Saturday, May 24, 2014

Exodus and the Mission of God

Genesis sets the stage for understanding the Bible as the story of God’s mission. The four books that follow (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) accelerate it. The book of Exodus contains three critical elements for understanding God’s work in the world and our place in it. 

Exodus as the Heart of Israel’s Gospel
The heart of Israel’s Gospel is its story of how the LORD saved his oppressed people from Egypt for the sake of God’s mission of blessing the nations. The Exodus serves as the basis for Israel’s way of life as well as the foundation for its self-understanding and hope. God forges a relationship with God’s people through his gracious actions. The life of God’s people is nothing more and nothing less than a whole hearted response to God’s grace.

The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21) open with the historic reminder “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod 20:2 cf Deut 5:6). Before there is law, there is God’s grace that creates and makes possible relationship.

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel’s praise continually remembers God’s deliverance from Egypt. Here are a few examples from the Psalms:

“To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.
And brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.
With a mighty hand and outstretched arm His love endures forever.” (Ps 136:10-12)

“You transplanted a vine from Egypt;” (Ps 80:8)

“When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of foreign tongue,” (Ps 114:1)

In Exodus, God liberates his people to serve as a missional community that reflects God’s character to/for/in the world. It demonstrates and proves his faithfulness and love. God’s people can trust that their present and future is secure. This is good news to be shared. It announces to the world (including Egypt) a God who desires to bless all people and nations. It is a counter-cultural reminder that the LORD is not a defender of the status quo or of only the privileged and powerful. The message of Exodus provides a profound hope for all people who long for justice. The God who created the world to be “very good” and embedded “sabbath” into the fabric of life acts in human history. God acts on behalf of justice and on behalf of his mission to bless the nations by intervening in human affairs to save the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob whom Egypt unjustly enslaved.

Covenant: Faithfulness in Response to Grace
The purpose of the deliverance is not simply liberation from the oppression of Egypt. It is relationship with God for the sake of the world. It is always a good for justice to prevail. But the goal of the Exodus is the freedom to serve God rather than autonomous freedom. God freed his people to unleash them for God’s mission to bless the nations. This unleashing takes place within the context of covenant. The Sinai Covenant makes up the majority of Exodus–Numbers. Exodus 19:1–Numbers 10:10 narrate and describe Israel’s stay at Sinai and the details of the covenant. This is the third covenant in the Bible after Noah’s and Abraham’s. In the Sinai covenant, God calls Israel to live as a community called to bless the nations by embodying the character of God. The Sinai materials assume the missional nature of God’s people. Israel exists as a kingdom of priests for the rest of the world, but Sinai emphasizes the creation of a holy community. God’s people can only achieve their mission of representing God to the nations by actually living in a way that reflects God’s holy character. As we will see, this involves loving God and loving others.

Relational Wholeness: God with Us
The book of Exodus reaches its highpoint in God’s presence coming to dwell in the newly constructed Tabernacle in the midst of the Israelite camp. Most gods of the ancient world lived in temples on cosmic mountains. Think of Zeus on mount Olympus or the Canaanite god Baal on mount Zaphon. The LORD is different. God chooses to dwell with his people. God abides with and leads God’s people as they move toward the Promised Land in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unlike the gods of the nations, the LORD desires to be in relationship with humanity. In the contemporary world, most of us assume that God is on our side. This was not assumption or worldview of the ancients. In the ancient world, the powerful gods sided with powerful people. If you were among the bottom 99% of the world, you lived to fear and placate the gods. The Bible offers a potent counter-narrative to this. As we’ve already seen, God created all men and all women in the image of God to reflect God’s character to the world and to care for creation. Genesis 3–11 narrated humanity’s lostness and brokenness. Beginning with Abram, God is working to reverse the tragedy of human sin and reforge the relational wholeness of Creation. The Tabernacle shows this by highlighting God’s desire to dwell with his people at the center of their community. This is profoundly good news. With God’s real presence at the center of their community, Israel becomes a missional community for the rest of the world.

What events or memories bring you peace and security?

Have you found a story and mission worthy of your life?

How might the story of the Exodus shape you into the person that God desires you to become?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Gift of the Sabbath

After God forms humanity and pronounces creation “very good” God rests. How many of us rest? Modern life is filled with complex and multiple demands. Yet the Bible begins by asserting that Sabbath rest is the climax of the Creation. Life is not designed to be endless toil. Even the most life affirming activities must cease for Sabbath. God’s work of creation moved the universe from emptiness (1:2) to very goodness (1:31) to Sabbath rest (2:1-3). Sabbath is God’s final gift to the creation.

Sabbath and God
God works. God rests. This establishes a key rhythm for understanding life. Ponder this: our Creator rests. This is a radically different world from the one we find today. Most of us race daily from one activity to another. We are tired. Some of us work longer hours often for less pay than previously. Others are exhausted due to weight of un/underemployment and the financial challenges that come with it.

Yet Genesis 2:1–3 offers us a portrait of abundance. God rests. Moreover God blesses this day of rest and makes it holy (2:3). This means that God has set apart a sacred space and time for rest. Profoundly, God shares this rest with us by extending Sabbath to all creation. Sabbath serves as a principle for establishing justice and good in the world. Unlike other ancient creation stories such as the Babylonian Atrahasis where humans exist merely to serve as slaves for the gods, the LORD demonstrates his ultimate goodness with the gift of Sabbath. Jesus will remind us of this reality in the New Testament: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 1:27)

Sabbath and Life
Sabbath is an integrating principle for our spiritual, personal, and social lives. It connects us with the world around us. Later in the Old Testament, God’s Sabbath will be the key commandment for linking love for God with love for neighbor. In the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1–17 and Deut 5:6-21), the command to honor and keep Sabbath is the longest and most detailed of the commands. It serves as the bridge between the commandments focusing on our relationship with God (no other gods, no idols, no dishonoring of God’s name) and the commandments rooted in our relating with others (honoring parents, no stealing, no murder, no adultery, no false witness, no coveting). Sabbath has all creation in view. Humanity stops its work and rests. This rest includes all of one’s family, all of one’s employees or servants, and even all of one’s animals. Sabbath is a community practice. There is no solitary sabbath in the Scripture. God rests and so does his creation.

Sabbath in the Old Testament
In the rest of the Old Testament, the sabbath pattern of six days of work and a seventh day of rest repeats and foreshadows God’s abundant future. In Exodus and Leviticus, the sabbath principle establishes protections for humanity and creation. Slavery is regulated so that slaves are released after six years of service (Exod 21:1-11). Agricultural lands receive a sabbath rest every seventh year (Exod 23:10-11). These regulations point to God’s broader vision for justice in his world. Obviously, slaves were among the most marginalized populations in the ancient world. Most slaves in the ancient Israel became slaves as a means of paying off debts in an economy lacking modern bankruptcy protection. It is profound that the Bible confronted this tragic reality directly by offering real protections for persons forced into slavery. Likewise resting fields involved more than crop rotation. The sabbath rest for the fields served to provide food for the poor and for the animal world. The book of Leviticus includes a bold vision for a once-in-a-generation economic reboot (Lev 25). After seven cycles of seven years, God expected God’s people to celebrate the year of Jubilee. In Jubilee, creditors forgave all debts, sold property returned to its original owners, and slave holders released slaves. Jubilee demonstrated God’s justice and goodness. Thus, Sabbath points to the good life. We may find ourselves is difficult circumstances and trying times, but God’s rest awaits.

Living the Sabbath Today
 Sabbath is a radical concept. We live in a 24/7 world. Sabbath challenges the busy-ness of life. What if the most profound act you could do is to be fully present and do nothing? Rest is not a means to some end; rest is the end. God moves creation from emptiness to very goodness and then rests. God doesn’t rest so that he can work. God works so that he can rest. Rest is the final word. This signals something profound about life. The meaning of life cannot simply be reduced to what we do. Work is valuable. Mission is important. Community is critical. Holiness is necessary. Yet the climax of creation is a time carved out for rest in communion with God. Think about the witness that such a bold and daring time of inaction would offer to a world trapped in endless cycles of busy-ness and the chaos of over-commitment.  Sabbath is a declaration of faith that our present and future does not depend on our actions but on God’s. As we read the Bible together, we will continue to talk about our role in God’s mission. But the challenge of Sabbath is that God rested and so must we. The Jesus who calls us to serve as a missional community also invites us to Sabbath: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28)

What does it mean that God desires you to rest? How would you need to change in order to embrace a real sabbath as a way of life?

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Book of Acts and Models for Missional Engagement (3 reflections)

Acts describes several modes of communicating the Gospel that push us to think beyond cookie-cutter approaches and remind us that the Holy Spirit deploys a variety of methods depending on the context. Sometimes the apostles proclaim Jesus via the exegesis of Israel’s Scriptures; sometimes it is through powerful signs and wonders; sometimes it is by cross-cultural contextualization or some mixture of these options.

1) The book of Acts shows that Jesus may be proclaimed to Jews and god-fearers by means of demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures. This is the heart of Philip’s encounter with the Ethopian eunuch in 8:26-40. Philip hears him reading from Isaiah 53 and begins a conversation in which he tells the eunuch about Jesus by starting with Isaiah. This convinces the eunuch who immediately requests baptism and becomes a believer in Jesus.

2) The book of Acts demonstrates that miraculous signs can serve evangelistic purposes. Acts 16:16-34 tells the story of Paul and Silas imprisonment in Philippi and the conversion of its jailer. Paul and Silas are accosted by a mob for disturbing the city. During the night while Paul and Silas are singing hymns to God, there is a violent earthquake. The quake is from God as not only is the prison shaken but all of the doors open and the chains of the prisoners are unshackled. Fearing that all have fled, the jailer is about to fall on his sword when Paul calls out to him with the news that no one has escaped. In response to this miracle, the jailer falls before Paul and Silas and asks, “Masters, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas share the word of the Lord with the jailer and his household. That very night he and his household joined the Christ following movement and were baptized.

3) Acts also shows the possibilities of contextualization for cross-cultural engagement. Acts 17:16-34 narrates Paul’s activity in Athens the center of Hellenistic culture and philosophy. Paul has the amazing opportunity to share the Gospel with a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus. Since Paul is addressing Greeks with no background in the Old Testament Scriptures or the God of Israel, he does not use Scripture to address them. Instead, he imaginatively begins by affirming the religiosity of the Athenians and starts his Gospel proclamation with reference an altar inscribed with the phrase: “To an unknown god.” Paul uses this as a beginning point to tell about the Creator God who sent Jesus. Moreover Paul quotes from the Greek poet Aratus to support his claims that all people have their source in one Creator God. Paul ends his proclamation by referencing Jesus not as Israel’s Messiah but rather as a man through whom the Creator God will judge the world in righteousness. The truth of this claim, Paul says, rests in the reality that God raised this man from the dead. It is fascinating that Paul does not state the name Jesus explicitly. Verses 32-34 record the reactions of the crowd: some scoff at the mention of resurrection; others express interest to hear more. Most profoundly, some join the Christ following movement. Paul models a contextualized Gospel presentation in which he uses cultural symbols from his target audience to proclaim the Gospel fully without watering down its content.

Conclusion: Be Open to the Spirit's Leading and Experiment with Different Strategies
The implications of the various Gospel approaches in the book of Acts are vital if a bit disconcerting to 21st believers in the West. We tend to value systems and programs. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is the means, and the Spirit uses faithful witnesses to reach others with Gospel depending on the needs of the audience. The good news of the Gospel is Jesus. The witnesses in Acts always proclaim Jesus but the means of getting to Jesus depends on the context of the audience. This does not guarantee success as in 100% conversion, but the Gospel spreads on its way to the person and the next region in fulfillment of Acts 1:8.

This blog is a sample from my 2016 book on reading Scripture missionally for the church and world: (re)Aligning with God: Reading Scripture for Church and World.