Archive for February, 2010

Judges 6

February 28, 2010

Judges 6

Points of Interest:

  • ‘The Israelites’—the Israelites is the name the descendants of Isaac and Jacob took for themselves after they left Egypt.  Israel was Jacob’s nickname, given him by God.  This passage takes place a couple of hundred years after the time of Moses, after the Israelites had settled into the land of Canaan, just as God had promised Abraham.
  • ‘them into the hands of the Midianites’—we’ve run into the Midianites a couple of times now; perhaps it’s worth explaining who they are.  The Midianites are a nomadic group of herders who lived in the wilderness areas on the edge of Canaan.  They are the descendants of
  • Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the LORD for help’—apparently, it took seven years of being taken advantage of by these Midianite raiders before it occurred to the Israelites, ‘Maybe we should pray, and ask God for help.’
  • Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress’—wheat was usually threshed in an open place; someplace high up and exposed to the wind was preferred.  The wind helped separate the lighter chaff from the kernel, the good part of the wheat.  Grapes, on the other hand, were pressed in something bowl-shaped, where the wine could collect.  Gideon is in a hole in the ground, doing what’s usually done in a wide open space, to better hide from the Midianites.  It makes the job harder, but at least the profit isn’t stolen from him when he’s done.  Gideon may be prudent, but he’s not terribly brave.  So, when the angel calls him, ‘Mighty Warrior,’ he’s either being sarcastic, or he sees something in Gideon that Gideon doesn’t yet see in himself.
  • “’Pardon me, my lord,’ Gideon replied, ‘but if the LORD is with us’”—the angel had said, ‘The LORD is with you (singular).’  Gideon replies with skepticism about the LORD being with ‘us.’  Either it totally escapes him that God is speaking to him personally and specifically, or he’s trying to deflect attention away from himself and toward what he thinks is the real problem.  Either way, he doesn’t seem to realize that God has selected him to be the answer to his own complaint.  God plans to do exactly the same kind of wonders through Gideon that he did earlier through Moses.
  • ‘give me a sign that it is really you’—clearly, Gideon is a little discombobulated, and what he says comes out wrong.  He doesn’t really mean, ‘Prove that you are you.’  I think he means, ‘Prove you are who you say you are.’
  • ‘Fire flared from the rock’—as with Moses, God is not reluctant to use a little fireworks to get someone’s attention.
  • ‘You are not going to die’—now, the downside of Gideon’s caution becomes apparent.  He doesn’t want to do something foolish on the advice of someone who turns out to be a fake angel.  That makes sense as far as it goes.  But Gideon doesn’t fully reckon with the possibility that he’s just been sarcastic and skeptical toward a genuine heavenly being.  He’s been hiding from the Midianites, but impudent and insulting toward God.  Thankfully, the angel doesn’t take offense.
  • ‘Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole’—Baal and Asherah were the primary deities of surrounding nations.  Apparently, the thing the Israelites had done to anger the LORD God was to decide that they’d rather have different gods.  In that light, the Midianite raids are less a punishment and more a bet: let’s see if Baal and Asherah can rescue you from the Midianites as well as I could.
  • ‘the Spirit of the LORD came on Gideon’—Gideon is inspired.  Gideon is only this brave on his own by accident (facing down an angel).  But with God’s power, he suddenly does become a mighty warrior—at least for the moment.
  • ‘look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor’—after blowing the trumpet, Gideon loses his nerve again.  And once again, he becomes inarticulate.  He has to break into the middle of his own sentence to beg for further reassurance from God.
  • ‘Allow me one more test with the fleece’—God performs the sign just as Gideon requests, but in the morning Gideon has more doubts.  It’s easy enough, after all, for someone to pour water on a fleece.  So, he asks for a do-over, this time with the fleece dry and the ground wet.  I’m very grateful that God good-naturedly humors him.  God seems very willing to give all the assurance anyone asks.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: Just as the angel reminded Gideon that the Lord was with him, take a moment to ask God to remind you that he is in fact with you.  If there are any specific situations you feel somewhat anxious about, ask him for peace and the assurance of knowing his presence in those circumstances.
  • For your six: Do you get the sense that any of your six feel like they are weakest or smallest of the clan and that they don’t have much to offer to others? Pray that your six would grow in their understanding of their purpose in the world, and that God would help them see the unique ways that they contribute to the world around them.
  • For our church: Gideon is a strange combination of bold and timid.  He hides in a winepress, but then talks back to an angel.  He cuts down his father’s altar, but at night.  He summons an army, but then asks God for multiple signs that he should lead that army into battle.  Pray that we would be as bold as Gideon, and not as timid, in pursuing our unique place in the world—and also pray that God would give us reassuring signs when we really need them.

Exodus 4: 1-20

February 27, 2010

Exodus 4: 1-20

Points of Interest:

  • ‘What if they do not believe me’—now that he thinks about, maybe just knowing God’s name won’t be enough.
  • ‘What is that in your hand?’—to start with, God takes what is already in Moses’ hand, the ordinary equipment of a shepherd, and makes it into something extraordinary.
  • ‘Then the LORD said’—God seems to have a feeling that the staff won’t quite be enough to bolster Moses’ confidence sufficiently, and graciously offers two more supernatural powers unasked. 
  • ‘I have never been eloquent’—they say that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of death.  Apparently, Moses is no exception.  Moses is working through his list of objections.  He starts with the problems with other people, but now he moves to his own deficiencies.
  • ‘Please send someone else’—finally, it comes out.  When it gets right down to it, Moses doesn’t want to go.  He’s always said that freeing his people is what he really wanted to do.  Now, God is giving him the chance to go and do it. And when it goes from wistful dream to actual possibility, Moses is losing his nerve.  There’s something comfortable about wishing for bigger things, but being able to blame circumstances for holding you back.  The really risky thing is actually pursuing your passion.  Moses isn’t sure he wants to do it.  God is patient and accommodating through Moses’ entire series of requests for more information, and for more equipment for the job.  But when Moses admits that, in the end, he just might not want to do it, God loses his patience.
  • ‘He is already on his way to meet you’—maybe God is so angry with Moses because Moses ruins the surprise.  God had already spoken to Aaron, and called him also—called him to meet Moses and work with him.  God knew Moses would need help, and had already provided it for him.  Think of how great it would have been for Moses and Aaron to meet one another half-way between Horeb and Egypt, and realize that God had been speaking to each of them.  Moses’ refusal to go forces God to tell him about Aaron too early.
  • ‘Go back to Egypt’—Moses has decided to go, asked for his father-in-law’s blessing, and gotten it.  But somehow he’s not going anywhere.  He needs one last nudge from God.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: Can you, like Moses, sometimes feel that you just don’t have what it takes?  Pretend for a second that you didn’t feel that way: what would you be doing differently?  Ask God to give you the courage to move beyond your insecurities.  If you’re having a hard time doing so, try saying aloud: ‘God, I know that these doubts don’t come from you; so I choose not to believe them';  ‘God, I thank you because you are perfectly capable of giving me what I need to do what you’ve called me to do.’
  • For your six: Pray that God would send an “Aaron” to your six who would help them discover and pursue what they are meant to do.  Ask God to provide ways for you to support and encourage your six, like Aaron did for Moses.
  • For our church: Pray that God would use us to speak to those who have been turned off from him.  Pray that God would help us speak and teach us what to say, just like he did for Moses.  Pray that we would be able to effectively communicate God’s words to people who haven’t expected much from church before.

Exodus 3

February 26, 2010

Exodus 3

Points of Interest:

  • ‘Horeb, the mountain of God’—I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think it was known as ‘the mountain of God’ until after this event.  We’re hearing the “Let me tell you why we call Horeb, ‘God’s Mountain’” story.
  • ‘the angel of the LORD appeared to him’—angel means, ‘messenger.’  Often in these stories of encounters with God, there’s a bit of a conflation of the angel of the LORD and the LORD himself.  It happens here (in v.2 it’s the angel, but in v.4 it’s the LORD), and also in the Gideon story two days from now.  I have a couple of theories as to why.  It may be that because the angel is so powerful a being in its own right, speaking God’s own words, with God’s authority, it’s as if God himself is speaking.  Or it may be that it is God himself appearing, not a representative, but because it’s only a manifestation of God, not God in God’s totality, the author refers to him as ‘the angel of the LORD’ to slightly downgrade the impression of holiness and awesomeness.
  • ‘I will go over and see this strange sight’—God does a little magic trick (a bush that’s on fire but not burned) to grab Moses’ attention.
  • ‘Here I am’—it may be that Moses is simply saying, ‘this is Moses,’ like answering a phone.  I can’t escape the impression, though, that there’s a little more to this phrase, ‘Here I am,’ than that.  It has a certain, ‘Reporting for duty, Sir,’ quality to it.
  • ‘and the God of Jacob’—Jacob was Isaac’s son, and the heir to God’s covenant.  Moses is living about five hundred years after the story we read yesterday about Abraham. 
  • ‘Do not come any closer’—God wants Moses to come close; so he attracts him with the burning bush.  But getting too close can be dangerous; it is an appearance of God in the form of fire, after all.  The combination of curiosity and awe, closeness and respectful difference seems appropriate to an interaction with God.
  • ‘the misery of my people in Egypt’—Jacob’s family had moved to Egypt to avoid a famine.  At first, they were honored guests, but over the years their status slipped such that by the time of Moses they were menial slave laborers.
  • ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh’—actually, he’s the foster child of one of Pharaoh’s half-sisters.  Granted, pharaohs tended to have lots of brothers and sisters.  Kings would seal alliances with other kings or with important noblemen by marrying their sisters or daughters; so pharaohs would end up with many wives, and many, many children.  Some were closer than others, and there could be large variances in status depending on how important the wife’s father was or how close the child was to the succession. So, it’s not necessarily like Moses’ mother went to soccer practice in the same mini-van with Pharaoh.  Nonetheless, Moses would have travelled in relatively rarefied court circles, and would at least be known to Pharaoh—until he had to flee the country, that is.  Moses discovered that he was actually a descendant of Jacob, not an Egyptian nobleman, and he took it in hand to liberate his countrymen.  Unfortunately, all he managed to do was kill one of the slave drivers.  I imagine a member of the royal family could get away with a lot of things, but inciting a slave rebellion was not one of them.  Moses had to run away to save his life, and that’s how he ended up being a shepherd in the desert.  Meanwhile, his countrymen ended up even worse than before.  God is calling upon Moses to do the very thing he had tried to do himself earlier.  Having failed so miserably the first time, he’s a bit shy now.
  • ‘this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you’—I don’t think this is exactly the kind of sign Moses had in mind.  ‘When you’re back here on this mountain with all of your people, you’ll know I sent you,’ doesn’t give Moses much to lean on ahead of time.  Then again, he is talking to a burning bush; that has to be worth something. I think the significance of God’s sign is that getting the people out of Egypt is just the beginning: getting them out of Egypt is God’s sign to Moses that they will successfully bring them into Canaan.

  • ‘What is his name?’—Moses suspects that before they let him lead them in God’s name, his relatives will want to know that he’s on a first-name basis with God.  Does he really know God, not just know about God?
  • ‘when you leave you will not go empty-handed’—not only will the Egyptians let them go, they’ll give them bon voyage gifts.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: Can you identify with the powerlessness, frustration, or misery of the Israelites in Egypt? Try crying to God with the desperation that the Israelites had.  Ask for the faith and endurance to keep crying out to God until he answers your cries just like he eventually answered the cries of the Israelites.
  • For your six: Pray that God would also hear the cries of your six and that he would put an end to any persistent suffering, conflict or hard times that they have found themselves in the midst of.  Ask your six if there is a specific issue that you could pray for.
  • For our church: Pray that we would be a church that acts on behalf of and responds to the cries of those who are hurting and suffering in our world.  Pray that God would work through us to bring healing and hope to individuals, to neighborhoods and entire regions. Pray specifically today for ways that our church is working to help alleviate suffering in Haiti.

Genesis 17:1-22

February 25, 2010

Genesis 17:1-22

Points of Interest:

  • ‘When Abram was ninety-nine years old’—people are famously long-lived in this part of Genesis.  Abram’s ninety-nine is nothing.  Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood.  Gradually over the course of Genesis and Exodus, the life spans decrease to what we would think of as normal.  There may be some symbolic meaning behind the large ages: perhaps they’re the author’s way of showing respect for his forefathers; or maybe they’re meant to connote that their time was a golden age.  Then again, I suppose it’s possible that these people lived a very long time.  Maybe, because of their special connection with God, Adam’s and Noah’s families were blessed with—extremely—long life. In any case, God first appeared to Abram with a very similar promise twenty-five years earlier—which even for him is a quarter of a lifetime ago.
  • ‘Abram fell facedown’—as becomes clearer a few verses later, it’s uncertain whether Abram’s face plant is an act of worship or of protest.  He could be bowing in respect, or he could be kicking and screaming.  If he’s kicking and screaming, God dignifiedly chooses to ignore it for the moment.
  • ‘your name will be Abraham’—As you can tell, names and naming carry a lot of significance in this passage.  Abram means approximately, ‘Big Daddy.’  Abraham means, ‘Father of a Multitude.’  God cleverly inserts a couple of letters into Abraham’s name so that it’s more suitable to the promise God has made him.  I think God is accomplishing several things with this act of renaming:
    • Expressing intimacy—you give nicknames to people you know well;
    • Conferring a new identity—God is matching Abraham’s name more closely to who he thinks Abraham is, or will be;
    • Giving a promotion—this moment sort of reminds me of when the knighthood is conferred on someone (‘Rise, Sir Bedivere!’), or when a pope or king adopt a new name upon assumption of the title.  Abram is graduating from being just a big daddy to being a father of a multitude.
  • ‘where you now reside as a foreigner’—Abraham had at one time been sort of a big-man-about-town in a city founded by his father.  God called him to move to this unknown land of Canaan, where he is a complete stranger.  That’s a big deal in Abraham’s time, because there’s no formal legal system; all power and influence boil down to who you’re related to and who you know.  Since Abraham is related to no one and knows no one, he’s quite vulnerable.  God is promising him that that won’t always be the case, and that in the meantime God will be his backer and protector.
  • ‘and I will be their God’—again, as with Noah, God places a lot of importance on this idea of being partners or allies with a group of people.  ‘Who’s with me?’ is the question that God keeps asking again and again.
  • ‘every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised’—circumcision is an odd ritual, in which the foreskin of the penis is removed.  Despite its oddity, it was somewhat common in the cultures surrounding Abraham.  However, for the most part, it seems to have functioned differently from the way God is using it here.  In other cultures, it was a rite of passage during puberty, marking the transition from boy to man.  Here, God is using it as a way to mark off a whole people group, from childhood on.  It’s basically their way of signing on the dotted line, saying that they and their children do want to enter into this alliance with God.  I have no idea why God would choose this particular form of agreement.
  • including . . . those who are not your offspring’—there’s an interesting mixture of exclusivity and inclusivity here.  This covenant is available to Abraham alone.  But you don’t have to actually be related to Abraham to join in.  The offer stands just as well for his slaves, his employees, and even his employees’ children.
  • her name will be Sarah’—Sarai also gets a name change.  As far as we know, though, there’s not a corresponding change of meaning.  Both Sarai and Sarah seem to mean, ‘Princess,’ or, ‘Noblewoman.’
  • Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?’—there’s just one little problem with all of these grand promises God is making: Abraham and Sarah don’t have any descendants with whom God can establish this covenant, and they’re too old to have children.
  • If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’—while Abraham and Sarah don’t have any children together, Abraham does have a son, Ishmael.  In Abraham and Sarah’s society, perhaps the most important thing in life was to have a son who could continue the family name and business. And the single biggest responsibility of a wife was to provide her husband with that son.  As Sarai was getting far beyond child-bearing years, and Abram himself was getting up there in years, Sarai became desperate and started thinking of alternative ways to get Abram that son.  She hatched a plan for Abram to sleep with her serving girl, who would bear him a son on her behalf.  The plan worked, sort of.
  • Yes, but’—God is perfectly willing to shower Ishmael with every sort of good thing.  He wants Ishmael to have a successful, abundant life.  But he reserves the covenant, the special alliance between God and Abraham’s descendants, for Sarah’s son.  I feel a little bad for Ishmael; sure, he’s rich; but he’s not the ‘special one.’  That could give a child a complex.  Nonetheless, I can see a few good reasons why God would insist on the covenant belonging to Sarah’s son:
    • God intends to honor and include Sarah—God doesn’t want his blessing to be accomplished by doing an end-around Sarah.  She gets to play her part, enjoy it, and celebrate it, just like Abraham.  Sarah’s not an impediment to Abraham’s blessing, but the vehicle of it;
    • God isn’t interested in a manufactured miracle—God promised Abram and Sarai a son.  When it didn’t look like it was going to happen, Abram and Sarai came up with their little Ishmael plan.  Then they essentially say to God, ‘Look, God, we do have a son, just like you promised.’  God doesn’t want their help or pity.  God wants to really give them a son;
    • God wants the covenant to be attached to faith—trust in God’s willingness and ability to provide are key features of this special alliance being successful.  God wants Abraham and Sarah to know just how good and powerful he is, in the way that only a supernatural birth would allow them to know.
  • you will call him Isaac’—Isaac means, ‘He laughs.’  I think God is playfully referring to Abram’s little tantrum in the paragraph above.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: After God’s big build-up about this great covenant between them, circumcision may have seemed like an odd or humdrum part for Abraham to play. It took Abraham’s willingness to go along with that small (weird) step to get to much bigger things in the future.  Often we have long-term goals for our life, but are uncertain about how to get from point A to point B. Maybe God has an idea.  Ask God to show you a next step or two toward your destiny. Pray for the faith to take these steps—even if they seem small or strange. 
  • For your six: God is asking Abraham to have hope for something that seems pretty impossible. In your interactions with your six, how can you express faith for God’s action in an impossible situation? How does it feel to verbalize ideas that are contrary to common opinion, common sense, or scientific likelihood?
  • For our church: Abraham became impatient waiting for God’s plan to be unveiled, and took matters into his own hands by having a child with Hagar. In what ways is our society short-sighted? How could the patience that comes with faith positively affect the decisions we make, and the decisions made by the leaders of our church and government? Pray for those who make decisions in our city, for help with seeing the big picture and for insight into how God is working behind the scenes.

Genesis 8:15-9:17

February 24, 2010

Genesis 8:15-9:17

Points of Interest:

  • ‘Come out of the ark’—Noah spends eleven months in the ark.  In fact, even after he opens the windows and sees that the ground is dry, he waits twenty-six more days until the ground is completely dry.  As eager as he must be to get out of that crowded, loud, and smelly boat, Noah is even more careful to insure that the flood is truly over.  In fact, he doesn’t leave until he gets the explicit all-clear from God.
  • ‘clean animals and clean birds’—‘clean’ animals and birds are the Bible’s way of describing animals considered suitable for human consumption and use in religious ceremonies.
  • ‘he sacrificed burnt offerings on it’—this is Noah’s way of saying, ‘Thank you.’  Perhaps it’s not exactly the way we’d do it, but it would have been the norm in Noah’s day; and God seems quite gratified by Noah’s action.
  • ‘never again will I destroy all living creatures’—Noah’s one act of gratitude goes a long way.  Since everyone and everything alive was on Noah’s boat, they’re under his protection.  The reward for Noah’s action extends to his entire household (i.e. all living things), and all their descendants.  God permanently prohibits himself from setting the reset button in this way again. It’s comforting to know that we’re not under constant threat of being wiped out.  However, this promise on God’s part creates something of a problem as well: how can God make sure that violence does not spin out of control?  God will need to come up with some other strategy to make sure that the world is not overcome by violence and wickedness.
  • ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth’—this is a repeat of God’s call to the first man and woman.  We are back on track again with the mission of filling the world with abundance, goodness, and order.
  • ‘The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts’—God does put some extra safeguards in place this second time around.  The first time, Adam and Eve are lied to by a lying, talking serpent; and God gives a murderer the relatively light sentence of banishment.  This time, God places a little more distance between human beings and animals, and he demands that murderers surrender their own lives.  I think these two changes are meant to slow down any momentum toward escalating violence.
  • ‘and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth’—I imagine that from this time on any rain shower would be something of a traumatic experience for Noah and his family.  The rainbow is God’s reminder to them that the rain will end.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: How is your job going for you? Your school work? Your family? Your small group? Or the other activities in which you are involved? Ask God for fruitfulness in what you put your hands to, praying that he would increase and multiply the different things in which you have been investing.
  • For your six: Pray that God would give a specific and tangible sign to each of your six that would help them know of his faithfulness and love for them.  Or maybe God has already given them that sign.  Consider asking your six if there they have ever experienced something they felt was a sign from God.
  • For our church: Pray that our role and influence would increase and multiply beyond our local setting.  Pray that we’d be ever more effective and passing along whatever good things we’ve gotten from God.

Genesis 6: 9-22

February 23, 2010

Genesis 6:9-22

Points of Interest:

  • ‘Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence’—something has gone terribly wrong.  Humanity has filled the earth, but with violence instead of with goodness.  Instead of replacing the frightening chaos with abundance and order, they add to the scary chaos.
  • I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth’—this is an unsettling and confusing response on God’s part.  God’s purpose is, along with human partners, to fill the earth with goodness, abundance, and order.  Those partners double-cross God and fill the earth with violence instead.  In response, he decides to destroy them and the earth almost completely.  It’s hard to avoid the thought that God is just compounding the problem here.  Isn’t his solution just bringing about more of what God doesn’t want—violence, chaos, and emptiness?  My only thought as to how God’s drastic action makes sense is that God is creating a firebreak here.  Just like we cut down a strip of forest to save the rest of the forest from fire, God is cutting a break in human history, to make sure that the rest of history doesn’t get consumed by the level of violence he sees happening at the time of Noah.
  • three hundred cubits long’—a cubit is eighteen inches.  While it’s not exactly the Queen Mary, this ark isn’t some slapdash raft either.  This is no small project God is assigning to Noah.  There’s no indication that Noah had any previous experience with ship-building, or that such a thing as a ship-builder even existed yet.  Heck, there’s not even a proper name for a ship yet.  And God is asking Noah to build a ship that’s one-and-a-half football fields in length.  If I were Noah, I wouldn’t even know where to start.  I wonder if God gives him more detailed, step-by-step instructions as he gets going.
  • I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth’—there is little geological or archaeological evidence of a universal flood since the beginnings of human society.  There could perhaps have been very wide scale flooding toward the end of the last ice age.  There’s also some possibility of a regional flood during what could have been the time of Noah.  Interestingly, despite the geological evidence, many ancient cultures from around the world—from Greece to Scandinavia to China to South America—do have stories of universal or near-universal floods, some of them with remarkable similarities to the biblical story and no obvious direct borrowings from the Bible.  Apparently, there’s something deep in our cultural memory about civilization as we know it being destroyed by flood.  It doesn’t matter to me overmuch whether the flood being described here is actually universal or, in fact, regional.  From Noah’s perspective, the entire world he knew was threatened. In Genesis 1, limiting and controlling the floodwaters played a big part in God’s creative work.  He held back the waters to first distinguish between sky and surface, and then to separate the dry land from the oceans.  Here, God removes those limits on the waters, and they flow back in to take over.  Perhaps it takes constant action on God’s part to make the earth habitable, and in this instance God is not so much causing a flood as not stopping one.
  • But I will establish my covenant with you’—a covenant is an agreement, an alliance, or the establishment of a special relationship.  God has not entirely given up on humanity.  In the midst of deciding that it would be better to pretty much start from scratch, God establishes this partnership with Noah.  Their partnership is a joint effort to make sure that living things have a future.
  • Two of every kind’—a lot of time has been spent trying to figure out whether or not it would be possible for Noah to find two of every kind of animal, and whether or not they’d fit on the ark.  Again, I find that argument to be something of a red herring.  I could imagine a scenario in which God somehow enabled Noah to collect all the animals (the animals come to him; he’s given temporary super-speed—the possibilities are endless), and I also still find it somewhat implausible that there were two kangaroos, for instance, on the ark.  But whether or not there were technically, exactly, specifically two of every kind of animal on the ark seems beside the point of the story.  What I do find interesting and pertinent is that, for the second time in a handful of chapters, God takes on a massive project, and once again he enlists human help.  Adam and Eve were called to be God’s partners in filling the earth; Noah is called to be God’s partner in rescuing its inhabitants—or, at least, representatives of all its inhabitants.
  • Noah did everything’—it sounds so simple, but it’s actual quite remarkable.  Noah believed God that the earth was going to be flooded; and rather than going catatonic, he actually went about building a gigantic boat and filling it with representatives of every animal and every food item.  I wonder what would have happened had Noah disbelieved or declined to take on the mission.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: In this passage, God destroys the earth to save it from violence.  I appreciate God’s passion for peace, and yet I can’t help but wonder whether mass destruction is the way to go about it.  Sometimes God can be difficult to understand.  Does this passage—or some other of God’s actions—really, really bother you?  If you feel able, ask God to give you some new insight into his thought process.
  • For your six: God is willing to go to great distances to put a stop to violence.  Are any of your six the object of someone else’s attack, whether physical or otherwise?  Ask God to protect them.
  • For our church: In one way, our church is not in so different a situation from Noah’s.  God has given us a huge task, and it’s something none of us have ever done or even seen before.  Pray that God would give us the instructions we need to do the work God has called us to do.

Genesis 1: 1-2, 26-31

February 22, 2010

Genesis 1: 1-2, 26-31

Points of Interest:

  • ‘In the beginning’—those of you who have been reading these Bible guides for a while might recognize that this isn’t the first time we’ve come across this passage together.  In fact, this is the third time we’re starting our reading with the first chapter of Genesis.  I simply can’t escape the idea that the beginning is a good place to start.  Genesis, the first book of the Bible, reminds me of the overture from an opera: all of the themes we’ll encounter in detail later are introduced first here.  In fact, I might almost go so far as to say that all of the major themes of the Bible make their debut in the first four chapters of Genesis.  The theme of calling is no exception.
  • ‘God created the heavens and the earth’—this little phrase has become quite a dividing line in the past 150 years or so.  It’s not my purpose here to wade into the Creationism v. Evolution debate.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s Genesis’ purpose either.  Whether or not the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, are meant to be taken literally is a surprisingly old argument—and not just between atheists and deists, but among people of faith.  It may be no surprise that Basil the Great, writing in the fourth century, took the Genesis account literally in every aspect.  It may, on the other hand, be something of a surprise to hear that Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, believed that Genesis’ creation story was meant to be read allegorically, and that Saint Augustine, one of the most important theologians of all time, cautioned in the fifth century against treating Genesis as a scientific treatise—particularly when it contradicted the accepted scientific ideas of his day.  While they disagreed about whether or not Genesis was well-equipped to describe the mechanisms of the beginning of the universe, Basil, and Origen, and Augustine all strongly agreed that it has something very worthy to say about the relationships among God, humanity, and the world.  That’s what we’ll try to focus our attention on as well.
  • ‘the earth was formless and empty’—I can’t tell whether what’s being described here is simply a blank slate, or something more sinister: a dark, wet, frightening, and perhaps malevolent chaos.  Either way, the world doesn’t start out as a very comfortable place for human habitation—or the habitation of any kind of living creature, for that matter.
  • ‘Then God said’—we skip the first five-and-a-half days of creation, in which light, sky, sea, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals are created.  It’s a fun and interesting account, but doesn’t have much to say about our theme of calling.
  • ‘Let us make human beings in our image’—the ‘us’ here has always been a matter of great speculation.  It could be that God is talking to his heavenly courtiers, commonly known as ‘angels.’  An even more intriguing possibility is that God is talking to himself.  According to the doctrine of the trinity, God, while a single being, exists in three persons; it’s as if relationships are so important to God that, even before anyone else was around, he took the form of three separate persons so that there would already be someone for God to relate to.
  • ‘So God created human beings in his own image’—the move from plural to singular here lends some weight to the trinity theory for the use of ‘us.’  Whoever is being referred to can be appropriately thought of as both singular and plural.  Human beings take after God.  They’re the spitting image of God, chips off the old block.  When someone sees us, they should be reminded of God: ‘I’d know you anywhere.  You look just like your mother.’
  • ‘fill the earth and subdue it’—this is the first instance of calling in the Bible.  It’s God’s call to all of humanity.  The call is basically to imitate God.  Not only do we resemble God, but we’re meant to act like God as well.  God finds an empty, chaotic world; and he goes about filling it with good things, and bringing order to it.  And he invites us into that family business of spreading goodness in the world.
  • ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant ‘—God does not just give the human beings an assignment.  He provides the proper equipment as well.  He gives them everything they need to get the job done.

Taking It Home:

  • For you: Imagine that God took a moment to consider you, like he did creation on that sixth day.  Do you picture God saying, ‘Very good,’ or do you perhaps feel God might be a little disappointed?  Take a moment to be still and ask God to show you how he in facts feels about you. Try for the day to picture God standing right beside you, holding banners and pom-poms, and cheering you on.
  • For your six: Pray that your six would get a picture of how God sees them. Pray that they would feel like they were uniquely designed and created for a purpose.
  • For our church: Just like God gave specific purpose, order and rhythm to everything he created, pray that he would give similar purpose, order and rhythm to the programs, groups and initiatives at our church.  Pray specifically for the ways our church is trying to be uniquely helpful in seeing a new, different move of God in our nation.

The Daily Bible Guide Format

February 20, 2010

The Daily Bible Guide Format

Each day’s guide is broken into three sections:

1.   The Bible passage for the day.  We’ll follow our theme in 42 bite-sized portions, meant to be short enough that you can comfortably read them in a single sitting, but long enough that each day is a satisfying stand-alone experience.  The passages tend to be between about half a page and about a page-and-a-half long.  For your convenience, I’ve included the Bible text of each day’s story in Today’s New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).  I find it to be a very readable translation, with current vocabulary and a modern sensibility.

2.   Points of Interest. This section briefly explores aspects of the day’s passage that might be especially interesting or potentially confusing.  It offers some historical notes and references that might help to interpret the story, frames some of the issues or questions presented by the passage, and offers some possibilities as to the passage’s meaning.

3.   Taking it home. In this section, I offer some suggestions for how the day’s reading might apply practically to our lives and the lives of the people around us.  Much of the time, I’ll propose a way we might want to respond to the passage through prayer; other times, I might propose a little experiment, or a conversation.  Each day, we’ll look at the passage from the perspective of three groups of people:

a.   For you—we’ll explore how the passage might apply to us and the people closest to us.  We’ll discuss implications it has for how we look at ourselves, how we approach our lives, and how our families relate with God;

b.   For ‘your six’—think of six people in your life who live locally, who aren’t followers of God (and who may or may not be interested in God or exploring issues of faith), and for whom you’d like to see God do good things.  What does this passage have to offer to those six friends?

c.         For our church—we’ve found that it’s often helpful to consider how the passage might apply beyond just our own social circle.  This year, we’ll be thinking about our church, and the role our church might play in the world around us.

This Season’s Theme: Calling

February 19, 2010

We’ll be considering two different senses of the word calling:

  • Receiving a calling–having someone or something invite us into an endeavor;
  • Fulfilling a calling–reaching our unique destiny.

The Bible is fundamentally a collection of stories about people encountering God, and it seems like almost all of those stories involve this idea of calling in one way or the other.  God is constantly calling human beings into life-changing, world-altering missions.  Over the next six weeks, we’ll look at many moments when people first hear a call, and some when they see their calling fulfilled.  We’ll ponder together why people would say ‘yes’ to the call, and why they’d be tempted to say ‘no.’  We’ll consider what kinds of missions God calls people into, how, and why.  We’ll discuss why so many of the people in the Bible give up somewhere between receiving their call and fulfilling it, and why many others come to the point where they at least want to give up.  We’ll consider the surprising prominence of hardship as a feature of God’s calling–and why people might choose to embrace that calling anyway.  We’ll look at some amazing pictures of the satisfaction of a destiny fulfilled.  And we’ll take (particularly as the six weeks come to a close in the traditional commemoration of Jesus’ imprisonment, punishment, death, and resurrection) an especially close look at Jesus as our primary example of someone who hears a calling, embraces it, pursues it, and fulfills it.

The 2010 Leap of Faith Daily Bible Guide

February 12, 2010

It’s become something of a habit with us to spend the six weeks before Easter doing a forty-day faith experiment we call the Leap of Faith.  It’s our version of the traditional church season of Lent.  You can learn more about the Leap of Faith in general, and about the 2010 Leap of Faith, in the Users’ Manual, which is usually close at hand wherever you might have picked up this guide.  What you have in your hands or on your screen is one element of the larger Leap of Faith experience.  These Bible guides are something of a guided tour through a book, story, or theme of the Bible.  Many of us have found that a joint experience of the Bible brings a certain richness to our prayer lives, thought lives, and conversation as we go through the Leap of Faith together.

Whether you’ve never opened a Bible before in your life or you’ve been reading the Bible ever since you did memory verses as a kid, I’ve written this guide with you in mind.  People of both varieties have told me that previous guides have been helpful and interesting, occasionally thought-provoking, and not-too-infrequently relevant to their lives.  I hope that this year’s guide reaches at least those standards once again.


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