Photo of the Week: December 13, 2017

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Covenant Terms

Genesis 17

On a certain day Abram was going about his business as usual when God came to him out of the blue…

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” (17:1-2)

For the first time in the relationship, God is giving Abram covenant terms (conditions) that he must follow, beginning in verse 1 with “walk before me faithfully and be blameless.” In the next several verses (3-8) God promises Abram that he will not only have a son, but that he will be the father of many nations, and changes his name to Abraham. As the father of nations, he will also be the ancestor of kings, and God’s covenant will extend to all of Abraham’s descendants, and those of his entire household. The land of Canaan will be their homeland and they will take possession of it, something Abram had not yet been able to do. There is another condition as well, for all males must be circumcised.

In 17:9-14 God makes it abundantly clear that each and every male must be circumcised as a sign of the covenant, including anyone in the household who is not a blood relation and that if they do so, God will be their God, and the God of their descendants. If they do not do so, they are to be cast out.

Sarai is also to be blessed, for she in spite of their ages, will bear a son through whom the covenant will pass to future generations; her name was changed to Sarah.  Abraham’s reaction was to laugh, for how could they produce children at their ages? He suggested that Ishmael could be the son through whom the covenant would pass, but God, while willing to bless Ishmael with a great nation of his own, insisted that Abraham and Sarah would have the Son of Promise; they would name him Isaac, and he would be born within the year. To his everlasting credit, Abraham stopped laughing and was circumcised on that very day, along with all of the males in his household.

Let’s take just a moment and ask ourselves a simple question: Why did God wait around until Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90 to fulfill His promise to give them a son − was He too busy in another galaxy or something?

While we’re asking ourselves questions, let’s ask another one: Why did the Son of God come to earth as an infant born to a teenager in a manger in Bethlehem instead of coming on the wings of angels into downtown Jerusalem?

I can suggest one answer: God’s power is best seen when the humans in the picture are weakest. Certainly a son born to a 90 year old, fathered by a 99 year old is just as unlikely as a child born to a virgin, for as we know, both are not possible in the normal course of events.

In both cases there would be no doubt that God Himself was responsible for the birth of a promised son.

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“I AM”

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“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

John 8:58

This verse comes at the end of a rather long discussion between Jesus and the Jewish leaders that began with the validity of His testimony, and moved to a discussion of both His and their paternity, and now has simply come down to who exactly Jesus is (John 8:12-59). Jesus was quick to tell them in vv. 54-55 that He is God’s Son.  In the next verse He tells them that He knows Abraham’s thoughts as well when He says that Abraham looked forward to this day and rejoices in it. It is important to note that Jesus did not say this so as to speculate on what Abraham would have thought, but instead He is stating it as a fact; He is acting as a witness to it.

This completely blows their minds.

Their response in verse 57 is not one of amazement but is instead ridicule; they are marginalizing Him again so as to reduce or eliminate His credibility with the rest of the people.  Verse 58 is the tipping point in the discourse:  Jesus claims to be God.  To make the statement that Jesus made here is one that is direct, to the point and undeniable in its meaning.  “Before Abraham was born, I am!”  Jesus is telling them two things, first that He has been around since before Abraham; He isn’t thirty-something, He’s at least 2,000 years old.  Second, notice that Jesus didn’t say “before Abraham was born, I was alive” no, He said “I am”.  I Am is the name God used to identify Himself to Abraham, thus Jesus is telling them that He is none other than God in the flesh.  They understood this, and since they knew blasphemy when they heard it, they proceeded to grab for stones with which to execute Him.  Jesus slips away, for His time had not yet come to die.  It is worth pointing out that for all of the reasons Jesus cited, these people did not stop to consider the possibility that He might be telling the truth.

These great men of God, these teachers, lawyers and scholars were actually following the devil, and their haste to shut Jesus up when He states the greatest truth of all is a poignant reminder to all of us that we must “continue in His word” to ensure that we are recognizing the truth when it is spoken in this difficult and dark age in which we live.

As we move into the Christmas season and look forward to our celebrations, perhaps we too should stop and ask ourselves just who it was who was born in that Bethlehem manger so long ago; clearly He was not just the son of an obscure carpenter.

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Human Custom, Tradition and God’s Promises

Genesis 16

The Christmas Story would never be complete without an examination of the friction between human customs and traditions and the promises and ways of God. In our text, Sarai is getting old, yet she has never conceived a child. She knows that God has promised a son to her husband, but so far, God hasn’t come through with the heir. Custom in those days dictated that if an important person like Abram didn’t have an heir by his wife, then she could conceive a child through her slave girl, and Sarai encouraged Abram to use this option to help God get the job done, one might say. Abram took his wife’s advice, and Hagar, the slave girl, became pregnant.

From this point forward, there would be no end of grief for Abram and Sarai; there are consequences to such things as they had done.

Hagar, realizing that her stock was rising, became unpleasant with her mistress, and Sarai complained of this to her husband who seems to have tried to wash his hands of the entire matter. Sarai sent the pregnant Hagar away into the wilderness… where Hagar had an encounter with the angel of the Lord. It would seem that God was disapproving of such treatment as Hagar had received at the hands of Sarai.

For our purposes in this survey, I will leave the details of this continuing saga for you to read on your own should you choose to do so. I must point out however, that there is a great lesson for us to apply as we celebrate Christmas, for in doing so, we must come face to face with the awesome promises of God, promises that have been fulfilled as well as a few which have yet to be culminated. At the same time, we deal every day with human custom and tradition, especially at this time of year, and sometimes these come into conflict.

I am curious to see if you have any thoughts on this: This Christmas season, when custom, tradition and God come into conflict, which will we choose? I know that in my personal case, I always say that I will choose God’s promises over tradition and custom, and yet I am always under pressure to compromise so that we can have both. There’s always a way to justify doing things, don’t you agree?

Yet this is what Abram and Sarai did, they compromised, and they came to regret that compromise, in fact it nearly tore them apart at one point.

Or… maybe you don’t see any conflicts at all. If so I’m sure we’d be interested to hear about that view as well.

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The Night When God was Naked Before Man

I like nativity scenes; they are the one thing we see around us this time of year that actually have something to do with what we are supposed to be celebrating. Yet sadly, even most nativity scenes, whether sculpted or painted… and certainly those that are reenacted… don’t portray reality.

When Joseph and Mary arrived in the City of David on that fateful day, there was no room at the Inn and they found shelter in a “manger”. We think of this as being like a barn, a really nice barn, but it would have been more like a cave where animals are penned up. Such a place would not be charming, rustic or romantic, it would most likely have been a stinking hole, a place lower than low.

We depict the scene with radiating light, a kind of heavenly ambiance, but in addition to the stench, it also would most likely have been dark, cold and damp, infested with flies… yuk.

We often see paintings of Mary after giving birth looking as if she has just put on her best gown after a day at the spa, but if you have ever been a mother who just gave birth, of have been with a mother who just gave birth, you know very well that is a lie. Giving birth is nothing if not messy, sweaty and bloody, and mothers are not looking their best at that particular time.

In our songs about this amazing event, we see the Baby Jesus sleeping so peacefully; “not a cry he makes”… Seriously?

Later on a bunch of shepherds arrived to pay homage after an encounter with a squad of angels, and we depict them in their Sunday best as though shepherds were anything other than the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder of the time.

Yes dear reader, we romanticize the entire scene, and that is a great shame.

Look at what Paul said about Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

When Jesus was born in that manger, there were no divine trappings of any kind; it was cold hard reality. Jesus left glory behind entirely when He came to earth and He was just like we are in every way. He grew hungry, thirsty and tired, He sweated, He needed bathroom breaks, He had body odor, He caught colds… there was nothing about Him that set Him apart from anyone else in the physical sense; according to Isaiah, he wasn’t even good looking. In the manger, He entered this world naked; on the cross He left this world naked in the physical sense.

In between, He taught and healed and brought hope to Mankind that so desperately needs all of these and He did so without pretense or any worldly glamour or greatness; He was naked in the metaphorical sense, for in Jesus God is naked before Man with nothing standing in between.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote a series of posts about our need to be naked before God, to take away everything that comes between us and God and to approach His presence in complete humility and openness.

How hard that can be!

Yet in this, as in all things, Jesus is our model. If only we would resist the temptation to sanitize His story, maybe His humility and humanity would be easier for us to grasp, and we could see how truly awesome His divinity is. Yes, maybe that would make it easier for us to strip away everything that separates us from God in this life.

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God Makes a Covenant

Genesis 15:7-21

In this passage, the conversation of our last post continues, this time Abraham asks God how he can be sure that God will give him the land of Canaan, an amazing question all things considered. God’s reply is even more amazing: He swears out a covenant.

So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. (15:9-11)

God’s response was to tell Abram to gather certain animals together, which Abram did and cut them in half, laying the carcasses out with the halves side by side. In doing so, Abram consented to the covenant in blood without swearing an oath which is not the Old Testament norm.

Then, God swears an oath:

Beginning in verse 13, God tells Abram that his descendants will be taken to Egypt where they will be enslaved 400 years which is a part of the Covenant we don’t often bring up in Sunday School. Abram will not be involved in that phase as he will have died at a ripe old age. Then God will save the people out of Egypt after they become enriched from the wealth of that land (15:13-16).

Next, God passed through the carcasses in the form of fire, swearing that He gives the Land to Abram’s descendants (15:17-21). Normally both parties would march through the bloody carcasses, symbolizing that if they broke their covenant, this would be their fate, but here only God passes through. Why was it done this way?

There was no way for Abraham to avoid sinning against God because there was no provision for atonement for sins in this covenant; that would come along much later. When you step back and consider these incredible events, you quickly find yourself in one of those “Wow” moments, for God had sworn and passed through the blood on Abram’s behalf. This means that God took the penalty for the sins of Abram and those who would follow upon Himself, setting the stage for our Christmas Story, for when the Lamb of God appeared as a babe in that manger, God was fulfilling His obligation to Abram to pay for his sin.

Merry Christmas indeed!

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It’s what you make of it

Let’s face it, we’re heading into a couple of weeks that can be challenging for most of us; we’re getting into crunch time. At my house, we have a thrill-packed week for sure: I’m double-booked tomorrow night, we have out of town guests Thursday through Sunday, with more family coming for a holiday wing-ding on Saturday plus all the normal things, and oh yes, I need to get ready for Sunday sometime.

There’s shopping that needs to get done, cards to send, houses to clean, social obligations, family obligations, church obligations, work obligations… It can very easily get out of hand and the holidays can end up being more of a curse than a blessing.

So which is it going to be for you− a time of warmth, love and a time of wonder and blessing and closeness to God… or a time of obligation, work and stress that might be better to skip altogether? For me, it’s usually a little bit of both, depending on when you ask. To be fair, the Christmas Season is what we make it− blessing or stress choices we make.

I’ve decided that for me, this Christmas is going to be a blessing. If I get everything done just right: great. If I don’t well… that’s great too. I might not be able to make every event, and I might have to drop something from my to do list at some point, but so what?  In the final analysis none of that is really what’s important, is it? What really matters, what we will remember about this year, is time spent with family and loved ones and the time we spent with our Lord, not all of the running around and stress we might subject ourselves to, and that’s why I’m choosing to chill out and only take on what I can comfortably and reasonably do well.

What kind of Christmas Season will you choose?

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