Category: Lent

God the Vindicator — Reflection for Passion Sunday (Isaiah 50)

comesundayfb

Isaiah 50:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
9a It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
*****************
We have reached the penultimate moment in the Lenten journey. Christians, at least in the West, will be observing Palm Sunday, or perhaps Passion Sunday. I have always approached Palm Sunday with a bit of unease. After all, the triumphal nature of the day is fleeting. So, perhaps focusing on the Passion is more appropriate, even if we might regather on Friday to hear again the passion story. The reading from Isaiah 50, which forms the third Servant Song, has been read by Christians, along with the other Servant Songs, down the centuries as descriptions of the suffering Jesus experienced as he went to the cross. While the fourth Servant Song is the most revelatory when it comes to the Servant’s suffering (Isa. 52:13-53:12), this Song offers insight into his experience as one who was struck and bruised, but vindicated. In this reading for Passion Sunday, we hear this promise of vindication, making clear that the attacks on the servant are not the last word.
The prophet declares that God has given him the “tongue of a teacher.” That is his calling, but he is also a teacher who listens to the one who wakens him. The one who speaks is a teachable teacher, and this is important because the audience is not always receptive to the message. Therefore, the prophet tells us: “I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (vs. 5b-6). You can understand why the church has applied this passage, and other similar texts from Isaiah’s servant songs to Jesus. He was a teacher whose message was not well received by everyone. His opponents struck him, pulled at his beard, and faced insult and spitting.”
As we hear this message to the church in preparation for Holy Week, we should go behind the text to the original audience. That audience was likely the Judean exiles. Sometimes Judah itself is the Suffering Servant. In this case, it could be the prophet. The question is, should we focus on the suffering or the vindication? Christopher Seitz notes, following Claus Westermann, that this poem, and it is a poem/song, should not be read as a lament, but rather as a “psalm of confidence.” There is no complaint offered. Suffering is acknowledged, but it leads to a statement of confidence in the God who vindicates [“Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreter’s Bible, (Abingdon Press), 6:436].
The prophet declares with confidence in verse 7: “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” The prophet, who has been called to teach the people, and has listened to the voice of God, has faced challenges, but because God is the helper, the prophet will not be disgraced or put to shame. Rather than be disgraced or shamed, the prophet is vindicated by God.
When read within the context of Passion Sunday, the reading from Isaiah is a reminder that despite the suffering that Jesus experienced, God vindicated him through the resurrection. For Israel, despite the suffering it had experienced in the Exile, it would be reconstituted. Israel would be resurrected. Taken together, Israel/Jesus are vindicated by God. Teresa Lockhart Stricklen notes that the while the Servant Community looks weak and defeated, “the power of the unseen God is at work to reconstitute that community and thereby reveal the power and purposes of the God of Israel.” Christians look to “Jesus on the cross, like Israel in exile, appeared to be weak and defeated, but God raised Jesus from the dead, thus again affirming God’s power and life-giving purposes” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, (WJK Press), p. 185]. The resurrection, like the reconstitution of Israel is God’s vindication. So, who can contend with those whom God vindicates and helps? If God helps, then who can declare Israel/the Prophet/Jesus guilty?
We can take this passage a step further. Rather than focus on the question of the identity of the Suffering Servant, we can ask the question of what it means for us to be servants of God, even in the face of resistance and persecution. How might we be the teachers who are awakened by God, so that we might share the God News, knowing that God helps and vindicates? Jon Berquist points us in that direction. He notes that when reading this in our Lenten context, we hear a word concerning our own calling.
Lent has emphasized confession, repentance, humility, submission to God’s will, and the desire to recommit one’s self to the work of God in the world. With these concerns framing our approach to the text, we understand Isaiah’s call to be servants and teachers, to sustain others while realizing that we are still learners ourselves, to live out our own vulnerabilities, to recognize that only God will save us from the persecutions and rejections of the world that will inevitably result from our commitment to God’s purposes, and to know that God’s salvation will come only through our persistence in the work of serving and teaching in the face mounting opposition. [Feasting on the Word, (WJK Press), p. 163].
Jesus faced his own tormenters, putting his face forward like flint. Israel did the same. Shall we follow their lead? The good news here is that we can go forth into Holy Week with confidence, knowing that God is our help. God is our vindicator. No one can stand against God, so let us stand together and move forward with boldness on the path set before us by Jesus.

Advertisements

Covenant of the Heart – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B

comesundayfb

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

******************
                Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God will make with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a covenant written on stone. It will be a covenant written on the heart. Christians have embraced Jeremiah’s message of the New Covenant, believing that this promise was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (the earliest version of that institution), we hear Jesus declare: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; see Lk. 22:20).  In the Book of Hebrews, which interprets the ministry of Jesus in the light of Jewish precedent, we see several references to the New Covenant, with the emphasis being on the way in which this new covenant replaces the earlier covenant. So, consider this word: “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (Heb. 9:15-16). It is this reference in 1 Corinthians and the accompanying references in Hebrews that lead to the labeling of the Christian-specific portion of the Bible as the “New Testament.” It is within the pages of the Christian portion of the Bible, that Christians have seen themselves encountering the one who writes the new covenant on hearts rather than stone.

Continue reading “Covenant of the Heart – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B”

Patience—Or a Loss of It – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B

comesundayfb

Numbers 21:4-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

*******

By the fourth week, the Lenten journey could be getting old, especially if you’re fasting (I’m not). Many churches try out things they don’t normally do during the season (we’re using a prayer of confession and words of assurance in worship), which means that some in the church might be ready to get back to the status quo or move on to the next thing. After all, by now the stores are filling up with Easter paraphernalia.

In the previous three Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible, we have explored God’s covenants—first with Noah, then Abraham and Sarah, and finally with Moses and Israel at Sinai. Now we’re moving on from the initiation of covenants to living in the covenant. The reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent places us on the road toward the Promised Land. The people of Israel have arrived at Mount Hor, a mountain in the desert near the border of Edom, one of Israel’s traditional enemies. Although the journey from Egypt to the Promise Land should only take a few weeks at most, the people of Israel have been wandering in the desert for months and maybe years, making little progress. It is true that they have received the keys to the covenant and established the priesthood, with Aaron as the first chief priest, but they’re still wandering in the wilderness.

Having arrived at Mount Hor, change is setting in. When they arrive at this point in the journey, Aaron dies, and the priesthood passed on to his son Eleazar (Num. 20:22-29). Moses has lost his closest confidant, and a person whom the people gravitate toward. Aaron is a buffer, but he’s gone. The journey has been long. The people are tired. There is no end in sight. Do you ever feel that way? Do you feel like you are wandering in the desert with no end in sight?

Having buried Aaron at Mount Hor, the people of Israel head out again on their ever-lengthening journey. They again begin complaining about God’s provision and Moses’ leadership. They’re anxious and afraid. They fear dying in the desert of thirst and starvation. While there is manna, it is detestable. Now, they are told they will take another detour, even if it is a smart decision, so they can avoid traveling through Edom. More wandering. More time. More suffering. It’s no wonder that the people of Israel got anxious and impatient! In their frustration they challenged Moses’ authority, and even that of God. After all, hadn’t Moses promised them that Yahweh would liberate them. Instead of liberation, all they seemed to experience was death (symbolized by that of Aaron).

As we all know, either from our own childhood memories or as a parent, a long trip can wear on you. The longer the trip, the more likely that our patience grows thin and we begin to complain about everything. In this case it’s the lack of food and water, and the detestable nature of the food they have (I’m assuming we’re talking manna here). In other words, Israel is ungrateful. Of course, this is the first time we read of Israel murmuring. This is the fifth and final such episode. Now, we’re supposed to side with Moses and God in this matter, but I can sympathize with Israel. If I had been on a journey like this, one that was filled with obstacles and never seemed to end (did they know there was a shorter road to the Promised Land than the one they were taking?). Even Egypt might start looking good if they didn’t get to their destination soon.

This is all a backstory to God’s decision to punish Israel because their continued complaints. Perhaps in a fit of divine impatience, God sends poisonous snakes into the camp to kill off members of the community. Yes, many were bit, and many died. It sounds horrific, but apparently it got the people’s attention, because they went to Moses and confessed their sins against God and Moses. They asked Moses to intervene and ask God to get rid of the snakes. So, Moses prayed for them, and God provided a remedy. God told Moses to create a totem of sorts that featured a poisonous snake. So, Moses fashioned a bronze serpent and placed on a pole, and if a snake bit a person, Moses would have the person look at the bronze serpent and the person would live.

This is quite interesting. After all, images were prohibited in the commandments (though Numbers doesn’t have the story of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Still, this is odd. Of course, this passage might raise other questions in our minds. First, there is the question of whether this is magic. Then there is the picture of God it presents. Once again, we see God act somewhat petulantly. The people complain, and God sends snakes to kill them. What kind of God is this? Moses seems to have more patience with the people than Yahweh. But then God does seem at times to be short-tempered. Remember how Abraham had to talk God down from destroying Sodom with Lot still present? Is this the God we worship? We could try an age-old tactic and separate Jesus from the Old Testament God, but that leads in a dangerous direction. Yahweh becomes Marcion’s demiurge, the evil creator god who is overcome by the loving God of Jesus. We should stay away from such views, but this is a good reminder why we should not read Scripture flatly, as if everything is the same. Both testaments speak of God in ways that we likely will find problematic, at the very least.

A deeper question has to do with the message of this passage for our Lenten journey. The reading from the Gospel of John designated for this Sunday equates Moses’ serpent to Jesus on the cross: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believed in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16). In John’s Gospel the serpent of Numbers 21 is a precursor to Jesus. By looking at the serpent, the people lived. They were healed. They were saved. By believing in Jesus, who was lifted up on the cross, we receive eternal life. It is not magic. The cross is not a totem, but both the bronze serpent and the cross of Jesus are signs of healing. Note that in both cases, life is the result. In one case it’s physical and the other is eternal, but both bring healing, wholeness, and life itself. So, we lift our eyes to the cross, and we see our salvation. In him, we are healed. In him, we find the source of patience in the midst of challenging times.

Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Troy, MI. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. The author of a number of books, his most recent books include Out of the Office: A Theology of Ministry (Energion Publications, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).  He blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey. 

Freedom amid Divine Expectations – Reflection for Lent 3B

comesundayfb

Exodus 20:1-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

20 Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 You shall not murder.

14 You shall not commit adultery.

15 You shall not steal.

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

*****

We serve a covenant-making God. In the reading from Exodus 20, we encounter the third covenant-making event in this our Lenten journey. In the reading from Genesis 9 for the for the First Sunday of Lent, we read of God’s covenant promise to Noah. Never again, will God cleanse the earth with water. In the reading for the Second Sunday of Lent from Genesis 17, we hear again God’s covenant promise to Abraham and Sarah. They’re promised a multitude of descendants, who will inhabit the Land as part of an everlasting covenant. Now, we come to the third covenant, the one God makes Israel through the mediation of Moses. God has called Moses up to the mountain top so Moses might receive a set of covenant stipulations that will define relationship between Israel and its God.

We call the covenant stipulations revealed to Moses in Sinai the Ten Commandments. They are, we’re told, inscribed by God on stone tablets (Exodus 31:18-19). It should be noted that when Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets laying out the covenant and discovered that the people were dancing around the golden calf, he threw them on the ground, breaking them (Exod. 32:19). Now, God did provide a second copy, so the people would have guidelines. With this second set, God renewed the covenant in preparation from the move from Sinai into the Promised Land (Exod. 34).

These stipulations that were intended to mark God’s covenant with Israel, have entered the public domain. We treat them today as if they were a legal code for American cultural life. Attempts have been made to put them in schools and court houses. In other words, we have secularized them, forgetting that they define a relationship with God. To forget their origin and turn them into rules diminishes their power to engender true freedom as a gift of God.

It is easy to miss, but these ten words begin with God’s declaration: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is an important word, because it defines God and God’s relationship with God’s people. In Jewish tradition, this is the first command. The second command prohibits worship of other gods and of making images of those gods. Thus, the opening statement is not a self-introduction. It is a command or word from God. Regarding this self-revelation of God’s identity, Rabbi Barry Schwartz writes: “

Note that while God could have been introduced as the creator of the world, God is instead presented as liberator of the people. The Torah is surely reminding us that the demanding and commanding God is first and foremost the liberating God. Concurrently, the text is also teaching us that there cannot be revelation without liberation. [Barry Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, ( Jewish Publication Society, 2017), p. 33].

What might appear to be rules and regulations are the foundations of freedom. True freedom comes from being in relationship with the one God, of whom no image can be created, a God who invites us to rest from one’s labors. While Sabbath laws often became burdensome, consider their origins. A people was enslaved. They had no rest from their labors, but now, they were free, and so Sabbath rest was theirs as a gift of God. Where once they had been in servitude to Pharaoh (who considered himself a god), now they are servants of Yahweh, and in this service, they find freedom.

We tend to equate freedom with an absence of rules, but to live in relationship with the covenant-making God, who is also the liberating God, is to recognize that true freedom is not anarchy. Again, I turn to Rabbi Barry Schwartz, who writes that “freedom is not simply the opportunity to act with impunity—it requires responsibility. The Exodus, after all, is not an end in and of itself. The Exodus culminates in Sinai—liberation is capped by Revelation. The mission is predicated on a covenant, and covenant implies obligation.” In this view, “responsible freedom leads to blessing” [Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, p. 36]. If we look back from this covenant to the one God initiated with Abraham and Sarah, it’s purpose is one of blessing. That promise of blessing continues through this covenant relationship.

While it may be true that these Commands form a basis for Western legal traditions, and that these words hold value for human life, it is important that we first see them in the context of God’s covenant purposes. These are, after all, not just any laws, these are a gift of God.

The commands provide a foundation for the relationships within the community for relationships with God and with neighbor. The first Table speaks specifically to one’s relationship with God. That is, love God with your entire being (Deut. 6:4-5). So, don’t worship other gods, don’t create images, don’t take oaths, and observe sacred time (Sabbath). When it comes to the second command, to love one’s neighbor, the remaining statements come into view (Lev.  19:18). Words that address such basic principles of life as not killing and stealing, seem uncontroversial, though we can obfuscate on the meaning of such words. But what about bearing false witness and coveting. How often do we break these two commands, which can often lead to breaking the others? In many ways the final command about coveting stands at the foundation of the entire law concerning one’s neighbor. Stealing, lying, killing, they all start with coveting.

When we speak of the two commands to love God and neighbor, we speak of a calling more fully delineated in the Ten Words, and further delineated in the 613 Mitzvot that make up the Law. If we fulfill the two, we fulfill the 613. Thus, Jesus affirms and fulfills these covenant stipulations, in calling for his followers to love God and love neighbor (Matt. 22:34-35).

We hear these words anew in the context of our Lenten journey find true freedom in service to God. Since this is a season of contemplation and reflection, may the Ten Teachings, as laid out in Exodus 17, help us discern our place in God’s covenant people. As we use these words to look at our lives and how we are living them, if there are some areas needing adjustment, may we take the opportunity to do just that. As we take time to repent, we get back in the groove, for it is followed by words of assurance of forgiveness.

Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church of Troy, MI and author of several books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Dry Bones and the Breath of Life – Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A (Ezekiel)

cropped-comesundaylogov2.png

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

********

   The Babylonian exile was a tragic, and yet fruitful event in the life of the people of Israel. It was tragic, because the nation was torn apart. Yet, the exile also gave Judah an opportunity to rediscover its identity as a people. Much of what we know as the Old Testament emerged in the context of the exile. While, it was a challenging time for the people of Judah, who found it difficult to live in hope of a new and better day.

 

Ezekiel was a prophet who arose in the context of the exile, and he spoke words that chided the people when they were unfaithful, but he also shared words that offed hope of a new day, when the people of Israel would experience restoration. One of the most powerful words of hope to be found in Ezekiel, if not all of scripture, is this passage from Ezekiel 37. Can dry bones live? That is the question of the hour. It is the question that YHWH asked of the prophet after delivering him to a plain covered with dry, lifeless bones. Can these bones live? All that Ezekiel can answer is: “you know.” That is, Ezekiel has no idea how dry, lifeless bones could ever be restored to life. Only God knows, and it’s possible that as the conversation started, Ezekiel had his doubts.

If Ezekiel has doubts, God has a plan. There’s a reason why God brought Ezekiel out to this plain covered with dry bones. God wanted Ezekiel to better understand his prophetic calling. God wanted him to preach, to share the word, so that Israel might once again live. This is the word given to Ezekiel: “say to the bones: “hear the word of the Lord.” I think we should let that phrase sink into our hearts and minds. “Hear the Word of the Lord.” Remember the message of John’s prologue, which declared that the Word (Logos) was in the beginning with God and was God, and that all things came into being through him, and “in him was life” (Jn. 1:1-4). The Word of the Lord is life, and if Ezekiel will preach to the bones, then God will breathe life into them, so that the bones will know who the LORD is.

Ezekiel does as God asks, and then witnesses God’s fulfillment of the promise made to Ezekiel. The bones begin to rattle and come together to form skeletons (we could use a bit of Disney animation here). On these skeletons flesh appears. But, the text of Ezekiel says that to this point “there was no breath in them.” It would be fitting to go back to Genesis 2, the second creation story, where God forms the first human from the dust of the earth. The basic building blocks are there, but life isn’t yet present. Life awaits the breath of God. As we read in Genesis, God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). In Ezekiel, God tells the prophet to “prophesy to the breath, saying: “Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ez. 37:9). When Ezekiel complied, the winds came forth, and filled the lifeless bodies with breath. Of course, the Hebrew word, like the Greek word, for breath is also the word for Spirit (ruach/pneuma). In the biblical story, life isn’t separate from the presence of God’s spirit.

It is important that we recognize that Ezekiel isn’t speaking about individuals. He has in mind a people, the people of Israel, who have experienced the devastation of conquest and the humiliation of exile. Not everyone in the nation of Judah found themselves in Babylon, but whether in Babylon or in the land of Israel, the people of Judah had lost their sense of identity. It was as if they had died.  The Spirit of God seemed absent from the people. Now, it needs to be said that the Spirit of God wasn’t truly absent, but the people seemed disconnected from the life-giving Spirit of God. The presence of the Spirit can be seen in the work of the prophets, including Ezekiel.

This is a well-known passage of scripture. It’s vivid in its descriptiveness. The valley of dry bones coming back to life; it’s a powerful image. But what does it have to do with us? What word does God have for the church in the 21st century, a church that is beginning to see itself in terms of exile. We seem to be a collection of dry, lifeless bones scattered across the plain. I hear it all the time. I hear it from colleagues who bemoan what appears to be the prolonged death of the church. I hear it from church members, who remember the glory days, when Sunday was marked by church attendance. Churches were full. The congregation I now serve is relatively small, but once it was a grand and powerful congregation. Its pastor was nationally recognized (he served as President of the Federal Council of Churches). The church sat on Detroit’s “Piety Row.” Times changed, the church began a slow decline, and it eventually moved to the suburbs. For a long time, it clung to its former heritage, but the reality is that the congregation had gone into exile. This congregation isn’t alone in this, even if a congregation hasn’t moved from its original space. The promise here, of course, is that the exiles will return to the Land, to the soil, upon which the people had once been a nation of some importance. It’s not likely that our congregations will return to their original glory, but the spirit of exile can give way to a new spirit of hope and service. We can take root in our new realities, and be witnesses to God’s gracious presence. The dry bones can hear the Word of God and come to life, filled with the Spirit, so as to become signs of God’s presence in the world.

Perhaps the key to restoration is attending to the Word of God. I speak here to my more “progressive/liberal” colleagues, who often struggle with Scripture. Yes, Scripture can be difficult to navigate. It says things that we may find problematic. After all, it emerged in a very different world, and yet it does have something powerful to say, if we’re willing to listen. While critical scholarship is essential to getting the context straight, if we begin and end there, we may end up missing a Word from God. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we would be better of moving on from focusing our attention on questions of historicity, and focus more on the overarching narrative that is Scripture. He speaks of the Exodus story here, but I think it holds for other conversations. Of the biblical narrative, he writes that we might see it as “a script that is waiting to be performed; it is always being given new performance, even in our own time . . .” [Rebuilding the Foundations, p. 193]. With that in mind we can get a sense of the overarching message of this narrative. Kelton Cobb writes that “at the core of the biblical narrative is the story of displacement—of having wandered a long way from home, and longing to return. This is the underlying plot of being cast out of Eden, of being foreigners in Egypt, of the journey to the promised land, of the long of exiles in Babylon to return to the land of their fathers” [Feasting on the Word, 126].

It is this narrative of exile and return that defines our own realities, including as churches. When we feel as if we’re in exile, we long to return home. That might be why there is such interest in genealogies. We want to know where we belong, so we can return to our homeland. When I went to England, during my sabbatical, I had this feeling of connecting to my roots.  This was my homeland. When I went to Christ Church Cathedral and experienced Evensong, it was as if I had come home. So, I understand this longing for home. It is a longing that defines salvation. As Augustine wrote in The Confessions, the restless heart will not find rest until it rests in God. Is this not our own desire? Do we not want to find our homeland? For Judah, it was the Land, for us, it is the realm of God.

So, what do we make of this powerful story? What word does it have for us? At one level this might be a good word about the power of preaching, even if our culture doesn’t seem to value preaching in the same way it once did, there is her a call to bring the Word so that the Spirit might move. When we hear the word “prophesy,” a number images might come to mind, most of which don’t seem to apply to those of us who enter pulpits to preach. But, in many ways that is what we’re called to do. We’re asked to bring a Word from God to a community. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson write that “preaching her is the means of restoration. Through preaching the breath of God enters the bones. An implication is that pastorally sensitive prophetic preaching can play a key role in revitalizing community” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 37].

 

This is the word given to Israel, and by extension to the Church: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.” The church in the West is experiencing a reality that it hasn’t faced in centuries. No longer supported by government or even cultural establishment, it must fend for itself, or depend on the Spirit of God. Many congregations feel as if their bones are “very dry.” They feel as life has been drained from them, but here is a word of hope. Say to the bones – Live. Call for the wind of the Spirit to breathe life into the bones of our congregations. We may be in exile, but the realm of God is there in front of us.
Picture attribution: Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved March 27, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

Zacchaeus and the Multiverse – Lent 5

comesundayfb

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

April 2, 2017

Luke 18:31-19:10

If you read or watch enough science fiction or comic books, you will run into the multiverse.  It’s the belief or theory that there isn’t one universe, but hundreds or thousands of different universes all taking place at the same time.  There is the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrodinger where he talks about a cat being placed in a box with a small amount of a radioactive substance, a hammer and cyanide.  Without going into the whole theory, as long as the box is closed, we don’t know if the cat is alive or was killed by the poison.  In theory, the cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This experiment has been used to explain multiverses because you can be a famous singer in one universe or a serial killer in another one all at the same time. There is that famous episode in Star Trek where Kirk is transported to mirror universe where the peaceful Federation is now the Terran Empire.  Characters who were good in the main universe were sadistic in this new one.  And of course, there is Spock who in the mirror universe is sort of evil and you can tell because he now has a goatee.

I’ve thought about multiverses in thinking about a tension in today’s text.  There are two different understandings when it comes to the tax collector named Zacchaeus.

For years, Zacchaeus was the short guy who had dinner with Jesus and gave money to the poor.  It’s a classic story of redemption, of a “bad guy” who became good.  But in recent years, it has been revealed that there is some tension when it comes to the verb tense in verse 8.  Verse 8 reads:“Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

This passage in the original Greek is in a present tense.  It could mean that Zacchaeus was already giving his money to the poor.  But the present tense could also be indicating a future action meaning he will do this.  This is how pastor Dan Clendenin explains it:

Even though the verbs are in the present tense, the typical way of reading of this story follows scholars like Robert Stein and translations like the NRSV and NIV. They render the present tense verbs as a “futuristic present.” That is, Zacchaeus the sinner repents and vows that henceforth he’ll make restitution.

           The second option follows commentators like Joseph Fitzmyer and translations like the KJV and RSV. They render the verbs as a “progressive present tense.” In this reading, Zacchaeus is a hidden saint about whom people have made all sorts of false assumptions about his corruption. And so he defends himself: “Lord, I always give half of my wealth to the poor, and whenever I discover any fraud or discrepancy I always make a fourfold restitution.”

So which one is it?  Is it the story of corrupt rich man that pledges to do right?  Or is it a story of affirmation, of Jesus blessing Zacchaeus for the work that he is doing?

I’m beginning to wonder if it is both; that like Schrodinger’s cat, Zacchaeus is in a superpositions state: both sinner and saint.

Having gone to a Lutheran seminary, I remember learning how Martin Luther believed that Christians are both sinner and saint.  In Luther’s mind a saint was a forgiven sinner, and we were always both forgiven and still imperfect on this side of heaven.

I don’t know if Zaccheus had already been making amends or would promise to do it.  What I do know if that he was both sinner and saint, one that was part of a corrupt system and trying to atone.  Jesus called this flawed man a “son of Abraham” one that belong in God’s kingdom.

The good news is that we aren’t that different from ol’ Zach.  We are sinners and we can’t hide that fact.  But in Christ we are forgiven, we are redeemed by Christ and sent to act with justice and grace toward others.

And you don’t need the multiverse to understand that.

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.

The Good One- Lent 3

comesundayfb

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 19, 2017

Luke 15:1-32

 

 

 

 

JESUS MAFA. Prodigal Son, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54662 [retrieved March 15, 2017].
Being an only child, it’s not easy to understand the sibling dynamics taking place in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  That said, I do have sympathy for the older brother.  He was the good one.  He followed the rules. He stayed at his father’s side.  He did everything right.

I understand this because I’ve always been the Good One.  I was always the kid that people would say is so well-behaved and mature. I was the kid that didn’t rebel.

So, I can understand why the older brother is livid at how his father is treating his younger brother who humiliated his father by taking his inheritance early and then going off to spend it all.  Why should he be welcomed with open arms after what he did to the father?

In the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, there was debate on whether or not to bail out homeowners who were in danger of losing their home.  Some believed that they should and others were dead set against.  They brought houses with questionable loans and bought more house than they had money.  Because of this, some said that it was the homeowner’s fault for being foolish with their money. Let them suffer the consequences.

I tended to side with the later argument. Why?  Because I was the Good One. Fools should suffer their fate.

This all explains why this story is so necessary.  Jesus told this story to a crowd including a number of Pharisees that Jesus heard grumbling because he shared meals with sinners and tax collectors.  Jesus hits these leaders, who were the Good Ones, right where it hurts in this parable.  We see the older son seething in anger.  The father comes out to meet his “faithful” son, in the same way that he came to greet his youngest son.  In each case we see a father full of love for his sons, even though they don’t really deserve it.

This story is a study in grace, and what we learn from it is how “scandalous” grace is.  The father receives the younger son with open arms and has a party.  He did this because his son that he feared would never come back has arrived.  This sort of lavish joy is almost embarrassing and certainly not deserved.  But that’s how God is when a sinner comes home.  God meets them with open arms.

But God also greets the older sons, the Good Ones who in the end aren’t so good.  He reminds them that they are loved with this same grace.  The older son probably did the hard work to please his father.  But the father didn’t care about that.  He loved this son, even when he was acting like a jerk.

Did the older son ever “get it?”  We will never know.  I would like to think he did, that he was willing to stop trying to please his father and just enjoy life knowing he is loved by his father all the time.

And maybe he will understand that being a Good One isn’t about doing the right things, but knowing you are loved with an endless love.

 

 

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.

Is God With Us? – Lectionary Reflection – Lent 3A (Exodus)

cropped-comesundaylogov2.png

Exodus 17:1-7 Common English Bible (CEB)

17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched.He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

*********

In Advent we heard the message of Emmanuel—God is with Us—in Lent we hear the question—“Is the Lord really with us or not?” The Advent declaration appears in the revelation to Joseph that the child of his betrothed was conceived of the Holy Spirit and that God would save the people from their sins through him (Matt. 1:18-25). The Lenten question is raised during a rather tense encounter between Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered across the desert. The murmuring or complaining of the people of Israel is a constant theme in Exodus. The people cried out to God, seeking deliverance from slavery. Now that they are free, they have other complaints, and the person who bears the brunt of these complaints is Moses. A chapter earlier, the complaint had to do with food. Now it’s a lack of water that concerns the people. You have to feel for Moses, because he has been put in an untenable position. He had claimed that he was acting on behalf of God, after demonstrating God’s power, the people agreed to follow him. Whether they understood the full ramifications of this decision is unknown. Of course, had we been among the people affected, we probably would be complaining as well. After all, water is essential to life, so why would you camp in place where water was absent?

Here is Moses. He’s being forced to explain the lack of water. Moses responds, strangely enough, with a question for the people: “why are you testing God?” What does Moses mean by that statement?  As for the people, they are putting the onus on Moses. Why did he bring them to this place? Why did he rescue them only to lead them to certain death from thirst?   In other words, slavery was bad. Dying of thirst was worse!

Even if we’ve not experienced such thirst, most of us have been exposed to the issue. I like watching nature programs like Planet Earth and Planet Earth II. When the programs focus on deserts, you will be exposed to animals searching for water. Perhaps you will watch as a troop of elephants cross foreboding desert sands in search of an elusive watering hole. A wide shot from the air reveals nothing but sand in all directions, but the troop marches on. Most likely this troop will include at one least one calf struggling to keep up, its only hope of survival being the discovery of that water hole. You want to root for that calf to make it, but that’s not always the way things end. In a recent show, the calf fell and couldn’t get up. The mother stayed behind, watching over her calf, even though she too was now at risk because she was separated from the rest of the troop. You grieve for that mother.

If you grieve for the elephants, then surely you must grieve for the people of Israel who face a similar fate. There are children in this caravan. They would be most vulnerable. Think of the recent stories of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq. Remember the faces of children who face hunger and thirst. Do we hear their murmurings? Do we empathize with them, and thus with the people of Israel camped in the desert with no water in sight?

The people are understandably upset, and Moses seems to be caught in the middle. He is the one God charged with leading them out of Egypt, but did he lead them out of Egypt to a place where death was certain? For his part, Moses is wondering what he had gotten himself into when he answered the call of the burning bush. Yes, he had been able to do miracle upon miracle, including parting the sea. But, none of that mattered now, as a thirsty people demanded water. I can hear Moses say to God: “What I do to deserve this?” “What am I supposed to do with this people?” I can hear him say to God, “I didn’t learn how to deal with this kind of a problem in seminary. So, what am I supposed to do? They’re about to stone me.”  In other words, Moses was about to resign his leadership position! This is a sentiment that often marks clergy as they try to lead congregations that won’t go easily into the night. In this case, the people seem to have a point. They didn’t sign on to a trip that would to their death in a land without water.

Of course, it wasn’t Moses who delivered the people from Pharaoh. It wasn’t Moses who opened the sea or provided manna. It was YHWH. Fortunately, God had a solution. God told Moses to take the elders with him, along with the staff he used to strike the Nile, and go to the rock at Horeb, which is where God will be found standing on the rock. God instructed Moses to strike the rock with his staff, and when he did this, water would flow from that rock. If only drought-stricken lands had a staff like that. When Moses followed this command, he struck the rock in the sight of the Elders, and water began to flow so that the people could drink.

As is often the case in Exodus, this place takes on a new name. It is called Massah (Test) and Meribah (Quarrel). That is because the people tested God and quarreled. As they quarreled and tested God, they asked “Is the LORD among us or not?” They had seen God at work, but they still weren’t sure that God was with them. This episode might be remembered as one of those times when Israel tested God. That is, they showed a lack of faith. Consider the word of the Psalmist: “They tested God again and again, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41).

I have never seen the parting of the sea, bread fall from heaven, or see someone strike a rock to get water to flow from it. Now, I know that there will be those who want to explain how all of this could happen. We moderns love natural explanations of biblical miracles. Regardless of the explanations, I’ve not seen anything close to what is described here with my own eyes. So how might I as a human being know if God is with me? Should I take my ability to find a rare parking spot as being a sign of divine presence? I would love to have the power to pray for one of my parishioners who is experiencing health problems, and watch those problems immediately disappear, but I’ve not seen that happen, though I do believe in healing and I do pray for people. I trust that God hears my prayers. But, how do I know that God is with me?

In this story, God provided the people with water to sustain them. God provides us with water as well that will sustain us—spiritually. Remember the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. He offers her living water. He tells her that everyone who drinks the water of Jacob’s well would again thirst, but “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The woman told Jesus, “I want some of that water” (Jn. 4:13-15).  So do I!

So, the answer is—yes, God is with us!
Picture Attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. Moses Striking the Rock and Bringing Forth the Water, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54659 [retrieved March 13, 2017]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/abeppu/3815912913/.

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).

One Last Time – Lent 2

comesundayfb

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

March 12, 2017

Luke 13:1-9, 31-35

 

 

 

Interstate 35W Bridge Collapse, Minneapolis, MN, August 2007.

A man leaves home to head into the Big City and work in one the cities tallest buildings.  But it was September 11, and the man’s family never saw their husband and father again.

A woman calls home to tell her husband and daughters that she is leaving work and will be home for dinner.  She leaves downtown and heads on the freeway during rush hour.  She wades though traffic as it crawls across a bridge over the Mississippi River.  Out of nowhere, the bridge collapses and the woman never comes home.

A man drops off his husband at his workplace.  The man heads home and a few hours later sees a breaking news report of a mass shooting at his husband’s place of work.  He calls his spouse over and over, and no one ever picks up the phone.   After a frantic day and night of trying  going to hospitals to find his partner, he gets a phone call.  What he feared has come true; his husband was dead by shooter.

 

Why do these things happen?  Why did this person die and not this other one?

These are some of the questions people have as they hear about a tragedy that took place in Galilee.  Pilate, the governor of the area, killed Galileans as they were making sacrifices.  It was a sacrilege.

This shocking event made people wonder: did these people do something, did they sin, in order for this to happen.

 

This was the prevailing belief among many in Jesus’ time. If you did something wrong, then bad things will happen to you.

But Jesus doesn’t agree.  He asks if the Galileans who perished at Pilate’s hand were more sinful than others. What about those who died when a building collapse killing 18 people? Were they more sinful than others?

Jesus never answers that question but instead tells them to change their hearts and minds while there is time.

Jesus isn’t interested in asking why bad things happen.  Jesus is interested in repentance, turning around, devoting our lives to Jesus.  We only have so much time. How will we be present to God and others?

There is an old Simpson’s episode called “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish.” In this episode the family goes to a local Japanese restuarant in Springfield.  Homer eats a fish that was possibly poisonous and could kill him in a day.  When he realizes that he only has one day left to live, he creates a list of things he needed to do before the day ends.  He has a man-to-man talk with Bart. He listens to Lisa play her sax.  He borrows a camera and tapes a message to baby Maggie.  He reconciles with his father and spends one last time together with his wife Marge.  

During the night, he gets up and decides to sit a chair in the living room rather than die next to Marge.  He listens to the tape and falls asleep.  The next morning, Marge comes into the living room seeing Homer slumped in his chair.  Fearing the worst, she walks towards him and realizes that he is alive.  Homer and Marge rejoice that he has been spared from death.

We only have so much time.  How will we live? Will we live lives of gratitude, knowing we are forgiven and express that gratitude in love towards others?

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.

A Blessing to the Nations – A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2A (Genesis 12)

cropped-comesundaylogov2.png

Genesis 12:1-4 Common English Bible (CEB)

Abram’s family moves to Canaan
12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
those who curse you I will curse;
all the families of the earth
will be blessed because of you.”
Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.

**********

This short passage is one of the most foundational texts in scripture (at least that’s my view). God calls Abram (name not yet changed to Abraham) to leave his home and extended family, and travel to a foreign land. If he does this then God promises that he will become a “a great nation” blessed by God. Not only will Abram be blessed, but in addition “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” The lectionary selection is brief and yet powerful. God asks a lot of Abram, telling him to leave behind everything he has known. In a world in which tribe was central, it was risky to go to go to a land in which one was a stranger. While the promise itself was wonderful, the question was how would it work out?

The outworking of this call would have many twists and turns, and as the writer of Hebrews notes, Abraham set out “not knowing where he was going.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all lived in tents and Sarah was barren, but the promise revealed itself over time, but “all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (Hebrews 11:8-13). There would be times when Abraham took matters into his hands, such as when in pursuit of an heir he took Sarah’s slave, Hagar, and had child with her. Despite the twists and turns, the journey to blessing starts here, and continuing through the Covenant of Sinai to that of Calvary and the embrace of the Gentiles into God’s realm.

As a Christian, I interpret the call of Abraham through the lens of Jesus. He is, as Paul suggests, the seed of Abraham, through whom the blessings of God would be revealed to the nations (Gal.3:15-18). With this in mind, it’s appropriate to remember that Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham (Matthew 1:1-17). For Matthew Jesus, the Messiah, is the son of David and the son of Abraham. But connecting Jesus’ mission to Abraham, he envisions Jesus as the one through whom all the nations will be blessed. That is, he will save the people from their sins (Mt.1:21). From this perspective, the coming of Jesus is not a course correction on the part of God, but a natural extension of the call of Abram. That means the church doesn’t replace Israel, but as Paul notes, the Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree that is Israel, so that the nations might share in the blessing that God first promised to Abraham and to Israel (Rom. 11). As we ponder the call and the end result, it is wise to remember the promise of Second Isaiah, that Israel would be a light to the nations so that God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth (Is. 49:6).

Theologian Clark Williamson has devoted much attention to the question of the church’s relationship to Israel, especially in a post-Shoah world. He writes:

Israel was to be a priestly people, serving others, not itself. God’s covenant was not merely for Israel’s good but for the good of all human beings, Gentiles and Jews. God chose Israel as an instrument so that all peoples may come to know God and God’s purposes for them. [A Guest in the House of Israel, p. 125].

So, for Christians reading this call, which will be formalized more fully in Genesis 15 when the promise a child and heir is given (and sealed through sacrifice), and then again in Genesis 17, when God explicitly makes a covenant with Abram and in the process changes his name to Abraham (and that of Sarai to Sarah).

According to the reading from Genesis 12, Abram accepted the call and headed out from Haran to Canaan. He did so, accompanied by Lot and those closest to him, with only the promise of a blessing.  The promise is this—the families of the earth will be blessed through him. As we contemplate this call it’s good to note that while God seems narrow the focus to one family, the earliest readers of this promise, as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, would have understood themselves to be that nation through which God would bless the families of the earth. They had a special calling from God. They had a message to share with the nations. While it would be easy to forget this calling, and focus inward rather than outward, time and again messengers would remind the people of their calling. It wasn’t just Israel that was to be blessed, it was the entire creation. Having attended a stewardship workshop recently, I’m reminded that this is a stewardship issue. That would mean that the promise ultimately is rooted in the creation of humanity, who are blessed by God and charged with having dominion (management) of God’s creation (Gen.1:26-31).

The call on Abram and his descendants was to be a blessing to the nations. It would be through this people that God would bless creation. For Christians, this means recognizing that we have been, as noted earlier, grafted into the olive tree that is Israel. We have been adopted into the family through the one who is the seed of Abraham. But as the Gentiles are drawn into the family, and blessed by God, that doesn’t nullify the previous covenant (Gal. 3:15-18). There is a tendency for Christians to read Paul in a supersessionist manner, so that Jesus replaces Israel. That would be inappropriate. For our purposes, let us simply understand Paul’s reference to seed to be a sign that God always intended to bring all of creation into the fold, and that Israel plays an important role in this, as does Jesus.

While there will always be interpretive questions to wrestle with, since three religious traditions claim descent from Abraham, and that these three traditions have often been at odds with each other, it would be wise to affirm the common ancestry, and move to the question of the nature of this blessing. After all, the words bless and blessing figure prominently in this passage and in Genesis. Lest anyone think too highly of one’s self, it is also good to remember that the blessing spoken of here is a gift of God, though it is a gift that must be received. Remember that Abram is told that those who bless him will be blessed and that those who curse him will be cursed. As James McTyre notes, “Abram is called by God to serve as a mirror. Instead of images, Abram will reflect blessings and curses on the land where he will sojourn” [Feasting on the Word, Year A, 2:51].

From a Christian point of view, the church, as the body of Christ, reflects God’s blessings to the world. But what does this mean? What is a blessing? It’s a good question since the words bless or blessing figure prominently in this passage and in the rest of the story. For modern readers the word blessing may seem quaint but not all that meaningful. However, in Hebrew the word connotes a sense of well-being or flourishing. That is what God wants to see happen for creation. He wants it to once again flourish. As to what this means, Miroslav Volf suggests that flourishing means that one does not live by bread alone. The material world is important, for we are material beings, but in his argument as to why a globalized world needs religion, Volf notes that “when we live by bread alone, there is enough bread, not enough even when we make so much of it that some of it rots away; when we live by bread alone, someone always goes hungry; when we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste; . . . living by ‘mundane realities’ and for them alone, we remain restless and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice, and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social relationships.” We need bread, but we need more than bread. We need the bread of life.   [Volf, Flourishing, p. 22].

 

There is a thread that runs from creation (Genesis 1) to new creation (Revelation 22). It runs through Abram and on to Jesus, through whom we are grafted into the tree, so that we might be reconciled and share in the blessings of God as was promised to Abram as he left Haran for a new land.

Picture attribution: St. Savin – Calling of Abraham, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=33460 [retrieved March 7, 2017]. Original source: Images donated by Anne Richardson Womack, Vanderbilt University, and James T. Womack, Montgomery Bell Academy, Nashville, TN.

bobcornwall

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).