Monday, March 05, 2007

Animals Are Cut In Two

I preached this sermon yesterday. The real version was much longer than this, but for any of you who may be curious as to my writing process when I prepare sermons, this might be of some help. Note, I did not use this manuscript at all for the preaching process, but writing all the ideas out in manuscript form forces me to think it through in a logical manner. Also, in order to understand this sermon, you'll probably have to actually look up the passages when I write in bold read Genesis 12...sorry I was too lazy to write out the passages for you all.

Genesis 15 is one of the most important passages in the whole Old Testament, and is a perfect introduction to our Lent and Easter Sermon Series, God’s Mission, Our Mission. God’s Mission, Our Mission is about connecting what we’ve been talking about—sharing our faith in simple ways by walking across the room, with Lent and Easter—the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. So our mission to proclaim and demonstrate the good news of Christ is permanently and beautifully linked with God’s mission to save humanity through the sacrifice of his son. God’s mission, our mission. Our mission is his mission.

Since we’re so close to the beginning, let’s start there. Quick recap. It’s the beginning, God creates. In seven distinct stages, God creates everything in our natural world, and it’s all good. Humanity is very good. The serpent deceives Adam and Eve and they disobey God and are cursed. Two brothers go out to a field, one kills the other. People get really wicked, God needs to start over, and he chooses Noah and his family. After the flood, they repopulate the earth, and no sooner do the nations get settled that a bunch of them try to build a tower to heaven, and so God confuses their language. At this point, God decides he needs a special nation to represent him on earth. He turns to a polytheist from Ur of the Chaldeans named Abram (Joshua 24:2ff).

Let’s turn together to Genesis 12. Read Genesis 12:1-4. So God calls Abram away from his hometown in order to make him into a great nation. Abram has some difficulties over the next few years: famine, quarrels with his nephew. But no sign of a great nation yet. God is slowly working out his plan through Abram, but he doesn’t complain.

Which brings us to Genesis 15. Read Genesis 15:1-4. It’s beautiful how this passage begins with words of great comfort. “Do not be afraid…” We don’t even know what Abram’s afraid of yet. It’s as if God is giving Abram permission to talk to him, to let him know his fears. But God initiates the conversation. God comes and speaks.

And then we find out what Abram is fearing.

I’m childless.

I’m going to lose my inheritance.

Did I mention I’m childless?

My heir is one of my servants.

There, I said it. Whoa. You can sense that Abram has a lot stirring in the pot. He has a lot going on in his head, but he just hasn’t voiced it yet. And God, by encouraging him

Gives.

Him.

Permission to speak.

It’s great. And so far in the Bible, Abraham hasn’t spoken to God. He hasn’t uttered a word. From the end of chapter 11 when we meet Abram until this moment, we don’t hear Abraham’s address God.

But Abram interprets God’s words here as permission to speak. Maybe you can relate to this. Have you ever had a full plate? You’re pretty stressed, you have a million thoughts and fears on the tip of your tongue. And you’re waiting. And then somebody comes up to you and says…

How are you doing? Or

You look tired? Or

Do you need help with anything?

Now, there are two ways to handle this. Many of us answer with one word.

Fine.

But others of us see it as an invitation to open up the whole can and let them have it. They asked, right? It’s therapeutic. It helps us feel better to get it out there, and depending on who you just unleashed on, they had the wonderful or horrifying chance to hear what’s on your heart. It depends on your relationship with the person you’re talking to. If you sense that the person asking is a safe person who actually cares about you, you are more prone to open up. If you don’t know them, it’s far less unlikely.

Abraham lets God have it. He knows him, he’s talked to him before, and presumably he knows that God is the right person to spill the beans to. After all, He brought up the whole “Don’t be afraid” thing!

What do you mean, “Don’t be afraid!”? Turn to Genesis 13:15-16.

How can I not be afraid? I’m just a wanderer so far: from my home to Egypt to the Negev to Bethel to Hebron. I’m really old and don’t have any children yet. There aren’t a whole lot of signs that this is going to happen.” Now I know these aren’t Abram’s words verbatim, but these are the questions I would have in his situation.

Okay, enough from Abram.

Verse 4. Now Abram’s in his mid-eighties. God is telling him that a son is going to come from his seed, and that his descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

And Abram is speechless.

Abram believed the Lord.

And it was credited to him as righteousness.

Paul will return to this idea of Abram’s faith in Romans 4:9, when he’s explaining that salvation doesn’t come by any outward acts, but through faith. Abram had faith. Faith enough that God decided to call him righteous.

But we haven’t gotten to the best part yet.

Read vs. 7-11. Makes sense, right? Well, in the Ancient Near East, this sort of practice was a bit more common than it is in our society. Animals were regularly ceremonially slaughtered at this time. There is evidence for this kind of activity, not just in the Bible, but in all cultures, in order to make a covenant or a treaty between two parties.

Let’s finish reading chapter 15. We have some great content here, foreshadowing the Exodus of Israel under Moses (remember, there isn’t even an Israel yet). Abraham is surely amazed at what he is seeing and hearing. And there’s some other interesting stuff going on here too. Before we address that, I want to look at a document from outside the Bible, from the 8th century BC (so quite a while after this), but something that really attests to what these treaties mean.

“A TREATY BETWEEN ASHURNIRARI V, KING OF ASSYRIA, AND AN ARAMEAN RULER OF SYRIA, MATI’ILU OF ARPAD (8th century BC): This spring lamb…has been brought to sanction the treaty between Ashurnirari and Mati’ilu…This head is not the head of a lamb, it is the head of Mati’ilu, it is the head of his sons, his officials, and the people of his land. If Mati’ilu sins against this treaty, so may, just as the head of this spring lamb is torn off…the head of Mati’ilu be torn off.”[1]

Dang. That’s messed up.

Here’s another, similar one. Jeremiah 34:18 says “Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”

That’s messed up. Violate the terms of the covenant, and you will face the fate of the animals. You will be cut in two. That’s really harsh, eh?

Now let me share some specifics with you about this covenant. This covenant involves the granting of land, right? Remember vs. 18-21? In a land grant covenant, you’re dealing with the granter and the granted.[2]

It was the responsibility of the servant to walk through. The previous landowner and the future landowner. The current landowner has the upper hand. He’s the master, and the person receiving the land is the servant. A land grant covenant requires the land receiver only to walk through the animals. The master is generally not required to do so.

Just the recipient.

Some of you may have already pieced this together, but who walks through the cut animals? Abram? No.

V. 17. “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” A smoking firepot with a blazing torch. How did God show himself to Israel when they were wandering through the desert in later years? A pillar of fire and a cloud. Fire indicates the presence of God. Fire passes through the pieces.

God passes through the pieces.

God turns this land grant treaty on its head. He doesn’t make Abram pass through the pieces. He knew what was going to happen. He knew that they wouldn’t be able to keep and protect their land. Look at v. 13. He didn’t want a bloodbath for his people.

So he took the curse upon himself. Before Israel, before God’s people, and way before Hope Covenant Church, God understood our brokenness and our tendency to fail. He knew that if he wanted this covenant to stand, He would have to be the one to bear the punishment required by the covenant.

God’s mission.

In Latin, it’s called mission dei. Theologians love to use Latin because it makes them sound smart. God’s mission is to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves. God’s mission is to make for himself a people and enter into a covenant relationship with him. We always must remember that this is God’s mission. When we try to share our faith, it’s God’s mission. When we try to become a more healthy church, it’s God’s mission.

All the greatest ideas for outreach in the world don’t mean anything if it’s not God’s mission, if God doesn’t act.

God is the initiator. God is at work everywhere you look. God is on a mission, and we must find where he is at work and meet him there. We can become a part of God’s mission. Our mission is God’s mission.

God has gone to great lengths to make a covenant relationship with us. A relationship with God. Sound familiar?

Ralph Gower puts it extremely well:

“It is fairly common to hear Christians say that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship; it is not often realized that exactly the same was true for the Jewish people. God did not found a Jewish religion but entered into a covenant relationship with his people.”[3]

“The religion of the Jews therefore had an important place in God’s plan, but it was never intended to be an end in itself. It was a means of sustaining the covenant relationship until God himself should come.”[4]

Religion from the start was meant to preserve a relationship. If a relationship with God is not at the center of your religion, it is empty ritual. Religion is a means of sustaining a relationship.
People outside the walls of churches don’t like religion. They’ve seen too much religion that wasn’t out to sustain a relationship. They’ve seen too much empty ritual. They want relationship.

They can have it.

You can have it.

God has come, and his name is Jesus. We’ll learn more of the details of God’s mission as we make our way through Lent, but know that God wants your heart.

God wants a relationship with you.

God not only loves you, he likes you.

[1] Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer. Encountering the Old Testament, Baker: Grand Rapids, MI, 1999; p. 94.
[2] Soong-Chan Rah. “OT Missional Communication” online lecture, first listened to on 2-22-07. I owe much of the discussion of land grant treaties to Soong-Chan’s lecture, as well as some of the ideas stemming from mission dei.
[3] Ralph Gower. The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times. Moody: Chicago, IL, 1987; p. 332.
[4] Ibid, p. 333.

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