles beneath the surface. What was really happening when individuals, political parties, genders, races, classes, or religious organizations claimed to have the truth on their side?

From a postmodern perspective, truth is never really about truth. Truth is about power. The truth is malleable—easily refashioned to fit whatever narrative our team is pushing. And whoever controls the narrative controls the world.

Certainly, we cannot deny this often to be the case today. Everyone is pushing a narrative. Everyone is weaving a tale. Just turn on cable news. You will hear two totally different accounts of the “facts” depending on which network you choose. That is because each has a story it is telling, and that story is aimed at expanding the power of their team.

Politicians push narratives. The strange thing is that we all know this. Pundits perform fact checks after debates and town halls, and we are never surprised to find that a politician has stretched the truth—or even fabricated the truth—in order to further the story he is trying to sell to the public. And why? It’s all aimed at election. It’s a vie for power.

Social media push narratives. Instagram and Pinterest are telling tales about what the good life looks like. Twitter is weaving together stories to shape the narrative of social justice and to control whose voices deserve to be heard. Facebook—well, who knows what Facebook’s narrative is these days. But all stories being told by these platforms aim at one thing: maintaining the power, status, and importance of social media in society.

Hollywood pushes narratives. Whether through award shows, celebrity activists, or the content of its art, television and movies are weaving together narratives through the telling and retelling of stories. They are telling us something about the regal place of entertainment in society.

Religious organizations push narratives. The oldest stories in the world originated among religious peoples, and these stories held sway over societies. Even Christians must admit this to be true. Much of the Old and New Testaments narrates how people conquered and fought one another in the name of their gods.

We Need a True Story.

The point is, we live in a storytelling world. And that, brothers and sisters, is why you and I need to be in church on Sunday morning.

Asaph wandered around wearied and discouraged by the narratives of this world, until he entered a space shaped by a different narrative. A space—and a people—shaped by God’s story. He writes,

But when I thought how to understand this,

it seemed to me a wearisome task,

until I went into the sanctuary of God;

then I discerned their end. 

Psalm 73:16-17

It was when Asaph entered the sanctuary of God, when he entered the presence of God’s people, when his ears were filled with God’s Word, that the narratives of this world lost their power. He was comforted by the narrative of the unbending, unshakeable truth—God’s truth.

Friends, we spend six days wandering about in a world that seems to proclaim, “The wicked prosper! The wicked prosper! The wicked prosper!” And if we are not careful, we grow to envy the proud. We become jealous of co-workers who succeed by clawing their way to the top. Our appetites and desires are shaped by daily scrolling through social media. We begin to believe that politics will save us. And for six days, our hearts grow sick with worry and anxiety and doubts and temptation because we begin to believe the false narratives the Serpent hisses in an effort to exercise power over us…

Until.

Until we enter the sanctuary of God. Until we hear God’s people singing. Until we stand and sit and rise and kneel. Until we read aloud the truths handed down to us from the Apostles. Until we confess our sins and hear afresh the grace of God given to us in Christ. Until we lay our treasures at his feet. Until we taste and experience his presence at the Lord’s Table. Until we hear the eternal Word of God and our hearts are kindled afresh by the only true story in all of the universe.

This is why we so desperately need Sunday mornings. Sunday liturgy and worship among the gathered people of God is a rehearsing and a retelling and a reliving of God’s story—the narrative of salvation history. We live the story together of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation. It is a reminder that despite the narratives around us that proclaim, “The wicked prosper!”, Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Savior is still on his throne.

When we stand in the sanctuary, the story is reset. The truth reigns, and we proclaim with Asaph:

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:24-26

(photo credit)

A Baptist Catechism for Kids

When I was growing up, there was this infomercial for a countertop appliance called the Showtime Rotisserie. I can remember the salesman showing the product’s many practical uses, and after putting a whole turkey or chicken or a salmon or a pineapple or whatever inside, he and the audience would repeat the catchphrase together: “Now…set it, and forget it!”

I love ministry tools that work like a Showtime Rotisserie. Just set it, and forget it. No fuss. No prep required week after week. Do the hard work of getting things set up, but once they’re set, they run pretty smoothly on their own.

That’s why I have come to love catechism. We know we are supposed to disciple our children, explain to them the basics of systematic theology, and discuss with them the truths of the faith. A catechism is like the best kind of Showtime Rotisserie. Once you choose one and make time to practice with your kids, it requires little to no maintenance or preparation. Just set it, and forget it.

At our church, we use A Catechism for Girls and Boys (1798) by Richard Cecil. We incorporate it into our midweek Bible study at church, adults pairing off with children to practice. Each adult asks the question, then the child gives the response. The kids get ice cream when they hit certain milestones. Parents review with the kids throughout the week.

Repetition is key. And we aim for the kids to memorize the answers word-perfectly. The funny thing about all of this is that although the kids are the ones being quizzed week after week, I’ve heard several adults catch themselves quoting from the catechism in adult conversations at church!

Catechize your kids, and you will catechize yourself.

Below is a free PDF of the Catechism we use. I’ve edited it only by updating a few archaisms and adding a place to keep track of when each answer was memorized. I like it because it is simple, good for preschool up through about fifth grade. I like it because it is old. I like it because it is Baptist (trigger warning for non-Baptists!).

You can print it as is, or you can do what I do: Set the PDF print menu to print it in booklet mode, fold it in half and staple it down the middle like a little book. I even put a piece of card stock in for the cover page so the whole thing feels like a nice little book for the kids. The kids love them!

(photo credit)

Romans 12 (Memory Aid)

Another one.

These tracks may not be helping any of you, but I’m having fun.

I’ve been on a journey memorizing Romans and putting the verses to various tracks to help me remember them. This time it’s Romans 12 to Big Sean’s “Blessings”.

As always, not a single word from the ESV translation has been changed or moved. It’s word for word from the text.

Enjoy.

And yes. I promise there is more of this superb content on the way. 😉

Romans 11 (Memory Aid)

Lightning has struck in the same place twice…this time to the bump of the International Players Anthem.

I’ve been memorizing Romans with a friend, and I’ve found bending the lines to various tracks makes them stick in my memory. When it comes to memorizing Scripture, I find the more outlandish the memory aid the better!

It takes a while to figure out how the break up each verse into sections that will rhyme and to bend vowels, etc. to make everything fit, but I haven’t changed any words from the ESV or even changed any word order, so if you want to memorize a chapter word for word, this’ll do the trick.

Biblical Narrative Is Ambiguous (and Why That’s a Good Thing)

This might make your toes curl up inside your shoes, but the narratives of the Bible are ambiguous. Just to be clear, I am not saying that the Bible is false, untrue, misleading, or culturally confined. But its stories are ambiguous. Perhaps you remember being introduced to literary tools in your high school English class–simile, metaphor, figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, analogy, etc. Think of ambiguity as a literary tool.

An Invitation into the Story.

Biblical authors use ambiguity as a way of inviting you to the party.  If you are reading a story that lays everything out plain and simple, with the moral overtly stated and the villains and heroes clearly labelled, there is not much work left for you, the reader, to do. However, the Bible is not interested in disinterested readers. The God of the Bible wants to suck you in.

Take Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for instance. The play was written to be performed with no set and minimal props. And why? Because we are meant to imagine not a particular town but rather our town. Without specific details to create distance between the events and our own experience, the narrative unfolding becomes proximate, immediate, real.

Intentional ambiguity also allows for multiple, overlapping interpretations. A good author is not content to tell you how he thinks about the characters, the plot, or the outcome. Part of the delight of reading is being able to draw your own conclusions and make your own inferences. What fun is a connect-the-dot when all the dots have been connected for you?

The Bible Is Not a 19th Century British Novel.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein. You know the ones I’m talking about: Introspective tomes with a decidedly omniscient narrator. They’re great novels. But the Bible is not one of them. We hardly ever get to hear the inner thoughts of the characters. We hardly ever get a blunt description of a character’s motives.

This might be unsettling at first. We are so used to being made privy to a character’s intimate thoughts and motives. In contrast, the Bible can seem impersonal and the characters distant. Additionally frustrating is the fact that we know the biblical Narrator is omnipotent. God himself knows exactly why characters act the way they do. On rare occasion, the Spirit gives us a brief peek into a protagonist’s mind–take note when he does! He knows the minds of his characters. By choice, he keeps them hidden from us most of the time.

Biblical Authors Withhold.

Which brings us to our final point. The narrators of the Bible–particularly Old Testament authors–withhold. They don’t tell us everything. They don’t conclude each story with a succinct nugget of truth like one of Aesop’s fables. Often we’re left bewildered as to who the true heroes and villains actually were.

Certainly, there is a difference between intentional and unintentional ambiguity.  Unintentional ambiguity is sloppy writing and poor communication. In contrast, intentional ambiguity is an author’s prerogative. When an author intentionally withholds information, he does it because the story is actually better without it. Ambiguity is the biblical author’s way of winking at his readers. When you and I are able to read between the lines and discern motives, connections, and desires without that information being overtly stated, it’s a win-win for both the author and us.

The Bible Reads Like Real Life.

imagination_and_biblical_narrative_515455426Does any event in life have just one meaning? Can the experiences in our lives be boiled down to heroes and villains? Do we ever fully comprehend the inner desires and motives of the people we interact with? Do we even fully comprehend our own thoughts and motives?

Biblical narrative reads like real life. There are multiple correct ways to understand the story. The narratives of the Bible refuse to be boiled down to a “moral of the story”.  The line between hero and villain is often blurry. Inner desires are questionable; motives are a guessing game. Ambiguity makes all of this biblical beauty possible.

I believe this is why nearly 75% of the Bible is narrative. Do we ever fully comprehend the tapestry of God’s sovereignty that hangs behind the events of our lives or the lives of others? Biblical narratives will never be fully exhausted. There is always room for more exploration. There is always a place for another angle.  I would argue that narrative is actually more applicable to life than strict directives.

In a society increasingly divided, many want to draw God’s Word into their own interpretive universe. They will fail every time. Intentional ambiguity is a gravitational force that draws us into orbit around God’s Word, never vice-versa. 

In some sense, the ambiguity of Biblical narrative shows us who God is–a God who will never be fully comprehended. He is a God who will forever be explored, who has new mercies tucked around every corner, and who has new joys for us every morning. After all, isn’t it the chief end of man to glorify God and enjoy him forever?

The next time you get frustrated with those biblical authors for making their stories so hard to understand, remember: God did it for a reason. Who is a better author than God?  Not only is he writing history, but he wrote the most perfectly accurate–and at times beautifully ambiguous–account of that history in His Word.

For more intense study and a host of examples, see Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative.  I do not endorse everything Alter espouses, but when it comes to analyzing the Biblical narrative of the OT, he is tops!

(photo credit)