Group Study: Prayer (Part 2 of 6)

Group Study: Prayer (Part 2 of 6)

This week the topic of the video-based discussion on site was “Why Pray?” This corresponds roughly to chapters 4-6 of the book. In it Yancey works through the objections some have to the concept of prayer as well as the struggles that many of people faith have as they struggle with prayer.

While Yancey gives several reasons to pray, for me the most compelling reason is the one that he highlights above the others:

“If I had to answer the question, ‘Why pray?’ in one sentence, it would be, ‘Because Jesus did.’ He bridged the vast gulf between God and human beings. While on earth he became vulnerable, as we are vulnerable; rejected as we are rejected; and tested, as we are tested. In every case his response was prayer.” (Prayer, 1st Edition, p.50)

The study guide for session 2 is attached for you to work through. There is a lot of great material to work through, especially the chance to explore and reflect on how the Gospels show Jesus at prayer.

Yancey Prayer Guide – 2

Group Study: Prayer (Part 1 of 6)

Group Study: Prayer (Part 1 of 6)

For the next six weeks, I’ll be working through the book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference with a small group here at St. Andrew’s Church Ancaster. This series of blog posts is for anyone from St. Andrew’s who can’t attend the study in person; for those who are part of the onsite group who miss a week; or for anyone who finds their way to this blog and would like to study along with us. I hope that this study would be helpful to you all as you seek to grow in the understanding and practice of prayer.

Members of St. Andrew’s can pick up a copy of the book from the church office. You can also order the book from Amazon (thought there are seem to be limited copies available right now) or direct from the publisher: http://www.zondervan.com/prayer-3

For the duration of the study (October 11 to November 15) you can download a photocopy of the study guide we’re using. Following the completion of the study I will have to remove them from the blog posts, as they contain copyrighted material.

Yancey Prayer Guide – 1

The first session in the study guide corresponds to chapters 1-3 in the book. The onsite group has their discussions guided by short video sessions by Philip Yancey based on the book. Zondervan has posted the first of these video sessions to YouTube, which you can watch below.

Finally, you can engage in discussion or ask questions in the comment section of each blog post.

Exodus: The Question of History (Part 2)

Exodus: The Question of History (Part 2)

Last time we talked a bit about the question: “how historical are the narratives of the Bible.” The short version of that post is that it depends on the narrative (some are more like parables, others refer to actual events), and it depends by what you mean by history.

Ancient people didn’t make the sharp distinction between facts and meaning the way modern try to people do. Every ancient historical document blends what we would call ‘the facts’ with the interpretation and meaning of those facts. Some writers stick closely to the facts, while others use them more freely to bring across their meaning, and the message they want to give to the present.

I finished by saying that I believe that the basic story of the Exodus is historical – that it really happened. I also said that knowing how close the story is to actual events is really hard to tell.

Why I Think the Exodus Happened

First off, let me say that the majority view among archaeologists and modern historians of ancient Egypt and the Near East is that the Exodus did not happen. There are a few reasons for this: nothing like it is mentioned in any contemporary ancient source outside the Bible; there is no clear archaeological evidence of a mass movement of people through the Sinai Peninsula during the period in which the Exodus is usually placed; and there is no archaeological evidence of an Israelite invasion of Canaan  of the kind described in the book of Joshua (in the period following the usual date for the Exodus).

The majority interpretation of this apparent absence of hard evidence is to say that there was no Exodus, that the Israelites were never in Egypt, but rather developed as a new culture and religion from the existing population of the Canaanites and made up the Exodus story at a later date. The trouble with this interpretation is that it is just as hard to believe as the admittedly strange and hard to believe Exodus story. For one thing there is no documentary evidence for it, it is just a hypothesis based on the current archaeology of the period when the majority of scholars believe the Exodus story is set.

A second reason for believing that the Exodus is based in history, is that though the origin stories of most ancient people are often fantastical and symbolic, they are usually grounded in some actual events. It’s rare for one to be completely made up, especially one that doesn’t exactly bring glory on the ancestors of Israel. It’s a story that says the first Israelites were slaves, who did not gain freedom by their own courage or ingenuity, but were rescued entirely by their God. It also shows them as reluctant followers, ungrateful, and ready to abandon this God at a moment’s notice. It’s a pretty odd story to make up if you want to give your nation a great founding legend.

But as a Christian, the most important reason I believe the Exodus happened is that one of the central claims of the Bible is that God is a god who acts in the world. I believe this most firmly because I believe that God was acting in the person of Jesus. I believe that Jesus taught, healed, performed signs, suffered, died and was raised to new life.

The case for believing that the gospels are essentially historical is much stronger than for the Exodus (for one thing they come from a more recent and better documented period), but if we believe that God acted in this world through Jesus, then we should be open to the stories from the Old Testament about God’s earlier work in the world. This is especially true of the Exodus, which is the central saving act of God in the Old Testament, that is referenced not only in the Torah (the five books of Moses), and referred to repeatedly throughout the historical, poetic and prophetic books that follow.

So, how do we make sense of the apparent contradiction to the archaeological record? Well as this post is already long enough, I’ll tackle that next time.

 

Exodus: The Question of History

Exodus: The Question of History

One of the big questions that comes up in any discussion of the Bible is how ‘literally’ should we take it. Going by what the word ‘literal’ actually means, this should be a question of whether we look for meaning in the literary text in front of us, or whether we should focus on deriving an abstract allegorical or symbolic meaning. However, what most people mean when they ask, ‘how literally’ we should take the Bible is: “should we take this as actual historical events?”

Is the Bible History?

This is a good question, but one that depends a lot on the book of the Bible we’re looking at. The Bible is really a library of books of many different genres. Books of poetry and wisdom, such as Psalms and Proverbs aren’t history (but may refer to historical events and people). Much of the New Testament is made up of letters to early Christian communities and individuals. These can be a resource for working out a history of the early Christian movement, but they weren’t written as history per se.

The question of history is best asked of the books that are primarily narrative, such as the Gospels and the Book of Acts in the New Testament, books like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ruth and Jonah in the Old Testament. And Exodus, of course. But even here we need to decide whether a narrative is meant to describe historical events or is parable, that while full of meaning to be taken seriously, is ultimately a fictional story. You’ll find a lot of debate on what books are meant to be history and which are parables. I personally take books like Ruth and Jonah as being parables, though based on historical people and events. On the other hand I firmly believe the Gospels are written as history. Much, if not, most of the narrative material in the Bible is written as history – but (and this is essential) it is written in the style of ancient history.

The Ancient vs. Modern Approach to History

When we look at books that are intended to be read as history, we need to be aware that ancient people understood history quite differently from modern Western people. Since the European Enlightenment in the 18th Century, history has been understood as being about establishing the facts of what happened in the past. While historical writing might contain interpretation of those facts, and application to the present, there is an attempt to keep ‘the facts’ separate from ‘interpretation.’ In other words to goal is to be objective and scientific, as much as that goal is never fully achievable (even in the hard sciences).

Ancient and Medieval people didn’t make this hard distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘interpretation.’ For them the primary purpose of history was to provide meaning to the present, and teach important moral lessons to people living today. That’s not to say ‘the facts’ weren’t important, but they didn’t try to separate the them from the meaning they took from those factual events (this is similar to the post-modern view that questions the very notion of objectivity and our ability to separate facts from meaning and interpretation).

The result is that the narratives told in ancient histories seamlessly mix what we would call ‘the facts’ with ‘meaning and interpretation.’ The story of history is told in a way that highlights the meaning the author wants to convey to the reader. This means ‘the facts’ get edited and added to in a way that produces a meaningful story. For example: The Greek historian Herodotus tells how the Persian King Xerxes had the waters between Turkey and Greece whipped with chains after his first failed attempt to build a bridge over them to carry his massive invading army. This is likely an allegorical part of the account meant to highlight Xerxes’ hubris in thinking he was a divine being who could control nature (on the other hand many ancient rulers really did have delusions of divine grandeur, so it’s also possible that it could have happened this way).

Bottom Line: We should not expect ancient historical narratives to separate ‘the facts’ from interpretation and meaning the way modern histories try to do.

This does not mean that ancient histories are not factual. What it means is that they are a mixture of what modern people would call factual (what actually happened) and fictional (symbolic details added to give meaning).

In fact, archaeology and comparison of ancient histories written by different people of different nationalities and perspectives have shown many ancient histories are highly factual. It all depends on the author and what what their goals are. Another example: the Roman historian Tacitus has proven to be highly factual in his writing, his contemporary Suetonius on the other hand preferred to be more sensational (and must be read more carefully), yet both are essential to understanding the early period of the Roman Empire.

So, Did the Exodus Really Happen?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: It’s complicated. I believe the basic outline of the story is based on actual events, but more than that is very hard to tell. For the full answer, check back next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Exodus: Setting the Stage

Exodus: Setting the Stage

My fall preaching series will be a (very) quick trip through the Biblical story of the Exodus. The Book of Exodus has 40 chapters, but I’ll only be covering story up to chapter 20, and doing this in just six parts. That means my Sunday morning messages will only be able to touch on the major plot points and themes – it’ll be a major exercise in self-discipline on my part.

To help me keep my focus, and give some additional context to my messages, I’ll be regularly posting on Exodus here over the next two months. To get started, take a look at the excellent two part video summary of Exodus from The Bible Project.  While you’re at it take a look around their YouTube Channel. You’ll find some highly accessible, top-notch Biblical scholarship in every one of their videos.

Praying Like Jesus

jesus-jew-praying

The Lord’s Prayer is one of Jesus’ gifts to his disciples. But while it’s helpful to just pray the words he gave us, it’s also important to use them as a guide to teach us how to pray in general. Here is one way to use the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayers. It’s a great way to start praying on our own (many of us were never really taught how and it can be difficult to know where to start). It can also serve as a helpful way to organise our daily prayers or as a way of checking to see how much our prayers follow the model that Jesus has given.

Our Father in heaven,

Reflect on the fact that God loves us like a parent and wants to have a relationship with each one of us.

Hallowed be your name,

Take a moment to praise God. You may want to praise God for the created world, for God’s justice and mercy, for the gift of Jesus, or for God’s goodness in your own life.

Your kingdom come,

Pray for God to transform the world, to bring it more fully under his rule. You may want to pray for peace, for justice, for more compassion, for an end to poverty and sickness. You can pray for any global or local situation that you would like God to set right.

Your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Pray for people to do God’s will. Start with yourself. Ask for God’s help to understand what he is calling you to do and for the help to do it.

Give us today our daily bread.

Take a moment to pray for your own needs, the needs of your family, friends, as well as those of our church.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

You may want to pray for general sins (ie. not loving God and our neighbours as much as we should) or you may want to offer up specific sins that are on your heart. Ask for God’s help to become more patient and forgiving towards others in general. Take a moment to consider if there is someone you need God’s help to forgive.

Save us from the time of trial

Pray about those things that worry you, things that make your life difficult, things that cause your pain or struggle, and things that test your ability to do the right thing.

And deliver us from evil.

Ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world.Pray that others would receive this same protection.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever.

 Amen.

For a printable copy of this post click the link below. I have also included a simplified version that parents can use with their children.

Praying with the Lord’s Prayer

The Lord’s Prayer for Children

Advent Study: Birth of the Messiah (Matthew 2)

matthew-prophecy-fulfilled

This past week our study took us into Matthew 2 and most of the way through Luke 1. This post will cover Matthew, and I’ll have a separate one for Luke in a few days.

The Visit of the Magi – Matthew 2:1-12

While Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is the less familiar of the two in the Gospels, we finally come to some familiar territory with the arrival of Magi or Wisemen from the East. That being said it’s worth pausing a moment to hear what the text actually says.

Notice that the Magi arrive not on Christmas Eve, but sometime afterward. Matthew doesn’t tell us precisely when, but we can assume it took them a while to travel from Persia to Jerusalem (in the traditional Church calendar the Magi turn up 12 days after Christmas on Epiphany). Also note that the Magi are not called kings, nor are we told how many came (it’s the gifts that came in three).

So, who are these foreigners who turn up to bow before the newborn King of the Jews? The Magi were priests of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. By the time of Jesus this ancient religion was a blend of monotheism and dualism, with a supreme God called Ahura Mazda opposed by an evil deity called Angra Mainyu. Astrology was a major part of their religion, which is why we find them searching the sky for signs.

More generally, the Magi represent the non-Jewish nations of the world (Gentiles). In the last post I highlighted the fact that God’s purpose in calling Abraham and forming the nation of Israel from his family was to bless all nations.  A number of Israel’s prophets looked forward to the day when this would become a reality (for example, Psalm 72:10-11 and  Isaiah 60:1-6). The Magi arrive to show the fulfillment of this promise, and to foreshadow the day when Jesus will send his Jewish followers to spread the blessings of his Kingdom to all nations (Matthew 28).

Isaiah 60 also explains the two of the three gifts brought by the Magi: “They shall bring gold and frankincense.” The third gift, myrrh, is more mysterious. It doesn’t correspond to any prophecies. It has usually be interpreted as foreshadowing Jesus death, as myrrh was often used for embalming bodies for burial.

To Egypt and Back – Matthew 2:13-23

Though the Magi are not described as kings by Matthew, there are two other Kings in the story of Jesus’ birth. The first is Jesus himself. The Messiah is the long promised king of David’s line, the true King of Israel and King of all Nations. The other king is also easy to spot, King Herod. This is Herod the Great, who was the Roman sponsored king of Judea from 40BC to 4BC.  Jesus was born right at the end of Herod’s reign (which shows us that the monk who developed the Gregorian calendar made some errors when figuring out what year should be 1 AD).

Herod was an Idumean (Edomite descendant of the patriarch Jacob’s brother Esau) whose father was prime minister to the last Maccabean king of Judea. Herod became king in the chaotic period when Rome was completing its conquest of what is now Turkey and Syria. Herod won the support of the Roman Senate to become king and then kept that support when Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, came to power. The Romans allowed Herod to rule because he was ruthless in maintaining order in Judea and ensured a steady flow of taxes and tribute. On the other hand, much of the the Jewish population despised Herod for his cruelty and for the fact that he was a foreigner. To try to win the support of the kingdom he began a massive rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem that tripled the size of the Temple Mount to what it is now.

In his later years Herod became increasingly paranoid and executed hundreds of people, including many members of the royal family. The Jewish historian Joseph tells the story of how a dying Herod ordered that a large number of distinguished citizens would be rounded up and killed upon his death so that the event would an occasion of national mourning (fortunately his successor ignored the order). So, while there is no other account of the massacre of infant boys in the area around Bethlehem described in Matthew 2, it is in keeping with Herod’s character and actions.

However, Matthew’s main reason for including this story is to highlight two key themes in his Gospel. The first is to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus. By telling the story of Herod and Jesus’ flight into Egypt the way he does, Matthew is encouraging us to see Herod as Pharaoh and Jesus as the baby Moses. Jesus’ journey to Egypt and back also parallels the journey of the people of Israel into Egypt at the time of Joseph followed by the Exodus and return to the Promised land under Moses and Joshua.

The second theme is that of the two kingdoms. Matthew sees the universe as divided into two realms: the Kingdom of the World (in its present fallen state) ruled by the Satan, and the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) ruled by Jesus Christ. These two kingdoms are at war, and Jesus as the world’s true king is in danger from the moment of his birth. The irony is that the victory of the Kingdom of Heaven will come through Jesus’ death on the cross – but that death must come at the right time and the right circumstances. So until then Jesus is kept safe.

Joseph and Our Role in God’s Purpose

Now all of this brings us back to Joseph and his role in Jesus’ birth. On the one hand the story Matthew tells assures us that God’s plan and purpose will succeed. Though Jesus is in danger from the moment of his conception (when Mary could have been stoned as an adulterer), God’s hand was at work to ensure his Son was born and would live to fulfill his destiny as Saviour of the world. There was no doubt as to the outcome.

On the other hand, God’s purpose depends on the actions of human beings. Most critically we see this in Mary who wholeheartedly accepts God’s choice of her to be the mother of the Messiah. But here in Matthew we also see the critical role played by Joseph. On three occasions an angel from God speaks to Joseph in a dream and in all three occasions Joseph responds with obedience. He accepts the news that Mary’s child is from the Holy Spirit and provides protection and legitimacy to Mary and Jesus. He takes the warning about Herod seriously and immediately takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt where they will be safe. Finally, he believes the news that it is safe for the family to return to Israel so that Jesus take take his rightful place among his people, and grow up in Galilee where he will carry out his mission.

All of these things depend on Joseph. And there we have the paradox. God’s good plan and purpose cannot be held back or defeated. God’s will shall be done. Yet, mysteriously God chooses to carry out his will through weak, fallible human beings who have the ability to reject God’s purpose for them. God is sovereign, yet all the same our choices matter. Question: Meditate on the role of Joseph in the story of Jesus’ birth. What might this say about your role in God’s good plan and purpose for the world, and for your community? What role might God calling you to take? What might God be calling on you to do that no one else can?