SERMON: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Genesis to Joshua)
I have found that people often have difficulty reading the Old Testament. It’s either too disjointed, or too hard to understand. It raises concepts that are foreign to our culture, and issues which in modern thinking seem to be totally disagreeable. As a consequence the Old Testament often gets neglected, or relegated to being irrelevant.
The problem is, though, if you dispense with the Old Testament then you totally undermine the New, because the New Testament relies heavily on the concepts that were the basis of Old Testament faith.
What I’d like to do today, then, is to raise some of the difficulties—some of the issues and practices of the Old Testament that many people find difficult or unpalatable today—and I want to examine briefly the principles behind each.
B. FAMILY TREES
1. The Purpose of Genealogies
And the first stumbling block to reading the Old Testament, that many people face, is the constant lists of names which seem to interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Now in Hebrew times remembering one’s family tree was a very important thing to do—it has also become a very popular pastime today. Consequently what we find scattered throughout the Bible’s pages are lists of names. But why are they there for us to read?
Well in the bible the list of names are not just recorded because someone wanted to record their family tree. No, they have quite another purpose. And the purpose is: as a means to trigger off memories of events involving God and his people.
So, for example, as the family met around the dinner table, or the camp fire, they would recall their family genealogy. They would retell their family history in terms of its faithfulness (or unfaithfulness) to God. And in this way they passed down from generation to generation the story of their family’s or their nation’s relationship with God.
2. Skeletons in the Cupboard
Now accepting the purpose of biblical genealogies is one thing. The problem, today, though is that these genealogies throw up aspects of Hebrew culture with which some may not be totally comfortable.
a). Abram and Sarai
For example, we’re told that Abram’s father had three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran. He also had at least one daughter, Sarai. Now we don’t know who the mother of Terah’s three sons was. But what we do know is that Abram and Sarai did not share the same mother.
We also know that Abram married Sarai, who apparently was very beautiful, and on at least two occasions, for his own safety, tried to pass her off as his sister rather than as his wife.
Now marrying your half-sister was quite acceptable in those days. That kind of relationship was only banned during the time of the Exodus from Egypt. However Sarai (or Sarah) was unable to have children. So instead she gave Abram (or Abraham) her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine, so Sarah could give Abraham children through Hagar.
Eventually Sarah gave birth to a son—Isaac. But when Isaac was forty, Abraham was concerned that he hadn’t married. But he didn’t want him to marry a local girl, so he sent his servant to his brother Nahor, to get a wife for him. Isaac then married Rebekah (who was effectively Isaac’s second cousin).
In time Rebekah gave birth to twins—Esau and Jacob. Esau married two local girls—in order to get up his parents’ noses. Then he married Ishmael’s daughter to appease his parents. Jacob however was sent away, and he married two of his cousins (third cousins through Abraham, but first cousins through Rebekah.) He then had twelve sons through his two wives and two concubines.
3. The Point of the Story
Now I may have lost some of you with the relationships. Despite that when you look at the early genealogies of people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (the Patriarchs) there’s an obvious pattern. And the pattern is that each successive generation was encouraged to marry within the family. Indeed any marriage relationship outside of the family (excluding concubines) was distinctly frowned upon—as Esau found out to his cost.
Now if anyone came up with a family history like that today, many might think that the relationships within the family were all a bit too close, and that fresh blood was needed in the family. And maybe that kind of genealogy would not be one that many people would want to publish. But we need to remember, that in regards to the Old Testament, this is a story of the relationship of God with his people. And there was one thing above all else that would have been in the mind of Abraham’s family, and that was the need to maintain their relationship with their God. And that is the point behind their selective breeding.
Living in Canaan, amongst the Canaanites with their devotion to their Canaanite gods, was a very risky thing for Abraham and his family to do. At the time household gods were a very important aspect of many peoples’ lives. As a consequence, Abraham’s family were very keen to avoid contaminating their faith in God; they were keen to keep out other deities from their way of life.
Yes, these were the days when large families, and many sons, were a sign of wealth. And these were the days when servants willingly became concubines—because it provided security, and because their sons were treated as equals with the other male heirs in the family. But as far as Abraham and his line were concerned, the need for their sons to marry into a family where their God held centre stage was paramount. As a consequence they were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure.
C. GOD’S LAWS
1. God’s Instructions
Now many people who try to read the Old Testament often begin with Genesis chapter one verse one, skip over the genealogies, struggle with the relationships, get two-thirds of the way through the book of Exodus, and then come to a grinding halt. Because the next stumbling block to reading the Old Testament is the laws. And after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there are: lists and lists of laws which the people were expected to keep; there are specific rules about the building of a Tabernacle; there are regulations in regards to Sabbath laws and the annual festivals to be kept; and there are strict ordinances regarding various sacrifices required to be made.
Now, yes, there are short passages of narrative mixed up with all those details, but it is God’s laws and commands that dominate the remainder of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—many of which just don’t seem relevant or make sense today. In other words they act as a huge barrier for the modern reader from progressing through the Old Testament. As a consequence they block a good understanding of the Old Testament, on which the New Testament depends.
Now I’m not going to go through all the different things that are mentioned. But I do want to mention some typical examples, and try to make some sense of why they are there.
2. Some Typical Rules
a). The Need to Keep Species Pure
There’s the rule: “You are not to plant a vineyard with two different kinds of seed. For you would defile the seed crops that you planted and the fruit of the vineyard. You are not to plough with an ox and donkey yoked together. You are not to wear clothing woven from different kinds of material (e.g., wool and linen woven together).” (Deuteronomy 22:9-11)
Now as we’ve just discovered, through looking at Abraham’s family tree, Abraham’s family went to extraordinary lengths to keep the faith pure. So there are religious reasons behind the need to keep each species pure too. These rules serve as enacted reminders of the need to keep the faith pure.
So just as unnatural combinations violate the purity of a species—whether seeds for sowing, beasts for ploughing or fibres for weaving cloth—the practice of keeping things separate in one’s day to day life, was a constant reminder of the danger of what would happen if one’s faith in God was contaminated from other sources.
b). The Need to Avoid Magic Rituals
Similarly, the rule “You are not to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19b), stands as a reminder to be unique.
Now there has been many an expert puzzle over the purpose of this particular rule, particularly as there seems to be no practical purpose behind it. However, the fact is that the Canaanites practised cooking young goats in their mother’s milk as a magic spell—probably as part of their fertility rites. As a consequence, the prohibition of this practice—as well as the prohibition from eating donkey and pork, which the Canaanites used for similar purposes—begins to make sense.
c). Health Considerations
Now no doubt there were also health considerations in these rules that I’ve mentioned. For example the need to wear appropriate clothing whilst travelling in a desert, which can be extremely hot and extremely cold, should have dictated the kind of materials that were worn. And keeping pigs (which are prone to disease in hot climates) just doesn’t make sense. But by far the most important aspect of all of these laws was the need to keep the faith pure. God’s laws were unique to the Israelites. No other nation practiced such a devotion to keep things pure.
d). The Sacrificial Rules
And as a consequence the sacrificial rules met the same criteria too. Yes, all the surrounding nations made sacrifices to their gods, but the rules that God gave the Israelites to practice were unique to them.
Consequently whilst others included using yeast and honey in their sacrifices (honey being the favourite food of the gods in some heathen cults), this wasn’t a practice that was acceptable for the Hebrews. Indeed, “All Grain Offerings presented to the LORD are to be made without yeast. No yeast or honey is to be burnt as an offering made by fire to the LORD.” (Leviticus 2:11)
And why? Because there was the danger that if the people started to incorporate anything related to other religious practices in their worship, then it wouldn’t be long before more and more elements of those other religions would begin to be incorporated in the worship of the Hebrew God too.
Now without the covenant (the laws of God) of the Old Testament, and without the sacrificial system, we would have no Messiah. Indeed the death and resurrection of Jesus would be meaningless, and we would have no reconciliation with God.
The Old Testament covenant and sacrificial system, then, are vital to a New Testament faith. Is it any wonder then that the Old Testament is so strong on keeping the faith pure?
D. THE CONQUEST OF CANAAN
1. The Book of Joshua
Now I’m going to end our short journey in the book of Joshua. And I do that because having skipped through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, that is where we find ourselves. In the book of Joshua the narrative beings again with a vengeance. It is also where many of those who have stuck with the story so far, finally give up.
Why? Because Joshua is about the conquest of Canaan; it’s about God’s people fulfilling the demands of God.
2. The Command to Kill
Because this is what God instructed his people to do: “As for the cities that belong to the nations that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you are not to leave anything that breathes alive. Indeed the LORD has commanded you to utterly destroy the cities of the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)
Now these days some people look back at the Old Testament—look at all the bloodshed—even liken it to what’s going on in the name of Islam today, and say, “I don’t want anything to do with a God like that.” Some people even try to make a distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New. The problem is, if we dismiss the God of the Old Testament, we effectively dismiss the God of the New Testament too. The two are the same. So rather than dismiss the wars and the killing, it’s perhaps better to understand what was going on. And the first thing we should note is why God wanted to eliminate the Canaanites.
Moses’ words to the Israelites on the east bank of the Jordan: “You are not going over to inherit the land because of your righteousness or virtue, but because of the wickedness of these nations. The LORD your God will drive them out before you, and in this way fulfil what he promised to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 9:5)
In other words the Canaanites had become so bad, so evil, that God was forced to act. And he was going to use the Israelites to deal with the problem of the Canaanites.
And what was so bad about the Canaanites? Well there’s a specific example buried in the laws that often get ignored: “No one among you is be found practicing the following: divination or sorcery, interpreting omens, witchcraft, casting spells, being a medium or spiritists, or consulting the dead. Anyone who practices these things is detestable to the LORD. It is because the nations engage in these detestable practices that the LORD is going to drive them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
The second aspect, however, was the need to keep his own people safe and pure. Because if they didn’t eradicate the Canaanites “. . . they will teach you all the detestable things that they practice in the worship of their gods and you will sin against the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 20:18)
God’s instruction may seem to us to be severe, but if the people had not eliminated the people, and the things that would contaminate their faith, God’s people would have become contaminated too. And if God’s people had become contaminated, it would not have been long before there would be no God’s people at all.
What was at stake was the relationship of God and his people. And God was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to keep that pure.
What happened of course, is that yes, the Israelites did fight—indeed they eliminated many of the Canaanites that were living in the land. However they also made some fundamental mistakes. They ignored God’s instructions; they made a treaty with one of the local Canaanite tribes; and many adopted Canaanite religious practices. As a consequence, they never fully took over the land, and they left themselves open for their faith to become contaminated, by doing the very things that God was at pains to tell them not to do.
1. Summary of the Old Testament
Now as you can see the Old Testament may not be the easiest book to read. But even the things that interrupt the narrative have their place—if only we can examine the culture and understand the purpose behind it all.
Now I’m not saying that understanding what is going, will necessarily mean that everything will suddenly make sense, or that the Old Testament will suddenly become an easy book to read. But it certainly should help us to make more sense of it, and recognise its value in our own Christian journeys.
The major aspects of the Old Testament all point in the same direction. And that is the need to have faith in God; and the need to go to extreme lengths to keep the faith (and our faith) pure. Then others can depend upon faith in God for their salvation.
Now, today, the line between faith, tradition and culture has become very blurred. But it shouldn’t be like that, because we should be as keen today to keep the faith pure, as they were back in Old Testament times.
That’s why we should be pursuing a good understanding of the Old Testament (with all its difficulties). Because without a good understanding of the Old Testament, our understanding of the New Testament is on very shaky grounds indeed.
Posted: 17th April 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Wonder of Creation (Genesis 1:1-31)
Now I don’t know if you are like me, but every now and again I have to pull myself up. Because there are many things in this world I just don’t see or appreciate as I should. Sometimes I’ve got my head down, I’m in my own little world, and I don’t see the things that are around me. And that can be very true if I have something on my mind, or have got into the habit of taking the normal every things for granted.
Well, if you are like me, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. So what I thought I’d do is to retell the story of creation—the story from the book of Genesis. But instead of reading it all in one hit, I thought I’d intersperse it with some reflections on everyday things—things that we see, feel, smell, touch, or whatever—but just not appreciate as much as we should.
B. THE STORY OF CREATION
1. Day 1 (1-5):
And the story begins with day 1
In the beginning God created the universe—the heavens and the earth.
The earth was without shape and empty.
Darkness covered the surface of the deep,
and the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters.
God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
God saw that the light was good; he distinguished the light from the darkness.
God named the light ‘day’ and the darkness ‘night’.
There was evening and morning—the first day.
Light and darkness . . . You know night and day are two fundamental aspects of our lives. Many people work during the day, and then sleep during the night. Well that’s the theory anyway. Nevertheless, day and night are part of the regular cycle in which we maintain our lives.
Of course, over the years we have created artificial light, to enable us to see and work when it’s dark inside. But despite that when God was creating the world for us to live in, the very first thing he created was light to live by, and darkness to give us rest.
And yet I wonder how many of us when we get up in the morning appreciate the thought behind it being light—the ability to be able to see what we’re doing, and what’s going on. And yet that was the very first thing that God created in this story from Genesis.
2. Day 2 (6-8):
God said, ‘Let there be a space between the waters, to divide water from water’.
So he made it so.
He made the space and then divided the waters—
so they were either above or under the space.
God named the space ‘sky’.
There was evening and morning—the second day.
When we look up and see the sky, and the horizon that separates the sky for the ground, do we appreciate the colour of the sky, and the terrain that gives us variety—the hills and the vales. Do we appreciate the air that we breathe, and the clouds that bring us both protection from the sun and rain. Or even the Van Allen belt and the ozone layer which blocks out harmful radiation.
3. Day 3 (9-13):
God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be collected into one place; let the dry ground be seen’.
So he made it so.
God named the dry ground ‘land’ and the gathered waters ‘seas’.
God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let the earth produce vegetation; let the land grow every kind of seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing fruit trees which have seeds in them’.
So he made it so.
The land produced vegetation: every kind of seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees which have seeds in them.
God saw that it was good.
There was evening and morning—the third day.
Dry land of course is very valuable—we need it to be able to walk. But the sea is important too. It provides a source of moisture for the air, the rain to grow our food, and a place where sea creatures can live.
On the other hand vegetation is also important. It provides food for our stomachs, and many a flower provides food for our eyes.
The sheer variety of the different types of vegetation is mind boggling. And if nothing else, it reflects the mind of the complexity of the God who created it all.
4. Day 4 (14-19):
God said, ‘Let there be lights in the sky to separate day from night.
They will be indicators to distinguish days, seasons and years.
Let there be lights in the sky to shine upon the earth’.
So he made it so.
God made two great lights and the stars: the bigger light to regulate the day and the smaller light to regulate the night.
God set them in the sky to light the earth, to rule over both day and night, and to distinguish light from darkness.
God saw that it was good.
There was evening and morning—the fourth day.
Now where would we be without the stars and moon? Well, we wouldn’t have a lot of romantic songs for one thing. But if you’ve ever been trapped in a room, where no light can get in whatsoever, light at night is a very valuable thing.
The sun too—not just a source of light, but the means to provide heat to make this planet liveable.
And the moon, sun and stars are reminders of the relative insignificance of mankind within God’s creation.
5. Day 5 (20-23):
God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with teems of living breathing creatures; let birds fly in the sky above the earth’.
So God created the great sea creatures, every kind of living breathing moving thing which swarms in the waters, and every kind of winged bird.
God saw that it was good.
Then God blessed them. He told them to be fruitful, to multiply: for the fish to fill the water in the seas and for the birds to multiply on the earth.
There was evening and morning—the fifth day.
Living beings: fish in the sea and birds in the air. Beings to enjoy. Indeed, many fishermen and birdwatchers spend hours with their particular hobbies. In addition fish these days are also a major source of food, with many people’s livelihood is tied up in the fishing industry.
6. Day 6 (24-31):
God said, ‘Let the land produce every kind of living creature: livestock, creatures that crawl and wild animals in all their different varieties’.
So God made it so.
God made every kind of wild animal, cattle and creature that crawls.
God saw that it was good.
Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image; let us make them like us.
Let them govern over the whole earth: the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, cattle and everything that crawls along the ground’.
So God created mankind in his image; he created them in the image of God.
He created them male and female.
God blessed them and told them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply in number, fill the earth and subdue it.
Govern over the fish in the sea, the birds in the air and every living thing that crawls along the ground’.
Then God said, ‘Look, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is anywhere on the face of the land, with every fruit-bearing tree which has seed in it.
They will be yours for food.
I give every green plant to every living breathing creature—every animal, bird of the air, things that crawl on the ground.
They will also be yours for food’.
So God made it so.
God then looked at all he had made and saw that it was very good.
There was evening and morning—the sixth day.
Day 6 is in many ways the most important day of all. Animals to enjoy in all their different varieties, including reptiles and insects. And of course the animals we love to eat.
And then last of all, once everything else had been created, only one thing remained—God’s crowning glory—mankind itself. You and me, created so we can communicate with God; created after everything he had created before.
Mankind—given the authority and the responsibility to care for all of God’s creation. A creation made for relatively insignificant beings—us.
As you can see, then, if we get into the mode of waking up and expecting things to be there, if we go about our daily business and simply take the things that God created for granted, it can be quite sobering to read the story of creation. Because it reminds us of our God, who has gone out his way to make a world which we can live in and delight in. A world made especially for us.
And as I think about what he did, I can’t help be amazed at how God often gets treated. Because just as we can all spend time ignoring the wonders of creation, we can so easily treat him as though he is not here either.
The story of creation then is very valuable. Because when we’ve got our heads down and have other things on our minds, or when we don’t appreciate the things around us, or when we take things for granted, it’s a very useful story to read. Not least of all because it is a reminder of all that God has done for our benefit.
Indeed, the story can give us a renewed sense of wonder at God’s creation, and a renewed sense of God. Because it is a story that also reminds us of how special we are in the eyes of God too.
Posted: 14th July 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: The Six Days of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3)
DAY ONE: The Basic Elements
THEME 1: The creation of the basic elements of the physical universe.
Read: Genesis 1:1-2
Question 1. If God existed before anything was created, what does this tell us about the nature of God?
THEME 2: The creation of light.
Read: Genesis 1:3-5
Question 2. How did God create light? What does this tell us about his power and authority?
DAY TWO: The Sky
THEME 3: The creation of the sky.
Read: Genesis 1:6-8
Question 3. On many of the days of creation, God is described as reflecting on what he had created, and saw that it was “good.” What is meant by “good”?
DAY THREE: The Earth and Plant Life
THEME 4: The creation of the outer crust of the earth and plant biosphere.
Read: Genesis 1:9-10
Question 4. It has been suggested that the earth was created during a “big bang.” Does this theory fit the Genesis story? Explain.
THEME 5: The creation of vegetation
Read: Genesis 1:11-13
Question 5. Many people today claim that life came into being by “accident”, and living things just “evolved.” Does the Genesis narrative agree with this belief, or does it suggest a different approach?
DAY FOUR: The Stars and Planets
THEME 6: The creation of the stars and planets.
Read: Genesis 1:14-19
Question 6. God took a lot of trouble in his creation (i.e.. creating day and night, the seasons, etc.). What does this suggest about the world he created? And what implications does this have in our response to him?
DAY FIVE: Fish and Birds
THEME 7: The creation of living creatures.
Read: Genesis 1: 20-23
Question 7. God’s instruction to the living creatures was “to be fruitful, to multiply.” How does that reflect on God’s attitude towards living beings?
DAY SIX: Animals and Man
THEME 8: The creation of land-based animals: livestock, creeping things, and wild animals
Read: Genesis 1:24-25
Question 8. On the sixth day God created all land living animals. However, man was not created at the same time as all other animals. Why was mankind created last?
THEME 9: The concept of man
Read: Genesis 1:26
Question 9: In God’s previous acts of creation we saw God commanding “Let there be …” However with the creation of man he says “Let us make mankind …” Who was he talking to?
THEME 10: The creation of man
Read: Genesis 1:27-31
Question 10. What unique task did God give mankind to do?
DAY SEVEN: A Day of Rest
THEME 11: A day of rest
Read: Genesis 2:1-3
Question 11. God rested on the seventh day because he had completed all the “work he had undertaken.” Does this suggest that there was other work he hadn’t started yet? And if so, what? Please speculate.
Posted: 23rd September 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-13)
Some people may remember the blood and thunder days of the church—when the emphasis in every sermon was to put the fear of God into people. Indeed, stories were told of the consequences of unbelief—with all the description of the fires of hell and eternal damnation. In contrast, many people today may be more used to the more modern approach of churches—with an emphasis on the love of God, and of a truly loving and caring God.
Now I know I’ve just been guilty of over-generalisation, because in the old days not all preachers spoke in terms of eternal damnation. And modern preachers don’t always emphasise the love of God either. But I think you know what I mean. Over the years preaching in churches has been noted by two extremes: The fire and brimstones approach of scaring people into the kingdom, and the alternative of loving people into the kingdom.
Now, of course, both approaches have their values. But what I want to do today, is to look at both perspectives, and see which, if any, describes best the kind of God that we believe in. And to do so I want to refer to the very first story of man’s disobedience to God—the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
B. THE FIRST SIN
1. Background (Genesis 2:8-9, 15-17)
Now the background to the story begins with God caring for Adam and Eve. As far as God was concerned he didn’t want his creation to be laden with hard work, he wanted to care for creatures. He wanted them to enjoy what he’d created for them in the garden. So, in addition to providing a place to live—free of cost—he provided food to eat as well. And, in that way, Adam and Eve could have spent all their time enjoying the garden and interacting with God, which, after all, was the reason he created them in the first place.
As a consequence, even before Eve was created, God told Adam that he could eat any of the fruit in the garden, from any tree, except for the one in the middle of the garden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17). Because if he ate from that one, he would die.
Now it is not recorded why God put such a tree in the garden—maybe it was a test of Adam’s loyalty—but regardless of that, there was plenty of fruit for them both to eat without going near that particular tree.
So, do we have a picture of a loving God, who went to extraordinary lengths to care for his creation? Absolutely! But even at this early stage there’s a hint of a God who doesn’t like being messed with. And there’s also a hint that there are consequences to be paid if we reject his loving approach.
2. Exaggeration and Temptation
Now progress the story forward, and the focus shifts firstly to a serpent, then to Eve, and then to Adam.
Because, firstly, the serpent grossly exaggerates God’s prohibition. Indeed, he claims that God had said that none of the fruit, from any of the trees, was to be eaten. It wasn’t just one tree, but all of them. And in response Eve comes to the rescue of the facts. She corrects the serpent, by stating that it was only the fruit from one of the trees that wasn’t to be eaten. But then she goes on to exaggerate the situation herself. She states that they weren’t even allowed to touch the tree—which wasn’t what God was recorded as having said at all.
And then, secondly, the serpent, claiming to know God far better than Eve, twists God’s prohibition around. And so he suggests that far from dying, the deliberate disobeying of God’s command would bring them positive blessings. They would become god-like—knowing good and evil.
At which point Eve looked at the forbidden fruit, which looked good to eat, a delight to the eyes, and desirable in acquiring wisdom. And she took some, ate from it, and gave some to her husband.
Now at this moment their with relationship with God was destroyed. They had effectively indicated that they weren’t satisfied with all that God had lovingly and generously provided. They wanted more. They wanted to be equal with their creator—all knowing and all powerful. And so, in doing the one and only thing they had been told not to do, they wrecked their whole relationship with God—their relationship with their maker died.
Now is it any wonder that immediately Adam and Eve began to realise what they had done? For the first time they realised they were naked—both physically and spiritually. And so they tried to hide from God.
But even when confronted with God, they compounded the problem they had created, by trying to pass the blame to someone else. Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the Serpent. Neither was willing to take responsibility for their actions. So, God expelled them from paradise. In addition, he put guards on the garden, to stop them from getting back in.
Which meant that life for Adam and Eve suddenly became hard. They could no longer rely on the protection of God in the garden, and they wouldn’t be given the food that they needed either. They would have to work hard to physically survive—and it wouldn’t always be easy.
Having said God didn’t just kick them out of the garden and abandon them. No! Adam and Eve were sorry for what they had done. So, God made clothes for them—clothes fitting for the environment they would have to live in. And he continued to interact with them, but just not at the same perfect level that they had had in the garden.
So, do we still have a picture of a loving God? One who would go to extraordinary lengths to care for his creation? Yes, absolutely. But we also have more than a hint of a God who doesn’t like being messed with. Indeed, we have a clear picture of a no-nonsense God, who means what he says.
And it is on this note we need to go back to the issues I outlined at the beginning. Because there are two extremes when it comes to preaching in churches. There is the fire and brimstone approach of scaring people into the kingdom, and there is the idea of loving people into the kingdom. So, which one, if any, describes best the kind of approach that we should take?
Well, I don’t believe that either of them reflects accurately the kind of God that Christians believe in. Because in the story of Adam and Eve, right from the outset, God showed that he was generous and that he cared. But even so, he signalled there were consequences should they do the wrong thing. So, when Adam and Eve did the wrong thing, yes, God punished them. But he knew they were sorry for what they had done, and he didn’t totally abandon them.
Fire and brimstones, then, is only part of the story. But the idea of a loving God is only part of the story too. The true God that we see in the story of Adam and Eve is one who loves and cares; the kind of God who wants the best for us. But not at any price, and certainly not at the cost of his integrity.
The destruction of the relationship with God was Adam and Eve’s choice—no one forced them. But it created a situation where God had to act. Because, if God had done nothing, even pretended it hadn’t happened, then things would only have got worse.
As a consequence, if we get stuck on either extreme—the idea of fire and brimstone, or the idea of a loving God—we tend not to get the whole picture. Because, yes, there are truths encapsulated in both ideas, but individually they don’t tell the whole story.
The story of Adam and Eve, then, is a typical story of how we relate to God, and how God relates to us. It deals with the ideals of the perfect relationship, but it also deals with the consequences of what happens when we get it wrong.
It’s a story of a God who loves us, but for his own integrity and our salvation, needs to respond to our mistakes.
Posted: 4th April 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Contrasting Behaviours (Genesis 29:15-28)
Some people’s behaviour is very difficult to fathom. Because, whilst many people are easy to get along with, there are others who are very difficult indeed.
Indeed, some prey on others and are willing go to any lengths to achieve their goals. Some are very physical and consider violence to be an everyday part of life. And some have such a low opinion of life, that they think nothing of hurting others for their cause.
Now the majority may not be noted for such extremes, but we all have our moments. And even among those we might consider normal everyday people, there are some who lose their temper at the drop of a hat. There are some who are manipulative—who manoeuvre situations to their advantage. And there some who make life difficult for others—particularly if they don’t get their own way.
Yes, some people’s behaviour is very difficult to comprehend. And so the question I’d like to ask today is, “Just how does our behaviour fit into the scheme of things?” That is, not someone else’s behaviour, but our own behaviour. And, as a corollary to that, “How does our behaviour reflect what we say we believe?”
And I want to begin to answer those questions by looking back at the story of Jacob and Laban. Because I want to look at those two men and their very contrasting behaviours.
B. CONTRASTING BEHAVIOURS
1. Jacob’s Welcome
Now the background to the story is that Jacob had left home, and following the instructions of his father, Isaac, and mother, Rebekah, he had travelled to the town where his mother’s family lived. There, at a well outside the town, he met Rachel, the daughter of Laban, who had come to water her flocks. There was a short greeting, And that was followed by Jacob finding himself in charge of her sheep, while she runs off to tell her father of his arrival.
And it is at this point that the story starts in earnest. Because Laban is naturally excited. After all, he hasn’t heard from his sister, Rebekah, for some time. Jacob is his nephew. He’d never met him before. So he invites Jacob into his home, and eagerly awaits any news that he might have of Isaac and Rebekah. As far as Laban is concerned, he needs to give hospitality to his nephew. But he wants to catch up with his sister’s welfare too.
Now, up to this point in the story, nothing untoward has happened. Jacob gets a tick for caring for the flock, whilst Rachel runs off to give her father the news. And Laban gets a tick for his hospitality to Jacob.
But the story continues. Because after embracing Jacob, Laban brings Jacob into his home. And no doubt they talk far into the night, as Jacob tells Laban all about Isaac and Rebekah.
2. Jacob’s Offer of Service
But then with the greeting and news out of the way, Jacob makes himself useful to Laban. And over the next few days and weeks, he begins to help in the family business—he helps with the flocks. However, he also begins to feel an attachment to Laban’s youngest daughter—Rachel.
A month later, Laban, has seen how good a workman he is, so he offers him a job. He wants to employ him as a regular employee. To which Jacob immediately responds that the only payment he is interested in is the hand of Rachel in marriage. He doesn’t want Laban’s money, he wants Rachel. And he is prepared to work seven years for Rachel, for no wage at all.
Now again, there is no problem in the story. Jacob wasn’t prepared to live on Laban’s hospitality, he was prepared to pay his way. He didn’t need to work for seven years for Rachel’s hand, but he was prepared to go above and beyond what was necessary for Rachel. Laban on the other hand had recognised Jacob’s contribution to the family business. But he wasn’t going to presume on Jacob’s loyalty. He was prepared to treat him like any other worker. All well and good.
Except, in Jacob offering to work for seven years, there’s a trap in the story for Laban. Jacob’s offer is well above what he needed to pay for Rachel’s hand, and Laban should have turned down the offer. But unfortunately, Laban has already found Jacob to be a willing and able worker. He had probably realised that Jacob, as the one who has received Isaac’s blessing, would one day come into a substantial inheritance. He had also evidently seen Jacob’s affection for Rachel. So it didn’t take much for Laban to realise that there would be a financial advantage in having him as a son-in-law. And seven years of free service by a man who is an exceptional worker was a windfall that he just couldn’t resist. So Laban agrees to Jacob’s offer.
And so begins the problem between Jacob and Laban. A problem that is compounded by Rachel’s older sister Leah.
3. The Complication of Leah
Because Laban’s daughters are apparently beyond the age at which women usually married. But then in Laban’s part of the world (not in Jacob’s), it was customary for the older sister to marry first. And as Leah had remained unmarried, Rachel had remained unmarried too.
At the point that Jacob offered to work for seven years, then, Laban should have explained this situation to Jacob. However, maybe he had hoped that by the time the seven years were up, Leah would somehow have got married.
Nevertheless, Jacob serves his seven years—and Jacob must have been ticking off the days. Because as soon as the seven years were up, he is seen going to Laban and asking him to honour his part of the bargain.
Now Laban has a problem—two in fact. Because, in all likelihood, once married to Rachel, Jacob would get up and leave. He was a good worker, and Laban is very reluctant to lose his services. On the other hand, Leah is still not married. So how can he marry Rachel off first?
And here is where Laban should have confessed everything to Jacob, having failed to do it before. But rather than sit down with him and explain the problem, he compounds his previous mistakes, by coming up with a plot to deceive.
Jacob, for his part, had done his bit. All he had done had been right and above board. But Laban’s behaviour simply went from bad to worse.
4. Wedding Deceit
Now it was customary with a wedding to have a great festive week, beginning with a banquet on the nuptial night, at which only male guests were invited. Then, at the proper time during the banquet, the bride would be presented to the groom. And accordingly, Laban follows the customs of the day and then presents Jacob with a bride. The problem is it was the wrong bride.
Now undoubtedly Laban had provided a fair bit of wine at the banquet, and the two sisters were sufficiently alike in stature and bearing, probably even in tone of voice. The bride may even have been veiled for the occasion. As a consequence, the deception was easy to accomplish.
So when Jacob takes his bride into his chambers and into his bed, it is dark. And any conversation is in whispers and in brief words of love. So, it is not until the morning that Jacob is in any real position to see that he has been deceived.
So, again, nothing wrong with Jacob’s behaviour. But in regard to Laban … His deception had worked, well in part at least. He had completed the first part of his plan. He had got Leah, the elder sister, married. Yes, there was a risk involved in what he had done, but he was part way to solving his dilemma. And he still had Rachel to bargain with.
5. Jacob’s Response
So when morning comes, Jacob wakes up, sees what has happened, and is naturally angry and bitter with both Leah and Laban. However, his anger quickly subsides. And perhaps because he is reminded of his own deception in tricking his father, Isaac, into giving him his blessing, Jacob does not berate Leah for her part in the affair at all.
However, he still wants to marry Rachel. So at the very first opportunity he confronts Laban. And Laban responds with the well-rehearsed answer about the need for the older sister to marry first. A fact that Laban should have told Jacob in the beginning.
The story then concludes with Laban proposing a new bargain. If Jacob will fulfil Leah’s wedding week (in other words not discard her, but accept her as a proper wife), then he will give him Rachel as well—but providing he serves him another seven years. And perhaps surprisingly, Jacob agrees.
Now Jacob throughout this whole sordid affair seems to come out pretty well. His behaviour, even at the height of the deceit was good. Yes, he was naturally angry when he realised that he had been tricked. But that quickly went. He quickly saw that Leah was just as much a victim of Laban’s schemes as he was. So not only did he not berate her, but in the end, actually took her to be a proper bride, by completing her wedding week.
Furthermore, when Laban suggested he work another seven years for Rachel, Jacob would have been well aware that just as seven years weren’t necessary for his first bride, a further seven years weren’t necessary for his second bride either. And yet, Jacob acceded to Laban’s offer. Because despite what had happened, he still loved Rachel. And he would still have felt a moral obligation to pay in full (and even exceed the going rate) for what he received in return.
Laban on the other hand is the villain of the piece. Because at each step in the process his behaviour deteriorated further. In order to cover up one mistake, he was prepared to make another. He probably knew Jacob well enough to know that he would survive with his skin intact. Nevertheless, he still had the nerve to compound his greed (in taking Jacob’s first offer of seven years’ service) by asking for a further seven years.
6. Unanswered Questions
Now, of course, there is little unsaid in this story. Laban’s deceit is on display for all. However, there are two questions that remain:
Where was Rachel whilst the wedding deceit was taking place? Had she been persuaded, or commanded by her father to go along with this particular stratagem, or had she been forcibly detained in the women’s quarters from the evening until the morning?
And why did Leah go along with it too? She may have earnestly wanted a husband, and she may have even harboured a secret love for Jacob, but she knew that Jacob loved Rachel. So had she been persuaded, or commanded by her father to go along with this stratagem too?
Whatever the answer to these questions, neither Rachel’s situation on the wedding night or Leah’s reflects well on the manipulating schemes of Laban.
C. CONTRASTING BELIEFS
In this story, then, we have a story of two contrasting kinds of behaviour. Jacob who is upright, and willingly goes beyond what is decent and right. And Laban, who is a master of dishonesty and deceit, and who willingly manipulates the situation to suit himself.
But why the difference? Why does Jacob go above and beyond what is expected? And why is Laban’s world so centred around himself?
1. Difference in Beliefs
Well, I guess, there could be many factors. But the one fundamental difference that we know is the issue of what they believed.
After all, we know that Jacob had been brought up in a household of faith. And we know that he had been pretty manipulative himself in his younger years. But we also know that just before meeting Laban, he had an encounter with God. And it was an encounter which changed his life.
On the other hand, Laban, we are told, was a man who acknowledged God’s activity, but who we’re told (later on) had a number of household gods that he worshipped. And they were all gods designed to bring him good fortune and to meet his own personal desires.
And because of the difference in beliefs, Jacob’s faith is reflected in his behaviour to Laban, in not only doing what he had to do, but going beyond what was required. And Laban’s faith is reflected in his duplicity and in his self-interest.
2. The Slippery Slope
But the story doesn’t start that way. Indeed, at the beginning, Laban is quite clearly seen to offer Jacob hospitality, and to offer employment in the normal way.
So what went wrong? Why did Laban’s behaviour deteriorate so badly? Well obviously, his own self-interest was an issue. But then so too was greed, and the willingness to cover one mistake with another.
And that’s a trap of which we need to be aware. Because one lie does tend to lead to another. And one act of dishonesty can so easily lead to a habit.
Jacob’s behaviour reflected his faith in his God, and Laban’s behaviour reflected his faith in his gods. But then Laban’s gods were chosen to reflect his own self-interest. But what about us? And what does our behaviour say about the God that we believe in?
Well, in a sense, that is for us, and for the people around us to assess. However, the message of the story is that without a solid grounding in one true God, it doesn’t take much to change from someone who behaves well, to someone who is manipulative and demanding. One mistake which is then compounded by another is all that it takes. As a consequence, it is very important to know by whose rules that we live by—by God’s rules or our own.
Some people’s behaviour is difficult for us to comprehend. But there is a strong correlation between faith and behaviour. What people believe is expressed in their behaviour. And how people behave is a reflection of their faith.
So how do we behave? Do we behave well? And is our faith on solid ground? Because, it’s all very well pointing the finger at others. But if behaviour reflects belief, and belief is reflected in our behaviour, then how do we fit in to the scheme of things? Does our behaviour reflect what we say we believe? Or does it reflect our true beliefs, even ones we may not wish to acknowledge?
Throughout life we encounter many people, many of whose motives may be highly questionable. However, we cannot assume that everyone is working from the same base. Yes, there are people who lie, who cheat and who deceive, and in order to cover up past mistakes, their behaviour deteriorates further.
But whoever we are, our behaviour reflects our deep-seated beliefs. So what we need to make sure of, then, is that our deep-seated beliefs are on a very sound footing.
Jacob’s behaviour was based on a belief in the one true God. Laban’s behaviour stemmed from his own self-interest. And our behaviour … Well, good or bad, it is a reflection of what we truly believe.
Posted: 8th February 2018
© 2018, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Uncomfortable Life of Faith (Genesis 12:1-4a)
1. The Comfortable Life
For many people routine in life is very important. It provides the means by which life can flow reasonably smoothly, with few unexpected bumps—or that is what is hoped. People like to be comfortable. And as a consequence people also like to surround themselves with familiar things—possessions, people, family, and friends.
Of course, some (pleasant) surprises every now again can make life interesting. And a bit of adventure every now and again can bring some colour to life. But generally, for many, life is preferably easy, with maybe a bit of variation—but nothing too traumatic.
2. The Uncomfortable Life
Of course, in one sense that’s quite understandable—people generally don’t like the traumas of life. However, as you and I know, life for most people is not always like that. Indeed many people will face quite a few peaks and troughs in their lives. And for that reason, I’m sure that some are attracted to the Christian faith. Because there is an expectation that the Christian life should be easy.
However, for those who have that view today, then I’m sorry, I’m going to disappoint you. Because as the bible tells us, the Christian life is not likely to be smooth sailing at all.
And by way of illustrating what I mean, I want to refer to the story of the call of Abram (later renamed Abraham). Because in it we have the story of a call by God, where Abram’s life was uprooted and in some ways made very uncomfortable indeed. And it’s a call, which has implications for us. Because just as Abram was called to be different, so are we.
B. THE CALL OF ABRAM
1. Abram’s Call (1)
And I’d like to start with God’s words to Abram: “Go! Leave your land, your people, and your father’s house.”
Now, it would have been quite common, in Abram’s time, for people to have believed in a multitude of gods. There would have been gods to control the rain, the crops, the seasons, the sun, etc., etc. And indeed, Abram’s father did. But that wasn’t to be Abram’s lot. Rather Abram was called to put all his trust and belief in the one God. And he was called to treat all the other gods, as the false gods that they were. As a consequence Abram was called to put away his family’s long held beliefs, and to devote himself to the one God.
So, firstly, he was called to have faith. And then, having put his faith in the one God, the second thing Abram was called to do was to respond to that belief in a very hands-on manner. This wasn’t just to be a faith of lip service or a faith of intellectual assent. Abram was required to clearly demonstrate the extent of his belief in a specific way. And that wouldn’t have been easy.
In those days land was precious. It was where one’s families’ traditions were maintained. It was also where one’s livelihood was based. And Abram’s family, having recently moved from Ur (in modern-day Iraq) and established itself in Haran (in modern day south-eastern Turkey), would have found it difficult to let it go.
Now saying goodbye to the people he grew up with would not have been an easy thing to do. But now God was asking him to say goodbye to his family—his siblings and the other members of his father’s household. And on top of that, to journey into the unknown, not knowing where he was being led. In other words he was being asked by God to abandon everything which was comfortable and familiar, and to trust that this one God would be faithful. He was being asked to commit himself to the one true God, and to demonstrate his commitment by disentangling himself from everything he knew, in order to pursue his faith.
Now talk about people being removed from their comfort zones.
2. God’s Promises to Abram (2-3)
However, in contrast to Abram’s simple call, God’s commitment to him, provided he was obedient, was amazing: “I will show you a land where I will make you the father of a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great. I will make you a blessing to others. Those who bless you, I will bless. Those who curse you, I will curse. Through you, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.”
Now there are a lot of “I will’s” in God’s statement
“I will make you the father of a great nation. I will bless you.” Abram was seventy-five years old, and had no children. This was an age where the lack of children was seen as a sign of divine disfavour. So the promise not only to have a child, but to become the father of a great nation, must have been a very exciting promise.
“I will make your name great. I will make you a blessing to others.” To be revered by others, and for others to be blessed by the things that he did, would also have been a wonderful promise too. Being blessed, and giving others blessings, was one of the great values of the time. And to be honoured, without actually seeking that honour, was the highest honour of all.
And “Those who bless you, I will bless. Those who curse you, I will curse. Through you, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.” To know that whatever he did, and wherever he was, that God would remain faithfully by his side—protecting him and being with him in all circumstances. Well that was something special again.
3. Abram’s Response (4a)
But despite those promises, this was still a big thing that God was asking. Remember, Abram came from a family that believed in multiple gods, and he was being asked to trust in only one. Furthermore, the promises were not about the there and then, but they were about things that God would do in the future. And at least one of which he would not be alive to see.
What God required was nothing less than raw faith—nothing more, nothing less. Abram was being asked to exchange the known for the unknown—to find his reward in what he would not live to see (a great nation), in what was intangible (God himself), and in what God would impart in the future (blessing).
But despite that, what Abram did is now history. At the age seventy-five, with wife, nephew, possessions, property, and other household servants, Abram departed on his journey of faith. He trusted in God to lead him, to keep his promises, and to provide for all his needs. Is it any wonder, then, that over the centuries Abram’s story has been considered to be one of the greatest stories of faith?
However, it’s also a story that should not be read in isolation, because it has many implications, even for us today.
Now the call of Abram is not unique in the bible. Moses, Joshua, the Judges, David, the Prophets, the Disciples, and Paul all received similar calls—to forsake all and follow God. And, lest we think that this kind of call is only for a particular type of person—the leaders of the church or for the spiritual elite— then a reminder from Jesus should dispel that idea. The words of Jesus: “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life my sake, will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
1. Our Call
So, like Abram, whether we like it or not, the bible teaches that we are also called to give up everything to follow Jesus. Abram was called to believe; he was called to have faith. And so are we. But we are also called, like Abram, to respond to that belief in a hands-on way. Lip service or intellectual belief is not enough.
Now, not all will be asked to physically leave their homeland, their family and their friends, because God asks each of us to do different things. But all of us are asked to place our faith, and the practice of that faith before all the things that make us comfortable.
So just as Abram was asked to disentangle himself from the world and from the things that he held dear, for a relationship with God, so we are asked to do the same. And that will not always be easy. Because there will always be pressures from family, friends, and the community to conform. And there will always be the distractions of the world, discouraging us from the steps that God requires us to take.
2. God’s Promises to Us
The other side of the coin, however, is that just as Abram was promised a number of things—land, a new family, being the father of a great nation, fame, blessing, and protection from his enemies—so our call involves a number of promises from God too.
And in the context of Jesus’s words that I quoted, those promises include salvation—eternal life with God. In other words if we are prepared to give up everything and put God first, then the promise is that when we depart this world eternal life will be ours, guaranteed.
Now, a promise like that is not something that we are going to see totally fulfilled in this lifetime. As a consequence, like Abram, we are also called to accept God’s promises for the future. We are required to have faith, believing that they will happen.
However, we can also experience something of God’s promises in the here and now. Not least of which is the shadow of the afterlife that we can experience now through his presence with us, and with the guidance and blessings that he provides.
3. Our response
Now, of course, we know how Abram responded to God’s command. We also know how Moses, Joshua, the Judges, David, the Prophets, the Disciples, and Paul responded too. But that still leaves the question of how we have responded to God’s call ourselves.
In other words, what have we done with the call of God to accept him in our lives? And as a consequence, what have we done with the continuing call of God, to respond daily as well? Jesus’ words again: “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life my sake, will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
Of course peoples’ responses to the call of God will always be quite varied. Many will find the call of Jesus as something that they don’t need—because they like to be self-sufficient. Some will consider that he asks too much, or that the world is far more appealing. Some will accept Jesus, but then lose the plot, and show no evidence of faith in their lives. But a few, like Abram, will respond to God’s call.
What we need to remember, however, is that the call of God to give up everything and follow him is not a one-off sort of call. But it requires us to go on a journey with God, as he leads us to the Promised Land—a journey, which should affect every believer, every day of their life.
Abram’s call was a single searching command from God. It was a call to disentangle himself from his country, his kindred and his father’s house, in order to pursue his faith in God. And that is exactly what our call is as well.
But have we responded to that call from God? What have we done with God’s promise of eternal life? Is it something that we responded to a long time ago, and have since lost the plot? Or is it something that we eagerly pursue in our daily lives?
Now I said at the outset, for many people some sort of routine of life is important. And many people like to have familiar things around them—including, possessions, people, family, and friends. Indeed, most people would prefer life to be fairly even, without too many surprises. But life is not always like that. And for Christians, life should not be like that at all.
As Abram was called to forsake everything, to leave everything behind for the claim of God on his life, so are we. We are called to make great sacrifices. But whereas Abram was specifically promised a new land, children, and to be the father of a great nation, we have been given the promise of eternal life with God.
The words of Jesus make it perfectly clear, that the call to follow God isn’t just a one-off event. It isn’t something that we accept once, and then we can forget. Rather it is a daily decision to put all else behind for the priority of following Jesus. And that may make us very uncomfortable indeed.
So the question today is, “What have we done with God’s call? We too might prefer the more comfortable life, but have we accepted the more uncomfortable life of faith? We can’t have it both ways. Which way have we chosen?
Posted: 10th March 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis