Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Journey of Faith - The Involved Life

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
October 2016
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)
We’ll look at a two-sided promise between God and Abraham in a few weeks; God willing.
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.

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