A sermon on Genesis 21:22-34 in the context of the school shooting in Newtown, CT
I preached this sermon yesterday, December 16, 2012 at The Well. We have been studying through the book of Genesis and this was our passage for the week. I don’t usually manuscript my sermons, but I did this week due to the complex story that surrounds our culture. I post this in the hopes that it will help bring perspective to our world as well as help call the church live out her calling in midst of a broken the world.
The story of salvation history is an answer to a question posed by the prologue of Genesis: what hope can there be for a world as beautiful and yet as ugly, as structured and yet as disordered, as full of potential for brotherly love, and yet as poisoned with envy and hate? What hope is there for a people who have abandoned God, and thereby abandoned each other? Can the ‘creation community’ be restored?
– David Atkinson
Can the creation community be restored? That’s the question of Genesis. That’s the question our world right now. As we witnessed the events of Friday, we witnessed the reality of evil. Really, evil happens all around us everyday, but when something this “big” and this “outrageous” happens, we’re all, no matter if you believe in God or not, stopped in our tracks with the reality that this world is broken.
I spent two hours scrolling through my Facebook and twitter feed on Friday. It was hard to work, hard to concentrate. Hard to write this sermon.
I couldn’t help but wonder, how do I write a sermon about the boring settling of a dispute over a well between Abraham and Abimelech with this tragic news in the front of our minds? What do 7 sheep have to do with the deaths of 20 school children and 6 adults? What does a treaty between Abraham and Abimlelech have to do with our desperately broken world?
I want to propose this answer: Everything.
First, I want to start out talking about what exactly happens in this story? When I first read this passage I was a bit confused as to what exactly is going on here. Its not a really engaging text, its not full of the things a good story is full of. A problem to be solved, a bad guy, a good guy, lots of tension. It’s fairly bland. But, it’s scripture and the author of Genesis put it here for a reason. So its worthy to be looked at.
So here’s what goes on. We see Abimelech and his commander Philcol come to Abraham and basically say, “We know that you are in with God, so we want to be on your side. Swear to us that we can be friends.” Abraham complies and they are now BFF’s.
In reality, Abimelech is being pretty smart here. He sees a man growing in power and stature and makes a treaty with him. If Abraham gets as powerful as he thinks he will, especially since he sees that he has God’s favor, he wants to be on Team Abraham.
So they have this treaty. In the context of this treaty, Abraham comes to Abimelech and confronts him about the fact that some of Abimelech’s people had seized on of his wells.
So, Abraham and him make a covenant together. Abraham gives him some lambs and they agree that Abimelech will back him up that this is his well.
They call it Beersheeba – commemorating the fact that they made an oath. Abimelech returns to the land of the Philistines and Abraham plants a tree. Abraham then enjoyed sojourn in the land of the Philistines.
There you have it. That’s the passage. Let this be a lesson to all of us: if you make a covenant with someone, you have to give them some female sheep.
Let’s close in prayer…
Alright, so really, how does this story matter? What does this story teach us? Why is it here? Obviously, like always, we cannot read this text out of the larger context of scripture. If we do, the text means very, very little. Especially this text.
I think what we see here is that this text gives us a mini-story of the larger narrative of scripture.
Important to the context is the fact that Abraham’s family (Israel) is the elect of God. We saw this in Genesis 12. God comes to Abraham and says,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and i will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
We see the evidence of this throughout the Old Testament. God has chosen the nation of Israel to be His people. His chosen community. His set apart ones. In our passage this morning we see that Abimelech recognizes this. He says, “God is with you in all that you do.” Later, this will be said of Abraham’s decedents. In 26:28 we see his son Isaac in conversation with Abimelech and he again says, “We see plainly that the Lord has been with you.” In chapter 30 we see that Jacob is in conversation with Laban. Laban says that he has been blessed because of his relationship to Jacob. Still later, Joseph (in chapter 39) is in the midst of Pharaoh, a foreign ruler of Egypt, and it says that he “saw that the Lord was with him”.
Whats the point of all of this? Basically, Israel is the elect of God. Now, if you aren’t familiar with the idea of election, there are some serious questions that are raised about it. Does the fact that God elects mean that he chooses some and rejects others? Does God’s election put Israel on a higher level than the other nations? The Apostle Paul, in the New Testament book of Romans, talks about how those who are in Christ are also “elect.” Does that mean that God chooses to elect some for salvation and damn others?
These are important questions. Election can be a difficult intellectual hurdle for those seeking faith as well as for those who already believe.
But, the problem with all these questions is that they show that have totally misunderstood the point of election. Election is not about salvation, election is about calling.
Leslie Newbigin writes,
To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are saved and the rest are lost. To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purposes for his whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all.
– Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
The election of Abraham is for the sake of the nations, not privileged status. Not salvation over and above other nations, but for other nations. I heard a professor of mine once say that election is a “in the family” conversation. I respect that professor a lot, but I thoroughly disagree. Sure, it’s an in house issue if its basically saying, intentionally or unintentionally, “we are more privileged than you”. But, if election says that “We are here to serve you” its a conversation that the world needs to hear! Far too long the world has seen the people of God as somehow seeing themselves as “chosen for privilege at the expense of others.” I long for the world to see us as “those are the people that are supposed to serve us and extend to us a picture of what God is like, share the good news of salvation and embody His vision for the world.”
In light of this election, we see Abraham beginning to see tangible evidence of him and his family being the elect. His waiting is turning into reality. He has his son who he’s been promised will inherit land. He is starting gain possession of that land. Having a well in a that context was a significant piece in acquiring land. Without one, it would have been impossible to sustain life.
He’s been crying to God, “How long, oh Lord.” And he’s beginning to see that answered. Not fully, not finally, but its beginning. He’s even engaging other nations, beginning to make his place be known as a significant power in the land.
You see, this covenant that Moses makes with Abimelech is wonderful. I think we see him here trying to pass on what He received from God. We saw in Genesis 15 where God made a covenant with Abraham. In this covenant we see the use of animals for sacrifice as part of this covenant. It seems here that Abraham has taken what he learned from God and is extending grace to another. This is a great picture of being a vessel of grace from Abraham.
Yet, we also see in this passage a glimpse into Israel’s failure at living out this calling. As we read on in scripture, we see that this treaty is not held very well. In fact, in chapter 26, we see Isaac, Abrham’s son, making almost the same treaty with Abimelech again. Yet, throughout the history of Israel, the Philistees are one of their greatest enemies. This treaty is pretty much never kept.
It’s a small window into the larger story of how Israel failed to live out its calling to be the people of God. In fact, they outright rejected the Messiah that was promised to come from them. The Apostle Paul talks about this in Romans quite extensively. He argues how the nation of Israel stumbled and rejected God. The amazing thing is that in this rejection, God’s purposes are still realized. It was actually through the nation of Israel’s rejection that the Gentiles were finally and fully brought into the promise of salvation. Paul says that “through their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles (the non-isrealites).” Israel was not lost forever, Paul is clear about that, but their hard hearts brought salvation to the rest of the nations. And it comes full circle, Paul explains how the elect, the nation of Israel, will receive their salvation through the non-elect, the gentiles.
Now here’s the deal, we too, as the church of Jesus Christ, have been called elect. I Peter 2 talks about the gentiles this way,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
Notice our calling is similar to that of Abraham’s calling. He says to the church, you are my people “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness and into light.” This is a calling to be blessed and be a blessing. This is a calling like Israel’s: not for the sake of a privileged status before God, but for the sake of the nations…
So do have a calling in this mess that we see before us. We do have a role. Like Israel, we are important players in the epic story of salvation.
Like Abraham and his family was called to be a blessing, to be a picture of love and justice and shalom in the world, to be bearers of salvation, so too are we. As Leslie Newbigin said, we are called “to be the bearer of God’s saving purposes for his whole world, to be a sign and the agent and the first fruit of his blessed kingdom, which is for all.”
This is our calling as part of the wider church. This is our calling as a local congregation that gathers each sunday and is scattered out into our workplaces and homes and neighborhoods and school. This is why we have liturgy, preaching, community – its to be this. It has to be to live this calling: to be bearers, announcers that this world’s hope is in the risen Messiah and to show people a glimpse of what that hope is.
We gather and live together and love together to not only show the world the love and peace of God, but to invite them into the love and peace of God. We talk about being a community that is a blessing in Feasterville, Bucks County, Philadelphia and the world.
Each of those spheres longs for us to be the church.
We can impact Philadelphia and the world from a distance with key partnerships and friendships. But the community of Bucks County needs the church to be the church. Bucks county, along with the rest of the world, is longing for hope and as a community that finds its hope in Jesus christ, we need to be a community of peace and hope in the midst of a broken, screwed up world.
Our life together can never be modeled around making ourselves more comfortable in “church” or a community that is a insular closed family that is good for us and receives blessing, but doesn’t share this blessing.
We cannot be buckets of God’s grace, collecting our blessings for our own gain, but we must be vessels of God’s grace, passing on God’s blessings to the world around us.
Our existence has to be based on living out and inviting others into the hope that is found in Jesus Christ. I long for more and more people to see our community live in the midst of our successes and failures and hear of the salvation and hope that can be found in Christ.
But, here’s the problem, we too have failed at this over and over again. Like Abraham and the nation of Israel, we have screwed this up over and over again. We screw it up individually and we screw it up corporately. We ourselves are not without our scars that come from sin.
No, this does not stop us from trying, it does not make our efforts futile. It just brings us to an important point and actually returns us to our original question, “Can the creation community be restored?”
Israel has failed. The Gentiles have failed. We have failed. You have failed. I have failed.
So we ask, “What hope is there for the world? Can the creation community be restored?”
The answer is yes. But, the answer is “yes” because it does not depend on us.
If it depended on us, Jew or Gentile, The Well or another church, our answer would have to be an unequivocal “no”.
Friday’s events prove this. Tomorrow’s events will prove this too. A year from now more events will prove this.
We have proven over and over again that we cannot bring lasting peace. All of us, like Abraham, continue to fall short in the bringing of peace and Shalom that the world is longing for, that we are all longing for, that the town of Newtown, CT is vividly longing for, that the parents and family members of those who died on Friday are longing for.
We ourselves cannot bring that final peace.
And that, strangely enough, is our hope.
Only Christ can bring that final peace.
Only Christ can bring final shalom.
Our hope is in the One who wept as we weep, who faced death as we face death.
Yet when he face this death he defeated it and rose from the dead.
Therefore, our hope is a resurrection hope.
This is a hope that promises a day when all of this will be made new. When there will be no more death, or mourning. No more tears. No more brokenness.
It promises that broken relationships can truly be restored. Our relationships with ourselves, our relationships with our fellow humanity, and our relationship with God. This is what Jesus Christ does.
And that’s what we celebrate this season. Not just the coming of a baby, but the fulfillment of a promise. A promise of a lasting peace.
My prayer for us is that we would be a community of people who understand the grace and peace of the only one who can truly bring peace. And that as we receive that peace, hope and salvation, we would proclaim it boldly to a world longing for hope – knowing that it is God who works to make our best efforts successful and our worst efforts redemptive.