Tag: covenant

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.

 

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 14, 2018

Read Joshua 24:1-25 (CEB)

Introduction 

Joshua was the successor to Moses.  He had led the people across the Jordan River to begin taking the land.  Now, the land was theirs and Joshua, now an old man, wants the people to recommit to God again.

God had defeated the Egyptians, allowing for their escape. God was with them as the warred with the people living on the land promised for them.  But now as the land has been subdued, the people are being challenged.  Meeting other cultures, meant meeting other gods.  As Joshua is getting ready to pass from the scene, he wants the people to take stock of their lives and choose who they would worship or serve: the gods of their neighbors or the God that led them out of slavery? 

Today we study the farewell speech Joshua and the people of Israel’s response.

Engaging the Text

 I sent the hornetb]”>[b] before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. 13 I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

-Joshua 24:12-13

Joshua 24 includes some of the last words of Joshua.  He was a protégé of Moses, and when Moses died, Joshua took over.  He is speaking to the people after they wandered in the desert for 40 years, after they crossed the Jordan into the Promised land, after the people had battled the inhabitants of Canaan, and after they had set up the beginnings of a nation.  It took decades, but the Israelites had arrived in more ways than one.

Instead of kicking back and enjoying their new life, God is calling them to enter into covenant with God.  Joshua gives a final speech that is in three parts: recalling God’s mighty acts, discussion the covenant and then solemnizing the covenant.  When he speaks it is in the first person, meaning that it was not simply him speaking, he was speaking with divine authority.

It’s important to note that when the Israelites conquered the different nations, that meant coming into contact with foreign gods. Joshua’s talk is a reminder to make a choice to follow God, and sometimes that choice has to made daily.

Joshua starts by recounts the story of the Israelites, showing what God had done for them; the calling of Abraham and giving he and Sarah a son named Issac.  Issac had Jacob and Esau. Leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the destruction of Pharoah’s Army, and God being with them as they battled differing nations.  God even reminds them that they were given land they didn’t toil  and living in homes they didn’t build, reminding them they didn’t do this on their own. 

Everything that the Israelites had done; winning battles against the different nations, the vineyards they planted, the cities they lived in, the fields they farmed were not done by them alone.  Joshua reminds the people that all the good things they had at this moment, came from God. It was God that brought them to this moment. And because God got them to this point, they should give thanks to God.  Joshua wasn’t saying that they should just say thanks and move on, no, they were to give thanks to God’s goodness by serving God.

This concept that God is the one who is at work in our lives is something that is hard for our modern society to understand.  For good or for ill, modern society is focused on the self. It doesn’t matter what your political orientation is, we all tend to look at our achievements as solely the result of our hard work.  In Joshua’s speech, God is continually saying that it was Yahweh that did so much for the people.  Yahweh brought Israel into being and then led them out of Egypt. It was Yahweh that defeated all the enemies of the Israelites.  Joshua tells the people they are free to worship other gods. In verse 15 God says that a choice has to be made: “then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

This is a call to choosing to follow God and it is also a call to live a life of gratitude. One of my Old Testament professors at Seminary shared his view on how people take communion and how that has changed over time.  In the past, the congregants would come to the communion table in fear and trembling. They didn’t even take the bread, but opened their mouths and the pastor would place it on their tongues like a mother bird to her chicks.  In modern times, people come joyfully to the table, take the bread and wine and had back to their seats almost skipping.

In the future, the professor envisioned church members stomping down the aisle to the communion table.  The pastor shakes in fear. These members grab their bread and wine and then stomp back to their pew.

His little tale brought a few laughs in the room, but there was some seriousness about it.  It showed how one can go from having a grateful and humble heart to thinking that they don’t really need God and in fact, God should be honored they are doing this. We can go from gratitude to a sense of entitlement, thinking God didn’t do anything for us.

Joshua was trying to remind his people that their lives are not simply their own.  The Israelites were part of something bigger than themselves. They were part of God’s salvation story, God’s attempt to redeem creation from the bondage of sin.  

At the end of the passage, the people recommit to following Yahweh. Of course, the Israelites would forget what God had done in their lives.  Joshua knew this. But at that moment, the Israelites get it. They will strive to live the life of a servant.

In some ways, this reminds us that we say “yes” to God day after day.  It isn’t just a “one and done” debate. People in recovery usually say that the road to sobriety is one day at a time.

Conclusion

I heard a phrase a lot when I was growing up.  It’s phrase you hear a lot in the black church.  “God woke me up this morning and started me on my way.”  When I was a kid, I had a hard time understanding this. Was God sitting next to my bed and maybe nudging me to wake up?  

As I got older, I began to understand what that meant; it means that our lives are not are own.  God has done wonderous things for us and our response is a life of service to God and to our sisters and brothers.  It’s to enter into God’s continuing salvation story and see how we can model and show what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Do we see that the God that demanded allegiance to the Israelites long ago, also demands our allegiance?  We are being asked who we will serve.  We can choose the ways of the world that leads to “death” or will we choose the one who brought us salvation through Jesus Christ.

Choose this day who you will serve. Who will you serve? As singer  Bob Dylan says, “you gotta serve somebody.”

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