|Tall Timber Ranch|
Monday, October 24, 2016
Preached on Sunday, October 23, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 16:1-16
One of my oldest and best friends is a farmer who’s got some walnut orchards. Like most walnut growers he’s got a big, elaborate machine, almost as tall and as long as a house, for removing the hulls from walnuts.
This machine is called a “huller”. My friend’s huller broke down this harvest because, the last time a couple of important parts had come apart, he fastened them in place with a vice grip, and (now) three or four years later, that vice grip wore out.
This time he fixed it by welding the loose parts together. My friend is a very good, and serious, and successful farmer, and that’s how they often do things.
The summer of my twenty-first year, I was working for a farmer who owned two tractors and neither of those tractors had breaks worth a hoot. Stepping on the brake accomplished absolutely nothing. You had to stand on the break with your left foot while you stood on the clutch with your right foot, and the tractor would gradually come to a stop.
I was coming around the corner, into the big farm shop, to park my tractor where I usually parked it and, as I drove in, I suddenly noticed the farmer standing there beside his truck in my spot. I stood up on the brake, and I stood on the clutch, and I gradually came to a stop, but not before I hit the rear bumper of the pickup.
The farmer was standing right there, and he yelled something I don’t remember, and he jumped backward about five feet. I had to think of something to say. So I said that I had tried to stop in time but the brakes didn’t work.
The farmer knew that the breaks on the tractors didn’t work, and he knew why they didn’t work. He was a good, and serious, and successful farmer, and that’s how they often do things.
They neglect what holds everything together. They take shortcuts and people crash.
Well, it’s not just farmers. It’s true of humans in general. It’s human nature. It’s something we often laugh and shake our heads at. It’s something we can sometimes get angry and bitter about. It’s something we sometimes call sin.
It’s only a small part of how we get in trouble, and how we make a mess of our own lives, and a mess of other people’s lives. It’s how we crash into each other. This is only a small part of how Abraham, and Sarah, and their slave girl Hagar, and a tiny unseen presence named Ishmael got in trouble.
I suppose some of their trouble was God’s fault. After all, God had gotten their hopes up. The Lord had gotten them thinking about strange and crazy things. The Lord had gotten this old couple, and their kinfolk and servants, thinking about becoming a great nation, a blessing to the whole world and, strangest of all, God had gotten them thinking about babies. What on earth was God thinking?
The Lord was more or less hanging around, talking to them, acting like he was going to make something special out of them, acting like he loved them, and going around making lots of things happen: making everything happen but babies.
If God hadn’t shown up, they would have gotten used to things as they were, and just made the best of it as they could. They wouldn’t have tried something so stupid; or maybe they would have tried it anyway.
Sarah decided that, if they were going to have a baby, the way the Lord said they would, it would have to be by means of a surrogate mother in the form of a second wife: in this case a slave wife, but that was the way things worked in that part of the ancient world of their day. It was actually legal, and normal, and moral. Abraham’s grandson Jacob started married life with two wives, and ended up with four, but that’s another story.
It needs to be said that, although having more than one wife was not unusual, even in the Bible, the tell-tale sign is that, whenever it happened, trouble always came of it. It always came from trouble, and it always made matters worse.
It was like the phrase that kids use, and that their parents dread to hear: everybody’s doing it. The trouble is that it’s always trouble when God’s people take to heart what everybody’s doing.
It’s only a wonder that Sarah didn’t get the idea sooner. It was one more sign that she and Abraham were late bloomers.
Sarah thought of it, and talked Abraham into going along with her plan, and both of them could have said that they didn’t know any better. God hadn’t told them not to do it. This is another childish thing, but we all know that growing up is vastly overrated.
The truth is that God didn’t tell them not to do it. In fact, the Lord didn’t tell Abraham that Sarah had to be the mother of the blessed baby until the next chapter of Genesis; the chapter after this story. But we can’t read the story of this big mistake without getting the feeling that they somehow should have known better.
It’s like the story of the young boy in the good old days of chores. His mother told him to take the rug out of his bedroom and hang it on the clothesline and beat it. The boy hung up the rug like his mother said, and then he didn’t do his work. He disappeared for the rest of the day, and then he came home before supper time holding his baseball bat and his glove. His mother scolded him as he came in, “Didn’t it tell you to go and beat your rug?” “No mom, you told me to hang the rug up and beat it!”
Abraham and Sarah were about as good Christians as you could have found nearly four thousand years ago. So we can see how Christian peer pressure can go wrong. We can care about God’s purpose in our lives, and in our fellowship, and make the absolutely selfish and ugly choice of directions. And then we can make it worse. Being more or less in the will of God, as you might say it, is no protection from our worst selves.
We don’t see Abraham at his worst here, but he comes pretty close to it. In his outward circumstances, he was living a blessed life and a successful life, and he got God’s blessings and his apparent success mixed up. There in the tent, with Sarah, Abraham was at his least successful and he wanted no part of it.
Abraham neglected to give her the good influence that he should have brought to Sarah, just as should have brought her good influences to him. They both reneged on their care for each other.
The way Sarah blamed Abraham for doing what she asked, and the way Abraham dismisses it all, says it all. They cared about themselves more than they cared about each other. Nothing good can come from that.
The slave girl Hagar did nothing more than to live up to the example set by her mistress and master. Sarah could do something Hagar couldn’t do by giving her to an old man. And, when she got pregnant, Hagar showed Sarah that she was thinking, “Maybe you can do some things I can’t do, but I can do something you can’t do!”
Yes, she was living up to their example, and so Sarah gave her more of it. She started slapping Hagar around, and probably she said plenty of things that hurt Hagar worse than the slapping.
Something about the slapping surprised me. I call it slapping. It has to do with Sarah’s hands.
What surprised me is that the angel of the Lord, this mysterious spiritual messenger, told Hagar to go back and submit to her. Most translations say something like this: “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” But the Hebrew says, in essence: “Go back and submit to her hands.” (Genesis 16:9) The hand thing has got to be a slapping thing, or something worse.
I would never tell anyone to go and stay in an abusive relationship. As a pastor, I had to figure this out really fast, because my first church was in a community where there was a lot of abuse in many different forms. It was a rough town.
When I was a kid, I got bullied a lot. There were times and places, especially in the seventh grade, when I would get knocked down, in the halls or outside, almost every day, sometimes more than once.
But every now and then I had an odd power. If I saw some bullies pushing another kid around I would yell at them, and tell them to stop, and they did. I could stop fights, and I did that a number of times. I saw that as one of my purposes in life. One day, in the seventh grade, a kid I didn’t even know came up to me and told me that he admired the way I stood up to the bullies, even though I let them shove me around.
The way I see the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, I see that Hagar had a special purpose in life. It was a mixed blessing. Her blessing had a strong connection to her being the mother of Ishmael who became one of several different sources of the people whom we call Arabs. I think he was really mostly the ancestor of the Bedouin tribes around the Sinai and the deserts around the Dead Sea and east of the Jordan.
But the blessing of Hagar went beyond her connection to her son although he would be a son to make her proud, and what more can you ask? The blessing is in her son’s name. Ishmael means “God heeds”. That could mean “God hears” or “God sees”.
Hagar felt that she was seen and heard and this was what God was to her. This was how the God of Abraham and Sarah related to her. And she felt, somehow, as if, meeting this God who sent this angel messenger to her, she, herself, saw God, and heard God and God always saw her and heard her. This must have changed everything.
Hagar knew God perhaps as well as her master Abraham did. She received the gift of naming God. She found a name for God in what God did for her, and I do believe that Hagar is the only human being in the Bible who created a name for the Lord the God of Abraham.
God heeds! It’s a word of attention, and nearness, and compassion, and it’s a word of protection and safety. The fact that the Lord saw and heard Hagar in her running away from Sarah meant that he saw what Sarah and Abraham had done to her. God saw her need.
When she went back to them, God still saw her need. Abraham recognized what God was doing and so he gave the baby the name the angel said to call him. Abraham did this even though it was a confession of his own shame and guilt, and the shame and guilt of Sarah who really wouldn’t show signs of repentance.
Abraham knew that he was responsible and that Sarah was responsible for using and abusing their slave girl and not treating her as a human being. It was never the Lord’s will for his people to treat people as things, even if they were slaves. When Abraham agreed to the boy’s name “God Sees” it was the same as a confession of sin.
The boy became a typical boy and, as an older brother can be to another brother, he was mean to his younger brother Isaac. Brothers are often that way, even when they love each other.
Sarah would come down hard on him and Hagar for that, in the future. Hagar and her boy would have to make another get away, but still they did this with the God who sees and hears.
I don’t know whether you have ever come to this; but I have. There are times when you seem to have nothing left. You seem to be in a deep trouble with no way out: no hope at all. There seems to be no one to turn to. Even at such a time, God can come to you and be the God who is there, seeing and hearing everything. There is something there that God can show you, and you can see that this is enough, and more than enough.
To know God as the one who looks and sees you and hears you can be the greatest and most empowering blessing in the deepest darkness.
When you know Jesus, in this deepest way, you find that he is the God who sees and hears you. Jesus is the place where God became human and dwelt among us. This means that God doesn’t see and hear from heaven, or from some invisible vantage place. God sees and hears in you, in your skin, because he has skin, and bones, and flesh, and a heart, and a brain as one of us, and yet he is God beyond all time and space.
In fact, God in Jesus, has a vantage point that is more a part of you than you dare to think. It’s scary.
The vantage of God, in Jesus, where God sees and hears, is the cross. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is shown as the lamb that was slain for the sins of the world, and we are told that this is who he always has been and always will be. (Revelation 5:6; 13:8)
In Jesus, on the cross, God sees and hears deeper than our sins and failings which he carried for us there. God sees and hears deeper than our fears and our despairs. God carries them. God carries us. God grabs us, as we die to ourselves, and God takes us up and conquers the death that seems to smother and overcome us. It’s like what the apostle Paul wrote: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Hagar knew that this God had also seen and heard her own pride: her own shame. She knew that this God had seen, and heard her failure, and yet he came to her need in the desert. This gave her life.
Hagar was sent back to bear witness to Abraham and Sarah, and everyone who lived in her world of wanderers in the desert. Hagar was blessed because she knew where her son’s name came from. She was the witness of that God: The God of the promises, the God who would use the family of Abraham and Sarah to come into the world as Jesus, and die for us on the cross, and rise from the dead. God does that because that is simply what the God who sees, and hears, and loves is bound to do.
It’s what we need most, and it is who God is and what he has done.
Then we become like Hagar, who was looked down on, as a slave, but was the witness of the wonder of God. We become the living witnesses of the God who sees and hears: The God who sees and hears from the cross. We become witnesses of what the world needs most. Everyone needs to know that God sees them, and hears them, and loves them.
Tuesday, October 18, 2016
Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 15:1-21
A husband and wife were talking in the kitchen, one morning, while their kids were getting ready for school, and the wife said, “You know, it’s been a lot easier to get Junior up for school ever since he got his nose ring.”
|Tall Timber Ranch (Church Camp Retreat Center)|
Leavenworth WA: October 2016
Faith isn’t exactly a nose ring held in the guiding hand of God, but maybe we should think of it as something like that, a sensitive spot in the soul, a soft spot in the heart.
Sometimes we think of faith as strength. In his letter to the Ephesians (6:16) Paul describes faith as if it were part of the fighting equipment of a soldier. He calls faith, “the shield of faith”. And so it is. Faith is a strong thing. But the armor that the shield of faith belongs to is “the armor of God” which means that it is either the presence and activity of God that protects us and gives us strength, or else it means that the armor of God is the armor that comes from God.
Faith is the gift of God, which means that the shield of faith is a strength that is not truly our own. Faith itself is a strength supplied by God where we need it most.
The whole point of armor is that we have our sensitive spots, our soft spots. The strength of faith begins when God’s strength is held close to our weakness. When the strength of God comes close to our sensitive spots, our soft spots, then faith comes to life, faith stays alive, faith gives us life, faith helps us to live.
Faith was brought back to life in Abraham when the Lord came to Abraham to encourage him in a time of weakness. The story tells us that Abraham was afraid. The Lord came to Abraham, and said, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Let’s list what made Abraham afraid. Abraham’s fear came from a strange pattern of success and failure. The Lord, first of all, had made himself known to Abraham. The Lord had tapped him on the shoulder, and given him and his family a special calling in life. The Lord called him to be a new kind of person: a person whose life was a journey, a journey with God. It was a life where the whole point was to move, and to grow, and, most of all, to trust: to live by faith, to let God be his source of security, to let God be his shield.
In order to follow God’s call, Abraham originally set out from the ancient city of Ur where he was raised. Ur was a place that rested on the past. It was stable, predictable, safe. To leave, for anywhere else, was scary.
But Abraham succeeded. He followed the Lord’s directions daily, until he and his family arrived at the land the Lord had promised them. When they got there the Lord announced, “Here it is!” Only there were other people living on the premises. Those other people, the ones with legal title to the land, lived in secure and stable towns, protected by high walls and towers. Abraham and his family had no place to go but to go on living in tents on the edge.
In their God-given land, they had no land of their own. They avoided getting too close to the well-settled areas. They migrated with their sheep and goats on their yearly journey between winter and summer pasture.
The Lord told Abraham that he still had many years ahead of him, and that he would die in this land, and eventually his descendants would go down to Egypt, where they would be slaves for four hundred years. Then God would lead them back and give them this land. That was God’s promise about land. It was very encouraging. Or was it?
Actually the nomad life was good for Abraham, and he was good at it. He prospered. The people in the towns were a little bit afraid and a little jealous of him. At least in the good years.
It wasn’t long, though, before there was a string of bad years. There was a drought, and Abraham saw no other way to survive than to take his family and his growing tribe down to Egypt.
That turned out to be a bad move. Once he got there, Abraham was afraid that the king of Egypt would want his wife Sarah. Even though Sarah was almost ninety, she is said to have been beautiful.
(And that is a mystery. But it is no greater mystery than to say that, just as God kept Abraham strong at a hundred, so God kept Sarah beautiful at ninety. Someone has said that Sarah had a special beauty secret, and that it was called the Oil of Delay, but the real reason was that the Lord had a special purpose for these two.)
So Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister (which was half true). But the King figured this out and gave Abraham a stern moral lecture, which made Abraham look like a moral midget, and the king sent them all packing.
The drought ended, and Abraham and his family were so successful again that they became too big an operation to stay in one group any longer. Abraham told his nephew, Lot, to take first pick of the range-land so that they could keep their herds apart.
Lot was greedy and lazy, and he claimed all the best land for himself. Abraham found himself taken advantage of by his own family. What kind of leader was he, anyway?
Next his nephew’s division of the tribe got caught in a war. Lot and his family were taken captive by the allied armies of four kings who had invaded the land for plunder. They were about to be made into slaves. So Abraham took the men of his tribe, and beat the invading army, and freed his nephew’s family, and all the rest of the prisoners.
Abraham turned out to be a big man. But this is where we come in, at chapter fifteen of the book of Genesis, and we find that Abraham is afraid. Why was he afraid?
God had called him from the security of the great, rich city of Ur, and made him the beginning of a new kind of people. The plan was that there would be a tribe of people who traveled with God by faith. God had made part of his promise to Abraham to consist of land, and of children who would inherit the heritage.
Abraham was like a child, himself, on a long drive who keeps asking, “Are we there yet? When will we get there?” But Abraham was a one-hundred-year-old child, and he had reasons to be in a hurry. His years were passing and nothing was happening with the promises.
You can see the pattern. That was why Abraham was afraid. Here was his sensitive spot, his soft spot.
But there is another pattern that you can see in this story. The pattern has to do with the strength and the shield of faith. The pattern is that the Lord keeps coming back to Abraham. Four times in the four chapters (twelve through fifteen) God repeats the promises. Whether Abraham is succeeding or failing, the Lord is always doing something in the middle of it. The promises get repeated in such a way that those promises about the future almost don’t matter so much.
It’s the presence of God, that keeps coming back, that matters. It’s the pattern of visitation that is the message.
In Isaiah (41:8) God calls Abraham his friend. The many visits of God were a pattern of friendship, and this is where Abraham’s faith came from. God’s friendship became Abraham’s most sensitive spot. When God touched Abraham there, Abraham listened.
Who calls you to share life with them? Who cares about your fears? Who keeps you focused on your dreams and your hopes? There are people who are gifts of God, who fit the pattern of abiding friendship and love. They are your soft spot, and you listen to them. There is God’s pattern of faithful and continuing presence. Faith means responding to this pattern and living accordingly.
Abraham had a choice of two patterns to respond to. There was the repeated pattern of difficulties, hardships, battles, failures, and fears. And there was the repeated pattern of the faithful presence of God.
There’s a verse in Romans (10:17) which I know better in the King James Version, and don’t want to take the time to discuss why it is different in the more modern translations. But Paul says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The word from God teaches you to hear, and hearing teaches you to trust the God who speaks to you.
God has a message for you, a message of promise: a message of faith, and hope, and love. The Lord has a desire to give you something, and he has designed a pattern of visitation around you, it is a plan to open up a soft spot in your heart, a sensitive spot in your soul, with the aim of your hearing that message: a message that would set you apart for a life of walking in faith with God. God’s aim is to open up your heart so that you can hear and respond.
There are these two patterns there for you to read. One is a pattern of repeated uncertainties, difficulties, competition, fears, reasons not to hope, reasons not to try, reasons to make yourself hard, or angry, miserable, or fearful. It is a pattern made up of real things, real hurts, real dangers, real obstacles.
The other pattern is the pattern of the faithful presence, and wisdom, and promise of God. There is a pattern of real visits from God. Whether you have noticed it or not, whether you saw the good or the bad going on around you, the Lord was there.
If you looked around yourself, right now, you would see more good gifts than you could count. On my retreat a couple days ago we were given a spiritual exercise. We were told to take five minutes to list ten things we were thankful for. Then we were to pause and then spend five more minutes listing ten more things we were thankful for. Then we were to pause and list ten more things that we were thankful for. Then we were told to look for patterns. We were told to see something that God wanted to tell us; something God wanted us to know.
God is here. And when you leave this room, God will go home with you. Will you ask him to help you see what he has given to you, to help you and strengthen you?
Most of all, the Lord has visited you, though it seems like a long time ago, when he came down to earth in Jesus Christ, and showed you how much he identifies with you, and how he loves you so much that he would carry your sins, and your weakness, and your shame, and your fears on the cross. Ask him to help you think about that cross, and ask what that cross has to do with you now.
Abraham asked the Lord, “How can I know...?” We too should ask the Lord to help us know. The Lord would like to repeat his promises and strengthen them in your heart. Faith can be the soft, tender soft spot in our heart that enables us to hear God speak. It’s that funny tender spot where we receive the assurance of God’s love.
Faith is a sensitive spot. Like a ring through our nose, it makes us more willing to go through the difficulties of living by faith than the alternative of living without faith, and without God.
Faith is the surrender we make so that the Lord can make us into the new person he dreams of, so the old person of frustration and fear can end, and the new person of faith can be led by God into freedom.
Friday, October 14, 2016
Tuesday, October 11, 2016
Preached on Sunday, October 9, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 14:8-24
The Book of Genesis tells us about the origins of the universe, and our solar system, and our planet; and it tells us about the existence of things beyond time and space; and it tells us tales of adventure, and violence, and romance; and it tells us hundreds and hundreds of names of people, kings, nations, tribes, cities, and other places that we don’t know anything about. The fourteenth chapter of Genesis is just typical of all that. And I’m sure that you all are eager and ready to know about all that. But I’m not going to tell you.
|Walking along Priest Rapids Lake, Desert Aire/Mattawa WA|
I’m going to tell you a few things about Abraham, and his journey of faith, that surprise me in this fourteenth chapter. Even here, with all these strange names and that highly mysterious stranger Melchizedek, we can find something that teaches us about our own journey, and something about our calling from God as his people of faith that may surprise us and even boggle our minds.
There’s a word hiding in this chapter that is one of the most important Biblical words. We need to know and understand that word, as people who belong to God and who are called to live with God on a journey of faith. That word is covenant.
Covenant is a very fancy word. We don’t use it in our everyday conversation.
The word covenant is in hiding in this chapter, perhaps because most translators may not want to identify such a grand thing in our relationship with God with such a little thing as the alliance that Abraham had with three pagan brothers who belonged to the Amorite tribe. The fact that Abraham allowed himself to become so involved with these pagans, and be obligated to them by some promise, or vow, or commitment made between them seems out of place. It seems inappropriate. I wonder if the translators have hidden the word covenant, here, by calling it something else.
Some people, and some scholars, might describe the word covenant as a sort of legal word. They might describe it as a contract. But a contract is usually two-sided. Sometimes the covenant that makes people into the people of God seems two-sided. God makes a promise to his people, and God’s people make a promise to God.
As Christians we are even tempted to put the two-sided promise backward. We seem to teach that if we make a commitment to Christ, Christ will be committed to us. This is really the wrong way to start out. Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16)
The truth is, in the Bible, a covenant is based on a one-sided promise: God’s promise, God’s faithfulness. God promises to keep his promise with people, and with the world, as God. A covenant is a promise.
The first use of the word covenant comes when God promised Noah that he would never send a great flood to destroy the human world again. That promise was not a conditional promise, and there were no two sides about it.
Next Sunday, if we are able, we will look at God’s first use of the word covenant with Abraham. In that covenant the promise is all God’s promise. All Abraham does is to receive God’s promise to him, and to his future family and nation.
There was really nothing Abraham could do to keep the promise. The promise promises that children will come from Abraham and Sarah. They have tried and tried to have children for decades and it has never happened.
So it seemed physically impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child together. The foundation of a covenant with God was, and is, a kind of miracle. It begins with God doing for us what we cannot do.
God didn’t use the word covenant when he made his very first promise to Abraham, but it was the beginning of the covenant based on a promise. God said: “I will bless you, and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)
Now the covenant that means a promise changes your life. It makes your life deeper. It involves you in the meaning of your own life and the meaning of other people’s lives in a new way and deeper way.
Receiving a promise is just as life changing as making a promise. As God’s people who discover that God has made (and is making) a promise to us, we discover that God gets involved with us in a wonderful and miraculous way.
We couldn’t have made it happen. It is a gift. Yet the gift involves us. It gets us involved. God’s promise gets us involved with God. It gets us involved with others. And it gets us involved with the world in unexpected ways.
It’s like a marriage vow. Of course marriage vows are two-sided. At least that’s what happens at a wedding. But it seems to me that the two-sidedness only works when the two are willing to make it work, or let it work, one-sidedly. Perhaps the most important part is to let yourself be loved, and to live according to the promise of being loved. Then, sometimes, you have to give your partner the gift of being loved one-sidedly. They have to know and take to heart what it means to be loved one-sidedly. You probably find yourself taking turns loving and being loved, but often you do it one side at a time. That’s how it works between two human beings.
Living in a covenant promise with God can never change us or empower us unless we let the one-sided faithfulness of God come in. Then we live in this world, and with other human beings, in an increasingly new and deeper way.
The fourteenth chapter of Genesis shows us Abraham going to war and winning. Here is the only place where we see him doing this. Even though I have read this story many times, this time it surprised me.
I always knew that Abraham was much braver than I am, or ever will be. He and Sarah were essentially elderly city people who became nomads. They herded sheep, and goats, and other livestock. They did this on a journey of faith, not knowing where they were going and, when they found out where they were going, they were never able to settle down or claim any of the land that God promised them. That’s heroic.
At the same time, Abraham was kind of wimpy. He was afraid of Sarah. He had a fear that Sarah would get him killed. More than once Abraham didn’t seem able to stand up to her. He could blame her for some of his most shameful and embarrassing failures, but that doesn’t speak well for him.
In the fourteenth chapter of Genesis, we see this surprising side of Abraham. He became a general: maybe more of a guerilla general, who gets the better of a much bigger, stronger army. He did this by means of a kind of two-pronged ambush under the cover of darkness. This took strategy, as well as courage. We know this from the meager details. We don’t know much more than this.
Abraham and his men liberated the prisoners and the spoils of war (the booty). I don’t think it would be any less courageous if he and his men did this by attacking from the rear, where the baggage and the prisoners were kept.
What they seized in battle would not have been undefended. There was a larger army encamped in the dark. There would have been plenty of armed guards posted around the prisoners and the loot. Those guards would fight, and sound the alarm. Abraham and his men would have to do real fighting. It was life and death. It was a gamble, and they won it.
Abraham and his troops retreated with their prizes in the dark, but their victory was real. The enemy could pursue them, but the enemy didn’t. The larger enemy retreated from the frontier and returned home with their losses. That’s how I interpret the meager details. There’s not much to go on.
The surprise, to me, is that I see Abraham as, for the most part, avoiding trouble, moving about on the margins of the land that nobody wanted. I am surprised by the size of his troops. Three hundred men-at-arms is an impressive number. For a really large herding operation Abraham would have needed armed men to protect his operation from other nomads and outlaws.
I’m sure that the armed men doubled as herdsmen and shepherds. They wouldn’t have looked like, or thought like, soldiers. But they could fight like soldiers.
Think about those three hundred men (or men and teenagers). Their numbers would mean that there had to be a couple thousand other people in Abraham’s ranching operation: men and women, old and young. They all lived under the direction (and worked for) Abraham and Sarah. They would have to travel in clusters and smaller encampments to make it all work. The size of Abraham’s operation surprises me as much as his courage.
The transforming power of God’s covenant and promise meant that Abraham didn’t live in isolation from other people. He and Sarah lived and moved on the margin of things and tried to stay out of trouble, but he wasn’t afraid to get involved in bigger issues, and in bigger battles than his own survival. Abraham was willing to work and to fight for others.
Of course, you could say that he was only involved in order to rescue his nephew Lot and Lot’s family, but he really rescued lots of people, and he defeated an enemy alliance that had a lot of people, and cities, and tribes under its thumb. Abraham made life better for a lot of people: towns, and villages, and tiny long-forgotten kingdoms. They would look like nothing to us but they would be the world to those who lived there.
That’s where the mysterious priest-king Melchizedek came from. He ruled one of those tiny city-kingdoms. It was actually an early version of Jerusalem: nothing more than a small walled town with the farmland that surrounded it. He came with a meal and a blessing. He came to thank Abraham, and his allies, for saving them and setting them free.
Abraham, you see, was blessed to be a blessing, and the promise of God was powerful. The promise of God worked on him and made him blessed: it made him a blessing.
Even if Abraham got involved, at first, just to rescue Lot and his family, think about what that means. Lot had been an ungrateful jerk to Abraham. Abraham had graciously given Lot the first pick of the land when they both got too big in their ranching partnership and needed to split up. Lot chose the best land for himself even though Abraham, as the senior partner, could have taken the first choice.
Lot took the land that went down to Sodom and Gomorrah. We might have called it “Sin City”. Abraham had invested years of his life working with Lot, and trying to shape his life like an older brother would with a younger, and Lot simply blew it. Lot was making a mess of his own life and his family’s life. The Bible and Abraham call him righteous, but Lot was a righteous mess.
Abraham could have reasoned that Lot didn’t deserve to be rescued. The people of Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t deserve to be rescued. God’s promise changed Abraham. God made him generous to the undeserving, and probably stopped him from even thinking about what other people deserved or didn’t deserve.
The promise of God does that all the time, if you take it to heart. Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28) To bless those who curse you doesn’t mean merely to say: “God bless you.” Blessing has to be done with more than words.
I have thought of Abraham and Sarah as living isolated from the world around them. Our scriptures show us that God’s covenant was a promise involved Abraham in the life of God. With God, it involved Abraham in the life of Lot, the righteous mess, and with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
All covenants are not on the level of a marriage. Abraham’s involvement with God was like a marriage. Abraham was involved in the world in the way that marriage involves you in the world around you differently than you were involved before. Involvement included the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham was involved included the people of God (like Lot) who seemed to be moving close to Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s covenant was a marriage that called Abraham to come the rescue of a troubled and needy world that needed him.
Abraham didn’t move to Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham didn’t make an alliance with Sodom and Gomorrah, which is what the king of Sodom was looking for in the deal he proposed with Abraham. Abraham didn’t marry Sodom, but his marriage covenant with God involved him with Sodom, and so Abraham got involved.
Abraham didn’t take the king of Sodom up on his deal, but he was generous to the king of Sodom. God’s covenant deepens us and stretches us in ways that will surprise us, just as Abraham surprises us.
As God’s people, God’s covenant with us involves us in the world around us and it involved us in the world’s needs.
This might surprise us. The prophet Jeremiah was ready to work with the rulers of Babylon, and so was Daniel. They never conformed, but they were involved. Jeremiah told his people who were carried away to Babylon: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) God’s people are called to be involved in blessing the world around them.
Having the promise of God’s faithfulness involved them this way. God’s promises of faithfulness in Jesus involve us in the world of human needs where God has placed us. Jesus touched the unclean. Jesus was a friend to those whom others looked down on and condemned.
It was by his calling to be involved in this world that Abraham was able to meet the mysterious Melchizedek, and be blessed by him. There is a simple and mind boggling surprise in this.
The simple surprise is that Abraham, in getting involved in the needs of the world and making a difference in the world around him, found someone who knew something about the God who called Abraham in the first place.
Abraham knew a name for God that Melchizedek didn’t know, but Melchizedek used a name for God that Abraham recognized: The Most High God. Melchizedek didn’t use the special “I Am” version of the word “Lord” that Abraham was learning to use, as God’s friend. Melchizedek knew the Lord who made heaven and earth: not the Lord of the personal relationship and the personal covenant and promise, but he knew something.
Abraham discovered that there were people around him who had an inkling of who God was and what God might do. When we are involved in the lives of other people we can discover an openness to faith. We can find that God is preparing the way for other people to become his people.
They are on a journey toward faith, and they might not even realize it yet. God is preparing them to learn about the faithful God who makes great promises that change our lives.
That God is the God whom we meet in Jesus: the love of God made flesh and blood for us, who died for everyone on the cross. This is the God of the great one-sided promise. This is the God who does for everyone what we cannot do for ourselves. That is the mind-boggling surprise of God: the surprise of Jesus who is the faithfulness of God.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Preached on World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2016
Scripture reading: Matthew 8:1-13
When I was a little kid, in the nineteen fifties, there was a thing that would happen in school, especially in the first or second grade. It was a kind of game. If a boy accidentally touched a girl, or a girl accidentally touched a boy, someone might shout “Ugh, cooties!”
|Crab Creek, North of Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA: August 2016|
Cooties were an invisible bug or a germ. Nobody knew exactly what they were, but if someone touched you, and if the other kids said you had caught the cooties, then you had to tag someone else really fast in order to get rid of them. Everybody ran around tagging each other, and getting tagged for a few minutes.
I can’t remember exactly how it would all end. I think it went on until the school bell rang for the end of recess.
It was very funny. It could also be very mean, because some kids seemed to carry cooties on them more than other kids. For some reason, I was one of the luckier kids, because I almost never gave anyone the cooties.
In the eighth chapter of his gospel, Matthew puts two stories side by side in which Jesus is willing to touch (or try to touch) someone who has cooties. Well, it wasn’t cooties really. One of the people had leprosy, which is an infection that can be seen on the skin and, at its extreme, can cause tissue loss and some deformity of hands, and feet, and limbs.
I read a bit about it in order to remember it better. It’s fairly complicated in its symptoms. It’s not as infectious as its reputation tells. But it’s scary.
The laws of God, in the Old Testament, seized upon leprosy as a symbol of the uncleanness of sin. The Old Testament laws required people with leprosy to live alone outside the community. They couldn’t come to worship in the places where the Lord made his presence known. A leper couldn’t touch other people or allow themselves to be touched. They had to cover their lips and shout the word “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others off. (Leviticus 13:1-46) For the rest of your life, no one would ever touch you again.
In ancient times, more than one disease was classified as leprosy and some of these could run their course and be gone. And there were cases where real leprosy was healed miraculously. (2 Kings 5)
When a person was healed, the law said that they should present themselves for examination by a priest and be certified as healed. (Leviticus 5:1-13; 14:1-32) Then they could make an offering to the Lord and come back to their community and their family, and into the place of worship. They were clean again. They were whole. The symbol of sin and separation was gone and they were free to return to human life again. Other human being would touch them again, at last.
Jesus broke the law (or at least the taboo) by simply touching the unclean person, but Jesus made his touch from being taboo into a miracle. He not only healed an unclean disease, but also brought that healed person back to family, and friends, and community, and worship: back to human life and back to their acceptance by others. They were free from the stigma of a kind of cooties that was both physical and spiritual.
The other form of cooties was to be a foreigner. The centurion was a commander of roughly one hundred soldiers. He may have been Roman, but he could also have come from one of the nearby provinces, so maybe he was Syrian or something else. He may have come from any one of the many nationalities that lived within the Roman Empire.
But he was an outsider. He was the same as a foreigner.
It wasn’t against the Old Testament law for Jews to touch foreigners, or non-Jews. But it was still taboo anyway. A foreigner might have eaten pork, or shrimp, or neglected to wash the way the rabbis taught when they interpreted the law.
If you were Jewish, you shouldn’t touch a non-Jew, or let yourself be touched, or enter their house, or let them enter yours. You simply didn’t know where they might have been, or what form of uncleanness they might have touched. You didn’t take a chance with them.
They didn’t necessarily have a disease. What they did have was a kind of spiritual cooties that you might catch from them, and you couldn’t play tag to get rid of it.
Jesus was playing a dangerous game because it looked like he was on his way to enter a non-Jewish home and he was going touch a non-Jewish slave who was sick and dying. He was ready to walk into a buzzing hive of cooties.
The centurion was afraid this might happen, and he did prove to be exactly what the synagogue elders said he was. He was kind. He was a friend. He spared Jesus from the stigma that Jesus was more than willing to carry for the sake of love.
He had delegated some elders from the Jewish synagogue to bring his plea for help in the first place and he sent a delegation of friends to keep Jesus from degrading himself by coming to his house.
The story of the leper and the story of the centurion share something in common. Both involve healing, and the authority and power of Jesus to heal the sick. But we can see that same authority and power working on a much higher level than physical healing, because Jesus does something (or is ready, willing, and able to do something) that wasn’t asked for.
The leper didn’t ask for Jesus to touch him. The centurion didn’t ask Jesus to come to his house. Jesus showed that he could heal from a distance, and so he also could have healed the leper without touching him. But the simple action of touching meant something. That’s the real point about Jesus and about those who would follow him.
The walk to the centurion’s house would have meant something. In the centurion’s case, Jesus said what he meant to show by his willingness to go to the house of cooties. Jesus said that all people, and all kinds of people, and every nation of people are welcome in the kingdom of God. Everyone is invited to the feast of God, if they will come in faith and trust.
Jesus was willing to reach out and touch the untouchable. Jesus was willing to go the distance to where the untouchable live. That is what the love of God does in the thing that we call salvation.
The cross is the heart of this. On the cross the arms and the hands of Jesus reached out to hold the nails, but that was his way of reaching out to hold onto (and go all the way with) the distance that sin creates in us: our distance from the reality of God; our distance from harmony and peace with others – from family, neighbors, enemies, and the whole world.
Sin (in the New Testament Greek) is an archery word that means missing the mark. Close only counts in the game of horse shoes. Sin is a word about distance. The cross is God going the distance to touch the untouchable, and to knock on the door and come into anyone’s life, wherever they have made their home.
The centurion understood faith because of his experience with authority. He was under authority, and he had soldiers and slaves under his authority. He understood that Jesus had authority over illness, but it should also be clear that he also placed himself under Jesus’ authority. He trusted Jesus’ command. And Jesus related to the centurion’s understanding of his authority as real faith. Jesus praised that kind of faith which trusted his authority and acted accordingly.
Think about what it means for you and me to be under the authority of a commander who is ready, willing, and able to go beyond the call to duty: to do more than anyone expects, or asks, or even hints. Jesus was ready, willing, and able to do more than anyone even knew how to ask. He touched the untouchable, he went the distance to the untouchable.
The truth is that Jesus never thought of anyone as untouchable, and neither should we. The thought should never come into our mind.
I think that this world around us is very ready to think about untouchability, and apply it to others, and we should never be a part of that. The world may be very ready to apply untouchability to us or to think that we apply it to them.
The world outside tries to make the first move: the pre-emptive move. They are more than ready to leave us alone, as a precaution.
I think that this world around us would never think of asking us to touch them, or to go the distance for them. We aren’t asked to, and so we don’t have to, but we are under the authority of a commander who set us an example and shows us his way.
The first generation of disciples seem to have gone as much of the distance as they could. Ancient stories tell us of the first generation reaching Britain, and Spain, and Ethiopia, and India.
Over the past two hundred years, missionaries from Europe and North America have gone all over the world. We are still doing that. We have Wycliffe Bible translators who serve in the South Pacific and have a home here in Desert Aire.
When I was a teenager I heard stories, in my home town in the Sacramento Valley, of a Korean Presbyterian who had come to our area because the Lord had called him. In seminary I had a friend, named Abraham Lim, who was attending seminary for more advanced studies. Abe was from Taiwan and, for years, he had been a missionary from his church in Taiwan to primitive tribes in the jungles of the Philippines. I had a classmate from Pakistan, named Iqbal Nisar who, after his studies, went back as a professor at a seminary in Islamabad, Pakistan, and eventually he became president of that seminary. When I served a church near Fresno, there were missionaries in the area from the Presbyterian Church of Mexico, and our church nested a Latino church with a pastor from El Salvador.
The point is that, following under the authority of Jesus, the people of Jesus are called to go the distance: to go anywhere and everywhere. Learning from the point of our two stories, we know that the healing which comes from going the distance means also going a great distance spiritually. Those distances exist all around us. Those distances may exist between us and those who are closest to us. This doesn’t faze us, because we follow a commander Jesus who will go that distance with us, even when he is not asked.
Recently, I read that Christians are unique among the faith groups in this world because we are almost equally everywhere. We are as much in Asia as we are in Europe. We are as much in Africa as we are in North America, or Latin America. And we might go from anywhere to anywhere in order to live for Jesus and serve him wherever. And we do. And maybe we should. At the very least, we are called to go the distance here.
Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that they would know everything and be smart enough to be in charge of their own lives. They wanted to be in charge of how close they needed or wanted God to be. The result was the creation of a great distance between them and God, and between them and each other, and between them and the world. God came to us (and to the whole world) in Jesus, to bridge the distance through the cross.
God’s own people couldn’t understand what Jesus was up to. Although they had special inside knowledge of what God was up to, they didn’t understand the importance of God becoming a servant and a sacrifice. They didn’t ask for God to do such a thing, but the true God does that very thing unasked.
We belong to him. In Jesus, God has bridged the distance and brought us home. The Lord came to do this for everyone, unasked. We have the same mission because we have been brought home.
The project of the kingdom of God is to bring the world home, and that project is happening now. It might seem to be happening more in China and in India than it seems to be happening in Desert Aire and Mattawa, but our mission is the very same mission that is being carried out by our brothers and sisters around the world with their own neighbors.
There is only one Jesus, and only one great fellowship of love called the church. We need to pray for the wisdom and power of God that our brothers and sisters have around the world to share their work here. We are, after all, under the same authority, and Jesus has the power, and he always will.