GCI Equipper

A Church Deployed

The pandemic gives us unique and imaginative ways of sharing God’s love and life with others.

You ever notice how often things don’t go exactly as you planned? Along with that, certain life events seem to come at “the worst time”—at least from our perspective. My daughter was pregnant with our 2nd grandchild when she called with news that weighed heavy on my heart. “Dad, Chris is being deployed and will be gone a minimum of six months.” “When does he leave?” “Just after the baby is due.” My heart just sank. What a horrible time for the military to take my son-in-law. What were they thinking? There had to be a better time.

I found myself thinking the same thoughts these past several weeks as I’ve spent more time at home than I have in years. I can’t go to the store like I want; I can’t visit my kids like I want; I can’t go out to eat like I want; I can’t visit pastors and churches like I want; I can’t even go to church like I want. What a horrible time for this pandemic to occur. Why isn’t God doing something? Why is he allowing this to drag on and on and on…?

I am currently reading a book from a retired Lt General—a three-star general. (Yes, this relates to the topic, so bear with me.) The book is about leadership lessons he has learned over his life of serving in the military. He made the statement that most people in the armed forces look at deployment quite a bit differently than those of us outside the military.

Military people want to move to the sound of the gun. Putting aside family separations and the wariness one feels over the possibility of memorial services, there’s not a soldier, sailor, airman or marine serving today who, if given a chance between being stateside or being in Iraq or Afghanistan, wouldn’t want to be over there. Because that’s what we’re trained to do.[1]

Deployment gives the armed forces the opportunity to put into practice all the things they have been training for. My son-in-law hated being away from the family, but he didn’t hate being deployed and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was doing what he was trained to do, and he did it well. His initial motivation was love of country, but he found himself loving those he was serving. And, by the way, the timing of his deployment turned out well. Our daughter and grandchildren lived with us while he was gone, enabling them to save quite a bit and purchase a nice home when he returned. God blessed them more than they imagined—he seemed to know what he was doing. (Tongue in cheek intended.)

It’s a new way of looking at deployment, and perhaps what God is doing during this pandemic is giving the church opportunities to deploy that we normally wouldn’t think of. We love Jesus, we love the church, we love each other, but this pandemic gives us a unique (unprecedented) opportunity to practice the things we’ve been training for outside the walls of the church. We have new opportunities to love as Jesus loved—to share his love and his life with others. Those aren’t just words we put on our church walls—those are words that shape our values, our vision and our mission—corporately and individually—and our neighbors and friends need the benefits and blessings of our values, vision and mission.

The apostle Paul was constantly encouraging believers to stir up their gifting and use those gifts in participation with our Lord. He continually reminded us to look to Christ, to put on his mind, to bear the burdens of others, to allow his love to compel us to love others.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. (2 Cor 5:14-16)

People in our church neighborhoods are lonely, hungry for relationship. They are anxious, fearful of the virus affecting family and friends. They are looking for answers, wondering what God is up to, fearful things might not return to normal.

Paul continues:

We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Cor 5:20)

There is the answer. God is making his appeal through us. Isn’t that amazing? This is the time for us to be there for our neighbors. This is the time to pick up some groceries, to mow a lawn, to check up on our neighbors just to see if they are OK, or to give them a person to talk to (from a safe distance).

We talk about being Jesus’ hands and feet, and this has truth to it, but aren’t we also his heart and his smile, and his accepting eyes to others? This is the time to get creative and find ways to let others know we care about them and that we want to share Jesus’ love with them. I love that our GCI President called an international day of prayer and fasting, encouraging us to seek God and his will during this time—asking him how we can best express this love he has given us for others.

I’ve been impressed by how many of our GCI congregations and members are offering worship and prayer on Facebook Live or other video platforms. One of our congregations organized a neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt by hiding giant cardboard Easter eggs throughout the neighborhood. Hundreds participated by driving around following clues given on Facebook and finding those eggs. Other congregations have distributed toilet tissue (who would have ever guessed that would be a ministry?). I heard an idea of using the church parking lot to distribute free water, toiletries, hand sanitizer, or freshly baked goods. All of this can be done while still maintaining distance.

I believe we will look back when this pandemic is past and say, “GCI members moved at the sound of the compelling love of Christ. Putting aside family separations and the fear they felt over the possibility of getting exposed to a virus, our pastors, ministry leaders, worship coordinators, children’s church teachers, worshippers and Christians serving Jesus today were finding creative ways to share God’s love and life with others. Because that is what we are trained to do, and that’s what we love to do.”

Welcoming our deployment,

Rick Shallenberger

[1] Rick Lynch, Adapt or Die, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013, pages 66-67.

The Ascension of Jesus

Jesus’ ascension shows God’s commitment to us

By Randy Bloom, Vice Chair, GCI Board of Directors

There was a time I didn’t pay much attention to the ascension of Jesus. It was a few words I glossed over in my studies (Acts 1:9-11). It was not until several years after the grace-packed reformation of GCI that it began to be pressed to the forefront of my mind. I don’t recall how the process began, but I reached a point where I had to know more about Jesus’s ascent into the heavens with the Father. I had to know: “What’s the big deal?” As I began to study more into Scripture, church history and the “faith of our fathers,” my mind, as some say, was blown.

With a focus on what we are told about Jesus’s ascension, we are faced with some startling truths that lead us deep into the heart of our Triune God and up into (an ascension of sorts for us) an astounding understanding of who and what we are in Jesus. I won’t go into all the details (though I reference a few sources at the end of the article), but I will summarize a few points, starting by stating what the Bible clearly teaches: Jesus is still human.

As I began to teach and preach about the ascension, I was amazed at how many people had not thought much about this. And I was amazed at how many pushed back at the idea. But check out what the Bible clearly says: Jesus has a body, though it is a new kind of body in glorified “form” (1 Timothy 2:5; Philippians 3:21; Colossians 2:9 and the post-resurrection accounts of Jesus’s appearances).

The hypostatic union of God and man (with a real, human body) in Christ (a foundational doctrine of the church) teaches us that the humanity of Christ remains in permanent existence. Jesus’s human body was, and is, permanently established, in union with his divine nature. The gulf between humanity and God is bridged, forever, by Jesus, and God in Christ continues to identify with us.

With this foundational understanding we can know:

  • Our salvation depends not only on Jesus’s birth, death and resurrection, but it depends on our continuing union with him as still fully human, as the ascended Lord. If Jesus had “dropped” his humanity after his resurrection, all humanity (including followers of Jesus) would now be separated from him. If he did not take us with him (as clearly stated in Ephesians 2:4-6) we would not be in union with him. Without his ascension, the redemptive work of Jesus would not be complete, and we would still be lost in our sins.
  • There is now a human, a glorified human, in heaven; his name is Jesus.
  • In Christ, we are drawn up into—assimilated into—the life of Father, Son and Spirit.
  • We share now, in God’s reality, a heavenly place with Jesus. We cannot but begin (barely) to comprehend what all this means. We can’t understand how this is possible, only that it is. We have—in God’s way—a rightful place in heaven. Now.
  • There is not another “new” Jesus in heaven we have to get to know, nor “another” Father to know.
  • Humans are still God’s main concern. He is committed to us. He will never—can never—give up on us without, thereby, giving up on himself.
  • As Jesus continues to exist as human, he will come again as human to keep us together with him as he is.
  • In his ascension, we may say, Jesus fully affirmed the value of humanity. In his ascension he actively states: “You are good. You are worthy. I love you. I want you. Be with me forever!”

I don’t know what your experience has been as you ponder these amazing truths. When the wonder of Jesus’s ascension began to sink in, I was, at times, literally speechless. I remember being a bit jealous of pastors (I was a district superintendent at the time) because if I had been a pastor, I would have immediately put Ascension Day on my church calendar and it would be celebrated like Christmas and Easter. Needless to say, I’m thrilled to see Ascension Day included on the GCI Calendar (but since Ascension Day is always on a Thursday, most churches will commemorate it on the following Sunday).

As we approach Ascension Day 2020, I hope you will spend time growing in your understanding and appreciation of what Jesus accomplished in his ascension. I hope you will celebrate the event in your worship services. I recall several times when I preached sermons on the ascension hearing highly audible exclamations of wonder that came from the members I was speaking to. It was obvious to me that people needed to hear about this amazing part of Jesus’ life. Understanding Jesus’s ascension is integral to a full understanding of what our Triune God has done and continues to do, for us and all humanity. To God be the glory!

Notice what some church fathers said about Ascension:

[The Feast of the ascension] is that festival which confirms the grace of all the festivals together, without which the profitableness of every festival would have perished. For unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing…and his Passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless. (Augustine of Hippo)

Jesus is still sitting there at the right hand of the Father, man, yet God … flesh and blood yet purer than ours. (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian)

Say nothing of him that indicates or implies that he is any less God than the Father is God: and say nothing of him that indicates or implies that he is any less human than we ourselves are—except that he is not a sinner, as we are. (Council of Chalcedon, 451 A.D., paraphrase)

I highly recommend Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, by Gerrit Scott Dawson. This book is a bit pricey (On Amazon for more than $100. On BookFinder, about $50.) at this time, but I believe every pastor should have it in their personal library. Local churches can buy the book for the pastor as a legitimate business expense.

The Life, Death, and Ascension of Jesus

A pastor’s journey into the glory of the ascension

By Bill Winn, Pastor of Grace Communion Hanover, Virginia

Nine years ago, I started coming to terms with my wrong-headed theology. I became ashamed of things I had believed and preached. Reading, like a man stranded on a desert island with only a library of Trinitarian thought to pass the time, I hungrily consumed every book I could get my hands on that focused on the Triune nature of God as the starting point for Trinitarian theology.

I learned that nothing is more central to the Christian message than the news that Jesus has brought humanity into objective union with the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit, before creation, determined that the life they share in unfettered mutual other-centeredness would be shared with you, and with me, and with the entire human race. How raucous should be the celebration of our Inclusion!

This became clear when I began to see the importance of the life, death, and ascension of Jesus in a new light. I let go of the penal substitutionary atonement theory. I no longer saw God the Father as killing Jesus so he wouldn’t have to kill me. “Jesus is not the only one who loves me!” I thought. “The Father and the Holy Spirit love me, too!” I came to understand that inside the life, death, and ascension of Jesus—what we call his finished work—the dream of the Father to have mankind in union with the Godhead was accomplished.

Do you see it? Do you see the startling beauty of the purpose and plan of God for humanity? The life, death, and ascension of Jesus are towering over historical humanity from the very beginning beckoning us to wake up and see the beauty of our inclusion into the life of God. We are called to live in it, love in it, laugh and play in it. We are summoned to belief so we might taste and see that the Lord is good—so good that there is nothing you can do to change God’s disposition toward you. There is nothing you can do to make the Father, Son, and Spirit love you more or less. God already loves you with 100% of his being! All that you needed to fit and be adopted into the life of God has already been accomplished in the life, death, and ascension of Jesus.

I hope I have not agitated anyone too much. I left out the word resurrection to make the point that we ought to be equally alarmed when we hear people talk about the “life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.” We must never forget how important to us is his ascension—an event we have ignored for far too long. In the Ascension you and I and all of humanity have been seated with Jesus at the right hand of the Father. In the Ascension we have all gone home! We are with the Triune God both here in our present condition and at the same time seated at the throne of God. We need not divide Jesus to such an extent that we focus on one part of him or his ministry to the detriment of others, but this year during Ascension week let us be especially thankful that Jesus has brought us all home in his on-going Incarnation!

Up, Up and Away with Jesus

A brief study of Jesus’ ascension

By James Henderson, Superintendent of Europe

Remember the song, “Up, Up and Away”? The lyrics said, “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon… For we can fly, we can fly.”

When the 5th Dimension released the song in 1967, it captured the dreams of many people. If only we could get away from it all; if only we could fly, we might float above life’s problems.

Let’s take off in our hot air balloon. Let’s sail above the clouds. The world would look less ugly from such heights. It would seem a nicer place compared to when viewed up close and personal. It sounds like a great escape.

Jesus’ ascent to heaven, however, was not an escape to the heavens. It was not an attempt to get away from all his troubles; it was to bring us closer to God by sending the Holy Spirit. His plan is to be with us “always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

During the week before his crucifixion, we were constantly on Christ’s mind. He knew he would be killed, and he trusted that the Father would raise his body from the grave. He was less concerned about himself than he was about the disciples who would be left behind. And his thoughts were not just for the disciples alone: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). This is referring to us, we who would accept his grace in times to come.

“I will ask the Father,” Jesus explained, “and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you for ever… I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18). Even though this was a time of anguish for him, his desire was to comfort his followers.

“Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you,” Jesus continued,” but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). After the resurrection, the disciples thought he would stay on earth “to restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). They still had not understood what Jesus had said to them, that he would send “another” Advocate—or Counselor, as we read in some translations.

Then the day came when “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). Luke notes that Jesus was speaking words of comfort as he rose into the skies, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken into heaven” (Luke 24:51).

What was happening? And what relevance does the Ascension have for us?

The answers are found in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The Father “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:20). Paul’s emphasis is that we participate in his resurrection and ascension: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). With him we can soar above our earthly problems. There is “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you” and me (1 Peter 1:4).

Jesus had voiced his thoughts to the Father for our sake. He did not need to speak aloud because he and the Father are one, but he wanted us to know his prayer: “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). We are “shielded by God’s power” through faith until the Second Coming (1 Peter 1:5).

This power was invested in the promise of the Holy Spirit. After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised,” that they would be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

This same Spirit has been given to you and to me. The Spirit of Jesus dwells in us. Jesus has not left us. He has not abandoned us. Through the Spirit Jesus is here now, and we are with him eternally. That’s what the Ascension and Pentecost tell us.

Jesus went up, up and away into the heavens, but he did not leave us.

Ministry Job Descriptions

People want to do a job well, but often don’t know what is expected of them. They don’t know what they don’t know. Clear descriptions of ministry roles give direction to fruitful ministry and mission.

By Heber Ticas, Superintendent of Latin America

At 27 years of age, I was a young man with a zeal for the Lord and a profound desire to serve Jesus and his Church. I had already been serving the church in children’s and youth ministry, and I was even given the opportunity to share the sermon from time to time. Then I was asked to become the assistant pastor of the congregation. We were only a group of forty to fifty people, but I was both thrilled and terrified. I loved the opportunity to serve with the Lord in another dimension, but I was intimidated by the role. To make matters worse, I was commissioned as assistant pastor, but the Sr. Pastor never provided me with a clear description of what my role entailed.

As one can imagine, this was a recipe for potential disaster. As time progressed, I was somewhat frustrated, but I tried to make the best of the situation. A few years later, the Pastor expressed his frustration towards me, communicating that he believed I was not executing my role. You get the idea. The lack of clear roles led to a lack in communication. That experience stuck with me and played itself out again later in my own pastoral ministry. This time, however, the shoe was on the other foot.

These experiences helped me better understand the dynamic of the relationship between the pastors and ministry leaders. Our GCI ministry model of Team Based Pastor Led informs us that a healthy pastor is a leader of leaders. Leading others to participate in team-based ministry requires a clear and concise understanding of ministry roles, hence the need for ministry descriptions. Throughout the years. I have made it a practice to write up a ministry description for each of the vital ministries in my congregation. Such descriptions clearly state the ministry purpose, the ministry strategy, and most importantly, the ministry leader’s role.

You may recall Jesus’ sending of the twelve. He did not give them participation in his ministry without clear instructions of what they were to do. It was clear that they were going in the power of the Spirit, with the authority of the Son, to proclaim the kingdom, to cast out demons and to heal the sick. According to Matthew’s account, Jesus clearly stated where they would go. I believe that Jesus provides us the ultimate model of leadership. As leaders of leaders, it is vital that we bring clarity to the roles of the leaders we are inviting to participate with us in ministry. Our participation in community (team-based) requires us to be responsible and accountable to one another.

Here are some benefits that I have seen in preparing ministry descriptions for my ministry leaders:

  • It provides clarity for both the pastor and the ministry leader.
  • It gives the pastor an opportunity to clearly define the expectations for the ministry and the leader.
  • It affords the pastor an opportunity to lead from a place of mutual understanding and unity.
  • It cultivates ministry harmony and relational harmony where Team Based Pastor Led can be experienced.
  • It keeps leaders accountable to their role and responsibility.
  • It allows for the pastor to “call up” ministry leaders when they are not fulfilling their roles.

Because our passions and gifting are different, ministry descriptions may also differ. It is crucial that the articulation of ministry description occur in collaboration with the ministry leader. When putting together the descriptions, one may also want to consider the following:

  • Be true to values, vision, and mission.
  • Be sure that ministry alignment is considered.
  • Be careful that you are not creating silos. You may want to share the different ministry descriptions with the whole team.
  • All ministry descriptions should be flexible.
  • Be careful not to stifle giftedness and creativity.
  • Always consider leadership multiplication as a role of every leader.
  • It is a good practice to review ministry descriptions on a yearly basis with the ministry leader.

This practice has helped me immensely in creating direction for the functioning ministries in our congregation. When ministry alignment occurs, and leaders are leading from a place of clarity, misunderstandings are minimized, and relational unity occurs. Team Based Pastor Led becomes a reality and ministry flows with a lot more ease.

click here to download sample job descriptions 

Updated GCI Font

Our denominational branding helps maintain visual alignment and creates connection across our international fellowship. We have updated the GCI font. Here are the instructions to update the font file, along with the new font files.  For more information on GCI branding visit our resources site. 

download instructions download font files

Church Hacks 002 | What is First Impression Ministry?

The First Impression Ministry is dedicated to welcoming guests and visitors; engaging to share the love of Christ and create a safe space. The ministry also includes a strategy for getting guest's information to continually connect back. Watch the video to learn the key elements and best practices of a First Impressions Ministry.

Introduction to Gospel Reverb

Video Transcript

We are excited to introduce our new preaching podcast, Gospel Reverb. In each episode, host Anthony Mullins and a guest host, will unpack the RCL pericopes for the month ahead. You won’t want to miss these conversations. We believe Christ centered and gospel shaped preaching has the power to transform lives. Check out this introduction, and keep an eye out for the first episode dropping in June.

We are excited to introduce our new preaching podcast, Gospel Reverb.

In each episode, host Anthony Mullins and a guest host, will unpack the RCL pericopes for the month ahead. You won’t want to miss these conversations. We believe Christ centered and gospel shaped preaching has the power to transform lives. Check out this introduction, and keep an eye out for the first episode dropping in June.

Sermon for June 7, 2020—Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8:1-9 • Genesis 1:1-2:4a • 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 • Matthew 28:16-20

This week’s theme is the Triune purpose for creation. In Genesis we revisit the story of creation as a witness to the God of Israel for all the world. Psalm 8 considers the creative works of God and his glorious intentions for humans. The Gospel of Matthew records Jesus’ instructions to carry the witness of the Triune God into all creation. In 2 Corinthians Paul encourages believers to strive towards the wholeness of peace and love found in the life of the Trinity.

The End of the Line

Genesis 1:1-2:4 NRSV

Have you seen Disney’s remake of The Lion King? There’s a conversation in the movie that sets up nicely what is going on in our passage of Genesis 1 today. Simba, the lion cub, has a conversation with Timon and Pumbaa, a meerkat and warthog, where a clash of worldviews ensues. Simba was taught and believed in a worldview captured by the catchy tune “The Circle of Life.” For Simba this worldview understands everything being connected through a cycle of life where everyone plays their part. When he refers to this “circle” worldview, he is quickly corrected by his new acquaintances, who tell him that “it’s no circle…It’s a line. It’s a meaningless line of indifference.” They go on to say that “we’re all just running towards the end of the line. And then one day we’ll reach the end, and that’ll be it.” This worldview gives them permission to live their carefree lifestyle with little thought of how it affects others. Or as Timon puts it, “And you can really just kinda…do your own thing and fend for yourself.” Their worldview is captured in the singalong tune of “Hakuna Matata (No Worries).” I’ll try not to give anything away in the movie if you haven’t seen it, but I will give you a spoiler alert for this sermon. Neither worldview is biblical. And that brings us to our passage in Genesis 1.

Although the Book of Genesis opens with “In the beginning…,” if we want to understand the book best, we are better served to start somewhere else. Stay with me on this. First, we begin with Jesus. Jesus is God’s self-revelation to us. It’s only in this light that we can see more clearly what is going on in the Old Testament and specifically in Genesis. So, we must begin with the New Testament’s witness of Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior and the only Son of the Father. This is the truest “Beginning” that Genesis springs from. It’s from this self-revelation in Jesus that we come to know Who the Creator is. (In this way our text is not excluded from Trinity Sunday as a fitting text.) Although Genesis 1 does not mention Father, Son or Spirit in any Trinitarian formulation, we are to read the creation account knowing that it is the same Triune God we see in the New Testament who is calling all things into existence. This will become even more apparent as we see the relational intent put on display in the creation story. Also, it turns out the Genesis creation account is aimed at the same question of Who the Creator is rather than How the Creator created. This is an important distinction and starting place to read Genesis 1. Knowing who the Creator is will be far more important than knowing how he created. The next starting point for Genesis 1 again is not in the book of Genesis. It’s in the book of Exodus. Stay with me one more time and I think this will help us approach the book of Genesis more fruitfully.

The Book of Genesis is traditionally understood to have been written by Moses. Moses had a reason for writing the book and he had a reason for why he told the creation story the way he told it. Keep in mind that Moses is not an eyewitness of creation. No human is. You can’t witness your own creation. (Interesting side note: Have you noticed that there is no eyewitness account of the Resurrection of Jesus? There are witnesses of seeing Jesus after his resurrection, but no one sees or records directly the event of the Resurrection. The Resurrection is the beginning of the new creation. There is a parallel in how the story of creation and the story of the resurrection are told. For starters, they both take place in a garden.)

But back to Moses. The Book of Exodus is the story of Israel’s experience with Yahweh. God is revealing himself to Israel and by so doing, setting up a witness for all the world. Moses and all Israel emerge from this experience of the Lord with a new worldview. And that brings us to why Moses was writing the Genesis creation story. Like Simba and his carefree friends, Moses and the surrounding nations had opposing worldviews about who God is and what it means to exist. So, Moses is writing in story form about the God of Israel who revealed himself to be Creator of all things.

Since Moses is writing out of his experience with the God of Israel, we will see certain motifs emerge in the Genesis story that reflect this experience. For example, the Tabernacle was the place for Israel where God’s presence resided. In Genesis, it’s the Garden of Eden where God’s presence is found. Some interesting details emerge in those long laborious chapters that describe the furnishings and decorations of the Tabernacle. The construction of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, have woven into it many of the same images of life found in the creation story. Even the way the construction of the Tabernacle is recorded parallels the telling of God creating the Earth. Both the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle are full of images of rivers and trees that convey a fruitful and abundant life that exist in God’s presence. The lampstand just outside the Holy of Holies was crafted to resemble a tree with seven branches bearing almond blossoms. This might remind you of another tree that stood in the center of the Garden. Or the description of “the whole land of Havila, where there is gold.” are reflected in the gold covered furnishings and precious stones used in the Tabernacle and Temple. Moses is writing the story of creation to bear witness to the surrounding nations of who God has revealed himself to be. God told Moses exactly how to construct and design the Tabernacle, and that gets reflected in the way the creation story unfolds.

Those who are interested the parallels between the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle and Temple may want to consult the book, God Dwells Among Us, by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim.

When Moses wrote Genesis, he was presenting a worldview very different from his neighbors. The common worldview of the time was more similar to the “Circle of Life” worldview presented in The Lion King. Without the direct revelation God had given Israel, the rest of the world formulated their own views based on observing nature. They noticed everything seemed to work in cycles. The sun rose, set and rose again. Same for the moon and stars. Seasons were predictable cycles and even fertility cycles came to inform their worldview. As a result, life was just an endless cycle without meaning. Like the Lion King, there was no escaping the cycle. If you were born king, then you were top of the food chain. If you were born into slavery (think of Israel here) then that was your identity and there was no changing it. Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt was a brand-new event that had never been seen on the stage of history. We may be accustomed now to stories of revolution where the underdog comes out on top, but that was an unheard-of way of thinking before God’s interaction with Israel. No wonder the surrounding nations took note of Israel when they came close to their borders.

Another conflicting worldview was polytheism. The belief in many gods was the established way of life. There were various creation stories floating around before Moses wrote Genesis, but none them credited all creation to ONE God in the way that Genesis does. That was a laughable idea at the time. If you were to compare the common creation stories circulating in Moses’ time, it would be clear that Moses was writing to counter some of these prevailing ways of thinking about creation. Take for example Egypt’s many gods that were worshiped. Israel’s experience of being delivered from these gods established for them that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was the only God and therefore was the creator and not Ra, the Sun God as the Egyptians believed. Imagine an Egyptian reading “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” Moses could have written, “My God beat up your gods!” But he went way further and said in essence, “My God created your gods.”

That’s a lot of background for our text today and more could be said. But hopefully this will give us a better orientation of how to read the creation story. From the reading of the story, we can see a reality of existence, a worldview emerging that is consistent with God’s revelation to Israel through his history with them. Many observations can be pursued from this chapter and I would encourage you to spend time delving more deeply in the account. There is much we can learn about who God is in the story of Creation. But for this sermon we will zero in on one major point.

God creates with an end purpose in mind.

This is the opposing worldview not shared by Israel’s neighbors. God is not arbitrary in his creating nor does he stand opposed to it. He is not against his own creation; he is actively involved in it and he has a purpose in mind. In one way, Timon and Pumbaa are right to picture life as a line instead of a circle. Only, they arrive with the same conclusion of seeing life as meaningless that came from seeing life as an endless repetitive and unbreakable cycle. Timon and Pumbaa arrived at their conclusion that life is “It’s a meaningless line of indifference,” because of their understanding of what awaits at the “end of the line.” For them, the end of the line was it. Life was over.

The Genesis creation story has a very different end of the line in view. Our passage today recounts the days of creation, which include the seventh day, of rest. This is the end of the line in God’s creation. This is where all creation is headed. The telling of the story of creation has purpose and intentionality woven all the way through. God marks out days that add up to a week. This is not based on a natural cycle, but one that is defined by God. The marking of time has been established. There is a calendar. There is history. We can thank Israel and her struggle with Yahweh for both. Israel should have been stuck in the cycle of slavery but God called them out and made a people out of a non-people. They were called for a purpose and a future hope that God would bring into being. They were a people going somewhere. All creation is going somewhere. God is recorded as intentionally bringing order and structure out of chaos. He is forming and filling his creation for fruitfulness. And let’s not miss the repetitive pronouncement each step of the way that all of this was “good.” God speaking his creation into existence is “good.”

We are made to respond to God’s Word. We are made for relationship with him and each other. Notice how the account records God separating and naming in his acts of creating. Instead of some meaningless blob of matter, God has made distinctions in his creation where relationships exist. Day and night, land and sea. All this is good and culminates into the pronouncement of “very good” with the creation of humans as male and female. Without these distinctions, there would be no relationship and no meaning. This story is anything but a meaningless line of indifference.

This intentional creating of relationships sets up the “end of the line” of the seventh day of creation. The blessing of rest in God’s presence. All creation is headed to this end point, this goal: to enjoy and be at rest in God’s presence, where there is blessing and wholeness. The end of the line is Eden, the Tabernacle and the Temple and the Sabbath. This is the appointed place where God’s presence fills the earth and brings forth fruit. Very good fruit.

But let’s not pull up short before we close. To more fully understand the “end of the line,” we must return to the New Testament and gather up all that has taken place before. Eden, the Tabernacle, the Temple and the Sabbath rest all reach their fullness in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Garden paradise where we walk in the coolness of the day with the Father. Jesus is the Tabernacle and the Temple, and he is our Sabbath Rest. In short, Jesus is the end of the line for all creation and he lives in us through the Holy Spirit. The Father did not send Jesus to restore Eden. Eden was just the beginning. The Father sent his Son to restore us, giving us a place of rest, blessing and wholeness in his own Son where there is abundant life forevermore.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Speaking of Life Questions
  1. Ponder and discuss together the understanding that God created everything “out of nothing.” What can we glean from this teaching? Share how this might increase your faith in God working in the “nothingness” of your own life.
  2. What did you think about the idea that God “Makes a big deal out of something seemingly insignificant” when talking about humans? Do you see the eternal infinite God make a big deal over you? Why or why not?
Sermon Questions
  1. What are your thoughts about the two worldviews represented in the Lion King as the “Circle of Life” and “The End of the Line”? Where do you see these worldviews expressed in our culture today?
  2. Does reading the Genesis creation story by starting with Exodus make a difference in how you understand it? How does it change your reading of it in light of Jesus and the New Testament? How does starting with God’s identity inform how we read and understand God’s act of creation? Discuss your thoughts on these approaches to reading Genesis 1.
  3. What did you think of the comparisons between the Garden of Eden and the Tabernacle and Temple? Can you think of more parallels? What was a main sticking point for you from this discussion?
  4. How did it strike you to view creation with an end purpose in mind? Does this challenge your worldview in any way? How does seeing creation as a beginning point that moves to a goal affect how you view living in the present?

Sermon for June 14, 2020

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 • Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 • Romans 5:1-8 • Matthew 9:35-10:8

This week the theme is God’s wild romance. Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 is the song of someone who has been lavishly blessed by God’s generosity. Romans 5 talks about God’s preemptive love that reached us while we were still sinners. Matthew 9 and 10 tell about Jesus sending out his disciples with the message of God’s love. Our sermon is from Genesis 18 and 21, which tell us the beginning of the story. The three strangers come to visit Abraham and Sarah and reiterate the promise of a dynasty from Abraham. Sarah’s scoffing laughter that eventually becomes joyful laughter tells us that God’s love is creative, joyful, unstoppable and wild.

The Laughter Promise

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 ESV

We advise beginning with reading Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

Have you ever laughed inappropriately? Or not been able to control your laughter at exactly the wrong moment? Have you ever been the only one in the room laughing at a joke that no one else got? Is there something that always makes you laugh?

Share a story here about a time when laughter got you into trouble. Depending on the size of your fellowship, this could be a fun conversation, too.

There’s not a person on earth who hasn’t laughed at the wrong time, giggled in a solemn moment, or guffawed themselves into tears no matter how embarrassing. Nineteenth century thinker William Osler said it well: “Laughter is the music of life.” It’s a music we can all hear and relate to.

Our passage today concerns laughter. Genesis 18 and 21 tell the story of a strange visit in Abraham’s life, an equally strange promise, the laughter that followed, and the even greater laughter that followed after that.

Does anyone remember the song “Father Abraham”? (…had many sons! I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord …). Forgive the gender-biased language; it’s an older song. But it expresses a great truth of our faith. Humanity lost the connection with God through sin at the fall, and God worked that connection back into place through thousands of years to finally bring us Jesus.

Abraham is the beginning of that lineage—Jesus’ great-great-lotsa-greats grandfather. And hence, in the family of faith, he is the spiritual father of all who call themselves Christians.

So, sing with me, Father Abraham…

Let’s look at this awesome story of faith today, the very beginning of the lineage of Jesus. We start in the semi-arid area of the Oaks of Mamre, which is a fascinating contrast to where the story of humanity started, in a garden!

But we’re in the desert and a very old man and his elderly wife are living there, and apparently doing fairly well. They and their family and servants are nomads. Let’s look at our passage in verse 1:

And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. (Genesis 18:1 ESV)

The heat of the day was siesta time. It was too hot to do anything but rest. It was a time of day when there wasn’t the distraction of work or activity. Just them, listening to the wind batter the tent, and perhaps wondering what in the world God was up to.

It seems that God often meets us when we have nothing to do. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of great nations, but that was years before, and now he and his wife’s bodies were well beyond being capable of having children.

Reading on…

He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them. (Genesis 18:2 ESV)

Let’s not jump to pick apart every word here. Hospitality was vitally important in that society, but not without self-interest. A traveler meant trading goods, or news from far away, or at least some kind of companionship.

The way Abraham greets them would have been very typical.

When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant. (Genesis 17:2-5 ESV)

This was common. Hospitality was a matter of survival for the host and the guest (as opposed to today, when there’s more than enough to go around and we don’t know how to share).

What’s interesting is what Abraham offers them at first: a good foot-washing, some rest and a bit of bread. Commentators don’t know what to make of this exactly. It could be that Abraham is just doing the standard greeting for passers-by.

The progression of how he hosts them is interesting. Look at the following verses:

And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. (Genesis 18:6-8 ESV)

It was decades previously that God took Abraham out under the stars and told him his descendants would outnumber even these. The promise has been held out in front of him and Sarah several times now, to the point they eventually tried to help God, and thus Ishmael was born.

And now on this random day in the desert place, God shows up. Abraham feels an old lightning strike in his heart, something in his brain quickens.

Isn’t this how God comes to us sometimes? Someone comes out of nowhere, and you suddenly realize God is speaking. We ask for God’s guidance or reassurance and then, in an otherwise humdrum exchange, God answers our prayer.

God often comes to us dressed up as our lives. People, relationships, circumstances—pay attention! Don’t expect him to just come to you in church when you’re being “churchy.” He plays in every frequency and can speak through anyone.

One of the most famous stories of this is Saint Augustine. He became one of the most important theologians in church history, but he started as a spoiled rich kid who took part in cults and had a famous appetite for women.

He eventually became acutely aware of his sin and was in tears wondering if he would ever be delivered from it. He was crying one day in a garden and heard a child singing the lyrics: “Take up and read; take up and read.” He picked up a Bible and read a passage in Romans:

Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:13-14 ESV)

God called him out of his old life and into holiness. He dropped everything and went on to become one of the great minds of the church. All because he heard a child – or an angel, or both – speaking to him from over a wall.

If you have kids, you know that God can speak to you even through them. Their wonder in life and their undefeated joy is an echo of heaven you can hear if you’re listening. But even more mundane: just an encouraging word from someone or a reminder of God’s promises.

You probably won’t notice right away, but it may become apparent to you that the voice speaking to you is not just that of a friend, or even an obnoxious coworker or a total stranger, but that God himself is answering your prayer or showing you direction.

It’s all about how you respond, and how quickly. Abraham goes from a polite greeting, to hosting, to putting out a feast for these messengers of God. And, more than likely, he was hosting Christ himself, although the commentators are still out on that one!

Even the challenging people in our lives, or the needy people we meet, can be a conduit of God’s love and life. Mother Theresa said it well: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself; this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”

But how do we react?

Often, we have the reaction of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. They’ve both been promised a few times now that they will be the parents of a great lineage, and nothing has happened. They’ve gotten older, they’ve even tried to hotwire the process with disastrous results, and still there’s no baby. Just the desert wind and the waiting.

So when these three men walk out of nowhere and make promises, she reacts like most of us would:

They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” The Lord said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Genesis 18:9-12 ESV)

Sarah laughed. In these completely understandable circumstances, she gave a tired, cynical chuckle. Who wouldn’t? Her body is way past birthing age, and, to put it lightly, her and Abraham’s love life consists more of moonlit walks than anything else at this point. A child? Yeah, right!

But it happens. A son, Isaac, is born to them within a year. The promise was delivered (pun intended). We love her reaction:

Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. And Sarah said, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me.” (Genesis 21:1-6 ESV)

That’s a classy lady. She’d heard the promise of God and laughed – first with skepticism, but now with joy. When the promise finally came true, she named him “Laughter.” The name Isaac is close to the Hebrew word for laughter: “Yitzak,” which is like the sound of laughter itself.

And so we have the laughter promise. God walks out of the middle of the desert and speaks promise to them. Abraham reacts with faith; Sarah reacts with cynicism. But even Sarah eventually reacts with faith and memorializes the memory in the name of her son. This is the way the lineage of Jesus started—with a promise out of nowhere and laughter. With a promise that came after their disastrous attempts to make the promise come true on their own, after their faith was long gone. The God of laughter was faithful.

So, what do we learn from this strange conversation?

  • Listen close – You never know what creative, counter-intuitive way that God will speak to you and answer your prayers. Pay attention. Don’t write off anyone or any circumstance. One of the most successful pastors in the Washington DC area, Lon Solomon, was converted by a mentally ill street preacher who used to scream the gospel at people. He had only one convert, Lon, who went on to lead thousands upon thousands to Christ.
  • Learn from your laughter. Is there a promise you’re waiting on? Is there somewhere you are laughing at God? Can you look back and see a time that he fulfilled a promise you never thought would come through: a relationship restored, an addiction healed, a marriage resurrected? Where are the “laughter promises” in your past? How can they encourage you today?
  • Laugh often. I’m not talking about the cynical, burned out laughter, but the laughter that caused Sarah to name her boy, Laughter – Yitzak. The celebration of the laughter promise—that blessing that came when all seemed lost and the desert had taken the day.

May the God of laughter promises fill you with his plot-twisting, 11th hour joy today, and may you pass it on to someone else! Listen close!


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “The Roots of Promise” - Watch video to start
  • We talked about how our faith is rooted in history. What difference does that make? Does that differentiate our faith from maybe a lifestyle or a philosophy?
  • We’ve all seen God use imperfect people and imperfect movements to bring about his purposes. Abraham is a prime example. Has God used unlikely means to reach you in your life and change your life? Has he spoken through someone you thought he’d never use?
Questions for the sermon: “The Laughter Promise” - Read Genesis 18:1-5, 21:1-7
  • We talked in the sermon about laughter. Have you ever laughed at the wrong time? What does your laugh say about you?
  • Pope Francis, leader of the Catholic church, said, “When we welcome the stranger, we welcome Christ.” Is that true in your experience? What role does hospitality play in worship and in your life as a Christian?
  • Abraham seems to know this visit is unique (see Genesis 18:6-8). Have you been in that situation where you slowly realized that God was addressing you—answering a prayer or reassuring or redirecting you?
  • Sarah’s reaction of laughter is perhaps understandable. It’s interesting, though, that she named her son Isaac, which is similar to the Hebrew word for “laughter.” She took an embarrassing lesson and made it a turning point in her life, even memorialized it in naming her son. Have you ever done that? Have you seen God speaking to you through unlikely circumstances and made that memory into a symbol like Isaac’s name?
Quote to ponder: “Sarah and her husband had had plenty of hard knocks in their time, and there were plenty more of them still to come, but at that moment when the angel told them they'd better start dipping into their old-age pensions for cash to build a nursery, the reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they'd ever had hadn't been half wild enough.” —Frederick Buechner

Sermon for June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21 • Psalm 86:1-10,16-17 • Romans 6:1b-11 • Matthew 10:24-39

The theme for this week is “we are never alone in our suffering.” In Genesis 21, we read the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and our sermon outline titled “When You Suffer, I Suffer,” develops the idea of how our choices affect others and affirms God’s transforming presence in the middle of suffering. Psalm 86 illustrates our response to suffering. Jeremiah 20 and Psalm 69 remind us how we might blame God for our suffering even when we are believers. Romans 6 talks about how suffering is universal and how it can be transformative. Lastly, Matthew 10 asserts that we are never alone when we suffer, and that God is willing to suffer with us.

When You Suffer, I Suffer

Genesis 21:8-21

Have you ever felt alone? Truly alone? One of the things that broke my heart these past several months was thinking about people suffering from Covid-19 in quarantine. Because of the pandemic policies, people were not allowed to visit their loved ones in hospital. A friend of mine told me the most difficult thing she ever did was take her husband to the hospital with chest pains and difficulty breathing and then be told she could not stay with him. She wasn’t even allowed to go in and fill out the paperwork for him. She said the drive home was one of the toughest trips she has ever been on. Many who died from Covid-19 died without their loved ones near them. I can only imagine the feelings of loneliness.

Loneliness hits all of us time to time. Sometimes that loneliness is inflicted on us by others. And sometimes the loneliness we feel is based on a lie.

There is a story in Genesis about loneliness that tells an amazing truth about God that all of us will benefit from. It’s the story of Ishmael and Hagar feeling alone. Some of their loneliness was inflicted by others, and some of their loneliness was based on the lie that God was not with them.

As you may recall, when Abraham was told he would be the father of many nations, and yet he was without a son, Abraham and Sarah believed they had to help God out. Sarah knew she was too old to have a child, so she told Abraham to conceive a child through a relationship with her servant, Hagar. As a result, Ishmael was born, and from their perspective, this helped fulfill the promise God made to them.

Of course, God did not need their help and he did not ask them to take matters into their own hands. God’s promise was fulfilled in the birth of Isaac, approximately 14 years later.

This brings us to today’s text:

The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:8-10)

We take things into our own hands, we try to do things our way in a false notion that we are helping God or doing God a favor, then we get upset with the results. Earlier in Genesis we read about a rift between Sarah and Hagar while Hagar was still pregnant. Sarah became jealous and started mistreating Harar. Hagar ran away and God intervened and told her to go back. He also told Hagar her sons would be too numerous to count.

We don’t know what relationship Sarah had with Ishmael, but what we do know is that after Sarah had her own son, she saw Ishmael as a threat and wanted him out of the picture. Abraham was upset. After all, Ishmael was still his son.

The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:11-13)

Here God repeats the promise about Ishmael. He will be a great nation. We know this to be true. The Arabic people are descendants of Ishmael, and Muslims call Abraham their father. We are connected through the same father Abraham.

Remember the song? “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord.”

Imagine if we all did that. One day we will.

Let’s continue:

Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. (Genesis 21:14-16)

One can only imagine how alone Hagar felt. Outcast from what she knew as home, rejected by the father of her son, she believed she had been sent to die. She believed the lie that she was alone, and she failed to remember the promise God had given her about her son. She didn’t see a way out of her present circumstances. She left Ishmael under a bush. He was about 14, so either he was wilted and couldn’t go any further, or she told him to stay out of the sun while she went to get water. Either way, she went just far enough so he could not see or hear her, and she sat down to die. But God was not done with her, or with Ishmael.

God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt. (Genesis 21:17-21)

Other translations say God heard the boy’s voice. As a son of Abraham, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he was praying; and God heard his prayers and intervened. God provided water and a way out. Ishmael became an archer and he was given a wife from Egypt. The only other references to him are when Abraham died and Ishmael helped bury his father, Esau married a descendant of Ishmael, Joseph was sold to Ishmaelite traders, and Ishmaelites are mentioned a few times.

So what is the purpose of the story? Here are a few observations:

  • The choices made by Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar not only affected all those involved plus their children, they also affected many generations to follow.
  • God didn’t reject Abraham and Sarah for doing things their own way. Instead, he made provision for Hagar and for Ishmael. As a result, we are interconnected with far more people than we ever imagined. One day the brothers will be reconciled in Christ.
  • God’s promises will come to pass—even if they don’t make sense to us or seem impossible.
    • Abraham was 86 when he fathered Ishmael. He was 100 when he fathered Isaac.
    • Sarah was well past child-bearing age when Ishmael was born, and it was another 14 years until Isaac was born.
    • Hagar thought she was going to die in the desert, but God provided a well full of water.
    • Though rejected and disinherited, Ishmael still became a great nation because of the promise God made to Abraham.

These are important observations, but I think the biggest lesson to this story is that we are never alone. Now, you might wonder how I got that. In one sense, no human is ever alone. God has made us for a purpose. But that does not mean that we can throw women and children into the desert, or abandon them in some other way, and expect God to do a miracle to help them out. God has not promised that no one will ever die of dehydration or malnutrition. Even believers can die in the desert.

But still, we are never alone. God has made promises to us—exceedingly great and precious promises, the New Testament says – and he will complete the work he has begun in us. He will not abandon us. Even though we walk into the valley of death, he promises to bring us out on the other side. He will be with us at every step, even if he does not intervene for us in the way we might want him to. He has already intervened for us in the person of Jesus Christ, and that’s what counts in the end. We will die, but we will also live with Christ.

Application:

  • You are never truly alone. God is always with us in the person of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. God’s promise is true:

Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid; What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

  • Suffering is a part of human existence because we can make choices both good and bad. But God’s promises are not dependent upon our choices. He is with us when we choose well; he is with us when we choose poorly. He does not turn his back on us or reject us when we do things our way. Like Abraham, we pay the consequences of our choices, but the consequence never includes God forsaking us.
  • God shows up in our suffering and bears it with us, even if the suffering is not taken away. Jesus suffered, and while God did not directly intervene to stop it, the divine presence was with Jesus throughout the crucifixion and the Father experienced the suffering with him. Jesus was never alone—even while taking the sins of the world upon himself, he was not alone. God would not and could not reject him or turn away. He didn’t with Jesus; he won’t with us.

Small Group Discussion Questions

  • Can you relate to the video’s idea that we all hate suffering and pain? The video talks about hating to go to the dentist. What silly (or not so silly) suffering do you hate?
  • Our choices have consequences. Have you ever believed your choice took you out of God’s grace? Do you see that is a lie? Explain why our choices cannot take us out of God’s hands or away from his love.
  • Our natural reaction to suffering is to pray, whether for ourselves or others. What benefit do you see in praying about our suffering, whether it is big or small?
  • The scripture passage in Genesis 21 telling the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar sounds like a love-triangle movie plot on TV. In this story, we can see how our choices affect each other. Can you share an experience you had or witnessed where someone’s choice negatively affected another person?
  • Sometimes people think that if God doesn’t intervene directly in their situation to alleviate suffering, God doesn’t love them, or they are being punished. How can we combat this type of wrong thinking about God and suffering? What strategies can we use to help?

Sermon for June 28, 2020

Video Transcript

Speaking of Life 2031 | I’m Ready, My Lord Greg Williams “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name Vilified, crucified, in the human frame A million candles burning for the help that never came You want it darker, we kill the flame. Hineni, hineni I'm ready, my Lord” With characteristic enigmatic intensity, Jewish singer Leonard Cohen penned these lyrics to his classic “You Want it Darker.” Just like the lyrics, the music is creeping, murky, and beautiful in its own dark way. The repeated refrain “hineni, hineni” is an extremely powerful Hebrew word. It means “here I am.” One of the most famous places it appears is right before the story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac in Genesis 22: After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” Genesis 22:1 (ESV) Hineni means: “I’m fully here. At your disposal. I’m ready, my Lord.” It’s the same phrase that Moses says to the burning bush, and that Isaiah screams into the strange vision he has of God’s presence: “Here am I, send me!” Hineni Hineni –– I’m ready, my Lord. When he was asked about this in an interview, Cohen called the lyric, “That declaration of readiness, no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul.” It’s the impulse in us that says we are ready, and available, for whatever God would require of us. Is this our answer to when God calls us out of ourselves and into change, into his transforming story? Or are we in the habit of just showing up? Do we just drop our leftovers in the offering plate and mutter a few words of worship, just “pay and pray”? Or are we fully there? Are we fully present when God asks us to go to the next adventure with him? Abraham was called to father nations at the mature age of 100; Moses was called out of his comfortable life as a shepherd; Isaiah was called to speak a prophetic word to unhearing people; and Mary the young teenage girl was called to bring the Messiah into the world.  These heroes of the faith, after a few decades of trial and error, were finally ready (hineni) and they walked with a trust that God would provide and take care of them, knowing they didn’t have to trust in themselves anymore. May we all be ready to say, with all of ourselves, hineni, hineni. I’m ready, my Lord. I’m Greg Williams, reminding you to be fully ready when the Lord calls.  

Psalm 13:1-6 • Genesis 22:1-14 • Romans 6:12-23 • Matthew 10:40-42

Our theme for this week is God working within our story. We see God working in the messy, imperfect world and the flawed human beings that live in it. Psalm 13 is a lament and then a restoration of faith that God will work within the circumstances, no matter how painful. Romans 6 talks about God working within us, with our diseased souls and bodies, to bring about health and wholeness. Matthew 10 tells about the humble story of Jesus sending out disciples—broken people among broken people—to speak the most important message in human history. Our sermon, “Here I am, Lord” is on the painful story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. Even when circumstances seem the bleakest and most dysfunctional, God hasn’t left the building.

Here I am, Lord

Genesis 22:1-14 ESV

Read or have someone read Genesis 22:1-14.

After reading this passage we might say, as Peter said in John 6, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” This story is famously difficult to interpret well and has been used by many opponents of faith as ammunition.

From one angle, this looks like horrible child abuse on the part of Abraham—to sacrifice your own flesh and blood? To murder the vehicle of God’s great promise?

From another angle, it looks like horrible abuse on the part of God—to test someone you claim to love? To string Abraham out in decades of promises only to ask him to snuff out their fulfillment? To ask Abraham to present the sacrifice of a human being, something God promised he would never ask for? Was God really just another of the bloodthirsty idols of the surrounding countries?

There is no water-tight, airtight way to read this passage, and I won’t claim to have that skeleton key on me. It is indeed a “hard saying,” and the Bible would be easier to read without stories like this one.

…or Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden.
…or those who didn’t make it into the ark.
…or the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
…or the children whose deaths are described in the Psalms.
…or the family of Job in a collapsing house.
…or the Israelites dying in their desert wandering.
…or Jesus on the cross.

The story of Abraham and Isaac isn’t the only hard saying in Scripture. It is perhaps one of the hardest, but there is no shortage of moral impasses, theological enigmas and confusing stories. Anybody who takes Scripture and ties it for you neatly with a bow will probably also sell you beachfront property in middle of the desert!

These are difficult issues in Scripture, and to smooth them out too easily is to do a disservice to God’s word. The issues can seem unfair. The stories can seem strange, the circumstances unfair, and the people seem forsaken.

…and so can life.

Abraham, Jesus’ great-times-great grandfather, is about to kill his own son. This is the heritage Jesus started in; these are people Jesus descended from. He came at the end of a long, tattered, dysfunctional bloodline into a confusing, brutal world.

Jesus came into this difficult world in which some of the stories, like Abraham and Isaac, don’t resolve and remain painful mysteries. Jesus came into that world—the one where children die, marriages crumble, and addictions take some of the people we love.

This is the world in which he was conceived out of wedlock and born to a teenager in someone’s garage and placed in a cattle trough.

None of us has been asked to do what Abraham almost did to Isaac, but some of us have probably felt like we were asked something that painful. We’ve watched our children suffer and wished for nothing more than to take their place. We’ve wondered why God allows this all to keep going. The story of Jesus doesn’t shy away from this pain and ugliness.

The narrative itself is painful to read. It’s haltingly slow, drawing out every detail and grinding down to the seconds.

He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2 ESV)

There is ancient commentary on this verse that goes…

God said, “Take your son.”
And Abraham said, “I have two sons.”
He answered him, “Your only son.”
He said to him, “Each is the only son of his mother.”
God said, “The one whom you love.”
Abraham replied, “Is there any limit to a father’s love?”
God answered, “Isaac.”

See how drawn out that is? See how long it takes the conversation to happen? Then the details are excruciatingly slow after that: Abraham said to Isaac his son…Isaac said to Abraham his father…Abraham walked with his only son Isaac…and so on. It’s as if the narrator doesn’t want to tell the story.

There are plenty of modern commentators who reject this story. They refuse to preach on it or see it as undermining the story of Abraham or the Bible in general.

I can understand why some readers have difficulty with this story. It seems entirely out of place and character for the narrative, Abraham and God himself. Yet, at the same time, we don’t get to snip the parts out of the Bible––or life itself––that we don’t get or don’t like.

So, I’m not going to present to you a long theological treatise on this, nor am I going to act like I have the answer to it. But I believe we can still learn from it. It’s in the Scriptures, and therefore we need to reflect on it and learn from it.

One thing to bear in mind here is that Abraham’s family was surrounded by other tribes whose cults demanded human sacrifice. It seems completely heinous and crazy to us, but it wasn’t to them. They would have probably regularly seen other groups participating in this awful practice.

So, from one angle, we have God proving to Abraham once and for all definitively that he is NOT one of these pagan gods. Abraham couldn’t buy him off, like they did in the surrounding cults. The God of Israel, the one true God, is the one who sends a ram, the one who pulls back. God himself provides the sacrifice as a substitute. Even though everything in the world, and everyone in the world is his, he gives to the world.

Step back to the grander story. God could have killed the human race in the Garden of Eden, or at many times since then. He could have killed the promise right there on the altar, stopped the plan of salvation altogether, but instead he provided another way. He is the God who always provides a ram. When the flood waters came, he provided Noah. When the desert wanderings came, he provided Moses. When Israel rebelled, he provided the prophets. And in answer to all sin, he provided Jesus.

The other gods in our world of greed, addiction, and self-centeredness will always let you bring down that knife and commit murder. Selfishness has no bounds and sin’s appetite is bottomless.

Think of the ridiculous riches in the world. There’s the story of Michael Carrol, a teenage garbage man who won the lottery in 2002. He won the equivalent of $11 million (9 million pounds). He bought several houses and luxury cars to do crash-up derbies in his front yard. He spent the money on drugs, parties, women and everything he could get his hands on. In 2010, he reapplied for his job as a garbage man. Eight years and he spent a fortune. His greed and need knew no bounds, and nothing satisfied him.

That’s an embarrassing example, but what would many of us had done with $11 million? Especially at age 19? The bloodthirsty idols in our culture, not just ancient culture, would never “provide a ram.”

Next time you are tempted to give in to lust, unfettered greed, even just indulge your anger, think about the end result of these things. What is the fruit of giving into these gods? Where will that leave you and the rest of the world?

But back to Abraham. Back to the terrified father and his son ascending a mountain alone. If we zero in on Abraham himself, we see someone who has gone on a transformative journey.

We see a man who received a promise from God decades ago and tried to short-circuit that promise and take it into his own hands!

He tries to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister at one point and almost gets them both killed. He has a child with the maid and consequently starts a tribal feud that went on for centuries (between Isaac and Ishmael). He falls down laughing at God. His wife laughs at God. Throughout his life, Abraham is anything but consistent—he is self-protective and self-interested.

But look at how Abraham answers God’s call now at the beginning of this story:

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:1 ESV)

Abraham answers with a Hebrew word: “henini.” If you know classic rock, you may recognize this word from Leonard Cohen’s murky classic “You Want it Darker.” He sets a nightmarish mood with lyrics and creeping music and over and over repeats: “Henini Henini—I’m ready, my Lord.”

The song expresses the dark mood of this story well and the gut-level depth of this Hebrew word: “I’m ready—no part of me is held back, I’m at your disposal.” This is Abraham’s answer back to God. Abraham, the ever-evasive self-saver, the back-stabber, self-lover, God-mocker answers with: “I’m completely here, Lord, what do you need?”

What a change in Abraham! All the hardship and pain and greatness of his journey with God has changed him deeply. Then, through the plodding pace of the narrative, we see the depth of his transformation.

[Isaac] said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together. (Genesis 22:7-8 ESV)

Here we see the depth of Abraham’s change. He’s gone from the hustler who fixed things in his own terms to the man who trusts God, even when everything seems lost. Even when the whole world seems upside down—God will provide.

Abraham’s faith has so grown that he trusts God, even when God seems to be taking away his instrument of promise. God will provide. Abraham has made the transition from trusting in God’s gifts to trusting in God himself.

Henini—Here I am.

He also uses that Hebrew word again in a heart-breaking moment just before this:

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” (Genesis 22:7 ESV)

He uses the same word to his son: “I’m fully here. I’m at your disposal.” I would gladly replace you on that altar; I’m not here to preserve myself. We see the reckless love and trust that God has grown in Abraham. Instead of the cagey, proud patriarch he once was, we see him making himself fully available to his son. I’m right here son, completely.

This prefigures another person many centuries later, on another mountain, who also carried the wood on his back. Who said, “Not my will, but yours be done. I’m here, I’m at your disposal.” And that time the ram never came. The tragic sacrifice went all the way to its end, and the spear went in.

But we are released of that tension in this story:

Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Genesis 22:10-11 ESV)

Henini—Here I am. Here I am, and I’m ready. God provides the ram. Even this is a small tragic picture—a helpless animal caught in the brambles by his horns. It won’t be your pain today, Abraham, but there will be pain and helplessness and death, and that’s the world we live in. And yet at the same time it’s shot through with love, grace, trust, and God’s provision.

So 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.” (Genesis 22:14 ESV)

Abraham and Sarah, who both laughed at God, who called their son Isaac, which is a pun on the Hebrew word for laughter, now call this place where Abraham felt completely forgotten by God “the mountain on which God provided.”

Now, have we fully answered the painful enigma of the story of Abraham and Isaac? I don’t think we have. We’ve listened to it, we’ve learned from it, and we know that our faith and our Lord aren’t afraid to face these difficult questions.

Maybe father Abraham and his very relieved son brought back three points back down the mountain for us.

  • Jesus is the real Lord for the real world. He was born in a long line of dysfunctional, utterly human people who got tangled up in life’s mysteries and hardships. A fairy-tale Lord is one who drops out of the sky, and that’s not Jesus.
  • Henini—”Here I am, Lord.” Are we that kind of ready for God? Are we that kind of available to him when he calls us to do something?
  • The ram provided. The bloodthirsty idols in our lives will take everything. The idols of unbridled pleasure, self-addiction, pride, and bitterness will take every relationship you have and poison it and every joy you have and empty it. But God will provide the ram. God wants to preserve you, save you, and make the enduring spark of who you are into a flame.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life: “I’m Ready, My Lord” Watch video to start
  • “Henini” is the Hebrew word for “I am here,” but it means much more than that. It means “I’m at your disposal. I’m ready to do whatever you ask.” How is that different than just being “here”?
  • We talked about how it took decades for God to get the patriarchs and matriarchs in Scripture to finally trust him. Why do you think it takes that long? Is it encouraging or discouraging to you that this is such a long process?
Questions for sermon: “Here I am, Lord” Read the lectionary reading– Genesis 22:1-14
  • This story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most notoriously difficult passages to interpret in all of the Bible. Why do you think it’s included? Can we still learn from it?
  • We talked about the example of Michael Carroll, a teenage lottery winner who spent an $11 million fortune in eight years. Why is it that our “gods” of greed, pleasure and self-addiction are so voracious? How is God different?
  • We talked about the change in Abraham from a shifty con-artist to someone who said, “I’m ready” when the Lord called. Have you ever seen the Spirit effect this change in someone? In your own life?
  • The Lord always “provides a ram.” He intervenes to save us and keep us going. Can you think of an example like that with another biblical hero? (Joseph in the cistern, etc.). What about yourself?
Quote to ponder: I did my best, it wasn't much I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you And even though it all went wrong I'll stand before the Lord of song With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.~~Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah