How much does it cost to buy-off God?

Today Christians across the country can breath a sigh of relief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced his plans to allow a small North Devon town council to continue its 400 year old tradition of saying prayers at the start of council meetings.

Following last week’s announcement that the National Secular Society (NSS) had won a ruling that local councils could not lawfully include prayers as part of their formal business, Eric Pickles is quoted to have said:

“While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen.

“Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”

Source: Guardian Online

The announcement that Mr Pickles will rush section 1 of the new ‘Localism Act’ into force ‘within a week’ will no doubt mute the celebrations of the National Secular Society, as the new act will restore the rights of local councils to say prayers as part of their proceedings if they choose to.

So why is it that Mr Pickles’ assertion that we are a ‘Christian Country’ sticking in my throat?

It isn’t that I don’t applaud the decision to give councils the right to decide for themselves if they include prayers. Neither is it that I don’t enjoy the schadenfreud of seeing the NSS defeated in their latest attempt to remove the trappings of faith from public life. No, what I find so distasteful is the comparison between the Government’s reaction to the NSS case and their relentless pursuit of the Welfare Reform Bill.

In the former case, the Government are keen to cite our Christian heritage as a reason to keep religious rituals in public life. In the latter case they seem hell-bent on taking away financial aid from those in out society who are most in need of it. Could it be that the price of a clear conscience is allowing a little bit of public religion?

As I think of those who think that God is somehow pleased when we remember to name-check him, I’m reminded of Jesus’ words to the religious rulers of his time as he tells them that God cannot be bought-off with their religion:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices— mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law— justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.”

Jesus Christ – Matthew 23:23

The big problem with public religion, especially the sort which we are forced to take part in, is that it tends to inoculate us against the real thing. And Jesus calls those who would come after him (and call themselves Christian) to pursue justice, mercy and faithfulness, not just to say a few prayers before we get down to business. Being a ‘Christian country’ must surely mean that we pursue matters of justice as well as maintaining those traditions which remind us of our Christian heritage.

I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book ‘Generous Justice‘, in which he presents the compelling case that through His Word, God is calling Christians to pursue social justice in their churches, local communities, nations and worldwide. Keller explains that God’s command in the Mosaic law that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ (Deuteronomy 15:4) is much more than an empty aspiration:

“God’s concern for the poor is so strong that he gave Israel a host of laws that, if practiced, would have virtually eliminated any permanent underclass”

Timothy Keller – Generous Justice, p27

I get the feeling that this assertion that ‘there shall be no poor among you’ is going to be increasing important to my church community over the next few year. This isn’t just because people around us are getting poorer (although many in our fellowship and parish will be hit hard by the ongoing financial crisis and associated austerity measures), but because I sense we are being called to live out this reality in our church family and our local community.

What this is going to look like I don’t know, but I do know that if we get anywhere near it we won’t be able to be accused of preaching an empty and irrelevant religion. Real faith in real action is what the Kingdom of God is all about.

Fanning the flames

Bonfire with woodpile in the background

Friday is fire-day and I’m now sitting by my second fire of the day. This one is a civilised affair in the living room fire-place, but the first was a proper bonfire as I cleared my lawn of the last of the cuttings from the trees which were keeping the sun out of the garden.

There were a lot of clippings, and over the last few weeks I’ve spent several hours watching them burn. While I’ve done this I’ve been reflecting on how tending a fire is a great illustration of how to lead a church.

What follows is not meant to be a serious theological treatise, but ten observations on church life and growth using the metaphor of fire.

#1 Wood that isn’t on fire only ignites when it is next to wood that is. So church growth 101 says that you need to have a church that is alight in the first place. And that people will only become christians by being exposed to people who have already made that commitment.

#2 If you throw an accelerant on the fire it burns, but the wood doesn’t. Sometimes a mission event or special course means that there are a lot of flames. This might not mean that the congregation are burning more brightly, merely that the effort you’ve put in is temporarily burning. Paraffin is only useful on bonfires when it has soaked into wood or paper, likewise special events which cause a big stir need to be backed up by Christians who are ready to use them to ignite those around them.

#3 Some logs are green or wet and take a very long time to catch fire. In a wood pile there will be twigs which with catch fire straight, there will also be logs which need more time to dry out and season before they will catch fire. In a church congregation, these green logs are often husbands or partners who have been on the fringes for some time, but show no real signs of interest. They need to be near the fire to dry out, and in contact with burring logs if they are going to catch fire, so find ways to keep them involved, and find excuses to get them into church.

#4 New wood needs to go on where the fire is burning. On a bonfire, it’s not uncommon to have one part burning strongly and one side fairly cool. On the bonfire you need to put the new wood on the side that is burning otherwise it won’t catch fire. Similarly, new people need to be put in contact with the parts of the church which are on fire. It’s no good adding new people to a ministry which is dead, they won’t revitalise it, they will just sit there.

#5 You need to keep moving to wood to keep things burning. In the same way that new Christians need to be added to the burning parts of the church, sometimes you need to move people around to keep them alight. As an example of how this might work: at my church during Lent this year, we’re giving people the chance to temporarily change home groups, this will hopefully have the effect of mixing up those parts which are burning and those parts which have got a bit cool.

#6 It is easy to put lots of very flammable material on the top of the fire, which will burn brightly, but will make no difference whatsoever to the bottom of the woodpile. And this is easy to do in church, all you need to do is start a vibrant youth or student ministry and everyone will see the flames. The difficult thing to do is to enable these flames to work their way through the pile when there is no cross-over between your new ministry and your core.

#7 It is possible to put a fire out by smothering it with too much new wood. However brightly a fire is burning, you can still put it out by cutting off the oxygen to the core. Initiatives which attract people in large numbers can have the opposite effect to the one you intend, as meeting their needs stifles the flow of oxygen to the existing congregation. Instead of the new wood catching fire, the core is starved of oxygen and begins to cool. (Oxygen is your attention, pastoral care and preaching.)

#8 If you take a piece of burning wood out of the fire, it doesn’t stay alight for long. Likewise if a Christian tries to go it alone, they will cool off very quickly. The writer to the Hebrews says ‘don’t give up meeting together, but keep encouraging one another’ (Heb 10:25) that’s because we need each other and the heat of the fire to keep up burning. This is an especial warning for evangelists, who are most effective among non-christians. The danger is that away from the heart of the fire, they  cool off quickly.

#9 Sometimes you need to use put the lid on an incinerator to really gets things burning. For the past few weeks I’ve been using a metal dustbin with a hole in the lid to burn my garden waste. My technique is to put green twigs in the fire and put the lid on, and then after five minutes to lift the lid. The dried out twigs then blaze up very quickly. Residential camps and intensive courses are like an incinerator, they get people burning much more rapidly, but you need to take the lid off to really see them  burn.

Woodpile#10 Your job is not to keep the fire alight, but to burn all the available wood. It really doesn’t matter how warm the little pile of remaining sticks gets, what is important is that your bonfire has the power to ignite the new wood around it. There are plenty of churches which are small and not really interested in growing but church leaders should not be content with palliative care, our call is to nurture churches which reach out with the incendiary Gospel of the Lord Jesus.

Ok, there are many more ways I could apply this, but that’s enough for now. If you want to add fuel to the fire, why not post a comment below?

 

Where are the stand-out preachers?

There’s been a lot of excitement this afternoon about the forthcoming interview with Mark Driscoll in Christianity Magazine in which he makes the following comment:

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

Now, usually when this sort of quote is released ahead of the interview, the content is much less interesting than the hype. Without waiting for the full interview though, I thought it was worth saying that not having a “young, good Bible teacher that [sic] is known across Great Britain” is something to be celebrated.

When John Stott began to emerge as a nationally recognised evangelical Bible teacher, it was because he was one of a kind. In the generation that followed names such as Sandy Miller, Michael Green, Dick Lucas, David Jackman and many notable others were part of a growing cohort of preachers who followed in Stott’s footsteps. They were followed by countless others (now in their 50s and leading churches, theological colleges, missions and other ministries). So by the time I began to lead a church in 2010, (in my mid thirties, and in my mind still ‘young’) the cohort of well trained, gifted, passionate and ‘good’ young Bible Teachers was so large that few stand out from the crowd.

In addition to this, these preachers are not well known, because they are doing what they have been called and trained to do – leading church congregations up and down the country, not just pastoring mega-churches.

Far from being ‘cowards who aren’t telling the truth’, Bible teachers in the UK are often young men and women who are committed to telling the truth in places where the Gospel hasn’t been heard, and growing congregations that will outlast the transient culture of celebrity.

So I’m glad not to stand out as a preacher, but I’m still striving to be outstanding whenever I open up the Bible and bring God’s word to my congregation.

Christmas Preaching

This year I was on the rota to preach at nearly all our Christmas services at St. Pancras. For the past few months I’ve been moving away from using a full script for preaching and have generally been happy with the results. (PGP students should take note, however, this is a process that has taken over a decade, so I’m not advocating this for preachers who are starting out.)

With only scant notes saved for posterity (and in some cases, no notes at all) I thought it would be worth recording my sermon ideas and outlines somewhere, so here they are. Some were also recorded and put on the sermon podcast, but most were not.

15th Dec – Pennycross School Carol Service (Whole School)
Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him”

Very short (I thought, they didn’t) introduction to the school carol service. Looking at seeking out ways to worship Jesus this Christmas.

15th Dec – All Saints Academy Carol Service (Compulsory for Year 7’s)
Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Song – The Magnificat)

Same main outline as the Carol Service on the 18th, but with more of an apologetics angle on ‘God is Powerful’.

18th Dec – Morning Service
Luke 1:39-56 (Mary and Elizabeth)
Audio Recording

  • Before Sermon: The Virgin Birth – Picking up on last week’s comments
  • Elizabeth is a model of:
  • 1) The Spirit’s Work (v39-42)
  • 2) Humility (v43)
  • 3) Joy (v44-45)
  • Verses 46ff were left for the evening.

18th Dec – Carols by Candlelight
Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Song – The Magnificat)
Audio Recording 

  • Introduction – Exchange between US warship and a Lighthouse
  • We can worship Jesus because:
  • 1) He is powerful (v46-51) – creation testifies to God’s power
  • 2) He is Just (v51-53) – he deals with the problem of sin
  • 3) He keeps his promises (v54-55) – he will return

Christmas Eve – Christingle and Messy Church
Standard ‘What does a Christingle represent?’ talk

Christmas Eve – Midnight Communion
Luke 2:1-20 (Jesus’ Birth and the Shepherds)

  • Intro: Occupy Movement – Why would God choose to be born in this way?
  • 1) Jesus chose the stable (even though it was beneath Him)
  • 2) Jesus chose the cross (even though he didn’t deserve it)
  • 3) Jesus chooses His followers (even though we’ve done nothing to earn it)

Christmas Day – Family Communion
Luke 2:8-20 (Angels & Shepherds)
Especailly: 2:12 “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”

The baby in the manger is a sign that:

  • Intro: The most overzealous security guard, a sign to recognise the sovereign.
  • Innkeeper Video
  • The baby in a manger is a sign that (Luke 2:12):
  • 1) What impresses us is not necessarily what impresses God.
  • 2) Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve.
  • 3) ? (Can anyone remember my third point?)

Carols by Candlelight

This year our Carols by Candelight service at St. Pancras is looking at the theme ‘Come and Worship the King’. The Bible readings all pick up this theme and are as follows:

  1. Isaiah’s prediction of a ‘wonderful counsellor’ etc.
  2. Mary’s song
  3. The angels and the shepherds
  4. The Wise Men and Herod
  5. Thomas’ confession ‘My Lord and my God’
  6. John’s vision of Jesus as he is now in Revelation 1
Usually at this sort of event I pick one of the passages and preach from it, but this year I’m thinking of using the following outline and picking up themes for different passages.
Jesus is worthy of our worship because:
  1.    His birth split time in two
  2.    His death changed the course of history
  3.    His future holds all our futures
Any comments – or should I just go back to explaining one of the passages?

Books for Bible Teachers

I’m currently putting together reading lists for students on the PGP course who will be writing essays as part of their assessment. Some of the books on my own bookshelf are beginning to look a bit dates, so I’m looking for suggestions for books for the essay titles below.

All these essays are being marked at HE Level 4 (First year of a degree course) so the level needs to be suitable for people who might not have studied theology academically before. Also, at this level, 90% of the marking criteria is aimed at explaining and synthesising views which are taught on the course. This means that the reading list should include non-evangelical views, but this will only contribute a small component of the mark. For more information about PGP’s approach and methodology, please see this statement on our website.

If you’ve got any suggestions, please leave them as comments or send them via Twitter, FB, e-mail, etc. If you are able to include the full bibliographical information then it makes my life much easier – but the suggestion is more important. Please use the essay code to say which essay your book is for.

Thanks

Jon.

Module PPTC01- Applied Biblical Theology

C01-1. Is it possible to identify a single storyline throughout the whole of the Bible?

C01-2. ‘The Bible doesn’t make any sense without Genesis chapters one to three’ To what extent does our interpretation of the Bible stem from an understanding of its first three chapters?

C01-3. “The Psalms are a mirror for the soul – every human emotion is there.” How does an emotional engagement with the Psalms help us interpret and apply them?

C01-4. How do the Old Testament prophets speak beyond their own situation and into the contemporary Christian Church? Illustrate your answer with examples from the books of Isaiah or Ezekiel.

C01-5. ‘The new is in the old, concealed – the old is in the new, revealed.’ How important is an understanding of the Old Testament for a responsible reading of the New?

C01-6. How does an understanding of different literary genres help us apply the Gospels?

Module PPTC02 – Biblical Theology for Christian Ministry

Doctrine

C02-1-1. “St. Patrick said the three leaves of the shamrock represent the trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That’s why four leaf clovers are so lucky, you get a bonus Jesus.” – Stephen Colbet. Explore the usefulness and limitations of using illustrations to teach the doctrine of the trinity?

C02-1-2. “The cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith” – Steve Chalke. Using both Old and New Testament passages, discuss the importance and relevance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

C02-1-3. Explain which Bible text or texts you consider to be most important when teaching about the role of women in the Christian church.

C02-1-4. “That which he has not assumed, he has not healed” – Gregory of Nazianzus. Discuss whether Jesus needed to become fully human to redeem humanity.

C02-2-1. “The next time you see a clean-shaven fundamentalist wearing a poly-cotton shirt and eating a shrimp, remember to shout ‘Abomination!’” – Jeffrey John. How does the ‘six act’ division of the Bible contribute to our understanding of the ethics of human sexuality? Answer with reference to either homosexuality or marriage and divorce.

Ethics and Pastoral Ministry

C02-2-2. What role should the Bible have in Christian Counselling?

C02-2-3. How should an awareness of the culture of our hearers influence our teaching of the Bible? Illustrate your answer with reference to communicating with children, teenagers or people with a postmodern worldview.

C02-2-4. How do the pastoral epistles (1&2 Timothy and Titus) challenge Christian leaders today? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on your application of these letters to your own life and ministry.

C02-2-5. Can prayer be taught or just caught? Illustrate your answer by reflecting on the development of your own prayer life.

Copyright Notice: All the above material relating to the PGP course is © Peninsula Gospel Partnership, 2011. Please feel free to link to this post, but please do not reproduce or copy anything without written permission from the Training Course Director (me).

Do we need to put God back into Esther – Part II

Yesterday (in part I of this post) I looked at two historical approaches to understanding the Bible book of Esther, and began to highlight some of the drawbacks of these approaches. The first approach is to ‘downgrade’ the book to something that is useful and historical, but not scripture. The second approach is to ‘fill in the gaps’ so that the story has a particular interpretation and application, even though this is not required by the original text.

Today I’m going to look at a third approach to this book, which is:

Approach #3) Use it as an illustration for New Testament preaching.

This approach is very common in many sectors of the church, even if Bible teachers don’t admit that this is what they are doing. When preaching an Old Testament passage, it is all to easy to look for some jumping-off point to take us to a New Testament passage, and then expound the NT passage, briefly referring back to the Old only to add colour or illustration.

In my own tradition (Church of England), the idea of having several set readings plays into this approach almost without thinking. We have a reading (OT or Letter) and then a Psalm and a Gospel, but the sermon is often from the gospel. If there is any thematic link between the passages, they will be strip-mined for illustrations, but seldom is there any sense that the preacher is attempting to exposit and apply the OT text.

In Esther, this can work its way out down one of several blind alleys. Most obvious is the ‘Esther as a good example’ model, where all the events of her life are reduced to the one action of coming before King Xerxes and this is used to illustrate some NT principle like hope or faith. We might go on modify this to look at Esther as the forgiven person who is used by God when she starts to make good choices, or even as the one whose obedience to her uncle led to God’s blessing.

Another potential blind alley is to look at the story in our chain-reference Bible to see if any of the language reminds us of larger principles or other events. So in Esther, a royal wedding becomes nothing more than an allegory for Christ and His bride, Xerxes illustrates for us the splendour of Jesus and Esther’s perfume becomes the adornment of a living sacrifice.

Now I want to suggest that these are blind-alleys because they don’t allow the text to speak for itself. As such, they either fall into the trap of approach 1 (seeing it is the illustration to the main event – ie our New Testament Passage) or of approach 2 (forcing us to see an interpretation which isn’t necessarily there).

Now at this point I need to be careful about definitions, because what I’ve described above sounds similar to the use of Typology as a means for understanding the Old Testament in the light of the New.

As I understand (and teach) it, typology is when we can see an event, person, place or ritual in the Old Testament (the type) pointing us forward to something (the anti-type) in the new. Old Testament types are important for our understanding of the New Testament as they often give us categories of thought to help us understand key events (see the passover example below). Types also show us that what happened in the life of Jesus and the NT church was part of God’s unfolding plan. We are given authority to see OT types in this way by the NT writers make these links themselves.

Typology in Action – The Passover

The Passover is one of the most important ‘types’ in the Old Testament as it lifts our gaze beyond the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and points us to the rescue that Jesus won for us on Calvary.

The Exodus story explains that God brought a plague on the whole of the land such that the first born would be killed in every home. Those who would escape God’s anger would be those who took an unblemished lamb and paint its blood on the door posts and lintel of their homes. When the destroying angel saw the blood, they would know to pass-over that house, because there had already been a death in that house.

The Passover, then is the type. The anti-type is seen in the New Testament in the person of Jesus. When John the Baptist sees Jesus approaching in John 1:29 he says “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. This is flagging up that here is the person to whom this type points and Jesus is the fulfilment of the type.

In fact, the typology here does not merely give us a way of applying the exodus to ourselves, it also gives us the framework for understanding the death of Jesus.

The New Testament does not give us a complete theology of the work of the cross, but as we see the cross in the light of the Passover (and the day of atonement, etc), we are able to understand what is referenced in the New Testament. We need the whole counsel of God (OT & NT) to do biblical theology.

So, can we use the principles of typology to help us understand Esther? At a macro-level there there is certainly a powerful demonstration of God delivering his people. But in the absence of any explicitly NT link, what about the characters themselves?

There are two drawbacks with simply making connections in this way. The first is that we don’t know where to stop if our only criteria is what this reminds us of. So if Xerxes is a type of Christ (for his power and generosity and his choice of a bride) then why do we not also see Esther as a Christ-type for her self-sacrificing actions to save her people. If we want to take this to its logical extreme then we might also see Vashti as a type of Christ (the one who was despised and rejected) and even Haman could help us see calvary as he is cursed and hung on a tree. Hopefully our tolerance for silliness will have been exceeded by this point.

But the more serious drawback in attempting to see these characters as types, is that they don’t reveal God to us. In fact, if we try and find out what God is like from these ‘types’ we will have a seriously skewed view of Jesus.

For example, if Xerxes is a type of Christ, and Esther is the church, what does that tell us about our relationship with Jesus? What we would have to conclude that we are chosen on our own merit (Esther’s beauty), that our status is granted on our ability to please God (2:14 paints an unpleasant picture of how we might do it), that we should not expect any ongoing relationship once we are his, and that we have a god who will reject us on a drunken whim to save face (1:10, 1:16-17).

Since we are (hopefully) unwilling to accept all of these as Christian doctrines, we are left having to pick and chose those bits we like to make our point. This is hardly allowing the Bible to speak and to reveal God to us on His own terms.

So how should we read the book of Esther as holy scripture? In my next post I’ll begin to explore how this exciting story teaches us about God’s covenant faithfulness to his faithful people and how the apparent absence of God in this book provides us with a dramatic picture of faith in a foreign land.

P.S. I did finally get around to writing that post. Here it is: A Belated Post for Purim.

Do we need to put God back into Esther?

During a recent Twitter conversation between Tanya Marlow and Dave Bish about how we read the book of Esther, Dave described it as “a gospel-shaped story laced with bible language”. This is a evocative description and, in the interest of sharing notes, I thought I’d try to explain how I approach this enigmatic book and see the God of grace glorified in its pages.

Over the years Esther has provoked a number of strong reactions, not least because the Hebrew text of the book omits any mention of God. We’ll return to this later, but for now it’s worth noting that the specific name of God, ‘YHWH‘ appears 6828 times in the Hebrew Old Testament, the more general ‘God’ (elohim) appears 2602 times and the word ‘Lord’ (adonai) appears 775 times, many of which are references to God. In addition to this there are countless circumlocutions in the Hebrew text which refer to God and His name by euphemistic words such as ‘name’ or ‘place’. In Esther, not only are YHWH, Elohim and Adonai absent, there is only one possible circumlocution. As we shall see, however, I think it’s an important one.

I’m going to look at three different ways in which people have tried to understand Esther and highlight some of the drawbacks of these methods and then offer what I think is a more helpful way forward as we try to understand, apply and teach this book. The first two approaches are outlined in this post, and I’ll look at the third and at my response tomorrow.

Approach #1) See it as useful, but not scripture. 

Now before we dismiss such an approach as crass and heretical, we need to remember that during the formation of the Christian canon, the book of Esther has not always made the cut. In fact, in what is arguably the most important list of canonical books, Esther is relegated as follows:

But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read.

The 39th Easter Letter of St. Athansaius (367AD)

In a similar way, some Jewish communities were also suspicious of Esther. In the Essence community (the first century BC separatist Jewish sect from whom we were bequeathed the Dead Sea Scrolls) there is no mention of Esther, suggesting that they too excluded it for their canon.

Some have also argued that the New Testament writers found themselves in a similar position, as the NT doesn’t seem to quote from Esther. This is a red herring, though, as there are other unquoted Wisdom (and history) books which don’t share the same ignominy as Esther.

So, what do we make of the claim that Esther is useful for instruction, but not scripture? Well, the drawbacks to this approach are fairly obvious, as Esther does appear in the hebrew versions of the Old Testament (which the other books Athanasius mentions do not) and we are not free to pick and choose which books of the Bible we want to include based on their content alone.

So, if Esther is holy scripture, then we need to see it as part of God’s revelation of Himself to his people. Which has led some people to a second approach, which makes it easier to see how to apply Esther, but at the same time it removes and opportunity of discovering what this book is actually about.

Approach #2) Fill in the gaps left by the original author.

As with the first approach, protestants will be quick to dismiss the very idea of adding to the Bible, but a quick look in the Bibles of our fathers will reveal that until 400 years ago the story of Esther had a very different shape.

The variations between the Canonical Esther, and the version found in the Apocrypha can be traced back to Jewish scholars in the first century BC who were having real problems accepting with what they read in the Hebrew text. Here was a book with no mention of God, where Jewish people were depicted defiling themselves, hiding their nationality, unaware of what God was doing and trusting their deliverance to fate. What was needed was a jolly good redrafting, and this is just what happened as the Greek translation of the Old Testament took shape.

The first thing to do was to redress the balance of the language. So the names of God were hastily included. In the few extra chapters the word God (theos) appears 26 times and Lord (kurios – which is what we would expect as a translation of YHWH into Greek) appears 25 times.

More important, though, is the introduction of new content which seeks to justify the actions of the books Jewish protagonists, and to make explicit their faith in God and their expectation that it is He who will deliver them from the ethnic cleansing contrived by Haman.

So as we fill in the ‘gaps’ we have Esther praying for forgiveness for her defilement at the hands of the uncircumcised pagan king and his court:

You have knowledge of all things, and you know that I hate the splendor of the wicked and abhor the bed of the uncircumcised and of any alien.  You know my necessity—that I abhor the sign of my proud position, which is upon my head on days when I appear in public. I abhor it like a filthy rag, and I do not wear it on the days when I am at leisure.  And your servant has not eaten at Haman’s table, and I have not honoured the king’s feast or drunk the wine of libations.  Your servant has had no joy since the day that I was brought here until now, except in you, O Lord God of Abraham.

Apocryphal Esther 14:15-18 (NRSV)

We have Mordecai seeking to justify himself in prayer, explaining that his refusal to bow to Haman was simple faithfulness to the Law.

You know all things; you know, O Lord, that it was not in insolence or pride or for any love of glory that I did this, and refused to bow down to this proud Haman;  for I would have been willing to kiss the soles of his feet to save Israel!  But I did this so that I might not set human glory above the glory of God, and I will not bow down to anyone but you, who are my Lord;

Apocryphal Esther 9:12-14 (NRSV)

And in the prologue for the whole book we find the description of a dream in which Mordecai sees quite clearly the source and method of the delivery of the Jews.

Then they cried out to God; and at their outcry, as though from a tiny spring, there came a great river, with abundant water;  light came, and the sun rose, and the lowly were exalted and devoured those held in honour.

Mordecai saw in this dream what God had determined to do, and after he awoke he had it on his mind, seeking all day to understand it in every detail.

Apocryphal Esther 11:10-12 (NRSV)

If you haven’t ever read the apocryphal Esther, then its fascinating to see what else these scholars though was missing.

Now the drawback of such an approach will readily become apparent as we think about how we derive meaning from a text. The Greek version of Esther is more than a translation, it is also an interpretation. Now although we might look at the Hebrew text and come to the same conclusions as those scholars, we might not. The additions drive us to a particular meaning, which is not necessarily there in the original text.

Once this book has been given the airbrush treatment, we can again see Esther and Mordecai in the same light as Ruth and Boaz, as faithful followers of God whose godly example we do well to follow. In doing so we miss the compromise and the ambiguity that characterises these people and this book and we are presented with a trite answer to a profound question which we do well to grapple with “where is God in this book?”

With that question hanging in our minds, I’ll leave approach #3 until tomorrow.

 

 

The DNA of Discipleship?

I’m enjoying reading Marcus Honeysett’s 100 Leadership Lessons blog series (not least to see if we get all the way to 100), and its no surprise to see that discipleship features heavily in the leadership mix so far.

Now I’m glad we’ve got 87 more lessons to go, because the Bible has a lot to say about how we train younger christians. But if we had to define what we are trying to do when we enter into this sort of intentional relationship, what would we say is at the heart (or in the DNA) of discipleship?

This weekend I’m giving some training for young leaders in the church (teenagers leading younger children’s groups). I was going to focus on growing the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, but then I was reminded of this exhortation from Peter in 2 Peter 1:5-8.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;  and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there isn’t anything wrong with seeing these things as ‘fruit’ but I guess that Paul’s analogy is less meaningful today than when he first used it. When we think of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ we are in danger of having the same attitude to this growing process as I have towards the apples in my back garden – i.e. I just expect to wake up one morning and their will be apples. And if I leave them long enough, eventually they will ripen and fall off the tree and I can collect them if I’m in the mood, or leave them for the wasps.

Friends at church run a small-holding and their attitude to fruit is very different. It takes time to plan, cultivate, prune, feed, protect and pick fruit, and the same is true for seeing transformation in our lives.

That’s why (on this occasion) I’m going to use Peter’s list of ‘fruit’ to explain what Christian leadership (discipleship) is all about. Faith is the starting point, but Peter is clear that unless we are actively seeking to grow in these areas (making every effort), we are in danger of being “ineffective and unproductive in [our] knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So how do we nurture the growth of these qualities in the lives of young believers, and how do we ‘seek to poses them in increasing measure’ in our own?

 

What’s the management structure of your heart?

It used to be simple when Jesus was the King, because we all knew what to expect.

Kings are in charge, they offer protection and security and expect unconditional allegiance in return. From a good king you could expect justice and parity, but treason was unacceptable and antisocial, and usually a capital offence.

But kings are a bit old fashioned as a model of leadership, aren’t they?

I guess I’m not the only one to have slipped into a more corporate management structure, where God takes the place of the Chairman of the Board. Now He’s still in charge. He still has the final say. But if we are honest, have we installed ourselves as Chief Executive Officer?

When I think about how I sometimes plan and lead, it does seem like I treat God as the Chairman and myself as the CEO. Yes, I still send in regular reports. Yes, I still recognise he is my boss. Yes, I know that my leadership is only a delegated function from Him. And yes, if he did ask me to hold back on something then I would obey. But functionally, like a real CEO, I’m leading how I want to lead and expecting His backing if things get rocky. It’s a far cry for Jesus being King in my life

So how about you?

  • In the way we make plans and lead, have we relegated Jesus to Chairman of the Board instead of King?
  • Are we more interested in developing the ‘brand’ or ‘returning shareholder value’ than being a subject of the true King?
  • How do we present our plans to God? As a fully costed proposal, or a brainstorm with Him in the room?
  • What do we need to start praying to show that Jesus is King, not just a functional part of the management structure?