My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Graduating Class of 2018: Three Gospel Phrases

Leslie Newbigin, in his classic book, Foolishness to the Greeks, speculated as to what would it mean if seminary students like you graduated and actually conceptualized the Western world as a mission field. He speculated what it would be like if the West was no longer the Christian center, but a culture in spiritual decline. How prepared are we, he mused, to send students out to people who believe matter is self-originating and self-organizing? What would it be like to send students out into a world where there is no assumption of a creator God, and an increasingly dim Christian memory? How prepared are we to send students into a world where morality is nothing more than shared societal conventions, and where truth is socially determined—or, as Newbigin put it, truth has been degraded from public facts, to private preferences?

Well, we no longer need to muse about what it might be like, because you are facing precisely that world. You enter a world not framed by the truths of revelation, but by the perceptions of social media. Graduates of 2018, welcome to the mission field. In this, we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters, many of whom are also here poised to graduate and who come from parts of the world long considered the mission field, but are now the new center of gravity of world Christianity. As a whole, Christianity is growing more dramatically around the world than at any time in our history. However, as Andrew Walls has long pointed out, it has always been true that the advance of the gospel in one part of the world often happens at the very time when the gospel is receding in another. This is part of the story of Christian history. The need for all our graduates is to learn how to do cultural exegesis and understand profoundly the world you are called to engage with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are three phrases which I want to briefly share with you which have long guided the church in the midst of troubled times. These three phrases reflect three great truths for every generation of Christians. These phrases represent foundation stones which can be used to, once again, re-present the gospel in an hour of crisis. The three phrases are, “He spoke,” “He breathed,” and “He entered.”

He spoke” reminds us that God is the creator who spoke this world into existence. We know that God also speaks in His word, which is the great doctrine of revelation. We affirm the authority and power of the Word of God for a lost and fractured world. We believe in “He spoke.”

Second, “He breathed.” We believe that God has breathed his life into all of humanity. Every person on the planet is created in the image of God. We live in a world that is divided and conflicted, and the lines of hostility are drawn. But, the image of God is stamped on all of us. All people are objects of His love, His grace, and His redemptive actions. We are called to announce to the world the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Third, “He entered.” At the heart of the Christian gospel is that God so loved the world that He entered into it. In the incarnation He has stepped into this world. God’s entrance into the world is the great singularity which frames the whole of human history. We are the ambassadors of that good news.

He spoke, He breathed, He entered.  There is enough good news in those three phrases to fuel your entire ministry. “He spoke” reminds us that the world is not without purpose and meaning, but is the result of divine design. “He breathed” brings dignity to the whole human race and reminds us that every person, if I can quote those timeless words of Augustine, “is restless until they find their rest in Him.” “He entered” brings us the whole gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as the entrance of the Holy Spirit, and our anticipation of his coming again. These three foundational truths remind us why we came to seminary in the first place, and why we must leave this place, and get to work. God, through His grace, invites us—even us—to participate with Him in His redemption of the world. We go forth with joy, knowing that this is His work, and that there are no challenges or barriers, or bastions of unbelief, which can put this light out. Because the light shines in the darkness and has not put it out, for it is God himself who  has spoken, has breathed, and has entered. Thanks be God. Amen.

Seven Reasons Why the “One Church” Plan Should Be Rejected

For several years now United Methodists have been living in expectation that in 2019 we will finally resolve our long struggle over the issue of human sexuality.  A special General Conference has been set for February, 2019 to resolve the issue.  The Commission on a Way Forward has worked diligently since 2016 to provide various options, though the Council of Bishops has endorsed the “one church” option, which is a renaming of the previously rejected “local option.”  This “solution” would remove any references to sexuality or gender identity norms in our Discipline and allow local churches to make their own decisions regarding membership and pastoral appointments of LGBTQ persons, and annual conferences would make decisions regarding ordination. It is highly unlikely that this option will pass for the following reasons:

First, the “One Church” option creates a moral equivalency between Christian marriage and same sex marriage which has been consistently rejected by the entire church through all time. Even the United Methodist General Conference has rejected it multiple times. Why the Bishops would endorse a plan which has been rejected over and over is mystifying to many of us. Western culture is, quite evidently, in a state of moral collapse, and it has been exceedingly difficult for mainline churches to accept a new role as a cultural outsider, rather than their long-standing position as a cultural insider. It is long past the time to realize that many of the values of contemporary western culture are no longer consistent with historic Christian faith.

Second, by creating a moral equivalency between Christian marriage and same sex marriage, we violate the clear teaching of the New Testament which teaches that while all sinners are objects of God’s love, the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian faith. The General Church has no authority to regard as holy and sacramental a behavior which is repeatedly condemned in the New Testament. (For more on this, see my earlier piece, “Is homosexual practiced condemned in the New Testament?”)

Third, the “One Church” option creates an even wider latitude and moral equivalency than we were originally led to believe. It is now no longer about normalizing “gay” and “lesbian” behavior, but a whole range of new sexual identities, including “bi-sexual” “a-sexual” “intersex” and “queer.” As I have said in previous articles, we have spent 45 years arguing about homosexuality, but we have not spent 5 minutes discussing any of these other sexual identities.

Fourth, the “One Church” option promotes a completely false idea of church unity. It confuses our structural, organizational unity with the unity which can only be found in Christ and the gospel. Our problems are spiritual and theological, not pragmatic and structural.  This is our agreed upon definition of church unity:  “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task). Church unity is not fundamentally about whether or not the bureaucratic and administrative structures of the United Methodist Church remain in-tact. It is ultimately about our unity in the gospel itself.

Fifth, the “One Church” option is a major concession to a Gnostic view of the body which the church has opposed since the first century. The proposal not only affirms gay and lesbian marriage and ordination, but it also blesses a whole new view of the body, represented by transgenderism. The church has never accepted the idea that our gender identity is socially, rather than biologically, determined.  The theological implications for this are enormous and, once again, we have not discussed this for five minutes as a church, it has just been rolled into the “one church” plan under the “catch all” LGBTQ. However, these letters refer to much more than sexual practice. They also refer to gender identity, attitudes about the human body, and so forth. (For more on this, see, my earlier piece on the “new gnosticism”)

Sixth, by endorsing the “one church” option, the Council on Bishops have, tragically, and with the most far reaching implications, unwittingly endorsed a post-modern view of truth. The council is offering us two completely different “orthodoxies” – one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One Methodist church in town would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other Methodist church down the street would teach that it is a sacrament. One church would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other church, a sign of wholeness. The fact that the document actually proposes this without blinking just might be an indicator that we have now embraced a post-modern view of truth. Indeed, this just might be one of the clearest examples of a truly post-modern document in the United Methodist Church. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become, in their view, a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known.

Finally, let us not be lulled into thinking that this is merely a cultural debate, reflecting the regional tensions present in the country as a whole. I have had the privilege of pastoring large churches in New England, most right in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the country. Yet these churches are all solid stalwarts of orthodoxy. Likewise, there are many churches in the southern jurisdiction who are committed to heterodox views of human sexuality and the nature of the human body. Brothers and sisters, this is not merely a cultural problem, but a deeply theological challenge.

All those who remain committed to historic faith, biblical orthodoxy, and a view of truth which is based on biblical revelation, must unite and vote “no” to the “One Church” option.

Fire from Heaven: The Rededication of Estes Chapel

This sermon was delivered on May 8th, 2018 at the rededication of Estes Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.

We are gathered on this sacred day to re-dedicate this space of worship known as Estes Chapel. We say re-dedicate because Estes Chapel was first dedicated 64 years ago on January 27, 1954. In fact, while we have several here tonight who were present in this room 64 years ago when Estes chapel was dedicated, we wanted to select one alumnus who would come this afternoon as representative of all alumni, many of whom were not able to travel here today, but would represent the legacy of those who gone before us. I would like to recognize Richard and Barbara Barker. One cannot come to a glorious day like this without recalling Solomon’s dedication of the Temple as described in our text. What must it have been like to be there in 953 BC as they sacrificed 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep to mark the occasion! The Temple was filled with multiple signs and symbols of God and of the covenant, just as our space points in so many ways to God’s redemptive work in our lives, and the covenant we are privileged to live in. Let’s begin by pausing and remembering the place where Solomon’s Temple was built, as well as the seven great signs which would have met you had you walked through that sacred sanctuary of the first temple (though these signs would have been found in the earlier tabernacle, as well as the later Second temple.)

The place: Mount Moriah. There is no more sacred place in the Old Testament than that place where Abraham met with God and brought his son Isaac to the top of the place called Moriah. There in Genesis 22 we meet one of the greatest emblems of substitutionary atonement in the Old Testament. I love that Word from God which crashes into the text: “Abraham, Abraham, do not harm the boy . . . Now I know that you fear God,” and a ram was brought out and sacrificed in the place of Isaac. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, and that place was called Yahweh Jireh – God will provide. The whole history of redemption is there in seed form on Mount Moriah.

This is the place – the very spot where they built the Great Temple of Solomon. Some even believe that the holy of holies was situated directly over the spot where this substitutionary transaction was enacted. It is estimated that it was the most expensive structure ever built – in today’s money it would cost 62 billion dollars, because every surface was laden with gold. It took 30,000 laborers to construct the temple, even more than the 22,000 who built the Taj Mahal. Its walls and ceiling were built with carved cedar boards. The floor was cypress, and all surfaces gilded or sheathed with gold: 90 feet long, 33 feet wide, 45 feet high. Estes Chapel is roughly 90 feet long, the Temple was about 15 feet wider (the Temple was 48 feet wide), and our ceiling here is about twenty feet lower than the highest portion of the Temple. Our ceiling is 26 feet, the Temple was 45 feet high. Just imagine it.

If we were allowed to walk through that amazing place of worship, you would have witnessed seven signs of the covenant. These seven signs marked it out as the place where God met His people for worship, atonement and instruction. These seven signs were symbols of God’s commandments, his mercy and compassion and His covenant love: misphatim, emet, and hesed.  What are the seven signs?

First, in your mind walk with me through the beautiful gate and through the expansive outer court of the Gentiles and up the stairs into the inner court. There in the south east corner you would encounter the first sign, the bronze sea. This was a magnificently large basin of water – eight feet high and fifteen feet wide, supported by twelve bronze bulls. This water was meant to symbolize the water of Red Sea which they had crossed coming out of Egyptian bondage. The water would flow out into a lower basin where it was used for ablution in cleansing the priest before the daily sacrifices.

The second sign you see is the brazen altar for the daily sacrifice. It was a 7 1/2 foot square altar for sacrificing animals in the daily sacrifice. It was here that the priest would lay his hands on the head of the animal and transfer the sins of the people onto the animal prior to sacrifice. Thus, it is here that the daily reminder of sins was made visible, and the daily reception of grace made possible. It is here that we see both sign and symbol of both the holiness of God which declares us sinners, and the grace of God, which declares us forgiven, all bound together in the symbolism of the altar.

Then we climb more stairs and enter the holy place. As Gentiles we would have no access to this area, as it is reserved only for the priests. But imagine entering into that sacred space where we find the third, fourth and fifth signs and symbols of the Jewish Temple. There is the table of showbread, with fresh loaves placed on the table. It is a table of acacia wood completely overlaid with pure gold. It was also called the Bread of Presence, as it was a sign of God’s daily provision, the sign of fellowship, and a reminder of his provision in the wilderness. He was their sustenance. Bread is a symbol of strength, of fellowship, and of God’s grace. Fourth, you would see the great seven-branched candlesticks which would burn day and night as a perpetual sign of God’s presence. It was a sign of God’s guidance, reminding them of the pillar of fire which led them through the wilderness and into the promised land. Fifth, you would see the altar for the incense offering. It was also completely overlaid with gold with four horns on each corner. Incense would be offered every day and be perpetually burning day and night as a sign of the prayers of God’s people going up to the throne of God without cease.

Then, you would look up and see a great and beautiful ornamented curtain 15-20 feet high separating the holy place from the inner sanctuary known as the Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter and only on the Day of Atonement – Yom Kipper. There as you move behind the holy curtain you would see what very few would ever have seen as it was reserved only for the high priest. Less than twenty people ever saw this sight in Solomon’s Temple – the final two great signs of God’s covenant – the sixth and seventh symbols. There at the center of the holy of holies is the Ark of the Covenant – a box a little over 4 feet long and 2 ½ feet wide. This was the central sign of God’s covenant. Inside the ark were the two tablets of Moses containing the Ten Commandments. It represents the Law of God. There was also a jar of manna reminding the people of God’s provision in the wilderness, as well as Aaron’s budding rod, the symbol of God’s election of the Levites to serve as his great mediators and intercessors of redemption. The final, seventh, and greatest sign was not anything inside the ark, but the lid itself, the Mercy Seat. This was the most imposing part of the ark of the covenant. On the lid were two impressive cherubim, completely overlaid in pure cold – towering over the ark with radiant faces and wings pointing to the seat – yes this is the seventh and final sign: the Mercy Seat. This is the place where God met his people, blood was offered, prayers extended, and atonement secured. Brothers and sisters, wouldn’t you just love to go back in time and walk through that great and sacred Temple with all of its amazing signs?

We come now to Estes Chapel. First, the place. Wilmore, Kentucky may not seem to have the spiritual clout, historical muscle, or covenantal prestige of a place as sacred or holy as Mt. Moriah. But, the fact that this sanctuary was built here in this place, along with sanctuaries however humble or grand all over the world says something great about the gospel of Jesus Christ, doesn’t it? No longer is there any single place where God meets his people. No longer do we have to make our way to Jerusalem. No longer do we have to go to the Temple. I have been to that holy spot called Mt. Moriah. But, for the Christian, we are reminded that Wilmore is now no different than Moriah – for through the gospel a new and living way has been opened up. Indeed, wherever two or more are gathered in His name, His blessed presence is promised. Thanks be to God. The gospel has turned the whole world into a Mt. Moriah. Praise be to God! And the seven great signs of Solomon’s Temple: (1) the Bronze Sea, (2) the Brazen Altar, (3) Table of Showbread (4) the Candlesticks, (5) the Altar of Incense, (6) the Ark of the Covenant and (7) the Mercy Seat have all been replaced by seven new and living signs which we re-dedicate this day.

1) Baptismal Font

As you walk into this sacred space, the Bronze Sea of our Jewish ancestors has been replaced by the gospel with a stoup, or baptismal font. The waters of the Red Sea have been replaced in Christian architecture with the baptismal font. As you walk in you dip your fingers into the water and you recall your baptism. You recall your own crossing of the Red Sea – out of the bondage of sin, and into the promised land of redemption and grace. As great as the Red Sea was, the waters of baptism are better, because they guarantee an even greater deliverance.

2) Eucharist Table

In Christian worship, the table of showbread has been replaced by the Eucharist Table. A greater bread is here, thanks be to God! Here we see not merely the manna from heaven, or the daily bread of God’s provision, but the bread of Christ’s body, broken for us. The blood which once poured over the horns of the altar of ancient Israelite sacrifices now stands in a cup, recalling the blood of Jesus Christ shed for you and for me. There is no more need for the blood of bulls and goats. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed – once and for all. His blood for the redemption of the world, broken for us, and His blood shed for us. Here in Estes, we have replaced the phrase Do This is Remembrance of Me on the Eucharist table. We replaced that phrase, not because it was wrong, but that there was so much more to be said. Do This is Remembrance of Me only speaks of our remembering something in our heads, remembering a past act, remembering Christ’s passion. But we do more than remember in this place; we encounter the Risen Christ! Here we have placed the words, “Remember Christ Jesus Risen!” The Risen Lord meets us at this Table. As Luther said about the ascension, he rose from here to everywhere, because he re-assumed his omnipresence, and he promised to meet us at this table as the Risen Lord. As Robert Stamps, a former chaplain here at Asbury used to tell us, “Jesus Christ would never throw a feast in his own honor, and then not show up.” This feast is always tethered to His divine presence. We take the bread in His presence – we take the break in the Presence of Him who alone is the Bread of Life. Brothers and sisters, a Greater Bread is here!

3) Candle of the Presence

Asbury Theological Seminary has kept a Candle of Presence lit in this chapel for many decades. It never goes out. When we closed the chapel for renovation we processed it over to McKenna, and today it was brought back in at the head of the procession. J. D. Walt, another former chaplain in this place, once told me that the only capital crime which could be committed on this campus would be to let that candle ever go out. It is a sign of the perpetual presence of Christ, just as the candlesticks in Solomon’s Porch represent the light of God’s guidance, this light represents the light of Jesus Christ who said, “I am the light of the world.” Brothers and sisters, a Greater Light is here! That first light – the pillar of fire – lit up the desert of Sinai and guided the nation of Israel to the promised land. This light lights up the whole world and draws all of humanity through all time and space into the blessed presence of Christ. A greater light is here!

4) Pulpit

This pulpit was a gift from the 1948 graduating class of Asbury Theological Seminary, making it is six years older than Estes Chapel itself. We estimate that approximately 10,000 sermons and addresses have been preached from this pulpit. Men and women of God from all over the world have stood at this pulpit. Pulpits have been central to the people of God in both testaments. In the Old Testament, we mainly remember Nehemiah as the one who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but chapter eight Nehemiah tells us he also rebuilt the pulpit. The pulpit had also become part of the rubble of exile, not just the Temple and the walls. Nehemiah had a great pulpit built. In Nehemiah 8 verse 4 we are told that “a high wooden platform was built for the occasion.”  The great priest of God, Ezra was called upon to deliver the word of God in uncertain times. He opens the word of God and begins to read. Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest appointed thirteen Levites to instruct the people in the Law while it was being read. We don’t find a list of mega-stars, or any 5th century BC version of Christian celebrities. These are not household names, then or now. We find a list of Levites whose names you have never heard of: Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub , Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, and Pelaiah. These are Levites you’ve never heard of, but God put their names in the Bible. Listen to Nehemiah 8, verse 8: “they read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” We have already had the entire Bible read in this chapel, beginning April 30th until today.

This is what this pulpit in Estes stands for today – the proclamation of the Word of God – the whole Bible for the whole world. It is now known as the J. Ellsworth Kalas pulpit, in honor of his preaching legacy. Here in this solemn assembly we give to the world a whole new generation of Banis and Sherebiahs and Jamins and Akkubs and Kelitas and Azariahs! This is the need of the hour. Men and women called to faithfully teach people the Word of God in the midst of the rubble of our post-modern world. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. They understood the times they lived in. If you had gone around the broken walls of Jerusalem, every one of them would have preferred to live their lives with a tambourine in their hand like on the day of the Exodus, with Miriam leading worship. But, instead, they were called to live with a trowel and a sword.  They were called to live in a time of rebuilding, a time of remembering, a time of hope. There is no greater need today than a rediscovery of the power of the Word of God to transform this nation and to love this broken world. There is a greater pulpit here, because it not only recalls the Law of God, but it proclaims the grace of God in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who walked among us, full of grace and truth.

5) Hymn Books

Worship has always been central to the people of God.  This is why God put a worship book at the very center of the Bible.  During the entire time the remodeling of Estes was unfolding, there was another great project at work here – The Asbury Hymnal. It wasn’t built with carpenters, trowels or sheet rock, but with word processing, Finale files, and prayer. It is probably one of the greatest collections of Wesley hymns and one of the greatest collection of theologically rich hymns in our tradition that has ever been collected. When you walk into Estes Chapel in our own version of the outer court you are met by a statue of Charles Wesley who taught us that theology must be sung if you want to grow a movement. Theology must be sung if it is to reside in our hearts, not just our heads. We have always been a singing people – a worshipping people. Once you have sung And Can it Be? in Estes Chapel, you are getting fairly close to the New Creation, let me tell you! There is something glorious about the people of God at worship. The Jewish Temple was a place of worship. Worship in the first Temple was mediated by a select few who were set apart to lead. But here, all of God’s people engage in worship – we honor God and we celebrate who He is and what He has done.  We sing our theology. The cantor songs of the Old Testament were glorious.  But a greater song is here, because He has put a new song on our lips, the song of the Lamb, the songs of redemption, the songs of great and glorious work of Jesus Christ.

6) The Cross of Jesus Christ

There is no greater or more enduring sign in Christian worship around the world than the cross.  We have found the cross scrawled on the walls of the catacombs at the dawn of this great gospel.  It is the cross which stands as the new mercy seat for the people of God.  It is at the cross where God meets his people in the ultimate fulfilling act of redemption.  The sacrifices of the Old Testament and the sacred blood spread upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant by the High Priest was the highest and holiest moment of the Old Covenant. But a greater sacrifice is here. The sacrifice of the Old Covenant was with bulls, goats, and lambs, and had to be repeated over and over again.  But this Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, came, and in one great redemptive act took away the sins of the world. It is not repeated annually by sinful priest, but accomplished once and for all by the only True Unblemished Sacrifice, Jesus Christ. A greater blood is here, not the blood of bulls and goats, but the blood of Jesus Christ, our great Passover Lamb. Notice that there are no heavy curtains in Estes Chapel, separating the worshippers from the presence of God. At the death of Christ that curtain was ripped in half from the top to the bottom. It was one of the greatest miracles of the New Testament, but which we rarely talk about in the church. A 15 to 20 foot curtain, which no person could possible rip in two from top to bottom. But, that is exactly what happened at the death of Christ. Jesus cried out “it is finished” and Matthew 27:51 says that at that moment the veil of the Temple separating the holy place from the holy of holies was rent in two from top to bottom! The cross has opened up a new and living way. Christ has already shown up in the marginal places—a stable in Bethlehem, with a Samaritan woman at the well, at the table with Zacchaeus, in the presence of sinners, and touching lepers.  But nowhere has God identified more with a hurting and broken world than in the cross of Jesus Christ.

God was in Christ, not counting against us our trespasses, but nailing them to the cross. Indeed, all the signs of the Old Testament point to Jesus Christ.  This is why the New Testament is not afraid to proclaim that Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isaiah 53:6-9; I Peter 2:21-25); He is the Rock out of which water came in the wilderness (Ex. 17:6; I Cor. 10:4); He is the stone the builders rejected which became the cornerstone; He is the seed of the woman who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20); He is the Lord to whom David declared all enemies would be placed under his feet (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:41-46). The list could go on and on, but this is the great truth of Jesus Christ. He fills the whole frame. He fulfills Law, Priest, King, and Sacrifice. We cannot easily partition off the old covenant from the new.  Once God in Jesus Christ enters the world, then all revelation bows down to him and is ultimately fulfilled by him!

7) Seventh Sign

There is a seventh and final sign. But, it is one we could not contract builders to construct here. There is a seventh sign, but it cannot be produced through a Comprehensive Campaign. There is a seventh sign, but no one can set it up, or put it in place. It is the fire of God falling down. In 2 Chronicles 7 when the Temple of Solomon was dedicated, the fire of God fell down upon the people, and upon the sanctuary, and upon the sacrifices. The fire of God! It was glorious. It must have been breathtaking to see the sacrifices consumed by the holy fire of God. But, we cannot help but remember on that Day of Pentecost, when 120 believers were gathered in the upper room, and the Day of Pentecost had come, and the fire of God fell upon the church of Jesus Christ. A fire must fall in this place, and it must be the Person of the Holy Spirit. Brothers and sisters, a greater fire is here – not merely the powerful anointing presence of God, but the third person of the Triune God manifest in His people. Because, in the end, there is no point in sacralizing any holy place if it is not filled with God’s Holy Presence.

For 70 years this Chapel has stood at the heart of our campus. Originally, the library was in the floor beneath us symbolizing the bringing together of study and worship. You could literally be sitting in the library and hear worship unfolding above you. We have also recaptured that. At our Asbury Theological Seminary Wilmore campus, our recently renovated Advanced Research Programs and PhD study carrels are located just below us here. The highest academic degree we offer is juxtaposed with our worship, all in one building. Generations of students have experienced the fire of God in this place. They have been filled with the Spirit in this place. They have been called into ministry in this place. They have been healed in this place. Countless weddings have happened in this place. All because the fire of God fell on this place, at these altars, and throughout this sanctuary.

Because our students are like an ever flowing stream through this place, we count every three years as an academic generation.  We have already had 21 generations of students worship here. We pray that twenty one more generations of Asburians will experience the fire of God in this place. Not the fire of God falling on earthly sacrifices, but the fire of God falling on you and on me as living sacrifices. The fire of God which fills our students with the spirit. The sanctifying fire of God! May the fire of God fall down here and ignite our students with the power of God to go into all the world as His witnesses! The seventh sign is the sign of the Holy Spirit. May the fire of God fall down on this place.

  • In this place, may the sound of sin be silenced by that louder sound of forgiveness.
  • In this place, may the weight of guilt be lifted by Him who carries our burdens.
  • In this place, may the yoke of Law, be broken by the divine measure of grace.
  • In this place, may the word of condemnation be overturned by the greater word of God’s love.
  • In this place, may the idols of this world be consumed by the presence of the true & living God.
  • In this place, may darkened hearts become redirected hearts to the greater gravity of holy love.
  • In this place, may those who are deaf to God’s call hear afresh the call of God.
  • In this place, may those who are broken, find healing and wholeness by the Spirit of God.
  • In this place, may the food & drink of this world be as nothing compared to the gift of His bread & cup.
  • In this place, may the ambitions which fuel this world be consumed by the greater ambition to know Christ and to make Him known.

This is our prayer on this sacred day, and we celebrate this day with joy. We thank God for this place, and for the seven signs of His Presence and redemption – who He is – and what He has done. May this day, in the end, be remembered not for a re-consecrated building, but about Him. May the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be praised! Amen.

Communion as Spiritual Journey

Communion, or Eucharist, is one of the most ancient and defining practices of the Christian faith.  Yet, in talking with Christians around the world, it seems that we have not always provided an adequate explanation of Communion because historically we have focused our arguments on what may or may not happen with the elements of this sacred meal, rather than what happens to the worshippers who come forward.

This article will focus on three (there are others) lenses through which we might help Christians understand the Eucharist. The three lens show that when we take Communion there is a past lens, a present lens, and a future lens. Let’s look briefly at each of these.

Communion Past

The first Eucharist took place at the Passover. Therefore, it is a dramatic reminder of God’s deliverance of the people of God; and not just remembering God’s dramatic rescue of his people out of Egypt, but our own greater deliverance out of the bondage of sin and the final judgment of eternal death.

We, of course, enter this amazing story of redemption through our baptism, but we look back and remember our baptism and our deliverance every time we come to the Table. So when Jesus “took, blessed, broke and gave” we remember that He has taken us out from our broken past, He has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, He has broken the power of sin in our lives, and He has given us to the world as living signs and seals of His redemptive power.

Communion Present

Communion also celebrates Christ presence with us at the Table right here and now. We accept the declaration of Martin Luther when he declared that at the Ascension of Christ he rose from “here” to “everywhere.” This means that at the Ascension of Christ He re-assumed his omnipresence and He can be present with us here and now. He has promised to meet us at the Table and, indeed, “wherever two or more are gathered in His name” (Matt. 18:20). Robert (Bob) Stamps, a former dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary, used to say that “Jesus would never throw a party in His own honor, and then not show up!” We meet the real Presence of Jesus at the Table. This is why Wesleyans do not “fence the Table,” but instead invite everyone forward, because the very act of coming forward and meeting Christ is a “means of grace” and can bring someone to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

When prisoners get released from prison, they are often asked what they are most looking forward to in their new life of freedom. The most common response is that newly released prisoners are looking forward to “a hot shower and a meal.”  This is precisely what happens to those of us who have been set free from the imprisonment of sin and death. The Lord Jesus, through the gospel, gives us a shower (baptism) and a meal (Eucharist) as a sign of our new life in Jesus Christ.

Communion Future

The Lord’s Supper is also a sign of our future inheritance at the Return of Christ when God sets all things right and brings our deliverance into its full fulfillment. Our world is full of sin and fallenness and we eagerly await the visible, bodily return of Christ. Paul himself testifies about this when he says in reference to the Lord’s supper in I Cor. 11:26  “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We look forward to the Blessed Hope of His Return and the great marriage supper of the Lamb. The Eucharist elements are like the hors d’oeuvres of the that future Banquet.  We take the bread and cup in anticipation of that day when we eagerly run to that greater Feast when we sit down at Table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  We will also sit down with sinners, prostitutes and the poor who have also been joyfully received at this wonderful Table of forgiveness and grace.

In conclusion, at the Lord’s Supper we look in three directions: past, present and future.  This is why one of the great liturgical declarations embedded in the Eucharist is the statement: Christ has died (past), Christ is Risen (present), Christ will come again (future). All three directions are gloriously captured in that single declaration. So, brothers and sisters, let us keep the Feast—and keep it well.

Where Have the Three Million Gone?

It is rather odd that so many United Methodists leaders speak and blog about their fears of a split in the United Methodist church. Apparently, some cataclysmic split is in mind, rather than an acknowledgement that we have already been in schism for decades, and millions have already left the church. I read an article recently by Collin Hansen from The Gospel Coalition titled, “Why I Am No Longer a United Methodist.” In the article, he makes an observation which I have found true in my experience. He says that wherever he goes in renewal circles and meets with people who are committed to historic orthodoxy, he finds former United Methodists. It is not a small number; it represents hundreds and hundreds of Christian leaders who were born and raised United Methodist, but who have left to join other movements (and around three million in general membership decline). He says, “every evangelical group I’ve known since 2000 has been stocked with former United Methodists.” That, in itself, is not why I am bringing up this article. It is the why they left which I find so fascinating. They did not leave United Methodism because they became disenchanted with the theology or practice of John Wesley, but precisely because of it. Hansen writes that he left to “find the theology of George Whitfield and Howell Harris.” I left, he writes, “to learn the spiritual disciplines that sustained the Wesleys amid their conflicts with the established church leaders and quests to reform British society. I left to find the spiritual zeal that made my grandfather belt out the Methodist hymnal as cancer ravaged his body. I left the United Methodist Church to find Methodism.”

This observation needs to be heard by United Methodists across our land. We have a spiritual treasure that is in jeopardy. We have lost our connection to our own vibrant heritage. There has never been a movement which so powerfully united evangelical fervor rooted in historic orthodoxy with social engagement and societal witness. What is at stake is not merely a resolution of our struggles over human sexuality, though that has become the presenting issue before us. What is at stake is nothing less than the apostolic witness. What is at stake is our commitment to Scriptural Christianity. What is at stake is our own vibrant heritage of vibrant evangelism, church-planting, travailing prayer, ardent discipleship, and our identity with the poor.

Hansen has spoken to hundreds of former United Methodists who said that “to find their Aldersgate experience of love for God who justifies sinners, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To hear preaching that stirs the mind and affections with unshakeable confidence in the Word of God, they had to leave the United Methodist Church. To find theology that would steel them to stand with Jesus and not be swept away by theological fads, they had to leave the United Methodist Church.” He acknowledges, as I do, that there are thousands upon thousands of United Methodist pastors who still stand for all of these things and who faithfully minister the gospel week in and week out. He acknowledges that there are millions of current United Methodists who still stand in hope that this great heritage can be restored. I am among those. But, we should not be naïve. There are powerful forces aligned firmly against our own heritage of Scriptural Christianity. There are powerful forces who are determined to re-shape our heritage into something unrecognizable to the vision of our beloved founders. There are powerful forces who want us to normalize what the New Testament explicitly forbids. We must rise up and say “no” to anything which would trade our sacred history for the latest mess of cultural pottage.

As the February 2019 General Conference draws closer, there will be attempts to suck us deeper into the dead sect pit we have been digging for so many decades. There will be a steady array of leaders lining up to tell us that our best hope is in the moral abyss known as the “Local Pption.” When that is voted down (for the third time, in case anyone is counting) the backup plan will be to find a way to “kick the can” down the road another four years. Perhaps . . . appoint another group to “study the issue.” Neither option is acceptable. I have spoken to dozens and dozens of evangelical United Methodist leaders across the country and I hear this over and over again: The local option is not acceptable. Kicking the can down the road is not an option either. This is the time for a decisive shift towards, not away, from our biblical heritage. We’ve been trying to accommodate the surrounding moral chaos of our culture for fifty years and it has been a total disaster. Why not reverse course? This is the time to be summoned back to our own history and vibrant faith. We are still the only Christian movement in American history which has planted a church in every county in the country. We can be that movement again. We truly can. We have a fierce struggle ahead of us. Looking at the forces arrayed against us, it is humanly impossible. But, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).

Billy Graham: Three Lessons He Taught Me

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed thousands of tributes from around the world expressing admiration for Billy Graham and his evangelistic ministry which had such a profound impact on the world. I would like to share a few memories and how Billy Graham helped shape my life.

1) The “Boston Photograph”

One of my favorite pictures of Billy Graham is one I saw at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I once served on faculty (1998-2009). It was a picture of Billy Graham preaching in the Boston common in January, 1950. This was after the Los Angeles breakthrough revival which went on for weeks. But, his critics said, “anything can happen in southern California.” If Billy Graham was truly anointed by God, he had to prove it in a hard, cold place like Boston.

Preaching in the open air Boston commons during January was truly a test of faith. Remarkably, over 50,000 people gathered to hear the gospel preached. This crusade was before they had the organizational team fully in place, so there was no “center aisle” or roped off areas for people to come forward to respond to the gospel. So, Billy Graham told those gathered to wave their handkerchiefs as a sign of surrendering to God. It is that moment which is captured in the photograph—thousands of people waving handkerchiefs as they gave their lives to Christ. (Historical note: In 1950 men and women in the professional world all carried handkerchiefs. In fact, it is truly amazing to see this picture from 1950 with everyone wearing suits and ties, etc.).

That picture, for me, represents the life of faith. It has inspired me to step out in faith. If Billy Graham was willing to preach the gospel in the open air in Boston during January, then I can step out and trust God in my life.

2) Preaching in the Soviet Union

Billy Graham spoke at a peace conference in the Soviet Union in 1982 and later returned in 1984 for a full slate of revival services where he preached in dozens of churches and in Red Square. It is hard to imagine today how controversial this was. Rather than rejoice, the media was filled with bitter accusations that Billy Graham was being used and co-opted by Soviet propaganda to prove that there was “religious freedom” in the soviet-bloc countries.

I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham when he flew back from the Soviet Union, because his first stop was in Boston where he spoke at Gordon-Conwell where I was a student at the time. The media was everywhere. I will never forget his response when asked about his being used as a part of Soviet propaganda. He said, “I don’t care about Soviet propaganda. All I know is that I preached the same gospel in Red Square that I have preached all over the world.” This was a defining moment for me. It taught me to not worry about all the naysayers and critics who will inevitably be there to discourage you. We must keep our eye on the mission. We must keep our eyes on Jesus. I have attended Billy Graham crusades. I have served in the “phone center” and had the privilege of leading dozens to Christ who called in on the telephone during his crusade. But I think his fearlessness in preaching in the Soviet Union despite all the critics did more for me than I can fully express in this short tribute.

3) Billy Graham’s Funeral

I was honored to receive an invitation to Billy Graham’s funeral which took place on Friday, March 2. We had to arrive early at the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters and go through security before being transported by bus to the revival tent on the grounds of the Billy Graham library in Charlotte, just a few miles from where Billy Graham was born. As I sat there and listened to the service I was reminded that Billy Graham had been intimately involved in the planning of his own funeral. The funeral was clearly not a tribute to Billy Graham. It was a tribute to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Every speaker—including all of his children—emphasized the gospel. It reminded me of the saying which my mother always had (and still does) on the wall of the kitchen in the house where I grew up: “Just one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is the legacy of Billy Graham. It will soon be the test of our legacy as well.

It doesn’t matter what we do, or what we accomplish. What finally matters, is the glory of Jesus Christ. Even at his funeral, Billy Graham was still teaching us that great lesson. Praise God for a life well lived. Praise God even more for Jesus Christ, our Savior!

Catherine of Siena, Our Lenten Guide

During Lent, we all need mentors who can guide us down this twisting and arduous 40 day path. Let me suggest that you may have to look to church history to find those mentors. I have been helped immensely by Catherine of Siena as I walk through this holy season of Lent, because she models for us the pathway out of all kinds of temptations.

Catherine of Siena, or I should say, Saint Siena, lived in the 14th century. She was born in 1347, the 24th of 25 children! She was declared a saint by the church, and, in fact, was given the title Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, the first woman to receive that honor in the history of the church. There are now only a handful of people in the Roman Catholic and Anglican tradition who have been formally given the title of “Doctor” of the church, huge, larger-than-life figures like Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas—all men who were educated at the highest level in their day. But, Catherine of Siena was the first woman to be given this revered title, despite having no formal education. She achieved it through the sheer force of her life. Additionally, she is regarded, along with Francis of Assisi, as co-patron of the city of Rome. It is a remarkable story for a young woman with no formal education and who died at the age of 33.

If you were a woman called into full-time ministry in the 14th century, the only real option before you was to become what was known as a cloistered nun. This would involve a life of isolation from the world, so you could give yourself completely to contemplation and prayer. If you did not become a cloistered nun, then you were expected to marry and have children. In the 14th century, there was no ecclesiastical space for a single woman who rejected the life of a nun, but wanted to serve God actively in the world. Catherine of Siena would change all of that. At a very young age, probably around seven, she had a vision of Christ and felt called to celibacy, poverty and prayer, but without becoming a cloistered nun. She went on to become one of the great mystics of the church. This is the time of the Plague, or Black Death in Europe—the deadliest pandemic in human history. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 million people died of the Plague. To put a point on it, during the Plague, the Black Death killed almost half of the entire population of Europe. The Plague originated in Asia and it is estimated that world population actually decreased from around 450 million to 350 million. Modern day epidemiologists believe that the plague was a rat-borne organism which created an illness now known as Yersinia pestis—and they believe that this was actually the third major pandemic caused by this coccobacillus organism. But no one knew any of that. They just witnessed people dying at every turn. The suffering and fear was beyond our imagination.

Catherine wanted to care for these sufferers, and to listen to the voice of God in the midst of all of this suffering. She developed not an other worldly concentration, but the ability to have in world concentration on the Lord. Probably as much as anyone who has ever lived, she embodied the admonition, “pray without ceasing.” But she did it immersed in the world—living, acting and serving.

Lent is not about escaping from the world, but acting with holiness in the world. Catherine developed a strong sense of the mystical presence of Jesus. She managed to turn on its head the very notion of ecclesiastical power, which was not in Rome, nor in the bishops who were formally vested with power, but in the simplicity and deep spirituality for which she was revered by all who knew her. How can this amazing woman help us in our Lenten journey?

First, Catherine of Siena norms the unseen spiritual world for us. She breaks us out of our spiritual slumber to see the spiritual world. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with Jesus speaking with Satan, casting out demons, and Jesus’ affirmation of the reality of the spiritual world. It is a world we scarcely recognize because we are spiritually asleep.

Second, Catherine of Siena teaches us that the greatest ascent into the presence of God always leads us into the greatest descent into the sufferings of the world. Her communion with God led her to a deep engagement with the world’s pain, not as a cloistered nun who lives apart from the world, but as a saint fully engaged with the world. The cloistered nuns are, of course, magnificent models of prayer and devotion as well. But, Catherine was a pioneer in modeling for women an alternative path which is fully engaged in the world.

Third, Catherine of  Siena teaches us how to live with a single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ. Rise in the presence of the Risen Lord. We don’t read scripture alone—sola scriptura is about the authority of Scripture, but it is not about our solitude in the presence of Scripture. One of the great Trinitarian blessings of the church is, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This blessing goes back to 2 Corinthians 13 and finds its way into liturgies across the life of the church. It was a well-known blessing in the 14th century as well, but Catherine did not say it that way. She famously would say,

“In the Name of the Father, and of Thee, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

She didn’t use the phrase “and the Son” because that implied that Jesus was somewhere else. But, for Catherine, Jesus was right there—signified by “and of Thee.” What would happen if Lent was the season where we lived our lives in the presence of the Risen Christ—and He was right there with us all the time?

This is what Lent calls us to: Deeper awareness of the spiritual world, deeper into the sufferings of the world, and deeper into a single minded awareness of the presence of Christ.

The Temptations of Jesus

Lent, by its nature, is a desert time—a time of purification. This is why the lectionary starts Lent today with Jesus in the wilderness. There we meet all the elements of Lent: 40 days, fasting, wilderness and meeting the Devil face to face. We have an enemy of our soul, and Lent is the time we face it again, so that what is really fundamental rises to the top, and all that which distracts us falls away.

I think the church fathers were right when they asserted that Jesus endured many temptations, but these particular three temptations are highlighted in the Gospels because they represent different categories of the temptations we all face.

First, “turn these stones into bread.” At the most basic level, this is the temptation of the flesh. John Wesley taught the goodness of creation, and we know that food, drink, and sex are all God’s precious gifts to us. But, when food or other fleshly desires take on a deviant twist, they become evil. This would include all the ways our flesh becomes malformed or misdirected, whether it be lust or a desire for material things. God provides us with a family, and material possessions, but once we start trusting in our food and material possessions, or allowing any fleshly desire to be misdirected, then it can become an evil. We all can become preoccupied with our daily needs—bread, money, paying tuition, retirement income, etc. This is the temptation which lies at the base of our human existence.

Satan then takes Jesus and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised them all to him. This is the temptation for position, for power, and name. It is the temptation for status, and glory. Ministry is no different from any other position in that it carries with it the temptation or the malformed desire to make a name for ourselves. We long for reputation. We long for status. Our affections get malformed and directed towards our own power or glory. Jesus, alternatively, points us worship the Lord alone. Notice that Satan controls all the kingdoms of the world. We cannot put our hope in Washington, D.C. or any other political system to achieve kingdom ends.

Finally, Satan takes him to the highest pinnacle of the temple and commands him to throw himself down and Satan quotes scripture—Psalm 91. Satan takes the verse out of context—“for his angels will protect you so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” It is a promise for those who have made the Lord their refuge. It is not a verse which should be used to test the Lord in some presumptuous way. This is the temptation to not trust the Word of God. It is that temptation to make the Scripture say what we want it to say, rather than what it actually says. This is why Jesus replies with Scripture, “you shall not test the Lord your God.” All three times Jesus brings the focus back to the Lord and the call for us to keep a single-minded focus on the Lord.

I pray this Lent that your life will be cleansed and renewed for the season ahead.

Sexual Harassment and Racism in America

C. S. Lewis made an important observation in his 1946 essay titled, “The Decline of Religion.” Many had cited the decline of attendance in the chapels of the various Oxford and Cambridge colleges as a sign of the decline of faith in Britain. But Lewis observed that the decline had not been gradual, but occurred at the very moment when chapel attendance was no longer required. The sixty persons who had attended became five attenders overnight. Lewis pointed out that those five had been the only dedicated Christians all along, but it was the dropping of the compulsory requirement which revealed what had, in fact, been the true situation all along.

In the past few months we have seen an avalanche of prominent people accused of sexual harassment throughout our country. It has spanned the entertainment industry (e.g. Harvey Weinstein), politics (e.g. Al Franken), news media (e.g. Matt Lauer), sports (e.g. Larry Nassar), and even the church (e.g. Andy Savage). It would be wrong to assume that there has been a sudden rise in sexual harassment in our country. Rather, these despicable acts have been taking place for decades in the shadows. Many women felt powerless to speak up and confront their abusers. Now, it is like the house lights in the culture have come up and we can see what has been taking place day in and day out throughout our land. The “compulsory silence” has been lifted and now we can see the vile and degraded nature of our culture in a way which has been kept hidden but was there all along. The #Metoo movement which was launched in October of 2017 has become a long needed cultural permission slip which allows the truth to be known, as painful as it is.

The screaming headline which we must read is this: We are a culture mired in deep sexual brokenness. This is not just a problem of the rich and prominent whom we have seen disgraced in recent months. This is a sin embedded deeply within the culture as a whole. The pathway to healing always begins by facing the truth, however painful it may be. As Christians, we welcome this because the Scripture teaches that this is the trajectory of divine judgment. Jesus taught that “what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:3). In other words, in the final day of Judgment, there will be no more hidden sins, but all will be brought out in the open. Thus, the #Metoo movement represents a means of grace to us all, because it prefigures, however imperfectly, final judgement. Yet, by the lights coming on now rather than later, it allows space for repentance, forgiveness, and restoration before that great and terrible day. Our culture, of course, doesn’t yet understand the power of repentance and forgiveness, but we are learning something about the power of truth emerging in the midst of a long night of deception and acquiescence. The dramatic collapse of so many prominent people’s lives, marriages, and careers may serve as a warning to those who would contemplate such actions.

In the same way, recent racist comments from our President about Haitians, Salvadorians, and Africans in recent days is shocking, evil, and embarrassing. Yet, such comments have been said quietly in homes and offices all across our country for many decades. The houselights on racism have also come up. We realize afresh how naïve it may have been to think that the Civil Rights movement washed the root of racism out of our country. The Black Lives Matter movement, however imperfectly, turned on the cultural “house lights” to reveal systemic racism in our country which we have conveniently swept under the rug. Racist attitudes persist and must be confronted. Governments can change laws, but laws are powerless to address the root of the problem, which is found in the human heart. Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:19). To change the human heart requires a divine initiative. As Christians, we believe that the only hope for our culture, or any culture, is in and through the power of the gospel which first establishes us as in bondage to sin and Adam’s “helpless race.” Only then are we able to see ourselves as we truly are and receive the power and the grace which comes through the ministry of the Triune God.

As a Christian serving at Asbury Theological Seminary, I believe that all cultures are uniquely contoured by God’s grace. Not only are all persons created in God’s image, but the cultures they inhabit also reflect many beautiful facets of God’s grace and handiwork. There is not a culture in the world which is void of many beautiful and admirable traits. Also, sadly, every culture is mired in sin and the brokenness which cries out for redemption.

There should be no place in our hearts, minds, or actions for racism or the degradation of women—anywhere, anytime, or any place. As Christians, we must categorically denounce it. We also understand that there is no hope for our culture, or any other, without the transformation which comes through Jesus Christ. We must model exemplary behavior in even the smallest detail. Paul says it well when he admonishes us: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3). Through our lives and actions, we must prove ourselves to be “above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Now, as much as ever, our culture needs the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to be embodied by the people of God in every home, school, and work place throughout our blessed, but defiled, country.

The Second Reason Jesus Went to Egypt

There are eight different narratives in the New Testament highlighting various aspects of the Nativity of Jesus. Most of these narratives are well known to the church, such as the angelic appearance to Mary, the shepherds in the field, the innkeeper, the magi from the east, etc. The one narrative which is not spoken of as often is, of course, the flight to Egypt. It is clear that Matthew’s account and his quotation of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my Son” that part of the early understanding of Jesus’ childhood involves returning to Egypt as a “second Moses” and re-tracing the steps of Israel in their bondage to slavery and, eventually, their coming “out of Egypt” into the Promised Land. Jesus embodies the New Israel and so this is clearly the main theme of the narrative as given in Matthew.

However, there is another, subtler, reason for the trip to Egypt. Egypt was an arch-enemy of Israel and was responsible for their earlier slavery and bondage. It would be natural for Egyptians to see themselves as outside of God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, it must be a difficult thing to read the whole Exodus account if you are an Egyptian and you see yourselves as a part of that great and ancient civilization. However, God’s deeper plan for Egypt and the Egyptians goes back long before their enslavement of the Hebrews. At the very origin of God’s covenant with the Jewish people when he revealed himself to Abraham, he declared that “in your seed, all nations shall be blessed.” This promise was repeated to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Psalm 87 even enshrined in the worship of Israel the promise that Israel’s enemies, including Rahab (a poetic name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush would all be regarded as “native born” members of Zion. This means that God would count them as his redeemed children—not even adopted children—but his children, because of the sheer expansiveness of his redemptive purposes.

The fact that Egypt, who once had enslaved God’s people, now becomes (through the flight to Egypt with the baby Jesus) the protector and the haven for the Messiah has enormous redemptive implications for all Egyptians. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, could never have been manifest to the world if not for the early protection afforded to the holy family through the Egyptians. They protected him from the wrath of Herod, who ended up slaughtering all of the babies in Bethlehem. Those babies became, in effect, the first Christian martyrs, rooting even the nativity story in the soil of pain and suffering. As Jesus became a refugee and entered into the pain of an arduous journey of over 400 miles, he was already beginning his mission of bearing the sins of the world. He was creating new narratives for those who doubt the reach of his redemption, and giving hope to all those who are disenfranchised. This lies at the heart of the nativity, which causes us to rejoice in this holy season.