Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas from
the Van Nestes!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas, God Working in the Dark

It seems that many people think you can only celebrate Christmas if all is well. You can see this in the various statements beginning with, “It just does not seem like Christmas because ….” Perhaps we set ourselves up for failure by expecting everything to be just right at this time of the year.

If we pay attention to the Biblical text we notice that Christmas is in no way connected to things going well. In fact, as we can see from numerous texts, Christmas is typically set in dark and difficult situations. The message of Christmas is that God is still at work in such times accomplishing salvation for His people. This is why there is hope and why we can be merry despite what may be happening around us.

One place we see this is in the familiar Christmas story in Luke 2. The chapter opens by stating that the pagan Roman emperor had decreed that people would have to register for tax purposes. This would certainly not have been received as good news by Jewish people in that time. First of all, what government requires registration for taxes in order to decrease taxes? This decree would have been an odious reminder of their subjugation under pagan rule. This decree was a symbol of oppression. They were not free and had to pay high taxes to far away rulers who served idols. Furthermore they would have to return to their hometowns in a day when travel was difficult and costly. For those like Joseph’s family who had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, this would be a long journey which would interrupt work (and thus pay) and exact a toll on the family.

It is highly likely that this decree of Caesar’s would have been met with protest among the Jews of the day. Some may have cried out, “Where is God? Why does He allow us to be so mistreated? When will he deliver us? Does he care? Has he forgotten us? Is our suffering hidden from God?”

What they could not know was that God was right there working through this hateful decree to bring the Savior into the world. God was at work moving the heart of this unbelieving king to make this decree so that Joseph and Mary would travel to Bethlehem so the Messiah could be born there in fulfillment of prophecy. The very thing which looked to them like evidence of oppression was actually the beginning of deliverance. What looked like the absence of God was preparation for the incarnation, Immanuel, “God with us”. When God seemed most absent, He was there working as He often does, in the dark, accomplishing the deliverance of His people.

This is fruitful to ponder and apply to our own lives. Christmas is not the pretence that all is well now. Such pretence is a sham and people see through it as Scrooge did. No, Christmas is the blessed assurance that God is still at work redeeming His people. It is the reminder that God accomplishes salvation even when it looks bad. This gives us hope and points us forward to the coming day when God will make all things right. With this truth in mind we can celebrate in hope and declare our hope and joy as a statement of faith.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Thanksgiving Hymn by Douglas Bond

Readers at my children’s books blog will know that one of our favorite authors is Douglas Bond. It has been a delight over the last several months to get to know Doug via email as we have prepared for his visit to Union as part of the Psalms Project.
One of the things I appreciate about Doug is his appreciation of poetry and good hymnody. He recently sent me a Thanksgiving hymn of his and gave me permission to post it. I hope you appreciate it as much as I have.

We Rise and Worship
"O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8).

We rise and worship you our Lord
With grateful hearts for grace outpoured,
For you are good-O taste and see!-
Great God of mercy rich and free!

Electing love from God on high!
In gratitude I wonder why
This Sovereign Lord-O taste and see!-
In love decreed to rescue me?

Your Son obeyed the Law for me,
Then died my death upon the tree.
O Jesus Christ, I taste and see,
And marvel that you purchased me!

In might, your Spirit drew me in,
My quickened heart from death to win.
O Holy Spirit-taste and see!-
From death to life you've set me free!

With thankful praise our hearts we give,
And grateful now we serve and live.
O Trinity, we taste and see
Your glorious grace so full and free!

(Douglas Bond, November 19, 2007)

You can learn more about Doug and his work at his website.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Pastor’s Self-Evaluation Questionnaire

I recently came across this “Pastor Self-Evaluation Questionnaire” thanks to a link from Steve McCoy. The questionnaire was written by Tim Keller and David Powlison. I have only looked it over so far, but it is a wonderful, searching tool. It opens citing 1 Timothy 4:16 where Paul calls Timothy to pay close attention to his life and doctrine. This resource will help us to do that. Keller and Powlison walk through various areas of pastoral ministry asking searching questions. They are wise and, therefore, search out both extremes of each issue searching out if we are too lax on one side or to strict on the other. It is well thought out.

One might worry that such a tool might simply end up heaping condemnation on you. However, again, these are wise Gospel-centered men, and they set this up well, grounding it in the gospel. The best way I know to illustrate that is simply to quote their opening two paragraphs:

The questions that follow help you to pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching. The purpose is to bless you and those you seek to love and serve. For the vast majority of readers, it will help you set a positive, personal agenda for growth as God’s instrument. The Great Shepherd of the sheep will by His grace continue to develop you in His image. Conduct your self-evaluation in the light of His love.
Perhaps for a few readers it will prove to be a pass-fail test for your current ministry. Perhaps God has not given you certain gifts. Perhaps you are walking in some disqualifying pattern of sin. Even in these cases the questionnaire serves a positive purpose. The Lord has another place for those gifts that He has given you. The Lord has a way of repentance and renewal for sins that sabotage pastoral integrity and effectiveness. Remember the grace of the gospel.
Just this intro alone is rich in pastoral modeling. May we be careful to obey 1 Timothy 4:16 and also be faithful in this same firm, loving gospel-drenched way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Psalms Project at Union

I mentioned previously that with funding from a Worship Renewal Grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship Union will host a series on the Psalms and Christian Worship. We now have finalized the schedule and speakers. In our chapel services (10:00 am) we will have the following speakers connected with the project:

2/18- John Witvliet (Director, Calvin Institute for Christian Worship)
2/20- Craig Blaising (Provost, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary)
2/25- Marty Goetz (Messianic Music Minister)
3/4- Ray Ortlund, Jr. (Pastor, Immanuel Church, Nashville)
3/6- Douglas Bond (author of numerous books including the Crown and Covenant series)
3/11- Calvin Seerveld (Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto)
3/13- Carl Stam (Professor of Music; Director, Institute for Christian Worship, SBTS)
3/20- Craig Christina (Pastor, FBC Jackson, TN)
4/3- Leland Ryken (Professor of English, Wheaton College)
4/8- Richard Wells (Dean of the Chapel, Union University)
4/24- Don Whitney (Professor of Biblical Spirituality, SBTS)
4/29- Ben Mandrell (Pastor, Englewood Baptist Church, Jackson, TN)
5/1- Web Drake (Professor of Communication, Union University)
These presentations range from sermons, singing and reading the Psalms, to lectures on various aspects of the Psalms including their place in private and corporate worhsip, the inmportance of lament, and how the Psalms have sustained suferign Christians in the past.

We will also have two afternoon sessions with dates still being set. In March James Grant (Pastor, FBC Rossville, TN) will discuss how he successfully introduced his church to singing the Psalms. In April Don Whitney will teach on praying Scripture including the Psalms.

All of these sessions are free and open to the public.

"This program is made possible through a Worship Renewal Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Grand Rapids, Michigan, with funds provided by Lilly Endowment Inc."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas and Missions

My friend Phil Eyster at Eagle Projects International just posted this photo sent to him from a friend in a Muslim country (you can see his comments at the blog). You can see the blood covering the streets after the Festival of Sacrifice last week. As we approach Christmas it is good to be reminded that we are celebrating the coming of the One who takes away sin, the one “who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God." (Hebrews 9:14).
Christmas is the great missions story as God the Son crosses cultural barriers to redeem for Himself a people. May our celebrations indicate this truth.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Wedding Folder

Here is a basic practical post. When I first began doing weddings as a new pastor, one of the challenges was keeping up with my notes, the vows and the order of the ceremony. I tried putting the pages in my Bible but that did not work well. In the end I picked up an unused choir folder at it worked marvelously! This has become one bit of advice I pass down to other pastors.

The choir folder is black so it looks the part in the ceremony, and I can slip in two sheets of paper (having trimmed the margins) both face up. The clear plastic in the inside holds the paper securely while not obscuring my reading. Usually, with the right font, I can have right in front of me the order of the service with vows and notes all in order.

So I pass this along in case it may be of help to others. You can usually find a left over choir folder lying around at church and put it to use.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

E. V. Hill, His Wife's Funeral

As part of the pastoral labor my wife and I do a fair bit of pre-marital counseling. As we were doing some more of such counseling this Fall I remembered hearing, while in college, a recording of Pastor E. V. Hill preaching his wife’s funeral. It was a powerful sermon filled with insight and anecdotal wisdom on marriage and parenting. Since I have lost the tape I had of the sermon I searched youtube and was delighted to find that the sermon is available there. It is found in two parts and is well worth listening to.

The sermon was preached in 1987 and is titled “My Wife’s Death in Biblical Perspective.” His text was Job 1:21, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Throughout the sermon he refers to his wife with the name he called her, “Baby.” He explains at the beginning of the sermon that he did not choose to preach her funeral to display special strength; rather, he said, “I stand fulfilling a task my member asked of me.” His wife, one of his church members, asked him to preach her funeral so he did so.

The first part of the sermon (all of part 1 and into part 2) Hill expounds “The Lord giveth” in reference to his wife as a gift from God. He said, “In my wife He gave a great gift.” Along the way he acknowledged the labors of his wife’s parents in raising a godly pure woman. In this section he digresses to talk about parents’ (especially fathers’) roles in selecting spouses for their children (about 2:55-6:50 in part 1). The story of him turning away from his door a young man who had come to see his daughter is classic. It is a good example of fathering well and is humorously told. Hill told the congregation plainly, “some of these relationships have to be broken up!” This was no passive fathering! He also said, “You can’t get no race horses out of mules!” He goes on to encourage male headship and to extol the femininity of his wife.

At the end of Part 1 and beginning of Part 2 (you can just pick up at the beginning of Part 2) he tells a couple of stories to illustrate his statement, “She was my protector.” These stories move me even as I listen to them for the 50th time. He tells about a time when he took on a business venture that she had warned against and then he lost a large sum of money in it. She did not berate him or hold it over his head. Rather, in a very touching way she extolled his virtues rather than his failings. At another time when they did not have enough money she did not complain but tried to obscure the fact that their lights had been cut off by setting up a candle light dinner. Of these instances he stated: “She could have broken me at that point. … she could have broken my spirit … and demoralized me.” But instead she supported him and believed in him. There is also the story of how she sought to protect him from a death threat by placing herself in the way (you’ll have to listen to it).

Lastly, he takes up “the Lord taketh away” (about 4:30 in Part 2) making the important point that a sign of Christian maturity is being able to say “Blessed be the name of the Lord” not only when the Lord gives but also when He takes away. This is such an important point. Then as he repeatedly shouts “Blessed,” it seems to me that he is right there practicing what he is preaching, blessing the Lord in that moment acknowledging that the Lord had indeed taken away the wonderful gift He had given in Mrs. Hill. The sermon closes in a moving anticipation of heaven.

I could listen to this sermon over and over. It means a lot to me for various reasons not least because I have been blessed with a wife who has supported me in similar ways. This model and message needs to be shared. So I encourage you to listen to this sermon and pass it along to others.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

David Dockery’s Annual Booklist

Each year, Dr. Dockery typically circulates a list of top picks of books from the previous year. He just sent out the list for this year and kindly gave me permission to post it here for any who might be interested. Here is his list with his introductory comments:

Of the making of books there is no end . . . (Eccl. 12:12). Trying to keep up with the books that are made seems to get more challenging each and every year. Some of you have asked if I had plans to publish the recommended books list for 2008. I know that it is time to shop for good books for good friends and family members, and perhaps to pick up a book or two for yourself. I have tried to keep the list to books published in 2008, though a few 2007s found their way onto the list.

Baggett, David, Gary Habermas, and Jerry Walls. C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty IVP, 2008.

Beale, Greg K. We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. IVP, 2008.

Beale, G. K. and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament.
Baker, 2007.

Berding, Kenneth and Matt Williams, Editors. What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Their Writings. Kregel, 2008.

Carson, Donald A. Christ and Culture Revisited . Eerdmans, 2008.

Colson, Charles with Harold Fickett. The Faith. Zondervan, 2008.

Copan, Paul. When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics. Baker, 2008.

Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. IVP, 2008.

D’Souza, Dinesh. What's So Great about Christianity Tyndale, 2008.

Dyrness, William A. and Veli-Matti Karkkaianen, editors. Global Dictionary of Theology. IVP, 2008.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Sovereignty: God, State, and Self (Gifford Lectures). Basic, 2008.

The ESV Study Bible, Crossway, 2008.

Flew, Anthony. There Is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. Harper One, 2008.

Forster, Greg. The Contested Public Square: The Crisis of Christianity and Politics. IVP, 2008.

Garrett, James Leo. Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study. Mercer, 2008/09.

George, Robert P. and Christopher Tollefsen. Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. Doubleday,

Harris, Alex. Do Hard Things. Multnomah, 2008.

Haykin, Michael A. G. and Kenneth J. Stewart, editors. The Advent of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuity. B&H, 2008.

Horton, Michael. Christless Christianity. Baker, 2008.

Jacobs, Alan. Original Sin: A Cultural History. HarperCollins, 2008.

Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. HarperCollins, 2008.

Kaiser, Walter. The Promise-Plan of God: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments. Zondervan, 2008.

Keller, Tim. The Prodigal God. Dutton, 2008.

Lindsley, Art. Love The Ultimate Apologetic. IVP, 2008.

McGrath, Alister. Doubting: Growing Through the Uncertainties of Faith. IVP, 2008.

Mohler, R. Albert, Jr. Atheism Remix. Crossway, 2008.

Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, editors. Suffering and the Goodness of God. Crossway, 2008.

Nichols, Stephen J. Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches us About Suffering and Salvation. Brazos, 2008.

__________. Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to the Passion of Christ. IVP, 2008.

Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Berkley Publishing, 2006.

Poe, Harry L. Edgar Alan Poe. Metro Books, 2008.

Redmond, Eric. Where Are All the Brothers? Crossway, 2008.

Schreiner, Thomas. New Testament Theology. Baker, 2008.

Schultz, Quentin J. and Robert H. Woods. Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication. InterVarsity, 2008.

Smith, Christian. Passing the Plates: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money. Oxford, 2008.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Belknap, 2007.

Toobin, Jeffrey. The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. Anchor, 2008.

Wells, David. The Courage to Be Protestant. Eerdmans, 2008.

Whitlock, David W. and Gordon Dutile, editors. A Noble Calling: Devotional Essays for Business Professionals. Wipf & Stock, 2008

Wittmer, Michael. Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough. Zondervan, 2008.

Friday, December 05, 2008

A Very Short Intro to Augustine

Earlier this week I mentioned reading a couple of short books over Thanksgiving and commented on one of them. The second book is Henry Chadwick’s Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2001). This book is only 134 pages and is a great size for carrying in a coat pocket. Chadwick, who died earlier this year, was a prominent Anglican theologian well acquainted with the writings of Augustine, and he provided here an accessible stimulating overview of the life and work of this key theologian of the early church.

As I have said before, I think these brief surveys of key people or issues by people imminently familiar with the topic and qualified is a great service to the rest of us. I had a basic awareness of Augustine already but this book in brief compass has substantially increased my awareness and appreciation of Augustine, his formative influences, setting and writings.

Here is a sampling of quotes from the book. Quotes directly from Augustine’s works are indicated by wo sets of quote marks and reference to the source:

“Among ancient men he had an unsurpassed power to articulate feelings.” 1

[as he was moved towards conversion]“The professor of rhetoric found that his copy of the Pauline letters was becoming important to him.” 26

“’Vision will be granted to him who lives well, prays well, and studies well’ (O ii. 51)” 36

“Augustine records with some astonishment that there were contemporary Christians in Africa who read no book other than the Bible . . . . He was sure that wider studies were necessary. A biblical scholar needed to know some history, geography, natural science, mathematics, logic, and rhetoric (how to write and speak clearly and appropriately). There could be places where a little knowledge of technology might well help the interpreter. Certainly some knowledge of Greek was most valuable for checking translations and variant readings.” 27

“ ‘one should begin each day not with complacency that one has survived another day but with compunction that one more day of one’s allotted span has forever passed’.” (T xiii.12) 45

“The lay community met regularly for daily prayers and recitation of the Psalter. (It is hard to exaggerate the importance of the Psalter for Augustine’s spirituality; psalm quotations have been shown to be essential to the very structure of the Confessions.)” 46

“He wanted to be a monk, not a busy town parson continually beset by unreasonable people.” 58

“ ‘He who does not think of the world to come, he who is a Christian for any reason other than that he may receive God’s ultimate promises, is not yet a Christian’ (S 9.4).” 59

“But he was sure that those who praised a bishop for being easygoing could only be wicked people (P 128.4).” 63

“At long last I came to love you, beauty so ancient, yet ever new.’ (C x.37).” 74

“ ‘Take away justice, and what are governments but brigandage on a grand scale?’ (CD 4.4).” 106

“. . . but he remained pre-eminently a master of persuasive speech. . . . A fascination with words never left him.” 125-126

Abbreviations of sources:
O- De Ordine (On Order)
T- De Trinitae (On the Trinity)
S- Sermones (Sermons)C- Confessions

C- Confessions
CD- De Civitate Dei (The City of God)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

2008 Bibles and Bible Reference Survey Article

The latest issue of Preaching Magazine contains my survey of new Bibles and Bible reference materials (e.g. commentaries) that have come out since last fall. The longer web version of the article is now available online as well.

There were quite a few new study Bibles that came out in this time period like the ESV Study Bible, the NLT Study Bible, the Orthodox Study Bible, the Chronological Study Bible and many others. I comment on each of these as well as language helps, commentaries, surveys, and biblical theology. The web version, though does not show that the magazine decided to print a photo of me this time and chose to use this photo!

This issue also includes interesting items from Walt Kaiser and Sidney Greidanus on Christo-centric preaching (not available without a subscription).

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Atheism Remix

Over Thanksgiving I read a couple of smaller books, one of which was Atheism Remix: A Christian Confronts the New Atheists, by Al Mohler. It is a very helpful book which I commend to you.

I had heard of the book but had not seen it and did not know its aim. I decided to read it over this break because it was short. It is the sort of ‘short book’ that we could use more of: one written by someone very aware of the issue and which summarizes carefully an important topic helping others to be aware of a significant topic or conversation. Mohler does not here seek to provide a thorough refutation of the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens), but summarizes their writings and their place in the history of ideas so that the rest of us who have not read all the relevant books and articles can be more aware of what is going on. This is very valuable for a variety of people, not least pastors whose members may be hearing about these writings. I benefitted significantly from this overview.

One thing I noticed, which Mohler pointed out, was how often these atheists (like many before them) rejected Christianity after being exposed to a pretty lousy example of Christianity. It is as if people are inoculated against Christianity by being exposed to a very weak strain of it. Once that weak strain is conquered, they are then impervious to examples of vibrant Christianity. The analogy does not hold entirely, but it reminds me again of this point: laboring for the purity and vitality of the church is not drag on evangelism but is, in itself, evangelistic. The greatest hindrance to the advance of the kingdom is an impure church; and, the greatest tool for the advance of the kingdom is a pure church.