Monday, December 28, 2009

The Trinity, Chesterton, and the Wells quintet

My reading list is three pages long and growing. Every time someone recommends a good book that sounds interesting—in person, on a blog, in a sermon—it gets scribbled, e-mailed, or straight-up added to the document. This year for Christmas I asked for precisely two categories of gifts from friends and family: books, and gift cards for my wife to use decorating our apartment.

My current reading list, then, includes David Wells' quintet of books on American evangelicalism (minus Above All Earthly Pow'rs, which I've already read), Volume VI of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, and The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship by Robert Letham. Light reading, eh? My plan, though we'll see how well I accomplish it, is to rotate one of these and many other similar books with some lighthearted fiction, trying to read one of them every two weeks, over the course of the next few months. I hope to write reviews of each book as I finish it—at least, the nonfiction. Toss in some composing, writing for Pillar on the Rock, and hopefully studying Greek, and last but most importantly spending time with my wife, and I've a lot to do!

There are, of course, worse problems to have...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Enanthropoisis (Enhumanment): for orchestra

In honor of my 400th post on Blogger, and in honor of Christmas, something entirely different... I recommend you download the piece and play it with some good speakers; it'll be a much better listen.

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!

ἐνανθρωπήσαντα (enanthropoisis—enhumanment)

We sing songs of reflection, as we should. The incarnation is a stunning moment, worthy of all our quiet meditation. But it should also remind us that we are at war. The enhumanment of God the Son was not an olive branch—it was a frontal assault on the very fortress of the enemy, an arrow to the eye of the dragon.

We think of the baby in a manger as God's peace offering to the world, when in reality he was exactly what the Jews expected the Messiah to be: a mighty king who would smash through the enemy's resistance and humble every power in the world. They failed to recognize the enemy. We forget there is an enemy. They got the trees wrong. We ask, "What's a forest?"

That celebrated birth was a martial act, the most stunning entry in the millennia-long war. The manger was the first step on the long march to Golgotha.

Remember, this Christmas, as you celebrate the beauty of that silent, holy night: it was an act of war.

Christus Victor.

Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come for thee, oh Israel!

You can download the piece by right-clicking here and choosing "Save As," "Save Link As," or similar.

[Originally posted as part of James Metalak's 12 Days of Christmas Project]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Surprise: neither sermon notes nor 500 words long!

Life is good right now. Challenging, but good.

Today, I'm going to do two things: work on an Advent composition, and clean the apartment before my lovely wife gets home from visiting her family.

This morning I posted the first book review we've done for Pillar on the Rock, Who Runs the Church?

Christmas is three days away, and that means that I've been chewing on and contemplating a good Christmas post. Look for it on Thursday or Friday.

Speaking of Christmas, this is my first Christmas married, and correspondingly it will be my first Christmas day spent apart from my own immediate family. Jaimie and I are going to spend Christmas together in Norman before we drive out to visit my family. We have the wonderful opportunity to begin to decide how we will celebrate it together now. One of our biggest thinking points is how we're going to really celebrate Christ without being distracted by the material aspects of our culture's celebration of the holiday. When we figure out what we're going to do, I'll probably make a short post to that effect as well.

You can look forward to more regular posting after the new year. Thanks to a good deal of change—from marriage and a new job to car accidents—and the launch of Pillar on the Rock, this simply hasn't been the best semester for this blog. Don't worry... I'm not going anywhere.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A babe and a dying messiah

December 20, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Christmas Contrasts"

Bruce preached a unique and excellent sermon today. He walked through the song "Silent Night" and contrasted its lyrics (and the corresponding picture of Christ's birth) with passages speaking of Christ's death. He spent very little time commenting on the texts and much more simply allowing the words to speak for themselves. I'll content myself with doing the same. (Note: Bruce exclusively used the NLT today, so that is the source for all Scripture citations.)

Silent night:
Mark 15:6-13
Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner—anyone the people requested. One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.

“Would you like me to release to you this ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asked. (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Holy night
Mark 15:16-19
The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. They dressed him in a purple robe, and they wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head. Then they saluted him and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they struck him on the head with a reed stick, spit on him, and dropped to their knees in mock worship.

All is calm
Mark 15:11-14
But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

“Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”

But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”

All is bright
Matthew 27:45,51
At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock... the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart...

Round yon virgin, mother and child
Psalm 22:6-8,12-18
But I am a worm and not a man.
I am scorned and despised by all!
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”

My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
Luke 23: 35-36
The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine.

Holy infant
John 19:17
Carrying the cross by himself, he went to the place called Place of the Skull (in Hebrew, Golgotha).

So tender and mild
Matthew 27:46
At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

John 19:28-29
Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips.

In heavenly peace
Matthew 10:34
“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword."

Sleep in heavenly peace
Luke 23:46
Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last.

Bethlehem was remarkable, beautiful, and strange—but it was only the first step on the road to Calvary and a cross. It is beautiful because it ends with an open tomb and the promise of his return.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stars and Stones—Sermon notes, 12/13/09

December 13, 2009—Bruce Hess, "The Star That Becomes a Kingdom"
(All references NASB unless otherwise noted.)
Sermon text: Matthew 2:1-11
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:


Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This week's message was a meditation on the incarnation, but one rather unlike our normal meditations. Bruce summed up the entire sermon in two words: "domino effect." The Son of God entered the world in a moment that was both much louder and much quieter than anything we might have done ourselves. But from that shining star, from the angels singing, from a baby in a manger, came a stunning transformation in all the world that is still ongoing.

Bruce noted that the star shining to guide the coming wise men has a significance that reaches beyond its own life. It represents Christ: a light of revelation that spreads to to all the world (compare Luke 2:21-32, John 8:12, Matthew 13:31-33 and Daniel 2:31-45, especially vv. 31-35 and vv. 44-45). "The ultimate result of this—that one day, the kingdom of Christ will fill the whole earth—begins with a star," Bruce said.

Bruce then asked two important questions that this raises:
  1. Who is included in the kingdom?
    The answer is straightforward: according to Acts 4:12, "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." Jesus Christ, and He alone, gives us entrance to the kingdom of God. We come only by believing in Him (see John 3:36 [NIV]). For our part, we are completely incapable of earning our own salvation by sheer good deeds, and cannot pay the cost for our own sin.
  2. What are the children of the kingdom to do?
    Bruce opened his answer by noting that "the dominos haven't all fallen yet." We, he said, are the dominos: the light that began in the star now spreads through us. In Matthew 5:14-16 [NLT], Jesus told his disciples that they were the light of the world. We are to show the world our good works with one aim: all people glorifying the father. His two takeaway points here were:

I really appreciated how Bruce drew attention away from the manger and to the whole picture of history. The manger was a stunningly powerful moment, but part of its power is how it informs all history before it and transforms all history after it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A cubicle poem

Poetry is harder to write
when you're under the influence
of hard, fluorescent lights.
Word choice is harder to summon
when people through cubicle world
are steadily comin'.

I'm left with slant rhymes and failing
mis'rable tries to generate
metrical smooth sailing.
I'm stumbling and grasping at straws
with a mind now doomed to create
grand poetic faux pas.

These sorts of trials no poet should bear
for not even Seattle's gray skies can compare.
Else they will soon be completely consumed
by the madness that dreadfully o'er them looms.

They'll be starting a fresh, new stanza,
a crazy poetic bonanza—
Poof!—their minds, lost!

"Computers," he said," are a delectable delight, best enjoyed with a side of whipped cream."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philippians in a Phlash—Sermon Notes, 12/6/09

December 6, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Philippians in a Phlash"
Sermon text:
The book of Philippians, all 104 verses.
Bruce finished his series on Philippians today, concluding by summarizing the entire book and reviewing the main points covered in his sermons over the past months. (Where I took notes on his sermons, I will linke to them.) He reminded us that Philippians was one of Paul's prison epistles, written while under house arrest in Rome, and that it is one of Paul's most personal letters, and certainly his most affectionate. Most of all, the letter is deeply saturated with the person and work of Jesus Christ: out of the 104 verses in the book, 51 of them mention our Lord.

Bruce's outline roughly followed the contours of the book's chapters. For each chapter, he proposed a theme and a life response.

Chapter 1—An Essential Perspective: Difficulty is common in the spiritual life. We must keep centered on our lives with Christ (v. 6). Bruce brought up the example of climbing a telephone pole for repairs: it's easy, as long as one leans back into the belt instead of trying to climb with one's own arms. Likewise, we can only succeed when we lean into Christ. Here, Paul introduces the theme that carries the rest of the book. As Bruce put it, "Keep the main thing the main thing," and the main thing is the gospel (see vv. 5, 7, 12, 16, and 27).

Chapter 2—An Essential Mindset: Humility in serving is integral to the spiritual life. We must live distinctively as children of God. This chapter is a lengthy call to selflessness. We are given a perfect picture: Christ has modeled the right attitude for us (compare Mark 10:45). Just as importantly, the selflessness and humility we are called to are not things we muster up ourselves but something God accomplishes in us. Paul then supplies two more examples: Timothy (vv. 19-24) and Epaphroditus (vv. 25-30). "Selfishness," Bruce said, "will sap the life of an individual. Selfishness will sap the life of a church."

Chapter 3—An Essential Dependence: Reliance on the flesh submarines the spiritual life. We must press on to daily dependence on Christ. Relying on the flesh for our relationship with God will lead us to total failure. All our good works are simply "rubbish"—the Greek word σκυβάλον, which Bruce translated as "stinky crap." We cannot coast, but must press on and focus forward, regularly asking, "Have I settled?" and "Do I live in the past?" We should remember that our citizenship is heaven, not here on earth. The only permanent things in this world are people and the word of God. Thus, we should daily ask, "How can I advance the gospel?" remembering that our strength is in Christ alone.

Chapter 4—Essential Living: Maintaining right choices is vital to the spiritual life. We must choose wisely. Here, Bruce reminded us of the five ways in which Philippians calls us to choose wisely:
  1. Defuse disharmony (vv. 2-3): We must rejoice in the Lord (v. 4), relying on gospel truth. When we do, everything else diminishes in importance by contrast with the hugeness of the gospel.
  2. Choose prayer over anxiety (vv.4-7): Bruce commented, "Remember that God is large and in charge." The rhyme neatly sums up a great deal of truth. We must also hold fast to his promised peace.
  3. Choose to focus wisely (vv. 8-9): A worldly focus on evil and scandal runs smack up against Paul's instruction to set our minds on good things. Paul offers up here a "menu for our minds."
  4. Choose contentment daily (vv. 10-13): Though we are tempted to think, "If only ___, then..." we should instead depend on Christ. The reality of our relationship with Christ is our ultimate strength. "He will give you the grace for the place," Bruce commented.
  5. Choose to invest in the kingdom of God (vv. 14-19): We are blessed by giving now, and we will be blessed more in heaven when we receive our reward.

Finally, Paul gives a simple but powerful benediction, one that I intend to memorize and use to bless and encourage others:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philippians 4:23

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tree Conspiracies, and the Ironies of Language Randomness

My wife (still fun to write!) and I just put up a Christmas tree together for the first time—our Christmas tree. I don't get overly excited about these sorts of things, and frankly I find myself disgusted by much of what passes for "Christmas" tradition: I'd rather focus on Christ's advent into this world. And, as my family can attest, trees and ornaments really haven't done much for me the past few years. Even so, I deeply enjoyed spending the time with my wife and the tree, covered in ornaments, looks rather lovely.

Circumstances do seem, as they say, to conspire against us sometimes. The very moments when we find ourselves rejoicing in a success, it's wiped away before our eyes. We are tempted to rage at God, and sometimes, like the Psalmist, we do rage at Him. In those moments, I return to an unshakeable confidence that the last few years have birthed in me. No matter how little I see God's sovereign goodness in the moment, I know in the depths of my soul that He is in control of every circumstance, and He is good.

Language is a funny thing. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is both power in simplicity and beauty in sprawling language. As much as some of my friends may protest, Dostoevsky remains one of the greatest authors ever to live—because of, and not in spite of, his wordiness. In layering word upon word, phrase upon phrase, he built up scenes and sometimes entire days of narrative in ways that resonate deeply with me whenever I read his works. More, he does so in a way that fewer words could not accomplish.

I reflected yesterday, in a moment of dreadful irony, that it's a terrible thing to be forced to study interesting topics for work. I find it even more dreadful that my pay is contingent on learning and applying intriguing ideas. I mean, really! It's quite an affront to my general sensibilities: work ought to be dull, boring, and and unexceptional in every way. The notion that it could be interesting has never crossed my mind, and I'm not sure whether to be frightened or infuriated by the concept. Perhaps meditating on the tastiness of chocolate chip cookies will help.

And now, for a bunch of random—wait, make that miscellaneous, as none of this is actually random—things to fill up the end of the post. First, my mom has written more blog posts in the last week than in the preceding 17 months. I find that impressive, most impressive—but I'll end the Darth Vader imitation now. Second, I cannot remember what the second miscellany was to be. Third, I remembered: because it's been so long, she's still pointing to my old blog. Fourth, there's something mildly amusing about critiquing brevity in writing in posts designed to practice just that...