Monday, May 23, 2011

Who/What/Where Is God? Covenant

You have big questions for God. 

When you look at the world and the way it works, you wonder what God is up to. 

Why does God intervene sometimes, but not other times. From our perspective, it all seems so random.

The Bible is a collection of stories about God and his work in the world. The two parts of the story are called the Old Testament (or the First Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures) and the New Testament. In the Old or First Testament, we've been looking at the five big stories that Israel told about God and their relationship with him.

These are raw, honest, compelling stories about God. They're not cleaned up, they're not edited for propaganda, they're not fairy tales. They are rooted in reality - they reflect how people really act and live and think and react. They're about God dealing with the world as it is really is, and with people as they really are.

The first big story of the Hebrew Scriptures is Creation. The second big story is Covenant. The others are Exodus, Kingdom and Exile. In the story of Covenant, we learn how Israel understands where they came from - how God first initiated a relationship with them. Israel traces their ancestry back to Abraham and Sarah - you can read about them in Genesis 11-25. Fascinating stories!

How did Israel understand God and his relationship with them and Abraham? It's important to notice that God chose Abraham. It wasn't anything unique or special about Abraham, but God made a decision to choose one man, a family out of whom he would build a nation. God intended to bless the world through a nation, a nation specially devoted to him. Abraham would be the man from whom this nation would come - a man God would bless and make a blessing to the world.

When Abraham was first introduced to God, he was a wealthy rancher in the region of Babylon. A moon-worshipper, he was fully immersed in the pagan culture and thriving economy. But God inserted himself into Abraham's life - calling him to leave everything behind and head to the Promised Land. And what do you know, but Abraham believed God. He took his wife and possessions and headed for Canaan. Abraham followed the promptings of a God he'd never met before, a land he did not know, for a future that wasn't guaranteed.

At this point of the story Abraham and his wife Sarah are already old, and without children. It took a lot of guts to believe that in their old age the could conceive and have a son who would be the initial fulfillment of the promise of a nation as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But they believed. And that made all the difference. Sometimes you have to believe something first in order to see it. 

God chose Abraham. He chose him and initiated a covenant relationship with Abraham. It wasn't because Abraham was deserving or special. God made a promise to Abraham, putting in place the parameters of their relationship. God promised to bless Abraham, to bless the world through the nation that would come from Abraham. God chose to do this in the world, and by it God promised to be loyal.

God chose to be loyal to Abraham and his descendants. If you read through the rest of Genesis, you will find God being loyal to people that are quite undeserving. Isaac played favorites with his sons. Jacob played favorites with his wives and sons. Jacob's sons would become guilty of atrocities and gross abuse.  Yet God kept his promise to build a nation through the descendants of Abraham. God chose to continue his work in the world through one man, one family, one nation. A family of real people who commit real sins and devastations. God bound himself up in loyalty to very, very, very imperfect people.

The big story of Covenant is Israel's story about how God chose them for a special relationship, about how God chose to be loyal to them. God promised blessings for obedience - that's the great part of this covenant relationship. But this kind of relationship also comes with curses for disobedience. There has to be consequences for Israel's unfaithfulness and disloyalty. Because God interconnected himself with the people of Abraham, God used blessings and curses to move his people forward. Unfortunately for God, despite his amazing promises for blessing and bounty, the people drifted towards disobedience with as much speed as sand pours through the fingers. 

In Creation we learned that God created a good world, a good world in which people become deceived, and consequently bring curses down upon themselves. We see this played out in the Covenant story, when God chooses to bless this good world through the real descendants of Abraham. God makes a covenant relationship with people who are capable of great good but also terrible evil; people that God blesses, but then is forced to curse. People that are a blessing to their neighbors, but then people who become a curse upon the region.

If Creation is the start of the big stories that Israel tells about God, then Covenant is the heart of the story.

Covenant describes the relationship that God has with the world through Israel. It's this understanding of the story that helps us understand Jesus and his message to Israel - and to all those who would believe. To those that believed what Jesus taught about God and Israel and the world, they were called sons of Abraham. 

To those that believed Jesus, they were promised to be included in the the story of Covenant made with Abraham all those years ago. The radical nature of this implies that non-Israelites, pagans, barbarians, strangers and foreigners of faraway lands - whoever believed the teachings of Jesus could be included in this great work of God in the world. To all who believe, they can be called sons and daughters of Abraham. 

If you believe what Jesus taught, if God has made you a son or daughter of Abraham, if you are part of this Covenant relationship, then you find yourself part of an enduring relationship with God. God chooses to be loyal to you - no matter what. He is loyal to you when he blesses you in your obedience, and he is loyal to you when he curses you in your disobedience. God is loyal to you in the way that a good Father is loyal to his children, a father who rewards obedience and disciplines for disobedience.

What is God doing in the world? He is working through real people to bless the world, to bless his good yet cursed world. God is loyal to the world, he is loyal to his creation, he is loyal to those who believe him. God does not give up on you. He chose you, and he is loyal to you.

The question is not so much what is God up to in the world, but what are you going to do with what God is doing in you? God can bless the world through people - can he bless your world through you? 

God does not let sins go unpunished, he must bring about justice to those that are sinned against. God brings curses upon those who sin against themselves and those around them. Sooner or later your sins will find you out. God curses so that we will abandon our sins and repent, to turn around and love our neighbor. God curses to the third and fourth generation, but he blesses to the thousandth generation. God brings a curse in order to bring about an honest confession of sin and repentance. God blesses in order to further his good work of rescue and restoration in the world.

Do you have a relationship with God? What seems accursed in your life? What do you need to repent of? What do you need to confess? In what are you rebelling against God? Are you being stiff-necked and stubborn towards what you know God would want you to do next with your life?

The big story of Covenant is about how God works in the world through the sons and daughters of Abraham. God has his work he is doing through people. When people open themselves up to His way, they become the kind of people through whom God can bless. When people close themselves to God and His way, they shut themselves off to the blessings God wants them to receive.

With all the accursed wars and violence and evil that permeates our world and communities and families, we are desperately in need of more people who will let God bless through them. God wants to bless the world through you. It's what God did through Jesus. It's what God wants to do through those who follow Jesus today.

Sometimes you have to believe something first in order to see it.

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