Sunday, September 24, 2017

Encountering God on the Run: Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-21

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-21
There is just a little bit of history that gets us to where were are today. After the occurrence on Mount Moriah, Isaac grew and eventually got married and started a family of his own. While Rebekah, his blushing bride, was still with child she became alarmed with what was going on in here womb and prayed to God for answers. Her answer was that there were two boys in her womb and they were fighting. Each one would become a nation in their own right. Not only would the boys fight even as they were in the womb, but the nations they would become would also fight. God told her that one would be stronger than the other and the older will serve the younger.
When she gave birth she had two sons. She named the elder Esau which means hairy because he was covered in hair and the younger was named Jacob, which means heel grabber, because he was born grasping Esau by the heel. Coincidentally, Jacob also means trickster or liar. Esau became a strong and mighty hunter. Jacob on the other hand stayed near the tents, and probably was a shepherd. And as with all “good” parents each one had a favorite. Isaac preferred the elder, Esau, the hunter, while Rebekah found joy in her younger son, Jacob. (No wonder the two boys were always fighting)
To say the boys did not get along would be an understatement. The boys never seemed to get along. At one point Esau came in from the fields, hungry from hunting. He found that Jacob had just finished making a stew. He told Jacob that he was famished and would die if he did not get some of the stew, right now. Jacob, knowing an opportunity when he saw one, told Esau that he would trade the stew for Esau's birthright.
A little background here. Esau was the eldest son, which means that he was second only to his father. When the father passed, leadership of the family passed to the eldest son. The eldest son also received a double share of the inheritance. This was called the birthright. Esau having been born just before Jacob was the eldest son and the holder of the birthright in the family.
So, although Esau was a little taken aback by the high price of Jacob's stew, he was apparently hungry enough to sell his birthright to his brother for a bowl of it. So Jacob the heel grabbing trickster begins to live up to his name.
Which brings us to the story we have today. Isaac is ill, and although he continues to live for quite some time following this event, he is apparently is ill enough that he is going to pass his authority, leadership of the family on to Esau and give his final blessing to his sons, now, before he eventually dies. This is will make Esau head of the family, and serve as Isaac's last will and testament, naming Esau as primary heir and Jacob as secondary heir to all he had, upon his actual death.
My guess, at this point is, that Isaac has a similar way to thinking as Mike and I when it comes to agreements between siblings. Generally, Mike and I agree that any agreements made between sisters must be ratified by an adult for them to be binding. Usually, in our household, these tend to be agreements about helping each other with chores, or the passing of possessions between the girls. If they make an agreement between themselves, that agreement can be rendered null by an adult, if either of us believes that one sister is taking advantage of the other.
Isaac, seemed to be under the impression that whatever agreement, Jacob made with Esau that day when Esau was so hungry he was willing to sell his birthright for soup, could be circumvented by his own authority. He had no intention of honoring the agreement made between the two young men. He was going to bless Esau, anyway.
Apparently he did not discuss this with Rebekah, because when she overhears Isaac's plans to give the birthright blessing to Esau anyway, she hatches a plan, of her own, to assure Jacob of his ill-gotten right to the birthright. Together with Jacob they implement an elaborate deception, which, in the end, results in Isaac blessing Jacob instead of Esau.
Esau, is justifiably infuriated, not only does he have a petty little brother who thinks that a birthright can be bought for the bargain price of a bowl of stew, but he has a lying, conniving brother, who is willing to dress up in an animal skin costume, and lie to his near blind, dying father, to get what he wants. And because of this, he has lost his position in the family and the greater part of his inheritance.  So Esau does what anybody would do in this situation, he plots to kill his brother as soon as his father dies.  In the intervening time, you know, between the blessing of Jacob and Isaac's actual death, he “silently stews;” by loudly proclaiming his intentions to anyone who will listen. I don't know if it did not occur to him that this would eventually get back to both his mother and his father or if he even cared. I mean, he was doing such a good job at keeping his plot to himself that it seemed everyone knew. So Isaac and Rebekah decided that it is time for Jacob to get himself a wife, you know a wife from among Rebekah's people, who lived, far, far, away from here. And therefore far, far, away from Esau.
So we have before us this morning, a tale of two “virtuous” brothers. One who is fool hearty and perhaps just a bit hot headed and the other who would probably make a very good professional con-man. I am sure, if we had to choose, we would not choose either of these two brothers to be our hero. But the Biblical account follows Jacob at this point.
Jacob is on the run, he is gonna lay low at his uncle's house for a while, so his brother can cool down and come to accept the events as they have unfolded. But he has to get there first, as I mentioned before Rebekah and Isaac thought, a good place for Jacob to go at this point was far, far, away. So, in a world without jet planes, high speed rail or even a broken down Chevies, he has to hike it.
One night, when he had come to a certain place, in other words, some random place along the way, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, he takes a stone and lays down for a good nights' sleep. Instead of a good nights' sleep, and he encounters God. He has a dream of angels, messengers of God going up and down a stairway between heaven and earth. Messengers, doing the will of God passing between the place where God dwells, into the world, doing the work and the will of God, bringing the messages of God to God's people where ever they are. But even as Jacob is watching the angels carrying the messages of God to the people of God, God meets him there in that place, face to face. No messenger, no angel, no go between, God appears to him and speaks with him there, halfway between where he is running from and where he is running to, that “certain place” that was really nowhere at all.
God speaks to Jacob and tells Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham. . . and the God of Isaac.” God then proceeds to promise Jacob that the land on which he lies will belong to his offspring and those same offspring will be like the dust of the earth and that through them all the families of the earth will be blessed. In short, God reiterates the promise God had made with Abraham and with Isaac before him and is now offering that same promise and covenant to Jacob. God expands upon the bones of the promise by also promising to be with Jacob. God will go with him wherever he goes and will return to this land with him and will remain with him until all God had promised to him was fulfilled, so basically ‘til the end of his life (after all the promise will not be fully fulfilled until long after Jacob's death).
God comes to Jacob. But why? Because he had been chosen before he was born? That would be an easy explanation. God had decided which brother would be chosen before either was born. God picks and chooses humans in the womb, calling one but not another for God's own reasons. If that were true, we would have to believe that decides who be a child of God and who would not be, that we are Christians, here today because God chose for us to be, before we were even born and those who are not here, are not Christians, were not chosen by God.
As Nazarenes, we do not believe this. We believe that each person can accept God's call on their lives, or reject it. We believe that God choses everyone; that God does not want anyone to not believe, not be a Christian, to not be a part of God’s great work in this world. We are children of God because we have accepted God's call on our lives.
This story is not about how God chose Jacob before birth, this story is about Jacob accepting God as his God. This, my friends, is Jacob’s conversion story. Jacob is a liar, a cheat, a fraud, a trickster. He is basically on the run, trying to get as far away from the consequences of his delinquent lifestyle and God comes to him. There in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the mess of his life and says, “I made a promise to your father and your grandfather, and I would like to extend that promise to you. If you agree, not only will I do all the things I said I would do for them, but I will be with you, from this moment on, for the rest of your life.”
At this point Jacob could say anything. He could have continued to try to be a greedy trickster and try to get God to give him the promise, but then not follow through on his part of the deal, which was to make God his God. I mean, if anyone could have believed that he could trick God, to get something, it would have been Jacob. He could have taken one look at the mess of his life and said, “You have not been here for me through all this, otherwise I would not be here. So I can't trust you to be here for me for the rest of my life.” He might have said, “You made a promise to my dad, and you want to carry that promise on through me!!?? Dad never liked me. He always preferred Esau. Why don't you go back to our tent in Beer-sheba and see if Esau wants this promise you made to our father! Maybe he needs a God to walk with all his, days, because I am fine on my own thank you.”
Jacob did not say any of these things or any of the number of other things he could have possibly said to reject God. Jacob accepts the call of God on his life. He accepts the promise, he accepts God's presence in his life. He accepts the whole kit-and-kaboodle.  He says this, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! How awesome is this place!” And then he ends by saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way . . .then the Lord, shall be my God.”
Jacob declares God as his God. This is Jacob's conversion moment. This is when God becomes Jacob's God. This is when the promise passes from Isaac to him, and from this moment when it all happens. God is Jacob's God and Jacob follows God for all of his days, from this point on. God did not chose Jacob per say, Jacob chose God.
This is the first time that Jacob calls God his God. Earlier in the story, when speaking to Isaac, he calls God “your God.” Even in God's introduction, God says, “I am the Lord, God of Abraham and the God of Isaac,” not, “I am your God.” God knew the truth as it stood at that point. But, here, at the end of this encounter Jacob declares God to be his God. “The Lord shall be my God.” He accepts God as his own, his faith is his faith from this point on, it is no longer the faith of his father or his grandfather, or anyone else, his faith in God is his own. And that is conversion, to accept God as your own God, to declare, the Lord, God is my God and shall be from this point on. This moment right there, in the middle of nowhere, Jacob accepts God, he becomes a child of God, for the first time.
Jacob did not do anything to deserve God coming to him. Nothing in his life warranted an encounter with the one and only God of the universe. His life was a mess, he had continually chosen the worst way, in almost every situation. It had resulted in him having to run away from home, in fear of his life; in fear that his very own twin brother might actually follow through on a threat to kill him. But, none of that mattered, the one and only God of the universe, decided to meet Jacob in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a gigantic mess of his own making, and call to him, invite him to allow God to be his God. God came to him, invited him into relationship and Jacob accepted. 
This is exciting, this is amazing, this is good news. God came to Jacob, that dirty, no good, rotten, scoundrel, that he was, and invited Jacob to be the recipient of the promise. God could have scrapped the two brothers and all their nastiness. God could have skipped that generation and waited for a more worthy heir of Abraham to come along. God could have done a million things, but God went to Jacob, in all his unworthiness, and invited Jacob into relationship; invited Jacob to be a child of God. This is exciting! Because if God can come to Jacob, and invite Jacob into relationship, if Jacob can be a child of God, anyone can be.
In fact, the good news is that God reaches out to all of us. All of the families of the earth are blessed through Abraham, through Isaac, and through Jacob. I am a part of a family of earth, you are a part of a family of earth; we all are a part of a family of earth. We are all blessed through Jacob. There are many ways this is true, and there are many ways that this plays out throughout salvation history, but one way, is that God coming to Jacob, is lets us know that God comes to each of us. God gives us all the opportunity (and for most of us many opportunities) to allow God to be our God; to accept the promise of salvation for ourselves; to go wherever God takes us, knowing that wherever we go, God will always be with us, ‘til the end of our lives. God came to Jacob in all his unworthiness and invited him to be in relationship, and God and comes to us, each of us, all of us.
In fact, I am so positive of this, I am going to tell you something that I believe to be true, but is not recorded here for us in scripture. Remember how I said, Jacob could have turned God down. That Jacob could have walked away, chosen a different life for himself, to have nothing to do with God, for one of a hundred possible reasons a person might chose to do this. I believe, God very well might have encountered Esau, perhaps this same night, or some other night before or after this night and made the same promise to Esau. There is nothing in the promise that says it can only pass to one son, or had to only pass to the first born son, or the son who inherited the birthright. After all, ALL of Jacob's 12 sons inherit the promise. They become the twelve tribes that eventually make their way back to the land God promised to Abraham and to Isaac. Esau could have been a child of the promise as well. If I am right, and I believe I am, Esau did not accept God's call on his life, at this point or at any other point in his life. Whenever God came to him, however many times God might have done so, in whatever ways God did so, each time, Esau walked away. No matter how many times God chose Esau, Esau did not ever choose God.
Neither one of these brothers deserved to be chosen, neither one of them lived lives that exemplified faith, or righteousness, before God came to them. But, after Jacob encounters God, here in the middle of nowhere, between Beer-sheba and Haran, everything changed for him. He goes to his uncle’s house, and by all accounts, becomes a man of God; a person who listens and follows God, as he weaves his way through the rest of his life. Because this could be true to Jacob, that means, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter what your track record is, God can come to you too, to anyone for that matter.
In this way, we could say that we all are chosen. God chooses each and every one of us. God comes to us, where were are, in the middle of our mess, in the middle of whatever we have done with our lives, whoever we are, whoever we have become, no matter, God Chooses us, each of us every one of us. God comes to us, in the certain places, where we are, in all the places we live, in the places we work, wherever it is we are, and calls to us, invites us to be children of the promise, to allow God to bless us and all the families of the earth through us. God  invites us to be in relationship with God and to be a part of God’s promise, a part of God’s ever growing work in this world. There is nothing we have to do to be good enough for God, there is nothing we have to do with our lives to earn God's call, to be worthy of the promise God wants to fulfill in us. God just comes to each of us, to all of us. And we like Jacob (like Esau) have the choice to accept that call, or deny that call. We can respond by saying, “The Lord God is my God.” Or we can walk away from the call, from the presence of God. Our lives can be marked by change and transformation, as Jacobs is, or we can be like Esau whose life never shows that that change, that transformation.
That transformation is there because Jacob chooses God and God follows through on the promise God made to Jacob that day. God was with Jacob throughout the rest of Jacob's life. God said, “No matter where you go, no matter what happens, I will go with you; when you travel to a far off land, when you return here, I will be with you, until the end of your life, I will be there.” When God reaches out to each of us, when God chooses us and we choose God in return, God promises to be with us for the rest of our lives, no matter what happens, no matter where we go God will be with us.
The road of our lives might be long, it might hard, it might be filled with sorrow, pain, struggles, God will be there with us. God does not promise Jacob that his life will not be hard, God does not promise Jacob that his uncle and soon-to-be Father-in-law will not trick him and steal fourteen years of his labor. He does not promise Jacob that Esau will not continue to be mad at him for a very long time and will not come after him repeatedly to take his life. God simply promises, that when all that happens (and it does) God will be with Jacob through it all.
When we choose God, God is with us through it all. When we are fighting with our family, and can't be reconciled to those we love the most, God is there. When those we trust the most hurt us, use us, abuse us, God is there. When we lose our job and are struggling to make ends meet, to put food on the table, or keep the lights on, God is there. When we are drowning in our own loss and pain, God is there. God is always there, no matter where life takes us, God is with us. God does not ever leave us or forsake us. God does not ever leave us alone to attempt to handle it in our own strength, through our own power, or leave us to our own means. God is there, giving us strength and power, always there with us all along the way.
So we have before us this morning the tale of two brothers. You can choose to be one or the other. Who are you going to be this morning? Who are you? Are you Jacob or are you Esau? Either way you are chosen by God, but the question is, will you choose God in return?
And if you are choosing God; if you do choose God, then God promises to be with you, ‘til the end of your life. When we choose to follow God, to allow God to be our God, then God is with, in all things, through all things. No matter where we go, no matter what happens, God is with us, we can do THIS, whatever THIS might be. We can try to do it all alone, or we can have the God of the universe go through it with us, walking along beside us, guiding us and strengthening us through it all.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Making peace with the Abraham and Isaac story

Genesis 21:1-3, 22: 1-14
Last week we began at the beginning. And as we make our way through the Old Testament, I have made some cuts, so we do not literally spend a year of Sunday doing this. So I have moved to the the most climatic, as well as problematic part of Abraham's story. But First before we dive into this little gem of a passage let me catch us all up to speed.
The Abraham story begins when God approaches Abraham and makes him a series of promises. God promises that he will give Abraham descendants, and that they will become a great nation. If Abraham will follow to a place that God will show Abraham, that it will be his land, and his decedent’s land, and that this people of God will be more numerous than the stars in the sky.
From that point on, Abraham had followed God and abided with God and that covenant. Though the story is not one-sided. There were times where Abraham fell short of what God had asked him to do. He had not always been trusting, he had not always been truthful, and to put it mildly, he did not always exemplify the ideals to which we like to hold our biblical heroes. At one point, Abraham distrust God's ability to protect Abraham and his household and somehow thought that lying to a local king and telling him that Sarah was not his wife by his sister. Yeah, as you can imagine that ended “well.” At another time, in an attempt to make God's promise happen, Sarah and Abraham agreed that it would be best if he produced a child with her servant Hagar. Hagar gave birth to a Son. The fall out from that little event was no end of trouble between Abraham and Sarah. And in the end both of them did wrong by them both. The story comes to its zenith here with one of the most re-told stories of the Old Testament.
Despite how much this story is told and retold, it’s also one of the most problematic passages of the entirety scripture, and often raises as many questions as it provides answers. Although, the first three versed of chapter 21 are included for context, let's just dive right into chapter 22.
Q: What problems do you see with this passage? Q: What seems odd, or strange here? Q: Why is it odd or problematic?
Throughout the ages, biblical scholars have wrestled with some of these questions. And though there isn’t a way to just hand wave these questions away, we can try to navigate along with them to see how the story is meant to function in its original context. So, let’s start with v. 1-2 of this narrative
1 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." 2 He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you."
Q: What is the “These things”spoken of here in this passage?
Q: Why would it be important for us to remember that this happened “after” they had sent Hagar and Ishmael away
Q: What do we know in this passage that Abraham doesn’t?
Q: What does it mean, “God 'tested' Abraham? What is the purpose of a test? What does the test tell us about the test taker? What does it tell us about the test giver?
Q: What to you think the purpose of God's test of Abraham is?
Q: In what ways has Abraham shown his faith in God in the past? In what ways has he failed to show faith in God?
Q: Why is there so much reiteration at the beginning of the second verse 2?
Q: What is a sacrifice?
Q: There are actually two things Abraham is asked to sacrifice. One is clear in the text, the other is not. What are those two things? – Isaac, and the promise of descendants.
Q: How must Abraham feel at this point?
One of the things that is so very unusual about this passage is that we’re not told what anyone thinks. As much as we imagine the emotional reactions of all characters, we’re not told about how they feel, how they react, or anything of the sort. While we want to supply those things they are not really of much consequence in the scope of this narrative. Rather than focus on the personal trials, the story pushes on to something else.
And so the story presses on in verses 3-6
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." 6 Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
Q: Who goes with Abraham?
Q: What do they do in the story?
Q: What does Abraham say to his servants?
Q: Why does he say this? Why do you think he says this?
Verses 6-8:
6 Abraham put the wood for the burnt offering on his son Isaac. He himself carried the fire and the knife. The two of them walked on together. 7 Then Isaac spoke up. He said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said. "But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" 8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." The two of them walked on together.
Q: Who carries the wood?
Q: So, how old do you think Isaac must be here?
Q: What question does Isaac ask? Where is the lamb?
Q: What answer does Abraham give? God will provide the lamb.
Q: Why does Abraham give this reply?
Q: What does this reply tell us about what Abraham is thinking?
Abraham’s reply of “God will provide” is going to become a theme here. This is actually a good time to take a step back and ask a question of how this story would historically be read. If we imagine ourselves as living in ancient Israel, either under the time of the kings of Israel and Judah, or maybe even during the Roman occupation of the land, we would see ourselves as God’s people living in the land that God had given us. We would have the questions, why are we living here, how has God’s promise come to us? Why is it that we covenant to live as God’s people and why has he covenanted to be our God? And in part, this story advances as the ancestor of our faith follows God. He is willing to give back to God all that God has given him. He is willing to give back the son he loves and he is willing to give back the promises that God has made. And why? In part, because he believes that God will provide. How have the people of God come to live in this land, and how have they been sustained as the People of God’s Covenant? It is because God provides. But we’ll come back to that in a bit. Let’s look at 9-14
9 They reached the place God had told Abraham about. There Abraham built an altar. He arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac. He placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand. He took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven. He said, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," Abraham replied. 12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you have respect for God. You have not held back from me your son, your only son." 13 Abraham looked up. There in a bush he saw a ram. It was caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram. He sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham named that place The LORD Will Provide. To this day people say, "It will be provided on the mountain of the Lord."
Now, before we go too much farther, I want to take a moment to call for the children’s attention. As much as this story is kind of strange where we have an adult and a younger person and some things which might be a little scary, I want to make sure that we say that this story IS strange. We adults do not take children away from others in order to frighten or harm them. And if there are adults that take you aside to frighten or hurt, then this chapter is not saying that it is okay. And if there are adults that frighten or harm us, then we tell another adult, right? Okay. With that said, we can move on to some questions.
Q: What is happening here?
Q: How do Abraham and God address each other? How does that compare to Verse 1?
Q: Why does God stop Abraham?
Q: Once God knows that Abraham will do as God has asked, what happens afterward?
Although we have been talking about this as if it is a story about Abraham, this is just as much, if not more, a story about God. These early narratives in Genesis tell us a lot about who God is and what God is like. Many of them were included in the Biblical narrative because it let the early Hebrew know that their God was not like the gods of the cultures that surround them. Just like the Genesis 1 narrative told them they and all the world were loving created by a God who declared all of creation, including humanity good. Which was emphatically not the case with religious stories of the cultures that surrounded, their gods were not loving, or kind, or caring, their gods did not think the world was necessarily a good thing and most of the time humans were a nuisance to be tolerated and put up with. This narrative also shared a truth about God that set God apart from the gods of the cultures around them.
Most of the cultures around them, the way the god-human relationship, if you wanted something from a god you had to give the god something to coax the god to give it to you and then once it was provided you would need to give something else to the god to show your appreciation, so the god would continue to do things for you and hopefully not smite you or kill all your livestock and make all your fields barren, or withhold rain so that you all suffered. The gods of the cultures around them were keen on making humans suffer and there was a continual movement on behalf of the humans to try to assure that the gods were happy so that they would not make the humans suffer. So say, you wanted for the land to be fertile and to produce food, you had to give the god something to coax the god to make the land fertile. Once the god gave you a harvest you then needed to give part of that back to the god to keep the god happy so that next year the god would remember that you were thankful and not be angry with you and destroy all your crops with drought or bugs, or whatever.
It worked the same way with children. A man wanted many sons, to help him with the work, and to carry on his line. So when a man was given a son by the gods, he gave his first son back to the gods in the form of a human sacrifice, to assure that he would have more sons.
Q: Knowing this about the cultures all around, what do you think this narrative told the early Hebrews about their God, as compared to the gods around them?
Here is the good news for the Hebrews of the ancient world. God does not require the death of their first born sons! (In fact God abhors human sacrifice! This was good news, to them. This was amazing news. This God, the God they worshiped was not blood thirsty. It was another way of affirming to them that God was kind, God was caring, God was compassionate. God loved them and their children!
Q: In what ways do we sacrifice our children today? To what gods of the culture around us do we make these sacrifices?
Q: What is the good news for us today? What good news can we find in this story?
Q: What does God ultimately do in this passage?
Q: Does God providing this ram remind you of anything else in the scriptures?
The Old and New Testament commentators love taking this idea of God providing, and applying it to other narratives in the scriptures. Most Jewish commentators go almost immediately to the Passover celebration where God provides a substitution for the life of the firstborn son. New Testament writers and commentaries put a high value in the comparison in God providing a way of salvation through the death of Jesus. Though whichever way you take these parallels, this story is about God providing.
Q: What does Abraham call this place?
This story is about a very frightening walk of faith. There are circumstances that are almost certainly the most terrifying tribulation that Abraham experiences. Though having the ability to look backwards on this passage, we know that this is a story of provision, and not sacrifice. When we ask the question of what our journey is for, how we got to where we are, and where we might be headed, it is a journey that gives us far more questions than we have answers. The passage almost begs us to ask questions about the character’s intentions. It almost begs us to ask what God is thinking just as much as we may ask what Abraham and Isaac are thinking. Though despite these very good, and sometimes very troubling questions, we have a journey of faith and a story of providing.
I almost always ask the children what God is doing in any given story. And three times we are given the answer. God provides. So, how does God provide for us? This is not always so easily answered. The promise here is not that of material riches, or of physical comfort. So, what does God provide?

In short, God has provided for us to be where we are now. God provides what is needed for the next step. God provides a relationship with God. We read this story because we are as much the People of God as those who read this story 100, or 1000, or 3000 years ago. God calls to us, and we reply, “Here I am Lord.” God asks us to follow to the place God will show us. It is no accident that the story ends with the same statement of the Covenant that has appeared time and time again in Genesis. God calls us into a relationship that we may know God, and that God may be our God, and that together we may be God’s people. God provides for us to continue to take the next step of faith. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Meeting God for the First Time

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
 When I went to Seminary they had the new students come to the school a few days early for an orientation period, while this in itself was a introduction of sorts, where we all made judgments about the Seminary and what we expected from our educational time there. It was also a time period full of introductions. We met the faculty and the staff. We became acquainted with the building, with the atmosphere. We learned for the first time about what was expected of us and what we might expect in return. We also had our first introductions to the other students on campus.
After lunch the first day of orientation, I came up from downstairs and came into the area of the school that was known as the “formal lounge.” When I came into the lounge I found a young man sitting on one of the couches reading a book on worship theology written by Saliers. I noticed this, because the book had been instrumental in my undergrad thesis on Christian worship. So I stopped to talk to this young man. Although I had seen this man earlier that day from across the room, I had not yet spoken to him. It was there in the formal lounge over a book on worship theology that I met Mike for the first time and decided that this young man was definitely worth my time. I have not always been as successful in my first impressions I have made, when I have first met someone, but it seems that the ones I made that afternoon were correct. Much of our early friendship was built that day. We became friends because we both had read and like Saliers, we continued to be friends because we found out over time that there was much we in common.
Introductions are important. When we first meet someone we make evaluations about who they are and what they are like and we weigh those evaluations against who we are, what we believe to be important and what we like. In other words when we meet someone for the first time, we usually decide whether we like them and whether they are worth our time in the first few minutes after meeting them. Our first impressions, the first thing we learn about a person, sticks with us. We decide whether or not to pursue continued encounters based on the things we learn at our first meeting.
Our passage this morning is our first encounter with God. This is our first glimpse of “who this God person is anyway.” Who is this God? The one who the ancient Hebrews worshiped? Who is this God? Who sends his son into the world? Who is this God? Who we as Christians praise? This God speaks into the chaos of pre-creation and the whole world comes to order; the lights come on, the waters still, the land rises, the lights separate one from another, the plants grow, fish begin to swim, birds take flight, and creatures begin to creep along the ground. And then in one final act of creation, reaches down in the newly made dust of creation and forms humans.
The first thing this God does, though, is speak, and creation becomes. God speaks and things happen. The waters calm, the lights shine, the seas part and everything that swims in sea, flies through the air, moves along the ground fills the world.  God speaks and the world is. The God we meet in this first encounter is a God who speaks creation into existence. God speaks it and makes it so; speaks and it is so. God speaks, creation happens.  All that God says, is, and becomes. This speaking God we encounter in this passage is a creating God. God creates in God's speaking. 
The creating God of the Hebrews and Christians is a God who speaks. But creation is not the only language God speaks. Not only does God speak creation, but God also speaks and names creation; the basic building blocks of our world. God names the day and the night. God names the sky, the land and the sea. God speaks and creates. God speaks and meaning is given. The Word of God brings light and brings order to that light by separating it from the darkness. God names the darkness night and the light is named day. There was nothing but the chaotic nothing of pre-creation and then there was something and it was ordered, but not only was it ordered, but it had meaning. It had identity, it was day, it was night, it was something, and that something meant something, it had a name. They were not meaningless, nameless somethings that simply existed; they were something; day, night; land, sea. There was chaos and darkness and into the the chaos and darkness the Word of God brings order, meaning, identity. The basic building blocks the natural world not only become, but immediately God gives that something value. God names.
So here we are, we have wandered into the party that is pre-creation and we meet “this guy.” But we find out pretty quickly that is not just “some guy, you know,” this is God and who God is matters and what God says is important. God speaks, and when God speaks things happen. God says something, and it is, it becomes. But this God person does not just speak meaningless things. This One's words have meaning and value. With the very things this One says, not only are things brought into existence, but they become something. The very Word of God gives order, meaning and identity to the world, to which God speaks.
But God does not stop speaking there. Creation, order; meaning and identity are not the only words God knows. God speaks to creation. God sees the light; the land, the sky, the sea; the plants that grow; the Sun, Moon and stars, the creatures of the sea, the air and the land; God sees everything and then declares them one by one “good” and then in the end, sees it all together and stands back like an artist just finishing a painting and says, “This is good, all of it, is good.” It's all good. Each time God looks, all God sees is goodness. God sees it all and it is all good.
This seems like such a small thing to us, of course it is good. Why would God create something that was not good? God created it, of course it is good. But this was something important for the ancient Hebrews to hear. They were surrounded by the voices of the cultures around them, whose gods did not declare creation good. For them the world, and everything upon it, were a were a byproduct of divine conflict. On one hand the world was the mud and yuck that was flung about when two of their gods fought with one another. Or on the other, it was the aftermath of a battle between the god of war and the evil god of chaos, which the god of war won and then split open the carcass of his enemy and laid her out forming the earth and everything up on it from her broken body. Needless to say when creation is a rotting corpse or the muddy battlefield that remains after an epic battle, their gods did not think much of the earth and the creature who walked upon it. What we see here, is that the world, all of creation, is not a byproduct, or a corpse. It was carefully created by God, on purpose, and God did not look upon creation with disdain or dissatisfaction. God declares each part of creation good, and then declares creation as a whole, good.
Our God start speaking and keeps on speaking. When God comes down to God’s final creation, humans, God does not merely speak and we become so. God says to God’s-self, “let us.” Let’s do this. Let’s create something different. Something that stands out against all the rest of what I have created. Let’s make a creature in our own image, let it in some way be like us, let it reflect who we are.  God did not speak us into existence as the light and the land was created. God did not call for the land or the sea to bring us forth, God stops and says to God’s-self, let’s do this. Our creation is different. We are a product of careful consideration about what God wanted to be the climax and the pinnacle of creation. We are the beings that hold God’s image and likeness; we are a reflection of this speaking, creating God. And we like all the rest of creation are declared good. At creation, in the heart of our being, we, like everything else God created are good.
The Word of God speaks creation into existence, gives it meaning and identity and declares it good. The God we meet in creation is a loquacious God, because God is not done speaking. God begins creation by simply speaking. God's word is what brings forth creation and gives it meaning. Once God creates, God stops merely just speaking. As soon as there is something with which to communicate, God begins speaking to. God does not just talk, God communicates with creation. God is a God of relationship, as soon as there is something with which to have a relationship, God is reaching out in the foundational building block of all relationships, communication. God speaks to the land and the sea and the sky. God speaks to the light and the dark. God speaks to the fish of sea, the birds of the air and the creatures of the land. And ultimately God speaks to us, as the beings, who bear God’s image; God reaches to us in relationship from the very beginning. Our God speaks, but God does not just talk to hear God's-self speak. God talks to, and in doing so, is seeking to be in relationship. The God we are meeting here in passages is not only a speaking God, a God of communication, but is also a God of relationship, a God who is continually reaching out beyond God's-self, ultimately reaching out to us. From the beginning God has always wanted relationship, relationship with creation, relationship with the creature of the land, the air and the sea, and finally relationship with us.
Our communicating God has so much to communicate. There is so much God has to say to us. God tells creation and climatically us, that we are good. But God also gives permission, invites creation to be a part of the creating process. God tells the waters to bring forth creatures, calls for the land to bring forth first vegetation and then to bring for animals. God's creation is invited to join God in the very act of creating, “bring forth” God says to the land and to the sea, and together they bring forth fish and birds, all the plants of the earth and all the animals that walk upon it. God tells the land to bring forth animals, to bring forth many different kinds and for them the different kinds to become more numerous, and to multiply and to fill the earth. They are to grow and change and continually become.
Then, when the animals have been created, God speaks directly to the animals and God blesses them and tells them to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the sea, and the air and the land. God first says this to all the animals, of the land, of the air, and of the sea, and then blesses humans and says the same thing to humanity. God invites all of creation to continue in the act of creation; to bring forth, to make all the creatures of land and air and sea, and for those creature more and different kinds and for the kinds to multiply, to become and keep on becoming, to fill the land, the sea and the sky.
I think God found joy in creating and joy in the creation, standing back and looking at it all made God happy. “God saw everything he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Creating brought joy to God, it made God smile, and being a god of relationship, wanted others to join in this joy. So God invites the world itself to participate in creation, to join in on the joy, to participate in the happiness, smile. God wants Us to share in what is bringing God joy, God wants us to know what it is to bring something forth, to make something.
God invites us to be creating beings. Be fruitful and multiply, create. Make things; make more of your selves. Whenever we do something and stand back and find joy in what we have done, every time we make something and see that it is beautiful that it is good, we are participating in the joy God is inviting us to participate in. Every time we hold a newborn baby and find joy in her hands, her feet, her eyes, we are joining in the joy of creation, we are catching a glimpse of God in ourselves in what we have done, in what we have created. “I made this!” Are the words of a proud creator. When we find joy, happiness, pride in the good things we make, we are answering the call of God in creation, when God calls for us to “bring forth,” “to be fruitful,” to multiply.” All of it is heeding the words God first spoke to us in creation. 
God want us to be a part of it all, to find joy in what God finds joy, to be made happy by all that makes God happy, to be made to smile in the same way God was made to smile. So our so very communicative relational God invites the land, the sea, the animals and US to bring forth to participate in creation. To be a apart of the continuing becoming that is the ongoing, growing and changing, multiplying world all around us, to participate in the ongoing-ness, to grow, to nurture growth, to change and produce change to multiply and fill the world with the joy of every growing, changing producing creation.

So here we have our introduction to God and we find that we have a speaking God. The very Word of God is what brings all creation into being. Our God speaks and things happen, they are, they become. The Word of God is powerful, but not only is it powerful but it is meaningful. It brings meaning to all of which and to whom it speaks. The Word of God names creation, names the land, the sea and the sky, gives order, meaning and identity to our world. And our God invites us, and the world around us to join God in the creative process, to bring forth, to be fruitful, to fill, to multiply, and to add to this growing, changing, and productive world. God invites us to join in the joy of creation. Our God is relational, continually reaching out to us, communicating with us desiring to be in relationship with us. The God we meet here at the beginning is a talkative God, who begins speaking and does not seem to stop, but unlike that guy at the party who we just can’t seem to get away from, because he just keeps talking and talking, everything God has to say is worth hearing, it has meaning and brings meaning to the world around. The words God say invite us to join God in what brings God joy and are words that affirm out goodness and continue show us that we have value and meaning in this world. They tell who we are, they tell to whom we belong and they tell us who we look like. Every word that comes out of the mouth of God is worth listen to and should be heard.  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Armor for the Body - Ephesians 6:10-20

As we have worked through Paul's letter to the Church in Ephesus Paul has been worked hard to paint us a picture of Christians as one group which works in this world together accomplishing the work and the will of God, sharing the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, bringing the good news to everyone. As we have moved through this letter Paul has moved from metaphor to metaphor to help us understand what it means to be united. He began by speaking about adoption. As Christians we are adopted by God into one family becoming co-heirs with Christ. As members of one family we are united in Christ. Paul then goes on to explain that Christ came to break down the barriers which stand between people, bringing together those who were once separated because of their nationality, social status and gender. As Paul has said elsewhere, in Christ there is Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male and female. Paul then moves continues on the idea of walls but then builds a metaphor in which we are formed together to make the temple of God with Christ as our cornerstone which with whom we all aligned. Finally Paul uses the metaphor of the body, which is made up of many parts but is united in purpose and function. We are the body of Christ carrying on the work of Christ here on earth. Even though one body made up of many members, different parts, although all different, with different functions, it moves and works together. In Christ we are all different, we are not all the same mirror images of one another, a picture of bland uniformity. Although we make up one body, we all have different skills, different talents and different functions but still all come together to from the one united body of Christ which moves and works together to accomplish the work and the will of God in this world.
It is as this united body, we come to the sixth and final chapter in Ephesians. It is as this united body we are called to put on the armor of God. For a book which has repeated reminded us that we are one, that in Christ we have been stitched together, adopted into to one family, where the conventional and societal barriers which separate and divide have no bearing, cannot then end with a call to us as individuals. Paul has worked hard to create this idea of unity and of us all coming to form one body, the body of Christ which remains even as Christ has gone. The One body of Christ living and working and bringing to completion the work Christ began in his life time. That one body, does not now separate, each one to put on their own armor which God has given to them. NO, we remain united and together we put on the armor of God. Together we are the body of Christ and together God clothes us with God's armor.
As we begin to think about the armor of God we are reminded of David. Maybe you remember the story of David and Goliath. When David was sent by his father to take provisions to his brothers on the front line, he arrived and found the entire army of Israel cowering as one giant of a Philistine came out to them taunting them, calling for just one Israelite to come forward and to fight him. Instead of a long drawn out battle with many casualties on both sides Goliath wanted just one Israelite to face him in armed combat with a winner take all outcome. It actually sounds like a pretty rational idea. Instead of losing countless lives, only one needed to be risked. BUT Goliath was big and strong, he was a giant of a man and not one of the Israelites felt they were up to the task.
David heard Goliath's taunt and immediately volunteered. So he was brought before King Saul. I don't know what convinced them that sending this scrap of a boy was a good idea but they decided that sending him was better than nothing. But the first they clothed him in the armor of the King. And when David came out of the dressing room to model in this armor, the sight was not simply amusing, it was a joke. Nothing fit. It was all too big. It was a young boy wearing a grown man's armor. It was too large, it was too bulky and it weighed way too much for the young David. The armor did not fit; it did not belong to him.
As the people of God, as the body of Christ, God gives us God's armor. And the armor God gives us is not too big; it is not too bulky; it is not too heavy. It is the right armor; it is the armor we need. But it is not armor of leather or steel like the armor of the time it is a different kind of armor altogether.
Unlike the armor of Saul with which David was clad, the armor with which God clothes us was made for us, it fits the body perfectly. Saul’s armor on David was too big, it did not fit properly, and it weighed him down. He would never have been able stand against Goliath in battle, but the armor God has provided for us allows us to stand, it allows us to stand no under our own strength but in the God’s strength with the power God holding us up and giving us the ability.
Our world is full of people; individuals whom we encounter each and every day. When there is a tragedy in some far off place, say Houston, the first thing we do is to find the individuals who are affected by these tragedies. We find the story of the family that waited the night shivering on their roof waiting for rescue. Our reporters talk the children who are being housed in the shelters. We see footage of a man digging through the wreckage of what once was his house, trying to find remnants of his life which once was. When we think about the struggles we face on this earth as Christians, it is our temptation to think of the stories of individuals and how those people have perpetrated evil in this world; Emperor Nero, Hitler, the Unabomber, people who have worked to bring about evil and destruction in this world. We want a person we can blame, a face to which we can give the evil. Paul wants us to know that our struggle is not against person, against individuals, because evil is bigger than that. The battle for which we are being armed is not against the individuals who perpetrate evil, against the people who have done us harm, but instead against the systems, the societies, the governing authorities, against the forces of evil itself which are at large in our world.
On some levels this is hard, when evil is an individual, a person, it seems easier to defeat, to overcome. When our battle is against a 7 foot tall giant name Goliath, whom we can see before us, we know he is perishable. We know he CAN be defeated. He is a person and people can die. But when about battle is with systems, and societies, governments and authorities, against the forces of evil itself that is a little more daunting. Give us Hitler or the Unabomber; we know we can defeat those guys (partially because we know they have been defeated). But Paul tells us that our battle is not with them, our battle is with the systems that create these men, the societies who give them strength, against the governments and authorities who uphold them, against the very spiritual forces of evil which reside in this world and give them their power.
There are two reasons to know that our battle is bigger than deposing all the Neros and Hilters, getting rid of all the people who oppose our faith or seek to discredit or tear down God’s Church. First of all it was important for the Ephesians to know that their fight was not with their jailers, or with the Jews who sought to imprison them, it was not with the people in the town square who scoffed at them, or any number of people who were instrumental in the hardships which the people of the church in that day faced. If you read Acts or any of the historical accounts of the Church in its early days, it was THOSE individuals whom the early Christians sought to bring to Christ first. Their battle was not with their jailers; their jailers were people who needed Christ. They needed to always remember that THOSE people were not their enemies, those people were the people with whom they were to seek to share Christ. They were lost, not evil.
Secondly if we limit our understanding of what we are up against to individuals it would be too easy to declare victory. Nero is dead. All the Jewish leaders who opposed the early church are dead. Hitler is dead. But the battle is not yet won. Our battle is with the systems, the societies, and the evil at work in our world. We defeat evil by working to right the systems, by building fair and just societies, by bringing down evil at its roots, not tearing off its leaves.
Our armor it not the kind of armor with which we do battle with individuals. We do not do battle with iron or steel, with arrows or spears. No the weapons we use to take down people or armies is of no use in a battle against broken systems, and societies, against ungodly governing authorities, or the very forces of evil at work in our world. Our armor is stronger than that; our armor is more powerful than that. Our armor is truth, and righteousness, the very proclamation of the gospel, and our faith, it is our own salvation and that of those around us and the Word of God. These are the things we have to protect ourselves.
Not only is our armor is different but the battle field on which we fight is different. We do not go to battle against the powers of this world and the world beyond in a field, or on a hill. We do not seek to surround ourselves with a walled city or a might fortress, no our battle field is actually much more humble. Our battle field is pray.
We stand in the full armor of God on our knees. We kneel in battle. Paul tells us to Pray. “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” We are to pray, to pray, to pray on behalf of one another, to pray for our leaders (such as Paul) for one another. We are to pray that the gospel will be preached boldly, that it will not fall on deaf ears, or be returned unfruitful. Pray for all those who are suffering and all those who are doing the hard work of the gospel on the “front lines.” We are to always persevere in pray, at other times Paul has said that we should pray continually.
When David showed up that day, the people of God were doing just this. Those of us who know this story have a picture of the Israelites, the people of God whom David found that day. They were cowering in their tents. They were hiding from Goliath. We see them as fearful and untrusting of God, but that is exactly what we are doing when we do not spend time in prayer. When the people of God, the body of Christ does not head Paul’s call in this passage to persevere in prayer, we are the Israelites, there, ready for battle hiding in their tents, too afraid of the enemy to even show up on the battle field.
We win this battle we have with the forces and enemies of God in this world, in prayer. We as the body of Christ will not be able to stand, no matter how strong our armor, no matter how protected we are, if we do not pray. As the body of Christ we can cloth ourselves in truth and righteousness, we can proclaim the gospel loud and long, we can remain faithful to our faith in and through all things, we can share the salvation we have found in Christ with everyone we meet, and listen to every word that comes out of the mouth of God but if we do not show up to the battle. We are very literally all dressed up with no place to go. It is the equivalent of dressing for your wedding and staying in bed all day. If we are not people of prayer, we are not even bothering to come to the battle field. And if we do not even come to the battlefield the battle is already lost.
So let us cloth ourselves in the armor of God and let us come together as the body of Christ, fully clothed and ready, and pray, pray for each other, pray for our leaders, pray for our world. Pray in every way we know how at all times, in all things, and through all things. Let us never be found asleep in our tents when there is prayer that can be waged for our Lord!