The wisdom and subtlety of God truly are beyond our comprehension. Sometimes, though, we are privileged to get a glimpse of it in the Scriptures. This is the case with the story of Abraham and his descendants in Genesis, which only makes sense in the light of its New-Testament explanation.
For instance, why did the promise come through Isaac, not Ishmael? God doesn't really explain this in Genesis, but He does decree that it is through Isaac that Abraham’s descendants will be named.
Similarly, when Rebekah is still pregnant with twin boys, God informs her that the older of them will serve the younger. Again, why? As Paul points out in Romans 9, it's not like either of them had done anything good or bad. When they do start making decisions, Jacob comes across as a trickster and Esau as more of a stand-up guy, but according to the divine decree, the promise descends through Jacob.
We may never know all the reasons why God does this, but Paul gives us one of them in Romans 9:6-13. Here, Paul is dealing with what I like to think of as the problem of Israel. The Israelites have been God's chosen people for 1500 years, yet Christ, the final fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises, is rejected by almost all of them. Instead, the newly established churches across the Mediterranean are largely filled with Gentiles, descendants of those whom God did not choose.
What's going on here? Did God's plan fail? Even more strongly, aren't the fleshly descendants of Abraham entitled to a place in the kingdom of God? Doesn't the fact they have ended up on the outside mean that God has cheated them?
To answer these questions, Paul returns to the stories of those early ancestors of the Jews. Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn. He should have inherited. However, he did not, nor was Abraham’s line of descent reckoned through him. God's blessing came not according to the rules of the flesh but according to the promise that God made.
The same is true with Jacob and Esau. Esau was the firstborn. Once again, he should have received the blessing and the birthright, but he ended up with neither. Instead, Jacob claimed both. Once again, he received them not because of the flesh, but because of the promise that God made to his mother.
This is a brilliant argument. If the Jews deny that God's blessing should come according to the promise, they also are denying that their own ancestors should have been blessed. By that logic, they shouldn't be God's chosen people at all!
If, on the other hand, the Jews accept that God's blessing ought to be according to the promise, then they are left without any grounds for complaining that Abraham’s fleshly descendants have been excluded. They have no less right than the Gentiles to become children of God, but they no longer have any more right either.
The argument is brilliant, but the brilliance is not Paul's, but God’s. God knew before the foundation of the world that the problem of Israel would arise. 2000 years before it came, he arranged the family affairs of an obscure clan of nomads so that His chosen apostle would be able to demolish the objections of the descendants of those same nomads.
I'm thankful that a God like that is for me rather than against me!
In Genesis 23, we find a description of the death of Sarah and the fallout from it. Most of the chapter is occupied with a long-winded and somewhat comical account of Abraham haggling with the inhabitants of the land for a burial place for his wife. Eventually, he ends up as the owner of the cave of Machpelah, where in time he, his son, and his grandson also will rest.
This marks a somewhat ironic end for Sarah. Hebrews 11 identifies her as a woman of faith. Specifically, she considered God faithful in His promise that she would bear a son. More generally, though, she is part of the “these all” of Hebrews 11:13 who died in faith without having received the promises.
These promises can only be the promises that God had made to her husband. So far as we know, she was not a party to the conversations in which God told Abraham that the land of Canaan would belong to him, that his descendants would become a mighty nation, or that in his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Nonetheless, it appears that she knew about them, presumably because Abraham told her, and they shaped the course of the rest of her life.
She lived as a sojourner in the land of promise, and she died as a sojourner in the land of promise. In the end, she was buried in the only part of that land that belonged to her family. What a fizzle!
Of course, we know what Sarah did not live long enough to see. In time, Canaan did come into the possession of her descendants. They did become a mighty nation, and all nations were and are blessed through her grandson many times over, Jesus. Her death did not keep the promises from being fulfilled.
I find this heartening, for in many ways, I identify with Sarah. She heard only one of God's promises directly, but I've directly heard none of them. Instead, as she had to rely on Abraham, I must rely on the Bible.
I also anticipate that I will die without receiving the promises. I suspect that most Christians do not look for the Lord to return in their lifetimes, but if He wants to return while I am still alive, He's running out of time pretty quickly! Most likely, I will face the challenge of dying in faith.
Sarah’s example, though, shows that such a death is possible and even reasonable. Like her, I, and indeed all of us, can see and greet the promises from a distance. I am a foreigner and a temporary resident on the earth, as everyone is whether they believe the promises or not. However, I can look forward to a permanent dwelling, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Sarah died, but her death did not hinder the fulfillment of the promises. Even if I die, my death will not hinder the fulfillment of the promises either. God is much too powerful for that!
The other day on Facebook, I saw an article by a professor of Old Testament studies in which he compared the content of the book of Psalms to the content of Top 25 Christian contemporary music. He observed that many of the most prominent themes of the Psalms, like God's help for the poor, justice, enemies, and questioning God, are barely present in contemporary music.
I agree with that.
However, lots of people found lots of reasons to disagree with the article. Prominently, many pointed out that exactly the same charges could be made against our repertoire of traditional hymns.
I agree with that too, and I think it points out a serious problem with our song worship. Our hymns don’t engage with reality the way the Psalms do.
These days, I tend to understand the Psalms through the lens of Psalm 1. In it, the psalmist makes a bold claim about reality. He predicts that God will bless the righteous while punishing the wicked.
The rest of the Psalms put this claim to the test. Does our experience of life under the sun show God's favor toward the obedient and His condemnation of the sinner? Sometimes, the claim checks out. There are many psalms that praise God for His goodness toward His people.
Frequently, though, the Psalms address the times when God's goodness is not apparent. What about when the Israelites lose a battle despite their faithfulness? What about when the righteous are poor and oppressed by powerful enemies? What about when the sacred musicians who served in the temple are carried off into captivity alongside the disobedient? What about when the godly have failed God? There are nearly as many such questions as there are psalms.
Our hymn repertoire does a great job covering the content of Psalm 1. We often sing about how wonderful it is that God has solved our problems. However, it does a horrible job of covering the content of much of the rest of the book. We know that the life of the Christian is not always blue skies and rainbows and sunbeams from heaven, but you generally couldn't tell it from our song worship!
Consequently, our singing reinforces that pretense of perfection during our assemblies that so many brethren complain about. We know that we're going to have to paste on a smile and pretend like everything is fine when we are supposedly pouring out our hearts to God, so we might as well paste on the smile before and after services too.
Our American inability to address suffering and sorrow is part of the problem. We get super-uncomfortable when a brother tells us that actually his life is terrible. We don't know how to handle that. In the same way, many Christians get uncomfortable with singing about trial and suffering. Aren't we supposed to be putting aside the worries and cares of the world?
I think the result is tragic. Too often, hurting Christians come to worship and find that putting on a happy facade for their brethren and God is another source of stress. It feels dishonest, and it keeps them from finding comfort and authenticity in the one place where they should be able to be authentic and comforted.
We begin to solve the problem by singing psalms of every kind, not just the upbeat ones. Since we started singing through the Psalms at Jackson Heights, I've had multiple Christians thank me tearfully for giving them the chance to finally express their feelings in worship. Sometimes, they have been so deeply moved that they couldn't even get the words out.
Second, I think all of us need to get comfortable with singing hymns about unpleasant topics, whether we ourselves are suffering or not. We require rejoicing with those who rejoice, but what about weeping with those who weep? Maybe I don't want to sing about how hard life is, but it's nearly certain that somebody in the congregation does.
I recognize that this calls for a sea change in the way that we worship. We do little lamenting, and we do no questioning or imprecating. However, it's a change well worth making. Worship like this is true at last to our lived experience.
Also, I think it is more attractive to outsiders than worship that is inright-outright-upright-downright happy all the time. Strangers don't visit a congregation because everything is going great in their lives. Instead, they come because their lives are in tatters. When they see and hear us bringing the hard things before God, they will recognize that they are in the midst of people like them.
When we study the use of Old-Testament passages and stories in the New Testament, a surprising trend emerges. The writers of the New Testament often do not use those passages in the way that we do or that we would expect.
This became apparent last week when we studied the use of the story of Lot by Jesus and Peter. Today, gospel preachers like to bag on Lot. They condemn him for “pitching his tent towards Sodom” and point to the corruption of his family with grim satisfaction. By contrast, the New Testament uniformly describes Lot as righteous and uses his escape from destruction as an example of the way that God will save His people.
Much the same thing happens in the New Testament’s use of Genesis 21. This chapter contains the story of Sarah driving Hagar out because Ishmael made fun of Isaac. Here too, we like to moralize about Abraham’s mistake in trying to hurry God's promise along by sleeping with Hagar. If anything, our sympathies lie with the servant girl and her child, who are thrown out into the desert.
Our first clue that this is a mistake lies with Abraham’s motivation for allowing it to happen. He consents to Hagar’s expulsion because God tells him to. In Galatians 4:21-30, Paul picks up on this theme. He compares Hagar to the earthly city of Jerusalem and Sarah to the Jerusalem above. Similarly, he likens Ishmael to the Jews and Isaac to Christians. The Jews might be persecuting Christians like Ishmael harassed Isaac, but in the end, they will be driven out of the kingdom.
We live in an era that exalts tolerance. Anything goes, except for those who refuse to line up with progressive talking points. If we dare to suggest that someone might go to hell because of their practice of sin, we are condemned as hateful bigots. Even within our brotherhood, there are those who embrace members of denominations as fully Christian. If we disagree, they claim that we are tied to church tradition, narrow-minded, and so on.
However, all of this inclusiveness fails to reckon with the exclusive nature of the gospel. Yes, anyone who wishes to become a Christian may do so. Transformation, though, takes place on Christ’s terms, not our terms. Thereafter, we must live God's way, not our way. All who refuse the first of these things will not have their names written in the book of life. Those who refuse the second will have their names blotted out.
This sounds awfully ugly, but it is no uglier than the exclusion of Hagar and Ishmael. If God tells us through His word that someone does not belong with His people, we have no more right to argue with Him than Abraham did. In fact, we are responsible for solemnly warning the deluded about the danger that they are in, even though this leads to more unpleasantness. It appears harsh, but it is the kindest thing that we can do. Conversely, when we welcome those whom the Scriptures exclude, it will cost us our souls along with theirs.
People in our society say lots of dumb things. Surely among the most foolish, though, are the denials of the power of prayer. This usually comes up after mass shootings, when conservatives send “thoughts and prayers” on behalf of the victims’ families. In reply, progressives sneer that thoughts and prayers aren't enough. What we really need is action on gun control!
There are a couple of problems here. The first is that action from the government is in no way comparable to prayer. God is all-wise and all-powerful. The government, well. . . Those who put their trust in princes would be well served to study some history and learn how trusting princes works out.
Second, I suspect that people who show contempt for prayer typically have never prayed and have never been prayed for. Since I was diagnosed with ALS last July, I have been the beneficiary of countless thousands of prayers, so I suppose that I am in a better position than most to testify to their effectiveness.
Simply put, my experience is this. Without those prayers, I cannot even imagine how bad my life would be. No, they haven't cured my disease, but I didn't really expect them to (though I certainly would have been thankful if they had!). It is appointed to man once to die, and the promise of God is not the removal of affliction but comfort through affliction.
The latter I have indeed experienced, in spades. In fact, I usually find myself in the strange position of being much more at peace with my decline and death than the people I talk to are. This should not be! After all, I'm the one whose legs are so bad that I can barely walk and whose hands are so bad that I can't type or button a shirt. They're healthy, but they're broken up, and I'm not.
This is not the result of my strength of will or my faith. I learned the limits of my willpower last year when I was suicidally depressed. Concerning faith, I feel that mine is not the equal of the faith of many who are praying for me.
Nor, I think, does the answer even lie in the antidepressants that I'm taking. I've been saying for a while now that my experience with them has been amazing, far better than that of anyone else I know. I am baffled.
It occurs to me, though, that in my perplexity I have been overlooking a confounding variable. About the same time that I started taking antidepressants, I also went public about my illness and made the prayer lists of churches all over the world, and the prayers have been doing the real work. Antidepressants are a blessing, but prayer is a much greater blessing.
Because of those prayers, I have been able to continue my work. I have been able to encourage and inspire others, more powerfully than I have ever done before. Even as my body continually reminds me of the progression of my disease, I am filled with joy and hope.
Consequently, whenever somebody tells me that they have been praying for me, I thank them fervently and encourage them fervently to continue. In fact, I think that sometimes people are taken aback by the warmth of my response. I'm dead serious, though! I am in constant need of all the prayers that anyone is willing to offer.
Pray, then, and do not lose heart. Pray for me, and pray for all the other godly goals that are on your heart. Pray, and keep praying. You will find a blessing that all those who mock thoughts and prayers will never experience.