Friday, December 9, 2016

Invitation to Awaken Your Humanity





I am convinced that we must reflect on God’s original plans for humanity in order to understand the work that God accomplishes through Jesus the Messiah on behalf of us all. At minimum, salvation is God’s actions to restore humanity to His original designs for women and men. This essay will reflect on several biblical texts beginning with Genesis 1:26-31:


NIV Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.


This text is profound. It focuses on the purpose of humanity. This passage affirms that every single human being has been created in the image of God (Latin: imago dei). Yet, most attempts at explaining it make the mistake of trying to interpret ontologically the meaning of the image of God – in other words, most try to explain the essence of humanity. This text however is more interested in the function and purpose of humanity. Below I will explore briefly two movements in this text and end with some theological reflection in light of the coming of Jesus Christ.


1) Humanity as the Pinnacle of God’s Creative Work
Creation reaches its climax in God’s crafting of women and men in His image. There are a number of clues that point to this. First, more verses are devoted to the making of people than to any other part of Creation in 1:1–2:3. Second, “let us” language suggest the care and deliberation of God in the forging of humanity in God’s image. Why the use of the plural plural? The most likely explanation is that “let us” is either a plural of majesty (God is so awesome that He speaks as a “We”) or it is God addressing the heavenly court. Regardless, this language clearly raises the importance of this section. Third, God appoints humanity as stewards. No other creature or created thing exercises authority over humanity. Instead, humanity is to reign over creation as God’s stewards or regents. Last, in 1:31 God offers a final evaluation of his creative activity. Days 1 to 5 were reckoned “good.” Now with the creation of humanity, God elevates his self-evaluation to “very good.”


All of these data suggest that the creation of humanity is the climactic event of God’s creative activity. All that remains for God to do at the conclusion of Day Six is rest (2:1-3).


2) Humanity as the Visible Representatives of the Creator God
 
A missional focus is implicit in humanity’s creation in the image of God.


In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word tselem is translated as image. It refers to that which is visible. In other words, imago dei points to humanity as representatives of God in Creation. Throughout the Scriptures, creating visible representations of God is prohibited. In such places, tselem translates as "idol." Yet, in Genesis 1, God created people to serve as a visible image of the divine. We are God’s representative agents. We may read this as a missional mandate: God created people to be reflections of the Creator God

Humanity stands before the rest of Creation as a witness to the God who fashioned the heavens and the earth. Thus, from the beginning of Creation, humans were born for a purpose. This mission was to represent the character of God before the rest of Creation.


As a result of being forged in the image of God, humans fulfill a key role for God. God created humanity to rule over creation. In our day, we have twisted this vocation into an excuse for abusing the earth and devaluing our fellow creatures. Genesis does indeed grant a high place to humanity, but this has to be understood in light of a representational authority. Humanity does rule for its own sake or prerogatives. Humanity exercises dominion over creation on behalf of God. The actions of people are to mirror those of God. 
Humanity’s mission is to reflect God’s character and prerogatives in its exercise of authority. We don’t act for ourselves, but for God and for others. We love others including enemies and the created world as an outflow of our love for God. An authority rooted in love is the only dominion that Genesis envisions. In its wider context, Genesis 2:15 confirms this reality, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (italics added). We may even call this dominion through servanthood.


The Apostle Paul will make a similar connection between creation and mission in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. In the same context in which Paul describes those in Christ as part of a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17), he uses the language of diplomacy in stating that as part of the new creation, “so we are God’s ambassadors as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20).


There are two elements present in this missional function: holiness and community. Genesis 1 assumes that humanity will achieve its mission of representing God through two means. Humanity represents God to the World by reflecting God’s character. This is the essence of holiness. Related to this is the reality that God did not create a solitary human creature, but differentiated humanity into its two sexes – male and female. Humanity thus was created to live in genuine community with one another.


We may summarize humanity’s role as God’s visible representatives to Creation with three words:


Mission (Connect) – humanity serves as the mediator/ambassador between God and Creation  

Holiness (Reflect)  – humanity embodies and reflects God’s character  

Community (Relate) – humanity lives in authentic and intimate community as part of its reflection of God’s character in fulfillment of God’s mission


Every single person who has ever lived was created for this purpose. Thus all people have intrinsic value and worth. 

Everyone has amazing potential. The problem is that we tend to turn away from God and seek our own way.


3) Jesus as the Fullest Reflection of Our True Humanity
Jesus came to deliver humanity from the darkness of sin. Post–Genesis 3, the persistence and pervasiveness of human sinfulness alienates us from God and ruptures creation itself. 
 In response to sin, Jesus came to live the only truly human life. He perfectly enacted and fulfilled the mission of God. Jesus, the Word, took on our flesh and made known to humanity the truth and reality of God:


NIV John 1:14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’” 16 From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.


Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has made it possible for humanity to live out God’s original purposes. By reconciling us to God and filling us with the Holy Spirit, Jesus awakens humanity to God’s creational purposes and unleashed his people to live the life that God created them to live.


Conclusion:
God created us to serve a profound role. Humanity is the jewel of God’s creation. God has created each person to serve in God’s mission. As such, humanity lives to connect the reality of God to Creation by reflecting God’s character corporately in community and individually as persons created in God’s image.


We must not read these functions as static or attempt to straight jacket every human being into some clone or ideal. If God is endlessly creative, why should we attempt to “standardize” humanity? Are not we in the Church often guilty of producing “followers of Jesus” who are too often closer to being protégés or a Mini-Me than true reflections of Jesus? If God created every human being with a distinct set of fingerprints, why would we ever want to limit the creativity and skill set of followers of Jesus? It is time for the Church to call people to discover their true humanity in Jesus Christ. It is time for us to Awaken humanity.

What if following Jesus Christ truly was the means of awakening all of your potential to live as the person you were created to be?


© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised 12/2016)


For more on reading Scripture missionally, check out my latest book (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On Gratitude: Dear Kittens #15

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained through my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen.)

 Dear Kittens,
 

“Gratitude not attitude.” You may remember this phrase. I used it to remind you to say, “Thank you.” As I’ve gotten older, I now realize that gratitude is not important it is indispensable.
 

Embracing gratitude has helped to transform my life and taught me to find joy even in the most difficult moments. Learning to say “Thank you” every day empowers us to discover happiness and peace in all circumstances.
 

Ponder some of my favorite quotations about gratitude. The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “If the only prayer you said was ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.”
 The contemporary mystic and spiritual teacher Ekhart Tolle wrote, “Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.”
 

The 20th century monk and theologian Thomas Merton wrote, “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us - and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.”
 

All of these quotations capture the deep magic of saying, “Thank you.” Gratitude turns our attention outward. When we express gratitude, we shift our thoughts away from our selves, our needs, our concerns, our complaints, and our worries. Gratitude releases us to focus for a few moments on the good in our lives. Gratitude enables us to reset our thoughts on the abundance in our world rather than the challenges. There is always something for which to be thankful. Even on days when it seems as though the world is crashing in on us, we can still express gratitude for each breath that we take and for each beating of our heart.
 

Gratitude is the pathway to the door leading to the life of God’s dreams. Gratitude is critical for receiving each day as the gift that it is. When we say, “Thank you,” we are able to receive God’s gifts for us. To live out of gratitude enables each day to be a surprise. Instead of living out of entitlement or demand, we experience the good things in our lives as a gift.
 

Gratitude opens us up to living in the present moment. When we are grateful, we are content. Contentment allows us to be free from both past and future. We don’t have to feel cheated about events in the past. Nor do we have to worry about the details of tomorrow. We simply experience the new day as a gift and receive it with thanksgiving.
 

 Kittens, let me share two of my daily practices with you. I encourage you to try them. First, most mornings I prepare for the new day by praying and meditating. As soon as I finish, I write down five people or things for which I am thankful. I keep these lists in my journal. I try not to repeat myself, but I must admit that I often write that I’m thankful for my kittens! Second, before I fall asleep, I reflect on as many things from the day for which I’m thankful. This resets the mind and helps me to sleep better.
 

Embrace gratitude, Kittens. It will reset your life for the good.
 

Grateful for the chance to write you these notes each week,
TOC


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Letter to my Daughters on Elections and Love (Dear Kittens #34)

(I write my daughters aka "kittens" a short letter each week under the pseudonym "TOC"="The Old Cat". We've always had cats so this rubric works for us. My daughters are both in high school. I try to distill the wisdom gained through my 47 years that I wish I'd have learned when I was a teen. I wrote this one in the aftermath of the election this week and after observing the reactions of both sides to Donald Trump's upset victory over Hillary Clinton)

Dear Kittens,

The Presidential election of 2016 was a difficult one. TOC has voted in every election since 1988 and this one threw me for a loop. Since this is your first election that you’ve been old enough to observe and given its divisiveness during the campaign and in the days following, I wanted to share some reflections on how we should think and act about it.

The great Methodist leader John Wesley lived during challenging times too. Revolutions were stirring in the colonies that became the United States as well as in France. Moreover, the inequalities and divisions within England itself were stark and easily inflamed. Wesley sought to promote the Gospel of Jesus as the true hope of the world and to transform the world through the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Yet Wesley encouraged the early Methodists to participate in civic life and this included voting. Here is his advice. This is an actual entry from his journal on Oct 6, 1774:

"I met those of our [methodist groups] who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side."

This is good and simple wisdom. I don’t think that there are too many bribes involved in voting these days (Wesley’s #1), but his #2 and #3 are critical for modeling a good witness in the world.

In essence, they invite us to de-personalize politics. Too often our leaders on both sides resort to emotional appeals and personal attacks to win. Unfortunately, this type of persuasion works. This does not make it admirable or virtuousness. It is always easy to use labels: “leftie” “racist” “communist” “right wing nut job” “radical” “homophobe” etc. Labels attempt to dehumanize others and cast shame. Our country right now has elements on both sides who cannot sympathize with or even relate to persons on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wesley emphasized the need to refuse to participate in the demonization or even speaking ill of those who disagree with us politically.

So how do we live well kittens and work for good especially during bitter seasons of divisive political debates and elections?

(1) Remember that absolute security comes only from God. No political party or ideology (even if its your personal favorite) can ever guarantee the future. Our hope is in God.

(2) There is not one god of the blue states and a separate god of the red states. God loves Clinton and all her supporters. God loves Trump and all his supporters. God is one and God is Lord of all peoples and nations. God loves everyone regardless of their vote or ideology, and God desires each persons best.

(3) We need to become better listeners of one another. The Gospel can unite us, but only if we reach out and build relationships with persons who think differently than us. Build a diverse group of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. If you don’t know anyone who voted for the opposite candidate, you need to expand your social circles. TOC has friends on both sides of the political spectrum. I have my own opinions, but these will never come between my friendships or my mission to reach others with the love of God.

(4) Be a bridge builder and uniter. No one ever gets what they want 100% of the time. We must learn to win and lose with grace and dignity. Seasons of change come and go. Always be ready to extend your hand in peace and compromise over common ground.

The future is better than you think, Kittens. I’m looking forward to it. As Ghandi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Live by faith, be known by love, serve as voices of hope:
TOC



If you'd like to read other "Dear Kittens" notes as they are published, send me an email to brian.russell9113 @ gmail .com

Friday, October 28, 2016

Finding True Security: Reading Psalm 46–48 (Part One)

 Psalms 46–48 form a trio of psalms that envision a secure foundation for the life of faith. They focus us as God’s people on the key relationship that guarantees our future. Each psalm serves as a praise to the LORD as the true king of the earth.
Let's begin with Psalm 46:

46 God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Psalm 46:1 opens with a bold confession. Our God is an ever-present refuge in times of trouble. Chew on that for a few minutes. God is not wishy-washy. God is not only a god of the good times. The psalmist reminds us that God is dependable and present even in crisis moments when all seems lost. 
 

Verses 2–3 draw out the full implications of God-given security. We can lay aside our deepest fears. We all fear something. The psalmist however refuses to fear even the undoing of creation. Verses 2–3 describe a scenario in which creation (earth, mountains, sea, and waters) disintegrates. He pictures the catastrophic end of the world. The psalmist proclaims that with God there is always a future no matter what comes. That is true security.
 

The psalm takes a dramatic shift in verses 4–7. Its focus turns to the security and calm of God’s city: Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Zion represented the center of God’s kingdom. In Jerusalem stood the two pillars of God’s presence: the Davidic King or Messiah and the Temple where the glory of the LORD inhabited. Jerusalem was the city of the Great King who reigned through his Messiah and whom the people worshipped in the Temple. These verses describe peace in the midst of the chaos and uproar of the nations. The kingdoms of this world may threaten and practice violent injustice, but the true King serves as a fortress for his people who find refuge in him.
 

So what does the refuge of God mean for God’s people in a world of chaos and insecurity? This is an important question for us in the 21st century as our world is no less chaotic than it was in the psalmist’s day.
 

In verses 8–11, God speaks directly to creation including all of the raging nations. It is a portrait of the future kingdom of God when God makes all things new. These verses invite everyone including the raging nations to come and catch a glimpse of God’s abundant and peaceful future. Verse ten brings Ps 46 to a memorable climax with its call to stillness in the midst of the chaos of the present. There is a way to peace and security. It is not war. It is not manifestations of power and rage. Peace and security come from knowing and experiencing God as the exalted Lord and true King. The LORD is our refuge. We can live faithfully as his hands, feet, and mouthpieces in the world because the LORD has secured the future. 


Key Observation: Calmness and security are found in relationship with the true King of Creation—The LORD


Reflect on your deepest fears. How does Psalm 46 invite you to overcome them?


How often do you take time to quite your mind and reflect on the greatness of God? Where in your present life can you create 5-10 minutes to create a daily practice?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

 
I regularly read leadership and personal development literature as a means of increasing my capacity in my current role as Dean and Associate provost. I consider Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin (St. Martin's Press, 2016) to be one of the Top ten books on leading well that I've read. I recommend it to administrators, business leaders, coaches, pastors, and anyone who desires to lead a team more effectively and productively.

Willink and Babin are retired U.S. Navy Seals who served multiple tours during the Iraqi conflict. They now serve as consultants to businesses and leaders. Extreme Ownership focuses on lessons that they learned while leading combat units in Task Unit Bruiser in the difficult and dangerous fight against insurgents in Ramadi. Extreme Ownership is a compelling read because it illustrates critical leadership principles by showing how they were learned (often the hard way) on the battlefield. 

In each chapter, Willink and Babin narrate personal incidents from their combat experiences in Iraq. They then break down the lesson into an easy to understand and apply principle. Last they illustrate how the principle can be applied in today's business environments.

This is not a book on warfare. Their battle stories are not gory and have been sanitized for a non-military audience without losing the seriousness of the situation described. This raised the poignancy of the teaching offered by Willink and Babin. They are not theorists but practitioners of the art of leading and they did it when their lives as well as those of their men were at stake.

Extreme Ownership unfolds in three movements: 

Part One: Winning the War Within

The title Extreme Ownership comes from the main principle advocated in the book of the absolute necessity of the leader taking 100% responsibility for what happens under his or her watch. They mean 100%. No excuses. No blaming. Ever. 

In their view, there are no bad teams but only bad leaders (chapter two). The leader is responsible for setting the tone for the team and explaining the mission to each member.

This begins with the leader's belief (chapter three). We are not ready to lead until we have focused on the "why" of the mission. If we are taking orders from someone above us, we must own the why so that we can pass it on to those whom we lead. As I leader, I must be "all in" if I expect my team to follow me.

Leaders must also check their egos (chapter four).

Part Two: Laws of Combat
In chapter five, the authors teach the principle of "cover and move." To be effective, teams must work together. This includes how one team within an organization relates to other teams. Conflict often occurs because teams within the same company compete against one another instead of focusing attention on winning.


Warfare is chaotic. So is life and business.  We cannot plan for every contingency. The key is to create actionable and simple plans and strategies that the entire organization can understand and implement (chapter six).

When under pressure, leaders must learn to prioritize and execute (chapter seven). Focus the team on one key activity at a time.


Empower others to lead smaller groups through decentralized leadership (chapter eight). No one can effectively lead more than 10 people. Communicate down the organization using simple plans and communicate clearly and concisely so that all are on the same page.

Part Three: Sustaining Victory 

Planning is critical to achieving victory (chapter 9). All organizations need to create a template for creating clear, compelling, and effective plans to advance the mission.

In the most efficient organizations, leadership flows up and down the chain of command (chapter 10). Each member of the team learns to lead up and down the flow chart by practicing extreme ownership at each level.

In warfare, uncertainty is a given. On the battlefield, there is never enough information. There is a balance between decisiveness and uncertainty (chapter 11). Knowing when to act and when to wait can be a matter of life and death.

Last, discipline equals freedom (chapter 12). Success in mission is not easy. It takes discipline to grow into the leaders that our world needs. It is often a dance between extremes (pp. 277-78): 

"confident but not cocky; courageous but not foolhardy; competitive but a gracious loser; attentive to details but not obsessed by them; strong but have endurance; a leader and a follower; humble not passive; aggressive not overbearing; quiet not silent; calm but not robotic...; close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team...;able to execute extreme ownership, while exercising decentralized command."

Great book. Inspiring. Insightful. I'll read it again. Consider picking up a copy. You'll be glad you did. So will your team!




To learn more about Jocko Willink check out his interview with Tim Ferris.




Saturday, September 3, 2016

Preparing our Hearts and Minds to Read Scripture


Preparing our Hearts and Minds: Conversations with Scripture (Intro)

We must learn to read the Bible for transformation. As we seek to follow Jesus into the world on mission, Scripture serves as our interactive guide for the journey. We may think of it as a map to the life of God’s dreams. Yet unlike directions that seek to guide us to a particular geographical location, the Bible's goal is to shape us into the kind of persons that God created us to be. The journey of faith involves growth in our missional activity, personal holiness, and community. The Bible desires to convert us to its perspective and propel us into the world as witnesses to New Creation.

To read and study Scripture in this manner involves learning to adopt and practice a set of postures before it:

1) Be open to hearing the voice of God and being astonished. When we read Scripture, we are engaging a sacred set of writings that the Church affirms as inspired by God and foundational for our faith and practice. It is not enough to lift up Scripture as an authoritative artifact from the past. We need to approach our reading and reflection with an expectation of astonishment in the present moment. When Scripture astonishes us personally, we are ready to live and move in ways that will astonish the world with the love and grace of Jesus Christ. I find that prayer helps me to enter into a space where I’m ready to receive all that God has for me. Here is one that I’ve found helpful: “Lord, astonish me anew with the riches and good news of your Word. Amen.”

2) Take the stance of a learner rather than expert. There is an irony in our lifelong reading of Scripture. Over time, texts become so familiar that we speed through them assuming that we already know their message. This is dangerous to our spiritual formation. It is therefore vital that we consciously avoid treating the text as an object that we gain control over via study. The moment that we reckon ourselves experts will mark the time when our voice becomes the authority rather than God’s. Don’t pray, “Lord, help me to master this text.” Instead assume the posture of a learner and say, “Lord, I open myself to hear all that you have for me. Master me through my conversation with your Word.”

3) Embrace listening over demanding. Our conversation with Scripture requires patient and persistent listening. We cannot control the speed of illumination and insight. Some passages will release their riches quickly and easily. Others will only do so slowly and with difficulty. In either case, we must be willing to be fully present with God and the text in a spirit of humility and dogged resilience. We cannot demand a word from God; we can only receive one gratefully with open hands, hearts, and minds. Remember the mark of the happy person in Psalm 1: “He or she meditates on the Law of the LORD day and night” (1:3).

4) Align with the Text and Take Action. To listen to Scripture involves realigning with its message continually. Our conversation with Scripture must lead to tangible change and action. As James reminds us, “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22–24).

How do we become “doers”? We become “doers” by taking action based on our reading. Here are some questions that help me (this is not meant as an exhaustive list):
How does this text challenge my current way of life as well as that of my community of faith?
How does this passage stand in tension with my current thinking or understanding of the Gospel? Who or what is this text calling me to care about?
What kind of person do I need to become to live out this text?
How does my community need to shift to embody this text?

We cannot treat this stage as merely rhetorical. We need to write down or journal the key actions that we need to take. Then, go out and live the Gospel for the world.

Thank you God for the gift of Scripture. Give us the hearts and minds to listen and meditate on it so that we may encounter you the Living Lord of the Text. Grant us the courage to dare to realign with its message and live it out before a world that desperately needs its good news. In Jesus’ name: Amen

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Missional Insights from Israel's Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)


Learning to Live as God’s Missional People: Missional Insights from Israel’s Story (Genesis–Nehemiah)
            Many readers of the Bible struggle integrating the Old Testament into their understanding of the Christian life and mission. Yet Israel’s Scriptures are ripe with insight for understanding God’s mission and role of God’s people in it. In this essay, I will sketch out key takeaways from Israel’s story to help guide us as we follow Jesus today.            

(1) Genesis 1–11 set the stage for God’s mission by describing the universe as God intended for it to be and by acknowledging the profound lostness of people and brokenness of Creation due to human rebellion.
Israel’s creation accounts (Genesis 1–2) describe God carefully and deliberately crafting a very good creation. Humanity stands at the pinnacle of God’s creative activity and at the center of God’s missional plans. In God’s original plan, humanity was to fill the earth and serve as the invisible creator God’s visible representatives. Men and women were to live as a community that embodied God’s character and served God’s mission of caring for God’s world.

In Genesis 3–11 human sin ruptures creation. Humanity is lost and creation itself is broken. Paul aptly summarizes Genesis 3–11 in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory….” The iconic narratives of the Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Flood, and the Tower of Babel serve as warnings against humanity’s hubris and injustice by demonstrating the costliness of sin.

Genesis 1–11 is crucial for understanding the rest of the Bible. It sets Israel’s story in the context of all nations and as part of God’s answer to the brokenness of the world.

(2) God’s answer to the chaos and tragedy of Genesis 3–11 is to call a new humanity to serve as his missional people to reflect his character to the world.

God calls Abraham and his descendants to be agents of blessing to all people (Genesis 12:3b). After the deliverance from Egypt, this calling becomes embedded into God's vision for his liberated people (Exod 19:4–6): they will serve as a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." God’s actions in saving God’s people are for the purpose of extending blessing to all nations. This gives us a critical perspective for understanding Israel’s story. God is for Israel for the sake of all people rather than against all people for the sake of Israel. God continues to call God’s people to serve as embodiments of grace to the world.

(3) God is faithful to his promises and powerful to save.
This theme reverberates from God’s interactions with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Exodus from Egypt, settlement in Canaan, protection from enemies, and the return from Exile.  Israel’s story is one of audacious hope. The future is ultimately secure because the Creator God has a mission to bless the nations and restore creation. This future does not depend on human ingenuity or power, but on God alone. This is good news.

(4) God’s faithfulness and grace is the final word.
God’s people repeatedly act unfaithfully in the Old Testament but this does not negate God’s ability to advance his kingdom in advance of the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. Exile to Babylon was well deserved, but it was a longtime coming as God’s mercy and patience prolonged its arrival. Even when exile came in 587 BC, it lasted only 50 years before God led God’s people a second time to the promised land. Israel’s story testifies to a hope and restoration on the other side of sin and judgment.

(5) Faithful obedience is the proper response to God’s grace and faithfulness to God’s people.
How do God’s people respond to grace? Israel’s story teaches us that it is with faithful living that reflects the character and mission of God. Israel’s obedience is not the precondition of relationship with God, but the result of the experience of salvation. Faithful living is the means by which God’s people witness to the nations the goodness and greatness of God.

(6) Israel’s story demonstrates the potential and snares of living as God’s people among the nations.
The key takeaway is the necessity of faithfulness as God’s people embody a missional holiness for the nations. When we read Scripture’s portrayal of Israel, we are often struck by the repeated failures of Israel to practice faithfulness. This stands in contrast to the mission that God has called Israel to embody for the sake of the world. Israel’s potential and failings serve as a witness to God’s people today.

(7) Idolatry and injustice are the principal impediments to faithfulness. God’s missional people must be vigilant against all practices that negate their witness by obstructing their love for God (idolatry) and love for neighbor including a love for creation (injustice). Israel’s story focuses on the ongoing danger of idolatry and injustice for God’s people. As we seek to live faithfully as God’s witnesses in the world, the temptation to elevate “gods” over the one true Creator and Savior remains as does the human tendency to practice injustice to elevate our own sense of power, influence or importance.

© 2016 Brian D. Russell

For more exploration of missional readings of the Bible, see my books (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World (Cascade, 2016) and Invitation: A Ten Week Bible Study (Invitation, 2015).