It's been a few silent months since Prayer Week! Life in our fellowship has been full, very full. Here's an update:
Weeks spent in prayer prayer, communion, and fasting brought me to one question: "How is God asking us to share in Christ’s self-sacrifice in order that we can share his love with our sisters, brothers, and neighbors?"
It's a question of purpose, a question about the mission God gave Jesus and Jesus passed on to us.
What better to begin looking for an answer than to return to the Scriptures that revealed Jesus' purpose. Starting in Genesis, our fellowship spent three weeks tracing out God's purpose for God's partner people in the Hebrew Bible.
(Daniel Erlander's Manna and Mercy offers a great starting point for a mission- or purpose-oriented way of reading the Israelites' story. I'm also thankful for the gift of Leslie Newbigin's The Open Secret from a dear friend in Chicago. Newbigin offers a second, fuller perspective on this question of purpose and scripture--though The Open Secret focuses much more on the New Testament.)
This story, in my view, begins with a promise: God promises to be with the world God created by means of the God's image in humanity (see Gen 1.26-28). God's instructions to rule/care for creation fill out the way imaging God mediates God's presence and love to all the world. (After our great rebellion, this mediating function gets passed first to a family/nation then to a tent/temple and finally to an individual person and, through him, back to a renewed humanity; where and when these transitions occur is difficult to pin down, but the dynamic is clearly present.)
As you can see, you can't talk about God's promise for any length of time without beginning to talk about the purpose for humanity that accompanies it. Right relationship with God always seems to be partnership.
We traced out what happened when humanity rebelled, disregarding God's project for the lure of choosing our own. ("You shall be like God. . ." said the snake.) Rejecting our role in God's good rule, we found out that there are other forces eager to hold sway over us: death, conflict, fear, sin, Satan. The first story after our exit from the Garden is about fear, jealousy, and death rupturing the relationship between brother and brother (see Gen 4). If we read on through to Gen 11, we hear story after story of the good things God gave us--like technology, dignity, sex, language--one by one turning against us, seeking to snuff out our life. God's good world has been turned upside-down!
Quickly it becomes clear that if God means to keep the promise about being with us and caring for us, God is going to need first to rescue us from the mess we've made. I suppose that God might of done this in a flash from the sky--a happier version of Noah's thunderstorm. But in the story that we have, God continues to work with the creation story logic of mediation: He calls a family, Abraham's family, to bring God's blessing back to the world. They will pick up and dust off the forgotten image of God, so to speak. They sign back on to the role of being God's partners, God's co-workers.
The story is long and complicated. The partner people themselves are soon overcome, first by famine and then by Egyptian slave-masters and warlords, always by their weak hearts. Abraham's descendants, the Israelites, are slaves to the false-god Pharaoh and the Egyptian pantheon.
God again sends a mediator of God's care, concern, and, now, salvation: Moses. Moses brings God's deliverance to the Israelites; now they're free to do God's will. God leads them to the holy mountain to give them instructions about how to live as a freedom people, as God's co-workers in liberation and love.
But, it turns out, the rebellious spirit of Adam and Eve is still alive and well in the hearts of even the partner people. While Moses takes down God's how-to manual, the people rebel and begin living by the old Egyptian logic of slave and master, greedy for power, bowing down to whatever so-called god would give them a leg up on the surrounding nations. (I think of the golden calf debacle, but Ex through Num is full of stories of rebellions and hankerings for the old Egyptian way of living.)
Unfortunately things don't get any better once the people finally make it Canaan. It could have been freedom land, but the Israelites reject God's plans and maintain it as the gameboard of competing (Canaanite then Israelite) warlords' power plays. We can already trace the pattern in Judges--the cycle of giving up God's ways for those of the warlord nations, God's discipline by invasion, the appeal for God's help, God's loving mercy to send yet another deliver, and a season of peace before again walking away. The cycle keeps spinning all the way through Samuel and Kings, even the lives of rulers who start out godly, like David, but end up taking wives and killing off competitors and amassing wealth and weapons just like any other warlord.
Through this all, God remains committed to God's promise and purpose. This shows up as discipline--the invasion of Philistines, the split of the Israelite kingdom, the conquest by Assyria and finally by Babylon. God is not willing to let the partner people walk away. God keeps calling them back to Godself. (Read Habakkuk.)
Over we three weeks I told this story to our fellowship, pausing to recount the tales of Bible characters who put tragic flesh on this skeleton of God's purpose and our rebellion. It's a rich story, full of sub-plots and foreshadowing and surprising reversals. It's a story that produced some beautiful poetry and sagely reflection in the Wisdom books. The Prophets often help point out the bones of God's promise and purpose, but they introduce their own complications as well. Telling this story is the work of lifetime; I had to skip a lot to condense it to three weeks.
To offer a taste of the richness of the story, we spent the next four weeks meditating on one character's story within this grand story, the story of a prophet. More on that next time . . .