Faith is like falling in love. All the explanations in the world won’t take the place of living it.
Isaiah, the son of Amoz, was one of the greatest of the prophets.
When we begin reading Isaiah, we are reading words that have been preserved for 2700 years, more or less. That is something to think about right there. We don’t know a great deal about Isaiah, the man. We cannot even be sure that all of the writings gathered together under the heading of Isaiah’s name can be attributed to him. In fact, it is far more likely they were not–some passages were no doubt from another time, added, collected, edited, preserved by the faithful, brought to us over centuries of faith.
The first chapter of Isaiah presents an indictment of the ancient people of Israel. The prophet is speaking the case that God brings against the people, against their behavior, their practices, their hypocrisy. Of course, it doesn’t take much honesty or humility to recognize that all of the same indictments apply to us, either literally or figuratively.
The prophet, speaking on behalf of the Almighty, declares that God is tired of sacrifices, of offerings, of empty rituals. We hear that God wants people to be just, to correct oppression, to defend the fatherless, to protect the weak. And we hear that God is offering cleansing and forgiveness.
Ok, we say, all of that is very much in line with our faith practice, we understand it. Well, here’s something a bit unusual to think about–all of this is being said 700 years before Christ is born.
What is so odd about that?
For starters, most Christians walk around with a pretty simple, black and white understanding of scripture–before Jesus there was the law and judgment, and after the resurrection there is forgiveness and walking in the Spirit. One thing, then the other. Old Testament, then New Testament. One problem, though–this passage won’t fit that arrangement.
What does that mean, might we wonder?
For one thing, there was no switch being flipped when we went from the Old Testament. It isn’t a room in the dark, with someone suddenly turning on the lights when we get to the New Testament. It is more like a train, jerking and rattling on the track maybe, but making steady progress toward leaving the rules behind and rolling with the Spirit all along.
Contrary to what many well meaning folk seem to believe, there is plenty of grace to be found in the Old Testament, even in the middle of a prophetic indictment like this passage.
For another thing, if God was already spreading the word of forgiveness so boldly several hundred years before the crucifixion, maybe we need to revisit what happened at the cross. We need to focus less on explaining what happened and focus more on living in the Spirit that came from it.
It’s not the explanation, it’s the application.
Again, maybe faith is like falling in love. All the explanations in the world won’t take the place of living it.
There are now excerpts from two upcoming novels posted on the website.
I, John Of this disciple, Jesus had said, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” Suppose that John did, indeed remain, and is still alive, in our world, two thousand years later. What would he be doing, thinking, after all this time, and would he be alone?
Sins of Omission A body is found, a girl who was murdered. Now the residents of this eastern North Carolina town must try to find out what is happening around them, before it happens again.
Both novels, along with a few other projects, will be available soon.
Just a reminder–Sister Fox and the Dark Closet, a children’s book, will be offered for free in the Kindle format on Amazon.com for 5 days — October 24 through October 28 (that is Thursday all the way through Monday, in case you forget to download it over the weekend).
You don’t even have to own a Kindle to read it. You can download the book to a Kindle reader, or on any computer or tablet using the free Kindle reader software or app from Amazon. If you need to add the Kindle app to your device, here’s all the information you need: http://amazon.com
Did I mention that it is FREE this weekend?? Thanks!
A shrewd and dishonest business man, someone who would be at home among the most conniving traders of Wall Street, is caught in his thievery, and he turns and manages to steal yet more goods in order to cast them like bread upon the waters. The story is two thousand years old: it is the first parable in Luke 16.
In a baffling twist, the man is praised for his shrewdness by his own master and by Jesus. Of course, Jesus is also indulging in some biting sarcasm by verse 9: use your dishonest wealth to gain eternal security. We might safely assume he was being at least as sarcastic in the praise of this thieving manager.
Yet, there is the pointed observation that the “children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” This, I believe we must agree, is straightforward enough.
Consider the observation, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” We, and the passage itself, refer to this man as the ‘dishonest manager’, but how many of us possess this level of self-honesty? He is not deceiving himself as to his own nature, and he has a very clear understanding of the nature of the people around him. None of the debtors refuses to take the note and to write in a lesser figure; the manager knows they will not refuse. He is even clever enough to get them to make the changes themselves, perhaps to preserve some level of deniability.
That honest self appraisal is the first useful thing we can take from this passage. Taking the lead from Popeye (who took his from Moses’ interview with the Almighty), let us work on being what we are, or at least knowing what we are.
We’re talking self-awareness, not self-centeredness and not self-judgment.
Most of us, like the Pharisees who were one of Jesus’ intended audiences here, are suffering from the onion syndrome. We are layer upon layer wrapped around not much. We need to focus on the center, and the layers will fall away on their own.
It only works if we are shrewd enough to understand our own hearts. What is at the center controls everything.
Perhaps that is the second concept we can hold up from this scripture passage. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…”
Small things matter.
Years ago, the economist and writer E F Schumacher wrote a book titled Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The title itself is helpful. He wrote, “The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds. If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty, and chaotic.”
Let’s pull off the layers like winter coats and take a look at who we are, what we really think, good or bad – we can’t change it until we know it.
Finally, let’s remember some words from Fred Craddock in his commentary Luke in the Interpretation series:
Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”
You know the passage from Genesis 22:1-18. This is the story of Abraham and Isaac, with Abraham taking Isaac up on the mountain to sacrifice him to God.
I really would rather talk about something else, but this passage kept coming back, Abraham up on that mountain with Isaac. It bothers me.
Now I might say that the Lord led me to share this passage with you, and I would be standing in the mainstream of a long religious experience to use that form of expression. You know the approach I mean, as in ‘I felt the Lord led me to share this’ or ‘I felt the Lord leading me to say that we need blue carpet’ or some variation. We make claims on an awful lot of power when we use this language, though we cloak it in apparent humility. It might be a speaker opening with the public prayer of ‘Lord, speak through me.’ In private, that is a very fine prayer; in private, it means what it says. In public, it means, ‘I speak for God, and if you disagree with me, you disagree with God.’
When God is, in fact, at work in something or someone, if we believe that God is at work in each person, then those who have the Spirit of God at work in their lives will recognize it. No trumpets needed.
The thing is, I don’t know whether the Lord led me to this passage from Genesis or not. It could be just my own fascination. I don’t know whether God would have me share anything with you about it. I am sure that God can find something useful in it, with or without my dialogue.
There are two main things I’d like to offer. One is how this passage might help us to get our minds around the development of the Old Testament. The other is how we might carry away something of the only three things that the Bible talks about: who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.†
First, this passage concerns the life and times of Abraham, aka Abram, pivotal in the story of the chosen people.
The stories of Abraham mark the beginning of historical narratives in Genesis, emerging from a more vague pre-history background. We find details, something more concrete in the stories, something more clearly anchored in what we label the first half of the second millennium BC–perhaps 2000 BC to 1500 BC. It is virtually impossible to date the Abraham stories more precisely.
Thus emerges our first problem in grappling with the text. We think we are reading history. Alternately, from place to place in scripture and from reader to reader, we act as though we are reading a science text, a legal brief, a collection of poetry. In fact we are reading theology–who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.
So there was an event, the life and times of Abraham. Then there were stories about the life and times of Abraham. The stories were collected, joined, preserved, all in later times. The preserved stories were edited again, again at a later time, and finally some time a few centuries after Christ arrived in the form we find the stories today.
It is a layer cake. Layer one, Abram aka Abraham walks around. Layer two, people went about telling stories of when Abraham walked around. Layer three, people wrote the stories down. Layer four (plus some), the stories are edited, preserved, recorded in the form we know. Overall, the process took a couple of thousand years to get to what we recognize as the book of Genesis.
What we end up with sounds like history. It is actually theology.
That leads us to the second thing, how we might understand something of the theology we’ve just read in Genesis. Those of you who have heard me blather on for some time are accustomed to the fact that I often report to you from the minority view of theology. We know the mainstream view of Abraham taking Isaac up on that mountain, preparing an altar, and then preparing to sacrifice his son to appease the demand of God. An ocean of sermons have been preached on the obedience of Abraham, and there are many good points to be taken from them.
I have a problem with it–the focus on obedience, that is. Insisting on that focus means that God really did ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac just to see if Abraham would do it. I have a problem with believing God would have an interest in human sacrifice, and I have a problem with God putting blind obedience above love.
I just do not believe that God works that way. If it were just me, you could safely ignore me. As it happens, I’ve got a pretty good authority to rely on. Jesus said that the
most important commandments were loving God and loving one another. Nothing in there about blind obedience that conflicts with love. And how about the prophets asserting that God wants steadfast love and not sacrifice?
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6
But wait, you say, here I am delving into later Old Testament theology and later New Testament teaching to explain Abraham and Isaac–surely that is not well done, is it? That is quite a trajectory, after all, to get from Abraham on the mountain with a knife poised to kill his son all the way to Jesus teaching the people about love.
Quite a trajectory, and that is one of the best words to use to describe the Old Testament–it follows a trajectory.
I believe that God starts with us where we are. (It may be that even God can start nowhere else.) Abraham, roaming the ancient near east, was surrounded by fierce peoples and primitive religious practices. Human sacrifice, child sacrifice, was not that uncommon in his day, particularly in the worship of deities viewed as very powerful. Nobody had to explain the concept to Abraham, draw him a picture. He knew the practice long before his God-experience led him up that mountain.
I don’t think God was testing Abraham’s obedience. There is something in that understanding that makes God petty and monstrous, even if God did stop the sacrifice at the last moment.
I think God was teaching. God was teaching Abraham, teaching Isaac, teaching all their descendants, teaching us.
God was teaching Abraham who God is, what God is doing, and our relationship to God.
Against that backdrop of violent people and dark and bloody pagan ritual, God was teaching that above all God is love. Abraham would never again consider sacrificing Isaac, nor would any of their descendants in faith, including us.
I’m not going to tell a child that God wanted to see if Abraham was willing to kill Isaac, to see whether Abraham would be obedient or whether Abraham loved God more than Isaac. To be honest, I’m not sure what that teaches a child about the nature of God, but it frightens me.
I’m going to tell a child that God was making sure that Abraham knew that God did not want Abraham to kill Isaac, and sometimes the only way we can teach people something important is to show them.
God is love.
† I am not sure where I first found this summary of what the Bible is about: who God is, what God is doing, our relationship to God. It is possible that I thought it up, but I doubt it. Most good ideas have been thought before. I’ve tried searching on Google, the electronic fount of knowledge, but I haven’t found the source. If you know it, please let me know, and thanks!