God's Untamable Promise and Jesus Christ
2008-02-11 by David Carr

God’s promise and Jesus Christ


The reading from the Old Testament, Gen 12:1-4a is one of the most pivotal passages in the whole Bible.  Following on the stories in Genesis 1-11 of creation, violence, flood and its aftermath, this story of God’s promise to Abraham stands as a new beginning that unfolds through the rest of the Bible.  God has selected out of all the clans of the earth this one person, Abraham, and started a history with him and his descendants that ultimately leads to three of the major world religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. 


Astute Jewish interpreter that he was, Paul noted that Abraham does not do much in Genesis to earn this promise.   To be sure, later Jewish legends (picked up on by Islam) claimed that Abraham was actually the first monotheist, and that he destroyed his father, Terah’s, idols, before leaving home.  But the Bible does not record such a story, and it’s probably a creation of interpreters who wanted Abraham to appear more Torah-abiding than he was.  In the lectionary reading for today Paul simply notes that Abraham was seen as righteous by God already in chapter 15 of Genesis (Gen 15:6), two chapters before he was circumcised (Genesis 17).  For Paul, this was but one argument that all people, not just circumcised and Torah-abiding members of the people of Israel, receives the guarantee of God’s promise (Rom 4:16).  The faith of Israel and gentiles, not works of either, were what insured the gift of God’s blessing.  [Note: that Rom 4:16 and other texts in Paul assume that gentiles receive the promise alongside, not instead of, Jews.]

Christians see God’s blessing to Abraham as coming to them through Jesus Christ.  This is reflected in the combination of lectionary readings for the day, and even in the translation of Gen 12:3 that is given in many church Bibles.  For example, the NRSV still translates this passage as: “And in you all clans of the earth shall be blessed,” anticipating a passage later in the Bible, where Paul claims “and the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham,  saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’” (Gal 3:8; NRSV)   The problem, as hinted at in notes in the NRSV translation of Gen 12:3, is that there are good reasons to think that the Hebrew of Gen 12:3 actually says something else.  Many interpreters think that the Hebrew text here is talking about God’s gift of blessing to Abraham that is so intense, that all clans of the earth will bless themselves by Abraham, that is wish a blessing on themselves like the one they see Abraham enjoying.  Someone might say, “may God make me as rich, happy and fertile as Abraham.”  Ancient Israelite kings received this kind of promise (see Psalm 72:17), and Genesis 12-25 describes the gift of this superlative royal blessing to Abraham, a landless exile living in Mesopotamia.  Blessing is not going out to the clans of the earth through Abraham.  Rather, Gen 12:3 depicts God’s blessing of an isolated, vulnerable, landless man (Abram) that is so great that other clans of the earth will look to him as a model of the sort of blessing that would wish for themselves.

As it turns out, blessing did go out to the world through Abram, and that includes blessing going out to the world through his descendant, Jesus of Nazareth.  How might we read Genesis alongside Paul and the Gospel reading?  First, I’d suggest that we hold on to the picture in Genesis 12:1-4a and following of God’s unbelievable, extravagant promise to Abraham and other landless exiles that God would bless and protect them.  Later Jews would hear this story in Babylon, Rome, Europe and elsewhere, and trust that God would somehow provide for them, and Christians and Muslims too have found power in this gift of royal promise to an isolated, faithful person far from home.  For these readers, “Abram” was a picture of them as God called them to leave their native land and family to go to a place they did not know.  So also, the promise in Gen 12:1-4a can be a word of unbelievable hope to the landless exiles in our midst, the exile experience almost all of us go through at some point.  [Note: though past scholars and many commentaries once dated this passage to the time of Solomon, many now see it as part of a retelling of the Abraham story during the Babylonian exile.] 

Second, we must balance our claiming of this promise for ourselves with a recognition of it belonging to others as well.  Jews have read this passage, with reason, as the first of a series of God’s special promises to them, and indeed, this promise to Abraham in Gen 12:1-3 is only the first of a series that eventually lead to the gift of this promise to Jacob and his children, the ancestors of the tribes of Israel (see, for example, Gen 28:13-16).  Muslims have claimed the Abrahamic promise as well, emphasizing Ishmael as the conduit of blessing to them.  As we have seen, Christians have read Gen 12:1-3 as an anticipation of God’s promise going out to the world through Jesus, and thus wanted to claim Abraham’s promise for Christianity.  There is an aspect of this text’s claim of special promise that seems to lead people to want to claim it specially for themselves.  The reality, however, is that this promise to a landless exile, Abram, and his descendants, can not be tamed by any of these approaches.  It flows through and beyond the borders of religious communities to speak God’s word of unbelievable hope to descendants of Abraham that the (exilic?) authors of this text probably could never have imagined.   

This Week!
2008-02-10 by David Howell

David Carr is our guest blogger. He is professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  Carr is the author of The Erotic Word: Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Bible (Oxford, 2003) and Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (Oxford, 2005), along with other books and articles. He has particular interest in the formation of the Bible and in Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.

Outline on Temptations
2008-02-08 by Rick Brand

Since this is Scout Sunday in our church, the message will go in this direction.

a. The hard part about coming an Eagle Scout is that we will expect outstanding leadership for the rest of your life.  The hard part is living up to the name Eagle.

b. Jesus was in the wilderness being tested to live up to the name he had just been given in Baptism of Son of God. The hard part was living up to the Title.

c. The hard part of being called Christians is living up to the name. The temptations are the same: to worry too much about the physical and material, to want to test the reality of God's love, and to believe that Satan can give us all the kingdoms of this world. Satan cannot deliver on any promises.

Festival of Homiletics
2008-02-07 by David Howell

Due to the tremendous enrollment for the Festival of Homiletics in May, we have made some adjustments to the schedule. (Plus we heard your requests to open up Barbara Brown Taylor's, Nora Gallagher's and William Willimon's workshops. So, if you signed up for their workshops, please check for time and location changes.)

Go to Homepage and Festival of Homiletics for complete agenda. But here are the changes and additions below.


1:15 p.m "Writers in the Round" (OPEN TO ALL ATTENDEES) with Barbara Brown Taylor (sermon writer), Nora Gallagher (novel writer), and Beth Nielsen Chapman (song writer)  (Westminster Presbyterian Church sanctuary).

2:45 p.m. Barbara Brown Taylor: "Enlivening the Sermon: Writer's Wisdom for Preachers" (Westminster Presbyterian Church sanctuary) (OPEN TO ALL ATTENDEES) and assisted by Nora Gallagher. (Barbara will not be having a Thursday workshop.)



1:30 p.m William Willimon, (Central Lutheran sanctuary) OPEN TO ALL ATTENDEES

2:30 p.m. Nora Gallagher: "Finding the Thread: Faith and the Practice of Writing" (Central Lutheran sanctuary) OPEN TO ALL ATTENDEES and assisted by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Nora will not be having a Wednesday workshop.)

and Friday we have added:

8:45 a.m. Midnight Oil Productions (Len Wilson and Jason Moore): Creative Worship (Central Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall)

"Lectionary Homiletics" Highlights
2008-02-05 by David von Schlichten

Susan Eastman has provided a salutary blog entry below. Also, you can enjoy Paul Galbreath's “Theological Themes” essay by going to Share It! and then Free Samples from Lectionary Homiletics.

We are lively here in the tub as we splash around the highlights from Lectionary Homiletics, careful not to wash off the ashes on our foreheads.

Here are those highlights.

Lesson and the Arts”

Anne Ramirez recalls John Milton's lesser known Paradise Regained, in which the great poet retells the story of Christ's temptation. Milton presents the three temptations of the story in the Gospels but with embellishments.

First, the devil approaches Jesus disguised as an elderly shepherd searching for a lost sheep. The shepherd beseeches Jesus to change the stones to bread, not just so that Jesus can feed himself, but also so that Jesus can feed the poverty-stricken people who live in this isolated, rural area. Of course, Jesus recognizes the shepherd's true identity and does not fall for the trick.

Later, Satan tries to convince Jesus that he should obtain glory and also be a king, since God the Father is a powerful king. Jesus explains that the time for his kingdom has not yet come and that the pursuit of glory could lead to downfall, as it did for Satan.

Satan also shows Jesus a vision of Rome and says that Jesus can expel the emperor if Jesus draws from the devil for help. Jesus responds that maybe he should expel the devil, who has made the emperor the way he is in the first place.

Finally, the devil troubles Jesus with disturbing dreams. When Jesus awakens, the devil says that the dreams portend what awaits Jesus if he keeps obeying the Father. Jesus can free himself from it all by throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple, but Jesus does not give in to this temptation, either. Instead, Satan plummets back into hell.

Preaching the Lesson”

Anna Carter Florence suggests that the text warns us against “[ . . . ] the temptation to have faith in what we do rather than who we are” (p.19). The devil tempts Jesus by saying, “If you are the Son of God, then do something.” In times when we are famished, we are quick to forget that we are the baptized, God's beloved, and we start to think we need to prove ourselves. The devil tempts us to think that God's love is conditional instead of unconditional, that we need to earn grace, instead of remembering God's mercy and giving thanks.

A Sermon: Not Failing in the Wilderness

One feature of Scott Cowdell's sermon is that he compares Jesus' victory over temptation in the wilderness to Israel's moral failure in the wilderness in the Old Testament. Israel complains about not having bread, showing a lack of faith in God. Israel puts God to foolish tests, such as at Massah and Meribah. Finally, Satan promises Jesus lordship, and the people of Israel must understand that they will not gain the Promised Land on their own but only through God's power.

Remembering that I am dust and meditating on the temptation, I am

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator

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