Review: Advent for Everyone: Matthew

Advent for Everyone

Advent for Everyone: Matthew, N. T. Wright. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

Summary: An Advent devotional with four weeks of daily readings and commentary by a noted New Testament scholar and pastor.

N. T. Wright has published a whole series of “…for Everyone” books including ones for each of the three years in the lectionary cycle. This focuses around the Advent readings for Year A in the Gospel of Matthew. The devotional includes daily readings for the four weeks of Advent, with translations of Matthew by the author, brief commentary, and a question or two for reflection.

I found this a rich set of devotional readings. At the core of each devotional is real commentary. That is, Wright concisely sets forward the meaning and relevance of the day’s text, rather than simply sharing an “inspiring thought that may or may not have any connection to the reading.

In this review, I will share one example, a brief summary from one of each week’s readings, that may give you a flavor for the whole:

Week 1: A Time to Watch: 

First Sunday of Advent: The unexpected visit: Matthew 24:36-44

Wright reminds us from a personal experience of what it means to have unexpected visitors. He then deals with this apocalyptic text from Matthew and its call for watchfulness for the Lord’s coming. He speaks of the dire prophecy, fulfilled at least initially, with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. He observes that the one taken, one left refers to those taken by soldiers to their deaths and those left untouched. Interestingly, the church fled Jerusalem before its fall, recognizing what was coming. Wright urges us to similar watchfulness in our own “turbulent and dangerous times.” And so we are invited into the beginning of this season of watching for the Lord’s Advent.

Week 2: A Time to Repent:

Thursday: The Parable of the Clean and Unclean: Matthew 15:10-20

Beginning with one of my favorite stories of Pooh and the Heffalump, he talks about Pooh’s concern that the jar of honey set to lure the Heffalump was real honey all the way down. From this he moves to the issue of purity and the challenge of Jesus to religious leaders who are pure on the outside and corrupt inwardly. The invitation is one to search our own hearts. For what need we repent and ask the coming Lord to cleanse in our lives? Are we pure all the way down?

Week 3: A Time to Heal:

Wednesday: The Raising of the Little Girl: Matthew 9:18-26

Every culture has hygiene practices and for good reasons. These enable us to avoid disease. For the Jews, you avoided a woman having her period or any other bleeding, and you did not touch dead bodies. If so, you went through ritual cleansing. In this passage, Jesus both permits a bleeding woman to touch him and takes the hand of a dead girl. Instead of Jesus being rendered unclean, the woman is healed, the dead girl comes to life. Here is one more powerful than whatever may pollute our lives, in body or mind. What might he touch and heal in us?

Week 4: A Time to Love:

Monday: Loving Your Enemies: Matthew 5:38-48.

Wright observes that Israel is a chosen people, yet overrun with enemies. He shows how Jesus offers “a new sort of justice, a creative, healing restorative justice.” It means a refusal to answer violence with violence. It means to go beyond the judgment of a shirt to giving one’s cloak, shaming the adversary with one’s virtual nakedness. It means to go beyond the mile Romans could impress one to carry a load, going a second mile, gratis. Wright asks with regard to our own enemies, “How does his teaching on reflecting the generous God and defusing violence speak to you?”

Wright’s devotionals focus on the wonder of this Lord who has come and is coming, and how we might watch for and prepare for that coming. His incisive commentary and questions are designed not just to engender warm feelings of “comfort and joy” but rather to call us into the deeper work of watching, repenting, longing for healing, and embracing the generous love of God.

This review may come late for this season. I’d encourage you to buy this volume, and the companions for Year B (Advent for Everyone: A Journey with the Apostles) and Year C (Advent for Everyone: Luke). Then you will have them for the full lectionary cycle. Yesterday, we lit the fourth Advent candle in our church, looking forward to the lighting of the Christ candle, the one who is the light of the world. These readings helped intensify my joy in what his first coming means and my longing for his return. The Lord grant you the same!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Reckless Way of Love

the reckless way of love

The Reckless Way of LoveDorothy Day, edited by Carolyn Kurtz, Introduction by D. L. Mayfield. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A collection of Dorothy Day’s writings on following Jesus in the ways of faith, love, prayer, life, and community.

One thinks of Dorothy Day as an activist writer and advocate for the poor, running homes of hospitality, communes, and getting arrested even in her seventies. What is less apparent is the deep spirituality that sustained her activism. This book, one of Plough’s Spiritual Guides, distills writings from her different books that cumulatively describe the ordinary life of following Jesus among the poor.

The excerpts are organized around five “ways” or themes: of faith, of love, of prayer, of life, and of community.

In the chapters on faith, we encounter both her implicit belief in the mysteries of the faith and the sacraments, and yet her struggle to trust and depend in the welter of daily interactions and work. She writes,

“I suppose it is a grace not to be able to have time to take or derive satisfaction in the work we are doing. In what time I have, my impulse is to self-criticism and examination of conscience, and I am constantly humiliated at my own imperfections and at my halting progress. Perhaps I deceive myself here, too, and excuse my lack of recollection. But I do know how small I am and how little I can do and I beg you, Lord, to help me, for I cannot help myself” (pp. 14-15).

Often, Day’s reflections come with pithy challenges. We see the intensity of her love for God and the wonder that God sets his love on the likes of us and then observes, “It is a terrible thought–‘we love God as much as the one we love the least’ ” (p.36). Or she surprises us with her breaks with convention such as when she writes on prayer: “I do not have to retire to my room to pray. It is enough to get out and walk in the wilderness of the streets” (p. 44).

“The way of life” reminds us “never to get discouraged at the slowness of people or results” (p. 63). She writes of deepening perceptions of unworldly justice that does not seek its own, that for a Christian social order, “we must first have Christians” (p.66), and how, apart from the light of Christ, we often do not know ourselves or our secret sins. She writes at length on the indispensable role of suffering in our lives.

The final portion focuses on life in community. Day writes of efforts in community with grittiness and realism. Disappointments. Betrayals. Plain hard work and long hours. Yet even so, she longs for bigger houses, more room for discussions, a library, “a Christ room.” She recognizes desperately her need for the presence of God in all the ordinary places. In the end, it is community that addresses our desolation. She concludes, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community” (p. 120).

This is the second book in the Spiritual Guides series I’ve reviewed, the earlier being The Scandal of Redemption by Oscar Romero. These are small books only in size. Each is well-edited by Carolyn Kurtz. This, in particular, required culling passages from a number of Day’s works along each of the themes into coherent chapters. Eye-catching cover art, end papers, and typography make these delightful books to hold and read.

I found myself often mulling over a single line, such as this one: “We have the greatest weapons in the world, greater than any hydrogen or atom bomb, and they are the weapons of poverty and prayer, fasting and alms, the reckless spending of ourselves in God’s service and for his poor” (p.69). I mused again and again what a different face Christians would present to the world if we lived as Day did rather than jockeying for positions and influence and concealing our flawed character rather than exposing it to the grace of God. Reading Day gives me hope that ordinary Christians with all our flaws and struggles may yet walk the ways of faith, hope, and love, offering something beautiful for God and to the world.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Advent of the Lamb of God

the advent of the lamb of God

The Advent of the Lamb of God (Retelling the Story Series), Russ Ramsey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: A retelling of the story of the coming of Jesus, who would be God’s ultimate lamb, tracing from the Fall through Israel’s history to Christ’s advent, God’s relentless yet loving pursuit of his people.

Christians are story-shaped people. For anyone who would suggest that the Bible is God’s rule book, I would propose rather that the Bible tells us the story of God’s pursuit of a lost humanity and how we might be found by Him and live within that story. The older I get the more I’m persuaded that we often don’t really know the story we live within, and are sometimes shaped by stories that really aren’t our story.

What I so love about this book, and the series of three of which it is a part, is that Russ Ramsey uses three great seasons of the church’s life: Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, and Pentecost to help us discover (or re-discover) our story. Through 25 brief reflections, he traces Israel’s longing for the Promised One, the Messiah, and then his coming in Jesus, Immanuel. Ramsey’s spare prose sketches out the main contours of the biblical narrative from the fall, through the coming of the Messiah, and briefly his baptism, and ministry, death, and resurrection, that fulfilled the longings of generations of Israel.

We’re reminded of the one who would come to crush the head of Eve’s deceiver, the one who would be sacrificed on Moriah instead of Isaac, the one who wrestled with Jacob, who was the new Moses, the faultless judge, the King promised to David. It is a narrative that stresses how Israel relentlessly tries to shake God’s grasp, and a God who refuses to let go of them because of his intention to bless them, and through them the nations. Ramsey writes:

Though they would wrestle with God, and though the Lord would hobble them, stripping them of their leverage, it would be because God was fighting for them even when they were fighting against him, even when they forgot the covenant the Lord himself swore to uphold. (p. 51)

He explores how God fulfilled his covenant promise through a silenced priest, an aged wife, a  young girl, and a bewildered but obedient husband, all of them living under the thumb of the Roman empire, and their power hungry surrogate, Herod the Great. We are reminded of the real agonies the young maiden endured among the stabled animals, the wondrous birth, the angels with the shepherds, the flight to Egypt with the Magi’s gifts, and the joyful declaration and sober warnings in the words of aged Simeon of a sword that would pierce Mary’s heart.

This is not a tightly focused treatment of the birth narratives alone but connects them to what has gone before in Israel’s history. These are not disparate narratives but one narrative, in which the birth is a kind of culmination of what has gone before. Yet Ramsey accomplishes this by focusing on the main contours of the story, and by prose that is both imaginative and yet disciplined.

You may wonder about reviewing an Advent book in July. Yet Christian educators and worship leaders are anticipating the Advent season even now. This might be a great Advent devotional to be used, perhaps as an adjunct to adult education or a preaching series. It is a wonderful resource for young believers, as well as those of longer years who, immersed in theological argument, how-to-ism, or approaches that set the Bible at war with itself, might discover again for the first time this wondrous story. Ramsey’s book is no substitute for the Bible, or “Cliff’s Notes” for scripture, but rather an invitation to discover our story and immerse ourselves in it, allowing it to shape our lives.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Shalom in Psalms

shalom in psalms

Shalom in Psalms, Jeffrey Seif, Glenn Blank, and Paul Wilbur. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A devotional based on the Tree of Life Version (TLV) of the Bible, a Messianic Jewish translation of scripture.

The Psalms, or the Tehillim, have been the prayer and worship book of God’s people for thousands of years, extending before the Christian era, at very least to their post-exilic collection, and in some form, back to the temple or even tabernacle worship of King David. They have been memorized by children, set to music numerous times, used in liturgy, prayed corporately, and devotionally, giving words and voice to the deepest longings and experiences of the human heart.

This book is a new entry into a long history of devotional literature centered around the Psalms. What singles this out from others is that it is based on a new translation of the Bible, the Tree of Life Version (TLV). It includes the text of all 150 Psalms and devotional readings written by the three authors, including two of the editors of the TLV (Seif and Blank), and a career musician (Wilbur). All three are messianic Jewish Christians and the vision of this translation is to provide a Jewish-friendly translation of the Bible. This includes reverence for the four-letter unspoken name of God, always translated in this version as Adonai, transliteration of Hebrew terms like shalom, kedoshim, and shofar, speaking of Messiah as Yeshua. I understand that the whole Bible also follows the Jewish ordering of the books.

It is interesting how this is applied with the Psalms. The superscriptions at the beginning of many of the Psalms are included in the verse numberings. This can cause some confusion if this version is cited, probably requiring parenthetical citations of the standard version verses where they differ. The Psalms follow the Hebrew or Masoretic text numbering of the Psalms (followed by Protestant and modern Catholic versions) rather than the Greek Septuagint (followed by the Eastern Orthodox).

Here is a comparison of Psalm 8 in TLV and NIV translations:

Psalm 8

For the music director, upon the Gittite lyre: a psalm of David.
Adonai our Lord,
    how excellent is Your Name over all the earth!
You set Your splendor above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babies and toddlers
You established power, because of Your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which You established—
what is man, that You are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that You care for him?
Yet You made him a little lower than the angels,
and crowned him with glory and majesty!
You gave him dominion over the works of Your hands.
You put all things under their feet:
all sheep and oxen,
and also beasts of the field,
birds in the air, and fish in the ocean—
all passing through the paths of the seas.

10 Adonai our Lord, how excellent is Your Name over all the earth!

Tree of Life Version (TLV)

Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Used by permission.

Psalm 8

For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

New International Version (NIV)

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Apart from the transliterations and use of Adonai and the verse variations, I found the translation generally tracks closely with standard translations.

 

The devotional readings vary depending on the authors. Those by Jeffrey Seif and Glenn Blank tend to be a bit more commentary including Jewish backgrounds of the text as well as good personal application. The latter is also true of Paul Wilbur’s contributions but he brings in much more of his experience of setting these works to music and references some of these efforts, most of which were unfamiliar to me. Except for very long Psalms, most are two to three paragraphs in length.

This book is a good devotional resource for someone who wants to get more of a Jewish perspective on the Psalms. It is also a good introduction to the Tree of Life Version for those considering purchasing the whole Bible in this translation. This seems especially to be a devotional resource that might be deeply appreciated by someone in a messianic Jewish congregation. It reminded me that when I read and pray the Psalms, I join a line of people extending back far before the Christian era who lamented, struggled with enemies from without and their own sins within, cried out for deliverance, and celebrated the God who heard them.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.