The Shuvah Project #5 — Mission of God

The Abundant Life: promotes community and accountability, sacrifice, generosity (especially regarding the poor), simplicity, sharing, and love for others.

the good life: promotes and honors the elevation of self through career, individual achievements, the accumulation of wealth, and materialism.

-Bill Westfall, D.Min.

Section One (Parsha Debrief):

This week’s Parsha Text contained: Abram’s call, a trip to Egypt, a quarrel in a field, a war and rescue mission, a covenant, Hagar giving birth to Ishmael, and another covenant.

Torah portions, like this week’s, seem to contain unrelated stories. But, by digging into them we can often find the thematic thread that weaves them all together.

I think this week’s thematic thread is found in understanding:

Why God chose to partner with Abram.

Unfortunately, the Text rarely just tells us answers flat out.

To that effect, Rabbi David Fohrman asks an additional illuminating question:

If this guy Abram is to be the founder of a nation why doesn’t the Text give at least a couple verse resume of his qualifications?

I agree. It’s as if Chapter 12 comes out of nowhere. We know nothing about this Abram guy, but apparently out of thin air God says go.

Wouldn’t it be important to at least let us know something about his character. For instance, the Text was perfectly capable of telling us that Noah found favor, and was a righteous man blameless among his contemporaries (Genesis 6:8-9). But, we get nothing about this Abram guy even though he is promised land and offspring and a great name and through him all nations will be blessed.

But, is Genesis 12:1 the first place that the Text introduces us to Abram?

No. Then, where?

Actually, it’s a few verses prior, in Genesis 11, the very end of last week’s Torah portion.

We first hear about Abram in a genealogy (Genesis 11:26-32). The next place we hear about him, God has chosen him to father a nation (Genesis 12:1). Is that a coincidence? Or, is the reason God chose him buried in the genealogy?

I am convinced of the latter. You can find the supporting evidence summarized here or the whole ~2hr lecture by Rabbi Fohrman, here.

For our discussion, it’s important to understand that the Text suggests Abram led a dual act of proto-Yibum (i.e. levirate marriage). That is, both Abram and Nahor married Haran’s daughters — Iscah and Milcah, and it was Abram’s idea.

Levirate marriage in the Text:

“If brothers live together, and one of them dies childless, his widow is not to marry someone unrelated to him; her husband’s brother is to go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first child she bears will succeed to the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be eliminated from Israel.”

– Deuteronomy 25:5-6

Yibum, as described above, is seen as a great Checeda great act of loving kindness — that you do for the deceased. And, here in Genesis, before the laws are ever codified, we have Abram leading the benevolent act of proto-Yibum.

Abram is devoted to the threatened name of another. He is willing to sacrifice the legacy of his own name on behalf of his dead brother.

Until now, mankind has struggled to believe God is not holding out on them.

Adam and Woman became obsessed with their own desires. Cain became obsessed with his own acquiring. Lamech became obsessed with technological salvation. Noah became obsessed with his fourth child. The Tower builders became obsessed with the legacy of their own name.

This genealogical introduction to Abram comes on the heels of all those mistrusts.

And, where persons before him let creativity and desire go awry, Abram chooses to trust.

Abram is unique. He is different. He is someone God can work with.

And so we journey with him. As we do, we notice over and over again that he builds altars to the Lord. Every place he journeys, he cobbles together a bunch of stones and worships the Lord. He is focused on God’s name. Abram’s worship is in stark contrast to the Tower builders the chapter before. A Tower is a monumentous altar. But, as we discussed last week, monuments aren’t altars to the Lord.

God partners with Abram to model a relationship with God. This relationship will put God’s name on display for the world. To do so, this mission requires Abram to be deeply sensitive not to promote his own legacy at the expense of others, or God’s name.

Section Two (Connection to NT + haftarah):

Our Gospel accounts also reveal a mission.

In the connected Matthew Text, Jesus speaks His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20). In it, Jesus tells His 11 remaining disciples to go!

God tells Abram to go. Jesus tells His disciples to go.

God tells Abram to be a blessing to all nations. Jesus tells His disciples to disciple all nations.

God promises Abram He is going with him. Jesus promises His disciples He is going with them.

Coincidence?

Matthew ends after the two Great Commission verses. If the author is connecting the Great Commission to the original mission God sent Abram on… can we learn something about our mission as followers of Jesus from Abram’s journey?

I’ve put the Great Commission (i.e. discipleship) into context in a previous blog (here). For brevity, understand that Jesus’ Great Commission is more about walking in His ways to influence culture than about evangelizing all nations.

Influencing culture often comes from living life in a way that people take notice. People, other nations, hear about you and your ideas long before you encounter them face-to-face.

Our parsha Text contains the first use of the word Hebrew (an identity). A stranger, from another nation, seeks out Abram the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13). Already, just two chapters after being introduced to Abram, we are told that people who never met him know about him and his peculiar lifestyle.

Being different from culture can be scary. “You don’t feel the force that culture exerts on your life until you try to act against it“, says Dr. Jean Twenge. Abram, must have been terrified to leave his father’s house and denounce his father’s idols. This is not something you did in that culture. Abram left everything he knew, and acted against the culture of his time.

I think our Gospel writers pick up on the radical nature of Abram acting against culture and the very real fear associated with stepping out from under culture’s stronghold.

But, we can easily miss the connection because its been masked.

Mark should end in 16:8, not 16:20. M.D. Goulder recognizes the problematic addition and ends his references to Mark with verse 16:8. A New New Testament footnotes:

“The Gospel of Mark ends with verse 8 of chapter 16 in all the earliest manuscripts. A number of second- and third-century early Christian commentators defend this, despite the fact that later documents include one to three additional versions of the ending of Mark. I have kept the ending at 16:8, both in respect to the early manuscripts and in acknowledgement that the later additions are much less sensitive to the style and structure of the rest of Mark. (p. 85)”

Mark’s Text says, “Do not be dismayed… but, go…” To which the response is “They went out and fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and bewildered; and they did not say a word to anyone, for they were frightened (Mark 16:8).”

The response is fear. Probably an excited fear, but fear nonetheless.

The mission of God – the mission of Jesus – is scary. You are asked to intentionally act against culture. In Haran’s case, the midrash says that Abram was thrown into a furnace by the ruler for smashing his father’s idols. In the case of the Marys and Salome, the Roman Empire just hung the leader of their mission on a cross. They reason, rightfully so, if they say something… they’re next!

Mark isn’t trying to sugarcoat the mission. It’s life and death!

But, Abram survived the furnace. Jesus rose.

The mission can be realized and carried on today — be a blessing to all nations!

Section Three (missing the mark):

Instead of inviting followers of Jesus to continue living set apart from culture for the sake of bringing God’s name into the world, some pastors perpetuate the allure and the lie of the good life.

This isn’t just the televangelist telling you prosperity can be yours. This is a popular Raleigh pastor. This isn’t something to be overlooked.

The culture of the good life, as modeled by some pastors, would have us mistake the adoration and accumulation of beautiful things as recognition of beauty in God’s creation. Beauty is not evil, but when church leadership decides to elevate the value of beauty, they stand on a slippery slope. Because,

“It is the beautiful things that get us. Perhaps the greatest seduction is not the anti-God, but the almost-God. That’s what is so dangerous. Idolatry begins when seeing a reflection of God in something beautiful leads to our thinking that the beautiful is worthy of worship (Jesus for President; full quote in footnote #1).”

So, shortly after elevating the stature of beauty in the church, we find ourselves on a distorted quest to possess beauty. 

That quest is consuming.

Pastors are just as easily ensnared by the allure of the good life. So, they too succumb to accumulating possessions, even beautiful ones. And, the robbings of the poor find their way into pastors’ houses. Somehow, even beautiful possessions witness against them (Isaiah 3).

We have already seen what culture can do with beauty… drive people to eating disorders and surgeries. When the good life appears at the pulpit, the church is no different. Beauty gets distorted. Those who look a certain way and wear a certain thing — they become the definition of beauty. Everything and everyone else falls short.

When pastors allow church norms to become about beauty they subtly tell people to keep up (footnote #2). Keeping up takes resources. So, we are told, just as subtly, by the same church leadership that we deserve the gifts because we work hard — that financial blessings are a gift from God.

Yet, God’s promises of land and offspring to Abram were not for his own prosperity. Those gifts were tools to bless others. And, they didn’t come from slave-driving work. They were promised after Abram faithfully laid down his life and his rights.

When the good life arrives at the pulpit; soon, everyone looks alike, but no one looks like God.

Section Four (real-world applications):

Our parsha Text makes the dangers of possessions clear.

“Then Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev—he, his wife, and all he had, and Lot with him. Abram was very heavy in livestock, silver, and gold. He went by stages from the Negev to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had formerly been, to the site where he had built the altar. And Abram called on the name of Yahweh there. Now Lot, who was traveling with Abram, also had flocks, herds, and tents. But the land was unable to support them as long as they stayed together, for they had so many possessions that they could not stay togetherand there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock.” 

– Genesis 13:1-7a, emphasis added

There is a weight and a burden to possessions. When possessions possess us, they drive us out of community.

Possessions are blinding. They consume space so that we are unable to realize the true capacity we have to bring the poor and cast out into our homes and lives.

Instead, what if we held space for others rather than filling it with possessions?

If we truly believe God is not holding out on us… does everyone really need all the possessions?

Does everyone really need their own 13 pairs of shoes?

Does everyone really need their own 7 jackets?

Does everyone really need their own leather leaf earrings?

Does everyone really need their own laundry room?

Does everyone really need their own car?

Does everyone really need their own house?

Does everyone really need their own ________?

 


Next Week’s Readings: Genesis 18:1-22:24; Luke 24:13-52

  1. “It is the beautiful things that get us. Perhaps the greatest seduction is not the anti-God, but the almost-God. Poisonous fruit can look pretty tasty. That’s what is so dangerous. After all, it’s the beautiful things we kill and die for. And it’s the beautiful we market, exploit, brand, and counterfeit. We [become] possessed by our possessions. Most of the ugliness in the human narrative comes from a distorted quest to possess beauty. Coveting begins with appreciating blessings. Lust begins with a recognition of beauty. Gluttony begins when our enjoyment of the delectable gifts of God start to consume us. Idolatry begins when our seeing a reflection of God in something beautiful leads to our thinking that the beautiful is worthy of worship” (Jesus for President)
  2. “Consumerism promotes that success (the end goal of life) is about the attainment of comfort (personal peace, affluence, convenience), which is achieved through a heightened social status that is measured by increasing wealth and the acquisition of possessions. It encourages a continuous pursuit of desire through an addictive and unsatisfying process of consumption—a desire to desire. This pursuit ultimately serves as a powerfully formative force in our lives that develops as we engage in consumerist behavior, producing the tendency to commodify all aspects of life, even our personal relationships, which leads to superficiality.” (Bill Westfall, D.Min.)

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