Monday, February 23, 2015

Genesis 18:1-15 –“Oh yes, you did laugh!”

“Faith is not a reasonable act which fits into the normal scheme of life and perception. The promise of the gospel is not a conventional piece of wisdom that is easily accommodated to everything else. Embrace of this radical gospel requires shattering and discontinuity.[1]
 -Walter Brueggemann

Lesson Focus:
We sin because we fail to have proper faith in the sometimes-nonsensical ways of God. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Recognize that faith sometimes means living in ways that may not make a whole lot of sense. 
2.     God works to fulfill his purposes for creation even when we do not have proper faith.

Catch up on the story:
God has promised to make Abram a great nation, through whom all nations of the world would be blessed.  Up to this point we aren’t sure how this is going to happen because Abraham and Sarah are barren.  Sarah, in attempt to try and have children vicariously, gives her servant Hagar to Abraham.  This situation only causes discord.  Later, God performs a covenant ceremony with Abraham changing his name from Abram.  God also give him the sign of the covenant that is circumcision. Once again, God reasserts that he will make Abraham’s children a great nation that will bless all the nations.  

The Text:
Our text begins during the heat of the day.  Abraham, who has just had all of the male members of his family circumcised as a mark of the covenant that God has made with him, is sitting at the entrance to his tent.  He looks up, and the text tells us he sees “the LORD.”  This first verse, however, may function as a heading to the section.  Scholars are divided when it comes to the identity of the three men with whom Abraham interacts.  What is important, at this point, is that God is reminding Abraham and Sarah of his promise to them. 

Abraham, while sitting in the entrance to his tent, spies three men and runs to meet them.  When he arrives at the three men he bows down and addresses them.  The text is unclear about what Abraham knows about these three men.  He may know that these men are different in some kind of way.  Perhaps he knows that they are messengers from God.  His immediate treatment of them gives us no clue as to his understanding. 

Providing hospitality for those who were traveling was one of the most important, if not the most important, social rule of the day.  To turn aside strangers or travelers, not offering them food, water and shelter, would have been unthinkable.  It would have also brought shame on the family.  Abraham’s offer of hospitality will be contrasted with the hospitality (or lack of) that is offered to these men in the city of Sodom.   

So, Abraham addresses the men as if he were their servant.  His aim is to please these strangers. Abraham offers them the things that traveling men most want; water for drinking and washing, rest, and food.  The men do not refuse Abraham’s offer.  The narrative moves quickly as Abraham begins to instruct Sarah to make bread from the best flour and his servants to kill and prepare a tender calf.  It would have taken some time for the food to be prepared, but in the interest in moving the story along we cut straight to the shared meal.

Abraham brings the food to his visitors and they engage him in conversation.  There is no small talk.  The men want to know where Abraham’s wife is.  Abraham responds that his wife is in the tent.  Sarah, as almost certainly you and I would do in this type of situation, was listening to the conversation between her husband and the three strangers.  I’m sure her ears perked up when the conversation turned to her.

The men offer a promise to Abraham and Sarah.  To be sure this promise had been offered to them some time before and now it seemed as if it would be impossible to fulfill.  The men declare that in due season Sarah will give birth to a son.  Let’s remind ourselves of what has taken place so far.  God came to a barren couple, a couple for whom the possibility of life and future were non-existent.  To be barren, in the biblical world, was to be already in a sense dead.  There will be no one to carry on the name, no one to carry on the memory of the family.  God comes to this barren couple and promises them a future filled with descendants that outnumber the stars in the sky. 

Time passed and Abraham and Sarah still did not have any children.  It was then that Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands.  She would give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife.  They would have a child through Hagar.  It works, too.  Hagar becomes pregnant and gives birth to Ishmael.  Abraham is content now with what he has.  After Ishmael is born God comes to Abraham and Sarah once more.  Ishmael will not be the one through whom God blesses the world; he is not the fruit of God’s promise to Abraham.  Sarah herself will have a son.  Abraham’s response is one of laughter.  How can this be?  Abraham is 100 years old and Sarah is 90!  The promise that was originally offered will be kept.  Sarah will have a son. 

We aren’t told how much time has passed between God’s last conversation with Abraham and the three visitors.  It is enough time, however, for the couple to doubt that God will keep his promise.  Sarah hears the voice of the men proclaiming that she will have a son soon.  Like Abraham, her response to this news is one of laughter.  It is, however, not the laughter that is born from the joy of good news.  It is the laughter that comes from disbelief. 

It is the laughter that comes when a friend tells you that he is finally going to go and talk to that girl he has been admiring for such a long time, or the kind of laughter elicited when a Cardinals fan hears a Cubs fan say, “This is our year!”  “Haha!  I’ll believe that when I see it!” Even though both the NIV and the NRSV render the verse, “she laughed to herself,” the original text indicates that the laughter that Sarah produces is not just a polite little laugh, or even a silent chuckle to herself.  It is, rather, a full out belly laugh produced by the absurdity of an old woman giving birth.[2] Perhaps the laugh is also a way to cope with the reality that what Sarah has hoped for has not come to pass.  Even now that these men say that it will happen, the wound is still sore; she believes it less now than she did before. 

Sarah wonders out loud how it is that someone of her age, who has stopped menstruating, can have a child.  The question is then put to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh…Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?” Here is the crucial part of the text, this question, “Is anything to wonderful for the Lord?”  The question concerns Abraham and Sarah’s belief, or lack there of, in God’s ability to fulfill the promise against all odds.  It was nonsense to Sarah that at her age, and in her condition, that she would be able to have a baby.

The question is asked to us, and to the aged couple in a rhetorical manner, and it is asked with confidence.  The question is left to linger in our minds.  It is left to challenge our assumptions about the nature of our world and what is possible.  Left up to us, a promise such as the one these men make to Sarah is very laughable.  It just is not possible.  For Israel, whose story this is, and for us too, it is meant to draw us into believing that the world in its broken state is not how the world should or ought to persist.  Indeed, it calls us to begin to have faith, faith in the promise that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has tangibly changed things. 

At the end of the day,

“The story is constructed to present the tension between this inscrutable speech of God (that comes as promise) and the resistance and mockery of Abraham and Sarah who doubt the word and cannot believe the promise. Israel stands before God’s word of promise but characteristically finds that word beyond reason and belief. Abraham, and especially Sarah, are not offered here as models of faith but as models of disbelief. For them, the powerful promise of God outdistances their ability to receive it.[3]

What might be even more remarkable is that God keeps his promise despite their unbelief. 

So What…?
The narrative ends with this simple yet profound question hanging in the air.  It moves on to a story about great evil in the world while Abraham and Sarah continue to wait for the fulfillment of the promise.  The last words of the section, “Oh yes, you did laugh” should haunt us.  How many times have we encountered a command of Jesus only to laugh at it because of its impracticality?  We laugh in the face of Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek when someone wrongs us.  We laugh in the face of Jesus when he commands us to repay evil with love.  We laugh in Jesus’ face when we pretend to serve God yet we are bound to making money.  We laugh when Jesus tells us that in order to truly gain abundant life we must first give it all away.

No doubt, many of us will deny our laughter in the face of the foolishness (to us anyway) of the kingdom of God.  We will say to ourselves and to others that, perhaps, Jesus did not mean those things literally.  Our laughter is a sign of our disbelief, and that disbelief leads us into sin because we cannot fully trust the one who has the power to bring us from death to life.

Last week, during the first week of Lent, we confessed that our sin, our violence and wickedness causes God anguish and grief.  This week, as we continue our walk toward the cross, let us confess our lack of imagination and faith in our God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17)  Let us ask that we might have great, yet simple faith to follow in the path of Jesus.

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
a.     In this text God continues to be faithful even when we are not.  God, faced with the laughing disbelief of Abraham and Sarah, does not stop to find someone else who will do his will unquestioningly, but continues to remain faithful to his promise.  While our disbelief doesn’t always disqualify us from relationship with God, it does hinder us from fully enjoying and experiencing all of God’s life-giving ability.  

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Salvation looks likes God’s faithfulness in the midst of our unbelief.  Even though we laugh at the way and plans of God, God still is working for us.  This text does not directly show that there are consequences to our unbelief, but to be sure, there are.  Even after we have proven ourselves unfaithful, or unwilling to be faithful, God ultimately provides us with chances to respond to his gift of salvation.  Even though Abraham and Sarah have laughed in the face of God, God is still going to work redemptively through them.  

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     This story calls us to answer the question, “Is there anything too hard/wonderful for God?”  The answer to this question can only be spoken after we have witnessed and heard of God’s mighty and saving deeds.  As we engage the story of God’s redemption in the bible, and we listen to the stories of God’s people in our church who have experienced God’s loving kindness, we are compelled to answer a resounding “No!”  We should then walk forth in faith and obedience even when it makes no sense.   
b.     While our faith may falter, and we may not believe in God’s future for our world and our lives, God is still able to work through us.  If in the past we have laughed at God’s plans because they seem inconceivable, there is still hope for us.  God desires to work through and with us even at times when are not exactly willing.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
1.     Familiarize yourself with the story of Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 12, 15-17).  What are the promises God has made to Abraham (Abram)?  How has God kept those promises so far in the story?  How have Abraham and Sarah taken control of the situation for themselves?
2.     The men repeat God’s promise to the couple that they will someday have a son.  Why do you think God chooses to remind them instead of just making it happen? 
3.     Sarah laughs at the news.  Put yourself in her situation (90 years old, barren for all these years, had ceased menstruation), how would you have responded to such news? 
4.     Sarah’s laughter is one of disbelief.  The idea that she will have a child at her age and condition is just too absurd to believe.  Yet, God chooses to use her anyway.  Why do you think that God chooses to use us at times despite our disbelief?   
5.     The question asked at the end of the story is, “Is there anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (v. 14).  Why do you think this question was asked at this point in the story?  How do you think Abraham and Sarah would have answered the question at the very end of their lives? 
6.     The question in verse 14 is meant for us as well.  What might be some of the ways we respond to Jesus’ teaching like Sarah responded to the news of her approaching pregnancy, that is, with a lack of faith?
7.     Are there times you just can’t see how God’s desires for the way we should live make any sense? 

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 158–159.
[2] “Commentary on Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7,” Working, accessed January 19, 2015,
[3] Brueggemann, 158.

Exodus 20:1-21 –The Ten Commandments: Part 1

Lesson Focus:
God gives us laws as a way to help us live in faithful relationship with him and with others.  All too often we fail to fulfill these commands.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand that the nature of these commands are relational and not legalistic.
2.     Identify how these laws are applicable to us in our current context.
3.     Confess their failure to keep these commandments and subsequently seeking forgiveness and strength to remain faithful.

Catch up on the story:
As this passage begins, Israel is encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Israel arrived there after being liberated by God from over 430 years of slavery in Egypt.  When Israel arrived in Egypt, she was only a small family.  Now, however, she is a numerous people whom God has chosen to be his special and called out people.   

Israel’s departure from Egypt was nothing short of miraculous.  God, in power and might, provided a safe way for Israel through sea and wilderness.  By day and by night, God led them in the way they should travel.  Shortly after arriving at Sinai, Moses went up onto the mountain to have a conversation with God.  Moses is told that soon God will descend and speak so that Israel might hear him.  God is going to make a covenant with the people.  Moses is instructed to gather the people, inform them what is going to take place and ensure that they are consecrated as a holy assembly. First, however, God wants to know if Israel will do what God will command them to do.  Israel responds in the affirmative, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (19:8)  The stage is set for God to begin instructing the people concerning what it means to be the people of God.      

The events that are about to take place are classified as a theophany, or a breaking in of God into the normal world and lives of the created order.  God is about to come close enough for Israel to hear his voice.  This is a special event, and in the rest of the Old Testament, a unique event.  God will not be directly visible to the people, but will be shrouded in clouds, fire and smoke.

Moses’ role in this event is important, not just for the event itself, but for his continued role as leader of God’s people.  To this point it has been Moses who has been the direct mediator between God and the people.  For Israel’s part, they would still be back in Egypt if God had not chosen Moses to be his mouth to both Israel and to Pharaoh.  Moses’ leadership, however, has already been questioned.  The way in which God chooses to reveal himself and his wishes to Israel at this point is partly to validate Moses’ leadership role.  God speaks to Moses in the direct hearing of the people so that they will be able to believe that the direction that Moses gives is not just his own personal whim, but the command of God.  Moses is standing among the people when God gives the law. 

The Text:
The First Word: I Am the Lord Your God
When all the players are in place God begins to speak.  The very first words out of God’s mouth are extremely important for all that follows.  “I am the Lord your God…”  The “your” here is not plural as you might suspect; it’s singular.  God begins his speech by addressing the individual in the congregation.  While these commands have in mind the health and vitality of the community that is Israel, the health and vitality of the community begins with individual and interpersonal relationships. 

Not only is God addressing the group and the individual, God is presenting these commands in terms of relationship.  It is not some impersonal, distant and unknown God who is capriciously laying down commands.  No, it is a God that is known to Israel, known to Israel through mighty deeds that secured their salvation.  This relationship is one with a history.  Not only is God Israel’s God, he is the one “…who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  These laws are given in the context of relationship.  Israel is called not to obey the law for the law’s sake.  Israel is called to obey the one who gives the law. Further, it’s important to note that God’s grace comes before the commands. God graciously redeemed his people out of slavery in Egypt, and now they will be called to respond to that grace through obedient living. 

It’s important to keep in mind here that Israel’s faithfulness to these commands is not conditionally based.  God is not saying that if Israel keeps these commands they will be God’s chosen people.  They are already, by virtue of their deliverance from Egypt, God’s people.  Keeping these commands does not make them the people of God.  Rather, these commands allow God’s people to grow up into and flourish as God’s covenant people. 

One more thing is important to note before we look at each of the commandments in turn.  Eight of the commands are negative in nature, “You shall not…”,  while two of them are positive.  One commentator points out that at this point the commands are not intended to create life but to protect it from behaviors, private and cooperate, that might destroy it.  Yet, he notes, that the commands implicitly move us toward considering their positive side.  “For example, not bearing false witness invites speaking well of one’s neighbor, not killing suggests efforts to preserve life, and not wrongfully using the name of God commends the praise of God.  It is not enough for a community’s life and health simply to avoid crimes.”[1] With every “shall not” is a “shall.” I believe that this is part of what Jesus means when he says in Matthew that he did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. 

Our study of each command will focus on the prohibition of the negative commands as well as the positive intention inherent in it. We will ask: what does it look like to fulfill this negative command in positive way?  We will examine the first five commands this week and the final five next week. 

The First Command: No Other Gods!
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”

The prohibition against having any other gods other than Yahweh is tied tightly to God’s previous action.  As we have already said, these commands, especially this one, is given in the context of a previous history and relationship.  This history of God as one who delivers from slavery and bondage will be foundational for Israel.  A phrase similar to “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is found in over 130 places in 30 of the 39 books of the Old Testament.  91 times we are explicitly told that it was Yahweh who brought Israel out of Egypt.[2]

There is to be no doubt left in Israel’s mind that the one who freed them from slavery is the one who is in control.  God is being clearly defined as the one who has acted, in sheer grace, on behalf of Israel.  God is committed to Israel and now God wishes that Israel be committed to him.  This is made explicit in the command to have no other gods.  The phrase may confuse some, making them think that the “before me” is a matter of order.  As in, God being the first god in what might be a small pantheon.  This might give the sense that Israel (we) might serve other gods too as long as our first allegiance goes to God.  This is not the case.  The literal translation of the phrase is “before/beside/in addition/together with my face.”  God desires a solitary commitment.  This includes, to be sure, placing ourselves as god alongside the one who has freed us from slavery.  A good and long discussion could be had concerning the things or people lifted up as gods.  They are legion and we do so, at times, without ever realizing it.

In a positive way, what does it look like to not have any other gods besides the one who brought us up out of slavery?  Constantly, through the pages of scripture, we are being called to become like this very God who desires our allegiance.  Keeping this command means that we seek to be like God in that we are active in bringing people from bondage to freedom.  This may be very literal, as in seeking to bring people to freedom from addiction, human trafficking, and many other things.  Or, it could be more spiritual in nature. 

The Second Command: No Idols!
“You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

Idols were prevalent throughout the countries that would surround Israel.  Indeed, even the house of slavery from which they have just been liberated liberally used idols and images to represent what was of ultimate concern for them.  In short, idols were everywhere and presented a grave danger to Israel.  In other places in Israel’s sacred literature, God would warn Israel that worship of idols would bring about consequences of the gravest sort. 

The problem with idols is that they are static.  They represent an image of a thing, a person or an animal in an unchangeable form.  To cast an image and call it God, as Israel will do in just a few short chapters, is to represent God as something he is not, static and unresponsive.  Rather, the God that is depicted in the pages of our bible is one that is immanent; he is among us responding to us as we live our daily lives.  To cast God in an image is to deny that God acts in relationship to the world he created.[3]

The prohibition against idols goes beyond their mere existence.  The tendency with all idols is that one will bow down in worship to them.  Bowing down might seem innocent enough, but it’s the posture that is important.  To bow down, or to prostrate oneself before someone or something, places oneself in a position of complete subservience.  In a bowed down position one is totally vulnerable.  “To prostrate oneself is to announce that the person in whose presence one is in is vastly superior and worthy of complete deference.”[4] For Israel and for us, as ones who have been created in the image of God, this kind of posture should only be reserved for the one who has brought us up out of Egypt, out of slavery. 

To fulfill this command in a positive way is to find rest in the God who has pursued us, who has sought us and graciously promises to remain steadfastly loyal to us.  It is a constant burden to seek after something or someone who might bring us safety, security, and love.  We need not waste our energy on that search.  God is with us.  God has come to us in Jesus Christ, the form of the invisible God.  So, let us leave off the work of constructing something to worship.  Let us, instead, turn to the God who is constantly calling to us and who is easy to find. 

The Third Command: Don’t Give God a Bad Reputation!         
“You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…”

We often use this commandant to help our children learn how not to talk.  We teach them not to use God’s name as a swear word, and then we teach them not to use swear words at all.  Somewhere along the line we make the connection between this commandment and all forms of speech we deem as unbefitting our status as Christians.

This commandment concerning the right use of God’s name goes much deeper than swearing.  It has everything to do with God’s reputation here on earth.  Names are important markers of identity.  The modern world of marketing knows this.  That is why those involved in marketing products or services do their best to ensure that the name of a product matches what it does and becomes synonymous with quality and excellence in that area.  Companies and marketing firms are so effective at this that people build up great loyalties to these products.  Names conjure up all kinds of ideas about the nature of the product.  Just think of some of the conversations you may have had about companies such as Apple and Microsoft or Ford and Chevy.  Names matter.  They point back to something larger.

The God of Israel is constantly concerned with his name and the larger reality to which it points.  Moses, in a few chapters, will convince God not to destroy Israel because of the damage it would cause to God’s good name. In this command, God wants Israel to represent God, not only in how it handles itself in truthfulness, but in how it characterizes God.  God is the God of truth.  Therefore Israel should not lie.  God is the God who frees people from slavery; therefore Israel should free others from slavery.  God is the God who is steadfastly loyal in love; therefore Israel should be steadfastly loyal in love.  The question for us is, when we invoke the name of God do we do so for things that are of great importance?  In other words, are the things we proclaim God being for really the things that God is for? Do we carry God’s name in the world well, or do we bring it into disrepute through our words and actions? 

Positively, making right use of God’s name is done in praise and recounting the great deeds of God.  “We can and do raise up God’s name for praise and adoration and for support of the things God calls us to: actions for justice, lively and true worship, support for our weakness, challenges to our sloth, hope in our hopelessness.”[5]        

The Fourth Commandment: The Sabbath!  Keep it!
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy…”

The first word of this command, remember, is an important word for Israel.  So often in the Old Testament Israel is commanded to remember.  Most of those commands demand that what is to be remembered is God or what God has done.  What are we to remember?  We are to remember the Sabbath.  The call is not so much to remember a certain day, but to remember the way in which God created all that is.  Six days God worked to bring the world to order.  On the seventh day he rested.  God did not rest because he needed to; he did not rest because he was tired.  God did not even rest from his completion of creation; God rested as a way to complete creation.  By doing so God establishes within creation a rhythm of work and rest.  This is the way it is supposed to be: work then rest.  It is only when creation honors this work-rest rhythm that creation can be what it was intended to be.  In a counter intuitive way, not working keeps the forces of chaos away.[6]

This is certainly contrary to how we think and talk about the world.  We scurry around, working constantly (at our jobs or at other things as well) so that we can live our lives in the way that we want to live them.  Our constant working is an attempt to ensure that we are in control.  The opposite happens.  The more we frantically work the more things unwind.  Our marriages unwind, our relationship with our children disintegrates, and so does our heath.  When we do not stop to rest we declare that God is not really in charge. 

Ironically, our call to remember the Sabbath is more than a call to cognitively remember.  Remembrance in the bible is almost never passive.  We are called to remember the Sabbath by keeping it.  In our world today, keeping the Sabbath requires planning and commitment.  It requires the work of discipline to set it apart as holy.          

So What…?
As we journey towards the cross, we are confronted with the numerous ways in which we fail to keep God’s commands, not just in not doing wrong, but failing to fulfill these commands in their positive aspects as well.  Our failure to keep these commands damages our relationship with God and with others. 

When we stress keeping the law by stressing the importance of the law itself rather than the relationship behind the law, we miss the point.  It’s a sin because it characterizes God and the law as caring more about what we do and do not do over the law as a way to help us become the people God wants us to become by way of our redemption from slavery. 

When we build idols for ourselves we fail to represent God as a personal God who is in a responsive relationship with us.  We end up creating a god we can control, one we’ve made in our own image instead of serving the God who created us in his image. 

When we wrongfully use God’s name we do damage to his reputation.  The ways we talk about God, the things we pray for, and the ways we live—those things show others what we think is the nature of the God whom we serve.

Finally, when we fail to keep the Sabbath holy we sin by failing to allow God to be God.  We work and believe that if we were to cease our toil that the world would come crashing down on us.  We fail to trust that the God who created and sustains the universe will now take care of us as we seek to follow the rhythm of creation: work then rest.

As we confess our sin and our unfaithfulness we need to remember that our confession is just the first step toward our collective repentance, our walking in a different direction.  If we are to be faithful it will be because we have allowed the Holy Spirit to work in us as individuals and as a community.    

Critical Discussion Questions:
  1. What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
    1. God has created us as his holy people.  He has liberated us from slavery and is helping us as we journey toward the Promised Land.  God is giving us the guidance and rules we need to fully become what he has intended us to become. 

  1. What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
    1. Holiness looks like following these commands because they come from the God who has brought us up out of slavery.  Holiness looks like faithful obedience as a grateful response for the saving actions of God. 

  1. How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
    1. We often gloss over these commands thinking we know what they mean and what they demand of us.  We must confess that we have read them too simply and have often missed the point and then move toward being more faithfully obedient. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Why does God begin the Ten Commandments by speaking these words, “I am the Lord your God.”
2.     Regarding the first commandment, why doesn’t God want us to have any other gods beside him?
3.     Why does God specifically remind Israel of what he has just done for them? 
4.     What is an idol?  What are our idols today?
5.     The prohibition against bowing down to an idol had in mind the complete vulnerable state that bowing down created.  We may not physically bow down before our idols today, but what are some of the ways in which we make ourselves completely vulnerable to our idols?
6.     What does it mean to make wrongful use of God’s name?  Is it mainly about using God’s name as a swear word? How else might we make wrongful use of God’s name?
7.     A name represents the nature and character of the thing it represents.  For Israel, God’s name represented a whole set of beliefs about who God is and how God interacts with creation.  For instance, for Israel the name “God” comes to mean “the one who sets the captive free.”  When you talk about God, what beliefs about who God is come immediately to mind? 
8.     The commandment to keep the Sabbath holy is rooted in the creation story.  God works six days and then rests on the seventh.  God intended this to be the normal rhythm of creation: work then rest.  Why do you think God planned it this way?
9.     Is it tough to truly take a Sabbath, that is, to rest from your work?  If so, why?  What might that say about the trust, or lack thereof, that we place in God for our future?

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 221.
[2] John C. Holbert, The Ten Commandments: A Preaching Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) 17.
[3] Fretheim, 227
[4] Holbert, 29
[5] Holbert, 48
[6] Fretheim, 230

Monday, February 16, 2015

Genesis 6:5-22; 8:21-22 –Starting Over…

Lesson Focus: 
Our sinfulness causes pain and grief in the heart of God.  After the Flood, God chooses to respond to evil, not with destruction, but with love and forgiveness.  

Lesson Outcomes: 
Through this lessons students should: 
1.     Understand that God’s reaction to creation’s infidelity is one of grief and pain.
2.     Understand that the Flood is an act of recreation not pure judgment. 
3.     Be challenged to respond to evil like God now has chosen to respond to evil, with love and forgiveness. 

Catch up on the story:
Adam and Eve sinned and the world was forever changed. Men were cursed to work hard on the land in order to produce means for their survival. Women were cursed to have great pain in childbirth.  But even though humanity sinned, it did not spell the end for God’s creation that was indeed, “very good”.  Humanity continued to multiply and with that multiplication sin multiplied.  The descendants of Adam were continually evil in their hearts and in their actions.  This caused God to grieve.  The world had gone its own way, a way not pleasing to God.  But God had not given up on the world; rather he wished to start over.  Noah, surrounded by all kinds of unfaithfulness and resistance to the good will of God, found favor with God. 

The Text:
This text is one of our most cherished and familiar stories.  If you look in any children’s storybook bible it is sure to be included, complete with cute illustrations of elephants, monkeys and penguins.  The Flood narrative’s familiarity to us sometimes does us a disservice.  While we might read the story to our children at bedtime, we often forget to probe deep enough into the text to see what is really going on.  Or, we simplify the story so that it remains only about punishment for sins, or about God’s salvation for the righteous.  To be sure, the story has elements of both of those things, but it is not primarily about either of those things.  What is the story about? 

The Setting:
We are not given any specific information concerning the location or date of the Flood.  To search for a concrete historical location and time for our story would distract from the narrative purpose of the story.  What is clear is that the world that God had created as “very good” has turned out to be anything but good.  Beginning with Adam and Eve’s first sin, humanity has begun to assert itself over the guidance and direction of God.  In a fit of uncontrolled desire Cain slays Able.  Sin compounds and grows.  Generations have passed since Cain and we are told that the world and the hearts of humanity are evil and that continually.  The wickedness of humanity covers the whole earth.

God’s Response: Pain and Grief
God decides that humanity’s evil and wickedness has spread far enough.  God will now act to rectify the situation.  God will act to cover the whole world with a great flood.  Every human creature along with the animals of the world will be blotted out.  Here the Hebrew denotes more than just to destroy those who have been evil, but to cease to remember any longer. The image has its roots in the preparation of written texts.  The world will be rubbed clean in the same way a scribe might correct an error by rubbing the ink from the page.  The same word will be used in 1 Kings where God will wipe away Jerusalem like a person cleans a dirty dish so that it might be used again.[1]  Mistakes will be wiped away, making space for something new.

The image is clear.  There will be a fresh beginning.  This is not destruction for destruction’s sake.  It is not just judgment on those who have been wicked.  It is the clearing of the table so that it might be reset with human actors who will not continually work against the good will of God.  The chaos of wickedness and evil will be wiped away by the cleansing chaos of water.

The reason for this cleansing, however, is not what we might first expect.  All too often the image of God that we have constructed for ourselves is one that is utterly unsympathetic towards disobedience and evil.  This God must act immediately and swiftly deal with those who have sinned against him.  While we can agree that sin and wickedness are antithetical to the nature of God and that God does indeed bring about judgment on those who work against his good purposes, that is not God’s primary motivation here.   

According to the text, God’s sole motivation for this cleansing is grief, sorrow and pain.  Three times in three verses we are told that God was sorry or grieved.  The Hebrew word here is yatsav, and it means to hurt, feel pain or to grieve.  This is the root word used to describe how humanity’s persistent wickedness affects God.  In the NIV it is translated as “was deeply troubled,” in the NRSV it is translated as “sorry.”  Here the NIV’s choice is probably the better one.  God, in his inner most parts, felt pain and sorrow that his good creation has turned out to be so thoroughly bad.  This sheds a different light on the destruction that takes place in the flood.  It is not because God, in his fierce anger, must destroy what is not pleasing to him.  One commentator has this to say about God’s motivation, “First, with amazing boldness the narrative invites the listening community to penetrate into the heart of God (vv. 6–7). What we find there is not an angry tyrant, but a troubled parent who grieves over the alienation.”[2]

The stunning part of this narrative is not just that God would act in such a destructive way, but that God was sorry that he created in the first place.  We understand this felling all too well.  How often have we made decisions or a series of decisions (seemingly good ones at that) whose consequences have left us in deep pain and sorrow, longing to go back and undo what we did?  Our text gives us the very distinct impression that this is God’s state of mind at the end of verse 7.  Of course, at the end of the day, these word images are Israel’s best attempt at understanding God’s mind in mind in the midst of such a chaotic event.  

Now you might be asking if the view taken by this narrative depicts a God who is less than all-powerful or all-knowing?  How could God create something and then be sorry for it?  Would that not mean that God was not in control of what he created?  God, in his greatness and power, created a world founded on love, and love requires freedom.  Love is always risky.  From the beginning, there was always the chance that we humans would refuse to be the creation that God wanted us to be.  

Our God, however, chooses to work within the bounds of love, so that love might be true love, so that we might freely turn towards God and embrace the one who embraces us first.  It always takes more courage and more strength to love.  We celebrate God’s power and sovereignty precisely because he created us out of the freedom of love. 

The Emergence of Noah: Covenant and Re-creation
In the midst of all the evil and wickedness Noah finds favor with God.  The destruction that God brings on the earth will not be total or complete.  God will work through a faithful servant to bring about salvation for creation.  Noah embodies a new possibility for creation.  God will establish a covenant with Noah.  The narrator wants us to look to Noah as one who represents a fresh alternative to the destruction that sinfulness and willful disobedience bring.  The text wants us to see that, in the midst of great evil, God is always there, seeking those who are obedient, offering them freedom from the sin that destroys.  Noah is obedient, and the text makes us aware of this in three different places in the Flood narrative, 6:22, 7:5 and 7:9.[3]

God could have just saved Noah and his family outright.  This is not what God does.  Wesley states that, “God could have secured Noah, by the ministration of angels without putting him to any care or pains, but he chose to employ him in making that which was to be the means of his preservation, both for the trial of his faith and obedience, and to teach us that none shall be saved by Christ, but those only that work out their salvation; we cannot do it without God, and he will not without us…[4]

So Noah, in faithfulness and obedience, sets about constructing the ark.  God gathers the animals to him.  Noah is faithful and his faithfulness and obedience is vindicated when the rains began to fall.  Again, his obedience is vindicated when the waters rise, when they survive their time on the ark, and when the ark once again rests on dry land.  Finally, Noah is commanded to open the ark and go forth to repopulate the earth. 

One of the first things Noah does after he steps off the boat is to build an altar to God where he sacrifices one of every clean animal and bird.  God is pleased by this offering and makes a promise to Noah. God will never again curse the ground or destroy every living creature again.  This is the promise of a faithful God who knows that his creation will not be faithful.  Has the flood changed humanity?  No, it hasn’t.  In spite of the knowledge that the “inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (8:21) God chooses to remain faithful to that which he created.  We have been and always will be deeply set against God’s purposes, until we are transformed by the grace of Christ.

This is the good news for us! Despite our inclination toward evil, God has not; God will not give up on us.  God’s resolve is one that always works toward re-creation and redemption.  Destruction will not serve God’s redemptive purposes, only the self-giving love of God will.      

So What?
Rather than being a tale of God’s wrath and destruction the Flood narrative is a story of God’s covenant faithfulness with us.  No amount of judgment and destruction will change the continual wickedness of humanity’s heart.  God knows this.  No amount of wickedness and violence will change God’s love for his creation.  It is because of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness toward creation that God has set about to change our hearts in a different way.  Fear cannot make a permanent change in a wicked person’s heart, but love can.

In a way that is so unlike how we respond when someone hurts or grieves us, God’s response to our wickedness is now one of love.  God will not beat our sinfulness out of us.  Instead he takes it on, absorbs it, conquering it with forgiveness and love.  As Christians we confess that this is what happens as Jesus hangs on the cross.  Jesus takes on the weight of the sin of the whole world, and the death that sin produced, and vanquishes it by refusing to retaliate.  Love has won.  Love wins. 

The challenge for us is to live like this Jesus who is our fullest picture of God.  When we are confronted with our own world-destroying evil how will we respond?  Will we demand that those who have done harm to us be wiped away like food from a dirty dish?  Or will we respond like the God who has covenanted with humanity to never destroy it again?  Will we respond like the God who became one of us, who conquered our sin and shame through love? 

This is the first week of Lent.  As we journey toward the Cross and Jesus’ death may we give up our “right” to respond to evil with evil.  Instead, this week, take time to intentionally pray for those who hurt you.  Perform an act of kindness for a work place or school adversary.  As you hear news of various kinds of violence and wickedness taking place here and aboard, pray that your thoughts and attitudes toward those who perpetrate evil might be an attitude of love.       

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text? 
a.     In this text God is both faithful, but willing to discipline his creation.  God shows us, by not completely wiping everything away and starting completely afresh, that he is not yet done with what he has created.  He may not be happy with what we have done, or where our lives our headed, but he continues to be our God.  He continues to be the God who brings fresh and new life out of the chaos of the world and our lives. 

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Salvation looks like recreation.  Even though we have royally messed up the good world that God has created, salvation is still to be found.  As we have fouled up our lives, God has promised not to just erase us and start again, but he has given us a lifeboat that brings us to the new possibility of life.  Just as the Ark provided salvation for Noah, his family and the living things of the world, Jesus Christ provides salvation for us.  We can know that God has promised to not give up on us.  In the end, salvation looks like being obedient.  Only this time we have not been instructed to build an Ark, but to live in right relationship with God and our neighbors.  As we enter into relationship with Christ, we learn what it means to be obedient.

3.      How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     We can rest in the knowledge that God has promised never to destroy the world again.  He has done much more than that, he has given us a way and an example to live by that will create in us new life and we will once again be “very good”. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Our passage begins by stating that in the time of Noah, “every inclination” of humanity was evil.  Is this still the case for humanity today?  If yes, why?  If no, why?
2.     We are told that it grieved God’s heart and he was sorry that he had made humankind.  Why would God regret making humankind that much?  Does it surprise you that God is depicted as regretting doing something?  Why or why not? What does that mean?
3.     God decides to “blot out” people from the earth.  What does God hope to accomplish by doing this? 
4.     Noah finds favor with God because he is obedient.  John Wesley points out that God could have saved Noah, his family and a few animals without having him build an ark.  Angels could have protected Noah.  Why does God have Noah build an ark?
5.     Finally the Flood is over.  Noah and his family are instructed to leave the ark.  The first thing Noah does is to build an altar and offer a burnt offering to God.  This is pleasing to God.  God then promises that he will never again curse the ground because of humanity or destroy every living creature again.  He won’t do this because the “inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.” (8:21)  If the heart of humanity is evil from youth, why won’t God come to destroy like he has with the flood?  Was God hoping that the Flood would change the heart of humanity?
6.     The heart of God, post Flood, is revealed to be one that is steadfastly faithful to an evil creation.  The nature of this God will be revealed to us through the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As a group, take time to discuss ways in which you might act with steadfastly faithful love to an evil world.  

[1] James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 77.
[3] Brueggemann, 80.
[4] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Bristol: William Pine, 1765), 32.