Last week, I did something I rarely do anymore: I visited Cokesbury, an honest-to-goodness brick-and-mortar bookstore in Atlanta. (For my blog readers who aren’t yet holy enough to be Methodist, Cokesbury is the United Methodist-affiliated bookstore. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury were the first two bishops in the Methodist Church in America. Stick their names together and viola! Cokesbury!)
I went to Cokesbury seeking inspiration for preaching Advent and Christmas. I love this holiday season as much as anyone, but it presents a challenge to me as a preacher. How do I preach the good news of Christ’s coming into world without it sounding like old news? I was looking for a book that offered a fresh take, a different angle, a less-traveled path into these familiar texts.
I certainly wasn’t looking for an Adam Hamilton book.
It was clear, however, from the large cardboard aisle displays, banners, posters, and marketing tchotchkes all over the store that an Adam Hamilton book was looking for me.
Hamilton, if you don’t know, is the nearest thing we Methodists have to a celebrity in our denomination. (You guys didn’t really believe that satirical Madonna article floating around the interwebs a while back, did you?) He’s one of only a few United Methodist megachurch pastors, and he’s a publishing phenomenon. Like Wesley before him, he’s hardly had an unpublished thought.
He’s evangelical enough to earn a dust-jacket blurb from Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels and mainline enough for all of his scripture citations to come from the New Revised Standard Version. And since he’s published by Abingdon, the United Methodist publishing house, he’s good for the home team.
In spite of (or perhaps because of) his success and fame, before last week, when I picked up his new Advent-themed book The Journey, I had never actually read Adam Hamilton.
My verdict? This guy is really good! In fact, The Journey rules!
Don't judge this book by its cover!
I’m not kidding. I don’t mean to sound surprised, but c’mon! Look at the cover! It looks exactly like the kind of book that a well-meaning aunt gives you as a Christmas gift. When you unwrap it, you intend to read it, but it instead collects dust in the nook alongside The Christmas Box, the Chicken Soup books, and something by that guy who wrote Tuesdays with Morrie.
Needless to say, you can’t judge a book by… Well, you know.
One important theme of the book is that the popular Christmas story that we know and love didn’t unfold in history quite the way we imagine. A close reading of the Bible, as Hamilton makes clear, often contradicts the popular story. Not only that, the popular story often seems like a fairy tale. Only when we understand the story in its place and time—using insights from history, sociology, and geography—can we see how gritty and down-to-earth it really is.
Hamilton also does a nice job keeping the Christmas story rooted in Israel’s story. He makes many connections to the Old Testament that weren’t obvious to me until I read about them.
One of the book’s great strengths is the way Hamilton fills in the picture painted by Luke and Matthew with details that the evangelists and their original audiences, living as they did in the Ancient Near East of the first century, might have taken for granted. We live in a very different time and place, but Hamilton familiarizes us with the terrain—figuratively and literally. As someone who visited the Holy Land this year, I appreciate the way Hamilton brings insights from his own trips to the Holy Land to help us place the story in its proper context.
Luke and Matthew were concise writers, but they give us enough information to know that these events must have happened something like this. Hamilton is nicely speculative at times, but he never strays far from the text.
Here’s one good example in relation to Joseph:
While we don’t read it explicitly in the Gospels, we can infer from the life and teachings of Jesus the profound impact Joseph had on Jesus’ faith. When Jesus looked for a metaphor to describe his relationship—and ours—to God, his primary form of addressing God was Abba—the Aramaic word for Papa. It is likely that even as a boy Jesus saw in Joseph a picture of the love and character of God.
We see evidence of this throughout Jesus’ teachings. We see it in the parable of the prodigal son, where Jesus likened God to a father who showed mercy to a son who had squandered his inheritance, while showing patience with his older son who judged the younger. Could this parable be a reflection of Jesus’ own experience of Joseph’s mercy and love? In what other ways might Joseph’s heart, character, and faith have shaped Jesus’ faith and the man he would become?†
I enjoy playing guitar and writing songs. Sometimes when I hear a great line in a song, for example, by Bob Dylan, I think, “Why didn’t I think of that? Those words were just floating in the air, waiting for someone to capture them and write them down!”
As a preacher reading The Journey, I often felt the same way.
I’ll post more about the series later this week, but my new Advent sermon series, “The Journey to Bethlehem,” will use Hamilton’s book as a roadmap, and will surely include many of the book’s insights. The series will also include pictures and video from my recent trip to the Holy Land.
This Sunday we’ll begin our story with a 13-year-old girl named Mary, who lived in a small town called Nazareth. Our scripture is Luke 1:26-38.
† Adam Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 51.