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Archives for December, 2018

The heart of Christmas

Christmas. What about it?

Some Christians will say things like:

“we are never commanded to celebrate the birth of Jesus,”

“Christmas has nothing to do with salvation,”

“Christmas is paganism and from Constantine.”

These brothers or sisters are often well meaning though misinformed doctrinally and historically. (On the perpetual myth that Christmas has pagan origins see the outstanding essay, linked here, by Professor of History, William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas,” in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity)

Christmas is a season in the Christian year rather than a single day like December 25.  So today I want to share with you why Christmas is in fact essential to biblical faith. By this I mean that Christmas brings together the core message of the biblical narrative.

Christmas is not essential because of the name “Christmas.” Christmas is not essential because of poor shepherds or wise men of any number. Christmas is not essential because of a star shinning in the night. Christmas is not even essential because of the virgin birth (though I believe in the VB).

So why is “Christmas” essential to biblical faith?

The first page of the New Testament tells us why Christmas, the birth of Jesus, is essential to biblical faith. Matthew writes, quoting Isaiah 7.14 from the Septuagint,

“… they shall name him Emmanuel.

Then Matthew explains the meaning of “Emmanuel” with this commentary, “which means ‘God with us.

“God with Us!” This is the Gospel of Matthew’s doctrine of Incarnation. People normally go to John 1 when thinking of Incarnation (and for some reason do not think Jn 1 is Christmas) but Incarnation, God dwelling with Us, is an important theme throughout the New Testament and is in fact how the New Testament ends.

“God with Us” is one of the most prominent promises of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible opens with humanity living with God in the Garden. Human Sin vandalized relationships in multiple dimensions: 

with God,
with fellow humans,
with ourselves, 
with the rest of creation itself.

The biblical narrative begins with the creation of space where deity and created matter could be together.  So Genesis 2 is Emmanuel … God living with humans in the Garden with all creation. When all humanity rebelled in Adam against the Creator we were driven from the Presence of God, from living with God.

The rest of the Story of the biblical narrative is the Creator God’s rescue mission of humanity, and the resulting trauma to creation, from our self-inflicted Exile from the divine Presence.

Biblically, salvation is not merely a matter of forgiving our sin/s. Forgiving sins is a necessary means to an end. Restoration of fellowship, communion, God living with us is the goal of salvation.

Thus the Exodus, the paradigmatic pattern of salvation in the Bible, does not end with the Israelites escaping slavery from Egypt through the Red Sea by the power and grace of Yahweh. Rather, Exodus ends with the building of the Tabernacle so that God will dwell among God’s people. So we read these remarkable words,

I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you. You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make way for the new. I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am Yahweh your God brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and make you stand tall” (Lev 26.9-13)

The goal of salvation was “God with Us.” God dwelling with the people. The language of “I will walk among you” explicitly evokes the Garden where God walked with humanity. Thus the Goal of Exodus is not realized in the crossing of the Red Sea but in God living with us, Emmanuel. 

Thus the goal of the new Exodus, that is the death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus, is not simply forgiveness of sins. Matthew just told us his name will be Jesus/Joshua because he will save his people from their sins (Mt 1.21). Matthew uses the Isaiah quote to explains what that means for the world – sin drove us out of the dwelling presence of God. The removal of that sin restores us from Exile from the Presence … thus God with Us!

Over and over and over throughout the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh promises Israel “I am with you.” The most burning hunger in the hearts of the pilgrim was to,

dwell in the Presence of the Lord.
One day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”
I’d rather be a door keeper in the house of the Lord …
Do not fear for I am with you.”

These all express the desire for “Emmanuel.”

The Tabernacle/Temple was quite literally the place where God chose  to dwell with God’s people. The whole purpose of creation was for the creatures to enjoy glorious Presence of the Creator.

Matthew’s Gospel, on the first page of the New Testament, taps into Israel deepest yearning in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. That God has in fact so loved us, that God now lives with and among us. This is why in the middle of the Gospel, Matthew says where two or three are gathered in my “name,” that “I am WITH YOU.” And the Gospel closes with “I will be WITH YOU till the end of the age.” Emmanuel.

John’s Gospel connects the Incarnation explicitly with God’s dwelling in the Tabernacle/Temple. The Word “dwelled among us.” That is the word “Tabernacled” among us drawing directly from Exodus and Sirach 24. Emmanuel.  

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High …
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel to receive your inheritance

(Sirach 24.3 & 8)

The goal of salvation was not and is not getting rid of sin. That is a huge and necessary step, and praises to the Lord of Lords for that. But the goal of salvation is what Christmas is actually about …

God dwelling with us.

That is the goal. Thus the biblical narrative does not end with the cross nor even the resurrection. The biblical narrative ends with God moving – like in Exodus – to live with us. 

The Revelation of John says “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven … See the home of God is among humans. He will dwell with them

This is the Christmas message. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of the Word, is essential to biblical faith not only for the means of removing sin. It is essential because it is the Goal of Salvation, which is astonishing fulfillment of the wildest hopes and dreams of Israel … that the Creator God now lives with us.

Emmanuel. It is not a name that was ever on Jesus’s birth certificate. Emmanuel is Matthew’s way of telling us that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate Christmas gift, because now we have restored in a radical manner what was lost in the Garden. God loves us so much that God would dwell with humanity.

Emmanuel begins the Bible. Emmanuel is the theme throughout the Bible. Emmanuel on the first page of the NT. Emmanuel is the last page of the Bible.

Merry Christmas.

When the wise men came to Herod and told him a new king was born, Herod knew exactly what that meant. His sovereignty had been called into question. Paranoid Herod did what paranoid control freaks do – he tried to have the newly born king killed before he was a threat. Let him grow up and it will be too late.

Baby Jesus is cute and cuddly. He seems and looks controllable, like you could pick him up and carry him around the house. Not so with grown up Jesus.

Herod was crazy but Herod understood this one simple fact. Jesus is a threat to our sovereignty. There could only be one king and we must choose who it is going to be.

None of us would want to murder Jesus, if that were even possible. But many of us take steps to ensure our own sovereignty, our own rule and our own control. Like Herod many lives are affected by our actions in this regard. We find ways to conveniently brush Jesus to the side and don’t allow King Jesus fully into the center of our lives. In short, he is king and we aren’t submitting.

It is time we are honest with ourselves about any similarities to Herod we might embrace. Jesus is king and that means that I am not so I need to stop acting like I am.

The Really Big Thing
As the year winds toward a close, I find myself musing about what really matters for leaders in congregations. I certainly know that, for most church leaders, a hundred items clamor for attention. Everything from a new health crisis for sister Maggie to a dilemma with a mission in the Congo to the repair of the HVAC system at the building to what to do about the decline in Sunday morning attendance … all of these things make their way into decision-making sessions in churches large and small.

All of those things matter – yet many of them could find resolution under the care of any number of godly and wise people. What is it that leaders need to attend to because if they don’t, then it won’t be done?

Paul makes a remarkable claim in the middle of addressing a bundle of conflicts and messes in the church in Corinth. Seeking to rise above the tumult of trouble and pointing the Corinthian congregation to reorient and refocus, Paul declares: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

I think Paul knew that, whenever a community of people live and share and work together, conflict and trouble will emerge. He also knew that finding a center, resolving conflict, and plotting a path forward will come only if someone (or a group of someones!) intentionally seeks to think and behave in ways that are aligned deeply with Jesus Christ.

This is the big thing for leaders. Leadership in our congregations must take into account a disciplined focus on being Jesus-followers. Leaders must not assume that either they or congregations will naturally fall into a Christ-centered way of thinking and behaving. Whatever your role, the one thing that is absolutely necessary for the wellbeing of the community is a deep commitment to see others as Jesus sees others.

The second thing leaders must do is closely related to the first! With the eyes of Jesus, leaders are the ones who look for signs of God’s action. Leaders are the ones who refuse to take their attention away from God’s mission in the world, even when unexpected conflicts and dilemmas surface (and they do!).

Knowing Jesus Christ and paying attention to God’s movement in the world are big things. And our churches, families, and cities need leaders who live out those big things!
Merry Christmas!

Using Christmas to grow a small church
The Christmas season is upon us, and this festive season brings with it ample opportunities for churches to connect with our communities. In hisMosaic article, Dr. Larry Fitzgerald (’76) shares about his journey into celebrating Christmas, then offers several creative suggestions for small church leaders to lean into this season, such as participating in local holiday events or hosting a Christmas meal for members who cannot celebrate with family. Fitzgerald is pulpit minister at the Woodlawn Church of Christ in Abilene, and for more than 40 years, he has been a town Santa! For more holiday reading, check out all ourChristmas-themed Mosaic posts.

Ministers’ breakfast in Houston to feature Dr. Jerry Taylor
On Monday, Jan. 28, Dr. Jerry Taylor (pictured) will speak at ACU’s annual ministers’ breakfast, to be held at Ecclesia Houston. The 9 a.m. breakfast will include time for fellowship, worship, and a word of encouragement for a new year of ministry. The annual breakfast is sponsored by ACU in Houston’s University Relations team, in partnership with the Siburt Institute. Dr. Jerry Taylor is an associate professor of Bible, missions and ministry, and the founding executive director of the Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action.

For additional details, email Carri Hill, University Relations Manager in Houston, at by Thursday, Jan. 24.Click here to register.

Save the date: ministers’ lunch in Dallas/Fort Worth featuring 
Dr. Richard BeckOn Tuesday, Feb. 5, Dr. Richard Beck (’89), department chair and a professor in ACU’s psychology department, will join ministers in Dallas and Fort Worth at Christ Church in Irving for a lunchtime conversation about practices of hospitality, sharing insights from his book Stranger God: Meeting Jesus in Disguise. Following Beck’s presentation, extended time will be allotted for questions, answers, and reflection.

The event will go from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and the lunch is sponsored by ACU in Fort Worth’s University Relations team and the Siburt Institute. For additional details or to RSVP, email Brent Barrow, University Relations Manager in Fort Worth, by Thursday, Jan. 31.

In many ways, Summit 2018 was a great experiment and success. As we sought to keep the 112-year tradition true to its beginnings while meeting the needs and demands of an ever-changing audience, we have moved Summit into a new model, Summit Re-Imagined.

We are thankful for all who have participated and led in various ways. With deeper course offerings and all-day pathways, more events aimed at spiritual formation for our ACU students, a larger online presence and a soon-to-be-released podcast series, we are excited about all that is ahead for Summit 2019 and beyond.

Holiday Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

Happy Holidays from your friends at
the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry!

Ministers’ Breakfast, Houston, Jan. 28. Coordinator: Carri (Teague ’88) Hill Ministers’ Lunch, Dallas / Fort Worth, Feb. 5. Coordinator:Brent Barrow (’86)Ministry in Times of Illness and Loss, Co-Sponsored with Lifeline Chaplaincy, Feb. 23Ministers Support Network Retreat, Feb. 28 – March 3. Coordinator: Robert Oglesby Jr. (’81) Journey – From Text to Congregation, March 21-23

“Creating a vision statement is not the same thing as having vision or discerning a vision. ‘Creating a vision statement’ is something that secular organizations do as a function of strategic planning … But in the church, a real vision comes through the Holy Spirit, not through a committee pulled together to figure out on their own what the church ‘ought’ to do or what they want the church to do.” – Dr. Richard L. Hamm,Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age“God doesn’t need our perfection. He already has his own. He chooses us because we offer something different – humanity. To be what he needs, we can’t shy away from our intense experience of weakness … When one person is willing to step into vulnerability, it disrupts forever the cycle that traps us, giving us permission to share our fears, creating a space for others to be human and for God to be God.” – Mandy Smith,The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry

Did your mom, perhaps your dad, sing to you as a child? You know, the songs while being rocked to sleep at night or while you were going down the road in the LTD station wagon? They are songs that never cease playing in our hearts and our minds.

Luke tells us that Mary sang songs much like her biblical namesake the Prophet of God (it is a horrific tragedy of the English Bible that many disciples do not know Mary the mother of Jesus is named after one the three deliverers of Israel, Miriam). I am certain that Mary did not sing this song merely once. Nor is this the only song Mary sang to not only Jesus but all her sons and daughters. Mary’s song is representative of what Jesus and his sisters and brothers heard from the lips of Miriam.

Mary was born, and bred, as a faith filled Jew. She was nourished on the vibrant heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible. She poured her hopes, and dreams, into the names of her children because the song was already in her heart. As any student of the Bible knows, names were not randomly picked out of a baby name book. Names were chosen to express something. I know my own daughters names were prayed over before chosen. Rachael is God’s lamb full of joy and love, while her sister Talya is the Lord’s rain/dew that blesses and nourishes the earth with grace. These names were chosen on purpose. Have you noticed what Miriam (named for a prophet) and Joseph (named for the savior of world and father of two tribes in Genesis) named their kids. Notice this “pattern” in Mark 6.3:

– Jesus = Joshua the salvation of the Lord

– James = another tragedy of the English Bible, is Jacob who is quite literally “Israel” himself (God changed his name and the word “Jacob” frequently is a stand in for “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible) and is the patriarch of the Twelve Tribes

– Joseph = named for dad and shares in the meaning

– Judas = named after Judas the Maccabee, the hammer of God, who delivered Israel from the Seleucid Empire

– Simon = was the brother of Judas the Maccabee who continued to lead the Maccabean Revolt

Notice anything about these names of Jesus’s brothers as the Gospels record them? They say something about Mary and Joseph. Their hope for Israel has not vanished in the slightest.

That hope is expressed in her song. Scholars have noted that “Miriam’s” song is Hebraic, it is so “Old Testament,” it is just so Israelite. And it is. Mary taught her sons and daughters to dream of the salvation of Israel. Or as New Testament scholar Richard Horseley called her songs, “revolutionary songs of salvation.”

This song by Mary set the agenda for Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke and the pattern of the church in the book of Acts. There is a Miriam at the creation of the old Israel, and there is a Miriam at the beginning of the reNEWed Israel … the prophet who gave birth to the Lord’s Salvation.

What did that song sound like. What song flowed through Jesus’s mind as he mingled with the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor, the traitors (tax collectors) … Jesus has the Hebrew Bible in his soul via his Mother.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant Israel in remembrance
of his mercy according the promise he made to our ancestors  …

The most obvious Hebraic root here is Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, but the thought is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible. But Miriam/Mary identifies herself among the lowly, the down and out powerless people of this age.  This taps into the fundamental identity of Israel as being the lowliest of nations. So lowly was Israel that the state sponsored terrorism against their baby boys. Thus Deuteronomy and Ezekiel stress that God “loved” Israel because no one else would (Dt 7.7-8; Ezk 16.1-7, in Ezekiel, Israel is an unwanted and exposed infant girl, not boy, whom the Lord saves). Jesus never forgot the songs of his mother and was always proudly among the unwanted of the world.

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

It is impossible not to hear the Psalms pulsating through Mary’s song. And perhaps this is why that holy books was so treasured by her son. Texts like Psalms 18.27; 89.10 and a dozen more come to mind. 

For you deliver a humble people,
but the haughty eyes you bring down
.” (Ps 18.27)

you scattered you enemies with
your mighty arm.
” (89.10)

But what is it that God has done? What is it that Mary poured into Jesus, James, and Jude’s heart (the last two have epistles in the NT)? In other words what did salvation look like?

First, salvation meant the powerful are brought low and the low are lifted high (v.52). A great reversal is what salvation brings. This perspective permeates Jesus’s teaching in the Gospel of Luke. There was a Rich Man who saw Lazarus, the lowliest of the lowly. We know what happened. Mary was pouring Jubilee theology into Jesus in her songs.

Second, salvation meant the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (v.53). This is also Jubilee. This is also Exodus. This is also reversal. This is not pie in the sky escapism as in Gnosticism. Salvation is not from God’s creation rather salvation is experience within God’s creation. Salvation meets the hurting and out of wack world exactly where it needs, in the flesh and blood of reality. So Jesus tells all kinds of stories of a Jubilee banquet (Lk 14.15-24) in which the poor, the lame, the blind are brought to feast at the table they would routinely be excluded from. Salvation impacts and revolutionizes the world in which we live. 

Third, salvation is an act of mercy and faithfulness to the promise to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.54-55). Why did Mary name her sons Jesus/Joshua, Jacob and Joseph? These sons all represent the HOPE of the Promise “to his servant, Israel.”

To put this in terms we normally use, Mary’s says that salvation comes because of the Old Testament, salvation comes on Old Testament terms and not contrary to it or in spite of it. Jesus did not forget this. Lazarus is “carried away to be with Abraham” (Lk 16.22). And Abraham tells the rich man if he wants to know salvation then he needs to listen to Moses and the prophets (16.29-31).

Miriam’s song reverberates throughout Jesus’s ministry and the life of the church as Luke tells the story. Mary’s song became treasure buried in the heart of Jesus, James and Jude and defined the content of their mission and ministry (James is clearly an advocate of the lowly in his short letter).

It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’s ministry would not be what it was had it not been for his Mother singing the songs of Israel to him. Today, the church needs to hear her song afresh. Mary’s song reminds us that the Gospel is not a message of what happens merely after we die. The Gospel is a message that says death itself will no longer rule the world God created, even for the least of these.

Mary’s song reminds us that the mission of God was the mission of Jesus and ought to be the mission of the church. We bring good news to the lowly, a message that changes the world. And finally Mary’s song reminds us that it is simply impossible to have either Jesus or the “New Testament Church” without being “Israel” and part of the family of Abraham, Isaac and … Israel (Jacob).

Mary’s Christmas song is one we need to remember all year long. 

If you’re doing the December Reading Plan in Luke with me this month, then today you found yourself in Luke 19. One of my favorite stories is here. Zacchaeus the dreaded tax collector. If you were to ask the local church people, you would have been told he was he a crook, stole from the less fortunate, and used Roman guard to strong arm his own people. He was known as a trader and nuisance to the good Jewish people. And our Savior, who should have gone straight to the local synagogue to make the religious feel good about themselves, instead spent the day with the Chief Tax Collector.  

I love the Christmas story. I love the baby in the manger, the shepherds in the fields, the caravan of the wise, the animals, the weary, excited parents, and the star overhead. I love the joy, hope, and story of the Nativity. But I am in awe of the Savior who grew to love the unloveable, see the unseen, and defend the weak, hated, and oppressed.

This Christmas season as you’re beholding the baby in the manger, don’t forget who he grew up to be. Take hope and joy to those that most people refuse to see. Befriend the poor and marginalized. Call them by name, share a table with them, and let them know how loved they are. And don’t get too upset when you’re faced with opposition. Following Jesus has a tendency to upset the comfortable.

Continue to love, serve, and encourage those whom others refuse to see. That’s the true story of Christmas. Not a baby in the manger but a King who left the splendor of Heaven to walk our broken streets.  

Many of you are familiar with Les Ferguson, Jr. He writes regularly here at Wineskins and at his personal site. Les wrote a book this year titled, “Still Wrestling: Faith Renewed Through Brokenness” and I want to tell you a little about this book and how it could be a real blessing to your soul.

First of all let me say I am biased. Sometimes I review books of people I haven’t ever met and don’t know much about. But I know Les and so it is hard to not let that bias shine through in the review. Here’s the thing. Part of what makes the book what it is is that Les is who he is. Les is a man who loves God, loves his family, and will bless you if you get to spend some time with him either in person or through reading his book. The book is very genuine and I think you will get an accurate snapshot of who this man is and how God works through brokenness if you read his book.

You can’t really talk about the book without talking about his story and one event in particular, the murder of his wife Karen and son Cole. I expected that story to play out over the course of the book in a much longer narrative but as it turns out it is told in the introduction, before you even hit chapter one. But the repercussions of that story are told through the rest of the book.

The premise of the book is that Les is a mess but that isn’t really any different than the people in the Bible and any of the rest of us. That makes the book something we can all relate to. On top of that, Les’ writing style is relatable because his writing is so personable and personal. He owns his problems so he can face his problems. Each chapter highlights a different person in the Bible, the mess they were and that they got into, and how God redeemed each and every one. That leads to how God is working on us today as well. Each chapter ends with some discussion and reflection questions that would work well for individual reading or group study.

While I really think a lot of people would benefit from the book there are a few groups who might benefit most. First are those who are Christians but are struggling with why God allows all these messes to remain messy for so long. This would be the perfect book for the person struggling with doubts. This would even be a great book for a non-Christian to read and understand what redemption is all about. Last, this is a great book if you need encouragement. That seems like an odd group because the story of loss in and of itself isn’t that encouraging but it is real and to see what God has done with it is very encouraging.

I hope you will get this book, read it, and share it with someone else who might benefit from it. Pick it up for a reading club and work through the discussion questions. You will be blessed if you do. Thank you Les for writing an outstanding book and for opening your life up with such vulnerability that we can all grow closer to God because of this.

What does it take to be a good elder? When you think of selecting new elders what kind of person are you looking for? Of all of the words used for an elder in the Bible the one that is most descriptive is a shepherd.

They say the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. When you are looking for new elders look for those who are already in people’s lives. Look for those who are shepherding people without the title. If you don’t have anyone doing that start developing people as soon as possible.

One of the greatest qualities and criteria for being a shepherd is that the sheep must be willing to follow. Too often we appoint people no one is following. What we tend to do in practice is look for someone that fits the bill in Timothy and Titus without concern for their ability to shepherd. So we create an executive leadership culture and perpetuate that same culture by the people who come into the role over time. Ability to shepherd is just as much a criteria for eldership as anything in Timothy or Titus.

When we look for scriptures that describe elders and give qualifications we often overlook some of the most important ones. The first passage we need to take a closer look at is Acts 20:28-31,

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.

This one is easy to miss because it doesn’t come in the format of a list of qualifications. But it is still truly descriptive of what an elder should be like and it is still instructive to elders today.

The elders and themselves:
Elders are to keep watch over themselves. They are to be vigilant. They are to be on point, in tune and in touch not only with the congregation but with themselves and each other as fellow elders. Who do elders get spiritual support from? They should be able to get it from each other. Elders can shepherd other elders. Elders can walk other elders through difficult times. This is not only biblical it is practical. Shepherding amongst the eldership allows the shepherds to develop their own skills in house. I have seen many instances where an elder needed another elder to walk with them through something to help them with their discernment but never reached out for the help. Ministers can help the elders but the power dynamics in play make it more favorable for other elders to keep watch over each other.

The elders and the congregation:
This assumes pastoral ministry. This is the ministry of love and concern for those in the elders’ care. As Lynn Anderson put it they should “smell like sheep.” They are to guide the congregation in truth (the Spirit can help with that), guard against false teaching, and be on their guard (which is what shepherds with sheep constantly have to do) in order to help the sheep as much as possible. Shepherds who are shepherds in title only but aren’t present with the sheep put the flock in a dangerous position. People think the shepherd is on duty but no one is looking after the sheep. That is when wolves move in. No one seems to notice this until it is too late and the damage has been done.

The elders and the Spirit:
Paul tells the Ephesian elders here in Acts 20 that the Holy Spirit himself has put these people in this role. This should be front in center in our discussion of elders. Elders don’t appoint elders. The Spirit appoints elders. We should be seeking the Spirit’s lead in appointing new elders. Have you ever heard that mentioned or seen that reflected in an elder selection process? If so, that would be unusual.

The elders and Jesus:
Not only did the Spirit put them in the role over the church but this is the church God bought with the blood of Jesus. This is a serious responsibility!

The other passage I think we need to pay close attention to in terms of the pastoral role of elders is 1 Peter 5:1-4,

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

The role of elder is connected with the glory that will be revealed one day. That is Peter’s way of saying this is serious business. What one does as an elder has eternal ramifications. The congregation is under the care of the shepherds.

This is a ministry of love.

It is also a ministry not just of qualifications but of willingness. Attitude in the role makes a big difference. Peter says not only should elders be willing they should be “eager to serve.” The job of elder is a hard one and it is only natural that over time that eagerness will subside for some. Peter’s instruction here might prompt elders who have lost their willingness and their eagerness to reconsider their fit for the role of elder. In my experience the elders who are no longer willing and no longer eager but who feel stuck in the role are the ones most likely to do what Peter says not to do next, “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” What kind of congregation would we have if people become younger versions of the elders?

Peter ends with an encouragement to shepherds and so should we encourage our elders. Let us take the job of elder and convert it from a thankless job to a respected job, from a burden to a blessing. That might just help make those in the future willing and eager to serve rather than perpetuate a church culture that under appreciates our leaders.

It seems to me that much of what is holding a lot of churches back today are leaders who aren’t willing to have leadership cost them anything. We get too caught up in making everyone happy, which isn’t actually everyone. The everyone we think we are making happy is actually a smaller set of people in the congregation. Some leaders don’t want to get caught up in difficulty but difficulty is essential to not only the survival of the congregation but also to its eventual thriving.

If this point isn’t clear enough look at Jesus. Jesus was interested in being faithful rather than being liked. Jesus was well aware that leadership came at a cost, his very life. He calls others to follow him telling us to take up our cross as we follow. Jesus got caught up in difficulty as did Paul. This came with their calling and vocation. Today we rarely talk about either of those. Imagine if we viewed the eldership and ministry as a calling, a calling that the entire body of Christ understood came with risks. Wouldn’t we be more likely to be graceful to those in leadership rather than, instead, expecting them to not take too many risks and pretty much hold things steady? Wouldn’t those who lead be more likely to take leadership more seriously as a calling rather than a position?

The biggest cost of leadership is acting like it won’t cost you anything. Even if a church holds steady, it could have been growing and thriving. Surviving and thriving are two different things. The cost of holding steady or slowing your decline is missing out on the experience of growth and the lives that are reached and changed in the process.

Leadership can be a lonely place. So let us encourage our leaders. Let us bless them. Let us let them know we are behind them, even if we don’t agree with all of their decisions. Watch those leaders grow and flourish and launch into new and exciting ventures with the body of Christ that will come at a cost but the reward will be great!

When I close my eyes and imagine the first Christmas, the one with Mary and Joseph, certain images come to my mind. I see the couple huddled in a stable. I see the baby in a manger surrounded by animals. I see wise men, shepherds, and a star. Since there is a star it is always dark, the middle of the night.

Where did these images, especially the night, come from? They come from Christian art and hymnody.

During Christmas we sing some of the most famous Christian hymns, we know them by heart.

Silent night, holy night, All is calm, all is bright …


O holy night! the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of the dear Savior’s birth …

Not only is it night out when Jesus is born but our artistic and hymn tradition tells us that it is at midnight, the middle of the night, that salvation was born. Thus the wonderful hymn, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,”

It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold:
‘Peace on earth, good will to men, From heav’n’s gracious King;’
The world in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing.

The classic hymn “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” that I learned through Manheim Steamroller years ago, tell us it was midnight.

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming
From tender stem hath sprung,
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
As men of old have sung.
It came a flow’ret bright
Amid the cold of winter
When half-spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it,
This Rose that I have in mind.
And with Mary we behold it,
The Virgin Mother so sweet and so kind.
To show God’s love aright,
She bore to men a Savior
When half-spent was the night.

These hymns, and classical Christian art, bear witness to the Christian tradition that Jesus was born at midnight. For many modern Protestants, especially Evangelicals, this is a complete mystery. The Gospels are silent on the timing of Jesus’s birth. Luke tells us that the angels appeared to the shepherds in the night and that Jesus was born “this day” but does not suggest the time of either the birth or when the shepherds found the Holy Family.

So where does the deeply rooted worship and artistic tradition arise that Jesus was born not only at night but midnight? It comes from a book that many Evangelical Christians do not have in their New International Version of the Holy Bible.

But for centuries disciples of Christ read the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. Then as Christianity spread into the African and European West the Bible used was the Latin Vulgate. In western Christianity the Vulgate was the “Authorized Version” for over a thousand years before vernacular translations became popular. So for nearly 1500 years Christians, in their Greek and Latin Bibles, heard a book called The Wisdom of Solomon read in worship. This book was also part of the Bibles of the Reformation, like Martin Luther’s Bible, the Geneva Bible and the King James Version. From Wisdom, many came to believe that God’s Word was Incarnate at midnight. Thus in Wisdom of Solomon chapter 18.14-15 we read the following,

“For while gentle silence enveloped all things,
and the night in its swift course was now HALF GONE,
your all-powerful word leaped from heaven,
from the royal throne, into the midst of the
land that was doomed …

The Wisdom of Solomon says that God’s “all-powerful word” at midnight “leaped from heaven” from the very throne of God and came to the world, a land that was “doomed.”

This passage in its literary context refers to the Exodus from Egypt. But the Church Fathers read Wisdom the same way the Gospel of Matthew did Hosea 11.1 (which also applies an Exodus text to Jesus), that is as a typological prophecy of the Incarnation. It does after all speak of the “logos.” The eighth century biblical scholar Rabanus Maurus is representative in how Wisdom was understood by Christians for centuries (Rabanus simply assumes Wisdom is Scripture).

It says that at midnight, almighty God made his word descend from heaven, from the royal throne, like a ruthless champion in the middle of the land of slaughter, to powerfully carry out the judgment of death on the godless. What is the word of the Lord if not the Son of God, of whom John says, ‘In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ through whom everything was made? … It must be understood, then, that this word, in virtue of the evangelical ministry … now saves the multitude of believers through the waters of baptism, at the same time destroying the huge army of spiritual enemies.

Christians for centuries read Wisdom as a prophecy of the incarnation of Jesus, the Living logos of God. The “word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” at “midnight” to dwell in “the midst of the land of doom.” The critical moment of God’s salvation, the Incarnation, took place at midnight. That is why Christmas “mass”  has been at midnight and the tradition continued in Protestant hymnody. So our art and our Christmas carols say

It came upon a MIDNIGHT clear …

That Jesus was born.

The traditions passed on by artists and hymn writers were the ones they had learned themselves in what they believed was Scripture. The sources of those traditions are lost to modern Evangelicals and Restorationists today but the traditions remain but are a mystery. So though many have probably never heard of it, the Wisdom of Solomon influences us to this day. It shows up each Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

It is hard to believe 2018 is almost over and we are about to start another year. As we end this year, let’s discuss the state of Christian leadership in Churches of Christ. I really have more questions than I have answers. What are the advantages and disadvantages of our model? Is it biblical? Could it be done in a way more in line with scripture, not less? What does it mean to be a shepherd and how will we intentionally raise up the next generation of leadership? What about women in leadership? We are starting to see female elders in some churches of Christ (we will discuss Women’s Roles in August 2019 a lot more thoroughly). These are the questions that come to mind for me. I have stronger opinions on some of these than others and I am sure you do as well. When I consider the state of our congregations and our leadership, I believe we have been lacking in some areas and hopefully we can start a conversation that will chart a course to a healthier model of leadership in our congregations. There is much good that can be done by examining best practices, learning from each other and being intentional about developing people for the next 50 years. As always, thanks for reading!