CREATION & THE FALL
Long ago, before our existence, before the animals and plants covered the earth, even before time itself; our story begins. This story has survived thousands of years. Elders have carefully preserved it through the meticulous repetition of story telling. It has been written and rewritten, year after year, language upon language, all so that you may hear and know of the powerful love of our Creator, Savior, and King.
As it is written, “In the beginning God created…” Before that, there was nothing. No blue prints. No building blocks. No guide. God, in his pure creative ability, fashioned everything seen and unseen. From the tiniest of details to the extravagant union of it all, everything we know and hope to one-day experience was set into motion at the command of his voice. This was not some random occurrence; don’t ever succumb to that way of thinking. God meticulously set everything into motion one day at a time.
Numbers and patterns permeate everything God does. His word is filled with certain numbers that appear time and time again. The first of these numbers is the number seven. Seven days is all it took to create everything we have ever known. Whether those days were measured on our time scale or God’s, in the grand scheme of things, the creation of this world was brief.
On the first day, God laid the foundation. He put form where there was none. Land and water. His Spirit filled this place. He then filled the earth with light and set it into motion. This simple yet immensely complex system created our time scale. Day and night.
These things are familiar, and we know them very well. However, God also created the heavens; a place that is beyond our realm of comprehension. A holy place we have yet to experience. A place that now gives us hope.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the first day.
Then He breathed a pocket of air between the waters. This “sky,” as it is called, is far different from the one we know today. A time is quickly coming when the wrath of God will rain down on the earth, and the waters will no longer be separated.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the second day.
Again He separated the waters. This time He put dry ground between the waters. He called the two “land” and “sea.” Then, God sprinkled the land with all kinds of living vegetation. Hundreds of thousands of plants, each one different, each one beautiful. The vast spectrum of colors, aromas, textures, and flavors were all displayed in the vegetation of God’s garden. One’s senses were in a constant state of indulgence.
Two particular plants were set apart. The first was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was said that to eat of it would surely bring you death. The second was the tree of life. These trees represent the battle of good and evil that is constantly waging war within each of us.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the third day.
On the fourth day, God lit up the sky. He meticulously placed the stars to help guide us and the moon as a symbol to mark sacred days. Carefully, he placed our planet in just the right location. If earth were any closer to the sun we would surely burn up, and if we were any further we would all freeze. No detail was overlooked.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the fourth day.
On the fifth day, He filled the waters with schools of fish and the sky with teams of birds. Many were large and many were small. Each of them was uniquely gifted according to their surroundings. God then ordered them to increase in number and fill the earth, and that is what they did.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the fifth day.
God then continued to fill the earth with life. This time He filled the land with animals; livestock to roam in herds, creatures to crawl along the ground, and wild beasts of many other kinds. Each was different, but they all fit together perfectly in the circle of life.
The sixth day was special. God didn’t stop with the creation of the land animals. He continued on to create mankind. In his likeness Adam, our father, was created. He was commissioned by God to care for and protect all of God’s great creation. So he spent his days in the garden naming each the creatures, while intimately communing with God our father.
The light came, and the light went. This was the end of the sixth day.
In all that God had made, he was greatly pleased. On the seventh day he rested and savored his new creation.
It was not long there after that God decided it was not good for man to be alone. So God fashioned Eve from the flesh of Adam and the mud of the earth. She was to be called woman, and Adam to be called man.
Everything worked together in perfect harmony in these early days. Adam and Eve walked side by side with their creator and lived in unity with everything around them. This unity is what we were created for. We were meant for closeness with God, and that is what we have been longing for ever since we let it go. Whether they were conscious of it or not, Adam and Eve were to become the example for the many generations that followed.
In this garden God walked closely with Adam and Eve. This open, unashamed intimacy is what we were designed for.
Now, while in the garden of Eden, God had given our ancestors two simple commands:
First, Adam and Eve were commanded to enjoy the fruits of every tree in God’s garden, including the tree of life. This was not a passive command. They were to taste, smell, touch, and partake of God’s beautiful creation – his gift to mankind.
Second, there was one tree they were not to partake of – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For if they ate of it they would surely die.
It is so easy to become fixated with the one limit given to Adam and Eve that we forget the immense freedom He gave to experience the rest of his creation. AUTHOR states that, “Freedom is an intolerable burden for mankind.” Unfortunately this is where our story takes an awful turn.
“Did God really say ‘ You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” This was the manipulative question of a serpent to our mother Eve. “Surely you will not die if you eat of this tree of knowledge of good and evil. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
As the woman gazed upon the tree and saw that it was pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom, she took and ate of it. She then offered some of its fruit to her husband. They ate, and their eyes were open.
They were then instantly consumed with shame. Their nakedness embarrassed them. So like children they fashioned loin clothes from a nearby fig tree to cover their shame, and they hid from God among the trees.
It was likely that God sensed this separation as he cried out to man, “Where are you?”
“I heard you in the Garden,” Adam said, “but in my shame and nakedness, I hid.”
“Adam, who told you were naked. Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” God replied.
Adam sold out his wife, and said “It was the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Turning to the woman God said “What is this you have done.”
Eve too, looking to displace the blame said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
God’s just character led him to place a curse on the Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.
So the Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said,
“Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ Cursed is the ground.
Through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
Then God poured out his great grace. He fashioned garments of animal skin for the man and woman. In His mercy, he banished them from Eden. If they had continued eating from the tree of life, they would be trapped in this broken state for all eternity. God had already set his plan for restoration into motion.
The last time that we gathered, we heard of the catastrophic consequences that befell the cosmos following the sin of the first humans. Every relationship was disrupted – that between God and humans, man and women, and between humanity and the rest of creation. Confronted with the enormous problem of humanity’s pervasive wickedness, God’s response was the great flood, through which God preserved Noah, a righteous man, and his family. But even a catastrophic downpour did not change the heart of humanity.
Now after some time, God called out to Terah, telling him to take himself and his family and to head towards the land of Canaan, but he ended up stopping in the land of Haran. While in Haran, God came to Abram the son of Terah, and said “go forth from your country, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great and so you shall be a great blessing; I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
We are a people that are sent. We are not meant to just stay in one place forever. God’s command to Abram is to “go!” Yet this is a command with a promise, a summons with assurance. God told Abram to leave his three sources of security: his country, his relatives and his father’s house. Yet God promised to replace all three: “Abram, leave your homeland; I promise to give you a new land to live in. leave your family; I promise to give you a new one. Leave your source of blessing (his father); for I promise to bless you myself. And I will make your name great.”
What was God’s first promise to Abram?
When they arrived in Canaan, the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “to your descendants I will give this land.” So Abram built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him there. And Abram journeyed on, continuing toward the Negev. But there was a famine I the land; so Abram went down to Egypt.
While he was in Egypt, Abram did something that reflects the attitudes we often find in ourselves: the desire for self-preservation and self-promotion, and the willingness to harm others out of fear. Sarai was beautiful, and Abram was afraid that an Egyptian would see her and want her for himself – and would kill Abram to get her. He persuaded Sarai to pretend she was his sister, not his wife, and Pharaoh learning that Sarai was his sister, he took her into his household.
But the Lord struck Pharaoh and his household with great plagues because of Sarai, and thus Pharaoh uncovered the deception. Instead of being a blessing for others, Abram’s first encounter with another people was to be a curse. Pharaoh had Abram and his family escorted out of Egypt.
Even though it may not look like it right now, Abraham was a man of great faith, a man who believed God, a man who feared God, but he was also like us, a man with ordinary fear and that fear led him to put Sarai in harm’s way. Abraham’s trust in God developed over years, as we will hear as we continue his story.
Who remembers God’s second promise to Abraham?
God promised Abram a huge family, a great nation, but he and his wife seemed to be physically incapable of having children. Throughout the story, barrenness plays a prominent role, and as the story continues to unfold, we will see it time and time again. Barrenness symbolizes the powerlessness of humanity, yet in our limitedness God acts to give life.
Abram returned to Canaan and settled among a warlike people. One night the word of the Lord came to him in a vision and said, “do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you, and your reward will be great.” And Abram replied, “O Lord God, what will you give me, since I have no children, and so I have had to make my servant Eliezer my heir. Since you have not given me any children, a person born in my household is my heir.”
So God said to him, “this man will not be your heir. You will have a son, and he will be your heir.” And God took Abram outside the tent, and said, “look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you can. So shall your descendants be.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, Abram believed in the Lord, and God declared him righteous because of his faith.
God continued, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur, of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” And Abram, perhaps seeking reassurance said, “O Lord God, how will I know that you will do this.”
God said, “Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon.” And Abram brought them, “cut the animals in two, and laid each half opposite the other.”
God comes to meet us where we are. Abram’s neighbors made covenants – binding agreements in trade and family life – by doing exactly what God told Abram to do. They would take an animal, kill it and cut the carcass in two. Then they would walk between the two halves, which said to the other person, “If I break the agreement, may I die like this animal.”
This is what God did with Abram. God used a cultural form Abram would have been familiar with as the basis for God’s covenant with him. God did not require Abram to meet any conditions; it would be God’s responsibility alone to bring the promises to pass. For only God would walk between the animals, while it customary for the people in that time to have both sides of the covenant walk through the animals.
Now when the sun had set, it was very dark, and suddenly a flaming torch appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals. And on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land.”
Now, although Abram believed God’s promise, after ten years he and his wife Sarai were still childless. Sarai thought that it was taking God too long to fulfill the covenant promise, so she told Abram to sleep with her servant Hagar and claim that child as theirs. So Abram did and Ishmael was born. Yet this was not God’s plan. As it always happens in our story, whenever we try to “help God out”, invariably we make things worse.
A long thirteen years after God made the covenant with him, God came to Abram and said, “behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of many nations. No longer will your name be Abram; from this day forward your name will be Abraham, which means “father of many,” “for I will make you the father of many nations.”
“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants, and it will last forever, and I will be your God. As for Sarai your wife, you shall no longer call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and give you a son by her, and she will be the mother of nations.
Abraham laughed to himself because Sarah and he were so old, and said, “Oh God, why can’t Ishmael be the one?”
But God said, “No, Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him, and will make of him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this season next year.”
Now the Lord appeared again to Abraham while he was sitting in the entrance to his tent. He looked up, and three men were standing opposite him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent to meet them, and bowed to the ground before them. Sarah prepared a meal for them, and they ate together. Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Abraham said, “In the tent” and they said, “We will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah listening at the tent doorway, laughed to herself.
“Then the Lord did for Sarah as God had promised, and she bore a son to Abraham in his old age. He called him Isaac, which means “laughter.” Abraham circumcised Isaac when he was eight days old, as God commanded him. And the lad grew up into a handsome strong young man.
Who remembers God’s third promise to Abraham?
God chose Abraham to be the one through whom the task of recreation –mending of a broken universe – would continue, and God entered into a unilateral covenant with him. But God did not know if Abraham would be faithful to this call, and so God tested him.
God called out, “Abraham” and Abraham answered, “Here I am.”
“Take now your son. Your only son. The son whom you love, Isaac. I want you to go to the land of Moriah, and offer Isaac there as a burnt offering on the mountain.”
God has already tested Abraham once, with the call to go, the call to leave his past behind –asking the son to relinquish his father. And Abraham proved faithful. But now God is call him to give up his future- asking the father to relinquish his son. And just as in the original call, God gives no reason for the demand. But unlike all of Abraham’s encounters with God, this time there is no promise accompanying the command. If Abraham is faithful this time and offers Isaac as a sacrifice, then how can God be faithful and keep the covenant?
So the next morning Abraham rose early, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place that God had told him.
On the third day, he saw the mountain ahead, and said to the young men, “stay here with the donkey. The lad and I will go yonder, and we will worship God and return to you.” He laid the wood on Isaac and took a knife from the saddlebags. And together they started to climb the mountain.
Can you even begin to imagine the depths of the pain that Abraham was feeling as he laid the wood on the back of his son, his only son, his promised son, the wood that would be the fuel for the sacrifice? What do you think was going through Abraham’s mind as he walked up the mountain?
After a while Isaac broke the silence, asking a single question, a question that any intelligent young person would ask. He asked his father, “Father, I see the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
Abraham looked back at his son and said, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering my son.” What do you think could be possibly going through Abraham’s mind at this time?
As they got to the top of the mountain, Abraham prepared an alter and then after the firewood was set in its place, he bound up Isaac and drew his knife. As Abraham gathered the courage to make the sacrifice that God asked of him, a voice from heaven called out, “Abraham! Abraham!”
Abraham waited for the voice to speak again while still holding the knife; the voice then stated “do not harm the lad; for now I know that you fear God since you have not withheld your son, your only son, the son whom you love, from me.” As Abraham raised his head from looking at his son, he saw a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. And he took the ram and offered him up in the place of this son.
Thus God tested Abraham, and Abraham proved faithful. It is seen that God is faithful for God who made His covenant with Abraham can be trusted, even if God cannot be understood at times, for God both tests us and provides for us.
Abraham’s faithfulness did not come easily, nor without anguish yet God still praised him for it. We are all on the same journey, and we also can grow into our faithfulness as we learn to trust God and each other more within the context of the community God has placed us in.
The story continues thought Isaac and his son Jacob. God renews the covenant with each of them and again miraculously gives to them children even though their wives were barren. They receive the same promises from God: that of land, descendants, and God’s blessing. And God adds a new promise to the covenant- God’s presence with them, something unheard of. So both Isaac and Jacob renew the covenant with God, for they are indeed blessed to be a blessing to the nations.
Our story this week starts off with a man named Joseph.
Abraham's great-grandson Joseph brought the family of Jacob, whom God renamed Israel, down into Egypt during a time of great famine. There they settled, the guests of a grateful pharaoh. Four centuries the people of Israel lived in Goshen in Egypt, and, just as God had promised Abraham, they were fruitful and multiplied and became a great nation. But a new dynasty of pharaohs arose who viewed the people of Israel not as a blessing but as a threat to their nation’s security. So they enslaved them, forcing them to build the great storage cities of Pithom and Raamses.
And so the Israelites spent the next 400 years in Bondage.
Yet despite their affliction, the people continued to grow, and in an attempt to control the enslaved population, the pharaoh ordered the death of all Hebrew baby boys. Now, a daughter of the tribe of Levi tried to hide her beautiful baby boy from the Egyptians, but when she could do so no longer, she made a tiny ark from bulrushes and placed the boy in it, and then placed it among the reeds of the river Nile. When the daughter of the pharaoh came down to the river to bathe, she heard the cries of the baby and ordered a slave to pull the basket from the Nile. She then took the baby home, to be raised in the pharaoh's palace. The pharaoh's daughter named him Moses, which means 'one who draws out,' because she drew him out of the water.
This Hebrew baby boy was spared even though many others were killed by the king. God would one day take this baby named Moses, and raise him up to lead God's people, drawing them out of slavery. Moses spend his first 40 years in the pharaoh's palace yet he never forgot his identity as one of the people of Israel. One day he came across an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. After looking this way and that, he decided to take matters into his own hands, killing the Egyptian and hiding his body in the sand. The pharaoh heard of the murder, and so Moses had to flee for his life, to the land of Midian. He married one of the daughters of the priest of Midian, and spent the next forty years shepherding the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro.
Now the pharaoh died, and the children of Israel cried out because of their bondage, and their cry for help was heard by God. God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the children of Israel, and God took notice of their plight. One day, while Moses was pasturing Jethro's flocks, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he saw a bush spontaneously burst into flames. This happened all the time in the fierce heat of the desert, so he thought little of it. Yet when he noticed that it kept burning, he turned aside to take a closer look. When the LORD God saw that Moses was watching the burning bush, God called to him from the midst of the bush, and said, "Moses, Moses." Moses said, "Here I am." "Do not come any closer," God replied. "Take off your sandals, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. And the LORD said, "I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have paid heed to their cry because of the slave drivers, for I am aware of their suffering. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land, to a land flowing with milk and honey."
So God said to Moses, "Come now, and I will send you to the pharaoh, so that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. And I will be with you, and this shall be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." Moses said, "If I go to the children of Israel and say to them, "The God of your fathers has sent me to you," they may ask me, 'What is God's name?' What shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, Yahweh has sent me to you. This is God's name forever, Yahweh.' Gather the elders of Israel together and tell them that the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is about to bring them out of the slavery of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey. And then you and the elders will go to pharaoh and say, "The LORD, the God of Hebrews has met with us, and we must go into the desert to worship the LORD." But pharaoh will not permit you to go, unless he is forced to. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my miracles, and then he will let you go." Moses left the land of Midian and began his journey back to Egypt. On the way, God met with him again, saying, "When you arrive in Egypt see that you perform before the pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden the pharaoh's heart so that he will not let the people go."
Some say God hardened the pharaoh's heart in order for the pharaoh, and all the Egyptians, to see that the gods they served were powerless before the Lord God of Israel. Indeed, the LORD told Moses to go to the pharaoh and say, 'For this reason, I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you my power, and in order to proclaim my name through all the earth.' Others say it was also that Israel would see that the gods of the Egyptians were powerless-- and so would learn to trust in the LORD alone.
And so Moses delivered nine of God’s plagues as a sign of God's power over all the gods of Egypt. Plagues of frogs, lice, flies, locusts- creatures that cause discomfort in normal times, let alone when a land is filled with them. But these plagues were not simply to inconvenience or distress the Egyptians. Each of the plagues that God sends is related directly to an Egyptian god. The first plague, where God turns the waters of the Nile into blood, was an act against one of the most important gods of Egypt, the Nile River itself. From the Nile they drew the water that enabled them to grow their crops, the very source of their life and wealth. The ninth plague, the plague of darkness, was an act against the sun goddess Ra. And the ultimate proof of God's power over the gods of Egypt was saved for last. The Egyptians, the dynasty of the pharaohs- the sons of Ra- depended on the survival of the son more than the pharaoh himself. For the firstborn son of the pharaoh was the sign of the god Ra's ongoing presence with them. God's judgment on the firstborn of Egypt declared that the gods behind the pharaoh's brutal and oppressive rule were powerless and would be allowed to tyrannize humanity no longer.
God continued his instructions to Moses, "After you have performed these wonders, go to the pharaoh and say, "The LORD says, 'Israel is my first-born son. And I said to you, 'Let my son go that he may serve me;' but you have refused to let him go. Behold I will kill your first-born son.'"
So Moses and Aaron went to the pharaoh and said, "The LORD sent me to you, saying, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness.'" But the pharaoh said, 'Who is the LORD that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know the LORD: I will not let Israel go.' Shortly afterward, the pharaoh commanded the taskmasters to make the people of Israel work even harder, by not supplying them with the raw materials for building.
The people of Israel complained bitterly to Moses about their harsh treatment, and Moses in turn complained to God. God replied, saying, "I am the LORD, and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name, Yahweh, the LORD, I did not make myself known to them. I established my covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan. I have heard the cries of the children of Israel, and have remembered my covenant. Say, therefore, to the children of Israel, 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under your burdens, and will deliver you from this bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched hand, then I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'
So Moses went to the pharaoh and said, "Thus says the Lord, 'About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of pharaoh who sits on the throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl, and the firstborn of your cattle. There shall be a great cry in the land of Egypt such as there has not been before and such as shall never be again. But the children of Israel will not be touched, that you may understand how the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.' Then the LORD said to Moses, "Speak to all the people of Israel, saying, "Take a lamb, a spotless lamb from your flocks, one for each household, and then at twilight, every family must kill the lamb. Take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts, and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. Eat the lamb that same night, roasted with fire, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. And prepare yourselves to leave, wearing your cloaks, with your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. This meal is the LORD's Passover. This day will be a memorial to you, and you shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD, throughout all generations you are always to celebrate it.
And so God followed through on his command. At midnight the LORD went throughout the land of Egypt and struck all the firstborn, from the firstborn of the pharaoh who sat on the throne to the firstborn of the captive in his dungeons and all the firstborn of the cattle. But in the land of Goshen, the LORD passed over every house with the blood of the lamb on the doorway. However, in the land of Egypt, there was a great cry; there was no home where there was not someone dead. Then the pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in the middle of the night, and said, "Rise up, get out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel, and go serve the LORD as you have said.
And so it was that at the end of four hundred and thirty years, all the people of Israel went out from the land of Egypt. The people had seen the way in which the LORD had struck down each of the Egyptian gods, and now had liberated them from slavery. They were finally on the way to the land promised in the covenant God had made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Egyptians urged them to leave; fearing even worse things would happen if they stayed. Before the last plague struck, the Israelites had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold, which they had gladly given them. The Israelites carried these things with them as they took their unleavened dough, wrapped their cloaks about them and left their place of bondage to begin their new life.
And so the people left their life of slavery and began their journey into a new life of freedom. God kept the covenant with the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, including the promise of God's presence with them. God led them into the wilderness, going before them in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. But the pharaoh had second thoughts. He was not so willing to just let his labor force desert him so easily. So he led the chariot division of Egypt's military, together with the army and the cavalry units, to chase the children of Israel and bring them back to slavery. As the clouds of dust from the horses and chariots swept toward them, the people of Israel were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They challenged Moses, saying, "Was it because there were no graves for us in Egypt that you have brought us out to die in the wilderness?"
Then Moses said, "Do not be afraid! Stand by and see the salvation, the liberation of the LORD which God will do for you today; for the Egyptians, whom you have seen today, you will never see them again, ever. The LORD will fight for you, while you keep silent. Moses then stood on the shore of the Red Sea, the waves lapping at his feet. He lifted up his staff, and stretched it out over the sea, and the LORD swept the sea back by a strong east wind, creating a path of dry land, with walls of water piled high on both sides. And he led the people through the Red Sea.
When the pharaoh saw this, he led his chariots into the sea. But the LORD brought confusion to the pharaoh's armies, causing their chariot wheels to swerve, and God made them drive with difficulty. And the Egyptians cried out, "Let us flee from Israel, for the LORD is fighting on their behalf against us." After the last of the children of Israel had walked onto the far shore, Moses stretched out his hand over the sea once more, and the sea returned to its normal state. The waters came crashing down and covered the chariots and the horsemen, and pharaoh's entire army was destroyed. Once more, God delivered His people from the danger of the sea. And when Israel saw the great power that the LORD had used against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in God's servant Moses.
In the story of the exodus we see the liberation of God. God heard the cries of the people in bondage, and came down to save them. God delivered them from the tyranny of the Egyptians, and led them out of Egypt to begin their journey to the Promised Land. This is our story. God's intention remains to liberate us from 'Egypt,' or rather, from the things that keep us in bondage. God continually wishes to lead us out of those things that keep us distant from Him and from each other, those things that lead us even further into exile. He is simply waiting for our cry for help.
This story of bondage is reflected in our own lives. It was in the exodus event that God came near to the children of Israel, revealing God's name to them and making them God's people. As followers, we experience the same liberation that God brought the children of Israel- liberation from the bondage of sin, and all the oppression that sin brings. God's mission is one of freedom, and God's people are called to partner with God in bringing freedom to all those who live in bondage.
Last week we saw how God raised up Moses to lead the Israelites out of the bondage of the Egyptians. After showing not only the Egyptians but also the Israelites how great His mighty power is, God softened Pharaoh’s heart so that Israel could be free. But Pharaoh’s heart became hardened again and his army chased Moses down and trapped the Israelites at the Red Sea. The people complained and God once again showed His power by confusing the Egyptians and by splitting the Red Sea. As the Israelites were almost through, the Egyptians began to follow them and after every single Israelite was safe on the other side, then God swallowed up Pharaoh’s armies with the sea.
Our story tonight picks up immediately where we left off last week. However this part of the story does not start well. Having witnessed the mighty acts of God in Egypt and just now at the Red Sea, it seems the people soon forgot them when they were in the wilderness, the land between Egypt and Canaan. They continually complained about the lack of food and water, even after God miraculously provided for them. Every morning God gave them enough manna for food and on occasion gave them meat to eat as well.
Even though the people complained often in the early days of their new freedom, God was faithful to the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In the third month after God brought them out of Egypt, they came to the Sinai desert and camped there, in from of the mountain. Moses went up the mountain and the Lord called to him, saying, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine and you shall be to me a kingdom of priest and a holy nation.
When Moses spoke these words to the people, they replied as one, “all that the Lord has spoken we will do!” the people knew what kings and priests were, having seen them in Egypt, but there were none among this group of slaves. God was telling them the role that they were to play in God’s world: they were to be priests of a holy God in the midst of broken and corrupt humanity, mediators of God’s covenant. God’s people exist for the sake of the world not for their own sake.
So on Mount Sinai, the people of Israel gathered before the Lord their God and heard the terms of the covenant treaty God offered them. The treaty had terms that we are to love no other gods before God; we are to no make idols and so on. The covenant concluded with Moses calling heaven and earth to bear witness to it. The giving of the law at Sinai is how God transformed Israel from a group of powerless slaves into a kingdom of priest and a holy nation.
Now, after the conditions of the covenant treaty were given to the people, the people answered with one voice saying “all the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” and Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning and built and an alter at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. They offered up a sacrifice to God. Then Moses went up on the mountain for forty days and forty nights, to receive the tablets of stone on which God would write down the covenant treaty. Included in this covenant were the instructions for the building of the tabernacle, the meeting place in which God would come to live in the midst of God’s people, something unheard of among the surrounding nations. The law also gave directions for the people as to how to remain pure in the midst of the corrupt nations around them, to be a holy nation, as God is holy.
A few days later when the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, so they assembled before his brother Aaron and said to him, “Make us an god who will go before us, because we do not know what has become of Moses, the man who led us out of Egypt.” They may have come out from Egypt, but they had not left Egypt behind. How swiftly they forgot the covenant they had just made with God. Instead of trusting God, whom they could not see but whose miraculous works they had seen, they returned to the practices of Egypt. Aaron made a golden calf, an idol they had seen the Egyptians worship, a god they had seen proven powerless before Lord God back in Egypt. But nonetheless a god they could see. Already they were disobeying the covenant already they were being disloyal and unfaithful to the God who had delivered them from slavery.
Aaron placed the golden calf before the people and they said “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” When Aaron heard them say this, he built an altar before it and said “Tomorrow shall be a feast day to the Lord.” Aaron tried to identify this idol with the Lord.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves, quickly turning away from the way which I commanded them. I have seen this idol they have made, I have seen this people and behold they are an obstinate people, now then let me alone, that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them and I will make of you a great nation.
Moses pleaded with the Lord his God and said “O Lord, why does your anger burn against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians be able to say, “God brought them out of Egypt just so God could destroy them”? Turn from your burning anger and change your mind about doing harm to your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, your servants to whom you swore, by yourself, to make them a great nation, and to give them a land that their descendants would inherit forever.”
God did as Moses requested. God had determined to harm Israel but God changed His mind and relented. Then Moses went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, tablets that were God’s work and whose writing was God’s. Moses took both copies of the treaty and walked into the feast the people were having before the golden calf. Moses’ anger burned and he threw down the tablets and shattered them at the foot of the mountain, vividly symbolizing how the people had broken the covenant. He took the calf and ground it into dust, throwing it into the water, and made the people drink, to taste the bitterness of their sin. (I think he was upset)
Moses returned to the mountain to plead with God to spare the people from destruction. God told Moses to take the Israelites to the land of Canaan. Moses at first pleaded with God to let Israel stay at the mountain so that they would be near to their Lord, but God said that His presence would go with Israel. So Moses cut out two new tablets and for forty days he stayed on the mountain writing the words of the covenant.
Moses led God’s chosen people through the wilderness for 40 years. For 40 years Israel spent wandering in one small area of this world. This was a result of the people’s complaining to God and consistent arguing over the rule of Moses and Aaron. So God declared that that generation would not see the Promised Land. Right, before they crossed the Jordan River into Canaan Moses passed away and Joshua became the new leader of Israel. The people respected Joshua, and the Lord was with Joshua just as he was with Moses.
After many years Joshua gathered the people, and they packed up their camp and prepared to enter the Promised Land. The waters of the Jordan were split so that the people could walk across the dry riverbed; similar to the time they crossed the Red Sea. Joshua sent spies into Jericho and there stayed in the house of Rehab. She kept them safe from the king of the city and then sent them back to Joshua with a promise that her family would be safe.
At the words of God, Joshua sent out the Israelite army to walk around the city for seven days and on the last day the army walked around the city seven times and then the priest blew their horns so that the Jericho’s walls fell and the Israelite army entered the city and destroyed every living thing within the walls except for Rehab and her family. After taking down Jericho, Joshua set his sight on the rest of Canaan.
The people of Canaan had many evil religious and social practices, epitomized by the practice of child sacrifice. It is possible that the people of Israel may not have understood these practices to be evil as they were so common throughout the rest of the world. So God commanded for the rest of Canaan to be destroyed so that Israel would not be tempted follow false gods as they did with the golden calf.
The people of Gibeon tricked Joshua into making a covenant treaty with them, and the treaty occurred because Joshua did not consult God before making the treaty. However, throughout the entire conquest, Israel was successful in battle because the Lord fought for them.
Yet, many small “enclaves” of Canaanites survived throughout the land including the city of Jerusalem. These people tempted Israel and led them to be unfaithful to their covenant with God.
Before he died, Joshua gave a warning to all of Israel, to finish wiping out the rest of the Canaanites, but Israel failed. So as time went on and the people that had seen the wonders of God passed away, their children who had not seen the mighty works of God did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the gods of the Canaanites. So God allowed their enemies to have victory over them.
It was not God’s intent for Israel to have a ruler. After Joshua passed, no leader was appointed. This was because God was meant to be their ruler and their king. For while men may falter and fail, God does not, so if they trusted in God as their king then they would have been safe.
Yet Israel continued to struggle with making God their leader. So they continued in this circular pattern.
People disobey God
God punishes them by allowing their enemies to have victory over them.
Israel cries out for God to help them
God would raise up a judge to rule over the people and to free the people.
The first of these judges was Othniel with the last being Samuel.
So from the time of that Israel crossed the Red Sea until the time of Samuel, we can clearly see this pattern of sin and repentance. This dizzying pattern of sin was not what we were created for. Yet, while we are a foolish people, we are also a lucky people seeing that God has chosen to look after us anyway.
The last time we gathered, we heard of the many circles that Israel went through. We also saw Israel take control of the land of Canaan – the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – and this was the fulfillment of the covenant. But as the time of the judges drew to a close, the people of Israel became a loose network of individual tribes, holding their own territories with a tenuous grasp while continuing to be plagued by the Canaanites they had left in the land contrary to God’s instructions. In particular, the Philistines who held five cities on the coast proved to be a constant threat.
Tonight we will hear of an important transitional period in our story: the transition from tribal coalition to monarchy. This is a golden era of Israel’s history and includes the establishment of the Davidic dynasty.
When Samuel grew old, his sons acted unjustly, taking bribes and perverting justice. So the elders of the people came to Samuel and said, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. So we want you to appoint a king for us, like all the other nations.” The people’s request for a king displeased Samuel, and so he asked God what he should do. God answered, “Listen to the voice of the people, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Like everything they have done since the day that I brought them up from Egypt, so they are doing to you also.”
Samuel tried to warn the people of the price they would pay for having a king, but they refused to listen to him, saying “no, there shall be a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations, that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And the Lord said to Samuel. “Listen to their voice and appoint them a king.”
Up to this point God had been dwelling as their king. But now the people demanded to become a monarchy, like all the other nations. This in itself was not necessarily wrong though. In the giving of the Law at Sinai, God had spoken these words to Moses: When you enter the land which the Lord God gives you, you will set a king over you whom the Lord you God chooses.
This king must be from your people.
He shall not build up a herd of horses,
Nor marry many wives, in case his heart is turned away;
Nor shall he amass wealth for himself.
It is understandable that the people demanded a king. The Philistine peoples had united and allied themselves with the other Canaanite peoples, and were once more a threat. But instead of asking God to give them victory in battle, they demanded a king to lead them. Instead of embracing their unique role in the world as God’s people, the Israelites wanted to be like all the other nations.
And so, once more, God met them where they were, and gave them their king, the fist king of Israel – Saul, a strong and handsome man standing head and shoulders above them all. Samuel came to Saul and poured oil on his head, anointing him king of God’s people.
Saul’s first test as king came when the Ammonites besieged Jabesh-gilead. Saul summoned all those who would fight with him, and in his first battle, he utterly defeated the Ammonites, confirming his reign. But Samuel knew Saul would have a difficult time ruling them. They were divided along geographical lines in the Promised Land: ten tribes in the north with two in the south. The dream of a united kingdom would take many years to be fulfilled.
When Samuel realized his life was coming to its end, he gathered all Israel to him, saying, “The Lord has set a king over you. Know this: if you will fear the Lord and serve God, and listen to God’s voice then both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God. But if you rebel against God then the hand of the Lord will be against you, as it was against your fathers. But do not fear, for the Lord will not abandon God’s people, on account of God’s great name. For the Lord has been pleased to make you God’s people.”
But once again, the people did not heed the warning. When the Philistines gathered their forces against Saul, he was afraid, and although Samuel had told him not to enter battle until he arrived to make offerings to the Lord on behalf of the people, Saul became impatient and made the offering himself – the offering which only a priest should make.
When Samuel realized what Saul had done, he said, “You have acted foolishly and have broken the commandment of the Lord your God. And so instead of establishing a dynasty through you, the Lord has sought out a man after God’s own heart because you have disobeyed the Lord.” Even though Saul is the king, he is not sovereign over Israel; God is.
Saul never learned this lesson. He again proved his inadequacy to rule during a battle with the Amalekites. The Lord had commanded Saul to completely obliterate the Amalekites. But after Saul had defeated them, he allowed their king to live and kept the best of their livestock for himself. When Samuel confronted him, Saul pretended that he had kept the livestock only to sacrifice them to the Lord. So Samuel rebuked him and left. Samuel didn’t see Saul again until the day of his death, and he grieved for what his king had become. Then God sent Samuel to anoint a new king, a king that God chose, rather than the people. He anointed David, a young man, and the Spirit of the Lord fell upon David from that day forward.
David went to serve King Saul, and ministered to him, and was his armor bearer. And Saul loved him greatly. Once more the Philistines gathered an army against the people of Israel, and their champion, a giant named Goliath, came out daily to challenge and taunt the Israelites. But no one would accept the challenge. No one, that is, except David. Saul tried to dissuade David from going out to fight Goliath, saying, “You are but a youth. This Philistine has been a warrior since his youth.” But David recounted the many times he had fought to protect his father’s sheep, concluding, “The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the claw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.
Saul dressed David in his armor, but David refused to wear it. Taking the weapon of a shepherd, a slingshot, God’s anointed one, David, killed goliath and led the rout that became his first victory over the Philistines. At first Saul was pleased, but he became jealous as David’s popularity among the people grew. Saul’s son Jonathan, whom Saul had planned would succeed him as king, became great friends with David.
From then on, David won many more battles, and Saul began to perceive David as a threat to his rule. Saul’s jealousy and insecurity led him to attempt to kill David on several occasions. David was eventually forced to flee for his life, but even on the run, people were drawn to him, and he gathered a ragtag band of men around him. Saul tried to hunt him down, turning his attention from his real enemy, the Philistines, to his imagined enemy, David. On two occasions, David had an opportunity to kill Saul, but both times he refused, unwilling to harm his king. But Saul was not so merciful. When he discovered that a town had sheltered David, he had the inhabitants killed, including eighty-five of the Lord’s priests.
During this time Samuel died. Once more the Philistines amassed their forces on the Plain of Jezreel, and Saul tried to seek the counsel of the Lord concerning the battle. But the Lord did not answer him. And so Saul foolishly entered into battle for the last time. His armies were decimated. Many of Saul’s son’s, including Jonathan died. Mortally wounded, Saul escaped, and rather than being captured, he fell on his own sword, taking his life and ending his reign on this shameful note. When David heard the news, he mourned the loss of Saul and Jonathan and the thousands who had fallen in battle alongside them.
Saul’s death, and the empty thrown, created a power struggle and his generals argued and attempted to put into power the members of Saul’s family which they favored.
David prayed to the Lord about what he should do, and the Lord sent him south, to Hebron, where he was anointed king by the tribe of Judah. The rivals for the throne went to war with each other, until finally all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your flesh and blood. When Saul was king over us, you were the one who really led us.” So the elders anointed David king over all twelve of the tribes of Israel, and thus the people of God were finally united under one king.
David understood the tension between the northern and the southern tribes. He also realized that that the tribe of Benjamin, from which Saul was from, felt that the kingship should still be from their line. So David chose the city that would become his capital very carefully. A group of Israel’s enemies, the Jebusites, had lived in Jerusalem for Israel had still not conquered them because of their strong city. But because of it’s central location David felt it was perfect for his capital. So David led his troops against it and took the city. Thus Jerusalem became his capital, the City of David.
When the Philistines heard that David had been made king over all Israel, they assembled their entire army against him. And David, inquired of the Lord as to how he should do battle with them. The Lord gave David instructions, which David followed exactly, destroying the entire Philistine army, ridding the land of the Philistines for the first time in 150 years and securing peace within his borders. Having made Jerusalem the seat of his political power, David now made it the religious capital of the people by bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. David danced with joy as he led the procession of the ark into the city, in adoration of his God. Once there he offered sacrifices to the Lord and blessed the people.
David built a palace and enjoyed the rest that the Lord had given him from all his enemies, and God renewed the covenant with David, as He had done with the patriarchs before David. God told David that you will not build a house (a temple) for me but I will build a house (a dynasty) for your and this dynasty will last forever.
David’s military victories, and the consolidation of his power in Jerusalem, made Israel the most powerful kingdom from Mesopotamia to Egypt. However, with the power perhaps came complacency. During the following spring, the Ammonites invaded from the north. But instead of leading his army into battle, as other kings would have done, David stayed in Jerusalem. And there he broke covenant with god, committing adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his Generals, Uriah the Hittite, whom he ordered to be killed in an attempt to conceal his sin.
At the height of David’s power, the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin; a crucial role the prophets played throughout Israel’s history. Unlike all the kings that would follow him, David accepted Nathan’s rebuke, repented of his sin and accepted the consequences for what he had done. Truly there never was a king like David. During his reign he united the twelve tribes of Israel, and finally after many centuries he completed the conquest of Canaan. He established Jerusalem as the seat of political and religious authority and made Israel the mightiest nation in the region.
But as we have seen before, sin is never personal. It is always social. David’s sin led to chaos in the kingdom. And he struggled to keep peaceful relations between the southern tribes and the northern nations. His own son Absalom tried to take the throne from him.
It would not be until his son Solomon came to the throne that Israel would truly enter its golden area. During Solomon’s reign, Israel enjoyed forty years of undisturbed rest from war. They experienced unparalleled economic and political prosperity, and Solomon became renowned throughout the world as a man of great wisdom. Indeed he had asked God for that very thing in order to rule his people well and God had granted his request. Solomon collected and wrote the great scripts of Israel’s wisdom, the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon. But what he is remembered for the most is the building of the Temple in Jerusalem.
With the building of the temple God gave Solomon one simple warning. If he or his sons ever turn from God, he would turn the temple into a heap of ruins. Tragically, Solomon ignored God’s warning. Along with his great building projects, he created a standing army of 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen. He built a merchant fleet, and amassed a great wealth for himself. The weight of the tribute he collected each year was 666 talents. And he married the daughters of kings and nobility throughout the world, entering into covenant relationships with them. All the things that the Lord had commanded kings not to do, Solomon did. And they led him away from serving the Lord, and he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, building high places to pagan gods for his wives and sacrificing to them.
Although Solomon refused to listen to God’s voice, for the sake of the promise God made to David, God allowed Solomon to reign over Israel for forty years.
And so we reach the end of what is seen as the golden era of Israel’s history. While it was not what God wanted, He gave Israel the king they desired. God used Saul to show them the failure that comes from human leadership, and He used David to show what results from a heart that is submissive to God’s authority.
Under the rule of David, the conquest of the land of promise was completed, and the twelve tribes of Israel were united under one king. Under Solomon, Israel became the most powerful nation from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and the people came from far and wide to see the glory of his kingdom. Yet, in the midst of God’s richest blessings, Solomon forsook the covenant he had made with the Lord God and led his people into idolatry, adopting the pagan practices of the many foreign wives he married. Through social oppression, particularly of the ten tribes in the North, through building a standing army and by amassing wealth for himself, Solomon abandoned the covenant. Although he built a house for the Lord, the great Temple in Jerusalem, he did not honor the name of the Lord in the way he lived. He lost sight of the vision of what God’s people are called to be.
As his life drew to a close he reflected on what he had accomplished and concluded, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” Perhaps he recognized the pointlessness of his life, of the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, the grief that knowledge brings, the uncertainty of political power, and the inescapable fact that we will all one day die. Acknowledging what his life had become, he left this warning to those who would come after him: “When everything has been said, my conclusion is this: Fear God and keep God’s commandments. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.
But those who came after him failed to heed his warning. Solomon had reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel for forty years. When he died, his son Rehoboam became king. The ten northern tribes sent representatives to the new king with this request: “Your father, Solomon, forced us to work for him; please lighten the hard service your father had us do, and we will serve you.” Rehoboam’s elders in Judah advised him to grant their request, but the young men he had grown up with offered different counsel. Rehoboam chose the advice of his young friends over the elders of Judah and told the ten northern tribes, “Whereas my father loaded you with a heavy yoke, I will add to it; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”
King Rehoboam sent the work supervisor, Adoram to bring back workers, but the ten tribes rose up against him and stoned him to death. This began the rebellion that would divide the kingdom in two once more; the ten tribes of Israel to the north, leaving the tribe of Judah to the south. Jeroboam became king over Israel, and although a civil war looked imminent, God sent a prophet to Rehoboam telling him not to fight with his kinfolk. For once, the king obeyed the word of the Lord. But Rehoboam and the people of Judah still did evil in the sight of the Lord. Their sins were worse than their fathers’ had been. They participated in all the evil practices of the nations, which the Lord had driven out before them. And in the fifth year of Rehoboam’s reign, the king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem and looted the Temple of the treasure that Solomon had gathered.
After this, there was war between Rehoboam and Jeroboam continually. And when Rehoboam died, his son Abijam became king and walked in all the sins of his father before him. Thus begins the endless litany of the reign of the kings of Israel and Judah. Each one seemed to try to outdo his father in terms of the evil practices they adopted from the nations around them. The nation remained split in two, and the unity that David had striven for was shattered forever. But God’s people were not abandoned to their own devices. God sent prophet after prophet to call the people back to covenant faithfulness, to stop their evil practices and to call on the name of the Lord once more. During the reign of King Ahab of Israel, who did more to provoke God than all the kings before him, God sent the prophet Elijah with the word of the Lord. In a dramatic showdown on top of Mount Carmel, Elijah, the prophet of God, challenged 850 of the prophets of Baal and Asherah to prove whom the people should serve: the Lord God, or the pagan gods they had adopted. The Lord God gave evidence to the prophet Elijah’s claims with a fiery display of God’s power, and the people rose up and killed the false prophets. But they soon slipped back into their old ways. And king after king led the people into breaking covenant with their God.
What God did through Elijah was not a demonstration of God’s power for the pagans’ sake. It was for Israel’s sake, to call our ancestors back to faithfulness to the covenant. The story takes an even more tragic turn under King Hoshea, who became king over Israel in Samaria. Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, came up against him, and Hoshea paid him tribute, becoming his slave. But when he tried to throw off the yoke of oppression, instead of turning to the Lord for deliverance, Hoshea sent messengers to the ancient enemy of Israel, the king of Egypt, for help. When Shalmaneser discovered his treachery, he invaded the whole land, captured Samaria and carried the ten tribes of Israel into exile in Assyria, where they were assimilated into Assyrian culture and lost their identity forever. This came to pass because the people did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, succumbing yet again to the temptation of idolatry and breaking covenant with the Lord. They forsook the commandments that Moses had given them, making for themselves two golden calves to worship, even offering their children to the flames in sacrifice. So the Lord removed them from the land, leaving only our people, the tribe, of Judah.
When Israel was carried off into exile, Hezekiah was king over Judah. And he trusted in the Lord God of Israel, doing right in the sight of the Lord, just as his ancestor David had done, keeping the commandment which the Lord had commanded Moses. He removed the high places and cut down the Asherah, which other kings had installed before him. And the Lord was with him, and he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. But then Sennacherib came to power in Assyria, and he invaded Judah and took Jerusalem. Instead of seeking the help of other nations, as the kings before him had done, however, Hezekiah called on the name of the Lord. And the prophet Isaiah came to him and said, “Because you have prayed to the Lord, God will save the city for God’s own sake, and for the sake of God’s servant, David.” That night, the angel of the Lord went out and destroyed the Assyrian army, and the land of Judah knew rest once more.
But before he died, Hezekiah welcomed a mission from the king of Babylon, who asked for his help to fight the Assyrians. Hezekiah foolishly flaunted the wealth and beauty of the Temple before them. And Isaiah the prophet came to him and said, “Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house and all that your fathers have laid up in store, shall be carried off to Babylon; nothing shall be left. Thus says the Lord.” Instead of being grieved at this, Hezekiah though, “At least there will be peace in my days.” After Hezekiah’s death, his son Manasseh came to power. He fell into the ways of the kings before him, doing evil in the sight of the Lord. And his son Amon, king after him, also did evil in the sight of the Lord. There ended up being one good king. During this dark period, there was a final ray of hope. His name was King Josiah. He did right in the sight of the Lord and walked in all the ways of his father David. He ordered the Temple, which had fallen into disrepair, to be restored. And while this was being done, the workers found the book of the Law, which had been lost for decades. They brought it to Josiah, and when he read it, he was horrified at how far from God’s covenant the people had gone.
He feared that what had happened to Israel would happen to Judah, and so he sent for a prophet to bring the word of the Lord to the people. That prophet, the woman Huldah, came to King Josiah and said, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants that they should become a desolation and a curse, and because you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I truly have heard you. Therefore you will go to your grave in peace and you will not see the evil which I will bring on this place.” King Josiah ordered the nation to gather at the Temple, and there, in response to the word of the Lord, which came through the prophet Huldah, after hearing the story of what God had done for them, they renewed the covenant with God once more. Yet sadly, this revival lasted just one generation. Josiah’s sons were as evil as all the other kings before them. God sent prophet after prophet to try and woo God’s people back to the Lord. They warned the people, “You saw the Northern tribes carried off into exile! Don’t think that it can’t happen to you!” But Josiah’s sons continually ignored the prophets.
In their conceit, they thought they were immune to disaster. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem- God’s very presence was in the Temple. One final prophet was sent- Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet.” He grieved for the people not only because he saw the fate about to befall them, but also because no one would listen to him. No one else could see what was so clear to him. Jeremiah’s hope was that the God’s ache for God’s own people could somehow penetrate the numbness of our conceit. He stood in the gate of the Temple and cried out, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Change your ways, and I will let you live in this place!’ Do not trust in deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.’ For only if you amend your ways, if you truly practice justice between a person and their neighbor, if you do not oppress the orphan, the widow and the stranger, and do not shed innocent blood, nor walk after other gods to your ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave your fathers, forever.
Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods, then come and stand before me in this House, which is called by my name, and say, “We are delivered! Is it then that you think you can do all these abominations? Has this House, which is called by my name, become a den of thieves in your sight? Behold, I have seen it myself,” declares the Lord. The great conceit was when the people then acted against every one of the Ten Words and then dared to come before the Lord in God’s Temple to seek God’s blessing. Such breathtaking arrogance! Yet even then God would not abandon them. God went to them and gave them the chance to return to covenant faithfulness: to practice justice, to care for the vulnerable, to give up our idolatry. But the people still did not listen. And so, just as God promised, disaster fell upon them. During King Jehoiachin’s reign over Judah, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, besieged Jerusalem and captured the city. Then he led away into exile all the mighty men of Israel, the craftsmen, the smiths; none remained in the area of Jerusalem except the poorest of the rural poor.
Yet even in exile, the people failed to keep covenant with God. And neither did those left in Israel. A decade later, during the reign of King Zedekiah, on the seventh day of the fifth month, which was the nineteenth year of the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, the captain of his army came to Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground, along with the king’s palace and the rest of the city, and they broke down the walls, and the remainder of the people of Judah were carried into exile in Babylon. This is denoted as quite a low point in Israel’s history. God’s presence had left the Temple, and the people’s faith was grounded not in God who made the covenant with the people, but their faith was in the Temple. In the Temple, the Lord had dwelt amongst the people. As long as the people had God in their midst, they figured how they lived did not matter. Yet, the people continually broke their covenant with God, and it did lead to judgment, as the prophets had forewarned. God tried to show patience with the people to His disobedient people, but they wouldn’t follow him. Eventually, they were indeed torn from the land and carried off into exile, just as the ten tribes of Israel had been.
Our God is a God of grace. Even in the midst of deserved disaster, the Lord has promised that God will be faithful to the covenant, even when we are not. Ezekiel not only had nightmares. He also had beautiful visions. In one, God came to him and said, “One day I will sprinkle clean water on my people, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh, and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my commandments, and you will be careful to keep the covenant. And you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be my people, and I will be your God.”
Hear again the word of the Lord to God’s people, spoken through the prophet Isaiah. “The people seek me day by day. They ask me for just decisions. They say, “Why have we fasted, and you do not notice?” Rather than your fasts, sitting in sackcloth and ashes, is this not the fast, which I choose? To loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your home; when you see the naked to cover him; and not to ignore the plight of your brothers and sisters? When this is how you live, then you will call, and the Lord will answer. When you remove oppression from your midst, when you stop standing in judgment over others, if you give yourself to the hungry, and care for the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness, and the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in times of dryness, and give strength to your bones. For the Lord gives strength to the weary, power to those who are worn out. Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength; they will mount up on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not become tired.
This is the task of the prophets: to remind God’s people of the past, and to tell God’s people what lies in the future- not so we can sit back and wait for it to happen but so that we change the way we live today, to live faithfully in light of the promise of that coming day. We must seek the welfare of the city to which we have been sent, and pray to the Lord on its behalf; for in its welfare is our welfare. For God has chosen our people from among the many peoples of the world to bless those very same peoples. God’s purpose is not to bring you and me out of exile; it is to deliver the entire world from exile- for we are all living east of Eden, in a world full of arrogance, violence, injustice, self-protection, greed, and misuse of power. If we are ever to fulfill the covenant the Lord God made with Abraham, to be a blessing to the peoples of the world, then perhaps we are to begin by being a blessing to the people among whom we are living right now. Throughout this story, the people were not listening to the prophets that God had sent to speak to them. It was then known that a greater prophet would have to sent, someone who could indeed save the nations. Someone to bring peace, covenant faithfulness, and an everlasting kingdom.
We talked about the messengers that were sent to Israel repeatedly so that Israel would turn away from their evil ways and return to the Lord. The people refused to change their ways so they were captured and sent into exile. After many years in exile they returned to Israel and were able to rebuild the Temple. Later they were once again conquered by the Roman Empire and it is in this part of the story that something unexpected happened.
This story begins with a messenger, a very special messenger, the angel Gabriel. For Gabriel came to a young girl named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a carpenter, an honorable man named Joseph. Gabriel said “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: you will become pregnant and will give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be called the Son of the Most High; the Lord will give him the throne of his ancestor, David, and he will rule forever and his kingdom will have no end.” This news was Unexpected, and Mary questioned Gabriel by saying “How can this be since I Have not slept with a man.” Gabriel responded by explaining that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will hover over you; therefore the child you bring to birth will be called the Son of God.” Joseph at first had a hard time believing this story, but Gabriel came to visit Joseph as well so that he too would believe.
Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, a town in the northern part of Israel, but since Joseph was a member of the tribe of Judah and a descendent of David, they had to return to Bethlehem because of Caesar Augustus’s order for a census. It was here in Bethlehem, in a humble manger that Jesus our creator, savior, and king was born.
Sometime later, magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem and stirred up the city. They came to Herod the king and asked “Where is the one born King of the Jews?” Herod sent them to Bethlehem on the advice of his counselors, who found in the words of Micah a prophesy saying that from there will the messiah come. Herod shortly after this encounter sent his soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all male children two years old and younger so that his rule would be undisturbed. But Joseph, who was warned in a dream, took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt and remained there until Herod passed away.
Little is known of Jesus’ early childhood. There is an account of Him visiting the temple as a young boy. So we skip ahead to His adult life, which begins with Jesus being baptized by John. John preached a baptism of repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins. John claimed that in order to obey God, one must change their lives, for a little bit of water will not wash away their stains. When asked if he was the Messiah, John’s response was “I’m baptizing you in a river; the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Spirit of God. One day Jesus came to visit John, and John baptized Him, and as Jesus came up from the water, the Holy Spirit descended onto Him and a voice came from the heavens saying, “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus then went into the wilderness and was tempted for 40 days. At the end of the 40 days, we are aware of three temptations that Jesus faced. The first was to turn rocks into bread to fend off the hunger that Jesus felt in his stomach. Jesus rebuked this temptation with scripture. The second temptation took place in Jerusalem, on top of the temple, with the tempter saying that if Jesus jumped that the angels would catch him. Once again Jesus rebuked the tempter with scripture. The last temptation occurred on the peak of a tall mountain. All the earth was offered to Jesus if he only bowed down and worshiped the tempter. Jesus rebuked the tempter for the last time with scripture. Each of these temptations would have made Jesus’ life much easier. The last temptation would have established His kingdom on earth forever. However, it would have occured in direct contrast to the way that God intended for it to be accomplished, for it would have broken the commandments which God set in place for Israel. Jesus was faithful to God and was able to fight of the temptations placed before him, yet how strange and unexpected was it that even the Lord of the universe was tempted by Satan in the same ways that we are.
Jesus returned to Galilee, a region in northern Israel where he grew up, and there he began to teach in the synagogues. He proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God, healed every kind of disease and delivered the demon-possessed. He called twelve men to be his students, disciples who would follow him and learn from him. Jesus’ choice of his disciples was intriguing to say the least. Instead of the brightest and best students available, he called ordinary men (the unexpected), some of which were fishermen and one of his disciples was even a despised tax collector.
One day Jesus took his disciples to Jerusalem for the Passover feast and when they entered the temple, Jesus saw the moneychangers and the livestock in the temple and so he took a whip and drove the livestock out and turned over the moneychanger’s tables. When the religious leaders saw what Jesus was doing, they were outraged and demanded, “What credentials can you give us to justify all this?” Jesus responded by saying “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” The leaders said, “It took 46 years to build this Temple, how can you rebuild it in three days?” Jesus did not respond this time. Jesus acted out the coming judgment on the Temple and those who put their trust in it, knowing full well that in doing so he was beginning to walk the path that would lead to his death.
Jesus frequently confronted religious and social groups in such bold ways. During a trip from Jerusalem to Galilee, he took the shortest route, a way spurned by the devout among the Jewish people, for it went through Samaria. There Jesus met a Samaritan woman. When his disciples saw he was talking to her they were amazed, for the Jewish people did not talk to Samaritans. The woman went off and brought her entire village to Jesus and after hearing him teach for two days, declared him to be the Messiah, the savior of the world. These outsiders recognized who Jesus was, before Jesus’ own people realized who he was.
Shortly after arriving in his home town, he spoke to the people at the synagogue on the Sabbath and after reading a short prophecy from Isaiah, he spoke saying “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in this place.” The people became excited. But then Jesus went on to tell them that a prophet is not welcome in his hometown and that Elijah was sent to a gentile not Israelite when in need and that Elisha healed the Syrian but not an Israelite. The people became angry at this. They rose up to kill him, but Jesus passed through their midst and went on his way.
Jesus used more than just words to communicate to his disciples. After Jesus called Levi, a tax collector, Levi gave a big reception for Jesus in his house. There was a crowd of tax collectors and other folk who were reclining at table with him. The Pharisees and religious scholars began grumbling at the disciples saying “Why do you eat and drink with the tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus intervened and said “who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? I did not come to call the righteous but the sinners.” It was one thing to call sinners to repentance out in the desert like John did, it was another thing entirely to share a meal with them. But Jesus was always hanging out with the “wrong people”, and seemed to spend much of his time breaking bread in the wrong homes. #Unexpected
Jesus went off with the disciples to a quiet place to pray, there he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They answered him by saying, “Some say you are John the Baptizer, come back to life. Others say Elijah. Still others say that one of the prophets of old has risen again.” Jesus responded by saying. “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus went on to explain that it is necessary that the Messiah proceed to an ordeal of suffering, be tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests and religion scholars, be killed, and after three days be raised from the dead.
They encountered opposition from the religious leaders of their people. They were confronted by the demon-possessed; they were often misunderstood. Jesus’ own family was concerned that he had “lost his senses”. Sometimes it seemed even the elements were against them. More than once Jesus sent the disciples out onto the Sea of Galilee only for them to run into one of the storms that can so quickly come up on that lake. On one occasion Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat, so exhausted that a fierce gale and pounding waves did not wake him. The disciples, terrified, woke him and said, “Rabbi don’t you care that we’re going down?” Jesus stood and told the wind and the waves to be sill and the wind died down while the lake became perfectly calm. The disciples were awestruck and no less terrified now that the storm had gone, for they said amongst themselves, “who is this, that even the chaotic sea obeys him?”
Jesus taught vast crowds who came to him on the mountain to hear the law that shaped their lives. But his teaching was different than the other rabbis and scribes, for he taught with authority. The rabbis commented on the teaching of other rabbis; Jesus spoke directly and stated things such as, “You have heard it said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
After spending a little over 3 years teaching Jesus returned to Jerusalem for one final visit. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, home of the Temple, and was proclaimed by the crowd as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. He did not arrive like a great military leader riding a warhorse and leading an army as many envisioned their savior to be. Instead he was a young man, riding a donkey. A Messiah was expected, but the manner in which He came was completely unexpected in every sense. Many of the Israelites, some of which were the Zealots, thought that the Messiah would be a military leader that would unite the nation and drive the Romans out so that Israel would have not nation controlling it and it could return to a golden age like that of David and Solomon. But the Roman oppression is not what Jesus came to save us from. He came for a fight that was far greater.
The chief priests and the scribes, the guardians of the Temple, were deeply concerned about the welcome Jesus received. Many of them were infuriated by his popularity and the way he carried himself, so they began to put into action a plan to get rid of this upstart from Nazareth and restore the status quo. They were further infuriated when Jesus entered the Temple the following day and began to physically throw out the moneychangers saying, “My house is a house of prayer for the nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Jesus was acting out God’s coming judgment on the entire, corrupt Temple system.
For whatever reason, during this week in Jerusalem, Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and discussed with them how to deliver Jesus into their hands. Later that week on the first night of the festival of the Passover, Jesus sent two disciples to find a room for them to share the Passover meal together with. It is this Passover meal that we reenact in a sort of way when we gather together for communion. During this meal, Judas left and told the chief priests where they could find Jesus, for Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray. After the meal Jesus went and prayed for strength to get through the coming hours that would be extremely painful and would end with his death.
As Jesus was praying, Judas came up and kissed him, this was the sign for the guards to arrest Jesus. During that evening Jesus went through four trials: The first before the Sanhedrin, the ruling elders of Israel. Secondly they brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate the Roman governor in Israel. Only the Roman governor could give a death sentence, which was why he was brought before Pilate. After finding no guilt in him, Pilate sent Jesus to his third trial, to King Herod. Herod wanted to meet Jesus for a long time because of all that he had heard about Jesus, but when Jesus would not perform a miracle in Herod’s sight, Herod became upset and sent Jesus back to Pilate. Pilate still found no fault in Jesus, but feared a riot, so he offered to release a prisoner as was his custom during the Passover celebration, Jesus the teacher, or Barabbas the murderer thinking that the people would ask for Jesus. But the peopled demanded that Jesus die.
Throughout the four trials Jesus was beaten by guards, whether they were Jewish guards or Roman soldiers. After Pilate condemned Jesus to death he was beaten again so badly that he could not even stand. Jesus was forced to carry his cross through the city and was crucified on the hill that is called Golgotha. There Jesus spoke his final words and died. Jesus’ death brought a new exodus for us. It brought deliverance from the power of sin and death, and from the separation from God that all humanity has experience since we were exiled from the garden of Eden. God’s presence was no longer to be kept in a single room in the temple but now filled the entire world.
But this is not how the story ends. It is far from the end in fact. After Jesus died, he was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimthea. On the third day, two women went to the tomb to place some spices on his body as was their custom, but when they arrived there Jesus was not in the tomb and two angels told them that Jesus was not there and that he has been risen like he told them he would be. So the women left and told the disciples and disciples came to meet him. After spending some time with his closest friends Jesus ascended into heaven.
Jesus is risen and has defeated death. He is the Son of God, the Messiah and is the hope for the entire world. While many know his name today, his message, his grace, his mercy, and his love are still very unexpected to those around us today.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to the disciples on several occasions over a period of forty days. At first they were terrified for they thought they were seeing a spirit. Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid, and don’t let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet- it’s really me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn’t have muscle and bone like this.” They still couldn’t believe what they were seeing. It was just too much; it seemed too good to be true.
At the end of the forty days following his resurrection, Jesus gathered his disciples together and said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth. Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.” After he said these things, he was taken up before their very eyes, returning to the Father to be exalted, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
This then was the mission of the disciples: to be witnesses to the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus, to carry the good news of the new exodus – of the new creation – to the very ends of the earth, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This was the continuation of the mission of God in the world, the ongoing fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, and with the people of Israel. The disciples stayed in Jerusalem as Jesus had told them to. There were 120 of them – men and women – those who had followed Jesus to the end. And once more, crowds began to fill the streets as the feast of Pentecost drew near. The disciples were praying together on the day of Pentecost when suddenly a sound like a violent wind swept thought the place, and in its wake flames burst in their midst, and then the flames divided into small tongues of fire, which came to rest on each of them.
The Holy Spirit is the very presence of God among us, no longer restrained by a building. The living church has now replaced the tabernacle and Temple of old. As God’s presence came down in their midst, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in languages they did not know or recognize. But there were people around them who did, and crowded around them in amazement at what was happening. They could see these people were all native Galileans, yet they heard them speak in their languages, singing praises of God. The disciples did not know what they were saying until they were told. People began to wonder aloud what this meant while some said that they must be drunk.
Peter stood to address the crowd that had gathered. He told them that they were not drunk but that they were seeing fulfilled a vision that the prophet Joel had been given: in the last days God would pour out God’s Spirit on every kind of people and that men and women would prophesy. He told them that Jesus of Nazareth, put to death by their people so recently, was the long-awaited Messiah. He told them they had been blind to all the ways God confirmed Jesus’ identity as Messiah. He told them that Jesus, now raised from the dead, sits at the right hand of God, and that God’s Spirit was now being poured out on those who had followed Jesus. When he finished, he may well have anticipated stones to come flying out of the crowed, but to his amazement, the whole crowed fell to their knees weeping, calling out to God for forgiveness. The disciples baptized about three thousand people that day in the name of Jesus, and they too received the gift of the Holy Spirit. From that day on, everyday day more people came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and they were baptized, and they too received the Holy Spirit. The Church had been born.
As the weeks went by, the disciples continued to see the power of the Holy Spirit at work in and through them. The very things they had seen Jesus do, they did. One day, Peter and John were approaching the Temple and noticed a man who had been lame form birth. He was calling out for alms but didn’t bother asking them; he could see that they had no money by the way there were dressed. But he didn’t need money; he needed to be able to walk, and to work, to be a full member of the community. So Peter walked up to him and reached down his hand, saying, “I don’t have any money, but what I do have I can give you: in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”
He grabbed Peter’s hand and pulled himself up. Instantly he was healed and he began leaping around for joy. And then for the first time in his life, he entered the temple with them to give thanks to God. Once more, the disciples saw how Jesus not only physically heals people but through them restores them to community. God healed many through the disciples they cast out demons from some people. On one occasion God raised someone from the dead through Peter – a woman named Dorcas. She was one of the disciples, renowned for caring for the poor. The disciples were amazed that God was performing signs of the kingdom through people like them, just as he had through Jesus. They remembered Jesus’ words when he told them, “The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even great things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I’m doing, I’ll do it.”
Just as with Jesus, the religious leaders were not pleased with what was happening. John and Peter were arrested more than once for telling the story to the crowds in the Temple. On one occasion they would have been killed on the spot if Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis had not spoken up. Jesus had told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. God’s plan from the beginning was for the world to know who God is. They were simply continuing the mission of God’s people that began with Abraham – to bless all the families of the earth. But the disciples were slow to understand this in the beginning. Even after Pentecost, after being filled with the Holy Spirit, they still did not get it at first. In the beginning, instead of leaving Jerusalem as Jesus had said, they stayed put, and people had to come to them to be healed. After the murder of Stephen, however, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and all the people apart from the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.
The apostles still thought the gentiles were outsiders to the kingdom. Even though the disciples had watched Jesus draw all kinds of people to him throughout his life, God had to speak to Peter directly in a dream before he understood. While praying on a rooftop, he saw a great sheet lowered from the sky before him, and in it were many of the creatures Torah declares to be unclean. Peter heard a voice say, “Go to it, Peter – kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Oh no Lord, I have never so much as tasted food that was unclean.” This happened two more times and after the last time a stranger came to take him to a Roman centurion, who had also had a vision that he was to meet with Peter.
When Peter arrived, the centurion, whose name was Cornelius and all his family and friends were waiting to hear what Peter had to say. Then Peter understood the vision God had given him, and so he told them, “You know it is unlawful for my people to associate with a foreigner or to visit his home; yet God has shown me that I should call no one unholy or unclean.” After Cornelius explained his own vision, Peter nearly exploded with his good news. They invited Peter to tell them the story, and while he was doing just that, the Holy Spirit fell upon them all, and they began speaking in other languages, praising god, just as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Peter turned to those looking on in amazement, and said, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized, can they? For they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did.” And so they baptized them in the name of Jesus Christ.
After that, Peter returned to the church in Judea, excited to tell them that the gospel was meant for all people – gentiles were no longer outsiders. But some gathered there were angry with him, and said, “what do you think you’re doing rubbing shoulders with that crowd, eating what is prohibited and ruining our good name?” how many times had the disciples heard such words as these coming out of the mouths of the Pharisees when they criticized Jesus for his choice of dining companion. Peter told them of all that had happened, and then they understood and glorified God for bringing outsiders into the family. But there were still those who were unhappy about this, and they began to tell the gentile believers that they had to receive the mark of the old covenant, circumcision, in order to be saved. Circumcision had been replaced by baptism, the sign of the new covenant, but some among the people would not accept that. Others, including the apostle Paul, argued that circumcision was not necessary for gentiles, and they believed that the unity of the followers of Jesus was deeply threatened by this.
So Paul came to Jerusalem to report to the elders what God was doing among the gentiles. But even then, instead of rejoicing with him, they began to argue. Finally Peter stood up and challenged the council, saying, “Friends, you well know that from early on it was made quite plain that God wanted the pagans to hear the message of this good news and to embrace it. And God, who can’t be fooled by any pretense on our part, gave them the Holy Spirit exactly as God did for us. God treated the outsiders exactly as God treated us, beginning at the very center of who they were and working form that center outward. Cleaning up their lives as they trusted and gave their allegiance to God. So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with something that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? Don’t we believe that we are saved because the Lord Jesus amazingly and out of sheer generosity moved to save us just as he did those beyond our nation? So why are we arguing about this?”
After more debate, James, the half-brother of Jesus, stood up and declared that the gentiles did not need to be circumcised and that they were equal part of the church. He spoke up because he saw that what was happening was that of which the prophet Amos had spoken of before. He understood that the building up of the community of Jesus’ followers with gentiles alongside children of Abraham was indeed the restoration of the house of David. Together they formed the people of the new covenant.
The disciples revealed early on that they still had not understood all that Jesus had tried to teach them. As the church grew in numbers, they were serving a daily meal for many of the widows among them. After a while, some of the Greek-speaking widows complained that they were being discriminated against. The twelve disciples called everyone together and said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to neglect preaching the word of God in order to serve at table. So choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them to the task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer, and to speaking God’s word. Among the seven chosen to serve were Stephen and Phillip. Stephen later stood before the Sanhedrin and told the story and was stoned to death for his witness. And Philip took the good news to Samaria, even telling the Story to a man from Ethiopia. These men who waited at table acted as apostles, doing just what Jesus had told the disciples to do.
The disciples eventually went their separate ways, taking the good news of the kingdom wherever the Spirit led them. For many of them, telling the story cost them their life. Peter gave up his life in Rome after the Great Fire. Paul was beheaded.
Those that believed committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to fellowship, sharing a common meal together and praying. Everyone around was in awe. All the believers lived in harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met. They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at homes, every meal was a celebration. Everyday their numbers grew. As they shared what they had with each other, so that there was not a needy person among them, they recalled the stories of their ancestors in the wilderness, and God’s provision of manna, so everyone always had enough.
The early churches certainly were communities of ragamuffins, but people kept joining them, drawn by what God was doing in their midst. They found themselves standing square in the middle of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, God blessing the nations of the world through God’s people. They may have been a bunch of ragamuffins, but there were some remarkable men and women in the church.