Thursday, November 17, 2005

Matthew for Everyone

I am using the Matthew for Everyone commentary by N. T. Wright to prepare my weekly sermons. I am following the Revised Common Lectionary for text selection.

The text for this week is from Matthew 25:31-46. Wright has an interesting way of dealing with this text. The usual way of reading this text is to see it as referring to the judgment at the end of the age. Wright, of course, sees the end of the age as being in the first century. Thus, this judgment scene is one that is best seen, by Wright, as on going.

I think this is a very solid reading of the text. The problem is how to preach it that way. Since the idea will be new to many people their instinctive reaction will be to reject it. Of course, no preacher likes rejection. We all prefer to be accepted and understood.

Where is the exegetical center of this passage? The center seems to be in how the nations treat the church. The nations that are open to the church are blessed. The nations which are closed to the church are cursed. That matches what we can see with our own observation. The best thing a nation can do is open itself up for the Gospel and watch God change the nation.

Friday, November 04, 2005

EG: Unit 1, Day 1

Sometimes I think that Christians use words deliberately intended to confuse people who don't already speak their lingo. I went to a Halloween party at a local church which had a puppet show. There were a lot of non-Christians there but the puppets kept quoting scripture in a series of passages which meant very little to the non-Christians since they were not explained. Some got up and left. There needed to be an explanation for the non-Christians there.

The phrase "saving relationship" is one such Christian expression (EG Workbook, p 8). I don't honestly think that anyone who is not a Christian, and even many Christians, have the slightest idea what this phrase means. There is no analogy in daily life because the word "saving" is not one we can understand easily. The word is theologically loaded.

Perhaps we map "saving" into the idea of "going to Heaven" or some other such notion. This phrase is evangelical-speak, and is not Biblical. Remember the principle in EG where we get our ideas not from experience, but from the Bible? They would do well to apply it to the words in this book. This also scares off non-evangelical types.

I'd say ditch the phrase and replace it with something else. Even a phrase like "loving relationship", which would be meaningful for most people. Or find some word picture to explain it such as a strong marriage. There are marriages of convenience where the two are married on paper, but barely even speak with each other. Then there are marriages where people are in love and eager to be with each other. That's probably what is meant by the phrase "saving relationship", but it's hard to know since it is never defined.

To say that God desires a continuing, love relationship with us (chart EG Workbook p 225 point 2) is better. It brings to mind something that we can relate to better. The nature of the relationship and the duration make it clear that it is not a one time event and that it has real committment involved.

EG: Memorizing Scripture

I really respect people who can memorize. I can't. I have very poor memorization skills. Because I am so back at memorization, I have some tricks that the EG materials don't list.

My best memory trick is to write out the verse on a whiteboard. I then erase words and practice saying the verse. I leave just a few keywords at the end. I can then remember the keywords.

For instance, the keywords I have for Unit 1 are:
abide me I Him
apart nothing

With these keywords I can reconstruct the entire memory verse.

My other trick is to draw a picture of what I want to remember. I did this with fourth grade boys for John 15:5 and they all got it quickly. Draw on the whiteboard a vine with branches. Put the name of the boys on each branch. Put the name of another boy, not them since it would be traumatic on another branch. Show that branch as broken off and dying. They will remember the picture long after the words are gone.

Experiencing Experiencing God

Who Am I?

I am a pastor of a small church in the upper midwest USA. We have a group of ladies that went through the Experiencing God materials this past summer and asked me to teach it at our Wednesday Night Prayer/Bible Study Meetings.

Thus, I am facilitating a group of about sixteen people going through the book Experiencing God. This is my first time through this material. There are several in the group who have already been through the materials.

The rest of this particular BLOG post can be skipped if you are not interested in facilitating an Experiencing God group.

Early facilitating notes

I am writing these notes a couple of days after our very first Experiencing God class. All in all, it was a great start. For me it is hard to do materials that are not my own invention. But these materials are pretty well put together.

This would be very tough without using the Experiencing God Adult Leader's Guide. I wish I had taken more time to review the Adult Leader's Guide before starting this. I recommend taking about 8 hours to go through the Leader's Guide before the first class if you are new at this material (like me). If you have taken the course but not facilitated you probably could get ready in six hours. If you have taught it before, probably four hours would do. The Leader's Guide is definitely worth the extra $12 (amazon price).

There is a lot of photocopying in the first week. Copy extra. I had to send a student out to copy five more pages - I chose someone who had already facilitated in the past.

I wish we had purchaged new, blank journals before assigning the first week's unit so that I could have passed them out sooner.

For journaling, I like Composition Books. They are cheap ($1 at my local dollar store). They have wide rule so that there is plenty of room in them. In my opinion, the best ones are quad grided page Composition Books but they are pricier. They are a lot cheaper than the nicer bound journals you buy at a bookstore. They also hold together well.

Personally, I really like the smaller 4.5 x 3.25 version of these. Each page is much smaller but always seems to be enough for what I want to write down. If you buy the little ones don't buy the ones that are glued down the binding as they come apart. Buy the ones that look like paper folded - they are sown and the pages don't fall out of them. You can stiffen the backbone with packaging tape if you need to.

When it comes to journaling, the old motto is true: Your Mileage May Vary.

There are some places where the book could use improvement.

When I did Unit 1, Day 1, it asked for the memory verse. It was at the beginning of unit 1 before the day 1. It would have been helpful the first time through to remind where the memory verse was found (at least for this first lesson). I made the assumption that there was a memory verse for each day but it seems like there is one for each week/unit.

We only have one hour and this material does not easily break down into one hour sections. They have a suggestion in the leader's guide how to do that, but it did not seem obvious as I went through the Leader's Guide.

The video tapes are not cheap, they are about $140 for the class. I have to think that they are probably worth it but expensive for our small church to buy. I guess we will "wing it".

With our group size the book recommends breaking up into two separate classes. That's logistically tough for us since we meet before choir and that is a part of why many of the people turn out. We will see how this works out when the sharing starts.

That's about it for the administrative stuff. I'll post some reflections on the materials later.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

When is the end?

One of the issues that this passage raises for me is that of timing.

Is this describing the events of the Second Coming of Christ, which is yet future from us now, or is this describing the events of 70 A. D.?

Apocalyptic language is much slippier than we often realize. We tend to read apocalyptic phrases in a way that makes them concrete and that is just not the way that they were understood. Add to that, this passage is a parable and not a concrete description of the event.

If the Bible is the best interpreter of the Bible, then we can look to the Bible for the methodology that we need to understand the Bible.

What are the phrases that make this passage tough? The key phrase "you don't know the day or the hour" seems to be the central point of this parable. But day and hour of what? We have to go to the wider context to see what Jesus is talking about.

The scene appears to be judgment:

Mat 25:31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne.
Mat 25:32 "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats;
Mat 25:33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
Mat 25:34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Mat 25:41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
Mat 25:46 "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
This is frequently read as a description of the judgment at the end of time. Particularly taken the phrases "eternal fire" and "eternal punishment".

There is another possible way of viewing these passages, though. They could describe the judgment on Jerusalem in 70 AD. This was taken by the early Christians as proof that Jesus was on the throne, just as the book of Daniel had described.

The ten virgins

Finding the historical center

This passage causes me much difficulty when I try to find its historical center. By that I mean, Jesus referring to something future from Him, but is it past, present or future to us?

If it is describing something in the past, then there are lessons to learn from this, but only if we are the sort of people who will listen to the lessons that the past teaches us.

If it is present, then we sure better be paying attention to what it says.

If it is future, then is it in a future that I need to be concerned about or one that is too far distant to really affect my life.

The idea that this may be describing the present or very near future is what the Tim LaHaye "Left Behind" books are banking on. This way of viewing the Bible is something that I am quite familiar with since I came to the Christian faith in the midst of a group of people who were very apocalyptic minded. This was at the height of the Jesus people movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The group I was a part of read the Bible as if it were a newpaper. The events of the day were clearly fulfillment of the Bible, for us. For the early days of my life as a Christian, there was a great concern about passages like these ones. We saw them describing us and our generation.

When we read this passage, we saw ourselves as being like the five virgins that were prepared for the bridegroom to come. We were in eager anticipation that Jesus would be coming shortly. We saw the reat of the church as slumbering while we saw ourselves as ready.

We had been taught that if the Bible was true, Jesus would return in 1981. When Jesus did not come in 1981, many of us fell away from the faith. This way of viewing passages like this was deadly to the faith of many.

For others, like myself, we dug deeper into the faith in the years before 1981 and we were not unprepared for a long wait. If anything this passage is saying that the time will seem so long that everyone will fall asleep.

Lectionary Text for week ending 11-6-2005

Matt 25:1-13 The Ten Virgins (NASB)

"Then the kingdom of heaven will be comparable to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
"Five of them were foolish, and five were prudent.
"For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them,
but the prudent took oil in flasks along with their lamps.
"Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep.
"But at midnight there was a shout, 'Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
"Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.
"The foolish said to the prudent, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'
"But the prudent answered, 'No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.'
"And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut.
"Later the other virgins also came, saying, 'Lord, lord, open up for us.'
"But he answered, 'Truly I say to you, I do not know you.'
"Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.