Wednesday, June 29, 2011

God Provides ...Again

In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his oldest, most trusted servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.  He commands this servant to go to Abraham's homeland to find this wife and not to choose a wife for his son from among the Canaanites.  This naturally raises a question for Abraham's servant:  "What if the women doesn't want to come with me?  Must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?".  Abraham's response is adamant. He knows that God called him from that land.  His son must not go back there.  Instead, Abraham trusts that an angel of God will go with his servant and insure the proper outcome.  If the woman will not come back with him, then Abraham says that the servant would be released from his oath.

Interestingly, there is no mention of this angel of the Lord anywhere in the rest of the story.  In fact, there is no real action by God narrated in this story.  God is mentioned numerous times by the individuals in the story.  Abraham's servant prays to God before meeting Rebekah and then thanks God afterward.  He testifies to Laban about God's faithfulness to Abraham.  Laban and Bethuel agree that God has been active in these events.  But nowhere in this chapter are God's actions described by the narrator.  We are not explicitly told that God speaks, acts, or sends an angel anywhere in this story even though all the characters in the story seem to assume these things.

I appreciate that a story like this one is included in our scripture.  I appreciate it because it is just so mundane, so everyday, so seemingly human.  The story takes place in the space where most of us live most of our lives; among everyday concerns and motives.  This is in sharp contrast to the story we heard just last week from Genesis 22.  That story, in which God commands Abraham to kill his own son, is exceptional and dramatic.  It is anything but mundane.  It's point may be easy enough to understand but its drama difficult to wrap our minds around because it is so "other", so different from our everyday experience.  How can we really comprehend what was commanded of Abraham?

But as different as these two stories are, they share a common theme.  In both, the Lord provides.  In one, God provides through the dramatic and timely intervention of his angel.  In the other, God provides in ways so subtle that they are not even narrated.  Even though God's actions are not narrated, we are clearly meant to assume that God is at work in what could appear to be merely human actions.  The same Abraham who trusted God in the drama of nearly sacrificing his own son also trusts God to provide a family and a future for that son.

I appreciate stories like this because I am thankful that God can be involved in the everyday routines of our lives just as much as the dramatic incidents.  Everyone loves to hear a story full of drama and suspense and those stories are often formative for our faith.  But if our faith had to be constantly one moment of crisis after another in order to draw closer to God, we would all wear out pretty fast.

Of course, this doesn't negate what I talked about last week.  God doesn't stop being a God of risk just because he is also involved in the mundane.  The God who provides a wife for Isaac in Genesis 24 is the same God who called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22.  God hasn't stopped calling Abraham to risk and trust in just two chapters.  Its just that this risk and trust doesn't always come in the form of sacrificing one's son...or a call to be a missionary to Africa...or to suffer persecution in the name of Christ (though we must never forget that our calling includes these kinds of things as well; we can't have Genesis 24 without Genesis 22). Sometimes this risk comes in the form of trusting that God's grace will be enough to keep our children from inheriting every weakness we exhibit as parents.  Sometimes it means trusting that there will be enough time in an incredibly busy week even if we will be faithful in setting aside time for prayer and study.  And sometimes it means shutting down your computer and walking across the street to check on a urging from God I've been ignoring for some time now... so with that, may the Lord provide.

Monday, June 20, 2011

God of Risk

"Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son."  - Genesis 22:10

Often when I read scripture, I come away wondering where most of us get our notions of Christianity from, myself included.  How do we hear the kinds of stories that make up what we call the Word of God and come away with the impression that God just wants us to be nice people and that if we will do that he will bless us and make us happy?  How does the story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son, his only son, translate into us getting dressed up and getting into our nice new cars and driving to our nice comfortable building where we see people we are comfortable with and sing music we enjoy and then tell the pastor what a great job he did?  How can we hear this story that calls us to a life of sacrificing what is most precious to us in obedience to God and then complain when our church varies in the smallest way from what we think it should be?

But even that last sentence doesn't do this story justice because we are expert rationalizers, masters of justifying our own actions.  To say that the story of Abraham and Isaac's journey to Moriah is "really about" sacrificing what is most precious to us in obedience to God is to take Isaac's very human, very boyish face off of the matter.  It is an abstraction.  It is an escape hatch that allows us to say that this story is about "something else". It is to make this story less threatening by saying "A loving God would never actually have me kill my own child.  This is just an illustration,"  And such words would not be untrue.  I don't believe the God revealed in Jesus wants anything to do with child sacrifice.  I do believe God calls us to sacrifice what we value most in life to him. But the great speed with which we move to our explanations and rationalizations of God's command reveal just how uncomfortable they are for us.  It is easy to explain what this story "means".  It is much harder to hear the confusion and fear of Isaac's weak and cracking pre-teen voice as he wonders aloud to his father where the lamb is for the sacrifice.  It is easy to say "God is the most important thing in my life."  It is much harder to put the face of our own son or daughter on that claim.  God is long as he knows the limits of our relationship with him.

The irony of the story in Genesis 22 is that it is actually very much about God testing the limits of his relationship with Abraham.  God doesn't seem to know just how far Abraham is going to let him into his life.  Inasmuch as this is a story about Abraham's trust it is also a story about God putting himself at risk.  It is tempting to think that this is all fixed from the outset, that God knows what Abraham will do, or at least that there is really nothing at stake for God in the matter.  It is simply a test for Abraham to pass or fail; to move up or fall down a rung on the spiritual ladder.  This is another way we attempt to "explain" the story, to make it more comfortable, to empty it of any real risk.

But as the story is told, the test of Abraham involves risk for God as well.  After all, this is not just Abraham's son, this is the child of the promise.  Isaac is the one through whom God is to fulfill the promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations.  If Isaac is dead, how will this promise be fulfilled?  Or to put it another way, if Abraham fails to be obedient to this command, then where will God be?  God has bound himself to Abraham by making these promises to him.  If Abraham fails this test of trust, then God's promises fail also, don't they?  If Abraham refuses to offer his son, then does God start over with someone else?  Nor is God sitting comfortably by as all this goes on, for in v. 12 the angel of the Lord says "Now I know that you fear God, seeing that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" implying that God didn't know it before hand.  The outcome was in question.  The promise of God was genuinely at risk.  God's plan, at least in its present form, depended on Abraham's trust.

Abraham trusts.  God provides.  This epitomizes so much of what our relationship with God is/should be about.  And yet it bears repeating; it is easy to talk about trusting God to provide but to say "The Lord will provide" is to do what Abraham did.  It is not some general notion of faith where we sit back and wait for God to throw good things our way.  It is not exchanging our belief for God's blessing.  It is to allow our fate to be bound up with God's.  It is to step out in real, concrete action that could cost us dearly.  It is to allow God to test the limits of our relationship with him when even he doesn't know for sure what the outcome will be.  It is to know that the God of Abraham is a God of risk.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Rivers of Living Water

"On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified."  - John 7:37-39

There were many feasts in ancient Israel but three of them stood out as especially important; Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles.  The Passover Feast celebrated the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt.  Of course, this feast continues to be a significant day for modern day Jews and also for Christians since the "last supper" Christ had with the disciples was a passover meal.  The Feast of Weeks was a harvest celebration and is so named because it was celebrated seven weeks (a week's worth of weeks) after the beginning of harvest.  In Greek speaking Judaism, this festival also came to be known as Pentecost, the "pente" denoting the 50th day, the first day after the seven weeks mentioned above.  This festival also has enduring significance in Christianity since Acts 2 describes the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit on the apostles on Pentecost, which we celebrate this coming Sunday, seven weeks after Easter.  

The third important feast in Israel was the Feast of Booths (a.k.a Tabernacles).  This feast was also connected to the Exodus story.  During the seven days of this feast, the people of Israel were to dwell in booths, small tent like structures, to remind them of their dwelling in tents in the wilderness after God delivered them from their slavery in Egypt.  However, over time this feast began to take on other meanings and significance as well.  By the time of the prophet Zechariah, the Feast of Booths had also become connected to rain.  In last chapter of Zechariah, God says that rain will only fall on those nations that come to Jerusalem and keep the Feast of Booths (Zechariah 14:16-19).  By the first century, a practice of pouring out libations at the altar of the Temple had also been added as part of the festival's observance.  Water would be gathered from the Pool of Siloam, carried to the Temple, and poured around the altar, perhaps as a symbolic act of the prayer for rain.  

It was likely after this water drawing ceremony that Jesus stands up and says "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.   Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, "Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water."  Jesus' first sentence here seems to be an allusion to Isaiah 55:1.  "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price."  This verse is a part of God's promise to Israel that they will be restored from their exile in Babylon.  

The other part of Jesus' statement, about rivers of living water, is a bit more difficult to pinpoint to any particular verse in the Old Testament, especially since the river is flowing "out of his heart".  However, one passage where a river of living water takes center stage is Ezekiel 47.  Like Isaiah 55, Ezekiel is also conveying a promise of Israel's return from exile.  However, Ezekiel's vision speaks not only to Israel's historical return from Exile but also has a kind of supernatural quality to it in which the actual land of Israel itself is restored and teems with life.  Ezekiel describes a stream that flows from the base of the Temple, past the altar (where the libation for the Feast of Booths were poured) and toward the Dead Sea.  On its way to the Dead Sea, this stream becomes a mighty river despite having no tributaries and when it arrives at the Dead Sea, it turns the salt water fresh.  The Hebrew here literally says that it "heals" the water of the Dead Sea allowing the once lifeless body of water to teem with life.  This is literally a river of living water.  

But this river flows from the Temple.  Why then does Jesus say "out of his heart"?  Many English translations make this sound like a reference to the heart of those who believe in Jesus.  However, the "his" could just as easily be referring to Jesus himself.  Additionally, the Greek word in this verse is not heart (kardia) but gut or belly (koilias).  The verse would then read "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and whoever believes in me drink.  As the Scripture has said, "Out of his gut will flow rivers of living water."  The image of water flowing from Jesus' gut or side should not be lost on those familiar with John's telling of Jesus' crucifixion.  Water and blood will indeed flow from Jesus' side when the soldier pierces him with a spear as he hangs on the cross.  

So what does all this mean?  It means these few simple verses are a profoundly in depth but succinct summary of John's understanding of Jesus.  All of this takes place in the midst of a festival which reminds those gathered of the Exodus; God's greatest act of deliverance for his people.  This festival also reminded them of God's continued sustaining of creation with rains.  Jesus then alludes to two verses which remind those gathered of another of God's greatest act of restoration; return from Exile.  But Jesus does not simply remind the people of this.  He says he is now the source of deliverance, sustenance, and restoration.  "If anyone thirsts, let him come to me."  Jesus is the source of living water because he is the God who did all these things now made flesh.  The water and blood which will flow from Jesus' side at his crucifixion are the beginning of Ezekiel's vision of a river of life which will restore the land of Israel, healing it and giving it life.  

But this is not only a statement about Jesus.  As a statement about Jesus' death, it is also a statement about the  Spirit.  John says as much in the very next verse.  "Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified."  In the Gospel of John,  Jesus' glorification refers to his crucifixion.  John repeats several times throughout his gospel what he says here; the Holy Spirit can not come to the disciples until Jesus has been crucified.  That is why Jesus' death is the beginning of Ezekiel's vision of new creation.  It means the outpouring of the Holy Spirit who will carry out this work of restoration and renewal.  The Holy Spirit is the river of living water which renews and sustains all that it touches.  

This is the essence of Pentecost which we will celebrate this Sunday; God's Holy Spirit, God's river of living water has been poured out on those who place their trust in Jesus.  This is why we expect lives to be transformed, attitudes to be changed, and the chains of sin to broken.  This is why we expect that these old creatures that we are and this old creation that we live in can both be made new.  This is why we believe there can even be such a thing as church.  Because in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe that God has opened up a spring of water right here in the midst of our otherwise very dry world and from that spring flows a river that brings life to everything around it.  May we see that river flowing through our church this Sunday and may we who are thirsty come and drink.