Thursday, January 30, 2014
We see that Abraham, when he followed God's leading to the land God had promised him, his family included his nephew Lot, whose father was dead. Lot and Abram (as he was then) soon found that their large entourages could not live together peaceably. Abram told Lot to choose part of the territory that had been promised to him, and Lot chose the the southern part of the Jordan valley that adjoined several prosperous cities. Not long after that, we hear Abram telling God that he has no heir within his own family, so somehow Lot was not his heir. The next time we see Lot, he is living in the city of Sodom, which so corrupt that God warns Abram that it is under judgment. Abram challenges God to spare the city if there are any righteous people there, all the way down to ten men, but even that cannot be found. We find within the Jewish tradition to this day the belief that ten righteous men can form the basis of a worshiping community and preserve it from God's judgment. Lot and his family are given a warning of upcoming disaster, and even the men who were engaged to marry Lot's daughters turn down the chance to escape. In the end, only Lot and the two daughters survive, and they become the ancestors of two tribes living on the east side of the Jordan river: the Moabites and Ammonites, whom we next see as pagan enemies of the Israelites.
Abraham's oldest son Ishmael, born of Abram and Sarai's impatience with God's promise, also became the father of twelve tribes. They are described as being quarrelsome and warlike, and the most famous of their reputed descendents is the family tribe of Mohammed. Their internal rivalries and broken relationships with the rest of Abraham's descendants is still making headlines today.
There is an ancient tradition that Abraham's last wife, Keturah, is actually Hagar under another name. There were six more sons, the most familiar of whom is Midian. We see one of his descendants living in the wilderness not far from the Red Sea four hundred years later--Jethro, described as a priest of God, who became Moses' mentor and father-in-law. Unfortunately, when we next see them, the Midianites have apparently lost the knowledge of the true God and are pagan enemies of the Israelites under the judges.
As we follow the stories of Abraham's descendants, we will see even being part of the "main line" of Abraham's family doesn't absolve anyone of the responsibility of having the same kind of faith and obedience. In the long run, a legacy of faith is a good starting place..but not a guarantee of salvation.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
"Abraham put his faith in God, who counted this as making him justified". (Genesis 15:6) The Covenants that God made with Abraham are demonstrations of obedience and response, rather than rules and laws. This is how a relationship with Jesus is described by James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the original Jerusalem Church: "The Scripture is fulfilled which said, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, and he was called the friend of God." (James 2:23). We find this reference to Abraham as the Friend of God very common in the Middle East; Abraham is seen as the most important Patriarch not only to Jews but Muslims. The Koran says "For God did take Abraham for a friend." (Koran,Surah 4.125)
This relationship began with God speaking to Abram, who tradition says already knew something of God and had rejected the idols of his father's family. "Leave your country, your family, and your father's house;for the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name to famous that it will be used as a blessing." (Genesis 12:1-2) This promise is repeated a number of times in the story of Abram, renamed Abraham. Abram obeyed, moving his own family out without knowing where they were going, but knowing that it was where God wanted him.
When Sarah died, Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah as a burial place. This later became the tomb of Abraham himself, as well as Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. This has always been a sacred place. The city of Hebron grew up around it, 19 miles south of Jerusalem.This was the first capitol of King David, before the conquest of Jerusalem. In Arabic, it is called Khalil, which means Friend, after Abraham, who is referred to as Khalilullah, the Friend of God. Herod the Great built a huge sanctuary there, similar in style to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is still there, having been modified and decorated over the centuries. It became a Byzantine church, then a mosque with the Moslem conquest, then a church again during the Crusades,. then a mosque again under the Ottomans and later Jordan. Hebron is one of the largest Palestinean cities in the West Bank. During Jordanian rule, the area was closed to Israelis, including Jewish pilgrims; when I was there in 1963, foreign tourists were allowed to visit. There had been a small Jewish community there since the 16th Century, which was forced out in 1948 but there have been controversial Jewish settlements there since 1968. In 1997, there was an agreement made to split the city between a Palestinean Authority sector and an Israeli sector, and there is no love lost between them. It is ironic that the memory of Abraham has led to rivalry and strife between those who claim his legacy.
The basic principles of the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham involve the promise that Abraham would be the father of a great tribe of people, but also that his descendants would be a blessing to all the world. There was also the promise that the land that God led Abraham to was to be the home of this people. As a symbol of Abraham's obedience, he was commanded to circumcise all the males in his family and descendants, as a reminder in the body of this relationship. Muslims also claim descent from Abraham, through Ishmael, and also circumcise their sons. They see Abraham as the examplar of submission to God, which is meaning of "Islam."
As followers of Jesus, we are also called to faith, obedience, and friendship with God. Jesus, in that last night with His disciples, tells them "A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you...I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my father." (John 15:13-16)Can we live up to the challenge of Abraham to be a blessing to the world as friends of God?
Thursday, January 16, 2014
From the beginning, God reached out to mankind, and had expectations for them. Here in the first two chapters of Genesis, we find God giving Adam six instructions--see Genesis 1:27-29, Genesis 2:15-17, Genesis 2:24.Only one of these is a prohibition, the one described as a "command"--the one that was eventually broken. There must have been more instructions given to them than what we have specified; Cain and Abel brought sacrifices according to a known practice; and the judgment on the contemporaries of Noah implies known standards of behavior.
This relationship between God and mankind that we see developing throughout Scripture is first described as a "covenant" in the story of Noah: "Behold, I, even I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth… But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you." (Gen 6:17-18) After the flood, this covenant is made more specific: And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. …Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood…And from each human being I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. (Genesis 9:1-5) Any good treaty has requirements for both parties, and this is God’ s side “I establish My covenant with you; and all flesh shall never again be cut off by the water of the flood, ” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. (Genesis 9:11-13)
By the time of Jesus, the Law of Moses had become 613 laws that were binding upon Jews, but Jewish tradition had also codified the covenant with Noah as the commandments that all people on earth were obligated to obey. They are given as seven by rabbinical scholars of the third century AD: The prohibitions against idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, eating the flesh of a living animal, and the requirement of maintaining courts to provide legal recourse.
We see the question of the relationship of Gentiles to the Jewish Law surfacing in the early church, as more and more Gentiles were becoming part of the Christian community. There were those who were demanding that all believers conform to the full Mosaic law. At the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, probably 50AD, James' decision was that Gentiles should obey four basic rules: "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood." (Acts 15:19-20) This appears to be similar to the idea that the Noah Covenant is binding upon all descendants of Noah-- which is everybody. This is another reminder that people have not changed over millennia—and neither has God.
Friday, January 10, 2014
"It's OK to do this--it's nobody's business and I'm not hurting anybody."
"Get off my back--you're not the boss of me!"
"That's just your opinion!"
"It's not my fault; I can't help it if....""
"It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere."
"You're just an old fogy--the world has changed; get with it."
It's too easy for people--and societies--to become tolerant of less than the best behavior. This is nothing new-- three thousand years ago, a very wise man said that "There are ways that seem right to a man, but in the end lead to death." (Proverbs 16:25)
There are many things out there that don't seem to be immediately dangerous; it looks like it's all fine. We can do what we want right now but, like Esau *, enjoy the hot meal of the moment but miss out on the inheritance. A recent essay in the newsfeed from The Guardian online put it this way, describing the author's fascinations with things that didn't appear to be harmful in themselves, but realizing that they were leading to ".. life where I would be giving up on the things that make me whole. ... The world has become more accepting of living a mediocre life.. a false sense of meaning. A temporary way to filling the hole in us.. [should we] accept a world where the goal is to simply live until we die?" **
As followers of Christ, we are called to the best. "As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (I Peter 1:14-16) Our first impression on reading this is to think that we can't do this. Peter knew from his own experience that he couldn't do this; he grew up in a society that was trying very very very hard; trying to keep all the law in its smallest details but missing the big stuff. Peter learned the Way, which is available to us as well: the power of the Holy Spirit through a relationship with Jesus Christ. No, we're not going to do it right all the time, any more than Peter did; but if we are willing to turn around and give up what is getting in our way to God, He will forgive us and take us places we could never get on our own.
This can seem too easy. Recently a good friend told me "I don't want to hear people talk about what they did before they got saved--my kids might get the idea that they can do whatever and then repent and get away with it." I think this goes back to needing to be honest about the dangers and downsides of the ungodly stuff out there. Sometimes we assume that of course everybody knows that the old lifestyle is sinful and dangerous, but a good deal of our world is telling us otherwise. Recently, a TV personality read I Corinthians 6 in an interview and set off a firestorm of accusations and controversy. We are told that "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins."(James 5:20) This is not easy; I struggle with speaking truth without judging inappropriately, and probably come down on the wimpy side. We have to recognize that we all fall short; just because we may not mess up spectacularly and noisily doesn't mean we don't need redemption.
**Elud Nehori, theguardian.com 01/14/2014
Friday, January 3, 2014
Keys are a fact of life in this world. Most of us carry a big wad of keys, between houses, work, cars; and practically everything we deal with requires keys. In fact, I often say that keys are proof of original sin. Many of us have had cars stolen; one of my daughter's had her car stolen and recovered; then moved to what they thought was a safer neighborhood, and had the same car stolen again. My store near downtown got broken into three times last year, and now has about 16 locks on the premises, bars on the windows and gates on the doors. My house, at the end of a road in a rural area, got broken into last spring, and now has a locked gate on the road. It is a pain to always have to think about having my keys with me, and arranging to have the gate open for people that I want to have come to my house.
There are still a few places where people don't lock their doors, but I suspect that it gets fewer all the time. And it's not just today's world: two thousand years ago, Jesus described the Kingdom: "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:9-10 NASB) The reality of doors and keys goes another thousand years earlier, with this prophecy of the Messiah: “Then I will set the key of the house of David on his shoulder, When he opens no one will shut, When he shuts no one will open." (Isaiah 22:22 NASB), repeated in Revelation: “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: He who is holy, who is true, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens, says this: 8 ‘I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. " (Revelation 3:7-9 NASB)
Not only is Jesus the Door into the presence of God, but He has the most important keys of all: " I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades." (Revelation 1:18 NASB)