The book of beginnings.  For a number of folks in our parish, and in various other congregations throughout our city, it is a book we’ve just recently finished.  That doesn’t mean that we’re through with it, or done with it.  It simply means that in our Bible Reading Plan, we started reading it on December 31 and finished mid-last week.

As people read, there were certain stories that struck them.  I know they did, because I hear about it when they do.  There are certain parts of Genesis that we’re very familiar with – few issues are raised when people read through them.  Creation; Adam & Eve; Cain & Abel; Noah’s Ark; the Tower of Babel; Abraham; Sodom & Gomorrah; Ishmael vs. Isaac; Jacob & Esau; Jacob’s Ladder; Joseph (& the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat).  Familiar.

Yet there are some parts of Genesis that aren’t so familiar to people.  Preacher’s don’t choose them as texts to preach from; the lectionary doesn’t have them come up as Sunday readings.  Lot’s daughters impregnate themselves by their father while in the mountains after Sodom’s destruction (is this where the “incestuous hill-billy” stereotype got started?); Abraham takes Isaac to make a human sacrifice to God (this one is somewhat known); Judah fathers twins by his daughter-in-law when he refuses to give his third son to be her husband.  When people came across these passages, I heard about it.

It’s probably not that the people hadn’t read them before, more likely that they just aren’t as familiar, or front-of-mind.  They can be a little shocking when you’re not prepared.  But the story of Lot’s daughters is preserved in Scripture to show us the close relationship between the Ammonites and Moabites with the Israelites.  The story of Isaac’s near-sacrifice is preserved as an almost parallel to Christ’s crucifixion, to shed light on the Father’s love for humanity, and show us an example of complete commitment to God.  The story of Tamar and Judah is preserved in Scripture as a reminder of God’s interest in preserving His people.  There are other reasons these are there.

The elements of the stories that we find somewhat repugnant remind us of the need for every individual to own the faith they claim.  Proximity to Abraham is no substitute; clinging to the things of earth cannot take the place; our plans are not big enough.  Those elements we find repugnant remind us of God’s great love, and His grace in making opportunity for people to come to Him.  God makes special provision for the Ammonites and Moabites; Isaac is saved at the last moment; Judah is the ancestor of David, by his daughter-in-law.

Praise the Lord!  He uses imperfect people to accomplish His perfect plan!  What a delicious reality!

Amos 7

I’ve been sitting on this since last Thursday morning, when the seventh chapter of Amos was the Old Testament reading during Morning Prayer (by the BCP lectionary).  In the chapter there are these three proposals made by God to Amos – a situation that, itself, is thought-provoking, let alone the actual content of His proposals to the prophet.

I read it as proposals, because it almost seems like the image drawn is of parents deciding how to discipline their children.  God, at times, in His grace, consults with His prophets in this way.  Remember Moses, when God would threaten to destroy Israel and Moses would stick his own neck out for them, and beg for God to be lenient?  The image that I see, when I read this passage, is of a father and mother sitting together at a kitchen table, trying to figure out what to do with their disobedient children.  Both love them dearly; both desire the best for them; both know that this means correcting them.

God is the One who has the power and authority to discipline His people Israel, in the passage.  He is the One who will decide their fate, ultimately, but He’s created a space for Amos to have some input.  How faithful to these people will Amos be?  Will he fill the role of parent (or, more commonly, shepherd) responsibly?

The first option God puts forward is reminiscent of the plagues that He sent against Egypt.  Locusts, to devour the latter growth (unlike the area I live in, they have multiple growing seasons a year).  But starving the people, taking away their hope through famine, doesn’t seem like a good disciplinary option to Amos, and he pleads for them.  Were there further plagues in mind, to coincide with this one, either in God’s mind, Amos’ mind, or both?  Is that what the fear was?  We don’t know.  But we do know that the plagues in Egypt had won God renown and fear in the eyes of the Egyptians.  If this was what God was going for with the Israelites, then this could be why the option was proposed.

He moves on, though.  God puts forward a second option for dealing with His children’s disobedience.  Fire raining down from heaven, scorching the land and the sea alike.  But utterly destroying the people and the land God had given them doesn’t seem like a good disciplinary option to Amos also, and he pleads for them.  This option is somewhat reminiscent of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, to me, and so I wonder what if there isn’t a statement being made about the depths that His people had fallen to.  Abraham’s discussion with the Lord, at that time, had brought out that God would spare the cities if He found even a few holy ones within.  Perhaps this option is considered, at this point, because there is no-one left who seeks the Lord.  Yet at Amos’ plea He relents from this option, also.

The third option that God suggests, and which Amos doesn’t plea against, is a different kind of discipline altogether.  It is not discipline in the form of punishment or destruction.  Rather, it is discipline in the form of standard setting.  God puts a plumb line among His people.  Plumb lines are straight and narrow ways, lines made by fixing one end of a string in place, and pulling the string taut to its destination.  Rather than destroying the disobedient children, God’s plan became to hold them to His standard, and to destroy those elements that had led the people astray and influenced them negatively, rather than destroying them personally.

God’s answer is, to some extent, to create a better space for them to be faithful to Him in, and from.  It strikes me that we are people who are, ourselves, committed to resisting evil influences: the world, the flesh, the devil.  That’s a part of our baptismal commitments.  The walk-away that we might take from this passage is just this: how dedicated are we to those baptismal vows?  How do we put that into practise?  How might we, if we were more serious about the gravity of the situation?

Isaiah 64, this morning

I don’t know where you are, today.  Where I am it is snowing.  And blowing.  It’s not nice.  And I know that when I get home, there’s going to be a ridiculous amount of shoveling to do, because I live on a corner on top of a hill and the snow drifts are huge whenever there’s a wind.  We’re looking at –39 Celsius for Sunday.

But here I am, at the office.  It’s somewhat warm, and somewhat calm.  There’s the regular bustle throughout the building, people setting up for communion tomorrow (no, I don’t mean for Sunday – there’s a funeral tomorrow and they’ll set up for Sunday after that); the secretary’s running off and folding bulletins; people visiting, as they should.  At morning prayer this morning I found myself reading Isaiah 64 (as the title might have suggested to you).  A familiar chapter.

Isaiah 64 was a part of our Advent Lessons & Carols service.  It speaks to the desire of God’s people for Him to reveal Himself, to make Himself known, to “tear open the heavens and come down.”  Following a confession of baseness, this extraordinary exclamation is made: “Yet, O Lord, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our Potter; we are all the work of Your hand.” (v. 8).  I am struck, this morning, with the pliability of clay.

The “So what?” of this chapter is in clay’s pliability.  It doesn’t matter if you know that God is the Potter, and you the clay.  It doesn’t matter if you consider being pliable in God’s hand to be a virtuous way of being.  Actually being pliable in God’s hand… that’s a different matter altogether.  That’s what matters.

There’s a strong temptation to be our own masters; to control our own lives: what options are open to us, what paths we take, what destiny we choose; to be self-made men and women; to earn all that we can, and to get what we deserve.  Where is the person who will accept God’s plan for them, and make His will their own?  Where is the person who will seek, not what they deserve (in God’s mercy, they are spared it), but, His Kingdom?  Where is the person who will submit to Him as the Lord of their life?  Where is the person who will be workable clay in His hand?

John Wesley, as I remember, figured that if he had one hundred people who feared nothing but sin and desired nothing but God, then he could change the world.  I figure that if God had one hundred such people, then He could.  Where can such people be found?