Comments on the 222nd General Assembly (1 of 3)

Meet our New Co-Moderators

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The Presbyterian Church (USA) elected Jan Edmiston, right, and Denise Anderson as the Co-Moderators of their 222nd General Assembly. Photo by Danny Bolin, courtesy of PC(USA)

The GA elected the Rev. Denise Anderson as a co-moderator at its 222nd General Assembly, who wrote this in her blog on June 12 concerning the Orlando massacre by an Islamic terrorist (emphasis added):

This particular gunman took out fifty people in one night. How many LGBT sisters and brothers have we — the Church — gradually and systemically killed over a longer period of time? He and we have been in the same business. We’re simply not as efficient as he was.

And lest there be any doubt whom is included in this appalling diatribe (emphasis again added).

Sadly, many in our own ranks aren’t too idealistically different from this gunman. And, though he may have been a “lone wolf,” this kind of hate does not develop in a vacuum. It is nurtured. It is facilitated. It is given permission to thrive and grow. It is provided with a safe space. Church, for whom/what will we provide sanctuary? I believe God is calling us to make that decision today.

Much more could be said about the theology / ideology / mindset that is here on display.  For now, it is sufficient to convey that this person who accuses Christians of being “inefficient” mass murderers was overwhelmingly elected by our GA into the highest position in the PCUSA.

The other co-moderator is the Chicago Presbytery’s own Rev. Jan Edmonton, who’s Presbytery concurred with the Overture “On the Admission of, and Apology for, Harms Done to the LGBTQ/Q Members of the PC(USA), Family and Friends—From the Presbytery of New York City”.

This Overture demanded an apology by PCUSA Christians who object to same-gender marriage and/or gay ordination just a few years after the GA had promised respect for opposing views It was too extreme for even for the GA’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP), who proposed a softened version (although other GA committees strongly supported the Presbytery of New York City Overture, emphasis added).

At the same time, despite rapid recent gains in social acceptance for marriage equality in U.S. society at large, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has pledged to remain a place where conscientious individual views on both ordination and marriage will continue to be respected. In the larger world, we are well aware that Christians hold a range of views about sexuality, celibacy, reproductive rights, freedom of religious expression, and human rights generally.

But lest you place your hope for honorable treatment in the ACSWP, note hat they are simply asking for a “decent interval” between the making and breaking of the PCUSA’s promise.  Note that “11-05” refers to the original Overture (emphasis added).

The proponents of Item 11-05 are deeply right to lift up the forty-year journey taken by our church on matters of sexual orientation. While the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy believes it is not time for an apology such as the one proposed

In fact, the ACSWP doesn’t even fundamentally disagree with the Rev. Denise Anderson’s views.

We are part of a society in which discrimination and even violence toward LGBTQ persons still occur and with which our faith community is sometimes complicit.

We have been pretending for far too long that our local church’s Christian witness can be conducted independently from the PCUSA at the Presbytery, Synod and GA levels.  The election of these individuals as co-moderators makes it absolutely clear what direction the denominational elites plan to take us.  That is, the strategic and daily decisions that set the direction for our denomination will be made by two individuals who have openly stated their disgust for and contempt of non-progressive (or even not sufficiently progressive) Christians.

Will a person who claims no difference between Christians who oppose same-gender marriage and Islamic mass murderers work to heal the wounds of a divided denomination?  Will a person who has attempted to force remaining Bible trusting PCUSA members into apologizing for their position respect their consciences?  The questions answer themselves.

I’m sorry to say that there’s more to report, but I’ll give you time to deal with this installment.

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God’s Acts of Providence (22)

ABRAHAM-AND-SARAHThe Chief End of Man (21)

Closing Thoughts

Prior to Abraham and Sarah’s story the Bible’s actors have a distinctly archetypical character, and thus a much more superficial development.  Thus, though their stories contain tremendous theological lessons, it is difficult to engage with them at the level of frail flesh and blood.

These limitations evaporate with the arrival of Abraham and Sarah.  Looking back on their story we can almost feel the warmth of their flesh, smell the sweat of their brow and see the sorrow, hope, fear and faith in their eyes.  We have come to know them with an almost painful intimacy, sometimes feeling that their sphere of privacy has been violated in the story’s telling.

And so we can profitably address the question of “man’s chief end” within the context of Abraham and Sarah’s lives.  So too can we ask and answer the questions of if they did indeed glorify God and are enjoying Him forever.

I finally take up this subject with trembling hands.  It is a great peril to imagine oneself sufficient to take on such a task.  May I be understood by my LORD God and you, gentle reader, to be a pilgrim seeking to understand rather than as an oracle speaking any imaging of wisdom.

~~~~~***~~~~~***~~~~~~***~~~~~~

Perhaps it is best to begin with the most complicated of the questions.  Did Abraham and Sarah glorify God in their lives?  We well know the instances in which they failed to trust God for protection, for the keeping of His promise.  We know of their dysfunctional familial relationships, resulting in sometimes-brutal cruelty.  That is, we know them in their full humanity, which means flaws included.

Thus, if Abraham and Sarah did indeed glorify God it was done in spite of their manifest deficiencies, not because they were fundamentally better people than you or I.  This point is of the greatest import.  For if life must be lived on a plane of higher moral perfection than can be achieved by any but the greatest saints then the hope of glorifying God will be a forlorn one for all but the heroes of the faith.

On the other hand, we must be clear that Abraham and Sarah’s failures were just that – failures to trust God’s faithfulness, to love their neighbor as themselves – failures to glorify God.  That is, to acknowledge that God can be glorified even within the context of moral failure is by no means license to continue in that failure.

To finally answer the question, yes, absolutely, positively, blessedly yes, Abraham and Sarah did glorify God in their lives.  And, though they were flawed just as are you and I, they also are without a doubt both towering and foundational heroes of the faith.

Abraham and Sarah glorified God by staking their very lives upon His promise.  They lived as strangers in a strange land for more than half of their lives because of their faithfulness to God’s call.  Whenever God called, they answered, ready to listen, to obey.  They held nothing back, even their own precious son.

To catalogue their failures is to entirely miss the point.  Though they sinned, they were always faced towards the direction of redemption, that is, towards the face of the LORD God who never found them too tired or preoccupied to give Him their undivided attention.  In all of this and more Abraham and Sarah glorified God.  They glorified Him greatly, abundantly; so much so that their story has filled countless souls with the hope that only faith can secure.

Finally, are Abraham and Sarah “enjoying God forever?”  A careful reading of this text gives little reason to believe that they had the slightest inkling of personal immortality.  The concept, to the extent that it existed at all, was bound within in the sense of one’s descendents being great in number and powerful.

However, we know that both Abraham and Sarah upon their deaths received the wondrous surprise of eternal life; and that they are even now glorifying God with all the Saints.  Let Holy Scripture explain.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.  By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.  By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.”  He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:8-19)

To read this passage is to become aware of an astonishing truth.  In the end Abraham and Sarah glorified God with their entire lives.  They did so because even their struggles and frailties have been transformed by God’s sovereign decree into testimonies that enlighten and encourage the saints.

And so, we imagine that we take our leave from Abraham and Sarah.  But we no more can leave them than we can leave our own parents.  For as our mothers and fathers are parents to us in the flesh, so too are Abraham and Sarah in the faith – and no less do they look down upon us with the love that only a parent can know.

God’s Acts of Providence (21)

Molnár_Ábrahám_kiköltözése_1850The Chief End of Man (20)

Abraham’s Death

Genesis 25:7-11

7These are the days of the years of Abraham’s life, a hundred and seventy-five years. 8Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. 9Isaac and Ish’mael his sons buried him in the cave of Mach-pe’lah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, 10the field which Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife.

11After the death of Abraham God blessed Isaac his son. And Isaac dwelt at Beer-la’hai-roi.

Abraham died.  How could a life lived four thousand years ago have such significance?  The answer is so simple.  God chose to bless all nations through him, and He did.  Let the Great Apostle explain:

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were. (Romans 4:16,17, NIV)

One measure of a man’s greatness is whom his death brings together.  Given the stormy relationship between Sarah and Hagar, could Isaac and Ishmael but have had significant issues between them?  And yet, they came together, in peace and respect, to bury their father.

We likely underestimate the constant stress, the constant danger that Abraham lived under as an outsider in the land God had called him to sojourn into.  Recall the rapidity of the turning on Lot in Sodom when he opposed the rape of his houseguests.  Recall the recurring fear for his life as they entered a new king’s territory.  For Abraham to follow the LORD God as he did from the initial act of obedience to the sustaining acts of continuance is a feat of faith over fear that must be counted as astounding in its magnitude and as humbling in its depth.

Finally, for myself, to think of Abraham’s essence is to recall the simple but sure dialogue that was repeated throughout:

God said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”

Whenever God called, Abraham answered.  Abraham faltered and fell, but he never turned away from his LORD God.  It’s said that it is a fearful thing to be in the presence of God.  I believe that it was for Abraham, every time.[i]  But he also must have, even in those primitive times, perceived more deeply into the true character of this one, true LORD God, finding there the attribute of love that permeated all.  This is the God with whom Abraham fell in love.  This is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who made Abram father of us all.


[i] It turns out that there’s a theological concept that covers what we’ve been experiencing in our Bible Study: “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”  This Latin phrase has been translated as:

  • “fearful and fascinating mystery”
  • “a mystery before which one both trembles and is fascinated”
  • “a mystery that simultaneously repels and attracts.”

There appears to be a strong relationship between this phrase and Rudolf Otto’s concept of religious experience as “numinous.”  A brief overview can be found at:

http://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Reln101/Otto.htm

“Otto was one of the most influential thinkers about religion in the first half of the twentieth century. He is best known for his analysis of the experience that, in his view, underlies all religion. He calls this experience “numinous,” and says it has three components. These are often designated with a Latin phrase: mysterium tremendum et fascinans. As mysterium, the numinous is “wholly other”– entirely different from anything we experience in ordinary life. It evokes a reaction of silence. But the numinous is also a mysterium tremendum. It provokes terror because it presents itself as overwhelming power. Finally, the numinous presents itself as fascinans, as merciful and gracious. (Gregory D. Alles [http://www.netrax.net/~galles/]).”

Further help in this area can be found at:

http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Rudolf_Otto#The_mysterium_tremendum_et_fascinans

“The mysterium tremendum et fascinans

To further define the content of the numinous, Otto uses the equally famous expression of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery that is both awe-inspiring and fascinating. In many ways, the experience of the “trembling” is the quintessential religious experience, one that touches the believers directly and makes them perceive their identity as creatures without any introduction of rational reasoning.

Otto felt that in the religious experience, the three elements of mystery, awe, and fascination (or attraction) are so intimately related as to form an irreducible synthetic whole. The paradoxical tension between the fear inspired by the otherworldly Sacred and the irresistible attraction it exerts at the same time on the believer was the very essence of religious consciousness. Since human reason is unable to break its code, the numinous also appears as the mystery.

 

The ethical-rational aspect and universal religion

In spite of this, Otto does not reduce the Holy to the non-rational element any more than he reduces it to the rational and ethical element. Otto sees the gradual emergence of the ethical element in combination with the non-rational element as a sign of a religion’s evolution. That process, according to him, culminates in Christianity, the most universal religion that best exemplifies the notion that God is both numinous and ethical, the angry God and the God of goodness. For Otto, there is something in the human mind that naturally accepts the concept that the Deity is good as soon as it is confronted with it. But the fundamental, raw moment of the Sacred can be found in the pre-religious consciousness of primitive people in the form of a totally non-rational, even irrational sense of awe before the Divine. That paradox does not entirely disappear even as religious consciousness becomes more refined. Even a Paul and a Luther experienced God as a God of judgment unexplained by the human sense of justice, and a God of love and goodness. Modern and contemporary attempts to lift that paradoxical tension by reducing the Holy to the ethical element in fact destroy its very essence.”

When we consider the infinite power of God, and His entry into our lives to ensure that “His will be done,” don’t we experience the simultaneous emotions of wonder, awe and fear?  Knowing a Latin phrase for the experience doesn’t change anything.  But giving voice to something that’s there but only partially understood can help us to cope and even make spiritual progress.

 

 

 

God’s Acts of Providence (20)

bde3f90143f274dbf5a6b95f060dc096The Chief End of Man (19)

Abraham’s Last Days

Genesis 24:1-9

241Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things. 2And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh, 3and I will make you swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, 4but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”

As Abraham’s life moves towards its end, he begins to focus on ensuring the proper continuance of the next generation.  After what Abraham’s household has experienced can an oath by this LORD God have been but of the most solemn imaginable?

5 The servant said to him, “Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?” 6Abraham said to him, “See to it that you do not take my son back there. 7The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your descendants I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. 8But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” 9So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master, and swore to him concerning this matter.

Were Isaac to go back he might be tempted to stay.  Though God is implacable in achieving His ends, He still rewards our cooperation.  This is a lesson that Abraham had well learned.  May we too follow his example.

The remainder of this chapter recounts the servant’s journey and ensuing meeting with Rebekah, the negotiations for her betrothal to Isaac, the journey back and her marriage to Isaac.

Genesis 25:1-6

251Abraham took another wife, whose name was Ketu’rah. 2She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Mid’ian, Ishbak, and Shuah. 3Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshu’rim, Letu’shim, and Le-um’mim. 4The sons of Mid’ian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abi’da, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Ketu’rah.

Abraham was blessed with the companionship of a new wife and many additional children.

5Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. 6But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, and while he was still living he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

Abraham cared for both the needs of his progeny and ensured that Isaac would receive the blessing reserved for him alone.

We shudder at the mention of concubines.  We must remember that God has chosen to deal with humankind at the stage of moral development at which He finds them.  He advances our moral state by inches, against the tide of our stubbornness, pride and selfishness, gaining ground in one generation, losing it in another, always pressing on towards our greatest good.

God’s Acts of Providence (19)

The Chief End of Man (18)

The Death of Sarah

Genesis 23:1-4

300px-Burial_of_Sarah231 Sarah lived a hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. 2And Sarah died at Kir’iath-ar’ba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.

Sarah’s life was very long by our standards; full of hardship, loneliness and ambiguity.  She also loved deeply and was loved greatly in return by Abraham.  Ponder the sight of this great man of faith, who walked often with the LORD God, weeping for the loss of Sarah.

Sarah was true to her marriage vows as they were understood in that ancient time.  She left her land and kin to follow Abraham into the great unknown and never faltered in her commitment to him.  She shared her husband with another woman in a vain attempt to ensure the continuance of his line outside of God’s promise; and paid dearly for the rest of her life.  She yet still knew the joy of being the vessel of the keeping of God’s promise, with laughter of bitterness turned to that of rejoicing with Isaac’s birth.

If we (I) judge Sarah harshly at times may we remember that she lived within, not outside of this story.  For her, the end wasn’t known.  All was fear, hope; confusion, confidence; despair, faith – mixed into the baffling fog of life lived on the edge with a man who was pioneering the boundaries of faith into marvelous but unknown new territory.

Lastly and most importantly by far, Sarah was beloved by God.  She was included by the LORD as a partner with Abraham, both receiving new names with the covenant.  Her infirmities were not disqualifying, her strength used for great good.  Great is the mystery of faith.  Greater still is our God.

3And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and said to the Hittites, 4“I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

Abraham now seeks to honor Sarah through a proper burial.

The remainder of this chapter recounts the bargaining for a burial site in tremendous detail.  The point is to make it absolutely clear that Abraham now has legal ownership of a small piece of the Promised Land.

God’s Acts of Providence (18)

titiaan_abraham_izaak_grtThe Chief End of Man (17)

Abraham’s Test

Genesis 22:1-18

This story presses down upon us with questions that are fundamental to our understanding of human free will, God’s power and the nature of their interaction within the confines of time, space and relationship.  The answers remain frustratingly just beyond our grasp.  However, we must continue to strive even if satisfaction this side of heaven is not achieved.

221After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.”

So, God tested Abraham?  The statement appears so straightforward, and yet raises such deep questions.  Did God really not know the true nature of Abraham’s faith?  Is the future as impenetrable to God’s mind as it is to ours, or, less so but still uncertain?  To ask these questions is to be driven back into Holy Scripture in search of its truth.  Here’s some of what the Living Word has to say on these questions.

Before a word is on my tongue

       you know it completely, O LORD.

All the days ordained for me

       were written in your book

       before one of them came to be.   (Psalm 139:4,16b, NIV)

 

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. (Luke 24:44,45, NIV)

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, NIV)

Does any of the above appear to describe a God who is trapped in time and to whom the mind of man is a mystery?  I think not.  And yet, Abraham is indeed in some way being tested.

My conclusion on this vexing question is that testing such as this by the Almighty is for our benefit.  God was not in doubt concerning Abraham’s faith; but Abraham surely was and we readers down through the centuries surely have been, are and will continue to be.

2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori’ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”

No words are minced.  No implication is softened.  The language is direct to the point of brutality.  This “miracle son” born from bodies good as dead and now many years later even deader, is to be snuffed out in sacrifice to the same God from whom he was received.  And, with Isaac’s death, so too apparently will die the promise of a future great nation through whom all peoples will be blessed.

The enormity of what God is demanding of Abraham staggers the mind, the soul.  Knowing the story’s end barely mitigates the horror of this verse.  The very fact that our LORD God chose to inflict such repulsive anguish upon a father shakes us to the foundations.

3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.”

The majestic beauty and pathos of these verses describing Abraham’s response to God’s demand can’t be reached by human words.  Only Holy Scripture can adequately respond to their power.[1]

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:18-12, NIV)

6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

Isaac’s first recorded words are spoken within the context of this terrible ordeal.  Surely he sensed that there was something different, perhaps even ominous about this particular trip with his father.  His question hits the issue of danger dead center.  Could Isaac have had a premonition of the dreadful scenario within which he was apparently trapped?

Abraham’s response is mysterious.  His use of the future tense – “will provide” – suggests that he may have been moving in faith that God would ultimately turn away from this command.  Or, we could conclude that Abraham was simply sheltering Isaac from the awful truth.

Abraham may have been operating at a level of faith that we simply can’t grasp.  Think back over the intimacy, the depth, and the frequency of his encounters with the LORD God.  Perhaps Abraham no longer looked at this world and its events as relevant to the working out of such a God’s sovereign will.  Perhaps whether Isaac was sacrificed or something else:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42, NIV)

9When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.

We can only imagine the horror that must have overtaken Isaac as it became apparent that he was to be the sacrifice, made by his own father.  We are also amazed by the apparent absence of any resistance.  Consider the impression that this event must have made on Isaac.  Can it but have had consequences that reverberated throughout the rest of his life?

11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Note that the LORD doesn’t intervene until the last possible moment.  Though the call to Abraham is an exclamation, his response is apparently one of calmness.  The angel of the LORD now reveals the reason for this test.  We are told nothing of Abraham or Isaac’s response.  All that matters is the issue of faith.

13And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14So Abraham called the name of that place The LORD will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”

A ram, not a lamb, is provided as substitution for Isaac.  The day will come when a loving Father for the forgiveness of sin will sacrifice a Son and Lamb.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21, NIV)

15And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

Now Abraham knows the true depth of his faith, as does Isaac of his father, as do we, as have all those saints that have gone before and all who will come after us.  Could God’s plan have but been set on such a firm foundation?

And what if Abraham had failed?  Perhaps God in His infinite wisdom would have used this failure to refine Abraham’s faith.  What we cannot say is that Abraham’s will or actions ultimately could determine the keeping of God’s promise.  Once God had ordained that it would be through Abraham that all nations would be blessed, it would be so.  And when did our LORD God ordain such a plan that would lead ultimately to such a salvation? Why “before the creation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4, NIV).  The workings out of this in time, space and human will remains a mystery.  We simply testify that the LORD God in His sovereign will would order all things so that Abraham yet would have been the father of blessing.

In the end, we must understand along with Abraham that the human details are not the point.  The point is that God in His infinite love, mercy and power has determined to bless all nations.  He has also chosen to do so within the context of human will, with all of its frailty, foolishness and fickleness. But He chose to do so before the foundation of the world was laid, deep inside the mystery of His infinite mind.  That is, though played out on the stage of history, this is the working out of a predestined plan.  Though we may never fully understand we can, no, must worship such a wondrous God.

In verses 22:20-24 we are informed of the sons of Nahor, Abraham’s brother.  Within the ensuing genealogical list, the name of Rebekah is introduced (daughter of Bethuel), who will become an important protagonist in the main line of this story.

[1] Though this passage is referring to the promise of Isaac’s birth, how much more must we consider it relevant to Abraham’s faithfulness towards God’s promise in this situation.

God’s Acts of Providence (17)

Pieter_Pietersz._Lastman_001The Chief End of Man (16)

Hagar Banished

Genesis 21:8-21

218And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.

9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”

In the span of one verse we move from the sublime joy of witnessing God’s faithfulness to the shattering bitterness of human faithlessness.  The only reason that Ishmael (strangely, he is never referred to by name in this story) exists is because of Sarah’s faithless intervention to see that Abraham would have an heir through the surrogacy of Hagar.  Now that God has indeed kept His word and miraculously delivered Isaac, Sarah must deal with the fact of another son.

The precipitating offense is filtered through Sarah’s subjective judgment – surely open to question given the stormy history between these two women.  Even giving her doubt’s benefit, the response has the hard bite of brutality.  Note the dehumanizing way in which Hagar and Ishmael are referred, and, the carelessness concerning their fate.

11And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. 13And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

Are we to understand this passage to mean that Sarah is acting as an agent of God’s will?  Is it possible that behind the brutality of the form there lies an intent that serves the greatest good?

Clearly Sarah is no conscious vessel of God’s will.  Her motives appear to be both nakedly self-serving and cruelly uncaring of her neighbor.  But this may be one of those most rare of events in which we are allowed to see all relevant sides of a history-making event.

We’ve discussed poor Sarah’s side (may we prayerfully consider what our life-stories would look like were they open for all generations to view from now until Christ returns in His Glory).  In Abraham we find a man torn between complex, conflicting commitments and likely, loves.  Can a man not but love his wives and the sons that they bore him?  Does this passage not but give powerful testimony to the moral primacy of monogamous marriage?

And what of God?  Here we find the LORD God descending to comfort Abraham.  In spite of the cruel spite that drenches Sarah’s demand, Abraham can honor her in confidence that Hagar and Ishmael will be protected.  So, God’s Mind enters our bitter, conflict torn, confused world and, one by one, sorts out the tangled strands.

14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away.   

And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept.

Abraham has been given the promise that they will survive and prosper, but he does not pass this on to Hagar.  Why?  We could write if off as an oversight.  Or, perhaps, the aged Abraham has learned that there are some things that must be learned by the actual experience of God’s providence.

It’s striking that Hagar appears to have no plan.  She simply wanders aimlessly until their provisions run out.

Another curious aspect of this story is the passive, juvenile language used to describe Ishmael.  Were someone to read it in isolation they might reasonably conclude that he was less than five years old.  In point of fact Ishmael would have been around 16 years old.

17And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink.

God now redeems His promise to Abraham.  They have passed through their dark night of despair and into the morning of God’s redemption.  For them redemption means cool water on their parched throats and the promise of imperfect but still practical immortality through their descendants.

For we readers of this majestic story in Holy Scripture the compass of redemption stretches seamlessly across thousands of years of time, countless millions of human souls, up into the Holy will of a loving Father, the Holy breath of a Spirit that gives life and all meeting at the depths of unknowable suffering by a Holy Son who willingly gave His all so that we might be eternally redeemed.

20 And God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Now there is the beginning of the Ishmaelites, a people with connections to both Egypt and the Promised Land.  They will intersect with Isaac’s descendents in an unexpected manner, playing the role of bearers of his family’s savior.

 

God’s Acts of Providence (16)

Birth-of-IssacThe Chief End of Man (15)

The Birth of Isaac

Genesis 21:1-7

21 1The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. 2And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. 4And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Note the symmetry that exists here between the LORD’s faithfulness towards Sarah and Abraham and their response.  At Isaac’s eighth day Abraham circumcised him just as God had commanded.

We too often pass over Abraham’s faithfulness to God as a matter of settled, but dry, fact.  In point of fact, this response is nothing less than the beating heart that has sent the lifeblood of faith out into this world for thousands of subsequent years.

6 And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me.” 7And she said, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

When last Sarah laughed about this birth the incident ended in fear (see Genesis 18:15). She had suffered what at that time was considered the shame of barrenness for almost 90 years.  But with God’s working of His will, and, finding this faithful response:

You turned my wailing into dancing;

       you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,

       that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.

       O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever. (Psalm 30 :11,12, NIV)

God’s Acts of Providence (15)

The Chief End of Man (14)

More Fear for Life

Genesis 20

In this chapter we find yet another case of Abraham passing Sarah as his sister for fear of being killed by a king out of desire to possess her.  In this case it is Abimelech king of Gerar.  The king does take Sara for a wife, but is unable to consummate the marriage.

God comes to Abimelech in a dream and uncovers Abraham and Sarah’s deception.  The king pleads innocence, which God acknowledges.  One point of importance is that it is within this dream that God announces that Abraham is a prophet.

20 7Now then restore the man’s wife; for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not restore her, know that you shall surely die, you, and all that are yours.”

The king summons Abraham and indignantly asks why he has done this wrongful thing.  Abraham replies that it is his settled practice to call Sarah his sister when they enter places that they consider to be without fear of God and that in fact Sarah is a half-sister.

The king gives Sarah back to Abraham along with livestock and treasure.  He also gives them leave to live as they please in his land.  Abraham then prays for the king and his household, lifting the threat of death and a curse of infertility, for the LORD had closed the wombs of the king’s wives.

The repetition of these brother-sister deception stories raises many difficult questions.  For one, it is usually the king who does not know God who ends up looking more moral than does Abraham and Sarah.  Also, Sarah’s advanced age is repeatedly stressed when discussing childbearing and yet she apparently still possesses the stunning beauty to draw attention from any king in the vicinity.  I confess that these passages remain closed to my understanding.  I fully trust that they hold treasures of holy knowledge that will someday be opened to my grateful spirit.

The Disappearing PCUSA, 2015 Data

The PCUSA membership data for 2015 was released earlier this month.  Key points are:
  • The largest % net membership loss in PCUSA history occurred in 2015
  • In the past five years (2011-15) the PCUSA has had a net loss of over 443,000 members (almost 23% of 2011 membership)
  • The number of members joining the PCUSA has declined for at least 17 consecutive years
  • Whereas in 1984 1.14 members were lost for every 1 gained, in 2015 over 2.61 members were lost for every 1 gained
  • In 2014 the number of Candidates for Ministry almost halved from the 2011 – 2013 values, with minor gains in 2015
  • Between 2011 and 2015 the PCUSA gained 84 and lost 920 churches (a loss to gain ratio of 10.9-to-1), for a five-year net loss of 836 churches
  • Between 2011 and 2015 the number participating in Christian Education fell by almost 31%
  • Between 2007 and 2014 PCUSA membership declined at twice the rate of Mainline churches, four-times the rate of the Catholic church and eight-times the rate of all Christian churches in the United States

A complete set of graphs and comments can be found on my Documents page under this blog title’s heading.  Following are a figures associated with the above highlighted bullet points.

What is going on with membership is scandalous on so many levels.  I’m here focusing on the simple numbers and how there is apparently no denomination leadership concern or grass-roots demand for any accountability during this on-going debacle.
But there is also (and far more significant) the human toll in broken relationships, shattered confidence and lost faith.  Tens of thousands of members each year — many of whom have called the PCUSA their Christian home for decades or generations — are compelled by their consciences to exit.
One would think that this situation would lead to deep and profound reflection by all involved.  That doesn’t appear to be happening in our public deliberations.


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