Category: Genesis

Standing On the Promises – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2C (Genesis 15)

Vincent Van Gogh, Starry Night
Genesis 15:1-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. 

Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.

 

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                A popular hymn of the church, at least in days gone by, invites to sing boldly:

Standing, standing, standing on the promises of God my savior; standing, standing. I’m standing on the promises of God.  [R. Kelso Carter, 1891].

Scripture declares that Abraham stood on the promises of God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Whether it is Paul in Romans 4 or the author of Hebrews 11, Abraham is lifted up as an example of a person who stood strong in his faith despite the lack of evidence to support that trust. Abraham simply stands on the promises of God, and in time his faith, his trust, bears fruit.

                The reading from Genesis 15 marks another conversation about covenant. At this point in the story, Abram’s name has yet to be changed. The promise is made, again, that Abram will have many descendants, beyond the ability to count. This is a challenging proposition, as to this point Abram’s only heir is a slave. He has no children of his own, and God makes it clear that the promise will go through Abram’s descendants. God is intending to work through Abram’s biological descendants, who will be as uncountable as the stars in the sky. Despite everything, we’re told that Abram believed God, and this was credited to him as righteousness.

 

Abram will stand on the promises of God, but not without a word of lament. In fact, the chapter begins with God telling Abram not to be afraid, because God has his back. Abram responds, well that’s great, but what have you done for me lately? (my paraphrase). Abram is, after all, still childless and has as his heir a slave (regarding slavery, we should always remember that while widespread in the ancient world and not racially rooted, references to slaves in the Bible were used to defend modern slavery). He’d followed God’s lead from his homeland and still nothing.

 

I appreciated what Rolf Jacobson writes concerning the power of lament that’s present in this passage and in the rest of Scripture.

In the Bible, God does not desire followers who are meek and mild, compliant and quiet—at least not in relationship to God. God wants sufferers who fight back. God invites us to own and be in touch with the deepest hurts and brightest hopes in our souls. For Abram, this hope was to have a child.  And after all, the Lord has promised.  

Abram will stand on this promise, but not before making clear that God understood what is involved in a truly covenant relationship.

 

                Having heard Abram’s lament, God says to Abram: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” In response to Abram’s question as to how he will know this to be true, God proposes a ritual to seal the deal. The directions are simple. Abram is told by God: “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram does as he’s told, cutting each of the sacrifices in half, with the exception of the two birds. He lays them out as instructed and waits for God to act.

 

                The Revised Common Lectionary omits verses 13 to 16, though it retains verse 12, which seems to introduce verses 13 to 16. In verses 12 to 16, Abram falls asleep and has a bad dream. Though he is told he will die peacefully and have many descendants, he’s also told that his descendants will be forced to live in exile and experience slavery for four hundred years, though in the end, they will be blessed with an abundance of gifts. If verses 13-16 are omitted, it would be probably be best to omit verse 12, as there is some discontinuity between verses 12 and 17. On the other hand, there is a message here that is worth remembering—the covenant will be fulfilled, but not without times of trouble.

               If we choose to omit verses 12-16, we can move from the ritual in verse 11 to the culmination of the conversation about covenant in verse 17, we watch as the sun sets and a torch passes between the sacrificed animals, as a sign of divine acceptance of this offering of Abram. With that God makes the covenant with Abram, promising: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” It is worth noting that God requires nothing of Abram at this point. Normally, covenants involve mutual declarations and actions, but nothing is required of Abram. Abram does do anything to obligate himself. It is YHWH who self-obligates. It’s YHWH who makes the promises.

               Of course, this is not the end of the story. The author of Genesis will revisit this issue. As the story continues, Abram and Sarai will try to fulfill this promise through a surrogate. An heir is produced—Ishmael—and then rejected. Finally, Sarai will give birth in old age to a son, Isaac, who will be the accepted heir (at least in the biblical story, the Quran will hold on to Ishmael). While the promise of an expansive realm is made, Israel’s boundaries never reached the extent promised. Nonetheless, the descendants of Abram can claim that they are the fruit of God’s promise to Abram. They are the covenant people, though the promise isn’t repeated here, Abram’s descendants are to be a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1-3). What this covenant promise means will be a subject of ongoing interpretation, as we see in the way in which the New Testament writers make use of God’s covenant with Abraham. The covenant made in Jesus is clearly rooted in the covenant made with Abraham.

 

              The question for us has to do with the nature of our faith. Lent gives us the opportunity to reflect on the nature of our faith journey. In what ways do we resist the promises of God, and in what ways do we cooperate. As the Psalmist implies, there is the possibility of living in fear, especially when enemies assail us. As with the promise made to Abram, we can take comfort in the presence of the Lord. After all, as the Psalmist declares: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1). With that old hymn, which I took note of at the beginning, we can stand with Abram on the promises of God. 

               

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55396 [retrieved March 11, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

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God Provides, Reconciles, and Redeems – Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 7C (Genesis 45)

bourgeois_joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers

Genesis 45:3-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

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If you grew up learning the stories of the Bible you will have heard the stories of Joseph and his brothers. You would know that Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son, for he was the first-born child of Jacob’s favorite wife (Rachel). You may know that Joseph was a bit arrogant, especially after his father gave him a coat of many colors. In his arrogance he told his brothers that they would bow down to him and serve him. This arrogance on Joseph’s part so angered his older brothers, that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Once in Egypt he made his mark and rose in stature, but then ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife tried, unsuccessfully, to seduce him, and subsequently crying attempted rape. Joseph was arrogant, but not a rapist. His ability to interpret dreams got him freed from prison and eventually brought to the attention of Pharaoh, who had a dream he couldn’t understand. Joseph interpreted the dream, telling Pharaoh that a famine was coming, and that Pharaoh should plan for that eventuality. Pharaoh decided that it would be wise to give responsibility for this project to the one who interpreted the dream. Thus, Joseph moved from slavery to prison to chief minister. Not bad for an arrogant brat! Then again, his father was something of a trickster who always seemed to come out on top!

Joseph fulfilled his responsibilities, and provision was made for the time when famine arrived, not only in Egypt but as far away as Canaan, the land of his father and mother. When Jacob heard that there was food to be had in Egypt, he sent his sons to purchase supplies. This they did, not knowing that the one who would provide for them was their long-lost brother. They may not have recognized him, but he recognized them. So he played a trick on them, to test them. He had a silver cup he used for divination (yes Joseph practiced divination) placed in Benjamin’s belongings, and then sent his guards after them. That episode, leads to the reading for the seventh Sunday of Epiphany. It’s rare to make it seven Sundays in Epiphany, but here we are with this encounter between estranged brothers, which serves as another manifestation of God’s presence.

In the chapter prior, Joseph sets up a test (trap) to see, apparently, where the heart of their brothers was? Had they changed over the many years of separation. And, what would they do about their brother Benjamin? Would they ransom him or not? Judah does so. He pleads for his brother’s life. This leads to the moment of revelation.

When Joseph could no longer keep up the act, having been satisfied that his brothers had changed, and wanting to provide for his long-lost father, he identifies himself as their brother. Now, you can just imagine the first thoughts of his older brothers. Here was the brother they first tried to kill, then sold into slavery. They figured he was dead by now. Instead, he had risen to be the second most important person in the land. He could easily have them killed. So, what would he do to them?

Joseph, who desired to be reconciled, quickly let them know they had nothing to fear. They may have meant him harm many years before, but things sometimes have a way of working out for the benefit of all, even when they are entered into with the wrong motives. There is a bit of a theological challenge here. Joseph, in trying to allay their fears, tells them that while they meant him harm, “God sent me before you to preserve life.” This episode raises a question that is worth exploring. Does God cause bad things to happen, so good can come of it? Or, does God work with us to bring good out of bad situations? In other words, did God orchestrate all of this, or did God partner with Joseph to bring a blessing out of a difficult situation? As for me, I affirm the second position.

Tom Oord takes up this episode in his book God Can’t. He suggests that “God took what God didn’t want and squeezed good from it. God brought good from bad, positive from negative, health from hate. God redeemed.” God did this in Joseph’s situation. The brothers may have intended harm for Joseph, but God didn’t. Nevertheless, God did bring good out of bad. [God’ Can’t, p. 115].

Having revealed himself to his brothers and suggesting that God had brought good out of bad, he invited his brothers to bring their father to Egypt so they could settle in Goshen and enjoy the bounty that was God’s provision. They do so. They gather their father and settle in Goshen. And all is good, or so it seems.

It’s interesting that the brothers remain suspicious of Joseph’s motives. Once their father has passed from the scene, they begin to worry. Maybe Joseph hasn’t really forgiven but didn’t want to his father. Now that the father is dead, well Joseph might decide to exact revenge. Joseph, who was good at reading things, realized his brothers were worried, so he reassured them. He told them, “Do not be afraid!” He assured them that “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” (Genesis 50:15-21).

What we see in this final episode of Genesis is a reminder that God is committed to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. God will continue to be with them, even when a time will come when there will arise in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. (Exodus 1:8). This new Pharaoh grew frightened of this “foreign presence” in the land. But that’s another story, except that it too is part of the covenant story. God will not forget God’s people. God is always on the lookout for partners, whether Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, or Moses.

As for the relationship of estranged brothers, Joseph’s actions presaged the words of Jesus as recorded in Luke regarding loving one’ enemies:

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:37-38 NIV).

And the covenant people kissed, wept, and made up—though it took more than once before everyone was truly convinced! This is a good reminder that forgiveness is not easy. Sure, Jesus tells us not to judge or condemn. Forgive, and we’ll be forgiven. Yet, we know the difficulties involved. Joseph learned some important lessons during his sojourn in Egypt. It took some time for him to come to the point of forgiveness. It took longer for his brothers to believe him. Reconciliation is not easy. But it is possible, when we join with God in the act of redemption. This act of reconciliation that took place here is one small part of a larger story or redemption, which we are invited to share in. Thanks be to God!

Picture Attribution: Bourgeois, Leon Pierre Urbain. Joseph recognized by his brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55355 [retrieved February 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bourgeois_Joseph_recognized_by_his_brothers.jpg.

Indulge?- Pentecost 21

comesundayfb

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 29, 2017

 

 

Introduction

The football stadium sits at the edge of downtown and is ready for the upcoming Superbowl in a few months.  Tens of thousands will cheer for their team, while nearly a billion people worldwide will tune in from their television and computer screens.

The building is impressive. You can’t miss it because it’s a huge edifice and because of it’s advant-garde design. The building is a jewel in the city’s crown, paid for in part by the citizens of the state. Will the people who come to enjoy the game realize who helped pay for the stadium, let alone the people who worked through the cold winters to make the stadium a reality?

Today we talk about Solomon, David’s son who becomes king after David.  David wanted to build a temple to God, but it never happened while he was king.  Solomon is able to do so, but it comes with a cost.

Today we talk about Solomon and the Temple.

Engaging the Text

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. (1 Samuel 3:3)

  A little background here.  Last week we talked about the annointing of David. Between then and this week, there was a civil war between Saul and David, David becoming officially king, his scandal with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband, David’s death and his son Solomon becoming king.

The building of the Temple for God is usually presented as a good thing and in many ways it was.  But Solomon’s leadership, while exemplary, also contained a lot of ambiguities.  The building of the temple and his rule in general had weak spots and we see it here in very stark detail.

When we start with today’s text, the nation of Israel is at the height of its powers.  Solomon controls a small empire with lands from the Euphrates River (modern day Iraq) to Egypt.

Solomon was also a rich man. He had many chariots and many horses and a lot of other stuff.  All of his subjects had to pay tribute (read tax) to him.

Why are we talking about the size of Israel and tax policy and what does this have to do with the opening of the Temple? For one, it is important to note that while Solomon is considered someone that follows God, he had flaws.  He lived high on the hog and most of his wealth was supported by taxes and it was something that was ultimately frowned upon. Deuteronomy 17 lays down the law for kings:

14 Once you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you and you have taken possession of it and settled down in it, you might say: “Let’s appoint a king over us, as all our neighboring nations have done.” 15 You can indeed appoint over you a king that the Lord your God selects. You can appoint over you a king who is one of your fellow Israelites. You are not allowed to appoint over you a foreigner who is not one of your fellow Israelites. 16 That granted, the king must not acquire too many horses, and he must not return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, because the Lord told you: “You will never go back by that road again.” 17 The king must not take numerous wives so that his heart doesn’t go astray. Nor can the king acquire too much silver and gold. 18 Instead, when he sits on his royal throne, he himself must write a copy of this Instruction on a scroll in the presence of the levitical priests. 19 That Instruction must remain with him, and he must read in it every day of his life so that he learns to revere the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this Instruction and these regulations, by doing them, 20 by not being overbearing toward his fellow Israelites, and by not deviating even a bit from the commandment. If the king does all that, he will ensure lasting rule in Israel for himself and for his successors.

Common English Bible. (2011). (Dt 17:14–20). Nashville, TN: Common English Bible.

(Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

Take for example the differences between building the Temple for God and Solomon’s own temple.  It took seven years to build the Temple, but it took thirteen years to build his own house.  Does that show that he cared more about his own house, than about God’s house?  A house was also built for his Egyptian wife. Deuteronomy and other laws warned against taking foreign wives because it meant that foreign gods find their way into Israelite life, which is what happened.

It’s also important to know that the people building the temple weren’t always doing it as part of a job. Brent Strawn notes that the temple was built in a way that should have given Solomon pause:

The first is that Solomon instates an immense “work gang” (CEB) to carry out the labor in Lebanon (5:15). The term that is used for this workforce in Hebrew (mas) occurs elsewhere of Israelite workers only in Exodus 1:11, where the Israelites are subject to a brutal and tyrannical pharaoh and his taskmasters (see also Exodus 5:10-14). It is thus very hard to not see in the use of this particular term an extremely negative judgment on the labor in question as well as on how Solomon’s has gone about his temple building project. This suspicion is confirmed later, when the nation divides immediately after Solomon’s death: clearly, the Israelites were not pleased with this forced labor and with their “supervisors” (1 Kings 12:18; 2 Chronicles 10:18). It all seemed a bit too Egyptian, if you asked them.1

There are some good things to focus on when it comes to the temple. A word about the temple itself and a sign of God.  There are two pillars in the temple that are superfluous, they don’t hold anything up. It was a symbol; that God holds the world up, which means the world is secure.

Looking from the pillars, there was a large basin filled with water. Practically, this is where ceremonial cleansing took place.  But it had another purpose.  For the ancient Middle East, the sea held threatening power.  The water in the basin was a way of saying that the power of the sea is under God’s power; in essence another sign of the goodness of God.

Towards the end of the passage in chapter 8, we are told that a cloud fills the temple.  A cloud was a way of acknowledging God’s presence.  It was a cloud that led the people of Israel as they traveled to the Promised Land.  The cloud shows God is present among the people.

Is the temple a place where God lives?  No, because God is everywhere.  But the temple is a reminder that God is present. John Goldingjay explains why:

So why is Solomon building one? He speaks of building a house for God’s name. It is a way the Old Testament often seeks to square the circle of affirming that God was really present in the midst of Israel while recognizing that this was an unsophisticated idea. The name of a person stands for the person.

Conclusion

Solomon’s temple is considered a great achievement. It comes when the nation is at the height of its powers and it is part of the unfinished dream of David.  But this splendor comes at a cost, not only to Solomon, but to the whole nation.  What did it mean that people were taxed for the temple?  What about the fact that the temple was probably built with slave labor?

The final point to remember is this: God never asked for a temple.  What does it mean that a temple is built for God, that God never asked for?  Is the temple more for Solomon than it is for God?

 

  1. Strawn, Brett. WorkingPreacher.com, October 29, 2017.
  2. Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Kings for Everyone (p. 25). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Bad News Samuel- Pentecost 18

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 15, 2017

 

 

Introduction

We like to use the word prophet enough that we might have lost its true meaning.  We love hearing someone who spouts judgements against your political opponents and the first thing someone will say is that this person is prophetic.

But the problem with that definition of prophetic is that it is hearing things that the listeners agree with.  If you read the Bible, you get a very different impression of a prophet.  Most of the time we learn that prophets say things that people don’t like, sometimes even among the prophets themselves.  Prophets say hard words that can be difficult to hear. No one likes hearing words that tell you how bad you are.  No one wants to be the bearer of bad news.

In today’s text, we see young Samuel hearing the voice of God and Samuel ready to take on his first assignment as a prophet.  It is a message he didn’t want to talk about with his mentor, Eli.

What does it mean to be called by God?  What does it mean to act in a prophetic way?

Today, we look at the call of Samuel.

Engaging the Text

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. The Lord’s word was rare at that time, and visions weren’t widely known. (1 Samuel 3:3)

  A little background here.  Samuel is the son of Hannah.  Hannah was a woman who was barren and wasn’t able to give her husband Elkanah, a son.  She prays to God and God answers, giving her and Elkanah a son named Samuel.  (You can read about Samuel in the October 16, 2016 edition of the Story of God.)

Samuel is now a teen or young adults working as an apprentice for the chief priest, Eli.  Eli is an interesting character that is both sympathetic and pathetic at the same time. Eli is described in verse 2 as being blind or with impaired vision, but it can also describe the state of his soul as well.  He was blind to the problems around him, problems that would lead to his downfall. Eli has a problem with his sons, who were also priests.  The story of the sons of Eli is found in chapter 2 and when they are first described, they viewed as “despicable” men.  What made them so despicable? It was simple greed.  Priests were not paid in money, because there was no money.  They couldn’t work in the fields, but the law made it possible for the priest and his family to live: they were allowed to take a part of the sacrificial animals.  After God’s portion was burnt up, then what was left over could be given to the priest.

The problem with Eli’s sons is that they took more of the meat than was allowed. Here is is how the Bible depicts their theft:

 

12 Now Eli’s sons were despicable men who didn’t know the Lord. 13 This was how the priest was supposed to act with the people: Whenever anyone made a sacrifice, while the meat was boiling, the priest’s assistant would come with a three-pronged fork in hand. 14 He would thrust it into the cauldron or the pot.[c] Whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take for himself. This is how it was done for all the Israelites who came to Shiloh.

15 But with Eli’s sons,[d] even before the fat was burned, the priest’s assistant would come and say to the person offering the sacrifice, “Give the priest some meat to roast. He won’t accept boiled meat from you.”[e] 16 If anyone said, “Let the fat be burned off first, as usual, then take whatever you like for yourself,” the assistant would reply, “No, hand it over now. If not, I’ll take it by force.” 17 The sin of these priestly assistants was very serious in the Lord’s sight because they were disrespecting the Lord’s own offering.

(1 Samuel 2:12-17)

The sons weren’t just guilty of gluttony. They had sex with the women who worked at the temple.  The two men were drunk with power and used it in ways that hurt others and robbed God.

Eli is aware of his son’s dealings and pleads for them to stop, which they  do not.  In the end, Eli and his sons will be punished.  So, why was Eli punished?  It doesn’t seem that Eli was turning a blind eye or didn’t care. He did urge his sons to stop their abuses, but it seems that simply saying something wasn’t enough.  It could be that Eli was passive in his life and not open to listening to God.  Eli’s weakness allowed his sons to continue their corruption and the end is that they will be judged harshly by God.

When we start chapter 3, Samuel is sleeping in the temple, with Eli nearby. He is basically an intern, learning the ropes.  As he is trying to sleep, he hears a voice calling him.  Each time he comes to Eli thinking this is who was calling him. 

Eli didn’t realize at first that this might be God.  Maybe this is why we learn in verse one that the Lord’s words were rare.  Was this for a reason? Was it because of Eli and his sons?  We don’t know. What we do know is that God’s word was not familiar to the people, including Samuel. This explains why Samuel didn’t recognized God’s voice.  When God calls again, Samuel then is able to say that he is open to receive God’s word.

It’s then that Samuel hears the word of God and what a word it is. He gets the message of Eli and his sons’ sin and their upcoming downfall.  After hearing God, he wasn’t able to sleep.  He got up the next morning and attended to his morning duties in order to avoid Eli.  How could he tell his boss that he was going to be punished by God which meant his death?

Finally, Eli asks that Samuel tell him what God said to Samuel and he obliged.  Eli understood what God was saying and accepted it. It is at this moment that the center of gravity shifts.  Eli and his sons still are in power on paper.  But God had chosen Samuel and people would now pay attention to him.

Conclusion

What does it mean to be called? There is a temptation to see it only in the context of the church; being asked to serve as as an usher or something within the walls of the church (this is confusing “call” with “gifts”).  The other misunderstanding is to see it as something that gives you meaning and fulfillment, but call is about something deeper:

there is something odd that has happened over the years to the way we talk in terms of calling and vocation in connection with ministry. Speaking with students often suggests to me that we think of ministry as something that enables us to find fulfillment, as it makes it possible for us to give expression to the gifts God has given us. Discernment thus begins as our seeking to perceive what our gifts are and how we may express them. There’s none of this way of thinking in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Samuel is not called because this will be the way he finds fulfillment (neither is Paul). Given that the connotations of the word “call” have changed, we might do better to use the word “summons” rather than “call” to describe what happens to Samuel or Paul.1

The summoning of Samuel is not about what will give Samuel meaning, it is about God. Does that mean our own desires never filter in?  Probably not.  But God’s call is not conducive to what we desire, but what will fulfill God’s will in the world. 

Another thought is about listening for God.  Today, we can hear folk saying God spoke to them about something as if it were a best friend.  But how are we sure that God is calling?  When can we realize when God is speaking? Eli comes into this by helping Samuel realize that it was God calling.  We listen to God’s voice through a community of faith.  Samuel needed help in discerning God’s voice and Eli stepped in an helped him.

How do we listen to God’s voice today?  How do our churches help us to hear God today?

 

 

  1. Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 31). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

2. Kruse, Michael. Economic Fallacies: “No Scarcity”, krusekronicle.com, February 26, 2008.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Our Daily Bread- Pentecost 17

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 8, 2017

 

 

Introduction

When I was a child, I loved fairy tales.  One that held my attention was the Ant and the Grasshopper.  The Ant was a hard worker and he made sure that when the weather was still good, to store up food for the coming winter.  The Grasshopper was kind of lazy and would much rather play than prepare for winter.  Most of us know how this ends.  When the snow comes, the Ant is warm and cozy, with a kitchen filled with food, while the Grasshopper was literally left out in the cold.

I can remember looking in our kitchen pantry to make sure that we had enough food for the winter.  I can remember my mom trying to button my coat and me telling her we should make sure we are ready for the winter, which left her with a quizical look on her face.

In our world, we are told to prepare. Prepare for retirement. Prepare for old age. Prepare for death.

In today’s text, the Israelites are free from Egyptian oppression, but they are not happy.  They are thirsty and hungry.  God is able to provide but it is with a provision to not prepare for lean times.  What does it mean to trust that what God gives is enough?

Let’s look at the Israelites and the sending of quail and manna.

Engaging the Text

The Israelites said to them, “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3)

  A little background here.  Last week, God meets Moses at the burning bush.  After this, there was the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh with the ten plagues culminating in the Passover.  Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go, but after a while Pharaoh changes his minds and sends his army after the Israelites. The newly freed are at the Red Sea (or Reed Sea) worried about the advancing army.  God parts the sea and they cross to the other side, while destroying Pharaoh and his army.

It’s important to note that when a challenge is faced and passed, there is a temptation to think that things will be easy for that point onward. When God defeats the Egyptians, there might have been a temptation that there would be no more challenges facing them.  But as we all know, life usually gives us more challenges not less.

The Israelites have been in traveling now for about a month and they begin complaining.  In chapter 15, they complain of thirst and God through Moses is able to find water that they can drink.

22 Then Moses had Israel leave the Reed Sea[c] and go out into the Shur desert. They traveled for three days in the desert and found no water. 23 When they came to Marah, they couldn’t drink Marah’s water because it was bitter. That’s why it was called Marah.[d] 24 The people complained against Moses, “What will we drink?”25 Moses cried out to the Lord, and the Lord pointed out a tree to him. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet. (Exodus 15:22-25)

Now we come to the main text. At some point, they start to complain about food. They have been out in the wilderness for a month and they are free from slavery.  When they become hungry, the complaint is shocking: “Oh, how we wish that the Lord had just put us to death while we were still in the land of Egypt. There we could sit by the pots cooking meat and eat our fill of bread. Instead, you’ve brought us out into this desert to starve this whole assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3) The past has already become nostalgic and the Israelites are remembering just the “good” parts and not the bad parts.

When the Israelites complained of thirst, Moses went to God.  This time, we hear God talking (we don’t know if Moses went to God). God tells the Israelites that they will receive bread from heaven.  In addition, quail will be available in the evening.  In both situations, God tells Moses that this is a test to see if the Israelites will follow the instructions.  God feeds the Israelites for two main reasons: first to show God’s power and second to see if they would rely and trust in God and not themselves.

They are specific instructions with the food.  They are to gather enough food for their family each day and they are allowed to gather twice as much on Friday to have enough food for the Sabbath.  Moses warned the people to not gather more than was needed, but some of the Israelites did try to gather more than what was needed for their daily sustanence. But when that happened, the manna would spoil.  Again a stark reminder that they were to trust God for their daily bread and not themselves. e covenant, but he wasn’t as committed to it in the way his grandfather Abraham did. This was a guy that wanted to go hunting, not sit and understand this relationship with God.

A quick note about manna.  In Hebrew manna means “what is it?”  Is was a flaky and granular substance that could be milled into bread.

The Israelites were fed with manna throughout their 40 year journey.  When they eat the first produce grown in the Promised Land of Cannan, the mana stopped. God supplied the manna only when it was needed.

 

Conclusion

It is human nature to prepare for things to not have to worry about the need for something when it is too late.  If you were traveling through the desert, you wouldn’t go without any water and a full tank of gas.  It is easy to look at the Israelites as they try to gather as much manna as possible as foolish.  But think about it: you are in the desert where water and food are scarce.  It is hard to trust in God when your senses tell you there is nothing there to help you- except their trust from God.

What does this mean in our everyday lives?  Should we not worry about where food will come from or how we will take care of ourselves in our retirement?  In the field of economics, there is a concept called scarcity.  Scarcity is about limitations, meaning that there are limited resources available to meet unlimited wants.  This means find ways to best allocated these limited resources.  Some theologians tend to dismiss the concept of scarcity, believing that God provides abundance.

Listen to what theologian Juliana Claassens says about scarcity quoting Walter Bruggeman:

 

In his provocative contribution, “The Truth of Abundance: Relearning Dayenu,” Walter Brueggemann takes on the “myth of scarcity” that one sees in the greed and the hoarding practices of the imperial policies of the Pharaoh of Egypt that is reminiscent of the economic monopoly of contemporary superpowers that one is seeing play out in, for example, “greedy CEO salaries,” in “so-called welfare reform,” and one may add tax reform, which all speak of “the drive to privatize wealth away from care for the public good.”3

In contrast, Brueggemann challenges us to relearn the “lyric of abundance” that believes that there is more than enough food to go around in God’s good creation. However, vitally important for this vision of dayenu — translated as “there is enough in God’s goodness” — is that each and every one of us must make sure that all members of the community take just what they need.4 No more, no less. The manna story in Exodus 16 warns against hoarding, against greed that capitalizes on this “myth of scarcity.” Instead it encourages sharing that is exemplified also in the stories that tell of Jesus taking five loaves and two fishes, and after he had blessed the food, he broke it and gave it to feed a multitude of hungry people (Mark 6:30-44; Mark 8:1-9; John 6:1-14).1

Economist and lay Presbyterian Michael Kruse has written that while we live in a resource rich planet made by God, it isn’t enough to say that there is just abundance and no such thing as scarcity:

It is true that God created and placed us in a world of abundant resources. But very few resources exist in a state usable by human beings. Energy, technology, and intelligence must be applied to resources to transform them from less useful states into more useful states. Houses, appliances, clothes, cars, and nearly everything else we use do not exist in such a way we can just go pick them off trees. Most of our food production requires careful management of soil and the application of farming techniques in order to produce an abundance of food. This is part and parcel of the biblical notion of stewardship as God placed Adam in the garden to work it so that if might produce abundance.

At the core of the “no scarcity” fallacy is blindness to issue of production. It views economics purely in terms of distribution of goods and just assumes material goods exist. If material goods just hung from trees for our picking, then maybe the case could be made for communal ownership and sharing with each other (but even then it won’t work as we will see below.) But the reality is that there are a set number of human beings, energy resources, and technological tools to be used on any given day for any given society. How should these scarce resources be employed at this moment?2

What does this text mean?  It makes more sense to say that we live in a world of scarcity and it makes sense to plan.  That said, we rely on God daily, for the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the homes we live in.  We trust that God will do all of this even if it happens through the sweat of our brow or from others.  God acts to provide, the Israelites and us today, within and without or economic systems.

1. Caassens, Juliana. Commentary on Exodus 16:1-18, WorkingPreacher.com, October 8, 2017.

2. Kruse, Michael. Economic Fallacies: “No Scarcity”, krusekronicle.com, February 26, 2008.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

All In the Family- Pentecost 16

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1669620_704691989608711_9073102302507615052_oNarrative Lectionary Reflection

September 24, 2017

 

Introduction

Years ago, I was attending a dinner with a family at a local restaurant in Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC.  The mother and father were present along with their two elementary age children.  Out of nowhere, the older brother hit his younger brother.  I was surprised.  What happened? I thought.

The father looked at me and said this is something that comes with having siblings.  I was still shocked and if I am honest, it still strikes me as odd today. Being an only child makes understanding sibling rivalry hard to understand.  The relations between siblings can be hectic.  Things that were long in the past, are resurrected, past hurts are brought to the fore.

Today, we look at a sibling rivalry, parents that had favorites and how God worked through all of this to create a chosen people or salvation of the world.

Let’s look at the Blessing of Jacob.

Engaging the Text

21 Isaac said to Jacob, “Come here and let me touch you, my son. Are you my son Esau or not?” 22 So Jacob approached his father Isaac, and Isaac touched him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the arms are Esau’s arms.” 23 Isaac didn’t recognize him because his arms were hairy like Esau’s arms, so he blessed him. (Genesis 27:21-23)

  Before we head into today’s text, it’s important to get some background.  Issac as we learned last week, is the promised son of Abraham.  He later marries a woman named Rebekah.  In chapter 25, we learn that Rebekah is “barren” and unable to conceive.  In this pre-scientific world, it was believed that the woman only received the “seed” from the man.  If it didn’t take root, she was blamed for it.  So, it was important for Rebekah to have a child.  She is blessed with not one, but twins.  However, the pregnancy was difficult.  Genesis 25:22 says that the twins struggled within her and she wondered if she was going to survive.  During this difficult time, she prays to God and is given a glimpse of the future: the two children represent two nations. One nation will be stronger than the other and the “elder” twin would serve the “younger” one. In essence, the older twin named Esau, would end up serving the younger one, named Jacob. This reversal of fortune is not simply the result of Jacob’s deceit, but is part of God’s plan.  It is through Jacob, that the people of Israel will arise.

It’s also important to note something about the nature of the two sons. Esau became a hunter, a “man’s man.” Jacob was different, he was more quiet and lived near the tents.  The parents had their favorites: Issac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was entitled to all the privileges that belong to being a firstborn.

But Esau was interesting.  He was aware of the covenant, but he wasn’t as committed to it in the way his grandfather Abraham did. This was a guy that wanted to go hunting, not sit and understand this relationship with God.

Jacob, was different. He did take the covenant seriously and was open to scheming to get the birthright. Rebekah also thought Jacob deserved the birthright and schemed to make sure he got it.  In a patriarchal culture, women didn’t have much power.  But she could work behind scenes to get what she wanted, or to be more precise what God had promised her. She knew that Jacob was the more spiritual of the two and was the real successor to the Abraham.  Because of her scheming ways, she is the shaker and mover in this story.  When Esau is out hunting, Rebekah finds his clothes, finds some goat skin to put on Jacob and then cook a delicious meal in order to fool Issac who at this time was blind.

In last week’s texts, you see Issac as a victim.  This week’s texts has Issac as the victim once again.  He is old, blind and near death.  Now was the time to give Esau his blessing. Jacob and Rebekah use this to their advantage to fool him.

But was Issac really fooled? He wondered why “Esau” sounded like Jacob, but still blessed “Esau” anyway. Some scholars think Issac was in on the charade and played along. Why? It could be that even though he wanted to bless Esau, he saw God at work in this deceit. He could see that God wanted Jacob, not Esau to get the blessing.  His giving the blessing also allowed him to avoid blame in hurting Esau.

A word or two about the blessing.  When we think of a blessing today, we think of someone praying over us or in the context of marriage, of asking “permission” to marry someone.  They might be meaningful words, but they don’t carry weight.  It’s not a binding contract of any sort.

In the ancient world, a blessing was wish for a good life, but it was also so much more.  The words of the blessing itself carried a force of their own; it was a guarantee that what was wished for will happen.  It was so powerful that any blessing or curse couldn’t be retracted.  This is what made Rebekah and Jacob plot and scheme and this is what made Esau so mad.  Esau lost out on what was to be something very meaningful and real in his own life. Theologian W. Sibley Towner explains how important the blessing was in that society and it’s importance to Jacob:

Blessing in ancient Israel was not some vague and wordy spiritual concept. It revolved around the very practical notion of material welfare—the sort of thing people have in mind today when they say, “We have been blessed.” However, the mere fact that a parent touches and kisses a child and pronounces words of positive hope over the child adds a true spiritual dimension to even such a material blessing. Naomi Rosenblatt captures this abiding sense of blessing: “By internalizing the blessing of our parents’ love, we acquire self-esteem, self-confidence, and a deep sense of security. Their blessing tells us we matter, that we are valued. All his life Jacob yearns for the genuine blessing he never got from his father Isaac” (quoted in Moyers, 265). One might quarrel with that last sentence, in the light of the blessing without any deceit involved that is later given by Isaac to Jacob (28:3–4). But we can certainly affirm that blessing is intended to give physical and emotional empowerment.1

Esau is not happy when he learns of the treachery.  He wants to kill Jacob, and that forces Jacob to flee for his life.

During the evening when he has nothing but a rock for a pillow, he has a dream of angels going up and down a ladder or staircase.  It’s a sign of heaven taking place on earth. During the dream God finally speaks in the story. God repeats the promise God made with Abraham.  Jacob might have tricked his father and brother of the blessing, God confirms the blessing on Jacob.  What God promised to Rebekah all those years ago, became a reality: the covenant would continue.

 

 

 

Conclusion

In someway we don’t see people at their best in this story.  Jacob is not the most upstanding person.  He continues his trickery after this story. Rebekah was also a trickster, going against her husband and son to make sure her favorite son got the blessing?  None of this is something we should emulate, but God does work through these less than perfect people.  Miguel de la Torre talks about women as trickster in Genesis:

(Rebekah) She follows the path of other tricksters, such as Abraham and Isaac claiming before sovereign leaders that their wives are their sisters, and will be followed by many more tricksters, like Laban switching wives on Jacob, Joseph’s brothers showing Jacob the bloody coat to prove Joseph’s demise, Rachel sitting on her father’s idol while stating she is menstruating, or Tamar playing the prostitute with Judah. At first glance, deception seems morally questionable. How can a blessing conferring a divine preferential option be obtained through trickery? Such a proposition offends the moral sensitivities of many Euro-American Christians who normally discount deceit as a sin. Yet for the marginalized the trickster can very well provide an ethical methodology for those within oppressive social structures who have no other option for obtaining liberation from disenfranchisement.2

Deception is wrong even when used for good, but God is able to work through this sin.  Rebekah believed in the promise enough that she was willing to do anything to make sure Jacob got the blessing that was promised.

In the gospels, we hear how Jesus tends to turn the tables where those who were considered on top in society we pushed down to make room for the lowly and excluded.  We see an early example of God’s upside-down kingdom where God chooses the younger son, going against what society said was the way things were done.

What does this sermon mean to you?  What does it say about our walk with God today?

 

1. Towner, W. S. (2001). Genesis. (P. D. Miller & D. L. Bartlett, Eds.) (p. 206). Louisville, KY; London; Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press.

2. De La Torre, M. A. (2011). Genesis. (A. P. Pauw & W. C. Placher, Eds.) (p. 252). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

Just Following Orders- Pentecost 15

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10306175_10204951716065105_1944324567124155317_n (1)Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 17, 2017

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14

 

Introduction

Today’s text has to be one the hardest passages in all of Scripture.  Great thinkers like Soren Kierkegaard have tried to understand the passage of the binding of Issac to no avail.  Some of have tried putting a meaning to it that makes sense, but any meaning seems feeble because the truth of the matter is:God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son

In this study, we will not as much try to explain the text as much as sit with the text and the uncomfortable feelings it brings.  Why would God do this?  Why was Abraham willing to do this?  Are there limits to being faithful to God?

Today we look at the binding of Issac. 

Engaging the Text

God said, “Take your son, your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him up as an entirely burned offering there on one of the mountains that I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)

  God had long promised Abraham that he would be the father of a new nation.  He and his wife Sarah didn’t immediately have children.  The wait was so long, Sarah told Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar.  Ishmael is the result of the paring.  But this is not the child God promised.  After a time, Issac the true promised child is born. After what seemed like forever, this child is now here.  

But God tells Abraham that he is to sacrifice his son “your only son whom you love,” God says to make the point clear.  It seems that God was asking Abraham to throw away the future.

But it’s important to notice here that the word “tested” is being used.  It will be used later when the Israelites recieve manna in the desert. God wanted total reliance, the and Israelites pretty much fail the test.

Notice that Abraham is quiet in response to God.  In earlier times, he was able to question God such as when he establishes that covenant with God (Genesis 17) or when he pleads for the life of his nephew, Lot (Genesis 18).  But here, where he is asked to sacrifice his only son, there is silence and acquiescence.

In verse 7, we hear Issac finally speak, seeing everything for the sacrifice except the animal. Abraham responds that God would provide.  What does that mean?  We know that God did provide, but did Abraham know this?  Or was it some kind of deception? Theologian Miguel de la Torre believes that this phrase doesn’t show Abraham’s trust in God as much as it was lying to his son:

As they approach the spot, Isaac notices that the sacrificial lamb is missing, prompting him to ask his father where they will obtain one. Abraham responds by both naming and providing insight into the character of God: ’elohim yir’eh, “God will provide,” for Abraham’s God is a God who provides. The reassurance to the boy that God will provide teaches the reader something new about God, while providing Abraham with a way of prolonging Isaac’s deception until the very last moment.

But trusting that God would not break God’s promise, Abraham could have believed that God would keep God’s word.  Theologian Terrance Fretheim writes that Abraham trusting in God could also be seen as a test of God:

Abraham trusts that God will find a way to fulfill the promises. At least by v. 8, his trust has taken the form that God will provide. His public confession of trust to Isaac constitutes a new situation with which God must work. This ups the ante for God. This has now become a test for God; it no longer involves simply Abraham’s trust, it is a matter of God’s providing as well. As Westermann puts it, “He throws the ball back into God’s court.”8 Will Abraham’s trust in God be in vain? Is God free to ignore Abraham’s trust? If God does not provide, that would constitute another kind of test for Abraham, a test at a much deeper level than the one that initiated this journey. If God tests within relationship to determine loyalty, then can God ignore the expression of such loyalty and remain faithful? Given God’s previous commitments (especially in chap. 15), God has bound himself to stay with a trusting Abraham. Now, in swearing by himself, God lays the divine life on the line, putting the very divine self behind the promise.

In verse 12, God stops Abraham from killing his son. “I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me,” God says. God then provides a ram as a substitute for Issac.  The promise is saved.

So, what was the point of this exercise? In James 2:18-24, James credits Abraham for proving his faith in the work of sacrificing Issac.

If we set aside the fact that Abraham was only a second from killing his son, there is something to be said about what it means to put God first in our lives.  Could Abraham put the promise of Issac ahead of trusting in God.

It is one way to find something in the text.  Christians have long held that the substitution of the ram for Issac mirrors Christ’s death on the cross.

But we are still left with a story that is unsettling.  Was God guilty of child abuse as some scholars believe? What we do know is that in this instance, we learn more about the faithfulness of God.  God did provide as Abraham hoped.

But de la Torres wonder why Issac was spared, but not the daughter of Jephthah’sin the book of Judges:

The same God who spares Isaac is silent when another father offers his daughter as a human sacrifice. God provides a ram and saves Abraham’s beloved son, but what about Jephthah’s unnamed daughter (Judg. 11:29–40)? When her father lays the faithful innocent virgin of Gilead on the sacrificial altar to fulfill a foolish vow that he made, there is no angel dispatched to save the young woman. There is no ram to take her place. Where then is the God of life? Is she dispensable because she is not a son? To read the story of Jephthah’s unnamed daughter in the light of Isaac’s salvation leaves us with very uncomfortable questions.

There is a point to be made that God spares a son, but not a daughter, but there are also big differences in the story. Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his son, whereas Jephtaha made a foolish and costly vow to God.  But there are questions as to why God didn’t intervene in the same way.

Conclusion

So, what does this all mean?  As was said at the beginning, this is a text that one has to sit with instead of thinking how to apply it to our own lives.  We have to ask, what does it mean to be faithful?  We learn that Abraham is faithful, but we learn he will go too far in fulfilling his fealty to God.  God is faithful to Abraham in providing a ram for sacrifice, but we are left wondering why God would tell Abraham to do this.

That said, put aside the shock of Abraham doing something so horrible and think about this in terms of faith.  Religion, our life with God is based on faith.  How far are we willing to go follow God?  This doesn’t mean we would as far as killing someone, but it could mean taking a bolder step without knowing what is ahead of us.  I am reminded of some young people who worked at the campus ministry I was involved in.  They would move hundreds of miles to embark on this new journey and they had to raise their own salary.  It was a big step of faith for them to take up a new job with no promise of a steady salary.

Abraham was willing to lose it all because of his faith and trust in God.  It makes no sense and it seems like sheer madness, but then sometimes following God does look like that even when it doesn’t involve child sacrifice.

As I said before, none of this lessens the shock of the act, but as we look at Scripture we have to ask why something like this was placed in Scripture.  And the reason might be what I just talked about. 

How would you respond? Do you think there is something to be learned from such a shocking text?

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

In the Beginning- Pentecost 14

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Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 10, 2017

Genesis 1:1-2:4

 

Introduction

Every few years, you will hear a story about creation versus evolution.  Some school district somewhere will have an argument between a local church and a school board and the questions are flying? Which one is true? Did we evolve from apes or were we created?  Was the world developed over millions of years or was it done in six days? Can you believe God created the world and also believe in evolution?

The creation story is one of the most well-known parts of scripture.  Why does it matter that God created the world?  Does it relate to science and how?

We will focus at the beginning of the Bible and wonder what it meant to the first readers of this text and what it means for us today.

Engaging the Text

There are actually two stories of creation. The first one is today’s text.  The other one is found in the second chapter of Genesis.  For times sake, we will focus on the first story, but remember the first story is in more detail and longer and the second story seems more like a summary of God’s act.  Both are important for different reasons.

  In the book, the Magigian’s Nephew, author C.S. Lewis provides an example of what God’s creative act was all about.  Aslan, the lion god-like character would sing the world into being.  In some way, Genesis 1 is describing something like that.   God sees the world a formless void and begins speaking.  With each utterance, the world began to appear. Light. Darkness. Day. Night.  Every time God would speak and create, God would finally say that the creation was good. 

The creation as mentioned in the Bible is not looked at scientifically, but through the eyes of an artist. The poet James Weldon Johnson posits God as an artist in his poem The CreationHere is how Johnson describes the making of the sun:

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”

So, God sees all of creation in the way we see a work of art, a thing of beauty, something that is good. Why did God have to say things were good all of the time?

Having God call the creation good over and over was a way to tell people that the created order, the material world, was good.  The sun, moon, stars, our pets, you and I are all deemed good, a gift from God.

What does it mean when we see the world around us and know that all of it, even us is considered a gift of God?  How then we do we respond to creation, to the care of others?

Why did God create in six days?  God spoke things into being, meaning God could have created everything all at once.  The early theologian Augustine believed the creation event was just that- done all at once.

The move for God to take time in creating the world could mean that in God’s eyes creation is a process instead of a product.  It is a process that is ongoing, meaning it didn’t stop on the day God rested.

The clues to being a process are found in several verses (see Genesis 1:11 and 22)where God allows creation to “put forth.”  This means creation itself is creating. For God to enter our time, to take time to create, means that the divine life enters into our time.  You, I, the trees and the sky are part of the divine life.

When God rests on the seventh day, it is not yet called Sabbath.  But what does happen is that God is able to take “time off” and allow creation to keep on creating, to allow them to be.  That is also part of the divine life.

Theologian Terrance Fretheim explains the importance of this divine life and what it means for all of us:

To speak of creation as coming into being along a genuine timeline lifts up creation as dynamic process, and not simply as divine product. God chooses to take time in creating and endows creatures with creative capacities. God determines not to do the creating alone; God, working interdependently and over time, involves the creatures themselves in creational developments. What creatures do actually counts in the ongoing becoming of the world.

All of this tells us that the creation is not a one off.  It is something that keeps happening, even today.  The artist is still painting.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century and the Federalist.

I Promise.

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Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15
September 7, 2014
Ordinary Time

I don’t know when I noticed that Noah and the ark wasn’t such a wonderful little story for kids.  All of the sudden the images of happy animals in a boat gave way to a crowed boat filled with animals-animals that poop.  I’m a city kid so farm life isn’t familiar to me.  But I’ve been to enough animal barns at the State Fair to know that having pigs and horses and elephants and so on is going to create one big mess.

But then, that’s not the most frightening thing about this passage.  God is upset over God’s creation.  God saw the evil taking place and regretted even creating the earth.

So, what does God do?  God sets the reset button.

The water that floods the world is in some way an undoing of the creative process we see in Genesis 1.  The water comes and sweeps away all of the evil in the world.  No more animals no more humans.

Except not everything has been swept away.  God spares Noah, his family and all the animals.  This small remnant of creation will be the seed that rebuilds the earth.  Even as God judges, God also brings salvation.

The rainbow that God talks about is a reminder to God that God would never flood the earth again.  God’s creation would continue to sin, continue to drift away from God.  No matter, God would not destroy the earth with water again and the rainbow is God’s promise: no more hitting the reset button.  God would find another way to deal with the waywardness of God’s creation.  The rest of the biblical story is God finding a different way to restore God’s creation.

In 1997, a great flood hit the Red River Valley which straddles Minnesota and North Dakota.  Communities up and down the Red River were threatened with flood waters.  One such community was Grand Forks, North Dakota, the state’s 3rd largest city.  Despite a noble effort by citizens and volunteers, the rising flood waters could not be held back.  Fifty thousand people had to flee their houses as a result.  As the waters filled the city, a fire started in one of the buildings downtown.  Water everywhere and now a fire.  As the firefighters tried to deal with the fire using boats, a photographer for the local newspaper snapped a photo that became iconic.  In the midst of flood and fire, there was a rainbow.  The rainbow became a sign of hope to a beleagured community, a promise that things would be better.

In the midst of pain and sorrow, God tells creation and most importantly Godself that things will be better. Hope is around the corner.

I promise.