Signpost for 25 February, 2018, 2nd Sunday in Lent: Gen 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps 22:23-31; Rom 4:13-25; Mark 8: 31-38.
We sometimes speak of the new relationship that we have with God through Jesus as the New Covenant. This reflects the Old Covenant* that is a feature in our Old Testament reading today, the Covenant between God and Abraham.
The idea of a covenant has been important in a number of periods in the history of the Church. Some of my ancestors in the Kirkudbright district of Scotland in the eighteenth century were “Covenanters”. When the reformation came to Scotland, thousands of the reformed believers signed the Solemn League and Covenant. They wanted to set up a nation under God where, in effect, the State would be secondary to the Church.
When the new Government was set up in Scotland, as it was in England, the reverse happened. The Church always had influence on the State, but the State always had a degree of control over the Church, as it has to this day in England, but no longer in Scotland. The Covenanter Church continued quite strongly for a long time, the first dissenters from Presbyterian Orthodoxy.
During the Nineteenth Century revival in England, the Evangelical wing of the Church of England held firmly to the idea of covenant, and they were often very influential in the government of the day. They were in control when the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, and the support of the missionaries for the Treaty was often expressed in covenant terms. So we cannot do justice to our own history without some awareness of the importance of covenant ideas. It still echoes in discussions of the Treaty today.
Returning to our readings; while we speak of a New Covenant in Jesus, it would be better to see his actions in the Gospel for today as an expression of the first Covenant.
In the Old Testament story, Abram and Sarai were surprised when they were told they would have a child, but they rejoiced and became faithful when that actually happened to them. Paul comments on this in the Epistle. He is rather idealistic; he ignores Abraham and Sarah’s times of failure to be faithful. He also gives more importance to Abraham than to Sarah, though the covenant is to them as a couple, rather than to the man and then to the woman as subsidiary to her.
Jesus is faithful to the Covenant in a way that would have surprised many of his co-religionists. He expresses it through his willingness to brave danger for the sake of the message he bears. And it is in the suffering that follows that we believe we see the New Covenant.
What has this to say about Lent; perhaps Lent is about giving up the risk-free life rather than minor indulgences. I hope our worship on Sunday features the hymn “Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?” by John L Bell and Graham Maule, to the traditional Scottish tune, “Kelvingrove”, and that we sing it at a reckless speed!
*the word covenant comes from the Latin ‘con venir’ – coming together.
Signpost for Sunday, July 23 2017 (18th Ordinary Sunday): Gen 28:10 – 19a; Ps 139:1-12, 23-24; Rom 8:12-25; Mt 13:24-30, 36-43.
It was once a common belief that if you slept with your head against a sacred stone you would dream oracles. Associative magic was a strong part of early religion. Jacob is about to leave the country. He is leaving at the place where his grandparents entered the land years ago. When they arrived they built an altar there. A place for worship set up by an ancestor is about as sacred as it gets. Try to close a church when the grandchildren of the founders live in the district and you will find that out. The grandchildren may never darken the doors from one Christmas to the next, but they will dominate the congregational meeting when the closure is discussed. Associative magic still exists!
The dream is full of messages for Jacob. He has won his father’s blessing by a trick, and has to flee alone, but he sees many people coming and going on that ladder. In God’s dream he is no longer alone. He has tricked his father, and that is very impious, but the ladder leads to heaven, so he is not cut off from God. Heaven is still “up there” in those days!
Early religion tended to identify God with a certain place, perhaps more widely with a tribe or tribal area (country?). It was hard to think of God as being universal. If two nominally Christian countries are at war, they both expect God to back their side. Islam and Christianity and Judaism all tend to say that they worship the same God, but when one attacks another, that must first be denied, so that the resultant war is not fratricide within God’s family.
So Jacob is seeking comfort as he prepares to leave his land and the sphere of influence of his God. His dream offers a great hope. God will be with him outside that land, and will return him home safely. And he renews the promise made to Abraham (this is probably the main reason for this story!) that his descendants will be like the sands of the desert. No wonder Jacob (as Abraham before him) calls the place Bethel – the House of God.
Signpost for Sunday 9th July 2017 (14th Sunday in Ordinary Time): Genesis 24:34-38,42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
The Daily Devotions in our N.Z. Prayer Book contain the phrase “God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel” (p.112). As a not particularly feminist female, I have found this a trifle tiresome, but it is important. These three women were just as much part of God’s plan for the establishment of his Nation as their respective husbands. We are not told much about the romance between Abraham and Sarah. She seems to have been related to him, probably his half-sister (20:12) and accordingly was acceptable. What is certain is that it was her son, Isaac, rather than his older half-brother, Ishmael, who was the first link in the chain that was to become the chosen people of God. We have much more detail about the marriage of Rebekah and Isaac and that of the next generation, Isaac’s son Jacob and Rachel, and both those stories make gripping reading, packed with believable characters, still universally recognisable.
Today we are concerned with Rebekah, the beautiful, amiable, physically strong (think of her drawing water for all those camels) young woman whose life was changed by the arrival of a mysterious stranger bent on finding the right wife for his master’s son. That stranger is not named in the Genesis story, simply referred to as Abraham’s trusted servant, but Jewish tradition is firm that he was Eliezar, the slave whom Abraham once thought might have to become his heir (15:2-3). Eliezar was charged with a very long and tiring journey to seek a bride for Isaac from “back home”, the local Canaanite women not being suitable because they worshipped other gods. He took with him expensive gifts for the prospective bride and her family, and because of his faithfulness, prayerfulness and obedience his mission was successful; Rebekah agreed to go back with him and marry Isaac. The account of their first setting eyes on each other is touching. We have an older man falling in love with a much younger woman, welcoming her, it seems, as a replacement for his beloved mother whose death he was still mourning – hardly Mills and Boon stuff, but there are all kinds of love, and this marriage started well. According to Rashi, an 11th century Rabbi, the three miracles that characterized Sarah’s tent while she was alive, and that disappeared with her death, reappeared when Rebekah entered the tent. These were: A lamp burned in her tent from Shabbat eve to Shabbat eve, there was a blessing in her dough, and a cloud hovered over her tent (symbolizing the Divine Presence. Thank you Mr Google.) However, fairy tale stuff as it may seem, they did not live happily ever after.
The account of their son Jacob’s marriage to Rebekah’s niece Rachel is an even more page-turning narrative, and further reinforces that these three women were not just people with the right body parts for the continuation of the line. They were each carefully sought and they were all feisty women, dedicated to their matriarchal role. I wonder why it was part of God’s plan that each of them had to suffer barrenness for many years before God’s intervention granted them sons.
Another puzzle is why Rachel is regarded as the third Matriarch at all. She may have been Jacob’s favourite wife, but she was not his first, she contributed only two out of twelve sons, and it was not from one of them that the Messiah was descended. God of Sarah, Rebekah and Leah? Somebody please point me in the right direction. George?
Signpost for Sunday 2nd July 2017: Gen 22:1-14; Ps 13; Rom 6:12-23; Matt 10:40-42.
Three years ago I wrote a Signpost on these very same verses. I was perturbed then and all I could really do was recommend Leonard Cohen’s song The Story of Isaac to you.
This time round I remain perturbed, and I’m not the only one. John C. Holbert, the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas has this to say about Genesis 22: “Let me make something very clear from the outset of this piece: I deeply dislike and thoroughly distrust this morsel of the sacred text.”
It’s worth reading the rest of his thoughts especially as he now refuses to preach on this text ever again.
Fortunately, I don’t have to preach on anything but I do have to write this Signpost. Which is why I’m glad that I happen to be reading a book by Brian D. McLaren at the moment. The title hooked me straight away: ‘Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World.’ As a book that makes you think about things you may not have questioned, that many people just don’t question, I can thoroughly recommend it.
And what it has to do with the Abraham and Isaac story is that it suggests another way to look at the First and Second Testaments.
McLaren writes: ‘For most of us, I suspect, our concept of Christianity, follows a similar pattern to this: What is true of God is true of Jesus; Jesus is equal to God. Also, we would say that Jesus is the revelation of God to us, or that if we want to understand God, Jesus is the ‘human’ version of God.’
I think he’s right about that and it’s probably what I would have said before reading his book. But, he points out, there is another way of looking at things, one that McLaren suggests actually makes more sense of the notion of ‘New’ Testament and ‘Gospel’, and even the whole point of Jesus’ ministry on earth.
It’s not something new; the alternative concept of Christianity is in fact how Franciscans, the Celts and Quakers see things: First seek to understand or know Christ. Then apply this understanding to God. Enrich, challenge, adjust, affirm or correct all previous understandings of God in the light of Christ.
Personally, I’d never thought about Christianity in exactly those terms. And then I thought, if I take this approach, the story of Abraham and Isaac is less of a problem for me. Or to put it another way – this is not a story about the God I believe in, because Jesus shows me a different understanding of who God is.
Signpost for Sunday 18th June 2017 (11th in Ordinary Time): Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew 9:35 – 10:23.
How good it is to get back to the Genesis narratives. Today we have the Yahwist’s account of the announcement of Isaac’s birth, which in some respects is similar to the Priestly writer’s version in chapter 17. Both emphasise the tension between God’s promise of an heir and its fulfilment, in that both Abraham and Sarah are well beyond the age for child-bearing.
Today Sarah overhears the promise made to Abraham and laughs. She laughs to herself but God is not too pleased and chides her (through Abraham, not directly) for not understanding that there is nothing too wonderful for the Lord.
In the preceding chapter it is Abraham who laughs. The incredibly learned 17th century commentator, Matthew Henry, has it that Abraham’s laughter arises from great humility (he falls on his face) and great joy, but Sarah’s laughter is from doubt and mistrust. Although God does not rebuke Abraham as he does Sarah, the context in each version seems to allow the presumption that both of them had their “Yeah, right!” moment. However, Paul, using Abraham as the example in his dissertation on righteousness through faith in Romans 4, tells us that “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead… No distrust made him waiver concerning the promise of God …”
Isaac, the second of the great patriarchs, is born and Sarah laughs again (21:6-7), this time in great joy and wonderment for herself and for “everyone who hears”. His name, given to him by God (17:19), means “He Laughs”. Joy is the proper response to the beginning of the creation of that great Nation of which we are now part.