Romans 4: Believing promises, obeying contracts, and retribution

One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.

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Winning arguments vs. winning each other for Christ (Romans 14)

I just got an app on my phone for the daily office, which is a set of scriptures for each day. I thought I would try offering some brief reflections on them for my blog and see how long I can keep it up. Today’s epistle reading was what most caught my eye: Romans 14:1-12 which talks about winning arguments vs. winning each other for Christ. Continue reading

Fe temporal vs. fe salvador: Spanish Bible study adventures #1

I have started leading a Wednesday morning Bible study in Spanish at the Lamb Center, a homeless drop-in center in Fairfax, VA. We have been going through the book of Ephesians since it’s fairly short and super-rich theologically. It’s very interesting to lead a Bible study in a different language where I understand about half of what is being said by the other participants. They’ve been very talkative, which is awesome, but they’ll sometimes share long personal stories that I lose track of. Thankfully I am accompanied each week by Maritza Monsalvo, the wife of Pastor Medardo Serrano who leads the Spanish congregation that meets at Burke UMC on Saturdays. It usually isn’t until the drive home when we debrief and I learn what in the world we actually talked about. Continue reading

God Will Provide: Abraham & Isaac

I don’t know about you but if God told me to kill my oldest son and offer him as a sacrifice, I’d tell God to go kick rocks. Of course, God would probably make me eat the rocks. But seriously what’s going on with Abraham in this story? What happened to the crafty Abraham in Genesis 12 who went to Egypt and pretended like his wife was his sister so the Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him and he’d get lots of cattle and cash? What happened to the sassy Abraham in Genesis 19 who argued with God for twenty minutes over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah?

We’re used to thinking Abraham did whatever God told him but that really only happens twice. Last week, we talked about how God told Abram to finish the journey that his father started. Well, that wasn’t too hard. The place he was staying, Haran, was like the boring Midwest of the ancient Near East. If God tells you to leave the cornfields and go to California, that’s not a tough decision. But demanding your son as a sacrifice: that’s when the honeymoon is over.

It’s important to explain that it wouldn’t have been a surprise at all to Abraham for God to expect a first-born sacrifice. All the ancient gods asked for it. So as Abraham was wandering around with God, he was probably waiting for God to pop the question. He had Ishmael as his backup son, so if something happened to Isaac, the estate would be intact. So what did God do? He waited until right after Abraham’s wife Sarah ran Ishmael off to show up and collect payment. If Abraham had been like most ancient Near Eastern fathers, he would have had 7 or 8 children and he could have said, “Sure, God, the first one’s a brat anyhow. You want him, he’s yours. My second son is so much more of a man.”

But Abraham wasn’t like most ancient Near Eastern fathers. His wife Sarah had been barren until God promised to give them a son at an age when it was biologically ridiculous. Isaac’s name in Hebrew is Yitzhak, which means “laughter,” because Sarah laughed when she heard she was going to have a son. God had performed a ridiculous miracle, so for Him to take it back would have been unspeakably cruel.

Now we know because the Bible tells us that this whole thing was just a test of Abraham’s faith. But Abraham didn’t know that. What did Abraham know and when did he know it? Abraham says two things which give us a hint. First, when he gets to the mountain of sacrifice, he tells his servants to wait with their donkeys while he and Isaac go to worship, saying specifically that “we will return,” meaning both he and Isaac, which he didn’t have to say. Then, when Abraham is walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son asks him where the sacrificial animal is, and Abraham says to his son, “God will provide a lamb for us.”

Now you might think that Abraham was lying to both his servants and his son. This cynical reading would be the only possible explanation if God had never promised to make a nation out of his offspring. Without that promise, the best Abraham could have done would have been to keep things pleasant until they had to get ugly. But Abraham had asked God directly in Genesis 15 if his servant Eliezer was going to inherit his estate and God said, no, your own flesh and blood will be your heir and your offspring shall be like the stars in the sky. And the Bible says, “Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”

We don’t know how Abraham felt inside when he answered his son’s question. We don’t know if he believed all the way in God’s promise or if he was like the man many centuries later who said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe! Help me with my unbelief!” Whatever was in Abraham’s head, what he said was God will provide. Say that with me one time: God will provide. It’s one of the most important phrases in the whole Bible. And the strange thing about this phrase is the people who say it the most are people in impossible circumstances like Abraham was.

Some of y’all know I was a pastor before I came here in a community where people were living on the edge, most of them behind on their rent and on the verge of getting either evicted or deported. And I’ve never heard a group of people say God will provide more than they did. The strange thing about faith is that it’s often hard to come by until you need it because you’ve got nothing else.

I live a pretty comfortable life, so the closest I come to being in a situation where I have to say God will provide is putting up door-hangers all over town, knowing good and well that any door-hangers left on my door go straight to the recycling bin, but hoping that somebody would actually give us a chance. God will provide. I want so badly for Him to provide if there’s somebody out there who’s having a rough time and needs a church family like the one in this room that has blessed me for the past year. God will provide. Saying that phrase is asking God to help me believe it and trying to convince myself that I do believe it at the same time.

Now somebody might ask, “Why say God will provide?” Isn’t this all just the power of positive thinking? Why not say instead “I will provide” and decide that you’re going to be successful until you are? And furthermore, Mr. Preacherman, you’re letting God off the hook too easily for asking Abraham to do something despicable? Test or not, I could never worship a God like that.

Let me answer both of the objections at once. The reason why it makes sense to say God will provide is that He has provided a lamb for us. Abraham surely didn’t realize it, but his answer to Isaiah’s question was one of the first prophetic declarations of the coming of Christ. The test God gave to Abraham was the beginning of a new religion that would be defined by the lack of child-sacrifice. Abraham and his descendants had an elaborate sacrificial system, but it never again would involve children like it did in other ancient cultures.

Now one thing we don’t understand in our modern world is that there’s a basic spiritual need that sacrifice addresses. Through the daily process of stepping on each other’s toes and getting in each other’s way, we build up a kind of rage that needs to let itself out. If the pressure builds and there’s no outlet, then it gets released chaotically in emotional volcanoes which cause people to get hurt. In our modern world, we deal with this pressure by medicating ourselves whether it’s prescribed by a doctor or not. But in ancient Israel, the way people got rid of their bad blood was through sacrifice. By offering sacrifices to God, the Israelites could let go of their sins and their grudges against others’ sins so they could live together in peace.

This worked for a time, but then God saw that the Israelite sacrificial system had been corrupted and turned into a power game for the religious hierarchy, so He pulled the most ultimate role reversal He could have. God came to Earth in the form of His Son Jesus and made the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. God provided a lamb. That’s why it’s appropriate not only to say He will provide, but that He has provided. He not only stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son; God sacrificed Himself in the form of His Son Jesus. And because God has provided a lamb for us, we can take to His cross all of our baggage; all the anger, pain, and guilt from a lifetime of misunderstandings and betrayals can be washed clean in the only solvent that breaks down every sin – the blood of Jesus. God didn’t need His Son’s blood to prove anything to Himself; Jesus gave Himself up for us, the people who need a cross where we can put our rage, our doubt, and our fear, the people who cannot clean their own hearts in the way that only Jesus can.

God is always providing for us in all kinds of ways, whether it’s helping us find a spouse or a job or community to take care of us. But the most important thing God provides is freedom from the sins we have committed and the sins committed against us; we have a cross to put them on because God has given us a lamb for our salvation just like He did for Abraham.