Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate more and more as I wrestle with this collection of stories that we call the Bible is that it so often fails to be the collection that we want it to be. What I mean by that is this: we Christians sometimes have this unfortunate habit of deifying the Bible, placing the Bible on such a pedestal that it becomes almost as important to us as God. In many ways I understand that impulse. The Bible contains stunningly beautiful passages about God’s love for us, about the lengths to which God will go to forge relationships with humanity and the whole creation, and about the grace that is offered to obviously imperfect people like you and me. Some of these passages truly make my heart sing, and I treasure much of what Scripture has to say about God in Christ.
Then, of course, we have passages like the one before us today. Just two generations after David, the great king of Israel and Judah, we read of the division of the so-called United Monarchy because of the arrogance of Rehoboam, the newly crowned heir of Solomon. At the beginning of his reign, Rehoboam had the opportunity to right the wrongs of his father, who despite all of his famed wisdom made some really terrible choices as king, none worse than the establishment of a system of forced labor that was used for the construction of both his palace and the Temple in Jerusalem. Instead of heeding the advice of his more experienced counselors, who urged him to lessen the demands placed on the people and deal with them compassionately, Rehoboam threatened to increase the workload to prove his supremacy over the people. In response, the vast majority of his subjects – the members of the ten northern tribes of Israel – returned to their homes and pledged their allegiance to one of their own, a man named Jeroboam.
This is not a story that inspires love or devotion. It has little redeeming value except as an example of what not to do as someone who seeks to be faithful to God. Yet here it is, included within the pages of this holy book alongside the stories of hundreds of other broken and beautiful people. What makes Scripture so beautiful, so timeless, so important for us to dig into time and again, is precisely this fact – it is an imperfect book filled with stories about imperfect people who were nevertheless the object of God’s love and grace and guidance.
This is an important truth for us to ponder, not only because it helps us to see some good in an otherwise terrible story of abusive and unresponsive leadership from one of God’s anointed people, but because it reminds us of an equally important truth that often gets lost in our observance of the Feast of All Saints. When we gather to remember the saints, God’s holy people from throughout time and space, we are sometimes in danger of speaking of them the same way that we so often speak about Scripture. It is customary for us to observe to an extreme degree the old adage that it isn’t good to speak ill of those who have died, and again, I understand that impulse. Calling to mind the best and most admirable qualities of our departed loved ones is a practice born out of our affection for them. It helps us to focus on positive memories and to remember what is excellent or praiseworthy. I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to do the complete opposite and look exclusively at the faults and failings of those who have gone on to be with the Lord. Yet there is room for a middle way, and I think that middle way is beneficial to us in a number of ways.
First of all, it allows us to remember our loved ones in all their fullness, as complex individuals with their own particular mix of strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, bright spots and dark moments. Second, by remembering that all these “saints” of God were not perfect, we are reminded that our own imperfections are not barriers to relationship with one another or with God. Most importantly, refusing to look at the saints as perfect helps to shift our focus to the one who alone is able to make us saints – Jesus Christ, who came to live among us, to die as one of us, and to be raised for us and for our salvation.
In direct contradiction to the character at the center of today’s Scripture reading, we who are numbered among God’s saints are called to boast first and foremost in the power and presence of God that moves in our lives and enables us to do things that we might never think we were capable of doing. Instead of trumpeting our own status or influence or ability, we are called to draw the gaze of others beyond our own accomplishments to the one who does everything well. In their best moments, the saints we remember today would have told us that themselves – perhaps not in so many words, but in the subtle ways that so many of them deflected attention, or refused to receive praise for things that seemed to them to be perfectly unremarkable, or readily acknowledged their rough places and growing edges.
The stories of Scripture and the stories of the saints are first and foremost stories about the one who created us, redeemed us, and sustains us minute by minute. To read the Bible rightly is to remember that it is not holy in and of itself; it is holy because all of its letters, words, verses, chapters, and books point to the reality of God that is ultimately beyond our comprehension. To honor the saints rightly is to remember that they are not holy because of their own works or piety or prayers, but because God called them (and continues to call us) to faith, to a reliance on the grace of God that is ours in Christ that transforms us to be Christ’s body in the world. So on this All Saints Day, brothers and sisters, let us give thanks for Holy Scripture, this collection of stories that bears witness to God’s magnificent and messy relationship with creation, with humanity, with each one of us. Let us give thanks for God’s holy ones – both those known to us and those who stories we may never know – and for the testimony that they gave to the power and grace of Jesus Christ through their lives of faith. Most of all, let us give thanks to God, the one who calls us and makes us holy by the gospel of our Lord, and who sends us out to tell the story of love and life that is offered to all in Christ. Amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
There’s no way of knowing for sure, but whenever I have read the story of Jacob’s midnight wrestling match, I imagine that Jacob was wide awake before his mysterious opponent ever made the scene. Restlessness is a common reaction to anxiety, after all, and if anyone had good reason to be anxious as night fell in that wilderness place, it was Jacob. At the sun’s rising, he was faced with the prospect of a reunion with his twin brother, Esau, after over twenty years, and their previous time together hadn’t exactly ended well – not that their relationship had ever been terribly good in the first place. Maybe I should back up.
As I mentioned, Jacob and Esau were twins, the sons of Isaac – the child of laughter we read about last week – and his wife, Rebekah. Scripture records that the two of them were at odds from the beginning, even duking it out with one another in their mother’s womb before they were born. On the day of their birth, Esau was born first, but Jacob was close behind, holding onto Esau’s heel as he was brought into the world. As the first-born son, Esau was entitled to certain privileges – a bigger share of his father’s wealth as an inheritance (his “birthright”) and a blessing from his father that would establish him as the head of the family. Jacob, however, wasn’t satisfied with his “second-born” status. As Isaac’s death approached, Jacob convinced a hungry Esau to give up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, then conspired with his mother to trick Isaac into bestowing Esau’s blessing on him. When Esau learned that he had been deprived of that precious blessing, he made clear that he had every intention of killing his younger brother as soon as he possibly could. Ever the opportunist, Jacob heard about his brother’s threat and got out while the getting was good.
That’s the situation as we return to Jacob’s restless night on the banks of the River Jabbok. Already on edge at the high possibility that his brother would soon exact the revenge he’d been seeking for two decades, Jacob suddenly finds himself in a fight for his life. Scripture doesn’t give us a ton of detail about the mysterious stranger who grapples with Jacob in the dead of night, describing him only as “a man”, but there are some clues which suggest that this figure is something more. The fact that this encounter took place at night, and that Jacob’s sparring partner feared being seen in the morning light, are pretty convincing evidence that this was some kind of supernatural being. Perhaps more important was the figure’s refusal to reveal his identity to Jacob. But the most significant clue is what the stranger says upon learning Jacob’s name: You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed. (Genesis 32:28, NRSV)
Jacob had spent much of his life striving with humans – his brother, for one, but also his Uncle Laban, who had made his life difficult for most of the twenty years he’d been away from home. There isn’t much evidence that Jacob had needed to struggle with God. Indeed, Jacob’s life appears to have been exceedingly blessed by God, a fact that is sort of surprising when you consider his tendency to be deceptive and manipulative toward his family at pretty much every turn. It seems pretty clear, then, that Jacob’s striving with God took place that night as he fought to stay alive against his mysterious adversary.
The story is told of a young man who was studying to become a young rabbi. When in his studies he came across this passage of Scripture, he went to his own teacher and asked, “Is the story of Jacob wrestling with God by the River Jabbok true?” His teacher put his hands on the young man’s shoulder and replied, “Of course it’s true. It happens to me all the time!” (The Rev. Brian Stoffregen, Narrative Lectionary Facebook Group, posted 9/26/2015) I think there’s something to that. The reason this story continues to be so compelling is that it seems to represent our experience. Life with God is an incredibly rich experience. It can bring times of unbelievable blessing and joy. The knowledge of God’s power and presence in our lives can be an immense comfort and source of strength. There are those times, however, that it feels like just hanging on with everything we have. When we’re confronted with anxiety and fear and suffering and pain, the reality is that we’re often left with nothing to do but grab hold of the one who has promised to be our God and to regard us as his people. Like Jacob, we will likely not come away from those experiences unscathed; indeed, for the rest of his days Israel carried with him the constant reminder of his midnight encounter with God. In the same way, wrestling with God may leave us with what the late Brennan Manning called “the victorious limp”, the sign of a life lived in relationship with the God who comes to us in our darkest nights, holds onto us until the dawn breaks, and then releases us with a blessing and our own new name: holy, righteous, precious, honored, loved, and redeemed (Lost and Found, “How Can You”, Lost and Found Comes Alive!).
Today, we rejoice at the baptism of two beloved children of God. In this sacrament – this mysterious means of grace – Alex and Aiden will be washed clean and welcomed into the family of faith. In the years to come, they will experience the peaks and valleys of life in this world with the knowledge that they have been claimed by God and called to join with all the faithful in serving and striving with God, come what may. As we witness the promise of God made real this day in water and word, may we be strengthened to face the days ahead with the knowledge that we are God’s, and that God will walk with us into the future that has been prepared for us. Thanks be to God! Amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Sometimes I think we Christians have an “Old Testament problem”. That’s not true of all of us, of course, and it’s not true all the time, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that at least some of the time, we find ourselves struggling with the Hebrew Scriptures. At the most basic level, we modern and post-modern people tend to favor what is “new” over what is “old”, and so the way we’re accustomed to talking about the two testaments tends to lead us to prefer one over the other. On another level, because we think so highly of Jesus – for reasons that are both obvious and perfectly valid – we tend to think more highly of the parts of Scripture that refer more directly to him. By the same token, I think we find the descriptions of “church life” in Paul’s letters and instruction about the Christian life to be more compelling because they seem more applicable to our lives. When it comes down to it, I think the Old Testament gets short shrift in our thinking because we find it more difficult to connect with the stories of the people of Israel.
As people who sometimes have an Old Testament problem, we would do well to pay attention to what’s going on in today’s reading from Hebrews. That’s because we find in chapters eleven and twelve a compelling case that the Hebrew Scriptures are much more relevant to us than we often think. Far from being filled with stories about people whose experience with God is too distant from us, the Old Testament is brimming with stories about people whose lives are surprisingly similar to ours. The people highlighted in today’s reading are not extraordinary characters, but ordinary people who responded to God’s call on their lives and who found their lives transformed by that call. Some of these stories are more familiar than others: Abraham and Noah generally get more airtime than Abel and Enoch, and Jacob’s life is recounted in much more detail than Isaac’s or Sarah’s, and yet all of them are lifted up by the writer of Hebrews as examples of faith to be emulated.
Scripture records nothing about Abel except that he gives a sacrifice to God, and that his brother Cain kills him because he is upset that Abel’s sacrifice is found to be more acceptable than his own. The only things we learn about Enoch are that he was born, that he had some children, and that one day he was simply taken up to be with God. These two individuals don’t appear to do anything remarkable, and yet their stories are remembered because of how God was involved in their lives. We know more about the others – Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob – and what we learn about them is not that they are particularly remarkable people in themselves, but that they are chosen by God – sometimes despite themselves and their questionable characters – to fulfill some part of God’s purpose in the world, and that they respond in faith to the call that God places on their lives.
It’s important for us to note that the kind of faith they display is not simple or easy or convenient. It is a trust in God claimed over and over again amid the peaks and valleys of their lives – like the trust shown by Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who step out in pursuit of promises whose fulfillment is long-delayed, leaving much behind in the process. It is a trust that God is able to bring the ordinary out of the extraordinary – as in the cases of Abel and Enoch, whose lives are mysteries that nevertheless testify to God’s care and concern even for those who are virtually unknown. It is a trust that echoes through the centuries, a trust that forms an unbroken chain linking us with those ancestors who heard God’s voice in many and various ways, a trust that carries us through times of uncertainty. It is a trust that lives in us because it has been passed down from generation to generation and continues to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit’s presence within us and around us.
It’s that last point – the point about this trusting faith that lives in us as much as it did in these noteworthy ancestors – that is perhaps the most remarkable. The writer of Hebrews is not merely trying to connect us with our forerunners in faith. He is making the claim that our lives are the continuation of a story that goes back to the beginning. Just as the stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and yes, Jesus, bear witness to God’s activity in the world, our stories bear witness to the fact that God is still speaking, still present to those who are being tested, still listening to and responding to the cries of the world, still receiving the prayers and praise of our earthly worship in the heavenly sanctuary. There’s both challenge and promise in that reality. The challenge, of course, is that we’re called not just to talk the talk – that is, to say or believe the right things about God in Christ – but to walk the walk (or, to use the metaphor in chapter twelve, to run the race). The nature of discipleship, after all, is to follow, and Jesus isn’t standing still. The promise, on the other hand, is that we’re not responsible for blazing the trail on our own. The path has already been forged by Christ and well-worn by countless saints who have walked it before us. More than that, the great cloud of witnesses who have already completed the course are now cheering us on from the sidelines, encouraging us by their own example, and pointing the way to the finish line where Christ awaits.
I started out today with the claim that we in the church sometimes struggle with an Old Testament problem. That’s a problem we need to face head-on, because next week we’re going to be diving back into the Old Testament part of the Narrative Lectionary. From September through mid-December, we’ll be making our way through the Hebrew Scriptures. Beginning with the Garden of Eden and moving through the words of the prophets, we’ll be exploring how God has moved in the lives of ordinary people to make the extraordinary possible. We’ll continue to see how those stories reverberate into our present and reveal the character of a God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. We’ll find our own stories mirrored in stories that were written centuries ago and worlds away. Most importantly, we’ll be blessed by the knowledge that God’s love and mercy and grace reach across time and space to envelope us and inspire us to be God’s people in the world even as they were poured out upon our ancestors in the faith. As we begin that journey anew next week, let us pray that our “Old Testament” problem might be transformed into an appreciation for God’s Word – a word that speaks from Genesis to Revelation and is always relevant! Thanks be to God! Amen.
From the opening lines of Scripture to its final verses, if we learn only one thing about God, it’s this: God speaks. In the beginning, God speaks a powerful word over nothingness, and by that word the whole creation comes into being. The other people who lived around the Israelites didn’t talk about their gods like that. When they talked about creation, they imagined their gods were engaged in a cosmic struggle with the forces of darkness and chaos, often in hand-to-hand combat, and the gods worth worshiping were the ones who prevailed and brought creation into being. But the people of Israel knew differently. They had experienced God as a God of speech, one who addresses particular people in particular times and places, one who by the act of speaking made the world, spurred people to action, brought a nation into being, and moved to save and deliver that nation. Scripture testifies to this truth over and over again. God speaks, and Abram leaves his house and family to go to an unknown land in pursuit of a promise that wouldn’t be fulfilled for decades. God speaks, and Isaac is born to a mother and father who are so old, the Bible describes them as being as good as dead. God speaks, and Joseph winds up as a slave in Egypt, rises to power, and saves thousands. God speaks, and the descendants of Jacob are freed from slavery and oppression and promised a land to call their own. God speaks and kings are raised up and brought low. God speaks and the world is changed – day after day, year after year, again and again.
God has indeed spoken “in many and various ways” – or, put another way, “in many fragments and fashions.”* Indeed, the Bible records mere snippets of the conversation that has been going on between God and humanity since the beginning. Our ancestors in the faith, including the prophets who served as God’s mouthpieces, bore witness to the on-going dialogue that has shaped God’s people, changed our understanding of who God is and what God is up to in the world, and kept us connected to the one who first said, “Let there be light!”
That conversation went on for centuries, reaching a crescendo at those key moments that defined the history and destiny of God’s people, until, one day, everything changed. Suddenly, God was no longer content simply to speak. As powerful as God’s voice had been, the time had come for something different, and that something different was the arrival of Jesus. In him, the Son of God, the Eternal Word, the one who had brought all things into being, visited our world. In him, the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being took on flesh and dwelt among us, and our world has never been the same. No longer would we look to the heavens in search of signs of a divine being beyond our comprehension. No longer would we struggle to hear the voice that thundered over the waters at creation. God spoke once more, this time into the life of a young woman named Mary, and that Word became truly human, lived in our midst, died for our sake, and rose for our salvation.
This is the deep and profound truth that is proclaimed through this morning’s reading – and, in fact, throughout the piece of writing that the Church has known for centuries as “the Letter to the Hebrews”. God has spoken in many different and incredible and world-changing ways since creation began, but none of it can rival the importance of how God spoke through the Son, the one whose name is Jesus. The surpassing greatness of that revelation will be unpacked throughout the rest of this letter and during our exploration of it over the next four weeks.
For now, this introduction gives us the opportunity to get our feet under us, and to reflect on all the ways that God has spoken to us through the prophets whose words reverberate through the ages, through the ancestors who helped to reveal the character of God by the way they bore witness to that character in word and deed, through the one whose name we bear and whose life, death, resurrection, and ascension define our lives. It gives us the opportunity to look around our church and our world and to realize that God is not finished speaking yet, that God continues to send prophets and teachers to orient us to God’s will for our lives, that the God who came to dwell among us in Jesus continues to be present to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It gives us the occasion to be reminded that the many fragments and fashions that have shaped the contours of the conversation between God and us are still shaping it today, though not as much as the reality of Christ’s living, dying, rising, and ascending for our sake and for the sake of the world.
That reality can’t be forgotten, because if we don’t remember the surpassing greatness of Jesus when we acknowledge or recognize that God is still speaking, we open ourselves to the danger of putting ungodly words in God’s mouth. Our knowledge of the Son helps us to filter the “God-talk” that comes our way and to test its authenticity. Does the way that we talk about God, or the way that we perceive God’s voice, align with the way that voice spoke through the life of Jesus Christ? Or is there a disconnect between what people claim to hear from God and what happened in the world when God lived as one of us? That’s a question worth asking of every individual, every congregation, every community of faith, every denomination, every expression of Christ’s body in the world, and to the extent that we are able to align ourselves with the way God spoke and acted in Christ – and, by the same token, to eliminate those areas where things are disconnected or disjointed – we are better able to hear and communicate and live into God’s will for us and our world.
We live each day, brothers and sisters, as those who bear the most excellent name of Christ. Let us give thanks for the gift of knowing Jesus, the one who radiates the glory of God and reveals the character of God in flesh and blood. Let us give thanks for the Holy Spirit who continues to make Jesus present to us today and every day. Finally, let us give thanks for the privilege of being part of a people to whom God is still speaking – in different fragments and fashions, to be sure, but still speaking all the same. May we hear God’s voice and seek to be Christ’s mouthpieces for this beautiful and broken world. Amen.
Complementary Text – Psalm 23:1-4
Preaching Text – Matthew 1:18-25
For the last three and a half months, our congregation has been exploring the story of God’s relationship with God’s people as we’ve journeyed through the Hebrew Scriptures. During those 15 weeks, we’ve seen God make promises to Israel, promises that have been threatened by that people’s willingness to turn aside to their own way rather than walking in the path set before them by their gracious God – a willingness that is, of course, shared by us and by all of God’s people: past, present, and future. We’ve also seen how God renews those promises over and over, offering mercy and grace to all as they recognize their failings and turn again to God. Throughout that journey through the Hebrew Scriptures, we have been looking with anticipation to this day, when we make the move from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament, specifically to the Gospel of Matthew that will be the focus of our continuing exploration of God’s story for the next four months. As we begin reading through Matthew, it’s important that we don’t forget what we’ve learned this fall, because the story of Jesus’ life cannot be separated from the story of God’s people that unfolded before his birth.
Today, then, we start near the beginning of Matthew, with the startling circumstances of Jesus’ conception. As the story begins, we read that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to a man named Joseph, a distant descendant of Israel’s greatest king, David. During the year-long period of engagement – that time after Mary and Joseph made formal promises of faithfulness and commitment, but before Mary moved from her father’s household to live with her husband – Mary was found to be pregnant. We don’t know much about Joseph, but the one detail Matthew gives us is this: that he was a righteous man, meaning that he was devoted to doing what the law of Moses required. In this case, Mary’s pregnancy was grounds for immediate divorce, most often a very public proceeding that resulted in great shame for everyone involved, but particularly for the party whose infidelity had broken the marriage agreement. In Joseph’s mind, there was no other way to proceed – how could Mary have become pregnant unless she had been unfaithful to her him, and how could unfaithfulness like that be tolerated?
Joseph’s mind was made up, and he readied himself to do what was necessary to uphold God’s law, when he received more shocking news from one of God’s messengers in a dream: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will hear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Suddenly, righteousness wasn’t as cut and dried as it had been before. What was Joseph to do? Was it more righteous to do what the law required – this law that had been passed down from generation to generation and been so good for God’s people? Or was it more righteous to heed the call of God’s messenger, recognize the work of God’s Holy Spirit, and take Mary as his wife, knowing how that might be perceived by others who lived in Bethlehem? The unfolding of God’s plan and purpose hinged on Joseph’s decision, and it was by no means an easy choice for him to make.
We know, of course, that Joseph chose the latter, and by obeying the angel’s message he received Jesus, the holy child, as his adopted son. We also know more than Joseph did. We know that Jesus’ birth fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, a Hebrew name which means God is with us. We know from our journey through the Scriptures this fall that the prophets had long been telling of a servant of God who would come to establish justice and righteousness in the land and bring salvation to God’s people. If we back up to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel and the genealogy that follows, we know that the identity of this child has already been established: he is the Messiah, the son of the revered patriarch Abraham and the renowned monarch, King David. We know that as the story of Jesus unfolds, we will learn more about what it means for God to dwell among us, about what God’s will for our world might be, and about how we are called to be a part of that story as we follow Jesus.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time of waiting and preparation that we call Advent is drawing to a close. In three short days we will gather again and, with Christians throughout the world, celebrate the birth of Immanuel – God with us. As the prophets and all of God’s people yearned for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a redeemer, we, too, yearn for the fulfillment of the renewed promise to reconcile the whole world to God. This week, as we call to mind that holy birth some two thousand years ago, let us pray that God would use us – like Joseph – to be instruments of reconciliation and renewal for our world. Let us wrestle honestly about what it means to live lives of righteousness in obedience to our God, especially when we perceive that God may be doing a new thing in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, let us praise God for all the ways that Christ continues to dwell among us now, saving us from our sins, turning us again to God’s will for us and our world, and making God’s power and presence known in our lives. Thanks be to God for the promise of a Savior, and the knowledge of that Savior’s presence with us this day and always. Amen.