Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice

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The Bible’s story hinges on what God wants to do and what God can do with Abraham’s descendants—and neither is particularly clear in the early chapters of the saga. God and Abraham seem to both be feeling their way through the new relationship, and I’m beginning to take more seriously the language of Abraham as God’s friend—it’s kind of easy to read the story almost like Abram and God are pals, traveling around together just for the sake of it.

There are of course moments when something else shines through all of the odd episodes of Abraham’s story. The narrative reaches outside of itself and shows itself to be more than a story about one man’s weird relationship with God. In these moments, the Abraham saga becomes a critical piece in the story of God and Creation. One such moment takes place in Genesis 18.

Here is a well-worn story of Abraham bargaining with God, negotiating on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah, or at least on behalf of his kin who live there. I won’t retrace the story here, because I want to focus in on one particular facet of the episode—the terms of the negotiation. We’ll pick up with God’s internal monologue (dialogue?) regarding whether or not he’ll let Abraham in on what’s about to happen:

 The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”

Here God opens up, just a smidge, about the long-term plan for Abraham and his descendants. They are to become a great nation which will bless the world, (just as God promised Abram in Genesis 12. But also, catch the important added note here:  What kind of nation will they be? What does God want to become the characteristic mark of Abraham’s children?  They are to be a people who keep the way of the Lord by “doing righteousness and justice”. Continue reading “Overlooking the Plain of Sodom—Advocates of Righteousness and Justice”

The Broken Earth in Genesis 1-6

Tonight, in my class on the Torah, we wrapped up by observing the tight connection between the moral responsibility of humanity, the human descent into wickedness, and the effect on the earth itself in chapters 3-6. Hearing the church’s common conversations, you could get the impression that the problem with the “fall” is simply the rift human sin and pride creates between people and God.  In reality though, the consequences of humanity’s fall is multifaceted. For instance, as demonstrated in the Cain and Abel story (and the Lamech one that follows), relationships between humans break down due to sin and violence, and we may easily observe the conflict that arises between the sexes on the heels of the tragic episode in the garden.

One of the too often ignored facets of the human fall is the curse that it brings on the earth itself. Although God’s initial directives to humanity were to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”, as the story plays out, it’s as if the earth itself suffers the sin of humanity in the early chapters of Genesis. Read chapters 3-6 with a ready eye, and you’ll see the motif show up repeatedly. It’s in the original garden fallout scene, and the language that contains the motif in the Cain and Abel saga is some of the richest in the Old Testament:

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so![c] Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod,[d] east of Eden. (Gen 4:8-16, NRSV)

See how the motif functions here? It begins simply enough, with “the field” being the site for the murder. But as the story develops, the ground or soil is almost a character in the story, bearing testimony against Cain, even cursing Cain. Cain’s punishment involves being hidden from the face of God, and social exclusion as well, but note that this layer of being driven away from the soil itself seems to be Cain’s most agonizing consequence.

The motif continues to develop in the early chapters of Genesis, perhaps culminating in the flood saga. In the build up to the Flood story, Noah is introduced by a reference to the curse upon the land: “[Lamech] named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands.”(Gen 5:29, NRSV)  In the next chapter, God’s actions in the Flood are repeatedly attributed to God’s observation of how the wickedness and violence of humanity has corrupted the earth:

11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.                             (Gen 6:11-13, NRSV)

On the other side of the Flood, the focus shifts a bit, returning to the original command to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…”. God returns to the project of filling the earth with rich human life, scattering humanity across the world. This eventually leads to the strategy of blessing the scattered peoples of the world through the people of Abraham, but that’s a subject for another day. For today, it is enough to not how tightly God’s purposes for the earth were connected with God’s purposes for humanity. Perhaps this shouldn’t be that surprising, unless we have forgotten that God indeed made the man (hebrew ‘Adam’) from the dust of the ground (hebrew ‘Adamah’), and that we are connected to the earth through our work until the moment that we are returned to the ground. “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19, NRSV). given this, how could our sin result in anything but estrangement from the very earth which is our perpetual context?

Not Native—A Meditation on Matthew 1:1-17

This week, I was thinking about how the book of Matthew starts, and meditating on what it means for me and my neighbors to read that text. I’ve talked and written about the passage before, but it became clear to me that I’ve often glossed over what may be the most significant feature of the text for me, and for many readers like me, a feature which seriously affects our experience of reading the text: the names are weird.

Of course, “weird” isn’t an objective term, but names something important, even if subjective, that we experience in reading the Bible, particularly in texts like the genealogies. These texts are just chock full of names that are weird to me, that would be weird in our culture. By my count, of the 48 names in the genealogy, only about 10, a fifth, are regularly used by people in our culture. For every Jacob in the list that sounds familiar, there is a Zadok, a Jotham, an Abiud, a Nashon, and a Salathiel. My wife are in the process of picking baby names, and there is no way on God’s green earth she would let me use about eighty percent of these.

The fact of this unfamiliarity becomes abundantly clear in any type of group reading setting. Almost any reader will struggle through pronouncing all the names on the list, which makes sense given that nobody in our churches knows anybody named Jeconiah or Zerubbabel.

So what does that unfamiliarity do to us? I think it reinforces to us that we are non-natives when it comes to the world of the Bible. Even those of us who grew up hearing the names in Sunday School have to admit that for all our time as visitors to the Bible, or even as immigrants who have lived in its world, we are still a bit out of our own water.

It strikes me that this has long been true of Christian readers of the Bible, at least since Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert. After all, I suppose many of these Semitic names would have sounded strange to the Gentile Christians of Rome, Ephesus, and Athens, just as they do to me. Even in those cosmopolitan centers of the Mediterranean world, the gospel message was cross-cultural, wrapped in strange and foreign garb. Quickly translated into greek, these Hebrew names signaled to our early brothers and sisters that they were joining a story that arose in another people, with another language and another culture. And yet, somehow, they found a home in that foreign text. They willingly immigrated to the narrative world of the Bible, learned to speak its language of faith, and made some version of it their own.

Even though we often ignore it, it’s a good thing to be reminded of the foreign weirdness of the scriptures from time to time. First, it reminds us that we have some translation work to do if the gospel is going to be intelligible to our neighbors—they may not be as used to moving through the Biblical weirdness as we are, glossing over the odd names and applying the bits and pieces of cultural information we’ve picked up along the way.

Second, it keeps us from pretending that we own the book. We take a little too much ownership of the Bible sometimes; it can be our way of domesticating it, pretending that we are fully aligned with it. In reality, we are always learning what it means to live in its world. Hearing and recognizing the weirdness of the names may also prepare me to read with humility and a little healthy caution about my ability to easily and naturally understand what is happening in these texts that come to me from another culture.

Finally, recognizing the foreign character of the scriptures prepares me to have a more cosmopolitan faith, one that can be conversant with other cultures besides my own. Recognizing that my faith is really an ancient Hebrew-Greek faith spoken in a Southern American accent prepares me to hear that faith spoken in other accents as well. The faith of the Bible is not an American faith, at least not in origin. So, when I hear other accents struggling to pronounce the genealogies, I can lay down any presupposition of superiority, knowing that I too had to learn how to say names like Hezron and Abijah, and that I too am a non-native to the language and faith of the Bible.

I have much to learn.

The Strange and Formative Word

The Bible is a strange book.

Written over hundreds of years by a collection of named and anonymous authors, it spans genres and themes as diverse as power and money, family and sexuality. It alternates between genealogical lists and colorful histories, ritual law and love poetry, all managing to say something important about what it means to be human, the nature of the world, and God.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how the Bible is both a product and a means of God’s mission in the world. It is a witness to the things God has done in the past to shape and recreate people, and it is itself a part of the process of shaping those who read and receive it.

For instance, take the story of Nathan confronting King David (1 Samuel 12). It’s both a witness of how God was confronting and shaping David to be the king he was supposed to be. But at the same time, as we read the story and allow ourselves to live in it, the story shapes us as well, challenging us to think about how we use power, or our own tendency to cover up our sin with even more sin.

As we read stories like that, or meditate on the poetry of the prophets, or read along with the first century churches in their letters from Paul, we’re pulled into the story of God through time, and are shaped to be more like God, and less like the world.  We become gracious where the world is judgmental. We become joyful where the world is bitter, and mourn in the places where the world wants to celebrate. We become peaceful in the middle of a world at war, or we become generous in a world of selfishness.

The Bible is a strange book.

But, that’s okay.  We’re a strange people.

By God’s grace, and through God’s word, we’re becoming stranger every day.

Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11

We humans invest. We invest our time, energy, and money in projects, people, and plans for profit. We’re looking to get all kinds of things back from those investments, but most of us end up making a mix of good and bad investments along the way. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how they’re going to turn out.

Lots of people invested in Jesus while he was on earth. For some of them, it was the investment of time in trying to go hear him, or just see him pass by—Zaccheus started out like that, even though he ended up much more heavily invested by the time the story was over. Some were invested in things Jesus was opposing—the religious and political elites of Jerusalem were heavily invested in the temple, and no doubt felt that investment was threatened by the way Jesus talked about the temple and acted when he came to visit it. Others were invested in different ways: Peter talked about having left everything behind to follow Jesus, and one time Jesus told him he was going to end up with a pretty good return on that investment.

But I don’t know if anybody was more invested in Jesus than John the Baptist. It seems like John could have had pretty good life following the priestly calling that he was in line for. But instead he spent most of his life in the wilderness—Luke tells us that he was living there even before he started preaching (1:80), and if anything the Bible says about John is to be believed, it was anything but a plush, cushy lifestyle. Jesus says as much here in Matthew 11—John lived the prophet’s lifestyle in the desert, far from the fine robes people would have found if they had gone looking in the palaces. He was out in the wilderness, living a life of denial, decked out in rough looking clothes, eating locusts and wild honey, and all of it was investment in the kingdom of God.

Continue reading “Are You the One?—A Sermon from Matthew 11”

The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10

As we’ve been walking through Matthew’s story, we’ve walked with Jesus through several episodes that reveal his authority. Jesus teaches with authority and orders around demons with authority. He claims the authority to forgive sins, and  points his finger at the sky and demands that the storm obey him. The people in the story who get it are the ones who understand his authority, and either come to him humbly, needing his authoritative action, or who obey his call to follow. The ones who get it are the lepers and tax collectors, the blind and the lame.  They are the ones who, apparently conscious of their own brokenness, recognize the authority of Jesus to do something about it. We’ve been seeing the story through their eyes, and our attention and focus have been centered on Jesus.

And then, here in chapter ten, there is a startling turning point in the gospel. Like a skilled filmmaker who suddenly changes the focus of a lens, bringing what was blurred in the background of the shot into clear focus, Matthew reveals that he is not simply telling the story about Jesus, but about his disciples. They’ve been there the whole time—following Jesus from synagogue to synagogue, town to town, house to house. They’ve been watching him teach, hearing him proclaim the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and then they’ve watched him act out that sermon by healing the sick, casting out demons, and offering forgiveness. They’ve been here the whole time, but always in the background. But now, Matthew twists the lens, and they suddenly jump from the background to the front of the story.

Continue reading “The Sending—A Sermon from Matthew 10”