Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
I’ve often wondered why God felt the need to “test” Abraham. I mean, geez, just take a gander back over everything that’s happened to him since God called him in chapter 12. What else does the man need to endure in order to demonstrate his faith in God’s plan?
Okay, there was that little white lie about Sarah being his sister, and the dalliance with Hagar that produced a soon-to-be mortal enemy of Issac, the child of promise. But, other than that….
I suppose God doesn’t need a reason to allow a little testing in the lives of God’s people of faith; this story certainly sets the bar at the impossibly high level of willing sacrifice of one’s own child. The other thought I have often had when considering this story is that it would have been much more tolerable for Abraham to offer his own life than it must have been to consider placing Isaac on that altar.
There is the issue in this text of violence to children, and it seems awfully harsh to our 21st-century sensibilities. Certainly, I cannot justify a hermeneutic that would make such actions the norm or desirable for “faith-testing” in our day and time. I cannot speak for God on this one.
All I know is that Abraham trusted and God provided. Isaac survived, as did the promise of God.
Sacrifice and deliverance never dwelt more closely together than at the moment God’s command stayed Abraham’s hand on Moriah — that is, until the cry of the Christ at Calvary.
“How long, O Lord?”
Countless lips have breathed the prayer, before and after the psalmist set this text. There are those moments in life that we feel that God has certainly forgotten about us — or, at the very least, that God is not paying attention!
With darkened eyes and shaken soul, it is still the song of our salvation that lifts from a trusting heart. Is it naive to remember the goodness of God from our past in hopes that God will hear our prayers yet again in our next time of trouble?
Naive, maybe; faithful — certainly.
“Not so fast, my friend!”
Jeremiah throws down a bit of a gauntlet before his colleague, Hananiah, who was most likely trying to soothe some political feathers with his prophecy about Israel’s soon redemption from the oppression of Babylon. Jeremiah, fit with a wooden yoke about his neck, was all for Hananiah’s optimistic prediction.
But, he knew that there was a lot more to this prophetic gig than fancy words and popular remonstrations against an unpopular oppressor. In order to proclaim, “the word of the Lord, ” it is helpful for one to have actually gotten a word from the Lord!
Preachers, we had best take note.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Sometimes, it’s just good to know the secret handshake and be a part of the club. Verse 15 is one of my new favorites: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance….”
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of “slave and master” language in the Bible. This is just one more bit of biblical anachronicity that tends to make us uncomfortable. But, in this instance, I think it’s worth it to try and get past our cultural misgivings in order to understand the power of the image.
We do tend to offer our allegiance to causes outside of ourselves, don’t we? We can become “slaves” to all sorts of things in life: our work, our play (are you ready for some football?), our desire for success or acceptance.
The Apostle here writes about our slavishness to sin, pretty much a done deal if you accept the theology that underlies the rest of Romans. We’re chained to a sinful lifestyle, and it ain’t pulling us nowhere but down!
In Christ, God offers us the chance to become slaves to righteousness. We “surrender” and “present” ourselves as “living sacrifices” (see Romans 5:1-2, a powerful image when coupled with the Isaac story, above.)
This slavery, however, has a much different result: not death, but instead the free gift of eternal life in Christ.
Four sure-fire ways to reap a heavenly reward:
- offer a cup of cold water to a child (I suppose juice or even Kool-aid might do)
- welcome a righteous person
- welcome a prophet
- welcome the one who comes in Jesus’ name
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
(Delmer will be back next week!)
It was an old joke long before my pastor ever used it – but he never got tired of illustrating his point with it. “Whenever you see a ‘therefore’ in the Bible,” he’d intone, “you need to be sure you know what it’s there for!”
I guess the stunt must have worked, because every time I read a passage like the one from Romans for today – I stop to consider the purpose for the “therefore.”
The Apostle has just concluded a passionate appeal, refuting the logic of some who wanted to argue that God’s grace is faster than a speeding bullet, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound – okay, apologies to Superman for that one! Anyhow, since God’s grace always abounds even more than the effects of sin, there were those who argued that we should perhaps consider sinning more so that God can forgive us more!
“No way, Jose!” said the erstwhile Paul – or, words to that effect.
It just doesn’t make sense for a believer in Christ – who has died with Christ in baptism – to continue living in sin for ANY reason, but certainly not in order to receive the grace of God. (James would later write that “God does not sin, and does not tempt any of us to sin, either.” See James 1:13)
So, the “therefore” in v. 12 kicks us back to Paul’s thesis: you don’t belong to sin anymore! That’s why sin needn’t have its way with you (a better translation of “dominion,” if I do say so myself!) After all, we are a people who live under grace!
Now, that’s an evocative phrase if I’ve ever heard one! Living under grace…
I wonder how that’s like living under a roof when the weather turns cold, or walking under an umbrella in a rainstorm? The roof certainly helps to keep you warm – and the umbrella keeps you dry (mostly) until you can get in out of harm’s way.
Maybe grace does function something like that. Sin brings the storms of evil into our lives – grace offers a means of protection and help. What a nifty idea! Here comes sin – I whip out God’s grace, and voila – I’m saved!
I could just go right ahead on and live my life, and never really worry much about the consequences of my actions. Sin – schmin! Grace has got me covered, right?
Hmmm… that’s evidently the way some folks were treating God’s grace, and Paul utters his second “By no means!” in verse 15. This is another way of saying, “Don’t even think about it; just don’t go there.”
God’s grace is not something that is meant to give us a license for living lives devoid of costly discipleship. Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer detailed this concept vividly, arguing that if we are not careful, we will make God’s rich gift of grace into something that is “cheap” – received too easily and considered too lightly.
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller, rev. ed. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1960), p. 36.
What Pastor Bonhoeffer was describing – and what Paul is trying to explain to us in Romans — is the process known as sanctification. That’s a big, churchy-sounding word – but one that is important for us to understand. While the call to follow Christ is not a call to come and be perfect, it is a call to “come and die” to our old ways of living, our old ways of thinking and doing and being.
We have received a new life in Christ – and what is old simply cannot stay. Things are different because of Christ – we are different! And difference requires some discipline in our lives.
Again, Bonhoeffer writes: “the purpose of such discipline is not to establish a community of the perfect, but a community consisting of [men and women] who really live under the forgiving mercy of God.” (ibid, p. 288)
Really living under the forgiving mercy of God means, I suspect, that there are those times when we will mess up; our hearts will hurt because of the harm we have caused to others, to ourselves, and to God. But, God’s mercy will be there to forgive and heal us – and to help us in our efforts to do better, to live in ways that are more like Christ.
Not more sin so we can get more grace – rather, more grace so that sin is diminished, and the life of God that is ours in Jesus Christ grows and abounds and covers us now and for eternity.