Andrew Barrett's Thoughts

A Letter to Hilltop Lakes Chapel

Dear Hilltop Lakes Chapel family,

Sara and I are heartbroken that we will not be able to say goodbye to you all as we planned. It is painful, but I am so thankful to Pastor Tony for doing what is necessary to protect the congregation during this frightening time. Please continue to pray for your church and its leadership in the days to come.

In the beginning of his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you… because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart” (Phil. 1:3-7). While Paul was fond of all of his congregations, Philippi was particularly special to him, as is clear in his heartfelt prayer for the congregation. Many ministers today have trouble resonating with how Paul felt about this church, but not me. Truly, I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, Hilltop Lakes Chapel.

This church has been a place of warmth, welcome, and wonder. Warmth. No one has ever been cold toward me here. Even before being on staff, Hilltop has been a hospitable place, welcoming my entire family to their community from our very first visit. When I began dating Sara, I could not invite her to my church soon enough. I was proud when Hilltop received her just as warmly as they received me. Welcome. You all did more than receive us into your community. You welcomed me as a member of pastoral staff, as a leader, a responsibility for which I am eternally grateful. Many congregations have trouble welcoming young leadership, much less entrusting them with significant responsibilities. I cannot relate to leaders who have experienced those hardships. You all embraced my calling to the ministry, and entrusted the development of your youth ministry to my very raw leadership. What’s more, I was welcomed to our church’s pulpit, to adult teaching responsibilities, to hospital rooms, funerals, and board meetings. Many churches want their young leaders to stay in “their lane,” but you all welcomed me into the broader pastoral ministries of the church. I only hope to pay that welcome forward over the course of my ministry. Wonder. I along with many of you wonder and marvel at what God has done in our church over the last six years. We created an identity as the place involved in youth “outreach,” providing food and hospitality to our community’s at-risk children and teenagers. We touched the lives of young people who are not often included in any kind of organization. We enjoyed camps in places like Arlington, Texas and Glorieta, New Mexico. We sowed the seeds of the kingdom, the love of Christ, among many who had never heard. I’ll never forget our ministry together.

Now a new chapter is beginning in both of our lives. You as a church are being asked to do something very difficult: send one of your own to a new place. In Acts 13, the Holy Spirit said to the church at Antioch, “set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). Now the Holy Spirit speaks once more, asking you to set Sara and I apart for the work to which he has called us in Newton, North Carolina. This is hard, especially given the cancellation of our June 28th reception. Antioch was able to lay hands on their apostles and send them on their way. We have to settle for a letter. What we must confide in is the joy of what awaits, what God is going to do in Hilltop Lakes and in Newton. While we are no longer co-laboring in the same area, we nonetheless remain partners in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I know we each have questions about the future, but any confusion about what is to come ought to be superseded by our confidence that “he who began a good work in [us] will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6). God is beginning an exciting new work for Sara and I; one that he has been preparing us for since before we were born (Gal. 1:15-16). I know that it is painful to see us off, but I hope that you may find happiness in knowing that whatever God does through us in North Carolina, you – Hilltop Lakes Chapel – were crucial in preparing us for that ministry. To quote Paul once more, "I hold you in my heart," Hilltop.

Sincerely,

Andrew Barrett

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A Sure and Steadfast Hope

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This is a strange time for us. I have never lived through something like this. I have never been quarantined to my own home, unable to attend social gatherings like church and school. It is a scary time. People are dying, and many people I love dearly are at a high risk not only of contracting the virus but losing their lives as a result. Many of us try to be confident, maybe overconfident, that this will be over soon, and yet a part of us senses that we are in it for the long haul, and that stirs up even more fear. 

Yet this is the Easter season. It is still Lent. Our observation of Lent and our celebration of Easter do not depend on us attending church during the season or the day. They most certainly do not depend on that, for Jesus is the Lord whether the churches are opened or closed. As we prepare our hearts and souls for the possibility of still being unable to meet even during Easter, I would like to offer a note of encouragement from Karl Barth, one of the single greatest theologians in the history of the Church, certainly the greatest theologian of recent history. He says this about the message of Easter:

The Easter message tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death are beaten. Ultimately they can no longer start mischief. They still behave as though the game were not decided, the battle not fought; we must still reckon with them, but fundamentally we must cease to fear them any more. If you have heard the Easter message, you can no longer run around with a tragic face and lead the humourless existence of a man who has no hope. One thing still holds, and only this one thing is really serious, that Jesus is the Victor  (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, 123).

Jesus is the Victor. Jesus wins, and he reigns over heaven and earth, interceding for us as our great High Priest, offering our innermost requests and anxieties to God. Be cautious. Be very cautious. Right now social distancing and being mindful of our neighbors is the most loving practice we can undertake. But do not sulk about as those whose hope is in this moment, in this life, only. Laugh a little. Cry a little. Do not mistake being enslaved to fear as being concerned. The Lordship of Jesus Christ prevails, no matter what the opponent, evil, or crisis. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock. His kingdom is the unshakable kingdom. Take confidence in that. Celebrate that. And rest assured, be it at Easter or some time later, our reunion as a congregation, as an assembly of Christ followers, will be one of the closest things to a heavenly reunion you or I have ever experienced.

Grace and peace be with you.

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Election and Witness: A Biblical Theology of a Complicated Term

“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12.2-3; italics added). Within this promise from God to Abram is the initiation of God’s redemptive purpose(s) for the cosmos. Genesis 3-11 – with the exception of the account of Cain and Abel (4.16) – illustrates the consequences of the Fall (3.1-19) on humanity as a whole, with humanity reaching the climax of their hubris in Genesis 11. Such corporate emphases causes Genesis 12 to seem disruptive. Why is it that God fixates on one man and his descendants? Has he given up on all peoples (i.e., the nations)? What of God’s promise to squash the head of the serpent (3.15)? Has he abandoned that promise? To the contrary, “through Abraham [God] will bring into being a nation, Israel…to bring redemptive blessing to the whole creation. God’s promise to Abraham is God’s answer to sin…God will restore his world.”[1] Election, canonically understood, is more vocational than it is soteriological. God’s chosen people are to be a blessing.

It is easy to mistake God’s covenant with Israel as exclusively exclusive. To be sure, there is an element of exclusivity. At Sinai, God calls Israel his “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exod 19.5). God does not stop there, however. He continues “for the whole earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19.6). While holiness implies otherness, the priesthood implies service. Indeed “election,” says Bartholomew and Goheen, “is not just for privilege: it is for service.”[2] As God’s special, holy nation, Israel is to minister to the nations around them. God may have called a particular people, but “he did not lose interest in the nations.”[3] It is God’s interest in gathering the nations to himself that he elects a covenant people, and one need not skip over the Old Testament to see how that is the case.[4] In the interest of brevity, a thorough OT theology of Israel and the nations must be forgone. Instead, attention will be paid – with the help of Christopher J. H. Wright – to two key passages: Jeremiah 13.1-11, which summarizes the centripetal nature of Israel’s vocation, and Psalm 47, which scandalously includes the nations within Israel’s very identity.

While Wright makes the important case for God’s sending people to act as agents of salvation or to deliver a message (e.g., Joseph, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah),[5] the vast majority of his work suggests that Israel’s witness to (or “blessing of”) the nations was largely centripetal; it was to have an attractive effect on the surrounding cultures.[6] Few texts illustrate this idea better than Jeremiah 13.1-11. God tells Jeremiah to buy a belt and put it around his waist (Jer 13.1-2).[7] After Jeremiah has worn the belt for some time, God speaks again, telling him to go bury it in the soil by the Euphrates (13.4-5). After several months, God tells Jeremiah to go dig it up, and to little surprise the once decorative belt has become “spoiled…good for nothing” (13.7). What is the point?

“These evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this belt, which is good for nothing. For as the belt clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me”, declares the Lord, “that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.” (Jer 13.10-11)

The imagery here is shocking. God equates his covenant with Israel to a man binding a belt around himself. That is, “God wants to wear his people!”[8] God has chosen Israel in the same way a person might choose a particular article of clothing for a special occasion. The privilege is not so much for the clothing per sé, but for the wearer. As a three-piece suit is meant to attract admiration to the man wearing it, God’s people are meant to attract admiration to himself from the nations, be it through Torah obedience, worship, or social justice – all elements of God’s covenantal guidelines for his people.

What will be the status of those that are attracted to God from among the nations? There was once a time when African Americans and white people shared buses that all the while propagated racial segregation. They may have shared the bus, but it was obvious the passengers were not “equal.” Is that to be the case for the nations? Psalm 47 gives the surprising answer:

            The nobles of the nations gather

                        as the people of the God of Abraham

            for the kings of the earth belong to God;

                        he is greatly exalted. (Ps 47.9; Wright’s translation; italics added)

 Here the “nobles of the nations” and “the people of the God of Abraham” “are simply set in apposition, the one being identified with the other.”[9] The psalmist’s use of the title “the God of Abraham” is significant, as it places the universality of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 firmly in view. The nations, assembled together to exalt God, will not be second-class citizens. They will neither be behind nor beneath Israel, but will be counted as Israel, as part and parcel of the people of father Abraham. Psalm 87 is a helpful complement to Psalm 47, as there the psalmist uses imagery of a register of nations (87.6), in which even historical enemies of Israel (Egypt [Rahab] and Babylon) are listed as having been “born” in Zion.

It is unfortunate that  “election” is so often understood as a strictly soteriological category, because to emphasize election and/or covenant without giving attention to its vocational implications is, as John Stott puts it “a dangerous half-truth.”[10] The promises of God to Abraham and his descendants are always with a view to blessing all nations. In a world where human initiative had lead to total disaster (cf. Gen 3-11), “the promise of blessing is both the divine initiative…and a reaffirmation of the primal divine intentions for man.”[11] As this brief biblical survey has demonstrated, it is exegetically irresponsible to bypass the Old Testament in order to discover how God seeks to bless the nations. The Hebrew Bible envisions a world created and ruled by YHWH, who – in the interest of all humanity – elects Israel to be his royal priesthood, attracting the nations through their worship and covenantal commitment, and welcoming them as their fellow Israelites. Of course, Israel’s election represents a only partial fulfillment of God’s promises. Those promises find their absolute “Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor 1.20). It is nonetheless the case, however, that God has long willed for a people that will be a blessing to the nations. That will – while brought to completion by the work of Jesus Christ and the provision of the Holy Spirit – began with a promise made to an elderly man from Ur. A promise for which the nations are eternally grateful.


 

[1] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 54-5.

 

[2] Ibid., 65.

 

[3] John Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today: Your Influence is Vital in Today’s Turbulent World, (London: Collin Publishing Group, 1984), 16.

 

[4] It is not inaccurate in the least to paint Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham. Bartholomew and Goheen title God’s election of Israel as “Redemption Initiated” for this very reason (Drama of Scripture, 47). Indeed, for Paul the great mystery of his ministry is that when God set forth his plan in Christ to unite all things in heaven and on earth in him (Eph 1.9-10) is that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3.6). The purpose of this present brief, however, is to explore the ways in which the Old Testament illustrates Israel’s role in God’s purposes prior to Christ.

 

[5] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 205-8.

 

[6] For Wright’s detailed argument of this point, see Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), 454-500.

 

 

 

[7] Many translations translate אֵז֣וֹר as "loincloth," but Wright compellingly argues that the implication of v. 11 suggests the noun is better understand as an “outer sash,” or “belt” as can be seen in Isaiah 11.5 “righteousness shall be the belt (אֵז֣וֹר) of his waist (Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 137).

 

[8] Wright, The Mission of God’s People, 137.

[9] Wright, The Mission of God, 490.

 

[10] Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today, 16.

 

[11] David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, (2nd ed.; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1997), 29.

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