Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2012
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
Gal. 3:6-9, 13-14
6 Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” 7 so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. 8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” 9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
One of my Facebook friends posted a picture of a glass of water, half full, or half empty, depending on your perspective. There was some writing on the
photo too. To the side of the glass of water someone one had written a bracket indicating the water, with the comment “half water” and another bracket indicating the empty part with the comment “half air,” and the concluding comment: technically, the glass is always full.
When it comes to reading the bible, the problem is that some people read it and see only wrath and anger, blood and violence, curses and punishment, while others read it and see love and mercy, forgiveness and restoration, justice and blessing.
The truth is that there is plenty of both; technically the glass is always full. But the problem still remains that many are so put-off by the ugliness of the one that they are simply unable to find joy in the other. A few flowers don’t make a garbage dump a lovely smelling, pretty place.
I want to offer a way to see the Old Testament in a new light so that we can indeed find joy in its message, while acknowledging that a difficult dark side remains.
I want us to start thinking about this issue in this way. Suppose there was no Old Testament. Look around at the world. Watch the TV news. The world out there looks a lot like the Old Testament: full of wars, famine, disease, oppression, slavery, poverty and injustice of all sorts.
It’s not hard to imagine a Jewish person in ancient times looking around and wondering: how does God think of this? Surely he loves this world he made – in the same way Stradivarius must have loved the violins he so carefully crafted. And surely God must love the people he fashioned in his own image as much as mother loves the baby she brought into the world.
And yet God must be appalled at what humans do on this precious earth – they way they cause so much suffering and harm, division and degradation. He must hate evil and all its destructive effects.
So I imagine this ancient Jewish person writing a story. He plans his story to have two creation moments. Actually the first is the real creation, the second is the re-creation. He plans it this way because, it appears to him that if God wants a good world with good people he has really only two options for starting points.
Two Possible Stories: Plans A and B
God can start from scratch, from the beginning, and make a perfect world with people who have never seen nor known anything about evil. Or God can take a world full of evil people behaving badly, find one family of good guys, wipe out all the rest and start over with people who have learned the lesson.
The first creation story begins in Genesis one; Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. The second creation, or rather, the re-creation story starts in Genesis six. We think of it as the flood story, but the writer thought of it as a do-over; a second round in the same project: the alternative way to try to have a good world with good people.
We know that’s how the writer thought of it because he (back then they didn’t let the girls go to school – so the writer was almost certainly a man – another aspect of that ancient world that we are glad is different today) intentionally repeated the crucial details that show what God was up to. Listen to these two verses:
First, about Adam and Eve, Gen. 1:28 “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it”
Second, after the flood, Gen. 9:1 “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
God’s intention was to bless. He blessed the first couple who knew no evil in plan A. And he blessed the good family of Noah after the re-start, that is, after the flood killed all the bad guys in plan B. The same language of blessing is used, “be fruitful.” Today, we would speak of blessing in terms of “human flourishing” or “eudaemonia.”
But both attempts ended up with the exact same result: a world full of people behaving badly in every possible way.
So what then is the rest of the story? God could simply abandon the world to its fate – but how could Stradivarius leave a violin to rot in the rain? How could a mother forsake her nursing child?
What then? If he doesn’t walk away, does he stay around simply to punish? Or is there something else keeping this story going? Could it be that God’s original desire to bless has never stopped? Could it be that his original will to provide for human fruitfulness is still his aim?
Reasserting Blessing, in spite of it all
Yes! Over and over we hear God re-asserting his aim of blessing the people he made in his own image, even in spite of their evilness. He does hate the evil – like a husband, whose wife is unfaithful, he is full of pain at every case of our betrayal and infidelity – this is how the prophet Hosea tells the story – but God’s intense love and wish to bless never diminishes.
So it is that after Adam and Eve sin and feel shame God intervenes, providing clothing for them. After Cain is guilty of killing his own brother, Abel, God marks him so that he will not be killed by others.
Blessing Plan C
After the vain attempt to build a tower to God, God takes one family – not because they are the good guys, as in Noah’s case, and not along with a plan to destroy everybody else. Rather, this time, he take one family, Abraham and Sarah, and decides on plan C. A third attempt to bring blessing to the world. How? Listen again:
“Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Gen. 12:1-3
God’s plan is to bring blessing to all the families of the earth through this family. They are blessed in order to be a blessing that will spread to “all the families of the earth.”
If we had time we could look at the way this blessing is repeated again and again for each generation. God blesses Isaac (and Ishmael too) and Jacob. God blesses Jacob’s youngest son Joseph.
Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but God used that evil for good. Joseph is able to bring the clan to Egypt where it says (listen to the blessing language again) they not only survived the famine:
“the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” Exodus 1:7
Years go by, and a later Pharaoh enslaves the people, but God redeems them through Moses and leads them across the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai (also called
Horeb) where he gives them his instructions, his guidance, his Torah (which in English – unfortunately, we translate it “law”).
This “law” tells them how to organize their community so that it can be a blessed, fruitful, flourishing covenanted community. Listen to the blessing language in the instructions given to the priests:
“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” Num. 6:22-27
How does it go? Well plan C looks as doomed as plans A and B were. The blessed people of Israel never get it right. They go from bad to worse and end up being destroyed.
But God’s will to bless his people is not thwarted by the Babylonians even if they did burn down the temple and force the surviving Judeans into exile.
Jesus: Definitive Plan D
This is exactly why Jesus came. This is what he said,
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10
That is exactly how Paul summed up Jesus’ mission:
8 “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.” 9 For this reason, those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.
13 Christ redeemed us… 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The blessing of Abraham is still God’s intention, and that blessing comes to us Gentiles not through the blood lines of Abraham, but by the trust-lines of Abraham. The blessing that God never stopped willing for his people comes to us through Messiah, translated as Christ: through Jesus.
And that is why, when Jesus was teaching us God’s will for his people, he said,
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 5
Look around; the world today that you see on the news still looks like the world of the Old Testament. But God’s will is to bless the good earth that he made and the people he made in his image to live on it.
Yes there is evil, and yes God hates what it does to people. But he has acted with the ultimate plan. I guess we could call it plan D for for Definitive. Jesus is God’s definitive means to bless his people.
Through Jesus we come to know and understand God’s love for each of us, individually. Though Jesus we come to experience God’s redemption and forgiveness of our evil. And through Jesus we come to understand God’s way of bringing the blessing he intends to “all the families of the earth” as he promised to Abraham.
How? We are that means. We are the instruments by which God’s blessing is accomplished. We are the conduits his blessing to the world flows through. We are the ones who, like Abraham, have been blessed – not so that the blessing stops with us, but we are blessed in order to be a blessing.
We are in mission to continue Christ’s mission. Just as Jesus was sent from the Father, so we too are sent into an Old-Testament-ish kind of world as bearers and transmitters of the blessing.
Do we have a hope that this time the plan will work? Yes. Jesus is the definitive plan that was put in motion at just the right time.
All over the world, the church has built hospitals and clinics. The church has brought literacy and education to millions. The church has fed the hungry, responded with help after disasters, helped restore addicted people, abused people, grieving people, damaged people, and given all of them hope in the Living God.
Listen to how the story ends, according to John’s vision of that day in the book of Revelation. Listen for language of fruitfulness and flourishing, in other words blessing language, and notice how far the blessing is extended:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Rev. 22:1-2
The bible begins with the tree of life in the garden of Eden and ends with the tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations – the whole world. It begins with blessing and ends with blessing.
Yes, the bible contains a lot of violence and gore. But that is the back story. The main plot is God’s uncanny will to bless the good world that he made and the people he created to live in it. That’s us. Blessed, to be a blessing.