Monday, 23 January 2012

Gen 16:2 "perhaps I can"

Sarai makes a shocking statement:

"The LORD has kept me from bearing children. Go sleep with my maid servant; perhaps I can build a family through her." (NIV) Gen 16:2  

First she says that God has prevented her from having children. Is that true? Remember this is a faithful record of what Sarai says and what she says may not be true just because its in the bible. It's a strange thing to say given what God has just promised. He seems to be the one promising children rather than preventing her from having one. It seems to me therefore that Sarai is not talking out of God's promise but her own understandable feelings, desires and disappointments. Perhaps she sees God as the enemy and is angry at him for, as she sees it, preventing her from bearing children. Once we see God as the enemy we tend to take maters into her own hands. Her thinking seems to be "God has prevented me..." but "perhaps I can...". (Her coldness to God is given away again a little later in a laugh when God reiterates his promise.)    

Now through, she is not thwarted. Her plan is for her Husband to sleep with her servant which was not at all what God had in mind for them. Imagine how Sarai must have viewed the servant for her to think like that. Imagine the emotional turmoil in store for the servant.  Imagine the effect on her marriage to Abram. We are not left to imagine for  long as the rest of the chapter gives us the gory details. Hagar despised her mistress (v5), Sarai mistreated Hagar (v6) and Hagar was miserable (v11). Sarai falls out with Abram and he caves into her (v5).

But here is the thing. It makes absolutely no difference to God coming true on his promise and later Abram will get a son through Sara. More on that when we get to it though.  For now, I want to think and act not from the dubious deductions of past experience but in line with what God has said in his word. How can I look upon God as my enemy, for when I was his enemy he sent his son to die for me?  And I definitely want to avoid wrecking lives by making plans that start from  "perhaps I can".  

Monday, 16 January 2012

Gen 15:8 - Draw me a picture

It is often said that we are a visual generation and need to see things with our eyes as well as our ears. Well turns out God though that was true thousands of years ago. Abram has just believed God that his, barren family line, will not just continue but explode like a massive firework, filling the sky with brightly coloured twinkling lights. Why then does he need help believing that God will come true on his promise of land asking:
"How am I to know that I shall posses it?"
Why does he need help in believing this? Is it a bigger promises? Is he tired out from believing the one before? Can he only believe one impossible thing before breakfast? It's hard to understand his thinking in theory but easy to relate to his predicament in practice. If I can believe God for my forgiveness surly I can believe him for everything else, yet each  faith victory stands alone as a hard won battle. If I believe God for one thing today, you can be sure there will be fresh fights of faith tomorrow. What is extraordinary here is not Abram's difficulty in accepting what God says but God's willingness to help him do so.

The unfolding drama of these verses is intense. Animals are collected, killed, cut in half and laid out like landing lights on a runway. The light fades as the sun sinks in the sky evoking the anticipation that comes when the house lights of a theatre begin to dim. An even greater darkness descends and Abram falls into a deep sleep.

A voice speaks out of the blackness "know for certain...". Here is the key. The drama is played out so that Abram would "know for certain". The darkness, the voice and then the fire and the smoke. I wonder as I read if the fiery touch moved between the carcases bobbed, as if held by a person or persons or whether it floated, gliding smoothly. From what I can work out a fire pot was a sort of earthen pot used for cooking bread so it is not easily carried and yet I bet its motion was more personal then mechanical.  

Why? because fire represents the presence and power of God. Moses heard God out of a burning bush. Gods people knew his presence through a pillar of fire in the desert. And Jesus baptised his people with fire at Pentecost. Going further here is tricky.

There are various theories as to what all this animal cutting and fire flickering means. It could point to the future animal sacrifices or God calling down a cruse on himself if he breaks his promise as symbolised by walking through the partitioned animals. ie If I slip up I'll get chopped up. I'm not sure what to make of these but this scene certainly stamps a memorable image on the mind. My best shot is that God is speaking a blessing ("I'll give you the land") from the context of judgment and sacrifice (standing among the animal sacrifices). All God's promises are ultimately made in the person of his son. God speaks his promises to us form the context of his crucified son. If I push it a bit further and risk allegorising I'd say the fire represents the Spirit who illuminates and applies Jesus sacrifice to us but that might be going a bit too far.  

Interestingly, the pronouncement of blessing actually starts off in an unexpected direction (as if anything here is expected!). Before Abram' decedents inherit the land along with ample resources to populate it, there will be 400 years of affliction. The promise if fulfilled through and out of suffering and affliction. It seems to me the promises of God are often fulfilled in this way as God brings life from death. Jesus' death on the cross and subsequent exultation did not open up comfortable chartered jet to glory but a painful path following in his footsteps. The suffering of the servant of the LORD through which God's people emerge with great riches.    

I do not think that the captivity in Egypt is a punishment on Gods people. At least here the bad guys are the Amorites, who will get far worse before God brings his judgment down upon them and released the land to his people.

In the war against unbelief God brings out a very big gun called "covenant". A binding and rather specific promise of a certain piece of land and a sober warning about hardship ahead.   When he made a new convent Jesus did the same, very graphically breaking the bread in two. "This is my body", he said, "broken for you". As he took wine he said "this is the covenant in my blood". These things where given to us to remember what he did, when on the cross the house lights went down once more and in complete darkness Jesus bore our sin and shame. Then, 40 days later, the fire came.

I love the word for today emails I get. This is that they draw out of this passage:

 All our fears basically come down to these two questions: First: 'Lord, will you protect me?' Second: 'Lord, will you provide for me?' With Abraham, God addresses both: '..."Do not be afraid...I am your shield, your very great reward"' (Genesis 15:1 NIV). The words, 'very great reward,' literally mean, 'I am your unfailing, inexhaustible, ever increasing source of supply.' Awesome! You don't have to go to anybody else for protection or provision; God's got you covered! And notice what happened next. God entered into a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:17); He said to him: 'I'll take care of you and your descendants as long as you live.' But there was a problem. 'Then birds of prey came down on the [sacrifice], but Abram drove them away' (Genesis 15:11 NIV). There's a lesson here. Even though God has promised to take care of you, you must drive away the worries satan sends to prey on your mind. How do you do that? By standing squarely on the promises God has made to you in His Word. (The Word For Today,, daily devotional readings are available for the UK and Republic of Ireland.)

I think the first bit about "protection and provision" is helpful. I wonder if that touches deeper issues of identity and fears that we are unloved and unvalued. I hadn't thought of the birds has having that significance but they must be in the story for some reason.   

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Gen 15:6 - Living on Credit

And that was the moment something amazing happened. In his heart, Abram said "ok". In the next few milliseconds his thoughts would expand into  a "yes, that will happen. I don't know how but I will. Wow. Good" but by that time the transaction was complete. 

I've come to what must be one of the most significant verses in the whole bible:

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (ESV) Gen 15:6  

The LORD promised the sonless Abram more descendants than the stars in the sky, Abram believed him and got more than he bargained for. He received something that we all need but cannot get and that something is righteousness. I wonder if he realised it at the time? He must have come to know that it happened at some stage to pass this story on.

So what is righteousness? It's a right standing before a Holy God and it's lost when we do or think something unrighteous, ie wrong. Once its gone no amount of good will get it back. Having knocked a hurdle over in a race no amount of running and jumping will make it stand up again.

Now there are people described as righteous in the Old Testament such as Noah.

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. (ESV) Gen 6:9  

Noah is described as righteous and blameless. A man who "walked" with God, that is he lived his life in the context of a relationship with God. That would have meant, at least relatively speaking, he did the right thing a lot of the time but its still a puzzle as to how people like him are called righteous given they were not perfect:

as it is written:  "None is righteous, no, not one; Rom 3:10  

Here though we have the answer. Believing God puts all our fallen hurdles up, every one, and we are counted righteous.   

Where does this righteousness come from? In the accounting of heaven how can righteous be counted to us when we are not? Does God have an infinite supply that he can give away without diminishing his supply? No. For one I'm not sure that there are any actual infinites but in any case perfection cannot be shared out like that. God cannot print more righteousness in a kind of moral quantitative easing strategy without undermining his own goodness. So where does this righteousness come from? Jesus works to earn it. The Son of God becomes a man, and runs our race for all of us without knocking down a single hurdle. He gains the medal of  of righteousness and then hands it to us. 

But what about all our knocked down hurdles? Well, as he places us on his podium he stands in our prision and takes the wrap for us. What a shame to run and jump to try to please God and gain his acceptance when Jesus has already gained it for us. All we need to do is take his word for it and his life and death are credited to our account. In a moment. Just like that.       

The new testament talks about all this a lot. One key verse is:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-- (ESV) Rom 3:21  

It's saying that the whole Old Testament points to and backs up the fact that there would be a righteousness made avaaiable from God to us. That there would be two ways to be righteousness. One is to obey the law fully in every way. In terms of gaining Gods approval, and love and riotousness, the law is like a climbers rope. If it is broken in just once place it becomes useless. Like a climbers rope, this way only helps us if it remains unbroken in every part.   

But instead of trying to inch our way up a rope that we have dropped in a blender, we are offered a hand by one who says "trust me". I remember trusting the LORD when I became a Christian at Uni. It was a simple act of faith, believing that what God said in the gospel was true. I trusted that Jesus' death on the cross had paid for my sin, that I would never be held to account for the trail of fallen hurdles behind me, nor the ones I would knock over in the future and I would know God has my loving heavenly father forever and ever, even through death. In fact especially through death. There was so much I didn't understand. My love for him and obedience to him went up and down over the following years but I never lost what I gained then. Righteousness. 

Abram's faith was not perfect or fully formed and he did seem to wobble a bit here and there as he walked with God and got to know him. It's been the same with me, but what has never faltered or faded is my God given righteousness. I believed God and it was credited to me as righteousness. I don't know about you but I love living on credit.      

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Gen 15:2 - What is your "Eliezer of Damascus"

Abram's response to God's promise of a reward seems a little muted because there is a hole in his bucket. Since Abram is childless, whatever God gives him will end up with his servant Eliezer of Damascus.  

But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" (ESV) Gen 15:2  

This guy is lined up to inherit everything Abram had. He was not a stranger, he may even have been the chief servant, yet he was not a son and so anything that Abram had would pass from him to another not of his actual family line.     

I am sure there is some significance in this man Eliezer as he is mentioned here by name. There seems nothing obviously significant about Damascus except that it is the place where Abram chased the enemy kings too and took their treasure (Gen 14:15,16). Could it be that Eliezer of Damascus represents the the fact that we can't keep earthly gain and riches when we die? Even if that is a bit of  a stretch hermeneutically I think the thought still stands. Abram seems to have given all the treasure he gained away except what was needed to feed his men (Gen 14:24) and now Abram can't see how anything that God gives him will have lasting meaning to him as his family line will come to an end.

It's kind of a cliché but "you can't take it with you" is still true of most things. Money, fame, and power do not pass through the grave no matter how much we embalm or burry them with us. We may have a lot or a little in this life but there is a hole in our bucket and all of it will drain away in death. Like Abram we may have an Eliezer of Damascus that will inherit what was ours but it's not really ours anymore which makes them pleasant but pointless. We can pass our money on to a cat's home or a charitable trust, or even a blood relative, but it will no longer be ours. Others may speak well of us or remember us fondly, or put up a monument to us or make a documentary about us but what good is that to us? What therefore can we have that lasts forever? What can God give us that doesn't have to be passed on to another?   

Well, God did give Abram a son but that son in himself was not going to plug the hole as he too would one day die. However, he had a son who had a son and so on until in the person of Jesus God gave us his own son and in him we can live on through death and keep all that we have in him. Jesus has no hole in his bucket so God can give us things in him that will last forever. Anything in Christ will pass through death and be ours for eternity. Instead of an Eliezer of Damascus we can have Jesus of Nazareth and through him eternal riches, now and forever.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Gen 15:1 - Your reward

As well the reassuring protective truth that God is to Abraham as shield, there also comes the promise of reward. Not only is Abraham kept safe from harm, but he has promised good. For some reason I remember this verse reading "I am your shield, you're very great reward" (which it does in the NIV), but in the ESV, its "I am your shield, your reward shall be very great." So which is it?

Well, I can't read Hebrew and the commentators seem to favour the ESV version so I will run with that. Actually, one leads to the other. What is a "very great reward"? Every time you read a passage in the Old Testament it's good to turn the contrast up until you see Jesus. The greatest reward that God can give us is himself in the person of his son. All other promises are fulfilled in Jesus.

The New Testament says we have every spiritual blessing in Christ and so here in God's mind at least is none other than his beloved son. But Abram probably isn't seeing quite that far ahead. His most felt need is for a son and without a son nothing God could give him would have much value to him. It would simply be passed on to a relative stranger. Little did he know that God was looking to give his own son through a son he would give Abram and that through him Abram's decedents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

At first Abram's need seems very great, but God's provision is totally overwhelming. Not only will Abram get a son but innumerable decedents. The value of this gift is the life of God's own son and in him God's son Abram will have countless spiritual offspring. The great reward is indeed God himself. No wonder Paul says:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (ESV) Eph 3:20-21  

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Gen 15:1 - I am your shield (part 2)

After a 6 month break I am moving forward again on my thrilling expedition through the pages of God's word. Just one or two things to say about fear, faith and God being our shield before pressing on. I am reading again a great book by David Carr called "Staying Sane in a crazy world": 

"Fear came to occupy the place in Adam's mind where God had been shut out. That is why we can take comfort in the promise of the bible that the perfect love of Jesus casts out all fear. Fear and God cannot inhabit the same place. Fear is the absence of God's presence and sin reflects the thoughts of a man whose mind is void of life and does not hear the voice of God." David Carr. Staying Sane in a crazy world. p47.

There is a good fear which is a fear of God. It's a healthy, helpful fear, a bit like being concerned about falling when you are high up or a wary of  drowning when you are near deep water. The bible says it's the basis for wisdom (Prov 9:10), and meaning (Eccl 12:13) but what about "perfect love casts out fear"  (1 John 4:18)? Is there a contradiction here? No, I think there are two kinds of fear. A good godly fear and a counterfeit fear.

Once fear of God is gone and with it his protecting presence, then a host of counterfeit fears take its place. While fear of God leads to love, freedom and life, counterfeit fears lead to loneliness, slavery and death. If I fear what people think of me more than what God thinks of me then he is no longer directing my path and since he loves me more than anyone, I loose out. Fear has worked in the opposite way in which it is designed to, ie to protect me from danger and keep me in God's love. That is always the way the counterfeits work. They promise more and deliver less.

Take getting drunk for example. It's a counterfeit of enjoying the presence of God (Eph 5:18). Getting drunk promises boldness and freedom from fear, better relationships, joy, peace etc but usually leaves you worse off in every respect.    

Here is David Carr again:

"Why do people seek after such sensations (escapism and highs from drugs) when we all know that they are temporal in effect and in long term are highly damaging to our health? I believe is it man's attempt to recapture the rush of the Holy Spirit flowing through his being. Escapism through substance abuse is a feeble attempt at counterfeiting the vivid realties of life in the awesome power of the Spirit...people are trying to simulate what only the Holy Spirit can give, which is the pure peace of God, the pure purpose of God, the pure presence of God. When the Holy Spirit comes upon a person it causes a massive rush of adrenaline and well-being, and the world desperately wants to experience that." David Carr. Staying Sane in a Crazy World. p47.

"Why is it that man tries to invent things that will replace the Holy Spirit? It is simply man's attempt to create a substitute for the presence of God. It is the world's way of trying to sooth the brain outside of the Holy Spirit - an impossible task". David Carr. Staying Sane in a Crazy World. p53

After these insightful remarks the very next chapter in his book is called "Don't worry!" and coincidently the first verse is the one I have just memorised this morning. Matthew 6:25. Let me see if I can remember it:

"Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. You life is more than food and the body more than clothes". Matthew 6:25

Ah, forgot the begging bit "Therefore I tell you". That's a really important bit. And Jesus posed the second half of the verse as more of a question "Is not life more than food?"

Just thought though, is "worry" different to "fear"? Let's go check the Greek (I am still learning it but progress is even slower than my blogging through the bible!). Worries/anxious has more of the sense of "distracted" (like Martha in Luke 10:41). Fear has more of a sense of wanting to avoid something that looks to be dangerous. I guess the two are related. We might fear looking silly in front of people so we worry about what we put on in the morning. We worry about money because we fear not having enough. I wonder if they are always related somehow? Not sure... Ah Piper has something helpful to say here:  

"Anxiety seems to be an intense desire for something, accompanied by a fear of the consequences of not receiving it. We do not say we are anxious when we desire a tool box for Christmas because we don't fear the consequences of not getting one. But we do say we are anxious about our wife not arriving home on time because our desire for her to come home is accompanied by the fear of a car accident and a telephone call from the police....anxiety implies that we think there may well be some sorrow and anguish around the corner."

Anyway, this subject is massive and I'm going to get swept away again if I'm not careful so let me pull it back to Abram again. God is giving himself as a shield to Abram to protect him from the counterfeit fears that are pressing in. As Abram takes hold of God, and his shielding presence, the fear of people, death, failure, and rejection can be batted away. Having God as a shield, strapped to your arm, held closely to your body, moving forward into battle with you is so much better than everything just begin fixed at a distance. God doesn't want to stay at arm's length, he wants to be held on our arm as a shield.          

PS. Check out my main blog in a few days as I will be continuing some of these trains of thought. Just think that for now through I need to press onto the next verse to avoid getting bogged down again! 

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Gen 15:1 - I am your shield (part 1)

When I read Genesis 15:1 it was like taking a step into a river and getting swept away. There was too much in it and along with other demands on my time I never got round to blogging it. However, after 6 months I am going to have another go. I have had three or four coincidences that have encouraged me to do so and now with an hour or so free on my day off I'm going to try to finish it (not the whole bible just this next blog! - One coincidence one was reading Terry Virgo's blog on the shield of faith., another was a memory verse I was pointed towards - see forth coming series "Project Samurai Sword" in my general blog.) I may only skim the surface of this verse but there is a lot more of the bible to read and I am sure the themes and truths will reappear further along the path. Anyway here goes:

Abram has just won a great victory and rescued his nephew Lot. He had recognised and given glory to God for these things in his encounter with the priest king Melchizedek while another King lurks menacingly in the background. Perhaps it is reading too much into the King of Sodom's terse comments, but I wonder if they planted a seed of fear in Abraham as in this next verse we find him in need of encouragement and reassurance. At any rate, for some reason God suddenly comforts Abram with the command that crops up time and time again in the Bible "fear not."

Fear is an ever present temptation for God's people. Either fear of what will happen if they obey God or fear of what will happen having obeyed God. Gideon and Moses needed a lot of reassurance to get going and Elijah needed a lot of aftercare when he triumphed over the profits of Baal.  

Here is just a sample of the "fear not" passages:

fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
  I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10 

Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (ESV) Mat 10:31  

for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (ESV) 2 Tim 1:7  

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. (ESV) 1 John 4:18  

in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
    What can man do to me? Psalm 56:11 

(There are loads more great verses and encouragements on fear in Max Lucado's little "fear not promise book".) God does not simply say "fear not". He usually gives good reasons why we should not be afraid. The reason at the root of every encouragement is who God is and where God is. When Jesus came, fully revealing who God was, time and time again he used the phrase "I am…". He was: The way, the truth, the life, the good Shepherd, the vine, the bread of life, the gate. The aspect of God's nature that he reveals to Abraham at this time is that he is to him a shield. He is not just a shield, or everyone's shield, but "your shield". 

It's interesting that he does not say everything is going to be okay ie "no one will attack you or try and hurt you". Rather he says I am your shield. We live in a time of conflict, and we do not need false assurances of peace, rather weapons and armor to engage in the battle.

It occurred to me that with a shield, and even with a fortress, as God later reveals himself to be, to take advantage of these things requires action on our part. You hold a shield and lift it up. You run into a fortress and lock the door. A shield is no good as it lies on the ground and a fortress is no good if you stand outside. As arrows fall on you the shield needs to be used. The benefits of who God is are appropriated in our life as we take hold of them through faith. It's interesting that in Ephesians 6 Paul encourages those in the church to:

"take up the whole armour of God... Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit which is the word of God".

See how active all this is. It's interesting to see how intimately faith is linked to God's shielding and protection of us. I'll let Max Lucado end this long overdue blog entry:

       Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. There was no one there. MaxLucado

In the next blog I will look briefly at real fear and it's counterfeit.